All posts by Jamie Todd Rubin

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

The Perfect Night’s Sleep

I don’t recall thinking much about sleep when I was a kid. Except for having to wake up early for school, which could be annoying, I rare had trouble sleeping. I put my head down on the pillow and drift off. There were occasional bouts of sleeplessness, but they were rare. I even have vague memories of taking naps when I was five or six years old. I close my eyes and the next thing I knew nap time was over.

Now I observe this behavior in the Littlest Miss. We lay down for our nap and we are both usually asleep within minutes. We put on some music, lay on the guest room bed, and she tucks her head on my shoulder. I usually wake up when the music ends, but she is still sleeping and always looks peaceful (although lately, also very sweaty).

It has been well over twenty years since the last really good night’s sleep that I can remember. It has become something of legend in my memory, the sleep to which all other sleeps are held up in comparison. It came at a time in the late 1990s when I was working long hours. During this particular stretch, I headed into the office one day at 5:10 am, and didn’t get back home until around 2 am. I was heading back to the office 3 hours later after a restless few hours of sleep, and finally made it home at 6 pm that evening. I remember going into my bedroom and flopping down on my bed thinking I’d rest for a few minutes before dinner. I awoke the next morning, fully refreshed. I had no dreams, and it wasn’t the instantaneous time-skipping sleep of anesthesia, either. I felt perfectly at peace, my mind clear, as if I was floating in a timeless, featureless space, until I woke up.

I’ve never had as good a night’s sleep since.

For the last 15 months or so, my problem has been actually falling into sleep. I feel tired, but I just can’t sink into unconsciousness. I hover above it sometimes for hours. It got so bad that I eventually told my doctor about it. I tried out about 3 or 4 different prescription sleep aids, and none of them worked. Eventually I gave those up. I gave up caffeine, too, which shows my level of desperation. My sleep improved, but only a little. I can fall asleep now, so long as I don’t miss my window. That is, I can fall asleep if nothing disturbs me during the windows when I feel most tired. But of course, with three kids, that never happens. Once I am stirred, I have a hard time getting back to sleep.

What I find particularly frustrating is the fact that I can fall asleep within minutes when I nap with the Littlest Miss after lunch. I don’t sleep long, but it amazes me how quickly I do fall asleep.

Lately, it has been better. I’m falling asleep faster, and staying asleep longer, but my sleep is always unsettled. I have strange dreams that seem to go on all night, and continue even if I wake up and head to the kitchen for a glass of water. I sleep, but the dreams themselves are exhausting. Now that I am writing again, the dreams have subsided a bit. That tells me, as I have always suspected, that my writing is an outlet for what goes in in my head.

Our kids like playing the game of “would you rather.” Often, it is something like, “Would you rather get a million dollars, or… fill in the blank.” I sometimes imagine them asking me, “Dad, would you rather get a billion dollars or be able to have the perfect night’s sleep each night for the rest of your life.” I wouldn’t hesitate in answering: “the perfect night’s sleep.” I know they’d be disappointed that I’d so quickly discard their substantial inheritance, but at this point, I think I would turn down a trillion dollars if I could be guaranteed a lifetime of nightly sleep like I had on that on night in the late 1990s.

My Morning Fix

It has been 54 days since I gave up caffeine. Ever since, I have been relying on my morning walk to take over as my morning fix. I look forward to the walk before I fall asleep at night, in the same way I used to look forward to a Coke in the morning.

My walk takes me through the park next to the house and then I follow the bike paths northeast about a mile and a quarter until I come to our local 7-Eleven. There, I buy myself an orange juice for the walk home. It is another mile and a quarter back, making for a round trip of two and half miles. It takes me about 45 minutes. I usually listen to an audio book while I walk.

I am especially fond of bright, sunny mornings. The sun feels rejuvenating. There are lots of people out, walking, running, biking. I see familiar faces, even though I don’t know the names that go along with them. Overcast mornings aren’t bad, but I like the sunshine better. In 54 days in giving up caffeine, weather hasn’t really prevented my walk.

Going to bed last night it was raining, and the rain was supposed to continue throughout the day today and into Saturday morning. I was a little worried I might not be able to get out for my walk in the morning. It was reminiscent of those days when I went to bed knowing there was no Coca Cola left in the house, and that I’d need to run to the store in the morning if I wanted my caffeine.

