Today marks one hundred consecutive days of blog posts that I have written thus far in 2021. 109 posts in 100 days, totaling about 70,000 words. As I said in my post of January 1,
I miss the days of just sitting at the keyboard and pounding out something that just occurred to me. And so rather than waiting for what I feel is a “post-worthy” idea, I’m going to swing back to posting here when things happen to pop into my head. What that means for you is more posts in 2021.
I’m happy to say that so far, this is true. I wrote a total of 51 blog posts in all of 2020, and have more than doubled that in the first 100 days of 2021. Comments and discussions are on the rise as well, more than triple so far than all of 2020 combined.
Overall, I’m very pleased by this. It isn’t always easy to come up with something to write every day, but it is always enjoyable, a part of the day that I always look forward to.
I am working this weekend. It is crunch time for a software project that me and my team has been working on for just over a year, and which will roll out in a few more weeks. Having this blog as a place to come to let my thoughts run free after (or before) a long day’s work is something that I am grateful for.
I bought myself an early birthday present: a fountain pen. I’ve been wanting a fountain pen for some time, but I didn’t know much about them. I wanted it mainly for my journal writing. I’ve been using a Pilot G-2 0.7 pen for my journal since late 2017. I mentioned to someone a while back how my cursive writing never looks as nice as other examples I see online. “Are you using a fountain pen?” they asked. I guess I thought a fountain pen would make my handwriting look nicer.
I did what anyone would do in this situation: research. And by research, I mean I called my friend Ken who collects fountain pens, and whose bullet journal looks like a work of art. He asked me a bunch of questions and then gave me a detailed list of what to look for, what matters, what makes a good pen, along with some recommendations.
For my first fountain pen (I say my first because fountain pens are like books, and multiply rapidly, I am told) I bought a Pilot Custom 74 (black smoke in color) with a fine nib. I got the gold nib because I was told it wrote more smoothly than the steel one. I ordered the pen from Goulet Pens and had it in my hands just a few days after I’d ordered it.
Being a novice at all of this, I ordered it with box of a dozen Pilot Namiki black in cartridges. When I told this to my friend Ken, he suggested I order a bottle of ink next time and fill the pen myself. It will last longer than way, he said, and it is a better experience. I also learned that I needed to clean the pen.
My first attempt at inserting the ink cartridge resulted in a splash of ink of my desk, and my pants. (“When using a fountain pen for the first time, squeeze the inserted cartridge firmly to get the ink flowing down to the nib” the instructions said. I guess we have different definitions of “firmly.”)
When I tried writing, I assumed you held the pen so that the open part of the nib faced upward, but that didn’t work. Turning it around worked, and my-oh-my was that some smooth writing.
The pen arrived on Thursday, and so far, I’ve written about 2-1/2 pages in my journal using it. I’m getting used to it, and I like the feel of it. But I do have a confession to make:
So far, it has not altered my handwriting in the least.
I’m not looking for handwriting that is quite as uniform as, say John Quincy Adams was in some of his diary entries. But something a little better than how mine currently looks. In truth, my handwriting varies by day, and by how fast or slowly I write. I try to slow myself down, and when I do that, I like how my handwriting looks, but it’s hard to keep going at the pace with my mind racing ahead.
In any case, I’ve now joined the insufferable ranks who incessantly praise the virtues of the fountain pen above all other pens. I have yet to clean my fountain pen, so those virtues may be limited. But I am enjoying the experience thus far.
I just completed a demo1 for software that me and my team have been working on for nearly a year. It isn’t quite done yet—we still have a few months of work left, but it feels good to get to the point where you have something to show. Indeed, it’s not that different from getting a story out into the world.
When it comes to writing (when I can even manage to write these days) I am “pantser” as opposed to a plotter. That is, I don’t plan out my stories in detail. I have an idea of where the story is going, and I figure out how to get there as I write. Sometimes, I end up somewhere else entirely.
With software, I am the complete opposite. Over the decades I’ve worked on increasingly more complex software and I’ve found that my brain doesn’t have the capacity to build it without plotting it out first. I hadn’t really considered it much until now, but I suppose that designing software is a lot like outlining a story. You start with the high level goals and requirements; you identify the tools you can use to meet those requirements; and then you figure out how everything will fit together to make a cohesive and self-consistent thing.
