Archive for the 'Writing' Category

In work as in weightlifting: compound movements first.

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014


Serious weightlifters follow a fundamental principle: compound movements first.

A compound movement is one that exercises multiple muscle groups rather than just one. In the picture, for example, the woman is about to perform a deadlift, which works all of the muscles in the legs and hips, as well as many muscles in the trunk, back, shoulders, and arms. One easy way to tell whether a movement is compound is that there will be a range of motion for multiple joints — in this case, the knees and the hips.

The distinction is with a simple movement, which calls primarily on one muscle and requires a range of motion through just one joint. A dumbbell curl would be an example of this. Ignoring the slight effort of the muscles in the hand and the shoulder to grip and stabilize the weight, the lion’s share of the work is done by the bicep, and the only range of motion is in the elbow.

Why do you do these exercises — deadlifts, squats, dips, chinups, bench presses, etc. — first? Because they work the most muscles, they work them the heaviest, and they work them all at once. If you really want to be strong, you do the lifts that allow you to move the most weight while requiring you to use more of your muscles at the same time. Only after you’ve done those big lifts do you move on to the lighter simple movements that allow you to focus on particular muscles. That’s how you get the strongest.

What’s the analogy to work?

It’s very easy to focus on the “simple movements” of the working day: cleaning up your inbox, reading headlines, making to-do lists, knocking off the little items on your list. I fall into that pattern myself, and in fact it can be a good way to warm up for the day. But it doesn’t get the Big Work done.

Think about your working life and your career for a minute. What are your equivalents of the squat, deadlift, and bench press? Maybe it’s the work that helps you close a significant deal, or develop a new product. Probably it will relate to some complex project — your research, your health, the book you’re writing. Ponder this for a minute, and maybe jot down a few things that occur to you.

If my analogy holds, these compound movements of your working life will call on you to:

  • Use multiple big skills at once. Thus my blazing-fast use of keystrokes to file Gmail into the correct folders doesn’t count. These need to be things like “product design,” “client communication,” “prospecting,” “storytelling,” or “project management.”
  • Deliver bigger chunks of value. Filing my email promptly creates value for me, because it helps keep my life less cluttered. But it generates bigger value by . . . no, actually, it doesn’t. It’s a beneficial thing to do — like a bicep curl — but it’s not worth nearly as much as finishing a writing project, pitching an article idea to an editor, or doing the research needed to write a book.
  • Perform joined-up thinking. Think about the examples in the previous two bullet points. Each of them requires bridging various ideas. In the software world, product design involves many things — researching user needs, designing interfaces, clarifying engineering requirements, and so on. Similarly, pitching an editor on an idea requires the writer to research the publication, come up with a well-formed and relevant idea, and then adhere to written and unwritten professional protocols for how to broach the subject and follow up. You get the idea: you don’t get to coast on one set of skills, or focus only on the fun parts. You have to follow through on the totality of the project.

Does this analogy work for you? What are the best examples of compound movements in your working world? And what can you do differently to make sure you focus on them first?

Image by Amber Karnes, used under a Creative Commons license.

What are you doing to stoke your ambition?

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Lots of people make New Year’s resolutions, and of course most of them come to naught. We let ourselves get distracted by life, but more than that, our initial passion about the change wanes. The fire dies down.

What can we do to keep that fire stoked?

Some athletes — I’m thinking of Eddy Merckx, Tom Brady, and Michael Phelps — are famous for keeping chips on their shoulders at all times. Great entrepreneurs are the same way: Jeff Bezos has talked about the “divine discontent” that drives him to keep building Amazon. Their motivation stays high.

The key point here is that the motivation comes from a deep burning WHY inside of them. It’s not primarily about the technicalities of the sport or the business or whatever — it’s about passion.

I have big, big plans for this year. Not resolutions, exactly, because I don’t consider them to be at all in the same category as “floss every day” or “stop cursing” or the like. The things are going to happen. And when I start to slip on them, I go back to my sources of passion.

Some of those sources are petty, to be honest. Merckx could be petty about perceived slights, but it made him a better bicycle racer. I don’t dwell on these thoughts, but I will admit that I have a short list in my head labeled “I’ll show them.”

Some of them are a little fearful — leading me to work harder to stave off outcomes I don’t want. I think of the cautionary tales of people I know who have failed for want of ambition and smart, hard work.

The best ones are joyous, tied to big visions of how I want my life to be. Writing books, training hard, enjoying my loved ones, being a source of happiness for others.

This year, I’m honing my skill at going back to that well of motivation. When I start to flag in my work, I pause to rejuvenate that divine discontent, or to put the chip back onto my shoulder. It gets less accidental and more structured each day.

Does my approach make sense for you? What do you do to keep your ambition stoked?

Peter Levi on writing for the screen.

Friday, December 27th, 2013

Most poets of my age, or even ten years above, understand and like the cinema. Rather few understand that television is an art form. They’re terrified by the whole notion of television. Therefore they won’t accept that it can be an art form. And yet if what they want is this great audience, why don’t they go and get it? There it is, waiting for them. They could, I mean, be doing something useful that people actually want them to do. I don’t think that any writer could call himself serious if he’s never considered working in films and television.

