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How I spent my summer vacation

I took this week off work so I could write. I have a stack of unfinished stories, and a nonfiction book proposal to work on. Work has been eating my brain, so I’m not making much progress in the evenings, and weekends have been busy.

The best-laid plans of writers can be trumped by water flowing through the yard…

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…past the front door…

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…and into the basement.

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That was Thursday.

My vacation has been entirely devoted to moving damp things out of the basement, scrubbing up mud, buckets of bleach, and a whole lot of soggy. It’s under control now: the house isn’t going to rot out from under me. There are only a couple of nooks left to deal with. Which is good, because I utterly couldn’t face it today. My back is sore from moving all the things (Nick’s shop: many containers of heavy metal items) and scrubbing everything left over. There are still streaks of silt on the floors, but overall the basement is cleaner and better-smelling than before it flooded.

Doesn’t do much for the writing, though.

I spent today working on other stuff: catching up on neglected email and volunteer duties, back-ups, etc. And loading photos onto the computer so I could blog things. Not the most exciting day, but it didn’t involve a single drop of bleach, so I’m content.

Oh yes

Getting the to-do list done would be a great start. But instead I’m reading Wondermark. You should too, if only so we can all be behind together!



WorldCon was wonderful; stories and pictures to follow when I’m not so insanely busy.

Until then, here’s something to think about.

Back on the horse

I need you all to help me. I’m making a public commitment: I will work on novel revisions, and I will keep working on them until I have entirely rewritten this book, and then written it again if I need to. I will acknowledge that work and life will sometimes derail this process, and pick it up again as soon as I can. I will make this the best book that I can, and a book I want to read. It’s okay if it is slow, but I still need to do it. I will post irregular updates here.

Kick me if I get too far off-track?

I have some major worldbuilding, character and structural issues to fix. The first order of business is to think hard about the first two, and rewrite the outline for the umteenth time to reflect where the story needs to go, rather than where it does go or where I thought it would go. That will give me a guide for rewriting. (I’ve started this any number of times, but not gotten very far. Apparently my brain decided that an entire first draft was enough and it could quit.)

Entirely unrelated: dog in armor!


More on my commute

I was asked for more data on my morning commute.

Walking to work earlier, not reading:
36 minutes
3896 steps
15 floors (e.g., 150 feet of vertical climb)

Walking home yesterday while reading:
36 minutes
3846 steps
7 floors

Walking to work today while reading:
38 minutes
4200 steps
17 floors

The weather was pleasant all three times: neither hot nor wet. I followed roughly the same route each time.

Very preliminary conclusions:

  • Reading doesn’t affect my pace markedly. (Motivation does, but I have no data to support that yet.)
  • I do not in fact walk uphill to work both ways, no matter what it feels like.
  • Today was the first day that I remembered to hit the record button at the door, rather than across the street. That might account for the 300 steps.

I will need to keep recording my commute. Now I’m curious how much of the variability is due to the FitBit, and how much is due to me. Also, science requires that I remember to push the record button in the same place; I will have to work on that.

The morning commute

My morning commute:

3896 steps.
36 minutes.
150 feet of vertical climb.

Why yes, I got a FitBit, can you tell?

I haven’t managed to convince it of my stride length, despite multiple attempts: the 3896 steps should be just under 2 miles, but the FitBit is convinced that it’s 2.33 miles. The step count seems to be quite accurate, although it doesn’t record short, slow steps very well (like walking around in the studio setting things up, for instance). The vertical climb estimate is interesting (expressed as flights of stairs): State College has lots of hills.

I walk between 65,000 and 70,000 steps a week, or 32-35 miles. Pretty good, I think. That morning commute and its evening companion contribute most of it. I climb about 150-170 floors a week, between the hills and my upstairs office.

My most active day in the three weeks I’ve had the gizmo has been 15,000 steps and 50 stairs.

Data: I like it.

Project management

[This was originally part of the mind-mapping post, but got too long. Then it was pre-empted by novel writing and talking about novel writing. One must have priorities.]

One of the core principles of David Allen’s highly popular task management system Getting Things Done (fondly known as GTD to its devotees) is writing everything down and referring to it later. If you know that your list is complete and comprehensive and used, then you don’t have to worry about remembering to wax the cat or whatever because it’s there. For me at least it helps enormously with the spinny-brain-of-doom.

