When Good Intentions Collide

A workflow for writing and thinking and stuff.

Let me tell you about a few good intentions that are ever present in my life:

1) I think it’s a good thing to write words, sentences and paragraphs everyday. That’s not to say I do it, but I have good intentions about it. A few years ago, I even started a website called 501Words which was a shared writing exercise to produce a manageable 501 words everyday. The website launched with a fair amount of interest, and good intentions, from others. The interest didn’t sustain and after a year, I killed it. My good intentions, however, survived.

2) I have long had an ‘incubator’ of ideas that I want to develop or think more about. The tools have changed over time, but I’ve always found ways to quickly and easily store ideas that come to mind. Most have stayed the original few words or sentences that I first captured, never growing any further. Occasionally I review them, and admire how clever I was to think of such things. Or delete them.

Something fun happened with these intentions last year – they got married. It seems obvious now, but in mid-2013 it occurred to me that my daily writing would be a good place to work out all of these stymied thoughts. I have a folder in Dropbox1 where I now put ideas I want to explore. When I have a small block of time to write, I settle in to that folder, open up one of the ideas, and start building it out. Sometimes these are initial thoughts about a sermon I’m going to do, a concept I want to understand better, a conversation I’m going to have, or maybe even a blog post to draft (though that doesn’t seem to be the case of late). They can be anything – the ambition is that I want to write interesting words and think meaningful thoughts. This has me doing both.


1. I’m leaving out details of the technical setup on purpose. Maybe that’s a post for another time, but this is meant to be about the heart, and not the how-to, of the workflow. My guess is, if you have the same good intentions I do, you don’t need another post about nifty writing apps and setups.

Getting Started with WordPress

Read to the end if you like free stuff

A few months ago, the ever talented and tall Ryan Irelan reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in creating a screencast series for Mijingo about WordPress. I’d already watched a few of the OmniFocus related screencasts that Ryan himself had made, and I recognized he was putting together quality work. I also recognized that if I said yes I’d be working on a project far above my paygrade.

I said yes.

Learning wordpress by mijingo coverOutlining the course was fun, and the hours spent recording it were tolerable. Reviewing the videos for edits while my own voice clawed at my eardrums was awful. Seeing the screencast series go up for sale on the Mijingo website last week was a delight.

If you’ve wanted to learn more about how to create your own custom website with WordPress, I hope you’ll give it a look. No, I hope you’ll buy it. And if not, could you please tell at least 372 other people about it?

I have a few download codes to give away. If you’d like one, leave a comment or send me a tweet. Early next week, I’ll draw winners from the names that have shown interest.

Lonesome Dove

A review two years in the making

I finished Lonesome Dove this weekend, and it may be the first Western I’ve ever read. I have a vague recollection of Little Britches as a kid, and I vaguely recollect that it would count as a Western. I’ve heard of Louis L’amour. Westerns aren’t my go-to genre.

My favorite Cultivator of Local Relationships and Good Will (may not be his actual title) at my favorite coffee shop had recommended Lonesome Dove to me. He’s a thoughtful, likeable guy, and we can only have so many conversations deconstructing Mad Men and Josh Hamilton, so I thought I’d give it a go. Also, Amazon put the Kindle version on sale for $2.99 a few months after he first recommended it, so there was that.

I knew this book would be an investment based on it’s heft. By heft, I don’t mean it’s weight – this was an ebook. No, heft in the Kindle world is recognized by a 5 digit location status, and Lonesome Dove weighs in above 15000, or 896 pages. I’m not scared of long books, but since I usually only read fiction as I wrap up the day in bed, it’s not uncommon for me to fall asleep after 2-3 pages. You know, about 30 locations. I was in for a journey. He recommended the book two years ago, and I’ve just finished. There’s been lots of Mad Men talk and Josh Hamilton has jumped from his favorite team to mine in the meantime.

