The Mirage of Free Time

I’ve had a pretty intense year, and I’ll be working up my year-in-review post to tell you about it pretty soon. (Probably next week, since I can’t imagine I’ll publish or ship anything new between now and the New Year.) The one thought that’s pulled me through the most trying spells is a vision, like an oasis on the horizon, of what I will do and how I will structure my day when I finally get a pause to catch my breath. 

Surely, the logic goes, at some point the avalanche of deadlines and publicity and appointments will slow down, and I’ll have a few weeks to rejuvenate myself, or a month, or even two. When that happens, I can spend a week reading. I can focus exclusively on my novel. I can fold all of the laundry. I can make healthy dinners and swim three hours a week (and yoga twice!)

I can do all that. I can get everything under control soon. After this week, I’ve got nothing else coming down the pike. I just need to finish these edits, and pull together that draft. It’s happening. It’s going to be glorious. I just need to get through the next week. The next month. It’s only six weeks away, and then—

It’s inevitable. What happens is that a new set of deadlines pops up, and that beautiful, illusory break never arrives. Or it does, but it’s only a few days and then I’m back to the churn as hard as ever. And in that brief time, I’m so tired, so burned out, that I don’t write a word of my novel, I don’t read any books, nothing. Often I find that week consumed by illness or appointments I’ve been putting off. 

This is a high-quality problem, in that it means I’ve built a robust enough pipeline for work that it doesn’t run completely dry even when I really kind of wish it would. But it points to the challenge I’ve wrestled with for as long as I’ve been a freelancer. How do you balance the long-term big-picture stuff against the short-term requirements of your existing commitments?

You’d think a decade would be long enough to solve that problem. 

It’s easy to say “Silly girl, you should be working on your big-picture items little by little, some every day, as you go along.” But that assumes that you have extra time and creative power that you’re squandering right now; and the truth is, sometimes putting energy into spinning a new plate, even slowly, means letting another one fall down. 

And so here I am, staring at a week where I’m somehow planning to get through three distinct sets of edits, two promo pieces, an AMA, a Bookburners draft, three two-hour appointments, and all of my holiday shopping, cleaning, and wrapping.

It’s going to be tough, but I think maybe I can get through it all. And then next week, my plate will be completely clear, and then I can focus on my novel. Or maybe read a book. Or... 

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90 Days No Laptop: Switching to the iPad Pro

In mid-August, faced with an increasingly crashy Macbook Air, I started looking at my upgrade options. My findings were eyebrow-raising, to say the least. The hardware available now is only an incremental improvement over my top-of-the-line mid-2013 device, and I’d still be running the same software that was causing me grief. 

So I decided to try switching to an iPad Pro as my main work and leisure device. Here, reader, is a complete accounting of how that’s worked out for me so far. 

The Problem Space

For those of you who are new here: I’m an author and freelance game designer, so my life is completely wrapped up in my keyboard and digital presence — but I don’t need to run any specialty software or write code, so your needs may vary from mine right there.

I was betting on three main benefits to the switch. 

1. Less physical pain. Mice wrecked my wrists decades ago. But even trackpads create pain for me; the spot where my palm rests next to the trackpad becomes agonizing and even disabling, particularly on long strings of days when I do a LOT of writing. Apple’s Smart Keyboard doesn’t have a trackpad extension, and so there’s nothing to press against my wrist and injure me.

2. Less logistical pain. In the course of my regular work, I do a fair amount of puzzle design, story boarding, and sketching out pieces of ideas. Historically that takes the form of doodles on paper, that I would then photograph or scan and send to my team. Or, worse, doodles on paper I would show to my webcam in the middle of a video call. Sketching in a digital-native place to begin with seemed like a big win.

3. Lost in tabs. A lot of my workload was relying on an increasingly unreliable web browser: email, Google Docs, calendars, Hangouts, various social streams and pieces of research. I lost a lot of time looking for stuff among my tabs and getting distracted. And I’d find myself with four Gmail tabs open because I couldn’t find any and kept opening new ones. I had a theory that the iOS paradigm of apps rather than websites would take enough strain off the hardware to make everything smooth and peachy again.

