There was a time when I thought I would never be published…

Once upon a time, when I first started to write with the idea to sell stories, I used to have these wild daydreams of being published. I’d finish writing a terrible short story and then sit back in my chair and imagine what it would be like just to be published, to have written something good enough that an editor was willing to pay money for it, and that readers other than my friends and family would read.

My reverie was a lot of like those silly daydreams of winning the lottery. I’d come home from class one day, and find an envelope in the mailbox. Instead of a form rejection slip, the envelope would contain a Letter of Acceptance. I had no idea what such a letter would look like, but there it was. I’d dance around the room, happy as can be, floating on the thought that I’d done it! I was a published writer.

Then I’d come back to reality, face the blank page, and wonder if it really wasn’t just a pipe dream.

One day, I sold a story. I was thrilled. A contract arrived in the mail, followed by a check, and a few months later, my first published story appeared in an online magazine. It was wonderful, delightful, and very much like winning the lottery. In the back of my mind, however, I wondered if I would ever be published in one of the big genre magazines, especially Analog, which had been around since the 1930s, and in which many of my heroes had been published.

I thought that it probably wouldn’t happen. The stories published there were just too good, the competition for space too fierce. This didn’t deter me from writing, it simply provided a new form of daydream. I’d been published, and now I would close my eyes and imagine what it would be like to be published by Analog, my name of the table of contents, my byline on a story in the pages of that revered (well, by me, anyway) magazine. No, I didn’t think it would happen, but it was fun to daydream about. And I kept writing.

Then, one day, I sold a story to Analog. I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled, but I was sure it was a one-time thing. I kept writing. Analog bought more stories and articles from me. So did other magazines. So did some original anthologies.

These days, I don’t worry much about selling stories. In most cases, when I write a short story, I’m pretty sure I will sell it, eventually. But I’ve been writing longer and longer pieces. I’ve written a novella, and a first draft of a novel. My daydreams no longer deal in short fiction. I’ll tilt my head back, close my eyes, and imagine I’ve just gotten word that I’ve sold a novel. I can almost see it. I can almost imagine how exciting that would be. An entire book that I wrote, appearing in bookstores throughout the country. How cool would that be? Just thinking about it gets me giddy.

My tendency is to think that it probably won’t happen. Writing a novel is hard. Writing good novel is really hard. The competition is fierce, and there are lots and lots of good novels being published every week. Mine would just be static within the noise. On the other hand…

I never thought I’d really sell a story. And when I did, I never thought I’d sell a story to Analog. And when I did that, I never thought I’d do it again. But of course, I did. And so I no longer worry much about the self-doubt that I face as a writer, because while the doubt is always there, lingering in the shadows, waiting for a weak moment to pounce, I’ve shown myself that, despite the doubt, I’ve managed to achieve more with my writing than I thought possible. So why not a novel? Why not bestseller? Why not a life as full time writer? Ah, one can dream.

But one can also write.

Low Word Count Days

Yesterday, I managed to write only 112 words on the story that I am currently working on. It is the lowest word count I’ve had since April 11, 2014. I thought I should mention it here since I often talk about my writing streak and my daily averages, to show that sometimes, even the best laid plan of mice and keyboards make it hard to fit in the day’s writing. Yesterday was one of those days.

112 words does not sound like much at all. Even so, I spent 20 minutes coming up with those 112 words, and they represent a complete scene in the story. I knew that yesterday was going to be a long day. I had a lot of work to focus on at the day job. In the evening, we went out to dinner with friends. So there wasn’t going to be much time to write. I squeezed in the 112 words early in the day, thinking I might have a chance to come back to add more later, but that didn’t happen.

I’m okay with that. Even though it was only a few short paragraphs, I felt good about what I’d written, and I was relieved that I’d gotten it done early in the day, rather than stress it about not having it done yet through the latter part of the day. For me, the goal is to write every day. It doesn’t matter how much or how little.

