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 Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

Overchoice

Earlier this week, I completed a work project that I had been managing for more than two years. 937 days from my first meeting to rollout to be precise. Any software project like this has a tail, but it felt good to actually have the thing completed and out in the world. The good feeling came more from the former than the latter, I think.

Whenever I finish a big project, I go through a list of things that I have accumulated over that period of time–personal projects and other things that I have put off doing for a lack of time. This inevitably leads to a period in which I flutter randomly between items on my list, wanting to do all of them at once, and not making progress on any of them. Alvin Toffler called this “overchoice.” I’ve also heard it referred to as “analysis paralysis” but I think I like overchoice better because it accurately describes the feelings it raises in me.

Software projects tend to have crunch periods as you get closer to rollout. It’s hard to describe what’s involved in these intense periods of work to people not involved in software rollout. I often think of these periods as the loathsome part of moving where all of the big stuff–furniture, televisions, books, etc.–is packed away and ready to move and all that’s left is the stuff in the kitchen drawers, the top shelves of closets, and the attic. It always seems to take longer to deal with that stuff than everything else put together. It makes for long hours and over the last month or so, 60 hours weeks were not unheard of. (My peak was 68-1/2 hours in one week.)

It meant that no only was this weekend a 3-day holiday weekend, but it was my first days with no work (weekends included) since sometime in May. I would have an entire 3 days off–what would I do with my time?

More often than not, we are on vacation this week. We’ve spent many Fourth of July weekends in small town coastal Maine. Two years ago, we spent our Fourth in Nashville, Tennessee as part of a 10-day road trip we took. This year, things are different. We are home for the weekend and while Virginia is doing alright compared with many states, people are still appropriately cautious and so things are a little subdued. I thought this would be a perfect time to flip through my list of personal projects and figure out what I wanted to work on. I took care of a few of the smaller ones (WD-40 the sliding glass door, replace a few lightbulbs around the house) and then looked at the two big projects I have been ignoring for some time–in many cases–years.

  1. A unified way for capturing notes and annotations from my reading. You’d think that by now, we’d have a standardized system that allowed us to highlight and annotate any text we find in electronic form, whether a Kindle book, a magazine , newspaper, website, etc. No such standard exists and, indeed, some tools, like Kindle, make it particularly difficult to programmatically extract your notes and highlights. I’ve thought about ways of building a system for myself that would do that–a kind of standardized digital commonplace book.
  2. A personal digital archive of all of my papers (digital and actual). A lot of this is in Evernote and I haven’t ruled out building a curated archive in Evernote. But I’m not fond of the way Evernote currently presents this data, so I thought I’d investigate what it would take to build a local searchable archive myself.

I got to thinking about both these projects this week. The ideas began to fly, and I began messing around with some of the technology I planned to use to implement these systems. I spent hours testing out little concepts here and there. At the end of the day, however, I’d made no real progress and I was worn out and frustrated. Two things occurred to me:

  1. I had a serious case of overchoice. In addition to the two projects above, I am teaching myself some new technology required to implement these projects the way I want, which itself spawns off many little sub-projects. And there were other smaller things on my list that I was ignoring.
  2. There was one project I was avoiding. Steven Pressfield would call this losing out to resistance. I was focusing on other things in order to avoid the one thing I should be doing: writing.

Once I realized what I was doing, I felt better. I’d make my focus writing. It’s not that I don’t want to do the other projects, but that I want to write and have been avoiding it because it sometimes is hard to do. It is certainly harder (for me at least) than managing a complicated software project. But it is also much more satisfying. I have worried about my writing lately: the stories that I have been writing or want to write are not the kind of stories I used to write. I no longer think of the science fiction magazines as the right market for me–but I don’t know what the right market is. I worry about the lack of writing I’ve done here on the blog, and whether or not what I do write is of interest to anyone but me. Recent comments and emails have perked me up on this concern and that makes me happy.

Knowing that my big rollout would happen at the end of June, I told myself that beginning on July 1, I’d beginning writing in earnest again. I’d try to write every day and see what I could manage to produce over the second half of the year. July 1st and 2nd drifted by without a word from my at the keyboard. Finally, on July 3, this post is my return to the world of writing. I’m pretty sure I have the capacity and energy to be prolific over the next 6 months. The question is: will what I write be any good?

