writing March 08, 2016

On podcasts for writers 

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With the shuttering of Iain Broome and Donna Sorenson’s Write For Your Life podcast last month (the promised final episode 159 seemingly lost in the ether), I thought I would take the timely opportunity to list a few of the other writing-related podcasts to which I occasionally listen, in the hope that someone else may discover a new distraction or inspiration.

Scriptnotes

First on my list, and probably my favourite of those I listen to regularly, is Scriptnotes, a weekly podcast by screenwriters John August (Big Fish, Go, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Craig Mazin (The Hangover Parts II & III, Identity Thief). As you might expect, it focuses on the craft of screenwriting rather than writing in general, but there is still plenty of writing advice, particularly relating to plot and structure, that is applicable to any writer, and the occasional detours into topics such as credit arbitration and Writer’s Guild of America politics are still entertaining and informative, thanks to the hosts’ well-polished relationship and knowledgeable banter.

I Should Be Writing

Probably the longest-running podcast on this list, I Should Be Writing is hosted by multi-award winning sci-fi/fantasy writer, Mur Lafferty, a 12-year veteran of the podcasting scene and winner of the 2007 Parsec Award for Best Writing Podcast. What started as “a podcast for wanna-be fiction writers by a wanne-be fiction writer” has evolved into a sporadic and at times rambling series of updates as Mur variously updates her listeners on her own publishing success (her debut novel, The Shambling Guide to New York City, was released in 2013), her thoughts on the craft of writing and the industry that surrounds it, and interviews other genre writers at conventions around the US, as well as answering listeners’ questions from time to time.

Writing Excuses

The Writing Excuses podcast is another group effort, this time with four simultaneous hosts, but is a lot shorter than most. The four writers involved — epic fantasy author Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, The Wheel of Time), Hugo award-winning sci-fi author Mary Robinette Kowal, horror writer Dan Wells, and webcomic creator Howard Tayler — spend a nominal fifteen minutes each week discussing a specific writing topic, and offering advice to their listeners on how to avoid common pitfalls. Topics range from large (where ideas come from, picking a genre) down to very specific (world building for role-playing games was a recent example), and they close each episode with a writing prompt. The bitesize format makes it very easy to dip into and out of, and the group have been together long enough that they know how to play to one another’s strengths during their often animated discussions.

Typehammer

Finally, this is a newer one for me, so I’ve only listened to a couple of episodes. The three hosts of the Typehammer podcast don’t talk all that much about writing, as far as I can tell; instead, the focus of their show is the technology we use to help us write. Each week they discuss new software or websites that have at least a tangential relationship to writing, in between teasing each other about their lack of actual writing progress. Personally, I’m pretty happy with my writing technology stack (Scrivener, Tumblr, Ghost, and The Magic Spreadsheet), so I don’t know if I’ll keep listening, but I did discover audio focusing website, brain.fm, via a recent episode of Typehammer, and am in fact listening to its “Relaxing” focus music now, which apparently will help me to concentrate on the work at hand more effectively. You can judge for yourself whether the results are worth it.


So, those are my current podcast recommendations. I do plan, at some point, to refresh my list and see what new possibilities are out there; Iain Broome recommended both The Creative Penn and the Tea & Jeopardy podcasts, so I may well have to check those out soon.

If you have any recommendations for alternatives, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

gaming March 04, 2016

How EVE Online spoiled every other MMO in the world for me 

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There was a time when I played a lot of MMOs (that’s Massively Multiplayer Online games, to the uninitiated).

It started, as it often does, with World of Warcraft, still pretty much the undisputed king of the genre. Back then, late 2008, around the time the Wrath of the Lich King extension was released, publishers Blizzard were on top of the world; 10 million subscribers eager to login day after day, grinding away at quests, dailies, achievements, and the massive end-game raids, where up to 40 players work together to progress through a dungeon, a feat that can take many hours of work (not to mention weeks of preparation, gearing and practice).
Like many others, I was sucked in by the oh-so-easy progression and Blizzard’s expertly calibrated ‘carrots’ that keep players playing long into the night — just a few more XP (eXperience Points) to reach the next level; just one more piece of armour to complete the set and benefit from those sweet set bonuses; one final variety of snake to kill to complete the achievement and receive one more completely worthless badge.

Of course, aside from the endless content, the second ‘M’ in MMO is a key factor in the endless playability. Multiplayer games, especially those like WoW that allow their players to band together in player-run ‘guilds,’ offer a ready-made group of peers that not only share your interests and passions, but also often have a vested interest in seeing you succeed. Players feel simultaneously wanted and valued, while the drip-drip-drip of rewarding quest completion ensures a never-ending dopamine hit, day after day after day.

Eventually, though, Warcraft lost its charm; Blizzard removed much of the challenge from the levelling experience, and as the level cap increased so did the necessary time commitment required to run the same high-level dungeons over and over while you wait for that elusive piece of gear to finally drop. Disillusioned, I looked around for an alternative. As it turns out, there are quite a few.

The success of WoW has spawned an army of clones over the last ten years. Some are relatively successful (Guild Wars 2, Destiny), some not (such as Defiance, a bizarre attempt to pair an online game with a TV show); some follow Blizzard’s monthly fee model while some adopted a more generous free-to-play model, making their money instead through the sale of items that can help you in-game (the so called ‘pay-to-win’ model, much reviled among ‘serious’ gamers). There are games set in both the DC and Marvel comic universes, as well as in the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Conan, Warhammer, and Dungeons & Dragons worlds. You can play on a pirate boat or during a zombie apocalypse. Final Fantasy went MMO (for the second time) with Final Fantasy XIV, a series with almost twenty years of history behind it.

I tried them all. But, in the end, I found that there is no other multiplayer game in the world that comes close to EVE Online.

More than just spreadsheets in space

EVE Online is a multiplayer game set in space. In the far future (so the story goes) mankind has colonised the distant galaxy of New Eden, and split into four pretty much interchangeable varieties of human: the Amarr, Caldari, Gallente and Minmatar races. After possibly the most complex character creation screen imaginable, players awake to find themselves in a space station with a crappy ship and no money. The object of the game is … well, I’ll get to that later. A helpful AI named Aura holds your hand while you learn how to fly your ship, shoot asteroids, shoot pirates, and make a little bit of money. You buy a better ship. If you’re lucky, nobody shoots it.

For a game that has been described as having not so much a learning curve as a learning cliff, there really isn’t much more to the basic premise of EVE. That’s because it is a “sandbox” game; in other words, the developers built all of the mechanics of the game, but the behaviour of the players determines how to actually play it. (I’ll get onto the behaviour of the players later, too.) Suffice to say that, after playing for a while, you start to see why psychologists study EVE Online as a way to model real-world issues.