I can summarize three typical experiences I have with fiction:

  1. There’s the kind of fiction where I never come to care about the characters, and concern for what happens to them is absent. These are the kind I often give up on, unless the storyline has some degree of intrigue. Or because of that self imposed guilt I have for not finishing something I’ve already invested so much time in. The Robert Langdon books, by Dan Brown, fit this category, and I’ve read each of them. I usually feel empty after reading such books, which leads to an unhealthy need for my children to express their love and admiration for me.
  2. There’s the kind of fiction where I not only care about the characters, but feel like I know them. Usually, that means I root for them, even the bad ones. When I finish a book like this, I feel like I just ended a long journey with a troupe of friends, and wrapping up the last page is like getting dropped off at my front door after a rich road trip. When the characters seem real, I can stay connected to just about any story.
  3. Then, there’s this third, and rare, kind of fiction. Not only do I care about the characters, but I start to see myself in them. Or maybe through them. When all is said and done, I’m not only evaluating their lives, but my life as well. I compare their foibles to my own, and I end up wanting to be someone more. Lonesome Dove left me feeling this way, except for the sleeping on the ground part.

So maybe you would enjoy Lonesome Dove too. It’s a Western, sure. But it’s an epic, co-mingling of broken lives making sense of love and loss in a way that you can see yourself in. And it won the Pulitzer, so…

So I Had This Idea…

and its about to ship.

There is tragic flaw of ambition that I share with many others. It leaves my own ideas lying dormant while squashing the dreams of others. Based on my highly scientific rough guess, it plagues 39% of all regular internet users. For readers of this blog, I would estimate it (highly scientifically) to be much higher.

It is known as Dormant Domain Syndrome – DDS for short, with all apologies to the dental professionals in my life, former and current.

Dormant domain syndrome begins as a spark of an idea for the next website we will create. Once it comes to us, we can do nothing else. We pour through potential domain name options, neglecting our jobs, families and good hygiene until we find just the right domain. Often, it involves ill will toward some other sufferer of DDS who long ago began their own squat on our first, second and third domains of choice. But we are not abated. We thesaurize until we find just the right domain and we pounce, racing through the registrar’s upsells until we get verification that it is ours.

A week later, the idea seems silly, stupid even. A year later, we renew the domain anyway, because…you never know. But there is one thing I know you know, right now. You know what I’m talking about.

A few weeks ago I had such an idea, and as I logged into my vault of DNS dead ends, I saw an autobiographical sketch of ideas past. It led to this tweet, the response to which only served to affirm that I am not alone:

But I forged forward that day, scrambling through possible names lest someone else be experiencing the identical serendipitous brilliance at that very moment. I landed on a domain I loved, completed the registration, secured the twitter name and imagined the glory to come.

As it oh so occasionally happens, the dreams gave way to details as I began to pull the direction of the new project together. I coded away while kids drifted into dreams and my wife depleted another box of tissues on the couch beside me during Call the Midwife.

I recognize I am well past the standard 140 character attention limit of our time, so if you are still with me, thanks for reading. And all this serves only as an introduction to tell you that I have put together a new project that I’m excited to share with you.

Next week I will be launching Sermonsmith.com: a podcast of conversations about the craft of sermon preparation. Twice a month, I will publish an interview with a church leader who regularly engages in the creative and sacred act of preaching.

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you will know that I’m enamored with the creative process. I’m interested in learning about the tools, rhythms, workflows and soul care that goes into any process of making stuff. For me, and many others who I’m honored to journey with, a primary creative expression is the act of preaching. And while the creative process has been a popular topic for many years now, there hasn’t been much of that talk particular to art of writing sermons. So, I’m going to start.

I’ve been initiating conversations like these for some time, so it makes sense to start setting up a mic and share what I learn with others. Later today, I will be recording my first interview with my good friend J.R. Briggs. Assuming all goes well, it should be published early next week, and we’ll be off and running. The next two interviews are already scheduled, and I won’t run out of interesting interviewees anytime soon.

Whether you preach or not, you’re welcome to listen in. The site is already live, or you can subscribe through iTunes, RSS, Twitter or Facebook. Fax subscriptions are not available.

