Category Archives: Writing Goals

What I never expected

I’ve been off WordPress for a while and so it’s been a while since I checked my stats, and I was surprised to learn that I had something like a 200% increase in traffic last week, and for the best reason.

My “Fractals You Can Draw” posts have always been the most popular ones on the site. In general I think the writing life is weird like that. You never know what 20 minute or hour long effort is going to be the one that really lasts. I’ve spent hundreds of hours writing this blog, but that week I spent getting my wife to draw fractals, building a Sierpinski triangle out of marshmellows and toothpicks, and frantically trying to update by C++ skills has been one of the more lasting efforts of the last five years for me.

But the best thing is every year around the spring and fall I get new referrals from schools. WordPress does a pretty good job of letting you know where traffic is coming from, and every year I find some new class, ranging from grade school to college that references one of my fractal posts. That’s really the reason I’m doing any of this. What I’ve learned since I started blogging and especially in the last year working on the “Fractals You Can Draw” book is that I really want to teach people. I like writing fiction, but I love writing about math.

Honestly I’m as shocked as the rest of you.

Right now I’m working on Chapter 5 of the new book (or trying to, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks). I’m learning about new ways to use the Fibonacci sequence to draw fractals, and I can’t wait to share what I’ve learned. I’m so excited about this stuff I even snuck in a half an hour to write on Monday night while I was waiting for my mom to finish her grocery shopping.

If you’ve found this blog through one of your math courses I’d love to hear from you. To all the teachers who included links to my posts in their courses, thank you. And thank you for teaching people about fractals. It’s one of the best ways to build a love of math.

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Sharing someone else’s culture

I spent part of the weekend reading about creation myths and fables of the Chokwe, an ethnic group that lives roughly in Angola. This is part of my research for the new book, which is expanding to have an extensive “Ethno-mathematics” section (i.e. Math and Fractal Drawings from around the world), specifically the Chokwe tradition of Sona. Sona are drawings made in the sand while telling a story or riddle. It’s one of the ways in which Chokwe elders impart knowledge and fables, though from what I’m reading the Sona tradition is dying out. They bear a resemblance to the Kolam of the Tamil-Nadu community in India, and even to traditional Celtic knots.

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Math from other cultures is becoming really intriguing to me, and it’s an area I don’t think is covered enough in public education. Colonial era westerners often made the assumption that these “primitive” peoples didn’t understand some of the higher concepts of technology and mathematics, but if my studies have taught me anything it’s that we westerners were a little behind the curve (so to speak). At the very least, learning about how other cultures look at math and art can help us to see connections between ideas from new perspectives.

But one of the things I am wondering about is how to tell these stories respectfully. Some fables and tales are very private, specific to a culture, and not something that is intended to be shared with outsiders. Now obviously, since I don’t have the resources to travel to Angola myself, I’m getting these stories from people who’ve already spread them around. The genie is out of the bottle, so to speak. But it’s still important to consider their meaning, rather than to just include them as a pretty picture.

A lot of Adult Coloring Books have mandalas, in fact mandalas seem to be the stand-in term for most circular patterns in coloring books. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying these patterns, or designing new ones, and coloring them as a loose form of meditation. But at the same time I think it is also important to be respectful and understanding of the tradition. We want to learn and educate ourselves about a type of drawing, not just appropriate it.

Sometimes meanings for things change. The Kolam tradition seems to have had religious significance in the past, but now it is more a form of artistic expression by women in the Tamil community. Celtic knot constructions have a triune grid which reflects the triune nature of God, but also look really good on leather bound notebooks.

I’m a guy who wants to spread art and cool designs for their own sake, while also trying to explore some of the deeper meaning these traditions have to the cultures that created them. And I want to do that in a way that honors those traditions, without sharing them merely because they are exotic or different. The best way, at least for me, is showing the connections between some of the more abstract concepts of fractals, and their origins before they really came into their own (the days of computers and Mandelbrot). I’ve been thinking about fractals as something that is a new concept in math, but their origins may be much older.

I’m still working this stuff out, but I hope my intentions if nothing else can shape the writing in a good direction.

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Financial Writing Goals

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It can feel a little icky to have writing goals that involve money. Most of the goals I’ve created over the years have been about words per day, books completed, or projects undertaken. In other words, purely artistic goals. But the truth is one of the unspoken, pie in the sky, long term goals of mine is to be able to live off the writing, or at the very least have the writing make things easier.

This year I have two main goals or mantras:

  1. Earn more than $500 (net) from writing.
  2. The writing funds the writing.

Goal 1 is about breaking out of the bottom third of author yearly earnings (according to The Guardian in 2015). It’s not a huge amount of money in the grand scheme, and the hourly rate is abysmal, but it’s a start. Four months in, this looks like an attainable goal, particularly if I can get some work selling shorter pieces.

