Category Archives: writing

How I Used RescueTime to Baseline My Activity in 2014 and Set Goals for 2015

Since early in the year, I have been using Rescue Time on all of my computers to track how much time I spend in various applications, websites, and documents. Rescue Time is great because you install it, and it runs in the background, without ever needing me to take any action. Like a FitBit device, it just collects data as I go about my day. Rescue Time has a nice reporting interface, but it also has a very useful API that allows me to pull specific data and look at it interesting ways.

Tracking the time I spend writing

For instance, I’ve always wanted to get a good measurement of the time I spend writing each day. That said, I didn’t want to have to remember to “clock-in” or “clock-out.” It seemed to me that Rescue Time could help with this because it is constantly tracking my activity, and Rescue Time should therefore be able to tell me how much time I spend writing. After some exploration of the API, I found out how to pull the information I needed from Rescue Time, and now, I have scripts that can automatically produce a chart of the time I spend writing each day. Here’s an example of the last 60 days of my writing:

Time Spend Writing

The top 10 tools I’ve used in 2014

As part of my effort to simplify the tools and technology I use, and to automate as much as I can, a baseline of what exactly I use would be a helpful starting point. Fortunately, RescueTime captures all of this data and has some canned reports that show just where I’ve spent my time in front of they keyboard. I started using RescueTime in January, so this data covers a period of January to the present, nearly a full year. Here, then, are the top 10 tools I’ve used on all computers during that time.

RescueTime - All Activities
Click to enlarge

Twitter is number one on the list, and while that surprised me at first, I quickly realized that I am constantly jumping in and out of Twitter, in an effort to keep up with those friends and colleagues that I follow. (I rarely post from Twitter. I use Buffer for that.) Still, 221 hours for the better of the year is quite a bit of time spent in Twitter. Red items are those that Rescue Time considers “unproductive.” Twitter can certainly be a distraction, but I wouldn’t consider all of it unproductive.

Next on the list at 219 hours, much to my dismay, is Microsoft Outlook. This is what I use at the day job, and it is among the worst email programs I’ve encountered. The thing is, I’ve also been using it since it first existed, and there’s no way of getting away from it. What it tells me is that a great deal of my job–too much, I think–is spent dealing with email messages, and calendar appointments.

Google Docs is next on the list at 205 hours. The vast majority of this time–probably 90% or more–is spent writing. Ideally, I’d like to see this move up to number one over the next year.

Gmail follows at 169 hours. It’s still a lot of time to be spending reading and writing email messages, but that number is almost certainly down from what it would have been the previous year, thanks to a great deal of automation I’m able to do with Gmail using tools like Boomerang, for instance.

From there, things begin to drop off pretty rapidly. Facebook shows up in 7th place, but even that seems like too much to me.

Using the RescueTime baseline to find more time to write

With actual numbers in hand based on my behavior, I can begin to change my behavior and measure that change over time. First and foremost on the list is a tradeoff: more writing time for less social media time.

My Twitter and Facebook time totaled 310 hours in 2014 to-date. My writing time totaled under 200 hours. I could easily get more time for writing by cutting back on social media. Cutting back doesn’t necessarily mean no participating. Tools like Buffer have allowed me to schedule tweets and Facebook posts head of time. Whenever I post to my blog, it gets automatically posted to various social media outlets. What I think I need to do is make better use of the time I spend reading my social media feeds.

Right now, I read stuff throughout the day in a very fragmented fashion. I only follow people on Twitter that I am interested in keeping up with. I know that conventional wisdom is that if you want more followers, you follow everyone. But I honestly don’t know how people with 17,000 followers and who follow 19,000 people can keep up with it all. Probably they don’t even try to. Yes, there are lists that I could build, but that takes time to create and manage, and I’m looking to spend less time here, not more.

It seems to me that a fair number would be to spend half of the time in social media that I spend on writing. This year, the hours for both categories gives me a total of about 500 hours. So if I have 500 hours to spend between social media and writing, and I want to spend double the time writing than on social media, then let’s assume w represents the time I want to spend writing:

0.5w + w = 500

This simplifies to:

1.5w = 500

And solving for w, we find that,

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More Lessons from My Writing Streak: Accept the Slumps, But Keep Writing

I mentioned earlier in the week that I was not formally participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but that I was using the spirit of the event to jump start the second draft of my novel, and try to break out of a writing slump that I’d been in for the last month or so. While it has only been five days, I think I am finally emerging from that slump.

