Category Archives: writing

Open Beta of My Google Docs Writing Tracker Version 2

I have done a major refactoring of my Google Doc Writing Tracker. Several new features have been added, but the biggest change is that the scripts are not data-driven, making them much easier to setup and configure. If you are using the scripts today, or have been wanting to try them out, you are welcome to install the new beta version.

You can get the files from the beta-version-2 branch on GitHub.

Be sure to read the README as that has been updated to reflect the changes in the system.

New features

  • NEW: A new spreadsheet is available with all of the configuration information built into it. You just fill in the blanks on the Config tab, and the script takes care of the rest. This makes it easier to configure and customize without the need to go into the code.
  • NEW: Option to break down daily word counts into fiction/nonfiction.
  • NEW: Ability to run the scripts in test mode. Allows you to see the results of your configuration in the log without the changes being applied to your spreadsheet.
  • NEW: Ability to customize the order of the columns on the Writing tab.
  • NEW: Ability to customize the names of the tabs in the spreadsheet.
  • NEW: Ability to customize the location and names of the Sandbox and Snapshot (formerly “Earlier”) folders.
  • NEW: Ability to capture time spent writing by integrating with the RescueTime API (experimental).
  • NEW: Ability to generate Daily Almanac summary email that lists stats for the day, and identifies trends and records.
  • NEW: Improved logging in test mode.
  • NEW: Validation of configuration settings.

What I hope to accomplish with the beta

So far, these changes are working very well for me. But I can only really test in my own environment, and because I initially wrote the scripts for me, they may be inadvertently tailored to my environment. In this version, I’ve tried to generalize a lot of the code and make it more flexible and easier to use in other environments.

What I am looking for in this beta is to have people test the scripts in many environments in order to identify any problems, and iron them out before merging this code back into the master branch.

To that end, if you use the scripts I ask that you do 2 things:

  1. Log an issue if you find a problem. Understand that I don’t have a lot of time to work on these scripts. I set aside a chunk of time once a year or so to do a major refactoring like this, but that’s about all I can do. So while I will try to address all of the issues, it may take a while.
  2. If you see a way in which the documentation can be clarified, by all means let me know.

If I do have time, I will try to address the issues as quickly as I can, but that time isn’t guaranteed, and as I say in the README, while I’m making these scripts available to anyone who wants to use them, I don’t have time to support them. You use them at your own risk, so be sure to read the README.

The initial setup can be a little cumbersome and I’ve tried to clarify it in the documentation. Once it is setup, if all goes well, it should just run silently in the background and add to your spreadsheet each day.

If you use the scripts, let me know how they work for you. They work great for me, but of course, they were designed for me and my environment. With this revision, I’m hoping that they work equally well for anyone who chooses to use them.

The Daily Almanac Has Been Added to My Google Writing Tracker

One of the most frequent requests I get regarding my Google Writing Tracker is to make my Daily Almanac available as part of those scripts. The wait is over. Today, I pushed out the Daily Almanac the Google Writing Tracker project on GitHub.

For those who don’t know, my Google Writing Tracker is a set of script that automate the process of tracking what I write every day. Since I do all of my writing in Google Docs, these scripts run automatically each night, look at what I wrote, tally up the stats and record them in a spreadsheet. They also email me a copy of all of my writing for that day, including differences from the previous day.

Along with those scripts, I built another script that I call my Daily Almanac. This script culls that spreadsheet that is populated by my Writing Tracker scripts and gives me a summary report each night. The report tells me how much I wrote that day, and breaks it down for me. It also identifies any streaks I may have set (369 consecutive days of writing as of today) and any records I may have set. (The most words I’ve written in a day, etc.) I set up my Daily Almanac to send the nightly email to Evernote so that I have a nice record there of my day-to-day writing activity. Here is what a typical Daily Almanac entry looks like:

Daily Almanac July 23

The Daily Almanac is now available for anyone who wants to use it with the Google Writing Tracker. I have checked it in to the project on GitHub, and I’ve updated the README file with detailed steps for setting it up.

As always, this is a use-at-your-own-risk thing. I just don’t have the time to support these scripts. The best I can do is make them available for others who want to give them a try, and encourage folks to add to improve upon them. Be sure to read the instructions carefully, and if you do find any bugs, feel free to open up an issue in the GitHub project. I may not fix it any time soon, but at least it will get tracked.