One of the key differentiators that makes EVE different from most other MMOs is that loss is permanent. In Warcraft, and most other games, if your character dies you do not lose all of the weapons and armour s/he was wearing at the time; you resurrect with exactly the same set of equipment, ready to have another go.

In EVE, however, that is not the case. When you die, that ship — along with whatever was in it — is gone. Forever. And, since each ship and piece of equipment on it represents a substantial amount of effort on the part of the player, losses can be exceedingly painful. In classic MMOs, when a challenge is not going well, you will often hear the raid leader give the order to “wipe” — everyone die, let’s start again. In EVE, that’s rarely an option. Aside from the loss of an expensive ship, to start over you need everyone involved to either have a spare ship ready to go, or the funds to purchase and equip a new one right away. Which brings me onto another topic: resources.

As well as perma-loss, the other aspect that sets EVE apart from other games is the entirely player-driven economy. Virtually everything in the game can be manufactured by players, using resources gathered by other players (via mining, planet management, moon extraction, and other incredibly complex game mechanics). Anything you buy, therefore, is at the end of an infinite chain of resource gatherers, manufacturers, and market traders, each group fuelling the others in a complex ecosystem that is largely unmanaged by CCP Games, the creators of EVE Online.

In a nutshell, that’s the game — make money by doing stuff, spend money on things that other people have made. But in reality, it’s what happens in between that truly defines the EVE experience.

Space jobs

“EVE is life,” as the saying goes, and “space jobs” in EVE mirror many of their real-life counterparts. Mining is hour upon hour of boredom, broken up by occasional bursts of danger; shipping goods from A to B can also occupy many hours. Unlike other MMOs there are no shortcuts, no hearthstones or portals that allow you to leap from one end of the galaxy to the other (well, there are wormholes, but those require a completely separate set of skills and knowledge to use), and so players must learn patience, how to calculate risk versus reward, and how to interact with each other to discover whether there are market needs that they can meet … for a tidy profit, of course.

This then, is effectively an alternate life, in a far more meaningful way than the Second Life ‘game’ ever achieved. Finding a niche, building up your abilities, budgeting for risk, and knowing when the time is right to expand in new directions, are all skills as applicable to the real world as they are in New Eden. And that’s before you even start to consider the people skills involved in running the massive in-game alliances, comparable in size to many global companies, and requiring just the same amount of infrastructure and management. The largest player-operated groups in EVE have their own HR departments, training teams, IT infrastructure, and board of directors. Tack onto that the necessary military-style structure for the management of interstellar warfare — logistics, scouting, diplomats, and various ranks of Fleet Commanders, those players tasked with leading fleets of ships into battle — and successfully steering even a medium-sized alliance becomes as challenging a job as any other in which thousands of people are depending on you.

Joining a player-owned corporation or alliance can even be a similar experience to joining a large company. While real-life on-boarding might involve being shown around, introduced to the right people, and provided with the equipment you need, joining an established group in EVE can often include gifts of money (ISK, the in-game currency, is named for the Icelandic krona, where the game’s developers are based), ships, and other valuable resources. Nowhere is this unique attitude towards new players more clear than in the terms used by the EVE player base; unlike most games, where they would be classified as “newbies,” in EVE the new players are known as “newbros” — they may be new to the game, but once they join our side, we’re all brothers-in-arms now.

Forging a purpose

So, you’ve found a new home amongst the stars with your new space friends, who shower you with pretend space money. Now what?

The final killer trick up EVE Online’s sleeve is the exploitation of the singular dream of virtually every person on the planet. A place to call your own. A home.

New Eden is separated into two distinct areas of space. The centre of the galaxy is known as high security, or “hi-sec,” space. It’s safe, well-connected; it even has its own police force. The biggest danger here is the chance that you might fall for one of the non-stop scams perpetrated by players against other players, taking advantage of those age-old weaknesses, greed and stupidity.

Outside of hi-sec, beyond a protective band of low-security space, lie the lawless wastes of null-sec. Out here, nobody is going to protect you from the bad guys … hell, if you’re out here, you probably are one of the bad guys. Yet null has a singular attraction, one that entices tens of thousands of players to leave the safe playpen of hi-sec and make their home in the middle of a permanent war zone. Because null-sec systems can be conquered, and owned, by the players. The opportunity to plant a flag (quite literally; the game allows for custom logos to be added and displayed in-game) and declare “This belongs to us!” is irresistible, as is the urge to kick over someone else’s sandcastle and take what was once theirs for your own. Fleets of players, sometimes numbering in their hundreds, take to the virtual sky to defend their home, while the opposing side fight to expand their own empire. It is a struggle as old as civilisation itself.

Over the thirteen years since EVE’s original 2003 release, empires have risen and fallen, and systems and regions of space have changed hands hundreds of times. Yet the fact that New Eden is a “persistent world” means that there is a history to every system, every station; a history that players know they have contributed to, and that they can continue to shape in the future.

EVE is real

In the title of this piece, I said that EVE Online had spoiled every other MMO for me. And while the factors discussed above — perma-loss, the player-driven economy, the community, owning your home, becoming history — are all part of that, I think that they combine to form a sum greater than their parts. For all that it’s just pixels on a screen and data on a server, EVE is real, and what you do matters, in a way that handing in quests or running dungeons in other games can never approach. Returning to other MMOs, even one as polished as World of Warcraft, reduces you to the level of a trained rat, obediently pushing a button to receive treats. The challenge is entirely superficial — press these buttons in this order, don’t stand in the fire — whereas EVE asks questions of you that get to the heart of who you really are. What are you willing to risk? What are you ready to fight for? And what will you do to reshape history?

In space, everybody can hear you scream.


(Feel like giving EVE Online a try? Use this signup link to start a 14-day free trial!)

If you enjoyed this article, check out my previous EVE-related article: Is “This is EVE” the greatest game trailer of all time?

writing February 27, 2016

On sentence structure 

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One of the things that I struggle with most in writing, especially when writing fiction, is sentence structure; specifically, not leaning on the same form over and over again. For me, this often takes the form of a prepositional phrase, followed by a subject/verb/object combo and then several run-on clauses. I catch myself doing it too often, and it always makes me dread reading a piece back, hearing the same repetitive rhythms, again and again.

Subject/verb agreement, dependent clauses and sub-clauses, gerund nouns acting as verbs -- there's no doubt that English is complicated. Aside from the indispensable Strunk & White, another resource that I find very useful is a series of blog posts by British writer Daniel Wallace on his site, incompetentwriter.com. Over the course of eleven essays, he offers specific advice on How To Write Better Sentences.

