Sprinting with Jane


Here's a writing tip to help you benefit from coworkers you've never met.

Years ago I had a workout partner. If you've seen me lately you know it was many years ago.

We would meet at the gym three or four times a week and lift weights together. After a while our schedules got busier but we still planned to meet at least three times a week.

When we were together we pushed ourselves a little harder than when we went to the gym by ourselves.

As time went on he got busier and busier and it became harder for him to keep our schedule. All I asked was that he never tell me when he couldn't make it. If he told me that he couldn't make it then it was easier for me not to go to the gym if I didn't feel like it.

This arrangement worked for the longest time. The first trick to accomplishing anything is to show up and be ready.

Eventually, it was clear that he wasn't ever going to be there and that made it easier for me to stop going by myself. Eventually, I quit.

Natalie Goldberg talks about this technique for writers in "Writing Down The Bones". She would schedule time to meet friends in a cafe to write for an hour. If they couldn't make it, at least she'd be there and she'd write for an hour.

Again, it's much better if her friend shows up too. But at least she shows up. Once she's there, she might as well write for an hour.

One of Kent Beck's Extreme Programming practices is Pair Programming. At one of the XP conferences he admitted to being unable to properly follow that practice as he frequently works at home. I don't know if it was a joke or not but he said that he'd gotten his daughter to walk into the room now and then and say something a pair might say such as "are you sure there isn't a simpler way of doing that."

It would be better for my workout partner to be with me in the gym, better for Natalie's writing companion to be with her in the cafe, and better for Kent to have a real pair as he writes code. So often we are getting 80% of the benefit by moving on to the next best thing.

I love working at home but I sometimes miss the nudge from a coworker. Kimmy-the-wonderwife encourages me to leave the house to go to a coffee shop at least once a day and that helps. Recently, I've started writing with Jane.

I don't know Jane. I've never met her and am unlikely to. I write non-fiction books for computer programmers and math geeks. She writes screenplays for popular television shows.

I found Jane Espenson's blog when trying to understand more about "breaking stories" and "beating out a spine". I have this quest to apply screenwriting techniques to books about iPhone apps and Calculus. I'd heard her on the "Scriptnotes" podcast and she writes very clearly about writing. That's not always the case. Often people who are really good at something aren't able to express why they are good at it nor how you can become good at it. She is both a great writer and a great teacher.

I started following Jane on Twitter just to see what she posted and was immediately rewarded. Now and then she'll tweet "one hour writing sprint in twenty minutes. Who's with me?"

Well heck, I am.

I can't always join her but often enough that I'm finally getting my voice back. She's also clear to say that you can join her but not write. Do something else creative or something else that needs an hour of uninterrupted focus.

It sounds obnoxious when I put it like that but it is really encouraging. It's like writing with someone at the coffee shop and they stand up and stretch a bit and say, "I'm getting a refill. Want anything?"

It's why each November I write a bit about writing here. Each November I start a new book --- who's with me?

This year I'm sprinting with Jane. I'm sure it would be better hanging with Jane in a writer's room as she and the writers break a "Once upon a time" episode.

This is pretty good. I show up and write. At the end of the hour I've got pages I wouldn't have otherwise had.

I'll talk about writing sprints tomorrow. At some point I'll talk about breaking stories more --- but I still don't think I understand the concept fully. I'm hoping to learn from comic book writers and screenwriters.