Archive for Writing

Double-Spacing: Another Relic of the Typewriter Era?

I’ve already talked about what I think of typing two spaces after a period, but there’s really no standard requirement behind it. Double spacing between lines, however, is a whole different animal. Some editors still require double spacing in their submission guidelines, and most teachers still require their students double space their work per MLA format guidelines.

MLA format also says, “Leave only one space after periods or other punctuation marks (unless otherwise instructed by your instructor).” To me, this demonstrates that two spaces after a period is an artifact of academia: some teachers are enforcing it out of habit and because it’s how they learned, not because there’s a practical reason to do so, so MLA takes the middle ground.

Have we reached the point where double-spaced lines of text should be treated the same way? If an editor or a teacher requires double-spaced manuscripts, then of course the paper should be turned in that way, but why? It’s time to discuss letting it die as a standard, if not a habit.

The first argument is for readability, but as with two spaces after a period, that’s subjective. We spend hours a day reading without double-spaced paragraphs, both on the Internet and in print. This is when the argument turns to readability for proofreading, where the eye is better able to spot errors. I’m with you there.


I still prefer to proofread in print, but I don’t double space. For me, a printed manuscript is not so much for readability as it is the feel of taking a pencil (yes, a mechanical pencil, because that’s how I roll) to a manuscript to tear it apart. Some writers prefer the nostalgia of a red pen carving a bloody trail of destruction across their beloved manuscripts.

If a proofreader is reading carefully enough, it shouldn’t matter whether he’s reading on screen or on paper. Our eyes can—and should—be trained for both. So what are the red pen and the double spacing about? Efficiency and clarity in communicating corrections.

Yet there’s a computer sitting right there. Don’t worry, we’re coming to that.

Double spacing a manuscript is not for the proofreader’s ease in reading, but for the proofreader’s ease in communicating corrections back to the writer (or to a typesetter if we want to go way back). A red pen contrasts with the black ink so the writer sees every correction, and the double spacing gives the proofreader room to lay down edits and notes. If an editor or a teacher chooses to rewrite a sentence or make a longer note, they’re going to need room to write, right?

Do newspapers still work this way? I wrote and edited for a college newspaper in the ’90s. Our instructor was a former newspaper editor, and we did zero proofreading on paper and never fiddled with double-spacing. Do publishers still work this way? In the last decade, I’ve only turned in one double-spaced manuscript per the editor’s request. I haven’t handled a printed, double-spaced manuscript, proofread by an editor, since high school.

So why are writers and students still doing it? Habit, and because academia says so.

This is for 3rd graders. Elementary teachers love their comic sans.

Proofreading marks would make great Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? questions. We all used (or at least saw) proofreading marks in school, but most adults have forgotten all about them. Hell, a college student at my karate dojo tried to remember some of them while we were proofreading a new manual we’re putting together for students.

We’ve replaced all of this with track changes, commenting, and similar functions in word processors. Even Google Docs now offers a Suggesting mode and allows users to see the entire revision history of a document, and the writer and an editor or teacher can see it all happen in realtime. It’s more efficient than passing papers back and forth and is a much faster and more direct way of communicating.

College students already turn in their work electronically, so colleges are already halfway there. Most K-12 schools are starting to make the change, too. 1:1 programs (1 device to 1 student) are the new trend, whether with laptops or tablets, so every student has an electronic workflow. At the school I work for, every student from grades 6-12 has a Chromebook or laptop and a Google Apps account.

At the elementary level, we’re seeing long-form writing replaced by multimedia presentations and blog-style electronic journaling. Elementary students at my school still write papers longhand occasionally, but even proofreading marks are starting to die out. One of my sons saw them in 2nd grade, but the other has never seen them. They had two different teachers, one of which is in her third decade of teaching, and the other has been teaching less than ten years. Guess which one taught proofreading marks?

That all said, I spoke to a second-year junior high English teacher who requires double-spaced papers, even electronically. He finds seventh graders’ run-on sentences and similar issues are tough to parse in single-spaced text. However, he also admits he requires it because “that’s how it’s commonly done,” and because it’s easier to communicate page-length requirements to students.

Readability, again, is subjective. By high school, and certainly on a professional level, students and writers should be past the point where their writing can’t be parsed in single-spaced text. I’m much more interested in the why of things over “because we’ve always done it that way.” The latter is a dangerous statement, and only invites stagnation.

As for his page-length requirements, it’s not hard to say “give me half a page” instead of one double-spaced page. I suggested word count, but he feels if he required 500 words, they’d stop writing at word 501. They won’t do the same when they hit the end of a page? In any event, these things can be corrected through education and grading.

