Month: October 2014

NaNoPreMo 2014: Filling and Tracking Holes

I have made lots of notes on the manuscript, but now I need to turn those notes into scene descriptions and things I can actually write against.

Classes of Note

There are two kinds of notes that I have:

  1. new or replacement scenes – these can obviously be turned into new chunks of writing.
  2. observations on tone and breadcrumbing – these are fiddlier because they require new words to be inter-meshed with existing text.

… and of course I have the remainder of the outline for the second half of the draft.

What I usually do to know what to write next* is to have scene summaries in Scrivener – which is fine, as long as it’s all new scenes. For this effort, I will have a list in Evernote for completing tasks rather than scenes, so the words are all still in Scrivener, but the planning for them is elsewhere.

Obviously, all of these things live in the cloud so they can easily be shared between the systems I use.

When To Work On Things

I’m going to do new scenes first in the day, and then write fragments later as in-fill once the daily word goal has been met. This is because I need momentum, and that is a lot easier to get from sustained writing on complete scenes. So, the fragments still need to be written, but I will write once the flow is already established.

Tracking Progress

For staying on pace, I track word count in my wordcount goals sheet as well as on the NaNoWriMo site.

For publishing my progress, I use a maze as a fill-in tracker. I have a little Lisp program which makes mazes however, for reasons I do not currently have time to explore, my CLISP install is broken. So, I’m reusing the tracker from 2013. I have added some text to it in Inkscape for the purposes of posting on the wall**.

Blogging in November

Last year I had to drop the blogging a few weeks into November because my word count goal was 100k and I just couldn’t stay on top of everything.

My goal this year is rather less ambitious – the standard 50k, in fact. On those grounds I expect that I’ll be able to keep the blogging going, but if I have to spend three hours a day to stay on target then that could change.

I will be doing some NaNoWriMo posts of course***, but those should be in addition to rather than instead of the normal bloggery.

[*] which I definitely need, because I don’t do well at coming up with ideas at 0500.

[**] and the fridge.

[***] although I probably won’t post constant updates. That is what Twitter (@DunxIsWriting) is for.

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Constantine

So, Constantine – the new TV show, I should say, rather than the Keanu Reeves vehicle*.

I read Hellblazer almost since it started having enjoyed John Constantine mightily in Swamp Thing – I think the first issue I picked up was #6, and it immediately struck a chord with me. He wasn’t the reason I started wearing a trench coat when I lived in Nottingham, but it didn’t hurt. I read the comic all the way through to the end of Warren Ellis’s run, and I still have a lot of affection for the character and the stories.

In those terms, I have to say that I approve of the NBC show. There are elements that make me unhappy, like having all the current supporting cast be American – even Chas, for pity’s sake – but the spirit of the original stories is certainly there, and the lead actor is more or less perfectly cast. He carries off the insouciance of John Constantine exceptionally well.

I’m really looking forward to future episodes.

Well done, 8/10. This did not suck.

And I really liked the nod to the Jamie Delano version of the character in the closing graphic sequence. That was pretty special.

Time to reread all the stories I have, I think.

[*] which did, in fairness, have its own charms but it was not an especially faithful rendering of the source material despite Tilda Swinton’s excellent angel.

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Unspeakable Words

I first heard about the game Unspeakable Words on Tabletop.

I am a sucker both for Cthulhu Mythos games and word games so this game really hits the sweet spot for me in terms of what I like.

Unfortunately, Unspeakable Words has been out of print for a while and getting hold of a copy takes $200.

Making A Pirate Copy

However, the letter distributions are available online. Obviously a copy like this would not have the marvellous card art, nor the delightful little Cthulhu figures, but the letters could be represented by tiles from another game.

Scrabble tiles are no good for this – there are 100 tiles rather than 96, but the letter distribution is different and the numbers on the tiles conflict with the scores for this game. Upwords tiles would be better since there are no numbers, but the serifs on the tiles add unwanted angles.

Bananagrams tiles, though, are ideal – there are a lot more than 100 tiles so the distribution can be made to match, and the font used is clear.

I made a cheat sheet to collect the scores for the letters and pulled together some poker chips to act as proxies for the Cthulhu figures. I of course have the d20 needed to roll to see if you lose sanity.

