Apr 132015

Nut graf: Find your own stinkin’ secret sauce.

How I do it doesn't make any difference.

How I do it doesn’t make any difference.

I got into a conversation with a fellow writer, and we were comparing projects. She’s working on a screenplay and I’m drafting out a novel.

Then she asked me about my work habits. Like, how do I get the stuff down?

It’s a question all writers ask. All creators, in fact. We’re all comparing ourselves with others, or at least looking for that secret sauce. Find whatever it is that boosts productivity, improves your work, makes you fit, trim and attractive to the opposite sex.

Here’s my writing practice, in case you’re interested:

– Banging the stuff out on paper, on a vintage typewriter, standing up.
– Throwing the completed pages in a box.
– Forgetting about those completed pages. At least that’s the theory.
– Outlining as I go, developing characters as I go.
– I leave a wide margin on the right hand side of the page for markup, and this is used after I finish with the draft. Theoretically.

“Who don’t you use a computer?” my friend asked “Wouldn’t it be easier?”

Uhh, yeah. It would. But somehow I get a better connection to my work when I bang it out like that. Maybe it’s me, but the only way I can get an even better connection is by writing it out longhand.

Besides, you can’t slap a computer. For me, the act of writing is very physical. Violent, even. It’s noisy, bloody, messy. But that’s personal.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend anyone do it this way. In fact, when I talk about methods, ignore everything I say. Find your own stinkin’ secret sauce.

How I do it doesn’t matter. Creativity is like the snowflake. There are plenty of creative people and projects out there, but they’re all different. To each his own, and whatever works works.

Right now I’m at 31,500 words, or 157 pages. Most of it will be thrown out, but that’s part of the process too. But again, how I do it doesn’t matter.

I try not to get too bogged down in tools and methods. My emphasis is on getting the stuff out, particularly in a first draft. Your first try at playing a new song is equally messy. You slop your way through it any way you can, whether it’s by playing to a YouTube video or trying it out on stage with people watching. How you do it doesn’t matter anyway.

I’ll admit, though, I did my preliminary tool-gathering before I started writing. A new ribbon, which took all my online resources to find. Two reams of cheap copy paper. Another 300-pack of index cards. A brand-new composition notebook. Binder clips, rubber bands, blue high-lighters, staples and all that junk. Storage boxes to throw my drafts in after I’m done with them. A spreadsheet to track my progress.

Now, if I couldn’t find a ribbon, for example, it should not make a lick of difference. There are other tools at my disposal. Pens, pencils, legal pads, computer, Libre Office, emacs, Scrivener.

But again, that doesn’t matter. Working on the project, moving the needle every day and completing it are the only things worth talking about.

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Jan 162015
If there's an exit in sight, I'll take it. Therefore ...

If there’s an exit in sight, I’ll take it. Therefore …

I up and did it. I’m tooling along on a draft and had no idea what to do next. Not a clue.

Red alert.

Now, here’s the thing. If I had just a hundred pages or so, it would be easy. Just junk the whole thing, or set it aside and revisit it a couple months or years or decades later. But I had way more than that invested.

No way out.

Funny thing. When my back is up against the wall like that, interesting things happen. It’s what Andrei Nana called it in Psych Central: The no-exit strategy.

Simply put, if there’s an escape in sight I’ll take it.

If my only option is to complete the work, I’ll complete the work.

This idea isn’t new, Nana says. A couple of thousand years ago Sun-Tzu laid it out in the Art Of War:

“Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve. Officers and men alike will put forth their uttermost strength.”

Implementing any sort of change often requires the no-exit strategy. If someone decides to lose a whole bunch of weight to look good in a bathing suit, it may or may not happen. But if a doctor tells that person to lose that weight in order to stay alive, that ups the ante considerably. The only exit is feet first, so that becomes the commitment strategy.

Okay. Changing a habit to save your life is a whole different animal than finishing a writing project. The stakes are different. However, the strategies remain the same.

Get rid of the exit strategies and there’s only one way to go. Through it.


Jan 092015
If necessity is the mother, "what if" is the daddy.

If necessity is the mother, “what if” is the daddy.

What if you built a golf course in the desert?

What if you made a computer so simple your grandfather could run it? Then, what if you made that computer into a work of art rather than just a plain white box?