Five Things

June 2013 Edition

Five things I’m into right now:

Dispatch app for iPhone:
I’ve tried some of the alternative mail apps that have made their way to iOS — Sparrow, Gmail, Mailbox. In each instance, though, I’ve find my way back to the built in Mail app. But after a week of trying Dispatch, I think I’m making a change. I like the simple and clean design, but most of all, I love the functionality. My main tasks for email are archiving, replying, filing in Evernote, or creating a task in OmniFocus. Dispatch, for the first time, allows me to do the latter two well, and especially creating a task in OmniFocus. I didn’t think it possible on iOS, but Dispatch creates a link back to the message, so I can archive it on my phone, and then click the link to pull it back up for a necessary reply. I’m finding that I want to do an initial sweep of all email on my iPhone before anyplace else.

The National | Trouble Will Find Me & M83 | Oblivion Soundtrack:
These two albums are getting a lot of play. The National album I liked from the start, though I’m not finding that it has a slow and steady growth curve of deeper appreciation like their last few records. We’ll see if it’s still getting a daily play in a month or so. I’ve appreciated M83 from afar, but never been a consistent listener. I enjoy soundtracks though, and M83 proved a great match for the visuals of Oblivion. I’ve been listening to this one a few times a week since it was released, and I’m not close to tiring of it.

Yirgacheffe Kochere Coffee Beans:
I like to mix up my home coffee brews, buying something different from my friends at Houndstooth Coffee each time around. But I keep going back to these beans, only varying between the PT’s roast and the Coava roast. I brew at home with a Clever, with generally good results. But these have been the most forgiving beans I’ve ever brewed at home, offering a good cup no matter how much my attention to the details of the brewing process is distracted by my young ‘uns.

Call the Midwife:
I started watching this with my wife on the same night I watched the first few episodes of the resurrected Arrested Development. At my current rate, I will easily finish two seasons of Call the Midwife before I finish the new season of Arrested Development (if I even finish it). Season 1 is available on Netflix streaming, and season 2 can be watched on the PBS iOS app. Seeing how these midwives care for the pregnant and newborns in the East End of London in the 50s leaves me pondering the parallel of how a church is meant to care for the souls in their own neighborhoods and parishes.

Manage Your Day to Day:
This is a collection of essays about doing creative work. It is broken into four sections: Building a Rock-Solid Routine, Finding Focus in a Distracted World, Taming Your Tools, and Sharpening Your Creative Mind. I don’t know that there was much new ground broken for me in reading it, but it served as a helpful reminder and re-evalution of my own rhythms. I picked up the Kindle version on the cheap, but based on the photos in Blaine Hogan’s review, the physical book looks mighty nice.

Family Road Trip Hack

It's not such a new idea, really

I try not to write about the details of my life that reveal just how cool I am. I don’t want to appear to be all braggy and stuff. But, in this case, my cultural transcendence is relevant to the point, so here goes: We bought a minivan three years before our first child was born. That’s right. My wife and I could be seen cruising to hot spots like the dollar movie theater and the grocery store in our minivan that contained no car seats or decaying animal crackers.

We anticipated kids were in our future, so we were excited that the dealer had a ‘special offer’ that week. Along with our minivan, we received a free console that sat between the front seats with a built in VCR and a 5 inch screen. Yes, VCR, the kind that played VHS tapes. “Why not?” we thought, expecting it be handy for occupying our little ones when they came along. Sadly, we abandoned VHS tapes about a year later with the purchase of our first DVD player, and never really used the VCR at all. We purged it in a garage sale for $20 a few years later as we prepared to move five states away.

Since then, cars with screens are commonplace, often with individual screens per seat so every child’s entertainment fancy can be satiated. We are still driving the same minivan, now with car seats and decaying gluten free pretzels, but no built in screens. We’ve found ways to balance laptops for DVD playback, and in the last few years, hang an iPad between the driver and passenger seat. (Clever, you say? Yes, but not the family road trip hack I have in mind.)