The Mechanics

Unspeakable Words is a game of sanity, like all the best Mythos games. You play cultists seeking to summon dread horrors from beyond space, and this is done by playing words with as many angles in them as you feel comfortable with. The score for each word is based on the number of interior angles on the letters – N scores 2, whereas O scores nothing. You are racing the other players to get to 100 points first.

The sanity loss mechanic is that you start with five sanity points, and after you play your word you try to roll at least that score on a d20. You lose a sanity point if you do not make that roll, and if you lose all your sanity you are out of the game.

In Play

I had the great pleasure to play this pirate copy with some friends at work the other day, and it played extremely well. I lost horribly in both games we played, and I haven’t had that much fun losing a game in ages.

I really hope this game gets reprinted. It’s not just that buying a copy now would cost so much, but if I bought it none of the money would go to the people who wrote it.

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NaNoPreMo 2014: Finding Holes

Since I’ve switched my November project to completing the second draft of Song, the prep for it has changed from when I was planning on writing a new story.

This time last year I was talking about character and setting, but for the most part those are settled for Song. What I am looking for right now are holes. I am working through the current manuscript on my Kindle and taking notes as follows:

  • where there are extra things that need to be written – one of the characters in particular has a larger role in the story now than before I reworked the outline, so I need to add scenes and character development.
  • alternate scenes that take the narrative in a different direction – I made some errors in revealing the story in the first stab at the early scenes. I am annotating those.
  • breadcrumbs that need to be dropped – parallel to rewriting scenes that are wrong is adding elements to scenes that do the right thing but are missing foreshadowing or clues that bolster events later in the story.
  • cool things – there are still cool ideas about this story to be captured!

When I run off the end of the current manuscript, I also want to look at the way I am telling the story in the second half, because it’s getting to be too static – lots of scenes of the protagonist and his team analysing network traffic. I need to find a way to give that more texture.

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Why I’m Not Neurotypical

This is a complicated post, but then it’s a complicated subject.

Depression

I’ve suffered from depression for a long time, certainly for years before I was ever diagnosed. I am not currently depressed and I haven’t needed to take medication to manage the symptoms in a long time, but the depression is still there lurking.

Depression is a complex and multifaceted illness with many causes, sometimes including no cause at all. Anyone who ever asks someone who is depressed why they are so sad when they have such a nice life has no understanding of depression: you don’t choose to be depressed, and suggesting someone just cheer up is about as helpful as suggesting someone with a broken leg just stand.

For me, depression is like a great weight pressing down all the time. It’s not that I can’t feel happy, but more that I don’t feel anything very much. Everything is grey and heavy and just not worth doing.

Still and all, debilitating as depression is, I count myself as lucky that I have never had thoughts of self-harm. That at least means that depression is unlikely to be a fatal illness for me, as it has been for so many.

It’s Not A Disorder, And It’s Not A Deficit

The roots of my depression are in my ADD*.

I grew up in a time before ADD was widely recognised or accepted, but applying current definitions to my behaviour as a child and ever since it is pretty clear that I have a number of ADD behaviours: distractibility, difficulty in focussing, poor sense of time, and hyperfocus amongst others**.

Where the depression came from was that I didn’t understand that the negative effects of this cluster of behaviours was not something I needed to be ashamed of or guilty about. For a long time I motivated myself to do things by telling myself how worthless I was if I didn’t get it done. Years of concentrated self-loathing will make anyone depressed.

Inaccurate and unhelpful as the term ADD is, having a label helped me enormously: I could read around the subject, and I could come up with strategies to manage the distractibility. This is why I have such elaborate time and task management systems: I use them to stay on track, and to organise the things I need to do in the future because keeping all of that in my brain just doesn’t work.

Still, these things sometimes fall apart.

A Lesson Too Long In The Learning

My family has a history of cat allergies. My father especially reacts strongly and immediately to cat fuzz, and many years ago I realised that I had some reaction: if I hadn’t been around cats in a while and then started stroking them, my skin would peel a bit. Not a lot, and not immediately, but the outer layer of skin cells would slough off.

I should say that I do actually like cats.

