A Beautiful Day

I turned in the manuscript for Your Money: The Missing Manual on Friday, January 15th (the one-year anniversary of Paul’s death), but that wasn’t the end of the work. No indeed. Right away, I dove into a marathon ten-day editing session. One by one, I’ve gone back over each chapter, polishing the prose and eradicating errors.

As part of this process, I called an emergency meeting of the Woodstock Writers Guild. Though our group hasn’t met for a couple of years, the fellas were kind enough to pitch in last Wednesday, each person critiquing three chapters.

Dave happened to draw the debt chapter, in which I have a section about the dangers of compulsive spending (something with which I am very familiar). “You want to be careful here,” he told me. “It’s almost like you’re giving psychological advice. Besides, do you really know that compulsive spending is a psychological disorder?”

This sort of threw a monkey wrench into the chapter, something I’d have to fix. I put the chapter on the backburner to deal with later.

Then, by a stroke of great fortune, on Saturday I received e-mail from Brad Klontz, a psychologist in Hawaii. He was pimping his new book, Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health, which includes a section on compulsive spending. “Let me know if you are interested and I will send you a copy,” Klontz wrote.

“I’d love to see your book,” I wrote back. “But I need it today.” I told him instead that I’d head out to pick up a copy at Powell’s.

I didn’t get up to Powell’s on Saturday — I was too busy editing. In fact, I’ve basically lived in this damn office for the past month now. And for the past week, I’ve been working non-stop to finish my edits. (I have a hard deadline tonight at midnight, though I’m sure my editor would like to have all the chapters before that.) I’m down to my last two chapters now, including the chapter about debt, for which it’d be nice to have a copy of Klontz’s book.

So, late this morning, I managed to squeeze in a trip to Powell’s. I drove up, sunroof open to the blue sky, parked by the Bagdad theater and dashed across the street. Alas, Powell’s wasn’t open. They were closed for inventory until noon. No problem. Since it was only 11:51, I decided to grab a bite to eat.

The Hawthorne district is packed with funky restaurants, most of which I’ve never visited before. One such place caught my eye today: Nick’s Coney Islands. “A hot dog sounds great,” I thought, so I crossed the street to give it a try. The place was perfect: No nonsense, just coneys, burgers, and fries. I sat at the counter and ordered a coney dog and a diet coke. (I’m pretty much living on diet soda today; I need to stay awake to finish my book!)

While I ate, the waitress chatted with me. “It’s a beautiful day,” she said, pointing outside at the sunny streets.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s gorgeous.”

“It makes me wish it was spring,” she said. “I’m from New York, so I’m used to winter weather, but days like this make me wish spring was here already.”

“Me too,” I said.

Taylor Swift’s “You Belong to Me” came on the radio. The waitress belted it out, paying no mind to me or the other customers. I tapped my foot to the beat.

“Have a great day,” the waitress said as I left. “You too,” I said. I left her a big tip.

I just missed the light at the crosswalk, so I had to wait. “Wanna sign my petition?” asked the kid on the corner. He looked like a beatnik or a Bolshevik. “It’s to stop off-shore drilling.”

I don’t normally sign petitions, but it was a beautiful day. Plus, I had to wait for the light, anyhow. I filled out the form. “Hey!” said the beatnik. “You live on Lee?!? Me too!” That seemed odd since Lee is a very short street. He told me which house he lived in, and I told him which one was mine.

“Thanks,” he said, as I crossed the street. “Have a great day.”

In Powell’s, I picked up a copy of Mind Over Money (along with the new edition of The 4-Hour Workweek and a book about budgeting, all last-minute research material). As I waited to cross back over to the other side, I realized that the man in the sunglasses standing next to me was actually my new friend, Chris Guillebeau.

“Chris!” I said. He looked at me for a minute, trying to figure out who I was. (To be fair, I’m very very scruffy today: Unshowered, unshaven, slovenly dressed — the usual.)

“Hey!” he said as his bus pulled up. “How’s it going, J.D.? What are you doing up here? I’ve gotta catch the bus, but I’ll see you Wednesday night, right?”

“Yup!” I said, smiling as he climbed on board.

Altogether, it was a slightly surreal hour, but fun too. It’s strange how all these connections tie together sometimes.