Everything is Awesome

Here’s what I bought: a 10.5-inch iPad Pro with 512 GB of storage space, along with the Apple Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil. (It turns out I didn’t need all that storage space, though.)

Let’s get right to the point. I’ve been really happy with my switch. Everything I expected was accurate. My wrist hasn’t bothered me in months — not even after days where I’ve written 5,000 words in one shot. Ironically, I haven’t had any need to sketch for other people lately, but the Apple Pencil has been genuinely game-changing. And as I hinted earlier in the week, my levels of distraction are way, way down. 

That Smart Keyboard

I want to talk about the Apple Smart Keyboard in a little more detail, first. It took a little getting used to the action, but when I have to go back to a regular keyboard now, they feel hopelessly clunky and cheap. The materials of the cover feel really gorgeous to the touch, and I, uh, stroke the faux-leather while I stare into space thinking about things now. And I don’t have to worry about spilling my drink or crumbs and making sticky keys, since the whole thing is one piece.

As a stand, it’s not quite as stable as a laptop is, but I’ve found it fine for propping up on a pillow or my lap and typing away. I rarely work at a desk or table, and I haven’t suffered for it. I haven’t missed not being able to adjust screen angles, either; it turns out that’s not really something I did, anyway.

Sometimes I’ll bounce up from the sofa a little too hard and the keyboard and iPad will flop down one way or the other. I don’t find this a dealbreaking issue to struggle with, especially not stacked up against the extra decade of typing I’m going to get from losing the trackpad and its associated injury. 

It took me a little while to work out how to fold the cover as a stand without the keyboard, because it doesn’t come with instructions and it’s not... super intuitive. But YouTube can hook you right up and you’ll be a champ in no time. 

And it turns out that iOS respects a lot of the keyboard shortcuts I’m used to using. In particular, I use cmd-tab a lot to switch from app to app — and that still works. And cmd-H take you to the home screen. In many applications, just holding down the cmd button will display a list of keyboard shortcuts you can use. At the same time, the touch screen is always there, and I’ve found switching from keyboard to touch goes so smoothly that I hardly notice I’m doing it. It really is the best of both worlds.

Apple Pencil OMG

I’m also really in love with the Apple Pencil. Oh my god, where WAS this all my life.


I was hoping I’d be able to do a little more art with it than the watercolors I’d started with a year or two ago, but the sheer amount of doodling I’ve done has been surprising. 

I tried Adobe Sketch for a while, but I’ve settled on ProCreate as my drawing app of choice. (Your needs may vary!) I’ve even used ProCreate and the Pencil to throw together a quick slide I needed for a presentation, and I expect more quick one-shot fixes like that going forward.

The Pencil always needs charging, so it seems; but it charges so quickly that it hardly matters — I can plug it in, go get myself a drink, and by the time I’m settled into my seat, the Pencil is charged more than enough for whatever I’m planning to do that day.


Perhaps most surprising: I’ve taken to doing bullet journal-style pages in Notes. Digital tasking has never worked for me, and now, for the first time, I can do paper-style tasking in a digital format. It is glorious. The main problem with that is the overwhelming guilt I feel about not using the kazillion blank notebooks I have stacked up in my office... 

A lot of these uses emerge solely due to the sheer portability of the device. I can tuck it into a regular handbag on my way out the door to dinner, or to go shopping for shoes with my kids, or wherever. It feels like less of a production to pull out an iPad than a laptop; more worth it for two minutes. So I bring it with me most of the time, and then I can, say, sketch my margarita while I’m waiting for dinner to be served. Easy-peasy.

Other Surprise Upsides

That increased portability has a lot of other implications for how much use you get out of a device. It’s easier to bring through airport security. Or... anywhere, really, and no dedicated laptop bag needed. Thanks to the lightning cable, I can charge with the same charger I bring along for my phone — but the battery life is so long that it’s hardly necessary. I didn’t get an iPad with cellular, but tethering to my iPhone in an emergency has been a snap in the couple of instances where that’s been necessary.

You know that thing where the person in the airplane seat in front of you suddenly reclines and almost cracks your laptop screen? Smaller screen, smaller problem. Huge relief. 

