The People Behind the Story

One of the biggest thrills as a writer is that first time you see your name in the table of contents for a magazine or anthology, or on the cover of a book. When I sold my first story, back in 2007, it was like making it to the big leagues. I knew I’d never be a major league baseball player, but I’d done something of the equivalent (in my eyes) as a writer. Seeing my byline along with my story was a joy.

As writers, we are the public face of our stories, book and articles. Credit for success accrues to us, as does criticism for faults and failures. That is fair, and as it should be. If we have the audacity to think our words might be enjoyed by others, we have to be able to handle the results, good and bad.

They say writing is a lonely business, and when the writer is sitting down pounding out words, that is mostly true. But the road from idea to publication, at least for me, is anything but lonely.  Behind every story that sees publication are people besides the writer who help to make it happen. These people are often in the background, and their names rarely appear on the byline along with the author’s. But without them, I couldn’t do what I do. Who are these people? They probably vary for every writer, but for me, they include 5 groups.

Other writers

I find it hard to talk about the process of writing (and the struggles therein) with my family and my non-writer friends. I think there are two reasons for this. First and foremost, I don’t want to bore my family and friends with writerly problems that probably seem esoteric to anyone but another writing. Second, unless you are a writer, it is hard to understand the struggles. My experience has been that non-writers generally fall into two groups: (a) people who think writing must be easy, and if they turned their hand to it, could churn out a best-seller between cups of coffee. And (2) people who don’t write because they find it daunting and terrifying.

Other writers, however, are a different story. While I may not always discuss the specifics of every story I write with other writers, I often will talk to them about the struggles I happen to be having. For me, my writer friends often take on the role of a hitting coach or fielding coach in baseball. Instead of helping with footwork, or batting mechanics, they help get me out of my head, and approach things from a new angle. On more than one occasion, a conversation with another writer about the mechanics of the job have helped me move a story forward. That is a big help, and often goes unacknowledged. You don’t see these writers’ names on the byline, although I do try to acknowledge them elsewhere. If it wasn’t for there help, I might have never made it through the struggle.

A small group of my writer-friends, and occasionally, my writer’s group also act as my beta-readers. The feedback I get from them on my stories is invaluable. Every story that I’ve written that has gone through beta readers has come out of the other side of the process far better because of the keen eyes looking over my work and making useful suggestions.

Editors

I’d say that 40% of my stories accepted for publication have required work with the editor to get them into shape to really make them publication worthy. This includes my first story, as well as later stories. For instance, my story, “Flipping the Switch,” which appeared in the original anthology Beyond the Sun (edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt) last summer required quite a bit of work with Bryan to make it publication worthy. The result was a story that I think was much better than the one that I turned in

Sometimes editors suggestions are small, but make me, as the writer, look better. The first story I sold to Analog, “Take One for the Road” (June 2011) had a reference to “night owls” which then editor Stan Schmidt suggested I changed simply to “owls” as the phrase “night owls” was redundant. A small change, but an improvement.

Not long ago I had an article published at 99U called “How I Kept a 373-Day Productivity Streak Unbroken1” My editor at 99U, Sean Blanda made a key suggestion–generalizing some of the points in the article and calling them out explicitly–which vastly improved the article. Indeed, that article became the most-shared article I’ve ever written with something like 5,000 shares on social media. The feedback I received for it was overwhelmingly positive. And I credit that all to Sean’s suggestion.

And let’s not forget the copyeditors who catch the small typos, spelling errors, and who find inconsistencies in usage in the manuscripts and cleans them up so that the finished product looks professional. No matter how many times I proofread, I miss things, and I’ve come to believe that there is diminishing returns to this. But the copyeditors make sure that I look good, despite myself.

Artists

I have been fortunate to have artists render scenes from three of my stories. I am always blown away by the results. Artists are acknowledged for their work, but I still think they become part of the team that make the story better. They provide a unique window into the story that my words alone can’t do. For that, I am grateful to each artist who has taken more words and turned them into something amazing.

Production people

Readers see the results of the work of many people: the writer, the editor, the artist being the three most visible. Behind the scenes there are a lot more people helping to bring the stories to life. There are editorial assistants (like Emily Hockaday at Analog and Asimovs) who walk newbie writers through the process of reviewing galleys. There are managing editors and people in contract departments who handle the business end of the process, issuing contracts and payments.

