Category Archives: Blog
Since 2013, when I read about Ramit’s Year of Taking Control theme, I decided I would come up with themes for my years. I actually stole his for the first year just to bootstrap it, but after spending a year with the concept I was able to come up with my own themes that were more relevant to me. (Such high-minded things as: The Year of Finishing and The Year of Awareness.) Sometimes, I have to get into the year a little bit to figure out what the theme will actually be (I try to decide before it starts, but usually something else will present itself as a more natural path to follow).
As a very concrete example, I thought this year was going to be the Year of Productive Procrastination or the Year of Putting the Time to Work (that is: the time saved by being efficient and organized being used in the most productive way possible instead of just more time to check Facebook). Both of those would have been great. I read an article on overcoming productivity addiction on the Todoist blog and it seemed to fit with either of those themes. Instead of reading more about productivity, I would instead use my system of lists and calendars to make sure that even when I wasn’t working on my highest priority items (like writing the next book in the series), I would still be working on something productive to help me reach one of my numerous other goals. I would finally leverage my system in a more conscious way; being aware in every moment of the time I was saving, the little moments here and there, where putting things on a list or on my calendar, would help me build up a reserve of extra time that I could spend on doing what I really wanted. (If only time could actually be garbage collected like that into more contiguous blocks) I even went so far as to think: Hey, maybe instead of always doing something that is obvious, like opening and sorting them mail, or cleaning the dishes in the sink, maybe I’ll let those things slide until they really need to get done so I can put that time to use in the present instead of trying to save it for some nebulous future.
Then I read an article on the Todoist blog about strategies for overcoming procrastination. Initially, it sounded either like something that would fit perfectly with my theme, or something that I’d read a hundred times before and would be able to skim in a few minutes. It turned out to be mostly the latter, but also contained the seed of something else entirely. The strategies for overcoming procrastination were actually very good (please read them when you’re done procrastinating by reading this post), but nothing I hadn’t seen before. (Good to remind yourself periodically though)
But the breakthrough actually came in the background part of the post, where the author – as per usual – quotes some study that someone has done in order to back up the stuff they’re about to tell you. This one went like this:
Research shows that our brains are actually wired to think about about our present and future selves as two separate people. That’s why we’re able to prioritize our present mood at the expense of our future well-being even though it’s an irrational choice in the long-term.
A study run by UCLA psychologist Hal Herschel and a team at Stanford University found that participants actually engaged different areas of the brain when they thought about their present selves versus their future selves. In fact, when people were told to think about themselves in ten years, their brain patterns closely resembled those observed when they were asked to think about celebrities they didn’t know.
This separation of present and future self encourages us to make different decisions about ourselves now and in the future. For instance, one study showed people asked to tutor other students would offer to do so less in the present, but would offer more of their time in the future.
To sum up the research, we procrastinate because our brains are wired to care more about our present comfort than our future happiness.
So “Do something today that your future self will thank you for” is not just a good saying for a meme or an inspirational poster. It’s a legitimate scientific concept.
You think that your future self is someone else.
So from the point of that realization forward, this has been the Year of the Future Self.
Evidence of this can be seen if you look at the dates of the blog posts that I refer to above. They’re from February and March. I started this post in April and it’s been 2 months. Because there were things that were more important for me to get done for my future self. (No offense to anyone who reads this blog, but I don’t think anyone is sitting around anxiously waiting for the next bi-monthly installment of my random thoughts)
Thinking more about my future self has already helped me overcome a lot of procrastination. It actually kind of forces you to do a lot of things that you would see listed in those articles about overcoming procrastination, but I like the change in mindset that comes with it. Eat That Frog! becomes not just a funny way to think about doing something difficult, it becomes a question:
What is the one thing I can do right now that my future self is going to appreciate the most?
For me, and especially for my writing, I can ask myself, “How does my future self feel when he comes home from work and his writing for the day is already done?” That is a question I can answer because I know how my past self felt when that happened and it makes it much easier to imagine how my future self will feel. It draws him closer to me, makes him less of a stranger and more like someone who is almost me. And when that happens, I imagine the feeling my future self will have (or the opposite feeling he’ll have when he has to come home to a 0 word head start), and it turns it into something more about my present comfort than my future happiness.
