PeterMBall

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I’m rebuilding the novella plan at the moment, after realizing that it’s somewhat counter-intuitive to have a stranger-comes-to-town story where the stranger leaves town in the second act.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I picked up Joan Didion’s South and West because it was basically raw notebook material rather than finished work. It’s basically daily notes as Didion travels through the American south, for a book that never never ended up getting written, followed by some short notes for a book about California. I’m a huge fan of Didion’s essays in general, and the clarity of the notes is pretty incredible.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

The combination of Easter and university holidays have largely resulted in me becoming fairly antisocial and feral. The coming week is going to be fairly heavy on social events, and I am totally not prepared for the shift in gears and the impact that’ll probably have on getting writing/research done.

Crazier, Faster, Better

I started April full of confidence. I had a plan for a novella. Nothing important, just a goofy 40,000 words about dinosaurs and apocalypse and super-intelligent battle-orangutans that’s mostly being written to amuse a friend of mine. I knew could hit two thousand words a day, so I figured I’d get through a rough draft in the space of thirty days.

Now we’re nineteen days in and I’ve burned the entire draft to the ground so I can start over and build something better in the wreckage.

Not that I’m getting rid of the any of the goofy elements – there will still be dinosaurs and apocalypse and orangutans – but I wasn’t happy with the draft I was writing and desperately needed to change it. The voice didn’t fit. The plot was wrong. My 40,000 word novella draft was up around 30,000 words, and I was only just getting out of the first act. The middle act belonged to a completely different story (and, now, can go become that story without being hampered by the first act that didn’t fit).

I can usually tell when I’ve done something wrong with story structure because my entire life grinds to a halt. I get restless and anxious and eventually depressed. When I loose track of the plot, I literally lose the plot. That’s harder to navigate than it used to be, full of second-guessing. Am I junking this story because it’s not a good fit, or because my first response to a low is period do everything crazier, faster, better.

I do not plan stories well. I cannot figure out what I’m really writing until I’m down in there, among the words, figuring out where shit goes wrong. 

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

Still working on my heavy-metal-orangutan-dinosaur-apocalypse novella this week. The rough draft of the first act is done, which means i now move onto the road-trip portion of the story and freak out about the fact I now get to write scenes with actual dinosaurs.

Also putting together the thesis rational for my PhD prospectus document so I’m prepared when uni goes back.

What’s inspiring me this week?

Stick with me on this one, but the four films in the Sharknado series. I sat down to watch all of them with a friend earlier this week, and I was really impressed with the first three. They’re terrible films, as everyone accuses them of being, but they are internally consistent terrible films that don’t treat their concept as an ongoing joke. Everyone in the movie treats the possibility of a sharknado (and, in film three, the oncoming sharkpocalypse) with utter seriousness, which I suspect is one of the reasons they became a cultural landmark back when the first film debuted in 2013..

They lose that in the fourth film. The tenuous verisimilitude and internal consistency of world-building gives way to the parody of Star Wars movies and entirely consequence-free carnage. Deaths – however stupid –  that would have been mourned and carried with a character in the first three films are forgotten in the fourth, and major characters have the kind of plot immunity that robs scenes of their tension.

Basically, the fourth film is the kind of godawful movie most people assume the first three are. It’s an incredible series to watch if you’re a fan of incredibly goofy narrative concepts (which, lets be honest, heavy-metal-orangutan-dinosaur-apocalypse falls into), just so you can figure out why they work and why they stop working.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

I have to pull apart the lit review from my thesis and rebuild it from scratch, as it appears I may have tried to do far too much for the wordcount available to me in my end-of-semester assessment.

I’m also hitting the end of the kicking-the-tyres stage of a project I’m not particularly sure about, which means I should really fire up some of the sub-projects that would let me test whether the main project will work.

Writing and the Marketplace

It’s 5:16 on a Tuesday afternoon. The day is starting to cool and I am sitting on my couch without shoes on and I am Youtubing Cure songs as I type this. I’ve written a bunch of words today. I discovered a structural flaw in the novella I’ve been trying to write, which means there’s a bunch of rewrites on the way. When I’m done with this, I’ll be heading off to write a bunch more words.

But for the moment I’m sitting here, on the internet, thinking about the scene from Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman’s Howl where Allan-Gisberg-by-way-of-James-Franco says:

In San Fansisco I had a year of psychotherapy with Doctor Hicks. I was blocked. I couldn’t write. I was still trying to act normal. I was afraid I was crazy. I was sure that I was supposed to be heterosexual and something was wrong with me.

