New Year Resolutions

Happy New Year!

Last year was not a good one for my blogging. I managed a total of only eight posts. There were a number of reasons, some good, some bad,none of which I particularly want to go into.

This year I will hopefully have more free time on my hands and a bit of that will be dedicated to the blog. I’ve been reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work and I liked some of the ideas in it a lot.

Kleon recommends sharing something about your work every day, even if what you have to say is very short. I am not sure I have something to say about my work every day, but I like the discipline of trying to post every working day and I thought I would make it one of my New Year’s Resolutions. My posts will probably be a bit shorter than my usual 1000 to 2000 word monsters just to make life a bit easier. I’m thinking of limiting myself to what I can comfortably write in one pomodoro.

I strongly suspect that this will go the way of most of my other resolutions but I will give it a try. At very least, I would like to manage more posts this month than I did last year.

What other resolutions did I make?

Nothing wildly exciting. I will continue to do 10000 steps per day. I’ve been doing this for the last couple of years and I don’t think I’ll have too much trouble keeping it. That has the sound of famous last words, doesn’t it? Watch me break a leg in the next week.

I’m also going to keep an eye on what I eat very closely. I am a type 2 diabetic so I need to do this, and I manage it less often than I would like. This resolution might not sound like much, but I have found that paying attention to what I eat is the best way to control it.

For work, my original idea was to write 1000 words a day, every day. I did this a few years back and had one of my most productive years ever. I backed away from it in the end because I would like to keep my weekends free. Eventually I settled on doing 3 hours of actual writing per working day. This is harder than it sounds, even if you are a supposedly full time writer like me. I’ll probably write a blog post explaining why.

And that’s more or less it. Any of you got any interesting resolutions?


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Invisible Software

For the past couple of weeks I have been living in a strange alternative universe where proprietary formatting for applications never happened. I have been storing my to do list on my phone and editing it in my word-processor on both Windows and OSX. My phone happens to run Android but I could just as easily be doing this on an iPhone. I’ve been taking notes on my phone when out in the playground with the baby and been able to edit them in my word processor, add them to my Evernote stack and/or do whatever else I want with them. I’ve been writing blog posts that I can send directly from my word processor to this blog knowing they will format correctly. I’ve been running my project management software everywhere.

I’ve been doing all of this courtesy of working in plain text/markdown files and it really has been a wonderful experience. For someone like me, who works on a variety of operating systems and a number of strange devices, including an Alphasmart Dana, markdown has been a real boon. Using an open standard (and it does not get more open than plain text) means I can use anything I want, any time I want, anywhere I want. If I feel like editing my work in progress on my phone (don’t laugh it occasionally happens) I can. What it means is that the software I use becomes effectively invisible. It gets out of my way.

I’ve been working on Byword on the Mac and the extremely wonderful WriteMonkey on my Windows machines for word processing. I’ve been using todo.txt for my to do lists and Taskpaper for my project management/ Getting Things Done Stuff. It all works together extremely well.

It was what I was going to write about today, but when I came to think about it, there’s another sort of invisible software that holds everything together. Dropbox. When I stopped to consider it, I was amazed at how stealthily and completely this program has infiltrated my life.

For those of you who have not encountered it, Dropbox is an extremely simple looking idea, extremely well executed. It is a folder that sits on your desktop and when you put something into it, it gets stored in the cloud on Dropbox’s servers and from there is synchronised with the files on any other machine you happen to have Dropbox installed it. I’ve been using it for years and it works really well. It even stores versioned backups of your recent files, so if you accidentally overwrite something you can go back and retrieve what you wiped.

Dropbox is where my ToDo.txt file lives and my markdown drafts and blogposts and even the Scrivener files for my big writing projects. It’s useful in that not only does it provide an effortless method of synchronising my data between machines, it gives me an off-site backup for my work. (I also use Google Drive, Amazon’s S3 cloud and OneDrive for this as well as a USB stick and Time Machine backup– I know it sounds paranoid but I lost a bit of work once and I never intend to have it happen again.)

