How I Work, January 2021 Edition

Way back in February 2014, I was interviewed as part of LifeHacker’s “How I Work” series. Nearly 7 years have passed since that interview. A lot has changed, both in the tools I use, and the way I think about productivity, so I thought it was about time I brought that interview up to date. Here, then, is how I work in January 2021.

The basics

Apps, software and tools I can’t live without

To say that I can’t live without any of these tools is a bit extreme. Indeed, if there has been a significant change in my overall productivity philosophy over the last seven years, it has been toward simplicity. In 2021, I am trying, as much as practical to get the most from the tools that come with the systems I use, adding additional tools only where absolutely necessary. With that said, here’s a glimpse of my infrastructure.

iCloud

Apple’s iCloud forms the foundation of my infrastructure. I recently merged our various Apple services into the Apple One Premier service, which includes 2 TB of data in iCloud. (We had 2 TB before but paid for it separately.) We all use Apple devices, and this allows us to manage the family accounts, and access our data from our various devices as needed. For storage, it also provides a kind of basic backup since the data is synced to the cloud.

Writing

Seven years ago, I was using Google Docs for all of my writing. In the intervening years I’ve gone back and forth between various writing apps: Scrivener, plain text (markdown) files, I’ve tried them all. Ultimately, I’ve come full circle. In college, I made the switch from WordPerfect to Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS, and that became my favorite word processor. I have now returned to Microsoft Word, doing all of my writing there. I made this decision for several reasons:

  • It is a proven word processor that has been around for a long time. Indeed, I can open Word documents I wrote in college 30 years ago with Microsoft Word today.
  • It provides a single interface for all of the writing I do. I write these blog post in Word, as well as stories (when I am able to write them). I write letters in Word. Any kind of writing that I do happens in Word.
  • I saved myself a lot of time and headaches by creating a set of templates I use for all of my writing. I have three: fiction, blog post, and personal letter. I don’t have to worry about formatting. I took the time to create the templates to avoid having to tinker while I write.
  • I stick to the basics. I don’t need the vast majority of Word’s functions, and I’ve adjusted my toolbar accordingly.
  • It makes it much easier to archive my documents, something I have been working on for a while now.

I don’t worry as much about tracking my writing as I did seven years ago. I write, and I tend not to look at how much. That means I’ve given up most of the infrastructure I built to track my writing. It felt freeing to do that.

I still use WordPress for the blog here. WordPress is a great piece of software, one of the few that I can say has never really caused me any trouble, and has always worked well.

Productivity

I’ve pared down the list of tools I use to stay productive over the last 7 years. Here are 5 that I use most frequently.

  • Pastebot. I don’t know why the Mac OS doesn’t come with a built-in clipboard manager, but it doesn’t. Pastebot fills this gap. This has been an invaluable tool for copy/paste productivity. Pastebot collects the things you copy (text, images, etc.) and allow you to instantly paste them from a history list. It integrates with iCloud so your copy history is accessible across devices. I probably use this a hundred times a day.
  • Keyboard Maestro. Great for text expanding, but it does a whole lot more. For instance, you can create useful workflows based on various events. I have one that copies the Clippings.txt file to a folder on my computer every time I plug in my Kindle.
  • LastPass. My favorite password management software. This has only gotten better in the 7+ years I have been using it. Nowadays, we use the Family addition so that everyone in the family can benefit from it.
  • Shortcuts. Once I figured out what Shortcuts were for on the iPhone, I embraced them, and I now have several that I created that have proven useful. My favorite is one I call “Let’s Nap” (as in, “Hey Siri, let’s nap). I use this when my 4-year-old and I lay down for a nap at lunchtime. When I tell Siri “let’s nap” my shortcut does the following: (1) checks for when my next meeting is, and if it is within the next hour, sets an alarm for 5 minutes before the start of the meeting; (2) puts my phone into Do Not Disturb mode for the same amount of time; (3) sets the volume of the phone to 12%; (4) turns on a playlist that we listen to as we drift off to sleep. It love it, and it works great!
  • A custom Safari home page. I created a custom Safari home page that every new tab and window opens to automatically. It has grouped jumping off points for the various things I do frequently. It’s kind of a like bookmark dashboard, but it makes it easy to get started with the most common tasks I do in Safari.
Example of my custom Safari homepage.
Example of my custom Safari home page

Reading

  • Audible. I’d been using Audible for just about a year when I was interviewed by Lifehacker. I mentioned how much more productive it made me because I could read more since I could listen to books while doing other things. That is still true today. Reading is how I continue to learn things, and Audible is an invaluable tool (and worthwhile investment) in my continuing education.
  • Kindle. If Audible has one downside, is that there is not a good way to highlight passages and take notes in the app. More and more, when I get a book from Audible, I also get the e-book. Particularly for nonfiction, this allows me to follow along, highlight passages, and take notes on what I am reading. While the e-books work on any Kindle app or device, my preferred device is my Kindle Oasis, since there are no other apps to distract me there.
  • Apple News+. This comes with the Apple One Premier service. I read a lot of magazines, and one thing I really like about Apple News+ is that many of the magazines I read are available there. For some I have separate print subscriptions because I like to read from something other than a screen now and then but having access to hundreds of magazines is useful.

