Budgeting, Scheduling and Not Getting Killed

I recently had a conversation with a smart friend about security, safety and thinking the best in others.

Her point was it’s better to assume the best of people and spend your life happy, with occasional big pains when they do you dirt, than to experience constant little pains by assuming people are going to do you dirt all the time. She’s a smart person, and one of the happiest I know, and her basic framework is right.

Except for a thing security people know. If you’re alert for people doing you dirt all the time, it doesn’t make you unhappy. It’s neutral input that doesn’t make your life worse. What’s better, by being alert for signs and taking proper action — you avoid those occasional big pains by taking steps so they don’t happen. By paying more attention, you worry less.

The point is: by being alert for danger you live a happier, less painful life because you know you’re safe.

Budgeting is the same way, whether you’re budgeting your money or your time.

With money it’s simple. People who don’t like to live on a budget think that it restricts their freedom. The argument is they’d rather spend freely and enjoy the money they have.

Except they don’t really spend freely. They have to check their bank balance from time to time, and need to decide if they really need that new jacket, or that night out. Then there’s the guilt and buyer’s remorse.

By contrast, if you budget your money you actually get to spend freely. You earmark a hundred bucks for fun and frivolity, and you can spend it all every month without a second of worry or guilt or remorse. You know what’s going on, so you worry less about money. Taking on a little extra responsibility for yourself frees you from lots of extra stress.

The same goes for time. If you don’t plan and schedule your day, it’s hard to know when you’re done working. It’s hard to really relax in your off hours because you’re never quite sure that you’ve done all the things you promised yourself you would do. There’s a slight, constant nagging in the back of your mind even when you’re trying to relax.

If you do budget your time (which is really what scheduling is), you know when it’s time to work. More importantly, you know when it’s time to stop working. So you can really enjoy that time with your kids, your jujitsu class, or just sitting in the hammock reading a book. You can focus mindfully on your free time, confident you haven’t forgotten anything.

Not getting killed means paying attention to your environment. It’s a matter of being in “condition yellow” unless you know you’re perfectly safe…and it actually makes life feel safer and be more fun. Since stress-related diseases are three of the four biggest killers in the developed world, paying attention to your time and money isn’t just superficially like not getting killed. It is not getting killed.

And it makes life more fun while you’re living it.

Planning and Accountability

2017 Is Coming…

What are you going to do over the next twelve months to make your life exponentially more satisfying, enjoyable and inspiring than it is right now?

Ask 100 different people and you’ll get 100 different answers — 200 if you ask again in six months. But here’s one thing science tells us over and over again: organized people’s answers turn out to be right more often than people who don’t plan how they work toward their goals. 

So here’s what we’re going to do about that:

Next year I’m putting together a planning and accountability gang. We’ll set goals this December. We’ll break down those goals. We’ll meet regularly, using planners, to keep each other on the straight and narrow. We’ll celebrate our victories, bemoan our defeats, and cheerfully mock each other when we’re standing idiotically in the way of our own progress.

If you’re interested, email me today. 

But Wait! There’s More!

Readers of my blog might recall I had a planner-off last year, where I used two and picked my favorite. We’ll be using the VOLT planner as the core of the project, because it’s the awesomest bar none. Check out this video about it, but read what’s below it because that’s important, too.

This is really cool!

The good folks at Volt got a fan letter from me, and are sending me two free planners because I said such nice stuff about them on my blog.

I will be posting this all on my blog shortly, as well, so get cracking. If you have questions, email me with the links above. I won’t hold you to anything, but I won’t ship you a planner if you’re not going to use it.


8 Ways Not to Fuck Up Your Query Letter

angry-computer-guySo I’m hanging out this morning with several professionals in the publishing and writing industries, after almost two weeks of doing the same. We’re all raging against the obvious mistakes people make before sending a query letter to an agent or editor.

For publishers, agents and editors it’s just a part of the job. They’re inundated with unprofessional queries by people who obviously didn’t bother to Google either how to query or even the most basic facts about their publication. The good news here is the letters do mean they can ignore the query quickly and spend less time in the slush pile on that particular day.

Professional writers, we rail against how that misrepresents us. For every terrible, terrible query letter an agent receives, that agent becomes a little more hardened against queries from good writers who do the proper research. The good news is it does mean we stand out against the crowd if the editor gives us a chance to prove ourselves.

