Creating tables in OneNote

Tables are the best. (NERD ALERT.) I’m no traditionally-trained project manager, but damn if I don’t love to track things in columns and rows.

Here’s a pretty traditional usage of tables in my OneNote notebooks: my breakdown of our first issue of Ships Illustrated.

Nothing fancy! Just the content, the person responsible, and the status. Nice and basic.

This is another table I created to track a Star Citizen-related project — ship buyer’s guides. This broke them down by ship type, what stories we wrote for each guide, and the taglines we used. Then I color-coded to indicate status (i.e. it was a finished guide, we had all the ships necessary, the ships weren’t ready…).

What do these tables have in common? They were created in OneNote with pretty much zero effort on my part.

Here’s how you can do it for yourself:

Go to the page where you’d like your table.

Type the first column heading. Press Tab.

Type the next column heading. Press tab and repeat until you have as many columns as you want.

Press Enter to start the first row, and tab to move to the next box.

Quick as you like, you’ve got a table! It’s searchable like all other textual content in your notes. All you need to do is make that top column bold and you’ve got enough for a quick and easy reference.

A table I threw together when I was brainstorming my current project, Portent.

Use this trick to put everything into tables. Put your holiday shopping list into a table (Person, Gift, Purchased?, Wrapped?, Gifted?). Put your 2018 resolutions into a table. Put your private diary entries into a ding-dang table.

Overwrite

Weird fiction fragments spilling out of my notebook tonight…

He’d given her the headset as a joke — well, at least she’d thought it was a joke when he’d done it. She’d laughed and agreed to maybe try it out, understand him a little better.

She tried it on the guest profile first, assuming she wouldn’t care to save her place. But when she put it over her eyes, and the lights went down and the music came up, she found herself cheering for the unlikely troop of hero-friends parading around in ways that accentuated their attributes and character traits.

When she realized they were waiting for her to clamber on the back of the fifth giant cat, she was hooked.

She played through the trial level in two hours, and with the headset still on the upsell animation on a gentle loop, she bit her lip and gave in. Two hundred dollars and a menu screen later, she tossed the set gently onto her throw pillows and flopped onto the couch with her ‘sonal.

Hai. OK. I apologize for all the times I called you a dork for liking this game

His response was almost instantaneous: That good, eh? 😜

I didn’t say you *weren’t* a dork. Just not because you like this game. This game is awesome!!!!!!!!!

She messaged him again, just a few seconds later: Can’t wait to play it for real. Can we co-op?

She could feel the loving pride oozing out of his message. I’ve been waiting for two years to hear those words, babe.

LOL. Yes well. You win 😍

The headset ran through the theme music again, starting with those spirit-stirring horns. They sounded tinny and funny coming out of the tiny in-ear speakers, like they were made by miniature instruments. She focused on that funny little idea for long enough to chase away the butterflies in her stomach, and gripped her ‘sonal.

Now for the real question.

Since there’s only room for two profiles on this thing, can I overwrite Carina?

His response wasn’t instant, like the last two had been. She found herself swallowing panic, trying to tamp it down with logical self-reassurances: He’s probably gaming this time of night, and going through an intense combat sequence. Or he’s cooking late, like he always does on Thursdays. Or —

Her ‘sonal buzzed. The cat raised his head from where he’d been sleeping soundlessly the entire evening and stared right at the device.

She turned herself and the unread message bodily from the cat’s judgmental gaze, and opened the note with trembling fingers.

Please don’t, was all the first message said.

The other arrived just then: Erase the other one instead.

She started to respond, But *your* profile… when she remembered him saying his character’s name sort of casually over dinner once, and when she’d pressed him for details, he’d asked her politely but firmly if they could talk about something else.

She’d remembered how odd it was at the time, because he never wanted to talk about something else.

He certainly never wanted to talk about Carina. In fact, she only knew the name because she’d spotted it on some of his housing documents, and he’d explained that she was his ex-wife of several years now. That was it. That was as much as she knew about Carina.

That, and he had a profile under her name on his headset.

The cat stood up, delicately flicking the sleep from his paws. He walked purposefully across the back of the couch and perched, staring at the ‘sonal right as it lit up.

