Books That Have Changed My Life: Getting Things Done

GTD OG Style

Another life-changing non-fiction book is Getting Things Done (original edition), the perennial bestseller. I wonder how many of the millions of purchasers actually read it, or, like me, implemented the prescribed strategies and solutions.

It only took a few pages to know this book was gold. The author, David Allen, tells a story about how he would sometimes write lists (before his GTD system) and, if even if he completed a task earlier, he’d write the task just for the satisfaction of crossing it off the list. I do the same… I lean toward this kind thinking and behavior, which I’m sure is the reason the book’s concepts land with me. There are plenty of descriptions of his system elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it here. On a daily and weekly basis, I follow the most basic habits. Inbox zero. It’s a pain in the ass, but I don’t miss mails or have thousands of unopened items in my Gmail inbox. I was on a presentation with a vendor and his email tab read over 9k unread mails. My God. Anyway, that’s a daily habit.

Weekly, I have a “meeting” with myself where I review the previous and preview the next week’s calendar and tasks and merge my projects into a “Projects” list. I then consult this list daily and turn project items into daily tasks. I also keep a “Someday/Maybe” list (as a parking lot) for projects that aren’t on the main list. This isn’t exactly what GTD calls for, but it works for me. I have done none of the monthly or quarterly check-ins in years, but I used to… and should do them again. The other daily habit I took from GTD is managing my day-to-day with a task list, and I dutifully check off items as I complete them. I’ve followed this protocol for so long its second nature and literally a part of my life.

Books That Have Changed My Life: The Pragmatic Programmer

Original cover for The Pragmatic Programmer
Original cover for The Pragmatic Programmer

After my brief stint as an Environmental Health Specialist, I switched to a technology career. As aforementioned, my schooling was in Environmental Studies (policy, light science), so I spent the first part of my “new” career reading and learning about the profession. Most books in the space were very technical and focused on a particular product or skill or language (“Visual Basic for Dummies!”)… and I certainly churned through many of them. But one book shone above the rest: The Pragmatic Programmer.

My wife never comments on the books I read, but even she noticed how much time I spent with this book over the years. TPP is the polar opposite of a tech book focused on a specific topic. Instead, it addressed how a programmer (somewhat dated term, now commonly called a developer) should think about their work and career habits, training and approach to the work. So many of the lessons imparted in these pages made their way to my professional and everyday life. Thomas and Hunt, the authors, had a theory/approach called “Tracer Bullet Development”. Basically, they prescribed building a very basic, working part of all aspects of a system to make sure the idea would work… don’t build the middle layer completely, then move to the front end, then to the db and, only after months or years of work, discover basic holes in the concept. Get all the pieces framed out and fire off a tracer bullet to ensure the concept is sound and they aren’t major obstacles (performance between layers, security, technologies that don’t talk to each other, etc.). I’ve championed the TBD approach in every software project I’ve led or managed since, with great results. And it crosses over into other parts of life as well. TPP is full of quick (but deep) lessons like this, including a heuristic about lazy programmers… the lazier the better (a cheeky way to describe programmers loathing of repetitive tasks, so they lean on automation, which removes risk of error and forgetting. Useful well beyond programming * see finance gurus*. I’ve used TBD thinking everywhere in my life). 

Not only is TPP chock-full of fantastic lessons and advice, but the book itself is brilliant. The authors clearly concentrated not only the prose but the text, layout, etc. And use it as a lesson in automation, layout, etc. DRY… Don’t Repeat Yourself. YAGNI… You ain’t gonna need it. Don’t Live with broken windows. Certainly, in the over twenty years since (my version) of the book published, a lot has changed and some of their advice seems dated. Thomas and Hunt published an updated version; I haven’t read it because I don’t actively practice the craft anymore… based on how much the original version influenced me, I probably should.

Books That Have Changed My Life: The Monkey Wrench Gang

The Monkey Wrench Gang
The Monkey Wrench Gang

I recently worked on the following writing prompt: “Write about reading and books that have changed your life.”… a different question than writing about your favorite books or the best-written books. I’ll share the most notable books in a series of posts.