Document management

  • Evernote. I don’t use Evernote for as many things as I used to, but I still use it to scan and manage important documents. Over the years I’ve pruned what I keep in Evernote, getting rid of things I never touched, and streamlining it. I almost never create notes manually. Most of what goes into Evernote these days are documents, either scanned or through some other automated process.
  • Apple Notes. This is what I use for more ephemeral notetaking. It is also where I keep various how-to notes, which I can easily share with the family.
  • Fujitsu ScanSnap 1300i. My trusty ScanSnap is still going strong after all these years.

Data protection

I have a 3-tier approach to data protection that has evolved over the years:

  • Tier 1: iCloud. All of my working documents, notes, archive, etc. is stored in iCloud and so it is always synced between the devices I use.
  • Tier 2: Time Machine. My Mac Mini—which acts as our home server, has two 3-TB external disks. One of these disks is a Time Machine backup, that is backing up data hourly.
  • Tier 3: CrashPlan for Small Business. This backs up all of our home computers (including the external disks) and provides an added level of data protection that has come in handy on several occasions over the years, most recently when Kelly’s laptop got stalled on a system upgrade.

In addition, I use Express VPN when connecting my devices to networks that are not my own, for instance, when staying at a hotel, or connecting to public WiFi in a local park.

Development tools

I never mentioned the development tools I used back when I did the LifeHacker interview, but I figured now was a good time to correct that oversight.

  • Homebrew. The first thing I install upon setting up a new machine is LastPass. The second thing I install is homebrew, which installs all of the good packages that a Mac Unix system is missing.
  • Visual Studio Code. For years I used GitHub’s Atom editor for editing code. But in my day job, I’ve been using Visual Studio for years (decades, really). Now that Visual Studio Code is available on a Mac, I’ve been using that to do local development work, and I’m pretty impressed by its capabilities.

My workspace, circa 2021

I was primarily working from home even before the pandemic hit just about a year ago, so that was nothing new for me. But about 2 years ago, we sold our town house, and bought a house nearby. That house came with a sunroom that in turn became my office. So today, my workspace looks a lot different than it did 7 years ago. The desk is the same (although I’m looking to get a new one). But I now have a table that forms a U-shape that I sit in and provides me with a surface for writing on paper.

Annotated image of my workspace.

I am also surrounded by my books, and often use the old rail chair for reading the newspaper in the morning. I like bright spaces, and the windows on 3 sides of the room let in plenty of light.

The other side of my office, surrounded by books.

The only thing my workspace is missing at this point is a set of French doors that we’ve been telling ourselves we’d install ever since we moved into the house, to create more of a separation between my office and the living room.

My favorite to-do list manager

Well, it feels like I’ve tried them all over the years (most recently Things 3), but none of them prove to be much better than a pen and paper. So beginning this year, in order to have some semblance of order, I’ve switched to Apple Reminders—keeping with my philosophy of keeping things simple, and using system tools wherever possible. So far, that is working just fine. I often scribbling items in my Field Notes notebook, but if I need them beyond a day or so, I’ll add them to Reminders.

Besides phone and computer, what tool can I not live without?

My Field Notes notebook. I’ve had one of these notebooks in my pocket since 2015 now, I believe. They are useful for all kinds of things. Jotting notes and ideas, a convenient ruler for small measurements, a straight edge for drawing a straight line. Remembering someone’s name I just met (because I try to write names down, lest I forget). I have an annual subscription which I’ve happily renewed year after year and I look forward to each quarterly shipment of notebooks to see what creative thing the Field Notes folks have come up with.

My current Field Notes "Heavy Duty" notebook.

That’s how I work as of January 2021. I’m always looking for ways to improve so if you have suggestions or recommendations about things that work well for you, let me know about them.

Quality Control

This morning I wrote a post and when I finished, I decided to set it aside, and maybe come back to it another time. The reason: it was a stinker. I’d say that 99 out of 100 times, when I write a post for the blog, it feels right to me and goes up without much second-guessing. But every now and then, I write something and think to myself, you are just trying to get something posted, regardless of how good it is. When I think that, it usually means I should set aside whatever I have written and revisit it later.

This kind of quality control has evolved over the years. If you go back to the early days of this blog (late 2005, but really, 2006 is when things started up in earnest) you’ll find that I wrote about anything that came into my head, no matter how trivial. Since then, I have grown more selective. There are plenty of posts that I have written but have never appeared because afterward, I didn’t like them for some reason. When it happens, it is usually because I was trying too hard to get something written and went about it poorly. That’s what happened this morning.

A lot more post ideas never even get written. I jot down post ideas all the time. Usually, they idea goes into the Field Notes notebook I have in my pocket, and from there it gets transferred to a list of possible idea to write about. But even in that step there are quality control checks in place. One of the best quality controls I have in my toolbox is time.

I’ll jot anything that comes to mind in my Field Notes notebook. Not all ideas from there make it into the ideas list I keep on the computer. Just flipping through the current notebook in my pocket, I see several ideas I jotted down that, thanks to time, won’t make the cut. (“Things I do to avoid maskless people” seems liked an amusing idea when I jotted it down, because there are silly things I do to avoid them, but there just aren’t enough of them to make for a good post.) I have another note about “Sleeping in your own bed” which I jotted down on the long drive back from Florida after being away from home for more than a week. Now, having been back home for a while, it no longer resonates with me.