There are the production people who layout the magazine, or the book, who make it available in various online formats, who merge in the artwork, and in short, who make it look like what you see on the bookshelf, newsstand, or how it appears when you download it to your e-reader device.


Without any of these people to help out along the way, none of my stories would see the light of day. Writing might seem like a lonely business, and certainly, sitting at the keyboard and getting the words down can be lonely at times, but I tend to find I am surrounded by vast team of people all of whom are cheering along for my success, encouraging me, making me and my words look good. They all deserve credit in the process. They are the people behind the stories, and without whom there would be no stories.

As the public face of the stories, it is the writers who receive fan mail, or criticisms along the way. I think it is important to acknowledge to readers and fans that there are a lot more people behind the scenes that just the writer. The best qualities of the story are because of this team of people behind the story.

Notes

  1. As of today, that streak stands at 425 days.

Thank You, Derek Jeter, for Saving Baseball

I started at my present job in the fall of 1994, at the end of one of the more depressing baseball seasons of my life, thanks to the player’s strike that killed the postseason for that year. Baseball, it seemed, was at an all-time low.

In May of the following season, Derek Jeter made his major league debut with the New York Yankees. Since then, he has gone on to become not only one of the best all around players of his generation, but in all of baseball history. And what is more remarkable: he did it while keeping his ego in check, and being a role model that kids of all ages (including the “kid” of 23 years old that I was back in 1995) could look up to, and rely on to be a good example. For twenty years, Jeter has maintained that high standard.

Yesterday, Gatorade released a new commercial featuring Derek Jeter that has gone viral. I’ve probably watched this commercial a dozen times now.

At first, it was the artistic elements that drew me to the commercial: a choice of music, a good choice of how it was shot (black and white). But there was something else, something I couldn’t quite put a finger on. People have said that watching the video gives them goosebumps. It certainly had that effect on me. But why?

The reason, I think, dawned on me earlier this evening. As I said, I started my present job not long before Jeter started his with the Yankees. That twenty years has gone by in the blink of an eye. I wonder what it must be like for someone like Derek Jeter, who worked hard as a kid to make it to the big leagues, and then lived a dream, becoming one of the best players of all time–and now, he’s retiring and that part of his life is coming to a close. This final season of his has been like the credits at the end of a movie, one that you want to end, but that you wish would go on and on forever. If the last twenty years felt like blink of the eyes to me, what must it feel like to Jeter?

The new video captures some of that, and it comes across. When he nods to the camera at the end, just before he walks out onto the field, it is like an acknowledgement that all good things must come to an end. He’s cool with that, even though it makes us shed a reminiscent tear for halcyon days.

I’ve thought it a little strange that Jeter is getting the kind of send off that he’s been getting all season, but I no longer think so. Everyone, fans, players, owners, wants to say thank you to Jeter. They are thanking him for something that he probably had no idea he was doing when he made his first major league appearance in May 1995, when baseball was reeling from the strike, and was soon to be plagued by a decade of disappointing role models, thanks to steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Through all of that, there was one player that fans, kids, old-timers, sports writers, managers, owners, and other players could count on not only for excellence on the field, but for excellence in character.  The send-off Jeter has gotten this season is a thank you from everyone.

They are thanking him for saving baseball.

Which is exactly what he has done for the last two decades.

 

Thoughts on The Last Lion, the Biography of Winston Churchill by William Manchester

The Last Lion

Yesterday, I finished reading William Manchester’s massive 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. It is, officially, the longest biography I have ever read, far taking the 3-volume Theodore Roosevelt biography by Edmund Morris. The three books total more than 2,000 pages. The audio books are more than 130 hours in length, the equivalent of listening non-stop for 5-1/2 days. For folks who binge-watch TV shows, that is the equivalent of  watching about 195  40-minute episodes back-to-back.

Not a moment of it was boring, and while I’d say the book doesn’t dethrone David McCullough’s John Adams as my favorite biography, it does join it there, in equal splendor, although for different reasons.

3 volumes make up this biography:

  1. Visions of Glory: 1874-1932 (1984)
  2. Alone: 1932-1940 (1989)
  3. Defender of the Realm: 1940-1965 (2012)

Manchester did not survive to finish the third volume, and enlisted the help of journalist Paul Reid to complete the task.

