Using RescueTime to Answer the Question: When Do I Write?

I‘ve written quite a bit about how much I write, and that I find ways to write every day. What I haven’t talked about much is when I do my writing. Remember, I have a full time day job, and two little kids, so my time is very limited. In order to write every day, I needed to adjust to the fact that I couldn’t count on a fixed time of day, or a fixed duration of time in which to write. I had to learn to write whenever the time became available.

Since early this year, I have been using RescueTime on all of my computers. For those not familiar with it, RescueTime is an application that tracks what you do on your computer and provides you with data about your productivity. RescueTime has a database of applications and websites and ranks them anywhere from Very Unproductive to Very Productive. It gives you a “productivity pulse” from 0-100 telling you how productive your days were. One of the things that RescueTime captures is when you used an application and for how long.

Yesterday, I finally got around to playing with RescueTime’s API, and was able to pull out data about my use of Google Docs, which is where I do all of my writing. I learned a lot about when I write by looking at that data. I also confirmed some things that I already knew.

When do I write each day?

I went back to March of this year and took data from March 1 through yesterday. I filtered the data to look at just the “Writing” activity in RescueTime–that is, applications that are related to writing. I further filtered those down to Google Docs to ensure that I was capturing my regular daily writing, all of which I do in Google Docs. I aggregated the data by hour to see when during the day I typically do my writing. Here is the results:

When Do I Write

You can see that the vast majority of my daily writing is done between 7-9 pm. Indeed, of the 102 hours of writing that RescueTime has logged since March, more than half–53.1 hours–has taken place between 7-9 pm.

This data aggregates all days in the date range, including weekends. I sometimes write early on Saturday or Sunday mornings, especially when I know I have a big day ahead, so there is a spike there. Also, I sometimes write when the kids nap on the weekends (something that is increasingly rare), and so you see a small spike between 1 – 3 pm as well.

If I break things down by weekday/weekend writing times, here’s how things look:

Weekday-End Writing

The pattern on weekends is roughly the same as weekdays, and yet the chart is a little deceiving because it makes it look like I write a lot less on weekends than on weekdays. But remember, there are only 2 days in a weekend, and 5 days during the workweek. From March to the present, I’ve spent 76 hours writing during the workweek. This averages out to 15.2 hours per weekday.

However, I’ve spent about 30 hours writing on weekends in that same period. This averages out to 15 hours per weekend day. Put another way, I’ve written a total of 15 hours for each day of the week in the period from March to the present. I write just as much on the weekends as I do on weekdays.

An important note on the data collection

One thing I want to emphasize here. All of the data was collected automatically by RescueTime. I did not have to log my writing time. I did not have to take any extra steps, beyond opening my document and typing. RescueTime captures it all, automatically. Indeed, there is a gap in the data. When I was on vacation in Maine, I took a laptop with me that I forgot to install RescueTime on, so none of my time that week was captured.

But the key point here is that all of this data was generated without my having to take a single action beyond doing what I normally do. Of course, I did have to spent a few minutes creating the charts for this post, but the data was already there. I just had to grab it and process it. This, in my opinion, is a vital element to consistent tracking. If I had to take steps to log my time each time I was writing; if I had to “clock-in” and “clock-out” I would never have collected the data in the first place.

No Going Paperless Post This Week

I am under the gun on a couple of projects at the day job that have tight deadlines. I am also under the gun for some writing-related projects. To give me a little breathing room, I’m going to take this week off from the Going Paperless post. Part 2 of my 2-part series, How I Simplified My Note Organization in Evernote will come on next Tuesday, July 29.

Sorry for the delay. In the meantime, if you haven’t checked out Part 1 yet, you can find it here. And, of course, there are more than 110 other Going Paperless posts that I’ve written.