The day-to-day work is writing code, small fragments, akin to scenes in a story or novel. Often you write something that gets the job done but isn’t particularly elegant, so you rewrite it and rewrite until it purrs. The world fades around me when I get into this mode, my focus is completely on the task at hand, and an 8- or 9-hour day can fly by in what seems like the blink of an eye. This happens when writing, too, but I can’t consistently write for 8- or 9-hours the way I can work on code.
I often had the impression (from comments I’ve heard in various places and times) that non-writers think that writing is easy. I find it difficult, and I’m fairly worn out if I manage to writer for more than 2 hours. Writing code is equally difficult, but I come away from these long stretches in what I call a “code-coma.” It’s hard to re-engage with the world around me, and I have to ease back in.
When I have something on the page that works, I’ll review it, often out of context of the rest of the piece (often because “the rest of the piece” doesn’t exist yet). I’ll find typos here and there, little misspellings, or autocorrects that don’t work. Same thing when writing code. Punctuation is just as important and I can stare at a small piece of code for an hour wondering why isn’t working, only to realize I was missing a semi-colon somewhere.
Sometimes, you get pretty far along in a story only to realize that you’ve uncovered a major hole in the plot. This happens with software, too, but it happens less frequently for me these days because I “outline” the software and try to eliminate plot holes in the design before we actually start building the thing. Still, other things may trigger major changes forcing rework.
When I think a story is ready (always after the second draft, never after the first) I’ll send it out for critique by fellow writers. It’s no different with code. We sit down for code reviews where it becomes our job to ask each other (and ourselves) tough questions about the choices we made. These are both incredibly useful and incredibly disheartening. Code is always improved in these reviews, but I find it disheartening that I couldn’t think of some of the elegant ways my colleagues suggested for improvement in the first place.
(In the movie business, I think the information that comes out code reviews would be akin to “notes.”)
The draft of a story that goes to the editor might be considered a beta (or a golden master) in the software world. It is almost good enough for the world, but subject matter experts (editors, copy editors, publicity people) will look at it and offer some final polishing suggestions.
Finally, the book or story is out in the world! Hurray! And of course, the first slew of reader comments, and reviews start coming in. They are all pointing out the typo on page 5. How did anyone miss that?
It’s really no different than the day the software you’ve been working on for a year or two goes live. You’ve run millions of unit tests. You’ve demo it, you’ve made it as easy to use as possible. And 2 hours after it goes out, someone finds a bug that should have been caught 6 months ago.
I think the biggest difference between creating software and creating stories is that with a story, more often than not, you have something to hold in your hands, the product of your long hours of labor. It might be a printed manuscript. It might be a copy of the magazine the story appeared in. It might be a book. It always gratifying, on those rare occasions when it’s happened to me, when someone hands me one of these things and asks for an autograph.
With software, there’s nothing to hold, nothing you can grasp in your hands that represent all the blood, sweat and tears that went into its creation. It’s probably for the best. In thirty years of making software, no one, not a single person, has ever asked me for an autograph. If they did, I’d be a loss: there’s nothing on which to sign my name.
Which explains why this post is coming out at nearly 7pm instead of much earlier in the day ↩
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.
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.
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’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.
I learned this morning that science fiction Grandmaster James Gunn has died at age 97. His novel, The Listeners, set the standard for first contact stories. He created and ran the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in Lawrence, Kansas. His Road to Science Fiction anthologies offer an eclectic range of stories that chart the history of the genre, in U.S. and around the world. And unlike most science fiction grandmasters, I had a personal connection with Jim, and he had a direct influence on my writing career.
In the summer of 2008, I had sold 2 stories. I learned that James Gunn was running an online version of his famous science fiction writing workshop. Outside of creative writing classes I took in college, I’d never done any kind of writing class or workshop, but I knew of Jim’s reputation, and decided to give this one a try. The course lasted 6 weeks, I think, and a group of writers would meet virtually, to learn, discuss, write, and critique stories, with Jim as our leader and instructor.
At the end of the course, Jim gave high praise to a story I’d written for the course, and suggested I send it to Analog. Analog was the top magazine in the field for hard science fiction, at the time, and had been around longest. It was legendary in my mind, and the hardest possible market to break into. I’d sent a dozen stories or more to Analog in the past, always resulting in brief, form letter rejection slips.