Please. It’s all that’s left of her.

Riding the wave

I’m starting to learn my own creative wave, my rhythm. It’s not exactly aligned to the mountain seasons, but it sticks pretty close.

For me, the cold, dark months are for curling up and digesting heavier stories, more thoughtful fare, including non-fiction. They’re also for browsing through full notebooks and harvesting old ideas, and shuffling virtual notes around to experience them all again.

Then the bright, rainy months are for slow, quiet progress, and revisiting old favorite stories. It’s a time for making new human connections too, who bring inspiration and fresh voices.

Then the warm, stagnant months are for frenetic weeks of inspiration and writing followed by languid weeks of wanting nothing to do with words. This is time for video games, movies, and outdoor experiences.

And then the crisp, chilly months are for forgetting how to write, except when it’s very structured, like projects for other people. It’s a time of extreme writer angst — right up until November, when a last-minute burst of guilty inspiration means NaNoWriMo is happening once more.

I’m learning to lean in. (It says that on the front of my current notebook. That’s how serious about it I am.) If I resist writing, I fill up with material instead, until I’m so full I can’t help but write. If I’m drawn to throw a ton of words down, I try to eliminate my distractions and allow myself to work at a frantic pace.

If your creativity is tied to the weather, and the weather is different where you live or has different effects on you, your rhythm might not be the same. But start to keep an eye on your patterns, and when you tend to want to write, over the next year or two — and see if you can spot when you give yourself plenty of good books to read and when to get out of your own way and just write.

Halving the distance

I said something vaguely profound to my friend Amy in our GroupMe chat the other day. To me, I told her, “Life is about constantly halving the distance between yourself and perfection.”

I like that. Nice job, me.

That said, this isn’t an original concept. It’s a lot like the Pareto principle, or the concept of the asymptote from mathematics. Clearly, far more intelligent people than me have been thinking along these lines for a long time.

But this iteration of the idea works for me. It puts me in mind of a piece of paper, infinitely folded — always the same piece of paper, but tighter and tighter, ever-closer to its ideal form. Yet with every halving, all the way to infinity, you’re still left with paper that can be folded in half.

You’ll never be perfect. That’s an immutable, frustrating fact. As creatures of comprehension, we’ve got this concept of perfection strung up like a gold carrot. And it’s dangling right in front of our noses, we imagine — but it’s always much further away than we think.

That’s because the closer to it we get to perfection, the more honed our sense of it becomes. As a novice wielding a kitchen knife, I watched my own clumsy efforts and I thought, If I can just cut one something into perfect-sized pieces, that will be enough. As an intermediate home sous chef, that idea is no longer satisfying to me. Someday, I hope my dreams of cutting whatever is put on the chopping block into perfect-sized pieces will make me smile fondly and shake my head at my own lack of ambition. At the beginning, though, that would have been such a horribly specific concept that I wouldn’t have known where to start, and probably would have just given up.

My trick to life — and when I say “life,” I mean “self-satisfaction, a real sense of internal joy, and a time in this universe I plan to look back on proudly” — is not to be perfect. It’s to measure the distance between myself and perfect, and aim to cut it in half with any given self-improvement.

Just half. You just have to be 50% better than you were before you set out to improve. Fifty percent better at communicating with your partner. Fifty percent better at writing a short story. Fifty percent better at remembering to do your self-care routine.

Fifty’s a lot, isn’t it? Not if you remember that the bulk of learning to do something is doing the small, foundational actions over and over. Stretching until you’re flexible enough to do the splits. Tossing rice in a pan until you can flip like a line cook. Loping around your neighborhood until you’re ready to run that marathon. Writing continuously in five-minute bursts until you can crank out a novel in a month.

Besides, when I say “constantly,” I don’t mean to imply that every single instance of working to improve something, you can or should be 50% better than the last time you engaged. I mean that every action that you take to improve yourself, long- or short-term, should strive to make you at least 50% better than before you did the thing. Or it’s probably not worth your self-improvement time, to be perfectly blunt.