I started reading the biography back on July 13 and finished yesterday, on September 17, so I spent a good portion of the summer immersed in British and European history, and I found it fascinating. Here are some initial thoughts.

1. The rich details of the book really did immerse me in the time period. While I probably should not have been surprised, I found that when I finished the books yesterday, I was overcome by sadness. Churchill was dead, and for two months, I had followed the course of his life in great detail from his birth, through three wars, through the Korean conflict and the beginning of the Cold War, and through his death and funeral. The book is a very hard act to follow. I wanted more, much more. Fortunately, there is plenty that Churchill himself wrote available to read, but I decided to give myself a little break. Before I jump into more Churchill, I’m distracting myself with Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel.

2. Two events in the book brought tears to my eyes. The first was the death of Marigold Churchill, Winston and Clementine’s daughter, who died in childhood before Mary Churchill was born. The second was not Churchill’s death, nor his moving state funeral at St. Paul’s. It was something that took place eight months later, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Britain:

The Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, at the request of the Queen and Parliament, placed a sixty-by-seventy-six-inch polished green-marble slab in the floor of that thousand-year-old monument to English history. All who enter cannot help but see it there, in the nave, just a few feet inside the great west doors. Engraved upon it are the words:

REMEMBER
WINSTON
CHURCHILL

3. Churchill lived a long life (90 years) that happened to span a period of time when the world took gigantic leaps forward in technology. He was born in the Victorian era, and indeed, first began serving in Parliament under Queen Victoria. He first crossed the Atlantic to the United States on a ship that carried a sail, just in case the engines quit, and took 10 days to make the crossing. On his final return from the United States to England at the end of his life, he flew on a Boeing 707, flying 7 miles above the ocean and taking only 6 hours or so. That seems remarkable to me.

4. Reading the biography was a stark illustration of just how little I’d known about either World War, but especially the Great War. What we learn about World War I in school is more or less how it started and how it ended. I’m not blaming the education system for the lapses. There is so much history and so little time. But to see, in continuous flow, the events leading up to the first World War, and how the settlement after the war, and the Treaty of Versailles set up conditions that would naturally lead to World War II was an education in and of itself.

5. I learned more about British politics, and the political process in England than I had ever known before. The biography is a lesson in parliamentary politics through example. In college, as a political science major, I took a couple of classes in European politics, and always enjoyed them. But I learned more practical politics from the biography than I did from all of those classes combined. Every form of democracy has its pluses and minuses, but throughout my reading, I came to appreciate the parliamentary form more than I ever had before. There is something about the odd combination of decorum and candor in the House of Commons debates that I wish took place in the House and Senate, but which I don’t imagine would ever really be possible.

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My Friend, Winston Churchill

I should finish the Winston Churchill biography today, and once I do, I’ll have some thoughts about it, which I will post in due course. However, I wanted to mention a strange dream that I had last night, and yes, the dream involved Winston Churchill. My dreams rarely seem to have any relation to what goes on during my days, but in this case, it was very closely related. As I approach the end of the book, I am also approaching Churchill’s death. That thought must have stuck with me.

In the dream, I was wandering through the underbelly of London with my friend, Winston Churchill. He was old, and somewhat frail, but was focused on his task. That task, it seemed, was evaluating the superstructure of London from beneath. We walked through broad tunnels, down into which sunlight filtered from the sides somehow, and every now and then, Churchill would stop, tap some object with his case, and say something like, “Struts for the bridge. Needs a new coat of paint, I think.”

This went on for quite some time, until we arrived at a place where stairs led up to the street level to the left and right. From one direction, a phone was ringing, and I picked it up. On the other end of the line was King George VI. “I’m very sorry to report,” he said, “that His Majesty’s Government bears the news that Winston Churchill has passed.”

I started to tell the King (uncertain how to address him) that he was mistaken, that Churchill was here with me, checking out the superstructure of the city. I turned, but Churchill was gone, and I was down there all alone. All at once, I was overcome by a feeling of despair and sadness, certain that HMG was right, that Churchill had died, and here I was all alone.

I began calling friends and family to tell them the news, and they were duly sympathetic. I remember thinking, “My friend, Winston Churchill, is gone.”

After that, the dream faded away and I woke up. The Little Man was calling me from his room, and I got out of bed to see what it was he wanted. But the dream stayed with me, and I still feel some of that sadness lingering this morning.

