We’re doing it for the money

Sometimes in the course of looking at book projects, you may end up considering a project that you think is lowering your standards. And what the heck? Maybe it is. Ask yourself how much money and opportunity this book is and if this is something that could actually damage your reputation. If it’s simply a matter of you don’t care much for the subject or the publisher’s style but the money’s good, then you should go with it. Here’s why.

As you’re whacking out books, one after another, bear in mind that what we’re doing isn’t really Great Art. Oh, very occasionally, you’ll get a nonfiction book that is going to last on the shelf for some years and if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll have one that lasts for your career. But what we’re writing won’t last for decades as a rule. Shucks, most of us are lucky if our writing lasts on the shelves a year. Do your job, enjoy your job, be professional about the stuff you’re turning out, but don’t ever kid yourself that this is usually a Work for the Ages. If you keep this in mind, you’ll probably be able to be more flexible. (There are pleasant exceptions to this observation, but they’re few and very far between.)

A couple hundred years ago, Dr. Johnson said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Some things just don’t change: we are doing this for the money. It should be fun whenever possible, but if it pays the bills, that’s the best part of all.

What kind of shoulder bag do you need?

I’m in pre-game for SxSW at the moment. I’m printing things, packing things, and figuring out what I need to put in the suitcase for maximum efficiency and minimum weight. The idea for this particular post was from John Limon, who I was talking to about shoulder bags on the phone yesterday morning. I was mentioning that the LA Police Gearbailout bag” that I’d bought was good, but it didn’t have the right kind of pockets. “What kind of pockets would a technical writer need on a bag?” John wondered out loud, and I knew I had either the theme for a blog post or a bunch of tacky jokes.

The best way to start is to identify the things I normally have in my shoulder bag when I’m running around at a conference.

  • lots of pens (I can never have too many pens with me, it seems)
  • a couple of permanent markers
  • a highlighter
  • overhead transparency markers
  • a small LED flashlight
  • a small container of hand sanitizer
  • post-it notes
  • Altoids
  • business cards
  • a hairbrush
  • one of those little hotel sewing kits
  • nail clippers
  • a book of matches
  • ear plugs (usually for use on the plane)
  • address labels (several sheets of those address labels I’m constantly getting from the charities I give to; they’re great for quickly signing your name and address on request for more information or a vendor entry card)
  • extra phone charger
  • a Zone bar or the like
  • some hard candies
  • a digital camera, batteries, and cable
  • blood glucose meter
  • diabetes meds
  • a charger for the bluetooth headset

I also tend to carry a few additional things in the bag, such as one large and two small ziploc bags. They come in handy for ad hoc collections of kibble or other things.

Note: This doesn’t count the computer bag I usually carry as well, which contains the laptop, charger, a notebook, and misc computer supplies. This upcoming trip, I’m going to use one of those cute little Toshiba notebooks that weigh 3 pounds. It’ll fit neatly inside the bag, but I’ll probably want to carry the charger, a mouse, and anything else that goes with it, so it’ll be kinda bulky.

So this is the list of goodies in the bag at the start of a day at the conference. There may be other things, like a yellow pad in a folder and maybe a piece of fruit or bottle of water that I cabbaged from the breakfast buffet, but this is the minimum. By the end of the day at most conferences, you can add to this list a dozen or so pens, a few post-it note pads, stacks of flyers and one-sheets, brochures, giveaway items, and other chachkes from the vendor rooms. The bag can fill up quickly with assorted desk kibble, which is admittedly kinda fun to unload at the end of the day.

What I’ve found I like is for my shoulder bag to have a variety of small pockets, particularly ones designed to hold pens and little office supplies (like the post-it notes) and several pouches that are good for the flyers and one-sheets. As you can see from the picture, the bailout bag is an awfully good bag, but the pockets aren’t optimal because they don’t seal completely and there’s nothing quite right for pens. I’m going to be trying it at SxSW next week for the first time for a whole conference, so I’ll see how it works out, but I am wondering if it’s the best solution.

I think that what I carry around with me is similar to what a lot of tech writers are likely to carry. Admittedly, I do tend to carry a lot of oddments in the bag–I don’t often need the sewing kit, but it’s as much knowing where to find it as anything and it weighs nothing–but I do find that it’s very useful to have these things handy so I can grab them the instant I need them. (Your comments here are welcome: what kinds of things do you tend to carry that are different from my list?)

After going through a couple of nylon mesh messenger bags, I’ve discovered that I really like a wide, strong shoulder strap that attaches firmly. The metal snap-on clips have a tendency to splay out after a few years, resulting in the shoulder strap suddenly coming undone. I reinforce them with the little D-rings that are frequently given away by vendors. They’re a good backup system and they relieve the strain on the snaps, too, so I recommend you use this trick on shoulder bags and computer bags both.