And, indeed, I woke up to a steady rain. I paced the house, feeling restless, wondering what I’d do if I didn’t go for my walk. It wasn’t pouring out, but the rain was steady and showed no signs of pausing for 45 minutes for me to squeeze in my walk. Finally, my desire to walk overcame the rain. I got a sturdy umbrella out of the car, and set out.

I made it less than half a mile before the skies opened up and it poured. I tried to keep myself under my umbrella. The sound of the rain was so loud on the umbrella that I couldn’t hear my audio book and had to give it up. But I kept walking. I saw maybe half a dozen other people out braving the weather on the bike paths. Only one of them had an umbrella. The others embraced the rain. I wasn’t rushed. I try not to rush my morning walks. I accepted that my shoes were soaked, but the rest of me stayed relatively dry.

I made it to 7-Eleven, got my orange juice, and headed back. On my way back, I paused on bridge that crosses a stream to watch the normally placid water churn. I often pause on the bridge on the way back. You can see the my 15 seconds of Zen in the video below.

I made it home with wet shoes, but otherwise very happy that I got out for my walk this morning. I feel like I got in my morning fix and I can now proceed with the rest of my day.

15 seconds of Zen on a rainy morning

A Picture Is Worth Four or Five Words

In an essay titled “The Ancient and the Ultimate”, Isaac Asimov tried to imagine the future of books. After progressing through increasing stages of sophistication, what remained was–well, the kind of books we have today: the ones that sit on shelves and are made from trees. They were, he was arguing, already as good as they could possibly be.

When I think of the future of books, my vision isn’t quite so rosy. What I imagine is pages filled with nothing but one animated GIF after another. Why use words when a 5-second animation of Jeff Daniels slapping his forehead is so much more descriptive?

It seems to me that nearly everyone I know communicates primarily through animated GIFs. (Is it pronounced “Jif” like the peanut butter, or “gif” like a present minus the t? More than three decades in I.T. and I still don’t know the answer.) They are particularly common in comment threads of Facebook posts. Typing out “get the popcorn” is no longer adequate to convey ones meaning. A 6-second movie is required so that you can watch someone with maniacal eyes reach over and over into a box of popcorn, trying to stuff it all into their mouths.

Half of the GIFs I see come from popular television shows or movies. Steve Carell seems to be particularly popular for his wide variety of facial expressions. I guess our own expressions aren’t good enough. I don’t people making animated GIFs of their own expression. It is as if we can’t think of a good way to express ourselves, so we will let someone else do it for us.

I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me that there is some amount of convenience to this kind of appropriation. Animated GIFs are like clichés. Now there are people who abhor clichés, but I don’t really mind them. I think of them as syntactic subroutines. When someone says, “It is what it is,” we all know what they mean because we are all familiar with the function of that particular subroutine. I suppose that animated GIFs are just another iteration of the cliché, a modernization of the verbal subroutine.

I tend to avoid animated GIFs because it seems to me that I can type whatever I mean faster than it would take me to find an appropriate GIF. I am easily distracted (especially when writing) and a search for one animated GIF would likely lead to half an hour down a rabbit hole. I’d end up with a dozen GIFs that I thought were good for some purpose, but not the one I set out looking for. I’d then find an excuse to use them. Those GIFs would burn holes in my virtual pockets. The thing I intended to say (“Can’t wait to see you!”) would not only never get written, but would be forgotten.

There does seem something catching about the animated GIF. Once one person posts one in a thread, everyone else feels the needs to post one. They are like digital yawns in that regard. I also sense a bit of competition when it comes to the animated GIF. Who can find the GIF that best expresses the thought most precisely. I find this to be a daunting competition because without the words on the screen to express it, I’m never quite sure what that thought it.

I realize that I might come across as a grumpy old man with these thoughts on animated GIFs. To that all I can say is:

New Patio Furniture

We recently ordered new patio furniture and yesterday it arrived. It was quick and easy to put together, and I think it looks pretty good. I like Adirondack chairs, and as far as Adirondack chairs go, these aren’t too bad. I just wish they were wooden chairs instead of some hybrid. It turns out that the authentic, wooden Adirondack chairs are very expensive for some reason. The version we got cost about half as much. As far as I can tell, they don’t feel any different when sitting in them, and they look just as good, so it seemed like a good deal.

Our new Adirondack chairs on the front patio.