So really, I think they key is not just to see that motivational quote on someone’s Instagram and go for a run or do a workout. It’s not eating the frog because that’s what a book tells you is the key to overcoming procrastination.
It’s about drawing your future self back into your present self. So he or she doesn’t feel like a celebrity you don’t really know. Think about how you’ve felt when you’ve procrastinated or when you haven’t. Recognize that is how your future self is going to feel.
If I think about how I felt last year when I was falling behind in my writing goals, there was stress. I know how that felt. It’s concrete. I don’t have to imagine it like it’s a future scenario. I know that if it happens again (which it is), my future self will feel that same stress. (It’s totally irrational stress since it’s not like writing is anything close to a full time job that puts food on the table or a roof over my head, but that’s a whole different
therapy session blog post)
When I imagine my future self feeling that concrete emotion, it makes present me stressed. Not as stressed as I certainly would be in the future. But enough to make me think: “It’s worth suffering for another thirty minutes to crank out two hundred more words so that my future self doesn’t have to write those extra two hundred words on top of everything else I’m going to ask him to do.”
One of the first things that any independent publisher giving advice to other independent publishers says is: Write a good book, have it professionally edited, and get a good cover for it.
Those are the three central tenants of self-publishing. I’m not going to even bother looking up and linking to references because I’ve seen it on just about every site I’ve ever read about self-publishing (sometimes multiple times).
The other thing I see on most of the sites dispensing that advice is a lack of supporting evidence. By that, I mean: How does anyone know that these are the most important things to publishing a book? Is there an experiment that can prove it?
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a way to quantify whether you’ve written a good book or not. I suppose you could write a book, throw it up on Amazon and watch your numbers for some amount of time… then somehow “make it better” and upload the new, better version and see if you sell more copies. Theoretically, if you did end up selling more without changing anything else you’re doing, then you could attribute the increase in sales to the fact that people reading it are recommending it more to friends who then buy it. That’s a tenuous connection, and it assumes, as stated, that you don’t change anything else you’re doing. Not only that, but you’d have to make sure you don’t get any new reviews on Amazon (or Goodreads) because those negative or positive reviews will certainly influence whether or not someone discovering the book will buy it. (Since that’s exactly what the rating system is designed to do)
There are a lot of other outside factors that would have to be controlled, but even if you could plausibly eliminate some external variables as causes for an increase in sales, it’s going to be a pretty painful experiment and one that I’m pretty sure no author would willingly take on unless it was under a pen name. The same thing applies to professional editing. You could put up a book that hasn’t been professionally edited, and see how it sells, then have someone edit it and see if your numbers go up. The same restrictions and caveats apply to this case.
So that leaves the book’s cover.
I imagine it’s hard (especially for those authors who are writing and promoting a lot more than me) to devise an experiment where the only variable is the cover. But as someone selling in the single digits per year with only one book out (last year, this was), and doing basically 0 promotion, it was actually pretty easy for me.
The numbers below will probably make people laugh, but I’m posting them so you can see the actual values and not just a hand-waving conclusion to my bold experiment. I’m also posting them just to be honest with other indie/self-publishers who will (hopefully) end up on this page at some point. This can be the reality of it if you’re not good at marketing (or if I’m really being honest, just don’t want to put the time into it) and you only have one book out. (My reading on the subject tells me that the 4th rule of self-publishing is: Don’t bother promoting if you only have 1 book. It’s much better to hit it big when you have a bunch of books out.) Lucky for me, I have a day job with health insurance that pays well enough that I’m not a starving artist. In fact, I usually have more calories available to me than I could possibly consume on a regular basis, so I have to work out and eat right or I’ll end up as the opposite of a starving artist. Now, perhaps if I were a starving artist, and writing books to sell was the best option I had for making money, then I’d skip the extra hours that I put in at work and spend more time marketing. But that’s kind of a whole different blog post… so let’s proceed.
Book Cover Experiment
From 2012 when The Valkyrie Project was originally published until November of 2015, I had this cover:
I thought it was pretty decent considering I had done it myself. I still think it is decent considering I did it myself, but decent doesn’t sell books in this day and age.
And as proof, with that cover:
January 2015 – October 2015 sales (before cover change): 3
There’s no missing 0 there. It’s just 3.