Double spacing is worth debating. If even academia is starting to make the switch, then maybe it’s time to revisit double spacing as a standard. I can see arguments on both sides, but I think we’re better off taking steps to dump it. Let’s start drilling the habit of proofreading accurately in regular text into our students instead.

And by the way, how many of us catch ourselves proofreading websites, books, magazines, and newspapers? We do it all the time, even when we’re not consciously thinking about it. We tell ourselves it’s easier one way or the other, but we read single-spaced text (with one space after periods!) all day.

If double-spacing manuscripts is already a habit for you, by all means, carry on. If a publisher, editor, or agent requires it, then definitely do it! I just see no reason to keep drilling it into students as a requirement, or to require writers to use double spacing if we’re going to use an electronic workflow through the rest of the publishing process.

I imagine pretty soon it will become optional, just like those two spaces after a period.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Clearing Hurdles

I’ve spent the last six months practicing for my latest rank test last weekend, and that prep consumed a lot of the time I’d otherwise have spent writing. The good news is I passed the test, and I’m now a nidan (2nd degree black belt) in Shuri-ryu karate. The bad news is the only real writing I got done in that time is for the papers I had to write for the test.

But hey, the test’s done. Hurdle cleared. While the school year has kicked off at the day job, things are going a lot smoother than they did last year. Between the two, it’s as if a huge weight has been lifted.

San Cho Sai

Shedding some of the extra body weight has been nice, too.

Now it’s back to productivity. Not having the time to sit down and hammer on the keys has been driving me crazy, and has only served to compound other stresses. The harder, smarter decision was to wait, though, because the writing would have suffered, too.

That’s not to say I wasn’t working on anything. I’ve been chatting about ideas with artists, there’s a pitch out there, and I’m going to have to pick a prose project to concentrate on by this weekend. I also plan to get a few short stories to some editors in the coming months.

The next step is to establish a writing routine as solid as my workout routine. I’ve got an idea of what it will look like, and it feels doable. I’ll tweak it over the next few weeks, and with luck, I’ll have something to share with you all soon.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

It Ain’t a Blockage

It’s not uncommon for people to ask me what took so long between the publication of The Pack: Winter Kill and The Pack: Lie with the Dead. Then they’ll realize how much time passed between The Pack series and Deadliest of the Species and really get to wondering what the hell my problem is.

Non-writers often make the same assumption: “You must be suffering from writer’s block.”

Writers know better: “Writer’s block is bullshit, Mike. Do the work!”

It is and isn’t that simple.

I tend to be in the writer’s block is bullshit camp. There’s a whole lot of precious and pretentious bullshit artists have to wrestle with aside from writer’s block, but really, the fabled block is nonsense. We’re either creative or we’re not. The real problem is some combination of how the process affects us, what our routines are, and how we feel about the outcomes.

I find most people are either creative or analytical. Everyone has a different degree of each, but I think we all tend to lean firmly to one side or the other. Some of us enjoy creating, others are content to consume (not in the dollars sense, but in the sense of simply enjoying the creations of others). Some of us explore new ideas, others are more comfortable with what already exists.

I’ve always leaned heavily to the creative side. Even in my day job, I tend toward the creative. I’m a lot happier working with teachers and students, or finding ways around technological obstacles (like crashed servers), while a number of my colleagues in the same job would rather fiddle with hardware and sift through buggy code.

When I’m creating, I’m happy. When I lose time to a crashed server, I get real cranky, real quick (just ask my coworkers). When I go for extended periods of time without working on some piece of writing, my fuse gets shorter and my mood darkens (just ask my family).

Once I’ve spent some time at the keyboard, or even with a pencil and a notebook, the whole world changes. Things are sunshine and rainbows until something drags me away again.

Which comes to routine. A wise friend of mine calls it the ritual. Every creative person has their own way of making it work. When we’re fortunate enough that it’s our job, routine may go out the window because we have to produce or we don’t eat. For the rest of us, though, we need a ritual.

Yeah, it sounds pretentious. I kind of thought so at first, too. But bear with me, here.

When creating is not our job, we’re forced to live on the analytical side of our brains. We punch a clock somewhere, grind away for a paycheck, doing what we have to do to eat. We have to not create, whether that means troubleshooting servers, bending wrenches, driving trucks, serving up sides of fries, or picking up garbage.

Don’t misunderstand me, here: there’s nothing inherently wrong with these jobs. I know a guy who honestly loves his job riding on a garbage truck. I know a father and son who are perfectly content and extremely competent as auto mechanics. But for those of us who lean toward the creative side of things, it’s tough.

Want to know true misery? Talk to someone who learned programming because he wanted to create games or apps and wound up coding accounting and insurance software instead. They’re working within their dream, even within the degree that cost them a small fortune, yet they’re flat out miserable and don’t even know why.