Goal 2 is about investing in the business side. Selling books to a bookstore funds buying another order of books. Selling coloring books funds research material for my next book. Amazon profits go to buying writing supplies and notebooks. This goal is not strictly fenced in by any means (I’ve raised nearly $90 toward the writing just by selling things I no longer need), but it is a broad principle intended to keep expenses in check. Keeping the cost of writing a book below the money earned from it would be a great place to be (it took the first fractal book at least a year to reach this point).

Both of these goals drive writing and creative decisions throughout the year. Over the weekend I created a short story to submit to a magazine, which in turn might drive some people toward the universe of Surreality. I’ve subscribed to a number of Facebook groups that show listings for paid articles and am working up some submissions. This feeds the artistic side in that it demands versatility, requires the ability to get work done in a timely fashion, and keeps the brain creative and from getting into ruts. In other words, money goals can drive creative goals.

I won’t be hugely disappointed if these goals are not strictly met. Just shooting for them puts me into places I might not have tried without them. And earning some money makes this feel more like a profession, and less like a hobby.

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Writing Anxiety

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I think everyone in the self-publishing game goes through periods of self-doubt and anxiety. My big one is that I haven’t done enough to build my “author platform.” I’m an introvert by nature, and my relationship to even the online world tends to be a cagey one. I love connecting with new writers whose work I love, and who I can engage with in conversation about the craft we both love. But it can be a little hard to tell who is going to be that kind of writer, and who is going to spam my Twitter feed with ads.

I recognize I need to reach out more than I do, and slowly I am working on doing just that, but there are so many aspects to publishing of any kind beyond just working on the books. I think many writers would like to just sit at a desk writing, then hand their work off to someone else to take care of the nasty business of selling it.

Ultimately sitting at a desk staring at my computer until my eyes get blurry isn’t much of a way to address any anxiety I might be feeling. There are much more practical ways to cope:

1) Remember this is a long game – There’s always time to build new connections, to write the next book or the next dozen books. It’s very unlikely you’ll get success with your very first effort, even if you’ve built a fabulous platform. Just do the next book a little bit better based on the things you learned the last time around.

2) Do what makes sense to you – Don’t force yourself to half-heartedly do things you think might help. Your engagement with the campaign, whether it’s promoting your book or forming new relationships, will come through your actions. Get to know people because you want to get to know them, not because it’s “mutually advantageous.”

3) Do a little something – Do one small tangible thing a day toward the area you’re worried about. Submit your book for review in a new place, comment on a new blog, work on an ad.

4) Get others to help – Writing the book was likely not a solitary endeavor. There are friends and family who will be more than willing to help when you need a boost, even if it’s just a friendly message.

5) Keep writing – When you can’t do anything else, do the most essential thing. Actually writing something tends to make me feel better, and makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. And at the end of the day, you need content that people can actually read, and you need to get better at your craft. Writing will never be wasted time.

6) Don’t put the book away – If a book isn’t selling yet, there’s no particular reason to give up on it. You can always relaunch with a new cover, or try to build it up with a slow burn. It’s something you’ve worked hard on, and sometimes there can be a bit of depression or exhaustion after finishing a project. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go back and give it another go. Most things we read aren’t the latest and greatest thing. They’re the books our friends have recommended, or the new discovery we make in the library.

7) Be patient – Don’t panic and make rash choices. Take the time to write a good synopsis or pitch. Wait a day if you’re not sure what to do. Better to do it right the first time a few days later than to have to redo or write off that place to submit.

8) Help others – Chances are there’s another writer you know in the same boat. If you’ve got time, and expendable income, read their book and write a review. Or just throw out a random word of encouragement. We’re all in this together, in some ways more than ever.

9) Relax – Have a beer. Watch a little TV. You’re never going to be able to work all of the time you want to. If you did, you’d miss out on life, and have very little to say about it in your writing.

If you ever want to talk about this stuff, the bar is always open. Flash a message to @fractal_man or bentrubewriter@gmail.com. If you don’t look spammy, I’ll probably say hi 🙂


Want to try a bit of Ben’s book? Download the first few chapters of Surreality here: (epub | kindle)

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Writer’s Guide to Dead Trees

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As a final step in transforming the front bedroom (my former office) into a guest room I am going through my closet. A depressing amount of the contents were old receipts and papers long overdue for shredding, but there were still a few small treasures to be found. One box contained literally dozens of post-it pads, tiny spiral notebooks, writing pads from hotels, scrap paper, note-cards, and nicer scratch pads. Turns out I’ve been serious about paper for a long time.