But it did make me curious about how often I have these particularly low word counts. Since one full manuscript page is about 250 words, give or take, I’ll use 250 words as a threshold, and ask: how often have I written less than a page a day?

In the last 724 days, I have written less than a page 57 times. That’s about 7.8% of the time, or about 1 out of every 13 days. Looking at it as a timeline, my low word count days look as follows:

Low word count days

I’ve learned not to be discouraged about low word count days. Some writing is better than no writing, even if it’s a page or less on a given day.

But mostly, I wanted to show that despite my growing consecutive day writing streak, not every day is an 800 or 1,000-word day. There are plenty of days (57 day of them!) when I can barely get a page.

 

The Little Man and the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

I was in the shower when the Little Man let out a shriek that would raise the dead. He had been sitting on our bed, watching Power Rangers Megaforce when a bug that had been crawling along the wall landed on his knee.

Little man, meet Halyomorpha halys; brown marmorated stink bug, meet the Little Man.

After he calmed down (his jets had launched him well beyond the orbit of the moon), he asked what it was. “A stink bug,” I told him. You’d think a five year old would instantly fall in love with anything that had the word “stink” in it. Perhaps I should have called it a fart bug.

It was really a minor thing, except the Little Man now worried that Mr. Halys might somehow find his way into his room, and worse yet, into his bed. Kelly tried to assuage this by giving the bug an exciting ride down the toilet. This seemed fine for a little while. Then, after the Little Man used the facilities, he said, “Daddy, we have to make sure to close all of the toilets in the house to make sure that the bug doesn’t come up.” We made sure all of the toilet lids were closed. Stephen King, eat your heart out.

Once in bed, the worry crept in that this bug would somehow come back, and bring its legions with it.

“I’ve got it covered,” I told the Little Man, “Zekie (our cat) will patrol up here tonight.”

“What will he do?”

“Well, if he see the bug, he’ll eat it.”

He’ll eat it?” the Little Man said, shocked.

“What’s your favorite food in the whole world?” I asked him.

“Candy.” Of course.

“Well, for cats, stink bugs are like candy.”

“Not uh,” he said.

“What happens when you eat too much candy?” I asked.

“You get a tummy ache.”

“And don’t we come home sometimes to find that Zekie has been sick on the floor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, what you do think made him sick?”

That seemed to make him feel better. I tucked him in, gave him kiss, turned off the light. His brow furrowed, “But Daddy, how will Zekie see the bug in the dark?”

Stop obsessing over the bug, I wanted to say, you’ll give yourself nightmares for no reason. “Well, Zeke is cat, and cats are nocturnal. Do you know what nocturnal means?”

He nodded, “It means that they don’t sleep at night, and can see in the dark.”

“There you go.”

He considered this logic for a long time, and then seemed satisfied. “Okay, Daddy,” he said, “just make sure you bring Zeke upstairs right now, okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

The Little Man slept soundly through the night.

His father, on the other hand, had dreams of stink bugs swarming his bed, crawling all over him, and getting in between the keys of his keyboard, making it particularly difficult to write.

How Do You Find Time to Write?

From time-to-time, I get asked how I find the time to write. I supposed this is, in part, because of my consecutive-day writing streak (which now stands at 576 days). But I think part of it comes from the fact that I manage to write while working a full time job, while blogging, and while raising a family. The question comes in various forms but it all boils down to the same thing: how do you find time to write?

I’ve talked about this before, but I don’t think I’ve ever written a post on it exclusively (I could be wrong–with more than 6,000 posts it’s hard to remember everything I’ve written). So I thought I’d try to answer this question here. Keep in mind that the question I am answering is how do find time to write. Your mileage may vary.

1. I challenged my assumptions about the time I needed to write

When I started to write every day, nearly two years ago now1, the first thing I did was test my assumptions of what I needed to write.