Since I have often found that writing something down in your own words is an excellent aide memoire -- and also because I have a daily word count to hit -- I have decided to summarise his advice here, both for my own future reference and for your edification.

Put the key word last

The first tip is actually taken from the aforementioned Strunk & White, and it is to “place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” By rearranging sentences in such a way that the critical piece, the thought that is being elucidated, arrives last of all, it helps it to feel like a foregone and inevitable conclusion to the sentence. It seems to work especially well in run-on sentences like the preceding one, although Wallace notes that it can impart an air of controlled calm which might not work for every scene in a story.

Noun style, verb style

This one is harder to summarise, and Wallace relies a lot on quoted examples, but basically it boils down to 'noun style' being wordier and more formal-sounding, with long abstract openings (common in academia and officialdom), while 'verb style' gets to the point faster by using the usual subject/verb opening, and expressing ideas more simply. The canonical example he gives is:

Verb style: I came. I saw. I conquered.

Noun style: Arrival; Reconnaissance; Victory.

Ultimately it's fine to mix and match both styles of sentence, as long as you're aware of what you're doing and avoid the main problems in your writing that the noun style can introduce.

Parataxis

Into the realm of fancy Greek words. Parataxis is described as "syntactic democracy" -- the sense that each sentence, thought, or clause is equal in value, and unconnected to its surroundings. The opposite is hypotaxis, in which the author explicitly declares cause and effect, primary and secondary, conundrum and explanation. But in paratactical writing, each statement stands alone, and it is left to the reader to infer meaning.

Probably the most famous examples of parataxis come from Hemingway's trademark sparse narrative style, stating only what is and leaving the reader to fill in emotion and interpretation in the gaps that are left. Parataxis, Wallace notes, can also be deployed to deliberately evoke an atmosphere of confusion, wherein things happen without explanation or reason, and it can also impart an almost religious weight to your prose; as Wallace has it, "Parataxis suits the speech of oracles."

Hypotaxis

As mentioned above, hypotaxis is a style wherein thoughts and statements are clearly related together to form a series of connected ideas, and is therefore most common in forms such as essays and factual articles. But, it can still be deployed in narrative prose, in the sort of structure characterised by "if... then... but..." language use. It suits digressions, and can be particularly powerful if used in conjunction with parallelism, the technique of repeating elements of a sentence's structure over and over.

Clauses and kernels

A discussion of the basic building block of the sentence, the clause. A clause contains a subject and a verb; the man walked to work, the woman laughed loudly, the girl cried. Clauses can be linked together by words like and, then, because -- eventually you get into the difference between independent and dependent clauses, which you probably learned about in school.

Wallace cites Virginia Tufte, who ranked different types of clause based on the amount of 'energy' they contain. Clauses with variations on the 'be' verb are weakest (is, are, were, etc.); next come linking verbs (become, seem, resemble, cause); after that are intransitive verbs, those that lack an object, such as 'cried'; and finally, transitive verbs -- those requiring both a subject and an object to function correctly. Tufte says that the more energy you want a passage to have, the higher up the scale you need to go, avoiding the lower energy 'be' verbs unless you want to slow down the action.

Phrases and branching sentences

Here we get into some more technical aspects of grammar, requiring the reader to be at least passingly familiar with the various flavours of word type. First, Wallace rather skips around the thorny issue of defining what a 'phrase' is in English, but does at least helpfully provide examples of different types of phrase, each named for the type of word that begins them.

Prepositional phrases, then, begin with a preposition -- a locating word -- such as "in the garden" or "behind the desk." Adjective phrases start with a describing word, as in "bigger than the last" or "flat on his back." Noun phrases begin with a noun: "my head about to burst with the pain." The gerund form of a verb (one ending in -ing) starts a gerund phrase, for example "wishing she wasn't there." A participle is a noun or verb modifier; present participles often also end in -ing, while past participles may end in -ed (giggled/giggling, helped/helping) although this is not always the case (singing/sung). Participle phrases, therefore, begin with a participle: "interested by the explanation." Finally, the simile phrase draws a parallel between whatever has come before it and its contents, as in "...like a paper swan on a lake."

Clearly all of the examples above are incapable of standing on their own as complete sentences; they require a complete clause, a subject/verb, to modify. But the central point of this piece is that the phrases can be inserted anywhere within a clause. If we take the final example, "like a paper swan across a lake," and combine it with the subject/verb clause "the tugboat sailed away," there are multiple ways to achieve different effects, simply by rearranging the component parts:

The tugboat sailed away like a paper swan across a lake.

Like a paper swan across a lake, the tugboat sailed away.

The tugboat, like a paper swan across a lake, sailed away.

Wallace refers to these as branching right (adding extra phrases after the main clause), branching left (adding information before the clause) or branching in the middle of the clause. Since these different phrase types can be built upon almost infinitely, complex sentences can be built up by branching in different ways around the core clause of the sentence.

Christensen's cumulative sentence

The Christensen referred to here is Francis Christensen, author of Notes Towards a New Rhetoric; a writing theorist who advocated a denser, more layered approach to constructing living sentences. It's basically a summary of the two previous articles, amid further detail on how Christensen considered a sentence should be built up -- modifying the kernel clause by adding phrases before, during or after, in such a way that it directs the reader's attention, forwards or backwards, from sight to insight. Christensen further says that a variety in texture -- now bare and sparse, now denser, more wordy -- is the "road to excellent writing."

Stress and flow

Even to the untutored ear, prose where every sentence is the same length and follows the same structure is uncomfortable to read. Beginning writers are often commonly advised to attempt to vary the length and style of their sentences, but what is less common are tips on how to use patterns of similar sounds to augment the effect of one's prose. Most people are familiar with alliteration and rhyme; fewer may be aware of assonance (similar vowel sounds, as in "Go slow Joe"). Stress is creating similarity in rhythm, and is employed a lot, unsurprisingly, in poetry, but it also has applications in regular writing, which he covers in further detail under the heading...

Iambs and beats

Citing examples from both DH Lawrence and the US Constitution, Wallace discusses the power of using stress in different ways to create parallel sensations to the meaning of the words. The description of a train passing might be expressed in thundering, clattering, powerful language; word stresses that mirror the quickness of the sounds and feelings evoked by an enormous vehicle passing by. This principle works to augment meaning, too, for example similarity between two things may be given extra weight by using the same stresses in the language that describes them.

Iambic pentameter is the rhythm of Shakespeare: five iambs, which are a weak beat followed by a strong one, so that each line has ten syllables:

If music be the food of love, play on.