But now I need to get back to work. I have eleven hours to finish editing my book. I think I’ll do it, but just barely. And if I do, I’ll be able to say today was a beautiful day.

1000 Days of Doubt

I think I’ve figured out one reason writing this book is so tough for me. It’s because I’m wracked by self-doubt.

This self-doubt isn’t new. I’ve been struggling with it for years, and it’s just become more acute since I started Get Rich Slowly. I never set out to be a personal finance expert. In fact, I’m sort of the opposite of an expert. I’m an average guy who’s made a lot of mistakes. Sure, I’ve turned things around and that’s what I blog about, but I struggle with the idea that people expect me to know more than I do (or have more training than I do).

And so every day at Get Rich Slowly, I brace myself for failure. A part of me thinks, “This is the day. Today everyone will realize that I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I’m just a regular joe.” I wake up every morning expecting to find tons of negative comments about whatever it is I’ve written. (Or whatever my guest writers have written.)

For over three years — for over a thousand days — I’ve wrestled with daily doubt.

Kris has tried to talk some sense into me. So has Lauren, my wellness coach. “You don’t claim to be anything but a regular guy,” they say. “Nobody expects you to be an expert.”

Lauren tries to trace my thought process. “Did the blog collapse today? Yesterday? At any time over the past three years? Why should today be any different? How can you look at a thousand days of success and still expect to fail?”

I don’t know, but every day I do. I think that today will be the day that I fail.

“And if you do fail today, so what?” she asks.

Anyhow, the thousand days of doubt at the blog is one beast. I understand it. I know that it rears its ugly head every night before I go to bed, and that I tackle it head on every morning when I check to be sure everything’s okay. It’s a daily cycle — one that I know by heart.

But the book…the book takes this doubt and fear of failure to whole new levels. At least with the blog, I get immediate feedback. If I say something stupid, people let me know. If I stumble on something that resonates with readers, I can see it right away. I’m able to make constant course corrections. Not so with the book.

As I write it, my audience for the manuscript is small: Kris, my editor, two tech reviewers, and occasional folk that I let read a chapter for whatever reason. This is a tiny tiny sample size. And they’re looking at work I did days or weeks (or months!) ago. I have no chance to make course corrections.

And so every day I sit down to write the book, I drown in doubt:

  • Does money really bring happiness? What if I have my facts wrong?
  • Should I really be defining S.M.A.R.T. goals, or does everybody know them?
  • Should I include a detailed budget, or is it okay to cover the general idea?
  • Am I giving too much detail about frugality? Not enough?
  • What the hell should I write about banking?

It’s true that I’m proud of a few chapters (happiness, which required a lot of research; debt, which summarizes my philosophy on the subject and contains lots of useful resources; income, which came out much better than I’d planned), but I also loathe a few, as well (frugality, which is so damn big!; banking, which started fine, but which seems incoherent to me now).

Every day, my stomach is tied in knots as I start to write. Will I do this subject justice? Have I included enough useful tips for the readers? There’s so much to cover — what if I leave out the wrong stuff?

In the end, I have to trust my editor. She’s been awesome so far, and she provides an excellent sounding board. She puts up with my neurotic angst (as does Kris, who is earning a million wife points through this whole process). And I have to admit to myself:

I’m doing the best I can considering the circumstances.

What more could I possibly do? If my best isn’t good enough, there’s nothing that can be done, right? So, if I’m doing my best, why worry? But I know that tomorrow I’ll wake again filled with doubt.

Workaholic

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a lazy young man who did a whole lot of nothing. And loved it. He did as little work as possible, and spent his free time doing even less.

Then one day that young man grew up to find that he actually enjoyed doing some kinds of work. So he worked. And then he worked some more. In time he found that he was no longer lazy, but something of a workaholic. In fact, at times he didn’t know how to relax.

That young man is me, of course. After experiencing both ends of the spectrum, I’m pleased to report that after 40+ years of life, I’ve finally come to appreciate balance. That doesn’t help me much right now, though. At the moment, I’m in one of the most intense work periods of my life!