For that we’ll have to wait and see.

R.I.P. Carl Reiner

I learned this afternoon that Carl Reiner died yesterday at age 98. I read several Reiner’s books over the years, including I Remember Me and I Just Remembered. The Dick Van Dyke Show, which Reiner created, was one of my favorite TV shows, despite its originally airing a decade before I was born. The episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee featuring Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks is one of my favorites.

Rest in peace, Carl Reiner.

Fan Mail and the Law of Coincidence

I woke yesterday morning to find an unusual email message in my work inbox. The message was from someone in my department with whom I have never worked. In her message, she told me she was “an admirer of my work,” referring to a requirements document that I recently produced, and praising its clarity. I replied with a thank you, and jokingly said that while I’d received fan mail for my fiction and nonfiction writing, this was the first piece of fan mail I’d ever received for a technical requirements document.

In truth, it had been quite a while since I received fan email of any kind (not counting comments I get here on the blog) mainly because I haven’t written much outside the blog lately. So it was delightful to awaken to such a message and read that first thing in the morning, instead of some kind of emergency related to a pending rollout I’m working on this weekend.

Then, in an odd coincidence, I received two more emails from various work colleagues yesterday, praising various documents I’d written for this recent project. One person told me how nice it was to have someone on a project that could write. Another called a different document I wrote “fantastic.” Keep in mind that writing documentation is an ancillary part of what I do, almost an afterthought. But it is still nice to hear that people find the documentation useful, and to hear from three different people in the same day–well, in more than a quarter of a century at the company, I think it is the first time that has happened.

It was more than enough to make for a happy day, and lift my spirits from the stress of the current rollout effort. As it happened, it didn’t stop there. Just before heading to bed last night, I received another fan email. This time, it was from someone who had just read my story, “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown” (now freely available on InterGalactic Medicine Show’s website). It was a sweet message, and it meant a lot, considering that “Gemma Barrows” is my favorite of all of the stories I’ve sold to date.

It amuses me that my day began with fan email–and by purest coincidence, such mail seemed to sprinkle throughout my day. It brought a smile to my face when I woke up, and put a smile on my face just before I went to bed. That’s what I call a pretty good day.

The New Baseball Season

Major League Baseball should do everyone a favor and forgo the 2020 season. I say this as a lifelong baseball fan, a former player (as a kid), and a student of the history of the sport. There are three reasons why baseball should take a deep breath (wearing a mask, of course) and forfeit the season. There’s only one reason that they won’t.

Let’s start with why they should forgo the season:

  1. The baseball season is a marathon, which is part of the magic of the game. Whether its the current 162 games played in regular season, or the 154 games played in an earlier era, it is still a long road to the playoffs. Each game is itself a marathon, being played without a clock, and 162 of those clockless games are packed into 6 month regular season. The entire dynamic of the game is centered on this stable arrangement, like planets orbiting a star at the center of a solar system. Change those dynamics and chaos ensues. Planets fall inward to crash into the star, while other are flung out of the system entirely. We’ll see this in a 60 game season:
    • A 10 game win or loss streak can have a disproportional effect on the outcome of a season for a team.
    • Batting records will be skewed by the shortened season. Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak went 56 games, which is 4 games shy of the entire new season.
    • Being hot and being in a slump take on new perspectives in a grossly shortened season. With “hot” hitters, we could conceivably see much higher batting averages from we are used to. It’s even conceivable that for a period of 60 games, a batter could hit .400. The opposite is true of batters in a slump.
    • If your teams wins the series in a 60 game season, is that something to celebrate? Or, like Houston’s dubious win a few years ago, it is something to be humiliated by?
  2. The entire 2020 record book will be one big asterisk. Meanwhile, I can’t imagine anyway really believes that the stats produced in a 60-game season will have any meaning or value in a record book where the average season length over 120 or so is between 154 and 162 games. If a player does finish the season at or about .400 in hitting, does that show up without a note in the almanacs? Is such a feat deserving of an batting title? Does it even make sense to award batting titles, Cy Young awards, Golden Gloves and the like in a 60 game season? With nearly every stat and achievement from a 60 game season questionable when compared with a season that has 2.7 times as many games, I can’t see the value of the record book for 2020. I imagine that sabermetricians will find ways of attempting to compare apples to apples, the way they do with “field effects” and different era comparisons, but still, really?
  3. The draw of the season will be about the novelty not the game itself. I suspect there will be a fair amount of interest in the games played in 2020, but not for the games themselves, but the novelty of the situation. Managers can’t bump umpires–you have to keep your 6 feet of separation; batters hit by a pitch can’t charge the mound. But will they? The novelty of the situation will keep us watching more than the games themselves, which is a shame. Baseball is an elegant performance to watch, but we’ll miss the performance in lieu of the theater in which it will be played.

