Category: writing

The Evolution of a Storyteller, Episode 1: “The Stone”

Okay, I have a treat for all of you who have been so patient with my absences here lately. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and now seems as good a time as any. I’m going to occasionally post a very old story that I wrote. When I say “old” I mean old. Like from when I was just starting out to write stories and submit them in my junior year in college.

It is difficult for me to look at these stories, let alone read them, but I think that posting them here serves a couple of good purposes:

  1. Geniuses excepted, almost no one starts out writing brilliant, publishable prose. If you feel like your writing is crap, wait until you get a load of mine, circa 1993.
  2. Practice (lots and lots of practice, in my case) really does help. I’m not one of the great writers of the science fiction/fantasy genre, but I do write publishable fiction, and I feel like I’m getting better at it.
  3. Whenever I don’t feel like I’m getting better at it, just look at one of these stories.

And so, without further delay, here is the very first story I wrote for submission after deciding I wanted to be a writer. The story was written sometime in December 1992. It is called “The Stone”

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NEW STORY: “Meat and Greet” is now available in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Issue 43

I have a new story in the latest issue of InterGalactic Medicine Show. “Meat and Greet” is short metafictional piece, and my only attempt at ever writing a zombie story. Those interested can head on over to IGMS to read the story. The stories in this issue will be freely available when the next issue comes out.

There are a couple of unique things about this particular story:

1. It marks my 10th professional piece of fiction, which is something of a milestone. Three of my stories have appeared in IGMS, including my very first one.

2. The story sale has a unique provenance: I gave a reading at the World Fantasy Convention here in the Washington, D.C. area back in November. I read two short stories. “Meat and Greet” was one of them. After the reading, Edmund Schubert, who edits IGMS, came up to me and grabbed the manuscript. 2 days later, he emailed me letting me know he was buying the story. So: first story sale from a reading.

3. Check out the amazing art work by Scott Altmann. Scott did great art for my story, “Big Al Shepard Plays Baseball on the Moon” and he did another fantastic job on the art for this story.

Major Code Update to the Google Docs Writing Tracker

I made a major update to the Google Docs Writing Tracker today. Although the update does not introduce any new features, it does bring the code up to the current standards for Google App Scripts. Back in December, Google deprecated a big portion of its Google DocsList code in favor of the DriveApp code.

DocsList Service

The Google Docs Writing Tracker referenced the old code in dozens of places. Today, I replaced those old references with references to the newer DriveApp object model. This means that if you are using the new code, you should no longer see any messages about deprecated code in the execution logs.

The only significant change, from a user-perspective, is how folders are handled in the Config tab of the spreadsheet. For now, I did the simplest possible implementation. The values for the Sandbox and Snapshot folders should refer directly to the folder name and not include the path. So if you used to do something like this:

Old Folder Model

You should change it to do this instead:

New Folder

This looks for the idea of the folders named above, and uses their ID instead of their name throughout the scripts. It does mean it will cause problems if you have more than one folder with the same name, but it is good enough for now.

One small bug fix

Included in this refactor is a minor bug fix. Some people have reported no data all of a sudden, after the code has been working for a long time. The problem, it turned out, was happening with people using the RescueTime integration. If, for some reason, RescueTime could not by reached by the API call, the JSON file returned was empty. This wasn’t handled properly by the scripts.

Now, it is.

So if you use RescueTime integration and the API call fails for some reason, it won’t break the rest of the script from running. You just won’t have RescueTime data for that day.

Getting the new version

To avoid confusion in the short term. I have checked the new code into a separate branch in the GitHub project. If you want the new code, pull the google-drive-refactor branch. If you want to see how much of the code actually changed, check out the differences.

I’ve done some testing on my own machine and it seems to work okay. When I feel that enough general testing has been done, I’ll merge this code into the master. If you find any problems, open up an issue.

More coming soon

I’m also working on a new feature that I’ve wanted for a while now: Project Tracking. This allows you to assign arbitrary project names to documents. The words counts are tracked daily by project on a separate sheet in the workbook, allowing you to track words and time by project, as well as by day. Especially useful if you work on multiple projects in a day (as I sometimes do) or have multiple documents in a project (as I do when I work on novels).