Going Paperless: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Going Paperless Blog

A few weeks ago, I asked if there were any topics that folks would like me to cover as part of the Going Paperless series. I ask this a couple of times a year, and almost always get good suggestions. One of the suggestions that came in this time around was a post on how I manage the Going Paperless blog. That one intrigued me, so today, I thought I’d take up that topic today.

1. Keeping track of ideas

It will surprise no one that I keep track of  ideas for my Going Paperless posts in Evernote. Typically, I’ll create a note that is nothing more than a title and then give it a tag of “blog-topic.” Sometimes, I’ll add additional details to the note about specifics I want to cover, but for the most part, the notes are just a title, with the topic. Here, for example, is the note I created for this post.

Evernote Blog Idea

Each week, I filter through the list of ideas and pick the one I am most interested in writing about that week. On occasion, I’ll come up with a last-minute idea and write about that instead, but generally, I work from the pool of existing ideas.

2. Outlining the posts

I try to write my posts on Sunday, but I’d say I’m successful about only 50% of the time. If I don’t write the post on Sunday, then I tend to write it Monday night (25% of the time) and if I don’t write it Monday day, I write it first thing Tuesday morning (25% of the time). As it happens, I am writing this post first thing Tuesday morning because by the time I finished everything else yesterday, I was too exhausted to write any more.

Over the years, I’ve developed the habit of doing a rough outline of my Going Paperless posts. I generally don’t outline blog posts, but I find that for clarity, the posts come out better when I outline them. I do this directly in WordPress, using the level 2 headings as the “topics” of my outline. These topics find their way into the post as the major “sections” of the post. The outline and the structure of the final post don’t always look identical, but they are usually pretty close. Here is what the outline looked like for this post when I started this morning. You can see for yourself the slight differences between what I outlined and what made it into the final post.

Post Outline

Outlining the post helps me identify gaps or leaps that I might make that could make the post confusing. The sections that evolve from the outline also serve another useful purpose when it comes to promoting the post, which I’ll get to in #9 below.

I sometimes get asked how I go about organizing the posts that I write. Rather than the tools that I used, I think what I’m being asked is how do I come up with (conceive) the actual logical organization. To this I can’t provide a good answer, I’m afraid. I’ve always had a knack for being able to “see” the organization in my head. Isaac Asimov once likened this to the way a musician can see the patterns in the music or a chess player can see the patterns in the game. I see the patterns in the organization, and it falls into place. Not always perfectly. Usually, I make some adjustments. But the general structure is there, it is not difficult for me, and, alas, I can’t describe what it is that happens inside my head to make it so.

3. Grabbing screen captures

My Going Paperless posts generally almost always contain screen captures to help illustrate the process I am describing. I use Skitch for all of my screen captures. It is by far my favorite tool for capturing screen shots, and annotating them, and I use it on my iMac (where I am writing this post), my MacBook Air, my Windows laptop, and my iPhone and iPad.

Skitch makes it easy to capture screenshots with simple keyboard shortcuts. There are some additional features that I use frequently within Skitch that I really like. Two of these are:

  1. Timed screen captures. Ever want to grab a screenshot of a pulldown menu, but when you do, the menu disappears. Skitch eliminates that problem thanks to its timed-screen capture feature. This works much the same way as a timed photograph. You select the part of the screen you want to capture. A timer starts and you can arrange the screen (including menus) however you like. When the timer reaches zero, it captures the screen as it looks at that moment. I wrote an earlier post on this awesome feature.
  2. Image blurring. Especially for something like the Going Paperless blog, where I am using my own Evernote repository to demonstrate the ways in which I go paperless, being able to occasionally blur out parts of the image (like addresses or account numbers) is useful. Skitch comes with a built-in “pixelater” tool that allows you to blur out text and other parts of the image.

Using Skitch to capture screen shots is also very fast. And since Skitch syncs with Evernote, I can capture screenshots on my iMac at home, and still have access to them if I am working on my Macbook later on in the day. No extra steps involved.

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I’m on the SF Signal Podcast This Morning: “Authors We Can’t Get Enough of (and Why)”

Last week, I was part of the Hugo Award-winning SF Signal Podcast hosted by Patrick Hester. Among the other guests wereJosh VogtJeff Patterson, Andrea Johnson, Paul Weimer, and Larry Ketchersid, with John DeNardo lurking in the background as always. The topic this week was “Author We Can’t Get Enough of, and Why.” There are some great authors mentioned. I had to make a list while participating.