The reason that baseball won’t cancel the 2020 season? Come on, you already know the answer: money.

The real question for me is: will I watch any of the games? I don’t know. Late in the winter, I get this eager feeling in my belly. Spring is just around the corner, and I can smell baseball in the air. The first games of the season, when the air is often still chilled, are fun to watch. The players are easing back into things. Any one game doesn’t matter that much at that point. Now, the spring is behind us, and the players will start playing in the heat of summer. Each game will matter more than in a regular season. Indeed, each game will matter 2.7 times more than normal, and that will put pressure on the players and change the way they perform.

I suppose the real winner in all of this is the Houston Astros. Remember what happened in the offseason after Houston was caught cheating in the World Series? I can imagine Houston players were looking forward to road games, especially road games in Los Angeles. What they needed was a major distraction–and that is exactly what they got. What pitcher is going to make his displeasure known by throwing inside on an Astros batter, when getting tossed from a game means sacrificing 1 of the 10 or 11 starts you’ll get this season–assuming your aren’t suspended for hitting the batter?

My Journal in the Days of COVID

Toward the end of 2017, I switched to a new format for my journals: nice big Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbooks, the kind with 96 pages of heavy paper in each volume. These are, by far, my favorites of all of the various journals I’ve used over the years, from simple notebooks, to the brick red Standard Diaries.

This morning, I closed out the 6th volume in this format and cracked open the 7th (I buy these Moleskein notebooks four at a time because I have this silly fear that they will stop making them). As I was closing out the 6th volume, labeling the front cover and spine, I noted the dates: February 6 – June 25, 2020. I started this volume just before the COVID-19 pandemic set its teeth upon us. I noted something else, too. The date range is small than most of my previous volumes of equal length. I wasn’t certain so I went back to check.

Charting my recent journal volumes by days per volume.
Number of days in each volume of my journal since 2017

Each volume has 98 usable pages. With the exception of my first volume in this format, where I was excited about the new format and writing more than usual, this most recent volume contains significantly fewer days than my average, meaning I have been writing more each day since February. Skimming through the volume bears this out. Indeed, my entries are considerably longer, often detailing the news of the day as it relates to the pandemic. Rarely in previous volumes do I report on the current news, other than to call out notable events to provide context for when they happen in my life. But in this most recent volume, events unfolded so quickly that I sometimes had to make bulleted lists of all that happened, like this example from March 13:

A list of current events in my journal

I also find that I used this most recent volume as a way to vent my concerns and frustrations about the pandemic as a way of relieving stress. Sometimes I go on for a page or more venting these concerns. I don’t generally do this in my journals, so this is an indication of particular stress on my part, I suppose.

This made me wonder how many other people are recording their experiences during the pandemic in a similar fashion. So much history is captured this way that rarely sees the light of day, I imagine. Sometimes, it finds it way into public view, often long after the face: John Adams and John Quincy Adams diaries paint fascinating pictures of life in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America; war letters from during the Civil War, World War I and II have a similar collective effect. I wonder if, a century from now, a Ph.D. candidate will make a study of life during the pandemic and turn to those journals that still exist for a look into what the world was like? Of course, digital records and journals may exist was well, but I’m still skeptical of their durability compared to paper.