When I met my wife she had two cats. The cats used to sleep on the bed, one of them even curling up in the crook of your neck for belly rubs and purring. It took years before I finally realised that breathing in the cat fuzz overnight was making me stupid and depressed: I couldn’t think straight because I wasn’t breathing properly, and it took going away for a miserable camping weekend to make me realise just how bad the cats were making me feel. We went cabin camping on the coast in February: we all had colds and none of us slept well, but despite that I still felt better for being away from the cat fuzz-filled house. The cats were banned from the bed and things got better.

Unfortunately, my sensitivity to cats increased over time to the point where I couldn’t think straight very often at all. I couldn’t sit and watch the telly because the sofa was covered in cat fuzz; I couldn’t have the cats on my lap because I’d feel my sinuses filling up almost immediately. Finally, my wife suggested some allergy medicine – that made all the difference.

When the cats passed away, I stopped taking the allergy meds and then I learned that they too have a cognitively depressing effect: I think more clearly now than I have for years.

So Many Ways To Take A Step Back

So I’m basically doing well, managing the ADD behaviours and keeping away from depression, when something will push me back. These events are usually one of these:

  • a cold – colds do me in. They replicate the sinus-filled misery of my allergy reaction without the need for any cats at all.
  • unexpected cats – expected cats I can deal with by taking allergy meds in advance, but sometimes I’ll forget when we’re visiting a cat owner and then I’ll be miserable for a day or two after.
  • paint fumes or sawdust – both of these trigger the same allergic reaction as cats do, unfortunately.
  • stress – the day job is interesting but sometimes overwhelming. That makes me realise how close depression always lurks.

… and so on.

Keeping the brain ticking over at something approaching a functional level is non-trivial, but it is its own reward.

[*] attention deficit disorder, in particular the non-hyperactive variety.

[**] the presence of both “difficulty in focussing” and “hyperfocus” in this behaviour cluster is one of the reasons I hate the label ADD, because there is no deficit present – there’s plenty of attention, it’s just concentrated on things that the ADDer finds interesting. And hyperfocus is great.

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Worldbooking

I’ve been using TiddlyWiki for my wiki construction needs for a few weeks now. This post is about making a world book with it.

First Steps

Review my getting started instructions from the sharing wiki.

The first thing to do is always to get a blank TiddlyWiki file. I usually grab one from the TiddlyWiki site to be sure of having the latest, but backing up a local copy and cloning it would be reasonable also.

Next, move it to Dropbox or other storage location and rename appropriately. I’m going to using as an example a world of plant-based superpowers, so I called the file SuperPlants.html.

Open this file up in Firefox.

Configuration

Let’s give the file an identity that matches its name.

  1. click on the “control panel” link on the Getting Started tiddler, or click on the settings cog in the right hand panel. You should see a tiddler called “$:/ControlPanel”
  2. select the Info tab and Basics sub-tab.
  3. enter a title for the wiki. In my example, I called it “~SuperPlants” – the tilde character prefix prevents the wiki-link name from being rendered as a link.
  4. enter a sub-title. In my example, I wrote “a vegetative setting for superpowered adventures”
  5. in the “Default Tiddlers” box, type the names of pages you would like to be displayed when you first load or reload the page. In my example, I put in the following two lines:
    [[Plant World]]
    [[Plant Powers]]
    Note the double square brackets around these titles. Usual wiki syntax would omit the space call these pages “PlantWorld” and “PlantPowers”, but I like my pages to be real compound terms and those square brackets force linking to happen anyway.

You can also change the colour scheme, but the main thing is to click on the red save icon (the arrow pointing down into an open box) which will persist your changes.

Your Starting Pages

This world book will ultimately form a web, but it will start as a tree.

For each of the pages you wrote into the “Default Tiddlers” box, do the following:

  1. click on the “+” button
  2. type in the name of the page to be created. For example, Plant World. Note that you do not include the [[square brackets]] here
  3. type in the text for starting the page. Usually, this will include more links to other pages you want to write.
  4. click the tick to the right of the page title to save the page content.

The text for Plant World that I typed in was:

In the greenhouse world of the future, plants have mutated and grown at the expense of animal species - including humanity. Hubristic notions of the anthropocene have been washed away in a tide of chrophyll: the true extinction event was the scouring of the land and seas by new plants that thrived in the warm, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.