Emerging from a slump

The chart above shows the last 30 days of my writing. The last five are in the red box. It’s clearly the most productive 5 days I have had all month. Moreover, the 1,200 words I wrote yesterday were more than I’d written in day since September 20. Most pleasing to me of all is that my 7-day moving average is on the rise again, after a long and steady decline.

While it is nice to see that I am recovering from this writing slump, I was particularly stressed out by it. One thing I’ve learned over the course of my (now) 472 consecutive days of writing is to accept the slumps… but to keep writing every day.

What is a writing slump?

In baseball, hitters get into slumps when they remain hitless at the plate for many consecutive at-bats. For me, a writing slump is similar, but different. I’m still writing every day, just not producing as much as I’d like, or to the quality that I’d like to be producing. Since July 22, 2013, I’ve averaged 900 words/day. Ideally, I’d like to write at least 500 words every day. I don’t sweat the days where I don’t make 500 words, but when multiple days of less than 500 words pile up, I begin to start thinking in terms of a slump.

For the purposes of a clear personal definition, let me define a writing slump as any 30 day period where my moving average falls below 500 words/day for that period. Let’s define being “hot” as any 30 day period where my moving average is above 1,000 words/day. Based on that definition, here is a chart that identifies my slumps and hot spots:

 

Writing Slump and Hot Spots

You can see from this data, which contains 30-day moving averages, that I’ve only recently hit what I define as a slump. Otherwise, I’ve mostly been within my “average” range (a 30-day moving average of 500-1,000 words). I’ve also had two significant periods where I’ve been “hot,” with a 30-day moving average exceeding 1,000 words day.

This may seem overly analytical, but the numbers tell me not to stress about slumps. They happen, but they don’t last. The same is true for those hot streaks. The important thing is to keep writing every day, to push through the streaks, to keep hacking away when the words seem hard. Eventually, in my experience, the work pays off, and I make a breakthrough.

What causes these slumps?

I think there are two things that caused my recent slump (where my 30-day moving average fell below 500 words/day).

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My Google Docs Writing Tracker Can Now Be Used with Text-Based Files

I pushed an update this afternoon to my Google Docs Writing Tracker that allows text-based files to be used with the system.

For those who aren’t familiar: my Google Docs Writing Trackers is a system I created that automates the process of tracking my writing word counts and time spent each day, stores the data in a Google Spreadsheet, and produces neat daily summary emails. Until now, it required people to use Google Docs to do their writing. But not anymore.

Over the last few days, I tested an update that allows you to use any plain-text form of document. That is, any document stored as a plain-text file. In addition to plain text, this includes markdown files, (.md), and HTML files. This frees folks from having to use Google Docs for the writing. You can use whatever program or editor can produce plain text files. I’ve been using Sublime Text for the last several days with great success. But even Notepad would work for this purpose.

You must still store the files in your Sandbox folder on Google Drive. I use the Google Drive app on my MacBook and iMac which produces a Google Drive folder on my computer that synchronizes with Google Drive in much the same way that your Dropbox folder syncs with Dropbox.

I write my story in a text editor and make sure that it is saved in the Sandbox folder in my Google Drive folder. That’s it. The Google Drive folder syncs things up with the server, and the Google Docs Writing Tracker scripts run automatically each night, the same way they always have, and read both the Google Docs files and plain text files.

Here is a data flow diagram that I put together to illustrate how the overall system works. It looks complicated, but really, once you’ve installed and configured the scripts, all you do is write, and the scripts do all the rest.

Google Docs Writing Tracker DFD
Click to enlarge

I’ve pushed these changes to GitHub. All of the code and instructions for installing it and using it are available in the public repository.

And just a reminder of the usual caveat: while I am happy to make these scripts available to anyone else who wants to use them, I really designed them to make my life easier, and I don’t have time to support them for others. Use them at your own risk. They work great for me and have worked well for others. But bugs occasionally pop up. And it is highly tailored to my work-style, which may not work well for you. So if you are wondering why it was designe for Google Docs, or why it doesn’t work with [fill in your favorite editor], it’s because I use Google Docs, and it works for me.

