Tag Archives: writing

My Shorthand for Notes and Other Writing

When I wrote recently about print vs. cursive, I said the following:

I tend to use a lot of shorthand in my journals. I rarely spell out names of my immediate family, resorting instead to first letters. I have dozens of shorthand codes for words and phrases I use commonly.

I was surprised by the number of people who reached out to ask me more about my shorthand. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to present peek into my shorthand and how it evolved. The latter is important because I can’t claim to originate all of it. I learn from the example of others in some cases.

First, a little background. When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I was fascinated by the concept of shorthand. I remember walking to the local library and pouring through books on Gregg’s Shorthand. 7th grade was right around the time I had to start taking notes and I was looking for ways to make it easier. Gregg’s shorthand never took, but the idea behind it stayed with me. Between my sophomore and junior years I found a book which in part, taught me how to take better notes. I wish I could remember the name of that book, because it has shaped the way I take notes ever since, but alas, it is lost to me.

Over the years since, I have refined the way I take notes, looking for shortcuts and adapting along the way. Eventually, it became second name to write longhand this way, and I turned it to all my longhand writing that I do for myself. (Although, admittedly, sometimes my shorthand creeps into longhand writing I do where someone else is the intended audience.) Here I’ll cover four that I use most frequently.

Examples of my shorthand in handwritten notes.

Shortcut, courtesy of the Ultima video games

When I was a teenager, I loved the Ultima games by Richard Garriott, a.k.a Lord British. I loved the detail in the games, to say nothing of the cloth maps. I also enjoyed how the game made use of Germanic runes for the language. There was a time that I could read those runes almost as well as I could read English.

One of the characters in the Ultima alphabet was a verticle line connected to a triangle (see the first item in the image above). This represented the letters “th” and I quickly adopted this as my shorthand for the word “the”. This is so ingrained in my today that I’ve lost track of how often I’ve used it in writing I’ve given to others. “The” isn’t used much in notes, but in other writing that I longhand, especially fiction, it comes up quite frequently and my shortcut saves time. I also use this to preface words that begin with “th”, like “there”, “then”, “theory,” etc.

The word “very” is very unnecessary

In a creative writing class in college, there was a discussion of the use of the word “very.” The general consensus was that the word is overused and should be avoided. Of course, it can’t always be avoided, espcially if I am taking notes that capture a quote or something someone is saying. But I did take it to heart in my notes and longhand writing. Instead of writing out the word “very” I draw a horizontal line over the word that “very” modifies. (See the second item in the image above.) So if I’m jotting down the phrase, “it was very hot today,” what I actually write is, “it was hot today” with a line over the word “hot.”

Shortcuts from the story of civilization

One of my favorite pieces of history writing is Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization series. While some of the history is dated, the writing remains a real work of art to me. A few years back, I read their Dual Autobiography. One passage really struck me as practical:

We discovered an excellent typist, Mrs. Edith Digate, who soon learned to understand Will’s handwriting and abbreviations (d=ed, g=ing,…, etc.)

Ever since reading that, I’ve taken to using “g” at the end of a word instead of “ing” when I am writing longhand. (See the third item in the image above.) So in writing out words like,”writing” I write “writg”. I also write “runng”, “talkg”, “sleepg”, etc.

I never adopted the “d” for “ed”. I don’t know why. Maybe because it was not as efficient.

Taking a page from the British Secret Service

Anyone who has seen a James Bond film knows that many of the characters within the secret service are known only by a letter: Q and M being the most famous examples. For the most common names I use in piece of writing, I typically will resort to using just the first letter. (See the fourth item in the image above.) In my journals, I use the first letters of the names of my immediate family members instead of the full names. Fortunately there is no overlap. In fiction, I do this for main characters so long as the shortcut will cause no confusion.

Of course, I abbreviate many words for convenience and speed as well. I have grown used to my shortcuts, but I still often lust for being able to take notes using real shorthand. I remember attending a meeting early in my career in which an administrative assistant took notes in shorthand. She was able to reproduce verbatim, everything said in the meeting. The pages looked like gibberish, but I was impressed.

I’m always looking for ways to improve and refine my own shorthand, so if anyone has tips or suggests, drop them in the comments. I’d love to see how others do this.