With respect to time, I used to think that I needed a chunk of time–a minimum of, say, 1 hour, better yet 2 hours–to get any decent writing done. In the past, I’d tried to carve out an hour or two during the day to write. Usually it was very early in the morning, and while it worked for a time, it eventually failed. It fail for several reasons:

  1. I might be able to get up at 4 am a few day a week to get in some writing, but the long days wore on my, and eventually, I’d fail.
  2. When I did fail, I felt guilty for the rest of the day.
  3. Failure one day led to failure another day.

So the first thing I did in February 2013 was challenge my assumption about how much time I needed to write. I decided to experiment. My experiment was as follows:

  1. I would write every day, even if it was only for a few minutes.
  2. I would not schedule a specific time to write, but writing would be a priority for any spare time that I found.

This experiment required that I be able to write from anywhere, which is why, beginning in February 2013, I moved my entire writing infrastructure into Google Docs. Using Google Docs meant I could write from any device, wherever I happened to be. It meant I didn’t have to worry about moving files back and forth across devices. That meant I could spend what little time I had writing instead of copying files and managing versions.

2. I challenged my assumptions about the environment I needed to write

I used to think I needed a quiet, secluded environment where I could do my writing. But if I had to write whenever the time was available, as opposed to setting aside blocks of time, then I needed to challenge my assumptions about the environment I needed to work in.

I decided to try to write in whatever environment I found myself in, so long as the time was available. If that meant writing at the library, fine. If that meant writing in the quiet of my home office, fine. If that meant writing in the family room, with the TV blaring and the kids running around screaming, fine.

3. I collected data about my behavior in order to provide a baseline

I wrote a set of scripts for Google Docs that automated the tracking of my writing. This meant I could focus on writing, rather than tracking, but still collect the data I was looking for (how much I was writing each day). I also began using a tool called RescueTime which tracks how much time you spend on various applications and documents across your computers. This gave me real numbers for how much time I was spending writing each day, which I could use to see if my assumptions were good or not.

4. I wrote every day

With my challenges to my assumptions, and my automated scripts and data collection, I started to write. I wrote every day. Sometimes I’d only write for 10 minutes. Other times, I’d find 3 hours to write. Sometimes I was exhausted, but wrote for 15 minutes anyway. Sometimes, I knew what I was writing was terrible, but that the practice was important, so I kept at it.

Sometimes my day got thrown off. I adjusted as best as I could. When I knew my schedule would be crazy in advance, I’d plan ahead, and try to get a little writing in early in the day. At least then, it was done. If there turned out be time to do more later, I’d do more.

I found that over the course of 721 days, there were only 2 days that I could not manage to get any writing in. Both were unusually long, busy travel or conference days. I learned lessons from both, and haven’t missed a day of writing since July 21, 2013.


What the numbers told me

Over the course of my 576 consecutive day writing streak, I’ve written over half a million words, and sold 11 stories or articles. Here is what the data looks like for the duration of my streak so far:

Continue reading How Do You Find Time to Write?

  1. Although my consecutive writing streak stands at 576 days, there is a larger overall “streak” beginning late February 2013 during which I have only missed 2 days of writing. That is, I have written on 719 out of the last 721 days, the last 576 of them consecutively.

Stephen King Revisited

I have been having a lot of fun following along on Richard Chizmar1‘s Stephen King Revisited blog, as he attempts to re-read every Stephen King book in chronological order. After each book, he posts an article, as there usually several others as well looking at the work through various contexts. It’s been great fun, and as I might have expected, it’s made me want to follow along in a more literal sense–by doing this myself.

I waffled over this for several weeks, and finally decided to give a try. Chizmar is already on King’s 4th book, Rage, a book that is no longer in print, and one of the few King books I don’t already own in one form or another. So I have some catching up to do. I started re-reading Carrie yesterday, and found it to be completely enjoyable. Yes, I am reading stuff I’ve already read, but I’m having fun doing it.