And as always, if you have suggestions, let me hear about them. Or better yet, fork the code and try to implement them yourself.

Google Docs vs. Scrivener for Writing

I used to be a hardcore Scrivener user. Over the last 2 years, however, I’ve used Google Docs almost exclusively for everything but my submissions drafts. In the last 2 years, I’ve put nearly 600,000 words through Google Docs.

Because of this, I am often asked why I use Google Docs for writing instead of Scrivener. Or, put another way, I am asked “Which tool is better for writing, Scrivener or Google Docs?”

The answer, of course, is both, depending on how you work. When I write posts about the tools I use, I write them from the point of view of me as a writer using the tools. My process may be different from yours and the process one uses often dictates the best tools for the job. For some processes, Scrivener is a far better tool than Google Docs. For others, Google Docs is sufficient. For others still, another tool might be appropriate. Let me expound upon a few things that might help distinguish the pros and cons of the tools


I choose a tool based on how well it fits my writing process. There are two things that are important to know about my process:

  1. I am more of a “pantser” than a “plotter”
  2. I track my writing in order to track my progress, but I’ve automated this because I don’t want to spend time doing it manually.
  3. I want to spend as much of my available writing time writing.

Everything about my process is driven by these three basic requirements.

Bud Sparhawk and I have, over the last few years, given a talk at Capclave on “Online Writing Tools.” We demonstrate our processes through the tools that we use. It’s great because, as it turns out, Bud and I are opposites when it comes to process. Bud is an extreme plotter, while I am a pantser. But I wasn’t always a pantser, and when I did plot out what I was writing, I used Scrivener almost exclusively.

Scrivener for plotters

Scrivener is, in my opinion, the single best all-encompassing software tool for writers available today. And if you are a plotter, Scrivener is probably the best place to get started. Scrivener has a set of features designed with plotters in mind. Scrivener makes it easy to lay out scenes, outline stories, shift things around visually, and have those shifts reflected in the manuscript with little or no effort.

Scrivener also does something that I believe is critical for a word-processing tool for writers: It separates the content from the presentation-layer. In other words, how the content appears on the screen when you write is completely separate from how it appears when you compile your manuscript. You can have large, easy-to-read fonts on the screen, and Scrivener will still compile the document in standard-manuscript format. This means that as a writer, you can focus on writing, and not be distracted by formatting.

Scrivener also has advantages for self-published writers. It makes it easy to produce e-books in multiple formats.

It has hundreds of features that speed up the process of managing your document so that you can concentrate on plotting and writing. I can’t think of another tool that does all this as well as Scrivener does.

Google Docs for pantsers

On the other hand, many of these features, for me, are overkill. I don’t create outlines. I don’t generally have a need to shift scenes around in my manuscript while I am working. I don’t prepare e-books. What I do is this:

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5 Writing Goals for 2015

It has taken me almost a week to catch up on various things, but I finally have some time to jot down thoughts on my writing goals for 2015. Good thing, too, since tomorrow evening at the writers group, we are discussing–writing goals for 2015. Keep in mind these goals apply to paid writing, and not the writing I do here on the blog.

1. Increase my daily average to 1,000 words per day (40 minutes/day)

In 2014, I wrote, on average 850 words every single day of the year. Since writing, for me, has become a daily habit, when I think about my goals, I think in terms of what I can do each day, as opposed to the overall big picture for the year. That’s because, getting the writing done each day is great practice, and by its very nature, builds up the word count. (I wrote 311,000 words in 2014.)

Many of my full time writer-friends aim for 2,000 words/day. Ultimately, I would like to get there, too. There’s just one problem. With a full time job, and a family, I don’t have the time to write 2,000 words every day. With nearly 700 days worth of data collected, thanks entirely to my automated Google Docs Writing Tracker system, I have data on not only how much I write each day, but how much time I spend. Based on the data, my rule of thumb is 1,500 words per hour, or 1 page (250 words) every 10 minutes.