I will say one thing: my success at getting the script to work for text files makes me hopeful that I (or someone else) can get it to work for Scrivener files sometime in the future.

5 Tips for #NaNoWriMo I’ve Learned from My 464-Day Writing Streak

As of today, my writing streak has hit 464 consecutive days. Overall, I’ve written for 607 out of the last 609 days. (I missed two days in the summer of 2013 while attending the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in Laramie Wyoming.) But I haven’t missed a day since July 21, 2013. I have also successfully completely NaNoWriMo twice in the past. During the streak, I’ve learned a few things that may help out folks attempting NaNoWriMo this year. Keep in mind that these are things that work for me, given how I work. Your style and word counts may vary.

1. Baseline your metrics and understand what they mean

National Novel Writing Month is like a marathon for writers. It’s designed to be hard, and designed to push you to write every day. That isn’t an easy thing. Like anyone training for a marathon, it helps to know how fast you can run a mile, and how long you can sustain that pace. The same is true for writing in NaNoWriMo.

I have a full-time day job, two little kids, volunteer activities at my kids’ school, and all of the other commitments that come with life. One thing my writing streak taught me early on is that is useful to throw out your assumptions about what you can and can’t do, try new things and measure them. For instance, I always thought I needed to write at a set time of day for a set period of time, say from 5 am – 7 am. But things happen. Schedules change. Life intervenes. So I decided I would write whenever I had time, even if it was only 10 minute here and there–but I would write every day.

What I’ve learned:

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Response Times, Rejectomancy, and Other Excuses to Avoid Writing

Back in my early days as a writer, I used to spend waste time poring over entries in the Writer’s Marketplace (this was before the Internet) to see how long it took a magazine to respond. I would carefully track all of my submissions, and then spend time calculating average response times. And when I got rejection slips, I’d ponder over the meaning of every word trying to find some hint of meaning in an otherwise bland form letter.

I don’t do this any more. Part of the reason is that I now better understand the markets to which I submit today. Part of the reason is because the majority of my writing these days is solicited. And part of the reason is that if I want to spend my time writing, I can’t afford to spend it pondering over the meaning of a word on a rejection slip.

Response times

As a data junkie, and quantified selfer, you’d think I’d be really into the measurements that surround the submission and publication process. And perhaps, in a loose way, I am. I track all of my submissions in a Google Spreadsheet (a template of which is freely available to anyone who wants to use it). But I find that these day, I don’t spend much time looking at the data, or putting it to significant use. In part, I think that’s because I’ve learned there really isn’t much that I can control in the process, and data is most helpful for things which we have control over.

Some of this comes from experience. Let’s say that a magazine’s average response time, according to my data, is 33 days. I submit a story to them. What is the point of checking on the story any time before 33 days? Given that the average response is 33 days, I’m kind of wasting my time expecting something before then. If I get a response sooner, great. But instead of checking and worrying and wondering if my story has been received and read, I feel like my energy is better spent working the next story.

After 33 days has past, then what? Well, what can I really do about it? An editor will get to my story when they get to it. That 33 days is just an average. Trying to guess when the response will come in seems needlessly worrisome to me today. What if the story hits 66 days? Well, I’ve probably written two or three other items during that time, maybe more if I’m not constantly worrying about the ones out on submission.

Then, too, my 33 days average is based on a pretty small sample. I’ve never been into the crowd-sourcing tools for submissions, like Duotrope, not because they charge money, but because I’m dubious of the data quality. My idea of a high data-quality service would be one where the magazines are supplying realtime response rates to the service. You’d get much more granular and probably more accurate response rates that way. Then, too, whether or not we like to admit it, editors jump around in their reading piles. I’ve had stories accepted at magazines 4 hours after submitting, that normally take 2-3 months to respond. Context plays a role in the response time process.

The bottom line, for me, is that the bulk of my enjoyment is in writing stories and articles. And nothing prevents me from writing more of them once others have been submitted–unless I get bogged down into constantly checking the status of my submissions. Thankfully, I’ve grown out of this phase.