Even when an idea from the notebook gets transferred to the list of potential ideas, time still works in my favor, protecting me against those ideas that seems great in the moment, but after some time has passed feel stale. Those will eventually get deleted from the list.

Some ideas stay on the list for a long, long time, mainly because there is a lot of research involved, or a lot of time required to put them together in a way that will satisfy me. (One idea, which appears on my list as “Bookstuffing” is an example of this.) Generally, though, if an idea makes it from the notebook to the “curated” list its chances of getting actually written as a post are much higher.

But maybe not right away. Again, time serves as an excellent quality control tool. Sometime an idea that excites me will make it to the list, and I’ll find that I’m not ready to write about it. I like the idea but some of the shimmer has worn off and I need time to find the right pieces to make it resonate with me again. Often this happens one two separate ideas are joined together. Other times, an idea is really just a great title with nothing behind it, and it takes time to find whatever it is that is behind that title.

Once I have written a post, it is rare that I decide not to post it. This is the final quality check I impose: does it feel like a good post? Of course, a feeling a complete judgement on my part, but it is my blog, and I have enough experience at this point to trust my gut. I can go through a number of reactions upon completing a post: Jumping up from my keyboard and pacing in a circle because I am so pleased with what I have written is one extreme. The other extreme happens just as quickly; indeed, it often happens before I finish writing. It’s a feeling I get that I know I just don’t like what I have written.

The most typical reaction is general satisfaction with what I have written. Nice job, check that item off the list and move on.

Today was one of those rare days when an idea made it from my notebook, to my idea list, and finally, into a completed post before I realized it was no good. For those who may be curious about what I’d written about, let me just give you the title: “RTFM Is So 1990s”. Yeah, it was that bad.

Thank goodness for some measure of quality control here.

What is a Project Manager?

Finally, I have come across what I consider to be the best definition of a project manager that I have ever seen. I have written in the past about how I dread getting asked that question, “What do you do?” because (a) it is hard to describe what a project manager does without (b) making it sound like a made-up job.

Reading Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc., this morning, I came across what I consider the best definition of a project manager—one that describes what I do clearly and accurately—but cast in terms of Hollywood production managers. Catmull writes:

Production managers are the people who keep track of the endless details that ensure that a movie is delivered on time and on budget. They monitor the overall progress of the crew; they keep track of the thousands of shots; they evaluate how resources are being used; they persuade and cajole and nudge and say no when necessary. In other words, they do something essential for a company whose success relies on hitting deadlines and staying on budget. They manage people and safeguard processes.

By changing a few words here and there, I have the definition of project manager that I have been seeking for years now:

Project managers are people who keep track of the endless details that ensure software is delivered on time and on budget. They monitor the overall progress of the developmentteam; they keep track of the thousands of lines of code; they evaluate how resources are being used; they persuade and cajole and nudge and say no when necessary. In other words, they do something essential for a company whose success relies on hitting deadlines and staying on budget. They manage people and safeguard processes.

I love this definition. It perfectly describes what I do day-in and day-out on my job. I am particularly tickled by the line, “they persuade and cajole and nudge and say no when necessary.” A project manager who taught me a lot about the job two decades ago summarize this line back then with a simple phrase that I often repeat: “As a project manager, all you have is your charm.”

I’m only a quarter of the way into Catmull’s book, but it has proven its worth with this definition alone. I feel a great sense of relief in having a good, accurate, and succinct way of describing what I do.

A Quiet Day by the Fire

It was cold here today, the temperature down into the 20s when I woke up this morning. So I built up a fire in the fireplace, and planned to spend my day sitting in close proximity to the fire, reading, and not doing much else. To that end, I was mostly successful.

I finished reading Simon Winchester’s new book, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World. A good book, as I find just about all of Winchester’s books to be. The book rekindled my yearning for wide-open spaces. A passage on suburbs, which could describe the area in which I live just south of Washington, D.C., highlights the artifice which, like a poorly fitting show rubbing away at a heel, bothers me more and more.

In the suburbs beyond the urban limits, the degradation of the land has been more insidious, its demoted status often cunningly disguised. Such land as appears to exist is mostly artifice, a simulacrum of countryside, the greenest of its expanses available at great expense to the golfer or more ironically to the members of what for the past two centuries have been called country clubs. These last are institutions placed well beyond the real country they seek to resemble and offer a reminder—for a considerable annual fee—of the rural dreamland that some old-timers recall went before.

Meanwhile, I kept warm in my suburban home by my neat fireplace, with wood I avoided chopping myself (I enjoy chopping wood but there is no practical way for me to do it here) and every now and then, paused to dream of wide-open spaces.

Next up, for those curious, is Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace’s book, Creativity, Inc., about which I have heard many good things. Winchester’s Land had me leaning toward something by or about John Muir, but I don’t have the heart for that at the moment.

Some Notes on Notes

More and more I find myself trying to simplify things. Take notes as an example. I am a prolific note-taker. Wherever I go, I carry a Field Notes notebook in my pocket, along with a couple of pens. (I have ink stains on various pockets to prove this). Why carry a paper notebook when I have an iPhone in the other pocket? To keep things simple.

