What I Do in My Day Job

When someone asks what I do in my day job, I have a brief, 3-word answer: “I make software.” I used to say that I was an “application developer” but that seemed unduly pretentious. I’ve never called myself a “software engineer” because I don’t have an engineering degree. I make software. I’ve been at my day job (yes, at the same company) for coming up on 21 years. For a lot of that time, I’ve been making software.

But what does that mean exactly? If you don’t make software it might not be obvious. Certainly you use software (you are using it to read this post). But what does it mean to make software? What goes into it?

There is an amazing post on Bloomberg today by Paul Ford called “What Is Code?” It is long. I mean, really long. About 38,000 words long. Which is the length of two novellas, or an (admittedly) short novel. But it is well written, engaging, interactive, funny, and best of all it answers the question “what does it mean to make software”? If you read the article, and come through on the other side, you’ll have a very good understand of what I do every day when I am making software.

5 Challenges to Writing Every Day

With my consecutive day writing streak approaching 700 days (687 as of yesterday), I thought I’d take a few moments to talk about the challenges of writing every day. There are many people who challenge the notion of writing every day, arguing that one should write only when one feels the urge. I write these posts as a window into my methods, but I understand that what I do may not work for anyone but me. That said, if someone sees my posts and thinks that they want to give it a try, here are some of the challenges I faced along the way, and how I dealt with them.

1. What do I write?

If, when you sit down to write each day, you struggle with what you want to write–that is, before putting a single word down on paper, you come up blank, then writing every day may prove challenging.

I have been lucky in this respect. I am a pantser when it comes to writing–I don’t plot out my stories ahead of time, but that does not mean I am don’t plan ahead. I am thinking about my stories constantly. By the time I sit down to write, I can start very quickly. The quality of what I write may vary from day-to-day, but rare is the day on which I struggle just to get started.

2. What about those days where I just don’t feel like writing?

I enjoy the act of writing. I like telling stories, too, but for me, writing is a kind of stress relief. Even so, there are days when I am tired, when I’ve worked at the day job for 10 hours with my head down in code, and come home only to take the kids to a Little League game or some other event. By the time I get to the keyboard, my mind is utterly exhausted. What then?

I also look at writing as practice. Like anything, to get better at it, you have to practice. If you play a musical instrument, you often practice even on those occasions when you don’t really feel like it, simply because you have to get the practice in. On those days where I just don’t feel like I have the energy, I tell myself that I have to get the practice in anyway. Even if I only sit there for ten minutes, I get a page. Even if that page is terrible, I learn something about my writing.

3. Writing every day requires discipline

There’s no way around this. If you are undisciplined, I suspect you will find writing every day to be challenge. Not impossible, but just a challenge. I will say that I have found that it gets easier over time. But especially at the beginning, it took me a lot of dogged discipline, especially on days when it seemed the writing wasn’t going well.

4. Writing every day requires persistence

If you miss a day, write it off, and be sure to write the very next day. It has happened to me. I mentioned at the outset that as of yesterday, I have written for 687 consecutive days. But I also have a larger “streak”: I have written 830 out of the last 832 days. In other words, I have missed two days of writing in the last 830 days. When I started out trying to write every day back in February 2013, I wrote for 140 consecutive days, and then circumstances arose which forced me to miss a day. I was back writing the next two days, and then I missed another day. But that day, July 21, 2013, was the last day that I missed.

It was hard to see a 140-day streak die, but I got right back to it. I took some important lessons from those two missed days, and so far, I have written every day since.

5. The weight of the streak can be stressful at first

I occasionally am asked if I feel the weight of the writing streak as the numbers build up. My answer is that I felt it early on, but I don’t any more.

Early on, while developing the discipline, I was learning how to work around my schedule. I was learning how to write in noisy environments, or in short 10-minute spurts here and there. But as the streak grew, I also felt nervous about what would happen if I missed a day. As I said above, at 140 days, I did miss a day.

In the nearly 700 days that I have not missed a day writing, I have experience just about every kind of contingency. There are days on which I have traveled, and needed to squeeze in the writing early. There are days that seemed filled from start to finish and I had to find 5 minutes to get a few paragraphs in. There are days that I felt sick, or that I was taking care of sick kids. There was even a day that I went under a general anesthetic (when my wisdom teeth were yanked) and I still managed to get some writing in.