What if you made a car that even working folks could afford?

What if a military-grade superflu wiped out 99 percent of the world’s population and the survivors had to recreate society? What if they had to choose between good and evil while doing so?

What if a company tries a contest to attract customers and everything goes wrong? What if it decides killing the winners is the answer? (Whoops, that one was mine.)

What if you took a pop tune and gave it a jazz treatment?

What if you were able to replicate a dinosaur’s DNA and turn that idea into an amusement park? (Don’t try this at home, kids.)

What if you could create a hamburger that can be made quickly, in enough volume to serve billions and tasting the same every time?

“What if” is one of the roots of all creative processes. Architect David Rockwell thinks so. He says he’s into hybrids — nailing together two things that were never nailed together before, as George Carlin once said.

Mel Brooks told the Los Angeles Times about the birth of one of his movies, and how it came from actor Gene Wilder’s what-if:

“I was in the middle of shooting the last few weeks of Blazing Saddles somewhere in the Antelope Valley, and Gene Wilder and I were having a cup of coffee and he said, I have this idea that there could be another Frankenstein. I said not another — we’ve had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law, we don’t need another Frankenstein. His idea was very simple: What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever. He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, “That’s funny.”

The result, Young Frankenstein, gave us one of the great comedy scenes of all time:

That same question, in some iteration or other, gave us things like Palm Springs, the MacIntosh and iEverything, the Model T, Stephen King’s The Stand, John Coltrane’s greatest works, Jurassic Park and McDonalds. Yeah, some of these innovations worked out a little better than others, but you get the idea.



Aug 122014


One of the greatest. If you’re a musician, writer, entrepreneur or just like to get things done, this is the man to learn from.

Robin, thank you for showing how this creativity thing is done.

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Jun 132014

On heavy writing days I’ll run through a lot of paper, along with everything else.

There’s the old image of the writer at his typewriter, which always seems to be a manual. He’s always there with a hill of wadded-up paper all over his desk. Sometimes you can even see the writer among that landfill.

The new model is one of deleted files, editing done to the actual file and rewrites done on the fly. A lot more efficient and more ecologically sensitive, but this new model doesn’t carry the power of the old image. You don’t see the mess anymore.

The creative process, at least in the early stages, is a violent act. You get the bleeding, callused fingers. The keyboard or piano or drafting table gets hit in a frontal assault. Hair gets torn out. Many trees denuded for the sake of art; all those paper wads have to come from somewhere.

Even though most work is now done on the computer, think of all those baby electrons you clubbed to death.

Forget about trying to make this sound politically correct; there’s no way to do this without totally diluting the process.

But let’s also crank in the other costs. Some are equally violent: The hours chewed up while you’re working on that great concept. The people who get things thrown at them because they dared to interrupt in mid-thought (I’m denying everything here, and the statute of limitations has expired in many of these cases). The wreckage I’ve made of my body because of the coffee, desktop snacks, forgotten meals and inconsistent exercise. The psychological damage, whether real or imagined.

The economics don’t make sense

There’s always a cost. And while the internal (psychological) costs have been discussed in many articles and blogs, what about the externals? The sunk costs?

There are plenty of these in the creative business. If you want a halfway decent chance at a return on your investment, you’re really in the wrong place. And most of the best creative practices go against sound economics.

(**Disclaimer: My own knowledge of economics is pretty limited. I know how to make a budget and balance my checkbook, but that’s about all. I do put my money in CD’s, mostly of the Willie Nelson and Charles Mingus variety. I’m also a great fan of Freakonomics, so that’s my pedigree.)

Artists, writers, musicians and entrepreneurs all try to avoid getting entangled in speculative work, but let’s get to the truth. Along this path it’s all speculative. You’re doing something now and have no idea whether it will pay off later — or even if it’ll work.

Might as well throw your resources into farming hairless chinchillas, huh?

Knowing when to fold ’em

As I write this I’m assembling an outline and character studies for a new fiction project. I’ll spend July and half of August at my manic best, slamming the first draft down on my older-than-I-am Royal typewriter. After that it’ll sit in a #2 mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnalls’ porch for the prescribed 40 days and 40 nights.

Which means when I do my first read-through near the end of September, I’ll have an idea whether the thing will fly. That’s only about three months.

