Category Archives: writing

Permission to Write Anything

I have started a new story that isn’t really science fiction It isn’t really fantasy. Isn’t really horror. Yet, for me, the story still falls into the category of popular fiction. I am not trying to be coy with genre here. But it feels like a mainstream popular fiction story that doesn’t fit neatly into the boundaries of any particular genre.

This has been a trend with my stories, lately. “Meat and Greet,” which was published in the January 2015 issue of InterGalactic Medicine Show was more-or-less mainstream story (although one reviewer referred to it as literary). A year earlier, my story, “Big Al Shepard Plays Baseball on the Moon” (IGMS, January 2014) was an alternate history, but was essentially mainstream fiction about baseball in the 1940s, and the Apollo program of the 1960s. And earlier this spring, my story “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” was my attempt at writing a long-form Sports Illustrated-style profile. The only difference from real Sports Illustrated profiles is that my piece is fictionalized.

For a long time I have resisted writing these more mainstream stories I think there are several reasons for this:

1. I grew up reading and loving science fiction, and it seemed natural to write science fiction when I began to write.

2. When I began to sell stories, science fiction is what I sold. That is the world in which my writer-friends live, and I wanted to be part of that world.

3. I was afraid to write more mainstream stories because I didn’t know where to send them once they were finished.

4. I felt like I didn’t really have permission to write stories outside my adopted genre. After all, I’ve been writing science stories all this time, who am I to write anything else?

The first two reasons are forgivable, I think, and I suspect many genre writers have done the same. The third reason is easily overcome by some simple research.

It is the fourth reason that has troubled me, the feeling that I need some sort of permission to write outside the genre. Why I should feel this way I can’t begin to say. Permission from whom? I suspect the answer is permission from myself. As a science fiction writer, I have become used to being pigeonholed to a set number of markets. This has nudged me into writing stories that would fit those markets if the stories were good enough for publication to begin with.

But as I said, I have recently started a new story which, while falling entirely into the realm of popular fiction, doesn’t really mesh with the genre boundaries we have today. So whether it was a necessary thing or not, I have finally given myself permission to write these stories. They may be harder to place, but I have to write them. Other writers will understand this, I think. And yet, I am left with a feeling of disloyalty to the genres I grew up with, a feeling that I am abandoning them after all they have done for me.

A guilty conscience, perhaps.

Sometime in the last year, I decided I wanted to be more than a science fiction writer. I wanted to strip away the adjective and be a writer. I have written nonfiction within and without the genre, why not fiction? This is what I am doing now, but the guilt still lingers.

This is not to say that I am giving up on writing science fiction (or fantasy). Instead, I am writing stories. If they turn out to be suitable for one genre or another, great! If not, that’s okay, too. I suspect many of these stories will fall from the nest soon after hatching, but I am hopeful that with practice and time, a few will find their wings, and fly to places far beyond those in which my stories have appeared so far.

If You Are Interested in Self-Publishing…

You might check out a well-done series of posts on self-publishing by Doug Farren. Doug was part of my Launch Pad Astronomy workshop class of 2013. He has had a good deal of success self-publishing, and while self-publishing is not my particular cup of tea1, I’ve found Doug’s posts on the subject both enjoyable and enlightening. If you have any interest whatsoever in self-publishing, go check out his posts on the subject.

  1. I am too lazy for the self-publishing world.

A New Phase of Writing: Life After the Streak

I did my first post-streak writing at lunch today. It was the first time in about 10 days that I’d written anything, after having spent the previous 825 days writing every day. Everything about the writing today was new. Driving home from work a few days ago, I realized that I had entered a new phase in my writing life.

Subconsciously, I needed a break from the old ways. I say “subconsciously” because, although my actions were conscious, I don’t think I realized what I was doing until I sat down to write. Several things were new.

1. I have a brand new keyboard, a das keyboard, the first mechanical keyboard I’ve ever had for one of my Macs, and I love it. I love the feel of it, and the clackity-clack of the keys are reminiscent of a typewriter. It feels different from what I’d been using for the past several years, and that alone made today’s writing a new experience for me.

2. I used Scrivener for my writing. After using Google Docs (and my Google Docs Writing Tracker) for the last 2-1/2 years, I wanted something new. I’d used Scrivener before, and it was nice to use it again. It was like playing ball in an old, but familiar ball field. I especially enjoyed the combination of Scrivener’s distraction-free mode combined with the clackity-clack of the keys on my new keyboard.