In high school, I joined a club called S.A.V.E., Students Against Violating the Environment. My involvement led me to explore magazines and books around environmentalism. In the late 80s, with Bush Sr. as president, a huge groundswell emerged… I was too young to realize the momentum was new and reveled in my new focus. The local library and bookstores (in the local mall, B.Dalton and Waldenbooks) had two types of books and magazines; dry books, like Silent Spring or magazines from the DEP (NJ Department of Environmental Protection), with bland covers and articles that seemed important but boring. But there was Buzzworm magazine. Glossy, with cool nature photos on the cover (close-ups of colorful Amazonian frogs) and good, readable articles.

One of the repeated references in Buzzworm was to Edward Abbey. I hadn’t heard of him or his books titled The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire. I don’t remember how I got hold of these books; I liked Desert Solitaire and loved TMWG.

TMWG is a story of a band of rag-tag environmentalists (a dentist, his younger girlfriend, a river guide and a radical Vietnam vet) who try to stem the inevitable tide of development and accompanying destruction of the American desert with sabotage. The characters were other-worldly to my suburban NJ self, preachy, righteous, driven. And it was an adventure story with suspense and drama; the characters camped out under the stars and drank beer and swapped lovers. The plot was wild and appealed to my teen desire for rebellion and adventure. And, along with other media swirling around, solidified my passion to make environmentalism a career. TMWG sent me on a path to an environmental college (Cook College, Rutgers) and my major (International Environmental Studies) and my first job (Health Inspector, now properly referred to as an Environmental Health Specialist).

Cover of My Copy of TMWG

I haven’t re-read TMWG in years. Will my jaded self react to the characters and their passions and preaching differently? Negatively? I’m way on the other side of the fence, a corporate employee with two kids and a wife in the ‘burbs. And, most notably, any form of terrorism did not age well. I read this twelve or thirteen years before 9-11 when terrorist was something that happened on the news in London or Beruit.

Abbey turned out to be a difficult as well. Just as my younger self was a fan of his fiction, I devoured much of his non-fiction. Mostly he wrote about the desert and his attachment to the land, his thoughts on land use and people in suits and the environmental movement writ large. As a teen, I read and absorbed these thoughts as truth, the righteous path. Now, when I’ve tried to read him, it comes across as grumpy and limited. And, let’s be fair, I’m the bad guy in his stories now… when I was younger, I assumed I’d be the fire ranger sleeping under the stars. Instead, I have a house in the burbs and two Hondas. There’s another aspect of Abbey that’s hard as well; he doesn’t come across well compared with modern sensibilities, with less than enlightened views on women and equality and race.

Moving Goalposts

Abandoned Road

I started writing (and this website) with modest goals. Set up a writing routine. Get published, somewhere, anywhere. Have at least one-hundred people read my stories. Work on the craft, become a better writer. Consistently publish on this website.

Over the last one-plus year, I checked off those boxes. Quality is difficult to measure, but I definitely have routine, had 2 pieces published (one in a paper journal… impossible to know how many people read finished The Inspector’s Legacy, but we’ll take the check mark), publish 2-3x/month to this site, and worked on drills, classes, prompts and feedback to improve my writing.

Time to reset. The number one goal is to publish more. I’ve come close to having work published, but this ain’t horseshoes. Writing a few thousand words per week is pleasant… having real, consistent feedback and readers is better. Publishing 2-3 short stories per year is the number one goal.

The second goal is to self-publish a novella. I’ve mentioned Crystal Grove for months, and is still a work in progress. But I’d like to go through the work of self-publishing, promoting, etc. It’s a weird story, and I’m not sure I’d start it again now, but it needs to get out there and off my plate.

The previous goals are concrete and measurable. The next few are grayer. I want to pick a few genres/areas and try to get notably better in the space. Better define who I am as a writer, establish the range of places I can publish, understand what those audiences expect, etc. And this goal supports the publishing target as well.

Another goal is better relationships with editors. Both types; the developmental and line editors needed to whip a story into place, and the gatekeepers at journals. To date, I’ve used editors at Reedsy. Their feedback is good, but only for the story itself, not for a larger view of my work.

I hope these new targets build a foundation for the final, longer-term goal. To build a practice and give meaning to a post-working-stiff life.