Fifty percent better than “unable to cook anything” is “able to cook one thing well enough to serve it to other people.” You go from nothing to something, modest though it may be. Your next step can feel a little bigger, a little closer to perfection: go from “able to cook one thing well” to “able to cook a week’s worth of meals well.” Then to “able to cook a menu’s worth of meals well.” Then to “able to cook nearly anything from one cuisine well.” And so on. Moving from branch to branch on a tree of learning hinges on your willingness to conquer the foundational things, one at a time.

You’ll feel a 50% increase. It’ll be measurable, in time or love or success. You’ll be able to point to a time before your change and say, Look, this is where I was before, and here’s where I am now. Halve the distance. Be better, in humble ways.

Mischievous mice: A short history

I’ve known Nicole longer than I’ve known either of my siblings (by a solid year) — we decided we didn’t want to play house with the girls in our Sunday school class, we wanted to play animals with the boys. We went to the same college. We got married within a couple months of one another. Oh, and she stole my original last name.

Pictured here at Nicole’s wedding. We rarely look this normal in photographs together.

And now she’s opening up her own shop, Mischief & Mouse.

I’m beyond proud.

***

Besides the fact that Nicole went to public school and I was homeschooled, we spent more time together than most childhood friends I know. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when we started collaborating artistically, but it couldn’t have been much later than age 8 or 9. Nicole was always the visual artist of the two of us, and I the more prolific writer, but we traded off those roles often enough to stay sharp.

The carnage of our collaboration, circa 2007.

Those hours upon hours spent art-ing together were foundational to how I operate today. I wouldn’t have half the graciousness in accepting constructive criticism that I do if it hadn’t been for how many times Nicole gently gave me her input on how I could make our shared project better. I hope my constant bothering for her to show me everything in her sketchbooks made it more compelling to produce art more often.

These days, we’re a little more honed in on what we were always really good at. I do my novel-and-UI thing, and Nicole — well, she did something incredibly brave this month: she quit her corporate job to start her own business based on her art. She sews up tiny woodland friends, paints gouache scenes, and designs adorable prints.

She’s following her dream, and trying to make art for a living. It’s opportunity meets hard work. It’s damn cool.

One last note: it’s always been mice. We loved the Redwall series together, and Nicole helped me take care of my mouse farm (long story for another time) and my pet rats, too. To see that mouse logo on her store takes me right back to when there was nothing but art to fill our time, and we filled it well.

Pictured here: typical.

The “In Case Of” files

One of the stops on my never-ending quest to hack the externalized brain (i.e. make the best note system of all time) is my “In Case Of” notes.

It’s a section hanging out in my personal OneNote (the one that acts as a repository for everything I haven’t meticulously organized yet), and it really is just called “In Case Of” at the top. I’ve then broken it down into sub-sections, mostly by whim; there’s no true rhyme or reason.

An example: the “Creativity” section.

If your first question is, “What’s demanded persuasion, anyway?” you’re not wrong to ask. In fact I myself had to click on it again to figure it out. (Demanded persuasion is, apparently, the state of being required to write something in order to sell something else. My titles could definitely use some cleaning-up.) But I did make the names of these OneNote pages kinda poetic on purpose. I wanted to be drawn in by my own curiosity at the right moment.

Have I perfected this sub-system yet? Hell no. Has it given me a little inspiration at the right moment? Once or twice, yes, and that’s more than I can say for any other system of remembering things when I need them most*.

(Quick side note: you might wonder why I advocate for OneNote over something physical. I don’t, actually. I write most of my ideas and thoughts down by hand first — and then I transcribe, cull, and organize later, giving my brain a second round of percolation. Plus, I can access my structured notes anywhere from my phone, which is often when I know what I need on the fly and therefore need to know where to find it. I definitely encourage you to keep a physical notebook that you change out every six months or so as well, for the other method of inspiration: random review stimulus.)

Alright, back to my “In Case Of” files. What’s inside the pages? The answer is: anything that can go into OneNote. (Files, images, tables, highlighted notes…mostly these.) It really depends on the topic. Some pages have a single quote or image that inspired me to create the page in the first place. Others are repositories well-laden with goodies.