Rejectomancy

Rejectomancy is another time-killer in a writer’s life. “Rejectomancy,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is the fine art of reading into rejection slips. That is, pondering over every word and trying to decide what it says about your story. Consider this:

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Life in the Writer’s Clubhouse

I have always had a fascination for what goes on behind the scenes. It doesn’t matter if it is actors on a TV show or movie, or baseball players chatting with one another at first base or in the clubhouse. It seemed to me that those were the moments when you saw the real people, the ones behind the superstars, the ones that were always slightly hidden from view.

I’ve wondered the same thing about writers, too. And I had a kind of revelation earlier this week. I was in New York for the annual Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America reception. I had to be in the city early because I was also being interviewed for a feature on productivity that Forbes is doing. After that interview, I headed up to Port Authority to meet one of my writer-friends coming into town for the reception. We headed to a place nearby for lunch.

Sitting at that lunch, I realized that this was what goes on behind the scenes for writers. It’s probably also very similar to what goes on behind the scenes for actors, and baseball players. We sat in the restaurant, and we talked. We talked about baseball and football, but we also talked shop. In talking shop, I noticed something interesting. Before I was published, talking shop generally centered around things like telling each other all about the stories we were writing. In great detail. Or it centered around what is euphemistically known as “rejectomancy”: that is, trying to parse out meaning from form letter rejection slips. Occasionally, it went into wild day-dreams, like what it would be like to have a story in Analog!

But at that lunch, we didn’t talk about any of those things. We didn’t go into elaborate detail describing our latest stories to one another. Instead, we said things like, “I’m working on another baseball alternate history.” We didn’t really talk about rejections at all, in part because they are a much more infrequent thing than they used to be. And when they come these days, we just accept them as a story not working for a particular editor. And as we’ve both been published in Analog (and other places) numerous times, the discussion tended to go more toward how far behind we were in keeping up with the stories in the magazine1, or what things the editor has commissioned us to write for him.

I had dinner with the editor of Analog and the editorial assistant for the magazine that evening at the Union Square Cafe, and that was another example of being behind the scenes, instead of wondering what it was like to be there. It doesn’t seem much different than any other dinner–except every once-in-a-while, when I realize that I day-dreamed about such things when I was starting out 20 years ago. Probably half of the table discussion centered around writing, and the other half around food, or drinks, or other subjects entirely.

I sometimes get to hear stories that I might not hear if I wasn’t a writer. At the SFWA reception, I talked with a few people who told some pretty hilarious stories about the early years of the reception. On the other hand, Steven Silver and I swapped a subgenre of travel stories–namely, airport stories. I talked to Myke Cole about his day job. And my brother-in-law, who came to the event with me, discovered that his former neighbors were in attendance.

Probably the best part of events like this–and perhaps the best part of what happens behind the scenes–is the introductions. When I was starting out, a lot of people–Michael Burstein, Allen Steele, Bill Lawhorn, Bud Sparhawk to name just a few–went out of their way to introduce me to people. I try to do the same and an event like the SFWA reception is a good place to do it. I was particularly pleased to be able to introduce my Launch Pad pal, Jenn Brissett (whose debut novel, Elysium, comes out next month) to SFWA president Steven Gould.

I’ve been to enough of these kind of events and chatted with enough writers over the years (some of them heroes of mine since I was half my current age) to know that this is pretty much what it is like behind the scenes. I imagine it’s not much different in baseball, or the acting world. You hang out with other ball player, or actors, because that is the world you know. When you’re on first base, the first baseman might say something to you like, “A bunch of us are going to Gus’s Steakhouse after the game, if you want to come.” No different than when the moderator of a panel you were just on turns to you after the panel and said, “There’s a party going on tonight in room so-and-so for a book release. You should stop by.”

What was most revealing to me about this revelation was that I’d been in the middle of it for some time, I’d been behind the scenes, and it was only now that I started to recognize it.

Notes

  1. I think I am close to 2 years behind.

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.

The First Draft of My Novella, “Strays” is Complete

Immediately after work this afternoon, I finished the first draft of my novella, “Strays.” As other writers (or artists) probably know, there is nothing quite like the feeling of finishing something. Robert Heinlein’s second rule of writing fiction is to “Finish what you start” and it is still the most difficult rule for me to follow. But it does feel good when I finish something, and in particular, something as big and troublesome as this novella.