I digress. The point is the ritual brings us home. We flip the switch from that tiny analytical portion of our brains—our souls or spirits, if you prefer—to the broader creative side. While our colleagues have various ways of decompressing so they can relax, we have to decompress so we can start working on the other side.

I think I deny myself this ritual far too often. When I sit down on a night like tonight, and I light up a cigar and sit out on the porch with the laptop, people assume it’s the cigar that’s doing the work. They think I’m being pretentious again, that I want to have the smoke and fulfill some image of what a writer looks like.

Nope. It’s because I know I’m not going anywhere for a good hour or so, and I can get some goddamn work done.

But I have a day job. I have a clock to punch. Two, actually: I have officially been getting paid to teach martial arts part time since January. I’ve got to get to bed by a certain time because I’ve got to get up at a certain time. We can nitpick the making time versus having time thing and balance it with family, friends, and so forth, but in general the late nights are my best creative time and I often have to deny myself that time for the day job.

I have to suppress the creative and deny the ritual to satisfy the analytical, which is the biggest reason you haven’t seen a short story in a while, and you haven’t seen The Pack: All They Fear or any number of other projects yet.

Last summer was an usual summer at the day job, and I didn’t have as many of those nights available. And boy was I an asshole as a result. This summer is looking to be more relaxing again, so maybe I’ll have more nights like tonight to massage the creative side. We’ll see.

Which brings us to outcomes. Some of us creatives, we spend too much time thinking about analytical things: sales figures; Amazon ranks; reviews and reader feedback; goddamn Twitter follower counts; blog stats; the money our work does or doesn’t bring in. It goes on and on, and it needs to stop.

I need to stop.

Tonight I banged out a blog post for the day job. A creative one. As I near the end of this post, and I exorcise this little demon, I find myself firmly in the creative zone. I feel comfortable, content. My cigar’s almost done and I’ll go back inside, but I feel content. I feel good, even.

And what better outcome can there be than that? I’ll bang on another short piece for a bit. You’ll probably be able to read it before too long, but hey, maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s not the outcome I need to be searching for. I just need to satisfy my creative side.

So no, it’s not a block, folks. It’s a matter of working on my creative side.

I’m getting there.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Another Year Done

School year, that is.

The students at the day gig finished yesterday, and the teachers will wrap up tomorrow. I work all summer, but I’m looking for this year to be much quieter and more productive than last year.

One teacher has been very helpful in helping me push technology into our district, but he’s retired as of tomorrow. As a parting gift, he handed me a bottle of Four Roses Single Barrel.

Now THIS is a gift!

Score. Thanks again, Steve! I owe you a good lunch this Summer, both for this and for all the assists.

Now I’m kicking back on a Whiskey Wednesday with a bourbon and a smoke, reflecting on good times, and getting ready to pound on a short crime piece.

Gotta kick Summer off right.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Blank Screens & Broken Souls

I’ve been feeling lost this year.

It’s tough to put my finger on why, and I’m not even sure I realized it until I went to St Louis on a writing-related trip a couple weeks back.

Let’s back up a little. We all know not having time to write is bullshit, right? Time is made, controlled, managed. It’s not possessed. Time moves in one goddamn direction at one speed, period. We choose how we spend those minutes.

I know I have to make time to write. A writer writes, do the work, art harder, or whatever your favorite motivational platitude, they all apply. A writer’s work has to get done, period.

And here I am staring at another blank fucking screen.

I worried that I’m not enjoying this anymore. I worried that I should save myself the heartache of rejection and flat sales and keep doing the other things that are going well, like working out at the dojo and building up the classes I teach. I asked myself that toughest of questions all writers need to face at some time or another:

Do I want to be a writer, or do I want to have written?

Most of my writing and brainstorming sessions look something like this:

Bourbon & smokes

It ain’t just for show. I enjoy those times brainstorming and working through problems, as infrequent as they have been the last several months. I feel at peace.

I feel like it’s just me and the notebook or keyboard, and I can finally get some work done.

Feel like. The reality is… different.

Instead I’m sweating other things. I sweat what I should be doing instead of what I want to be doing. I sweat things outside of my control. Things I don’t want anything to do with, but I take on.

And that St Louis trip made that apparent.

Three of us got together to talk writing and comics and the businesses of both. At one point we started batting pitches around the table. One of the guys had a long list of things he was sitting on, things he didn’t have time to work on yet. Things he thought were silly and he backburnered, but kept handy just in case.

I had three notebooks in my pocket and started flipping through them, looking for ideas. I sat there quietly, going page by page, as the other two guys chatted enthusiastically. They suddenly asked me why I looked so angry.

Because it hit me: I’ve fucked up.

Sure, I had several pages devoted to The Pack and the plot to one pitch I’d put together a while back and another based on “All Things Through Me” from the In the Dark anthology, but for the most part, the pages were full of other things.