In 2014, an average of 850 words/day would amount to about 34 minutes of writing each day. To write 2,000 words/day would require 80 minutes per day. No, my goal is not write 80 minutes/day in 2015, because I don’t have that kind of time. I’m more for an incremental approach. What’s reasonable? How about a little less than a page per day. In other words, I’d like to average 850 + 150 = 1,000 words per day in 2015.

To do that, I need to find an additional 6 minutes per day for my writing. That’s not that much, and in 40 minutes each day, I can write 1,000 words. That means producing about 365,000 words in 2015 vs. 311,000 in 2014, an increase of about 17%.

Goal 1: Average 1,000 words/day in 2015.

2. Finish the second draft of my novel

I have been hard at work on the second draft of my novel. For a long time, I struggled with it, going through 36 restarts in order to find the right voice and opening. Having finally found that, things are moving much better. I’d like to complete the second draft of the novel and send it to my beta-readers for comments before the end of the year.

Goal 2: Finish the second draft of the novel.

3. Submit 2 short stories

I haven’t done much short story writing in a while, and I want to get some stories out there. It’s been hard because I have been focused on the second draft of the novel (see #2 above), and when I haven’t been working on that, I’ve been writing some nonfiction (see #4 below).

However, I’ve been invited to some anthologies, and I have a story idea for one of them, which I have started to write when I need a break from the novel. I expect it to be a fairly short story, 4,000 words tops, but when it is finished, I plan on submitting it to the anthology.

I also have an idea for a new story that I’d like to send out to one of the magazines, a story that takes place in the same world as the novel that I’m working on. If all goes well, I’ll have that story written before the end of January, and I’ll send it off to the magazine I have in mind.

Goal 3: Submit 2 short stories.

4. Finish the baseball novella that I started in 2014

I finished the first draft of a great baseball novella in 2014, and I got started on the second draft, but gave it up to work on the second draft of the novel instead. When the novel draft is finished, I’d like to return to the novella and try to finish that up before the end of the year. I don’t know that I’ll be able to submit it before the end of the year, but I aim to have it finished, and off to beta-readers.

Goal 4: Finish the baseball novella that I started in 2014.

5. Look for additional opportunities in nonfiction writing

2014 was a breakout year for me in terms of nonfiction writing. I wrote for The Daily Beast, had a virtually viral article for 99U, wrote an editorial for Analog, and wrote my favorite article of the year for SF Signal. I love writing nonfiction, especially on technology, or science fiction history, and I’d like to be able to do more of it in 2015. So I’ll be keeping my eyes open for additional opportunities to write nonfiction in the coming year.

Goal 5: Look for additional opportunities in nonfiction writing.

Those are my writing goals for 2015. Have goals you want to share? Drop them in the comments.

Another view of my writing in 2014

Yesterday, I posted a heat-map infographic of my writing in 2014. Here is a more traditional view of what it looked like to write every single day of the year.

Writing in 2014
Click to enlarge

I averaged 853 words/day in 2014. That’s the equivalent of about 34 minutes per day spent writing. And since I wrote every day in 2014, that amounts to about 207 hours of writing time in 2014.

I’ll have more to say about my writing plans for 2015, but you’ll have to wait until I get home. The final leg of our drive is today, and we hope to be back home (after 3 weeks away) this afternoon.


I wrote every day in 2014: Here’s an #infographic

As of today, my writing streak stands at 528 consecutive days. The overall number are 671 out of the last 673 days, but I have written every day since July 21, 2014. I began this back in late February of 2013, and since today is the last day of 2014, it means that I have now written every single day in 2014. I put together an infographic to illustrate what this looks like:

Writing 2014 Infographic

The infographic show my writing by day for each week in 2014. It is color coded as a heat map, with “cooler” colors representing low word count days, and “warmer” colors representing higher word count days. The totals are the totals for each week, which are color coded in proportion to the total of the days of the week.

From this, you can see that I wrote a total of 311,354 words in 2014. That is fiction and nonfiction and does not count blogging. If you want to include the blogging I’ve done here, you must add 233,788 words to that. Fiction/nonfiction plus blogging totaled 545,142 words in 2014.