All I can say is that I’m grateful for how understanding Kris has been over the past month. She’s essentially resigned herself to the fact that I eat, breathe, and sleep The Book. I do my best to take a day or two off every week, but even then I’m not really In the Moment. I’m thinking about The Book. And when I’m actually working? Well, I got up at 5:30 this morning, thought about The Book for an hour or so, was at my office writing by 7am, and now it’s 9pm and I’m heading home.

The sad thing is that despite this mad level of productivity, I’m unsatisfied with what I’ve produced. Kris and Michael tell me it’s good, but I’m not convinced. I wish I had a month for each chapter, not a week. I don’t feel it’s possible to produce quality at this pace.

Still, I’m doing the best I can. And my editor is great. I have to put my faith in her, trusting that she won’t steer me wrong.

Mostly, though, I keep reminding myself that this will be all done by New Year. When it’s over, I’ll be able to return to that life of balance once again: walking, reading, writing, and spending time with friends.

Sounds wonderful.

Consumed: The Burden of Writing a Book

“You’re doing it again,” Kris told me last night.

“Doing what?” I asked.

“You haven’t posted a new entry at foldedspace in nearly two weeks,” she said. “You’re in danger of letting it get all musty again.”

Kris is right, of course (as she nearly always is). But she also knows the reason for my silence: The Book. The Book is consuming my life. I’ve always wondered why my friends and colleagues allowed their blogs to lapse as they were working on their books. Now I know. The Book is going to kill me.

I can reveal The Book’s title now, by the way. It’ll be Your Money: The Missing Manual, and it’s scheduled to be published next spring by O’Reilly. O’Reilly is best known for its wide range of well-respected computer books, including the “Missing Manual” series. They’re trying to expand a little, and have recently published Your Body: The Missing Manual, Your Brain: The Missing Manual, and Living Green: The Missing Manual. Mine will be another entry in this series.

But writing a book isn’t like writing a blog. When I sit down to write a blog post — like this one — I can just go with the flow. Sometimes I have a beginning and/or an end in mind, but often I just start telling my story. I trust that after years of doing this I can shape my piece into the form I want.

That’s not how it works with a book. A book is planned meticulously. And even when it’s planned, you have a tendency to go off course, which just makes writing it more difficult.

Also, a blog post is 250 words. Or 750. Or, in extreme cases, 1500 words. I don’t usually pay attention to the word count. I just say what I want to say and leave it at that. But a book has a specific length. I know going into this project that Your Money: The Missing Manual will have 250-300 pages (with a preference toward the high end). I also know that other books in this series have a about 300 words per page. That tells me that I’m going to write 75,000 to 90,000 words, which will be divided into chapters of 5,000 or 6,000 words. These chapters are much longer than a blog post, have to possess continuity, and have to be packed with information.

Some of the chapters require research. I had to spend days surveying the literature on money and happiness, for example. Other chapters will require images or figures, which are easy enough, but which are time-consuming. And if I want to quote extensively from another source, I need to get clearance. (Dave thinks I need to get clearance if I quote at all.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is: Writing a book is work. It’s taking all of my time. And the deadlines are killing me.

A typical schedule for a book is: Write for a year, give the publisher a year to put it on the market. That’s not how this one is working. This one is: Write for three months, give the publisher three months to get it on the market. In other words, I’m doing this in a quarter of the time it takes for most books.

I’m required to turn in one chapter every Monday. That’s a chapter a week. A normal book schedule would require about a chapter every month.

As a result, I live up here in this office, surrounded by my Diet Pepsi bottles and pork rind wrappers. My diet sucks. I have barely any free time. Gone are those recent days of walking and reading. Instead, I come up here, I write (and eat like crap), I go home to have dinner with Kris, we watch an episode of All Creatures Great and Small, and I go to bed.

The good news? This is a finite project. I can see the end of it — even if it’s still more than two months away. I now know that this is not how I want to live. I love to write, but on my own terms and my own schedule. Once the book project is over, I’m going to return to my beloved pastoral lifestyle…

From Blog to Book, part one: Publish or Perish?

I’ve developed an arsenal of stock stories to use when I give interviews to reporters or meet Get Rich Slowly readers. One of my stock bits goes like this:

I always wanted to be a writer. That’s been my dream since the third or fourth grade. But I always thought I’d make my living writing poetry or short stories, or fantasy and science fiction novels. Serious stuff like that. I never dreamed I’d make my living writing about personal finance!

