Read Across America appearance at Chesapeake High

Yesterday I had the great good fun of appearing at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena, MD to give a talk with Bill on co-authoring to make a difference, where we read from our work, talked about our process and why we write, and answered questions from the students.

It was so lovely to meet creative, interesting, book-loving students and to share the fun (and, you know, the crippling insecurities and all) of writing. Thanks to Ms. Cvetic and the Book Club for all the time, energy, and heart you put into this event.

ph-ac-chesapeake-reading3

A Productive Hubris Towers Work Day

Last Thursday Bill and I took most of the day to work on a couple upcoming projects, including planning the overview of Hubris Towers Season 2. It was absolutely delightful – just the sort of day I hope will one day constitute my actual full-time job.

We spent the morning embroiled in a proof-of-concept of a project about which I am not yet able to say much, except that:

  1. The proof of concept definitely proved the concept. This project has legs. At this point I’m pretty confident that it will happen, and if/when it does, it’s going to be great.
  2. We had 2 nice-ish microphones and 3 computers of varying age and no combination of computer and mic worked. Tech. Fail. But the show must go on, and we found a way to do a thing anyway.

After that fiasco-slash-smashing-success, we went out and got yummy shawarma from a food cart and took a walk around a grassy park in the sun–a rather surprising amount of sun for a February day, really–and talked about our production schedule for Season 2.

Season 1 was eight episodes varying in length from about 12,500 words to over 20,000–I forget the exact numbers. We’ve decided to make Season 2 six episodes of roughly 20k each. That gives us room to develop a full story in each episode and keeps the production schedule from stretching out too long.

We talked about a couple refinements to our process, too: mainly getting me a full clean outline before I start writing (instead of overlapping Bill’s outlining and my writing, as we often did in Season 1) and alerting Bill sooner when I start to diverge from his outline (as will happen from time to time) so that he can account for the changes as he continues to plot.

In the afternoon we retired to my basement headquarters to schedule details and talk plot in broad strokes. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so without going into too much detail I’ll just say that the compact high-rise golf course mentioned late in Season 1 makes a reappearance, we have some great character arcs in store, and both of us laughed and laughed as we talked it out.

Trying the Don Roos Kitchen Timer system

This week I’m trying out a new system of setting and tracking writing goals. More of a philosophy, in a way.

I think it’s called the kitchen timer system, as espoused and/or created by Don Roos, which I learned about because my wife was reading Lauren Graham’s book, which lays it out, and she showed it to me.

The basic idea is that each day you set a time goal for the next day, and you spend that much time with only two things in front of you: your journal and your work-in-progress (hereinafter WIP).

Turn off your Wi-Fi, turn your phone face-down and ignore it, don’t watch or listen to anything except music without words, and start to write.

You have two options. You can either work on your WIP, or, whenever you want and without recrimination, you can write about anything at all in your journal. When you get bored of journaling, you can go back to your WIP. When you get stuck on your WIP, you can go back to your journal. You can even sit and stare at your journal and/or WIP without writing if you want, as long as you don’t switch to anything else.

If you put in the time goal you set for yourself, you win. Simple as that.

Even more canny, if you don’t hit your time goal–and this is critical–you just move on. Take it as a sign that your goal wasn’t very realistic and set a shorter one for tomorrow. DO NOT set an even bigger goal to “make up for it” tomorrow.

It’s kind of genius.

In my experience, it’s almost impossible to journal or freewrite for a very long time at all without getting down to the roots of whatever emotional/intellectual/creative issues have me stuck or preoccupied. It’s also very hard, having gotten down to said issues, to journal or freewrite about them for very long without some sort of useful resolution or reframe emerging. And once my issues are resolved, I generally find the WIP writing easy and fun, even addictive.

This system is also great because it defuses the psychological risk inherent in high-stakes and/or high-intensity creative writing goals, especially those framed in functionally less actionable terms. If my goal is to write 1,000 words on my WIP, I’ll finish that in somewhere between half an hour and never, especially because the implicit goal is to write 1,000 good words, preferably 1,000 brilliant words.

Usually, if I can’t think of words that seem sufficiently brilliant, I’ll sit and think harder. More realistically, if I can’t think of words that seem sufficiently brilliant, I’ll play a dumb game on my phone or turn on a sitcom. Or both. (I’m a terrible person.) This method invites me, when I can’t find brilliant words, to just write whatever words, which I can always do.

That keeps me writing, trends toward resolution (and, eventually, a return to brilliance), and gives me a controllable win. All I have to do is stay there and not open any other things until my time’s up. Unlike being brilliant, that’s something I can simply decide to do, and my brain gets a lot more excited when I make the win about a concrete decision, not an unpredictable flash of insight (much less a thousand of them in a row).