I burned a lot of pages taking notes in karate class, and that’s cool. But the rest? All bullshit.

Solving problems at the day job, for example. Noodling an alternative to the day job. Lists of things I needed to do at home, or at work. Even a list of things I should talk about here, on the blog, because I’ve fallen waaaay out of the habit of posting.

Three notebooks and nothing new. Nothing fresh. Nothing exciting.


It changed after that moment, though. I jumped back into the conversation, told them about another idea in the back of my head. Something I hadn’t found made the time to sit down and work on.

They loved it. I spent the next week working on it, and as I type this it’s sitting on an editor’s desk, waiting on a decision. The three of us collaborated on another idea, and on the way home, one of those guys and I put together yet another concept that we dig.

I need more weekends like that, because I’m tired of sweating shit like this:

The bane of all techs

This picture sums up everything that I find soul-sucking and frustrating about my day job. I attempted to make one small driver upgrade, and the whole thing came crashing down.  I’ve spent three days off and on, including an hour of a Sunday afternoon, trying to fix it. No success.

Before St Louis, I’d have moved a cot into my office and refused to leave before I gave up on it. Now? Hell, it’s tough to care. I told everyone why this server was a bad idea, and what our alternatives were. I got overruled and now it’s biting us in the ass. I’ve got a workaround and we’ll get through it, but I’m just not going to lose any sleep over it.

Nor will I lose any more productive time to those who have no respect for it.

Now I find myself in a strange, bittersweet position. I’ve been sitting in a cafe, killing time before heading to the dojo for test prep with some fellow karateka. There’s a blank slate in front of me.

On the plus side? That blank slate means I can work on anything. The possibilities are endless. Horror? Crime? Long fiction or short? Prose or comics? It’s exciting, and almost overwhelming.

The down side is I have no commitments. That same blank slate is my career. Tabula rasa. Square one. The ground floor. It’s intimidating, and a little disheartening.

But yes, I still dig it. My fingers itch, and that server can go to hell.

Time to do some damage.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

On Paper & Pen

My day gig is very much rooted in technology.

Every day, I’m telling teachers why they should be using Chromebooks and smartphones in their classrooms, teaching students to make the most of their Google Apps for Education accounts, extolling the virtues of Evernote and digital textbooks in class, and finding strategies to reduce our school district’s paper and toner consumption.

It surprises my coworkers, then, when they discover I carry a paper notebook and a pencil in my pocket at all times. To some it’s almost betrayal, as if everything I’ve told them is a lie.

Technology has its place, of course, and the majority of my workflow is definitely digital. Evernote is a huge part of my productivity, both in writing and at work, and when I’m writing I’m usually strapped in to Google Docs or Apple’s Pages. Early notes and brainstorming, however, is usually done in a notebook.

Pencil and paper still flows better for me. As fast as I can type, I’m faster with a pencil. I feel more connected to the words, as pretentious as that sounds, and the ideas just keep on coming.

A small notebook is far more convenient on the go, too. It’s not uncommon for me to throw some text or photos into a note in Evernote via my smartphone, but again, for brainstorming, it’s just so much faster to use a pencil.

Yes, pencil. Mechanical, .5mm. Right now my favorite is a Papermate something-or-other (the name has rubbed off), as seen in the photo below.

I’ve long felt pens are too messy. When I was a kid I exploded a few pens while fiddling with them because I can’t sit still, which probably soured me on the whole thing. I like being able to erase my mistakes, too. Despite having hurried and jagged handwriting which even I sometimes have a hard time deciphering, I have this weird insistence on the words being right.

So I dig pencils, and I dig good notebooks. I’ve talked about Moleskines several times, and after my experience with the Field Notes Pitch Black, I decided to try the Field Notes Expedition Edition, also in the photo above. It is definitely more durable than the Pitch Black, but pencil transfers across to opposite pages.

I’ve got three Expeditions now, so I wonder, should I find a pen that transfers its ink properly to the Expedition’s pages? By coincidence today, I read A Primer on Fountain Pens at The Art of Manliness. Surely, I thought, there’s a fountain pen ink that will do the job?

This is the part where I shock my writing brethren, especially those who are notebook and pen geeks:

I’ve never used a fountain pen.

I seem to remember fiddling with one, and scratching up some paper, but never a good pen and never at length. Typewriters? Sure, I dig typewriters. Love the feel and the noise, though I don’t own one. But fountain pens just never clicked. I never felt a need for a pretty pen when my handwriting sucks, and again, there’s the issue of the mess.

I know John Urbancik uses several, as do a number of writers I’ve talked to. I’ve heard artists talk at length about the various pens and inks they use in their work. Writers and artists alike talk about quality ink and flowing lines and the feel of a good pen in hand.

