There Are Times I Want to Freaking Give Up #amwriting

It doesn't get easier.

Image courtesy of africa at http://FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Now is one of those times.

I haven’t posted to this blog since January. I have no excuse. I’m just discouraged.

While there is a lot going on, it’s the writing that’s the thing that really gets me down. I promised myself a look at new “how to organise writing” books. Before March. I’ve found a winner: Story Genius, by Lisa Cron. My son has seized on it and is having a great burst of productivity. I’ve started using it, and while I’m making some progress—it’s very hard to put aside all I’ve written for Episode Two of my series and start with creating my “blueprint”, as Ms. Cron refers to it. Hard, but necessary. This is the first book I’ve found that puts story organisation into terms that even an engineer can understand. Nothing is by rote; there are no shortcuts. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a description of exactly what backstory is needed for a novel and in how much detail—in terms that make sense. Other guides I’ve read did discuss backstory, but left “how much and what” at “just enough and only what you need” without defining the terms “just enough” and “only what you need.” Ms. Cron defines her terms and explains why her definitions work.

Even better, they make sense in terms of the empirical learning I’ve done over the last eleven years in NaNoWriMo. I’d write something, look at it, and say, “Nope. Not a good story.” Next year, “Not that one, either.” In Camp NaNoWriMo, “Still not story…” When I finally had something (The Bully Trap) that looked like a story, I published it. I’m glad to see that according to Ms. Cron I was right.

The good news is that I have a lot of this background stuff already written down. The bad news is that I need to flesh it out and organise it differently. (There’s also stuff I need not have written yet. Pooh.) And yes, there are large sections of backstory that I still need to write. They’re in my head, but as I’ve already complained, they do me little good there. A novel is too blasted big for that, let alone a series.

Foo. You mean there’s no magic button that will take the beautiful story in my head and put it into Scrivener for me in a form that readers will love—without me having to work, and work hard? Now, that’s discouraging. But it looks like there’s no help for it. I suppose I had best get on with it, then.

How to Tap Your #FitbitAlta Screen On

Tap sideways from one of the ends.

Tap sideways from one of the ends.


I see a lot of frustration in the Amazon reviews on how to get the Fitbit Alta screen to turn on. I’ll confess that until I saw a YouTube video by a skilled Alta user I was struggling a bit, too.

The key is to remember that the screen is not a touchscreen. I’ve been conditioned by smartphones and tablets to tap up and down on the screen. The Alta does NOT have a touch screen; instead it uses the same accelerometer that it uses to track your steps to turn on your screen. The most effective way to tap is on one of the ends, sideways (axially, to use a more precise term.) This works every single time. Since you’re tapping on the (silicone) band, it’s quieter, too.

Enjoy this black-belt level technique!

Fitness Tracker 2: #Fitbit, Son of Misfit


More than a year ago, I promised myself a day at a spa when I actually published a book. Formally. In Habitica. Two weeks ago, I finally started to set up an appointment—and realised I didn’t want a spa trip. I wanted a better fitness tracker. One that had a real watch, not twelve flashing LEDs I had to interpret. More than that, I wanted a Fitbit so that I could actually Beemind my net calories per day. So far as I know, Fitbit is the only tracker and/or fitness app that can connect net calories to Beeminder.

That’s important to me, because weight is a horrible measure of how a person’s doing at becoming more fit. It can have vast daily swings, as anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight can verify. I want to measure the actual inputs—exercise and calorie deficit—and keep weight as a backup long-term check.

I selected a Fitbit Alta as being cheaper than that day at a spa, and having all that I wanted—a Fitbit that is also a watch that tells the time without me having to interpret flashing LEDs. It even displays the date. It displays the actual numbers—steps taken, calories burned, and so forth—instead of using LEDs to display percent of goal complete. It looks much better than my old Misfit Flash in its third-party sturdy-but-uninspiring band. (The factory-delivered Flash bands were better looking, but notoriously fragile. I never bothered.)

Mind you, I’m not complaining about my old Flash ($15). It’s served me well, particularly considering that it was a ninth of the cost of my new Alta ($130). I never expected it to perform as well or look as nice as the Alta does. The Alta will be held to a higher standard.

I took photos of the unboxing, in the gallery above. The Alta arrived in decent packaging, with the rechargeable battery absolutely empty—I had to charge it to even get it connected. I was impressed with its looks; my humble standards of elegance are well-satisfied with a solid matte stainless steel case and a gleaming black display.

