And a big thank you to John and Patrick for having me on the show.
- Tracking the progress on writing projects
- Tracking the “ROI” on my writing projects
Right now, I’m focusing on just the first of the two. As a freelance writer, I am sometimes given a deadline for a project, and I sometimes have to set my own deadline. Either way, I spend some of my time informally tracking my progress. If I could automate that tracking, I could eliminate some manual work that I do, which frees up time to do more writing.
Yesterday, I created a new branch on the Google Docs Writing Tracker1 to focus on project tracking. I wanted to keep things fairly simple, because project tracking can quickly get out of hand, and become overly complex. There are currently 3 components to my project tracking system for the Google Docs Writing Tracker
1. Project documents
Some projects I work on involve just a few documents: one for the first draft, one for the second draft, and one for the final draft. They are still all part of the same project, and if I want to be able to track the progress across all three documents, I need a way of tying them together.
To keep things simple, I am currently using the Description field of a Google Docs document to embed project information. I have a simple JSON format that I am manually entering into any project-related document. Right now, it looks like this:
The information in the project description field is simply a JSON string that identifies two values: the first is the project title the second is the draft. In this instance, I am treating the individual draft as an entire project itself, but the point is that any documents that share this tag will be associated with the project.
2. Project progress
I have added a “Progress” tab to my Writing Data spreadsheet. This tab contains records of the day-by-day progress on a project. I modified the Google Docs Writing Tracker code to check to see if a document is part of a project. If it is, its word count still counts as part of the overall for the day, but it is also logged individually on the Project progress tab, along with the project name, and how much time I spent working on the document.
This allows me to capture project progress at the daily transactional level, which will make it easy to build automated charts that show the overall progress and time-spent working on the project. The time comes from RescueTime data for documents that match the document name of the project in question.
Of course, I also need a way of capturing and defining what a project is. So I have added a “Projects” tab to the Writing Data spreadsheet that allows me to define projects and provides some simple, but useful tracking tools. You can see the four upcoming projects for my novel drafts entered on the project tab below.
The green items are the only items that need to be entered manually, and usually at the time the project is first created. Everything in yellow is captured automatically. Here is what is in this table:
- Project #: a unique number identifying the project.
- Project Name: the name of the project.
- Start Date: the date on which the project will begin.
- Deadline: the deadline assigned to the project.
- Est. Words: the estimated word count of the project.
- Est. Completion: an estimated completion date based on the current progress, the current date, the deadline, and you 30-day rolling word count average. This is calculated and updated automatically.
- Status: the status of the project. Pending means it has not yet started. Active means it is active and in progress. Completed means that it is finished. Overdue means that it is not finished but past deadline. This is calculated and updated automatically.
- Daily Goal: the average daily word count you need to hit in order to finish this project by the deadline. This is calculated and updated automatically.
- Current Words: the current total word count of the project across all project documents. This is calculated and updated automatically.
- Writing Progress: the current percentage of the way through the overall word count for the project. This is calculated and updated automatically.
- Timeline Progress: the current percentage of the way through the project timeline. This is calculated and updated automatically.
- Days off Schedule: this is a fairly sophisticated calculation that gives number of days off-schedule based on all of the available information. Ideally the number will be 0 or positive. 0 means your are on schedule to deliver on your deadline date. 1.5 would mean you are scheduled to deliver 1.5 days ahead of schedule. A negative number indicates behind schedule. So a -2 would indicated you are scheduled to deliver the project 2 days behind schedule. As with the other yellow cells, this is calculated and updated automatically.
Automation is key
Because I don’t want to spend time tracking this stuff manually, automation is key. So far, the only manual tasks I have to take are at the very beginning of the project:
- Adding the project JSON code to project documents.
- Adding a record for the project and filling in the green items on the Project tab
That’s it. Once that is done, the project is tracked automatically, just like everything else in the Google Docs Writing Tracker. I can spend my time writing, and then glance at the Project tab to get a quick status check on my progress. Eventually, I’ll add some visual project trackers as well to my open.jamierubin.net site so that anyone can follow my progress on a given project.
Part 2: ROI tracking
I have not yet implemented part two of the project tracking, the part that closes the loop on the overall project. I’m still testing this stuff I’ve outlined above. Part 2 is really about tracking the return on investment in my writing. That is, I invest time (mostly) and when I sell something I get paid. Tying those payments back to a specific project can generate a useful metrics on the business side of writing, the part well all hate to deal with. Eventually, I should be able to see how much I am paid for the labor that goes into various projects.