So I’m going to give the bailout bag a try and see how it works. If you’re in the market for a good shoulder bag yourself, check out the LA Police Gearbailout bag” and see if it looks like what you’re after. If not, take a look at nylon or leather messenger bags, which have a lot of pockets and are slightly bigger.

Addendum: There’s a lovely article you might also enjoy along related lines. It’s Tantek’s SXSW Packing List.

Office supplies

I wanted to talk about office supplies for a moment.

As writers, we collect a lot of office supplies. It’s not just “pens and paper.”  It’s everything:

  • staples
  • markers
  • highlighters
  • rubber bands
  • push pins
  • Scotch tape
  • pencils
  • paper clips
  • Post-it notes
  • note pads
  • stamps
  • return address labels

I could probably spot 50 different items on my desk right now that count as “office supplies.” (Admittedly, it’s a large and somewhat cluttered desk, but still….) Mind you, this doesn’t count the paper products in the office: reams of papers (three-hole punched, cheap bond, expensive extra-bright bond, granite finish, cover stock, colored papers, and a big carton of stuff printed on one side that I use for drafts where I just need to see something on a page before I recycle it), a dozen kinds of envelopes for letters, an equivalent number of manila and padded envelopes, stacks of legal pads, notepads, transparencies, blank CDs and DVDs, binders, folders, specialty papers… and that doesn’t even begin to get into the label stock!

For any number of years, I tried putting things on shelves or areas of the desk, but the small items were difficult to deal with. They spread too easily, sometimes on their own. Office supplies tend to breed and multiply as badly as hangers when you’re foolish enough to look away. And I know that I will bring more home, too: every conference I go to has pens (I’m a sucker for giveaway pens; they’re easy to carry and always useful), customized Post-it notes (including some beautiful cased sets of Post-its of sizes and colors), and note pads (hard to have too many notepads).

Over the years, a lot of the stray conference giveaways, such as pens that light up, bouncy toys, erasers, funny pencils, novelty pencil sharpeners, and squeezy toys, would end up being given to the kids next door or across the street. At the moment, I’m without a good destination for these things, so they’re stacking up until I find a suitable destination for them again.

Surrounded by an increasingly tall and unwieldy stack of office supplies, I finally hit on a multi-pronged solution that works very well for me. On the desk, I have:

  • A collection of pens, highlighters, markers, the letter opener, scissors, and a couple of screwdrivers that get pressed into service frequently when working on the computers are all in a couple of large pencil cups on the desk.
  • Small things that both accumulate and spread quickly–paper clips, rubber bands, small bulldog clips, and push pins–are in small glass apothecary jars.
  • Larger typical desk-y things: a stapler, a Post-it note holder, a small wooden tray that holds 3″x5″ cards that was a gift from someone I’m very fond of at one of my publishers years ago, and a small vertical file that holds sheets of address labels, postage stamps, and a small collection of notepads.
  • A few cakebox containers of blank CDs and DVDs of various types, and one cakebox for work-in-process backups.
  • A brass bowl and large yogurt container with undifferentiated kibble: things like the sewing kit, sun glasses, dental floss, and packets of Emergen-C. I also have a container for spare change, which always seems to accumulate up here for some reason.

For all the rest of the small office supplies, I purchased a six-drawer supply cabinet at IKEA in the late 90s that fits neatly under the desk. It’s a lovely little blue metal unit on casters a smidgen more than 2′ tall on casters with 6 wooden drawers. The one I bought is no longer available, although they have something similar, even if it’s not as pretty. All of the small office supplies go in this and it’s right there when I need it. The drawers are labeled clearly and it’s all kinds of convenient. (Question: How many pens can you squeeze into a drawer 11″ x 4″ by 7″? About 350. How many pencils? Only about 150, but that’s because the Post-it notes, sharpeners, and erasers go in the same drawer… and I rarely use pencils, anyway.)

Dedicated shelves work pretty well for paper products. I’m currently occupying a couple of 4-shelf pine bookshelves, but I recommend that you also try a bunch of the stackable trays for small quantities of special papers, label stock (such as address or CD labels), transparencies, notebook dividers, and so on. They make things easy to see and you don’t keep having to straighten the shelves because you pulled something out of the middle of a stack. Remember, though: you don’t need to have things like paper products in the same room if you’re not using them that frequently. When I had an office in my last house in Seattle that was 26′ by 14′, I still kept the paper products in another room.

You may not have the love of office supplies that I do, nor, if you’re just starting out as a writer, will you have the zillions of oddments that inevitably seem to accumulate. But I guarantee you that you will sooner or later. [insert maniacal cackling laughter that fades off in the background here.]

Decision making and power thinking

I’ve found that my process for major decisions is frequently not trying to find the answer but figuring out what the true question is. Answers are relatively cheap and plentiful, but they all depend (for me) on what question I’m trying to answer. For the big decisions, I frequently have a feeling of digging deeply to come to the right question, at which point the answer becomes obvious… and almost an afterthought.

