Messing about

I’ve been messing about with the website, so apologies if I’ve dented your User Experience. I tend to do things by trial and error. It’s been about 90% error, but I’m getting there.

Blog posts should still appear. Somewhere. If you’re a subscriber you should still see them. But front of the website will be a bit more, how do you say, static.

There’s going to be some good Harry Bacon stuff coming. Most of it’s going to be piped into your brainbox via a new mailing list I’m working on. Other online places like this blog and twitter will kind of play second fiddle to the mailing list.

What kind of stuff will you get on the mailing list? There’ll be serialised Harry Bacon stories, character bios, writery stuff, previews of forthcoming books, tip-offs about price deals, any stupid competitions I can think of and, hell, whatever you tell me you want more of.

Excited? Maybe just slightly agitated?

Good, good.

Journal – June 19, 2017

lt google sticker coffeeDamn, I meant to post to the blog every Friday and I failed. Never mind, we learn from failure. I started a Harry Bacon short story on Friday evening with the idea of posting it the same night (it was going to be a very short story) but I woefully underestimated how long it takes to write a short story, so it lies unfinished and unposted.

I like the idea of posting Harry Bacon short stories to the blog, though. There’s a lot of Harry Bacon history that remains undiscovered country, and several events that were hinted at during Rule Zero that could blossom out into short stories of their own. Come to think of it, some of them could be full-on stand-alone novels.

I need to do a bit of work to figure out the best way to post Harry Bacon Shorts. I might split them over multiple posts rather than all in one go, and if I do split the posts they probably need to be more frequent than weekly. I think three times a week could work. Often enough to keep the story fresh but not so often that I burn through all the new Harry Bacon content too quickly.

The new Harry Bacon novel, The Spherical Void, is going to need a cover designed for it. Depending on how that goes, I might get the cover for Rule Zero redesigned too.

In other news, Google Allo offered to turn me into stickers. That’s me above in my preferred baseline state: drinking coffee and being judgmental. Google is flattering me. Their AI smoothed out the bags under my eyes and ignored the grey in my beard.

 

You do want to stop procrastinating, don’t you?

I’m dead good at procrastination. So I thought I’d learn a bit about what’s going on in the brain when I’m procrastinating to see if there was anything I could do about it.

What’s happening in your brain when you procrastinate?

We procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable. The idea of doing something we don’t want to do triggers a response in a part of your brain called the Insular Cortex. This is the same part of the brain that reacts to the anticipation of real pain. Guess what? The Insular Cortex also fires off when you’re in socially uncomfortable situations.

This means procrastination is justifiable in a way. You’d hesitate before doing something that was potentially painful or embarrassing. Of course you would, that’s part of being human, part of your self-defence mechanism.

But unfortunately this self-defence mechanism can escalate into cognitive dissonance. We end up narrate stories to ourselves that the hesitation, the avoidance, the procrastination is the right thing to do.

Once we get into these kinds of narratives, procrastination can turn into a habit. A habit is basically a subroutine that’s embedded in your brain like a piece of chewing gum dried onto a woolen blanket. Once it’s there, it’s very hard to get rid of.

Oh no! Procrastination is actually a habit? That’s bad.

Actually, habits aren’t terrible. They’re very energy-efficient ways of getting stuff done.

Look, if we didn’t have habits then doing everyday stuff like making a cup of tea or driving the car or crossing the road would feel like massively complex problems that would take inordinate amounts of time and energy to solve. Every time.

Fortunately when we think the same thinks time and time again (boil kettle, get cup, grab a tea bag, add milk etc) our brains turn these sequences of thoughts into easily-retrievable, easily-usable chunks. Whenever we need to use one of these chunks, they can be fetched and run with minimal brain effort.

This is why you can watch the telly and make toast while you’re making a cup of tea.

But, yes, unfortunately procrastination is also a habit. A habit we don’t want.

Wait. How does procrastination actually become a habit?

Good question. Let’s break it down a bit to understand the process.

