How to work from home effectively

Given how many companies are now asking employees to telecommute, I thought I’d offer some tips on how to work from home effectively. I have been working from home since early 2005. During this time, I have rented office space, but even when I do have an office, such as my nail salon, I always spend a portion of my working day in my pajamas.

Skip the chores

The unfolded pile of laundry, the bookshelf waiting to be rearranged, the trim that should have been painted months ago – all of that can wait. Save it for the evenings or weekends. You’re home, but you’re at home to work and be as productive as possible so that you retain your job in this uncertain economy.
Set a schedule

This is critical. Set your alarm. Enjoy your morning coffee or tea, and then tell yourself what time you’re going to start, when you’re going to break, and when you will be done for the day. Then stick to that, even if one of your kids or your spouse or the farmer who lives next door wants to throw a football around in the backyard. You’re not home. Well, you are home, but not really…

Be flexible with your hours

Years ago I wrote a story about a mathematician for Popular Science magazine, and this relatively young academic was telling me how he worked from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon, and then again from eight at night until just after midnight. That won’t work for everyone, especially if you need to be on calls, etc. But if a portion of your work day does involve solo, productive-type stuff that demands intense concentration, don’t be afraid to break that out and save it for the evening. You have to stick to it, of course. You can’t turn on Netflix at eight and decide to make up the hours tomorrow. But if your house is chaos during the day, consider this an option. 

Close the door

Ideally, you want to find a room in your house that’s far away from the center of things, with a door you can close. Think of this space as an entirely separate dimension, linked to the rest of your house, and the unwashed dishes and laundry to be folded and yard to be raked, via wormhole. You can pass through this wormhole, but every time you do, there’s a risk you will be shredded into your constituent subatomic particles. Don’t wear diapers or anything, but stay put as much as possible.

Once you pass through that doorway, you don’t know what distractions lie in hiding, ready to snatch minutes or even hours from your day.

Don’t wear pajamas

Right. So I do wear pajamas sometimes when I work at home, but it’s really not the best idea. You tend to take yourself and your work a little less seriously when you pass by a mirror and see that you’re wearing a ragged t-shirt and your hair is an untamed art project even Einstein might comb. Plus there’s always the danger that you forget what you’re wearing and venture out into the world. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to the store or to my office in town without realizing I’m still in my pjs. On one occasion, a few years ago, I rushed out of my home office to pick up one of my daughters from her dance class, and the teacher nearly called the police because of the strange man outside wearing Smurf pajama pants.

Dress as if you’re going to a meeting. A famous writer – maybe Cheever? – apparently used to leave his house via the front door, walk around the side, and enter his basement office through the back, just to kickstart that mindshift. Sometimes I’ll even put on a tie, especially if I’m lacking motivation.

At the very least, try to look presentable. Shower in the morning. Apply your favorite products. You’ll take yourself, and your home work, a little more seriously.

Walk your dog even if you don’t have a dog

I’ve never smoked, but I’ve always loved the concept of smoking breaks – getting away from your desk and changing the scenery. Walking your dog before work, or during what you’d normally mark off as your lunch hour, is a great way to clear your mind, think through little work-related problems, maybe even conjure up a few creative solutions. Don’t have a dog? No problem. Just go outside, hold one arm out at a 45-degree angle, and take uncomfortably long, awkward strides. If you live in a suburban neighborhood, stop in front of your neighbor’s house and stare down into their shrubbery, as if your dog were relieving him or herself there. Don’t worry, your neighbors won’t think you’re weird. They’re probably reading this email, too.

Ignore your kids

The kids will be fine. Really? Will they? To be honest I’m not sure. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of so many kids saying they wish they had school. It’s not summer. It’s not a snow day. Sports have been cancelled. They shouldn’t hang out with friends. Everyone is confused, and justifiably so.

But still…you need to work, so you’re going to have to let them yell at each other and your spouse until your working day is over. If you run out of the room and try to steer them through every emotional rollercoaster or break up every fight, you’ll get nothing done. And if you and your spouse are both working from home, take turns. One of you should referee the morning disputes, the other should take the afternoon bouts. See that point above about working at night. 

Don’t read the news

Really. This is especially hard right now. The news is constant and meaningful. But you have work to do, and you can read about it all later, at the end of your day.

Avoid social media

That’s it. Avoid it during your scheduled working hours, then dive into everyone’s stories and ideas and conspiracy theories later.