I’ve sometimes had decisions where, by every possible measure, the two choices weighed the same. I ultimately had to just pick one, like one of two identical flowers. When that happened, it’s always been the case that the one that I didn’t pick seemed to wither and die within a few weeks: something would be revealed or develop that showed I’d made the right choice for me.

I’m an optimist. I’ve always been an optimist. There’s a great deal of serendipity in my life and that’s a good thing. It works for me, too; people have noticed that things just… manifest for me at times. I’d never thought about it a lot for much of my life, fearing that if I poked at it too much, I might spoil whatever the mechanism. But then I bumped into another optimist and we started comparing notes and it turned out our thought processes were much the same on this. And we figured out how to talk about it to other people.

We dubbed our process “Asking the Right Question.” This may sound a little vague, but trust me, this really is the best way we can describe what we’re doing. But we were able to articulate a lot of this after I learned about a technique called “power thinking.”

Credit where credit’s due: I read about “power thinking” 20, 25 years ago in a magazine article. I have tried in vain to find this again. If you can provide any information on it, please let me know. I would love to read the whole article again and see if I’ve missed anything as well as be able to point people to the article and the author.

As I recall the article, the concept went along these lines: Most people tend to think “I want to do A, but B is in the way,” such as “I want a new car but I don’t have enough money to buy one.” This is a statement that really doesn’t move anywhere. It’s a statement of fact and there’s almost a “ker-THUMP!” noise at the end of it. You can’t really get around the B condition, so you might as well quit now.

Power thinking–both as the article described it and I think about things–says that if you come up with a statement of “I want to do A, but B is in the way,” you should change the ‘but’ to an ‘and’ to create “I want to do A, and B is in the way.” The first construction is preclusive while the second merely suggests that you need to come up with a detour or even define an entirely different set of conditions. This changes the example statement to “I want a new car and I don’t have enough money to buy one.” This sentence moves; in fact, it almost instantly transforms further into “Well, how can I get a new car if I don’t have enough money to buy one?” Other corollary questions tend to fall out of this almost as quickly, such as:

  • What other ways are there to get a new car without paying full price?
  • Can I borrow the use of a new car?
  • Are there new car leases available that would make sense?

You can even start wandering farther afield with questions like these:

  • Do I need a new car or would a really good used car do?
  • How much do I drive and would it even make sense to use taxis for local stuff and/or trains or carpooling for longer trips?
  • Could I bicycle?

…and so on.

All these questions help you focus on the true issue, which may not actually be “I need a new car” but “What I’ve been doing for transportation isn’t working and I need to change my transportation options venue and my requirements.” In other words, the real problem for me, once again, it’s getting the answer, it’s burrowing down through the layers until I come to the True Question.

Okay, not everything is a huge enormous life decision. Some things are going to be simple like “Darnit, I could use a new shoulder bag because this one is ripping and they don’t make this model anymore.” The chances of getting to a much deeper level are slim from here. For the things I do, I really do need a shoulder bag to carry things around. But knowing immediately that I should think about other options for shoulder bags lets me find other, potentially better solutions. FWIW, I bought a bag this time that’s a shoulder bag for police officers. It has a slightly smaller main bag area, but there are lots of small pouches around the outside designed for holding ammo, tools, supplies, and so on. It’s also very durable and is convenient to carry. I found it because I didn’t go looking for the same bag I’d had before. But even if your thinking process isn’t the same as mine, the power thinking technique brings up other ideas and helps you circumnavigate the inevitable life obstacles that happen to all of us because we’re not infinitely rich, powerful, and devilishly good-looking.

Repost: “Beware of Writer”

Since I’ve been having far too much fun doing system things, I haven’t been able to write articles for this the last few weeks… nor get back to the current book or do anything else to bring money or fame in. To pick things up for the new year, I’m posting a fun article I just spotted on Chuck Wendig‘s blog, Terrible Minds. Chuck’s blog has been around for about a decade and is something for us literary types. It’s very funny and his regulars usually have something interesting to say, too.

The post in question that caught my eye is “Beware of Writer,” which describes what it’s like being around writers. (There is the occasional bad word that may trigger filters if you’re using them, so be aware before clicking on the link.) This is probably more for fiction writers than non-fiction writers (who tend to be good, decent, kind, and pleasant people), but you may know a non-fiction writer who tends to be crabby. I’m sure my wife can think of someone who fits that description. Here’s the opening for this particular post:

I’ve seen a meme bouncing around that reveals reasons why you shouldn’t ever date a writer. It’s true, to a point. But I think it goes even deeper than that. Frankly, you should probably get the hell away from us. Anybody. Not just the people we date. But everybody. See us in line at the grocery store? Run, don’t walk. Escape. Avoid. Awooga, awooga. On a good day, we’re eccentric troublemakers. On a bad day, we’re malevolent sociopaths. And with writers, it’s usually a bad day.