Microsoft Word for iOS has been a revelation. On a desktop, Word has become the worst kind of bloatware — loaded with specialty features, and prone to crashing and losing your work. Especially in a document with a lot of comments in it. Like, say, notes back and forth between you and your editor. 

The iOS version of MS Word has a totally different interface; it’s cleaner and much, much simpler. And I haven’t had a single issue with crashing for comments (or anything else!) yet so far. It seems as stable as a rock. Given how much of a writer’s life happens in Word, this is a huge, unexpected improvement. 

And I can’t overstate how much clarity the app paradigm has brought to my life. It turns out all of that stuff I thought I liked — apps bouncing in the Dock for my attention, alt-tabbing between the fifteen programs running, keeping fifty tabs open to remember to look at them later — were all time killers for me. I just work... better, now.

The Downsides

I won’t lie and say there have been no bumps in this transition. But I’ve only had to actually go back to a laptop for three things in ninety days: one, appearing as a guest on a podcast that uses Zencastr. Zencastr doesn’t support iOS. I’ve also had to grab a laptop to make design changes to my site in Squarespace; their drag-and-drop design tool is close to nonfunctional in mobile Safari. And when I needed to change an old Photoshop file, I picked up the laptop again, not because I didn’t think I could do it on the iPad, but because I didn’t want to invest two hours of research into apps and pricing just to solve a two-minute problem.

I can’t do anything about Zencastr or Squarespace, though fingers crossed that Squarespace is making improvements. I’m writing this on their blogging app and it’s... actually a lot better than their browser interface was. And more stable, too. So you never know.

All right, let’s get into my laundry list of minor friction points and complaints. 

iOS Copy/Paste is Still Garbage

This is probably my biggest ongoing complaint. Writers need to rearrange text sometimes! And when I’m blogging I need to highlight to make links, etc. etc. But selecting text in iOS is fiddly on a good day, and certainly less smooth than mouse-select ever was.

This seems like a great use case for Force Touch, and I am perpetually annoyed that it hasn’t happened yet. It’s likely that my writing process will streamline to require less rearranging over time, which is a more disciplined way of working. But that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it. 

Shout out here to Autocorrect, which I have a love/hate relationship with. It’s made some things much, much better for me. It’s made other things much, much worse.  I haven’t decided yet which way the balance goes.

Some Websites And Apps Are Super Broken

...Or at least a little broken, or at least not integrated the way I wish they were.

Google is one of the biggest offenders, here. For example: I can’t change my profile photo for my Google account... because the “confirm/save” button is literally off the screen, and there’s no way to scroll to it. Worse: in a Google Hangouts video call, the iOS version doesn’t have access to the same instant messaging/chat window that desktop users see, so if other people in your group are trading links, or someone’s got audio problems and is just typing in, you’re screwed.

Worst of all: Google Inbox doesn’t integrate with Dropbox. At. All. Or the iOS 11 Files system, either. That means attaching your work and sending it out is... well, it’s impossible, frankly.  I’ve tried other email applications, but all of them fail me in a variety of ways, and some of those ways are even worse.  So I’ve become real handy at creating Dropbox links and pasting them into an email.

It’s not great.  

And some apps aren’t optimized for the iPad, or don’t have a landscape view like you need with a keyboard. Amaroq, the Mastodon client, is one of those, but there are dozens more. Maybe hundreds.

And of course I gave up on my complete Steam library to do this. Alas. Well, I was always more of a PlayStation girl anyway. And the iOS games ecosystem gets better every day.

Ugh, Subscription Software

Shifting to software-as-a-service is tough on the budget, and for good or ill, there’s a lot of that in the iOS ecosystem.

I’ve already made peace with shelling out money every month for services like Dropbox that I get amazing and ongoing value from. And I can grudgingly see the sense in paying a monthly fee for MS Office 365, another real workhorse of productivity.  If I were a working artist, I’d be happy to pay for Adobe’s software every month, too, but as a dabbler it’s a lot harder to justify, so I’ve gone elsewhere.