Aside from when you're writing sonnets, this technique of knowingly applying patterns to prose can impart a subtle rhythm to the work that is attractive to readers. And iambic pentameter is not the only possible rhythm to use; four- or three-beat rhythms can impart a songlike quality, while three-step rhythms, weak-weak-strong, are called anapests. Of course, as with most other 'rules,' variety is key.

Sounds in lonely places

The final essay in the series is little more than an introduction to a far longer piece in Believer Magazine by Gary Lutz: The Sentence is a Lonely Place. It's very detailed and worth reading in full, as it goes into some detail in its analysis of word choice and how certain words work in concert together within the same sentence fragment, even down to the level of how repeated letters function to guide the reader's attention through the subtle rhythms of the language.

Handily for those of us in need of quick and easily-absorbed advice, it ends with some specific words of wisdom:

  • Stressed syllables in a sentence should outnumber the unstressed syllables;
  • End your sentence with the force produced by a stressed syllable;
  • Give more power to your sentences by placing the subject at the very beginning, rather than delaying the subject until after an introductory phrase or a dependent clause;
  • Make use of alliteration, as long as it remains "ungimmicky, unobtrusive, even subliminal";
  • Also take advantage of assonance;
  • Finally, put some play into your phrasing by misusing words -- make nouns into verbs, create new adjectives, or use words in unexpected congregation.

In conclusion

So, to summarise ... writing is hard. Aside from the necessity of inventing a meaningful plot and relatable characters out of thin air, it's not enough to simply possess the vocabulary and talent to get the words in the right order to tell the story. No, we must also be aware of how we use each and every word; how the sounds and letters in that word relate to those before, after, or nearby; and how the cumulative effect of those words, phrases, clauses and sentences combine to create meaning beyond the words on the page.

Re-telling Wallace's advice here has gone a little way to helping me internalise some of the techniques and advice he covers, and I hope that perhaps it has been useful for anyone else who chances to come across it here on my lonely blog. #amwriting

Photo credit: Nic McPhee

thoughts January 31, 2016

Shovelling sand 

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At the start of January, I committed to a daily word target that represented more writing than I had ever done in a single day. And I was going to manage to write that much every single day, without fail? I must have been mad.

But once you begin to do something every day, it doesn't take long for it to first become a part of your daily routine, and then to become habit. Two or three weeks in, you realise it's now just something you do, like showering or paying bills. Part of your conception of yourself.

It's now the last day of the month, and I have written almost 33,000 words. That's more than there are in Animal Farm, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It's closing in on the word count of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or The Great Gatsby.

Of course, I haven't actually been working on just a single project. When I conceived of the idea of setting a more challenging daily word count for myself, one of the benefits I expected to realise was that it would force me out of the comfort zone of only working on one thing (which gives you a legitimate excuse to not write anything on days when inspiration doesn't strike).

So, as well as making, by my reckoning, around 12,000 words progress on my current novel, I also wrote seven blog posts (including this one), a handful of pieces of flash fiction, and several short stories.

The short stories in particular are something totally new for me; I had never really considered them as something I'd like to do, but now I've tried a few they're actually kind of fun. So far I've written about:

  • A wife and her children wondering who their father really was while they listen to his choice of funeral music;
  • A world where growing old is optional;
  • A husband who discovers his wife is a jewel thief;
  • A man who decides he is going to treat everyone better in life, right before he has a heart attack;
  • What happens to people in a world where everything, even decisions, are automated;
  • And a voyeur who tries to help the people he spies on.

Most of them aren't great, and that's okay. As Ray Bradbury once said,

“Write a short story every week. It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

I have eleven more months in which to prove him wrong.

gaming January 30, 2016

Review: Spectrum Vega 

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I was lucky. Back when I was a kid, in the middle of the 1980s, personal computing was just taking off, as companies like Apple and Amstrad realised that there was money to be made by bringing games machines out of the video arcades and into family homes. There were plenty of attempts by various different companies to build the perfect machine as they scrambled for market share; it had to be powerful enough to run the kind of games kids were used to playing in the arcades, while also not so expensive that many youngsters were priced out of the market.

By 1984 in the UK, there were two main contenders (at least if you wanted to be one of the cool kids; nobody yet wanted to admit to owning an Apple II, and the government-funded BBC Micro was mostly only found in schools). The Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum were both introduced in 1982, and although the C64 would go on to become the best-selling computer model of all time it was the British-made Spectrum, with a price tag less than half that of its rival, that dominated the nascent home computing scene.

I was around ten years old when I first got mine. It was actually the slightly later model ZX Spectrum+, which replaced the iconic rubber keys with a moulded plastic keyboard, and added a reset button (which did nothing more than cause a short circuit across the CPU reset capacitor). Thus began almost a decade of game collection, both legitimate and less-than-legal tape-to-tape copying, to feed my 8-bit gaming addiction.

Vega boys

Fast-forward almost thirty years, and video gaming looks very different. The powerful multi-core PC dominates, while consoles now in their fourth generation deliver near photographic-quality imagery and textures. Virtual reality is just around the corner, with the long-awaited release of the Oculus Rift later this year. One would think that the lowly 8-bit computer no longer has a place in the hearts of gamers, but that is apparently not the case. The retro-gaming movement, due no doubt to the large numbers of kids like me who are now in their forties with large amounts of disposable income, has grown immensely in the last few years. They even have their own magazine, complete with the Spectrum's iconic diagonal rainbow stripes.

And now some of those 80s kids have resurrected the humble ZX Spectrum; not in its original form, but as an 8-button, plug'n'play console called the Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega.

Photo of Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega console

Made with the blessing and involvement of Spectrum grandaddy Sir Clive Sinclair, the Vega was brought to market after a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and comes pre-loaded with 1,000 games (of, it has to be said, variable quality). The console plugs directly into your television via the SCART socket, and draws its power from either the TV or another convenient USB plug.

While there are a good few games that Spectrum fans will remember fondly -- Horace Goes Skiing, Knight Lore, Auf Wiedersehen Monty, Back to Skool, Jetpac, should all provide hours of nostalgic fun -- the Vega's killer USP is the ability to download and run any Spectrum game from a mini-SD card. Sites like World of Spectrum and Emuparadise ("Emu" as in "emulator", in case you were wondering) contain virtually every game ever released, and downloading them to an SD card is the work of only a few minutes. So, if you have fond memories of Daley Thompson's Decathlon or Chuckie Egg, they're easily loaded up, and the built-in keybinding mapper allows you to map the controls of just about any game to the Vega's 4-way directional pad and four action buttons.