There’s more to it, of course: organizing by context (phone call; online; errand), breaking big projects into next task (a discrete finishable item rather than a vague amorphous goal). If you’re interested in more on GTD, David Allen’s website is here, but I really prefer the write-ups at 43 Folders.

The latter site is by and for creative professionals, and is very clear that productivity is about managing both time and attention. Also, and key, productivity is about tricking the lazy-ass resentful procrastinatory part of the brain into doing something. I’ve learned a lot of useful tricks from 43 Folders, including the wonderful 10+2 brain-hack.

If you’re like me, you find yourself reluctant to work on certain projects. Too big, too overwhelming, too complicated, too hard. Whatever. So you check your email for the zillionth time, read your favorite blogs, play solitaire for a while. The mind-space devoted to the project you’re avoiding grows and grows. Eventually the deadline hits and you panic and do it. The stress and anguish could all be avoided if you just worked on it when you were supposed to, but you can’t.

So here’s the brilliant part. You can do anything for ten minutes, right? That’s a tiny chunk of time. No matter how daunting the project is, ten minutes is trivial.

So work on it for ten minutes. No more. Set a timer and stop. Then take a two-minute break. See? Not so bad. Repeat four more times.

There. You’ve spent a hour on the horrid awful project, whatever it is. And you’ve made progress. And maybe the project looks less intimidating now. If so, keep going. If not, then do another hour of 10+2.

Maybe ten minutes at a time isn’t the most efficient way to work. But it’s better than playing solitaire, isn’t it?


Okay, I have a novel draft. So now what? (And thank you all for the congratulations – much appreciated!)

Revisions, obviously, but it needs to sit for a while first. I envision it like bread dough: all the ingredients have been kneaded together, and it needs to rise for a while before I rework it, add the cinnamon, form it into its final shape.

I’ve been neglecting Stringpage and my blogs and websites, so I need to put some time into those. Actually, I’ve been neglecting pretty much everything that isn’t novel-writing or procrastination from novel-writing (except work). I definitely need to put some time into the business and the rest of my life. It’s tax time, which means inventory and all that. This is a necessary time to put some time into that.

And making tangible things: I also haven’t been weaving or knitting or anything.

And nonfiction. I have a review and an essay due soon, and some other projects to work on, including one really big one that should have been done by now.

But what I really want to do, besides spend a day or two in bed with a novel that somebody else wrote, is work on short fiction. My fiction-writing time has gone into novel, novel, novel, and I want to do something else for a bit before I dive into rewriting.

Revise and submit:
Crossing the Water
The Regiomontanus Problem

Stars Like Clockwork Overhead
The Gray of Her Eyes
Untitled Christmas cookie story

Untitled urban fantasy short story
Book of Signs and Shadows (novel outline)
Untitled urban fantasy (novel outline)

I want to get the two finished stories polished and out in the next month, and have at least two of those in progress well underway.

It’s good to have a plan, right?

Brain dump

Highly useful things, brain dumps. If done in an organized fashion, of course. I started writing about the why of organization, but the post got far too long. So that will be tomorrow.

Today is going to be about the how instead.

One of my very favorite tools for organizing my thoughts is an Open Source mindmapping program called Freemind. It’s free, and runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux (a crucial bit for me).

Mindmapping is a way of recording ideas hierarchically and visually, like this.

There are a lot of options available, but for getting ideas down as fast as possible I find the keyboard shortcuts to be the most useful. Each bit of the diagram is called a node. Insert (Tab on the Mac) adds a new child node (one step down the hierarchy from the selected node). Enter adds a new node at the same level (with the same parent). The arrow keys work in the expected way. And of course, you can use the mouse to select and add nodes too.

Clicking on a node that has children closes it. You don’t have to look at everything all the time.


A lot of times that’s all you need. Putting your ideas down, well, gets them down. From there you can work with them.

For brainstorming and outlining small projects, this quick note-taking is entirely sufficient. But for longer projects, where you might want to refer to a particular mindmap for months or years, there are lots of options. You can color things, surround them in clouds, and add icons.

People seem to think that I get a lot of things done even though I always feel behind. Organization is a key part of my productivity. I use Freemind for a lot of task and project management. This is my to-do list (and yes, I know you can’t read it).

Each project area has its own colored cloud, and I’ve added icons to specific tasks: the 1, 2, 3 and so on to denote importance. I have things that need to be done now, and things to be done when I get around to it.

The icons are useful as more than visual reminders. I can filter the mindmap on any of them, so the map only shows top-priority tasks, or whatever else I’ve organized them by.

