On Writing Thoughts & Impressions

Last month I read Stephen King’s On Writing for the first time. It’s been on my periphery for some years now, but I decided to dig in now. The Talk Show with John Gruber Episode 339 “2006: Hard Work” reminded me that this draft has been in my 2022 posts folder waiting to be turned into a real article.

On Writing is clear cut. Makes sense given one of Stephen King’s cornerstones is to leave out the bad parts. King’s directness is as obvious has the forehead smack of a V8 commercial.

Another bit of advice that hit home was to write, you need to read, read, read. I used to read all the time as a kid. When I wrote Chasing the Stick, I was reading research and for fun with an insatiable appetite. Then it petered out, probably to play games, watch movies, and tweet my time away, which has no doubt shrunk my attention span. Stephen’s decree has whetted that craving for reading. I’ve already ripped through Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. I essentially read it twice because I’d reread sentences, savoring and digesting her memoir.

One other tidbit I care to mention here is putting away a first draft for six weeks after finishing it. In journalism, that’s not possible. But my writing here at Max Frequency has no master to answer in regards to timeliness. Again I think back to Chasing the Stick. Right after publishing that history of Naughty Dog in June 2020, I began preparing to dive into a second expanded revision. The burnout came swallowed me whole. Further fueled by rejections, I’ve touched squat of this idea. Now, two years is far, far longer than six weeks. But the lesson of taking space from your work sounds vital to future success.

On Writing is, as far as I am concerned, essential reading for writers. I’m not trying to write like Stephen King, but the lessons he wrote down have merit and are applicable to the craft on the whole. Next time I read it, I’ll listen to the audiobook. King reads it himself. I already bought it.

Announcing Wiki Stories — A Limited Run Newsletter

Wiki Stories is a journey back through my time as a freelance guide writer from 2014 through 2019. I wrote or helped write 23 guides for (mostly) games during those five years. I worked on some of the biggest game launches during that period of time, if not all-time. I was a part of the teams for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption 2, and God of War. I worked on games I knew would be a big deal before most, like Celeste. There were games I had no clue would become massive successes like Dying Light or Hitman, Season 1. I worked on some straight-up silly stuff too.

Guides are the backbone of gaming sites. They are (or were) often a starting point for writers trying to break into the industry. I’m digging back to share my successes and shortcomings as a guide writer so others can learn from my experience.

This newsletter will run for 25 weeks, starting on February 10, 2022. No tracking. No spam. No cost. At the end of the run, the email addresses will be deleted and posts archived. If you decide to join me — thank you. I hope you enjoy.

You can read the first letter right here on Max Frequency, which talks about how I landed on the idea of a newsletter at the bottom of a creative rut. All future letters will get an excerpt on the blog with links to the letter online, the RSS feed, and the subscription page. I want this to be opt-in for readers to hopefully curate an interested community directly.

Wiki Stories Letter #1 – Closing the Gap

Wiki Stories is a 25-week limited run newsletter where I’ll be sharing my stories from my five years as a video game guide writer. You can sign-up for free here. This first letter is published in its entirety below. All future letters will simply have an excerpt and link here on Max Frequency. If you decide to join me—thank you. I hope you enjoy.

Bottom of the Rut

“My brain is bouncing all over with plans to work on this and that. Projects get started and then stopped. Ideas are stuck in creative purgatory.”

Yours truly on September 1, 2021 talking about my own creative process and being in a rut. I ended that post with the following thesis.

“My ideas are big. I need to break them down. I need to build up into the big ones. So, I’m going to try and break them down. I’ll create smaller pieces of them, publish them, and move on to the next one…Instead of ideas that take months of work and skills I haven’t fully developed, I need to tackle shorter turnarounds and develop those skills.”

I was so wise six months ago.

The creative process and the answers to said process can sometimes feel shrouded in mystery. As people that want to make and do, we find those that have gone before us and take inspiration from them. At that point though, we are seeing the current end product. We likely have not seen the struggle it took to get there. Every poorly written story, each botched podcast, the hours of grainy webcam-filmed reviews that established the creator’s foundation. I often forget this crucial fact.