Over the years, I have not yet found an app that allows me to jot down notes as quickly and easily as a pen and paper. If something strikes me, I pull out the pen and paper and scribble it down. That’s all there is to it. A phone, at its simplest, involves pulling out the phone, getting through its security measures, opening the appropriate note-taking app, and typing in the note1. In the time it takes me to get through the security measures alone, I could have jotted a simple note with pen and paper.

Then, too, many notes are ephemeral. I’ll use them once and never again. What’s the point of filling up a phone with notes I’m only ever going to look at once? In a notebook, I could tear out the page, but what I typically do it just leave the note there, and when the notebook is filled, I added it to the collection of filled notebooks I have on a shelf in my office.

Of course, pocket notebooks get you only so far. If I am sitting in front of a computer, then I’ll use the computer for notes, especially notes that are not ephemeral. In this regard, Evernote would seem like a logical choice for notes. But I have resisted using Evernote for actual notetaking, preferring to partition it for use as a kind of digital filing cabinet. Instead, out of a sense of simplicity (or stubbornness, depending on your point of view), I’ve migrated toward the Apple Notes app, with one important exception2

There are a few reasons why I have settled on the Notes app:

  1. It is a simple app that is easy to use.
  2. It comes installed on all Apple devices and since I’ve bought into the Apple ecosystem, that makes it a convenient tool. I don’t have to install any additional software to access my notes on a new device.
  3. It syncs with iCloud, so notes I create on one device are available on all of my devices.
  4. It integrates with Spotlight so searching notes is pretty easy.

Item #2 above is particularly important because I keep all of my device bootstrapping-related notes in Apple Notes. These notes include, for instance, a checklist of things I do to new machines and devices (configuration settings, software I install, etc.) I have a file for every device we own which makes for easy reference.

I’ve taken to using Notes for personal development work I do. I’ve also started using notes to keep track of articles I read, copying highlighted passages, or my own annotations there. While it is lacking in a few features3, it has been able to do most of what I need. Here is an example of a HOW-TO note I have in my Tech folder:

A sample HOW-TO note from my Tech folder in Apple notes

The purist in me admonishes myself for not using plain text file for my notes, but you know what? I like being able to format my notes, into lists and tables. I like having hyperlinks, and images. True, each note is not a separate file in the file system. On the other hand, the backend is a SQLite database, which I am perfectly capable of accessing programmatically if needed.

The point is, I haven’t had a need to do so. That is the beauty of the simplicity of Notes so far. I don’t worry about tagging, or notebooks. I do have a folder structure for my notes, and it is evolving, but even there, I aim for simplicity. Being able to simply search for a term in Spotlight and see matching notes has been incredibly useful. I recently read an article in Smithsonian by Richard Grant, whose writing I enjoy. I’d created a note for that article, and so I just tried a Spotlight search for Richard Grant:

Spotlight search for Richard Grant

That’s good enough for my purposes.

I also light the lightweight feel of the Notes app. When I use Evernote today, the application feels big and bulky by comparison. Of course, it does a lot more than the Notes app, but for notetaking, I don’t need much more than what Notes can do.


  1. I stubbornly refuse to use Siri or dictation for notes, although I use Siri for other things.
  2. The exception, not worth getting into here in any detail, is my work-related notes, for which I use OneNote because it makes a lot of sense to do so.
  3. I do wish there was a way to add to the list of default styles provided.

Marking time

There is something cathartic about crossing off the date on the calendar at the end of the day. This is usually the last thing I do in the evening before flipping of the lights in my office and closing shop for the night.

For the last few years, I’ve used a small Field Notes calendar for this job. Earlier this month, I realized that the calendar I got back in late 2019 was about to run out. I headed over to Field Notes website but couldn’t find the calendar for 2021. I sent them an email and was dismayed to learn that they had sold out of the 2021 calendars already. I guess a lot people like cross the days of their calendar.

I suppose I could use a different calendar, but I am a creature of habit. Besides, I like the Field Notes calendar. It is small, compact, and I set up against a window so that it is always in view while I am working. It proves useful in quickly looking for a date when my screens are filled with other things, and I don’t want to go hunting for my Calendar app. In truth, I am more likely to use the cal command on the terminal than to go open up the Calendar app. I prefer simple, lightweight, over heavy complexity. Indeed, if cal had the ability to mark off each passing day, I might use that instead. I suppose I could create a script that does that.

But I like the aesthetics of the Field Notes calendar. I like pulling it off the shelf and picking up the red Pilot G-2 pen that I keep beside it and scratching a line through the date. A scripted version of that wouldn’t be the same thing.

Part of what I like about the Field Notes calendar (and this is true of the cal command as well), is that I don’t feel overwhelmed looking at it. It doesn’t show me all the birthdays and holidays that fall on a given date. Best of all, it doesn’t show me all of the various meetings, appointments, school activities, after-school activities, and other reminders that generally fill my day. I can mark time without being overwhelmed by the things that fill it. There is almost always something on my daily calendar that I have to deal with. Indeed, I just looked at the calendar for January (steeling myself for the experience) and discovered that the only day in January where not a single entry exists is Friday, January 8. Why that should be, I have no idea.

The Field Notes calendar says it best right there on the backboard above the pages that I tear out month after month:

Built to last for months and months of reliable service. No maintenance or special tools required.