The subscription paradigm is a lot less reasonable for pieces of software that I use lightly and infrequently.  One of the biggest problems I’ve run into is a dearth of good invoicing software for iOS, at a price point that I could live with. See, invoicing software tends to run a monthly fee of between $7 and $20 a month, which sounds perfectly reasonable for a small business that might be sending out dozens of invoices every month. But I’ll sometimes need to send out three in a month, and then nothing for three or four months, due to the feast-or-famine nature of my business. And paying $7 per invoice seems, ah, a bit steep. 

I’ve defaulted for now to making invoices in Pages, of all things, since I have found literally nothing better. But if any of you out there are an app developer looking for a project, listen, iOS invoicing software for the creative freelancer is an unmet market need. Multiple clients and multiple currencies necessary. Hook me up? 

Scrivener for iOS

Since I’m a writer, I feel like I should give a little more detail on Scrivener for iOS in particular before we wrap up here. 

I do a lot of different kinds of writing: prose fiction of every possible length, scripting for video and audio drama, nonfiction essays, you name it, I write it. Scrivener was a revelation for me when I first discovered it, and it quickly became the cornerstone of my writing life.

I haven’t been ideally pleased with relying mainly on Scrivener for iOS. But it’s not because the iOS version is BAD, it’s just that the desktop version is BETTER.  What I’m missing are features that I used to have, and don’t now.

I wish I could edit two scenes side-by-side, for example, but in iOS you can only bring up a reference doc in the side panel. You can’t adjust how much real estate each pane gets, and you can’t edit the reference doc at all. You also can’t expand and collapse folders in the binder to see a whole structure at once; you have to go into each folder, one by one.

There’s a real problem for me in not being able to see a page view for length, too. For scripts in particular, knowing how far down the page you are is an important visual cue for how much time the scene takes up, and very often a script needs to stick to some very tight timing. 

But the biggest thing I miss is the integrated word count calculator — wherein you can tell Scrivener how long a piece needs to be and when it’s due, and it calculates a daily word goal for you. iOS Scrivener can’t math up a goal for you, you have to do that yourself. And you have to manually tell it when you’re beginning a “session,” too, instead of it resetting at midnight all on its own. 

None of these things make it impossible to work. It just puts a little more friction back into my environment, and these tiny snags over time can add up to real frustrations. 

Wrapping Up

In all, this hasn’t been a perfect experience. But it’s been pretty great, and I have no regrets. I got what I wanted out of the change, and for me, the problems I’ve found are more than worth the trade-off in benefits I’ve received.

But your needs aren’t mine, and it’s possible you have questions I haven’t addressed here. If so, feel free to pop into the comments (or onto my social media) and ask me about it. I’ll do my best to help you figure out if the iPad Pro life is meant for you, too.  

Gotta warn you, though. Once you’ve made the switch, a regular laptop feels like it may as well have been made in the 1990s. There’s no going back. 

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Launch Day for ReMade Season 2!

It’s here, it’s here! Today I am tickled to announce the launch of ReMade Season 2. Just to catch you up, ReMade is the sci-fi YA post-apocalyptic serial I’ve been working on over at Serial Box, along with Matt Cody, E.C. Myers, Gwenda Bond, and Amy Rose Capetti (plus season one’s emeritus writers, Kiersten White and Carrie Harris!) It’s like a season of TV — short ebooks or audio books that come out each Wednesday. Starting... today!

I have the tremendous honor and anxiety of getting the very first episode of the season, and it’s a pretty big shift in gears from where we left off — you’ll see what I mean. But all of the things I love about ReMade are even bigger this season: the characters, the relationships, the murderbots, the SF setting.

Episode 1, Patch Job, is available for 100% free right now, to read or to listen, so you should definitely hop on that. And you can still catch up on all of Season 1 on podcast, too. Let me know what you think!

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Out of Sight...

Back in August, I made the switch to an iPad Pro as my primary working device. No laptop. No desktop. Nothing but me and iOS in this thing together. It’s unsurprisingly had a huge impact on how my life and work both operate, and this week I’m going to write about that in some detail.

To warm up, though, I want to talk about a problem I’ve been having lately that I only rarely encountered on a laptop. Friends, I am finding myself bored on the internet. 

