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 Double-Commute into the Office this Morning

Thursday mornings I volunteer in the Little Man’s school library, shelving books. I do it from 6 – 7 am. It’s a nice way of getting an hour of volunteer work in each week. This morning, as I headed out the door at 5:45, it was already raining out. The school is a 6 minute drive from the house. I got there, went inside, did my work, and managed to get it all done by 6:45 am. So I headed into the office.

I am fortunate to live 5 miles from my office, against traffic both ways. When I don’t have to drop kids off or pick them up from school, my commute takes 12 minutes. That turned out to be particularly fortunate this morning.

I pulled into my parking spot at work, got out of the car, and then habitually checked my pockets for keys, as I always do when I get out of the car. To my dismay, I found two sets of keys. Which meant that Kelly was home without any keys. This is due entirely to breaking my routine last night. Normally, I hang my keys on the key rack, and grab them before heading out the door in the morning. It is automatic. Last night, I left my keys on my desk, so I grabbed them this morning and put them in my pocket before heading downstairs. When I left the house, I passed by the key rack, grabbed the keys hanging there, and headed out the door.

So I got back in the car, and headed out into the rain, arriving home about 12 minutes later. I dropped off the keys, explained my folly, and then headed back into the car, and arrived at work 15 minutes later. A double-commute!

As far as I know, it’s the first time I’ve performed that particular folly, and it just goes to show that while routines can be good, when broken, they can be annoyingly bad, too.

3 Ways I Avoided All Election Campaign Ads This Season

It occurred to me this morning that it was election day, a fact that crept up on me mostly because I managed to avoid all election campaigning this season. I was pretty busy with the day job, and the family, and writing, but there were at least three things that helped me avoid the ads and phone calls, and I thought I’d share them here.

1. I didn’t watch any live TV

I have very little time for television. I may catch a show like The Big Bang Theory or Modern Family here and there before bed to rest my brain, but it is never in real time. It is always either on-demand or through NetFlix or the iTunes store. Which means there are generally no ads, and never any political ads. Not watching TV means I have more time for other things (like the family, or writing). But as I’ve discovered, it has the added benefit of eliminating a huge proportion of political campaigns.

I do listen to the radio, now and then, when I’m in the car, but I listen almost exclusively to either Sirius XM’s 70s on 7 or 80s on 8, both of which are entirely commercial free. So I was free from torment there as well.

2. I don’t answer phone calls for which I don’t instantly recognize the number

I got tired of political calls a long time ago, and since I rarely use the phone these days, anyway, sometime in the last year, I stopped answering calls for which I don’t recognize the number. And since I no longer listen to voicemail, my outgoing message directs people to text me or email me. I imagine that most of the political calls are robocalls, and aren’t smart enough to grab my email address and send me email. Bottom line: received no political calls this season. At least, none that I answered.

3. I recycled all political mail ads without looking at them.

You can kind of tell by feel. Those ads are all printed on that same thick bond poster-like paper. I tend to sort the little snail mail I get these days into two piles as I walk back to the house. Stuff to look at, and stuff to recycle. I’m guessing that all of the political ads made it safely into the recycle bin, because I don’t recall actually looking at any.


These three things combined to help eliminate all political ads from my life this season. I might not even have noticed it, had I not realized it was election day this morning. After work today, Kelly and I picked up the Little Man from school, and took him with us to our local polling place so that he could see what it was like to vote. The polling place was pretty much empty, which kinds of makes a mockery of how much money gets spent on political campaigns, and in particular, on advertising.

But really, the important thing is, as I discovered this morning, it is still possible to vote without being carpet bombed with political ads for months at a time.

Who knew!

My Schedule for the World Fantasy Convention

I will be attending my first World Fantasy Convention, beginning later this week. It takes place, conveniently enough for me, in Crystal City, and I can walk to the hotel from my office, so I don’t have to travel for a change.

The convention begins on Thursday and runs through Sunday.

I will be there every day, however, on Thursday and Friday, I won’t be arriving until after work, sometime in the early evening, probably around 5 or 5:30 pm. I will be at the convention all day on Saturday and Sunday, and will be attending the banquet as well.

The good folks running programming for WFC have given me a reading slot on Sunday, November 9 at 10am in the Arlington room. I haven’t yet decided what I will read, but given that it is the World Fantasy Convention, I’m leaning toward a traditional fantasy short story that I wrote a while back, but have not yet sold. The story is too long to read in the 30 minute slot, but I’ll read a few scenes so that folks can get the flavor of it.

If you are going to be at World Fantasy, let me know, and if you see me, be sure to stop me and say hello.

Experimenting with Medium

This morning I wrote a post over on Medium, just to see what it was like. I’ve read quite a few posts over at Medium and I like the clean looking interface. So I thought I’d see what it was like to write over there.

love the simplicity of the writing interface. That said, I don’t have any plans to write over there regularly. Mostly, I just wanted to try it out and see how it felt. I can see why so many people like writing there.