And Doctor Hicks kept saying, “what do you want to do? What is your hearts desire?”

And finally, I said, “well, what I’d really like to do is just quit all this. Get a small room with Peter, devote myself to writing, contemplation, and fucking. Smoking pot and doing whatever I want.

And he said, “why don’t you do it then?”

It’s an incredible moment of art-porn, leveraging all the mythology of the artist to catapult the viewer into the next act of the movie. I doubt there is an artist of any stripe who doesn’t hear that and feel a little wistful about what might be.

I’m thinking about this scene a lot because I’ve spent the past few months reading novella after novella. Not intentionally, just by virtue of there being a wealth of books with about 150 pages on my shelves after years where “book” meant something with closer to 300 pages and a lot more time required to read it. Just prior to writing this, I finished reading Warren Ellis’ Normal and I am quietly coveting the talent that went into both the design and the content.

I really like the novella and the novelette as a form. Given my druthers, I would happily write them to the exclusion of all else. But the reality of being a writer with any kind of professional, I-would-like-to-be-paid-for-this aspirations is that you increasingly look at novel-length fiction because it’s basically the stuff that gets decent advances.

For all the mythology around art for its own sake, there are very few writers or artists I know of who have managed to completely disregard the marketplace around art. They may try to leverage it in different ways – some will go for the mass market and rack up sales, others will try to to establish cultural worth and seek funding that surrounds that – but in the back of our heads there are fundamental decisions that get made because the market is there.

Writers are often told they shouldn’t write to market. That they should follow their passion and write the story they want to write. I don’t disagree with that advice, but I do think there are limits to it, because your desire to write is not a singular goal. The stories you want to tell will come up against your need to be read, or earn money, or develop an idea.

And so, if you want to write fiction, you’re going to end up writing books. If you’re going to write poetry, you’ll get used to performing. If you’re going to write theater…well, it’s been nearly two decades since I went anywhere near a theaters script, but I’m betting there is a similar process going on there. If you’re interested in fantasy as a kid in the nineties, you spend a lot of time pondering how to write a trilogy.

We all make concessions to the marketplace, even as people scorn the idea that art and the market go together. Because the marketplace is where we’re connected to audiences, and it’s where we connect with the art we consume.

It’s incredibly hard to separate art and commerce as a creator. I sit down occasionally and ask myself what, exactly, I’d be likely to write if I wasn’t considering where it might be published. What would change on my list of projects I’d like to do one day? What would get re-prioritized?

I’m not sure I can even conceptualize an answer to that, because thinking about markets is so ingrained in the way I write these days. I suspect I would end up writing short, slightly weird stories whose sole purpose is entertaining a half-dozen people among my friends who can provide more immediate feedback on what they like and what they don’t.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

So the next month is going to be spent doing a draft thesis prospectus for university, which may end up being the 4,000 words most likely to drive me crazy out of all the things I’ve ever written (at least, until I have to write the thesis). I’m also about 1/4 of the way through a novella about dinosaurs, heavy metal, and bounty hunters, but I’m torn between trying to split my time between these two or just going full-tilt at the prospectus draft and clearing it out of the way.

What’s inspiring me this week?

Joe Lansadale’s Vanilla Ride and Devil Red, two more instalments in his Hap and Leonard series. They’re the books where he came back tot he characters after a long delay, so in addition to being fun books they’re also interesting to look at in terms of the thesis, since they mark a series where the characters exist in very different cultural contexts (they suddenly have cell phones and the internet is a thing).

What part of my project an I avoiding?

Making a call on how to balance thesis work and creative work over the next few weeks. Mostly, I suspect, because the call I want to make (‘I’ll just do both’) didn’t work in a way that’s actually useful to me. I always mean to do thesis work, but i’ll usually end up ignoring it after a day writing creatively or dive into it and work obsessively for two or three days where nothing else matters.

This may be a problem with having no way of putting hard edges around the thesis work, so I can measure when a day is ‘done,’ especially since word-count alone isn’t a good measure for these sorts of things.

 

Writing Series Works in the Age of the Internet

I picked up the first book in C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy from a remainder table when I was fourteen, part of a five-books-for-ten-bucks deal where I deployed my limited teenage resources. Over the years that remainder table introduced me to many books I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise, but Black Sun Rising was one of the few that I still hold onto. Tattered and torn after twenty-seven years of ownership, largely unread after the age of eighteen, but still tucked away on my bookshelf alongside Forgotten Realms novels as a reminder of where my reading tastes used to live and breathe.