This isn’t a new problem; rather a cyclical one, found mostly in the spaces when internet use as a whole is shifting. In the early 90s, browsing Yahoo’s hand-curated index of the World Wide Web and chatting with friends on IRC was enough to occupy as many hours as I had to spare, and more, until it wasn’t. Later, groups and forums filled my time, until they didn’t. Then social media was born, and we all know what happened then.

My RSS reader is light on updates these days. Twitter, at least, seems to be drying up as people tire of Nazis and bad news, and accordingly seek out sunnier digital climates. But none of that is new since August. So why am I feeling listless and bored now?

There’s a piece of diet advice that goes around: put your healthy snacks at eye level, and hide away your cookies so you don’t spot them when you’re hungry.  Well! Apparently I’ve put myself on a very serious media diet. Because I still in theory have access to near-infinite content on Medium, Wikipedia, YouTube. There are podcasts and videos galore I have not yet even dreamt of, and enough art and snark on Tumblr to fuel a galaxy.

But I put those apps in a folder, and so they might as well not exist.

This is an astonishing and true fact, and bears repeating: once I put an app in a folder, I might as well not have it, because I will not think of it unless a specific need arises (and how often do you have a specific need for Tumblr or YouTube, truly?) I theorize that hiding the icon from easy and habitual view allows me to subconsciously forget about the app as a category of activity I can participate in. Even where it used to be a habit! Where once I spent a lot of time visiting Google News, now I forget to open any of my half-dozen news apps. Likewise I forget about my RSS reader. I forget about the lesser social sites that didn’t make it into my dock. I forget about Duolingo, and the thought of playing games hardly crosses my mind on the iPad. 

The same goes for browser tabs. Where once I always had dozens open, now I keep it down to a manageable four or five, excepting specific research periods. iOS handles clicked links in such a way that you’re subtly nudged to finish reading an article before returning to the app that sent you there. Which means when I pop into my browser to see if there’s something I meant to read later, there’s... nothing. I did it already. 

Being bored on the internet sounds kind of terrible, but it is in fact a true and perfect blessing. It means nothing less than that I am reclaiming time that I had spent on the laptop idly clicking from one tab to another, trying to find something to do, or trying to trigger the memory of what I’d intended to get done. 

And the apps that almost haphazardly wound up in my dock or on my home screen, unfoldered, are the ones I’m spending more time in. Example: I do a lot of idle sketching now, a habit I’m pleased to come back to, since ProCreate is just... always right there, looking at me. Shockingly, my email inbox is the leanest it’s consistently been in... gosh, it must be a decade. I’m reorganizing my Dropbox folder structure, not because it’s any worse than it was in July, but because I’m in and out of the Dropbox app all day long.

That leads into a hypothesis that I’m testing now. Can I intentionally shape my days simply by rearranging my flipping home screen? Or a more specific test: If I put the Kindle app on my home screen, right there prominently in the corner, will I remember more often that reading is a thing to do, and accordingly read more books?

I can’t know for sure just yet, but since I moved the app into the light, I’ve read 50 pages more in a day than I did any other day in the last month. Signs point to yes.

Sooooooo in turn, the question becomes: what version of myself do I want to be? How do I wish my time usually looked? Which self do I want to be? Because all I need to do to become that person, it seems, is put the healthy apps a little closer to eye level.

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Awards, the Engines of Anxiety

If you were trying to come up with a system specifically meant to drive a set of writers mad, you couldn’t do a hair better than to set up a major industry award and then tell them they’re eligible this year. Every step of the process is beautifully calculated to create misery and self-doubt. Every one.

We’ve apparently begun talking about what we’ll be nominating for various genre literary awards next year — the Hugos and the Nebulas, most notably. Best of Year lists are going around, and never mind that we have several weeks of new releases to come. Starts earlier every year, doesn’t it? Just like Christmas.

I say to you with no exaggeration that I want to hide under a warm blanket and not come out again until it’s all decided.  I know from experience: no good can come of participating in this conversation, as someone who, in theory, has skin in the game.* Not for me, and not for many of my colleagues — maybe even most of them. 

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that writers are not the most emotionally stable and healthy group of human beings around! A lot of that is because of the nature of the work itself. The process of writing is incredibly personal and isolating, and the link between the work and any recognition is so small and tenuous that it may as well not even exist. Criticism of your creative output can feel like criticism of your deepest heart. It is the worst. It’s no wonder so many of us have various degrees of depression and anxiety.