I’m not sure even the cal command can make that promise, given that it is dependent on an entire Unix-based operating system as a foundation, which is in turn dependent upon a working computer, which in turn is depending on the power grid. As I write this, early on January 21, I see that I have 11 more days to cross out before my calendar runs out. I also means I have 11 days to locate a substitute, although I’m not sure I want a substitute. Maybe I’ll write that cal script after all, marking time until October when I will be sure to place my order for the 2022 Field Notes calendar early this time. 

A New Beginning

I feel a great sense of relief this evening as I sit down to write this. After more than 18 months, my desk is finally clear. Paper had been piling up ever since I upgraded to MacOS Catalina or something like that. At that point, it seemed, my trusty Fujitsu ScanSnap 1300i that I’ve had for nearly 8 years now, stopped working with the OS. I ignored the problem for months, and then, when the pandemic began, I ignored it some more.

Yesterday, however, more out of desperation than anything else, I started searching for replacement scanners, only to discover that the compatibility problem had been resolved. I updated the ScanSnap manager for Big Sur and everything was working again!

That meant I actually had to scan in all of that paper. First, I sorted through it, separating it into stuff that wasn’t worth scanning, and stuff that was. I saw that Evernote had an update, and I updated Evernote, and then I began to scan. I still use the same process, more or less, that I have been using from the start. But I found that in the new Evernote, it took longer to update the meta-data in my notes. Updating the Create Date is tricker, because you can’t type in a date, but have to select from pull-down lists. Updating tags is more cumbersome than it used to be because you can’t just type them in but have to open a popup window first. Minor delays, but annoying, nonetheless.

I got through half of the paper yesterday, shredded that half, and the proceeded to tackle the second half today. Finally, at 5:01 pm Eastern Standard Time, all of the accumulated paper had been scanned, and shredded. My desk was clear, and a great sense of relief washed over me. I can now move onto the other things that I want to work on and check this item off my list. Checking things off lists also provides me with a great sense of relief. 

Coincidentally, it was the second time a great sense of relief washed over me today. The first came just after Joe Biden was sworn in as President of the United States around noon today.

Five Years of Writer’s Block

First admit you have a problem

Of all of the stories I’ve written, my favorite thus far is “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown.” The story was published as the lead story in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show in May 2015. I finished writing the final draft of the story on Friday, March 13, 2015, and submitted to the magazine’s editor, Edmund Schubert, that same day. Just under two weeks later, Ed emailed to let me know he was taking the story. I’ve never been a superstitious person. I never noted (until now) that I finished the story on Friday the 13th. And besides, what did it matter? I sold the story, and it ended up getting the cover of the magazine, and some nice reviews as well.

I haven’t finished writing a story since. 

“Gemma Barrows” was baseball fiction, and baseball fans love their stats. Friday, March 13, 2015 was 2,137 days ago (according to Alexa, who hadn’t yet been born at that time).

I’ve attempted to write stories during that time. But I’ve never finished one. I’ve never really gotten close to finishing one.

At the time I sold “Gemma” I was coming off of what, for me, was a hot streak. I was selling most of what I was writing at the time, fiction and nonfiction. I was also drifting away from what first got me writing: science fiction. More and more my stories were “science fiction” for the purpose of having convenient markets to sell them to. But the stories were less and less science fictional. For some reason, after “Gemma Barrows” my lifelong interest in science fiction waned dramatically. I mostly stopped reading science fiction. And the stories I attempted to write, while containing a fantastic element here or there, were not stories I’d consider to be science fiction.

Whatever the reason, after March 13, 2015, I found that I had problem: I could no longer finish writing a story.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat

That is not to say that I could no longer write. I had, and still have, no problem writing nonfiction pieces, including the pieces I write here on the blog, and elsewhere. I also had plenty of story ideas. My writers block is not for lack of ideas, it seems. And it is not to say that I stopped writing stories. I just couldn’t finish what I started.

In fact, in the nearly six years since that day in 2015, I have often felt like Phil Conners waking up morning after morning to find that it is still February 2. This began with a story that I started to write (so far as I can tell from my notes) way back in December 2013, but that I started on in earnest in 2014, even before I wrote “Gemma Barrows.” This was another baseball story, and was more or less straight fiction, with one small fantastical twist. I wrote and I wrote, and then I stopped. I didn’t like the pace of the story. I knew where it was going, as I do with most of my stories, but I felt wrong to me.

To get myself back on track, I created a new document, and retyped the opening paragraph, which I liked, and which I felt had a great hook. I then tried rewriting the story from there. But it still didn’t work. I tried this again, and again, always keeping the same opening but writing beyond it without looking at what I had done before. I made three attempts, six, twelve. Looking at that folder just now I see a total of 61 drafts between 2014, and my latest attempt on December 13, 2020.

I’d long since given up on the opening I was so committed to. I’d changed just about every aspect of the story, writing and rewriting, trying different things. But never getting past a certain point. I told myself that I just wasn’t experienced enough to tell this story, and I should wait, maybe write about something else.

I started another story, one that had been floating around in my head for a few years. I conceived it as a 3-part novella, and I wrote the first part quickly, and in style and voice different from what I normally write. I reallyliked it. I submitted the first part to my writers’ group—the first submission I’d made in a long time—and got positive feedback from them on the story. I setup a lot in the 4,400-word first part, and there would have to be a big payoff. But for some reason, I could never move on to the second part.