I picked up the second book of the Coldfire trilogy three years later, recognizing it by the cover art and the familiar, embossed-gold font. The repeated motif’s are a distinctly nineties approach to fantasy: dark, twisted trees; a blonde warrior with a magic sword and improbably styled hair that suggests fantasy worlds have access to good conditioner; keywords on the cover blurb like Adept, Sorcerer, Devouring, and Darkness.

When True Night Falls is in better shape, its pages a little yellowed with age. Plus, I’m not actually sure I’ve read it. I remember the first book clearly, with its mix of Fantasy and SF tropes, magic derived from an alien energy running through a colonized planet, but I have no recollection about what happens in the second book or how it sets up the third. I think I was waiting to track down the third book before I engaged with the series again.

This sounds perfectly reasonable, here in 2017. Back in 1994, when the internet was still fascinated with getting Coke machines online and Amazon was in its first year of existence, waiting for the third book of a series twice-remaindered in Australia was an act of deranged optimism.

But I was young. I knew nothing about the way publishing worked, or how books found their way to bookstores. I thought my decision to wait for the third book was perfectly sane and reasonable, because the first two books of a trilogy meant the third would show up, eventually.

They were telling a story. The third book was the end of it. That was how things worked.

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I’m spending a lot of time thinking about trilogies and serials and series at the moment, courtesy of my PhD. I went in explicitly looking to better understand the craft side of things. The initial germ of the idea came when I was kicking around a few series ideas, and friends were kicking me volumes of ongoing trilogies or series to critique, and I figured that understanding how series works would allow me to write and critique in a more useful way.

It’s taken about six weeks of reading to realise that it’s virtually impossible to divorce the writing of series from the publishing realities that surround them. I’m not exactly blind to the effects digital technologies have had on the publishing industry – a large part of my gig at the Writers Centre involved talking about the impact and advantages of ebooks – but it’s at its most interesting when we consider the impact that a shifting publishing landscape has on the decisions writers make.

At its simplest, publishing is a system of exchange between three stakeholders. A writer produces intellectual property in the form of a book. A publisher provides the financial capital to produce the book, along with the human resources to handle the the refinement and production of the book. They also leverage a network of promotion and distribution arms that the writer, by themselves, doesn’t have, in order to get the book into the hands of readers craving a particular reading experience that they’re willing to pay money for. When everything goes well, the writer, the publisher, and the reader all feel like they’ve made an even exchange, and everyone goes home with something they want.

The reality was almost never that simple. Economies of scale become part of the equation, because it costs money to store books and it costs money to ship books and it was impossible for any bookstore to carry a copy of every book ever written. Books that didn’t sell enough to justify those costs had a very short shelf-life. Books that weren’t ordered in sufficient qualities to justify keeping them in a warehouse would end up pulped or remaindered, which is how they found their way to a five-for-ten-dollar bin at my local store.

None of this is news, if you’ve got a working idea of publishing, but what’s been interesting me this week is an essay from 1999, Tracing the Adult Series, which appeared in the TechNicalities journal. The author, Maureen Nimmo, talks about the difficulties of tracking series works for adults in library catalogue. There’s one bit that leapt out at me in particular:

Catalogers aren’t the only ones at fault here. Book publishers don’t always give sufficient information within individual books to help. Series information in the books themselves, based on personal observations, is scanty and inconstant…Standard series title pages are rare in this sort of literature. Instead, catalogers are left to glean what series information is available from flyleaves (assuming it isn’t discarded before the book gets to the cataloger) or blurbs printed on the back of the book. There may be nothing on the cover or the title page of the book to alert the readers that the book is part of a series.

This intrigued me to the point where I dragged Friedman’s books off the shelves and looked for the things that overtly identified it as a trilogy. Once you discarded the trade dress, there were only two: all three grouped the books together “The Coldfire Trilogy” in the section up front devoted to the time-honored Also by C.S. Friedman, and the bears The stunning conclusion of the Coldfire trilogy” on the cover. The second book does identify itself as a sequel to the first, but doesn’t actually mention the word Trilogy anywhere else.

This lack of information makes perfect sense in a publishing environment defined by scarcity and limited space. If books have a small sales window and shelf-life, then you absolutely want to have your cake and eat it too. Slapping “Book Two” on the cover is a red flag to anyone picking it up that they’ve missed what’s come before. While you want existing readers to find it, you don’t want to be limited to existing readers when it comes to sales.