With the right delivery, the audience chuckles. More and more, though, this story isn’t funny to me. I really am a personal-finance writer — even if it’s just for the web.

But even that qualification — “just for the web” — is becoming a thing of the past. I’ve now had pieces appear in several books, most notably:

Now, it seems, I’ll be writing a book of my very own.

I can’t reveal the details yet (I don’t even know the details yet). I have a verbal agreement with a publisher and I’ve begun to work with my editor, but I haven’t seen a written contract. Once the paperwork’s behind me, I can start work.

In the meantime, I thought it would be useful to set down a record of the process. A lot of people have questions about what goes into writing and publishing a book. Maybe my experience can help answer some questions.

How Things Usually Work
The first thing to understand is that fiction books and non-fiction books are sold in completely different ways. In both cases, publishers like for an author to have a “platform”, a built in reader base. Michael Jordan has a huge platform. Barack Obama has a large platform, too. My own platform is modest — but I have one. Publishers view platform as a way to project sales. Basically, they usually — though not always — want to see a built-in audience.

With fiction books, you generally produce the entire work first and then send it out (via an agent or by yourself). The publisher wants to see the finished work.

That’s not how non-fiction works. With non-fiction, publishers want to see a book proposal before the author begins her work. The book proposal contains a general outline of the book, a sort of market analysis providing info on how many copies might sell, and perhaps a chapter or two. (I’m vastly over-simplifying this. Book proposals are an art.)

In general, the non-fiction author writes a book proposal, and then shops the proposal to various agents. Once she finds an agent that things the idea is marketable, the author then works with him to hone the book proposal to appeal to publishers. Then the process repeats itself: The proposal is shopped around to publishers. If a publisher buys the idea, it’ll then suggest changes to the book based on its knowledge of the market.

Basically, there’s a standard sequence of events that lead to publication.

If you’re fortunate — and I’ve been fortunate — you can bypass one or more steps in this sequence. In my case, I’ve had publishers and agents contacting me for the past couple of years. That is, I haven’t had to write a proposal and shop it around in the hopes that somebody might be interested. Instead, they’re already interested, and they’re coming to me in the hopes that I might go with them.

Established authors repeatedly tell me how lucky I am. And I believe them.

That’s how things usually work (for selling a book, anyhow). As I say, my path has been a little different.

Meeting a Mentor
In December 2007, I was contacted by Tim Clark. I’d never met Clark before (I hadn’t even heard of him), but he asked to meet me at a Japanese bubble tea shop along SE Woodstock in Portland. I was nervous about the meeting. Back then, this sort of thing was strange and new and gave me a severe case of nerves. It didn’t help that I had some Japanese bubble tea, which gave me a belly ache even before the meeting started. I almost ditched before Clark arrived. I’m glad I didn’t.

Clark introduced himself as the author of several books, including The Swordless Samurai. He wanted to chat with me because he’d just written a personal-finance book called The Prosperous Peasant with Mark Cunningham, a member of the writing group I belonged to. Clark wanted advice on how to market his book to bloggers.

We discussed The Prosperous Peasant, but as the conversation progressed, I realized that I was getting more out of it than he was. Clark was enthusiastic about the possibilities of a Get Rich Slowly book. “You should do this,” he said. “You should do it now.” He told me it was crazy that I wasn’t replying to agents and publishers who were contacting me. “Other writers would kill for that,” he said.

After our meeting, I thought about things for a while. Then I gave Clark a call. I asked him to describe the publishing process. He did. He also introduced me to his agent. Over the next few weeks, I talked to several other agents. I was trying to get a feel for their interest in the project. I liked all of the agents I spoke with — and they were each interested in working with me — but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I was scared.

To learn more about the process of writing a book, I spoke with some of my friends and colleagues who had written one. I talked with Matt Haughey, Ramit Sethi, Leo Babauta, and Penelope TrunkPenelope Trunk. All of them (except Leo) advised against it. “It’s not really worth it,” they told me. “It takes a lot of time and there’s not much chance of a financial payoff.”

Clark acknowledged that the chances of making any real money on a book project were slim. “But it’s not about the money,” he told me. “Like it or not, a book lends credibility to your work. You do this to open other doors.”