Recently Dropbox has allowed me to automatically back up the photographs from my phone’s camera onto my computer. It happens invisibly in the background while I am doing other stuff. I am experimenting with using the speech recorder on my phone to take dictation. Dropbox makes transferring the dictation files from my Galaxy to DragonDictate 4 on the Mac an absolute breeze. I just save the file in Dropbox and, boom, it’s there on my computer ready to import into Dragon when I want. This is the way that software should work. It should just get out of your way and let you do stuff.

I think Dropbox is in many ways the wave of the future, capitalising on the Cloud’s strengths. It’s not something you really notice because you don’t work in it the way you do with a program like Scrivener or Microsoft Word, but it has definitely changed the way I work and I imagine it will continue to do so.


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Procrastination Cascades

If you’re anything like me you can always find an excuse not to sit down and write. And even when you start, you can probably find ways of stopping yourself. This has become particularly evident to me over the past few days. 

I normally use a program called Freedom 2 to cut myself off from the Internet for fixed periods of time. The internet is the ultimate tool for self-distraction and by cutting myself off from it and forcing myself to sit down at the computer I can usually pretty much guarantee I will get some writing done. I usually set Freedom to operate in 30 minute or one hour blocks of time, depending on how my RSI is and how many breaks I feel like taking. Recently though Freedom has started to misbehave. When it returns access to the Internet to me, my Mail client does not function, nor does Evernote or a few other programs. The only thing that bring them back is a hard reboot. I am not sure why this has happened. Maybe there is some sort of conflict between Freedom and some other recently updated program. In any case, its disturbing.

In my search for a solution I came across a recommendation for another program Self Control which is for OSX and which is free. SelfControl works in a slightly different way from Freedom. It blocks access to specific websites and once they are blocked you don’t get any access to them until the period of time you have set has gone. Not even a hard reset works. It’s a little more work to set SelfControl up– you need to add each site you want blocked to your list– but once it’s done, it seems to work and work well. I can’t get access to the sites I normally use to distract myself but I can still get any research I need done. I also have access to my email. 

I also started using RescueTime to keep track of where all my time on the computer was going. This is an interesting bit of software that logs the use of all the programs on your computer and shows it to you on your own personalised webpage. 

A side effect of this is that it made me realise that I have other ways of wasting time than simply looking at the Internet. I blocked the KDP home page on Amazon where I usually check my sales. This made me aware of an odd behaviour pattern that costs me a lot of time. Normally when I check my sales, I update my spreadsheets with the new numbers. (This may sound weird but its quite common among indie ebook publishers.) If there’s anything unusual about the pattern of sales (and I can usually find something), I  pause to think about it and make some notes. This can easily waste half an hour if I am not careful. The insidious thing about it is that it’s something I normally do between work periods while I am having a cup of tea and it stretches those non-working periods out far beyond what I would like.

Looking at this behaviour I realised that I am prone to what I call procrastination cascades– I do one little thing that wastes some time which then leads me to doing something connected with it which leads me to something else. None of these things, of themselves take up huge amounts of time but added together they waste hours every day.

As an experiment I set SelfControl to block access to certain sites for 8 hours and suddenly I noticed an immediate change in my behaviour patterns that instantly increased productivity. By not being able to check Amazon, I could not trigger the whole cascade of behaviour leading from it. I have always been reluctant to block access to the Internet for 8 hours because, you know, just in case. I am far less reluctant to block just a few sites so this seems to be working for me. You may want to give it a try yourself!

Celebrate!

I was watching my nine month old son this morning. He has just taught himself to stand by grabbing the struts of his cot and pulling himself upright. When he achieves this, he burbles and howls with happiness, does a little staggering dance and raises his hand in the air like a footballer who has just scored the winning goal in the last seconds of a World Cup final. He is clearly very happy indeed with the achievement of standing upright. Needless to say, I don’t feel (or behave) the same way when I drag myself from my bed and plant my feet on the floor in the morning. Achieving the vertical does not fill me with glee the way it does young Will, although I most likely felt the same way about it back in the day and just cannot remember.

Will in cot

This got me thinking about how often this happens in life. When I sold my first story to a professional magazine way back in September 1987, I was over the moon, buzzed for days. It felt like a titanic achievement and a huge personal validation. Needless to say, I don’t feel quite that way when I sell a short story now. It’s nice but it’s just part of the business.

I felt the same gigantic burst of enthusiasm when I sold my first novel. I don’t feel anything like the buzz now that I have sold more than twenty.