Entering 2022, I decided that I was going to tackle a project I’ve had in mind for a couple years. I have wanted to write down and share my stories from my years as a freelance wiki guide writer for IGN. The main reasons would be to save what memory of those years I have and to offer (hopefully) valuable insight to that process in the video game industry. I started production in December 2021.

My plan coming into the new year was to make the limited series threefold: a written article, a podcast, and a video. The inception for this was Jason Snell’s 20 Macs for 2020. I thought (and still do think) this would be a great idea that makes these stories accessible. Producing the show would also help me develop the skills necessary to create bigger and better series down the road. I was totally ignoring the “break down big ideas and crank them out” mantra that I proclaimed just half a year earlier.

Cooking and Writing are Essentially the Same Thing

Last week, I read Craig Mod’s annual year in review essay “Memberships Work.” I always take away insight and inspiration from Craig’s work, ever since I discovered him on The Talk Show with John Gruber. [1] Just six paragraphs in, Craig mentioned a quote from Ira Glass about taste and talent. Forgive me, but I am going to quote half of it here. The other half is real good too.

“Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.”

I think my palate is decent: I’m certainly picky enough. This distinction between taste and talent was a realization to me. I have let my taste on writing, podcasts, and videos be the excuse to not send out the completed dish of words, thoughts, and ideas. [2]

This has happened to me with real food over the past five or six years where I’ve intentionally been learning to cook. When my parents moved away, I realized that my mother’s high bar for cooking meals had elevated my taste. With her gone, my talent in the kitchen was far below said bar. My taste and talent were misaligned. I knew I had to learn to cook.

I remember one of my first lessons in the kitchen. I was trying to make a homemade mac and cheese. The recipe called for a roux, this combination of flour and milk to make the gooey cheese half of the dish. I forget the exact measurements, but something was off. The roux was dry and not coming together. I was going to chuck the dish, but my roommate came in and said it could be saved. All he did was add more milk and whisk constantly over the heat.

I never thought to step outside of the bounds of the recipe. When it became a bit too runny, he added more flour until a smooth roux came together. The dish was saved and I learned that improvisation were necessary in the kitchen.

Since then, I’ve spent my evenings cooking for my family. We did Blue Apron meal kits for two years. Then we quit that to handle meal prep and shopping ourselves. Now I have my own sourdough starter chilling in the refrigerator for whenever I feel like making a loaf. My talent still is not aligned with the taste my mother established, but it has gotten much closer over time. When the food is messed up or the ingredients are wrong, I adapt. I can count on one hand the times I’ve thrown out an entire meal. So why is it that in my own writing or production I am throwing out so many “meals” before they reach the table (i.e. audience)?

The Side Road

When producing the first wiki story, I went to record the video version. The vision was to take the written post and read it like a script. I had my fancy camera, the lighting, and the microphone all set up. I was trying to read it off my phone and use jump cuts to chop up the footage, like MKBHD does. That failed due to a technical issue [3]. Then I tried a different set-up to read the script off my iMac. My excuse there was no teleprompter. Why on Earth do I need a teleprompter? How is that pane of glass stopping me from creating? Ridiculous.

Then I figured that the videos could be ad-libbed and loosely follow the written post. I thought this idea was the “breaking down of a larger idea” I had written about last year. I shot the video, sat down to edit, and closed Final Cut mere minutes afterward. I knew my talent wasn’t matching my taste. I threw out the dish before it was even done being cooked.

I was letting my taste stunt my talent as a means to defend myself. I’ll never get better at what I enjoy that way though. I had to deconstruct this three-course idea for this limited wiki series. I had to get it out the door and on the table.

Another nugget from Craig’s Memberships Work post was a point on creating for the masses compared to creating for members.