  1. Cue
    This is the time, the situation, the place, the emotion or the circumstance that triggers the Insular Cortex. This cue is the Insular Cortex’s response to seeing or thinking about something we want to avoid – the homework, the pile of washing up, the first item in the to do list, the unopened email in your inbox.
    The cue can also be something positive – a friend messages you, so you want to reply. Someone brings cakes into the office, so you stop what you’re doing to go and get one.
  2. Routine
    By reacting to the cue, the brain flips into a kind of zombie mode where we’re following the normal pattern of behaviour that’s been established over time from being repeated over and over. Bear in mind that it only take a few cycles of repetition to burn the habit into the brain.
  3. Reward
    Habits persist because allowing yourself to submit to them actually confers an emotional reward. Avoid the unpleasant task, do the nice thing instead, feels good. This is a genuine sense of pleasure that our brains are sending out, and the Insular Cortex ensures that this mental reward is delivered quickly. Both of these factors, the reward and how quickly it arrives, serve to further embed the habit.
  4. Belief
    This is a kind of meta-process that goes out outside the main habit-reinforcing loop. Habits persist because we believe that they can’t be changed or that it’s too much effort to change them. As with the reward cycle, every time we revisit the idea of breaking a habit and then deciding that it can’t be done, we are actually reinforcing the habit.

The brain is pretty good at laying down habits. It’s how we learn stuff.

Yeah, fine, but what if I don’t want this habit any more?

Let’s imagine that you’re in a cue situation, about to drop into habit mode.

First, accept that it’s normal to feel negative about something you don’t want to do. Don’t want to do the ironing? Normal. Don’t want to not eat that doughnut? Normal.

Put your negative feelings about the situation aside and give yourself time to feel better. Literally, you need a few minutes for your brain chemistry to re-balance. This gives you a chance to avoid lapsing automatically into routine.

If it’s a task that you’re procrastinating about, you need to reframe. Rather than thinking about the end state of the task (all the washing up done, all the ironing folded, the email all dealt with), focus instead on process. What is the single next thing that you can accomplish that takes you one step closer to done?

Now, without thinking about end state and only focusing on the current flow of work, staying in the here-and-now, do that thing. Do the one step. Wash the one plate. Iron the one shirt. Open the email and read the first paragraph. That’s all.

What you’re doing here is disrupting the routine and preventing your brain from delivering a nice emotional reward for submitting to the habit.

Now proceed through the task step by step, small task by small task, until complete.

You can make this journey easier by making a deal with yourself: you’ll work on the task without distraction for a certain period of time, say 25 minutes. Then you’ll reward yourself with a 5 minute break. Maybe make that break even more rewarding by, I don’t know, a snack or a drink. Treat yourself in a small way.

This time-boxing of tasks with rewards at the end helps to establish a new habit to replace the unwanted one. The habit where the works gets done and you feel good about it.

(The time-boxing approach is known as Pomodoro; google it. There are apps that can help if you’re into that kind of thing)

I’ve got lots of habits. Should I change them all at once?

That’s a leading question isn’t it? I’m sure you know the answer. No. Don’t try to change lots of habits at once.

In fact, don’t even try to change everything about a single habit all at once. They’re too big and strong. Chip away at them bit by bit, one at a time, starting with dealing with your reaction to the cue.

This approach means that you only need to exercise a small amount of your valuable and limited willpower.

Please give me more tips! I need them!

Sure. Listen up.

Forget about trying to use pure willpower to fend off procrastination. Willpower is precious and in short supply, and you already know that procrastination and all the other habits are rooted in deep in your brain. Habit beats willpower every time when it’s a face-to-face match. You need to change the rules.

Plan ahead. If you know that a cue is lying in wait for you, make a plan ahead of time to avoid it. For example, if seeing all the ironing waiting in the basket triggers your cue, just bring one single piece of ironing into the room. Leave the rest out of sight. If you’re always snapchatting when you should be working, go and lock your phone in the car.

Beat habit rewards by finding stronger, better rewards for breaking the habit. You can even save up ‘credit’ towards something bigger. For example, every piece of finished homework equals ten credits. When you’ve accumulated 100 credits, buy yourself a quality burger. Or whatever rings your bell.

Rewards can also be beaten by turning the process into a competition. A lot of people get really emotionally switched on by the idea of winning something, so make a game of it. Beat habits for the win.

Belief that a habit cannot be broken can be hard to overcome, but it’s not impossible. These beliefs can be reinforced by lack of self-confidence, or having tried and failed to overcome the habit before. It can be beneficial to develop a community on or offline with similarly minded friends to support one another.

Improve your confidence by defeating a smaller, weaker habit first. Don’t go for the big ones when you’re just starting out on your habit-breaking journey. Choose a tiny habit and grind it under your heel. There, you’re already on the road to freedom.