Review: The Practice of the Presence of God

The Practice of the Presence of GodThe Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I keep coming back to. You always think a book like this is just going to be boring and religious and helpful in a vegetables kind of way, but this one’s about a clumsy monk who worked in the clangabang monastery kitchens with everyone shouting for this and that, and still found such a simple pleasure in being with God in the middle of it that the set prayer times were at best no better and at worst a bit of a redundant bother.

The language is old-fashioned and may be a slog for some–he lived centuries ago, after all–but this is a delightfully refreshing reminder that we can keep going back to God any time, and that, religious systems and mystical complications aside, in the end it all comes down to doing everything out of love for (and in love with) God.

There are effective and ineffective ways to go about this, of course, and it’s mentioned several times that it took Brother Lawrence ten years of steady practice before it became totally natural, but as one who has at least occasionally experienced, like him, the need to “take measures” to cover up how gleefully overwhelmed I am by the nearness and kindness of God lest I start to freak the people around me out, I can attest that it’s going to be worth it.

If I could add one book to the Bible, this would be it. For real. Check it out.

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Review: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My LifeHow to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While this book is a little scattered both in format and subject material, it has some very helpful ideas about reframing your approach to life in ways that are likely to maximize your chances of success overall and your happiness even in the meantime.

Some of my big takeaways:

  • Arrange your life around processes, not goals. As you learn to routinize patterns that increase your energy level, skills, human connection, risk tolerance, etc. you’ll continually increase your chances of success while rarely having to power through big lifestyle changes on sheer willpower.
  • Learn to think of failure as a resource, not an outcome. Select and arrange your endeavors in a way that will result in useful gain even if the endeavor fails. This will free you up to try lots of things, fail freely, and in the process keep gaining new skills, connections, experience, etc., increasing the likelihood of success on future endeavors.
  • Best starting point is caring for your body. Energy levels (used kind of loosely to mean a mix of physical energy, optimism, and drive) are a linchpin to unlocking your capacity in most other areas. Learning to eat right (in enjoyable therefore sustainable patterns) will increase your tendency toward (enjoying therefore maintaining habits of) physical activity and fitness, which will tend to improve your mood, likeability, creative/productive capacity, and more, which will make it more likely that you will feel happy, try interesting things, enjoy and be enjoyed by other people, etc.
  • Tips and tricks. Some helpful specifics on conversational skills, developing sustainably healthy diet and exercise patterns, and more.

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Just how much “relaxing” do I really need?

I’ve been thinking about rest lately. Having a fitful 4-month-old will do that.

Strangely, what got me thinking wasn’t the many sleepless nights. It was when we collectively conked out one Saturday and did pretty much nothing but family movies, Wii games, convenience foods, and (finally!) solid naps for everyone, including the grown-ups.

And it was good to veg out and all, but really it wasn’t that good. By the end I felt more sluggish than energized, even though it was all the “relaxation” I could cram into one day. Instead it brought into focus a question that has been bugging me for a while now: Just how much “relaxing” do I really need?

Put differently, when do I expect that I’m going to put down my phone and actually do all the life-giving but effort-requiring things I’m remembering I love but rarely do these days? Will I ever touch Latin again? Write good theology? Read actual books like a gentleman?

There’s some part of me that assumes that once I rest up and feel a little less zombie-ish I’ll start digging in on those things. And that’s probably kind of true, at least for the ones I already do sometimes, but really what’s going to make the difference is better free time routines. I want to stop being someone who defaults to smartphone-poking-while-“watching”-Netflix in my free moments.

A few early discoveries on this path:

  • Most of the entertainment I consume doesn’t particularly rejuvenate me. Books are probably the exception, for whatever reason.
  • Constant stimulation isn’t necessary. It’s rare for me to be without a book or a show or a background podcast these days, and I’m finding just sitting quietly is actually quite nice. Boredom isn’t as scary as I thought.
  • Walks are brilliant. This one I’ve known all along. It’s fresh air and low-key exercise and, if you’re with someone, good company and a chance to talk. I’m trying to take a walk or two a day, and it’s lovely. Sitting on the porch reading a book for 20 minutes is also remarkably refreshing.
  • Walks and quiet time also help me figure out what I actually want to do (and when and how). Figuring this out is (unsurprisingly, in retrospect) a key step in the transition from vague aspirations to real life changes.
  • Finishing looming background tasks is more restful than avoiding them, even if they’re scary and ambiguous. We faced a couple big complicated tasks head-on (after weeks to months avoiding) and, while they made for a tricky weekend each, we feel so much relief and freedom now that in my book it’s totally worth it.