Payment is not why I write–at least not right now since I am not making a living from my writing. But if I ever got to the point where I could make a living from my writing, then data like this could be useful in looking for ways to work more efficiently. Of course, I am looking for ways to automate this as well, so that all I am ever doing, when it comes to my avocation, is writing. The numbers just help to steer the ship.
I don’t yet know when I’ll have this branch checked into GitHub as it is still fresh and needs some testing on my end before I am comfortable putting it out there for others. Also, it requires an update to the underlying spreadsheet, and it is always a hassle to make a new version. But when I do get the new branch committed, I’ll let you know.
- I haven’t yet pushed the branch so don’t bother looking for it yet. I’ll you know when it is out there. ↩
A Tale of Two StoriesLast week, while on one of my daily walks, I suddenly hit on why I was struggling with the novella on which I’ve been working, off and on, for the last year or so. The current working title is “Strays.” I was artificially constraining the story. I was making a mistake that I used to make, thinking I knew how long a story should be before it was finished. I had it in my head that the story was a novella, and I was trying to force that… and it wasn’t working. It occurred to me, as I turned the corner from Joyce Street onto Army-Navy Drive, that the story should be a novel. The thought was light a weight off my shoulders. I knew at once that it was the right thing to do, and I felt a sense of great relief. But also, a sense of trepidation. A novel is a big commitment.
At the same time, my friend Michael Sullivan has been trying to convince me for quite a while that I need to start writing novels. If I wanted to be able to write fulltime, novels was the only real pathway that I’d have. I’d smile and nod at Michael, and say, that yes, I knew that, but that I really enjoyed writing short stories, and wasn’t ready to give that up yet.
But when I realized that the story I was working on would work better as a novel than as a novella, I thought about what Michael said. I realized that I had another novella idea sitting around dormant, one I’ve been calling “Peacefield.” I’d planned to work on it after finishing the current one. It occurred to me that I was going to have the same problem with that one as with the current one. Maybe that one could also be a novel?
Add one final thing to the mix: I’ve been reading John Feinstein’s excellent book, Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball as research for the novella. I often make comparisons between writing and baseball, and the life of a writer and that of a professional baseball player. Listening to the stories of the guys who spend a decade or more in the minor leagues, and those who try to up their game in order to make the jump to the majors, I realized that Michael was right: I needed to write novels if I was going to make it to the big leagues. In my entire writing career, I have written a single draft of a novel, which is not a lot of practice. I needed to get more experience and get it sooner rather than later.
So I decided to challenge myself. I set a goal for myself this year to try to average 1,000 words/day. In 2014, I averaged 850 words/day, so we’re really talking about adding an additional 150 words/day, which doesn’t sound like much. For me, 1,000 words/day is roughly 40 minutes of time each day.
I recall reading in Stephen King’s excellent book On Writing that he considers a season to be the perfect length of time to write a first draft of a novel. Granted, he would try to get in 2,000 words/day, which meant 180,000 words over the course of a season (3 months). But I saw some sense in that. It gives you a timeframe in which you have to focus on the task at hand. Also, I wasn’t planning on writing a Stephen King-length book. I’m looking to hit 90,000 word. It just so happens that at 1,000 words/day, 90,000 word take me 90 days–or just about 1 season.
But one novel draft does not a novelist make. I had to write dozens of short stories before I started to sell them. I don’t think I’d need to write dozens of novels before I could sell them, however. I like to think the experience I’ve gained as a writer applies broadly. But one novel draft would certainly not be enough.
However, I had this second idea for Peacefield, thematically related to Strays, but otherwise very different. I know that after finishing the draft of something long like a novella or a novel, I need some time away from before I start on the second draft. What if I wrote a first draft of Strays in the spring, and then spent the summer writing the first draft of Peacefield? That would give me three months away from the first novel to work on something different. And what happens when I finished the first draft of Peacefield? Well, I’d need some time away from that as well. So I could spend the fall working on the second draft of Strays. And when that was done, I could spend the winter working on the second draft of Peacefield. It would mean that by the end of March 2016, I would have completed 4 novel drafts, and have a lot more experience writing novels than I currently heave
So the challenge becomes: can I write four complete novel drafts in the next year? Given that I have had no trouble writing every day for the last 600+ days, I don’t see why not. The time commitment and my ability to write every day is not a factor. What is a factor is trying to learn how to write a novel. The only way to do that is to get started.