As of yesterday, here in Austin, school’s out for summer. (You did just picture Alice Cooper, didn’t you?) With summer’s arrival, families are eagerly anticipating hours of bliss in the car together. Screens are being polished and headphones are being replaced to keep the peace. As an alternative, though, may I present the family road trip hack? It’s really not so new. It’s an old idea, in fact, but sometimes the best new ideas are old ones revisited.

Audiobooks.

FamilytrucksterLast year, I wrote about how I had rediscovered audiobooks, and I passed along the experience to my family and our forest green minivan. We worked through a few audiobooks on a road trip or two, and we’ve even listened to a few while driving around town together. It’s a shared experience and I’d like to think a healthier one, filling every imagination in the car with characters and settings. We love it. The kids love it, and they ask if we can listen to a book anytime we are in the car together.

Digital audiobooks are easy to find between your local library, Amazon/Audible or iTunes, and just as easy to listen to on your smartphone. Your favorite used bookstore probably has shelves of audiobooks on CD, or even cassette if you have the means to play them. So, as you make plans for a trip to Walleyworld, I’ll leave you with a few of our family favorites from the last year, most of which came from our public library:

We’re always looking for new books to listen to together, so if you have some favorites too, please share them in the comments.

Speaking Notes on the iPad, Revisited

The ongoing saga...

A few years ago, I wrote about how I use my iPad in place of paper notes for speaking. Tablets and apps have come quite a way since then, and I’ve experimented with a number of setups for this. Scrolling through a Pages or a Google Doc seems to be the most awkward way to do this, yet it’s what I see many people using. I consider it my public duty to explore some options for all to consider.

When I’m thinking about how to use an iPad for speaking notes, there are three criteria I have in mind:

  1. Easy Interaction and Navigation – When I’m presenting, I don’t want to distract myself or the audience with cautious scrolls or pinpoint taps.
  2. Formatting and Details – I don’t speak from a manuscript, but use outlines with various levels of detail. But, because much of my speaking is preaching, I want the means to include chunks of text in the form of Scriptures or quotes. I need a method that helps main points stand out while also being able to focus in on a longer chunk of verbiage.
  3. Multi-device Sync – As important as anything, I want to be able to work with my notes on any device, able to work in depth on a laptop, make changes outside in the parking lot or even as I walk on the stage.

So, with the above criteria in mind, I offer my methods to consider. All of these are written with an iPad in mind, though I imagine you can find parallels for other devices.

  • Word Processing Document – This may be Pages, or a Google Doc. I think many go this route because it’s what they know, a carryover of the days when notes were printed. On the plus side, you can format to your heart’s content, whether manuscript or outline, and notes are easily accessed from any device. But I find it too clunky to scroll my way up and down, always having to take care to not lose my place, especially in a document that stretches over multiple pages.

  • The PDF Method – This is the method I have previously written about. The advantage was the full formatting of a word processing doc exported to a pdf that matched the dimensions of a screen. It worked better than a word processing document for me, because PDF viewers allow the pages to be flipped one at a time with a swipe. I found easier to navigate sideways through pages than scroll through a long document. The negative is that you can’t as easily edit on the go once it’s published to PDF. (Though this is possible with PDFPen for iPad.)

  • Keynote Presentation Mode – The first time I used an iPad for speaking, it was a Keynote presentation on my iPad. I created slides that functioned like index cards, pressed play and flipped my way through them right there on my screen. It works well, but my notes weren’t gathered and formed in Keynote, so it was an extra step to format them there with no easy means of importing them outside of copy and paste.

  • Keynote Presenter Mode – Keynote presenter mode is what happens behind the curtain when you have a Keynote presentation broadcast on a screen. You are given the means to see the current slide, plus, either your notes attached to that slide, or the next slide in the deck – but not both. It’s convenient when you are driving the presentation yourself and have the technical setup (ie AppleTV) to do so, but suffers from the same problem of extra steps for formatting described above.