(Refs: MIT, Prof. Ann Graybiel, McGovern Institute for Brain Research – 2010 and 2012)

Here’s a list

Unsubscribe from all your mailing lists

Unfollow everyone on Twitter

Turn off all your Facebook notifications

Unfriend those non-friends

Mark everything as read

Break the Snapchat chain

Stop counting likes

Tear up your To Do list

Throw away your Post-Its

Remove all the bookmarks from your half-finished books

Cancel your unused gym membership

Set the alarm clock half an hour earlier

Go to bed an hour sooner

Give away your old clothes

Clear all the music off your phone

Remove all your apps

Silence the notifications

Cancel your magazine subscriptions

Walk a different route

Lunch at a different time

Stand still for two minutes, breathing

Stare at a corner for two minutes, breathing

Turn the television off at the switch

Don’t record those shows

Don’t catch up

Don’t finish the boxset

Hold hands

Walk there

Play

They say “Do one thing every day that scares you”

Well, here’s a list.

Neat!

A paucity of double-yolked eggs this week suggests that the Chicken of Good Fortune has moved on, Mary Poppins-like, to another family who needs her more. Not that I’ve had a run of bad luck or anything. Perhaps the Good Fortune rubs off and sticks around for a while.

Meanwhile, Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT!) has been making my desk shake and irritating colleagues. It’s a fancy-wancy sciency-wiency* term for any kind of energy burn from movement that’s not related to eating, sleeping or deliberate exercise. In my case, it’s The Jiggly Legs. You know, the kind of irksome jumpy knee bounce that just goes on and on. I’m doing it on purpose. Not to cause irritation (it’s not in my character to deliberately irritate) but to actually see if there’s any calorie-burning benefit as hinted at in this study here.

I’m grossly over-simplying the science, which dips into metabolic rates (something that is woefully misunderstood, not least by me), but the money shot is that differing NEAT rates could potentially account for a difference of up to 350 calories burnt per day between individuals, depending on stuff like age, weight, etc.

But seriously, moving more is always good. Walking is one of my favourite things. How could anyone not love a good walk? Moving less and sitting around is almost always bad. Apart from mindful sitting, which everyone agrees is a good thing.

Do you know the difference between Eurodance and Pop House? Or the subtle musical elements that distinguish Glitch Hop from Chiptune? Have you ever wondered who the primary exponents of Spanish Indie Rock are? (Nueva Volcano, we’re looking at you) The answers to these questions can be found at Every Noise At Once, which maps out all the musical genres you didn’t know you didn’t know about, as well as the ones you did, and gives you free snippets of music from each one. I spent a happy few minutes sampling Progressive Deathcore last night and I find my musical horizons considerably broadened.

It’s the creation of Glenn Mcdonald. Kudos and tips of the hat to him. His wizard website will even generate Spotify playlists of your chosen genre. Put on your dancing socks and get clicking.

Cardiovascular Tip of the Week: Running Up That Hill

Want to get hot and sweaty? Yes, well, another way to do it is something called Hill Intervals. This is a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) protocol which mixes the cardio-improvement benefits of HIIT with the run training opportunities that only hills can provide.

Find a hill. The best kind would be a long, steady slope of about half a mile. We’re not talking fell running here. We’re talking the kind of hill that you could walk up without using your hands to help. Warm up first, then get to the bottom of the hill. Run up for 30 seconds at a fast pace that you’d be able to sustain on the flat for five minutes, shouting “The hill loves me! I love the hill!”**. Then walk down for 30 seconds, recovering slightly. Repeat. Run up, walk down. 30 seconds each way. Eventually you’ll get to the top. It’ll take between 8 to 12 run-ups. If you haven’t vomited, you’re doing well. Now walk home, swearing and sweating, and vowing never to listen to the exercise advice of anonymous internet strangers.

Remember: not all exercises are suitable for everyone, this one included. It’s best to talk to a friendly health professional before beginning a new exercise regime. Be kind to yourself.

Self-assessment Tip of the Week: Apply Magic Sauce

How about a website that takes a squint at your social media jibber-jabber and divines your true nature from what it sees? That’s what Apply Magic Sauce does. It’s free, and you’ve got nothing to lose but your self-respect.

If you love self-assessment character surveys (because you suspect you’re hiding some dreadful and fundamental psychological flaw and you want to find it before it’s too late) then try these:

The VIA Survey

Discover my Profile

Writing Tip of the Week: Worthless Words

I’ve written 80000 words of The Spherical Void, but how many of them are any good? Some of them have been written, re-written, read, re-read, re-written and re-tweaked until they shine. Others are little more than the literary equivalent of a thin skim of plaster on a bare wall.

They all look the same at a distance, but it’s in the reading that the difference shows.

The problem is that if I try to re-read what I’ve just written, I’m still in writing mode and I can’t think like a reader. I’m not in the story, I’m behind it.