Hey, I get it. I’m down. But I do like my pencil scratchings, so I’m torn. Do I find a good pen, or do I abandon the Expeditions? I don’t know that I’m ready to get all spendy on fountain pens and screw with ink refills, but if anyone can recommend a good, durable pen with ink that won’t smear all over the place, I’d be willing to give it a shot at my notebook.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Field Notes Field Test

I’ve been working in a Field Notes notebook for a few months now, and while it’s been a solid & dependable notebook, I’m not quite sure it fits my needs.

This notebook has been taking a beating

This notebook has been taking a beating

I decided to start with the Pitch Black edition, a basic black notebook with Field Notes dot-grid pages. Field Notes has a reputation for making durable notebooks, which is an important feature for me. See, my notebooks live in my back pocket, and let’s face it: I’m not a small man. Any notebook I carry is going to take a beating. It comes out of the pocket at home and various destinations, but I’m often sitting on it in the car or on the motorcycle.

I’ve just about filled the first of my set of three Pitch Blacks, and so far it’s held together well. The cover has a few permanent wrinkles, it’s fraying around the staples, and the cover below the bottom staple is splitting along the spine. However, it’s still holding all of the pages just fine. The notebook stays bent out of my pocket, but I just flip it around when I return it to my pocket and it smooths out in the other direction. The pages themselves are holding up great. The first several pages inside each cover are wrinkled, but all of my pencil scratchings are perfectly legible. (As legible as my handwriting allows, anyway.)

I was concerned about the dot-grid pages at first, but I’ve come to dig it. For those unfamiliar, imagine a graph paper layout, then remove all the lines and leave a dot where the intersections were. It has the feel of a blank page, but the dots still create subtle lines for guidance. I find I can write as large as I want without feeling like a frustrated kindergartner who can’t color within the lines, yet I still have some solid guidance for longer passages and lists. It hasn’t changed my world, but I certainly won’t avoid dot-grid in the future.

As much as I like the Field Notes, however, its glaring weakness is in my own usage: I need something sturdier. These notebooks are great for working at a desk, on a table, or on a bent knee, but they don’t have the backbone for hand-held work. That’s a big problem for me in the dojo, where I’ll have to record something quickly while standing at the edge of the mat or between instruction and practice. I can get a little more oomph out of it by wrapping one side of the notebook behind the other, but it’s still just not quite steady enough for my meaty paws.

The plus side of the dojo work is the pages hold up to sweat. Whether the sweat is on my fingers or dripping off my face, the writing doesn’t smudge on the page. That wasn’t always the case with my last Moleskine, which drank the sweat right up.

While I like the Field Notes overall and would recommend them to most people for general use, I will most likely finish out the last two from this set and then try something a little more solid. If anyone has recommendations, please do drop them in the comments below.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

This Was Nice to Wake Up To

One can hardly ask for a better review than that.

It surprises me, not because of the sentiment but because I’ve been so quiet on social media lately. I’ve been busy as hell with things other than writing, and I’d hate to turn my accounts into endless sources of spam shilling the same projects over and over.

So, when new people discover my stuff, and they take a moment to ping me, it makes my day.


About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

The Chromebook for Road Warrior Writing

Samsung Chromebook

The Samsung Chromebook

We’ve invested heavily in the Chromebook at my day job, and it’s given me an opportunity to evaluate several models and use them on a day-to-day basis. After using one for several months now, I’ve found they offer a lot of options for those of us looking for a simple, portable, and affordable setup for writing.

First up, consider the price: with some Chromebooks available as low as $170 these days, they’re about a third of the cost of an iPad and a decent keyboard or cover. For that price, a writer could lose or break one without too much heartbreak. Take a thousand-dollar MacBook Air to Starbucks, meanwhile, and one hesitates to leave it sitting on the table during a bathroom visit.

The ChromeOS is also simple to operate and very snappy. Power up a Chromebook and you’re ready to work in seconds, and battery life ranges from a few hours to 12-14 hours for some models. There are shortcuts to all of the major Google Apps, and you’ve got access to the Chrome Web Store and, soon, the Play Store for Android apps. Chrome browser users will also find their browser settings like bookmarks, history, and extensions automatically synced to the Chromebook.

That said, don’t go expecting to install Word, PhotoShop, the latest games (for your kids, right?), or other software. ChromeOS is a bare-bones operating system with enough juice to get you online. You’ll have a webcam, some USB ports, and sometimes an SD card slot, but this is no full-on desktop replacement. 95% of the apps run through the Chrome browser and are Internet apps; the rest are simple apps like the file manager, the camera app, or the calculator.