Use headphones

Listening to music helps me focus, and headphones in particular are a great way to tune out the world, and what’s happening on the other side of your door. I prefer jazz, without lyrics. Electronica can be effective, too, and classical music as well. Not Rachmaninoff, though. His stuff gets a little too intense. Try Philip Glass. Pleasantly repetitive. You zone out and focus.    

I’d suggest controlling your snacking, too. And keep to three cups of coffee. Once you move into that four-plus range, things get a little weird.

Good luck.

Are You Going to Write Jack and the Geniuses 4?

This question has been popping up quite a bit lately. Kids are wondering if Bill Nye the Science Guy and I are going to write a fourth novel in the Jack and the Geniuses series. The short answer? Maybe. A very strong maybe. But not right now. Currently we’re busy working on a gigantic nonfiction kids science book that covers everything from quarks to galaxies. Evolution, zoology, tribology – it’s all in there.

As a result, Jack and the Geniuses 4 is on hold. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the crew and where they’re going next. Or what SNOT is really up to. (Is it actually a division of NASA? Or is something more nefarious at work?) And the lack of a definite plan doesn’t mean we don’t care about you, reader. Of course not.

In the meantime, let me know if you have any ideas about where the next mystery should take place. Or better yet: Write a sequel yourself! It is #NanoWriMo after all.

New Books!

I’m working on three new books, with much excitement. They are about:

  1. Science (a big nonfiction book with Bill Nye)
  2. Bugs (an awesome little nonfiction picture book with the photographer Levon Biss)
  3. A technologically advanced civilization hidden beneath the ocean (a new series of sci-fi adventure novels, written with me and my voices.)

More official-type details to follow.

Do Books Deserve Birthdays? On the Similarities Between Book and Human Production

IMG_1825So my first novel with Bill Nye, Jack and the Geniuses: At the Bottom of the World, just came out. Apparently this is known as your book’s birthday. People send you emojis with birthday cakes and candles. Authors get kids to sing “Happy Birthday” to their new books. Maybe it’s just me, but the whole thing feels a little off. Sure, there are some similarities between making a book and creating a person. The conceiving phase is thrilling, the gestation difficult and the production or publication both terrifying and amazing.

But do books really deserve birthdays?

Let’s skip the initial creative phase – my favorite part of writing a book. The truly difficult business is molding that initial idea, which seems so shiny and brilliant, but often has the structural integrity of yogurt, into something that actually makes sense. Rewriting and revising and all that hair-pulling, coffee-fueled, wrist-cracking madness. It’s difficult. Absolutely.

But it’s not even close to growing a baby inside you. Obviously I haven’t done this myself, but I watched my wife go through it, and I saw Schwarzenegger’s struggles in the classic film Junior. I don’t think I could finish a magazine article, let alone a book, if I was restless all night, throwing up every morning and limited to one cup of coffee at most.

What about the next phase? Assuming all goes well, mothers immediately get to see the product of all their hard work in the form of a newborn baby. Instantly, all that pain and suffering is replaced (momentarily, at least) with joy.

With a book, the moment of completion isn’t quite so well defined. First of all, you don’t always know when you’re done. You think you’re done, but then your publisher informs you of a problem or inconsistency or general weakness. This can be disheartening. Imagine a doctor inspecting a newborn and, after a thorough evaluation, long enough for the mother to feel relief, handing it back and saying, “Let’s shove him back in there for a few weeks. I don’t love the nose.”

When you do finally finish your revisions, and the nose passes inspection, the book disappears. For nine or maybe twelve months, your story wanders across numerous desks, hikes to a far away land to be printed and bound, then returns to the publisher. Eventually, a copy of your finished book arrives in the mail. But you’ve been working on new stories in the interim, so instead of being overwhelmed with elation, you hold it, turn it around a few times, and think, “Huh. What’s this one about again?”

The advantage is that unlike new mothers, who are immediately thrust into a whole new phase of ridiculously hard work, the author’s job is mostly done. Sure, you’re supposed to market the book, but you can only guilt your mom into buying so many copies.

I’ve written a few books now, and to me, publication day isn’t so much a birthday as it is a reunion with an old friend. Sometimes you realize that old friend is the dude you probably shouldn’t have spent time with in the first place. Sometimes you realize your old friend looks or maybe smells funny. But then there are those books that remind you why you started writing in the first place.

Thankfully, Jack and the Geniuses falls into that latter category. The book smells delightful, and I really do like it. When Bill and I talked originally about creating a few science-driven, mystery-filled adventure novels, I wasn’t sure a series would hold my
interest. Then the opposite proved true. We’ve finished two books already and we’re already working on another.