Alpha Testing an Update to My Google Writing Tracker

Beginning today, I am doing some alpha testing of the first significant update to my Google Writing Tracker scripts in more than a year. I will be testing these out myself over a period of a week or two before pushing the changes to GitHub.

The newest feature is that the writing scripts now track both fiction and nonfiction writing. This may not seem like much, but it is a big deal for me, as I have been writing a lot more of the latter lately and want to be able to look at the data to see how much of what I write each day is fiction, and now much is nonfiction. Fiction and nonfiction columns are captured separately in the Writing spreadsheet, and a third column keeps track of the total writing, fiction and nonfiction.

My Daily Almanac has been modified to report on this. Here is what a new version of my Daily Almanac email looks like when it is sent to my Evernote account:


The script distinguishes between fiction and nonfiction by looking for a tag I include at the end of my template document:

  • {{Fiction}} = Fiction
  • {{Nonfiction} = Nonfiction

I am also working on a few other changes:

  • I’ve added the ability to run the script in a test mode, that sends the email containing what you wrote that day, but does not actually update any values.
  • I’ve added a check to make sure that the script only looks for Google Doc files in the sandbox.
  • I’m working on simplifying the setup process.

It will probably be 2 weeks before I push these changes to GitHub. However…

I have added my Daily Almanac script to the GitHub project today because I know a lot of people were asking for that. Stay-tuned for the next post for more details.

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.

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!

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

Writing Stats for the First Half of 2014

Hard to believe it is already July. Half the year is over and that means I have writing data for the first half of 2014. Here is what the first half of the year looked like:

Writing 2014 Jan - Jun

In case it isn’t clear, the blue bars represent each day’s worth of writing (word count). The yellow line is the goal I set for myself to try to reach each day. It is secondary to getting any actual writing done, but I find it useful to have. The red line is the most useful when looking at trends. It represents the 7-day moving average word count. You can see that the first 3 months or so were kind of spiky, moving up and down around the goal, but beginning in April, when I started in earnest on the second draft of the novel, things picked up. Indeed, since mid-April, I haven’t written less than 500 words on a given day, the longest span I’ve gone doing that. Further, you can see that the 7-day moving average has not only exceeded my daily goal, but has been more than twice that goal for the better part of the last three months.

I thought it would be interesting to compare the first six months of 2014 with the first six months of 2013. I didn’t start my daily writing regimen until late February 2013, so there is some data missing early on. But here are the two years compared:

Writing 2013 and 2014

The red is 2013 and the blue is this year. You can see that since about May 2014, I’ve been regularly outstripping that same period last year.

In the first 6 months of 2013 (including the 2 months before I started my daily writing) I wrote just under 100,000 words. In the first 6 months of 2014, I’ve written 163,000 words. While I have also tracked my writing time using Rescue Time, I haven’t parsed that data in any detail. That said, I have worked out a model for estimating time from words written. 163,000 words comes out to about 109 hours spent writing in the first 6 months of the year. That’s 4.5 days worth of writing. Not very much in the grand scheme of things, but then again, with the full time job and two little kids, my time is fairly limited. It averages to about 906 words per day, or roughly 35 minutes per day of writing.

I have only a few deliverables to show for all of this writing so far: a couple of nonfiction articles. Otherwise, the writing has been working toward two projects: the second draft of my novel, and a novella that I’ve been working on intermittently when I need a break from the novel. So my published words in 2014 is a tiny fraction of what I’ve written. But I expect that to change as the second half of the year unfolds.

My Makeshift Writing Space This Week

I posted a similar picture on Twitter a little while ago, but I figured I’d share it here as well. This is another view of my makeshift writing space for this week. When you look at this picture, keep in mind that rumor that the writer’s life is a lonely, angst-ridden one where every word on the page is difficult, and finding inspiration is nearly impossible. We cultivate these myths carefully, and so far as you are concerned, they are absolutely true. You never heard any different from me.