Ready Player 1

To somebody grown used to endless respawns and ever-so-gradual difficulty gradients, the first thing that hits you when you fire up an old Spectrum game is just how damn unforgiving they are. Stand still too long? Whoops, you're dead. Not in quite the right place to make that jump? Dead again. Almost reached the end of the level before dying? Back to the very beginning you go -- there are no save points here.

The complete lack of maps for any game that involves multiple locations is also a shock to anyone that has spent the last ten years playing World of Warcraft, Fallout, or the various Elder Scrolls titles. Vague memories might start to resurface; a computer desk covered in sheets of perforated dot-matrix printer paper, pencilled maps of connected squares that start optimistically in the centre of the page before spreading wildly across multiple pieces of paper, squiggly lines indicating their shared connections. You recoil from the memory of trying to map any adventure game which included a maze; the non-Euclidean infinite loop of possible directions, with escape only possibly by moving south and then east.

One might imagine that the best thing about a Spectrum console is the lack of loading time -- chat to any 1980s Speccy owner and conversation is bound to turn to the endless war of attrition with the tape player's volume control, and "Oh God, that loading noise!" By comparison, the pleasant chiptune on the Vega's main menu is the only hardship one must endure before choosing and starting any game almost instantaneously.

Image of Spectrum loading screen

However, I personally found that the lack of waiting, the absence of the five minute "will it, won't it" minigame as you wait to see whether the magnetic tape has finally stretched beyond all recovery, removes a core aspect of Spectrum gaming: that of commitment. No longer tied to a course of action that requires you to sacrifice large chunks of your playtime to watching epilepsy-inducing blue and yellow stripes flicker across the screen, it is far easier to simply give up than to persevere with a challenging game. The Vega encourages me to throw in the towel far too early, tempted by the possibility of an easier, less frustrating experience in one of the other 999 games available.

But if you can stick it out -- the limited lives, endless restarts, fiddly controls and challenging gameplay -- it is still, thirty or more years after its debut, fun. Hard and frustrating, certainly, but still fun.

After all, if your ten-year-old former self could beat those games, then so can you.

article January 29, 2016

On Bloom 

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“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

The travels and travails of Leopold Bloom, the sort-of-but-not-really-eponymous hero of James Joyce's Ulsysses, are the subject of both the novel and the plethora of critical analyses that followed Joyce's publication of his modernist classic and continue to this day. There is even a special day, Bloomsday, timed to coincide with the date on which the book's action takes place, which sees Joyce devotees retrace Bloom's sometimes unsteady steps around the city streets of Dublin.

But aside from the lasting literary legacy of Ulysses, Joyce's indelicate anti-hero has also provided lazy writers of the world with an additional gift; a name that is just dripping with cheap, unearned, ready-made symbolism.

Bloom on screen...

Cinema is a veritable bouquet of Blooms.

Mel Brooks' 1968 debut, The Producers, stars Gene Wilder as the fearful accountant, Leo Bloom; the character was apparently explicitly named after the Ulysses protagonist, although other than that he bears little relation to his namesake. Matthew Broderick played Bloom in the 2001 Broadway adaptation and subsequent 2005 movie remake.

Another antihero with a similar name is Jake Gyllenhaal's creepy Louis Bloom in 2014 crime thriller, Nightcrawler. Here the parallels are closer, as the modern Bloom travels around Los Angeles, meeting strange characters and having odd conversations, particularly with the women he encounters. One wonders what Joyce's Bloom might have recorded, had he too been equipped with a video camera.

The 2003 film Big Fish, adapted from Daniel Wallace's 1998 novel of the same name, features a brace of Blooms. Son William (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) listens as his dying father Edward (Albert Finney, with Ewan McGregor as the younger Edward Bloom) recounts tall tales from his youth, which draw on both Ulysses and its predecessor, Homer's Odyssey, for inspiration.

Moving to the small screen, American Pie star Jason Biggs plays Larry Bloom in hit Netflix series Orange Is The New Black. Described by the OITNB Wikia site as an "egotistically selfish character [who] does things without considering the backlash he causes" and having "a vengeful attitude", he doesn't sound a million miles away from his literary namesake. (It's probably a stretch, though, to ascribe any Leopold-like attributes to The Big Bang Theory's Stuart Bloom, comic store owner and nerd's nerd, unless it be in his fascination with, and uneasiness around, women.)

...and elsewhere

There are many others. IMDB has a full list of the more than one hundred characters you can encounter across film and television that share their name with that most famous of literary gastronomes, and there are yet more in other works of art, from books to songs. One of my personal favourites is the never-seen Hollywood producer, Sheldon Bloom, from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Tell Me On A Sunday. The lyrics to his introductory tune (by Bond theme lyricist Don Black) are almost as full of comestible quirks as the original Bloom's thoughts.

It seems that, almost 100 years after the first publication of Joyce's work, the spirit of Leopold Bloom refuses to be extinguished; it has become almost a form of nominative determinism among the well-read, a shorthand to communicate both the character's moral fibre and the author's literary obeisance.

And while hidden meanings in character names is nothing new -- almost everyone in HG Wells' The Invisible Man has a name rich in hidden significance -- the preponderance of Blooms in recent times is bordering on the ridiculous. Even Joyce himself was critical of lazy writers making use of unimaginative names in their work, as his literary alter-ego Stephen Dadelus makes clear in Chapter 9, Scylla And Charybdis, with respect to Shakespeare:

“He has hidden his own name, a fair name, William, in the plays, a super here, a clown there, as a painter of old Italy set his face in a dark corner of his canvas. He has revealed it in the sonnets where there is Will in overplus. Like John O'Gaunt his name is dear to him, as dear as the coat of arms he toadied for, on a bend sable a spear or steeled argent, honorificabilitudinitatibus, dearer than his glory of greatest shakescene in the country. What's in a name? That is what we ask ourselves in childhood when we write the name that we are told is ours.”

music January 24, 2016

On being a teenager and the greatest albums in the world 

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I've long believed that the music that you listen to as a teenager has the most chance to stick with you, remaining at or near the top of your list of favourite bands for the rest of your life. More specifically, from the ages of fifteen through to around eighteen -- and regardless of the subjective quality of the music -- the bands you discover at that time will never leave you.

Luckily I had the foresight to be born at the tail-end of 1974, which meant that I came of musical age in the early 90s, during a period of possibly the greatest concentration of seminal rock and metal albums ever released.

1991: Redefining metal and the invention of grunge

Although Sepultura's Arise (2 April) had already set the thrash bar pretty high, it was Metallica's eponymously titled "Black Album", released in August that year, that set the standard for metal bands for the rest of the decade. Moving away from their thrashier style with slower, more melodic songs, plus the massive international hit single Enter Sandman, Metallica proved that it was possible to make heavy music while appealing to a broader cross-section of fans than their super-fast thrash band contemporaries managed at the time.