I uploaded a new cover – no other changes – at the start of November 2015. It looked like this:
November 2015 – December 2015 sales (after cover change): 12
Yes, I went from 0.3 books per month to 6 books per month simply by changing the cover image.
Now, with only 15 total sales, I’m sure some statistician will say that I don’t have a big enough sample size, but I think the dramatic increase in sales makes up for that fact. Especially considering I did nothing different in those two months.
“But wait!” the astute among you will say, “Didn’t you release another book at the end of 2015? Certainly that had some effect on the sales numbers! Your experiment is not as flawless as you claim!”
Yes, I did in fact release a book at the end of 2015, but the 12 sales from November to December all took place before I announced that book and even before it was available on Amazon. So while you steely-eyed bean counters are correct in part, the addition of that book to my inventory did not have an effect on the 12 sales of the Valkyrie Project.
Weathering The Past has done pretty well since it’s release, most of which I attribute to the cover:
I am sure it’s harder to sell the second book in series (and I have heard/seen anecdotal evidence to support that), so the fact that I’ve sold more copies (15) of Weathering The Past in the first 2 months than I did in 3 years (up to October 2015) with The Valkyrie Project makes me happy (even though it has no bearing on nor relevance to the above experiment). And honestly, now that the book(s) is(are) actually selling a bit, it has inspired me to increase my output and stay focused instead of bouncing around between projects as I have been doing probably a bit too much recently. But that also could fill a whole other blog post.
I still haven’t “won” NaNoWriMo, but every time I do it, I get a little bit closer. And even though I never win, I learn a lot, which is what allows me to get even closer on the next try.
That said, let me share my “tips” such as they are, which in this case are intended mostly to encourage fellow writers who might be perennial “losers” like me.
For me, it’s NeWriMoMo
It’s a subtle difference. I am sure there are plenty of NaNoWriMo purists out there. “You must start at the beginning of a novel and write 50,000 words of that novel.” Sure, that’s cool. If you don’t write during the rest of the year and you haven’t developed a more customized, personalized approach. For me, NaNoWriMo is just a time when I put aside pretty much everything else and just focus on writing. NeWriMoMo: “Ne”ls “wri”tes “mo”re than he does in other “mo”nths. If you can crank out a book in November, then go on to revise and publish it and have a one book per year output, more power to you. There’s no way I can do that. First off, I’ve only ever gotten 35,000 words in a single month, which is barely half of a short novel. Second, I’ve found that I like to bounce around between books when I get stuck. I know that this is anathema to a lot of writers, and most especially to writers who like to give advice. They want to write a book straight through and finish and have it published, and I understand that. But this is about me writing more than I usually do. It’s about trying to get 50,000 words. I don’t expect anything from NeWriMoMo to be even close to publishable (after revision, sure, but not in any relatively short time frame).
Think about the mathematics of it (because that’s what I do). Say I write 10,000 to 20,000 words across 2 books in an average month (20,000 being on the very high side). If, in November, I write 10,000 words across 5 different books, then it’s still 10,000 more words than I would have had on 2-3 of those books and about what I would have done on the other 2-3, so it’s still a net positive. I’m not hurting myself compared to my normal output.
Perhaps it’s a poor analogy, but it’s kind of like when people talk about the “Fat Burning Zone.” I’ve seen advice that people should run slower when working out to keep their heart rate in the “fat burning zone.” That’s great for people who are just getting started running because it allows them to actually get into it and do it. But for people who have been running a while and want to really burn the fat, running faster will burn more calories. Even if that means you’re burning more calories which are stored in carbohydrates and protein, you’re burning more calories overall, so you typically end up burning more fat calories as well. (Of course, then it also helps if you eat a higher proportion of carbs and protein so that you don’t just get back all the fat calories you worked so hard to burn, but still, like my writing, it’s a net positive)
And besides: I prefer Christine Carter’s approach of “The Easiest Thing” (from her book The Sweet Spot). The idea is: in order to get yourself to start doing a new habit, start with whatever is the easiest possible thing. I believe one of her examples was, if you want to start running, put on your running clothes and go outside. If you don’t feel like running, you’re already in your clothes and outside, so maybe you’ll just go for a walk? Or maybe you’ll just go back inside. (I may be totally mangling that example, but it’s the idea I’m going for) Same thing with my writing. What’s the easiest thing in writing? Sit down at my computer and look at Scrivener (I leave the app open so I don’t even have to click to open it because that would make the easiest thing a little bit harder). Once I’ve gotten that far, I know the next easiest thing is to write a sentence. And once I write a sentence, the next sentences start to come. And sometimes they don’t. If that happens, I’ve got other projects to look at. I’ll flip through open projects until one of them strikes me.