My experience so far:

If you read the Amazon reviews, you’ll find some major criticisms of the Alta. Here’s my experience so far:

  • It’s hard to fasten. Absolutely true. In fact, while I take it off by unfastening the clasp, I put it back on by fastening the clasp first, unhooking one side of the band from the tracker, then placing the tracker around my wrist and re-attaching the band to the tracker. It’s just easier.
  • It comes undone too easily. I’m reserving judgement on this. I can’t imagine the clasp coming loose when it’s so difficult to fasten. Maybe it loosens up after a few days, or perhaps the folks who complained about it coming undone hadn’t managed to get it completely fastened to begin with. I’ll keep you posted.
  • It’s hard to get the display to come on. Not so. The wrist flick technique is easy—much easier than turning on the Flash display by wrist flick. The double tap technique depends on learning the correct interval between the two taps. Tapping harder doesn’t help. The single tap to bring up the next item in the display (clock, steps, calorie burn—there are several options.) works fine, too.
  • It’s inaccurate. At this, I shrug. It’s on my wrist, not on my foot, and it works by an accelerometer, so yes, steps are probably not as accurate as they might be. This criticism also applies to sleep monitoring. I’m keeping records in Beeminder for both the Misfit and for the Fitbit for a week, so that I can correlate Misfit points to Fitbit steps, and compare how they do at tracking sleep hours. I likely won’t make a value judgement about which is “better”—I’ll adjust my targets to ensure a smooth transition to Fitbit tracking, that’s all.

Other observations:

The Alta’s nice shiny display surface is plastic, not glass, as far as I can tell. I’ll be getting a screen protector right away.

The connectors from the band to the tracker itself feel solid. They look to be made of the same stainless steel alloy as the tracker itself.

Having texts come through silently on my wrist is unutterably cool.

Setting up Beeminder goals for the Alta was easy—much easier than the corresponding goals with the Flash, which went through IFTTT. I may return to an IFTTT driven goal for sleep hours.

I like the band the Alta comes with. It’s heavy rubber (or plastic as the case may be) and doesn’t look to be breaking anytime soon. The textured matte surface is attractive. Truth be told, I’ve always loved matte black watches, and wanted an aviator’s watch with a black face, case, and band since forever. So I won’t be getting a fancy aftermarket bracelet-style band unless Hubby complains that my current one is too plain or too sporty when he’s taking me out. If he does complain, he can spend the money for an Alta bracelet. I won’t replace the band unless it breaks or starts coming undone.

Revisiting Beeminder, January 2017 #amwriting @ScrivenerApp

My Beeminder Goals

I’ve expanded my use of http://beeminder.com quite a bit.


Beeminder has undergone a few changes in the past year—they’ve cut back on their free options (though it’s still usable free—just not as generously as in the past.) As a result, I’ve started a $4/month subscription. It’s worth it to me, just to be able to run more than three goals at once.

As you can see above, I’ve actually got seven Beeminder goals active. I’ve stated previously that I know I can’t handle more than three or four—what’s changed?

First, I’ve gotten myself a Bluetooth blood pressure monitor (Withings) as well as a WiFi-connected scale (also Withings). With these in place, a lot of data entry has gone poof. Instead, I can look at the tracking in Beeminder and say, “Oh, [Deity of choice], have mercy! WTF caused THAT spike?” and do something about it, without doing anything more than actually taking the readings. As long as all I have to do to get data into Beeminder is take readings, wear my fitness tracker, and work on my Mac (RescueTime), I’m good.

In fact, all is good except my word count. Lately my word count, to use the old Saturday Night Live line, “really bites the big one.”

I can’t get my word count into Beeminder directly. Scrivener remains stubbornly unconnected to things like IFTTT and Zapier. While I can track the amount of time I use Scrivener in RescueTime, I consider it highly unlikely that anything more sophisticated than tweeting word count automatically will appear in Scrivener 3.0. (Prove me wrong, Keith! Please!) Still, tracking word count in Beeminder is pretty hopeless if I have to have the discipline to do data entry every. Single. Freaking. Day. Even if Beeminder reminds me. Pleads with me. Flat-out nags me…

BUT—I’ve realised that I’ve stopped tracking only activities directly related to writing (Scrivener use, iThoughts use, Wikipedia (maybe), Evernote in my Writing notebook (maybe)). I started broadening what I had RescueTime consider “writing” back in October when I started the publishing push for The Bully Trap. That information is valuable, but it’s not writing time.