Writing Space

How Writing Has Affected My Blogging

I‘ve noticed that I haven’t been blogging quite as consistently as I used to. I used to get in at least one point every day. Now, I sometimes go 2 days without a post (although that is still pretty rare). This has been more obvious these last few months as my fiction and nonfiction writing has picked up, so I decided to take a look at the data. Here is what my total monthly writing word counts look like, broken down between writing (fiction and nonfiction) and blogging from March 2013 through last week.

Total Monthly Writing

For a while, it seemed that my writing and blogging were somewhat even, especially early on. There were months when one would take over the other, but the totals were fairly consistent. Until May 2014. Beginning May of this year, my writing shot up, and my blogging went way down. If you look at my blogging as a percentage of my total writing over time, here is what it looks like:

Blogging Percentage

That is a pretty major drop off over the last two months. I haven’t done correlations on the two datasets yet, but intuitively, it looks to me as thought I tend to blog a lot less on days where I write 1,000 words or more. In the last few months, 1,000+ word days have become the rule, rather than the exception, which would help to bolster this theory.

I’ll be on vacation for the next week, and may have the time to strike a better balance between these two writing activities. We’ll see what happens.

Q: Do Second Drafts Count As New Writing? A: For Me, They Do

One of the questions that came out of my article in The Daily Beast yesterday was whether or not I counted re-writing in my word counts. It is a good question, to say nothing of a natural one, when you see numbers like 400,000 words in a year.

The short answer is, yes, I do count rewriting in my word counts. I have scripts (above and beyond those I’ve made available on GitHub) that compare what I write each day to the previous day, and mark the differences in Evernote. Here’s a portion of what one such day’s effort might look like:

Big Al Excerpt

The stuff in red are words I’ve removed from the previous day. The stuff in green are words I’ve added. There is occasionally yellow text which is a change.

The important thing to know about my process is that my first and second drafts are complete rewrites. In the first draft, I tell myself the story. In the second draft, now that I know the story, I tell it to an audience. First and second drafts often look completely different, and in most cases, this is new writing to me.

Another thing to keep in mind is that I sometimes write something that I don’t keep in the story. I may try writing a scene in two or three different ways, and keep only one of them. But all three attempts are counted in my daily word counts because they represent writing I do. Not counting them would be like not counting pitches that weren’t in the strike zone, even though the pitcher is still throwing them.

For those interested in my process in detail, check out this post I wrote back in February called “Evolution of a Story from Idea to Publication: A Behind the Scenes Look.” In it, I use an example of a story I wrote late last year and sold early this year. I show the numbers for each draft, and I think by reading it, you’ll get a better idea of my process and why I count all of the words, even the “rewriting.”


Consider Sponsoring Me in the Clarion Write-A-Thon

I am participating in this year’s Clarion Write-A-Thon. For those who aren’t familiar, here is a brief description of what the Write-A-Thon is, and what is supports:

The Write-A-Thon has been hosted annually for the past few years by the Clarion Foundation, a wonderful organization that provides funding for the highly respected Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop at UC San Diego. Clarion is the oldest writing program of its kind. Many of the greatest figures in science fiction and fantasy have honed their skills and launched careers there. Check it out on the web at Writing programs across the nation are under tremendous financial pressure and Clarion is no exception. Last year’s Write-A-Thon raised over $17,000 in support of the workshop.

A Write-A-Thon is like a walk-a-thon, but instead of walking, I’ll be writing, and instead of lining up pledges for miles, I’m asking for pledges based on “hours in the chair”–time spent writing. I’m attempting to write 60,000 words (about two-thirds) of the second draft of my first novel during these six weeks. That number is based on how much I have written over the previous 6 weeks, and it amounts to about 42 hours1 of work on my part. Hours makes it easier than words for folks who want to pledge based on units (e.g. $1 for every hour, instead of $0.000005 per every word, or whatever it turns out to be).

I would be grateful to anyone who would consider sponsoring me during this Write-A-Thon. Every little bit helps, and all of the money goes to Clarion. It is even tax-deductible.

Click here to visit my profile page and sponsor me for the Clarion Write-A-Thon.

I will post updates here and on social media, and you can also follow my progress on my profile page. Every contribution that comes in will show up on my profile page. The Write-A-Thon begins on Sunday, June 22, and continues through August 2.

Thanks in advance for your support. And don’t forget to check back, beginning on Sunday, to see how things are progressing.


  1. This also happens to be the answer to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Also, I am 42 years old.