My 5 Tactics for Overcoming Writer’s Block

I recently began writing again with a somewhat ambitious goal, after several years of writer’s block. Not long after I started up again, I found myself repeating some of the same things I did when mired in that block. Much of this consisted of rewriting the same passages over and over again while still in the first draft. This led to a lot of words, but little forward progress, like a tricked out car, spinning its rear wheels, but doing nothing but burning rubber. This time, however, with my goals in mind, I set out to solve this problem once and for all. And so far, my solution seems to be working.

I had tried to simplify my environment, stripping the tools I use down the studs. Instead of an elaborate word processor like Scrivener or even a lighter model like Google Docs, I’ve been doing all my writing in Obsidian, which is a text editor. This way I don’t have to worry about how the document looks and can focus entirely on the content. But I found that even in a text editor, it is too easy for me to go back and make changes, and worry about what I’d already written. In a first draft, the most important thing for me is to figure out the story and move it forward. I type quickly and it is easy to eliminate and rewrite a few paragraphs. I needed a way to prevent myself from doing this.

Tactic 1: Write the first draft in longhand

I decided to go in a completely different direction. I pulled out a blank Leuchtturm 1917 I had on the shelve, and decided I’d use this book for the first draft. I’d do it longhand. By doing so, I am much less likely to go back and change things in the first draft. It is not nearly as easy to “cut and paste” and rewrite in a notebook than it is on a computer.

The Leuchtturm 1917 notebook in which I am writing the first draft of this novel.

Tactic 2: Print instead of cursive

I can write longhand much more quickly in cursive than by printing. But I have deliberately chosen to print because it slows me down. Instead of rushing into things, I am trying to think more deliberately about what I am writing, to think ahead a little more before I put pen to paper.

Tactic 3: Alternate ink colors

I think I read somewhere that Neil Gaiman does this. I started with black ink one day, and the next day, I wrote in blue in. Then I switched back to black ink. Switching colors give me a clear picture of how much I managed to write on a given day. If I have special notes that I want to make to myself, I do those in red ink so that they stand out from the alternating day-to-day colors.

A full handwritten page in the notebook

Tactic 4: Low tech word counts

Writing long hand makes it a little more tricky to get word counts, but words counts are important to me when I am working toward a goal. It would be nice to ignore them completely, but I am trying to learn how to write a novel length piece in a way that I can reproduce again and again, year after year, making refinements along the way. The data is important.

To simplify this, I averaged out the word count of the first few pages. My handwriting is consistent so I was comfortable with this measure. It came to about 370 words/page. I think created a table at the beginning of my notebook giving my words counts by page (and fractional page) counts:

My word count table.

This chart allows me, at a glance, to see how much I wrote on a given day. Yesterday, for instance, I wrote 2-1/2 pages, which according to my table says I wrote about 925 words. I can also use the chart to see how much I have written in total. (50 pages = ~18,500 words, etc.)

Tactic 5: Distraction-free writing

Writing in the notebook gets me completely off the computer and removes any distractions that might be associated with that. Often, when I get stuck on something, I’ll start browsing, go down some rabbit hole, and then call it quits. With the notebook, I at least have removed that distraction.

So far, this seems to be helping, but the proof will be when I have a finished first draft in hand later this year. When that happens, I’ll post an update and add any refinements I’ve made along the way for others who might be interested.

Writing is Easy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Days of Writing

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

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

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

A look at the folded sections of my document in Obsidian

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

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

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

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

Thinking about Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginning to Write, Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing the Long Game

When I started writing with the idea of selling stories, I was 20 years old, going on 21. When I sold my first story, fourteen years had passed. I wrote intermittently during those years. Sometimes pouring out stories, other times going months without writing a single word. Funny thing is, from the very start, I felt as if I would sell each story I wrote. It was years before I began to think of writing as a practice, and more years before I began to realize that the only way to improve was through that practice. And believe me, I needed a lot of practice. The lesson I drew from that is the answer I’ve given to many writers just starting out who ask what the “secret” is to selling stories: Practice, I say. Lots of practice.

I’ve been thinking about this for three reasons:

  1. I’m re-reading Stephen King’s novel Bag of Bones the main character of which, Mike Noonan, is a writer. That has me thinking about writing, naturally.
  2. I’ve felt like I’ve had writer’s block for the last several years. Indeed, reading about the (fictional) Noonan’s own experience with writer’s block was helpful, because it reads so much like my own. I want to write, but I am afraid to do it.
  3. We are beginning to plan for retirement, and that has me thinking of the passage of time.