So already I can see the costs, and it always pays to count them first:

  • A whole lot of paper. I’m saving a bit here because most of that paper has already been through a printer once. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
  • Three months of my time. As I noticed, three months is worth a lot more when I’m 56 than when I was 26.
  • 100,000 words: That’s about 2,500 of them a day. About 10 pages, and right in line with my usual production. While some folks swear I can easily toss off 100,000 spoken words in a day (watch it), it’s really tougher than it looks.
  • Pride. Of course. I’ll admit that’s a big issue with me. Don’t know if it’s a guy thing or an Eric thing. But there’s the risk of being proved wrong, which hasn’t happened in my adult life. Mistaken, yes. Wrong, no.

Now here’s where it gets tricky. I mentioned the sound economics and cutting your losses. If those chinchillas fail to reproduce or you run out of Rogaine for them, do you get out while you can and forget the bad investment?

See, that’s some real-life stuff here. How many people stay in a truly wretched job, town or relationship because they’ve invested too much time in that?

So after those three months, a lot of paper and many destroyed brain cells, that’s when decision time comes:

  1. Push on regardless, meaning I’m throwing even more resources into what looks like a loser?
  2. Try to eliminate the bleeding by calling it done and pitching it elsewhere? Maybe to a fresh audience or a new market?
  3. Throw it in the blender, let the blades work on it some more and give it another shot? (The imagery here gives me some ideas for a murder scene I’m grappling with. Thanks.)
  4. Pull it out of the queue, stick it in a drawer and work on something else? Maybe some answers will come on the first concept, by which time I’m in a position to do something about it. Or maybe answers won’t come and it’ll be a sunk cost. I’m not waiting around for something to happen.
  5. Hang the costs, cut the losses, light the essobee on fire and deny ever knowing it?

Maybe it’s just geting older or learning a few things about the creative life, but I find myself leaning away from the loss-cutting option. But is it stubbornness, the refusal to quit, stupidity or the faith in the concept that’s driving me here? It sure isn’t good economics.

But while the pushing on sounds good, options 3 and 4 sound even better to me.

It’s never in my best interest to be “married” to a project, even though in the creative world you’re in a common-law relationship with your work. I find that’s especially true with longer projects, like the one I’m outlining now.

It’s easier to dump a shorter project of 500 to 1,000 words. My hard drive has a ton of old blog posts that I abandoned in second draft — something I’d never consider for a larger work. I’ve helped line at least one landfill with my messed-up first drafts.

But can I trash 100,000 words and three months?

Not any more. But I can shove it in the blender. Chop, dice or liquefy?


Talk to me: How do you handle the sunk costs of creativity? Is it advisable to just scuttle the whole thing if it’s a loser? Oh, yeah, and a friend of mine wants me to get in on his hairless chinchilla venture. Should I take him up on it? Please share in the comments.

Apr 192014

If you run across the Muse, shoot her.

Like dead. Like graveyard dead. Tango Uniform. On the slab. Life-challenged.

I know, that sounds like blasphemy of the highest order for an artist.

Who wouldn’t love a whole bunch of Muse dust dumped all over your head when it’s time to create? I know I’d take it.

But the Muse is fickle. A crazy lady. Left to her own devices, the Muse is an excuse.

We all have our own vision of a writer. Of any creative person, for that matter. He’s there, typewriter or computer in front of him, a blank sheet of paper or blank screen. and he’s staring out the window.

Waiting for inspiration.

Of course, he never gets much of anything done.

If every artist worked only under the influence of the Muse, a whole lot of wonderful works would never see the light of day. There won’t be nearly as many great books. Very few amazing musical compositions or performances. Art galleries would be empty. Very few great inventions or business ideas. Bill Gates and Richard Branson would be assembly-line mates in some yarn factory or someplace, trying to talk over the machines and retiring for a cold one after knocking off.

Let’s just say we’d be back in the Stone Age. Hyperbole? Probably, but not all that much.

Inspiration is overrated.

The Muse is an excuse.

Let’s follow that logic for a minute, just for grins. If the above is true, there’s no such thing as writer’s block either.