I did make one interesting experiment in this most recent volume of my journal. Beginning on March 5, influenced by both the beauty of John Quincy Adams’ handwriting in his journals, and my desire to write more during the pandemic without growing tired, I switched from my normal mode of printing, to cursive entries. (see above). This experiment lasted until June 10th, most of my 6th volume. I stopped for one reason: I found it difficult to read my own handwriting at times. These journals are a reference book for me, and I sometimes imagine my kids (and perhaps, one day, their kids) reading through these. They need to be legible first and foremost, and try as I might, my cursive writing is less legible the faster I write.

Experiment tried, experiment failed.

The Adams Family

I have been fascinated by the Adams family since reading David McCullough’s biography John Adams in the summer of 2001. Adams, to me, was a remarkable man. I’ve often named him as my favorite president (careful to point out that I say my favorite president, not the best president). From time-to-time, I’ve browsed John Adam’s diaries with great delight. I enjoyed reading about Adam’s from Jefferson’s perspective in Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Jefferson. The story of Adams’ and Jefferson’s tumultuous friendship–captured in Friends Divided by Gordon S. Wood–is remarkable for its time. In any case, McCullough’s biography of John Adams has for nearly twenty years now been one of my favorites, and one I’ve re-read on several occasions.

This morning, I finished reading John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit by James Traub, and have found a biography of the son that matches McCullough’s of the father. What a great read. I’ve often felt that there are two qualities that drive people to greatness: genius, or extremely hard work. John Quincy Adams is the rare result of both, and his accomplishments bear that out. JQA was a more prolific diarist than his father and I have now started to immerse myself in Vol 1 of his diaries, with Vol 2 waiting in the wings.

I read The Education of Henry Adams two years ago. Henry was the son of Charles Francis Adams and thus the grandson of JQA and the great-grandson of John Adams. The family had its share of tragedy, and yet it continued to produce some remarkable people.

A paragraph toward the end of Traub’s book sums this up as follows, astounding when you think of John Adams relatively humble beginnings 285 years ago:

The Adams name rolled on in gently ebbing waves of distinction. Charles Francis Adams III, who married the granddaughter of the secretary of the navy under President John Quincy Adams, served as Herbert Hoover’s navy secretary. (He had prepared for the role by successfully defending the America’s Cup.) His son, Charles Francis Adams IV, served as president of the aerospace firm Raytheon. The Roman numerals have marched all the way down to our own day in the form of John Quincy Adams VII, surely one of the very few “VII”s in a nation that has forsworn a hereditary aristocracy. This John Quincy Adams has a blog.

What would John Adams have thought of blogs, I wonder?

A Brief Writing Progress Update and Coming Soon News

I know I said that I wasn’t going to provide updates about my progress in this final attempt at writing this particular story I’ve been trying to tackle. But I figured it was worth mentioning that last night, I hit the 10,000 word mark. Considering everything else I’ve got going on, writing 10,000 words in 9 days is pretty good for me. It’s not all the most inspired writing, but whenever I worry about the writing or the story, I tell myself to worry about it in the second draft and just keep on writing.

For some time now, I’ve been wanting to jump-start things here on the blog. I enjoy the writing that I do here, and especially the interactions I have with readers. With that in mind, I have a new project that I plan to start here in the not-too-distant future. My working title for this project is “My Standard Answers.” I’ve often thought it would be useful to have a place I can myself (or point people to) for the standard answers to questions I sometimes get asked about–not just questions here on the blog, but questions I get asked in other areas of my life. An example might be “Who is your favorite audiobook narrator?” or “What, in your mind, makes for a good audiobook narrator?” These would be short, maybe 500-word essays, and the current plan is to post one per week.

I don’t want to start on a project like this until I have a list of the questions that I think would be interesting to answer. I am aiming for at least 52 of them, so that I can guarantee myself I’ll have something to write about for at least year. So far, I’ve jotted down 30 of these. If anyone has suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments. I think these are eclectic enough to be of fairly wide interest and not too centered on any one things. But, to make things more interesting, I’m also toying with the idea of a weekly companion essay that focuses on the subject from a different angle–meaning you’d potentially get two posts a week. I haven’t quite figured out this last part yet, and I still have to come up with more of my Standard Answer topics, then weed out the weaker ones and order them in a way that makes them interesting.