We put these chairs in the patio area at the front of our house. We don’t sit out there often, preferring to use the deck in the back, but perhaps by having nicer furniture in the front, we’ll sit out there more than we have been. We have a small portable fire pit there as well, which doesn’t come in particularly handy in the blazing hot summer. And there isn’t much shade out front this time of year, except for early in the morning before the sun gets too high.

I think we could use a table, between these chairs, one that could hold, say, a bottle of beer or a glass of Prosecco. I joked that we should look for an Adirondack table to match our Adirondack chairs, but it turns out that was not joke. There are such things as Adirondack tables. (So far as I can tell, however, there is no such think as an Adirondack fire pit.)

Our plan was to give two of these chairs a try, and if we liked them, we would eventually add two more. That would give us four, and since there are five of us, will lead to loud arguments among the kids about who gets to sit in the chairs and who gets left out. These arguments will shatter the calm and quiet of the evenings and make us not want to sit out there in the first place.

We’re considering obtaining some kind of shade we can put across the patio area to cut down on the direct sunlight. If we can eliminate some of that it only leaves the blistering heat, humidity, and the bites of the mosquitoes.

We got these Adirondack chairs because they remind us of the place we stay at when we go to Maine in the summers. There, four brightly colored Adirondack chairs are arrayed in the grass facing the water. The air is generally cool, even when it is warm out. The black fly season has passed and there is a cooling breeze from the water. The sound of buoys and lobster boats fill the air. It is peaceful and relaxing

Adirondack chairs in Maine.

The Adirondack chairs don’t have quite that effect on our patio. Our two chairs are arrayed on the patio bricks instead of grass. They face the driveway, and look directly into the side of one of our cars. The air is humid and hot, even when it is cooler out. We are just entering mosquito season, and the only water we can see is whatever happens to be dripping from the hose the kids left in the driveway. The sound of cicadas fills the air.

It isn’t exactly peaceful and relaxing. We always have our deck.

Writing is Easy?

Once in a while I encounter someone for whom writing is easy. Sometimes these are fellow writers who just a have a knack for the craft. Sometimes, they are not writers at all but imagine that if they were, writing would be easy for them. My reply used to be envy, since writing certainly doesn’t come easy to me. But having giving it more thought over the years, I am less envious than I used to be. If writing were easy for me, I don’t know that it would be worth doing.

The act of writing is not terribly difficult. I can put words together to form sentences and I feel pretty confident about those sentences most of the time. For me, the really hard part is storytelling. I imagine a lot of people think that they are good storytellers, but that is the hardest part for me. Getting ideas isn’t too difficult. Decades of experience has taught me how to weed out the bad ideas and keep the good ones around. But telling a compelling story that keeps the reader interested–that is the real difficulty for me.

When I set out to write, I have the general sense of the story that I am attempting to tell. The challenge for me is to tell it in a way that will keep someone reading, keep them turning pages. This is where I struggle. I am sometimes surprised that I managed to sell a dozen or so stories over the years because the hard part, for me, is making that story compelling. With longer form fiction, that is even more difficult. As I work on the first draft of this novel, I have tried to pay attention to the editorial voice in my head, the one I think of as the Director of the story. Here are some notes that I’ve taken over the last week or so that illustrated the constant direction this voice is giving me as I type:

  • That opening is fine for now, but you’ll need something a little stronger in the next draft.
  • Is that really how that character would say that? It sounds a little too formal to me.
  • This part here is just plain slow. Is it even necessary?
  • You are being too coy. You are holding back too much information. The narrator has said they intend to tell the truth, but they are acting as if they don’t want to for the sake keeping the pages turning. Too obvious. And annoying!

Perhaps the most difficult part of telling a big story like this one is keeping it all in my head. Not that I don’t jot notes, or make little outlines of what comes next here and there, but keeping the big picture in front of me at all times. Many writers I know speak of acts and inciting incidents and character arcs, but that’s not the way I think of the story as I write it. I do it by feel, I always have done it that way, and whenever I have tried to think in terms of acts and arcs, what I emerges is, well, junk.

No, the craft of writing, which includes storytelling, is not easy for me. But I’m kind of glad that it isn’t. I watched my steady improvement writing short stories over a period of 14 years until I finally began to sell them. I am hopeful that I can take that experience and apply it to longer form fiction, and see even more improvement over the next ten years, each draft better than the one before it.