If you want to find out which author I can’t get enough of (and why I’ve accidentally stood that author up twice), have a listen.

It was a fun podcast, with lots of stuff going on in the background. For instance, while Patrick tried to bait John into jumping into the fray, Larry and I discussed the Churchill biography I’m about to finish up. None of that is in the podcast itself, however. That was all happening in the background as we all tried not to laugh. As always, it was a lot of fun.

The SF Signal Podcast (Episode 257): Authors We Can’t Get Enough Of and Why

How ThinkUp Convinced Me to Get Started on the Second Draft of My Novel Today

When I woke up this morning, I found the following insight from ThinkUp in my daily email summary of social media activity:

ThinkupNovel

It reminded me that it has been exactly one year since I finished the first draft of my first novel, sitting in a quiet corner of the Arlington Central Library. In the year since finishing the novel, I’ve written quite a bit, including fits and starts on the second draft. But those fits and starts haven’t really led anywhere, and the second draft has lingered in limbo ever since.

A few weeks ago, sitting at a local pub with Michael J. Sullivan1, Michael, as is his wont, pestered me about the second draft. I explained to him the trouble I was having with it. One good thing about having friends who are also professional writers of high caliber is that you can explain these things to them, and they understand. Michael offered some good suggestions on how I might get things started again. But I put it off.

Instead, I came up with a plan for the next several month. That plan was intended to help me juggle the fiction and nonfiction work I have underway. But a second motive, I think, was to convince myself that I could stall on the novel draft for a while longer. And then, this morning, I saw ThinkUp’s insight, and it triggered another insight: I’m stalling for no good reason. Michael’s advice will help me out where I was stuck. Now I just need to get started and get the job done.

So, thanks to the ThinkUp insight, I’m changing my plans. The nonfiction will continue as planned, but as far as fiction goes, everything is on the back-burner until I’ve completed the second draft of a the novel. The next obvious question is: when will it be completed?

Stephen King, in his book On Writing2, argues that a novel draft should not take longer than a season (3 months). I can see the value in this, but as someone who writes only part time, 3 months is probably unrealistic, especially when you consider it took me 6-1/2 months to write the first draft. Still, I have a lot of data from my writing, and I can use that data to make a good guess at an answer.

Over the last 564 days for which I have data, I have written, on average 867 words per day. In the last 3 months or so, I have also been writing nonfiction, but it has, so far, had only a negligible affect on my fiction output3 So I think it is safe to use 800 words/day as an initial level of effort.

The first draft of the novel came to about 95,000 words. On the second draft, I’m aiming for 90,000. At 800 words/day, it would take me 113 day, which is slightly longer than a season. If I started today, that would mean I’d finish the second draft on about January 5, 2015. But there is some nonfiction that I have to write during this time, and it is good to have a little buffer for technical problems I might run into. So let’s call it January 31, 2015. I plan to have the first draft of the novel finished by January 31, 2015. It may be done sooner, but I’m going to work hard to make sure it’s not finished any later.

For those interested in following along as I work through the second draft, the realtime stats of my writing are always available. I’ll see if there is some way that I can automate the charting of the specific stats for the novel draft separately.

Once again, I own some thanks to ThinkUp, which convinced me to stop putting over to tomorrow what I can do today. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a novel draft to get started on.

Notes

  1. Who is doing a charity bike ride this weekend.
  2. I reference On Writing frequently because it is the only writing book I’ve ever read containing advice that has made me a better writer and improved my writing career.
  3. Note that I say output and not quality.

Winston Churchill’s Bacon Number is… 3!

Yesterday on Twitter, I was ruminating about how many notable people are mentioned in Churchill’s biography. Churchill was born toward the end of the Victorian era, and lived 90 years. So Churchill had conversations with the likes of Mark Twain, as well as actors like Charlie Chaplin. Indeed, Churchill lived long enough that, despite being a Victorian, he lived into the Beatles era.