Here is the schedule I put together for myself. I’m using my birthday as a kind of rough starting point, simply because it’s coming and it is conveniently close to the beginning of spring:
- Strays (1st draft): March 27, 2015 – June 27, 2015 (90,000 words)
- Peacefield (1st draft): June 28, 2015 – September 28, 2015 (90,000 words)
- Strays (2nd draft): September 29, 2015 – December 29, 2015 (90,000 words)
- Peacefield (2nd draft): December 30, 2015 – March 30, 2016 (90,000 words)
360,000 words is not farfetched, considering I wrote 311,000 words in 2014, and I’m trying to up my daily goal by 150 words/day. But other things sometimes get in the way. So I am also scaling back on things that shorten the amount that I write each day. I plan on attending only a single science fiction convention in the next 12 months (RavenCon, coming up next month). I plan on strictly limiting the number of guest posts that I do, and anything that takes an usual amount of time to prepare for. Professionally, the next 12 months are all about learning how to write a novel by writing 4 novel drafts.
Any time I sit down to write, I am putting forth my best effort. The schedule allows me to send out the second draft of Strays to beta-readers while I spend 3 months working on the second draft of Peacefield. Still, at the end of the next 12 months, I expect to have two completed second drafts, one for Strays and one for Peacefield. After some time to work in suggestions from beta-readers and produce a clean final draft of each manuscript, I think the result will be 2 novels that I can look to sell (or for which I can seek representation).
Does this mean they will sell? Absolutely not. Just like a player who hits .350 in triple-A, there is no guarantee that a call-up will follow. Luck is always a factor (a guy gets injured, a guy gets traded), as is timing. Quality is a factor as well, and just because I’ve got two final drafts does not mean they meet the standards for publication.
However, right now, the only outcome I am seeking is to build experience writing novels. That is, as I see it, the only way to learn and improve. At the end of the next 12 months, I’ll be able to say, “Hey, I’ve written a total of 5 novel drafts for 3 different novels.”
And hey, what about the novel draft that I finished in 2013 and proposed to write the second draft this year? For now, I’ve given up on it. I still think that the idea is good, and I like the characters and the setting, but I don’t believe I have yet developed the tools to make it work the way I want it to work. In other words, I need more practice. I hope to get some by attempting four novel drafts in the next 12 months.
Of course, I’ll post updates along the way, and you can follow along with day-to-day progress over at open.jamierubin.net if you are interested.
But, as sometimes happens, an odd coincidence has forced me to mention the fact that I have hit 600 consecutive days. It just so happens, that I am also reading my 600th book since January 1, 1996. Hitting 600 consecutive days of writing at the same time that I am reading my 600th book seemed interesting enough of a coincidence to mention it here.
What is the book? Well, it will depend on which one I finish first. (I only add a book to my list once it is finished.) I am 5/8ths of the way through The Stand by Stephen King1 as part of my Stephen King Re-Read. I am reading this book mostly in the evenings before bed.
I am also reading2 Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I’m listening to this while on my daily walks, and while doing chores around the house. It is a toss-up as to which one I will finish first, but whichever one I do finish first will be book #600 since 1996.
So how much writing have I done in 600 days? Well, not counting today (since I haven’t written yet), I’ve written just under 540,000 words. That’s an average of about 900 words/day. That means at my next major milestone–763 consecutive days–I should be close to the 680,000 word-mark.
I just did a little math, and if I can maintain the 900 words/day pace, I’ll hit 1 million words on about August 5, 2016, which would (coincidentally) be my 1,111th consecutive day of writing.
Actually, it started as a recurring image in my mind: a great sweeping, empty plains, with tall, stark mountains in the background. Over time the image has developed into something more: a quiet ranch in a sparsely populated county of some northern state like Montana or North Dakota. I find myself day-dreaming–not of winning the lottery or writing a bestseller–but of living on a small, quiet ranch miles outside some small town, far away from everything. Except my family, of course. My family is always there, the kids playing in the open spaces, Kelly and I talking long walks while the sun hovers low over the western horizon.
I don’t know exactly where these thoughts and images come from. Part of my suspects it is a reaction to living in a metropolitan suburb, and the hyper-connectedness of my daily life. Sometimes it seems to be disconnected, to be outdoors more, working with my hands, would be a welcome change.
Now, I’m not quitting my job and moving my family to some small town in the mid-west or west. Instead, these recurring images are finding their way into my fiction. In two recent works-in-progress, characters are dashing off to isolated areas to get away from something. It wasn’t intentional–at least not in the sense that it was anything plotted. It’s just how the stories have worked themselves out. And whether or not the stories ultimately sell, I’ve found a great deal of satisfaction in living vicariously through these characters. It’s my way of escaping, I guess.
This was brought to mind in a stark kind of way, when I realized how much I was enjoying the two books I am currently reading. One is fiction, and one is nonfiction, and I am enjoying both far more than expected.
