Storytelling (including running with zombies)

We went to a local storytelling event last night. There were about six storytellers, telling stories over the course of most of two hours (with a 15 minute break). They served beer and wine, but we’d been to Whiskey Wednesday, so we didn’t get further alcohol.

There’s an active community of storytellers in town. As a writer, I’m extremely aware of the difference between writing stories and telling stories, and I’m endlessly fascinated by storytelling. The stories I write in English wouldn’t lend themselves to telling (although they read aloud okay). But the theme of the events (monsters and dragons) reminded me of my first Esperanto story, which was about monsters, and it occurred to me that story would probably work for telling pretty well.

Somebody ought to get some Esperanto storytelling events going.

This event, which was in English, was pretty cool. They had a good number of children in attendance (drawn, I suppose, by the monsters and dragons theme). They’re talking about making a monthly thing out of it, and I just might make my way downtown to listen to stories on a regular basis if they do.

Speaking of storytelling, I’ve been continuing to use Zombies Run when I run, because I enjoy the storytelling aspects. (And I am enjoying hearing the story unfold, quite a bit. I’ve got quite a bit more to listen to, but I’m already looking forward to replaying season one. In particular, I’ve been playing so far without zombie chases, and I’m sure adding those will change things enough to make it extra-replayable.)

Not really related to the storytelling aspect, but interesting to me, is that using the game has had an impact on my training runs.

The game is set up to give you training runs about 30 minutes (or about 60 minutes). The story is divided into 5 or 6 audio clips that dramatize the story. Between each pair of clips, the game plays 1 song (or 2 songs) from your running playlist.

Early in the season like this, my fitness improves almost every run. (Especially because the weather often makes it impossible to run day after day, so I’m getting my recover days in.) Normally what happens is that I’ll find a distance I can run at my current level of fitness, and I’ll run that distance pretty often for a while, until I get fit enough to run further. (Later in the season I mix it up more with a weekly “long” run.)

In years past, at this point in the season, I’d be running my regular 2.2-mile loop for most of my runs, and my times would be gradually improving.

Now, though, all my runs are about 30 minutes. But, as my fitness improves, instead of finishing a standard length sooner, I’m running for a standard period of time and having to run further.

The last two runs there was still story to go when I got back, and I ended up having to run around the apartment complex. In order to be sure I’ll have finished the story by the time I’ve finished my run, I’m going to have to start running a longer route! (The game has a feature for making sure that a route that runs longer than an episode doesn’t leave you bereft. It’s called “radio mode” it goes on playing stuff from your playlist, still alternated with audio clips, but these audio clips don’t try to advance the story. They just provides some local color. So, if you finish a mission, but end up running another 10 minutes to get home, it switches seamlessly to those bits.)

Once the weather improves a tiny bit more, and I’m running more days per week, I’ll probably ease up just a bit on my all-zombie running, which will make it easier to mix up the distance a bit more.

Maybe I’ll also practice telling a story in Esperanto.

Sleeping late

I’ve slept late the past two days—until after 7:00 AM. (That might not seem late to you, but it’s late for me. Also, I’d gone to bed early both evenings, before 9:00 PM, so we’re talking a solid 10 hours of sleep each night.)

This usually means stress. When I’m under stress, I need more sleep.

It’s not necessarily stress. The time just changed, and it may simply be that I’m sleeping until dawn, as I always do. Checking the almanac, sunrise today was at 7:07 AM. So that’s actually a pretty strong contender. Maybe I’m worrying about nothing.

Still, over the years, I’ve noticed that needing extra sleep is often an early sign that I’m under stress. In fact, it’s often the first sign. More than once, it has been greatly to my advantage that I noticed the oversleeping early, and used that clue to spot the sources of stress that had been accumulating at levels just beneath my notice. It let me address them before they blew up into problems. (Another early sign is getting annoyed at bad drivers around me. When other people’s bad driving starts aggravating me, it almost always means I’m actually stressed about something else entirely. That symptom has not yet appeared.)

So, because of my history with spikes in the need for sleep when I’m under stress, I’m looking around for possible stressors. There are plenty. I’ve got a bunch of things to do (the taxes, renewing my passport). Progress on the novel remains slow as I continue plowing through the already-written part. We just got notified that the new owners of the apartment complex are raising the rent by a lot (and want to charge for a bunch of stuff that was previously included in the rent, which would be okay except that the infrastructure to meter that stuff doesn’t exist, so they’d just be making up numbers). Finances are perennially tight, with returns to capital being what they’ve been since 2007.