Still, I was hesitant. Very hesitant. I didn’t actually have an idea for a book, so I couldn’t begin to create a book proposal. And I couldn’t choose between the agents I had interviewed. They were all great. Plus, Get Rich Slowly was taking all of my time and was producing a decent income. The book seemed unnecessary.

I put the project on hold for a year.

[To be continued…]

Crossing the Streams

Kris turns on the radio in the kitchen and immediately my writing ceases. “Ahhhhh…” I groan. It’s NPR again — “noise pollution radio”.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

“Do you know what it’s like every time you turn that on?” I say. “It’s like I’m building a wall in my head. It’s a carefully constructed wall with every brick in the right place. I’m trying to get the wall down on paper.” (By paper I mean into my text editor, but Kris understands.)

“And every time you turn on NPR — every time — that wall comes tumbling down and I have to start over.”

I’m always amazed when I read about people who can write while listening to non-music audio. Trent claims that he listens to podcasts while writing. How? I could never do that. It’d be like crossing the streams! (Which we all know would be bad, right?)

I can listen to music while writing. I can write in silence. But I cannot write in a situation where there’s discernible dialogue. No radio. No movies. No television. Not even coffee shop conversations. If I can hear speech, I want to parse it, and it prevents me from forming words of my own.

Which is why I’m now outside on the lawn; I’m attempting to rebuild the wall in my head.

On the Proper Use of ‘Me’ and ‘I’

This article was originally published at Foldedspace on 14 September 2006. I’ve been noticing this error again lately, and so wanted to revisit the subject.

Listen people, this is easy: you do not always use the word “I” when speaking of yourself and another person.

I’m going to be called a grammar Nazi for devoting an entire weblog entry to this, but it’s driving me crazy. Over the past week I’ve seen this error a dozen times — and from smart people who should know better.

What am I talking about? We’re taught from a young age that it’s polite to say:

Jane and I are going to the store.

That’s well and good for the nominative case, when you and Jane are the subjects of the sentence. But it does not work if you and Jane are the objects of the sentence. This sentence is an abomination:

The man gave ice cream to Jane and I.

This is WRONG, and it hurts my brain. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. I’m serious. It drives me insane. Would you say this?

The man gave ice cream to I.

Of course not! Politeness does not take precedence over grammar. The proper sentence in this case is:

The man gave ice cream to me.

And if you’re talking about yourself and another person, then the proper form is:

The man gave ice cream to Jane and me.

I know that sounds wrong, but it’s better than “Jane and I”. Far better. And if you really want it to sound better, then ditch your notions of the polite and say:

The man gave ice cream to me and Jane.

However, the real answer to your dilemma is to use the handy clear and concise first-person plural.

The man gave ice cream to us.

Isn’t that nice?

Are you confused? Here’s an easy way to tell whether you should use “Jane and I” or “Jane and me”. Ask yourself: if this sentence were only about me, which would I use, “I” or “me”? Use the same pronoun when talking about yourself and another person. Seriously. That’s the rule.

You make Kris and I weep when you do this.

Writing for Different Crowds: Why I Chose to Combine All of My Blogs Into One

Via e-mail, Cory asks:

You consolidated a good number of sites into your personal site, Foldedspace. Why did you choose that route? Was it just easier to maintain one site than many, or did you find a lot of overlap in what you wrote? I’m just starting to blog again, but I have a good four different subjects I’d like to write about, and I’m trying to decide whether to separate them into distinct sites or keep them together, as you have.

This is a great question.

When I originally set up my blog empire, I thought it would be fun to have  several niche blogs. In a way, it was. Around various parts of the Internet, I had:

  • Animal Intelligence, a blog about animal intelligence
  • Bibliophilic, my blog about books
  • Comic Strip Library, a comic-strip blog that I never actually started
  • Four Color Comics, a blog about comics
  • Get Fit Slowly, the health and fitness blog I co-authored with my friend, Mac
  • Get Green Slowly, my blog about environmentalism (which never got beyond domain registration)
  • Get Rich Slowly, my main money blog
  • Money Hacks, my other money blog
  • Oak Grove Crossing, the group blog I was going to start with friends to write about our neighborhood.
  • Spiral Bound, my stillborn blog about paper and notebooks (yes, really)
  • Success Daily, a stillborn blog about success topics
  • Tech Lust, a gadget blog that never got going
  • Vintage Pop, my blog about U.S. popular culture from before 1950.