But for some reason, the notion that Churchill spent time with Charlie Chaplin struck me, and I decided to do a little Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with Churchill. I bent the rules a little. Instead of acting with someone, I considered a significant interaction good enough for my purposes. Indeed, Churchill spent time with Charlie Chaplin on several occasions. Going from there, I checked to see what Charlie Chaplin’s Bacon number was.  I used the Oracle of Bacon website to find this out. Turns out, Chaplin’s Bacon number is 2:

Chaplin Bacon Number

So, by virtue of the fact that Churchill spent significant time with Chaplin (as oppose to acting in a movie with him–my own variation of the rules) his Bacon number would be 3. I find that fascinating for some reason.

For #TBT, A View From the Top of the World

This photo has been staring at me most of the day today, and I was hesitant to post it, given that today also happens to be the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But I realized that while I still have trouble looking at photos from the day of the attack, photos like this one, which I took in 1995 or 1996, remind me of just how awed I was at the view from the top of the World Trade Center, and how I remembered thinking that it took an enormous amount of varied talents and skills to design and build a structure that reached for the sky in such a blatant way. When I think of the World Trade Center, this is the picture I try to keep in mind.

#TBT World Trade Center 1995-96

Going Paperless: Confessions of a Paperless Writer

School has started up, and with the Little Man now in kindergarten, the volume of paper we received has increased, out of all proportion, to what I’d grown used to. His school is very good about making a lot of stuff available online. But there is a good more stuff that comes to us in paper, which means that I am back to scanning every day, in order to keep the backlog down to a reasonable level.

But, confession time: the backlog is well beyond a reasonable level.

Being known as the paperless guy means that any time I am seen within the proximity of a piece of paper, I am looked on with suspicion, and even comic derision: “Oh look,” my coworkers say, “it’s the paperless guy, coming back from the printer. Hey, what’s that you’ve got in your hand, paperless guy?” There’s no way to hide the paper so I hang my head in mock shame.

In truth, I am far from perfect when it comes to being paperless, and I thought I’d share a few of the ways that I struggle in order to demonstrate that, like anything else, this is a habit and it has its ebbs and flows. Or put another way: don’t stress about the paper you do use.

Confession #1: My paperless Inbox is overflowing.

Earlier in the week, I wrote a post on how I manage to stay at Inbox Zero with my email. The same is not true when it comes to my Evernote Inbox notebook.

I use my Inbox notebook much the same way you’d use an inbox on your desk. Everything not automatically filed goes into the inbox by default. This includes stuff that I scan, emails that I send to Evernote, notes I jot down on the fly. These notes may not add up to much on any given day, but over time, if the inbox is ignored, they build up quickly. Case in point: as of this morning, there are more than 1,000 unfiled notes in my inbox:

Paperless Inbox

Several times a week, I look guiltily at my inbox and think, I really need to do something about that. I do this much the same way I might look at the junk in the attic. But the junk stays in the attic, and the inbox stays unchanged.

Of course, the difference between my attic and my inbox is that, despite the volume of notes in the inbox, they are still easy to search using Evernote. Imagine if it was as easy to search your attic?

Confession #2: I sometime forget what I’ve scanned and overscan.

Although I have a process in place for scanning paper each day, I must confess that I don’t always follow it. Life intervenes, time is short, the kids need me for something, and I get distracted. While I usually get the paper scanned it, I don’t always shred the paper immediately afterward. Sometimes it sits on my desk for days, and later, when I tackle the pile, I can’t remember what I’ve scanned and what I haven’t.

This is laziness on my part. It would be easy to do a quick search in Evernote to find out if I’ve already scanned the thing sitting the pile… but I don’t. For the purpose of speeding things along, I assume that I haven’t scanned it, and scan everything in again. This leads to extra stuff in the inbox, but it also leads to embarrassing searches, where I find, on occasion, that I’ve scanned the same document three times.

When I find these extra scans, I’ll delete them, but it’s not like I’m out there hunting for them on a regular basis. I have enough trouble just keeping my inbox below 1,000 notes.

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Red Sky This Morning

I didn’t post here all weekend, and indeed, barely posted to Twitter, Facebook, or other social media. On Saturday, the heat just drained me, and I tried doing as little as possible. Yesterday, the weather was much nicer, but there was lots of small stuff going on.

I awoke this morning to a red sky out of my home office windows.

Red Sky

It it is a sign of cooler weather, I’m all for it. Saturday was blisteringly hot, and Sunday, finally cooled off. In fact yesterday evening was delightful, and we spent it barbecuing with friends.