My “g0 bag” has six notepads of various sizes, each with a specific purpose. At home I have dozens more, even though I primarily work with computers. But I still consider these notebooks to be an essential part of my process, and I think they can be for you as well. Here’s a survey of the types of notebooks I buy and their uses:

vintage-237568_1920The “Oh Crap!” Notebook – This is the notebook that is most important to keep around. It should either be on your person, or stashed away in key locations in your house. This is for when you get an idea and need to get it down immediately. Probably 75% of this is stuff I will never look at again, but the real gems are important to have. I’ve even at times kept one in my car (only writing at stoplights of course). I like little flip-pads for this, with pages that tear out, though I’ve also used 3×5″ little books with lots of pages. The box I found in my closet is perfect for this kind of notebook.

The “Idea Planning” Notebook – This one may or may not travel with you. I’ve currently got two, a nice leather-bound wrap around that fits in my bag, and an older Picadilly thin-ruled thick bound book. This is where ideas from the “Oh crap” book get stored for longer use, or where story-plotting or book outlining happens. This is the kind of notebook you refer back to and even have open as you write. An unlined book makes sketching easy, though with my handwriting I tend to be able to fit more if I have the lines.

The “Notes” Notebook – In college these were college ruled spiral bound notebooks or composition books, but in my later life I tend to like something smaller. I used to carry a huge backpack, and am now trying to live out of a small laptop bag so space is at a premium (and spirals tend to get bent anyway). I’m working on two books right now that involve research, so I need two different note-taking books. I tend to use the 8×5″ medium rule, 100-page Picadilly 3-packs you can get at Barnes & Noble for $6. There are fancier designs online if you’re willing to pay shipping or make a huge order, but I tend to have fairly simple needs in terms of style, just a different color so they’re easier to tell apart. These types of books also look nicer in book shelves for longer term storage.

notes-933111_1920The “Technical” Notebook – One of my new books involves a lot of drawing, equations, and mathematical notations so I sprung for a nice compact graph paper notebook. Something small and hard-bound (Moleskine seemed to be the only thing I could find that met all the parameters, though I don’t love the expense). I tend to be a very functional based purchaser when I buy notebooks (otherwise how could I justify buying so many), so I don’t get a lot from the whole background of Moleskine (used by Hemmingway and the like).

The “Story” Notebook – This notebook is largely aspirational for me, and I don’t currently carry one. As a writer I sometimes have a romantic notion of writing stories by hand, but the longer I’ve been at this, the less I see the advantage. Taking notes for ideas, or research makes sense to me, in part because of research that suggests retention is actually better when taking notes by hand, and in part because ideas and research are tasks I need to be able to do anywhere. Writing stories tends to happen in much more fixed locations, my home office, a couple hour session at a coffee shop, and sometimes my lunch break. These are places I always have a computer. The idea behind writing a story by hand, of slowing down and paying real attention, just keeps me from getting any real meat out. I get caught in the particulars and lose a sense of the whole. And I tend to start a story, never finish it, and then have the rest of a nice blank notebook with nothing to fill it with.

downloadThe “Journal” Notebook – I don’t have one of these. The closest I have to a journal is this blog. I used to have a TNG diary that had “Personal Log” on the front, and unfortunately there are entries from my elementary life (and possibly middle school). I imagine for something like this it’s best to have something that feels nice as an artifact more than something purely functional. And maybe something with a log, or that burns easily.

The “What the heck am I going to do with this” Notebook – This is usually something wide-rule, over-sized, 48 page, possibly with a big colorful out of character picture. There were also a lot of these in the box from my closet, though most were leftover relics from middle-school (192 page no-spiral, wide rule, 4×6″ Star Wars cover books, one of which had the beginnings of a CYOA Star Trek fan-fic story inside). May I suggest a couple hundred games of Scrabble? Or maybe Mille-Bornes? Grocery list?

How many paper notebooks do you own? Approximately how many pages per notebook are filled?

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Am I writing enough?

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I’m writing more than  I have at any point in my life, and yet I sometimes don’t feel like I’m doing as much as I could. I suspect this is a common feeling. I’d like to think it’s particular to my current writing moment, as someone trying to transition to writing as a profession instead of only a passion. But this is something that I think will only chase me more and more as I get older. The worst head-space to be is thinking you’re not working hard when you’re actually busting your ass.

Here are some things I’ve learned as I’ve tried to both feel satisfied with the work I’m doing, while simultaneously cramming more in…

Define daily success: I’m not the kind of guy who likes to create daily writing plans or goals, but the one advantage I can see to them is that you know when you’re done for the day. For a lot of people it’s helpful to write this stuff down: do a blog post, tweet 3 tweets, write 500 words, and read several chapters of a book a day. For others keeping this inside your head will work just as well. Making some kind of a plan will make you feel like you have a direction for your work. And if you don’t make the plan, that’s probably more of a sign that you need to reevaluate the plan than a sign that you’re not working hard enough. I’m constantly making small tweaks to my routine and priorities to fit the new projects of the moment. As much as planning is a measure of whether you’ve done what you need to, it’s also not a bad way to figure out what are the things you’ll make time for.