There are pockets of humanity still around:

* [[Mountain Men]] - hardy souls that climbed the highest peaks because there is still a treeline.
* [[Troglodytes]] - they took to the caves, because where there is no light plants cannot survive.
* [[Technocrats]] - sealed in domes and steel cities they fight to maintain the technology that defines humanity.
* [[Orbiteers]] - survivors of space colonies, living meagre lives in the airless wastes outside the warmed atmosphere.

Note that the different human survivor pockets are again enclosed in double square brackets.

Follow the Links, Make the World

Filling in the world book is as simple and as complicated as clicking on each link to create the page linked to, then typing out more text with links to new ideas.

Tips:

  • don’t try to do it all at once. If you have a large page to write, you may be better off writing a bit at a time and adding more ideas later. You can always come back and edit the page later by clicking on the pencil icon.
  • use page naming conventions you will remember. For example, either use wiki-link syntax (no spaces, embedded capitals to mark word boundaries) or normal title format for page titles. Don’t forget to enclose normal format titles in double square brackets.
  • use the “Recent” tab on the right to see which pages you’ve written lately to remind yourself of the names.
  • use the search box to find relevant pages. This does search the tiddler text as well as the titles.
  • look at the help on wiki text. There’s a link to the help with each edit form under the “wiki text” llink.

How I Am Using This Right Now

The SuperPlants example was just that: an example, incompletely worked through, but I am using exactly this kind of world book structure in the following projects at the moment:

  • Songs of Atlantis – the dungeon crawl setting for my boys
  • Song – building a world book for Song to capture the current state of it so I can update the manuscript to match.

… but I’ll be using it for lots of things.

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NaNoPreMo 2014: Changing Tack

What with one thing and another, October has not been a successful month for writing so far. I’ve done some interesting work on prep for November, but I’ve done no work on Song.

And I want to get Song done. It’s still the book I have that is closest to completion.

I’m also not quite feeling it on Disconnected, the idea I settled on for November. Indeed, maybe that’s part of the problem here – I settled on it rather than really being excited by it. What I wrote last year was exciting and made my brain fizz; Song made my brain fizz at the time and still does whenever I immerse myself in it again; but Disconnected feels… not quite cooked yet, to be honest. There is something there, but even though I’ve had the skeleton of the idea kicking around for a long time it still feels unready. Indeed, it feels about where Song was when I first came up with that back in 2005.

So I think I am going to change tack on NaNoWriMo this year and keep going on Song rather than writing something new.

This is not actually a bad thing, because Song needs about 50k to make it a complete draft and I really only want to do 50k this year. On top of that, there is a substantial bit of new in-fill writing needed in the first half to make that match up to the new plot in the second half, so I don’t think I will have any trouble getting the words needed to win.

The focus of my prep needs to change, though – time to reacquaint myself with Song and its world rather than trying to figure out POV characters for the linked short stories.

You Hum It, I’ll Join In

To that end, I am going to compile the draft and reread it with an eye to what needs to be written to make it a complete book.

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Feminism, GamerGate and Trying To Not Be a Dick

There’s been a lot of news lately about women being harassed and systematically mistreated, not to mention institutionally discriminated against. Others have written eloquently about these issues already, but I wanted to at least say a hearty “Me too!” when it comes to being a feminist and a supporter of women in these situations.

#HeForShe

The recent speech given by Emma Watson at the UN was an unusually clear articulation of just why feminism is necessary and desirable for men as well as women.

I am proud to call myself a feminist.

#GamerGate

I’m also a gamer. As a feminist, it has therefore been dismaying to follow the events around #GamerGate, the campaign to hound women out of video game development*.

I’m not going to give a full chronology, but to summarise: the ex-boyfriend of a female game developer got into a snit and decided to enlist the howling hordes of 4chan to harass his former girlfriend into leaving the field of game development. There was some specious and clearly ludicrous justification for this campaign, but it all boiled down to this feeble man not wanting his ex to have a life.

Since then, the mission appears to have been expanded to attacking all women who write video games, leading this last weekend to a family being forced to flee their home after a series of death threats.

I find it almost impossible to write rationally about this because it is obviously and blatantly wrong on so many, many levels: the goal is wrong; the initial impetus was wrong; the actions of the harassers are wrong; and defending these (for want of a better word) people is wrong.

About the only positive element that has come out of this revolting mess is that the general reaction has been horror – the trolls that instigated #GamerGate have been roundly condemned, and I find that at least to be encouraging.