I’m not planning on posting the kind of detailed essays and articles that Chizmar is doing on his site, although I may comment over there from time-to-time. And I’ll probably write about those books that I haven’t read before. Like Rage, which I ordered, used a few days ago, and which is scheduled to arrive in the mail sometime today.

I’m also trying to figure out a way to post my progress for those who are curious. More than likely, I’ll have a link on this site that you can go to see my overall progress. Stay-tuned for more on that.

Even if you are not revisiting Stephen King yourself, I’d encourage you to check out Chizmar’s Stephen King Revisited site, if you are at all interested in King’s work.

ETA (1:00 pm): The mailman delivered The Bachman Books, which includes Rage a little while ago. So I am all set for a long time.

  1. Publisher of Cemetery Dance.

“What’s your story about?” (Or why I don’t talk about the stories I’m working on)

There is one question I dread in interviews, and even casual conversations when people find out I am a writer. And no, it is not “where do you get your ideas?” Take casual conversations as an example, especially with people who I haven’t spoken with before, or who have heard I am a writer. They typically go something like this:

“So you’re a writer?”

“Guilty as charged.”

“Have you been published.”

“Sure.”

“I don’t mean self-published.”

“Neither do I. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.1

“Are you working on something now?”

“Yes, I’m working on a story.” At this point I begin to tense up. Here it comes. I know it. Here it comes.

“What’s your story about?”

Okay, I have worked out a standard answer, although it’s probably unsatisfactory to both me and my questioner. Usually, I’ll say something like, “I’m not sure yet. I’ll let you know when I finish it.” But that is a white lie. Because I almost always know what the story is about, or at least, what I think it going to be about.

Over the years I’ve learned something: if I talk about my stories when I’m writing them, I find that it takes the life out of the story for me. When I return to the keyboard after spilling my guts, I find I just don’t have the same enthusiasm for the story that I did before I talked about it. So for a quite a while now, I just don’t talk about them much, beyond mentioning a title, and perhaps a very brief description, like, “It’s a baseball alternate history novella.”

The problem is, I sometimes get the feeling that “I’m not sure, I’ll let you know when I finish,” comes across as a little disingenuous. So in interviews, I’ve started being more straight-forward about it. If I’m asked about what I’m currently working on, I’ll say that I’m working on the second draft of a novel, or a short story for a theme anthology. I’ll add that I don’t like talking about the stories while I work on them, not to maintain an aura of mystery, but because I find that the story loses life for me when I talk about it.

If an editor asks me about a story, I’ll try to be more explicit without popping the bubble, but usually, I don’t talk about the stories even with editors until they are finished.

A few writers I know don’t seem to have this problem. They will describe in ten minutes a story that would take five minutes to read. They will go into extraordinary detail. And I wonder if they are immune to this allergy of mine.

I’m curious about other writers. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been published or not, but I’d be interested to know if you can talk about stories you are working on without those stories losing their verve. And if not, how do you deal with it? Let me know in the comments.

  1. There is an occasional diversion from the main branch of the conversation here, with my questioner asking, “When’s the movie coming out?” in mock-serious tones. “Friday,” I’ll usually say without missing a beat.

A Peek Inside My TextExpander Snippets

When I talk about how I use TextExpander to increase my productivity, I sometimes get questions about what TextExpander actually does. Although the name is pretty clear, if you’ve never used the tool, it might not be obvious how it can help speed up your day. So I thought I’d give folks a peek into my TextExpander snippets so you can see what I am talking about.

TextExpander is a Mac-only tool. On my Windows machine, I use a tool called PhraseExpress, which does the same thing–and it can even use my TextExpander settings files, which I keep on Dropbox for this very purpose.

My Golden Rule of productivity

For context: if I have to do something more than once, I try to automate the process. I am sitting at a keyboard all day, and there are many things I find myself typing over and over again. Email addresses, phone numbers, and common replies are just a few examples. TextExpander allows me to create shortcut phrases for these common things so that I don’t have to type the whole text every time. I type the shortcut and it automatically expands into the full text.

