Falsifiable, Physics, Quick Fix

Pokémon Are Made of Styrofoam

One of the best things about taking physics classes is that the equations you learn are directly applicable to the real world. Every so often, while reading a book or watching a movie, I’m seized by the sudden urge to check it for plausibility. A few scratches on a piece of paper later and I will generally know one way or the other.

One of the most amusing things I’ve found doing this is that the people who come up with the statistics for Pokémon definitely don’t have any sort of education in physics.

Takes Onix. Onix is a rock/ground Pokémon renowned for its large size and sturdiness. Its physical statistics reflect this. It’s 8.8 metres (28′) long and 210kg (463lbs).

Onix, being tough. I don’t own the copyright to this image, but I’m claiming fair use for purpose of criticism. Source.

Surely such a large and tough Pokémon should be very, very dense, right? Density is such an important tactile cue for us. Don’t believe me? Pick up a large piece of solid medal. Its surprising weight will make you take it seriously.

Let’s check if Onix would be taken seriously, shall we? Density is equal to mass divided by volume. We use the symbol ρ to represent density, which gives us the following equation:

We already know Onix’s mass. Now we just need to calculate its volume. Luckily Onix is pretty cylindrical, so we can approximate it with a cylinder. The equation for the volume of a cylinder is pretty simple:

Where π is the ratio between the diameter of a circle and its circumference (approximately 3.1415…, no matter what Indiana says), r is the radius of a circle (always one half the diameter), and h is the height of the cylinder.

Given that we know Onix’s height, we just need its diameter. Luckily the Pokémon TV show gives us a sense of scale.

Here’s a picture of Onix. Note the kid next to it for scale. I don’t own the copyright to this image, but I’m claiming fair use for purpose of criticism. Source.

Judging by the image, Onix probably has an average diameter somewhere around a metre (3 feet for the Americans). This means Onix has a radius of 0.5 metres and a height of 8.8 metres. When we put these into our equation, we get:

For a volume of approximately 6.9m3. To get a comparison I turned to Wolfram Alpha which told me that this is about 40% of the volume of a gray whale or a freight container (which incidentally implies that gray whales are about the size of standard freight containers).

Armed with a volume, we can calculate a density.

Okay, so we know that Onix is 30.4 kg/m3, but what does that mean?

Well it’s currently hard to compare. I’m much more used to seeing densities of sturdy materials expressed in tonnes per cubic metre or grams per cubic centimetre than I am seeing them expressed in kilograms per cubic metre. Luckily, it’s easy to convert between these.

There are 1000 kilograms in a ton. If we divide our density by a thousand we can calculate a new density for Onix of 0.0304t/m3.

How does this fit in with common materials, like wood, Styrofoam, water, stone, and metal?

Material

Density (t/m3)

Styrofoam

0.028

Onix

0.03

Balsa

0.16

Oak [1]

0.65

Water

1

Granite

2.6

Steel

7.9

From this chart, you can see that Onix’s density is eerily close to Styrofoam. Even the notoriously light balsa wood is five times denser than him. Actual rock is about 85 times denser. If Onix was made of granite, it would weigh 18 tonnes, much heavier than even Snorlax (the heaviest of the original Pokémon at 460kg).

While most people wouldn’t be able to pick Onix up (it may not be dense, but it is big), it wouldn’t be impossible to drag it. Picking up part of it would feel disconcertingly light, like picking up an aluminum ladder or carbon fibre bike, only more so.

This picture is unrealistic. Because of its density, no more than 3% of Onix can be below the water. I don’t own the copyright to this image, but I’m claiming fair use for purpose of criticism. Source.

How did the creators of Pokémon accidently bestow one of the most famous of their creations with a hilariously unrealistic density?

I have a pet theory.

I went to school for nanotechnology engineering. One of the most important things we looked into was how equations scaled with size.

Humans are really good at intuiting linear scaling. When something scales linearly, every twofold change in one quantity brings about a twofold change in another. Time and speed scale linearly (albeit inversely). Double your speed and the trip takes half the time. This is so simple that it rarely requires explanation.

Unfortunately for our intuitions, many physical quantities don’t scale linearly. These were the cases that were important for me and my classmates to learn, because until we internalized them, our intuitions were useless on the nanoscale. Many forces, for example, scale such that they become incredibly strong incredibly quickly at small distances. This leads to nanoscale systems exhibiting a stickiness that is hard on our intuitions.

It isn’t just forces that have weird scaling though. Geometry often trips people up too.