Yesterday evening, quite late, I somewhat unexpectedly finished a novel I have been writing, on and off, for over six years. I was very happy but I was not ecstatic the way I once would have been.

It’s kind of sad, isn’t it? We get accustomed to what we have and we lose sight of the fact that it was once so important to us.

I know I am not unique in this. It happens to everybody. You get a raise and you’re happy but the happiness does not last. You buy a new computer, a car or a house and you are happy for a bit but then it fades as you get used to your new treasure. Scientists even have a phrase to describe this process, hedonic adaption, which is basically just a fancy way of saying our minds adapt themselves to our surroundings.

Watching the baby this morning I started to think that it is wrong to be so blasé about our triumphs small or large, that it might be good to stop for a moment and remember where we once were and how far we have come. Looking back 25 years to when I sold Visiting the Dead to Interzone and remembering how happy that made me is a cheering thought. Maybe now is a good time to celebrate the fact I am living the dream I had when I was little more than a decade older than my son and to remember that I got here a bit at a time, in small stages, like a baby pulling himself up the side of a cot and that sometimes it was difficult but I got here in the end, and I should be grateful for that.

Today is a good day to celebrate even a small achievement like writing a thousand words or selling a single e-book or getting out of bed and standing upright. It’s even better if there’s something large to celebrate like finishing a book. Now, excuse me, I am going to go and do a little dance and punch my fist in the air and maybe shout and burble a bit. 

Order Out of Chaos

So the end of the month is sneaking closer and I am still working away. As I mentioned at the start of the month, I planned on writing 2K of new fiction every working day this year as well as revising work for publication. I also mentioned that I was having trouble settling down into a routine. (New babies and lack of sleep tend to have that effect!) Of late, I have been plagued by the flu and persecuted by the Machine God as well. However, in spite of all this, I have started to get the feeling that my goals for this year are at least possible. I am settling down into a new method of working, which is just as well, because I need to.

I begin each day by revising what I wrote the work day before. (Obviously this means that on Monday I revise what I wrote on Friday.) Sometimes I re-read the whole work from the beginning if I feel the need to get my hooks back into it. I have set Scrivener so that it discounts negative word counts– i.e. this means that it ignores any cuts I make (and there are many!) but adds the new words to the total. I let these count towards my 2000 word goal. It’s a cheap trick but sometimes cheap tricks are what you need to motivate you. Having built up some momentum on the revision, I launch myself into the goal of writing 2K proper. Once that is done, I move on to editing the work that needs it. At the moment this is usually a different project. I try to have a gap between the different elements of my work schedule. Doing one thing, taking a break and then starting on the next project works for me. It seems important that my mind gets a clear signal about such things. I need spaces and routines for this stuff. It used to be a case of doing things at a certain time of the day. With illness and the baby, this is difficult so I am falling back to having procedures and priorities instead.

There’s been a lot of disruption this month which has made this all the more important. My MacBook Pro, which has been my major work machine for a couple of years now, packed in. It’s been ailing for months with a dodgy trackpad and a tendency to freeze but now it was not even booting. I surprised myself by replacing it with a MacBook Air. I genuinely thought I was going to make the switch to PC this time but I changed my mind at the last moment for a number of reasons. The first is that I have a number of diaries and research projects in Mac only formats and it would be a lot of work to export them and import them into different software. All of this takes time and that was in short supply. ( A clear demonstration of the benefits of platform lock-in for vendors there.)  With the Air all I had to do was start the machine and migrate my files across from my Time Machine backup. So far, it seems to have worked a treat. The second reason was even more simple. The Lenovo dealership is a long way from where I live and there are two Apple dealerships within a short walk of my house. Tired and with the flu, it was just easier to go this route.

There were other reasons, the most important being familiarity. Buying a new work computer is a big purchase for me and I was driving myself mad trying to find one that filled my requirements. I had a couple in mind, both Thinkpads, but I was not entirely sure they would do what I needed. I know I am happy using the keyboard on the Mac (an important thing because of RSI) and I was happy with its performance. Scrivener on OSX still reigns supreme among writing programs for me, although the Windows version is really very good. There’s not a lot to say about the new MacBook. It is very much like the old one, only lighter and more powerful, and that’s about the only thing I can say about it. In any case, I plumped for the familiar and the habitual. It saved me time and thought and let me get back to work.