So, I’ll take steps to address a bunch of those. A few are very small tasks, and have only been put off because they’re multi-step projects (get picture, fill out form, send it in) and I haven’t been organized to get all the steps taken care of. Others, such as investigating other apartments, are obviously huge sinkholes of time.

Stress is cumulative. Hopefully, taking care of some of the little things promptly can free up some energy to take care of the big things more calmly.

New perspective on running weather

I’ve always quit running during the winter. I found I could make myself get out and run in temps down to about 50 degrees, but when it got colder than that I didn’t enjoy the runs enough to make myself get out and run. I regretted this, because it meant that I did very little running for about six months of the year, but I didn’t regret it enough to get out and run in the cold.

This winter things have been a little different—the two phone-based games I’ve been playing have given me whole new motivations to get out.

I’ve walked 323 kilometers (200 miles!) playing Ingress, which I started playing back in September, almost all of that being walking that I wouldn’t have done without the game. That has stood me in good stead as a way to preserve fitness over the winter (although that includes walking that I did in the fall).

I experimented a bit with Ingress running, but found that although it was fine for the Ingress, it detracted from the run. I spent so much time pausing to play Ingress, that the average speed of my runs made them look like walks. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I may well do some more Ingress running this summer as a way to visit all my local portals without spending all day at it, but I missed the continuous effort of the run. I also missed having a measurable run, one that I could compare with an earlier run and get a sense of whether my fitness was ahead or behind of where it had been that year.

So, the Ingress hasn’t been getting me out to run, although it does get me out to walk.

However, I haven’t needed Ingress for running motivation, because I’ve got Zombies, Run!

It turns out, I don’t need temps above 50 to get me out to run, if I’m playing a Zombie mission. However, I’m still unwilling to run on ice and snow (because I’m not an idiot), and the cold, snowy winter, combined with the fact that people in Champaign-Urbana are the most un-neighborly people I’ve ever encountered when it comes to shoveling sidewalks, has meant that we’ve had conditions that kept me from running for the whole second half of January and most of February.

Today, though, the temperatures got up into the upper-30s, and got the snow and ice melting at speed. It was 36 degrees when I got back from lunch, and I’d seen that many sidewalks were finally clear, so I just changed into running clothes and headed right back out again.

I ran 3.16 miles in 37:11, for an 11:47 pace. (Zombies, Run! reports it as an 11:45 pace, probably due to rounding.)

Looking at my running log from last year, I see I didn’t do a 3-mile run until early May—so I’m a full two months ahead of the game. (Looking at the running log in more detail, I see that the issue wasn’t my aerobic fitness, it was the tendons in my knees that objected when I first ran 2.2 miles, and then again when I ran 2.4 miles. Last year I held my runs at those distances until my knees quit hurting. Being able to check this sort of thing is just what I’m talking about, when I complain about Ingress running not producing measurable, comparable runs. Happily, my knees felt fine today, probably because of all the walking.)

Best of all, the forecast is for highs above freezing every day for as far as the eye can see.

Now that I have my phone-based running games, all I ask is that the sidewalks be clear of ice and snow—and highs above freezing will take care of that.

After a brief lull as I began integrating already written text into my novel, things have picked up again, and the novel progresses apace.

Harder than I’d expected

I’d thought this was going to be the easy part—writing the part of the novel where the action parallels the action of the existing short story. In fact, it’s turning out to be really hard.

It’s not surprising, now that I think about it. Probably the biggest thing is that I’ve already mined this material for all the good stuff—the best bits got pulled out and used to set up the later action in the novel just the way they had set up the later action in the short story.

The work of taking the material out is minimal. Even the work of replacing it with a quick reminder to the reader that it happened isn’t a big deal.

The big deal is that what’s left behind is a terrible, pointless scene. All the significant action is gone—all the plot development, all the character development—leaving behind little more than transitions. The characters make their way from point A to point B. It’s excruciating to read.