I’d sit down after days or weeks and tell myself that in order to get that voice back in my head, I’d need to rewrite the first part. Re-type it, really. I’d open the draft in one window, open a blank document beside it, and retype what I had written. All 4,400 words. I did this more times than I can recall. I switched word processors and did it again. I wrote out the 4,400 words long hand in a Leuchtturm notebook. This dragged on over several years. In moments of desperation, I’d wonder to myself if the first part wasn’t the entire story. Did I really need anything more?

Growing even more desperate, I decided to return to the draft of the one and only novel I’d ever written from back in 2013. Maybe it was finally time for me to turn that first draft into a second draft. I started reading the first draft, but no new writing ever came from it. Instead, I turned my attention to a fantasy story I’d written but never sold. Maybe I could rewrite it as a play. (A play? Seriously? I’d never written a play in my life, nor had I ever had the desire to write one. What was I thinking?) Or, if not a play, maybe I could expand it into an epic novel, a la Brandon Sanderson? Nothing came of that either, thank goodness.

I couldn’t move forward. That seemed to be the crux of the problem. I couldn’t finish what I started, and when I finally did decide to move onto something else, it was not onto something brand new, but something old that I felt I could make better. Six years of this cycle: Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Distraction

I still thought of myself as a writer. After all, I’d sold about a dozen stories, and three times as many nonfiction pieces, right? I filled the time I should have spent writing with writing-related tasks. I told myself the problem was that I didn’t have a good environment for writing. I should do everything in plain text with a simple text editor. When that didn’t change things, I told myself I needed more structure, and went back to Scrivener. When that didn’t help, I started using a Freewrite I’d gotten, thinking that writing on a device like that, completely offline and distraction-free would be the ticket. None of it worked, of course.

I distracted myself with other writerly tasks. I decided I would archive all of my previous writing as far back as I could manage to go (another journey into the past, instead of the future). I had Word files from 1992 including the very first story I’d written when I decided I wanted to try selling stories. I would get all of these files archived, and at least be able to look back over the hundreds of files and demonstrate to myself that I hadbeen able to write.

I distracted myself by writing a set of scripts that would look at the git commits I made of my writing each day to generate word counts, so that I could track my progress. The scripts worked surprisingly well, but scripts like these are really only useful when there are, you know, words to count.

I told myself that the enormous amount of reading I was doing was all laying the foundation that would make me a better writer.

The fiction we tell ourselves

When I was young, my grandfather would often quote Hamlet, saying, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” As I got older, he found what I always took to be an amusing and ironic corollary. He’d say to me, “There are only two people I never lie to: myself, and my doctor.”

I might not be able to finish writing a story, but I could still tell myself stories. Could I ever! Tall tales! Fish stories! I’d tell myself that I was a better nonfiction writer than a fiction writer, anyway, so don’t sweat the fiction. Focus on the nonfiction.

I’d tell myself that I had the perfect outlet for my nonfiction right here on the blog. I’d write posts about writing even while struggling with my own fiction writing. What I’d do, I’d tell myself, is not worry about the fiction and focus on the blog, make it into one of the premier blogs on the Internet.

I remind myself of all the times I’d read about other authors struggling with their own writing. I’d tell myself that quality meant much more to me than quantity. I’d always been a slow writer when it came to fiction. I could finish these stories if I wanted to. Heck, I’d been finishing stories since that first one in 1992. But I didn’t just want to finish, I wanted to write the best possible story I could write. I wanted to take it to the next level. I wasn’t writing stories for the science fiction magazines anymore, I told myself, I was writing for Harper’s—that was my new goal. I justified this by reminding myself that when I started out, I wanted my name on the byline of a story in Analog just like Isaac Asimov wanted to see his name on a byline in Analog’s earlier incarnation, Astounding. I wanted my name in Harper’s just like E. B. White had his name there. Even here I was fooling myself. The stories I was reading in the science fiction magazines, before I have it up were at least as good as the fiction I’ve read in Harper’s.

I kept (and still keep) my membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America active, telling myself it is yet another sign that I am a writer, proof-positive for anyone who needs evidence–namely me!

I’ve told myself all kinds of stories over the last six years. None of them were true. There’s the old adage that a fiction writer is a paid liar. By that definition, I’m up there with the best of them. Except, instead of lying to my audience, I’ve been lying to myself.

The next page

The truth is, I’ve been struggling with my writing for the last six years. I can’t finish a story. I can’t even move past one. I hesitate to admit this publicly because I fear it comes across as just another excuse, just another distraction, just another gimmick to fool myself into thinking that I am writing.

The first step is admitting you have a problem. But what if the problem has no solution? If I am being completely honest (this above all else), part of me hopes that by writing this post, my problem will go away, and I’ll find that I can write again.  I doubt that will be the case. Writing fiction is hard for me. That’s the way it should be. Why do it if it is easy?