Peter Levi in The Paris Review, 1979

Get a running start on 2014.

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

There’s an old saying — I first heard it from Will Smith, if memory serves — that if you stay ready, then you don’t need to get ready.

At the moment, I’m thinking about the contrast between that approach and the many people who will wait until New Year’s Day to launch into their resolutions. You know there are legions of people planning to write a book* in 2014 who are absolutely sure they’re going to start working on it in earnest — 300 words every day! — on January 1. But they’re not laying the groundwork now to support that resolution.

(* In place of “write a book,” insert “start a business,” “get in shape,” “make a career move,” or whatever suits your own life — and appropriately scares you.)

Get Rolling Now

Too many of us deny ourselves a running start on our projects. We dither, waste time with excess research, lose ourselves in the depths of perfectionism, and so on. Especially for creative people (and I’m including, for example, business entrepreneurs), the focus should be on whatever eases the process, yet we often seem to delay progress rather than speed it along.

Probably it ties back to classic psychological issues — fear of failure, fear of success, generalized anxiety, etc. But let’s not waste time teasing those out . . . since that kind of psychologizing tends to be another delay mechanism. Let’s commit, instead, to preaching the message of taking a running start.

Imagine yourself six months or a year or five years from now, when that 2014 resolution has turned into The Great American Novel, your own business, 80 fewer pounds of bodyfat, or whatever it is. Think about how you might share your story of success with someone else, starting with “In hindsight, I gave myself a running start by . . . “

Here are some suggestions for finishing that sentence:

  • . . . adapting a proposal template I found online. I didn’t know how to do a proposal and I was freaking out about it, but that made it much simpler.
  • . . . making a list of the 30 easiest things I could do to get the ball rolling on [Project X]. I just asked for pointers from some friends who had been down the same road, then made a list of all the things that made me think, “Oh, that would be easy enough.” It was a great jump-start for me.
  • . . . clearing out a nice, dedicated workspace for myself to get the work done.
  • . . . lining up a workout buddy and visiting the gym a week ahead of time to talk with the trainers, learn the equipment, and that kind of thing.
  • . . . getting rid of all the junk food in my house the day after Christmas. Just threw it all in a huge garbage bag and carried it out with the torn-up wrapping paper.
  • . . . pulling together all the notes I had made for my novel, organizing them, and re-reading everything. I was able to revise the outline even before New Year’s rolled around.

You get the idea: Jump the gun. Pull your thoughts together now. Start your outline, or expand it. Sketch out some things. Get your materials ready. Edge ahead.

What would you add to the list here? And what are YOU doing to give yourself a running start on 2014?

Commonplace: James Lee Burke.

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

My book The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected 111 times before it was eventually published by Louisiana State University Press. When you get thoroughly rejected — and I mean thoroughly rejected — you realize you do it for the love of the work. And you stay out of the consequences. I developed one rule for myself: Never leave a manuscript at home more than thirty-six hours. Everything stays under submission. Never accept defeat.

–James Lee Burke in Esquire

The false foil.

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

Thanks to a passing reference in this basketball story, my mind is working on the idea of the false foil — the perceived rival or enemy who really isn’t.

The article talks about Michael Jordan being used as a false foil for LeBron James. Comparisons of the two are understandable: each won repeat championships while being regarded universally as the best player in the world. Yet they play different positions, their styles are different, and the NBA works differently now (especially because of changed rules that allow different types of defense). Different men, different eras.

But how would this work in building a narrative away from sports?
+ Business rivals who really aren’t.
+ Political enemies who need not be.
+ Romantic rivals, misperceived.
+ The paragon (father, mother, older brother, etc.) whose standard can never be attained.
+ . . .

I’m sure there are more, in both fiction and nonfiction.

The commonality seems to be misperception: someone in the situation or observing it from the outside ascribes meaning where it doesn’t exist — or looks for elaborated meaning beyond what the realities of the situation can bear.

In the case of LeBron, that means holding up his every accomplishment, pitfall, and personality quirk next to Jordan’s (and Bill Russell’s) — whether or not the comparison is relevant. For someone locked in a false rivalry in business, it might be about obsessively comparing their own career advancement or position of favor against that of the perceived rival. The business press has certainly wasted vast quantities of words on anointing “the next Steve Jobs” — when there will not be one.

Another wrinkle comes when we consider that any number of people, located anywhere in the dynamic, can hold the misperception — or even different varieties of the misperception. *Both* corporate climbers might see themselves as rivals, even though the bosses don’t. The demanding father might see the little brother as not living up to the standard of the sainted big brother . . . while the big brother is oblivious about the comparison. (You could probably fit that analysis to the way that Joe Kennedy related to his sons.)

And, since perception does drive our thinking, a false foil might become a real one simply by power of suggestion. The corporate climbers, who might have been friends or at least cooperative colleagues, really *do* become enemies, or LeBron starts comparing himself to Jordan and changing his behavior in some way because of it. The narrative takes over.