How big?

The first draft came in at 20,727 words. I believe it is the longest piece of “short fiction” I have ever written, although I’m not 100 percent certain of this. For people who think in terms of pages instead of words, the story comes to somewhere between 80-100 manuscript pages.

How troublesome?

When I write a draft, I use a numbering system similar to software revisions at the end of my file name. So my first attempt at the first draft of “Strays” was titled:

Strays – 1.0

When I run into problems, and in particular in the first draft, when I find the story moving in the wrong direction, or using the wrong point of view character, I generally start over. I’ll create a new document and increment my “revision” number by one. So my second attempt at the first draft of “Strays” would be titled:

Strays – 1.1

Over time, the number of the draft becomes an indicator of how difficult a story is for me. The lower the number the easier it goes. For short fiction, I rarely go about 1.2 or 1.3 in the first draft. The version of the story that I finished today was titled as follows:

Strays – 1.13

That’s not a typo. This was my 13th attempt at getting the story right. I’d guess that the preview 12 attempts added up to at least 20,000 words worth of writing, and quite likely more. So that I wrote a total of 40 – 50,000 words to get a complete first draft of 20,000 words.

But I am also pleased with my discipline in this case. Often, when I come up against a thorny application development problem, I sit down at the computer and tell myself that I’m not getting up until I have it solved. This works surprisingly well, and I tried it with 1.13. I told myself that this was it. If I couldn’t make it work in this draft, I was giving up on the story. I made it work.

I started draft 1.13 on August 7, 2014 and I finished it today, September 3, 2014.

What else can I say about the story

All I will say is that this is a contemporary baseball alternate history story. With a twist.

What’s next?

I plan on setting the story aside for a while. I don’t generally do this with short fiction. Usually, I start right up on the second draft, but this is a longer piece and I need some distance from it.

Tomorrow, I plan to start on a new short science fiction story that I want to have finished in time for a meeting with an editor I have in just over a month from now.

But, boy oh boy, it feels good to have finished “Strays.” And I do look forward to working on the second draft.

Upcoming Writing Projects

In the next day or two, I expect to finish the first draft of a novella that I’ve been struggling with for some time1 Usually, when I finish a piece of short fiction, I move right into the second draft. But the novella is not exactly short. I expect the first draft to come in at 21,000 – 23,000 words. For something that long, I think I need a little distance before moving to the second draft.

But that’s okay because I have an idea of what I want to work on next. I have that itch to write a short story. It just so happens that in early October, I will be in New York for a SFWA gathering. While there, I’m meeting with an editor and, as I’ve learned, it’s always a good idea to have something for an editor when you meet with them. My plan, therefore, is to write the complete short story, and have it ready for submission by the time I meet with my editor in early October.

That is about a month (well, 5 weeks) away. Does it really take that long to write a short story? Well, yes, and no. I’ve written short stories faster, but keep in mind that I also have quite a bit of nonfiction writing to do along with my fiction. If I get the story done sooner, great! If it takes the full month, that’s okay, too.

Once the short story is done and submitted, I’ll return to the second draft of the novella and try to make it into something really cool. Then it goes out to beta-readers. I honestly don’t know when this will be. Second drafts tend to go faster for me, so it could be by the end of October, but more than likely, it will be early-to-mid November.

And with that novella out of the way, I just might feel ready to tackle the second draft of the novel, something with which I have really struggled, but which I am sure that I will eventually get a handle on.

That’s the plan for now, anyway. Check back in November to see how things are going.

Notes

  1. “Strays” for those keeping score.

FAQ on My Ongoing Consecutive Day Writing Streak

Last week, 99u published an article of mine entitled “How I Kept a 373-Day Productivity Streak Unbroken.” At the time I wrote the article, the streak was, indeed, at 373 days. On the day the article was published, I think it was up to 393 days. And on Monday of this week, I hit 400 consecutive days of writing. The 99u article has turned out to be, by far, the most popular article I’ve written. As of this morning, it has been shared more than 4,400 times. I don’t know if that counts as viral, but it is both amazing and humbling to me. I have received more feedback on the article than for anything I’ve written before, fiction or nonfiction, and all of it, every last tweet, email, and comment, has been positive. Which, of course, delights me.