Ideally, I’d like to start this in July, but it all depends on how I can fit this into my current workload. In any case, I wanted to mention that this idea has been brewing with me for a while and I hope to be able to bring it to fruition here soon.

Oh, the profanity!

In many ways, I still see myself as just a kid. I think the same thoughts I did when I was a kid, I occasionally ask the same questions I did when I was a kid. While reading about a particularly fascinating profession, I will to this day, say to myself, “When I grow up, I want to do that.” Some things, I guess, you never grow out of. Take profanity, for instance.

Let me start by saying I have absolutely no moral objection to profanity. It is just another means of expression. It’s not a means of expression that I use in the ordinary course of my day. My aversion to profanity comes from some deep-seated fear when I was a kid, that if said a “bad word,” I’d be in big trouble. I’m not exactly sure where this came from. But it stuck with me. With the exception of a period of a few years between 7th and 9th grade or so, when everyone around me was using profanity the way we use “like” today, I have avoided it.

Actually, it’s not even that I’ve avoided using profanity. It’s just not something that is in my daily lexicon. Whenever I do end up using a bad word, I almost instantly regret it. Not because it was a profane, but because it was a bad word choice. There’s almost always a better way for me to express a thought other than using profanity.

The fact that I don’t generally use profanity is another of those things that makes me see myself as just a kid. Friends and family use profanity and I think, wow, they’re so grown up; when I grow up, I’ll be just like them. It rarely comes to pass. Indeed, there are three occasions when the probability that I’ll use profanity increases dramatically.

First, in fiction. I’ve said before that writing fiction, for me, is in many ways like method acting. I need to feel what the characters are feeling. And since generally, the people around me use profanity more than I do, characters in my fiction will use it from time to time. I have no problem with profanity in fiction, television, movies, etc. What I find interesting is that people object to this, to the point that they are willing to call you out on it. When my story, “Take One for the Road” appeared in Analog (June 2011), it received several reviews in the usual places. I remember only one of them, however, from someone who objected to the grumpy old man in the story using the word “shit.” It was the only bad word in the story, and in my mind, it was completely in character. Any other expression in that situation by that character would have seen unrealistic. What I find most interesting is that I have no problem writing dialog with profanity, but when I re-read it, I am always a little uncomfortable. It’s that little kid in my thinking he’s going to get his mouth washed out with soap.

Second, while writing code. There are two use cases here. One is where I am deep in the code, in a kind of coma that takes over when I am trying to hold the complicated logic of a program in my head. I’ll finish up a piece and execute it to test it, and something goes wrong. When that happens, I’ll let out a string of profanity that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush. I am always alone when this happens. The second use case is similar, except that when I execute the complicated piece of code I just completed and it works, I’ll usually allow a good old, “fuck yeah!”

Third, is when I injure myself. Bang a knee, step on a Lego. Whenever it happens, it’s usually followed by a “Shit, oww!”

Of course, I enjoy a good dirty joke, but I am especially fond of joke that use profanity in clever ways. Two examples, that I won’t repeat here, can be found in Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor. They are the last two jokes in the books, numbers 639 and 640. If you can find the book, it’s worth looking them up.

We’ve tried not to make a big deal about profanity with our kids. We generally don’t use it around them, but we also know they hear it at school, and see it on TV. We don’t make a big deal beyond explaining that there is a time a place for it, more so with kids. I think they will end up using profanity more than I do. It’s kind of built into the language for them these days. Of course, when they have used it, it is Kelly who handles it calmly and rationally. I am usually too busy rolling around on the floor laughing.

A Moment to Vent on Blogs

Allow me a moment to vent on blogs. If you don’t know want to read a “back-in-my-day” rand a la Andy Rooney, by all means, skip this one. I have a few complaints, in no particular order.