My snippets

TextExpander Snippets

Above you can see a list of some of my more common TextExpander snippets. The shortcut for each appears in the gray oval to the right. I preface my shortcuts with two semi-colons to avoid a conflict with the word itself.

For example, when I type ;;paperless, it automatically expands into http://www.jamierubin.net/going-paperless. I don’t have to type the entire URL and there is the added benefit of eliminating the risk that I might make a typo if I do type it manually.

You can see other examples in the list. TextExpander makes it easy to take a short phrase and expand it into something longer.

Continue reading A Peek Inside My TextExpander Snippets

My Favorite Form of Fiction-Writing: The Novella

Since I have been working on the second draft of a novella off-and-on over the last couple of week1 it occurred to me, at some point, that the novella was my favorite form of fiction-writing.

What is a novella? Officially (for the purposes of award categories), according to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a novella is a work of fiction from 17,500 words to 40,000 words. In reality, a novella is a long story that can approach the length of a short novel. If you think of stories in terms of pages, a novella can be anywhere from 60 – 160 manuscript pages in length. You’ve probably read novellas, although they might not be called such. Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is a novella. So is his story “The Body” on which the movie Stand By Me was based.

I have written only 2 novellas in my writing career. The first was a 20,000 word story written years ago, but never sold. The second is the one I am working on now. The first draft came in at about 20,000 words. I don’t yet know how long the second draft will be.

There is something remarkably free about writing a novella. It is not nearly as hard (at least for me) as writing a novel. Yet it is not nearly as constricting as writing a short story. A novella gives the freedom to tell a story at its own length and pace. Perhaps it is best described as a novel wrung free of all of the chaff, compressed as tightly as possible without sacrificing the story.

If an half-hour sit-com is a short story, and an hour-long drama is a novelette, then perhaps a mini-series is the equivalent of a novella.

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing short stories. But there is a feeling I get when writing a novella that I don’t get with short stories. I once read that a short story should describe a moment from which you can derive everything that came before, and everything that will come after. When I write short stories, I try to start the story as late in the action as I can manage, and finish the story as soon as I can after the action is over. The same is not true with a novella. With a novella, I feel like I have the freedom to roam. Many things can be happening at once, and the threads are ultimately tied together, but it is not rushed.

As it turns out, my favorite form of fiction to read–from a purely artistic standpoint–is the novella. I’ve mentioned Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth” and “The Body” but there are many others that have astounded me. Nancy Kress’s “Beggars in Spain,” Robert Reed’s “Marrow,” Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man,” Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” and many, many others.

The main problem with novellas is that they are the hardest pieces to sell. First of all, there are not a lot of markets that accept them, although in the science fiction world, several of the major magazines do publish them. Outside the magazines, the choices are even more limited: small presses, or self-published. Consider that for a magazine to print a 20,000 word story, that that story has to be better than four 5,000-word stories. For this reason, for a long time, I didn’t write novellas. I knew my odds were much better at selling a 5,000 word story.

But I’ve since cast aside the desire to sell the story as the first reason for writing it. These days I write novellas first and foremost to entertain myself. If I can sell them, all the better, but I no longer avoid writing them because they are hard to sell.

I’m hoping to wrap up the novella that I am working on now (“Strays”) in the near future. I still have the novel draft to work on, but I need a break from that sometimes. So when I do finish “Strays” I have another novella which I’ve been wanting to write, and I’ll probably start that one so that I have something to fall back on when I get tired of the novel draft. And who knows, maybe, with practice, I’ll write that is good enough to sell and then you’ll be able to read it, if you so choose.