At the same time as thrash bands were becoming more listenable, the hair metal bands I loved were getting heavier. Skid Row's Slave To The Grind album (11 June) featured the extremely fast and heavy (for them, at least) title track, which was a revelation to me the first time I heard it. My tastes were expanding beyond the big choruses and big hair of bands like Bon Jovi and Poison, and I was ready to try something new. Maybe heavier, faster rock was that new thing? But then an album came along that changed my life.

Although the Temple Of The Dog side project had come out without much fanfare back in April, the ex-Mother Love Bone project hadn't really made an impression on me at that point. I had loved Alice In Chains' debut, Facelift (August 1990), so when the music papers started talking about other new music coming out of Seattle I was all ears. Pearl Jam's debut album Ten (27 August) came first, full of inventive riffs and grooves that felt as if they had nothing holding them together yet still sounded like the tightest of tight things. And then, less than a month later, Nirvana's Nevermind (24 September) landed, and nothing was ever the same again. As Weezer's Rivers Cuomo would later put it:

Had a baby on it, he was naked on it

Then I heard the chords that broke the chains I had upon me

It's hard to overestimate the effect that Nevermind had. Instead of failing to play like Slash or sing like Axl, Nirvana showed kids that you can do more with three chords and a distortion pedal than just play angry punk songs. I remember playing the final track, the haunting two-chord Something In The Way, over and over at the tail-end of a houseparty shortly before moving to London to start a band. It gave us hope. Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, released a month later, completed the Seattle grunge triumvirate. Music had changed, and songwriting was no longer just for the virtuoso.

Speaking of Slash and Axl, Nirvana weren't the only band to release an album in September; reigning hard rock royalty Guns N Roses finally released the twin Use Your Illusion albums, complete with epic 10-minute tracks like November Rain and Estranged. The separate-but-double album release posed something of a problem for cash-strapped teenage fans; I remember deliberating for a not insignificant amount of time as to which one to buy first. (For the record -- no pun intended -- I went with Use Your Illusion II, generally agreed to be the better of the two.)

1992: Experiments, Acoustics, and rapcore

While it's hard to top 91's roster of genre-defining albums, 1992 had more than its fair share of great releases.

Together with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, the fourth wheel on the Seattle grunge juggernaut was Alice In Chains. While they would go on to release their second full-length album, Dirt, later in the year, they surprised many fans by quietly putting out an almost entirely acoustic EP first. Sap (4 February) contained four brand new songs, guest vocals by Heart's Ann Wilson, and was for many rock fans the first taste of what acoustic hard rock could be; it was to be a path taken by many other bands in the following years (including Pearl Jam, who were featured on the relatively new MTV Unplugged show in March of 92).

Although grunge seemed poised to take over the world, there were interesting things happening at the other fringes of rock music. Experimental funk metal merchants, Faith No More, followed up their Grammy-nominated The Real Thing album with the even more experimental Angel Dust LP (8 June). As a self-avowed metalhead, I was generally pretty dismissive of anything the least bit dancey when it came to music, so to find myself singing along to the needle scratch and "Woo! Yeah!" EDM-style interjections in lead single Midlife Crisis was something of a surprise.

1992 had one final surprise in store, in the shape of LA hip-hop-metal band Rage Against The Machine. Their debut, self-titled album was released a day before my eighteenth birthday, and once again took my conception of what exactly rock music was in a brand new direction. Zach de la Rocha's angry leftist raps combined with the mind-bending guitar contortions of Tom Morello was so unlike anything I'd ever heard before that it was hard to even encompass it within the wider hard rock landscape -- all I knew was that I liked it and wanted to hear more.

Of course, there were so many other great albums released in 1992; Manic Street Preachers debut, all rock and roll bluster; Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power was pure thrash; Bricks Are Heavy by all-girl grunge outfit L7; The Black Crowes bluesy follow-up to their best-selling debut, the Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, was a much more mature record; Screaming Trees Sweet Oblivion hinted at the greatness to come in singer Mark Lanegan's future; and Stone Temple Pilots' debut Core are just a few of the amazing albums that arrived within a few months of each other.


I suspect that I'm not alone. Many (if not most) music fans will be able to name similar albums that were ingrained on their consciousnesses during that period; your late teens are when you are deciding exactly who you are, music is a way we define ourselves, so it's only natural that our formative experiences in music leave a lasting mark.

And of course there were many, many great album releases in these two years that I didn't discover until years later. Afghan Whigs, Tori Amos, Arrested Development, The Lemonheads, Sugar, Dr Dre, Pixies -- they all released albums that I have subsequently come to appreciate as I became older and my tastes broadened.

If you're interested in reliving my spotty headbanging youth, I've put a selection of the songs and bands mentioned here into a Spotify playlist -- enjoy!

article January 14, 2016

The D&D Alignments of A/B Testing 

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To the outside observer, A/B testing can appear to be a web designer's Utopia. Never make another decision! the adverts for such a place might trumpet; Let your users show you what works best!

And it's certainly true that A/B testing changes to a website -- running two different versions and then analysing the differences in user behaviour between the two -- can be an extremely powerful tool in a designer's arsenal. But anyone that has run as many A/B tests as I have will tell you that it can be joy and frustration in equal measure. Not only because many tests will inevitably fail, and what you thought would help proves only to hinder; there are times that even the most successful tests are just as frustrating as the failures.

I've come to realise the reason for this. And it involves Dungeons & Dragons.

A brief D&D alignments refresher

For those unfamiliar with the concept of alignment as it exists within the D&D universe, a brief summary. To play the genre-defining roleplaying game, players must generate (or "roll") a character, writing down their details on a Character Sheet. Along with numbers representing their Strength, Dexterity, Willpower and so on, players must also choose an Alignment, representing their character's ethical and moral outlook on life.

The original edition of D&D only permitted a choice from three possible alignments: Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. Lawful characters respected society's rules; Chaotic characters didn't. Neutrals lay somewhere in the middle because they were boring bastards.

The D&D Basic Set, released in 1977, spiced things up with the addition of a second axis, representing the character's position on a Good-to-Evil scale. Thus, characters could be played with one of a possible nine alignments:

D&D Alignments chart

This new system allowed for characters that were Lawful but Evil (such as a tyrannical overlord), or perhaps Good while still being Chaotic (Robin Hood). The Joker is Chaotic-Evil. Superman is Lawful-Good. You get the general idea. Players were expected to roleplay their character in a manner befitting his or her alignment, and make decisions that were not at odds with it.