Okay. Yes. I know this is not the best way. But it’s only during NaNoWriMo that I allow myself more than 2 (or 3) projects. During my normal writing I’ve usually got 2 fiction projects (usually similar in genre so I don’t have to context switch as much), and 1 sort of non-fiction. During NaNoWriMo, I’ll usually add another fiction project from a previous NaNoWriMo that I only work on during NaNoWriMo, and another fiction project which is brand new so I’ve got plenty of open road ahead of me.
I know this works for me. It’s not just a whim. It’s a defined method/process I’ve created to increase my output in a systematic way. So besides allowing yourself to just break the rules of NaNoWriMo by working on a novel that’s already in progress and/or working on several different novels, my advice is to be aware of how you work and don’t restrict yourself to working one way just because you think that’s how writers are supposed to do it. Writers are artists, but at the same time, they have to produce something if they want to sell it. So the ability to create that balance between the creative and logical sides of your brain is important to develop.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with ideas, your process, and your life. When I first started drinking protein shakes, I tried making them by – as the name suggests – shaking them. It didn’t work. They came out all clumpy and borderline undrinkable. So I switched to using a blender and they turned out much better. “Great story Nels,” I can hear you saying, but that’s not the end. Not much later, I found a better tasting and even healthier protein powder. But I continued using the blender and didn’t even think to go back and try the shake method with the new powder until my wife final got
lazy smart enough to just be like “I’m just going to shake one and see if it works.” Lo and behold! It worked like a charm bracelet on the horn of a unicorn. Now, imagine that your books are different kinds of protein power and your writing process is shaking them up. The process that makes an unreadable word soup out of one book might make something smooth and delicious for your reader’s brains with that same process. But you won’t know unless you try.
A Writer’s Season Never Ends
At the end of NaNoWriMo, I’m still trying to write 800+ words/day to reach my goal for the year. Part of that is because I spent a lot of time earlier in the year revising Weathering The Past (Book 2 of The Valkyrie Project series), and part of it is because I was tired after all the revising and let myself off the hook a little too much.
But a Writer’s Season Never Ends. As much as I’d like the revision of a book to be the playoffs and the publication to be winning the championship, I don’t yet have the rhythm to make that analogy work. And while it might actually be a decent analogy if you stretch it a bit, writers don’t really have a regular season either. The off-season and the regular season are pretty much the same. You don’t get to take a break. I read an article in Chicago Magazine about Jimmy Butler’s off-season and his schedule of waking up at 5am every day and practicing three times a day sounds a lot like my writing schedule. I’m writing this post at 5am, and I write on the train or at lunch and – especially during NaNoWriMo – I force myself to write more after work even when my brain is dead and my words/hour rate slows to about 100. There’s no part where you show off in front of an audience (certainly not while traveling the country). If that sounds like a book tour, then it means the regular season comes after the playoffs and the championship and so the analogy is fundamentally broken. In which case, I’ll repeat it again: A Writer’s Season Never Ends.
But don’t worry too much. Because if you attempted NaNoWriMo – even if you didn’t win – it will be much easier to keep writing now. After reaching for 1,667 words per day, trying for 800 seems almost pedestrian. It’s like playing ball against Jimmy Butler for a month and then going back to play at your local gym.
Get Hulu Unlimited. During November, I had to try to keep up with Blindspot and Agents of SHIELD (pretty much the only two shows I watch anymore). With Hulu Unlimited (aka No Commercials), I was able to crank out an episode in less than 45 minutes while I did elliptical; multi-tasking which allowed me to get back to writing that much faster. Before the no commercials option, I would be there for at least 50 minutes, which is a long time on the elliptical, believe me. Or I’d have a show with 5 more minutes that I needed to watch. (I had to watch them in November because even with Unlimited, the episodes still expire so you have to keep up within the last 5 episodes). Outside of working out, it’s totally worth the $4/month for the time savings on watching shows with my wife. I haven’t actually calculated the ROI in terms of amount paid for time saved, but at about 13 cents a day, it doesn’t take much. And no, I don’t work for Hulu or any TV networks or anything else affiliated with Hulu. I just happen to like TV as well as being efficient.
