Pokemon Go and the One-Armed Bandit

Pokemon Go and the One-Armed Bandit

It’s been very cool to watch the launch and success of Pokemon Go.   For years, Nintendo has had in-game messages suggesting I take a break from playing to go outside, and now they’ve found a way to force people to listen to their advice!

In all seriousness, the popularity of any new fad has me thinking about the psychological underpinnings of its success.  In particular, Pokemon Go reminds me of behavioral conditioning, specifically of behavioral reinforcement.  Basically, one can encourage particular behavior to emerge and strengthen in a subject by offering certain rewards (positive reinforcement), offering certain penalties (positive punishment), removing certain penalties (negative reinforcement), or removing certain rewards (negative punishment).  Additionally, the schedule with which these rewards and penalties are offered can have an effect on how strongly the behavior takes hold in the subject.

There are a number of simple schedules that one can follow in terms of reinforcement – the following five are the ones that I find the most relevant to Pokemon Go:

Continuous Reinforcement: Every time the desired behavior is demonstrated, it is rewarded (open app, Pokemon appears).

Fixed Ratio: Every N times the desired behavior is demonstrated, it is rewarded (pokemon appears every 100 feet you walk)

Variable Ratio: On average, every N times the desired behavior is demonstrated, it is rewarded (on average, Pokemon appears every 100 feet you walk – sometimes the distance is longer, and sometimes it is shorter)

Fixed Interval: The behavior, if demonstrated, will only be rewarded every N amount of time (Pokemon appears every 5 minutes, regardless of distance walked).

Variable Interval: On average, the behavior, if demonstrated, will only be rewarded every N amount of time (Pokemon appears on average every 5 minutes, sometimes sooner, and sometimes later).

What’s especially interesting is that certain schedules are more resistant to extinction than others – that is, a subject will continue to perform the desired behavior for longer under those schedules even if the reward/punishment is halted.  And the schedule that is most resistant to extinction is the variable ratio schedule.  This is likely due to the fact that the subject is unsure of when the next reward will appear (variable scheduling) but the subject has a hand in making that reward appear (ratio scheduling).  The end result is constant performance of the behavior – like a rat banging on a bar for a food pellet with the speed, rhythm, and ferocity of a meth-addled telegraph operator repeatedly typing the letter ‘E’.

Incidentally, slot machines work on variable ratio schedules.  There is a certain percent chance of winning each reward at the slot machine, which on average means that you require N pulls of the lever in order to win something.  If you pull at a slot machine long enough, you’ll win every reward possible – and the lower tier rewards coupled with the possible promise of big payouts (all on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule) are what keep people working at that one-armed bandit.

This means that if Niantic wanted to create the most addictive Pokemon game possible, they should mostly stick to a variable ratio schedule so far as rewards (Pokemon appearances) are concerned.  This would most likely take the form of distance walked or number of times the app is opened throughout the day.  A variable ratio keeps people coming back again and again – so long as the rewards are worth it (after that 1000th Rattata, you might prefer to uninstall and get back to your regular life).

I think this is an interesting psychological tidbit!  You might find it an unnecessary complication of your hobby 😛  Let me know what you think in the comments!

Consuming is Boring (Beating Procrastination)

Of all the information and entertainment that you consume on a daily basis, how much of it is a) useful, b) important, or c) engaging?

For instance, learning a new skill related to your job would be considered useful.  Reading about an impactful current event or hearing about something big going on in a close friend’s life would be considered important.  And entertainment that makes you either feel or think something greater than your baseline emotions or thoughts would be considered engaging.

So out of all the things you read, hear, and watch on a daily basis – emails, articles, books, social media posts, YouTube videos, Netflix shows, video games, and so on – how many of them are a) useful, b) important, and c) engaging?

I’m going to guess not many.  And if you’re a self-described procrastinator, that’s a tacit admission that you already know that your consumption habits are feeding you things that are not useful, are not important, and are not engaging.

AKA, they’re boring.

So let’s break this down.  In your extremely limited free time, when you know you have bigger and better things that you could be working on, you are instead choosing to pursue the consumption of media that you find, at its core, boring.

Does that sound like the person you want to be?  Does that sound like the life that you want to live?

Consuming is easy.  Creating is difficult.  Consuming is comfortable.  Creating is a grind.  Consuming teaches you nothing, while creating shows you who you are.

Don’t live a boring life.  Kick procrastination to the curb and create something.  Even if everybody hates it, or even if you’re the only person who knows it exists, it will enrich you in some way, and it will be more meaningful to you than the twelve hours of Netflix you might have watched instead.

So stop being bored and go make something.

Do you live a boring, easy life?  Do you live a difficult, worthwhile one?  Should I move onto some topic beyond procrastination?  Let me know in the comments!

“Leather, Dust, Blood, and Smoke” – A Steampunk Short

Leather, Dust, Blood, and Smoke

The door to the crown prince’s chambers flew open, revealing the future regent with red-rimmed eyes and several days’ worth of beard.