Group Think

Trail Markers

I just finished This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Highly recommended, an incredibly unique story and book, and I suggest going into the story completely blind (don’t read any reviews or plot summaries. Note, this is neither). At the end of the story, the two authors exchange acknowledgements.*

The people who played a role (and if the kind words are to be taken at face value, large roles) stunned me. The book is two-hundred pages long with generous fonts and margins; it could easily be condensed by fifty pages. A short book. Not only are there two authors, but friends and family who provided advice and support, agents and editors, subject matter experts, language geeks, managing editors, copyeditors, stylists, publicists… wow.

This is very different than the lone author, Hemingway hunched over his typewriter in Key West, a solitary man banging out masterpieces. It seems the co-authors worked together in a gazebo and threw around ideas. Probably agreed on an outline and beats together. I don’t have any information on the mechanics of their partnership, but I can see the advantages to working together. Better ideas. Instant reaction, excitement around concepts. And, assumedly, external validation from the team listed above. Amazing to get feedback on an idea, a concept, a scene, a character arc before writing. It hadn’t occurred to me authors could get that sort of information BEFORE putting words on the page.

Reminds me of what I’ve learned about Koppelman and Levien, via Koppelman’s podcast. They will work on story arcs and outlines together, with all of the validation and excitement inherent in sharing a vision. I don’t know much about writing for screenplay’s, but assumedly the studio signs off on an idea or concept in advance… another form of validation. Do these check’s and balances remove doubt while writing? The voice that says the plot is dull, the characters weak, the pacing off, the whole concept isn’t worthwhile? It seems freeing.

I’ve written before about the need for feedback loops and editors, or at least trusted readers. Their value looking at a first draft is obvious… but getting feedback even earlier blows my mind. I’m waiting until I feel like Crystal Grove is readable before showing it to anyone; minor plot points are in flux and lacking quality. But what if there are major flaws, or poor assumptions, or the idea just stinks? This changes my view on when to share work and how collaborative some art really is.

  • reading acknowledgements and thank-you’s as well as author’s introductions is a new habit. Neil Gamian’s notes are so interesting in his short story collection and any additional color or context from the author is fascinating.

Finding My Tribe

Mohonk Mountain Path

I’m on the road, visiting friends in Portland, Oregon. We had wine last night at Muse Wine Bar. While enjoying a Ploussard, a mixed group of runners assembled outside the nearby Portland Running Club. The runners, dressed to work out, greeted each other, stretched, laughed, took a group picture, started together, and came back in small and medium-sized groups forty-five minutes later. More stretching, circles of sweaty people chatting, having beers, talking about the run, the weather, whatever.

I’ve been a runner my entire adult life but never joined a running group, mainly because of living in the suburbs and my early morning running preference. I could see the camaraderie forged through shared experience. Initially, I was jealous that I wasn’t part of a similar group, and upset that I hadn’t been able to run for 3 months because of a mysterious groin injury. But it made me think how these runners found their tribe, and how I need to find mine.

When I started doing triathlons, everything I knew about training for tri’s came from Triathlon Training and At a race at the end of my second season, a guy from the newly formed Jersey Shore Triathlon Club noticed my running times and said I should train with the club over the winter. I joined and began to mountain bike in Allaire park with serious recreational athletes. On my first ride, I struggled to keep up and fell a dozen times and was the last person in the group… but we talked shop at every break, made plans for more training later in the week, discussed gear and cross-training ideas. I called my wife from the parking lot and excitedly told her I had found my people.

The Portland running group reminded me of that feeling, of belonging to a tribe of peers. It elevated me as a triathlete, made me faster, confident and more invested in the sport. I need to find the same in a writing community. A group of peers to elevate me, keep me honest, have bitch sessions and whine, exchange publishing ideas. And to keep me invested.

I had hoped Scribophile was that group. The issue is uneven feedback and lack of focus. I joined a sub-group for beta reads; it was helpful to discuss in real time someone else’s impression of your writing but inconsistent in terms of genre, commitment, ability, etc. I appreciated them and their writing, but didn’t see a future with them. I also looked for local writing groups; there is a women-only group that meets in my local library and a quasi-group called Project Write Now.