As you might have imagined, the “writer’s block” section is pretty full. Writers love to write about having writer’s block, and other writers love to read it.

If you can read the above screenshot, you’ll see that I save myself a combination of things: admonishments, encouragements, strategies, even a color to associate with the problem or mindset so I can use it to make my environment more accommodating. If I find diagrams or demonstrative graphics for exercises, I’ll paste those in here, along with videos of speeches that inspire, music intended to evoke specific responses, and images that stimulate my imagination.

There’s no right or wrong way to go about making an “In Case Of” stash, but I can share a few of my techniques, in case they help you get started on your own.

I began with the first layer of organization — the segments of my life and well-being.

My list looked something like:

  • Creativity
  • Body
  • Mind
  • Relationships
  • Spirituality

Other candidates that haven’t necessitated their own section in my notebook (but might in yours) include resources, career, family, children, grief, illness, success, business, clients, housing, charity, fear…anything, really.

Next, I considered the challenges I face in each area.

My creative challenges include failed art, a missing muse, writer’s block, troubles during revision, and slow progress.

My body challenges include back pain, extreme heat, headache, ungracefulness, and general disagreement with my body.

My mind challenges include being needy, feeling lost, needing control, being forgetful, doubting myself, stress, and the blues.

My relationship challenges include conflict, dealing with enemies, doubting my relationships, and dealing with stubborn social problems.

My spirituality challenges include loss, wandering, and needing magic.

When I need new pages for new challenges, I make them.

Now, as I browse, read, watch, listen, and learn, and I react to something by thinking, “Wow, I would want to have this when I XYZ,” I add to the corresponding pages.

If you’ve got OneNote open on your PC (not the app, the full application — blegh, those terms are confusing!), you can right-click on the icon and choose “Take screen clipping” to grab whatever it is you’re looking at online and copy it directly into the OneNote page you’re currently on. Hell of a shortcut!

Here are some things I add to my “In Case Of” stash. It’s kind of like a fully-private Pinterest board.

  •  Quotes
    • Encouragement
    • Inspiration
    • Admonishment
    • Thought-provoking
    • Personally said to me
  • Text
    • Ideas (eg. “Find an unmourned soul worth a turn or two of the imagination.”)
    • Strategies (eg. “See if what you’re writing is just a situation. Now, add a complication.”)
    • Exercises (eg. instructions for The Bellows Breath)
    • Articles (eg. an article on the megastructure spotted by Kepler)
    • Journal entries
  • Images
    • Diagrams (eg. exercises for sore shoulders from computer overuse)
    • Photographs (eg. a picture of my family laughing together; photos of my favorite places in the world, at sunset)
    • Artwork (eg. a sigil for creativity; a landscape like a dream I had)
  • Videos
    • Speeches
    • How-tos
    • Inspiration
    • Music (eg. meditation music; a favorite song as a pick-me-up)
    • Funny clips (eg. the disembodied basset hound head bounding across the field)
  • Letters
    • From me
    • To me
    • To and from famous people
  • Links
    • Tutorials (eg. how to make a beaded charm for good luck)
    • Social media accounts (eg. a funny bot account for when I need a chuckle)

*When the moment of needing them is also ambiguous and flexible; for time- or location-based reminders, I use Cortana!

Common orbits and alien werewolves

I haven’t read too many books this year. I usually try to go for somewhere between 20 and 50, depending on how busy I am otherwise. This year, I’ve made it through 13 (and several of those were really short non-fiction).

Nonetheless, there have been some quality books. This last one I just finished over the weekend, for instance: Becky Chambers’ “A Closed and Common Orbit.” Apparently it’s a sequel, though I didn’t realize that until I was about 1/3 of the way through and there were some mentions of pre-existing characters; it stands alone just fine. It’s going to be hard for me to forget.

The story centers around an AI character named Sidra and her human guardian Pepper. (At this point, I figure I’m pretty hooked.) The basic premise is that Sidra used to be a ship’s computer, and now she’s in a body-shaped kit and she has to figure out how to be people. Sounds ripe for thoughtful tragedy, doesn’t it?