I’ve given up on copying the text and editing it. At the moment I’m doing what one might have done in the days before computers—looking at the old manuscript while typing a fresh draft. Even that isn’t working very well. Probably better would be to just write a fresh outline that covers the necessary plot points and tuck the old text away until I’ve got a new draft. Then I can look over the old draft for any gems that got left out.

I’ll try that tomorrow.

I no longer much care about food labels

News today about a proposal to change food labeling rules reminds me of a long-ago peeve of mine.

More than 20 years ago, I got word from my doctor that my cholesterol was elevated. I responded by changing my diet to reduce my fat consumption. That led to reading a lot of food labels, which led to observing that a lot of manufacturers were gaming the system by manipulating portion sizes.

The specific example that served as patient-zero for my peeve was a brand of sliced cold cuts that advertised itself as “fat-free.” Their justification for that was slicing their smoked chicken and turkey into slices so small they had less than half a gram of fat, which they could then round to zero—and then calling one paper-thin slice a serving. With “zero” grams of fat per “serving,” they were “fat-free.”

Now, I was a bit torn. I mean, portion control is a legitimate part of eating a good diet, and I was willing to accept the idea that one thin slice—perhaps torn up on top of a chef’s salad—might be a serving. I was totally down with supporting, even encouraging, people to make that choice.

On the other hand, when I used that lunch meat to make a sandwich, I used 8 or 10 slices—and had no idea how much fat I was eating. I could assume it was pretty close to 5 grams, but I would have really liked to have a more accurate figure.

My own preferred solution would have been to put the total fat content of the whole package on the label. Then if I used half or a third of the package to make a sandwich, I’d just have to divide by two or three to get a reasonably accurate figure.

That idea never seemed to get much consideration. Finally now the new rules move us some ways toward that, at least in categories where everybody knows that people consume a whole package. For example, soda companies will no longer be able to pretend that a 20-ounce bottle of soda contains two and a half 8-ounce servings.

What surprised me about the whole thing is that, although I remember caring deeply about this 20 years ago, I’m over it. I scarcely even look at food labels any more.

Part of the reason is that I’ve outsourced the label-checking to Jackie, but probably the bigger part is that a whole lot less of what I eat even has a label any more, because I eat a lot less in the way of manufactured edible products. (Strangely, food often doesn’t come with a food label. It’s the food-like products that get the food labels.)

Still, it’s good that people are paying attention to this. My label-based efforts to reduce fat consumption were effective: I brought my cholesterol down, and have kept it down for 20 years. It would have been a lot harder without the labels. Better labels would have helped more.

Even now I make use of the labels, although not so much the content of the label. Now that I’ve observed that food tends not to have labels, the presence of a label is a good, quick way to spot that I’m dealing with a manufactured food-like substance. (And I do eat them, I just try to make them a small part of my diet.)

Home stretch of the zeroth draft

Progress on the novel continues apace.

In particular, I’ve reached the point where the action in the novel lines up with action in the failed short story that the novel draws from.

The short story failed because I simply couldn’t cram in all the setup needed, a problem easily solved in novel form—the setup occurs naturally in the body of the novel. As I wrote, I kept in mind the various bits that I needed to set up, and have been making sure to cover them as I went along.

With that done, I’d imagined I’d just about be able to copy whole scenes from the short story into the novel manuscript. Except, that turns out not to work. I tried it this morning, growing my story by about 1600 words, only a couple hundred of which were newly written prose.

Part of what’s in these scenes are the failed attempts to provide the setup. Since that setup is now provided (in full scenes of their own, earlier in the manuscript), I need to remove those attempts from these later scenes.

That turns out to be harder than I’d expected. The text I’m working on is near-final draft stuff. I had previously polished every paragraph, every sentence. Everything is all hooked together as smoothly as I could mange. Some things can be removed by just deleting a paragraph, but other things require a complete re-writing. Plus, a lot of things shouldn’t be removed entirely. Rather, the failed attempts to set something up should be replaced with a little call-back to the setup—a little memory-jogger that reminds the reader of what happened many pages ago, so that when it becomes significant, they say, “Oh, yeah. I remember that.”

The upshot is that I have another six thousand words or so ready to go in—but I now see that adding those words will be as hard as writing them would have been. Maybe harder.

After adding three scenes by copying and editing, I’m now thinking that it might be better to just write fresh scenes. (In fact, thinking about the amount of editing that remains to be done on the scenes I added this morning, that’s really starting to seem like a good idea. I’ll try it that way tomorrow.)