365 Consecutive Days of Writing

365 Days of Writing
Click to enlarge

This evening, I wrote nearly 1,900 words, and in doing so, achieved a major milestone. I have now written for 365 consecutive days. That’s one full year. The last day on which I did no writing was July 21, 2013, the day I traveled home from the Launch Pad Astronomy workshop. Since that day, I have written every day, to the tune of 344,000 words. Over the course of the last 365 days I have averaged 943 words per day. That is roughly 40 minutes of writing per day, or a grand total of about 243 hours spent writing.

On my best day in the last year, I wrote more than 5,300 words. On my worst day, I barely scratched out 70. But I have written every day.

This streak, while significant, is part of a larger effort to write every single day. Since I started on this adventure, I have now written 508 out of the last 510 days.  That’s not too shabby.

The chart above shows the last 365 days. You can click it to see a larger version. It’s interesting to note a few patterns in the data. The one that jumps out at me the most is how my 7-day moving average fell during the cold winter months. Also, on 8 separate occasions, I’ve exceeded 3,000 words in a single day.

As you might expect, I’m pretty happy today!

Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

Kelly has been watching Doctor Who. She watches an episode or two each evening. Usually I am writing or reading while she is doing this, but occasionally, I’ll get sucked into an episode. It’s rare, but it happens. It has, however, happened the last two nights in a row. She watched an episode called “Silence in the Library” and I was vaguely reminded of Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. It was a fascinating episode, really. And it ended with a “To be continued…” cliff-hanger.

So last night, she watched the concluding episode, called “Forest of the Dead,” and once again, I was sucked in. But I liked it. In fact, the double-episode quickly rose to the top of my favorite of the small handful of episodes that I’ve seen, eclipsing “Blink,” which was the first episode I ever watched, after a crowd-sourced recommendation. The ending of “Forest of the Dead” was spectacular.

Now, before anyone jumps into say, “Oh, you have to watch episode x, or y, or even z!” understand that this was a fluke. As much as I liked the episode, I just don’t have time for TV. Unless I really need to give my brain a rest, the time I spend watching TV is time that I could be writing. It’s not that I don’t like what I see. It’s that I like writing more.

Well, also, with rare exception like this double-episode, I can’t really stomach TV dramas anymore.

In any case, I thought I should at least mention that I saw and enjoyed both these episodes of Doctor Who since there are people out there who can’t believe that, as a science fiction writer, I don’t watch the show regularly.

Advice to My Kids as They Begin Their Education

Next month, the Little Man will start Kindergarten. He has been in pre-school since he was 15 months old, spending his days from 7 am – 4 pm at the school (as does the Little Miss) and so he is used to the long days, but this will be at a new school, and it will be the real beginnings of his education. This got me thinking about my own schooling, which in turn got me thinking about what advice I’d offer to my kids as they started out with their own education. It didn’t take me long to come up with 4 things to pass along:

1. It is okay to make mistakes, get things wrong, and occasionally fail at something, so long as you try to learn from those mistakes.

The Little Man in particular gets frustrated when he makes a mistake, or when he doesn’t win at a game. I’m not sure where this comes from because I’m of the opinion that mistakes are how we learn. Natural geniuses aside, learning is rarely easy. I can remember how halting I read when I first learned to read. I had to sound out every word, mangling half of them. It seemed to take forever to get through one page. But one day, I no longer noticed the words. Instead, I noticed the story that they told. It took practice (a lot of practice!) but I got there.

Even failing at some things shouldn’t get you down. We can’t be expert at everything. In college, I took a macro economics class. I attended every lecture. I did all of the assigned reading and homework. I ended up with D in the class. To this day, macro economics stumps me. In many respects, the earlier you learn your trouble-spot, the better you are.

The most important thing is to try to learn from the mistakes you make, in school work, and socially as well.

2. Write in your books!

I wish I had done this more. Write in your books! When you are reading, write your thoughts in the margins as you go. Include your opinions (“This passage is wonderful!”, “Was Doyle on crack when he wrote this?”). This will say you work when it comes time to talk about what you’ve read. But by writing in your books, you also make the book uniquely your own.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Winston Churchill are just three people who wrote in the margins of the books that they read. You will be in very good company.