But a birthday? No. I prefer “launch” – and not just because Bill Nye is involved. Rocket launches, like book launches, are simultaneously exciting and terrifying. The initial flight can be beautiful, then end in a tragic, explosive disaster. Or maybe the books or spacecraft soar through those initial phases and then disappear completely, never to be heard from again, like ESA’s failed Schiaparelli lander or my second book, The Truth About Santa.

Hopefully, Jack and the Geniuses sticks closer to the script laid out by the Mars Exploration Rovers. Years after their launch, they continue to capture our imaginations, and Bill and I hope that Jack and crew will do the same.

 

 

What’s Wrong With Saul’s Office?

Most people aren’t very impressed when you tell them you work in the back of a nail salon. Not when you’re a writer, anyway. My friends assume I’m joking. My dad approves, because he figures I’m getting a deal. My mom says I should get my nails done during my breaks. A few others suggested opening a window because of the fumes. The most common reaction? More than a few people have compared me to Jimmy, the shady lawyer in the television series Better Call Saul.

At first this meant nothing to me. I didn’t really know the show. But after a little digging, I learned that this office is meant to demonstrate the disastrous state of this attorney’s career. Really, who would rent space behind a nail salon — even at a discount? Only a failed lawyer, businessperson, or writer, obviously.

So now I feel the need to defend myself, and my office.

The Treat Yourself nail salon and spa is a lovely little spot with ample parking. It’s only a few steps from downtown Oak Bluffs, on the reportedly magical isle of Martha’s Vineyard. There’s a bowling alley down the street. An art gallery, too. Need a pair of pink pants? Maybe a new tie with some whales on it? No need to worry. A Vineyard Vines store awaits you up the block.

The salon is on the second floor of an office building, above an insurance agency. My room is at the back. After saying hello to the receptionist, I walk through the small waiting area, turn left, pass the tanning booths on my left, the massage cave to the right, and hold my laptop bag against my hip, careful to avoid knocking over any of the hundreds of bottles of nail polish lining the hallway walls. Then I enter my little sanctuary.

My office is roughly square, with a single tall window and two large fluorescent ceiling lights that hum slightly. Books line the shelves and the floor, too, because I ran out of space. Dos Passos and Tolstoy and all the good ones live in the bookcases; my own novels and nonfiction works are stacked on the carpet. There’s a small black vacuum, but I don’t know if it works, and a tall black filing cabinet that’s definitely broken.

When I first started working as a writer, I had more romantic visions of my eventual workspace. I pictured huge windows with views of still ponds or roaring ocean waves, a wide wooden desk. Great light. High ceilings. Wide-plank flooring. A barn? Yes, absolutely. A rustic barn with enough room inside for a basketball hoop at one end. And an espresso machine with sufficient pressure. Maybe one of those flume-powered pools, too.

Instead, in the years I’ve been working as a novelist and science writer, I’ve logged time in kitchens, spare bedrooms with low ceilings, an unfurnished basement that required a hat and gloves in the winter, a shared office, dozens of coffee shops, and a nice little room within a small technology company in downtown Canton.

That was my favorite workspace. Instead of the ocean, I looked out on a convenience store parking lot. If my writing took a dreary turn in those years, blame it on all the sad souls who frantically and hopefully scratched their lotto tickets in their cars, then drove off depressed when they failed to win.

But honestly, that was a great spot. I shared the office with a few good friends, and I could close my door and focus. A huge pear tree hung over the back fence, which inspired a song-poem called Office Pears. Which, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the nail salon.

A writer doesn’t need an ocean view to be inspired or productive. That sort of thing comes from within. What you need is a place to shut out the world and get the work done, and for that, a view of a blank wall is much better than one of rolling waves. So, in my office, when I’m not staring at a page or a screen, I gaze upon chipped paint and wallboard, and I work for hours straight, disappearing into whatever story I happen to be writing that day.

Look, I get why that office wasn’t good for Saul. As a lawyer, he needs to meet with people and convince them he’s a professional. Me? I just need to write decent books and articles. Sure, it’s a little awkward to step through my door and make eye contact with a woman having her toenails sanded and clipped, but it’s kind of funny, too. I like my nail salon.

That said, if any Vineyard residents out there want to rent a barn with a basketball hoop to a writer of children’s adventure stories and sci-tech journalism, send me a note.

Yikes

Wow. It’s very disappointing to see that I haven’t written a post for more than a year. And that the last one was about a Netflix series…

Anyway, I’ve been busy. Honestly. Check  the books page for the latest project, which is coming out in April 2017.

More details soon.