If you are interested, you can head over to Medium to check out my post, “My Best Time-Saving Hack: Audiobooks.”

Ignore That Last Post!

Earlier today I foolishly listed out the next three books I’d planned on reading. I even cautioned that such lists were foolish because what I desire to read changes quite rapidly, often affected by what I’ve just read in some way or another. I mentioned how I just finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time in probably 30 years; certainly the first time as an adult. And I said that up next was a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

What on earth made me think I could finish reading The Fellowship of the Ring and not want to continue on with The Two Towers.

Well, that’s just what I have done, and so please ignore that last post, and quite possibly, ignore me. I tend to be foolish in this regard, and let this stand as one of countless examples of such foolishness.

The Next 3 Books on My Reading List

I just finished reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. It was my 32nd book of 2014, and marks the first time I’ve read the book since long before I was keeping track of my reading. Probably since I was 10 years old or so, I’d guess.

I’m particularly excited about the next three books I’m planning to read, so I thought I’d list them here.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

I recently read The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, and it has reinvigorated my passion for books on technology. I also remember Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb as one of the better nonfiction books I’ve ever read. I’ve been meaning to read this biography of Oppenheimer for some time now. I have about 10 days to kill before the next book on my list comes out, so it seemed like the perfect fit.

Revival by Stephen King

The rumor mill behind Stephen King’s latest book, Revival,  (his second this year) is that it is among the more terrifying books he has written since Pet Semetary. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, but it doesn’t come out until November 11th, which is which I have some time to fill between now and then.

Abominable by Dan Simmons

I’ve never read a Dan Simmons book before. During an SF Signal podcast that I participated in a while back, someone mentioned this book as a particularly good one. I’m not interested in starting a series, which is why I chose this one as opposed to one of Simmons’ more famous books, but with winter on its way, I’m looking forward to this one.


One things about listing out the books I plan to read. It is just that: a plan. I don’t always stick to it. Sometimes it’s because a book doesn’t hold my interest. More often, however, it is because I found a book so interesting, or so good that I want to read something similar to it right away. In any case, this is my plan, and given how much I read per day, I’d expect these 3 books to fill the month of November for me.

I’m Not Formally Participating in NaNoWriMo This Year, But…

As I mentioned yesterday, I am not formally participating in NaNoWriMo this year. Don’t get me wrong, I think NaNoWriMo is a great event. It’s like a marathon for writers. More importantly, the spirit behind the event tries to illustrate through practice that it is possible to write every day when some discipline is applied. NaNoWriMo uses peer networks to help encourage that discipline.

But as many readers here know, I’m on something of a writing streak. I have now written for 467 consecutive days. That is the equivalent of about 15-1/2 consecutive NaNoWriMos. I think I have established the discipline I need to keep writing, and so NaNoWriMo doesn’t have the same pull for me as it used to. That said, while I’m not formally participating, I am using the spirit of the month to try, once again, to jump start the second draft of my novel, and more importantly, to work through a kind of slump that I’ve been in lately.

If you examine the last 6 months of my writing, a very obvious trend presents itself:

6 month writing trend

6 months ago, my 7-day moving average word count was about 1,100 words/day. This metric is a key measurement for me. My long term goal is to be able to gradually work up to a consistent 7-day moving average of 2,000 words/day. Most full time writers that I know aim for this amount of writing each day, and I’d like to be able to get there myself someday. Of course, I have a full time job, which makes it tricky, but I figure that if I approach the goal as the ancient Greek body building, Milo of Croton approached body-building1, I’ll get there through slow, incremental steps.

In the last 6 months, however, my 7-day moving average hasn’t increased, and it hasn’t stayed level. It has trended downward. Today, my 7-day moving average is 484 words/day–less than half of what it was 6 months ago.

A big reason for this is the time I have available in a given day. While I do write every day, my time has been more limited lately. Partly this is due to a big project at the day job. Partly this is due to family obligations. Looking at the time I spent writing each day over the last 3 months (which is as far back as my time data goes), you can see a similar trend:

3 months time spent writing

So while I am not formally participating in NaNoWriMo this year, I am using the event as a way to jump start my writing, to get back to where I was 6 months ago. I’m not trying to write 1,666 words/day, but I’d like to get back to about 40 minutes of writing time each day, which for me, results in about 1,000 words. I’ve struggled with the second draft of the novel I wrote last year, and I’m giving that another shot, and hoping that the combination of goals, and the eager NaNoWriMo spirit of the month will help get things going in the right direction.

As always, those interesting in following along in my progress can see my real-time writing stats over at open.jamierubin.net.

And to those participating in NaNoWriMo this year: good luck, and good writing!