In all of that time, I’ve learned that chances are very good that I’ll get the writing done. I have 687 days that demonstrate this. So the streak no longer weights on me the way it did early on. If anything, it demonstrated the certainty with which I will get my writing done each day.


Again, this is my mode of working, and it has worked very well for me. But every one is different, and we must each figure out what works best for ourselves. I present these challenges as lesson I have learned that may benefit others who are considering tyring to write every day. Hopefully, they help.

 

The Trailer for Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN Looks Fantastic

You guys know that I am not much of a movie fan, and especially not much of a science fiction movie fan. But last year, I read Andy Weir’s The Martian and it was the best science fiction novel I read in 2014. Matt Damon stars in the movie being made from the book, and even I will admit that the newly released trailer looks fantastic.

Yesterday I Set a Minor Writing Record

Believe it or not, while I have now written for 686 consecutive days I have not had a whole lot of consecutive days over 1,000 words. For the entire streak, I have averaged 870 words/day, under the 1,000 word-mark that I have been aiming to get to this year. I have also had several “micro-streaks” in which I went 6, 7, 8, or 9 consecutive days writing at least 1,000 words. But until yesterday, such micro-streaks have never been longer than 9 days.

Yesterday that changed.

10 days of 1000 words

The 1,500 words I wrote yesterday evening (after a very long day which included taking the Little Man to fencing class, running to Home Depot to buy a dozen bags of mulch and then spreading that mulch around the backyard, taking the Little Man to his birthday bowling party where 23 other kids ran wild; spending the afternoon and evening with friends while our kids continued to run wild) put me over that 9-day threshold. For the first time since I started trying to write every day way back in February 2013, I have actually written more than 1,000 words/day for the last 10 consecutive days.

This is another way of saying that the novel draft is going gangbusters. It now stands somewhere between 16-17,000 words, most of which have been written in the last 10 days or so. It will be interesting to see how long the 1,000 word+ days will continue. They are not easy to achieve, mostly because of time constraints. Writing 1,000 words takes me, on average, about 40 minutes–although that average is down to 36 minutes over the last 10 days–and it isn’t always easy to find 36 minutes in my day. But I’ve been making the time, more often than not but cutting back on social media. And so far, so good.

A few more upcoming milestones

A couple of additional milestones are almost upon me, so I’ll mention them here:

1. On Father’s Day (June 21–also the first day of summer) I will hit 700 consecutive days of writing. After that, only 63 more days before I topple Barry Bonds’ home run record, with 763 consecutive days of writing. I think that happens sometime in late August.

2. As of yesterday, I have written 596,047 words over the course of my consecutive day writing streak. That means I am less than 4,000 words away from 600,000 words. Assuming I can keep up a minimum 1,000 words/day for the next 4 days, I’ll hit that milestone either Wednesday or Thursday of this week. 600,000 words in less than 2 years is more than six times what I wrote in the entire 20 years before I started this streak of mine. For me, at least, it definitely pays to write every day, if for no other reason than because I am getting a lot of practice in.

When the Writing Finally Clicks

I have been struggling along with the first draft of this novel since late March. I had hoped to have the draft finished by the end of June, but it had been a difficult story to write. With short stories, I push through the first draft without looking back. With novels–for which I have far less experience–I have found myself starting, and restarting, which is a bad sign for me in the first draft.

But, I haven’t given up. I decided that the only way to learn how write a novel is to write one, and if that means start and restarting until the story clicks, then so be it.

The story finally clicked.

If you have ever wondering what that click looks like, what that ah-ha moment when the light bulb burns suddenly bright looks like, I think I have a pretty good illustration:

When it finally clicked

You can see my struggles pretty clearly over the previous 24 days before the story finally clicked. When it did, my writing shot up from a average of under 400 words/day to where it stands today, at about 1,100 words/day. Zooming out, this become more obvious:

3 months of writing

I started things right around March 27. The first few days were great, but you can see that slope of decline as I got mired in problems, and had difficult pushing forward. That led to a second attempt, and once again, a spike, but that spike was short-lived, and the daily writing declined. Then, six days ago, the story clicked. I found what I think is the right way to tell it, and I have been pushing forward. The story has taken off.