Still, Jim was telling me to submit, so I did. And to my surprised, I didn’t get a brief form letter rejection slip, but a lengthy note from Dr. Stan Schmidt, longtime editor of Analog, passing on the story, but providing valuable feedback. I was thrilled, and immediately set to work, putting to use what I learned in Jim’s workshop–and taking advantage of the friends I’d made in the workshop to critique what I’d written–writing another story. I submitted it to Analog and once again, received a lengthy rejection slip from Stan that could almost be read as an acceptance if you held it up at just the right angle.
I kept plugging away, encouraged by the rejections. In the summer of 2010 I’d written a story called “Take One for the Road” which I submitted to Analog. It was out for longer than usual, and as the 60-day mark approached, I grew increasingly anxious. My son was a little over a year old, and I was downstairs with him when I saw an email in my inbox from Stan Schmidt. He was taking my story! I had sold a story to Analog. I jumped up and screamed so loud, that my son, frightened, burst into tears. The story appeared in the June 2011 issue of the magazine.
After that, I began selling stories more rapidlyto a variety of magazines. I also started selling nonfiction pieces. Over time, I not only sold a couple of stories to Analog, but was also asked to write 2 editorials for the magazine.
To this day, I credit Jim Gunn and his workshop for the adjustments they introduced to my writing that led to this breakthrough. I was delighted to tell him (and my classmates) about that first sale to Analog, and he was cheerful and supportive in his return.
In 2013, at the World Science Fiction convention in San Antonio, Texas, I finally got to meet Jim in person, and made a point of thanking him, and letting him know that it was him, and his workshop that got me past the final hurdle and taught me to learn of to tell a good, print-worthy science fiction story. I am forever grateful to Jim, grateful that I was able to attend his virtual workshop, grateful for his support, and especially, for being able to meet him in person and thank him for all he had done for me. I will always think of myself as a Young Gunn.
I know this will come as news to most of my friends, family, and readers, but we have decided to leave the city for the countryside of Maine. I plan on buying a saltwater farm there, preferably somewhere in or around Brooklin, Maine. While it is true that I could work remotely, I feel that a working farm will keep me busy for many hours of the day, and so I plan to support my family by writing a monthly syndicated column of my farming adventures for a national magazine. As it is always good to have a backup plan, if the syndicated column doesn’t pan out, I’ll write about my farming adventures here.
I was inspired to this feat of daring-do by a fellow scribbler named Elwyn Brooks White, who attempted a similar experiment between 1938 and 1943. You can read about his experiment in the pages of Harper’s under the banner “One Man’s Meat.” Elwyn, who most people know as “E.B.” and who friends called “Andy” for reasons only Cornell graduates would understand escaped the hustle and bustle of Manhattan for Brooklin, Maine for many of the same reasons I plan to escape the hustle and bustle of Arlington, Virginia. E.B. was a writer, and I am a writer, so I should have no problem running a small farm. After all, avoiding writing is a big part of every writers repertoire, and what better way to avoid writing than by raising chickens, sheep, pigs, ducks, and possibly a cow or two.
When I proposed this plan to Kelly she said, “What do you know about farming?”
“Well, I’ve read One Man’s Meat at least three times. What else is there to know?”
“It gets cold in the winter,” Kelly said, “can you chop wood?”
“I can split logs with the best of them,” I said confidently.
“We don’t even own an ax!” Kelly said.
I was ready for this. “A decent ax costs about $50. I’ve just finished this story that I am sure Harper’s or The New Yorker will love. They’ll pay me ten times that much at least? Then I can buy the ax.”
“What if they don’t like the story?”
“What’s not to like about it?” I said.
“Make a list,” Kelly said.
“A list of what?”
“A list of all of the things you need to get done in order to move to this saltwater farm in Maine.”
“And then what?”
“And then we’ll talk.”
I decided to take Kelly up on this challenge. Here is my list:
1. Find a saltwater farm for sale in Maine.
I did some searching for “saltwater farms for sale in Maine” and found several that seemed to my eyes reasonably priced pieces of property that fit the description. Each listing, after indicating said reasonable price, then indicated something less reasonable: SOLD. This begs two questions: first, why show the property if it is sold? It doesn’t help anyone. The realtor might think it helps them by indicating they are good at selling property, but it only serves to annoy me and makes me think the realtor is smug. And second, what is this sudden demand for saltwater farms in Maine? I suppose I’ll have to come back to this item. In the meantime…
2. Get our house ready to put on the market.
True, we bought this place a year ago with the idea that we’d be here for the long haul. I hate moving. I hate packing, I hate unpacking. I hate looking at properties. I hate it when people come into my house to assess whether it is up to their standards. I use the term “hate” sparingly, but I hate all of these things. Still, the idea of owning a saltwater farm in Maine is appealing. But before we can think about putting this house on the market there are a few other hurdles to overcome.