3. I started a brand new story writing in a style that I haven’t tried before. It was a a refreshing change, and while I didn’t write much–I didn’t have much time–it felt good.

4. I no longer cared about the stats. Today wasn’t about trying to get in the writing. It wasn’t about word counts. It was about doing something that felt good. It was like stretching my legs by taking a long walk in the woods. I wrote without the streak hanging over my head for the first time in over 2 years, and it was a completely different experience.

“Back it up,” I hear you saying, “you didn’t use your Google Docs Writing Tracker? Are you sick? What’s going on?”

With a little bit of distance, I realize now that writing every day had been phase of my writing career, one that is now over. It was an incredibly valuable phase. Among other things, I learned:

  • That I can write every day.
  • That I don’t need large blocks of time. Ten or twenty minutes will do.
  • That I don’t need preparation. I can start cold, and quickly.
  • That I can work at any time in the day when time is available.
  • That I can write in just about any circumstances. I don’t need quiet.

The streak also served to solidify my own writing process, whereby I write a draft for me, and then a draft for audience. That process has helped me produce more published stories than other process I’ve tried.

The Google Docs Writing Tracker served me well in this regard, because it was wired up to track everything automatically. All I had to do was write. The data that the writing tracker produced from my daily writing was useful to me in the same way experimental results are useful to a scientist studying a problem. I have enough data, and I’ve learned all the lessons I can learn from it. I no longer see a need for me to track things at that level.

At the same time, a new phase deserves a change. A new school year always started with new school clothes for me. The new keyboard and a different writing tool are the new clothes I needed to begin the next phase of my writing education.

Still, there are some aspects of my automation that I am not quite willing to give up. One thing my Google Docs Writing Tracker did was keep track of what I wrote each day: what I added, changed, or deleted from each piece. I like having the evolutionary history of the things that I write, and I didn’t want to lose that. But I also didn’t want to spent rewriting the Google Docs Writing Tracker to support my own personal quirks for Scrivener. So I went in a different direction.

After each writing session, I am now checking my work into Github (in a private repository, of course). Doing this allows me to see the changes I make each time I write, and I can use simple Git commands to see the history of anything I write, if I am interested. This captures the history of my creation in more-or-less realtime, and that is good enough for me.


I no longer feel like I need to know how much I’ve written each day. I know now that when I feel like writing, I can write, and it doesn’t matter if I write for 10 minutes or write only 150 words. The accumulation gets the job done. If there is a new coin of the realm it is how many things I can complete, and publish. But I’m not quite there yet. In this new phase of my writing, I am focusing on improving my craft–quality, not quantity. With everything I’ve learned over the last few years, and without the strain of the streak over my head, can I write better stories?

The idea that I no longer need to know how much I write is surprisingly liberating. Instead of the word, I’m free to focus on a different scale: the story.



Thoughts on My 825 Day Writing Streak, and Why I Voluntarily Ended It

I always knew that when I started my writing streak, it would have to come to an end. I voluntarily ended my 825-consecutive-day writing streak on Sunday, bringing to an end more than 2-1/3 years of writing every day.

I ended the streak because it felt like it was the right time to end it. But that seems like a fuzzy answer, so I tried to put together a chart that shows several factors that went into the decision.

825 Day Writing Streak

The x-axis is time, the y-axis represents different things, but the higher on the axis the more of something it represents. There are 4 colored lines:

  1. Difficulty in establishing and maintaining the habit of writing every day (red).
  2. A relative amount of time each day that I had available for writing (blue).
  3. A relative measure of my writing productivity (green)
  4. A measure of the overall mental strain of the streak (yellow)

For me, the mental strain of the streak was a linear function. It increased slightly each day, but I didn’t really notice it until it had really built up steam. It probably began to creep into my consciousness at around the 600-day mark. This presented itself in many ways, most commonly, “Uh, I’ve got to find time to get the writing in today.”

The difficulty of establishing the habit hit its peak in the first 100-200 days. After that, it was easy to do, even though I didn’t always feel like doing it. After 200 days, I’d encountered every type of obstacle and had come up with strategies for dealing with those obstacles.

The amount of time I had to write each day gradually increased from about 30 minutes to about 42 minutes, after which it began to decrease again, mostly as other activities crowded out my writing time: school activities with the kids, work projects, sports with the kids, and other things.

Finally my productivity was a steadily diminishing curve, not because I wasn’t writing every day, but because I got into a rut where I was forcing myself to try to get stories right, and doing far more re-writing than I might otherwise do.