Just Wait Till You Have Kids of Your Own

Among the things frustrated parents say to their frustrating kids is, “Just wait until you have kids of your own.” The same parents regale their non-parent friends with what an utter joy parenthood is. Parenthood is a joy, of course, but there is something of the con artist in the parent who tells their non-parent friends about the joys of parenting, while at the same time snapping at their kids, “Just wait until you have kids of your own!”

I haven’t yet reached the point where I’ve uttered those nine words to my kids, but I have thought them several time. They are all good kids, but that does not preclude them from being frustrating at times. The Little Man is a pre-teen and no longer little. He is at that age where he needs to argue every point or direction or instruction. Another things frustrated parents sometimes say to their frustrating kids comes to mind: “You have all the answers, don’t you?”

The most frustrating things about being a parent is realizing that no amount of your own experience does any good for your kids. Experience isn’t something that can be transferred from one person to another. It has to be lived to be effective. These seems terribly inefficient, and while physicists ponder the ultimate reality of the universe, I offer this as another possible avenue of exploration.

Our two older kids were easy-going by comparison to our youngest, who will turn five this summer. She has, it seems, found a way not only to allow experience to be transferred to her. In doing so, she has examined this experience closely and unlike our other kids, have found simple methods for exploiting said experience to her great advantage. Asking the older kids to do something was always easy. Asking the Littlest Miss to do something is also easy if it is something she wants to do. If it not, she simply says no.

She generally says it calmly and without malice, but it is a firm “no” nonetheless. For instance, after her quota of screen time is up, I’ll say, “Time to turn off devices.”

“No,” she says.

I turn on my parental frown, which is often a feeble attempt to mask a grin. I always feel like a charlatan when acting like a parent because I still think of myself as a kid. “I guess that means you don’t want to use devices anymore.”

“I do,” she says.

“Well, then it’s time to turn it off.”

“No,” she says.

“Okay,” I say. I take the device away. “Now you’ve lost the device for tomorrow.”

She looks at me calmly, and in her voluable five-year old voice, she says, “If that’s what you want, fine, but I urge you to reconsider: after all, if I can’t use devices, you’ll have to entertain me. And I know you have to work, and have a million chores around the house to do. So really, if you think about it, taking away my device tomorrow punishes you more than it does me. And believe me,” she adds, “if I don’t have my device tomorrow I’ll come up with a long list of activities that we’ll need to do together. Beginning with you taking me to the playground after lunch when it is approximately 175 degrees in the shade.”

She says all of this, maybe not out loud, but with her eyes. She’s very good at communicating with her eyes.

I open my mouth to reply and she raises an eyebrow in warning. I pause. I reconsider. I check the time. I’ve got a meeting in two minutes. “Fine,” I say, “you can stay on your device until I finish my meeting.”

She smiles serenely.

“But,” I add, “you just wait till you have kids of your own.”

The Littlest Miss shakes her head and puts a disapproving expression on her face. “Daddy,” she says, “I’d never let my kids get away with such behavior.”

Four Days of Writing

I’ve gotten in four days of writing since starting on this new story. So far, I feel pretty good about it. As of this morning, I’ve written a total of 5,000 words since starting on June 2. I was too busy to write on June 4, but wrote yesterday and today, which is a good sign because sometimes, if I skip a day, I don’t get started again. I was glad to see that the desire to write was strong enough to continue even after taking a day off.

There was one false start, where what I was writing seemed like the wrong way to begin telling the story. I began to see the right way to tell the story sometime yesterday, and I spent my entire half hour dedicated to thinking yesterday morning figuring this out. I made a new start this morning and things are much better. In part, I think I’ve found the voice I was looking for, which is always important for me to get a grip on the characters.

I’m using Obsidian to write this story and it is also working well for me. I’m not breaking the story into separate files, but instead, using markdown headings to fold and unfold pieces as needed. I’m using split screens I need to refer back to one part of the story while writing another part. And I’m using markdown comments and document links for notes to myself as the writing does on. The folding of headings also allows me to maintain a practice I’ve used through all of my writing: throwing nothing way, but moving things that don’t work into a “Deleted scenes” section. Folded up, my current manuscript looks like this:

A look at the folded sections of my document in Obsidian

Although I have a target of about 1,000 words/day, I haven’t been stressing too much about word counts. I’ve written four out of the last five days and with 5,000 words so far, that’s about 1,250 words/day on average. Some days have been less, and some days, like this morning, has been more.