3. Find a national magazine willing to pay me a large sum of money to syndicate a monthly column that will support me and the family in our new endeavor.
Hmm? Well, in addition to writing here on the blog, I’ve written a column for the Daily Beast. I’ve written an article for 99U, and of course, there was that review column for Intergalactic Medicine Show. I’ve written two guest editorials for Analog Science Fiction. I’ve had stories published in a variety of magazines and anthologies. The bottom line is that people have, in the past, happily paid me for my writing so there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t continue to do so in the future. Until now, all of this writing was done without the aid of an agent, but if I am going to support myself (and my agent) through my writing, I probably should look into getting one.
4. Find an agent who can get me a syndicated monthly column in a national magazine.
My friend and mentor, Barry N. Malzberg once told me that if you can get an agent, you probably don’t need one. He should know. He worked for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency for a long time. I’ve heard that Bill Murray–yes, that Bill Murray–doesn’t use an agent. He has a phone number and answering machine and checks it every couple of weeks or so. I kind of like that approach. Isaac Asimov rarely used an agent, and the 10 percent I save on commissions can go toward paying down the mortgage of the saltwater farm. Or is it fifteen percent these day? Did E.B. White have a literary agent? I can’t be sure, but I don’t think he did when he had his saltwater farm in Maine.
5. Write something worth being nationally syndicated.
I mean, how hard can this be, right? I read everything that John McPhee writes in The New Yorker and he has written a lot. E. B. White wrote for the New Yorker. His wife was an editor there and his stepson, Roger Angell was also a writer and editor for the magazine. Andy wrote about dogs and sick pigs and collecting eggs. He wrote about the occasional hurricane and snowstorm. He wrote reminiscences of summers in Maine as a child, to say nothing of the stories he conjured of pigs and spiders in his barn. Look, if you have any ideas of something I might pitch for a nationally syndicated column, let me know.
6. Clean out the stuff in the attic.
I don’t know exactly how this happens, but attic junk accumulates. In our old house, we had a few boxes of clothes in the attic. In our new house, I had install some extra attic boards to store all of the stuff we have up there. We have clothes every one of our kids have outgrown. We have boxes of stuff that I don’t know what’s in them. How is it that we have more stuff in the attic of our new house than we did in our old house? You know what, I need to make sure there is a large barn on the saltwater farm we purchase in Maine. The loft of said barn should be more than adequate to contain anything we might decide to hoard well into the future. I just discovered two boxes of papers in my attic that were once in my parent’s attic. How the heck did that happen?
7. Scan in all the papers in the attic.
One way to pare down the stuff in the attic is to scan in all those papers from when I was in kindergarten that my mom saved. In addition to giving these back to me, she also returned all of the Mother’s Day cards I’d made for her throughout the years. I’m not quite sure how I am supposed to take that. Even if I scanned in a dozen pages a day, it’s going to take me years to get all of these papers scanned in and organized. I guess that’s alright. It gives me time to figure out what I should write for my nationally syndicated column, and possibly attract the attention of an agent.
8. Paint the house.
Before we put the house on the market, we should probably have the interior painted. For whatever reason, these days realtors seems to be recommending a calming gray for interior walls. We had our old place painted in these colors just before we sold it, and indeed, it was calming. But we’re trying to save money to buy the farm, so to speak, so I suspect Kelly will say we should paint the house ourselves, meaning, I should paint the house. I painted much of the interior of our old house when we first moved in and swore an oath that I would never undertake such a torturous endeavor again. In a review of the job I did painting the house, Kelly also agrees I should never attempt it again.
9. Put the house on the market.
It’s true, Amazon is putting their headquarters in our town and home prices are rising. It is also true that we are in the midst of a pandemic. I doubt our house would sell within the first 24 hours on the market as our old house did last year. If it didn’t sell in 24 hours, it would feel like a real defeat. And then there are the real estate agents who want to take chunk for their efforts. If it wasn’t so complicated, I’d try to sell the house without an agent but I’d almost certainly screw something up. Selling the house, as we learned last year, is great incentive for finding a new house–in this case a saltwater farm in Maine.