“Where is he?” the man grated.  The head of the household staff had been having a heated discussion with the head of security.  Between them, a frail old man could be seen sitting in a chair against the wall, a clockwork contraption hugged to his knees.

“Mr. Bocalt,” the prince said with a wincing smile.  “There you are.  Please, come in.”

The old man looked as if he was about to stand, but then stopped and looked to the head of security instead.

“You do NOT take your cues from HIM, Bocalt!” the young man roared.  He smashed the bottle in his hand against the ground, splattering amber across his bare feet and the expensive rug beneath them.

“Your Grace,” the security head replied while the head of household summoned someone to clean up the alcohol, “he has not yet passed the final check-”

“The final check,” the prince replied.  “The final check.”  He gestured wildly.  “Two years, moron!  For two years he’s been coming here, once a month, and sometimes more.  If he was going to kill me, he’d have done it already.”

“He must pass all the checks, Your Grace.”

“He’s been around longer than you have, and I know for a fact that you’re more dangerous for my health than he is!”

“Your Grace,” the head of security began, a mere modicum of respect in his voice, “your father has-”

The prince rolled his eyes and nodded as the man spoke.  He reached inside of the soiled and unfastened military jacket hanging on his shoulders, pulled his handgun from his holster, cocked it, and pointed it straight between the eyes of the security chief.

“My father is not here,” the prince intoned.  “But I am.  And so is this gun.  And I am tired of waiting for the pleasure of Mr. Bocalt’s company.”

The restrained anger in the security man’s eyes was replaced by a calm determination that the prince might have found frightening if he was sober.

There was a knock at the door, and the head of the household jumped as if it was a gunshot.  He looked to the prince for instruction, and finding none, rushed over to see who it was.

“It’s an officer,” he said to the room.

“Bring him in,” the prince replied, still committed to his standoff with the man whose job it was to keep him alive.

A man in a dripping trenchcoat stepped inside, gave a bored look to the cocked pistol in the future regent’s hand, and handed a package to the head of security.

“He passed?” the chief said.

“Yes, sir,” the officer replied.  He paused, and his hand slowly crawled towards his holster.  “Sir, is there anything I can help you with?”

“Not right now, officer,” came the reply.  “Have a good evening.”

“You tested it on one of my father’s prisoners,” the prince said.

The officer bowed to him before replying.  “Yes, Your Grace.”

“Did he have any response?  Other than not dying?”

“Yes, Your Grace.  He said it was the most wonderful scent in the world.”

“There, you see?” the prince said.  He put his gun back into his holster.  “Come on, Mr. Bocalt.”

The old man stood, and the security head handed him the package.

“Thank you, sir,” Bocalt replied, but there was no answer.  He made his way past the officer, past the head of house, and past the nervous servant waiting to clean the rug.

“Watch your step,” the prince said, stepping to the side to allow Bocalt through.  “Somebody broke a glass in here.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” Bocalt said.  He entered the prince’s chambers and stood off to the side, waiting for instructions.  The room was dripping with wealth and privilege, but as always the old man seemed unimpressed.  Not in a derisive way.  Just…indifferent.

And as always, the prince wasn’t sure whether he appreciated that or was insulted by it.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Bocalt,” the younger man said, after slamming the doors shut.

“I serve at the pleasure of the crown, Your Grace,” Bocalt replied with a bow of his head.

“It’s not my pleasure that requires your presence,” the prince replied.  “It’s my pain.”  He gestured to the table in the middle of the room.  “Why don’t you set up.”

“Yes, Your Grace,” the old man said.  He put his contraption down on the table, then twisted a miniscule knob until a hatch at the top popped open.  With sure hands, he opened the package given to him by the head of security and removed a vial of straw-colored liquid from the brown paper.

While Bocalt smoothly inserted the glass into his clockwork machine, the prince poured himself a shot of an electric blue liquid from a bottle in the hidden drawer in his liquor cabinet.  The young man tossed the drink back, shivered, and made his way over to the couch.

“Thank you, Mr. Bocalt,” the prince said, collapsing onto the leather.  “You can wait outside.”

Bocalt paused.

“Actually, Your Grace,” he said, “I think I’ll stay with you this time.”

It took the prince a second to hear what the perfumer had said.  “What?”

Bocalt picked up a long silver candlestick from an end table and wedged it through the door handles.

“I will stay with you for this one, Your Grace,” the old man said again.

The prince, in response, tried to haul himself out of his seat.  But the hallucinogen made his limbs heavy and his hands clumsy, and he quickly fell back into the leather.

“This is…highly irregular…gave you an order…you can’t-”

But the old man was already sitting down.  Bocalt placed a bony finger against his lips.

“Shhh,” he said, pointing to the contraption on the table.  From far away, the prince heard the click click click as the gears wound through their cycle.