Setting aside time each morning to let my mind wander over the story has helped prepare me for the day. It is much easier to come to the story warmed up than cold, which is often how I worked in the past.

I still feel like the story is in a fragile state. Like a newborn, it needs a lot of my attention, even when I am not sitting at the keyboard, but I am hoping that another week or two will see it standing on its own and that is when things usually begin to flow more easily for me. The story begins to write itself at that point, with me as not much more than someone taking dictation. If I hit 10 days and am close to 10,000 words, then I think I’ll be in good shape.

I’ll try to provide another update on the story then to let you know how things are going.

An Evening at the Pool

Friday evening at our pool club.

Yesterday afternoon, we headed over to our pool club to enjoy a Friday evening among friends. It was the first Friday evening outing at the pool since September 2019. We re-up our pool membership every February and in 2020, we did this before COVID broke out. Afterward, the pool gave members the option of transferring memberships to the following year and we chose that option. We didn’t go to the pool at all in 2020. It was good to be back.

Our pool is about a 10 minute drive from the house. It is on the grounds of a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus. The grounds are sprawling. There are two large pools, with lifeguards in attendance. There is a bar and snack shop. There is a large, shaded picnic area with tables and a forest of barbecues spread out among them. There is a tennis court and playground. The kids can swim, or run around with their friends. The adults can stand around talking about their kids. It always makes for a fun evening.

Under normal circumstances, we head to our pool several times a week in the evenings when things are a little cooler. We also go on the weekends. But Friday evenings are my favorite. We get there before it gets too crowded. The kids swim. We migrate to a picnic table and begin milling around with friends. Some of the friends we saw yesterday we hadn’t seen in a while thanks to COVID.

I like the small pleasures in life. Among these are sitting on a shaded bench on a warm summer afternoon, sipping a beer, surrounded by the family and chatting with friends. I enjoy watching the kids find their friends and run around the grounds, making up games. I enjoy waiting for the inevitable request for ice cream or ring pops from the snack bar. I enjoy the smells of the different meats being grilled on the surrounding barbecues. All of this seemed more vivid yesterday than on previous occasions.

With all of the stress and turmoil (to say nothing of sickness and death) the pandemic has left in its wake, it was nice to return to a few hours of normalcy. Conversations touched on the pandemic in the past tense, but mostly, people talked about plans they had for the future: trips for summer vacations, camps for kids, sports, returning to the office, or continuing to work remotely. It seemed like we were all looking forward. We ended up spending about 3-1/2 hours there and it made for a wonderful evening. I’m already looking forward to next Friday.

My Favorite Audio Book Narrators

One of the great things about audio books is the added dimension the narrator brings to the book. I find this is true for both fiction and non-fiction, but it is especially true for fiction. When I started listening to audio books back in 2013, I didn’t always pay attention to the names of the narrators, but I quickly learned to do this, in the same way that I learned to read the bylines in newspaper articles, or look for who wrote episodes of television shows I’ve enjoyed.

The very first audio book narrator I listened to back in 2013 was Lindsey Crouse, who narrated the first two audio books I listened to, Misery and Gerald’s Game both by Stephen King. In the years since, I’ve listened to more than 500 audio books. Here then, are some of my favorite audio book narrators.

Fiction

  • Craig Wasson: Wasson narrated Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I’d read the novel once before I listened to the audio book version. Craig Wasson’s narration helped make that novel one of my all-time favorites. His performance was so good that it has an unexpected negative result: I can’t listen to other performance by Craig Wasson. Usually, when I find a narrator I like, I will look for more books they’ve narrated. I’ve discovered a lot of books in this manner. But Wasson became Jake Epping to me, and I can’t imagine him in any other role.
  • George Guidall: Guidall’s voice took some getting used to for me. The first thing I listened to him narrate was Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. But where George Guidall really captured my heart was when I heard him narrating the Walt Longmire books by Craig Johnson. These books are all told in first person and like Wasson, George Guidall has become Walt Longmire in my mind, even more than Robert Taylor, who portrayed Longmire in the television series. Strangely, I can listen to Guidall narrate other books, and I look forward to those narrations as well.
  • Will Patton: Will Patton has narrated many books that I’ve listened to but the one that stands out most in my mind is his performance narrating Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. He does an incredible job with that book, making it, my mind, a better book in the audio edition than it is in the print edition alone.