In geometry, perimeter is the only quantity I can think of that scales linearly with size. Double the length of the sides of a square and the perimeter doubles. The area, however does not. Area is quadratically related to side length. Double the length of a square and you’ll find the area quadruples. Triple the length and the area increases nine times. Area varies with the square of the length, a property that isn’t just true of squares. The area of a circle is just as tied to the square of its radius as a square is to the square of its length.

Volume is even trickier than radius. It scales with the third power of the size. Double the size of a cube and its volume increases eight-fold. Triple it, and you’ll see 27 times the volume. Volume increases with the cube (which again works for shapes other than cubes) of the length.

If you look at the weights of Pokémon, you’ll see that the ones that are the size of humans have fairly realistic weights. Sandslash is the size of a child (it stands 1m/3′ high) and weighs a fairly reasonable 29.5kg.

(This only works for Pokémon really close to human size. I’d hoped that Snorlax would be about as dense as marshmallows so I could do a fun comparison, but it turns out that marshmallows are four times as dense as Snorlax – despite marshmallows only having a density of ~0.5t/m3)

Beyond these touchstones, you’ll see that the designers of Pokémon increased their weight linearly with size. Onix is a bit more than eight times as long as Sandslash and weighs seven times as much.

Unfortunately for realism, weight is just density times volume and as I just said, volume increases with the cube of length. Onix shouldn’t weigh seven or even eight times as much as Sandslash. At a minimum, its weight should be eight times eight times eight multiples of Sandslash’s; a full 512 times more.

Scaling properties determine how much of the world is arrayed. We see extremely large animals more often in the ocean than in the land because the strength of bones scales with the square of size, while weight scales with the cube. Become too big and you can’t walk without breaking your bones. Become small and people animate kids’ movies about how strong you are. All of this stems from scaling.

These equations aren’t just important to physicists. They’re important to any science fiction or fantasy writer who wants to tell a realistic story.

Or, at least, to anyone who doesn’t want their work picked apart by physicists.

Footnotes

[1] Not the professor. His density is 0.985t/m3. ^

Advice, Literature, Model

Sanderson’s Law Applies To Cultures Too

[Warning: Contains spoilers for The Sunset Mantle, Vorkosigan Saga (Memory and subsequent), Dune, and Chronicles of the Kencyrath]

For the uninitiated, Sanderson’s Law (technically, Sanderson’s First Law of Magic) is:

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

Brandon Sanderson wrote this law to help new writers come up with satisfying magical systems. But I think it’s applicable beyond magic. A recent experience has taught me that it’s especially applicable to fantasy cultures.

I recently read Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss, a book that falls into one of my favourite fantasy sub-genres: hopeless siege tales.

Sunset Mantle is what’s called secondary world fantasy; it takes place in a world that doesn’t share a common history or culture (or even necessarily biosphere) with our own. Game of Thrones is secondary world fantasy, while Harry Potter is primary world fantasy (because it takes place in a different version of our world, which we chauvinistically call the “primary” one).

Secondary world fantasy gives writers a lot more freedom to play around with cultures and create interesting set-pieces when cultures collide. If you want to write a book where the Roman Empire fights a total war against the Chinese Empire, you’re going to have to put in a master’s thesis worth of work to explain how that came about (if you don’t want to be eviscerated by pedants on the internet). In a secondary world, you can very easily have a thinly veiled stand-in for Rome right next to a thinly veiled analogue of China. Give readers some familiar sounding names and culture touchstones and they’ll figure out what’s going on right away, without you having to put in effort to make it plausible in our world.

When you don’t use subtle cues, like names or cultural touchstones (for example: imperial exams and eunuchs for China, gladiatorial fights and the cursus honorum for Rome), you risk leaving your readers adrift.

Many of the key plot points in Sunset Mantle hinge on obscure rules in an invented culture/religion that doesn’t bear much resemblance to any that I’m familiar with. It has strong guest rights, like many steppes cultures; it has strong charity obligations and monotheistic strictures, like several historical strands of Christianity; it has a strong caste system and rules of ritual purity, like Hinduism; and it has a strong warrior ethos, complete with battle rage and rules for dealing with it, similar to common depictions of Norse cultures.

These actually fit together surprising well! Reiss pulled off an entertaining book. But I think many of the plot points fell flat because they were almost impossible to anticipate. The lack of any sort of consistent real-world analogue to the invented culture meant that I never really had an intuition of what it would demand in a given situation. This meant that all of the problems in the story that were solved via obscure points of culture weren’t at all satisfying to me. There was build up, but then no excitement during the resolution. This was common enough that several chunks of the story didn’t really work for me.