There was a soft gong followed by a hiss as the clockwork sprayed perfume into the air.  The prince had still been making feeble attempts to get up, to call his security detail, and to otherwise escape from the perfumer.  But when the scent hit his nostrils he froze.  His eyes went white, and he slid back down into his chair…

Ring-a-ling.

The bell chimes when people walk into the bookstore.  He hears a child chattering at a mile a minute, a man and a woman talking about something in the newspaper.  It’s quieter further back in the stacks, and he retreats into the rich scent of leather from the bindings of the tomes around him.

He’s finds what he’s looking for.  He doesn’t know how, but he knows it’s this one.  He reaches out and grabs a slender volume off the shelf and dust tickles his nose.  After a moment, the need to sneeze goes away and he’s able to see what he’s grabbed.

Fairy tales.  A book of fairy tales.  He hasn’t heard these in a long time, not since his…

He frowns.  Mother?  He had a mother?  No.  There was only ever father, stern and straightbacked, his chest and his brow gleaming with gold, only a fraction of which was actually deserved…

He hears grunts of effort and turns towards them.  He’s no longer in the stacks, somehow, but standing a few feet away from a large display of children’s pamphlets.  A small girl in a blue wool coat is reaching up for something beyond the grasp of her fingertips.  Without thinking, he grabs it and hands it to her.

Her first instinct is to pull away.  But when she sees the kindness in his smile, she shyly takes the pamphlet and curtsies.  He chuckles, and she turns to run back to her parents.

The wall to her right explodes as she passes it.  She’s pushed to the ground by the iron beast forcing its way into the room.  There is a flash of blue wool that disappears beneath dust, rubble, and the great black foot of the monster that has invaded the bookstore.  Now, there is the smell of blood mixed in with the leather and dust, and it is followed by smoke.

He is more than shocked.  He is shattered.  As his mind tries to piece together what has just happened, the swirling dust begins to settle around the invader’s nightmarish shape.

A great, metal vehicle shaped like a beetle with giant horn atop its head crouches half-in and half-out of the bookstore.  Its eyes blaze with fire, and steam and smoke pour from the various vents in its carapace.  It backs up slowly, grinding everything beneath its feet into a finer dust, and freeing up space for the soldiers to enter.

There are two of them, encased in brass exoskeletons that spew great plumes of white behind them.  One of them uses the flamespitter attached to his wrist to start setting fire to the rows and rows of books, considered subversive for being written too early, condemned by a king who’s read enough of them to know better.  The other soldier sends the gleaming tip of his suit’s tentacle whip through the chest of the shrieking mother whose child was just crushed by a collapsing wall and the beetle tank.  The same soldier dispassionately dispatches the father with a shot from his shoulder-mounted rifle, stopping the man’s enraged charge dead in its tracks.  His own flamespitter kicks into gear, and he joins his companion in destroying what’s left of the store.

The observer stands frozen in the heat, and soon the smell of leather, dust, blood, and smoke tear him apart and pull him away…

…back screaming into his body.  

The prince was crouched in the corner with his hands pressed up against his head, shrieking, the cords in his neck standing out against his skin.

The way that the old man stood over him made the perfumer appear as some sort of vengeful angel deciding the prince’s fate.

“Your father’s sins are against the people,” the man said once the prince took a second to breathe.  “But if you stop yours, maybe you can find a way to atone for his.”

The doors splintered open a second later, and the head of security and the police officer from earlier rushed in, guns drawn.  The old man allowed himself to be taken away without protest.  The head of security, seeing that the prince wasn’t hurt, sneered and left the room.  And for the first time, the unshaven, scared sober, son of a despot began to fear for his life.


Copyright 2016, William R. Spear

Pay Yourself First (Beating Procrastination)

When you start looking into personal financial management, you’ll likely come across the following phrase:

“Pay yourself first.”

The idea is that once you receive your paycheck, you should set aside a portion for your savings/retirement BEFORE you pay bills, buy groceries, buy luxuries, etc.  Forcing yourself to save is more successful than figuring out how to save, and the people who follow this maxim see their savings regularly increase while their peers’ tend to stagnate.

This also works for beating procrastination.

Here, time is your currency (and like money, there’s never enough of it!).  When you get your time paycheck (free time, either scheduled or unscheduled), do your writing first.  Don’t check email or social media, don’t read the news, don’t browse Netflix or play a game.  You’re going to tell yourself you’ll only spend fifteen minutes doing those other things, but soon you’ll find that you’ve spent all of your free time on nonsense when you should have been using it to add to your wordcount.

It happens to me all the time.  And if you’re a chronic procrastinator, it happens to you too.

So: pay yourself first.  Do your writing, then figure out how to spend the remainder of your time.  This is the best way to ensure that you will hit your writing goals!  Do everything you can to minimize the possibility of failure, and soon you’ll have nothing left to do but succeed.

Like this/hate this/need to check your bank account?  Let me know in the comments.