“The membership program is like a private club where I’m more willing to be “open” about processes in ways that would feel too exposed on my normal mailing lists or public YouTube livestreams. With SP members, the audience for many of the members-only newsletters (like the writing diary I’m currently running) is in the hundreds or, for livestreams, dozens. All paying, supportive, “fans.” (But really, more like co-workers.) My normal newsletters go out to tens of thousands of strangers. You can understand why one space might feel like a safer & less stressful place to be emotionally & creatively exposed.”

I don’t run my own membership. Unfortunately, any community I have garnered is unknown to me. Max Frequency has been mostly a one-way street. When thinking about stripping down the three prong wiki project to a singular medium, that open road suddenly didn’t seem so appealing to walk down. My mission for these stories is to be honest about my journey writing guides, chasing a career in video game coverage, and the lessons I learned. It’s not a scandalous tell-all, but it is designed to be a far more personal project. It is wholly unique to me.

I am going to intentionally take a side road. It’s not a shortcut, but I expect it to be the scenic option. This journey will be a newsletter.

Newsletters have been an idea I’ve wanted to tackle since the inception of Max Frequency. Heck, the site almost started of as a newsletter instead! The idea returned to the forefront when I scrubbed to a random time in Craig’s recent membership Q&A. [4]

“If you can’t do a free newsletter for three months and commit to that – you can’t do a membership. You can’t do anything paid. You don’t have those muscles built up yet. That’s what’s critical.”

This newsletter is not going to be paid: That would be flying directly in the face of Craig’s statement. I need the muscles though. I worked on twenty-three unique wiki guides. Throw in this post and an outro gives me a solid twenty-five week deadline. That’s more than three months – it’s actually closer to six – but the subject matter gives me a narrow path to walk along and document.

Not everyone will want to join me on that path though. That’s why the idea of opting in to reading these stories appeals to me. We can chose to explore together and see what I can dig up.

When the journey is over, that’ll be it. I’ll archive the posts and unsubscribe everyone (and delete any and all email addresses, if Buttondown will let me). Business-sense would say to keep all the email addresses and use it for future business-like ventures. That just feels creepy to me. If at the end of this limited run, you walk away and enjoy my writing, you’ll follow my work at Max Frequency or on Twitter. If not, then you don’t ever have to worry about me bugging you in the future. I want an open and honest relationship from the start.

This also means all the tracking and analytics options will be shut off. I don’t like spy pixels in email I receive, so why would I put them in newsletters I send out? Again, business-wise, probably not “smart,” but it makes me feel a whole lot better. I think it will make you feel good too.

The Rules

We’ve already established a timeline. The twenty-five weeks starts now and will end on July, 28 2022. Each letter will go up at 5:00 AM EST that way you could start your day with it or save it for a convenient time.

The list of games and the order of the newsletters will be the order that I worked on the guides. You can find that list here. Originally, I was going to bounce around at my heart’s content, but decide going in the natural order made things simpler.

Okay. It’s time for the other half of that Ira Glass quote.

“And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?”

I’ve given myself the deadline. I know I am going to finish this story. It is time to close the gap and bring my talent a bit closer to my taste.

Thank you for joining my on this little journey. I hope you enjoy.

If you like the sound of this newsletter, you can sign-up for free here. If you’d like to throw the RSS feed into your reader of choice, go for it!

[1]: Which apparently was only one year ago?! That actually makes me sad. Think of all the time I haven’t been following Craig’s work. I certainly absorbed a ton of it in that year though. ↩︎

[2]: This line of thinking is also brought up in Stephen King’s On Writing, which I’ve been reading. For a writer, there’s nothing like having little imaginary versions of Stephen King and Ira Glass sitting on your shoulders telling you the same thing: “Do, do, do.” ↩︎

[3]: Pro tip: Always check your batteries. ↩︎

[4]: I told you I get a lot of inspiration from this guy. ↩︎

I Hope This Video Doesn’t Suck – Razbuten

I Hope This Video Doesn’t Suck by Razbuten on YouTube

I made this mostly for myself, but you can watch it too.