3. It is okay to have an opinion about things; it is okay not to like something you have read for school.

Through about 7th grade, I went through school thinking that every book I was assigned to read had to be good, because otherwise, why would it be assigned. (The notion of learning what not to do by reading a bad book was foreign to me.) Sometime in 8th grade, however, we had to read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I read it, and loathed it. Looking back on it, I just think I’m not a fan of the loquacious Victorian style. What bothers me most, in retrospect, was that I was afraid to express my opinion of the book in class out of fear that I’d get in trouble for not liking the book.

At some point (probably in 10th or 11th grade) I did express my opinions about books in class. What I found was that my teachers seemed to like this. Looking back on it, I think it is because it was clear that I read the book and formed an opinion about it.

There will be things that you read that you won’t like. Read them anyway, learn what you can from them, but don’t hesitate to express your opinion about them. It is part of the joy of reading.

4. It is okay to go beyond what you are learning, if you find it interesting.

If you find yourself interested in something you learned in class, or read about for class, by all means, pursue it. Don’t feel like you have to be hemmed in by what you are given in class. If you read about Soviet-era Russia in a social studies book, and want to learn more, go to the library and check out a history book. If your science book spends a few paragraphs on black holes and you want more, go to the library (or online) and learn more.

It is okay to go beyond what you are learning in class if you find it interesting. You can also use what you learn later, and if you are entertained while learning, that is all the better.


The main problem with advice like this is that it usually has be learned from experience. That may be so, but this is the advice I would pass along to the Little Man and the Little Miss as they begin their journey through school.

A Full Day

This was a full day. I was at the office early, and immediately head-down in development work. And I mean head down. I ate my two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at my desk, almost oblivious to them. By the time I came up for air, it was nearly 4 pm. But I had made substantial progress, and that pleased me.

I came home and set about writing. I completed the second draft of an article for The Daily Beast, and put some more work into the first draft of another article for The Daily Beast. I also roughed out an article for another market. I squeezed in a little work on the novel as well.

Kelly to the kids out this evening (we were all out at a birthday celebration yesterday evening) so when I had finished with the writing, I returned to the day job work and made even more progress. Productivity-wise, it was one of my better days in a while, and in fact, tied my best ever “productivity pulse” in RescueTime.

RescueTime July 17

But days like these also leave me completely mentally drained. At this point, I don’t feel like reading, writing, browsing, or anything but getting into bed. I may even watch a TV show to give my brain a break.

Then, I’m back at it tomorrow.

I am aiming to have the re-outlining of the second draft of my novel completed by the end of the month, and then getting aggressive and seeing if I can manage to write the complete second draft in 3 months (August, September, October). I’d like to have a proofread version done by November, before the World Fantasy Convention.

A Reminder on the Site Advertising Policy

I have recently received a minor flood of requests to advertise on this site. At this time, I do not accept advertising of any kind. I have no plans to accept advertising in the foreseeable future.

Believe it or not, a few people argue with me when I tell them that I don’t accept advertising. After all, it’s a win for everyone, right? Products get advertised and I get paid. Well, that’s not quite how I see it. I have nothing against sites that include ads. More power to them. But it seems to me that there are three problems with advertising onthis site that make it something I want to avoid:

1. The level of quality of the ads I see out there fall below what I would want to appear on my site.

2. You get ads on TV, radio, and other places on the web. I think my audience appreciates the fact that they can come here and have an ad-free experience. Occasionally, I do talk about products I use, but only when I have actually used them, and I am not compensated for talking about them. I talk about them because I like them.

3. I have a feeling that managing ads would be an administrative headache, and I just don’t have the time for it.

So, advertising might seem like a quick way to make a buck, and that’s all well and good, but it’s not something I want to get into here.