It’s not. I mean, it is. There’s definitely tragedy in this book. But without giving anything away, I’ll tell you that Chambers lets her characters have happy endings. There’s a big, roaring, sweeping wave of hope that carries you through the last few pages.

It was unexpected and refreshing. I’d had no sense of the ending before I started, and as I got into the darkness in the middle of the book, I worried I’d be in for a bawl-fest at the end. (I was, but for a very different reason than I’d assumed.) But Chambers deftly took the reins and steered the story-cart away from tragedy in a way I didn’t know I needed so badly. (Highly recommend this book, if you hadn’t gathered that from my praise.)

Meanwhile, I’m still writing “Portent” — my alien werewolves had more story to tell than my successful slaying of NaNoWriMo’s word count (50,013 was my official winning count!), so I’m letting them carry me on to the end. I’d been debating the merits of a happy, hopeful ending to this book — despite all of the loss the characters will inevitably suffer — but after reading “Common Orbit,” I’m convicted. I’m going to give them a lifeline. I’m going to give the casual readers who pick up this book on a whim an unexpected little taste of hope.

Thank you to the writers who are out there telling hopeful stories. I cling to what you make. I strive to emulate it.

How bots make good storytellers

I love bots. My career is about natural language and language generation, and bots (will) sit right in that realm, when they’re done well. And it turns out that having a bot as a co-author creates a unique marketing opportunity.

I know a lot about designing bot-like things, but not so much about building them. So when I decided this summer I wanted to experiment with a storytelling bot for the Damn Shames characters, I went looking for a simpler option than coding my own. I found cheapbotsdonequick.com, set up a fresh Twitter account, and granted all the necessary permissions.

Then I had a delightful exercise before me that was half solving a logic puzzle, half dissecting the elements of a story. I had to come up with the moving parts, such as the character names I wanted to use or the actions the characters would be taking, and figure out how to nest them to form proper sentences (such as associating male characters with male pronouns).

After that, I had to write a bunch of sentences like this:

#ShamesName# is happy to see #AllCharactersName#.
#ShamesName# is yelling at the oorhunds.
#ShamesName# is eating space oranges in an attempt to ward off space scurvy.

And so on.

Each of those sentences (and the [now] hundreds of others I’ve written) has some random chance of being chosen and sent out as a Tweet on @ShamesBot every six hours. The Cheap Bots Done Quick service does some helpful stuff to ensure the bot is only generating 140 or fewer characters, so what I end up with is four published micro-stories a day.

Crazy, right?

There are definitely limitations to this very simple approach. (I’m not even using the advanced coding options CBDQ offers.) Sometimes, characters will interact with themselves in odd ways — “Rahab is saying something mean to Rahab” — but that’s sort of what makes the bot an intriguing storyteller.

Because when I read “Rahab is saying something mean to Rahab,” I don’t actually think, “Oh, the bot just put that in there twice.” I think, “Rahab would be as mean to herself as she is to everyone else. That explains why she’s so angry all the time… poor thing.” And suddenly I’ve invented this entire context for what is really a random generator’s weird glitch.

Humans look for the narrative; it helps us organize life’s chaos into something resembling coherence. When the bot produces chaos, the brain fills in the blanks. (Especially if you’ve already read the story the Tweets are about.)

And that’s the genius of a bot as a storyteller. You fill in the blanks for yourself. Bots are powerful narrative tool because their limitations leave so much room for the imagination to play — and when the imagination plays, it often claims what it plays with as its own. (Readers and writers of fan-fiction understand this concept well.)

You can build loyalty with this kind of cooperative storytelling. You can get someone to ask questions, or chime in with their own contributions. And it’s a really fun way to make your stories work for themselves.

NaNoWriMo 2017; or, I’m writing about werewolves now

A sharp chill is in the air. Writing season is officially upon me.

My friends and family know that November is NaNoWriMo month. According to my stats, I’ve participated 12 years now — TWELVE! — including a 10-year participation streak; and I’ve “won,” or written 50k words in November, three times. (I seem to recall four, but I might have stopped tracking on the website after a while when I was writing Daugment in 2014.)

