Maxims

I intended, with the last post, to discuss Rework, the wonderful book by the gentlemen over at 37 Signals, but of course I got completely sidetracked. While much has happened in the two weeks since I finished Rework, I don't want to let it go without comment.

This is one of those fabulous books like Steven Pressfield's The War of Art in a few ways: it's a quick read; it's inspiring in that kick-in-the-pants, no excuses way; and it's filled with maxims, delicious little nuggets to write down and repeat until they penetrate my thick skull.

ReworkNotes.jpg

If I could distill my career cravings into a single work, it would sound exactly as they write in the book. The virtues they preach are the ones I'm striving to embrace with More Time To Write, the NerdKicks Podcast, and all my projects: work hard to create quality, meaningful projects; stay focused on serving the core principle of the project; out-teach your competition; and always, always move forward.

Of the four dozen nuggets of wisdom I captured, these are the two maxims I most will embrace (and most fit my Finishing theme):

  • Focus on quick wins: Momentum fuels motivation. The longer something takes, the less likely it is I'll finish it, so I must learn to break projects down into tiny decisions. Each little decision is a win that will propel me forward.
  • Out-teach the competition: Sharing valuable information is the best way to build a deeper connection with my audience.

Quick wins have the lovely effect of building that kinetic energy I discussed earlier, and I'm doing my best to find ways of building little successes and finishes into my day.

The latest personal projects finished:

  • I recorded a screencast and published a Google Alerts tutorial over on the More Time To Write blog
  • I edited the latest episode of the NerdKicks Podcast
  • I created a Projects page for this site
  • I published this blog post

Finding What Works

We're 15 days into the year, and it appears that this will be a big reading year for me. I've finished three books and am well into the fourth, and it brings to mind one of my bigger New Year's resolutions failures from a few years ago.

Back in 2009 or 2010 (somewhere in there), I kicked off the year with the goal to read a book a week. I've always been a big reader, and with my daily train commute, 52 books in the year seemed well within my reach. Successful writers read, and I wanted nothing more than to set myself up for success.

Quite the opposite.

By the end of February, I was already three books behind. By the end of April, eight books behind. Worse, I wasn't enjoying any of what I read. I felt frantic, racing through books without much thought for the content. By the end of May, I had the good sense to declare the experiment a failure. Pushing to meet a numerical goal ruined the joyful experience of reading.

But they say we learn more from our failures than we do our successes, and I certainly did learn a valuable lesson. I had picked the number, one book a week, after reading Stephen King's On Writing. I was in that tentative, beginner writer phase where I bought and obsessively consumed as many books on writing as I could, not because I thought they held some secret shortcut to becoming a better writer—thank heaven I had more sense then that—but with the hope that their wisdom would provide the activation energy I needed to pick up a pen every night.

Some books were amazingly helpful. On Writing, for me, was incredibly destructive.

As a memoir, On Writing is fascinating, and I loved it for that, but as a tome of writing advice, it really sunk my battleship. King states in several places that he believes that good writing is an inborn skill—either you have it or you don't—and you should have figured out if you have it at a young age. I hadn't written much in high school (I certainly wasn't submitting work for publication like King had) and this admonishment left me feeling utterly deflated. It conjured up the same feelings of despair I felt as an eighth grade gymnast watching the Olympics; I was past my prime. I'd wasted my life. Best to forget my dreams and sit on the couch eating Lay's Loaded Baked Potato flavor chips.

I tell you, I live a pretty clean paleo lifestyle, but if my brother walked into the room with a bag of those chips, I'd tackle him to the ground, no mercy. God in heaven, they taste as near to perfect as I think is possible.

In the book, King also wrote about reading several books a week. "I'm a slow reader," he writes, "but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction." I got it into my head that I would be a failure if I couldn't keep up at least 2/3 that pace. 80 x 2/3 = 53 books in a year. And so I gave up every scrap of my free time to failing. I felt defeated, and I knew I would never, ever be a writer.

But then I picked up Elizabeth George's Write Away and I was back in the game.

It was a worthy lesson for me to learn. Books offer great advice, but advice does not universally apply. To some, that may be an obvious concept, but as someone who has always been incredibly trusting of authority, it has been a painful lesson I have had to learn many times over.

And so my thoughts on Rework will have to wait another day, as I appear to have gotten lost in a tangent.

Here is my list of personal projects that I have finished since Wednesday:

  • I finished reading The Sherlockian, a book I've been starting and stopping since Christmas 2011.
  • I cleaned out my bedroom closet and straightened my office bookcase. It's not a complete finish of my office cleaning, but I'm celebrating small wins.
  • I made another batch of chili and the pulled pork from Make It Paleo, as well as cooking a beef roast (my recipe needs work) and a double batch of PaleOMG's pumpkin granola.

By Wednesday, I'm committing to:

Books: My First Murder

I've been reading a lot of books in the business/marketing/entrepreneurship vein lately (I just picked up two more today, reviews as I finish them), but in the interest of balance I've also been reading Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers.

I adore murder mysteries. I have since I was old enough to read something other than Beverly Cleary. What I can't remember is which came first, reading mysteries or watching them on television. Beginning in middle school, this was my favorite television show:

Curling up on the living room floor with a blanket to watch Mystery! was just as exciting as going to the movie theater. I wasn't allowed to watch scary movies, but PBS got a pass, along with the television edit of Rear Window—which I have memorized in its entirety, Sears kitchen remodeling commercials included.

While I can't remember the first detective novel I read, I can, with absolute certainty, tell you that the first murder I ever saw on television was the throat-cutting scene in the Mystery! presentation of Have His Carcase. I'm not sure how old I was, probably 10 or 11, but I'm certain I could trace it back through photographs. Shortly after watching the movie I developed an affinity for turtlenecks that lasted until midway through college.

I still can't sleep if my neck is exposed.

A few months ago I saw the copy of Have His Carcase sitting on top of the Rotary book drive stack at work. I knew I had to read it. I remembered only two things from the movie; that awful murder sequence and the key bit of information that allowed Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane to crack the case. What I didn't remember was whodunit. The identity of the murderer completely escaped me.

Knowing the key plot twist up front didn't make the slightest bit of difference. In fact, I'm sure it made it more enjoyable because I was able to watch Dorothy Sayers lay the groundwork for the twist, and the twist itself didn't identify the killer. I love reading fiction a second and third time through to collect the little clues the author drops early, to observe how the author develops a character.

All told, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The ending was quite satisfying in a very 30s detective novel sort of way. Sometimes it's nice to count on a tidy resolution.

My favorite contemporary mystery author is absolutely Elizabeth George. I'm halfway through In the Presence of the Enemy, but I'm so sad and anxious for Helen and Simon that I've had to put it down. Things will not end well for the missing little girl. Ms. George does not submit to the tidy-ending compulsions as did her predecessors.

Before I go, take a look at the cover of Have His Carcase. I snapped a couple of photos when I realized it was crumbling as I read it.

 

Isn't that swell? I wish I could wear a purple flapper dress, just like Harriet Vane. It fits perfectly with the Edward Gorey Mystery! credit sequence. I think I'm going to have to turn this into one of my next needlepoint projects.