Going Paperless: How I Simplified My Notebook Organization in Evernote (Part 1)

Over a year and a half ago, I wrote about how I organize my notes in Evernote. To this day, it is one of the most frequently-asked questions that I get about using Evernote and going paperless. It is also a very personal decision. The way we organize is often tailored to the way we work. In this respect, one size does not fit all.

That said, how I work evolves over time, and eventually, the way I organize my notes in Evernote needs to evolve to keep in sync with my working style. Recently, I’ve gone through the process of changing how I organize my notes in Evernote. I thought I’d share the process with you, covering why I reorganized my notes, and how I did it. Rather than try to pack this all into a single post, I’ve broken down into a couple of posts. This week’s post will discuss how I’ve simplified my notebook organization in Evernote. Next week’s post will discuss my evolving use of tags in Evernote.

Why simplify?

I have nearly 8,500 notes in Evernote. These notes were spread over 45 notebooks. Two things made me want to simplify things.

First, I found over time that I used only a handful of the notebooks regularly. More than 80% of my notes were contained in just 8 notebooks.

Notebook Chart

That meant that less than 20% of my notes were spread over nearly 40 other notebooks. If I was spending most of my time in 8 notebooks, maybe I could simplify things and get rid of some of those other notebooks.

Second, my use of tagging had gradually increased, but it did so in the traditional manner, without any kind of clear structure or taxonomy forming a logical basis. I found that it was taking too much time to tag things and that there were an increasing number of duplicate tags which made searching more difficult. So I decided to tackle the tagging as well by putting in place a formal, but simple, taxonomy. I’ll discuss the tagging next week.

Now that I’ve explained why I decided to simplify my notebook structure, let me remind you of what my old structure looked like. I had 8 notebook stacks centered around areas of my life. Most of the notebooks were contained in those stacks. Here is what the old structure looked like:

Old Notebooks

Step 1: Create a new framework

I like the notion of organizing notebooks around the areas of my life and I wanted to retain that. But I also wanted to simplify the notebooks. The easiest way I could think of for doing this was to create a better abstraction of those areas.  That took a little bit of thinking on my part, but I tend to be pretty good at organizing information. In the old system, here are the areas of my life under which notebooks were organized:

  • Home: anything related to my home life.
  • Work: anything related to my day job
  • Freelance writing: anything related to freelance writing

In addition to those areas, I had a few “utility” categories that evolved into notebook stacks:

  • Diary: mostly, but not entirely, automatically generated notes, also known as “life logging.” Includes my “timeline” notebook.
  • Reference: clippings, skitch drawings, how-tos, etc.
  • Scrapbooks: kids’ artwork, my bibliography, more clippings
  • Shared: shared notebooks
  • Special Projects: miscellaneous projects, often self-improvement related.

There was definitely some overlapping here, but it also seemed to be a little less abstract than what I needed at the notebook stack level.  The first thing I did was come up with a new, slightly more abstract framework. I redefined the areas of my life as:

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Blood-Sucking Ticks and Clocks

We seem to have a tradition for the Fourth of July that goes beyond spending the holiday in the small town of Castine, Maine. Last year (2013), the Little Man, slipped coming out of the bathroom, and cracked his head on the floor. He didn’t require any stitches, but there was a good deal of blood and crying. Fortunately, my cousin is a doctor and he took a look at the wound and said it would be okay. This year, I jokingly told him I’d make sure the Little Man avoids any slips or spills. And to his credit, the Little Man did not fall on the Fourth of July.

But after the morning parade, I got a text from Kelly. I’d walked back to the house with the Little Miss, while Kelly took the Little Man on a firetruck ride. She texted with the gleeful news that the Little Man had managed to acquire a passenger: a small tick, which found a comfortable spot on his head. Not wanting to freak out the Little Man, Kelly said nothing to him, but when they returned to the house, my cousin, the good doctor, took a look, and, as Dr. Seuss once said, with great skillful skill, and with great speedy speed, successfully removed the tiny hitchhiker.