10. Start packing.
We may still have boxes from last year and–no, I’m sorry, no, I can’t do it. Saltwater farm or not, I cannot pack up a house on year after we moved into it. I swore to myself a year ago that packing up the old house was the last time I’d pack for a long, long time. I’m sorry, I really am. I know you were all looking forward to what would have been an award-winning syndicated column in a national magazine. I know you all looked forward to reading about my adventures as a saltwater farmer in Maine on the blog. But I draw the line at packing up my things. Especially my books. It took me the better part of three days while Kelly and the kids were off at the shore with friends to get the books sorted in the proper order on my shelves. I am not going to put myself through that again.
Consider this post a formal announcement to all my friends, family, and readers, that we have not, in fact, decided to leave the city for the countryside, rumors to the contrary. Don’t pay any attention to what you might have read in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. We are not moving. We are staying in the house we bought a year ago. I mean, come on, who in their right mind would pick up and leave for a saltwater farm in Maine with the idea of supporting a family by writing a nationally syndicated column without an agent, or even an idea? Pure rumor drudged up by the media. Put in a way that too many Americans will empathize with: fake news.
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.
I read in theNew York Times that Roger Kahn died. The author of The Boys of Summer (the #2 book on Sport Illustrated’s 100 Greatest Sports Books, right after A. J. Lieblings The Sweet Science) was 92 years old. Earlier in the week I read obituaries for Gene Reynolds (M*A*S*H), and Kirk Douglas, who at 103 appears to be out-survived only by Olivia de Havilland. All of these obituaries made me want to write about obituaries.
exposed an increasingly frequent problem I encounter when writing on this blog:
I’ve written about obituaries already. In fact, I’ve written about them more
than once. In 2016 I wrote about them in “How I
Read the Newspaper.” I touched on the subject again in 2017 in a post aptly
I returned to the subject last year in “Morning Routines.”
I’ve written about
6,500 posts for this blog—about 2.5 million words, spanning more than 15 years.
Since I tend to write about whatever comes to mind instead of focusing on one
particular subject, it sometimes seems as though there isn’t anything I haven’t
written about. When something occurs to me that seems like it might be worthy
subject, the first thing I do these days is a search of the blog to see if I’ve
written about it before. I am frequently surprised that I have.
about a subject before doesn’t automatically prevent me from writing about it
again. Two conditions typically push me to write again on a subject: (1) I have
something new to add; or (2) it has been a long time (a few years at least) since
I last wrote about it. Readers come and go, change and evolve, so why not write
about it again?
condition is most common. Having something new to say is useful. What’s new is
often a change of opinion on a subject over time. The classic example of this
is my opinion of audiobooks. In January 2012, I wrote a piece on
audiobooks where I stated, quite forcefully, that audiobooks were not for
me. Reading that piece now is painful now, especially my snobbish reasoning for
why I though audiobooks weren’t for me. Eight years, and over 400 audiobooks later,
As a kind of
experiment, I tried to think of subjects that I might not have written about
(or that I had completely forgotten I’d written about) over the years, and then
search to blog to see if I had or hadn’t. Here is just some of the results:
here is political writing. This sometimes surprises me, given that my degree is
in political science and journalism. The truth is that it seems everywhere I
turn, people are writing about politics, and anything I have to say has been
said before. I don’t particularly enjoy writing about politics, either. I’d
just as soon write about something more obscure, but fun: like my inability
to locate a paperclip when I need one.
Perhaps all of
this is just to say that, while I try my best not to be too repetitive here,
some repetition is an inevitable byproduct of the thousands of posts I’ve
already written. I ask for your patience with this as I blunder on into the
I sometimes wonder if professional baseball players envy their teammates. Does a career average player look to a superstar and wonder: Why can’t I be that good? What’s holding me back? Envy isn’t an emotion that I am proud of, but sometimes that painful awareness of a talent I don’t possess and someone else does creeps in.
The truth is, I envy all sorts of writers, not for their
success as much as their pure natural ability and talent. Stephen King is among
my favorite writers, and I envy his ability to tell a good story, which for me
is the single most important part of writing fiction. I envy Ray Bradbury’s
lyricism. When I have tried to write like Bradbury, it always feels forced and
I envy the nonfiction writer’s ability to research their
material. E.B. White is among my favorite essayists and I envy the easy of his
voice. Another of my favorites is John McPhee. I envy his abilities as well,
but I envy something about him even more: I envy his travels, his ability to
embed himself with whatever subject he was writing about and make it a part of
his life. John McPhee has the rarest of talents: he can take any subject
and make it interesting.