The infographic allows me to easily spot trends in my writing. For instance, I had a fairly cool period in weeks 5-10, followed by a fairly hot period weeks 18-27. Cool again weeks 40-44, and then back to warm weeks 47-51.

It also gives an interesting look at my writing on each day of the week. The totals at the bottom are averages per day for that weekday. On average, I wrote 934 words/day on Monday, my most productive day of the week. Contrast that to Wednesdays, where I averaged 760 words/day.

I try to write at least 500 words each day, but if I don’t hit 500 I don’t sweat it. Circumstances are sometimes out of my control. Still, I’m pleased that I managed to write every day this year. If I had managed to write exactly 500 words every day, that would have been a total of  182,500 words. That I wrote nearly twice that amount (well, 1.7 times that amount) makes me happy. It also helps set a baseline for next year.

My only real goal for 2015 is to keep up the streak. I’d like to finish the second draft of the novel as part of that streak, but I’ll take what I can get.

Writing on vacation

We have now been on vacation for a little over a week, and my consecutive day writing streak remains unbroken at 517 consecutive days as of yesterday. (I have yet to get my writing in today, but it is still early.) I have managed to write while on vacation, even though the first week has been a very busy one, with lots of driving (over 1,000 miles), and 3-1/2 days roaming about the Disney World parks. So how does my vacation writing compare to when I am not on vacation? From the standpoint of quality, I have no objective measurement, but from the standpoint of quantity, it looks pretty good:

Vacation writing

The chart above shows the last 30 days of my writing. The last 8 days (in the red box) are the days that I wrote while on vacation. I’ve written just under 7,000 words over the course of the 8 days I’ve been on vacation, averaging 870 words/day. Those last two days are up because we have arrived at our final destination for the remainder of our vacation, and have settled into the relaxation phase. The weather is warm and sunny, the pool is cool and wet, and we can relax in the run-up to the holidays. I have more time to write, and I am also less tired in the evenings, when I have been doing the bulk of my writing. I suspect this trend will continue, and I hope to make significant progress on the novel draft over the next couple of weeks.

Those looking to keep an eye on my day-to-day progress can always do so over at

Thoughts On 500 Consecutive Days of Writing

Yesterday evening, I hit a new milestone: 500 consecutive days of writing. I’ve gotten used to writing every day. It has become a part of my life, but still, 500 days without missing a single day seemed pretty remarkable to me. But when I woke up this morning and checked my data, this is what I saw:

500 days of writing

During this 500 consecutive day writing streak, I:

  • Wrote 447,399 words.
  • Averaged 895 words per day.
  • Spent, on average, 36 minutes per day writing
  • Spent a grand total of about 300 hours of my time writing.
  • Wrote 5,384 words on my single best day
  • Wrote 20 words on my single worst day.

Practical ramifications of writing for 500 consecutive days

Technically, my 500 consecutive days of writing is a subset of my overall effort to try to write every day. I started this effort back in February 2013, and all told, I have written 643 out of the last 645 days. The last day on which I did no writing was July 21, 2013, when I was traveling home from the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop.

The obvious question to ask of a streak like this is: has it helped you improve your writing? I think that is most certainly has. Of course, it is hard to be objective in this regard. I tend to think I am one of my toughest critics when it comes to my own writing. But there are some more objective ways of looking at this.

1. More sales

In the 21 years that I wrote between 1992 (when I started) and just before I started writing every day in February 2013, I sold a grand total of 8 stories and articles. That comes out to about 1 sale every 3 years.

Since my consecutive writing streak began in July 2013, I have sold a grand total of 11 stories and articles. That comes out to 1 sale every 45 days.

Put another way:

  • Not writing every day = 1 sale every 1,100 days
  • Writing every day = 1 sale every 45 days

I cannot find any more concrete evidence that writing every day has helped me enormously. It certainly does not mean that there is not room for improvement. But the fact that I have made 11 sales to markets that pay at least professional rates (some quite a bit more) tells me that my work is good enough for the editors of those markets.

Writing more means producing more, and thus having more things to send out, but it also means I am practicing my craft every day and (hopefully) getting better at it with each passing day. This in turn ups the quality of each thing that I send out.