I suspect that writer’s block is different for every writer who experiences it. No one piece of advice will get me over the wall, except, perhaps, stubborn persistence. Writing fiction isn’t about word counts, or word processors, or document formats or union memberships, or contracts. It’s about facing that blank page in whatever form it may take and turning it into a story that you are proud of. Right now, that blank page seems daunting to me in a way that it never has before. Right now, I feel intimidated by all the good writers that are out there who manage to fill that blank page, whatever their other day-to-day challenges might be. It is easy to say to myself, “just sit down and write a story.” It is even easy to begin to fill that blank page.

The hard part, for me, is filling the next page. And the one after that.

Backyard Astronomy, 1979

When did you discover the stars? When did you realize that the sun was a star that was (relatively) close by? When did you first learn that there were other planets–entire worlds, some so big that they could swallow the earth–right here in our solar system? When did you find out that the universe didn’t revolve around our little world, that the Earth was part of a solar system, and the solar system part of a galaxy, and the galaxy part of the larger universe?

For me, it was sometime in 1978, and a chance encounter with a book in the Franklin Township public library. The book was the The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. I’ve written about this book before, but I’ll repeat myself here because it is vital to the story. Indeed, it is the germ from which the rest of the story flows.

The Nine Planets

I no longer recall what drew me to this book. Was it something I picked out on my own? Was it something my mom, who would take me to the library, picked out for me? All I knew is that I liked it so much that I read it again and again. The Nine Planets1 is where I discovered the other planets, moons, and stars. The Nine Planets led directly to the backyard astronomy that took place at our house in the spring and summer of 1979.

Voyager 2 was in the news in the spring of ’79. I was about to turn 7 and I followed the news of the space probe’s approach to Jupiter assiduously. With the help of my mom, I kept a scrapbook of clippings from the Star-Ledger with pictures that Voyager 2 beamed back from Jupiter.

From those images, I got to see, firsthand, the Great Red Spot. I memorized the names of the Galilean moons. And for my birthday that year, my parents got me a telescope.

With my dad’s help, I learned how to setup the telescope, and align the view finder. We would take the telescope out into the street during the day, and point it at a street side so far away I could barely see it. Then we’d use that sign to align the telescope.

But it was the nights in the backyard that I looked forward to most of all. We pointed that telescope up in the sky and I could Jupiter, making out its fuzzy bands as the reflected light from the planet jigged about in the atmosphere. I could see the four Galilean moons as bright pinpricks of light at various distances from the planet.

It was a propitious time to look up at the night sky. I could see Saturn with its rings angled just so, casting a shadow. The thing was I could see Saturn. It was not just a picture in a book. It was there, up above, posing for me.

We pointed the telescope at the moon and I could see the mountains and craters. We pointed the telescope at seemingly dark parts of the sky and there, in the view finder, that small disc of sky was suddenly filled with stars, many of which I could name. I began to recognize the pattern of the constellations in the sky. I was given more advanced books on astronomy, and though I couldn’t make sense of much of what they were saying, I read through them again and again anyway. If someone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “An astronomer.”

This adventure in backyard astronomy led to my discovery of the larger field of science. When I discovered that there were stories that involved spaceships going to other worlds, I felt as if I was in seventh-heaven. Science fiction became a passion, and while I never grew up become an astronomer, I did grow up to be a science fiction writer, at least as an avocation, selling stories to some of the very magazines I loved reading. It all traces back to a forgotten trip to the library, and the discovery of Branley’s book.

In the decades since, I’ve periodically taken to the skies again. In my 20s, I pulled out that same old telescope I’d gotten when I turned 7, and pointed it up at the hazy skies of Los Angeles. The light pollution muted the experience, but I still managed to catch glimpses of Jupiter, its moons, as well as Saturn. Older, and somewhat wiser, I sketched what I saw into a notebook.

At some point, that old telescope vanished, but I got new one, as a gift from Kelly back when we were dating, and once again, I made time to look up at the sky, this time the skies over Maryland, where the light pollution wasn’t so bad.

A few years back, we had a big family reunion at a place we rented in rural Vermont, and I brought a pair of strong binoculars and tripod with me. At night, the sky was clear, and moonless, and the stars I could see took my breath away. I setup the tripod and pointed up toward Jupiter. The binoculars were strong enough to make out the Galilean moons, but not strong enough for the gas giant to appear as much more than a fuzzy sphere. My kids, as well as my brother’s and sister’s kids were all there, and I gave them turns looking up at the planets and stars. They each took their turn, but I could tell they didn’t feel the same sense of wonder that I felt when I seven, and that I still felt when I looked up at the stars on that clear summer night in Vermont. Then again, none of them had read The Nine Planets.

Is there a book that has had a particular impact on you? This question comes up from time-to-time, and I never have to hesitate with my answer. Other books have made stronger emotional impacts, or excited my sense of wonder, but none of them have had the impact that Branley’s book had on me. I’ve often wished I thought to send Branley a letter of thanks for writing the book. He died in 2002, after writing more than 150 books on science and astronomy for youngsters. I can only imagine how many future scientists, astronomers, astronauts, doctors, artists, and science fiction writers he inspired through his writing.

Of course, I would never have discovered the book were it not in the library to begin with. I have tried, in a small way, to payback the Franklin Township library by donating to it every year. Libraries always seem to be on precarious footing, and yet they contain multitudes. They are temples of inspiration just waiting to be tapped. In my case, the library inspired a bit of backyard astronomy in 1979–and a lifetime of discovery ever since.