Chromebook with video

Of course, entertainment’s not completely out of the question

Most of your data will live in Google Drive. Chromebooks have small hard drives for local downloads and for offline file storage, but if you don’t buy into the Google ecosystem, your options are limited. The benefit to Google Drive is you have instant file sync and you’re not juggling file versions or sweating backups and lost data. Writing in Google Docs, writers can log in to any computer with a browser, or use Docs apps on most modern mobile devices, and pick up right where they left off on a Chromebook.

No Wi-Fi available? No problem. With offline file sync, a writer can create or edit a file and the changes will be merged to Google Drive the next time there’s a connection. I actually prefer to use my phone as a hotspot than go without a connection, but I’ve been able to work both ways seamlessly.

Brand-wise, there are more to choose from all the time. I’ve been happiest with Acer for the lower-end models. The Samsung units aren’t bad, but the Acer is a little more durable. Asus units are nice, but I’ve had some bad support experiences that have soured me on their brand for now.

For performance purposes, spend a little more for a unit with 4GB of RAM if you expect it to be a workhorse, otherwise the 2GB models are fine for basic surfing and productivity. There are also some variances in processor architecture, but the only one I’ve really been disappointed in is the HP Chromebook 11, which I found very sluggish with multiple browser tabs open.

Chromebook, iPod, Moleskine

Traveling companions.

There are not a lot of downsides when you consider what you’re paying for. You’re not going to have the variety of apps there are for an iPad, or for an Android tablet, but then again, that’s not why you’re buying a Chromebook. The plastic construction is more fragile than the metal iPads and MacBook Air, but is comparable to most plastic PC laptops. I’ve seen Samsung screens break with just a little flexing, but the good news is they’re very easy and inexpensive to replace, especially compared to standard laptop screens.

Again, be prepared to buy into the Google ecosystem. One could work around it by writing in Evernote or another online service, or by juggling plain text files with Dropbox via their website, but it seems to me that would get old fast. If you’re not into Google’s Terms of Service, then you’ll want to invest in an inexpensive notebook. Or maybe you just prefer the friendly confines of the Apple ecosystem? I don’t judge.

If printing is part of your workflow, don’t plan on hooking up a printer. You’ll be printing through Google Cloud Print, which will allow you to print either to another computer’s printer (with a little setup in your Google account) or a Cloud Print-enabled network printer. Or, of course, you could just print the files from Google Drive on another computer and skip Cloud Print altogether.

All in all, I’m very happy with Chromebooks. If I take one to a Starbucks or a similar joint to work, the Chromebook is up and ready to go before they finish making my drink. I’ll typically have four tabs open: Google Docs, for whatever project I’m working on; Slacker Radio, for tuning out the environment; Evernote, for referencing my notes; and Moosti, a Pomodoro timer. Paper notebook on one side, drink on the other, and I’ve got a nice, self-contained environment I can set up anywhere. It’s even perfect out on the front porch with an adult beverage and a cigar.

If an iPad is too spendy, or tablets and keyboards just aren’t going to cut it, one could certainly do a lot worse than a Chromebook. They’re inexpensive, there’s no farting around with maintenance or antivirus, and there’s no sweating backups or file management. Just travel, open it up, and go to work.

Smells like win to me.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Hit the Reset Button

I’m wrapping up vacation from the day job this week. Unfortunately, I’ve spent very little of that time on myself.

Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it, you can never get it back.
—Harvey MacKay

I’m not here to dwell on the negative. Most of the problems I’ve had can be summed up by the simple bad timing of my vacation time. One goal was to relax and take time away from the day job, and that part was mostly successful. The other, which I do want to talk about, is taking another look at my creative time.

For one thing, I often spend a lot of time sweating the time I don’t have. That kind of thinking gets counterproductive fast. So rather than pressuring myself to create create create, I spent mostly-idle time thinking about, well, time.

I did a lot of driving, for example. I did a lot of manual labor, such as housework, helping people move heavy stuff, or lifting weights. I did a lot of cooking, in particular grilling and all the prep work that comes with it. It’s mostly-idle time in the sense that I’m physically engaged, and thus unable to jockey a keyboard, but my mind is free to wander. So, when I wasn’t concentrating on preventing 265 pounds of iron from crushing my sternum to powder, I considered how I could best free up other time to jockey a keyboard.

Workouts are one of the problem areas. A karate workout is constant activity, but weightlifting includes rest periods. My bench and weights are in my office, and it’s convenient to sit in front of the computer during rest. I keep a timer running, but in trying to turn those rest periods into productive time and get something done, I created a monster: I got distracted, and my rest periods were blown. Sessions that should be an hour or less ballooned into long grinds, which are counterproductive in several ways. I need to refocus and bang out the workouts so I have more uninterrupted time afterward.