 

I AM THE ILL INTENT

An incredible scene in the final episode of the Netflix series Daredevil has stuck with me since I watched it a few weeks back. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here, but if you’re terrified of spoilers, I guess you could stop reading. So. Anyway. The chief villain, Wilson Fisk, is being transported inside a police van, handcuffed and under the watch of two heavily armed guards. A little way into the journey he starts to tell a story. A long story, which the viewer quickly recognizes as the tale of the Good Samaritan. He speaks of a man traveling on a road, and how this man “is set upon by men of ill intent.” Then he goes on to talk about the different people who passed him by as he lies there, nearly dead, until the good Samaritan finally stops and helps.

When the story is finished, Fisk says that he’d always thought of himself as the Samaritan. Yet he has come to realize he’s not the good man, and that he’s not any of the others who pass the traveler on the side of the road, either. (The writing here is great, drawn-out, allowing the suspense to build, and the actor Vincent D’Onofrio really works his breaths and pauses.) Then he delivers the killer line: “I am the ill intent.”

He’s not one of the men of ill intent. No, he’s the very spirit of evil. I love that idea for a character, and yet it only really works because the writers spent so much time developing Fisk as a person through all the episodes. He’s not a spirit. He’s flesh and blood and bones, and he sort of has a heart. Yet through the course of the story he finally comes to accept that he is the embodiment of evil, of ill intent. With that one line he moves beyond the confines of a single character and transforms into a kind of force hovering around the entire world of the story.

The Fisk character also reminds me of a line in one of Hemingway’s letters. In the note, he’s offering advice to Fitzgerald about a book in progress:

“Now watch one thing…don’t let yourself slop and get any perfect characters in…Keep them people, people, people and don’t let them be symbols.”

The writers establish Fisk as a human, then let him bloom into a symbol. But he’s not perfectly evil. He’s in love. And the hero, Daredevil, isn’t perfectly good or noble. He has a vindictive, brutal side. Neither main character is close to perfect.

The good guys have a little bad in them and the bad guys have a little good in them. To me, that’s great writing.

And now for something completely different. Recently I wrote a story about machine translation – how technologies like Google Translate and Skype Translator transform spoken or written words from one language into another. It’s here. Then I read this today, from the great Russian translator Larissa Volokhonsky, in the Paris Review, as she recalled an early experience working on this technology:

“…it was then that I understood that machine translation is not possible. I can formalize all these syntactic connections and relationships until I’m blue and gray and dead in my grave, and still I will never convey the taste, the flavor, the rhythm, the smell, the music that I hear.”

She said this, too, which has nothing to do with translation, but made me laugh out loud:

“We were allowed to hunt, you see. They were very wild places. But I didn’t hunt. I could have told you I did, but I didn’t.”

I could have told you I did, but I didn’t. Maybe that’s the difference between a translator and a storyteller.

Gold Medals, Top Secret Projects, and Detective Fiction

This September, Viking Children’s Books will be publishing an adapted version of The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s adult nonfiction bestseller. The adult book is fantastic. Really. Read it. But I’m especially excited about this new one because I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Brown, adapting and editing the text for young readers. It’s the true story of an underdog crew from the University of Washington, a group of boys who rowed their way to the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics. The characters are unforgettable, and kids are going to absolutely love the story.

I’m also working on a double top secret project with another writer. He’s a celebrity, too. The good kind, though. He’s smart and funny and passionate about science.

I’m also hoping to have some news soon about a few more children’s books. Unicorns, ninjas, triangle-footed monsters, and those sorts of things.

Now, as for detective fiction…here are a few lines I read recently in a Ross MacDonald book, The Ivory Grin.

“Bent over a bin of oranges with my back to the street, I heard her heels on the pavement and felt her shadow brush me, like a cold feather.”

“Large-eared and almost hairless, his head seemed naked, as if it had been plucked. His long face was dimly lit by pale worried eyes. Deep lines of sorrow dragged down from the wings of his large vulnerable nose.”

Now I could do without the “worried” eyes, the “lines of sorrow” and the “vulnerable” nose. That’s kind of cheating, in my mind, when you feed the feeling to the reader. Bellow does this all the time, too, though, so I guess it’s allowed. But what if those lines aren’t sorrowful? What if this guy is wrinkled because he surfs all the time and gets too much sun? Then they’d be lines of peace and harmony. Criticism aside, I love the shadow as a cold feather above, and the idea that the guy’s head looks like it had been plucked is just wonderful. I laughed out loud.

This last one is just plain weird, in a good way:

“His words were soft and insinuating, breaking gently like bubbles between his pink lips. His breath was strong enough to lean on.”

And that’s all for now.