  1. Now, clearly dated, in not just facts, but in title; Pluto is no longer considered a planet.

Latest Addition to My Stephen King Doubleday Years Collection

My 4-volumes of Cemetery Dance's "Stephen King: The Doubleday Day Years" collection.

For several years, Cemetery Dance has been putting out a special edition of Stephen King’s book during his “Doubleday” years. This week, I received my copy of the 4th entry in that series, Night Shift. These are beautifully done editions, with limited runs (I think there are only 3,000 copies of each) and often with new art commissioned, and even new material like deleted scenes added an appendix to the book. Night Shift is no different, with some additional stories appearing at the end.

Each volume in the series is a book-lover’s book. It is a work of art. It is a delight to hold in your hand. Even the pages are thick and textured. The books come in custom slipcases, and every now and then, I’ll sit with one on my lap, flipping through just because it is a beautiful thing to see and feel.

Four books in the series have been produced thus far:

  • Carrie
  • The Shining
  • ‘Salem’s Lot
  • Night Shift

The most recent entry is King’s first collection of short stories.

Two more volumes are planning, and indeed, I have already pre-ordered both, as they sell out very quickly. (I checked my records: I pre-ordered Night Shift back in 2016!) The remaining volumes are:

  • The Stand
  • Pet Sematary

Cemetery Dance takes its time in producing these volumes, but the time is well-worth the wait. They are not producing mass-market editions, but beautiful, carefully crafted pieces of art. After eagerly opening the package with Night Shift, I immediately began wondering what the next volume would look like… and when it would arrive.

Movienite.txt

In an effort to watch movies I’ve never seen, and to avoid making decisions, I wrote myself a little script the other day called movienite I grabbed a list of 600+ movies under the TCM Channel on HBO Max. I randomized1 the list and created 2 text files: movienite.txt and watched.txt.

I wrote a little command-line script (hat tip that to that decades-old, but reliable sed command) that shows me the first line of the movienite.txt file: the next movie to watch. Since it is very unlikely that I will watch a movie every night, I wrote a second script that that moves the first line of the movienite.txt file to the end of the watched.txt file.

The first movie that popped up (and, yes, I did watch it) was a Charles Bronson film called 10 to Midnight, a police thriller which was pretty terrible writing, and pretty bad acting, but that made it that much more fun to watch. Wilfred Brimley was in the film as well.

I like the randomness of it. It’s once less decision to make. I joked with Kelly that it’s like the old Saturday Night Movie in the 1970s: you get what you get, that’s it.

If you are curious, here are the next 9 movies that I’ll be watching at some point. I did peek at the first ten, but I haven’t looked at the list after that, and I don’t plan to. I like the element of surprise too much.

  • Hobson’s Choice
  • Gone with the Wind
  • The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
  • The Kid
  • Modern Times
  • The Man with the Golden Arm
  • How to Be a Player
  • Cheyenne Autumn
  • Swordfish
  1. It’s pseudorandom in that sequels aren’t picked before the previous film has been watched. So movienite won’t put Superman II before Superman: The Movie.

Initial Thoughts on the Mac Mini

The new Mac Mini has been up and running for 10 days now and I have some initial thoughts. For context and clarity, I bought the newest Mac Mini (M1 2020), which is running the Apple M1 chip. I bought it with 16 GB of memory (way up from the 4 GB I have on my MacBook Air). The internal disk has 250 GB, but I’ve got two external disks connected to the machine, each of which is 3 TB giving me a total of 6.25 TB of disk space. One of the external disks is for media files and archived data; the other is a local Time Machine backup disk.

As far as performance goes, this machine flies. Applications open so much faster than on my MacBook Air. There doesn’t seem to be any performance hit with backups running and with the various services I have in the background. I really like how fast the machine is.

There are a few downsides I’ve discovered, however.

The M1 chip is the biggest blocker so far. While it is super-fast, not every app has caught up yet, and several still expect an Intel processor. For instance, I use Docker for development work, and I have to run a preview version of Docker Desktop because there is not yet a production version compatible with the M1 chip.

There are some quirks with homebrew as well. Homebrew can be run natively or using Rosetta2 which makes apps compatible, but at a performance cost. Running homebrew natively takes a couple of extra steps to setup, and some bottles have to be built locally to allow them to run natively.

MySQL runs fine on the Mac Mini, but there is not yet a compatible Docker image for MySQL for the M1 chip.

These are relatively minor issues, which only apply to someone doing development work. It appears that most places are working toward making their apps natively compatible with the M1 so I suspect most of these issues will go away with time.

For other tasks: writing, photos, general productivity, I am very pleased with the Mac Mini thus far. Given that it cost significantly less than the newest MacBook Air, it is well worth the cost so far.

I have set up the machine as a home server. I’ve got an internal web server that I am using to build a custom reading list app (that I plan on moving to my domain eventually). I am also using it to host an app for home document archive. Screen-sharing works well with it (I can use screen sharing from my MacBook Air to do development work on the Mac Mini when I am not in my office). I’ll have more to say on these things in a future post.

You can see the new computer in the photo above, peeking between the monitor and the external disks. At some point, I need to clean up all of the cables.

At this point, with the exception of a few development quirks related to the M1 chip, I am very pleased with the new Mac Mini.