Thoughts on Interstellar: Worthy Grandchild to Tau Zero and The Forever War

If memory serves, I first encountered time dilation in a visceral way in November 1997. That is when I read Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. The effects of relativity play a significant role in that novel. I next encountered it in Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, which I read in January 1999. I read the books in the wrong order. Anderson’s novel, which was based on his short story “To Outlive Eternity”, was first published in 1970. Haldeman’s novel was published a few years later.

The two novels took different approaches to time dilation: that effect that relatively has on time when one approaches the speed of light. Anderson’s book examined the extremes, reaching out for the end of time, the end of the universe, the end of all things–all within a single human lifespan. Haldeman’s novel took the personal approach, looking at the effect of time dilation on a few individuals, over a much small time scale.

I was more effected by The Forever War than by Tau Zero. The notion that time slows down as a person approaches the speed of light fascinated me. I remembered a commercial for Omni magazine which described the twins paradox. All of that stuck with me, and I remembering wondering if a parent traveled close enough to the speed of light, might not their children grow older than them while they were away?

The thought eventually led me to write a story called “Flipping the Switch” that deals with that very paradox. Although I first started writing the story in late 2008 or early 2009, it wasn’t published until 2013, when it appeared in the original anthology Beyond the Sun, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt.

And then, a week ago, I finally got around to seeing Interstellar. While I am not generally a fan of science fiction movies (something that people have a hard time believing, since I write science fiction), I really enjoyed Interstellar. I was the best science fiction movie I’ve seen since Contact. I watched the movie, and then, later that same evening, I watched it again. I know that some people complained that, despite the best efforts, some of the science was not accurate. Others complained that the dialog was poorly written. I enjoyed it all. Most of all, I enjoyed seeing the paradox that I envisioned in my story come to life in a well-executed conclusion. Indeed, the ending of Interstellar reminded me, in some ways, of the ending of Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man.”

I also loved the vision of robots in Interstellar. The AIs of that world reminded me of the AIs that populate Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels. Their versatility was impressive, but I also enjoyed the personalization: you could define humor, honesty, and other elements to your taste.

Contact was a more cerebral movie than Interstellar, but Interstellar made me feel like I was traveling to alien worlds. It is a movie that I know I will enjoy watching again from time to time.

The Thrill of the Cracker Jacks

Nats Stadium

On Saturday, I took the Little Man to an exhibition game between the New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals. We took the Metro over to Nationals Park, and found our way to our seats, where my friend, and fellow writer Michael J. Sullivan was waiting for us. I think that Michael told me this was the third baseball game he’d ever attended. As it happens, it was the Little Man’s third game, too. He attended a Nationals game when he was a little baby. Then, when he’d just turned two years old, he attended a minor league game up in Troy, NY, between the Tri-City Valley Cats and the Vermont Lake Monsters. But the game on Saturday is likely to be the first that he remembers as he gets older, if for no other reason than he plays Little League baseball, and has more of a sense of the game than he did when he was two.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the game for the Little Man was the thought of getting Cracker Jacks. He knew about Cracker Jacks from the song, of course, and also because Caillou has them in an episode of that cartoon. But the Little Man had never had them before. So when we arrived at the stadium the very first thing that we did, even before going to our seats, was seek out Cracker Jacks. Eventually, we located a bag (they are no longer sold in boxes, at least not at Nationals Park) of Cracker Jacks. We added to this, two hot dogs, a small soda, and a beer. Then we sought out our seats. We were high up, but had a good view of the playing field, which is what I wanted so that I could explains things about the game to the Little Man. We both wore our Yankees hats, and while we sat among many Nationals fans, there were plenty of Yankees fans to be seen around the park.

The Little Man picked up the rhythm of the game quickly, and even learned to follow the scoreboard for balls, strikes, and outs. When the Nationals would make a good play on the Yankees, he’d say, “Aw, man!” When the Yankees made a good play, he became wildly excited. He saw his first home run that game, and that brought the score to 3-2 (the Yanks had been trailing.)

When A-Rod came to the plate, and the stadium booed, the Little Man wondered why. I explained that A-Rod had cheated, and had not been allowed to play baseball for a year, and that a lot of people (myself included) were upset that he cheated.

We stayed for five full innings before the Little Man got too restless and wanted to head home. We left with the Nationals leading 3-2, and that means that we missed the Yankees comeback home run in the 8th inning. But it was still fun. I mean a lot of fun. At one point, entirely on his own volition the Little Man turned to me and said, “Thanks for bringing me to the game, Daddy.” Really, it was perfect.