I have been in a creative rut for most of 2021. That may sound odd, especially with my launching two podcasts, but all I’ve really come up with are those podcasts and blog posts. And I feel frustrated because I, too, have a list on my phone full of little ideas. Not only a list, but a notebook, and the back of my office door. I may not be out of ideas, but I am definitely beginning to feel overwhelmed by them and thought of executing them.

I need to reign it in. My brain is bouncing all over with plans to work on this and that. Projects get started and then stopped. Ideas are stuck in creative purgatory.

Recently, I played through Chapter Select Season 2’s first game, Death’s Door, and earned the platinum trophy in Castlevania Requiem (aka Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night). I was so zoned in on these games, with clear goals to collect and do everything each game had to offer. When I finished the platinum trophy hunt, I realized I didn’t have the next project/goal/thing lined up and fleshed out. I’m waiting to begin post-production on the first episode of season 2 before I dive into the second game. Finding a guest for The Max Frequency Podcast has been tough these past two months (although I do have some ideas for September).

Chasing the Stick, my history of Naughty Dog, is its own self-contained nugget of too many ideas. I have been paralyzed by ideas and “if I just got this piece of equipment.” The project has been filled with its own amount of failing to get interviews and make progress.

I feel paralyzed to make a real decision.

After watching Raz’s new video yesterday after work, I’m pretty sure my subconscious began working on my problem. I intentionally left the house last night and helped Abby with her own tasks. I did it because I needed a break from sitting around trying to decide which mole hill mountain to climb. We ended up watching Back to the Future and Part II. Despite bringing along my notebook for working on my ideas, my brain was totally not swimming in the Idea Sea.

It was right before bed that I think I came up with a solution, which I understand is fundamentally another idea. My subconscious found an answer and brought it to the surface.

My ideas are big. I need to break them down. I need to build up into the big ones. So, I’m going to try and break them down. I’ll create smaller pieces of them, publish them, and move on to the next one. Sort of like when I was hung up on a name for The Max Frequency Podcast: I wanted a great show name before I started. That small element was stopping me from doing the show. I ended up picking the simplest name and then actually began producing the show.

Instead of ideas that take months of work and skills I haven’t fully developed, I need to tackle shorter turnarounds and develop those skills. Honestly, that’s the approach I’ve mostly had with Chapter Select. I suppose I’m adopting that across all my projects.

To semi-quote Raz: I wrote this mostly for myself, but you can read it too.

Craig Mod’s “Where are all the Nightingales?”: A 30-day Kumano Walk and Newsletter

Where are all the Nightingales? Day Two by Craig Mod

About twenty minutes into my walk today, I saw an old man leading a group of even older women in front of a small temple. Come come, he motioned to me.

Placing his head uncomfortably close to mine we peeked through the temple window, and in pidgin English he began to explain the dark interior. It wasn’t making much sense, so I cut in in Japanese saying, Oh this is the famous jizo temple, yes? And just like that he flipped to fluent Japanese, breaking down the various bodhisattvas and buddhas enshrined along with the jizo.

Damn, I love this road, I told him as his gang of ladies listened from a safe distance. I’ve walked a bunch of Japan and this road is so quiet and oddly well preserved.

And he said, Yes yes, this wasn’t firebombed during the war like the industrial areas north of here. So this road — the Ise Kaidō — is in good shape.

Craig started this walk just two days ago as of this writing. Even this short into the journey, I have found these daily newsletters stirring. There is warm nostalgic glow for a place I have never been to. The way Craig is using technology to bring the quietness of Japan is comforting. His photos, to me, are finding subtle beauty in what is likely just background noise to local people. 

Day Two’s newsletter in particular reminded me of A Graveyard of Fireflies, which is quite a way to start my morning. Not in a somber way, but in grounded, realized way.

If you’d like to read, see, and watch (he’s doing binaural 4K videos too) while Craig is on the walk, you can sign up here. Once the walk is over, Craig is just deleting everyone’s email from this list. One and done.

This particular project of Craig’s has me thinking about the world of newsletters and how they have reemerged (not that Craig is new to this at all), but that’s a post for another time.