For those reading in real-time: Yes, I am posting this right before Thanksgiving for a reason. 😛
In The Valkyrie Project, and it’s sequel Weathering the Past, our protagonist — Ana Callif — does some fairly routine ass-kicking, at least by today’s standards. She fights (a lot), runs (a lot), jumps, sneaks around, and fights (some more). Even scurrying across the roof of a skybridge over dozens of lanes of flying cars has become a bit believable when you’ve got twenty years of Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne (and let us not forget another 30+ years of James Bond) under your belt.
But I’ve started working out (more than just running/elliptical) this year (actually since last December), and after being a runner pretty much exclusively my entire life, I have come to realize that these agents of espionage must have a pretty killer training plan that we never actually get to see or read about. It’s not like Rocky where the training montage is expected so you can see how hard he’s working. Even the recent Daredevil series just kind of goes with the assumption that: He’s blind, so his heightened senses also include increased heart size and red blood cells that can carry oxygen to his muscles faster during anaerobic activity. He doesn’t have to go to the gym and do jumping lunges or mountain climbers or sumo squats. Just as Ana can sprint up a hill while being shot at or wrestle some dude in an elevator or sprint up way too many stairs (or any number of other crazy ridiculous stunts which I’m trying not to spoil for those who haven’t read the books), she also is never shown lifting a finger outside all these missions. I definitely think the missions help to keep her in shape, but there’s no mention of push-ups, burpees, weights, or duck walking. Yet if she wasn’t already prepared for the task physically, I don’t think the Agency would even let her out the door.
So, how do these people get in shape in the first place?
In this post I’ve put together my hypothesis in the form of a workout. It’s similar to workouts I’ve seen and done (which kicked my ass), so while I’m not a certified professional trainer or anything, I’m fairly sure this would get you into, if not World Class Super Spy shape, then something much closer than most of us probably are now (myself included).
The Valkyrie Project Workout
We’ll start with a warm-up and then 3 circuits (though the Valkyries probably do it at least twice through depending on how much time they have). The circuits are only about 7 minutes each. They’re intended to be hard and you do them as hard as you can. Get that heart rate up and keep it up while you work those muscles. When you’re training to be an International Super Spy, you don’t have all the time in the world to work out (I’m going with that assumption, even though really, you probably do). You’ve got to read a lot about missions, study other languages, learn to imitate other people, practice walking in heels (if you’re a Valkyrie), hit the gun range, and then take a long flight somewhere. So you’ve got to keep your workouts short and to the point.
In the interest of efficiency again, you will need at most a set of hand weights for these moves (though most don’t require any weights).
Warm-Up (30 seconds each – twice through)
Backward Swinging Arm Circles (Big rotation)
Half-squat with leg rotation (ideally with knee straight and full rotation) – This is just a half-squat with a chorus line kick
Static lunges with torso rotation (with hand weight)
Leg swings – one leg at a time, swing it out to the side while keeping your body straight up and down
Circuit 1 (30 seconds for each numbered exercise)
1. Half Crow Push-ups – 30 seconds; bend one leg and bring it toward your elbow as you do a push-up
2. Kettlebell swing with squat (you can use your hand weight as a kettlebell)
3. Sumo Squats with overhead tricep press (tricep extension)
4. Mountain climbers
6. V-sit into Hollow Ab Lift (similar to Hollow Rock but with a bit more control going from the V-sit to the Hollowed out position)
7. Plank twist
Circuit 2 (30 seconds for each numbered exercise)
1. Superman with shoulder press (hand weights)
2. Renegade row with push-up
3. Forearm plank push-ups
4. Squat jumps
5. Plank moguls
6. Pike crunch (raise legs and touch toes)
7. Sit-up with leg extension (alternating sides – kind of like a bicycle sit-up)
Circuit 3 (30 seconds for each numbered exercise)
1. Duck walk
2. Chair pose with reverse fly (this is a combo, so you might have to search for a couple videos to get the idea)
3. Side lunge with front raise
4. Double-time butt kicks (basically, as fast as you think you can do them, double that)
5. Jumping lunges
6. Sit-up with Russian Twist
7. Roll-up followed by pike crunch
Always important to stretch things out after a work-out. Most people do this by stretching whatever hurts for about 5 seconds, and with time so limited, you would think the Valkyries would probably follow that routine as well. Well, some of them do, I can assure you. Ana is probably one of them. But some of them follow the prescribed stretching routine, which is as follows…
Standing Hamstring Stretch – Place one leg at a time on a chair and lean forward to stretch hamstring; 90 seconds each. Keep back straight when leaning in to stretch. You can do this seated on the floor with one leg bent if you want.