So I’m splitting “writing” into two goals—“Writing” and “Business_Hours”. Business hours will retain a goal of 22 hours per week. Writing hours will cut back drastically to 3.5 hours per week (included in the business hours goal) to make it easier to get started again. If it looks like I might derail, I’ll scale back the writing hours goal further, until I can succeed—and then start increasing it again. As I do this, I’ll adjust the activities (websites, apps, etc.) which are allocated to each category—on a daily basis at first, until they’re mostly right again.

I have to fight off feeling discouraged. It feels like starting over again—but it’s not. It’s cleaning up my act.

Besides, I have some True Fans out there. I have to keep on keeping on—for them. I’ve promised.

A Word in Praise of T-Mobile #amwriting @TMobile

T-Mobile
What T-Mobile has to do with writing:

I write in coffee shops. A lot. While I usually choose Starbucks and its excellent WiFi, at least weekly I go to a shop with unreliable or non-existent WiFi. Without WiFi, RescueTime isn’t tracking me and keeping me honest. So, yes, a reliable mobile data connection is important while I’m writing.

I switched to T-Mobile from Verizon, primarily for lower cost and better international service. It’s delivered on the cost and the international, but I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the following:

  • T-Mobile has service in Los Angeles’ subway line. AT&T does not.
  • T-Mobile’s loyalty program, T-Mobile Tuesdays, has made my life materially better with free and extremely low cost promotions, like a free Frosty at Wendy’s or $2 movie tickets. Verizon’s loyalty points program offered “auctions” I could never win, or “discounts” on luxury goods that were more cheaply available elsewhere even after the discount. So from free Frosties to $2 3D IMAX tickets for “Rogue One”, I have gotten more in four months with T-Mobile than I got from Verizon in two years.
  • T-Mobile has better service at my home than Verizon.
  • T-Mobile has better service in the Los Angeles canyons, places in which cellular reception is notoriously spotty for excellent geographic reasons.

When my son and I got home from “Rogue One” last night—an expedition we could not have afforded without T-Mobile Tuesday—I shouted “T-Mobile rocks!” I estimate I get 10-20% of my bill back in Tuesday promotions every month.

Sorry, Verizon. You’ve lost me forever.

Winter Productivity Cleaning #amwriting

Holiday Productivity Slump?

Holiday Productivity Slump?


Happy New Year!

I’ve fallen behind on writing, as measured by my Beeminder writing time tracker. See that nasty flat spot? The one that starts with the jog down in the “path” on December 29? Yes, I “derailed”—I fell so far behind my intended performance that Beeminder charged me. Foo.

Default behaviour for Beeminder is to lower the bar slightly, and then give me seven days of “flat spot”—days on which I need not meet my performance goal. The intention of this is to build up a “buffer” of a few days of performance.

I’ve taken shameless advantage of this by getting some unpleasant non-writing tasks done that I’ve been putting off. Tasks like selling my old Mac Mini and various other small electronics, following up on an auto insurance claim, and taking a massive pile of unused stuff to charity. I’ve cleared my Habitica to-do list of a bunch of nasties that had been hanging on for months—things that really weren’t that hard (selling the Mac Mini, auto claim) but which were . . . emotionally draining (translation: scary). I dread bureaucracy (hence the auto claim delay) and I dithered for months about the Mac, which had a bad internal optical drive. (Sell it as-is, or provide a cheap external DVD drive? I finally decided to provide the cheap external.)

I also made the mistake of agreeing to beta read a friend’s novel draft. This resulted in days of agony while I tried to decide—take the risk of souring the relationship and tell him the truth as I see it? Or just do the “Looks great!” useless email? I finally got up courage and told him my real opinions. If he never speaks to me again—it’s better than having copped out. But I won’t do it again, for anyone outside my writing group. I don’t trust my level of tact (I’m reasonably certain I have none.) At least in the writing group, I can see the face falling and the chin quivering, and adjust my tone if I need to . . . or fall on my sword apologising.

So all those scary things are behind me, and progress on my draft is ahead (I hope.)

Shame and Blame in the Indie Writer Community #amwriting

Arrows of Blame

Arrows of Blame point in all directions. (Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at http://FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

I made my first Tweet on my book author Twitter account. As a result, I was served up some “Who to follow” suggestions. One was an indie writers’ group-blog Twitter feed. I followed it—why not?