I loved the stories about Chuck Palahniuk’s famous writing group. Authors sitting around a dining room table, reading and sharing thoughts. As the article mentions, each member of the group contributes a certain strength. The chance to get feedback, to bounce ideas, to share the thoughts and fears around writing.

The best next thing is to form a group myself… except I don’t know any authors. Not one. Check that, I do work with a guy who wrote a book and is working on a memoir, but he lives in downtown Manhattan and only writes non-fiction.

There are groups in Manhattan, and I (maybe??) will return there multiple times a week, but they don’t work logistically (meet in late evening/night, long after the last ferry home). I’m sure tried-and-true ways exist to form a writing group. I need to research them.

Until then, it’s still time to double down on guardrails, outlines, pre-work.

The Subtle Art of Resistance part 2

View from Fire Tower
Catskills Fire Tower View

part 1

Many authors list editing as their favorite part of the process. After the shitty first draft is in place, the fun part can begin. Turning something crappy into a delightful story. This is where my inner critic comes out in full force… and lets me know the story isn’t interesting enough, or the characters are weak and undeveloped, or the plot questions aren’t strong. I’m fighting this right now with a story (tentatively called “Mags Hotel”); I had an idea for a short story, from a daily writing prompt (the story starts with the main character hearing something they’d never thought they’d hear again…) for Mags, a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world, who wakes up in a hotel with food and air conditioning. I wanted to explore two things; the mystery of the hotel, why was she there, etc. And, to have a deeper exploration into her transformed self… that she was more alive living on her own in the woods than she was as a project manager before the apocalypse. I’ve written it twice, but didn’t lay out an outline or decide what the big questions were in advance. Now it seems damn near impossible to fix what’s on the page.

But I will. Avoiding the work and worrying is exhausting, So I’ll borrow the same approach I used in the real world. Come up with a better system, where I work on outlines in advance. And, while still in outline form, I’ll ask the hard questions about narrative questions and themes and building tension… I need to acknowledge that this takes time and effort and focus, more than the actual fingers on keyboard part. I watched a small snippet of James Patterson’s MasterClass (I don’t think I’ll watch the whole thing, his process is very different ) but he made an interesting point… he takes a month to a month and a half to come up with an outline for a novel, and then continually revises and adds to the outline. That’s a very different mindset to my old approach… I viewed the outline as something to get out of the way and used as a loose guidepost.

And break down these tasks into bite-sized chunks. Violated my own rules by having “Edit process” as a to-do task. Too broad, too vague. A checklist of discrete tasks for each story should make each step more approachable.

Hopefully, I can follow up here in a few months with my new, new system, with questions and outlines and steps to complete stories quicker and better. And to chip away at the Resistance. Sharpen the saw .

The Subtle Art of Resistance

Falls and Bridge
Falls and Bridge

I follow several authors online and via podcasts. One book that each author revered is “The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield. I read it four or five years ago. The key point of the book is to acknowledge, control and push back against a blocking force he calls the Resistance, and to conduct writing or any artistic venture like a professional. I didn’t think I had a problem with Resistance as I have a steady daily routine. All good, right? But lately I’ve had a hard time sitting and doing the real work of planning and editing. It’s Resistance, just not in its classic form.

From Wikipedia: “Resistance is described in a mythical fashion as a universal force that has one sole mission: to keep things as they are… It is the force that will stop an individual’s creative activity through any means necessary, whether it be rationalizing, inspiring fear and anxiety, emphasizing other distractions that require attention, raising the voice of an inner critic, and much more. It will use any tool to stop creation flowing from an individual, no matter what field the creation is in.”

Pressfield tells stories about himself and other creatives unable to sit at the keyboard and get the words out. As aforementioned, I don’t have a problem banging out my words each morning. My resistance, I realized, is in the rest of the process.

Early on I wrote how I used to start stories with a deep, involved outline, then a backed off that practice… ending up without an outline, just an idea of what I was writing next. I hoped this would allow me to experiment and follow plots and characters wherever they might lead. And it has… I’ve cranked out a fair amount of work. But my pieces suffer from the same problems; lack of obvious structure, strong, interesting character arcs, etc. Elements that need to be planned out.