Here’s one example:

“But what,” asked Lemist, “is a congregation? The Ayarith school teaches that it is ten men, and the ancient school of Baern says seven. But among the Irimin school there is a tradition that even three men, if they are drawn in together into the same act, by the same person, that is a congregation, and a man who has led three men into the same wicked act shall be put to death by the axe, and also his family shall bear the sin.”

All the crowd in the church was silent. Perhaps there were some who did not know against whom this study of law was aimed, but they knew better than to ask questions, when they saw the frozen faces of those who heard what was being said.

(Reiss, Alter S.. Sunset Mantle (pp. 92-93). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.)

This means protagonist Cete’s enemy erred greatly by sending three men to kill him and had better cut it out if he doesn’t want to be executed. It’s a cool resolution to a plot point – or would be if it hadn’t taken me utterly by surprise. As it is, it felt kind of like a cheap trick to get the author out of a hole he’d written himself into, like the dreaded deux ex machina – god from the machine – that ancient playwrights used to resolve conflicts they otherwise couldn’t.

(This is the point where I note that it is much harder to write than it is to criticize. This blog post is about something I noticed, not necessarily something I could do better.)

I’ve read other books that do a much better job of using sudden points of culture to resolve conflict in a satisfying manner. Lois McMaster Bujold (I will always be recommending her books) strikes me as particularly apt. When it comes time for a key character of hers to make a lateral career move into a job we’ve never heard of before, it feels satisfying because the job is directly in line with legal principles for the society that she laid out six books earlier.

The job is that of Imperial Auditor – a high powered investigator who reports directly to the emperor and has sweeping powers –  and it’s introduced when protagonist Miles loses his combat career in Memory. The principles I think it is based on are articulated in the novella Mountains of Mourning: “the spirit was to be preferred over the letter, truth over technicalities. Precedent was held subordinate to the judgment of the man on the spot”.

Imperial Auditors are given broad discretion to resolve problems as they see fit. The main rule is: make sure the emperor would approve. We later see Miles using the awesome authority of this office to make sure a widow gets the pension she deserves. The letter of the law wasn’t on her side, but the spirit was, and Miles, as the Auditor on the spot, was empowered to make the spirit speak louder than the letter.

Wandering around my bookshelves, I was able to grab a couple more examples of satisfying resolutions to conflicts that hinged on guessable cultural traits:

  • In Dune, Fremen settle challenges to leadership via combat. Paul Maud’dib spends several years as their de facto leader, while another man, Stilgar, holds the actual title. This situation is considered culturally untenable and Paul is expected to fight Stilgar so that he can lead properly. Paul is able to avoid this unwanted fight to the death (he likes Stilgar) by appealing to the only thing Fremen value more than their leadership traditions: their well-established pragmatism. He says that killing Stilgar before the final battle would be little better than cutting off his own arm right before it. If Frank Herbert hadn’t mentioned the extreme pragmatism of the Fremen (to the point that they render down their dead for water) several times, this might have felt like a cop-out.
  • In The Chronicles of the Kencyrath, it looks like convoluted politics will force protagonist Jame out of the military academy of Tentir. But it’s mentioned several times that the NCOs who run the place have their own streak of honour that allows them to subvert their traditionally required oaths to their lords. When Jame redeems a stain on the Tentir’s collective honour, this oath to the college gives them an opening to keep her there and keep their oaths to their lords. If PC Hodgell hadn’t spent so long building up the internal culture of Tentir, this might have felt forced.

It’s hard to figure out where good foreshadowing ends and good cultural creation begins, but I do think there is one simple thing an author can do to make culture a satisfying source of plot resolution: make a culture simple enough to stereotype, at least at first.

If the other inhabitants of a fantasy world are telling off-colour jokes about this culture, what do they say? A good example of this done explicitly comes from Mass Effect: “Q: How do you tell when a Turian is out of ammo? A: He switches to the stick up his ass as a backup weapon.” 

(Even if you’ve never played Mass Effect, you now know something about Turians.)

At the same time as I started writing this, I started re-reading PC Hodgell’s The Chronicles of the Kencyrath, which provided a handy example of someone doing everything right. The first three things we learn about the eponymous Kencyr are:

  1. They heal very quickly
  2. They dislike their God
  3. Their honour code is strict enough that lying is a deadly crime and calling some a liar a deathly insult

There are eight more books in which we learn all about the subtleties of their culture and religion. But within the first thirty pages, we have enough information that we can start making predictions about how they’ll react to things and what’s culturally important.