2. More confidence in my abilities

I have now been asked at least half a dozen times to produce something for an editor on spec, and each time, I have turned it around quickly, and what I produced was good enough for the editor to buy and publish.

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Novel Status and Writing Stats for November 2014

For many writers, November is NaNoWriMo, which means a month of highly productive writing, often resulting in 50,000 words or more in 30 days, a rather remarkable feat. I wanted to take a moment to congratulate everyone who successfully completed the NaNoWriMo challenge, and also to everyone who attempted it, but didn’t complete it. Writing words is (for me, at least) the hardest part.

I did not participate in NaNoWriMo this year. As I have explained, I think NaNoWriMo is extremely useful in teaching people how to write every day. I have learned that trick, however. Today is my 498th consecutive day of writing. That said, I used NaNoWriMo to jump start the second draft of my novel, in the hopes of breaking through the struggles I’ve had with it. Overall, I think I was successful.

I wrote just under 25,000 words in November. That’s half of what is expected for NaNoWriMo, but it is up 10,000 words from October. It brings my 2014 word count to 280,000 words. Here is what November looked like for me:

Writing Stats, November 2014

I spent a total of 21 hours 45 minutes writing in November, and averaged about 45 minutes per day. I mention this stat to once again emphasize the fact that large blocks of time are not required to write every day. Here is what my day-to-day time spent writing looked like in November:

Time spent writing, November 2014

Finally, here is what my year-to-date looks like (month-to-month) compared to last year. (This year is blue and 2013 is red. Note that my data for 2013 begins in March.)

Words Per Month

Novel status

With 25,000 words under my belt in November, and with my goal to get the second draft of my novel jump-started, one might think that I’ve written about a quarter of the novel in the month. The truth is, I have written far less.

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How I Used RescueTime to Baseline My Activity in 2014 and Set Goals for 2015

Since early in the year, I have been using Rescue Time on all of my computers to track how much time I spend in various applications, websites, and documents. Rescue Time is great because you install it, and it runs in the background, without ever needing me to take any action. Like a FitBit device, it just collects data as I go about my day. Rescue Time has a nice reporting interface, but it also has a very useful API that allows me to pull specific data and look at it interesting ways.

Tracking the time I spend writing

For instance, I’ve always wanted to get a good measurement of the time I spend writing each day. That said, I didn’t want to have to remember to “clock-in” or “clock-out.” It seemed to me that Rescue Time could help with this because it is constantly tracking my activity, and Rescue Time should therefore be able to tell me how much time I spend writing. After some exploration of the API, I found out how to pull the information I needed from Rescue Time, and now, I have scripts that can automatically produce a chart of the time I spend writing each day. Here’s an example of the last 60 days of my writing:

Time Spend Writing

The top 10 tools I’ve used in 2014

As part of my effort to simplify the tools and technology I use, and to automate as much as I can, a baseline of what exactly I use would be a helpful starting point. Fortunately, RescueTime captures all of this data and has some canned reports that show just where I’ve spent my time in front of they keyboard. I started using RescueTime in January, so this data covers a period of January to the present, nearly a full year. Here, then, are the top 10 tools I’ve used on all computers during that time.

RescueTime - All Activities
Click to enlarge

Twitter is number one on the list, and while that surprised me at first, I quickly realized that I am constantly jumping in and out of Twitter, in an effort to keep up with those friends and colleagues that I follow. (I rarely post from Twitter. I use Buffer for that.) Still, 221 hours for the better of the year is quite a bit of time spent in Twitter. Red items are those that Rescue Time considers “unproductive.” Twitter can certainly be a distraction, but I wouldn’t consider all of it unproductive.

Next on the list at 219 hours, much to my dismay, is Microsoft Outlook. This is what I use at the day job, and it is among the worst email programs I’ve encountered. The thing is, I’ve also been using it since it first existed, and there’s no way of getting away from it. What it tells me is that a great deal of my job–too much, I think–is spent dealing with email messages, and calendar appointments.

Google Docs is next on the list at 205 hours. The vast majority of this time–probably 90% or more–is spent writing. Ideally, I’d like to see this move up to number one over the next year.

