Wednesday Writing – Guest Post – Steve Hickey

This week’s guest post is by Steve/Hix, screenplay and roleplaying game writing extraordinaire.

Steve’s voice is one of the voices in my head when I’m writing. He’s always asking me ‘where’s the conflict?’ and also ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen in this scene, what would really screw up your characters?’ It’s a good thing. Steve is great to talk to about writing because he has massive amounts of insight into his own behaviour and is very good at calling me on my bad habits too.

… the thing is, if there’s a problem in my life it’s up to me to fix it. And I’m talking about writing here: if I’m not happy with what I’m writing, or with the amount of writing I’m getting done, I’ll have to change my life in order to get happy.

I realised this somewhere around Day 2000 of writing The Limit. I was 5 and a 1/2 years into writing my script (it turns out that criticism of my previous film + perfectionism + no job = a pathological number of rewrites), when I had to acknowledge to myself that I was stuck, I was bored, and my brain wasn’t fresh.

That’s important: my brain wasn’t fresh. While my writing was varying in its usual way (*), my mind had been focused on writing the same intense dark thriller material for way too long.

(*) My writing schedule varies between procrastination, not flowing, insights, and enjoyment, and then back to procrastination again once I feel I’ve done enough to rest on my laurels, or that I’ve hit a benchmark where I can tell myself I’ll stop writing for a while so I can come back and look at the script with ‘fresh eyes’.

So, that was the problem: non-fresh brain. It was up to me to find a solution and fix it.

Thinking about it, I realised that all my writing was being done under pressure. Pressure I was putting on myself. I certainly wasn’t being playful. I wasn’t writing just for the sake of it. I wasn’t taking a look at any of the many, many ideas that were building up in my filing cabinet as I struggled to finish The Limit.

So, I created something I call “PLAY”.(*) I decided that every two months, after working on a single project, I would take two weeks off. During those two weeks, I could PLAY with any project I wanted. Anything that inspired me or that took my fancy. I’d pull out my folders of TV ideas, skills I wanted to learn, blog posts I wanted to write. … And then I’d just do it.

(*) Yes, for some reason the all-caps are important to me.

I’m in the middle of PLAY right now, and I’m working on “a game to change the world”, and a pitch for a TV show (that I’m also going to use to learn a layout programme with). I’ve also varied when I PLAY a little: it turns out that 2 months was just a little bit too long. I’m now on a six-weeks of focused writing followed by 2 weeks of PLAY, which seems to be a better ratio for me.

PLAY has changed my approach to writing. It’s a reward for hard, focused work. It’s an opportunity to get inspired about stuff I might do next. It takes the pressure off me to create ‘good’ stuff, and instead lets me explore.

So there you go. Identify a problem in your life. Try a solution. Don’t be afraid to make radical changes. This why I admire Matt trying out different schedules; and Jenni for taking Wednesdays off to write. It’s the sort of stuff we need to do; as writers, we need to create a life that works for us (and the people around us).

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4 thoughts on “Wednesday Writing – Guest Post – Steve Hickey

  1. Cool. Really interesting read. I like the idea of PLAY writing time as opposed to other writing time.

    It’s fascinating for me to read about because my personality can lead me in the opposite direction.

    It sounds like you have found perfectionism can lead you into working for too hard or too long on one project, I suffer from ‘easily distracted slackass’ syndrome. I tend to rush through projects and do a fairly rough job so I can scamper onto the next more appealing, shiny, new project. I can completely abandon something before I’ve finished it if a tempting, fun idea for something else comes along. I try to discipline myself into doing something on a project every day until it’s finished. I never let myself ignore anything for longer than three days until it’s complete (except for breaks between rewrite and edits – I have to force myself to put something away for at least a month or so or else I’ll do a sloppy editing job)and interesting writing stuff on the side is never allowed to take more than half my writing time.

  2. Interesting stuff, Steve! I love reading about people’s approaches to writing. I remember reading a couple of years ago about someone who wrote freelance for a living. One of their strategies for keeping their input high enough to live off despite doing some low-paid work in the RPG sector was to have work-writing and fun-writing, both of which were done for money.

    The difference was that the work-writing projects were taken up with a focus on the cash, the low-pay ones done more for fun.

    They aimed to have 3 projects on the go at once. When stuck on or fed up with a particular project this person would ‘take a break’ by switching to writing something fun. It was an approach that apparently worked for them, as the change of head-space gave them a burst of enthusiasm.

    I fear that I would get distracted by changing project and lose overall momentum. Maybe I’d cope if I was in front of a computer *all day* and so could procrastinate by writing something fun for an hour and still have many hours of writing time available.

    Or else I’d look at a lot of lolcats.

  3. Steve, interesting stuff 🙂 It sounds like a really good strategy to keep things fresh.

    Are you ever so inspired and distracted by PLAY that you are tempted to extend it beyond the 2 weeks allocated time?

  4. Hi Giffy, that is a great question. The answer is ‘Not quite’.

    So far, in the year I’ve been trying this, I have been taking a break from three things I’m firmly committed to completing (The Limit, Experiment 447, and Bad Family). That means I’ve felt an obligation to go back to them and finish them.

    Part of PLAY has been figuring out which projects I might possibly be interested in doing after finishing off those three.

    So I guess the answer is ‘No’. In fact, it hadn’t even occured to me that I could extend that two weeks off period (which should give you an indication of the strangely concrete way my mind tends to work)!

    However, I can certainly see how this might change after I’ve finished the last of those three projects (Bad Family – I’m about 4,500 words away from finishing my playtest draft of it). I could see myself choosing a new project without the firm committment to finish it, working on it for 6 weeks, and then after a period of PLAY, swapping to something else that seemed like a better fit.

    (That ties in with an upcoming post on my blog about when to quit projects you’re working on.)

    But there are things I *wish* I could keep working on after finishing PLAY, sure. My spec script for Firefly springs to mind, as well as my presentation on story games, a horror movie about children whose parents disappear, and a web series about a guy who suddenly finds that everyone can hear what he’s thinking. All of this becomes part of the next phase: Deciding what to do next.

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