Jump-cut ahead to a few days ago. The Little Man was taking inventory  of his many wounds, tiny scratches that he has on his legs, for instance, the kind of scratches and scrapes that all five year old boys and girls collect. He called the more prominent of these scrapes “blood holes” which sounds gruesome until you actually see what he is talking about–and then it takes all of your will not to smile or laugh. He was explaining why he needed one snack or another.

“It will make new blood,” he said, “to replace the blood that came out from the blood holes.” We’re talking volumes of blood measured in microliters, picoliters, even.

“You really didn’t lose that much blood, buddy,” I said. “Those are very small scrapes.”

“But Daddy,” said he, “I also had the clock.”

I stared at him, utterly baffled. “The clock?”

“Yeah, the clock. Remember, in Maine. It got on my head and drank my blood.”

I stared at him some more, thinking I’d stepped into some alternate reality populated by blood sucking clocks, à la Salvador Dali. I had no idea what he was talking about. I just stared, mouth agape.

“Remember, Daddy? At the parade?”

And then it dawned on me and I couldn’t help myself. I burst into laughter. “A tick!” I said. You mean a tick?”

“Yeah!”

This, of course, was yet another insight into the mind of a five year old. After the tick was removed, we showed it to him and told him what it was. A tick. Five year olds know nothing of ticks, except that they are half the sound made by–you guessed it–a clock. In this case, a blood-sucking clock.

I have a feeling I am finally beginning to understand from where Dr. Seuss derived much of his inspiration.

Novel Draft Status Update and Lessons Learned So Far

The backstory

In 2013, I wrote the first draft of my first novel. The story began as all of my stories do: a story with no clear idea of how long it would be. Between March and September it grew to a 95,000 word story, and so I had myself the first draft of a novel. I finished the draft on September 14, 2013 and then set it aside. I spent the rest of the year writing short stories, and gathering some distance from the long story I’d just finished. Between December 2013 and January 2014, I re-read the draft of the novel and took lots of notes, more than 13,000 words worth of them.

Beginning in April, I began work on the second draft of the novel. I’ve restarted the second draft 18 times, writing roughly 80,000 words. Ultimately these words didn’t really go anywhere. Recently, as part of the Clarion Write-a-Thon charity fundraiser, I’ve been hard at work trying to beat the novel draft into shape. But my approach has changed based on what I’ve learned over the last several months.

My usual process

I don’t have a usual process for writing a novel because until last summer, I’d never written one. What I have been doing is writing the novel using the same process I use for writing stories. That process looks something like this:

Writing Process

First draft

I write a first draft that is only intended for me. I don’t plot out the story. I think of an ending and then work toward it and see what happens. In this respect, the first draft is me telling myself the story. No one but me ever sees the first draft.

My first drafts have lots of placeholders. Sometimes they are placeholders for names that I haven’t thought of yet and look something like this:

Placeholder excerpt

I use these placeholders for research as well. I avoid research at all costs in the first draft because it becomes an excuse to avoid writing. So I’ll just make stuff up in the story and then add a note that I need to do some additional research later.

Second draft

My second drafts are complete rewrites. Between the first and second draft, I read what I wrote, note the parts that don’t work in the story so that I can cut them or rework them, and also list out the placeholders that need to be filled in. I try to fill in all these placeholders, including the ones related to research before starting the second draft. This is so that I don’t have to pause in the middle of the story to do research.

For me, second drafts are where I tell the story to an audience. Having written the first draft, I know the story, and now I try to make it something that a reader would want to read.

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3 of the Most Helpful Writers You’ll Ever Meet

Yesterday, I came across an article on the 13 most annoying writers you’ll ever meet. It was an amusing article and for the most part, I recognized most of the stereotypes listed therein. I even recognized a few of them1 in myself. Posts like these are funny because we probably all know a writer (or wannabe writer) who fits into one or more of these categories. But the same article could be written for just about any profession out there, using the template,

The [n] most annoying [profession] you’ll ever meet.

where n is a number and profession is any profession you can imagine, lawyers, doctors, baseball players, teachers, taxi drivers, retailers, salespeople, welders, fishers, ranchers, plumbers, IT workers. You get the idea.