Notes

  1. He allegedly lifted a newborn calf every day until eventually he was lifting a full-grown cow.

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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How I Use ThinkUp for a Better Quantified Social Self

Something about social media metrics makes me antsy. How many followers do you have on Twitter? How many friends on Facebook? How many likes did you get for that post? How many times was that clever tweet retweeted? Perhaps these are useful measurements for a brand or business, but for the average person–me for instance–they aren’t particularly meaningful.

Of course, I like the data. It’s the approach that makes me uncomfortable. To better understand my quantified social self, I use a service called ThinkUp. ThinkUp is the brainchild of Gina Trapani and Anil Dash and touts itself as “analytics for humans.” It takes the bland numbers out of social media metrics and provides fun, useful insights that help to tell a story about my social media behavior. I’ve been using ThinkUp ever since it first appeared, and based on my experience so far, the insights ThinkUp provides fall into four categories.

1. Personal insights

A perfect example of a personal insight is one I received one morning back in August, when ThinkUp let me know it was my 6th Twitter birthday:

ThinkUp Twitter Birthday

ThinkUp also looks at how frequently people interact with your tweets and posts, and provides interesting metrics on the ones that do particularly well:

ThinkUp Twitter Favorites

These insights are personal. Unlike some services which compare you to others, this is simply comparing me to myself. In this same way, ThinkUp will provide you with a summary of your week:

ThinkUp Week

2. Fun insights

ThinkUp has a growing collection of fun insights that pop up from time-to-time. I recently encountered this one:

ThinkUp Exclaim

Trust me when I say that seeing that insight made me more sensitive to the frequency with which I use! exclamation! marks! in my tweets. I have also seen insights for how frequently I’ve used the term “LOL” in a tweet or Facebook post.

3. Paying it forward

Social media often seems like a race to the highest number of followers–or likes, or retweets–as possible. The number is the end as opposed to the content. One of my favorite parts of ThinkUp is what I call its “pay-it-forward” insights which take those numbers and puts them to good use. Here is one example:

ThinkUp Thank You

Seeing this insight encourages me to thank people more often, because it’s nice to be nice. Then, too, while I don’t have an audience as large as Neil Gaiman or John Scalzi, I do my best to signal boost things that I find interesting besides my own stuff. ThinkUp acknowledges these kinds of activities as well:

ThinkUp Boost

I like this because it emphasizes that the number of followers you have is not just about how popular you are, but expresses the degree to which you can help boost the signal on other people’s messages.

4. Improving my social media behavior

For me, the most useful insights that ThinkUp provides are those that help me be a better person on social media. Here is one example where ThinkUp finds plenty of room for improvement in my behavior:

ThinkUp Me

While worded in a perfectly friendly manner, the message is clear: I talk about myself quite a bit, as opposed to pointing folks to other interesting people and thinks. Some of this comes from the fact that I write articles from my perspective, but the insight is still telling. And while my behavior hasn’t changed overnight, I use this insight as a benchmark for my behavior, and have been gradually trying to reduce the percentage–with mixed success so far.

Being efficient with tweets and posts is also important. You can reach more people if you know when more people are listening, and ThinkUp helps with that by looking at when your friends and followers are posting, and suggesting those times as ideal for posting and tweeting yourself:

ThinkUp Time

As ThinkUp is providing new insights every day, the times may vary and can be adjusted accordingly. Using a tool like Buffer, I can schedule my most important tweets and posts during the suggested time window.

Finally, ThinkUp will occasionally remind me how long it has been since I last updated my profile on Facebook or Twitter. Things change fast on the Internet, and I often forget to update my profile when something new comes along. Now, ThinkUp helps remind me of this:

ThinkUp Profile


ThinkUp currently provides insights for Twitter and Facebook. It is an evolving service with new insights being introduced all the time. You can elect to receive a daily email message summarizing your insights for the previous day. I like this feature. I can review the insights in the morning, and immediately make adjustment that day based on what I find. If I’m talking about myself too much again, I’ll dedicate the day to focus on others.

It is also worth noting ThinkUp’s data philosophy. As they say upfront on their home page, they don’t have ads and they don’t sell your data. They have a clear, simple, and refreshing values page that goes into more detail into the overall philosophy behind the service.

I was an early-bird user of ThinkUp. The service costs $60/year (that’s $5 month, and remember, no ads!), but a 14-day free trial is available for folks who want to see what the service is like. ThinkUp recently introduced an option for $5/month, for those who want to go month-to-month. Finally, ThinkUp is also available on GitHub for those who want to run the service on their own, or contribute to its open source development.

Since I started using ThinkUp, it has become my primary tool for gauging my social media behavior, benchmarking that behavior, and using the insights to improve my behavior. I find the unique insights an invaluable way to more closely examine my quantified social self.

An Index to My FitBit Posts

My FitBit posts seem to be quite popular. Indeed, 2 of the top 3 posts for 2014 today are posts about FitBit. So I thought I’d collect links to all of the FitBit posts I’d written in one place for easy access. Here they are:

Happy walking!