Only skipped a week, but yep, I missed deadlift day.

Fitness time is important, too, and not something to feel guilty about

I decided, during that mostly-idle time, that thinking, plotting, and research is not wasted time. It’s not as productive as cranking out the word count, but it’s still important. I’ve admitted I’m not a seat-of-the-pants writer anymore. Producing a series like The Pack takes more planning. Working on comics means plotting out the beats, the page breaks, the issue/chapter breaks. Putting all those pieces together is not wasted time, so it must count as creative time. Ignoring or skipping that time is foolish.

Next I put some thought into the best uses of my time. Family time is obviously important, as is time with friends. It’s selfish to deny them—and myself—that time. I also spent a lot of time this Spring and early Summer working out with an attack team to help a pair of nidan (second-degree black belt) candidates prepare for their test. I neither regret nor resent that time, but I have to realize next time around that “a couple of extra hours in the dojo” for me also includes a long drive. I alleviated some of that time by hitting a Starbucks to write before or after practice, but the overall time commitment is still there.

In short, I will need to say “no” more often.

I realized, too, that blogging is valuable. Not so much in the sense that it drives sales or interest (it usually doesn’t, especially these days), but in the way it affects my mood. I like the journaling aspect of it, and it helps both my mood and mindset. I haven’t made near enough time for the blog these past few months, and while it hasn’t affected my page counts and other minutiae a lick, it has negatively affected my mood. Ideally, I’ll blather on like this more often in the future.

I packed this thing with notes on the road trip. Lots of good stuff coming.

When I can’t do it digitally, I can still go old school

The vacation has also allowed me take a good, hard look at my routine. In removing the day job from the equation, I can see where I spend the rest of my time.

My morning routine has become a time suck. I roll out of bed and into the computer chair, which started with productive time but lately has become idle time. My inbox and social accounts were busy following the release of Lie with the Dead, but that’s died down. I also have to take a new pill every morning (more on that in another post) and I can’t eat for an hour, which compounded things by making me to feel like my morning’s on hold. I need to revamp that shit, and I need to work with that stupid pill, not against it.

Next I need to do another culling of my RSS feeds. Reading and researching is great when I’m waiting for a software install or virus scan or hard rive restore at work, but there’s no reason to keep up with all that crap the rest of the time. I’ve developed this weird anxiety over unread feeds, and it’s stupid. I’d get home from an event with the kids and look for some relaxing downtime, but what should be at most ten to fifteen minutes of surfing quickly becomes a major time sink. My delete button is my sword to battle the Feedly demons.

The good news is I resisted the television trap this week. Those new episodes of Hemlock Grove aren’t going anywhere. I finally have access to the HBO back catalog thanks to Amazon Prime, but I don’t feel the need to shotgun seasons at a time of Oz or The Sopranos. Cutting the cord continues to be one of the better decisions I’ve made in recent years.

Last but far from least, I’ve dumped the guilt. I still love writing, but I’m extremely busy. Yes, it’s damned difficult to make time to write, but it’s also not doing me any good to hate myself for not doing it. It’s even worse to hate the act of writing for my lack of time. This revelation (decision?) alone may be the most important difference moving forward.

I started my vacation in a foul mood, but in the end I was able to accomplish exactly what a vacation is meant for: I hit the reset button. I didn’t take a trip, I didn’t do anything fancy, I just used the vacation to reflect and analyze my time.

If you’re having the same problems, I suggest you take your own vacation. It will pay off.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

I’m Done Being a Tech Guy

At least, I’m done identifying as one.

When people ask me what I do, my response is automatic: “I’m the tech director for a school district.” This typically demands explanation, and I tell them, “I run the network and fix the computers.”

Without fail, this leads them to say, “You know, I’m having this problem with my computer…” Then they want to know how to fix their problem. I just don’t have the time, the energy, or the desire to deal with it, even if they wanted to pay me (which they don’t, especially after I tell them my rates). The conversation then ends in disappointment and frustration on both sides.

Instead, I’m going to go with one of two responses, depending upon the situation or the person: “I’m a karate instructor” or “I’m a writer.”

For starters, both are more interesting conversation topics and I can chat about them with a little more passion. Nobody wants to hear about my squashing a bug in our network configuration, but people are more attentive to the martial arts or what I write. On very rare occasions someone will turn their nose up at the mention of horror, but it still trumps their irritation if I assure them it will take a lot longer than five minutes to fix all the problems with their five-year-old Windows laptop that junior loaded with viruses.

I’m also hoping it will be better for my sanity and self image. In karate, I’m not as athletic as some of the teen-aged and twenty-something students at the dojo, and my skills aren’t as polished as those of the black belts with more experience, but it’s been good for me and I know I’ve had a positive influence on a lot of our students. In writing, it will be a good reminder that I need to hit the keyboard that night.