I turned 49 this past March. Our current plans will see me retired from my day job when I turn 59-1/2. Call it ten years from this coming September. Ten years is still a long time, but given that I’ve worked at my company for nearly three times that (27 years this fall), it is conceivable. If there are no big surprises between now and then (a big if, of course), I’ll retire after 37 years with my company. Not too shabby in a time when five years at a company is a lifetime for many people in tech. Add to that 4 years I worked in college, and 3 years I worked through high school. All told, that’s 44 years of work.

Once retired, what then? I’ll still be (relatively) young. The natural thing for someone in my line of work would be consulting. The idea of consulting, however, makes me shudder. When I began writing I was a junior in college. I had to write “in the margins”; that is, I wrote in whatever little gasps of time I could find. Once I graduated and got a job, it was the same. I worked all day, and wrote when I could. I’ve often dreamed of what it would be like to really have time to write. When I retire, I told myself, I could do that.

And that is, more or less, my plan. But I have also always been pragmatic about my writing. It’s something that I enjoy, but it is something that I am also paid for. The money I’ve made from my writing has never been much more than pin money. It bought me a laptop. But I couldn’t live for a month on the total money I’ve from my writing so far.

Maybe retirement can be different. Maybe I can actually supplement my retirement with writing income. Of course, to make more than pin money as a writer you have to write books–for a fiction writer, this means novels. I’ve written a single novel draft in my life, back in 2013. Moreover, your novels have to be good enough to sell. They don’t have a to sell particularly well–we wouldn’t be planning to retire at 59-1/2 if we couldn’t afford to–but it would be an added bonus if they did.

Thinking about all of this recently, I wondered how I could get to the point where I’d be able to write a novel well enough to have a decent chance of selling it. And I had a kind of epiphany, courtesy of Mike Noonan (or maybe, Stephen King). In Bag of Bones Noonan’s writer’s block is hidden from everyone for the first four years he has it thanks to a trick he had up his sleeve. Over the course of 10 years of writing novels, the fictional Noonan wrote 2 novels in 4 of those year and put them in a safe deposit box. He was playing a long game. It was these 4 novels that gave him breathing room when his writer’s block set in.

My epiphany came from the fact that Noonan was expected (as most mid-list writers are expected) to write a novel a year. And he did this for ten years. Ten years. That’s just about how much time I have before I retire. As in most of my own stories, one idea isn’t good enough. It has to collide with another idea before there is chemistry. The idea this collided with was my advice to new writers: the secret to selling stories is to practice.

I’ve always been a short story writer. It took me a while to get to the point where I felt I understood the form and could write a story that would sell. If I had to do it all over again, I’d practice more, trunk stories that I knew were junk after learning what I could from them, and then move on to the next one. Many writers I know had not only written many short stories before they began to sell, but many novels too. I’d never done that.

Looking at it now, maybe I am finally in a position to play the long game. I have a little over ten years between now and retirement: if I could write a novel a year for the next ten years, that should give me plenty of practice. Ten novels is a lot of practice by any standard. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that this really may be a thing. Not only does it give me a target to write to, but it also:

  • Allows me to try things without much risk. For instance, I plan to experiment, writing different types of novels to get a feel at what works best for me. Maybe some s.f., maybe some mainstream. Maybe some mysteries. Maybe some thrillers or horror. Why not? I’ve got ten tries. I should explore, right?
  • Gives me a framework to figure out how best to organize my time. I don’t want to spend every waking moment in retirement writing. We have other plans, too, which includes travel and doing all of the things we didn’t do because we were saving for retirement. So figuring out when to write, how much is reasonable, etc. is the part of the practice.
  • May result in a novel manuscript ready to submit when I do retire. Assuming, of course, that with practice, I will improve somewhat each time around, maybe the 9th or 10th year will produce a story that I can actually sell, thus giving me a little head start when the clock rolls over into retirement time.

For some reason, this idea has caught fire with me over the last few days. For the first time in a long time, I actually feel like writing. I’m not quite ready to write. I’m still thinking through the overall logistics of my plan. And I do need a plan. That is one thing I’ve found that helps me focus. A novel is a big task. Breaking that task down into small steps makes it feel much more manageable to me.