Nonfiction

  • Malcolmn Hilgartner: I discovered Hilgartner through his narration of E. B. White’s One Man’s Meat, one of my favorite collections of essays. I know what E. B. White sounds like, of course, and Hilgartner sounds nothing like him, but his style of narration makes me believe that White is talking to me when I listen to him. He’s also done narrations of a biography of Ty Cobb and Bob Hope that I enjoyed.
  • Grover Gardner: Gardner’s voice took me some getting used to. But he narrated at least half of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization books, and those are among my favorite histories, even though they are somewhat dated now. He is a reliable narrator that I’ve grown used to and versatile in both fiction (The Stand) and nonfiction alike. He narrated all of Robert A. Caro’s volumes on Lyndon Johnson so far.
  • Simon Winchester: Winchester narrates his own books, but I sometimes wish he narrated others as well. His is a voice I could listen to for just about anything.

Author narrators

At last, here is a list of some authors who also narrate their own books. No every writer is a good narrator, but these are a few that have really caught my attention and blown me away with their performances:

  • Harlan Ellison (the first person I ever heard give a “dramatic” reading)
  • John Le Carré (another writer who could have narrated other people’s books to great effect)
  • Bruce Springsteen (hid understated narration of his memoir was pitch perfect)
  • Simon Winchester (mentioned above)
  • Mary Robinette Kowal (she gave a marvelous performance of her novel The Calculating Stars)
  • Carl Reiner (because I love how he sounds like he is casually chatting with me)

Looking over this list, I note that it is alarmingly void of women. Mary is the only one. I took a second look at the list of audio books I’ve read and it turns out that while many are written by women, they are not as often narrated by women. Take Doris Kearns Goodwin, for example. I really enjoy her books, especially books like No Ordinary Time and The Bully Pulpit, the former of which was narrated by Nelson Runger, and the latter by Edward Hermann, both men.

When I occasionally browse for books on Audible, in addition to searching for writers I enjoy, I also search for narrators that I enjoy, hoping to discover new things that I might have missed. This above list are the people I most often search for when it comes to narrations.

Rereading the Walt Longmire Books

Last night I started to re-read the Walt Longmire series of books by Craig Johnson. This is my third time reading these book, and each time I read them, I love them more and more. Partly it is the characters. Although I enjoyed the Netflix series based on the books, the characters in the books are more alive and real than they seemed in the television show. Partly it is the setting. I enjoy the open wilderness of the setting in Wyoming. Partly it is the stories, which are always interesting. But mostly, it is the writing that impresses me.

The stories are told in first person, in an understated way, which is my favorite kind of writing. I think of books like Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 or Joyland which share this understated style. Instead of feeling like I am reading a novel, the book is written as if Walt Longmire is talking to me in his casual, but perceptive manner. This is the style that I aim for when writing my own stories, which seem clumsy by comparison. The closest I’ve managed to come is in my story “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown.” In that one, I think I got close.

Anyone who enjoys a character series of novels know what I mean when I say that the characters in the books feel like family. There is a comfort in settling down with one of these books, knowing that it is populated with friends.

As I read last night, what I really focused on was the writing. Everything about Johnson’s writing seems flawless to me. So much so that you could easily miss things if you weren’t paying close attention. Though this was my third reading of The Cold Dish, the first book in a series of sixteen (a seventeenth comes out later this year), there were things that I never caught the first time around. Some of these were subtleties of writing, elegant turns of phrase that turn out to have greater meaning when you know the story. Some don’t carry that meaning, but are delightful nonetheless.

These books can make me laugh out loud, something that is not easy to make me do. They can do it for pages on end, on again and off again. The relationship between Henry Standing Bear and Walt is a particularly good one and their interactions feel like the interactions of people who have known each other their entire life and have been best friends through it all.

I’m reading these books again for two reason: first, I am trying to learn what I can from the writing; second, because they are just a joy to read. If you’ve never read any of the Longmire books, I’d highly recommend them.

Thinking about Thinking

Part of the reason that I have struggled with writing these last few years is because I haven’t had time to think. I don’t know about other writers, but for me, thinking is 90% of the job. The rest is essentially dictation. If I don’t have time to think, there just isn’t much to dictate.

It took a while for me to recognize this problem. Various activities–work, reading, family life–have fragmented my time so much that I no longer just sit around and think–daydream, if you will. About the only time I do this is in the shower. Granted, I often get good ideas in the shower. But not enough to sustain my writing.