I know I shouldn’t be envious. I should be thankful for
what abilities I possess as a writer. Those abilities, such as they are, were
nurtured by parents who encouraged reading. They are almost entirely developed
of brute force, and stubbornness. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I submitted and
submitted and submitted, until finally, editors started to buy my stories. No
shortcuts for me!
As a writer, I am rarely satisfied with what I write. At
best, my writing seems “good enough” to send out, and on occasion, it is
published, but I often look at what I write, and mentally compare it to those
writers that I look up to as role models, and it seems always that we are in
different leagues. They are major league superstars, bound for the Hall of
Fame. I, on the other hand, bounce around the minor leagues, never quite
getting to the level of the majors.
I desperately want to make that leap. I can imagine it, and perhaps that is half the
battle. When I was much younger, and just starting to write, I used to daydream
that one day, in my wildest imagination, I might actually sell a story to Analog. It seemed impossible, like
winning the lottery. Eventually, I did sell to Analog. I could imagine it, and as impossible as it seemed, I made
The next leap seems much more difficult to make, and it
has stymied my writing since late 2015 when I sold my last piece of fiction.
I’ve been unsure of my writing ever since. I find myself writing the same
pieces of story over and over again, to claim to myself that I am writing, when
all I am really doing is going in circles. Part of my problem is that I am not
sure where to go from here. Part of my problem is envy and fear. I want to tell
stories like Stephen King. I want to write like E.B. White. I want to embed
myself in my research like John McPhee.
I suppose there is a danger in comparing yourself to
someone at the top of their profession, especially when I am close to the
bottom. I try to look at it optimistically: I have a lot of room to grow. But
it is a hard hill to climb when you don’t have much time in the day to practice
This year I have set a modest goal for myself: to get back
to writing every day. Even if it is only for five or ten minutes, try to write
something every day. I considered a tougher goal of writing a story a month–12
stories in the year, far more than I have ever written before. But that seemed
self-defeating. The first step is to get back into the habit, to start flexing
those muscles again.
I have a smaller, more subtle goal as well: to try to be
less envious of other writers and instead, to appreciate their talents for the
beauty they create instead.
I have often daydreamed about buying a typewriter and using it to write all of my first drafts. With a typewriter, I’d have no distractions from email, or social media. I wouldn’t be tempted by the apps on my computer. I’d slide in the paper and start typing. Of course, things like typos and corrections would be more problematic than on a word processor. Then, too, I wouldn’t have an electronic archive of those first drafts, just the paper copies. I suppose I could scan those. Finding the right typewriter is tricky, and maintaining it is trickier.
Enter my new Freewrite by Astrohaus. The Freewrite is billed as a “Smart typewriter for distraction-free writing.” So far, I’ve put a couple thousand words through it, and I think that is enough for some initial thoughts. First, the device itself.
The Freewrite is about the size of my circa 1950 Royal QuietComfort DeLuxe manual typewriter, although without as high a profile. It is significantly lighter than my Royal typewriter, and rests easily on my desk. It has a built-in handle for carrying around, and a full-sized keyboard that feels comfortable to use. Its e-ink screen is divided into to parts: a large upper screen where the text I write appears, and through which I can scroll back and forth to review; and a smaller status window that can show me various pieces of information about what I am working on.
The Freewrite seems to address many of my concerns about using
a typewriter: It saves everything I write locally, but can also connect to WiFi
for the purpose of syncing documents to a cloud service like Dropbox, Evernote,
or Google. The synced documents appear in Word format, and I can use Markdown
when typing on my Freewrite to create the basic formatting I want in my
What I like about the Freewrite is that it is designed for
drafting. There are no distractions. I don’t get email notifications; I can’t
check Twitter or Facebook. It is simply a tool that allows me to focus on the
first draft of whatever it is I happen to be writing, much as a typewriter
Indeed, the Freewrite has no arrow keys. I can’t go back and
edit something I’ve written, only add to it, and that is by design. The idea is
to focus on writing and worry about editing and revising later. Not having the
arrow keys takes some getting used to, but I kind of like it. It is leading me
into a whole new process for writing, one which I haven’t completely settled on
yet, but the basis version is:
Write first drafts in Freewrite.
Print and mark-up the first drafts from the Word
documents created by the Freewrite.