Somewhere around the 650-700 day mark things converged. The mental strain of writing every day was compounded by less time to write, and less productivity. That the streak continued for another 150 days or so was out of sheer will-power. I thought I could brute-force my way through the tough part. This just added to the strain.

Knowing that the streak would end at some point, I decided to end it voluntarily, rather than find myself mentally exhausted one day, and feel disheartened simply because I couldn’t get in my writing.

The 825-day streak by the numbers

In the course of 825 days, I wrote 687,907 words. Of that, all but 25,000 words were fiction. That comes to an average of 833 words per day. In terms of time, I spent about 42 minutes per day writing over the course of the streak. That comes to 24 solid days of writing time over the course of 2-1/3 years. I published 14 pieces of fiction nonfiction during the streak.

Was it valuable?

Absolutely! I learned that I can write under just about any condition. During the 2 years I taught myself to be able to start writing without any warmup. I learned to be more efficient with my writing, and I honed my overall process for writing stories, working through drafts in a way that makes sense to me.

Of course, I will continue to write. But I no longer need to prove to myself that I can do it every day. I know I can, and now, when I write, I will be much less-focused on the numbers. The numbers have done their part.

A mental rest period

But first, I need some rest. I have not written since Saturday, and it feels pretty good not to have that streak hanging over my shoulders. What have I done? Well, I’ve played video games, something I rare did over the last 2-1/3 years. My days feel a little easier knowing that I don’t have to find time to write. When I feel rested, and idea strikes me, I’ll start writing again, but with a focus on finishing each story, rather than trying to break my record.

In case, it was absolutely worth doing for me, and if I had to do it all over, I don’t think I’d change anything. The experience was invaluable in many ways. Now, I’m just looking forward to enjoying some time without having to worry about getting any writing done.

How Much I Wrote During Last Weekend’s Writing Retreat

It occurred to me that I never reported back on just how much I ended up writing on last weekend’s writing retreat. I was originally supposed to get together with 2 other writers, but one had to beg off at the last-minute for very good reasons. So there was just two of us. We had a great townhouse in Richmond, Virginia to ourselves for the weekend.

When I guessed at how much I could write in a day, I put my estimate at somewhere between 20,000 – 30,000 words. I fell a little short, producing about 17,000 words over the course of the three-day retreat. Considering I generally write around 800 words/day, producing 2,400 words over a 3-day period, 17,000 words is pretty amazing. It also makes my 30-day rotating chart look kind of funny:

Writing retreat chart

I also set a new single-day word-count record of 7,700 words. My previous record, set back in February was 7,100 words. Here is what that looks like for all-time (going back to July 2013):

All time record

I wrote those 17,000 words in just under 10 hours of total writing time. I use RescueTime to automatically capture how I spend time on the computer. When I filter this data for the retreat weekend, here is the hour-by-hour breakdown each day for when I was writing during the retreat.

Writing Time, October 16

Writing Time, October 17

Writing Time, October 18

We did our writing together, at a table in the kitchen of the house we had, and so Friday was spent catching up while we wrote. After the first full hour of writing, you can see that my time spent writing drops off a bit, so that maybe 30-40 minutes of each subsequent hour was spent writing.

On Saturday, I spent the better part of the first four hours writing, after which, I got a little mentally tired. I’d take a break, then write, then take a break, then write. I pushed myself to get the one-day record before we broke for the evening to watch baseball.

Sunday morning, I got in about two hours of writing time before getting into the car for the drive home.

Some take-aways from the weekend:

  1. It didn’t much matter when I wrote, morning or afternoon. I was equally productive. This almost certainly comes from learning how to write anywhere, at any time during my (now) 822-consecutive-day writing streak.
  2. After 4 hours of more-or-less constant writing, I hit a productivity wall. I can still write, but not nearly as much. Things fall off a cliff after 4 hours. What this tells me is that if I was a full-time writer, I could go for about 4 hours each day on new material. For me, that is somewhere between 4,000 – 6,000 words per day. The rest of the day would need to be spent on other writing-related work, revisions, etc.
  3. I can write socially. Usually I write alone, but we sat in the kitchen together, chatting from time-to-time and it didn’t seem to affect my concentration. I sort-of knew this. My kids interrupt me while I write, and I’ve taught myself to be able to stop, and deal with them, and return to what was working on with minimal fuss. I’ve also gotten a feel for this when I write at conventions.
  4. It was fun to have a full weekend to do nothing but write, and I managed to produce 90% of a novella that I’ve been wanting to finish for a while now. But I also missed my family. I feel more comfortable writing when I know they are around.