  1. Lately, I’ve been getting way more requests than normal for guest posts and other content for my blog. I have a site policy that says I almost never accept unsolicited guest posts, but no one seems to pay attention to these. Yet it seems like I’ve received half of dozen request in the last few days. Which leads me to wonder:
  2. Are blogs so hard up for content these days that they can only survive by outsourcing their content creation?

Do you ever notice how terrible many of these requests are?

  • Do you accept guest posts? If yes, I’ll provide you a well-written article and 100% related to your website niche.
  • I’m a blogger and freelancer, so you’re website is such a find for me. I’d like to contribute a guest article to your blog because I believe your audience will find my ideas interesting and useful.

In my head, I invent interview questions for these guest-blogger candidates:

  • What makes your article well-written?
  • If it is so well-written, why not put it on your own blog?
  • My blog has over 6,500 posts ranging across countless subjects. Tell me how your well-written article is 100% related to this “niche.”
  • What, in your opinion, makes my website “such a find” for you?
  • What makes you believe my audience will find your ideas interesting? Half the time, I don’t know if my audience finds my ideas interesting.

Some of these folks are persistent. Many of them, when they haven’t gotten a response from me, ask to speak to my manager.

Why my blog? Certainly, it can’t be the numbers; they are not what they were five years ago, but I gave up caring about the stats on the blog a long time ago. This is a place, where I can sit down and write about what’s on my mind. If people read it, I’m delighted. If people comment, I’m even more delighted. But the act of creation is what satisfies me, and anything beyond that is gravy.

Then, too, I’m skeptical that any of these potential guest bloggers have actually read what I write, or for that matter, have even looked at this blog. If they had, they’d notice almost at once the absence of any kind of advertising. They’d have to go back a long way to find a guest post (there have been a few over the years, but always at my request, not the other way around). If making money is the object of these guest posters, then I’d think one look at my site would scare them away.

Which brings me to my second complaint. I find myself visiting blogs less and less because, more often than not, they seem almost preposterously monetized. I’ve seen single articles take 30 seconds to load because that’s how long it takes all of the ads to load around the three or four hundred words of text. I stumbled onto Boing Boing recently, after a long absence, and, man, what happened? The site felt almost unusual under the weight of ads and pop-ups. I imagine the articles are still as good as ever, but it seemed impossible to get to them.

And what’s with all of the pop-ups? You get halfway through an article and suddenly there’s a pop-up asking you to for the love of God subscribe to their newsletter! You know what those pop-ups remind me of? They’re the digital versions of those annoying magazine inserts that I have to tear free from the paper copies of magazines I get. But the pop-ups are worse: I can’t tear them out!

Look, I get that people want to make money from their blogs. It seems to me that the real money comes from skill and value, not from buckshot guest post requests. I’ve never put ads on this blog, heck, I don’t even use that Amazon thing that earns you money when you recommend books. But that isn’t to say I haven’t made money as a result of the blog. I’ve been paid to give talks, and write articles for magazines because of things I’ve written about here. I like that better than choking the screen with ads and pop-ups. Even so, I’d be happy just writing.

Which brings me to my final complaint: I wish I had time write here more. I can’t quite describe the enjoyment I have sitting down and bashing out a silly post on bird-watching, or toilets. I don’t even mind announcing big goals to the world, uncertain as to whether or not I will meet them. I just like writing here, and I wish I could do it more.

Forgive the venting. There are always going to be people wanting to find a shortcut. Given that I enjoy writing here so much, it’s just hard for me to fathom why a shortcut would be necessary. That, and recently, it seems that everyone in the world is requesting to write an article for this blog.

The Owl in the Woods

This morning, I can add another creature to the menagerie I’ve encountered in the woods behind our house. I’ve heard owls (or perhaps, this one owl) hooting around the neighborhood from time to time, but until this morning, I’d never seen one. Then, while on the final leg of my morning walk, making my way up the hill that leads back to our house, I saw a huge bird swoop down out of the trees and land on this broken stump. At first I thought it might be an eagle (I’ve admitted elsewhere that I am no birdwatcher). Then, as its big eyes followed me on a swiveling head, I realized I was looking at an owl.