Revise and edit in Word for final copy.
There is a switch on the Freewrite to allow me to
switch between one of three folders that my documents get synced to. Right now,
I have them set up as follows:
One folder for fiction.
One folder for blog posts (like this one).
One folder for correspondence.
I really like the simplicity of the device. I like its
portability, too, although I haven’t taken it out with me yet. Part of this is
that the opportunity has not yet arisen. Part of this is because the tool is
designed to promote distraction-free writing, and I fear that upon seeing the
device, people will be curious about it and ask me lots of questions–and I will
get very little writing done.
As a use it more, I’ll have more to say about the device and how it is affecting my writing process. For now, consider this post the first official thing I’ve drafted completely on my new Freewrite.
With Christmas just a few weeks away, I’ve been daydreaming. When I daydream–something that occurs with increasing frequency these days–I often find myself having imaginary conversations with people. Sometimes these are people I know, and other times they are constructs, like characters in a story, that allow the conversation to progress the way I want it to. Recently, in on one of these daydreams, someone asked me, “What do you want for Christmas?” Without hesitating I replied, “All I want for Christmas is to be a syndicated columnist.” Perhaps the most telling piece is that, while the conversation was imagined, I spoke those words aloud.
When I grow up, I want to be a syndicated columnist. I love to write, and I need to make a living, and it seems there should be some way to combine those. Of course, I’d need something to write about, and then there’s the matter of people to read what I write. These are details, of course, but perhaps we should consider them.
What would I write about? Given that I have been heavily influenced by the writers like E. B. White and Andy Rooney, it seems like some kind of hybrid would be in order. I am not as much the farmer as E. B. was, and I am not as cynical (usually, anyway) as Andy Rooney was. So perhaps something in between. White wrote a monthly column for Harper’s from 1938-1943 or thereabout. I could write a monthly column. Andy Rooney had a column that appeared in hundreds of newspapers 3 times a week, I think. And of course he had his 3 minutes at the end of 60 Minutes. (Whenever Rooney was on vacation I called the show 57 Minutes). I think my syndicated column should be somewhere between three times a week, and once a month.
Both Andys (White went by the name “Andy” to some of his friends) wrote about ordinary, everyday events, but in their own distinct ways. Indeed, Andy the Second was heavily influenced by Andy the First, and if you don’t believe me, spend time reading some of their stuff. I can probably write about ordinary, everyday events. Occasionally, each of the Andys would write something more controversial. I could probably manage that from time-to-time as well. Indeed, it would be a great way to generate letters, and I’d finally have more than one correspondent to whom I could write real letters.
I imagine there are qualifications one needs to meet to become a syndicated columnist. First and foremost, one must be able to write, and preferably (though not a showstopper based on some columns I have read) write well. I don’t have many talents, but I’ve never had a problem putting words down on paper.
It would probably help if the writing is entertaining in some way. If readers respond to the writing in a positive way that is always a good thing. It also helps sell advertising. I like to think that my writing is entertaining, but who am I to judge.
I suppose it is a plus if a columnist is a journalist, or has some background in journalism. My degree was in political science and journalism, although really my degree was in learning how to learn. An editor would probably want some kind of c.v. for a prospective columnist. You know, have you ever done anything like this before? My c.v., humble as it is would read something like:
Wrote a monthly review column for a science fiction magazine.
Wrote a technology column for The Daily Beast.
Have written a blog since 2005 with 6,468 posts (including this one). Some people even like what I write and occasionally tell me so.
It occurs to me that the kind of column I would like to write is more or less the some kind of thing I write here. How would I pitch that to an editor? In my daydreams (there I go again) I picture that scene in Seinfeld, when Jerry and George pitch their pilot to NBC and when asked what the show is about, George tells them it’s a show about nothing. Well, my column wouldn’t be about nothing, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the stuff that sells newspapers.
I think this blog may be the closest I come to writing a syndicated column, and I guess I should be thankful for what I have. The editor and I see eye-to-eye. No one has ever pushed a deadline on me, or told me I couldn’t say that because it would scare off half the readers (or worse, the advertisers). I have no advertisers to answer to. Really, when I think about it, the only difference between this blog and a syndicated column is maybe a few million readers, and a paycheck.
It’s disappointing, really. It means that the next time I go out walking and start to daydream, and some faceless construct asks me, “What do you want for Christmas?” I’ll have to come up with something else. Maybe a salt farm in Maine?