I was very glad to have the experience, and I’m particularly glad that I was able to push this novella almost to the finish line. Now if I can just get it across that finish line in the next week or so, I can move on to the next story.

Questions about the retreat? Drop them in comments and I will do my best to answer them.

How Much Can I Write In a Day?

I have this daydream. Not of winning the lottery. No, when I daydream, it’s of becoming a full-time writer. What would it be like not to have to report to a day job? To set my own schedule, and write. Would I be disciplined about it? For the last 815 days I have been writing in 20-40 minute chunks for the most part. Would I be capable of adjusting to a schedule which would allow me to write for hours each day?

Well, I am not a full-time writer, but it is still possible to experiment. And one such experiment is taking place this weekend. Me and couple of other writers are getting together for a “writers retreat.” We have an Airbnb reserved at a point halfway between where I live and where they live, and tomorrow, I’ll drive down and we’ll get started. Roughly 48 hours where I can simulate what it might be like to be a full-time writer.

Actually, it is a poor simulation, since I’ll be away from my family, and away from distraction. It is more isolation than simulation. Still, it is not often where I have two days to nothing but write. And so I wonder: how much can I actually write in 2 days?

Looking at my data over the last 815 consecutive days that I have written, my best day1 came on February 24, 2015 when I wrote just over 7,100 words. I spent nearly 6 hours writing that day. But of course, I had other things to do as well.

Best Writing Day

But beginning tomorrow, I’ll have about 48 hours that is essentially dedicated to writing. How much could I possibly write in that amount of time? Well, assuming that I’ll spend 14-16 hours of that time sleeping, and another 5 hours driving, that takes us down quite a bit, to around 28 hours. Then there is time for meals, which can knock of another chunk of time, but it might be reasonable to assume somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 hours spent writing.

I can write roughly 1,500 words/hour, which means in 20 hours, I could produce 30,000 words. Let’s call that the maximum. Actually, if I could manage to produce 30,000 words this weekend it would be kind of cool, if for no other reason than it would push me to 700,000 words in my consecutive day writing streak:


Realistically, given that there will be other folks there doing the same thing I am doing, I have to expect a slower pace. That said, I know exactly what I am going to try to do this weekend: finish a full draft of a novella that I have been struggling with for well over a year. I know the story well now, as I have written a first draft before. (Although not a good one.) My second drafts are always complete rewrites, and it is the second draft that I plan to produce over the weekend. I expect it to be in the neighborhood of 20,000 words. Producing 20,000 words in 20 hours is 1,000 words/hour. Call that the minimum.

So, somewhere between 20,000 – 30,000 words over the course of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Anyone want to guess how much I will actually write? Leave your guesses in the comments, and I will post my results when the weekend retreat is over.

  1. Best meaning most words written in this instance.

Earlier Tonight on Twitter I Revealed My Secret to Drafts

I was overcome, earlier today, with the sudden desire to reveal my closely held secret, as a writer, to what I really mean when I talk about draft.

So there you have it. When I talk about drafts and writer, know you know what I really mean.

On Medium: Building a Writer’s Toolkit, Part 2: My Writing Process

Over on Medium, just published the second installment of my series, “Building A Writer’s Toolkit.” In Part 2, I discuss “My Writing Process” with an emphasis on all of the non-writing tasks I have to perform as a professional writer. Being able to find tools that can help automate these non-writing processes means more time each day to spend actually writing.

You can head over to Medium to check out the post.

On Medium: Building a Writer’s Toolkit, Part 1: My Favorite Word Processor

Over on Medium, I have started a new series of posts called “Building a Writer’s Toolkit.” This series focuses on ways of improving the set of tools available to writers so that more time can be spent in the creative act of writing, and all other ancillary tasks can be automated as much as possible.

The first post sets a baseline by looking at my history with word processors and what my favorite word process is (and why). If you are interested, head over to Medium to check it out.

On Writing Every Day

There is an interesting post making the rounds that talks about why the one most common piece of writing advice is wrong. That advice, of course, is that you must write every day. Since I have now written every day for 786 consecutive days, I have some thoughts on this topic.