How do I know? Well, aside from what the data tells me, it is what I feel. I am eager to sit down to write each day, and when I do sit down to write, the time flies by. Over the last 6 days, I’ve average about 40 minutes/day of writing and it flashes by in the blink of an eye. What’s more, I come away with a good idea of what I will write the next day. I have a good vision for the story now.

Since late March when I started this story, I have written 44,000 words. However, I only have about 10,000 words of usable story written so far. For some people those 34,000 words that make up the difference might seem wasted. For me, they were the practice I needed to get to the point where the story clicked. I’m fairly confident the story will move much more swiftly now that it has clicked. But I don’t think I ever would have made it to this point, if not for those 34,000 words worth of flailing.

Quickly break in a new baseball glove [video]

I have been lax in my efforts to break in the Little Man’s baseball glove, and that has made things more difficult on the field for him than they should be. So this weekend, I decided I would figure out the right way to do it quickly. A Google search led me to the Glove Guru, and a video where he shows the way the pros break in gloves. It uses nothing more than hot water, and a hammer.

I tried this on the Little Man’s glove yesterday morning using a regular hammer in place of the special tool that the Glove Guru used (the hammer was dull so it wouldn’t tear the leather) and after about 10 minutes, the Little Man could easily open and close the glove–something he was unable to do before I started.

Another win for YouTube videos!

Stephen King’s Favorite Stephen King Novel

Yesterday I sat down to watch a Stephen King talk from back in January of this year. It took place somewhere in Florida and it was for a library down there. In the question and answer session that followed the talk, King was asked what his favorite Stephen King book was.

I watched with interest, but I was fairly certain of his answer. In many places in recent years, King has often said that his own personal favorite is Lisey’s Story. So I was surprised, and delighted, when King answered that his own favorites were “probably It and 11/22/63.” As it happens, my favorite King novel (and favorite novel period right now) is 11/22/63 followed pretty closely by It.

Tastes change over time. I know this from experience. My favorite book from 10 years ago is different than what it is today. But I was particularly pleased that King recognized those two books as his own favorites. I’ve enjoyed most of what he has written, but those two books are a cut above the rest as far as I am concerned.

Conversations with the Little Man: The Negotiation

While in the car driving home after picking up the Little Man from school yesterday, the following conversation took place between the Little Man and Kelly:

Little Man: What are we having for dinner?

Kelly: Chicken and broccoli.

LM: No broccoli.

K: You need to eat broccoli if you want to have a treat after.

LM: Okay, but just one broccoli.

K: 3 pieces.

LM: 2 pieces.

K: Four pieces, or no treat.

LM: 2 pieces.

K: 4 pieces.

LM: Four pieces is too much.

K: You need to eat your broccoli if you want to have a treat after.

LM: How about three pieces?

K: Fine, you can eat 3 pieces of broccoli.

At this point there is a brief pause and I can see the Little Man in the rearview mirror furrow his brow.

LM: Hey, wait a minute, that was a bad decision.

And at this point, Kelly and I burst out laughing. The Little Man started laughing, too, despite the “bad decision.” And he ate his broccoli.

Issue 45 of IGMS is out and my story “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” has the cover!

I am delighted to announce that Issue #45 of InterGalactic Medicine Show is out today, and that my story “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” is the cover story for this issue. This is the first time any story of mine has been the cover story. What’s more, the amazing cover art for this issue was done by Eric Wilkerson, who as it happened, also did the cover for my favorite IGMS story, “Sojourn in Ephah” by Marina J. Lostetter.

As Edmund Schubert write in his editorial, this is my 4th story in the magazine, but my very first cover story. Edmund published my very first professional story way back in 2007, and I am so glad to have “Gemma Barrows” appear here.

Nine Days in May: 26 Years After the Los Angeles Unified School District Strike of 1989

Twenty-six  years ago today–May 26, 1989–was a bittersweet day for me and my friends. It was the last day of an extraordinary nine days in May when the teachers union of the Los Angeles Unified School District went on strike. I was in 11th grade at Cleveland Humanities Magnet High School in Reseda, California, and it was spring in Los Angeles–probably the most remarkable spring of my teenage years. What teenager doesn’t dream of getting out of school for two weeks and spending that time hanging out with friends.