I shortly found out. I was shocked by the levels of blame, bitterness, and shame among my fellow indie writers, as well as outright misinformation being spread about. I will not contribute to this toxic stream, but I will write down my own impressions.

Blame and Bitterness:

For the record, I am not yet even making Starbucks money with my book release. I do not think this is because Amazon or CreateSpace, or any of the retailers reached by Smashwords is ripping me off. I do not think this is because Amazon has too liberal a return policy. I do not think this is because my fellow indie writers are pricing their books too low and underpricing me. I do not think this is because Amazon Unlimited is Evil Incarnate.

I think this is because releasing a short novella—by itself—was not the best decision I could have made from a pure marketing perspective. I released because if I waited to have my second, or even third, novella ready to publish, I might have lost my nerve. I don’t think this is irreparable, and I will be taking vigorous marketing measures when my second episode is ready for publication. This is exactly as I expected. I am not disappointed, and there is no one to “blame”—not even myself.

Shame:

It’s the definition of independent publishing that, well, anyone can. That means that people who are not qualified to be authors are nevertheless publishing. For all I know, that category includes me.

But there’s a lot of shame out there among my fellow authors. Shame that we don’t have—or couldn’t hold—a traditional publishing contract. Shame that we might be judged by contamination with the, er, less-qualified of our fraternity. It seems to me that this manifests in a few ways:

  • Pushing hard to get books into brick-and-mortar bookstores. This is one thing that traditional publishers can do much, much better than indie authors. I’m not going to even try. My effort will be much better spent getting recognition in ebook channels.
  • An insistence on hiding every possible evidence of indie-ness. This includes (but is not limited to) buying a big block of ISBNs lest someone notice that the entry in Books in Print for our work lists CreateSpace or some other entity noted for giving indie authors free ISBNs. It can include getting incorporated and/or building a “MyPublishingCompany.com” website. (NOTE: I’m not saying that any of getting a big block of ISBNs, getting incorporated, or building a publishing company-type website is a bad business decision. It depends on business circumstances. But if it’s because I’m ashamed of being indie—well, I doubt I’m fooling anyone but me.)
    • [Aside: An ISBN is an international stock number for books. Almost all booksellers use them instead of a private SKU.]
  • A corollary of the Books in Print entry shame is the belief—often voiced but unsubstantiated—that every independent bookseller has a massive resentment against Amazon.com. This resentment will lead them to refuse to stock any book that has “CreateSpace” listed on its entry in Books in Print. The truth is that CreateSpace has a different, less-advantageous offer to booksellers than the standard offer—one that includes a lower discount for retailers and doesn’t allow returns. It’s therefore a rational business decision for a bookseller to not stock CreateSpace books—though of course they will special-order on request. If bookseller stocking were important to my business plan, yes, I would use a different printer. But as I am focusing my business plan on electronic sales and sales through Amazon—no. Not now.
Misinformation:

There is almost a cult out there insisting that taking free ISBNs offered by CreateSpace, Smashwords, and others is tantamount to condemning one’s work to indie Hell. That no matter what these companies say, they’re really getting rights to my book forever. If one of them should go out of business, I would never, ever, be able to sell my work again, because I couldn’t do another print or ebook version. Again.

Nonsense. If that were true, no one would ever be able to republish a book that had gone out of print. ISBNs exist to connect a given product with a given wholesaler—usually but not always a publisher. The name “CreateSpace” is in the ISBN description because CreateSpace is the entity that a retailer (bookstore) would contact to order my book, in a given (paperback) format. Smashwords is a distributor—again, retailers (Kobo, iBooks, Barnes and Noble et. al.) contact them for the electronic version of my book. So if I want to take my print book out of wide distribution by CreateSpace, then assign my own ISBN to a new edition that will be available from, say, IngramSpark, I’m free to do so. I’m free to fire Smashwords as my distributor and develop a new edition with my own eISBN that I put up on each platform separately. I’d have to wait until the distribution channels clear, and I might be well-advised to do a cover (and trim size for print) change at the same time so the different editions are distinguishable—but as long as only one ISBN connects to one place for a retailer to buy an edition/format combo at a time, I’m good.

Conclusion:

I’ve (largely) rooted out this shame-and-blame addiction from my marriage, but I’m still hypersensitive to it. So, I run like a deerhound from indie author sites or groups that indulge. Sad.

Want the Early Skinny on Scrivener 3.0? You Won’t Get It Here #amwriting

OK, so an email came recently asking me if I want to be on the Scrivener 3.0 beta test panel when it happens.