Still with me? Good. Now, you might be asking yourself what in the name of Gygax this has to do with A/B testing. Well, I'll tell you; I have discovered that all A/B tests, the successes and the failures, fall squarely into one or another of D&D's alignments.

Lawful-Good A/B tests

The Lawful/Good tests are the ones that got you into A/B testing in the first place, lured in with the promise of easy wins and fat profit margins. They are the blindingly obvious, stupidly successful experiments that anyone, even the CEO, should have realised needed to be done; the ones that Jared Spool or Luke Wroblewski talk about in every presentation they've ever given. Remove the twelve-pane animated carousel on the homepage. Let users buy your product without completing a five page registration form. They are the most obvious things to do, the low-hanging fruit, and you should be doing them before you do anything else.

Neutral-Good A/B tests

Sometimes there are changes that just need to be made to any website. Minor rebrands, technical refactoring, commercial obligations -- all of these and more can be a reason for changes that aren't in the service of customer satisfaction. You argue for wrapping the change in an A/B test, "just to be sure it's not hurting us or we didn't introduce any bugs." Your logic is sound, the change is made ... and somehow the results, that nobody expected to be anything other than dead neutral, come out positive. Hey, we'll take the win.

Chaotic-Good A/B tests

And then there are the mistakes. Maybe your QA Tester gives you a call to let you know that there's something broken on the page, and it looks like it could be your test that is causing it. An unclosed tag, an orphaned file you somehow forgot to push to the git repository, a typo that turned an <h1> tag into an <hq>. It doesn't matter, somehow it made it live and in front of your users. You scramble to switch off the test, but the results give you pause. Those numbers can't be right, can they? Green across the board; engagement is up, conversion is up, hell, even NPS is up! Somehow you have stumbled upon a winning strategy without even trying, although in retrospect it now all seems so obvious -- of course that area works better without a background colour; actually that icon was confusingly ambiguous, no wonder the design works better without it.

Lawful-Neutral A/B tests

Lawful/Neutral are those ideas that seem like a good idea but just never seem to achieve the positive results you were expecting. All of your user testing might have pointed to making that change; when five out of seven participants all complain about the size of your prices, it's hard to argue that's not a clear signal to make them bigger. So you do -- it's going to be an easy win, I can't believe we didn't try this sooner -- and then ... nothing. It's not that the test fails, but all of the numbers are inconclusive. Everyone agrees it's a good idea, but without proof you reluctantly (and sensibly) pull the plug.

Neutral-Neutral (or 'True Neutral') A/B tests

D&D characters in the middle of both axes are referred to as "True Neutral"; they have no strong feelings in either direction, neither towards the laws and rules of society, or their moral obligations. Animals in the D&D universe were by-and-large 'true neutrals' (at least until the 5th Edition, released in 2014), and it's probably the easiest (or laziest, if you prefer) alignment to roleplay.

Neutral/Neutral A/B tests are those you never really cared about. Someone, somewhere thought it was a good idea, it wound up on your team backlog, and eventually you got around to doing it ... and, surprise surprise, it made no difference to anything at all. What. A waste. Of time.

Chaotic-Neutral A/B tests

Sometimes an idea will come to you that is entirely divorced from the history and data surrounding your project. It doesn't fit into the habits of any of your carefully constructed personas, and nothing indicates that it is something your site or app either needs or wants. But you do it anyway -- hell, every idea deserves a chance, even if it is a little off-the-wall. You come in early or work late, since it's not officially on the team backlog, and you kinda-sorta fudge the test description a little to give it a reason for existing at all. Maybe it succeeds, maybe not; without a solid hypothesis, it's going to be hard to justify similar changes on other parts of the site.

A segment of the front of the Red Box D&D Basic Set

Lawful-Evil A/B tests

Now we're entering the realm of anti-UX and Dark Patterns. Designers who intentionally mislead their users, obscuring information or bait-and-switching their way to increased conversion. Lawful/Evil tests are run by designers who no longer use their powers for good. Misleadingly ordered options, or primary and secondary actions that switch from page to page. Colour contrast and layout used to obscure important information rather than draw attention to it. Full-page advertising takeovers. Kill 'em all.

Neutral-Evil A/B tests

The Neutral/Evil test is somewhat of an oddity on this list, as it is the only type of test not generally run by a web designer. These tests come from on-high -- the Product Manager, the VP of Sales -- and their only aim is higher conversion. They have no commitment to user satisfaction, no comprehension of user delight; these tests are designed to elicit one thing and one thing only: more clicks on that "Checkout" button. Also falling into this category are the "my wife's favourite colour is purple; let's try that for our logo" type of suggestions that every freelance designer loves to hate.

Chaotic-Evil A/B tests

Finally, we reach the bottom-right square, the Chaotic/Evil class of A/B test. This is the home of both the truly randomised trial and the Multi-armed bandit approach to A/B testing. This approach says, let's just get rid of all the designers and let the computers figure out how to make us the most money. Why pick one shade of blue when you can test 41 different shades? What? Users? They're voting with their wallets -- what could possibly go wrong?

The final battle

Facing the final boss

In life, as in D&D, you get to decide what sort of person you're going to be, and the decisions and actions you are going to take. Whether you choose the path of the light or a darker hue will influence how others view you and whether they will want to help or hinder you in your questing.

A/B testing has become a powerful option for designers wanting to reduce uncertainty in their workflow, but it can be seductively tempting to simply try changing All The Things and let statistics sort out the mess. But, though tests can tell you whether something worked or not, what they can't tell you is why, or suggest alternative approaches or iterative follow-ups. For that, you need designers motivated by a desire to make things better for their users, by making Better Things. Good designers, in both senses of the word.

The Dungeon Master for Dummies book, by Wizards of the Coast's own James Wyatt, Bill Slavicsek and Richard Baker, has this to say about alignments:

Frankly, we've found that evil alignments are better left to the monsters and villains; player character parties work out better when the characters take on good alignments or stay unaligned. Motivations for adventures come together easier, character interaction goes more smoothly, and the heroic aspects of D&D shine through in ways that just don't happen when players play evil characters.

As in D&D, so in life; choose the Good side and your motivations will be purer, interactions with your colleagues easier, and as a designer you get to be the hero rather than the villain.

And who doesn't want to be a hero?

writing January 08, 2016

One week and 7,400 words 

So, after the first week of my self-imposed word target, I thought it would be useful to assess how it has been going.

So far this year I have written more than 7,400 words, which is around the same amount as I managed in the entire last six months of 2015. I have hit my word target every day (although every day has been pretty close -- no 5k sessions just yet).