As I planned to start writing again, I knew that I had to try to solve the problem of thinking. I knew that I couldn’t sit down to write every day without having given my writing some thought. I finally decided that I would set aside 30 minutes each morning to do nothing. In other words, 30 minutes to just let me mind wander, and think.

I gave it a try for the first time this morning. After returning from my morning walk, I set my phone on my desk, and then wandered out onto the deck with nothing but a pen, my current Field Notes notebook, and my thoughts. I sat there for 30 minutes and let my mind wander. I watched 2 cicadas mate shamelessly before my eyes. I watched unusually fat squirrels climbing trees. I listened to the tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker somewhere out of sight. In the background, the car-alarm droning of cicadas filled the air. And every now and then, I thought about the story that I am writing.

It seemed to work. I jotted a page and a half of notes in my notebook. Most were questions, hows and whys. They weren’t all about the story, some where about how best to tell the story. I thought I would come away with more–a big revelation that would spark motivation and jump start things. That didn’t happen. But that kind of insight is always rare for me. Mostly, I tried to let my mind wander around the loosely fenced idea of my story. I was pretty happy with the results.

I suspect it will take practice. Sitting down once for thirty minutes and just letting my mind wander is not something I am used to these days, and like anything, it takes practice. I was surprised at how quickly the half hour passed. I probably jotted more than I should have. I’ve found that some ideas aren’t worth the ink, and being able to recognize that is an important skill for a writer. I’ll get better at that as I get back into practice.

When I finished, I transferred my notes into a notes file I keep for the story, organizing them a bit, and seeing where the ideas I jotted fit with ideas I’d already had. Something is taking shape in those note, and I think that something will form the skeleton of the story.

I’m interested in this process more than usual. If I am going to attempt to write ten novels over the next ten years, I need some way of learning from each one, and using what I learn from one to make the next one better. This way, when I retire, I’ll have enough practice under my belt to make my first attempt as a full time writer worthwhile. I think sitting for thirty minutes each morning and letting my mind wander around the borders of the story is a good use of time. We’ll see if it pans out.

Beginning to Write, Again

When I wrote about playing the long game recently, I said at the time that I wouldn’t really begin working on something new until September. When I wrote it, I thought it would take me longer to come up with a plan of execution. I also realized I was hedging a bit. Why wait, if things began falling into place.

I think things have finally started to fall into place. I know what I want to write about. I have a plan for completing a draft in what I think is a reasonable amount of time. I have a method for tracking my progress. All I really need to do is get started.

I am going into this trying to learn from my previous mistakes. A big change is in what I think of a the “pre-production” phase of writing. With short fiction I’ve always had an idea, an idea for how the thing might end, and I’d just start writing. No real planning. I also did this with the first novel draft I wrote back in 2013. This time around, I am trying to be more strategic.

For one thing, I learned from the first novel draft attempt, as well as the many failed attempts since, that flying by the seat of my pants doesn’t work for me when writing at that length. I have therefore been jotting notes down. I’ll be continuing to do this, putting together a kind of skeleton of the story, more so that I understand the gaps and know how to fill them. So while I am considering today my first “official” day on this project, there may not be any writing beyond notes.

For another thing, I’m trying to keep things simple. I often get bogged down with the tools I use, building all sorts of elaborate means of tracking what I write. Not this time. I’m writing everything using Obsidian, story, notes, and anything else. I’m treating it the way I treat software projects, committing my changes to a git repo each day. If I want to go back and get information about my writing, I can use git’s functionality to do that. Finally, I’m keeping a log book that I think might be handy when working on a second draft.

I do have a schedule. It’s the only way I can work on something like this. I’m giving myself 4 months to complete the first draft. Call it 120 days. I’ve given myself a goal of 1,000 words/day with a target of 100,000 words. But 1,000 x 120 = 120,000, so what gives right? Like on a software project, I’ve built a 20% buffer into my schedule so that things don’t get too stressful if I don’t hit my goal on some days. Sometimes, the writing just doesn’t come. Indeed, my initial plan is to write 6 days a week, giving me a day off each week. I may write on my day off, but I won’t feel compelled to do this.

One thing I won’t be doing is talking about what I am writing about. I get that people are curious. But I am one of those writers who lose interest in what I am writing if I talk about it. I want to save everything for the page.

So there you have it. If all goes well, I will report on or about the end of September 2021 that I have completed the first draft of this first novel in this reboot of my writing career. Fingers crossed!