Over the course of many conversations in various states of inebriation and sobriety, I found common threads for the nine best ways to avoid fucking up the query letter:

1. Don’t miss basic facts. 

Don’t query a science fiction magazine with a detective story. Don’t email a nonfiction agent with your epic fantasy novel. Don’t get the name wrong in your greeting, or misspell the name of the magazine. Don’t lie and say you’ve loved somebody’s work for 20 years when he started editing last month. Get your facts straight. If you’re not sure of your facts, make a phone call. If you can’t find the information, find a way to avoid bringing it up.

2. Keep it simple, stupid.

Average time an agent or editor gives an unsolicited query is under a minute. One agent I talked to burns through 100-120 book queries an hour when buckling down and getting to work. A long, complex description of your work and process and emotional state ain’t gonna fly here. Terse sentences in short paragraphs in a letter nobody has to scroll down on to get all the important details.

3. Remember who’s doing who a favor here. 

Yes, you and your agent or editor are in a symbiotic relationship. Yes, you are peers and equals in most senses. But you’re the one sending somebody else unsolicited sales material. Be polite. Several of the folks I talked with ranted at some length about how frequently the initial queries (and especially follow up communication) read like a missive from a spoiled preteen who wrote Santa a flamer over not getting everything on his Christmas list. Seriously. Be nice. WTF?

4. Spellcheck.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills if you can’t proofread your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this.

5. Grammar check.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills if you can’t proofread your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this, either.

6. Follow the damn rules.

Almost every publication or agency has a page on their website telling you exactly how they want to be queries. Almost every publication or agency has a method that’s slightly different from all the other publications and agencies. That’s just life. When you query, read and follow those instructions to the letter. Some places use it as a test to see who’s going to be reasonably easy to work with. Others might let it slide if you miss a trick or two, but why be rude about it? It’s their house. Follow their rules.

7. Understand the process.

Failing to understand the basic process of publication mystifies me. If you want to go flip burgers at McDonald’s, you’ll know the basics of what hamburgers are and how they’re made before walking in. If you want to be a neurosurgeon, you won’t apply for work until you’ve mastered the skill. I was shown some query letters from people who obviously didn’t understand what agents or editors actually do, or how long things take, or what reasonable payment for a book or article even looks like. On one hand, I feel a little bad for folks who make this mistake. Everybody has one or two things where they’re so clueless they don’t realize how clueless they are. But if you want to get published, don’t make this one of those things.

8. Now is not the time to show off.

Even if your work is an avant garde piece of noneuclidean sentence structure held together with multiple, colorful fonts in a truly cohesive whole, never apply that to your query. Do not play with fun tense structures or flowery language. Save that for your book or article. Agents, publishers and editors are exhausted, overworked and undercoffeed. Make your query easy to understand. Always.



Do you have any embarrassing stories about how you fucked up a query letter? Or a fucked up query letter you received? Share your tales in the comments and tell us all where the bad words touched you.

So…Who’s the Asshole?

angry-computer-guySomebody I know recently brought to my attention an email. I have to change the name and specific content to protect the innocent, but here’s an approximation.

The email was sent from an author to an editor, and it proceeded thusly.


Dear Editor,

You are a dick. I sent you my manuscript more than a year ago and I haven’t heard back from you yet. I’m gonna self publish my Work of Utter Genius and become a millionaire. Remember, my work is copyrighted. If your plan is to steal it and self-publish the stuff for profit, I own your ass. Go soak your head in a bucket of wombat urine. 

Love and Kisses,


All of my friends who are agents and editors are sharing this around, saying “Dude, what a dick Author is. Let’s none of us ever do business with Author. Screw that guy.”

And they’re right. That kind of abuse and unprofessional behavior (I’m paraphrasing, but the original wasn’t much better) is unacceptable in any craft or trade. Dude broke the rules of basic courtesy, and the rules of observing chain of command (editors outrank authors). He even broke the basic rule of knowing how to talk to people in a position to do you favors.

So yeah, he’s an asshole.