A brief tale of owls: (I’ve certainly told this story before so forgive me if you’ve already heard it). After I sold my story, “Take One for the Road” to Analog, I got a request from Dr. Stan Schmidt to make two small changes to the story. One was so minor I can’t even remember what it was. The other involved owls. It seems that in one point in the story, I’d referred to the hooting or shrieking of a night owl in the distance. Stan asked if I wouldn’t mind changing the phrase “night owl” to “owl” since, “the ornithologists among Analog’s readers would find the term “night owl” redundant. Of course, I made the change.

This morning, however, as I walked past this night owl at 9 am with a hazy sun overhead, I wondered about Stan’s request.

Incidentally, I have no idea what kind of owl this is, and if anyone can identify it from my poor picture, taken at distance, I’d love to know.

New Writing Project

Today, I am beginning my final attempt at writing this story that I have tried to write off and on for nearly 7 years now. It is, I think, a novel, but I won’t know for sure until it is finished. If I can’t do it right this time, I’m giving it up as too difficult for me. That said, I’m not giving up without a fight. I have a plan this time, which I didn’t have in my previous attempts. I also have a secret weapon that I hope will make this last attempt a success.

The plan: I’m giving myself a season to write the first draft and a second season to write the second draft. Start today, I plan to be finished with the first draft by August 31. At that point, I plan to take the month of September off from writing and not even look at what I wrote during that time. Then, beginning on October 1, I’ll start the second draft with an aim to finish it by December 31.

The secret weapon: this time, I have an outline.

That may come as a surprise to longtime readers. In the spectrum of plotters versus pantsers, I’ve been a proclaimed pantsers for a long time. Indeed, all of the short fiction I’ve sold was produced without outlines of any kind. And therein lies the rub: I have, to this point, written only one draft of a novel, way back in 2013. I never moved beyond that first draft because it seemed relatively incoherent. I’ve made numerous attempts at the story I intend to start today, and all have failed. In considering why this may be so, I decided to swallow my pride, and assume that at least part of the problem was that for something so big, I need an outline to provide waypoints for where I am going. My pal, Bud Sparhwak, will be pleased.

Armed with an outline, I plan to get started today and see how things go. I’m feeling pretty good right now, but that just may be the excitement of getting started. We’ll see how I’m feeling in mid-July, when I am deep in the middle of this thing–and on August 31, I’ll know once and for all if I am capable of writing this thing.

I don’t plan on doing any updates along the way. There just isn’t the time, and given my schedule, any time I can spend writing, I want to spend working on the story. But I will post an update by August 31, letting you know one way or another, if I succeeded in completing the story.

Never having used an outline before, I don’t know what a novel outline is supposed to look like. Mine consists of many sheets of yellow legal paper with a rough outline of all the chapters, and more pages that break each chapter down into things that I think need to happen. There’s also random notes scribbled here and there and various arrows point this way and that. I could have typed it up, I supposed, and brought some more order to it, but I like the chaotic feel of it. It feels like I am less locked in to a specific line of events, and have a kind of fuzzy map of how things are supposed to happen. If the outline works, and the story is a success, maybe I’ll post those pages someday as an example of an outline that worked–for me at least. (I suppose, it would be equally useful to post the outline if the story doesn’t work out, as an example of something that doesn’t work, but I don’t know if I’d have the nerve to do that.)

I’m trying not to think in terms of metrics on this go around. You can do the math and figure that for a 90,000 word novel, I need to write about a thousand words per day, on average. If my past experience is any guide, I’ll be well ahead of the curve in the first week or two, then I’ll hit the curve for a while, before falling off. I’m hoping that outline will serve to protect me somewhat from that falling off, but only time will tell.

So what’s the story about? I’m not really sure myself. I usually can’t answer that question until after I’ve written the first draft. But from what I know right now, it’s about baseball, and growing old, and the strange effects of… well, if I ever sell the thing I don’t want to spoil it so for now, you’ll just have to use your imagination.