Is it possible? It is possible that when I retire, I can write and begin to sell novels? I think it is. I’m not deluding myself into thinking I’ll be anything more than a minor writer, but I have two things in my favor that I think give me a big advantage: (1) I’m willing to work hard, and put in the practice necessary, even if it means throwing most of those drafts away; and (2) I’ve already proven that I can write fiction well enough to sell it in short form.

So when does all of this begin? Like I said, this is a new idea for me, and the plan is still germinating in my mind. (What does write a novel a year mean? Does it mean write a draft and throw it away? Does it mean write a draft, set it aside for a while, and then write a second draft–my usual practice for short fiction?) Right now, I’m thinking of trying to have a plan finalized before the end of the summer. That means I’d begin carrying it out sometime in September–just about exactly 10 years before my planned retirement date.

I am playing the long game here. A lot can happen in ten years. But I am exciting at the thought of attempting this. I am excited at the thought of actually trying to write again. And I have a fictional writer to thank for the inspiration. That seems almost poetic to me.

3 Phases of Story Creation

This morning I finished reading Jason Schreier’s latest book on the video game industry Press Reset. These days, the overall process of video game development is very similar to that of making movies. There are three major phases: pre-production, production, and post-production. Thinking about this, it occurred to me that writing a story or a novel can thought of in those same three phases.

Pre-production, for me, is all of the intangible thinking and reading that goes into the creation of ideas. It captures what is most often the most difficult part of writing to describe to non-writers. Writing a story isn’t just about sitting down in front of a keyboard for a few hours a day and hammering out words. For me, at least, it is the part that comes before that. The spark of an idea may take shape in my mind over a period of years. During that time, I am not thinking about the story exclusively, and there are times when it is completely out of my head. But it shaped during that time, consciously and sub-consciously.

For those writers who outline stories, you might think that the process of outlining the story is part of pre-production. I disagree. An outline is a product that is the story in a compact form. It is part of the production phase. Pre-production, in my mind at least, is all what happens before a single word goes on the page.

Production is the creation of the story outside of the writer’s head. That could be an outline, or it could be a first, second, or fifth draft (betas?). The writer is producing something in the physical (or digital) world. They are taking what is in their head and putting it on the page in some form or another. It is the programmer writing code; it is the artists applying paint to a canvas. At the end of production, you have a more or less finished product.

From my perspective, production includes revisions, feedback from writers groups, all of the stuff that takes the idea in the writers head and turns it into a polished manuscript.

Post-production, is the process that takes the polished manuscript, and turns it into a magazine story, a book on a bookstore shelf, a downloadable e-book. In my experience, post-production means working with editors and copy editors who help put finishing touches on the polished manuscript. It means proofreading galleys. For a writer, there is often a lot of waiting in post-production.

I kind of like this comparison between making video games (or movies) and writing stories (or novels). When I read a book like Schreier’s, I often find myself thinking, I wish I could be a software developer like those folks. The irony, of course, is that I am a software developer. But when I think about writing in terms of pre-production, production, and post-production, it makes it all seem much simpler in my head, a kind of mental gymnastics that allows me to think about the process of writing in ways that I have never before considered.

Ideas and Execution in Storytelling

I am reading Andy Weir’s new novel, Project Hail Mary, and enjoying it quite a bit. It is the first science fiction novel I’ve read in a while. As I started it, however, something seemed vaguely familiar about it. If you are not familiar with the book, here is part of the publisher’s description:

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish. Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it. All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company. His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realizes that an impossible task now confronts him.

I seemed to recall once writing a story years ago about a person waking up from suspended animation to find the rest of her crew dead on their star ship. I wasn’t certain, but I thought I had. It certainly sounded familiar.

I have often wondered if long-time actors completely forget about a role they’ve played. Stephen King has written that he doesn’t remember writing much of Cujo, I believe. So it is not unheard of to forget, I supposed. Despite all of my efforts at record-keeping, I was never great at keeping a list of stories I’d written. So yesterday, I went on a digital search to see if I had, in fact, written a story with a similar opening to that of Project Hail Mary. I turned out that I had.

