Friday, September 24, 2010

Never Whistle While You're Pissing

I blog a lot.

OK I never blog. This is my first blog. Literally, my very first, but I do like to write, and I do (for reals) write a lot. I thought I’d share a concept that helps me stay focused and get things finished in a relatively short amount of time. As the title suggests, that concept: Never whistle while you’re pissing.

I didn’t make that phrase up, it’s from the 1975 Illuminatus! trilogy, but I think it still holds true. Roughly translated, put everything you have into what you are doing, and do it well.

Having said that, most writers have other things going on in their lives – kids, spouses, ‘real jobs,’ hobbies, extreme sports, etc. Between all those moments, on the drive back from soccer practice, while waiting on the bus, as you walk the half mile from one end of the your office building to the other, you’ve got some free time, and I say why waste it?

For example, a friend of mine recently joked that I should write a Steam Punk novel. I think he was tired of reading the reams of writing I regularly put out, and was hoping by tossing a confusing new genre at me it might slow me down. I of course took it as a challenge.

First, I ordered some Steam Punk anthologies. Now right before drifting off to sleep or during my special alone time in the bathroom, I read about Steam Punk. I keep a notebook and pen with my anthologies, and I take notes on speech patterns, clothing types, and the world in general. I broke out the old Sherlock Holmes anthology as well for more Victorian Style atmosphere. And I took more notes. I found websites on Steam Punk names, Steam Punk art (lots and lots of Steam Punk art), Victorian Slang, Victorian habits and lifestyles. I even developed a monetary system based on the same unequal distribution of wealth as Victorian London.

I stopped short of Victorian London though. That’s a little too spot on, so I decided this would be a fantasy world, something Tolkien-like, but jump-started with Steam Punk technology. I added goblin professors, ork mercenaries, fairy messengers, four-foot-tall elf-type creatures with butterfly wings, and threw them all into a medieval city populated with Victorian style and sensibilities. I mapped out the city too, including the different sectors and important locales, and I hadn’t written a word yet.

All this occurred during breaks at work or while waiting for the bathtub to fill up for the kid. When I went running or otherwise worked out, I rejected the ipod and music and instead choose to listen to characters interact in the Victorian style, or to imagine their world, their style, other people they might encounter, and then afterwards furiously typed up notes before I jumped in the shower. Even during writing exercises with the other people in this blog, I took whatever writing start point they gave us, and put it in a Steam Punk world. I had a main character, a winged anti-hero named Gossamer, and a world for her, and I started writing.

I still needed to add details to the world, so I kept an eye out for them. What sorts of things we enjoy now might exist in a Steam Punk world, especially one with fantasy creatures?
I think the greatest example came while my wife and child and I were at the mall one day. They were picking out earrings. There is only so much I can do with a wife and 5-year-old choosing earrings, and wasted witty commentary and dry sarcasm hurts me in my heart. So I borrowed a pen, dug out an old grocery receipt from her purse, and wandered out into the main throughways.

The first person to walk past was a heavy woman wearing expensive sunglasses and headphones. She moved quickly, wearing tennis shoes, possibly working out. Hurm. Sunglasses = goggles, that makes sense. What to do with headphones? Ah, got it. I jotted down,

A thick upper class woman in bejeweled night-vision goggles almost knocked Gossamer down rounding a corner. As the woman passed, Gossamer noted the small fairy clutching her back, attached by a braided silver leash, singing soft melodies into the woman’s ears to drown out the cries of the unmentionables in the streets.

I wandered back into the jewelry store to check on the family. No change. Some sort of debate between silver studs or loops. Then I turned to see a mother and grandmother taking pictures of their baby getting her ears pierced, even as the baby screamed in pain. I pulled out the receipt and the pen again.

A shriek nearby startled her, and she shifted her focus to a toddler boy crying out to the gods while a group of men held his arms and a blacksmith branded him with a tiny guild mark. All while his father and grandfather toasted and celebrated this ritual with their tankards of cinnamon beer.

What about zeppelins? Gotta have zeppelins… Ah, there, advertisements hanging from the ceiling became hanging scrolls from tiny fairy-flown dirigibles, with massive passenger balloons hovering way up in the sky.

And so it continued. I kept writing even when I didn't have time for writing. A big flat screen TV looping video of Chinese female dancers became a steam-powered window looking in on the performing dancers in an extra-dimensional Aether. An electric train running up and down the center of the mall became a miniature steam carriage with a goblin coachman carrying noble children around the outdoor market. A blog request became a blog about Steam Punk.

Hey, never whistle while you’re pissing.


  1. Nice! You made me want to explore the world of Steam Punk. Good with the funny too!

  2. Haha--I was scanning the blog headlines to see what I missed and was all "what does that have to do with writing?" Great first post!

    Oh, and I don't know shit about steampunk but since I am reading your WIP I can say with great authority that you are definitely keeping your focus and it's paying off:)