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If you planned on writing fantasy in the eighties and nineties, you planned on writing a three-book trilogy. It’s like the structure of Lord of the Rings passed into the genre’s DNA, becoming part of the conventional wisdom shared by writers and readers alike. I didn’t need to be told Friedman’s work was a trilogy when I stumbled across it at the age of fourteen, because I simply assumed that most fantasy stories were told in three parts (It will still be another year before I encountered David Eddings, and my mind was peeled open by the fact you could tell a story in five parts).

And with that knowledge came the patience required to search out parts of the series. The assumption that if I missed the boat on first release, I’d be spending quality time searching for the missing instalments over the new few years. Friedman’s trilogy was one of the few that eluded me in that time. I couldn’t find the third book new, lurking on the bottom shelf of a bookstore I’d never visited before. Nor could I find it second hand, or tucked away in a remainder bin like the first two instalments had been. After a while, it ceased being something I looked for at all, just an unfinished trilogy sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for the day when serendipity finally finished my collection.

In the end, it wasn’t luck that brought the third book to me. It was stumbling over the first two books tucked away in my own bookshelf, then spending sixty seconds ordering a copy of book three on Amazon.

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There’s a really useful idea in John B. Thompson’s study of the publishing industry, Merchants of Culture, where he takes Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of The Field and applies it to the publishing industry. The Field is…well, lets go with Thompson’s description:

A field is a structured space of social positions which ca be occupied by agents and organisations, and in which the position of any agent or organisation depends on the type and quantity of resources or ‘capital’ they have at their disposal. Any social arena – a business sector, a sphere of education, a domain of sport – can be treated as a field in which agents and organisations are linked together in relations of cooperation, competition, and interdependency. Markets are an important part of some fields, but fields are always more than markets.

Which is really just sociologist for publishing is an enormously complicated network of stakeholders, all of which are linked together in a web of interconnected business relationships. What’s useful about Thompson’s book is the way he takes the concept of the field and breaks down the five kinds of capital at work in publishing.

More importantly, it provides a framework for understanding how the field of publishing has shifted as a result of technology, which makes the study of series considerably more nuanced than I’d first expected.

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I keep circling back to the Coldfire Trilogy when I think about this, and in particular that decade plus period where I couldn’t find the third book. For two books I contributed very little economic capital to the publishers behind the series, picking volumes up second-hand or in remainder. By the time I did actually purchase the third book through Amazon, it was via a sales chain that would have seemed unthinkable when the first volume when to print.

On the other hand, they were a series of books I thought to finish purchasing over a decade after the first two volumes were acquired. It was on the list of things I meant to read one day, if only I could find all the books.

I’d started my thesis with a pretty clear idea that the advent of Amazon and ebooks had led to a big jump in series works, particularly among the indie publishing crowd who talk about series works a kind of default strategy. The Field has its own logic, which affects the way people consciously and subconsciously apply their capital to gain desired effects, and the capacity to have a single bookstore that stocks everything cleans up a lot of issues with series works.

But it’s not just having everything available that’s shifted the field. Trilogies and ongoing series works have always held a kind of value, but it wasn’t until the advent of Amazon and widespread ebook use that the kind of capital they accumulate with readers valuable enough to overcome the costs of keeping the book available. Series works always accumulated social and cultural capital – and publishing has often capitalised upon that capital  – it’s just that they weren’t positioned in a marketplace capable of translating that capital into financial gain in a cost-effective way. The limitations of printing, storage, and distribution worked against the form.

But once the problem of availability is solved, labelling series works as part of a series becomes infinitely more attractive. The search algorithms of Google and Amazon are considerably more nuanced than old library systems. More importantly, the internet opens up the conversation that surrounds books.

At fourteen, I talked about the fantasy novels I loved with a half-dozen friends with similar reading tastes. At forty, I share my reading with blog readers, facebook friends, GoodRead followers, Instagram followers, and a dozen other places. The social capital surrounding a trilogy or series is considerably higher today than it was back in the early nineties. My suspicion is that this shift is one of the reasons why the fast roll-out of a series became a thing in recent years, attempting to capitalise on the conversation and keep the book visible.

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Friedman’s trilogy has been sitting on my couch for two weeks now, ever since I started thinking about all this. At some point, I need to read it. I just don’t know whether that’s going to be during the PhD or after it.