 

Fields of Heather, Fists of Brass

Fields of Heather, Fists of Brass

The people don’t go to the big field where the heather grows.

In recent history, it was considered haunted.  Before that, it was condemned.  Before that, it was forbidden, and before that, it was a matter of personal safety.

Now, the people stay away because that is what they do.  They don’t question it, or even think about it.  They simply make a wide berth as if it is a bubble in spacetime that curves light and everything else around it.

Nobody remembers that it is the spot where the highborn Lord Spagor fought the landless Eddie Under to a standstill.  The oak tree that interrupts the heather has its roots wrapped around the arm of Under’s great steam machine, Chainsmite, and in Chainsmite’s hand is clenched the golden cloak of Lord Spagor’s Chime, Lass.  At one time, the cloak of ‘Lass was worth the combined wealth of a half-dozen minor kingdoms.  But gold means nothing in this new age of grain and toil.

The cog-laden mechs were buried alongside the black lungs their births demanded.  The great wars disappeared with the great machines that drove them.  The men who fought died, and so did the men who arranged for their deaths.  The destruction was so widespread and its effects ran so deep that the very soul of humanity was rewired into something much meeker.

But the skies are clear now.  The water is safe to drink, and the ground is safe to plant.  Doors go unlocked – or at least, they would if the people even knew what locks were.

Not two miles away from this forgotten field lives a miller, a man who lost six children last winter to a disease that had been all but eradicated three centuries before.  Three centuries before, those children may have lived to be killed by a wayward artillery shell, impressed as child soldiers, or orphaned and turned out to freeze on the soot-covered streets.  Instead, they died in their beds; warm, well-fed, and loved.

But they still died, taken by an illness that man once conquered, and against which he is now powerless.

A breeze ripples through the purple and green.  It doesn’t touch the severed hand or its prize, buried so deep in the earth.  It will take time and a storm to free them from their tomb.  So for now, they wait to be remembered.  To be rediscovered.

To be reclaimed.

The people don’t go to the big field where the heather grows.  They have lost their thirst for steam.  Their relics do not remain for them, but for whatever will conquer the earth once they are gone.

And if God is kind, these new kings will tease only miracles from the sins of the past.


Copyright 2016, William R. Spear

“The Steam Witch”

The Steam Witch

“What are you doing out here?” the old woman hissed through the metal teeth she forged herself.

The boy, dressed in the simplest of simple peasant garb, looked up at her glumly.

“Just sitting,” he said.  “I was crying earlier, but I’m all done with that, and now I’m just sitting.”

The old woman snorted, then ran a hooked fingernail around the edge of one long, drooping nostril.

“What I wanted to know,” she creaked, “is how you came to be out here.”

“Oh,” the boy replied.  He thought for a moment.  “Actually, I don’t know.  I remember my stepmother baked me a tray of cookies.  And the next thing I knew…”

The woman grunted, nodded, then headed on her way.

“Excuse me,” the boy said.  The witch had a single leg inside the gigantic mortar that she used to fly from place to place all throughout the forest.

“What?”

“Aren’t you B-”

“Say my name and I’ll eat you,” the woman snarled.  “You’re lucky I’ve someplace to be, or I’d have devoured you already.”

“That might be better for me, to be eaten,” the boy replied.  “It’s better than starving to death.  Or freezing.”

“You won’t freeze to death out here,” was the reply.  “It’s the middle of summer.”

The boy shrugged.  “What if I live to see the winter?” he asked.  “I’ll certainly freeze then.”

“Yes, I suppose you would,” she replied.  She pulled her other leg inside the mortar and prepared to use the pestle to launch her through the air.

“Wait!” the boy said.

The woman swore.  They were words that the boy had never heard used before, but he inherently understood that they weren’ t meant to be spoken.

“What?” she snarled.  “What do you want?”

“Is it true that your house walks about?”

The woman looked down along the runway that was her nose.

“Yes,” she said.

“Is it true that your house walks about on gigantic, steampowered chicken legs?”

The witch narrowed her eyes.  “Yes.”

The boy paused for a moment.  “May I see?”

* * *

“What’s wrong with it?”

“Thank you for your tact,” the witch replied.  Her house was lying on its side.  Beneath the foundation were two large legs that had been built out of gears, pistons, and steam.  They kicked weakly, pedaling as if perched upon an invisible bicycle.  The feet, which had been modeled off of a rooster’s razor sharp claws, opened and closed weakly.

“Come here,” the woman said, leading the boy over to the house.  There was a gray metal panel on the underside, a few feet in front of the scaffolding for the legs.  The witch yanked it open, reached inside, and pulled down on the giant red switch that was in there.

There was a loud chunk.  A huge puff of steam kicked out from various vents and grates, and the legs slowed down until they finally stopped moving.

“Didn’t they used to be actual chicken legs?”

“Yes, well, a few years ago I decided I needed an upgrade,” the witch said.  She grabbed the pestle that she used to propel her giant flying mortar and stuck it into a gap at the root of the legs.  Levering the staff up and down several times activated a jack that rose the house off the ground a bit.