One result of all of this is that I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the streak, so this post serves as a place to point people for the most common questions and my answers. Keep in mind that I am writing this post on the 401st day of my consecutive day streak.

You can find the FAQ below.

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How Much Time I Spend Writing, Automated and Revisited

About a month ago, I automated the process of capturing how much time I spend writing each day, and incorporated that data into my Google Doc Writing Scripts. Here is how this work:

  • I use RescueTime on all of my computers, home and work.
  • RescueTime tracks how much time I spend in various applications, including specific documents.
  • Using the RescueTime API, I wrote a script that captures how much time I spend in Google Docs each day.
  • That number gets recorded in my writing spreadsheet automatically each night.

This means I no longer have to “clock in” or “clock out” to track my writing time. I just start writing, stop writing, continue later, etc. and all of it captured automatically by my script. With almost a month of this type of data on the books, it’s interesting to look at how my guesses match reality.

Generally, when I’m firing on all cylinders, I can write 6 pages (1,500 word) per hour. Put another way that is about a page every ten minutes. Of course, I don’t always reach this apogee of output. It turns out (with about 30 days worth of data to go on) that the correlation between the time I spend writing and how much I write is pretty strong (0.59). I took the data and ran a scatter plot, with a trendline using that correlation, and here is the results:

Writing Time

It is clear that the more time I spend, the more I write, but it’s not as strong a correlation as you might think. Part of the reason is that sometimes, it takes a while to get things out of my head. Here is what that same set of data looks like plotted individually over time. First the word counts…

30 Days Words

and then the time spent…

30 Days Time

These two charts illustrate that while the correlation is pretty strong, there are times when I clearly get bogged down. August 5 is a good example. I wrote just about 1,200 words, but it took me 79 minutes. And yet on August 7, I wrote 1,600 words and it took me under an hour. This variability is caused by two things:

  1. Concentration. Sometimes, in difficult scenes, I slow way down to think things through and work them out. Remember, I generally don’t plot ahead, so especially in first draft, I’m working out things on the fly.
  2. Interruptions. I’ve talked about how in order to write every day, I’ve had to learn to write with distraction. Sometimes, the kids will need me for something, I’ll step away for 5 or 10 minutes with no progress on the document, and then return and write more. That clearly shows up as slower.

But that red trendline in the first chart is pretty accurate, and comes close to my intuitive guesses. I have said that I wrote about 500 words in 20 minutes. That’s 1,000 words in 40 minutes. If you look at the 1,000 word-mark on that first chart, and then go up to where the red trendline crosses the 1,000 word-mark, it’s right about the 40-45 minute mark. My intuition is pretty accurate! You’ll also note that 1,500 words crosses at right about the 60 minute mark.

I have less than 30 days of the time data, but as this volume of data increases, I expect the trendline to become more accurate. One thing that is particularly useful about a chart like this is that it can tell you for a given amount of time you have available, how much you can accomplish. Or, flipping it around, if you want to write 1,000 words, how much time will you need to set aside?

Entirely automated

I wanted to call this out one more time. All of the data above is generated automatically. I don’t spend a single instant of my time collecting it. That is perhaps the biggest value. Once I wrote the scripts (which I did spent time on) I get the data without any effort, and this can be used to help me make adjustments down the road.

You can see my realtime data, including how much writing I’ve done at various intervals (my ongoing writing streak, for example) and how much time I’ve spent writing. Head on over to open.jamierubin.net to check it out.

I Have an Article At 99U on My Extended Writing Streak

When I was asked to write an article for 99U, I decided to get a little meta, and write about how I’ve been able to hack my writing streak to ensure that I write every day, even with a fulltime job and family. That article is now online:

How I Kept a 373-Day Productivity Streak Unbroken

At the time I wrote the article, my streak was at 373 days. It’s now 20 days since I wrote the article and my streak continues at 393 days.

In the article, I offer some tips that have worked for me for maintaining the streak, even with a busy and varied schedule. Head on over to 99U to check out the article, if you are so inclined.