I thought it might be interesting to flip the notion of the article on its head and write a post about 3 of the most helpful writers you’ll ever meet. In doing so, however, I am using my own experience, and that means committing the sin of writer No. 32. I hope you will forgive me.

1. The mentor

This writer takes you under his or her wing out of the kindness of their heart and their desire to pay-it-forward. They offer career advice, offer up their experience and wisdom, and introduce you to other people, writers, editors, agents, publishers, and fans. I have been very lucky in this respect, with not one, but three writers who have mentored me to various degrees through my writing career.

The first was Michael A. Burstein, who is my longest-standing friend in the science fiction world. Michael was offering advice and introducing me to people even before I made my first sale. His writing and process served as a model for How to Do It, and his easy camaraderie  and they way he introduced me (and others) to people, provided an example for how I try to do that today. The first phone call I made after finding out I’d sold a story to Analog was to Michael.

Allen Steele has also acted as a mentor to me. (And I met Allen Steele only thanks to the introduction I got from, you guessed it, Michael Burstein.) We are both collectors of old science fiction magazines, we are both non-scientists who occasionally write hard science fiction, and I think we have similar styles of writing. Allen has offered me incredibly valuable career advice. And aside from being a great, long-standing writer in the field, he is also one of the nicest people you’ll meet, in or out of the science fiction world.

A constant mentor behind the scenes has been Barry N. Malzberg. I first read a Malzberg book in my senior year in college. It was Herovit’s World and I was hooked. What I learned from his books is that the writing can be just as important as the story. I got to know Barry (once again through Michael Burstein) and he has been a kind of guiding light behind the scenes. He reads my stories and offers some of the most brutally honest critiquing I’ve ever gotten. I love it because I learn more from those critiques than from an entire semester of creative writing.

2. The open book

These are the writers who attempt some level of transparency in their work with the thought that maybe others can learn being seeing how it is done. Isaac Asimov stands at the top of the list for me in this regard. I’ve read all 3 volumes of his autobiography[3. In Memory Yet Green (1979); In Joy Still Felt (1980); I, Asimov (1994).] 16 or 18 times. In the introduction to the first book, Asimov writes that part of his intention is to show “how he did it” because other would-be writers might find it useful. I certainly did. It is from Asimov that I learned, right or wrong, that the editor is the boss. Not everyone agrees with this, but I think it has given me a good working relationship with the editors that I’ve worked with, in fiction and nonfiction. I also learned the value of diversifying my writing–that is, not being a one-market writer, or even a one-genre writers. I’ve sold stories to Analog, but I’m not a typical Analog writer. I’ve also sold stories to many of the major science fiction magazines. I’ve sold nonfiction to the science fiction magazines, and have recently branched out into nonfiction outside the genre entirely. All of this comes from Asimov’s influence, his “open book” that allowed me to learn how to be a writer of anything.

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Notes

  1. Nos. 3 and 12, if I am being completely honest with myself.
  2. Name-dropping.

The Junior/Senior High School Years Playlist

I said this on Twitter earlier today:

and then I ran off to the dentist leaving people guessing what that playlist might look like. I’m too lazy to type it all in, so here is a screen capture of the list, which centers around the years 1989 and 1990. This is part of my Autobiography playlist, which I put together mostly from memory of what songs I associated from what periods of time. It does not necessarily mean the songs are from that period of time; that just when I was listening to the song. It also doesn’t necessarily mean I like the song, just that it reminds me of the time–although in the case of this period of time, I like most of the songs on the list.

Here it is:

High school song list

ETA: At my friend Lisa’s suggestion, I made this list available on Spotify.