  1. To give myself a break on the second draft of the novel, which requires some additional thought.

A Competitive Bunch of FitBit Steppers

On Monday, my buddy and coworker, Rob, invited me to the FitBit “Workweek Hustle” challenge. This is a little challenge in the FitBit app that allows you to compete with friends to see who ends up with the most steps through the course of the workweek. Apparently, I have a competitive set of friends when it comes to steps. After not quite 3 complete days, here is how things stand (no pun intended):

FitBit Challenge

We are each averaging close to 20,000 steps per day.

And, while we each have a full 5 days to complete the challenge, I must point out the my pals Rob and Alvaro have the advantage of walking in the comfort of warm southern California air, while I am getting in my steps in windy (sometimes rainy) and cold conditions of the east coast. I think I should get some kind of handicap for that. My count is down today for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I am back on the rollout countdown for this project-that-never-ends.

The challenge ends Friday. I’ll let you know how things went.

Winter Sunset

Numbers often provide objective measures of performance. In baseball, sabremetricians have been using the vast numbers produced by the sport to improve performance for decades. It seemed to me that I could do the same with the data that I produced. But I set a fairly specific scope when I started out: I'd focus on objective measurements; that is, things for which I did not have to make a judgement call. I'd use only data that could be collected automatically, without me having to do anything beyond my normal activity. The things that fell into this category--the low-hanging fruit--was, for me, things like physical activity (walking, sleeping), writing (word counts), computer activity (how long I used various applications throughout the day

I noticed a particularly nice winter sky this evening, one of the nicer ones I’ve seen so far this year. So I thought I’d share it.

Going Paperless: Mobile Scanning with Evernote Scannable

I keep my eye out for apps that can help save me time and be more productive. So when Evernote recently released their new app, Scannable, I was eager to try it out. Not only was it designed to do one thing really well–namely, scan documents–but it filled a niche that I found I needed more and more in my efforts to go paperless.

For those who aren’t familiar with the app, Scannable uses the camera in your iPhone or iPad1 to scan documents into Evernote (or other apps). It makes it incredibly easy to do this. You simply start the app, hold the device over the document so that the entire document appears, and wait a few seconds while Scannable detects the edges, and snaps a photo. You don’t have to click button. Scannable does it all. It cleans up the image, makes sure the edges are straight, and then gives you the opportunity to send the document to Evernote or other applications.

How it works

First, you start the app. Then you hold your device over the document you want to scan, and wait a second or two. When the document is highlighted in blue, it means Scannable has detected it and automatically grabs the image. Note how the document below is highlighted and detected even on the edge of my table.

Scannable scanning

Once detected, you can continue to scan more documents, or deal with the ones you’ve already scanned.

Scannable action

When I finish my scanning, I send the document or documents to Evernote. Doing this, I am prompted for which notebook I want the documents to be filed in:

Scannable file

A few seconds later, my scanned document is available in Evernote.

Continue reading Going Paperless: Mobile Scanning with Evernote Scannable

  1. Sorry folks, right now the app is just iOS.

A Post-Mortem on Yesterday’s Site Outage

Many of you probably noticed that this site was down for several hours yesterday. I’m not sure of the full extent, but looking at my Google Analytics data, it looks as if the site was down from about 9 am EST to sometime between noon and 1 pm EST. Let’s call it three hours.

Outage

Whenever the site is down I get stressed, knowing that it sucks to come to a site an get an obscure “Database connection error.” I was also annoyed because my host had recommended I move to another server and host platform a few months ago–something I did because they said it would greatly reduce the chance of an outage and improve the performance of the site.

The move certainly did the latter, but as yesterday showed, there was a major outage on the new platform. I spent some time working with the host to find out the root cause (database issues, not related to my site specifically) and what measures were being taken to reduce the chances of this happening again in the future. Being an IT person myself, I can talk their language and that helps a little.

In any case, I feel pretty confident that the chances are small that we’ll see another outage like this one–at least one related to the same cause.

I wanted to apologize for the outage yesterday, and for any frustration it may have caused. I am monitoring things here, and hopefully we won’t see this particular problem happen again.