As I’ve been writing, Jackie has been working in her media—spinning and weaving mostly. She wove two silk scarves in the past weeks, and spend much of the past couple of days winding a warp for her next weaving project.

Here’s Jackie with the warp, chained up for storage or transportation, but ready to be threaded onto the loom:

jackie wound a warp

Writers-in-residence on trains

Via Clarion classmate Mart, I spotted this post about Amtrak’s Plan to Give Free Rides to Writers.

One of my most productive days ever was on board an Amtrak train from Chicago to Champaign. I think I wrote four Wise Bread posts (including this one in praise of Amtrak), as well as getting some fiction writing done.

Related to that, I have been meaning for a while to link to this post about using cruise ships as workspaces. The cruise ships don’t offer free travel for writers, but the repositioning cruises are relatively cheap (because they tend to be dull—long days of crossing the open ocean–and because you end up on the other side of the world and end up having to fly back home), so you can do it yourself.

I’m always intrigued by ideas like this (such as rolling my own coworking spaces locally) because writing can so easily turn into day after day of solitary sameness. In fact, though, my desk in my study is a great place to get work done.

Speaking of which: progress on the novel continues apace. I’m averaging 1000 words a day, and it does not seem like a strain to do so. (Whereas trying to average 1667 words a day for NaNoWriMo did feel like a strain. Maybe I’ve found my sweet spot.)

Made candy

easy karo candyToday would have been a good day to stay in, but I was obliged to teach my taiji class (and four or five students actually braved the weather to show up, so I was glad I’d made it in).

The weather that needed braving was an hour or two of pretty heavy snow, followed by freezing rain.

On paths that had been cleared, the result was about an eighth of an inch of ice. But since the freezing rain followed hard on the snow, most paths had not been cleared. The result was a thick layer of crunchy crystalline mush—not runny like slush, but otherwise kind of similar.

The weird consistency of the stuff reminded me of a failed effort at fudge or frosting—like a thick paste full of huge crystals, instead of tiny ones.

By the time I’d finished driving home in the stuff, I had an irresistible urge to make candy.

I’d have made fudge, but Jackie was doubtful about us having chocolate on hand, but we did have karo syrup and confectioner’s sugar—which, together with butter and vanilla, is all it takes to make Easy Karo Candy.

So, that’s what I made.

My mom used to make me Easy Karo Candy when I was a kid, so it brought back memories. (Even though it was pretty different, because we had dark Karo syrup instead of the light stuff, so it was kind of like Easy Karo Caramel Candy.)

I felt moved to post this because long ago I learned something from making Easy Karo Candy: I learned what candy is. This stuff is basically platonic candy. It contains fat, sugar, and a little flavoring. What makes it candy is the process—cooking it and then stirring in a bunch of confectioner’s sugar—which prompts the formation of the tiny sugar crystals that give things like fudge their distinctive texture. Basically any (non-hard) candy is the same stuff, just with a different flavoring. (A realization that prepared me for the realization that salad dressing is very similar: fat, vinegar, and a little flavoring.)

As a very picky eater, it was cool to figure this out. I vastly broadened the salad dressings I was willing to try, once I realized that they were really all the same. (I tend still to be pretty picky as far as candies go: Fancy candies are all sneaky, with non-candy stuff hidden in a candy layer. But that’s okay. I don’t see any great need to broaden the range of candies I eat.)

Monomaniacal multitasking

I’ve long struggled to balance the need to be somewhat monomaniacal (in order to complete a large project) and the need to perform at least the bare minimum necessary tasks of everyday living. This struggle is made all the harder by the realization that multitasking is a terrible strategy for getting things done.

So, I was interested in the recent post by J.D. Roth, Moderators and Abstainers: Two Approaches to Balance and Temptation, which argues that there are two kinds of people: Those who can achieve a moderate balance versus those who lurch from excess to excess unless they go for a zero option with regard to the things they’re prone to overdo. Of course, it immediately made me think of my recent conversation with my doctor about how addiction was the right model for thinking about diet and weight loss.