It made me wonder who really had more fun, him, for me, watching him. I thought about my Dad taking me to baseball games when I was very young, and had a sudden realization that it must have been fun for him in the same way that it was fun for me on Saturday. The Little Man got to see the game, and got to eat a bag of Cracker Jacks, and I got to sit there and watch him do it. I imagine we will be doing it again, before long.

More Updates to the Google Docs Writing Tracker

I recently pushed a new branch called “project-tracking” out to the Google Docs Writing Tracker on GitHub. This branch includes code for project-tracking that I wrote about a week ago. The changes have been working fine for me over the last 10 days or so. The one thing I haven’t done yet is update the template spreadsheet. The new code requires 2 new tabs in the spreadsheet, along with some additional settings. I’ll get to that eventually.

Meanwhile, I have been trying to figure out a way to simplify what happens each night the scripts do their processing. Right now, the scripts perform a comparison between the current working document, and a previous snapshot of the document in another folder. That snapshot mechanism takes up a lot of code, and is relatively inefficient. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about an alternative, and today, I tested that alternative out with positive results.

Every Google Document keeps a revision history of the changes to that document. Here is the revision history for a story that I worked on back in February:

Revision history

It turns out, that using the advanced Google Drive API, I can access the revisions through the API. Today I performed a test, which essentially compared the current document to the last revision of the previous day. That is essentially what the snapshot method that the script current uses does. But it does without needing to maintain two files. I can get all of the information I need from the previous revision. Ultimately, that simplifies the code for the scripts. It also simplifies setup.

There is a tradeoff, however.

You can only access the advanced Google Drive API via OAUTH2 authentication. That means configuring the scripts to be able to handle that authentication. It turned out to be a pretty straight-forward one-time setup for me, but I do this kind of thing for a living. For someone who isn’t technical, it may be a little tricker.

It will likely be a while before this major architectural change is available. There are several reasons for this:

  1. My priority each day is on getting my writing in. I do this scripting only if the writing is done, and I have time.
  2. If I were doing this just for me, it would be easy. The code I wrote today checks for the last revision from “yesterday” and compares that to the current document. Simple, right? But not everyone who uses these scripts writes every day. What happens if you skip some days. Then there is no revision from “yesterday” so the script has to know to look for the previous revision regardless of date. There are a few other uses cases that need to be considered as well.
  3. Once I have the code written, I like to test it for a few weeks before pushing it out, just so that I can work out any kinks.

That said, once this feature is in place, I think it will make for an enormous improvement. Since everything, including the revisions, is contained in the one document, there will no longer be a need to manage a snapshot folder at all, and all of that code can go away.

It also opens up the possibilities for analytics on the evolution of a document over time, which would be pretty cool, too.

Manifesto 43: Improving My Quantified Self

When it comes to quantified self, one question I frequently hear is “how can this data really help me”? It is a good question, especially since there are huge volumes of data about ourselves available, and it may not be obvious how to put it to use. I have used quantified self data to improve my writing, and help get more exercise, but it seems to me there is more I can be doing to use this data to improve.

I had been thinking about this a lot leading up to my birthday last week. As I approached my birthday, I began to think about the general areas of my life that I would like to improve, and see if there was a way that I could take advantage of data to help me make the improvements. So I put together a simple document in which I began to list the following:

  • The areas I wanted to improve
  • A simple statement or instruction to frame the improvement
  • An initial notion for how I might measure the improvement.

I called the document my “Manifesto:43.” I thought it might be interesting to others, so below are the major areas, along with the “instruction” I gave myself to keep in mind.

I have more detailed thoughts and actions in each of these areas, and I’ll tackle them in separate posts over the next few weeks, but for now, here are the major areas I’m looking to improve.

Play

Play with the kids whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Walk

Prefer walking over other modes of transportation where practical.

Write

Write every day, even if only for a few minutes.

Eat

Make healthy choices.

Disconnect

Make efficient use of online resources. Avoid unnecessary activity.

Simplify

Use the best tool for the job, but avoid overlapping tools.

Save

Look for opportunities to save more.

Relax

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

There are some overarching themes here. These things can be grouped in different ways to reflect overall priorities. For instance, grouping together “Play”, “Disconnect”, “Simplify” and “Relax”, you have what I think of as “family time.” Improving in those four areas helps improve family time. Grouping “Walk”, “Eat”, and “Relax” are all health-related.

For each of these areas, I produced simple examples of actions that I can take to make the improvements I am looking to make. I’ll drill down into those in a separate post. I have also attempted to identify quantifiable ways of measuring the improvements. In some instances (e.g. “play”) it is pretty hard. In others (“walk”, “write”, “save”) it is pretty easy. Some of the actions are one-time and others are ongoing. I’ve already taken some actions and although it is too early to say how well these changes are working, I am pretty happy with my overall framework for thinking about these things.