What are your best examples of this phenomenon? How does unpacking it affect the storytelling?

This Is Only a Test

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

I’m trying out a new app for my phone that allows me to post straight to this blog. It has bells and whistles that I don’t understand yet, but once I get it working, it will allow me to post more easily from anywhere.

I’m looking for everything useful I can find — technology, timetables, ways of thinking — that helps me achieve Maupassant’s dictum to “Get black on white.”

This concludes this test.

Regaining My Fluency

Sunday, June 9th, 2013


In his book On Writing — which I heartily recommend — Stephen King talks about the need for the writer to become totally fluent in all the little ins and outs of putting words on the page. It sounds simple, but you have to condition yourself to produce sentences, paragraphs, chapters, et cetera on demand. They must roll out of your brain and through your pen or your keyboard.

(You’ll immediately see the connection to yesterday’s post comparing a writer’s preparation with the physical training that an athlete pursues.)

It’s not that writing will ever be easy. As James Somers put it in this interesting essay:

Writing is a mentally difficult thing — it’s hard to know when something’s worth saying; it’s hard to be clear; it’s hard to arrange things in a way that will hold a reader’s attention; it’s hard to sound good; it’s even hard to know whether, when you change something, you’re making it better. It’s all so hard that it’s actually painful, the way a long run is painful.

When I started this post, I had forgotten that Somers also used the metaphor of physical training, but it only reinforces the parallel. And Somers’s next line brings it all back home:

It’s a pain you dread but somehow enjoy.

That’s definitely my experience with hard physical workouts, and it’s been echoed by some of the best and fittest athletes ever, including Jerry Rice and Lance Armstrong.

It goes hand in hand with what King was saying, I think. Writing — creating — is hard enough. You have to stay at it. You sweat the details. You revise to the point that you have to give up on making the story any better than it is. But along the way, you also have to accustom yourself completely to the techniques and patterns of thought that enable you to pursue a piece to its completion.

Which brings me back to my own progress as a writer. As I’ve rebooted this blog over the past week, and as I’ve worked on other pieces of writing, what I’ve found is that I’m not as fluent as I used to be at the techniques of writing. Mind you, I write ALL the time for my job — e-mails and project updates and Skype chats and tweets and you name it — but those things work a different set of writing muscles than blogging or fiction or long-form articles do.

It’s not unlike what I’ve felt in the gym the past two weeks, because I’m rebooting myself there, too. You know what to do, you know how to do it, but it all feels harder than it should because you’ve accumulated rust from disuse.

The answer is straightforward but difficult: get more reps in.

Like this one.

Photo by Thomas Sørenes.

Will you train for it?

Saturday, June 8th, 2013


I’ve written before about the great work habits of writers like Anthony Trollope. And I’ve written about how great athletes and musicians often follow training regimes that automatically support their pursuit of superior performance.

Do the two concepts work together? Can you “train” for writing like you would for the NFL?

I think you can. Cases in point:

  • Trollope rose early and wrote for two hours every day — just like many athletes rise early to do their first workout of the day.
  • Like Trollope, John Buchan wrote with a clock and a timetable of work in front of him, so he constantly challenged himself to write at a certain pace — just like athletes get in their running or swimming at a certain pace.
  • Pat Conroy has prided himself on reading 200 pages of literature every day for many years — just like many athletes never skip their workouts.

All of this has me thinking about the Olympic-grade “workouts” that will take me where I want to go as a writer. Because I can tell you that leaving it up to chance, or even working at it hard but haphazardly, has never worked for me.

More details as I have them. For now, I’m sticking with the simple daily exercise of writing at least one blog post. It’s not book writing, but at least it gets the writerly muscles working.

Image source.

Birds of a feather.

Friday, June 7th, 2013


Another one of those ancillary habits that support the Big Habit you’re trying to develop: hang around with like-minded people.

Never in human history has this been easier than it is today. You can go online and find communities formed around just about any theme. In my case, I have a head start because I’ve worked in social media for years and already have a large network spread across various platforms. So I’m talking up my writing  — and my commitment to it — on Facebook and Twitter.

For a while now, I’ve maintained a private Twitter list I call “Bookpeople.” It includes authors, journalists, editors, agents, and the like. I’ve  been adding to it more lately, and I make sure to read tweets from that list even more than from my ordinary Twitter timeline. It’s a daily reminder of the concerns and interests of other writers, and it offers me unlimited occasions to engage.

That engagement extends offline. Yesterday I had coffee with Becky Murphy, a young writer whose first book will come out this fall. Before that, we knew each other only through Twitter. Today at lunchtime, I walked from my office to Bookpeople to buy the book of another Twitter friend, Katherine Angel, who lives in London.

These are small steps, and none of them comes close to the impact of sitting down day after day and working on the manuscript at hand. But all of them help reinforce the belief that books are where I belong.

What do you do to seek out interactions with your own kind?

Image source.