In the past this has led to me deleting whole passages of text in a fit of pique. Now I don’t do that. I just let the worthless words stick around and flag them up to be re-read later, when I’m not in writing mode. That’s when I really know whether they’re pants or not.

One thing’s for sure: I am the world’s best Harry Bacon novelist. See? If you doubt yourself as a writer, re-frame yourself until you’re number one in a list of one.

* Is that the right spelling of ‘wiency’?

** Don’t shout. Seriously. You’ll massively reduce your effective power output. Just think the words.

Bong! It’s Ten O’Blog.

The day begins with a double yolked egg sent to me from the Chicken of Good Fortune. Three times in the last week I’ve had a double-yolked egg. It’s a sign. The Chicken of Good Fortune is sending me a secret message in eggy morse code.

The ‘500 Words a Day’ alert that pings up on coach.me (Android, iphone I guess, dunno) is still an essential reminder to wedge some time into the day for writing. Coach.me is kind of useful if you like a prompt to do some kind of daily task, like write, exercise, wash, get out of bed, breathe.

It’s dawning on me that there’s going to be an election and I’m trying to think political thoughts. Today’s thought looked like this:dinosaurs

This is not very useful. If the Wrong Kind of People end up getting a Majority and forming a Government, it’ll probably be my fault. Perhaps the Chicken of Good Fortune is trying to tell me who to vote for.

I have managed to wrangle my various internet domain names to all point at this blog. This is a Triumph of Man over Technology. I’m very sorry if you’ve been trying to connect to me and the internet’s led you a merry dance.

Rule Zero fans will be pleased to hear that I am sprinkling many tasty chunks of backstory into the next Harry Bacon book, The Spherical Void. You’ll find out a lot more about the shape-shifting superhuman Monika, you’ll meet another one of her siblings who has some rather fascinating powers of his own, and you’ll witness the seminal, seismic incident that occurred below the Wiltshire countryside in 2001. Yes, you know the one I mean.

I’m not going to give away everything in The Spherical Void, but there’s certainly a lot more to chew on.

Meanwhile, today was the day that Twitter went down for some people, sparking localised irk. I wanted to tweet my frustrations, but doh. I’ll have to get an instagram for that.

outrage

This map indicates that while the UK and parts of Western Europe were mildly irritated by the Twitter out(r)age, the Japanese were literally incandescent.

In other news, I’ve stared at that red dot over Japan for so long now I’m starting to see floating yellow stains on everything.

Currently loving:

  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
    I’m embarrassed how long it took me to get around to reading this
  • How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci
    The blog. His eponymous book just came out in the US. Seems harder to find in the UK but I’ll track one down.
  • anything by John Allison
    One of my favourite comic artist/writers. Dive in at www.scarygoround.com.
  • My Giant Nerd Boyfriend by fishball
    A lovely new webcomic by a talented Malaysian artist. It’s here.

 

Harry Bacon returns. Soon.

Back in 2013 I published Rule Zero, the first Harry Bacon novel. I was able to call it ‘the first’ because from the very moment Harry and his world popped into my brainbox, the story was too big to fit into a single book. For some reason I can’t quite recall, I thought it would be a series of 13 novels.

Yes, 13. Ha.

Anyway, I spent what felt like forever drafting and re-drafting and faffing about with Rule Zero, and I finally published it in the spring of 2013. Once I’d put it out there and some people paid real money for it and read it all the way to the end and left nice reviews and subscribed to the mailing list, I kind of exhaled and sat down and had a little break from writing.

A few weeks later I drew all my notes together and started writing the second Harry Bacon novel.

Then I stopped again.

Then I started again.

Then I stopped again.

And so on.

I’ve got a theory as to why I struggled so much to write the second Harry Bacon novel, and it basically boiled down to giving too much of a flip what everyone else thought about it. What if all the people who liked Rule Zero bought the second book and didn’t like it? What if they wrote reviews and said things like “I liked the first one, but this one’s really pants”?

I don’t think I understood this at the time. I just carried on starting and stopping and flailing and bothering. Then it morphed into more not-writing than writing, and all the other things that make up My Life inflated into the space that not-writing left and filled it up like an old bean bag shoved into a half-full wardrobe.

Then after a while…hang on, let’s be honest, after about three and a half years of bean bag in the wardrobe, I figured out the whole Giving Too Much of a Flip thing and gave myself a bit of a talking to. Just write whatever the flipping flip you want to write, I said, although I didn’t do it out loud because I’m a bit too English for that kind of behaviour. Just write whatever the flipping flip you want to write. You can’t please everyone. Just please yourself.