On the subject of which, it’s time for me to go and write something…

The Hundredth Post

Back in the 80s my brother sold insurance. He occasionally attended sales conferences and sometimes came back with motivational books. One day, bored, with nothing better to do, I read one. It started a life-long habit of reading books about selling and the life of a salesman. In case you are wondering what possible relevance any of those could have to the life of a writer, let me just point out that writers and salesmen have more in common than you might think. Both writers and salesmen need to be self-starters. There is usually no one else around to motivate you. Both live in worlds where the possibility of rejection arises daily, and both need to be able to keep going in the face of that rejection. Both have jobs where they are entirely judged by numbers. If you have the romantic view that writers live for their art, talk to a full-time professional one some time. They will tell you that their careers live and die by their numbers. Fall below a certain threshold of sales and your publisher will very swiftly lose interest in your next book. I could go on but I am sure you get the picture.

All of this may seem a very strange thing to bring up as I celebrate my hundredth post on the blog but bear with me. There is a point and I have, at last, got to it. That long ago first motivational book contained one absolute gem of information which has stood me in good stead ever since. In a section about perfectionism and the fear of failure, it pointed out that you would not judge your ability to draw by your first effort if you had never drawn before. You need time and practise if you ever expect to be able to draw properly. It suggested an experiment, namely that you should attempt 100 sketches of something before you decided whether you were a good, bad or indifferent portraitist. It put forward the idea that you apply this principle to everything that you attempt in your life as a means of taking the pressure to be perfect at the first attempt off. As an antidote for the paralysing need to get things right the first time, that many people, including myself, suffer from, it is a good one. It takes away the heavy burden of judgement from your initial, usually very poor efforts, and frees you to just get on with it.

I have applied this principle in my life, and you know something, it works. I decided I would not judge my success or failure as a writer until I had made a hundred submissions. As it happened I sold my third and I have kept on selling (mostly) ever since. There was a time, you may find it hard to believe, when I found writing novels intimidating. I resolved to make one hundred attempts to write one before I gave up on the idea of being a novelist. It took a lot more than three attempts this time but I got there in the end. I am sure you can see where I am going with this now.

I’ve made various attempts at blogging before but I’ve never been very good at sticking with it for any length of time. I never particularly enjoyed it and I pretty much always felt that my books should do my talking for me to any audience that might be interested.

Anyway, the world moves on. We live in the internet age and the need for publicity is a given. Everyone tells you a writer should have a blog. Last year I decided that I would give blogging another try and I would make at least one hundred posts before I decided whether to stick with it or not. I further committed myself to posting three times a week because that is what various experts recommended. To give myself some credit, I have pretty much stuck with that although a few of my posts have consisted of making excuses for why I have not posted this week and one of them was not written by me at all but by my good friend Matt Forbeck, to whom I am eternally grateful. It’s certainly been a learning experience.

There have been many times when I have struggled to find something to say. There have been times when I have felt (nay, known!) that blogging was cutting into my working time. There were times when blogging has offered me a fine excuse to procrastinate as far as my fiction writing was concerned. There have been times when it has been a lot of fun.

Writing blog posts, it turns out, is an art form albeit one I don’t have much talent for. I have done my best. I confess that there have been many, many times when I have found the discipline of posting three times a week, while trying to meet deadlines and run a small business and write my own personal fiction projects, to be an enormous strain. There have most definitely been times when posting on this blog has short circuited my writing on other things that needed to be done, knocking me out of the head-space for fiction and breaking up the rhythm of my work. And yet, I have enjoyed it, and I have enjoyed your comments and emails.

The thing is, in addition to writing for Black Library and running my own small, self-publishing venture and all of the other stuff I have to do, I now have a baby son in the flat which also happens to be my workplace. I am getting less sleep than I used to and I have less energy. Something has to give. I’ve decided that I like blogging but I just can’t keep up 3 posts a week. I am going to fall back to posting once a week, most likely on a Wednesday. I may post more often if I have some special announcement to make and I’ll try not to post less often.

And so I shall bid you adieu, until next Wednesday.