Finally, both conversations have a better shot at putting money in my pocket, especially over time. If I tell them I write, then maybe, just maybe, they’ll actually buy something (at the very least I can point them to a freebie). If I tell them I’m a martial arts instructor, then maybe, just maybe, they want to do something to improve their own fitness or learn self defense, or they have kids or know someone with kids they can send my way.

If they press and ask me what actually pays the bills (this usually happens at the dojo), then I can say I work for a school district. What do I do? “I teach the students to use Google Apps” (true) or “I help the teachers integrate technology into their classrooms” (also true). They can assume fixing the computers is someone else’s problem.

So goodbye, Mike the Tech Guy, long live Mike the Writer slash Martial Artist.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

Keeping Productivity Honest with Todoist

I’ve tinkered with several productivity apps and task managers, but none of them have been as simple and convenient as Todoist. As an added bonus, Todoist has a tracker they call Karma which tells me at a glance when I’ve been slacking or when I’ve been productive.

Looks like I'm trending in the right direction

Looks like I’m trending in the right direction

My initial needs were simple: speed and convenience. As much as I love Evernote, its to-do list functionality is a little clunky. A note can include checkboxes and reminders, but there are few layout options, different projects have to be maintained on different notes, and opening and searching those notes takes some time.

Remember the Milk, Producteev, Google Keep, and a few other apps for manipulating Google Tasks didn’t quite cut it, either. They were simple but still a little clunky, especially for managing future tasks, deadlines, or tasks in different projects (or some combination of those).

Todoist, meanwhile, hooked me quick. First and foremost, it has a clean, simple design accessible with a single click of an app or as soon as I fire up the website. I can see all of the day’s tasks at a glance, as well as those for the next seven days and anything already overdue. There’s a daily digest email available for planning, and every day at 9am I get a summary of the day’s tasks pushed to my phone.

Adding a task is streamlined over other apps, too. While some of the task managers require filling out a form and saving it, in Todoist it’s just click, type, hit enter. Done. Changing the deadline (which can be as simple as “tomorrow” or “Friday”) or assigning the task to a project is still right there if you don’t want the defaults, of course, but just this simple tweak saves a lot of time, especially while adding tasks on the fly on my smartphone. It’s the first to-do app that really felt mobile for me, rather than just presenting a mobile portal to my data.

Todoist also gives me ubiquitous access. I have the Todoist website open in a browser tab at all times, and it’s always in sync with the Todoist apps on my Android phone and my iPad. There are checkboxes in both locations for completed apps, but a simple swipe completes a task in a mobile app.

Todoist has a more intuitive and flexible way of organizing tasks. Creating Project categories is a snap, labels can be applied with a click, and there are color codes for both. Adding a subtask is as simple as indenting it, almost like an outline or just tabbing over in a document. On the website, tasks can be reorganized by drag and drop.

Need to postpone something? Done with a click. Need to delete a task? Yup, just a click. I can also add notes or upload files for tasks. I’ve not uploaded anything, but notes have been helpful from time to time, such as when I need a task that follows up on a conversation or involves a website. I’ve even punched in a line or two of dialog into writing-related tasks.

The only feature I don’t take advantage of is sharing tasks or collaborating with others. It didn’t take me long to throw some money at Todoist for Premium, as it has been especially helpful at the day job.

Which brings me back to Karma. When I complete a task, I get karma points. When I miss a deadline, I start losing karma. Other actions, such as postponing a task, seem to influence karma as well, but the deadlines are the most obvious influence.

Karma and deadlines keep me honest. When I blow a deadline, I know where I’ve been slacking. When my karma graph flatlines—or worse, it drops—I know I’ve been really slacking. And when a task says 83 days overdue (which one of my two overdue tasks says), I know I’ve just completely dropped the ball.

This has been a huge benefit at the day job. I have all of my own day-to-day tasks, but I’m also helpdesk so I juggle a lot of other tasks for a lot of other people. Add to that my tendency to see something shiny and go off-task, or to procrastinate and forget about things, and a good to-do manager is a must.

I also use it for daily reminders at home or for family, for things I have to do for karate (whether for myself or for the class I run now), for a side job I have teaching technology to elementary students, and, yes, for writing projects.

On the writing side, it’s been a huge help in prioritizing and planning. It motivates me when I see those looming deadlines. The karma hit is a nice kick in the ass if I blow a deadline, but it also helps me reassess things when I know I’m getting too ambitious in scheduling things. I can leave deadlines open-ended for non-critical tasks, and bump things up after conversations with editors.

Overall it’s been a very helpful tool, and among the first apps I loaded when I changed phones. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a to-do manager.

And now I can tick writing this blog post off my task list.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.