“The benefit to these ones is all that you’d expect.  Increased power, increased speed.  They don’t get tired.  As long as I’ve got enough coal and water, they’ll run until they fall off.  Come here.”

The witch guided the boy beneath the legs.  The heat was sweltering, and a few droplets of water landed on his arm, burning him.  But he didn’t complain.  He was fascinated by the mechanisms powering the iron chicken legs, his eyes running over the teeth of the gears and the thick, metal joints.

“Unlike the old legs, though, some parts get worn out.”

For three hours, the witch showed the boy how the legs worked and what was broken.  He held gears and bolts for her, and directed light into the innards of the machines with a mirror so the old woman could see what she was doing.  When they were finished, she guided his hand to the great red switch that brought the limbs back to life.  They kicked, slowly at first, and then faster and faster, until finally they scrambled for and found their footing among the roots and the crushed bushes beneath them.  Once again, the house rose tall and frightening above the forest floor.

* * *

There was a knock at the cobbler’s door.  He’d been sitting at the table with his head in his hands, and the second he heard the sound he ran over to the door and flung it open.  He gasped when he saw the steam witch standing on his doorstep.

“Baba Yaga,” he said.

The woman gave him a glare as cold as her iron teeth.  “Out of appreciation for your son’s help today, I’ll forget that you spoke my name,” she said.  From behind her, she produced the boy, a fresh half-eaten roll in his hand.

“Hi Father,” he said, as if nothing was out of the ordinary.  The cobbler swept him up into a bonecrushing hug.

“Oh, thank you, thank you Ba-, I mean…thank you.  So, so much.”

“Your wife is trying to get rid of him,” the witch said.  “I’m glad she did, otherwise he and I might not have met.”  She handed a scrap of paper to the stunned man and nodded towards it.

“There’s a professor at the academy in Stol who owes me a favor.  I suggest sending the boy to study with him.  He’s old enough.  And he has the aptitude.”

She turned away and started walking back to her mortar.  “And watch out for that nasty wife of yours.  You’re probably next on her list.”

The boy freed himself from his father’s arms.  “Thank you!” he shouted, waving.  “Thank you!”

The woman tossed her hand up and grunted.  Then she climbed into her mortar, struck her pestle against the ground, and flew away into the night.


Copyright 2016, William R. Spear

“The Skull With The Sapphire Eyes” Now Available!

skullsaph.JPEG

So I’ve kind of fallen off the map for the past few weeks.  Working on finishing a few things, plus doing classwork, plus life in general has inserted itself between me and my blog.

However, I’m happy to announce that The Skull With The Sapphire Eyes, a preteen horror novella, is now available on Amazon!

Erica had wanted her summer vacation to be filled with friends, pool parties, and fun. Instead, she got stuck going with her brother, James, and their Dad on an archaeological expedition deep in the jungles of South America. Lame!

But Erica’s boredom swiftly turns to terror when she and James discover a frightening secret hidden inside the ruins of an ancient pyramid…and soon, the siblings find themselves on the run from the horror of THE SKULL WITH THE SAPPHIRE EYES.

This is the second preteen horror book I’ve written (the first is My Evil Robot Brother) and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out!  The goal of these books is to create a series of entertaining horror stories similar to Goosebumps, but for a slightly older crowd and that goes a little bit softer on the B-Movie vibe (but not too soft on it).

As mentioned, The Skull With The Sapphire Eyes is available on Amazon Kindle devices, and if your family has Kindle Unlimited, it can be read for free.

Next week, I’ll be getting back to my regular postings (steampunk flash fiction, beating procrastination, science fiction thoughts, and more), and I’ll also be livestreaming the development of the book that will follow The Skull With The Sapphire Eyes, which I hope to have completed and published within the next two weeks (challenge!)

As always, thanks for reading 🙂

-WRS

 

The Simpsons Episode Every Writer Should Watch

lisa

I wasn’t allowed to watch The Simpsons as a kid.

Of course, this meant that I tried to whenever I had the chance.  And let me tell you, when you find yourself holding onto a television antennae for thirty-plus minutes to get a slightly less static-filled broadcast of a forbidden show, ready to bolt back to studying the second you hear the garage door open, you really start to gain an appreciation for the thing you’re putting your neck on the line for.

As such, The Simpsons really hold a special place in my heart.  I can’t really count myself among the truest fans, however – I still haven’t seen that many episodes, plus I’ve missed far too many of the quotable bits thanks to antennae-static shenanigans – but if I’m flipping channels and an episode is on, I’ll watch it – and most likely enjoy it.

Now, it just so happens that The Simpsons has an episode that I think is incredibly valuable for all writers to watch – or to read the synopsis below, since it contains all of the relevant bits.