I am still aghast that these attitudes could be as pervasive as they are, but at least they are not acceptable to most reasonable people.

More Inclusion Means Bigger Markets

The thing that I find most baffling about all of this exclusionary nonsense is that including more people means there are more people to enjoy the things you like, which means that there will be more of it. Small markets are not served well, because there just aren’t that many people to sell to: if you have a tiny audience, then there’s less incentive to speak to that audience.

The same basic principle applies when discussing diversity in books or games or movies, or anything: if there are more people enjoying science fiction, or comics, or even opera, then the creators of such work will make more of it, and there will be more people creating that work, which means there will be more for you to enjoy. So excluding black people, or gay people, or neuro-atypical** people, or women, or whoever, means there is a smaller chance of the next great thing happening. Which would make everybody sad.

Or it should.

It makes me sad.

Wheaton’s Law

All of which brings me to Wheaton’s Law: Don’t be a dick.

It’s amazing how difficult that can apparently be, especially online. Without the immediate feedback of body language and facial expressions, text can be an imprecise medium for conversation. Words on a page are one of the most subtle and expressive ways to communicate ideas, but those subtle and expressive words are arrived at after many iterations and revisions. That is really difficult to pull off in conversational text, and it can easily be misconstrued – as Scalzi puts it, the failure mode of clever is asshole.

It is easy to make mistakes in your words – your intent might be good, but the way of expressing yourself may be rushed, or contain an alternate meaning you had not considered, or perhaps you just don’t know enough yet. In any case, accidentally causing offense in and of itself does not mean you are being a dick.

Continuing to cause offense when your offensiveness has been communicated to you? Not apologising sincerely? Harassing those who disagree with you?

That’s being a dick.

Obey Wheaton’s Law. People will hate you less.

[*] in point of fact, I mostly play tabletop games rather than video games

[**] the antonym of neurotypical, which I don’t like much but seems to be about the most succinct way of putting it for now.

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Gathering Magic

Recently, I’ve been learning about Magic the Gathering.

I didn’t play Magic when it first came out because I was in a fearfully serious phase of my life – this was when I was putting all my energy into work, and when I was suppressing my urge to write. Whatever the reasons, the first time I really became aware of the game was from a passing reference in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon where one of Randy Waterhouse’s old roleplaying buddies says that he doesn’t do tabletop games any more and instead plays deck-building card games because there’s all of the combat and none of the tedious parts.

That didn’t sell the game to me, since combat is the part of tabletop RPGs that I enjoy least.

Anyway, I follow the Geek & Sundry web series Tabletop and saw this other show, Spellslingers, in the episode listings: it’s a bit like Tabletop, except that the game played is always Magic. I enjoyed watching it, however confusing it was at first.

Then my boys asked about the game, because they both have friends at school who play, and we went to get a couple of intro decks to play with at our FLGS*. It was fun, and well balanced – we’ve all won and we’ve all lost, but never so overwhelmingly that it was dispiriting.

There are also some players at the day job so I will probably go through a booster draft**. I have no intention of going much further than that with mass card acquisition because I have neither the time nor the funds, but it is a lightweight game with enough luck to give any player a fair chance but enough complexity to reward strategic thought.

Where’s the Storytelling?

I am always interested in the storytelling mechanics of a game, and one of the problems I have with Magic is that there really don’t seem to be any. It’s a combat game, pure and simple – there is a back story about planeswalkers coming into conflict and trying to stay ahead of some executioner-style figure who seeks out those who disrupt the walls between realities, but there’s really nothing in the game itself to reinforce that story. About the closest you get to in-game narrative is that some of the cards interact with each other to produce stronger effects, but basically you’re looking for tactical ways to remove your opponent’s life force in the game and the storytelling seems to be unrelated to the game mechanics themselves. There’s no requirement that decks be thematically consistent beyond using compatible forms of magic.

Having said that, the actual magic system which the game implements is quite interesting: land you control yields mana which you may harvest to cast spells. That’s a pretty strong mechanic, however isolated from the storytelling it may be (why do you control the land? how are the creatures summoned?).

Big System

Which brings me to the subject of magic systems in fantasy novels.

Most of my exposure to magic systems has been through roleplaying games. These give a structured framework for casting spells which usually have a cost in magic points or other components, and limitations like range, casting time, ritual elements, and so on. Then you roll some dice to determine whether and how successfully the spell was cast.

