Category Archives: writing

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.

How I Use Google Docs for Writing

Since February 2013, I’ve used Google Docs for my writing. I’ve always been a fan of Scrivener, and I still use Scrivener to prepare submission drafts. But for a year and a half now, I use Google Docs exclusively for first, second, and final drafts. I was asked on Twitter recently if I had a post explaining how I used Google Docs for my writing. With nearly 6,000 posts, I’ve written on almost everything, but strangely, I did not have a post on how I use Google Docs for my writing. Now I do.

Why Google Docs?

Because I’m sure someone will ask why I use Google Docs, let me get that out of the way first. There are three main reasons.

1. Simplicity

Google Docs is simple. Unlike Microsoft Word, it doesn’t have every feature under the sun. But it has enough for me to easily produce clean copy in standard manuscript format, and that is really all that I require. Too many features weigh an application down, and provide distractions. Google Docs minimizes those things.

2. Accessibility

I work in all kinds of environments. In my home office, I have an iMac. In my work office, I have a Windows laptop. I have Google Chromebook as well. Sometimes, I write on other machines. Google Docs is available to me on all of these platforms. The same feature set, the same version, the same look-and-feel. This is important because it saves me time in having to learn specific ins-and-outs for different platforms.

Google Docs is also always available. Everything is stored in the cloud, and sycned to my computers. On those rare instances when I am offline–say, on a plane without Internet access–I can still access my documents offline.

3. Automation

I never have to remember to save. Google Docs saves as a I type. This has saved me on a couple of occasions when the power has gone out.

Moreover, Google Docs can be customized using Google App Scripting, essentially JavaScripting objects that allow you access to the Docs object model. I’ve created several tools through this automation that have allowed me to automate routine writing processes. That in turn allows me to spend more time writing.

Google Docs isn’t perfect. I’ve written before about what I consider to be the important elements of a word processor for writers. Google Docs has some of those elements, but not all of them. That said, I just like it. It fits me well.

Ingredients

To understand how I use Google Docs for writing, you have to first understand that I have built a small infrastructure within Google Drive to support my writing. The goal of this is to automate everything I can, so that the vast majority of my time is spent writing. I’ve been pretty successful with this. Here are the components to my Google Drive writing infrastructure.

1. My writing template

I have created a writing template that I use in Google Docs. This template contains some automated functions I’ve created. It is the jumping-off point for any new story or article. I have it bookmarked on my Chrome bookmark bar for easy access. Here is an annotated look at my Google Writing Template.

Google Docs Template
Click to enlarge

My “Project” menu allows me to quickly create new blank documents. It has other functions that automate processes for me, like preparing a document for Scrivener (where I do the submission manuscript).

My scripts automatically capture the start date and end date of a draft, as well as the type (fiction or nonfiction). This data gets fed into my Google Docs Writing Tracker.

My template has a deleted scenes section. While I am a strong proponent of cutting scenes and other stuff from my stories, I never throw anything away. In addition to being useful later, seeing what I cut helps me learn and improve.

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Writing Stats for July 2014

Is July already over? I ended July with almost exactly 27,000 words written, not as good as June, but altogether respectable. It also brings my total word count for the year-to-day to 190,000 words, not counting blogging.

With more nonfiction freelance work, I modified my Google Doc Writing Tracker to split my daily word counts into fiction and nonfiction. I didn’t start this until very late in July, so I don’t have a lot of useful data. But next month, I should be able to report on the actual breakdown. I’ve also automated capturing the time I spent doing my writing, taking advantage of the RescueTime API for that. Again, I didn’t start capturing this until late in July so August’s data should be much more interesting.

Normally, I’d post a chart showing my writing for the month, but thanks to the work I’ve done on my experimental analytics site, open.jamierubin.net, you can see live data of my writing for the month of July by heading over there. You can also see my writing since the beginning of the year. The site is growing increasingly interactive, and there should be some improvements to the look and feel in the coming weeks, but for now, I’m just glad I’ve automated the data reporting. It means I have more time to spent on the actual writing.

During July, I had two items published:

  1. The FitBit for Your Car,” The Daily Beast (July 8)
  2. Self-Tracking for N00Bz,” The Daily Beast (July 24)

I expect to see at least three things published in August, and of course, I’ll let you know when they are available.

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:

DailyAlmanacNew

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!