When Marc, a solidly dependable Kencyr who is working as a guard and bound by Kencyr cultural laws to loyally serve his employer lets the rather more eccentric Jame escape from a crime scene, we instantly know that him choosing her over his word is a big deal. And indeed, while he helps her escape, he also immediately tries to kill himself. Jame is only able to talk him out of it by explaining that she hadn’t broken any laws there. It was already established that in the city of Tai-Tastigon, only those who physically touch stolen property are in legal jeopardy. Jame never touched the stolen goods, she was just on the scene. Marc didn’t actually break his oath and so decides to keep living.

God Stalk is not a long book, so that fact that PC Hodgell was able to set all of this up and have it feel both exciting in the moment and satisfying in the resolution is quite remarkable. It’s a testament to what effective cultural distillation, plus a few choice tidbits of extra information can do for a plot.

If you don’t come up with a similar distillation and convey it to your readers quickly, there will be a period where you can’t use culture as a satisfying source of plot resolution. It’s probably no coincidence that I noticed this in Sunset Mantle, which is a long(-ish) novella. Unlike Hodgell, Reiss isn’t able to develop a culture in such a limited space, perhaps because his culture has fewer obvious touchstones.

Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic can be your friend here too. As he stated it, the law is:

The limitations of a magic system are more interesting than its capabilities. What the magic can’t do is more interesting than what it can.

Similarly, the taboos and strictures of a culture are much more interesting than what it permits. Had Reiss built up a quick sketch of complicated rules around commanding and preaching (with maybe a reference that there could be surprisingly little theological difference between military command and being behind a pulpit), the rule about leading a congregation astray would have fit neatly into place with what else we knew of the culture.

Having tight constraints imposed by culture doesn’t just allow for plot resolution. It also allows for plot generation. In The Warrior’s Apprentice, Miles gets caught up in a seemingly unwinnable conflict because he gave his word; several hundred pages earlier Bujold establishes that breaking a word is, to a Barrayaran, roughly equivalent to sundering your soul.

It is perhaps no accident that the only thing we learn initially about the Kencyr that isn’t a descriptive fact (like their healing and their fraught theological state) is that honour binds them and can break them. This constraint, that all Kencyr characters must be honourable, does a lot of work driving the plot.

This then would be my advice: when you wish to invent a fantasy culture, start simple, with a few stereotypes that everyone else in the world can be expected to know. Make sure at least one of them is an interesting constraint on behaviour. Then add in depth that people can get to know gradually. When you’re using the culture as a plot device, make sure to stick to the simple stereotypes or whatever other information you’ve directly given your reader. If you do this, you’ll develop rich cultures that drive interesting conflicts and you’ll be able to use cultural rules to consistently resolve conflict in a way that will feel satisfying to your readers.

Literature, Model

Does Amateurish Writing Exist

[Warning: Spoilers for Too Like the Lightning]

What marks writing as amateurish (and whether “amateurish” or “low-brow” works are worthy of awards) has been a topic of contention in the science fiction and fantasy community for the past few years, with the rise of Hugo slates and the various forms of “puppies“.

I’m not talking about the learning works of genuine amateurs. These aren’t stories that use big words for the sake of sounding smart (and at the cost of slowing down the stories), or over the top fanfiction-esque rip-offs of more established works (well, at least not since the Wheel of Time nomination in 2014). I’m talking about that subtler thing, the feeling that bubbles up from the deepest recesses of your brain and says “this story wasn’t written as well as it could be”.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because about ¾ of the way through Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer, I started to feel myself put off [1]. And the only explanation I had for this was the word “amateurish” – which popped into my head devoid of any reason. This post is an attempt to unpack what that means (for me) and how I think it has influenced some of the genuine disagreements around rewarding authors in science fiction and fantasy [2]. Your tastes might be calibrated differently and if you disagree with my analysis, I’d like to hear about it.

Now, there are times when you know something is amateurish and that’s okay. No one should be surprised that John Ringo’s Paladin of Shadows series, books that he explicitly wrote for himself are parsed by most people as pretty amateurish. When pieces aren’t written explicitly for the author only, I expect some consideration of the audience. Ideally the writer should be having fun too, but if they’re writing for publication, they have to be writing to an audience. This doesn’t mean that they must write exactly what people tell them they want. People can be a terrible judge of what they want!

