Category Archives: Writing Goals

Writer’s Guide to Dead Trees


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?


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.


Filed under Writing, Writing Goals

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.


Filed under Faith + Life, Writing Goals

Making a Fractal Coloring Book


A lot of the projects I take on are just natural extensions of the things I immerse myself in (i.e obsess about). Even before being contacted by a publisher I’d been considering a fractal coloring book project for a little while. I had a lot of the programs I’d need, and 1000’s of images I’d generated in producing my previous two fractal books and subsequent posts. All I  would need to do is select the best of them, maybe write a good intro, and I’d have a quality book.

I think the only way we take on big projects is by deluding ourselves into thinking they’re not big projects, then plowing forward full steam ahead.

For a start, fractals that are good to color have a very different set of criterion from most of the fractals I’d been creating up to this point. You want something intricate but not so detailed that you can’t color it. You want some kind of pattern, but nothing too regular. You want something very open to interpretation, but with some common points of reference to give you guidance. You want a good variety of images, while providing people enough of what they’ll like. You need to cater to different difficulty levels, and because I like to teach about fractals as well, you need to use different generation techniques.

That’s a lot to think about when you’re trying to make 25 images.

Creating fractals for this book fell into one of a few different modes. There were a few, including the dragon curve and the Apollonian Recursive Gasket (see below), that were “classic” fractal designs that I felt just had to be in a book like this (though for the life of me I couldn’t get a Mandelbrot Set image I was happy with, maybe next book). In the case of the gasket, my insistence on including it might have had a little to do with spending 8 hours trying to write the code that would correctly generate the image (including learning a new way to think about circles, more on that some other time).

004_Bubbles (1-3)

Other designs were created by looking at things around me, a pattern on a quilt, a set of kitchen shelves, and playing around with some L-Systems interpretations of those objects until I got something I liked. Or other times I would draw out a small axiom on paper, sketch out a potential replacement rule, and just see what happened.

The third method involved perusing the thousands of Julia and L-System pictures I’d previously generated for my two fractal books and for posts on this site (this is where my new $50 kindle came in handy). The Julia images in particular took a lot of work, as the generation time to get an image with a good drawing edge is pretty long (2-8 hours on my quad-core laptop). L-Systems by comparison usually take at most only a few minutes, meaning you can experiment a lot more with tiny changes to see what the new result might be. This is probably why 19-20 of the images in the final text are variations on L-Systems and Turtle graphics.

Overall I produced well over a hundred images, culled from potential lists in the 1000’s. By comparison the selection process from those 100 was pretty simple: print the image out, run it by my wife to see if it’s a good candidate, and try not to make too many agonized screams when an image that took many hours to generate is rejected. Actually, my wife had a lot of good suggestions for potential ideas, or questions about tweaks I could do to make an image better.

The initial arrangement of the final images was done on my basement office floor, with one of us playing goalie to keep the dogs from walking all over the paper. Some things are just easier when you can see them out in front of you. We marked each image with a crayon indicating the rough level of difficulty, and moved sheets around until we got an arrangement we liked.

And this was all before I’d written a word.

Just to be clear, this was all great fun for me. I’ve seen other examples of coloring books where people slap together a bunch of stock images, or throw a bunch of their own previous work in without a lot of thought as to whether it would be fun to color. I didn’t want to make a book like that. I always like to create something new. Sure, there were times when I’d create 15 images and only get one good one, but that’s pretty much the experience with every creative endeavor. And there were plenty of “rejected” images that I had a new idea about, and made something even better.

This applies to just about any kind of writing. Writing something you later cut is never wasted effort. Everything is part of the process of making the final product, and even the things you look at and go “what was I thinking” had a part in shaping the final whole. And into making you a better writer or artist.


My new book, Adult Coloring Book: Fractals is available now on Amazon. Published by Green Frog Publishing. You can see some of the fractals from the book, and color art by my wife (“the little red-haired girl”) on my new website

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