I said no.

I can hear you now: “What are you thinking, Silver Dragon? Why wouldn’t you want check out all the cool new features and find all the bugs in Scrivener 3.0?”

The short answer is that I don’t want to spend hours chasing bugs. I’m too much of a nitpicking perfectionist—and my vision of perfection doesn’t always match that of Literature and Latte. Besides, I did that for a living too damn long.

Yes, I produced some good blog posts as a result of being part of the iOS Scrivener beta team. But I’m convinced that the hours I spent on beta testing materially delayed releasing The Bully Trap. Besides, it’s stressful. If Scriv 3.0 is buggy when it comes out, getting work done with Scriv 2.8 will be… challenging. Not that I would—I’d spend hours reproducing bugs, documenting bugs, explaining bugs, explaining bugs again, finding more bugs that were uncovered after the first dozen were squashed…

The end result would be six weeks of beta in which I got one week of writing done. Again. No.

Just no.

Movin’ On Down the Productivity Highway #amwriting

Beeminder and Rescutime hours on task chart

Beeminder and Rescutime hours on task chart


First of all, I want to take credit and give credit for improvement in my writing discipline. Using RescueTime and Beeminder, I’ve increased my on-writing-task time per week from less than ten hours to more than twenty. More than any other change, this one is what enabled me to go ahead and actually publish, and to get as far as I did in my new draft during NaNoWriMo. (This means I don’t use iOS Scrivener as my primary writing device. Because RescueTime doesn’t have an iOS solution, and I need a solution that doesn’t require me to track time even by tapping on an app, I’ve moved to the MacBook Air for almost all writing.)

I’d like to increase those hours to twenty-five hours per week, but further significant productivity improvements are going to have to come from changing what I do in those hours, rather than extending the hours. I know from past experience as an employee that if I push myself much past half-time in terms of butt-in-chair, my productivity will drop off dramatically.

That’s why last week, I committed to reading three how-to books on outlining by March (March being prep month for April Camp NaNoWriMo.) Since I seldom do things moderately, I re-read three of my major texts on writing productivity (Fiction Unboxed—Platt and Truant, 2K to 10K—Rachel Aaron, Take Off Your Pants—Libby Hawker) in one marathon session Saturday. It may seem like a lot, but it wasn’t—these how-tos are lightweight in terms of words, but heavy in terms of changing my evil writing ways.

Fiction Unboxed

Re-reading Fiction Unboxed, I was actually encouraged. Platt and Truant’s mad re-structuring of their 30-day novel in mid-stream actually sounds like the “stopping and building mind-map” portion of my November efforts. Of course, they are re-structuring on the fly at a whole different productivity level—their word-counts for a single day are up to four times what I’ve ever achieved on my best writing day. On the other hand, I don’t have a writing partner, so much of their method is impractical for me. Still, if I can but get over this block about outlining, I may have a chance…

2K to 10K

Now Aaron’s book, 2K to 10K—there’s some serious productivity meat in there. My problem is that with my usual Boston-Terrier-like initial enthusiasm I tried to implement every single suggestion, from daily writing aids to outlining to productivity tracking to story improvement. At once. Of course I couldn’t keep it up. (It’s like trying to run six Beeminder graphs at once. I did that; it was fun for a while, but I couldn’t sustain it.)

My new resolve: Just implement the “knowledge” daily writing aid suggestion—keep doing it until it becomes automatic and I’d no more write a scene without it than… go without my morning coffee. Yet another thing to put in my Habitica lists…

Take off Your Pants

I tried Hawker’s outlining method on my 2015 NaNoWriMo project. Re-reading Take Off Your Pants brought back the nightmare—the joy-destroying cold-shower feeling of “This story sucks; I don’t want to write this scene or any other scene I planned in this whole stinking mess.” I abandoned that novel; that’s when I picked up characters who’d arrived in my 2014 NaNoWriMo and started writing pieces of what I eventually published as The Bully Trap.

I’m not saying that Hawker’s suggestions aren’t valuable. I’m just saying that I can’t start writing by doing character construction and planning a character arc (or several.) At least, not yet. I have to write my characters in a situation and see what they do. That situation may turn out to be a part of the eventual story, or not; but I learn about my characters from seeing how they react as I write. So Hawker’s character-arc-driven outline, which starts from building a character, is not yet for me.

Next weekend’s light reading will include re-visiting Cathy Yardley’s writing books. Stay tuned.