Stay-tuned for more.

The Architecture of Time Travel in a Role-Playing Video Game

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about following along with the progress of Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues is the peek I’ve gotten into the process behind the scenes of video game development. The Ultima games were my absolute favorites as a kid, and as a software developer (by profession), I’ve always been curious about how they are made. It’s not so much the three-dimensional environment that interests me, but the game on the macro scale. The interweaving stories, and the various games states, and how it is all managed.

My thoughts had drifted to this while eating dinner this evening, and I began to wonder if time travel had ever been an integral element to the architecture of a game universe. I wondered if it was possible to architect the game model to support time travel as an action in the universe. For instance, a player could cast a spell to go back in time to a certain point. Once at that point, they would see the events of the game unfold, as they actually occurred. But now, there would be two instances of the player in the world. The “past” instance would now be an NPC, with a predefined course of action based on what has already happened. The “current” instance would be played from the player’s perspective.

Beyond the plot aspects, I wonder what the architecture of such a game model would look like. It would grow more complex the longer the game is played. And how would you account for changes in the past. Would a new “game universe” be spawned. Could a player cross universes at that point?

I’m not really going anywhere with these thoughts. But I was mostly curious if anything like this had been implemented in a large-scale RPG before.

I’m on the Functional Nerds podcast today

Last week, I sat down with Patrick Hester and John Anealio, hosts of the Functional Nerds podcast. It was a blast. We talked books, baseball, writing, productivity, and music. If you are interested, have a listen over at the Functional Nerds.

And a big thank you to John and Patrick for having me on the show.

Working on a new feature for the Google Docs Writing Tracker: Projects!

I have started work on a new feature for my Google Docs Writing Tracker: Project Tracking. My goal with this feature is to close the loop of manual tasks that I tend to perform around my writing process. These are are two-fold:

  1. Tracking the progress on writing projects
  2. 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:

Google Docs Writing Tracker Project Info

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.

Google Docs Writing Tracker project progress

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.

3. Projects

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.

Google Docs Writing Tracker Projects

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:

  1. Adding the project JSON code to project documents.
  2. 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.

  1. I haven’t yet pushed the branch so don’t bother looking for it yet. I’ll you know when it is out there.

My Ambitious Writing Goal Over the Next 12 Months

A Tale of Two Stories

Last 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.

The challenge

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.

The schedule

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:

  1. Strays (1st draft): March 27, 2015 – June 27, 2015 (90,000 words)
  2. Peacefield (1st draft): June 28, 2015 – September 28, 2015 (90,000 words)
  3. Strays (2nd draft): September 29, 2015 – December 29, 2015 (90,000 words)
  4. 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.

Outcomes

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.

600 Days of Writing and 600 Books Read

I wasn’t going to make a big deal about hitting 600 consecutive days of writing–which I will hit later today when I get my writing in. I’d promised that my next major milestone would come on August 23, 2015–that’s when I’ll hit 763 consecutive days. On that day, I will have more consecutive days of writing than Barry Bonds has home runs.

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.

  1. The original 1978 version, not the uncut version released in 1990.
  2. Listen to.

The Fiction of Mid-Life

My grandfather lived to be 84-years old. If we take 84 to be the new three score years and ten, then later this month, when I hit 43, I’ll be past the literal midway point. I haven’t gone out and bought any fancy cars, or tried to eliminate the gray from my hair (it’s been there since my mid-20s, so I’m used to it by now). But I have had some interesting recurring thoughts lately.

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.

  1. 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.

Thoughts on Stephen King’s story “A Death” in the New Yorker

Stories like Stephen King’s “A Death” in the March 9 issue of the New Yorker go a long way to explaining why I love short fiction. I have this sense–perhaps a false one–that while there is no such thing as the perfect novel, there is a perfect short story. It is as rare as a perfect game in baseball, but it is achievable. Of course, it is not quantifiable the way a perfect game in baseball is. To twist an oft-used expression: I can’t say exactly what makes a story perfect, but I know it when I see it.

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.

Policy on Product Reviews and Plugs

For some reason, I have been getting 3 or 4 requests per day to review some productivity product, service, or website. The requests are almost all extremely polite, professional, and the products almost always interesting. But with so many requests coming it, I figured it was time that I put up a post that I could point people to about my policy on product reviews and plugs. If you are not interested in this, you can stop reading now. If I’ve directed you here, please continue.

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.