I’m not the only one who has this blog addiction. My friend Jim Wang (from Bargaineering) is perhaps the worst of the lot. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he has dozens of blogs. I keep finding new ones.

But with every blog, there’s a certain “overhead” of attention required, and I found that as my personal finance blog grew and grew, I had less time to devote to each of my many niche sites. They fell dormant. They stagnated.

Perhaps worse, this site (in its foldedspace.org form), which had once boasted a small but close community, also fell into disuse. At one time, I wrote at Foldedspace nearly every day, and we had many lively conversations here on a variety of topics. As I fragmented my writing into many little niches, that went away.

Eventually I realized that I was doing myself a disservice. I wanted to write about this other stuff, about animal intelligence and comic books and fitness, but having separate blogs for each topic was just too much of a barrier, both for me and for potential readers. A couple of months ago, I came to the conclusion that it was time to reclaim the diaspora, to bring the children back to their ancestral homeland. I wanted to resurrect Foldedspace and to use it to feature all of my non-financial writing.

My big worry about re-merging everything was: Would anyone read this Frankenstein monster of a site? It occurred to me that it didn’t matter. I don’t write these other blogs for an audience, really. I write them for me. If there is no audience for a Foldedspace that explores a hodge-podge of subjects, that’s fine. I’m at least writing for myself and for a few close friends.

So I made the move. I cut back to two blogs: Get Rich Slowly and Foldedspace.

From the standpoint of maximizing audience and maximizing revenue, this probably makes little sense. But Foldedspace doesn’t need to yield either of these things for me to be happy. (In fact, I’ve removed all ads from the jdroth.com version of Foldedspace.) It just needs to be a spot where I can write about cats and comic books, and about blogs and bicycles.

This is a very long answer, and I don’t think it really addresses Cory’s question. For me, it made sense to combine everything into one blog. For Cory, it may not. All I know is that since I made this move a few weeks ago, I feel invigorated. I’m excited about writing again. It feels great to have Foldedspace operational once more.

Genius and the Creative Muse

Over the past couple of years, author Elizabeth Gilbert has been something of a joke in our house. We read her book The Last American Man for book group, and neither Kris nor I were impressed. It was certainly well-written, but the subject was lame, and we felt as if Gilbert were writing a love letter rather than a biography.

We’ve had friends read Gilbert’s subsequent memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, and their reactions have mostly been ambivalent, as if they couldn’t understand the hype.

So, Kris and I are unimpressed.

Yesterday, however, Andy pointed to Gilbert’s talk at this year’s TED conference. (The TED talks are amazing. They’re like little nuggets of brainfood.) Her subject? Creative genius.

My opinion of Gilbert has changed. After viewing her presentation, I have new-found respect for her and her process. What she describes is similar to what I experience. I’m not saying that I’m a genius, but what glimpses of genius I may have often seem to come from somewhere outside myself. (I think of it as possessing a muse, but maybe that’s because I don’t really understand the word.)

Gilbert tells the story of a poet who, as a young woman, would feel poems coming at her from across the landscape. She would run to the house to grab pencil and a paper before the poem would pass her by. I experience something similar. I am not joking.

When people ask me where I get my ideas, I tell them the best ones come from mowing the lawn. It’s true. For some reason I cannot fathom, when I am mowing the lawn (or doing other yardwork), I come up with the most brilliant ideas. For a long time, I would lose these ideas. I wouldn’t remember them by the time I was finished with my work. Frustrated, I developed a system. Now I keep a pencil and a pad of paper near the door. If I’m working outside and the muse comes to me, I stop what I’m doing, and I go to my pad of paper to write it down. I capture these bits of genius.

Gilbert’s talk is brilliant — at least to me, as a writer. It captures some bit of writerliness, and for that I am grateful.

(On a sidenote: Kris and I watched Almost Famous the other night. I knew the plot going in, so I expected the film to be “about” rock bands. Sure, that’s a main theme. But I was impressed that this is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about what it’s like to be a writer. Capote? That’s a film about a writer, not about writing. Almost Famous is about writing, and I love it for that.)