In this great TED talk, writer Melissa Gilbert discounted the idea of writer’s block and explaining the fickleness of the Muse. Her father, she said, was an engineer. No one ever approached him to ask how that engineering block is coming along. And engineering takes as much imagination, as much soul sweat as writing or playing music any old day.

Many of the big-name writers say the same thing. The Muse is a fleeting thing, but she may stick around if she feels like it. The best way to curry her favor is to look busy when she arrives. Check out the conversation (yeah, shameless plug) between Karen and her short-time boyfriend Darren on how the Muse works:

* * *

“I don’t see how you do it,” Darren said, breaking into her thoughts.

“Do what?”

“Write every day. And I mean every day.”

“Because that is what I do.”

“I can’t. I have to be inspired, you know.”

“Me too. That’s why I write every day. The Muse knows where to find me. At my desk at 9 a.m. sharp.”

“What if it doesn’t show up?”

“Then I kept my end of the bargain and I write anyway. Then she shows up, or sometimes she doesn’t.”

“How much do you write, anyway?”

“At least 250 words. I try for 750, three pages worth. I can sometimes get that in an hour.”

“No way.”

“Been doing it that way for years. Used to do way more than that, probably around 2,000 words a day at the newspaper.”

“I don’t see how.”

“You just do it, that’s all. Don’t worry about the Muse showing up in a newsroom. Too noisy for her.”

* * *

Darren never did get it, and he’s probably still working on that same short story he was tinkering with.

Here’s the deal. It’s so easy to get enslaved by the Muse. You can let her dictate whether you do your work or how you do it.

The best way I found to freeing myself from that evil old gal is to go to work anyway. It doesn’t matter whether I feel like it or not. Just show up. I make an appointment just like I’m going to work.

I dress up like I’m going to a day job. No flip flops, no sweat pants. Writing’s a tough enough business that steel-toed boots and a hard hat may be the thing to wear some days.

But dressed for battle, I show up. At a certain time every morning — usually 8 or 9 a.m., but it’s prearranged. I’m up, at my desk, in firing position. Just like a real job.

Because it is.

As long as I remember that, I will continue to take it and my work seriously.




Feb 022014
Free through Feb. 6.

Free through Feb. 6.

Grab it while you can; it’s free through Feb. 6 through Amazon.

Here’s an excerpt from the story:

“… you want us to hit what?”

“You heard me,” Robert said. “That art supply warehouse on Foothill.”

“I think you’ve been smoking too much of that funny stuff,” said his companion, a tall skinny teenager with a almost enough facial hair to grow a neckbeard. “An art supply place?”

“You heard me.”

“You found a bunch of artsy-fartsy freaks to sell the stuff to?”


“Still think you smoking too much, man.”

Robert reached in his pocket, pulled out a list and handed it to his companion.

“Man, did you write on that paper or crap on it? ‘Cause I can’t read it either way.”

“Shut up. That’s canvases.”

“Canvases? What’s that?”

“That’s what you paint on.”

“And an easel?”

“Jamal, you’ll know it when you see it.”

“Paint and brushes. That what you needing?”

“Yeah. Make it acrylic. Haven’t got around to oils yet.”

“Wait a minute,” Jamal said. “These are for you, right?”

“Maybe, maybe not.”

“I hear you draw real good.”

“Who says that?” Robert said, straightening up.

“Just people. Just hear it around. You trying to move from the outhouse to the penthouse?”

“Yeah man,” Robert said. “With real paintings on the walls. Mine. But if you tell anybody I’ll have to beat you …”

That’s it. Y’all need to grab it.

# # #



Jan 302014

Braden, Karen and Robert spend a few years eating their young. Murdering their darlings. Inventing new ways to sabotage themselves.

All three enjoy success, but for some reason none could sustain it. Or handle it.

  • Karen writes for a weekly newspaper, earns her state’s highest journalism award and chucks it all – to work in a casino …
  • Braden tours with two jazz bands and makes a good living at it until another wife pressures him to give it all up for her …
  • Robert impulsively paints his greatest, most awe-inspiring work on his shop wall and it takes several friends to talk him out of painting over it …

Follow these three through several cross-country moves, abusive relationships, madness and drama as they come face to face with what they really love.

Part II was uploaded just a few minutes ago, and will go live Feb. 2. I’ll have it free for a few days, so grab it then. Or later; I don’t mind.

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