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The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

The uni stuff is still bubbling away in the background, but the primary task this week is writing enough scenes in a zombie apocalypse novella (working title Very Bad Men) that they’ll serve as a plot skeleton. The novella is a very silly project, but I’m basically lifting the approach to writing scenes straight out of Robert Ray’s first edition of The Weekend Novelist – writing opening scenes, climaxes, end-of-act transitions and the demount before the bulk of the story.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I could quite easily spend this section enthusiastically talking about episode 8 of Riverdale, which was quite an extraordinary slice of melodrama when you’re looking at it as a writer. In the space of thirty or forty minutes, they recontextualised a half-dozen characters, changed a litany of alliances, and reversed the narrative direction of several subplots running through the show.

Honorable mention goes to the new netflix YA series, Thirteen Reasons Why, which is…well, not pleasant viewing, but a YA story that looks at suicide, abuse, and the cruelty of high school with a kind of bluntness than isn’t usually there in a series aimed at teens. It’s a show that comes with all the trigger warnings, but its great.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

I keep looking at the process of writing a lit review for my thesis thus far and throwing up my hands, to say nothing of the thesis rational I need to have done by the end of April.

And given that I’m doing this on a Sunday morning, for the first time in forever, it would appear that I need to revisit my weekly planner to make sure my deadlines are a little better managed.

The Future is Weird

Last night the storms sweeping across Brisbane took out my power around 8:00 PM. I nodded and continued working on my laptop for another three hours after that, occasionally pausing to check the internet or chat with friends via messenger and my cell phone’s 4G connection. I could have kept working for another four or five hours, just on the raw laptop power floating around my house.

Somewhere in the middle of that, I realised I no longer owned a battery-powered torch. Eight to ten hours of computer time after a power failure, but no light.

The future is fucking weird.

Also, highly appropriate, given that I kicked off a new project yesterday that is all what would happen to society if dinosaurs came back? and Where in Rockhampton would you hole up to wait out the dino-pocalypse?

The logical answers have no place in the book, of course, because once you start with the phrase dino-pocalypse you can pretty much assume that science and logic are irrelevant. But it’s still interesting to think about.

Words to go

Three years ago I bought an apartment and began the process of moving in. I remember thinking, at the time, that I should probably stop buying new books because the ones I had already didn’t actually fit in my one-bedroom apartment with its outright rejection of right angles.

Obviously, I failed at that. It’s not really a surprise. I’d made a similar promise when I moved into my previous place, crashing in a friend’s spare room for a few years, and the bulk of my book collection went into storage. That promise resulted in nearly thirty boxes of books getting moved when I left.

 

Part of me resents the fact that I don’t get to move any more. I’m used to living like a hermit crab, always searching out a new shell when the one I’m in starts to feel restrictive. In another world, where I stuck with renting, I’d be spending the next month searching for an apartment on the far side of town that’s more convenient for getting to university.

Part of me watches friends moving out of their rental, quite unwillingly, and admits that I’m kind of fond of having a place that’s mine and will stay mine until I decide otherwise or I fail to pay the mortgage (which, quiet honestly, is so much goddamn cheaper than any rent I’ve ever paid).

So I stay. Quietly figuring out new places where books can be stored, or what can be thrown out in order to make more room.

And occasionally, just to keep myself focused, I sit down and figure out how many words I’d need to write and sell in order to pay this place off. Not that I’m relying on writing alone to do it, but writing is how I measure everything.

Current status: 2,984,186 words to go.

I really should get back to work.

 

 

Planning

Tomorrow I’ve cancelled my usual Wednesday plans and set aside some quality time to tidy my flat, revisit my quarterly plan, and generally wind the key on all the systems I rely upon to keep my life running. There will probably be white boards. There will definitely be laundry.

I’m not a natural born planner. In fact, I kinda loathe the process. I’m totally on the pantser side of things, when it comes to writing, and I will generally defer any kind of collaborative planning to the other person as much as they’ll let me. I dislike making decisions, and I dislike being responsible for things.

Worse, I resent time given over to planning. It always feels like wasted time that could be spent doing other, more useful things. It doesn’t matter that planning always saves me time, ’cause I get bogged down in fewer dead ends and panic spirals and I-don’t-know-what-to-do-next apathy…

My gut tells me that planning is a waste of time right up there with reading the instruction manual for a new DVD player, but my head knows that reading the manual saves all sorts of time once you have to do anything more complex than pressing play. I am doing complex things at the moment. I acknowledge the necessity of planning, and make time to do it.

And then I will go see Kong: Skull Island. Because, you know, giant apes and Tom Hiddleston with a machine gun.