  • Dedicated Apps – There are a few iOS apps that are dedicated for the purpose of speaking notes:

    1. Podium Cue is the first that I saw. It seems to have good potential, including the ability to track your timing, but is locked into a format that seems to prevent longer chunks of text. It has a well constructed concept of how to structure main points with connected supporting points in a way that allows for easy navigation to the next main point, though I found this restrictive to how I put outlines together.
    2. Promptster Pro offers a similar means to time your speech and offers more flexibility for longer passages, but I find the extra on screen features and overall aesthetic distracting.
    3. Speeches looks nice, though I’ve only previewed it within the App Store. It seems to have a similar feature set to Prompster, but with a cleaner interface and navigation between notes.
      The problem, for me, with all of these dedicated apps, is the ongoing interaction with your notes. You are either stuck developing your notes within the app, or importing a finalized version from another document. They are not agile enough, for my purposes, to mange both the development and the presentation phase of your notes.
  • OmniOutliner for iPad – In recent months, I’ve discovered how handy OmniOutliner can be for presenting from an iPad. Most of my ideas are formed in and out of outlines in OPML format, dragged around within MindNode or coalesced through a fantastic, but under the radar MacOS app called Tree. Thus, they are easily pulled into OmniOutliner, where I can collapse them into main points and expand as needed. The only negative of this is the careful tap required to expand a section.
  • Daedalus Touch – In more recent months than the recent months described above, I’ve been using Daedalus Touch. It helps that it syncs with Ulysses III (written up last week), which has become my favorite environment for writing. Everything is updated and ready to go when and where I need it. The layout is a virtual stack of expanding note cards of different lengths, allowing me to develop a point and any required materials on one card, and then swipe to the next when it is time to move on. It syncs between my laptop, iPad and iPhone in a way that I don’t have have to think about. It’s just there.

As you may have noticed, this outline generally proceeds in the same way my own experiences of using the iPad for speaking notes have proceeded. I’m now using both OmniOutliner and Daedalus Touch, depending on the setting and content. If I’m leading a smaller meeting or workshop with more details to track, I tend to favor the unfolding elements of OmniOutliner. When doing something in more of a monologue format which is generally committed to memory, I turn to Daedalus for easy access to longer passages to be read and easy navigation.

Of course, I know someone out there has tried other methods to. I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Getting Cozy with Ulysses III

More like Yes-lysses

A few years ago, I took a good look at Ulysses as a writing app, and even wrote up a review. It was one of those apps that took some digging in to get a handle on, but the more I did, the more I saw how I might put it to use for larger writing projects. But, like many, I was already deep into Scrivener (App store), which served a similar purpose with more apparent access to it’s features.

Last month Ulysses III (App store) rolled out and it is rewritten and renewed in every way. And I just might be all in. (I wrote this review shortly after that, but the app was so unstable I didn’t publish. A small update seems to have taken care of that.)

My recent writing work has split between two app sets. Shorter projects, under a few thousand words, have formed in Byword, syncing beautifully between a Mac version and an iOS version. Larger projects have lived in Scrivener, synced to a dropbox folder and edited via WriteRoom for iOS. It’s worked. But not quite. I don’t like the indecision of choosing where to start writing for a project, and process of syncing a larger project in Scrivener to external folders was equal parts cumbersome and convenient.

With sidebars the allow for easy navigation through documents, Ulysses serves well for both longer and shorter projects. Here’s what I like about it so far:

  1. Ulysses is very Markdown friendly. I have never fully jumped on the Markdown bandwagon, though David Sparks and Eddie Smith have me experimenting with it again, and I’m even using it as I write this post.
  2. There is a seamless sync available to a companion iOS app called Daedalus Touch. It has a unique, but very usable, way to manage all of your writings and projects. And again, it’s nice to have a one spot of my home screen for both long and short form writing projects.
  3. It looks great. I find I prefer having a sidebar with quick access to other related writings, as thoughts about one section often come to mind while I’m working on another. For those who prefer it as minimal as possible, though, the sidebars can be switched off easier than C3PO.
  4. There is a lot of flexibility on how to store and move your data via local folders, iCloud or Dropbox. The downside is that all these options can be confusing as well. If you drag folders from Ulysses iCloud to Daedalus, it copies them and suddenly you have two versions. It’s best to choose your ideal sync method from the start and hide the others.
  5. Once the words are written and ordered, they can be exported to PDF, HTML, or an .rtf for further layout in Pages or, Lord have mercy, Word.