The first is Stephen King’s The Stand. I’ve read the book before, but this time, I’m reading it as it was originally published in 1978–not the “uncut” version that was released in 1990. In any case, despite the horror of Captain Trips, and the plague that decimates the human population; despite the battle over good and evil, I find myself mesmerized by the descriptions of the trip across the desolate country. It is, yet, another expression of this strange desire for isolation.
The second book is The Longest Road by Philip Caputo. This is a road trip book, much in the manner of Blue Highways, about a man, his wife, and two dogs, who take a four month trip from the southern most point of Key West, Florida, up into the Arctic Circle in Alaska. It is an absolute pleasure to read. I found it interesting that I happened to be reading these two books at the same time1, and I think that is what brought to mind those recurring thoughts about the open space, and the tall mountains.
This is one of the true advantages of being a fiction writer: I can send my characters off to do the things that I can’t, living vicariously through them, and it is almost as good as doing it myself.
- I am reading the paperback version of The Stand in the evenings, and listening to the audiobook version of The Longest Road during my daily walks. ↩
I can probably count perfect stories I’ve read on one hand. Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man”; Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”; and Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” are three. After reading “A Death” I think I could add it to the list of perfect stories.
What makes a story perfect? Again, it’s hard to say. For me, the voice plays a big part of it, but not all of it. Another element is efficiency, or perhaps a better word is “compactness.” I don’t mean length. I mean the story has just the right amount of each ingredient, not a grain more or a drop less. That, plus the voice, are the two things that jumped out at me when I finished reading “A Death.”
Stephen King has often said that in his second drafts, he takes out everything that isn’t story. “A Death” is a great example of that. There is nothing I could find in it that isn’t story. Everything, every word, every image, every line of dialog contributes to the telling of the whole. It is a story that rests in a precarious balance, like a pitcher who has two outs in the 9th inning of perfect game, and full count on the batter. Take away anything from the story, and it is no longer perfect. Add anything to the story, and it is no longer perfect.
In many ways, while reading “A Death,” I kept thinking to myself that it is a Writer’s story. I enjoyed the story as a reader. But almost enjoyed more as a writer. I enjoyed in the same way a rookie ball player might look over at a seasoned veteran and see the smoothness of their swing, the fluid motion they make ranging for a ball in the field, and think, I want to be able to do that one day. Recognizing this as a writer means that you also recognize that you have the individual skills to make it happen, but not yet the experience to put them together in the right combination to achieve that level of perfection.
Beyond the entertainment value of “A Death,” beyond my awe at the seemingly effortless execution, I finished it thinking, man, I want to be able to do that one day. It’s why I keep reading. And it’s why I keep writing.
For the vast majority of the requests I get to review or plug a product, the answer, I’m afraid, is no. Why?
1. Time. I have a very limited supply of time, and like everyone, that supply dwindles with each passing day. After family, and the day job, my main priority, as far as time goes, is my writing. My writing almost always eats up the remaining time I’d have to do things like reviews products. I won’t review or plug something I haven’t had the time to investigate thoroughly, and I rarely have the time do that these days.
2. I am not a product reviewer. Let’s face it, my job is not reviewing products. I am a software developer by day, and writer and blogger by night. Strictly speaking, product reviewer is not in my job description.
For over a year, I had a book review column at InterGalactic Medicine Show, where I’d review a book per month on average. That was a paid writing gig, but I have it up because it was eating into my writing time too much. Bottom line: while I do write the occasional odd review, I don’t particularly enjoy that work, and would prefer to spend my time writing other things.
3. But you do occasionally review products. On occasion, I’ll review something here on the blog that I find interesting. Usually, it is something that I have been using myself long enough (and happily enough) that I think a review is worthwhile. These reviews are almost always written without a request. That is, no one is asking to write them. I’m writing them because I found something useful on my own. I can count on one hand the number of times over the last few years when I have reviewed something that someone asked me to reviews.
4. Ah, but what about Evernote, aren’t you their paperless ambassador? Yes, I am. But if you go back through the history (all of which is documented here on the blog), I was writing about how I used Evernote on my own before Evernote approached me and asked me to join their ambassador program. I should also point out that being an Evernote ambassador is not paid gig. They give me complementary Evernote Business account and that is something I would be perfectly willing to pay for myself.
5. So then what does it take for you to review and/or plug a product? Most products I have reviewed have been things I have found on my own. They are things in which I see a clear and obvious benefit over my current way of doing things. Let me emphasize that the benefit is clear and obvious to me. In almost every case, the product simplifies or automates something I was doing manually before. Some examples:
- My FitBit made it painless to track my activity.