But on the other hand…

A year without contact is a long time. A looooooong time to an author who’s waiting to hear whether or not an editor is interested in publishing the written distillation of his heart, hopes and dreams. I can understand being frustrated, even angry, even though I can’t condone how he chose to express it.

This goes double for the agents and editors who (a) ask you not to send in simultaneous submissions and (b) have a policy of only responding on acceptance. Those guys are being serious assholes. I mean, really. What reasonable human says “Please don’t ask anybody else to the prom until you hear back from me, but I won’t answer at all if I’m gonna say no and maybe wait half a year before I say yes” ?!?!?!?

But that’s what a lot of agents and editors are saying.

So they’re kind of being assholes, too.

But do you know who’s the biggest asshole here?

Us. People. Human beings.

You. And me.

Once upon a time, agents and editors could respond quickly enough to not be assholes. The publishing industry made enough money across the board that agencies weren’t understaffed, and publishers had robust catalogs.

Then we discovered self-publishing and ebooks. And we started reading less and Netflixing more. We forgot much of our love affair with the written word, and started downloading the books we did read. Publishing suffered. Publishers had to cut catalogs. Agencies had to cut staff.

So now we’re in this situation where agents need months to respond to the massive deluge (over 100 per week, according to folks I know) of manuscript submissions they get. That means they can’t respond to your novel query in anything resembling a reasonable frame of time. It means the best way to get your novel read quickly is to meet an agent via pitch sessions, at a bar, or through social engineering. It means they have no choice but to act like assholes sometimes because the resources aren’t there to give them any other option.

It’s not anybody’s particular fault, but we’re in an untenable situation.

  • Agents don’t have the resources to respond to every submitter with anything resembling reasonable courtesy
  • Authors have to wait unreasonable times, which makes them whiny

What’s worse is we can’t do anything about it….other than remember with compassion what it’s like for the other side.


What’s Your Test of Humanity?

Alert readers have probably figured out by now that I’m a huge nerd.

As a huge nerd, like all nerds, I read Dune. I loved Dune. Early in Dune, protagonist Paul Atraedes takes the Gom Jabbar Test of Humanity. It works like this.

Step One: Make a high tech box that, if one puts a hand in the box, stimulates the nerves so that the hand feels just like it’s being burnt to the bone…though no damage is actually done.

Step Two: Take a subject (in this case Paul Atraedes). Explain exactly what the box does. Make certain the subject knows that no matter what the hand feels like, no harm is being done.

Step Three: Tell the subject to put a hand in the box.

Step Four: Kill the subject (in this case using a needle full of cyanide called the Gob Jabbar) if the hand comes out of the box before a certain time has passed.

The Bene Gesserit (notable authors of the Litany Against Fear and sundry galaxy-spanning conspiracies) use the Test of Humanity to tell if somebody can place their awareness and rational thought above their natural instincts. Can you let pain happen to your hand because you know it’s not being hurt? If so, the Bene Gesserit consider you human. If not, well…it’s cyanide and tsk tsk.

This got me to thinking…

What was your Gom Jabbar Test of Humanity?

Part of being a grown-ass, adult human is being able to take your lizard brain and tell it to sit the hell down and shut the hell up. It happens when a customer at work is less than polite, when your romantic partner is less than kind, when your kids are less than responsible. It’s part of grown-up life, so much so that most of us just do it automatically as part of our daily responsibilities.

But lots of us can think back and remember the first time (or one of the first times) we successfully did it when it was really, really hard.

That one time, often in our early 20s, when we wanted to rage or cry or snark or fight…but knew we shouldn’t. Then we made the conscious decision to keep our hands in the box of pain and, as the Bene Gesserit witches might say, choose to be a human being. 

Chances are you weren’t having your hand burnt to a crisp, and you probably didn’t have a poison needle against your neck (either that, or your life is way, way more interesting than mine). Chances are you were dealing with something other people might have found boring. But you didn’t find it boring. You found it stressful, emotionally fraught, painful, maybe humiliating.

But you held it together.

You chose to be a human being.

So I ask you:

  1. What was your Test of Humanity?
  2. Afterward, how did passing help you deal with the next challenge in your life? And the next?

We’re all of us way more powerful than we suspect. My Test of Humanity (and some harder tests later in my life) help me to remember that when the next bad stretch hits. Have you thought about yours?