When I complete the shitty first draft, I’m reluctant to do the hard work of capital-E Editing. Major revisions, cutting entire scenes or characters, re-writing pages that don’t work. I’m happy to whittle away at sentences, but the comprehensive work and the big questions… that’s where I run right into the Resistance. I have 4 stories right now, 3 short ones and the novella, that need serious edits. Complete pieces, somewhere between the first and third draft done but I have, well, Resistance to doing the big edits.

I’m the oppositeIn “real” life. I’m a planner and an organizer; in my full-time job, I spend more than half of my week on strategic work. I’m always planning and laying out health or fitness or travel project as well…

part 2

The Genre Dilemma

New Paltz Signpost
New Paltz Signpost

I didn’t think about genres when I started writing. I never said, “I want to write a Contemporary Realism story.” Instead, I pictured an IT worker in a small engineering firm dealing with a hack. Same with Crystal Grove; I began with the idea of Reiki and crystals in the backyard. To date, I’ve written amongst three genres, Contemporary Realism, Magical Realism and Post-Apocalyptic (and a sub-genre, post-industrial).

Should a developing author follow their ideas and inspiration or focus on one genre? Both King and Grisham are best known for one genre (horror and legal thriller, respectively) but successfully write other styles as well (fantasy, realism, Christmas tales, etc.). The vast majority of authors stay with one genre, sometimes employing a nom de plume if they veer outside of their self-defined lines.

Sticking to one genre has advantages. It allows the author to become an expert. Read the best writing in the genre, know the tropes and expectations of the reader. When I posted a few chapters of Crystal Grove on Scribophile, one reader commented that my description made the piece sound like a haunted house story and she chided me for not meeting her expectations. Understood. This focus provides a chance to write better in that genre and build an audience. If an author has fans, most likely they read only in that genre and may not follow you as you hop between types.

I worry, though, that writing in one genre is too limiting, especially early (career-wise). I follow inspiration wherever it lands. If I had a powerful vision of a fantasy world of swords and goblins, I’d like to pursue the idea, likewise with a romance or office mystery. Counterpoint is I could always shoe-horn these other ideas into a genre. And it’s restrictive to limit the world of the possible to one set of ideas and tropes (although guide rails are very important).

I’ll continue to dabble in the different genres for now. If any of my stories ever caught on, I’d change my approach. One of my goals as a writer is to have one-hundred non family and friends read my work. I’d focus on a genre if I ever crossed that barrier and gained a fan base.

Looming Regret

Outcropping in Shawgunks

I’ve discussed my consistent writing routine. As of July 2021, I’ve followed this daily schedule for a year and a half, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. I was lucky enough to work somewhere stable and could do my job remotely. If things continue on their current trajectory, September will bring a big change; back to the office 2-3x/week.

Setting aside the larger impact of returning to the office, I’m worried about the writing. I’m not sure if I’ve gotten much better over the last year and a half, but I’ve learned a lot about the process. And embraced the Julia Cameron “Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity. You take care of the quality,” mantra by generating words every day. But this consistency is in jeopardy. I tried to write daily before the pandemic but had to skip days because of work and the commute. Also, not writing first thing in the morning, with a spacious, empty mind, is hard. I tried to set aside twenty or thirty minutes in the office, but it was impossible once the workday started. Even at home I struggle with creative work in the middle of the day; it’s like the two sides of my brain need a few hours away from each other to act correctly. I’m reminded of Paul Graham’s Maker vs Manager it’s not the same problem, but in the ballpark.

Of course, I’ll generate more experiences and content being “out in the world”. Writers need content, ideas and stimulation. To quote Cameron again, “filling the well”, or the process of self-nourishing. People watching. Exposure to something other than the walls of my house. This will start this month and ramp up over the summer…it’s not dependent on commuting into Manhattan every day, but that forced interaction helps. I dreamed up the story of a health inspector in post-apocalypse Manhattan while sitting on a bus waiting to enter the Lincoln tunnel.

The opportunity to write and focus on creativity during the pandemic has been a gift. I don’t think I’d have 2 published pieces and a handful of in-progress stories without the time and space to work.

I should have generated more, published more, got more feedback and made more progress, though. In these last few months I can put a dent in that regret. Finding a home for the Valley, finishing Mags Hotel and completing the complete first draft of Crystal Grove by September would put me in a better spot.