Episode 6 of Season 23, “The Book Job”, features a parody of The Italian Job in which Bart, Homer, and a small handful of Springfield’s other misfits attempt to write a book by committee in the hopes of creating the next big children’s series.  Meanwhile, Lisa is disappointed to discover that her favorite author is actually a front for books written by “a roomful of pill-popping Lit majors desperate for work”.  Disillusioned and further disgusted by the mercantile leanings of her brother and father, she decides to write her own book in order to inject some genuine creativity and honest representation back into the industry.

(SPOILERS BELOW – If you’re at all interested in discovering the episode for yourself, watch it and then come back here for some awesome analysis :P)

The goals and the processes of Lisa vs. The Book Job Committee (hereafter: TBJC) are by far the biggest takeaways from this episode:

Lisa wants to be the “stereotypical” author – someone writing a creative, genuine, “honest” story without help from others – a cappuccino-sipping scarf-wearing artiste.

The Book Job Committee wants to make a ton of money by writing a book that sticks just closely enough to the popular fiction formula to be familiarly alluring, while remaining unique enough to claim to be an entirely different product.

If this were a Disney movie, Lisa would succeed and TBJC would fail.  But since this is The Simpsons, everyone manages to fail in their own spectacular way.

Lisa’s failure, however is more important to focus on as she represents the mindset of a good portion of brand-new writers.  Her downfall comes at the expense of her philosophy regarding the process – writing is magical, personal, and incredibly difficult.  Because this process is considered difficult in addition to being new to her, she finds a multitude of ways to distract herself from her writing:

LISA: Wait, I can’t start without music to inspire me!

LISA: [surrounded by her music collection] Why is Bach next to Muddy Waters?  That’s my problem, I’ve got to get these CDs organized!

LISA: [typing] There, finished!  Now, if I win just two more games of online Boggle, I’ll be ready to start writing!

LISA: [opening her computer] Sitting in a coffeeshop…I couldn’t feel more like a real writer!  Oh!  Better set up my wi-fi, in case I need to do some research.

LISA: [moving to the long line at coffeeshop cash register] But…if I’m gonna use their free Internet, I really should buy something.  God, I love being a writer!

LISA: [in montage, making a castle out of pencils, watching cat videos on YouTube, cleaning a difficult smudge off of her window, and binging on Friday Night Lights]

Due to Lisa’s constant self-distraction, she only manages to put two words on the edge – CHAPTER ONE – before admitting defeat.

TBJC, meanwhile, is able to fully discuss what they want the book to be and how they want it to be written, and then actually write it.  Whether or not the book is good (troll orphans attending a magical school beneath the Brooklyn Bridge?  Well…I guess I’ve read worse…) doesn’t factor into their goal – which was to write a book and convince a publisher to take a chance on them, quality be damned.  At this they are successful – although <spoiler alert> they are soon bilked out of their millions by a seemingly obseqious but secretly devious Neil Gaiman.

This episode brings up a lot of arguments and discussions that I’ve had with myself regarding how I want to conduct myself as a writer.  I’ve listed the most important elements “The Book Job” below – and I highly recommend that people watch it themselves so they can form their own opinions (also, because the humor is en pointe in this episode – absolutely entertaining throughout).

The takeaways:

 

  • Procrastination looks just as silly when we do it.

 

Lisa is a hilarious caricature of undisciplined writers.  While we laugh, however, it’s best to reflect as well – because there’s a good chance that a large number of us procrastinate in the same manner that she does.

 

  • A little planning goes a long way.

 

There are several meta-writing discussions about whether one is a planner or an “as you go” kind of writer (with several different silly nomenclatures depending on who’s talking).  I’m something of a hybrid – I know where the story starts, and I know where it ends, and I view each scene as having a logical outcome that brings the plot/characters closer to that ending.  This tends to work for me because from the very start I know where everything is ending up, I know the overarching themes and tone of the story, and I’m aware of the particular struggles that the main characters must get through.  This cuts way down on the writer’s block that those like Lisa experience.  Meanwhile, those like TBJC are able to stay focused and finish what they start thanks to the guidestones they set down for themselves before they began.  That might be too rigid and not “organic” enough for some people…but it gets the job done.

 

  • Lisa treats writing like an art.  The Book Job Committee treats writing like a craft.

 

In order to get to writing, Lisa believes she must be struck with inspiration.  TBJC, however, actively brainstorms through the plot, characters, and setting of their novel.  While Lisa the artiste is still waiting for her Muse to get out of bed, TBJC woke theirs up at five AM, pumped her full of coffee, tossed her in the back of their pickup truck, and drove her to the jobsite where they had her nailing together frameworks and putting up drywall.

The artist can be a very passive creator, only working “when they feel like it”.  The craftsman, however, is much more active; seeing a job that needs to be done, she figures out how to do it, then goes ahead and finishes it.  For me, writing is not that much different from carpentry, plumbing, or even IT work.  Discipline and a willingness to think through problems are a thousand times more important than inspiration.

 

  • The purpose becomes the process.