So I started again on the second novel. I had a big pile of words kicking around that were all arranged into legible sentences. Some of these I chucked away. Some of them I set aside for other Harry Bacon books in the future. The left-overs I laid out into the bones of a story and I’ve been filling in all the fleshy bits ever since.

Continuing with the body analogy, because it’s kind of weird and fun, the second Harry Bacon novel right now is like a body with all the major organs hanging off the bones, most of the muscles connected up, a most of a brain sloshing about in the headbox and some nerve-wires joining it all up. It needs some of those tiny tiny nerves that take care of all the fine motor skills, a bunch of skin, a nice set of clothes and a dandy hat.

What does that mean for the eager reader? It means it’ll be done when it’s done and I am very much doing it and I very sincerely intend for that to be this year. 2017.

Afterwards, when it’s had a bottle of champers smashed over it and it’s been pushed down the slipway, I’ll have a little sit down and then I’ll begin work on the third Harry Bacon novel, and I promise not to give a flip what anyone thinks about that one either.

If you’ve read this far you deserve a bit more: the second Harry Bacon novel will be called The Spherical Void. It’s got most of the characters you met in Rule Zero plus several new ones. Here’s a brief unedited excerpt where you meet three of the new ones plus an old friend from Rule Zero who isn’t named but you might just recognise:

Jamal lay flat on the hut floor, peering through the tiniest crack in the door. He’d blown all the candles out and now that his eyes had adjusted it was easy to see what was going on outside. It was going to take him weeks to fix the henge. Months, even.

“Speak to me, Jamal. What do you see?” Mama Jess’s voice was thin and strained. He glanced back at her, but her expression was hidden in the darkness. He looked outside again.

“The woman is standing still, like she doesn’t have control of her legs. She’s looking all around like a blind person.”

It was a moment before Mama Jess replied. Then: “Good. The other. The big one?”

“He’s still swinging around like a wrecking ball. He’s ruining everything.”

“He’s released the flood. I can’t hold the energy back, not at the same time as I’m holding this woman down.” Mama Jess grunted, as if she was in pain. “She’s a lioness. Such strength.”

Jamal got to his feet. A plan had sprung into his head fully formed, as if it had just been hanging around waiting for a brain with a plan-shaped space inside it. “Hold her,” he said, not quite believing what he was about to do. “Hold her and don’t let go.”

He was out of the hut and running. A shopping trolley sailed past his head and he observed its passage as if it had slowed to a crawl. It tumbled noisily somewhere behind him; one crash, another and another, then it was gone. Over the edge, presumably. The man-monster hadn’t even noticed him, wasn’t even aiming at him. It was tearing an oil drum apart with its bare hands, hurling jagged shards of metal off in all directions.

Jamal spotted his quarry: a coil of bright blue nylon rope. He dived at it, grabbed it and rolled, then was up on his feet again and running with barely a pause. Should’ve been a gymnast or something. Two seconds later he was at the lioness’s feet, rope in hands, not quite believing what he was going to do. He looked up at her, and for an instant fell in some kind of love. She was incredible. Perfect. Strong, black and compact. A ball of barely controlled quivering fury, sweat streaming down her face, a low guttural roar churning somewhere deep inside her. She had a stink about her that caught in Jamal’s throat, an evil brew of body odour, pheromones and sheer hormonal power.

He couldn’t meet her eyes. He grabbed at her pockets, extracting two handguns and a sheathed machete. He hurled them into the night and hoped that she hadn’t seen where they went. Not that she’d need them if Mama Jess’s control over her wavered. She could probably end his life with her left thumb or some crazy ninja move like that. His hands shook as he uncoiled the rope. Double shank on her left ankle, weave in and out of her legs, double back, hitch. Jamal had lifted enough heavy stuff up onto this roof to know which knots worked and which didn’t. Double around her waist and then shank her wrists, avoiding the twitching, clutching fingers. Finally loop it around her belt.

She was light, lighter than he expected. Or perhaps the fear was lending him strength. He dragged her to the edge of the roof, tied the end of the rope to a small metal loop embedded in the concrete, and rolled her over the edge. He grabbed at the rope, trying to slow her fall, but the nylon burned like hell, drawing blood from his hands in seconds. He let go, and there was a moment of silence followed by the sound of breaking glass. He peered over the edge but it was too dark to see. “Sorry!” he shouted, almost by reflex. She must have slammed against a window. He hoped it hadn’t been head-first. He wasn’t actually trying to kill her or anything.