Awards are, in theory, one of the ways to make up for it. We offer glory to those works we feel have extra merit, in order to encourage writers and honor their achievements.

The casualties, though, are not low. 

How Much Do They Love You? 

The emotional turmoil that awards cause begins early, as soon as the lists begin circulating. (Or, honestly, even earlier — since there are running reading lists kept up all year.) Let’s say that you, dear reader, have written a story this year, or perhaps a novel. Perhaps it was well-received. Perhaps one or two people have even said the A-word in talking to you about it.

Well, it’s only human to wonder if your work has made it onto any of those lists after all, and so perhaps you peek at a wiki or a spreadsheet or a reading list to see if your name is there on any of them.

Writer friends, never do this. Never. No good can come of it. There is no outcome from this action that leads to excellent mental health in the months this process takes.

But you look anyway (and by you, I of course mean me). Maybe your name is on one or more of the lists, and a seed of hope begins somewhere in you, that this could be your year. This hope is small and bright and hot, and you’re afraid of it, because you know that the more you hope, the greater your disappointment will be if it doesn’t come to pass. So you try as hard as you can to snuff it out and persuade yourself that really, truly, you don’t deserve it. You’re not worthy. It will never happen.

If your name isn’t there, that disappointment starts right away — because your brain lies to you in a hundred different ways at once, and somehow this omission becomes a proxy for your work not mattering, and how nobody loves you, everybody hates you, obviously your output is amateurish and weak, and my goodness, wasn’t it arrogant of you to even dream for a second that you might have produced a real contender? How dare you hope. How dare you look.

Then, when nominations come out, the same cycle repeats. The hope gets brighter and hotter and more frightening if you’re actually nominated; the disappointment is fiercer, here, if you were on those lists, and if you did think you had a fair shot at being recognized, but your name is nonetheless missing from any ballot. 

Winning and Losing

Let me tell you a secret. I’ve won a fair share of professional awards for my non-publishing work — more than fair. And yes, losing when you were so close is a grave disappointment.

Winning, though? That can really mess you up. (Especially if you’re very early in your career, and not yet accustomed to losing.) Because those lies your brain tells you when your name isn’t on a list are a faint shadow of the ones that happen after you win.

Suddenly the award means that from now on, people will expect a certain benchmark from you, and any future work that does not win as many awards is a step down — a grave disappointment. Never mind that it’s impossible to win every award for every work you write. Or perhaps you convince yourself that it was just a fluke — and again, people will be disappointed with you moving forward, when they find out what your work is really like ordinarily. Or perhaps it means that your best work is now behind you, and all you can look forward to is a sad decline into obscurity, no matter how hard you work.

I know this from hard experience. Many years ago, I worked on a non-publishing project that won buckets of awards. It was thrilling! ...Until I tried to start something new, and was buried under a false sense that it had to mean something.

This is a difficult problem to talk about, because it can sound like ingratitude for your recognition; a weird sort of complaining about a problem that other people wished they had. So you can’t really talk about it, or bring in your usual support networks to help you cope with it.

But. It was at least a year before I was able to work again without intense anxiety.  A year.

Does this mean I am against awards and don’t want to win one ever again? HA HA HA no, I wish I was so evolved, but I’m not. I am absolutely a mercenary careerist, and awards genuinely help your visibility and marketability forever. That’s part of the whole pernicious problem. If awards truly were meaningless, it would be much easier to ignore them. But they do mean something. That sweet, addictive external validation matters to your future prospects. 

So I want it. I won’t lie. I want it a lot. And no, if I get a nomination, I’m certainly not going to decline, be it this year or another year. But in the meanwhile? The best thing to do, for me and probably for you, too, is to step away from the whole conversation. You can’t control it. All you can do is try to keep working. Better and healthier to focus on that.


 * As I write this, I’m in the position of having written an eligible work that, yes, I think could be a contender this year. Or at least it was widely read and very well received? But I’ve spent months trying to argue myself into believing it’s impossible. Even saying “yes, I hope,” feels like unforgivable arrogance. Awards, man. They really mess you up.

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