One way I’m applying that last one, incidentally, is to shorten my books-in-progress list. I’m generally in the middle of, say, eight books at a time (which is probably not industry best practice anyway). Instead of a page of this and a page of that, I’ve started plowing through one book at a time (or one fiction and one non-fiction) until it’s done, and I’m now down to maybe four books in progress instead of eight or ten. It’s been surprisingly freeing. I hadn’t realized how much brainspace books-in-progress take.

What about you? What have you found truly restful and life-giving?

Cheers!

–Ben

 

AutoHotkey Hacks for Lazy Nerds Who Like Webcomics

I am beginning to seriously groove on AutoHotkey. It’s a free open-source program that lets you automate things on your computer. A pretty common application appears to be making up your own keyboard shortcuts and/or autoreplace rules.

I initially found it early in my vim kick–a kick which, for the record, is gamely stumbling on as I continue to insist to myself that one day I will learn enough to make vim so magically, brilliantly super-efficient that it will…well, make up for the dozens to hundreds of hours I will have spent learning stuff about vim, I guess.

Anyway, I was getting all excited about vim and learned that many power users remap their keyboards so that CapsLock becomes Esc and vice versa, because vim involves hitting Esc a lot and the CapsLock key is closer and easier, and so I charged ahead and found a little program (the aforementioned AHK) that would let me remap the keys in a fairly straightforward, untechnical way, and I did, and I thought little more of it except for putting in a mental pin to remind me to look more into AHK’s capabilities at some point.

That point was a couple days ago, and boy are my arms tired! Wait, different joke.

Anyway, I started reading up on AutoHotkey a little more and it’s amazing what it can do! It’s really a full-blown scripting…thing. (Application? Tool? Sorry, The Giver. No precision of language here.)

I once jokingly told a colleague that I wasn’t satisfied with the fact that I’d semi-automated a report to where I could run one query, paste the results into one spot in Excel, hit refresh, and send it out. I wanted a single button that would run the query, paste the results, and send the report for me. And then I wanted a machine that would push that button for me every day.

It appears that AutoHotkey is that button. And maybe also that machine. Time will tell.

For now one of my favorite uses I’ve put it to is creating keyboard shortcuts that pull up ‘dashboards’ of all the websites and/or files and/or folders I need to monitor or work on a particular project, task, or topic. It cuts out the friction that slows me down from getting to work (on, say, writing) because I’d have to open the story and the planning document and my music and my tracker and whatever. Or whatever.

I’m sure there will be more on this later, but just as an appetizer, install AutoHotkey and run a script containing the following code, then hit Ctrl-Shift-A. You’re welcome.

;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
;Fun Dashboard Ctrl-Shift-A
;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;
^+A::
navOpenInNewTab := 0x800
navOpenInBackgroundTab := 0x1000

sites:=”www.reddit.com|www.xkcd.com|

www.smbc-comics.com|www.penny-

arcade.com/comic”

ie := comobjcreate

(“InternetExplorer.Application”)
ie.visible := true

Loop, Parse, sites, |
if A_Index = 1
ie.navigate(A_LoopField)
else
ie.navigate(A_LoopField,

navOpenInNewTab)

return

Life Changes and a Usefully Motivational Writing Doomsday Device

Let’s see. I started a new day job yesterday – still an analyst, but analyzing new things. So that’s exciting. I’m loving the work and the people and the space, and, while I’m exhausted between the tons of learning and the raising two young girls, I’m already feeling a whole new level of calm.

We moved some good friends into their new house over the weekend, and that’s exciting as well. They’re part of our little cabal of friends who share meals and watch each other’s kids and ponder deep questions together and such, and it’s really been time for a new house for them so their kids can run around without worrying about downstairs neighbors and they can host dinner without cramming everyone into a tiny apartment dining room. The new place has an open floor plan and an awesome basement den and a room for every kid and a potato in every chicken–wait, not that last one. But it’s great. Still a lot of unpacking, but it’s all downhill (i.e. easier, not worse) from here and I think it will be a big relief for all of us, and especially them, and it’s been way too long coming.

As for book stuff, after a surge of 10,000+ words of Hubris Towers Ep. 7 in a few days last week I haven’t written any more as I adjust to the new job. Should probably knock that out, though. I expect the whole thing will be 12-14k, so if I can squeeze in a little time we can get started on edits. And it’s going to need more edits than usual. Trade-off for relatively rapid writing.

On which note, check out themostdangerouswritingapp.com. Finally a tool that gives me real-time word count, rate in words per minute, and a timer. And a motivational doomsday countdown to boot!

I can’t believe how hard it’s been to find a live words-per-minute writing tool. I’d think that would be built into Scrivener and available as a Google Docs plugin and a thousand free apps. But I’m happy now.