So. Here’s a little post to clarify why you should stay at least 50 feet away from us at all times, lest we sink our vampire teeth into your body and drain you of all the things that made you pure and good. See, the things that make us good writers?

They make us awful people.

Imagine a sign around our necks:


Clutter and writing

I hope everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving and you didn’t gain more than a pound or two.

I’m starting work on book #27 at the moment. (There’s not a lot I can say for the moment, as it’s for something not yet announced.) I’m going to be discovering a lot about the self-publishing process and many other things as the months wear merrily on, but I wanted to say a few things about clutter.

Clutter is anything that gets in the way. Clutter is not stuff that’s by definition “bad,” but it is definitely misplaced. Right now, my office is more cluttered than I’m comfortable with, but having racked up my left knee very badly a week ago Thursday, it’s very hard to reach down and pick stuff off the floor or lift a box or much of anything. Clutter has accumulated as a result, much of it in the form of junk mail to be sifted and thrown into the shredding box.

Writing with too much clutter–of any kind–is hard for me and it’s probably hard for you. Clutter sneaks into your field of vision. You see it constantly in the corners of your eyes and it’s distracting. Very, very annoying stuff!

If you’ve got clutter in your office or your life, you need to get rid of it. The best book I’ve ever run into for decluttering is Clutter’s Last Stand by Don Aslett. Don’s a fascinating guy who writes fun, approachable books about cleaning, decluttering, and organizing. His central theme is that if you can’t do the thing you want to do because it’s blocked by clutter, then clutter is robbing you of time, which is your life. Don’s written a number of books since Clutter’s Last Stand on decluttering, but the first on the subject is probably the best.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a few more things off my desk and then get back to work on this section on concepts.

What to do when you’re running out of money–summary

And finally, above all else:

Tip #18. Don’t panic!

When you’re feeling desperate, breathe deeply and remind yourself that right now at this minute, everything is fine: no-one is hitting you with sticks, the lights and heat are on and there’s food in the fridge. There are things to be concerned about, but take a moment to be in the present where you’re safe. Worry is interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.

Running out of money isn’t fun, but it’s possible to deal with it. Be very cautious about gambling on short-term gains that could work out to be long-term losses, such as living off cash advances on your credit cards. Be creative and persistent in your search for work. There is always more money on the money tree; it just may take a while longer to find it right now.

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #16 and #17)

Tip #16. Read Clason’s The Richest Man in Babylon.

Everyone should read this. It’ll tell you in clear, simple English how to build up your savings. (Every time you find yourself saying “Yeah, but…” when you’re reading this, just put a sock in it. You’re wrong, he’s right, that’s how it goes.) If you have a year’s expenses saved, you’re going to feel a lot less desperate and will be in a better position to ride things out. And start putting a little in savings now. You’re in this pickle in part because you don’t have enough money stashed away, so start taking action to prevent this happening again. This works. I’ve done it. It’s fun.

This book should be available in the library, assuming that you can get on the waiting list. Clason wrote the original in 1926 and it’s been in constant print ever since.

Tip #17. Read Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

This is another book that everyone should read. Martin Seligman has identified the patterns related to being a pessimist and being an optimist. Being an optimist isn’t just wandering around smiling all the time. It’s a lot more about asking the right question to get what you want. Being an optimist lets you see ways in which you can work around obstacles. This subject is worthy of its own article. Or even a book: go buy Seligman’s and read it.

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #14 and #15)

Tip #14. Do what you can to maintain your health insurance and your disability insurance.

Unexpected health expenses can sink you faster than anything else you’re likely to run into. Even if you can’t afford general health care, consider an inexpensive high-deductible catastrophic coverage policy for things like auto accidents. Also have some kind of disability insurance if you can: 30-50% of all home foreclosures are the direct result of an underinsured disability.

Tip #15. Exercise!

You can’t really avoid stress when you’re looking for work, but nothing busts stress like exercise. Even walking half an hour a day will do wonders for your health. And getting off your butt will provide a mental break from staring fixedly at the computer all day.

What to do when you’re running out of money (tips #12 and #13)

With your job search in full swing, keep on keeping on.

Tip #12. Don’t panic!

The bulk of marriages dissolve over money issues. If the job search is hard for you, it may be doubly hard for your significant other, who is stuck in the same boat but probably unable to contribute anything to your process. When you’re running out of money, all your other problems become more intense, too. Be gentle with each other: talk a lot and give each other a lot of hugs. Try not to snipe at each other.

Tip #13. Keep in touch with friends.

Your friends not only provide support and a place to vent outside your primary relationship, they’re a likely source of job information. We’re all in this together.