Depending on whether you are a pessimist or an optimist, there are a few areas of concern or hope:

  1. There is a way to connect notes to a document that won’t be visible when exported, but Ulysses still isn’t a match for Scrivener if you are working on a project that requires a lot of research you want ready access to. It’s hard to beat that Research folder in Scrivener.
  2. Another thing missing from a comparison to Scrivener is the ability to import and export outlines in an OPML format.
  3. I’m not sure how accessible it is for quick access through scripting for apps like Hazel and Launchbar unless you are storing everything in Dropbox as individual files. I’d love to have an idea for a new blog post come to mind and know that I can safely tuck it into Ulysses with a few keystrokes.

Overall, Ulysses is off to a good start as a go to writing app to keep everything in one place. If you spend any amount of energy moving a cursor one character at a time, it’s worth a look. At $39.99 it’s an investment. Though it’s only available for sale in the Mac App store, you can find a demo available on the Ulysses website.

Disclaimer: The app stores links in this are affiliate links, and all earnings will be used for putting food in my kids’ mouths. Or for my not so secret app habit.

Favorites from my Winter 2013 Reading

Shotgun style

I started blogging oh so many years ago to reflect and share my way through some of the books I’ve been reading. I haven’t kept up so well of late, but there are a few I read in the first quarter of this year that are worth sharing. Here’s a shotgun spray summary of several books I read this winter that are worth a look:

Endurance, by Alfred Lansing
Endurance was written 50 years about a true story that happened a hundred years ago, but it is as engaging as any of the best picture nominees from last year. Lansing tells the story of an expedition to cross Antartica led by Earnest Shackleton. The events described in the first chapter make things clear – this isn’t a book about a successful expedition but about a precarious journey of survival. At the center of what makes the book worth reading is Shackleton’s leadership in the midst of more crisis than most of us have known, never giving up hope, nor allowing those with him to do so. I used Whispersync to do this both as an audiobook and an ebook, but I’d recommend reading this one rather than listening.

Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon
I don’t know Austin, though he is a fellow Austinite. But I know of him, any you may too. A few years ago he had a blog post of the same title as this book which achieved more mentions on Twitter than there are taco joints in Austin. This book falls in the "musings on making stuff" genre which will soon need it’s own bookshelf at Barnes & Noble (or Bookpeople for you Austinites). When it does, it should be on the top shelf with the cover, and not just the spine, facing out.

Prodigal Christianity, by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw
Dave and Geoff are friends, so there is some bias here, but this is a book I’d recommend the contents of even if it was written by Strawberry Shortcake. Dave and Geoff describe a Christianity that navigates between the extremes oft labeled liberal and conservative, and it’s one I mostly resonate with. What’s more, they do so mostly by engaging with stories out of their own church community, connecting their working theories with tangible work.

Markdown, by David Sparks and Eddie Smith
The latest MacSparky Field Guide offers a subject matter that shows just how helpful an ebook mixing video and text can be. Markdown is a simple writing style that allows simple formatting with basic characters, keeping key strokes, mouse clicks and curse words to a minimum. Because it is nothing but plain text it is portable for use on an device, and the moving pictures and paragraphs in this book can show you just how easy it is. I’ve only dabbled with Markdown, but I’m approaching it with renewed interest since reading, and watching, through this one.

Secrets of Happy Families, by Bruce Feiler
Bruce Feiler has written a handful of books exploring the religious geography and history of the Middle East. I was on the hunt for these in our library and I stumbled on this, his most recent, book. I don’t usually like "here’s how to fix your life" books, but I checked out the audiobook to fill a few commutes. It was a good choice. Feiler doesn’t so much explain how to have a perfect family as much as he describes how different families engage in being intentional in the formation of their practices and relationships. It was more of an exploration than a how-to, and the tone was just right.