Standing Quad Stretch – One leg at a time for 90 seconds each.
Crowd Pleaser – Stretch for the groin: Sitting on the ground place the soles of the feet together and lean forward. Hold for 90 seconds. (Noticing a pattern here?)
Standing Calf Stretch – Place hands on the wall or back of a chair. One leg forward, the other straight back. Try to keep the heel on the ground for the best stretch. Hold each leg for… 90 seconds! No deviation here.
So there you go. And yes, I did just basically pick all the hardest moves that I know of and string them together. But I did actually do this workout after designing it to check if it was really as hard as I thought it would be, and actually is was quite doable. Certainly not easy – it’s harder than a lot of similar workouts I’ve done, but I’m sure if I wanted to spend five minutes searching instead of making up my own, I could find a lot of harder workouts. But they wouldn’t be called the Valkyrie Project workout, now would they?
As Weathering The Past nears readiness for publication, I’m trying to figure out ways to market it without just pimping the book directly; to say something besides just “buy my book!”
So, to give you an idea of the different aspects that went into writing the second book in the The Valkyrie Project series and, honestly, just to share some music that I really like, I’ve made the playlists that I used when writing Weathering The Past public on Spotify. (Since Spotify is free, I believe anyone should be able to listen just by giving them your email address – or a fake email if you really want)
I think (okay, I know) most writers have playlists that they use when writing to get them in the right mood or mindset. I don’t remember seeing any post more than just a single album, artist, or playlist for their writing, though. I’m guessing they have them, but they’re just trying to be concise. Since the scenes in my books vary in tone and emotion (I hope!), it definitely helps me to have a particular playlist to help with the kind of scene I’m writing.
For Weathering The Past, there were three main types of feelings that I wanted to get. Not all of the scenes match up to one of these three exactly, but for the most part, I found that three lists was a good number to work with. The first… well, there is a lot of action in the book. So, I needed a playlist that would get me psyched up. I considered using Barney’s Get Psyched Mix from How I Met Your Mother, but it’s a bit heavy on the 80’s and I like to stay current on my music. So, I seeded a playlist with some classic Get Psyched songs and then slowly evolved it, adding new songs to replace ones that I got tired of, to end up with the current Valkyrie Project – Amped mix. You’re lucky because I went through a bit of an EDM phase in the middle, most of which has been culled, replaced with songs that I think are generally more palatable.
The next most prevalent emotion was ‘tension’ or ‘drama’. This generally meant slower, quieter, and mostly instrumental tracks. Selections from a lot of movie and video game scores. Some of these were used for action scenes as well, but the kind of action scenes where something very dramatic is culminating or coming to a head. I think you’ll get a good idea of what I mean when you hear it… Valkyrie Project – Dramatic.
Finally, there is the Valkyrie Project – Emotion list. This was used for scenes where I was trying to rip tears from the eyes of readers. I don’t think there’s as many of those in Weathering The Past as compared to The Valkyrie Project, though. That was a conscious effort on my part to make it a bit lighter, include more ‘fun’, and go with more of the scenes that would fit into the ‘Dramatic’ playlist rather than ‘Emotion.’ Based on feedback from the early readers who have finished both books, I don’t think I did as as good a job of that as I wanted, but the overall feedback was very positive for the second book, so I’m not going beat myself up too much.
As I begin work on the third book in the series, I will continue to listen to and to evolve these playlists, so go ahead and ‘Follow’ them to take advantage of Spotify’s excellent notification system.