It has been ... tough, thus far. There have only been two days where I hit the target before sundown, and one of those was the initial blog post on this site, which doesn't really count. Every other day has seen me still at the keyboard at eight or nine o'clock at night, which isn't ideal; I can see why Hemingway always recommended writing first thing in the morning. Mind you, he was probably still drunk from the night before.

What has surprised me the most is how much progress I've managed to make with my primary project, a second novel. I had thought that sustaining sufficient inspiration day after day was going to be too much of a stretch -- in fact, I suspected I might neglect it in favour of shorter, newer, more exciting ideas -- but I think I've managed to add a few hundred words to it every day this week.

The rest of the work has been pretty evenly divided between new short story ideas, and a game-related blog I started a while back in order to have somewhere to practice writing and story-telling. I also managed to complete one unsatisfactory review and a couple of pieces of flash fiction. I suspect the reason the game blog has become a common fallback when I run out of inspiration elsewhere is that it is easier to write in an existing universe, with pre-existing lore, names, places and characters. I need to work at the discipline of creating more meaningful work, rather than writing what is essentially fan-fic. It's too easy, and therefore has less value.

As I mentioned in the New Year's blog post, I've also started carrying a notebook again. In the last few weeks of 2015, when I had a clear idea that I was going to try to create more varied things, I seemed to be overflowing with ideas for stories; but, now I actually have need of that inspiration, it appears to have dried up. I've only pulled out the notebook once or twice, which after weeks of thinking "I should write that down" is mildly frustrating. I have, though, found that music is a good idea lubricant; a couple of new ideas have sprung from whatever Spotify shuffle decided to provide that day.

I guess the most important questions are: does it feel like a habit yet, and are you getting any better? The second is obviously a ridiculous question after only a week, and I'd have to give an indecisive "maybe" to the first. Knowing the daily wordcount is there has definitely made a difference to my routine (I haven't even switched on the Playstation this week), but -- as I end yet another evening writing until 9 -- it's not become so ingrained a habit that I don't feel it looming over me throughout the day until it is done. Maybe that will change ... or perhaps that is the point.

I'm looking forward to looking back in a month or so. I hope I don't disappoint my future self.

thoughts January 01, 2016

2015 Year in Review & New Years Resolutions 2016 

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It is hard to sit down and write a review of last year. Not because it was particularly difficult, challenging, or meaningful; but because nothing much really happened.

Work was fine. I stepped back from a Team Lead position to rejoin the rank-and-file designers once more, and it has been nice to be able to focus on day-to-day design work again, as well as thinking about ways to attract, retain and develop our ever-growing design community at Booking.com. But aside from the regular commute to Amsterdam I didn't travel anywhere else, and didn't attend any conferences, which is a first in many years. I'm not sure yet whether anything will change in 2016.

Outside of work, everything else has ticked along nicely. All three of our girls are now at secondary school, my wife got a new job, and we visited the Lake District before it disappeared beneath several feet of water. One cat died; we got another one. Vita pergit.

Things start to go awry when I look back at last year's Resolutions list, however. Let's see how I did:

  • Edit my novel (Grade: F. I started to review the first draft, and made it about a quarter of the way through before the combined terribleness of the idea and the writing caused me to throw the rest on a shelf and abandon the project altogether. It did reveal the main problem with my writing though; a tendency to skip lengthy description because I want to get to the next plot point, and a fear of writing dialogue because I don't think I'm very good at it.)
  • Write an album. (Grade: F. In retrospect this was a stupid thing to try and I gave up after the first few days, partly because I have nowhere near enough free time to write a song every two days, but also because I am woefully out of practice at writing music.)
  • Exercise every day. (Grade: D. Looking back at the calendar tracking in the app I use, I didn't do too badly during the first half of the year, but in August it pretty much stopped. To be fair, I was running 3-4 times a week from that point until mid-October, but the last two months of the year were a complete wash.)

While these disappointing non-achievements are annoying, my biggest regret of the year has been my complete lack of discipline when it came to writing. After I ditched the editing, I started work on an idea I had been researching for a year or more, but after a couple of months working on that I realised I actually wanted to write something else first. I started work on the new project in early August, but to date have only managed a shade under 10,000 words, which works out at around 2k/month, or less than 70 words per day; barely a handful of sentences. Shameful.

So, it was with that complete lack of work ethic in mind that I formulated a new plan ... and with it, a new resolution.

Resolutions, 2016

Recently, a member of the /r/writing subreddit posted how he had successfully maintained a daily writing habit of over one thousand words per day for the last two years. A lot of the advice he shared was common to many other lists by both professional and amateur writers -- namely, if you want to get better, treat it as a job and write every day. If you sit around and wait for inspiration to strike, you'll never get anywhere (a common analogy asks whether you would only go to the gym when you are guaranteed to beat a personal best).

I had reasonable success with developing a writing habit in 2014 when I was writing the first book, but looking back I think where I went wrong was in only ever trying to work on a single project. With that approach, that tunnel-vision, if you ever get genuinely stuck for inspiration nothing gets written. So, with that in mind, my main goal for 2016 is:

  • Write 1,000 words per day, every day.

Whether it is actual progress on the book, or something else -- short stories, worldbuilding, blog posts, book reviews, or just private thoughts -- doesn't matter. What matters is the development and maintenance of a daily routine, a commitment to find time to put (metaphorical) pen to paper. I have plenty of ideas, this just provides a framework within which to explore all of them.

To that end, I've started carrying a notebook again. I used to always carry one, years ago, until it was superseded by the ubiquitous iPhone, but often I find myself wanting to write something down -- a story idea, an interesting quote -- without having to swipe through several screens to find the right app for the job. Pencil and paper will do just fine. Call it a modern commonplace book.

Along with this primary plan for the year, some secondary goals:

  • Exercise daily. Yes, it's the same as last year. And it's certainly nothing that you would feel tempted to call a 'regime'. But I can't deny that an early morning workout puts me in a more positive mindset for the rest of the day. Combine that with getting your daily writing out of the way first thing ... well, you can almost taste the endorphins. I'm also running again, but this year I'm keeping it strictly casual; no competitive races, no overly rigorous training schedules.
  • Less social media, fewer video games. To make room for writing, something else has to give, and since work and family are kind of important I'll need to cut back on other distractions instead. That's not to say that I'll stop altogether, just that perhaps when I have an hour to kill I'll open Scrivener instead of Fallout.
  • Read more. A paltry 24 books in 2015 is embarrassing. Another activity that needs to take precedence over mindlessly bouncing between Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.

So, there you have it. Lots of writing, less of other stuff. If Malcolm Gladwell is right about that 10,000 hours thing, I should have mastered this writing lark in about, oh, 27 years. Check back with me when I'm 68.

(1,036 words) ✓