Gmail follows at 169 hours. It’s still a lot of time to be spending reading and writing email messages, but that number is almost certainly down from what it would have been the previous year, thanks to a great deal of automation I’m able to do with Gmail using tools like Boomerang, for instance.

From there, things begin to drop off pretty rapidly. Facebook shows up in 7th place, but even that seems like too much to me.

Using the RescueTime baseline to find more time to write

With actual numbers in hand based on my behavior, I can begin to change my behavior and measure that change over time. First and foremost on the list is a tradeoff: more writing time for less social media time.

My Twitter and Facebook time totaled 310 hours in 2014 to-date. My writing time totaled under 200 hours. I could easily get more time for writing by cutting back on social media. Cutting back doesn’t necessarily mean no participating. Tools like Buffer have allowed me to schedule tweets and Facebook posts head of time. Whenever I post to my blog, it gets automatically posted to various social media outlets. What I think I need to do is make better use of the time I spend reading my social media feeds.

Right now, I read stuff throughout the day in a very fragmented fashion. I only follow people on Twitter that I am interested in keeping up with. I know that conventional wisdom is that if you want more followers, you follow everyone. But I honestly don’t know how people with 17,000 followers and who follow 19,000 people can keep up with it all. Probably they don’t even try to. Yes, there are lists that I could build, but that takes time to create and manage, and I’m looking to spend less time here, not more.

It seems to me that a fair number would be to spend half of the time in social media that I spend on writing. This year, the hours for both categories gives me a total of about 500 hours. So if I have 500 hours to spend between social media and writing, and I want to spend double the time writing than on social media, then let’s assume w represents the time I want to spend writing:

0.5w + w = 500

This simplifies to:

1.5w = 500

And solving for w, we find that,

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More Lessons from My Writing Streak: Accept the Slumps, But Keep Writing

I mentioned earlier in the week that I was not formally participating in NaNoWriMo this year, but that I was using the spirit of the event to jump start the second draft of my novel, and try to break out of a writing slump that I’d been in for the last month or so. While it has only been five days, I think I am finally emerging from that slump.

Emerging from a slump

The chart above shows the last 30 days of my writing. The last five are in the red box. It’s clearly the most productive 5 days I have had all month. Moreover, the 1,200 words I wrote yesterday were more than I’d written in day since September 20. Most pleasing to me of all is that my 7-day moving average is on the rise again, after a long and steady decline.

While it is nice to see that I am recovering from this writing slump, I was particularly stressed out by it. One thing I’ve learned over the course of my (now) 472 consecutive days of writing is to accept the slumps… but to keep writing every day.

What is a writing slump?

In baseball, hitters get into slumps when they remain hitless at the plate for many consecutive at-bats. For me, a writing slump is similar, but different. I’m still writing every day, just not producing as much as I’d like, or to the quality that I’d like to be producing. Since July 22, 2013, I’ve averaged 900 words/day. Ideally, I’d like to write at least 500 words every day. I don’t sweat the days where I don’t make 500 words, but when multiple days of less than 500 words pile up, I begin to start thinking in terms of a slump.

For the purposes of a clear personal definition, let me define a writing slump as any 30 day period where my moving average falls below 500 words/day for that period. Let’s define being “hot” as any 30 day period where my moving average is above 1,000 words/day. Based on that definition, here is a chart that identifies my slumps and hot spots:


Writing Slump and Hot Spots

You can see from this data, which contains 30-day moving averages, that I’ve only recently hit what I define as a slump. Otherwise, I’ve mostly been within my “average” range (a 30-day moving average of 500-1,000 words). I’ve also had two significant periods where I’ve been “hot,” with a 30-day moving average exceeding 1,000 words day.

This may seem overly analytical, but the numbers tell me not to stress about slumps. They happen, but they don’t last. The same is true for those hot streaks. The important thing is to keep writing every day, to push through the streaks, to keep hacking away when the words seem hard. Eventually, in my experience, the work pays off, and I make a breakthrough.

What causes these slumps?

I think there are two things that caused my recent slump (where my 30-day moving average fell below 500 words/day).

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