 

This is just a slight rewording of 3) above, but it’s something that speaks so strongly to me that I have to say it again.

Your goal for your writing project will determine how you pursue it.  TBJC’s goal was to have a finished project that they could sell – they were successful.  Lisa’s goal was to write something as incredible and inspiring as her favorite fiction – by setting such an unobtainable and poorly defined bar for herself, she was unable to let any ideas at all come down the pipeline.  She lost before she even wrote CHAPTER 1 on that first (and only) page.  A poorly defined book that you are writing for a poorly defined reason is going to have a hard time getting to THE END.  You might be better off trying to conceptualize and complete a few secondary ideas before jumping into your magnum opus – that way, you know what it takes to write a full book from cover to cover.


 

Like I said, this episode was fantastic for both its content and its humor (it even references The Far Side!).  I highly recommend it to anyone who has written, is writing, or wants to write a book of their own.  I’d even recommend it to people who think that the “New Simpsons” episodes are terrible – it’s really that good.

If you see it and have thoughts, let me know.  If you haven’t seen it, but have thoughts, let me know.  If you have any thoughts at all…well, you’ve got the idea.  Thanks for reading!

writeFast: A Lesson on Goals and Means

writeFast


A few months back, I wrote a post about a tactic I use to increase my writing speed.  An overview of the process is as follows:

  1. Set a timer for fifteen minutes.  Put the timer someplace where it is easily visible.
  2. Set a wordcount goal – the number of words that should be written by the end of the fifteen minutes.
  3. Write quickly, with constant checks on both wordcount and remaining time to stay on track.

This is a means of deliberate practice that I modified from an anecdote in Josh Foer’s excellent book Moonwalking with Einstein (with additional credit to Prof. K. Anders Ericsson, the influential performance psychology researcher who provided the template for the exercise).

This process works really well for me, especially on projects that require quick completion over perfection (and yes, I have a number of those going on at any point in time).  The problem, however, was the overly manual nature of setting a timer and calculating wordcounts/benchmarks for the next sprint.  Ever since I’ve started doing this, I’ve wanted to write a program that would a) display my timer on the screen, and b) display the number of words remaining to be written in order to meet the goal.

Well, I finally took some time over the past few weeks and came up with writeFast – a simple VBA macro/form that does all of things I want – and more! (screenshot at the top of this post).

Developing writeFast showed me how I still sometimes fail to live up to my own rules and maxims. Because of this, the process, although relatively brief, was rewarding in both a literal and a cognitive sense – not only do I now have a digital tool that will allow me to improve on my writing efficiency, but I am now in the right mindset to re-evaluate the rest of my goals and projects to see what truly needs to be done to bring them to fruition.

To wit: there are goals, and there are means to achieve those goals (tools).  Not only do you need to have a clear and concise goal, but you need to use the right tool for the job.  My goal for the writeFast project was to digitize my writing efficiency solution; as far as means, I originally decided to use Visual Basic (not VBA) due to its ease of creating desktop graphical interfaces (“forms”) that would allow me to present the sprint stats that I was looking for (time remaining, words remaining, words written, words per minute).  Writing in Visual Basic, I theorized, would also provide me with the ancillary benefit of learning Visual Basic, which may be useful for other projects down the road.

But as I was working on the program and piecing it together bit by bit, I came upon a particular issue that forced me to realize that I was using the wrong tool for the job (in brief, it was proving a little extra tricky to get an accurate wordcount of an in-progress document [Experienced VB developers – “tricky” refers to my personal skillset, not necessarily how easy or difficult the solution actually is :)])  As I continued trudging through this sticky problem, I realized that I had forgotten the clarity of my original goal, a clarity that would allow me to achieve the goal faster and with only the necessary effort – nothing more.

The main goal, again, was to digitize my writing efficiency solution.  “Learning more” was much less important than having a tool that would work for my needs.  By refocusing on this, I realized that there was an even better toolset that would help me to achieve the results I wanted – VBA, or Visual Basic for Applications, which is the language that MS Office macros are written in.  I restarted the project in VBA (again, experienced coders: I’m aware I could have cut down my rewrite time :)) and with a couple of tweaks and minor headaches here and there, I was able to complete writeFast and have an actual working tool that fit my needs perfectly.

This small project forced me to go back to basics for all of my other initiatives and start asking for the why of everything.  Why am I writing a blog?  Why am I pursuing weekly flash fiction stories?  Why am I trying self-publishing instead of the traditional route?  Why am I looking to open a Patreon account, start streaming on Twitch, do more /r/writingprompt responses, and so on and so forth?

As I thought about it further, I realized that many of the questions I was asking were about the functioning of my means and tools rather than my overarching goal – and I then realized that it’s been a long time since I both defined my overarching goal as well as why it is my goal.