1,000 Books Finished! And It Only Took 25 Years

On Saturday, May 23, I finished reading The Reformation, Will Durant’s 1,000 page book on, well, the reformation in Europe. There was a nice symmetry to the length being about 1,000 pages since this was also the 1,000th book I finished since I started keeping a list in January 1996. That is a span of over 25 years. For those curious, here is graphical breakdown of those years:

For those unfamiliar with my list, I keep it using a few simple rules:

  1. Only a book that I finish gets on the list. Unfinished books don’t show up.
  2. I don’t rank books, but a book that I would read again, or recommend, I’ll make bold on the list.
  3. Re-reading a book counts as a finished book. Thus, the list is a list of all books I’ve finished, even those read multiple times. It is not a list of distinct titles.
  4. What constitutes a book? I use my judgement. There are a few short books (#789 The Testament of Mary is one. But I also counted the full issues of Astounding that I read for my Vacation in the Golden Age as books since they were of equivalent length.)

I finished the very first book on my list, From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov, on January 13, 1996. I was in New York at the time, on vacation. I can no longer recall what possessed me to start keeping a list. It is possible that I had already come across Eric W. Leuliette’s list of what he’s read since 1974. In any case, I managed to keep the list going in various forms and mediums. Twenty five years later, I finished my 1,000th book. The canonical list has, for some time now, resided in a Leuchtturm1917 notebook. Here’s the first page with entries from 1996, and the most recent pages leading up to and including my 1,000th book:

Sometimes I’ll add some additional notes in the notebook that don’t appear on any of the other forms of my list.

So, it took me 25 years to finish 1,000 books. That’s somewhat deceptive, however. From 1996-2012, I read either paper or the occasional e-book. In that time, I completed about 500 books. That’s about 16 years or about 31 books per year, on average. In early 2013, however, I decided to give audiobooks a try as a way of allowing myself to get more reading done. Since 2013, I’ve read an additional 500 books, so that’s 500 books in 7 years or about 71 books per year on average. My page has been increasing!

In 2017, I decided to see how much I really could read, given the freedom audiobooks provided, and the fact that I had slowly been increasing the speed at which I listen to audiobooks. (Today, I usually listen to a book at somewhere between 1.5 and 1.75x normal speed, depending on the narrator). I set a record in 2017, reading 58 books that year. But that record didn’t last long. In 2018 I read 130 books; in 2019, 113 books. So far in 2020, I’m on pace to read 110. Indeed, I sort of sprinted to the 1,000th book milestone. At the beginning of May I’d read 983 books. That means I read an additional 17 books (including 2 books that were over 1,000 pages each) in the first 23 days of the month. It is, by far, a record-breaking month for me, and one that I am not likely to repeat for some time.

Given the pace I’ve set for the last 3 years, I’d predict, assuming no significant changes, that I’ll finish my 2,000th book in July 2029, a little more than 9 years from now. What took me 25 years to do the first time, should be much quicker the second time.

The books that I read run the gamut of the Dewey Decimal System. While I haven’t looked recently, I think nonfiction outpaces fiction about 60/40. In the last 3 years, it’s probably more like 70/30.

Why read so much, and why list it out? Well, I’ve said elsewhere how I look at my reading as my real education. I learned to read in grade school; I learned to think critically in high school; I learned to learn in college. Once college was over, i was finally prepared to learn–and then had to enter the workforce. So reading is my way of learning. The list acts a reminder of what I’ve read (and what I’ve learned), but also a kind of literary autobiography. I can look at the list and for nearly any book on it, I can recall where I was and what was happening in my life when I read it.

And what about before the list? I’ve often wished I started my list much earlier. I was 24 years old when I started it and 2 years out of college. Looking back over that time, and thinking about books I read in college, and high school, books I read in grade school. Books I got from Weekly Reader and checked out of the library, children’s books that I read on my own or with help from my parents, I’d estimate the total to be not more than 500 books, and probably somewhat less than that.

When I finished the final words of Will Durant’s The Reformation on Saturday, I was sitting out on the deck, enjoying sunshine. I had a quiet, private moment of achievement. Then I started on the next book. I jumped from the middle ages in Europe to the present achievements in physics with Brian Greene’s latest, Until the End of Time, which I’ll like finish today and mark down as book #1,001.

I occasionally get questions about my reading and my list. If you have any, feel free to drop them in the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer them.