I’m approaching the halfway mark on the final volume of William Manchester’s The Last Lion, and the truth is, I’m neglecting other things (like the blog) in order to squeeze in more time to read. Once the book is over, I expect things to return to normal around here.

I’m making some progress on the new story, although I restarted it yesterday because I realized that I’d been telling it from the wrong point of view. That said, I think it will go much more smoothly now. And I have a small backlog of nonfiction articles to work on. I’m nothing if not busy.

And as of yesterday, I’ve written every day for the last 413 days.

6 Tips and Tricks for How I Stay at Inbox Zero

Recently, I’ve gotten pretty good about keeping my inbox down to zero. I found that, for me, it takes a pinch of discipline and a couple of good tools. I figured I’d share my tips in case anyone else found them handy.

2 minute rule with Boomerang/Mailbox

For almost 2 years now, I’ve used the Boomerang plugin for Gmail and that plugin has been a game-changer. Boomerang does 3 things that I find really useful:

  • It allows you to “boomerang” a message until later. That it, it moves the message out of your inbox and returns it there at a designated time, tomorrow morning, two days from now, on the weekend, next week, or whenever you specific.
  • It allows you to send a message, and then boomerangs your message back into your inbox if you haven’t gotten a response after a certain time interval. So I don’t have remember to follow up with someone.
  • It allows me to schedule email messages.

I use Boomerang in conjunction with the “2-minute” rule. When an email comes in, if I can answer it in less than 2 minutes, I do it right away. If it will take longer, I’ll boomerang the message to a later time, either later in the evening, the next day, or the weekend, depending on the urgency.

To aid in this, Boomerang has an intelligent feature that looks for dates in the message. So if the message says, “RSVP by 10/15/2014″ Boomerang will automatically suggest that (or a week before that date) to return the message to my inbox, which saves me a step.

When I’m working on my iPhone, I manage my email using an app called Mailbox, which has much of the same functionality as Boomerang, but is conveniently available on the phone, so I can manage my inbox the same way there.

Gmail canned responses

I’ve been able to reply to a lot more message in under 2 minutes by taking advantage of Gmail’s “Canned Response” feature. This feature allows you to write canned responses that you can quickly insert into email messages. I’d say that about 10% of the email I send are canned responses. By far the two most common are inquiries for people wanting to do guest posts on my blog, or advertise on my blog.

For these, all I have to do is select the appropriate canned response template in Gmail and click send.

Canned Responses

TextExpander expansions

I am a big fan of TextExpander and I use it all over the place. (On Windows, I use a similar tool called Phrase Express.) TextExpander allows you to create shortcuts to text snippets and other things. This can be formatted text, and can include some cool functionality like inserting dates, and other things.

For email, I tend to you TextExpander to speed up replies, and to prevent myself from having to lookup information. For instance, if I am referring someone to a common link on my website (say, my Going Paperless posts), rather than having to remember the link and type it in (and worry about making a typo) all I do is type

xpaperless

which automatically turns into

http://www.jamierubin.net/going-paperless/

I can never remember my home phone number, so if I’m sending that via email I have a shortcut for that. I have shortcuts for all kinds of common information like my address, or website, or bibliography page. I usually create a shortcut that links to the most recent article I’ve published.

All of these speed up the process of replying to email, and help make it possible to respond in under 2 minutes.

Turn off social media notifications

One thing I did that helped a lot was to turn off all social media email notifications. Rather than have that information pushed to me via email, I pull it when I need it by checking Twitter or Facebook periodically. This eliminated a ton of email from my inbox, and for each message, eliminated the step of having to delete the email.

Filter receipts and confirmations

I make heavy use to Gmail’s filtering to deal with a lot of email. Regular bill notification and automatic payment notifications are automatically filtered without ever going into my inbox.

Receipts and confirmation emails are also filtered without ever seeing my inbox. For these, I go one step further and have them sent to my Evernote email account so that I have the receipt and confirmations in Evernote. This is automated, so not only do these messages not clutter my email inbox, but they also get into Evernote automatically.

Unsubscribing

I’ve become a big unsubscriber lately, and while it took a while for me to see the overall result, I can see now that it prevents a lot of email that would go unread or get deleted from ever coming into my inbox.


Do you tips for how you stay at inbox zero? Leave them in the comments.