The result of this thinking is…anticlimactic, so far as this blog post is concerned.  My epiphany is more along the lines of a recognition that I’m seeing failure because my pursuits are not cohesive; they’re not working together to serve the same underlying purpose.  As a result, the gestalt of my approaches – the greater-than-the-whole-sum-of-their-outputs – is not quite the direction that I want to be moving in.  Again, I haven’t had enough time to really pull together my overall goal and the reason for it – I have more than a vague idea of what it is, of course, but it’s not clear enough to really allow me to find success means, whatever the definition of “success” ends up being.

So why write this self-serving, cloudy, confusing, and ambiguous post?  Partially to brag about my weak-ass programming skills 😉 But mostly in the hopes that it will encourage others to do a self-check to make sure that they know what direction they want to go in, why they want to go in that directions, and to ensure that their efforts are directly contributing to their desired ends.  If I didn’t take on this little project, I might have been plodding on in the same misguided manner for quite some time; hopefully, what I’ve written here can save someone else from the same fate.

Anyway, thank you for reading – at some point, I’ll probably make the writeFast code available along with a tutorial on its creation.  Additionally, in the coming weeks I plan to have some materials showing writeFast in action.  In the meantime, if you have questions, comments, or snarky observations, feel free to leave them in the box below 🙂

10 Unproductive Things That Writers Keep Doing (Beating Procrastination)

 

Here’s a list of 10 things that seem like they’ll help your writing and productivity, but which are actually dirty little liars and time sucks:

  1. Reading articles/blogs about ways to improve your writing.
    Here’s what you need to do in order to improve your writing: practice.  Reading about writing is not practice.  Nor is writing about writing.  I should know, I do way too much of both.
  2. Watching videos of your favorite authors talking about the writing process.
    Want to learn about the writing process?  Go through it.  Leave the words of your role models for your commute or the gym, i.e. time that you wouldn’t be able to spend writing anyway.
  3. Rewriting part or all of your plot outline.
    If you absolutely must do this, set a timer for fifteen minutes and correct as much as you can.  If you can’t finish, give yourself a number of words you must write (1000 words, 3000 words, etc.) before you can spend another fifteen minutes tweaking, shuffling, and organizing your outline.
  4. Discussing writing in chatrooms/forums/subreddits.
    See my response to 1) and 2) above.
  5. Editing earlier portions of your current project.
    What?  No.  Fix it in post with everything else – that way you stay both focused on the writing as well as consistent with your edits across the entire manuscript.  If it’s an important change that you’re afraid you’ll forget about, put a large note in ALL CAPS in the document and move on.
  6. Restarting your current project.
    There are very few reasons to do this.  I’m not saying it will never be the right move, but you need to set very strict criteria for yourself under which this is acceptable.  If you start balking at the slightest difficulty, you’ll turn into a PC with incorrectly seated RAM (i.e. you’ll restart repeatedly and uselessly).
  7. “Networking” by following writers’/editors’/publishers’ social media accounts.
    How is following people on Twitter going to help you put words on the page?  How is liking a Facebook status going to help you hit your wordcount?  Ditto for sharing, Pinning, tagging, swiping, and everything else.
  8. Studying vocabulary lists and/or reading/watching interesting etymological articles/videos.
    Do this during your regularly scheduled reading time, or as with 2) above, during time you wouldn’t be able to spend writing anyway.  It doesn’t matter if you know the definition of “lugubrious” if you don’t practice fitting simple words together in a logical and meaningful way.  (Full disclosure: I had to look up the definition of lugubrious.  Fuller disclosure: I will probably forget the meaning again soon.)
  9. Searching for inspirational quotes or videos, or re-consuming the “go-to”s that you’ve collected over the years.
    In the time it took you to read an #inspirewriters quote, you could have added a sentence to your current project.  That one sentence is way more valuable than the brief “feel good”-ness of reading someone else’s “inspiring” words.
  10. Reading articles/blogs about how to beat procrastination.
    😉

Sure, there is a time and a place for everything in the above list.  But because these things are helpful in a few specific situations, they’re often used to explain away periods of procrastination as “research”, “inspiration”, and “personal growth”.  And because they are so accessible nowadays, it’s a thousand times easier to slip into a procrastination fugue from which you’ll emerge with a false sense of progress.  Like a delusional worm that’s just crawled free from a spiderweb, you think you’ve grown butterfly wings – but in truth you’re still just sucking dirt and dreaming about the sky (imagine how much better this simile would have been if I practiced real writing instead of writing about procrastination all the darn time ;))

If you want to be a writer, you need to write.  If you want to be an author, you need a finished book.  If you don’t write and if you don’t complete projects, then you can’t call yourself a writer and you can’t be an author.  If the above items do not have a literal, provable, positive effect on your wordcount, then they are close to useless – for putting words on the page, that is.  Can’t forget that disclaimer…

Harsh words today, but they’re really directed at myself more than anyone else.  I’m guilty of the above a thousand times over – but lately I’ve been doing pretty well 🙂  Questions, comments, opinions, and insults should be placed in the box below. Thanks!