The story, called “Wake Me When We Get There” was written sometime in late 2004. Here is the opening of the story:

Day 3. I have decided to write these notes as a way of facing this situation rationally and avoid the panic that crept upon me as I came out of the Sleep. It’s the training: in an emergency, take stock; thus these notes. Here is the situation, as I understand it:

1. I came out of the Sleep two days ago.

2. My sleep tank has malfunctioned and I have been unable to get it to work thus far.

3. The other sleep tanks appear to be functioning normally and the crew’s vital signs are stable.

4. The ship is still ninety days from earth, still traveling at 99.9% light speed.

As you can see, my memory was not perfect. In my story, the rest of the crew is still asleep, not dead. But I remember the conundrum now. My main character can’t wake them without risking their lives since if she wakes them, she may not be able to get them back to sleep.

This is a great example of the problem many writers face. Very few story ideas are unique. What matter in these cases are execution. Weir’s story reminded me of my story in the similarities of their opening–astronaut wakes from sleep far from Earth and can’t get home–but Weir’s all around execution is far better than mine was. He pulls off his story with verve, while mine has many amateur elements about it. (This story was written over 2 year before I made my first professional sale.)

Indeed, it was this story that Sheila Williams at ASIMOV’S rejected in 2005 by pointing out how Allen Steele had pulled the idea off to much better effect in one of his stories. So apparently, I was a newcomer to an old idea, and Andy Weir is an even newer-comer to the same old idea. Allen and Andy could make the idea work and I couldn’t. Some might be bitter about this, but I am glad that they made the idea work because it makes for great reading.

And besides, there are always plenty of other old ideas to try out.

When I Have No Idea What To Write About

At least 60% of the time when I sit down to write one of this essays, I have an idea in mind. Sometimes I think it is a particularly good idea I am nervous that I won’t carry it off the way I want to. Other times, it seems like a worthwhile idea, but not a great one, and I fear that it will show through in the final product.

The other 40% of the time I have no idea what to write about. I have a list of ideas, but often they don’t hit the right buttons for me at that moment and I am left staring at a blank screen. What to do?

Over the years I have developed a process for working myself out of these situations. It is straight-forward, if a little time-consuming, and always seems to produce a satisfactory idea or two. It goes like this:

  1. Pull one of my Andy Rooney essay collections, one E.B. White essay collection, and one Isaac Asimov essay collection off the shelf.
  2. Flip through them randomly to remind myself of the wise variety of topics that they wrote on in their columns.
  3. See what ideas pop into my head.

This procedure always seems to work for me. I did this, for instance, last Friday evening when I couldn’t think of anything to write about. In my flipping about some Andy Rooney essays, I came across something he wrote on weathermen. It reminded me of how we like to talk about the weather, and thus my piece on talking about the weather was born.

This procedure doesn’t always trigger an idea based on something I see. Sometimes the idea comes from a different direction. Today, for instance, at loss for an idea, and knowing what a busy schedule I had, I pulled various collections off the shelf (step 1) but before I even began to flip through them (step 2) an idea popped into my head (step 3). That idea, of course, what to write about what I do when I don’t have any idea what to write about.

It should surprise no one who reads this blog that Asimov, Rooney, and White are the three biggest influences on my in terms of style and subject matter. Asimov write mostly (but not always) on scientific subjects, translating them into something that a layperson like me could understand. No surprise then that I should occasionally write on software (technology) subjects and try to write them in a way that everyone can make sense of. Rooney (who was himself highly influenced by E.B. White) wrote on everyday things. So it is no surprise that I write on everyday things, now and then, trying to find humor or irony in them, and only occasionally succeeding.

White is more of an aspiration for me than an inspiration. He also often wrote on seemingly mundane subjects (chores around the farm) but his style made the pieces sing. I think I’ve still got a way to go before people start to say, “I detect some E.B. White influence in your writing.”

Coming up with a good idea when trying to write an original piece every day is something of a challenge. Quality sometimes suffers under the pressure of the self-imposed deadline. And yet I am surprised by how often the last-minute idea and the last-minute writing gains the most notice and comments. It just goes to show that there is no point trying to predict what readers want. I write what makes me happy, and hope that others enjoy it as well.

And now that I’ve finished this piece, I can begin the puzzle anew and start thinking of an idea for tomorrow’s post.

100 Consecutive Days of Blog Posts in 2021

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.

Thanks again for being such a great audience!

The Fountain Pens of Paradise

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.

My new fountain pen

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.