Studiolog: Week of December 25th

This week has flown by, being Christmas week and all — and as such, it wasn’t the most productive week at the Damn Shames Studio. PSH. Who am I kidding? I finished a book!

That was the most significant moment this week: I finished my first draft of “Portent” right around midnight last night. It clocks in around 65k words, which is about 5k less than I thought I’d hit by the time I finished Draft #1. (That said, it seems to be in better shape than I thought it would be!) My plan is to kickstart something else this week, with the momentum I’ve built up the last couple of months (thanks, NaNoWriMo!), and then get “Portent” revised by mid-February.

Meanwhile, I listed out my projects at three different stages: Planning, Writing, and Revision. I then ordered them by value — which will give me the most bang for my buck when it comes to reader funnels. This led to the above decision about revising “Portent” first, and I hope this will give me a good sense of prioritization as I enter the new year.

Some exciting news: I’ll be announcing a new project with Jill Corddry (and a few others) in the next installment of Studiolog! We’ve been dreaming this up for a few months now, and thanks to our web designer Patrick, we’re about to have an amazing website ready to share with the world. And then…content!

Our graphics man, Josh (hire him, he’s great), made some progress on assets for “Haulin’ Ass with Half_Pint” — a streaming show about Star Citizen, mostly starring Amy (who doesn’t have a web presence yet — yes, I’m calling you out, Ames!). We’ll be launching “Haulin’ Ass” in 2018. (Interested in assets for a streaming show? We provide those services at reasonable rates, so please contact us!)

We continue to practice Grand Theft Auto V missions, and we’ve brought in Patrick and our pals Zach and Iron to help. Between the seven of us, we’re going to make some content about GTAV: cinematic story-driven play, and blooper reels.

Finally, we brainstormed some recipes for our various cookbook projects. I hope to publish at least one of those in 2018!

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

Cross-notebook links in OneNote

OH MAN. You know you’re in for an exciting ride when that’s the title of a blog post. (Sorry, kids, SEO reasons.) But before you run off, already bored, let me tell you about something that makes my meal planning really easy.

(Whoops! This isn’t a writing-related example, per se – but if I didn’t have a meal plan in place, with a household of five adults, I wouldn’t have time to write. So. Tangentially related!)

As I might have mentioned previously, OneNote is my saving grace when it comes to keeping my life on track. When our three roommates moved in with me and the hub, we decided to do a food sharing plan that involved a good deal of administrative work (and a decent deal for everyone involved). One of the first things I did was craft up a table for our weekly meal planning:

A typical week’s food for five. Thank the universe I don’t usually have to worry about breakfasts and lunches…

I make one of these weekly or so, and it keeps us on track, more or less.

But see those blue links? Those are what this post is about. Those are cross-notebook links. Any one of them I click on will take me to the corresponding recipe in my Cookbook OneNote (a topic for another post). Which means that I can not only line up my food ideas for myself and my roommates, I can also line up the instructions.

Here’s how you can do it for yourself:

Type some text you want to turn into a link to another notebook.

Select it and press Ctrl + K (or select Insert > Link).

In the box marked “Or pick a location in OneNote,” start typing the name of the page you want to link to.

When it appears, select it and choose OK.

Your cross-notebook link will now carry you to your intended destination!

Using this, plus a table, you can quickly brainstorm and then link up a meal plan from your favorite recipes, stored in OneNote. (I’ll explain how to set this system up for yourself in another post!)

Studiolog: Week of December 18th

This was a good week in the Damn Shames Studio! As this is the first installment of Studiolog, I’ll cover a little bit of last week’s Shamesian activities too, since they were quite relevant to this week.

First, we worked with Nicole of Mischief & Mouse (who I talked a bit about last week) to create a parody of the children’s book that launched several series: If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Ours is a work of fan-fiction set in the world of Star Citizen, and it’s called “If You Give a Mouse a Merlin” (a Merlin being the least-expensive ship in the game). We launched it on Sunday night, and all throughout Monday and even into Tuesday, Star Citizen fans on Reddit and Twitter gave us lots of positive feedback.

We also delivered some pre-stream and post-stream graphics, along with text branding, for one of our Twitch streamer friends, JJ2078. (These are services we provide at reasonable rates, if you or one of your friends are interested in building an online presence!)

As a group, we’ve been practicing some intense combat sequences in Grand Theft Auto V together. That’s because the Star Citizen first-person (but cooperative) narrative game will likely have a launch date soon, and we plan on doing a playthrough as a squad when it’s out — so we need to be good (in video games) at coordinated combat!

I got some updated graphics from our kick-ass web (and all-around) designer Patrick to promote this month’s 99c sale of Daugment. Those can be found on my Twitter account and my Facebook page. (Incidentally, Patrick did the cover for Daugment as well!)

Personally, I’ve been reading Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant‘s “Write. Publish. Repeat.” to get myself ready for my 2018 goals (which include publishing at least 3 books, which is 3x more books than I published in 2017!). I’ve taken lots of good notes, and think I’ve got some good strategies going into the new year (and what is always, cliché or not, a fresh start of sorts for me) — the most important of which is, just write. And secondarily, just publish.

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

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.

Books and bytes