For outlining a big writing project, icons could mark areas that need research, items that are done, and items that need work. Or whatever suits your organizational system and that particular project.

Freemind recently added the ability to use text attributes: classes and tags. But so far this feature seems clunky and hard to use. It has a lot of potential, but isn’t something I use regularly. The gray boxes on the to-do list are attributes. I tried it again on this map to see if the implementation was more to my taste yet, but it isn’t. They’re slow to add; icons are much easier, and accomplish something similar when used with filtering.

Most of the project areas have one or more separate mindmaps too, with links in this master map so I can click on the link and open the project-specific map. That keeps everything indexed in one place, but keeps the index from getting too large and cluttered.

My main considerations for software like this, and I’ve tried a lot of the available software packages: ease of getting ideas down in the first place; options for tagging and filtering; cross-platform use. That last one is very important for me, though I realize it isn’t a dealbreaker for many people. I keep my main mindmaps in my Dropbox* folder so I can access them from anywhere. In my case, “anywhere” includes Mac, Linux, and occasional Windows use. Freemind runs on all three, so I’m set.

I use Freemind for task management, brainstorming, writing literature reviews, organizing projects, plotting fiction… it’s one of my most useful pieces of software. And it’s free, so give it a try.

* Dropbox really deserves a separate post. Briefly, it’s a backup folder that is synchronized between all my computers. I keep current projects and reference materials there. Those files are always backed up, and always accessible no matter where I am or what computer I’m using. If you’d like to try it, it’s free. You can sign up yourself, but if you ask me for an invite we both get extra space.

Red sky at morning

This is how the New Year began.

I hope it isn’t an omen

And here’s how the old year went, or at least the SFF-related bits:

According to my Goodreads list, I read 108 books in 2010 (not counting things read purely for work). Not bad.

One of my goals for the year was to read more fiction, and to make an effort to keep up with current SFF, especially that not written by old white men. I did okay with that latter bit, but there’s plenty of room for improvement. Recommendations gladly accepted.

I sold my first two stories (Crossed Genres and the Rigor Amortis antho), and a nonfiction piece to Clarkesworld.

I wrote regularly for Science in My Fiction. My December article on hydrothermal vents was picked up by io9.

I signed up to review for The Portal, though no reviews have appeared yet. (I need to rewrite my first one; I’m not very good at this yet.)

I attended the Viable Paradise workshop, an experience I’m still digesting several months later. And by the way, applications for this year are now open. You should all apply. Really.

And I attended my first-ever con: World Fantasy in Columbus. I had a very good and educational time, and came away with a whole pile of story ideas. (See above, behind on short fiction.) I signed zombie books and did a reading, and felt just like a real author.

I did not finish the novel-in-progress, but I’m very close. I wrote 12,500 words over my brief Christmas vacation. I learned that I can write 4,000 words a day and still have time for cookies as long as I’ve done a good job planning. And no internet. If it’s a workday, I’m lucky to get 500 words written.

I thought I might get it finished over New Year’s, but I didn’t write at all. I cleaned the gutters (on New Year’s Eve!), cooked a lot of very tasty food, spent time with friends, read a lot. I think it was a necessary break after the chaos that my life has been, even if I feel a bit guilty about not finishing PM by my self-imposed December deadline.

My new plan is to finish it up within the next few weeks. Then I want to spend a month or so writing short fiction; I have a lot of things in progress that have been sitting idle while I tried to finish the novel. I only have one short story out in the world right now. That needs to change.

Then: rewrites. Badly, badly needed rewrites. I learned so much while writing this over the past year, about writing and the characters and how to put a novel together, that the whole thing needs to be done over.

But first goal: a completed draft.

On the one hand, I got a lot done. This list doesn’t include day job, fiber arts, and all of the real-life stuff that occurred this year. On the other hand, I didn’t write nearly as much as I’d hoped, or accomplish several other things I wanted to work on. I spent the entire year in a perpetual state of not-caught-up.

Travel and family crises contributed to the stress and lack of time. This year should be better on both fronts. Day job is going to be more intense, though, due to changes in both scientific personnel and management. I hope the latter doesn’t cancel out the former.

And a completely unrelated bit: this “Facts of Life” essay has been making the rounds. It is very much worth your time and thought.

Here is where I should put in good wishes for all my blog readers for 2011. But wouldn’t you know? I’m running late…