I’ve written about the strike before, and the 26th anniversary of the end of the strike would have passed by me unnoticed, if it wasn’t for this week’s Big 80s on 8 countdown on Sirius XM this weekend. The countdown was for this week in 1989, and as I listened to the music from the countdown, it was like listening to an anthem for the strike.

The years have both eroded my memories of those nine extraordinary days, and tinged them with the nostalgia of youth and vigor. What I am left with is a kind of idyllic, Ray Bradburyesque of a spring in Los Angeles. The music plays a big part of it. Pirate Radio–KQLZ–was in its amazing infancy, a mere 3 months old, and playing great rock and pop of the day, including its signature, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘n’ Roses.

During that two week period, my friends and I would meet at school in the morning to plan our day. The teachers would be standing out in front of the school holding up hand-made signs that read NO CONTRACT, NO WORK, and I’D RATHER BE TEACHING. Occasionally, a substitute would cross the picket line and enter the school to jeers of “Scab!” from students and teachers alike. And then we were off–to one of our friend’s houses nearby. We’d watch MTV–Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” video was popular at the time (“I can think about baseball and swing all night, yeah!”). When the weather was particularly good, we’d head to the beach. We’d go to the movies. We’d hang out, and our little gang seemed like the best thing in town.

It really was a remarkable spring. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out around the time of the strike. Earlier (or perhaps later) that spring, we spent several weeks at Cal State Northridge working on a project, and getting an idea of what it was like to be in college. I remember spending a lot of time in the student center, eating junk, and watching Tone Lōc videos. Meanwhile, when we were in school, we were reading books like Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust.

For me, at least, the strike had nothing to do with better pay for teachers, better contracts, better terms, or anything like that. It had everything to do with the freedom to spend those days with my friends, doing whatever it was we wanted to do. The theme of our 11th grade magnet program in 1989 was “school without walls” and the nine days of the strike gave us plenty of schooling without walls. For a brief time, we were in some kind of twilight, almost grownups, but without the worry of a family or career.

Sometime late during the week of May 21, 1989, we heard that a settlement had been reached, and that we would be returning to class on Tuesday May 30–Monday was Memorial Day. It was a bittersweet day, but we had nine days of freedom that most 11th graders don’t get, so it would have been criminal to complain about it. More than a quarter century later, the strike still remains a bright spot in my memory, which must say something about the impact that it had on us at the time. What’s more: the friends that I hung out with during those halcyon days are still some of my best friends today.

Long Weekend and a New Story

We spent the long Memorial Day weekend up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with my sister and her family, and my mom. The kids got to spend most of the time at Dutch Wonderland, and we spent the weekend trying to keep up with them. We also took a horse and buggy ride through an Amish farm, and I had some homemade root beer, which was excellent. This is our third year in a row getting out of town on the official east coast opening of summer, and heading up to Pennsylvania, and like the last two years, it was a great success.

I managed a little bit of writing on the novel draft, but I also started a brand new science fiction story. I’m not entirely sure where it is going yet, but I will say that the main character is a somewhat overwhelmed project manager who finds himself over his head on a new assignment. And in case anyone wonders where I get my ideas: recently I have felt like a somewhat overwhelmed project manager in over his head on a new assignment.

It’s actually a nice change of pace from the novel draft, and I think I’ve been ready for a chance of pace for a little while now.

My Summer Reading List, 2015 (Sort of)

Obviously, we still have a month to go before summer officially begins, but a few nights ago, I jotted down the following list of books, all of which I am interested in reading in the near future1.

  • The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (reading this now)
  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Finder’s Keepers by Stephen King
  • The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris2
  • Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris3
  • Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
  • The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
  • Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
  • One Summer by Bill Bryson
  • Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow
  • The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

What’s on your list?

  1. I say “near future” but my experience has been that when I post lists, I sometimes stick to them, and sometimes ignore them completely. What I read next can sometimes be a spontaneous decision.
  2. A re-read, although it’s been more than 13 years since I last read this book.
  3. Also a re-read.