More than that, though, it made me feel pretty good about how things are going for me right now. It’s still early days, but I’m feeling like I’ve found a pretty good balance between productivity and fitness. I’m getting my writing done, and I’m getting my exercise in. Rather than finding myself doomed to lurch from regular exercise (and no writing) to lots of writing (but no exercise), I’m having pretty good success with a schedule that includes both.

I’ve been working my way toward this for a long time. As far back as 2008 I wrote Being Routinely Creative, where I argue that rather than constraining your creativity, having a firm schedule protects the time you need for creative pursuits. It took me a while to find that post, because I had been conflating it with the even earlier 2007 post Scheduling Time versus Scheduling Tasks, where I make a related point praising the value of blocking out chunks a time (as opposed to the then-recent time management fad where you instead organize your work around lists of “next actions”).

One key for me has been the realization (really, the re-realization, because I’ve known this for a long time too), that the writing has to come early in the day. Once I’ve started writing—once I’ve gotten my brain in the story space—I can take a break for exercise (or whatever), and then return to writing later in the day. Starting with exercise is much less effective. After exercise, I feel like I’ve accomplished something, which blunts my urge to be productive. I’m also often tired. And, if I’ve had to go out to exercise (such as to the Fitness Center or the Savoy Rec Center), it seems only reasonable to run an errand or two on the way home, which has the effect of postponing the start of writing even further. The result, far too often, is no writing at all.

One concern I have is that the block of time that I’m protecting for my writing falls right in the middle of the early morning hours when it’s cool enough to exercise outdoors during the hot days of summer. But I can’t work up much worry. At this point in the winter, I positively yearn for a long afternoon too hot for vigorous exercise.

Oh—and this post would not be complete without a shout-out to Jackie, who performs so many of the necessary tasks of everyday living for both of us, freeing me up to do far more of my creative work than would otherwise be possible. (And who somehow does it while also doing her own creative work.)

A novelish midpoint

When I was first starting on my novel, I estimated the final length at about 80,000 words.

It was a minimally informed estimate. I had a vague sense of how much stuff needed to happen over the course of the story. I looked at a few other novels that had about that much stuff in them and counted how many words they had, and 80,000 words was a typical length. I also looked at other first novels that had been published recently, and saw that 80,000 words was not unusual. The size of the “story” is a much more important determinant of manuscript length than what seems to have been marketable a few years ago, but if I’m going to have a target, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that it’s not wildly out of the norm.

I’m not sure that having a length estimate is even useful for a first novel, but I thought it might be, for two reasons.

The first is a holdover from a book I read, back when I did software, on software process. It modeled a process where you’d make a length estimate up front, use it to produce an effort estimate, and then track daily progress. At the end of the project you’d compare your estimates to what actually happened, and use the result to improve your estimates for the next project. The claim was that, after a few projects, you could produce quite excellent estimates, and could make accurate predictions for when you’d be done.

I don’t know if that’s true or not. I sure hope my start-and-stop progress on this novel doesn’t predict a similar profile on future novel efforts.

A second reason I came up with a length estimate was to give me a sense of whether I was on track.

Some years ago, I went to a workshop on screenwriting. The guy teaching the workshop pointed out that a considerable amount of knowledge about pacing flows directly from the fixed form of a screenplay. A feature-length movie is going to have a script something under 120 pages.  If, for example, you’re writing a movie about a road trip from New York to California, then along about page 60 you’re going to be in the middle of the country. Maybe you’re in St. Louis, maybe you’re in Kansas City—but if you’re in Philadelphia, you’re doing something wrong. Thinking along those lines has been helpful already.

Today I passed 40,000 words, so I’m at the midpoint of my estimated length.

In writing 40,000 words, I’ve learned a lot about this novel. (I’d hesitate to claim that I’d learned much about writing novels, but I’ve learned a lot about this novel.)

Happily, I think I’m past the stage of going back and fixing first-draft stuff to conform to my evolving ideas of the structure of this novel. That’s a combination time-waster and procrastination technique that many people warn against, but that I was unable to resist while working on the first third of the novel. (And it did waste a lot of time; I now see that a lot of stuff that I labored over isn’t going to make it into the second draft.) Worse, reworking those bits got me out of the habit of writing new stuff. Only just lately have I been writing entirely new prose—which is, for me, one of the fun bits. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it, until I finally got back to it.

Hopefully, the second half goes along more smoothly than the first.