So, yeah. It’s a tradition.

In 2014, I was working hard to establish myself in my then-new corporate job, so I told myself that if I was going to participate in NaNo, it had to be fun. It had to be all sorts of goofy and careless and unfettered, and only what I actually felt like writing.

The first draft of Daugment was an utter mess. But I loved it, because I could see the story it eventually came to be… and because it was really fun to write.

This year, I’m leaning into the success I had writing that book — with a wee bit more structure. I’ve taken some time the last month to get to know the story world and my characters Charra, Belario, and Minnor. I’ve let myself explore all sorts of random ideas, from scenes to plot points to recurring imagery, some of which I’ll keep and some of which will never make it in, thank goodness.

During the next two weeks, I’ll paw at my notes for this book (tentatively titled “Portent”) until it becomes something resembling a very rough outline. Then, as I do, I’ll go into a state of pseudo-hibernation for all but five or six days in November, and crank out 50,000 words of turd to polish. Or I won’t. I’m gonna try.

Oh, right. The werewolves.

Here’s my synopsis from the NaNo site:

Where did werewolves come from? Or, more simply: Wherewolves? Outer space, of course.

She’s the eldest child, a free-spirited dreamer. He’s the handsome son of a politician, the heir to a tiny far-flung empire-in-hiding. And he’s a wall guard — actually, he’s a member of a secret warrior society.

Maybe between the three of them, they can save Atlantis.

Yup. Alien-werewolves. You knew it wasn’t going to be that simple with me, didn’t you?

It’s MY platform.

One of my very enterprising peer-friends, Nikki, told me about a year ago that I needed to start getting my brand in order. My…brand? was my clueless response.

She meant the brand of my online presence, the composite virtual face I was presenting to the world. At the time, I had little more than a LinkedIn page and a personal Twitter account used for silly interactions with my colleagues.

Nikki’s advice was sound. I’ve been trying to be a self-published author who wants to make a living off her words. A blog is a terrible thing to waste.

It’s been slow going, this “building a platform” thing. I started cross-posting to my Twitter and Facebook page, tried to keep up a more regular rhythm of public writing, and even finally put together a Medium page last month. All these little bits of digital progress…and I still don’t feel like I have a coherent whole yet.

Today I sat down to think about that.

I’ve done a lot of work. I’ve refined my brand messages a few times, picked at my bios, and read numerous times through each blog post I do finally publish (though I still miss things). I’ve started, and then deleted, a lot of posts that I deemed incapable of carrying The Brand forward. I’ve evaluated the drafts of various lengths sitting in my digital folders with the critical twin lenses of Audience & Salability.

In fact, I’ve worked really hard to second-guess myself.

Wait, didn’t I just realize something just like this in another recent post? Funny. Almost like there’s a common thread here.

OK, so the problem has clarified: I’m not giving myself enough credit or taking myself seriously enough. What’s my solution?

For one thing, every time I feel the urge to write, and then stifle it with self-criticism, I’m going to tell myself: It’s MY platform.

Nikki was right. I do need a brand. My brand. My weird, off-beat brand of silly, lyrical storytelling — which is the same, if more thoroughly edited, in my novels. This is MY blog. Who cares if “the Medium audience” will read it? I want MY audience to read it.

Because here’s the thing. Writers write. Writing isn’t always fun. If I’m going to make writing a life-long, every-day kind of habit, not to mention summon the motivation I need to go through the editing and publishing processes on my own… Well, I’d sure as hell better write what I want to write.

And sometimes, all I want to write are sappy space pirate drabbles. Yes, sometimes, I do want to write serious essays about things in the world that make me think. Then there are times I’m struck with a spark and just want to re-capture the magic of a remembered moment.

This is where the brand part, the platform part comes in. If I want to establish who I am, what I’m about, and what kinds of writing my audience can expect from me, I have to put what I write out into the world. A lot of it. Quantity will beget quality, and hopefully, when there’s enough, a clear and simple identity will emerge.

And if what I write is space pirate drabbles, serious essays, and magical moments, well… that’s what I’ll be putting out into the world.

Books and bytes