Magic in novels doesn’t need that level of detail (and frankly the explication of that level of detail is one reason why making fiction from the events in roleplaying campaigns tends to fall flat) but it does need some kind of systematic nature to limit the actions of spellcasters. If your protagonist can basically do anything at all with magic, then there is no constraint and no story. And the magic needs to be self-consistent also: if a character casts a shielding charm by smearing frog blood on their clothes in one scene but performs the same effect with a mere snap of their fingers later then there’s either a break in suspension of disbelief or the need for a very urgent explanation.

Magic in fantasy novels vary enormously.

  • in The Lord of the Rings it is difficult to think of a single spell that Gandalf casts, and Saruman’s great power seems to be in technology rather than sorcery. Even Sauron, arguably a being of pure magic, makes his greatest magic in artifacts rather than spells.
  • the Harry Potter books use wands and potions in equal measure, but the mechanics of magic itself are reduced to well-pronounced words and accurate hand motion***.
  • Chritsopher Paolini’s Inheritance series (Eragon and its sequels) use words of power, but they are words in a special language giving the true names of things.
  • Charles Stross’s Laundry novels use mathematics and computation as summoning spells, the mere act of executing certain algorithms weakening the walls of our reality.
  • in Michael Scott Rohan’s trilogy The Winter of the World, the MC’s magic is bound up in forging artifacts of great power, combining runes and the proper materials to make magical items.

This business of magic systems is a particular subject of interest for Brandon Sanderson as expressed repeatedly on Writing Excuses, so it’s worth trawling the archives for more.

As it happens, I effectively built a magic system for my science fiction novel last year, Shapes of Chance – the MC’s abilities were rooted in the concepts of quantum physics, but the effects needed to be proscribed so as to limit her capability. And now I am building a new magic system for this November’s story, since the one I used in its precursor is not really appropriate this time, so I need to think about what magic can do and where it comes from.

What magic systems do you enjoy in your fiction? How would you change them?

[*] Friendly Local Game Shop, in this case Other Worlds Games.

[**] getting lots of packs of cards and taking turns drawing from them, then playing with the decks that result.

[***} the question of where new spells come from is disposed of with throwaway remarks about “research wizards”, as if that is an answer.

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NaNoPreMo 2014: When To Write

Finding time to write and using the time I have effectively are persistent struggles for me, as you may gather from the amount of wittering I do on this blog about time tracking and the like.

One of the reasons I like to do NaNoWriMo is that it is the one month of the year when I can make my writing more of a priority, but I still have to find ways to fit the writing in around other activities. I need about two hours a day during the working week to write my planned 2,000 words.

Unfortunately this year I have lost time already: I was writing on the bus which gave me about an hour a day, but I’ve been cycling in to the day job since August which rather precludes that. The cycling is also improving my level of fitness, so I am unwilling to give that up until and unless the weather makes it untenable again.

So when am I going to write?

Firstly, I will write in the mornings before breakfast. Waking up at five to write for an hour has been an effective method of getting words down, as long as I just get up and get on with it.

Secondly, I will write at lunchtimes. This in fact is where NaNoWriMo is most helpful – I feel more permitted to put on the ear defenders and disappear from the daily hurly burly for an hour when I have a pressing writing deadline. Having my maze tracker on the wall helps with this because I can point at it when people ask what I am doing.

Thirdly, I have made a shelf to fit our treadmill. This means I can write while walking.

This feeds back into my fitness goals again, of course: I have been making more of an effort to reach 10,000 steps a day. One of the ironies of cycling is that it is a high energy activity (at least the way I ride) which doesn’t take a lot of steps* – mechanical efficiency at work! So, spending twenty minutes on the treadmill at the end of the day is not unusual, and now I can write while I am doing that.

Finally, I will write first before other things. This is just basic prioritisation, but not something I always succeed at: write before email, write before Facebook – write first, play later. This is really where my rule about turning off the Internet comes from.

If I was trying to write another 100k draft this year then I would be a lot more worried about fitting in the work, but I think my 50k target and the two hours a day I need to spend should be pretty manageable in the time I have available.

[*] my route has hills so if the only exercise I do is my 11 mile round trip then I get 100 floors but just 5,000 steps.

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