1. Arbitrarily stating that a piece of advice is wrong falls into the same trap as the advice itself. Writing every day might be wrong for the author of the post. It might be wrong for many people. But it isn’t wrong for everyone. It depends on a range of factors from how you work, to available time, the pressure that writing every day puts on a person. For me, writing is practice. Like anything worth learning, I have to practice to get better at it. And for me, I do best when I fall into the habit of practicing every day. This is certainly not true for everyone, but to say that the advice “write every day” is wrong is a bit of overkill. It is wrong for some people. It is right for others.

2. Just because I write every day doesn’t mean you should. I hope it is clear from the posts that I’ve written on this in the past that I am writing from my experience. I go out of my way to avoid saying things like “you should…” or “you must…” Instead, I say things like, “This works for me because…” Every writer works differently. I write about my experience because someone else may find that experience helpful. But it took years of trial and error for me to find a methodology that worked for me. Mine happened to be writing every day.

3. A writer’s process comes in part from their circumstance. For the last several years, my circumstances are such that I don’t have a lot of time to write. I can find somewhere between 20 minutes and 40 minutes (on average) each day. That represents a page or two of writing for me. Some people have more time, some people have less. But my desire to write and to improve compels me to take advantage of that 20-40 minutes each day. The writing isn’t always good, but I gain from the consistency, and from the practice of learning to put words on the page in all kinds of circumstances. This works for me. It works for my circumstances.

4. What defines a writer is not how much they write. Writing every day does not make you more of a writer than writing less frequently. If that were the case, think of how many bestselling authors would fail to make the definition of a writer. Writing is one of those things that does’t require the blessing of some authority. If you write, you’re a writer. Period.

A Heatmap of Over 900 Days of Writing Data from My Google Docs Writing Tracker

A few days ago, I mentioned that I was looking to add a Github-style heatmap feature to the Google Docs Writing Tracker code. Well, I’ve got something to show for it. Keep in mind that I am still experimenting, and none of this code has been checked into the Google Docs Writing Tracker repo as of yet. But, here is what all of my writing data looks like going back over 900 days:

900+ Days of Writing Data

For each year represented above, the rows are days of the week (top row is Sundays, bottom row is Saturdays), and the columns are weeks of the years.

The scale goes from 0-250 words (the lightest green) to 1,500+ words (the darkest green). You’ll also note that in July 2013, there are two white cells. Those are the only days that I had no writing. The last day, July 21, 2013, was 770 days ago. I have not missed a day since then.

This was relatively easy to do thanks to the Cal-heatmap JavaScript library. After installing the library files, I exported my writing data (dates and words counts) to a JSON file. Once the JSON file was created, the rest was easy. The entire rendering of the heat maps looks like this:

Heatmap Code

The bulk of the code is customizing how I want the heatmaps to look. Now that I have the look I want there is only one more thing to do, and that is to automate the process of generating the JSON file from the Google Docs Writing Tracker spreadsheet. With that done, anyone who uses the Google Docs Writing Tracker will be able to render a heatmap like the one above.

You can see my writing heatmap in action. If you hover over the cells, you’ll get the word count for that day. Check it out, play around with it. Let me know what you think.

ETA (8/31 @ 1:30 pm): I managed to automate the process of generating the JSON file from the Google Docs Writing Tracker spreadsheet. In the near future, I’ll post the code to a new repo on Github since it isn’t directly related to the code for the Google Docs Writing Tracker itself.

A Dashboard for the Google Docs Writing Tracker

A while back, I created a kind of dashboard into my writing statistics, courtesy of my Google Docs Writing Tracker tool. I never made the code for the dashboard available on Github mainly because it was highly tailored to me. Recently, I have been thinking about better ways of dashboarding my writing data, and it was my use of Github itself that provided a useful insight. I’ve created a heatmap of my writing in the past, and I liked the concept of it. So began wondering how I might produce a heatmap that would be a good representative of my writing. Then I remembered that just such a heatmap exists on Github to show my contributions:

Github contributions

What if I could produce a similar heatmap for writing, using data from my Google Docs Writing Tracker? So I have started to experiment with this. Turns out, it is probably relatively easy. Github uses the D3.js object model for producing the year-long calendar interface for the contribution chart, and that library looks fairly easy to use. I’ve started to experiment with some sample code. Once I have something that works, I’ll post the code to the Google Docs Writing Tracker repo under a new branch and other people who use the tool can mess around with it and see if it works for them.

And as a reminder: my Google Docs Writing Tracker is freely available on Github to anyone who wants to use it, or improve upon it.