Eliminate distractions: Yesterday morning I read undergrad and graduate level math papers for two hours in a Starbucks. When I was done, my head felt like mush, I wasn’t sure if I’d wasted the time, and I was desperately in need of more caffeine. But I didn’t get distracted by my tablet, browse around Facebook for 30 minutes, or watch TV. Writing takes a lot of work, and a lot of hours. Early self-published authors should NEVER figure out their hourly rate of pay. If you worked on the thing you wanted to for the time you wanted to, that’s good enough. And you’re likely to find you did better than you thought you did when you come back with a fresh brain.

Make a “go” bag: Make it so that you can work on all of those projects wherever you are. If I’m waiting for a carry-out order, I might whip out my tablet and take notes for a few minutes. But more important than sneaking minutes here and there (because it’s also important to relax and clear your head sometimes), just make sure that you can work when you want to work. Everything I need to work on my latest projects fits in my orange bag that pretty much never leaves my side. Sometimes I need heavy real-books, but that’s at home where my office environment is very conducive to work.

Work one day on the weekends: This means two things: don’t veg out and do nothing your whole weekend, and don’t kill yourself and work your whole weekend away. I think Sabbath’s and spending time with family are very important to the restorative part of the creative process, and just relationships in general. But I also think it’s easy to plunk down in front of the TV and lose track of time. And if you’re not working on your book, but things around the house that need to get done, that’s good too.

Communicate when you’re working: Unless you live alone, you’re with someone who hopefully likes spending time with you. A good partner will be supportive of the fact you want to write (and in my case is also an invaluable resource for bouncing off ideas, dealing with some of my crazy, and for contributing to projects). However, they will also want to spend time with you that is not writing. Talk it out between you as to what’s reasonable and if you feel you need extra time, communicate this as early as possible. Be sure to take time when projects are finished to celebrate and swing the pendulum back in their direction.

And finally, don’t worry about writing. Write, read, get better, and then repeat. I know that’s it’s not as easy as just saying “don’t worry” (believe me). But it’s something to work on. Worrying makes you crabby, and steals time from the thing you’re worrying about not working on. Some of things above may help, but it’s also important just to tell yourself you’re doing a good job. Keep at it.

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Jack of all Trades vs. Renaissance Man

Got into an interesting conversation with Mr. Buckley this weekend, which is oft to happen whenever we occupy the same space, about how we spend our time and interests.

I’ve focused my writing to a couple of goals: non-fiction books about math and other areas of expertise, and fiction mysteries and science-fiction. At the moment that means I’m working on 2-3 books, and this blog. There are many other projects I’d like to work on: designing a video game, getting old games to work on new systems and playing them, even singing again in a choir. But I’ve chosen to focus on a few key things that matter so I can give them my full attention, and give attention to non-project based things in my life: work, family, friends, and God.

Finding new projects is never that hard for me. It’s just a natural extension of the work I’m already doing. In fact this blog, and life the last few years has gotten me to think of everything in my life in terms of a blog post to write, a book to research and write about, or a new project. I have to make a deliberate effort sometimes just to do something with no thought of the broader project.

Brian works just as tirelessly on the things he cares about but he also opens himself up to new possibilities more often than me. The way he describes it is that he’ll often be passionately interested in something for a few weeks, then drop it. Maybe 90% of time he drops a project, and keeps going with the remaining 10%. And it can be a little difficult to tell from the outset if it’s going to be one kind of project or another.

This process by its very nature makes Brian a well-rounded person. I love going book shopping with him, in part because we have a little fun with the stranger titles in the clearance section, and because he’s willing to stay in the store much longer than your average person. But it’s always mildly embarrassing when he walks out of the store with a stack of classic literature, scientific research, and philosophical thought, and I’m walking out with comic books and DVD’s. I do buy lots of heady books for research (mostly online), but I’ll admit I don’t make much time for classics like Paradise Lost, or even more fun fare like Alice in Wonderland. And I don’t research random topics of interest, I tend to stay focused on the areas of math or pop-culture that I’ve always loved.

I’m torn between seeing certain things as distractions, or as ways to make me a more thoughtful person. I know that topics outside of my current fields of study and writing may give me insight into my work, and that it isn’t good to be so far down into the cave that you can no longer see daylight. But at the same time, I gain great relief from being the kind of person who says “I don’t have time for this, I probably won’t enjoy it, and I don’t have to read it just because its old.”

I think it’s good to examine life and the things you’re doing on a regular basis. Not Agile stand-up meeting regular, but maybe quarterly reviews. And it’s good to have friends to talk to about these things who come at them from a different angle. Adjustments can always be made. Maybe it would be good to give myself three weeks to make a game sometime. I don’t gave to do the whole thing, or even do it for the reason of selling it, but just for the sheer enjoyment. Because life is not all about work and the things you can make.

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