- My Automatic Link made it painless and effortless to track my driving and mileage.
- My Fujitsu ScanSnap s1300i made it effortless to scan documents to Evernote
- Gina Trapani’s todo.txt made is easy for me to manage my to-do list in the way that I want to work.
- RescueTime made it painless for me to track where and how I spend my time on the computer.
- CrashPlan made it painless and effortless to ensure my data is backed up.
Consider that it takes time to test out a product, time to switch to a product, and more time to integrate a new product or service into your system. Only those that make these painless and simple, and have a clear and obvious benefit over what I am currently doing are potential candidates for a review.
Interview at AlphaEfficiency Magazine
The good folks at AlphaEfficiency magazine recently interviewed me about quantified-self and productivity. It was a fun interview to do, and I think there’s some good stuff in there for folks interested in (a) how quantified self data can be used in a practical way, and (b) how to get started.
Guest post at the Write Life blog
This morning, I have a guest post at the Write Life Blog where I talk about 5 mistakes I’ve made in my writing career (not the only five) and what I have learned from them. You can head over to the Write Life blog to read “Writing Advice: 5 Things I Wish I Could Tell My 20-Year-Old Self.”
Once upon a time, I couldn’t write a line of code. I’d see these long elaborate programs listed in the early computer magazines and wondered how people figured this stuff out. I practiced, and practiced, and one day, I wrote a simple program. And then another, and the programs got more complex, and the languages changed, and I get better and better at it. Today, I make a living a software developer.
Once upon a time, I couldn’t fly. Then I took flying lessons. I practiced as much as I could. I passed my written, and then my oral test, and finally, my practical test, and came home from the airport that day with a private pilot’s license in my pocket.
Once upon a time, I couldn’t write. My stories had no identifiable beginning, middle, or end. They- characters were carved out of thin cardboard. The language was in primary colors. The dialog dripped adverbs. The plot was an overly complicated Rube Goldberg contraption. I practiced. I read a lot. But I practiced a lot. I tried to learn from my mistakes when that was possible. I sold a story, and then another, and then another, and then more.
Without practice–a heck of lot it in my case–I would never have learned to read, or write code, or fly a plane, or tell stories that at least a small number of people seem to enjoy. If there has been any overarching lesson in my life, it has been this: don’t underestimate the value of practice.
Prior to February 27, 2013, I’d tried on a number of occasions to start a streak where I wrote every day. I was never successful. However, in the 2 years that have now elapsed since February 27, 2013, I have written every day, except for 2; that’s 728 days out of the last 730. What’s more, I haven’t missed a day since July 21, 2013. As of today, I’ve written for 586 consecutive days.
How’d I do it? Well, I’ve talked about here and here, so I won’t rehash it all in this post. But I do want to point out once again the cumulative effect of writing a little bit every day. In the last 2 years, I have written a total of 631,960 words. I’ve averaged 865 words/day, which for me amounts to about 35 minutes per day. I’ve sold around 15 stories and articles during that time.
For me, the most important thing is practice. I’m a believer in Stephen King’s advice that to be a good writer, you need to read a lot and write a lot. Every bit of writing I do is practice. I make mistakes, and I try to learn from them, and hopefully, as with all practice, it is making me a better writer.
- Finish reading the current issue of Wired.
- Start on the current issue of Smithsonian.
- Get through more of ‘Salem’s Lot.
- Final touches to the new story based on beta-reader feedback.
- Possibly start another new story.
- Stay warm.
All of this, of course, in between keeping the kids entertained. Remember those days when it was possible to do just one thing at a time? Did those days ever really exist?
2,469 posts had accumulated, and I had to face the fact that there was no way I was going to catch up. So I punted. I skimmed the list, sent a few items that caught my eye to Pocket, and marked the rest as read and moved on. Full reset.
That digital footprint, however, provided an interesting insight into how long I’ve been crazy busy with the day job lately. Usually, I skim Feedly at least once a day, and either send to Pocket the stuff I want to read later, or clear it out, so that each day starts more-or-less fresh. When I looked at Feedly this morning, however, I saw that the last time I had cleared it out–the last time I had really looked at it in earnest, was 28 days ago. I’ve been so busy that not only have I not had time to read the articles in Feedly, but I haven’t even had time to review or clear them out.
Well, it’s done now, and I’m back to a clean slate, although I did so essentially by “rebooting.” I shudder to think of all of the good posts I’ve missed sin simply skimmed the 2,400+ pieces that had accumulated in that time.