This also doesn’t necessarily imply pandering. People like to be challenged. If you look at the most popular books of the last decade on Goodreads, few of them could be described as pandering. I’m familiar with two of the top three books there and both of them kill off a fan favourite character. People understand that life involves struggle. Lois McMaster Bujold – who has won more Hugo awards for best novel than any living author – once said she generated plots by considering “what’s the worst possible thing I can do to these people?” The results of this method speak for themselves.

Meditating on my reaction to books like Paladin of Shadows in light of my experiences with Too Like The Lightning is what led me to believe that the more technically proficient “amateurish” books are those that lose sight of what the audience will enjoy and follow just what the author enjoys. This may involve a character that the author heavily identifies with – the Marty Stu or Mary Sue phenomena – who is lovingly described overcoming obstacles and generally being “awesome” but doesn’t “earn” any of this. It may also involve gratuitous sex, violence, engineering details, gun details, political monologuing (I’m looking at you, Atlas Shrugged), or tangents about constitutional history (this is how most of the fiction I write manages to become unreadable).

I realized this when I was reading Too Like the Lightning. I loved the world building and I found the characters interesting. But (spoilers!) when it turned out that all of the politicians were literally in bed with each other or when the murders the protagonist carried out were described in grisly, unrepentant detail, I found myself liking the book a lot less. This is – I think – what spurred the label amateurish in my head.

I think this is because (in my estimation), there aren’t a lot of people who actually want to read about brutal torture-execution or literally incestuous politics. It’s not (I think) that I’m prudish. It seemed like some of the scenes were written to be deliberately off-putting. And I understand that this might be part of the theme of the work and I understand that these scenes were probably necessary for the author’s creative vision. But they didn’t work for me and they seemed like a thing that wouldn’t work for a lot of people that I know. They were discordant and jarring. They weren’t pulled off as well as they would have had to be to keep me engaged as a reader.

I wonder if a similar process is what caused the changes that the Sad Puppies are now lamenting at the Hugo Awards. To many readers, the sexualized violence or sexual violence that can find its way into science fiction and fantasy books (I’d like to again mention Paladin of Shadows) is incredibly off-putting. I find it incredibly off-putting. Books that incorporate a lot of this feel like they’re ignoring the chunk of audience that is me and my friends and it’s hard while reading them for me not to feel that the writers are fairly amateurish. I normally prefer works that meditate on the causes and uses of violence when they incorporate it – I’d put N.K. Jemisin’s truly excellent Broken Earth series in this category – and it seems like readers who think this way are starting to dominate the Hugos.

For the people who previously had their choices picked year after year, this (as well as all the thinkpieces explaining why their favourite books are garbage) feels like an attack. Add to this the fact that some of the books that started winning had a more literary bent and you have some fans of the genre believing that the Hugos are going to amateurs who are just cruising to victory by alluding to famous literary works. These readers look suspiciously on crowds who tell them they’re terrible if they don’t like books that are less focused on the action and excitement they normally read for. I can see why that’s a hard sell, even though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last few Hugo winners [3].

There’s obviously an inferential gap here, if everyone can feel angry about the crappy writing everyone else likes. For my part, I’ll probably be using “amateurish” only to describe books that are technically deficient. For books that are genuinely well written but seem to focus more on what the author wants than (on what I think) their likely audience wants, well, I won’t have a snappy term, I’ll just have to explain it like that.

Footnotes

[1] A disclaimer: the work of a critic is always easier than that of a creator. I’m going to be criticizing writing that’s better than my own here, which is always a risk. Think of me not as someone criticizing from on high, but frantically taking notes right before a test I hope to barely pass. ^

[2] I want to separate the Sad Puppies, who I view as people sad that action-packed books were being passed over in favour of more literary ones from the Rabid Puppies, who just wanted to burn everything to the ground. I’m not going to make any excuses for the Rabid Puppies. ^

[3] As much as I can find some science fiction and fantasy too full of violence for my tastes, I’ve also had little to complain about in the past, because my favourite author, Lois McMaster Bujold, has been reliably winning Hugo awards since before I was born. I’m not sure why there was never a backlash around her books. Perhaps it’s because they’re still reliably space opera, so class distinctions around how “literary” a work is don’t come up when Bujold wins. ^

Advice, Literature

Six Steps to a Daily Writing Habit

I identify so strongly as a person who writes daily that I sometimes find myself bowled over by the fact that I haven’t always done it.

Since my first attempt to write a novel (at age 13), I’ve known that I really enjoy writing. The problem was that I could never really get myself to write. I managed the occasional short story for a contest and I pulled off NaNoWriMo when I was 20, but even after that, writing remained something that happened almost at random. Even when I had something I really wanted to write it was a toss-up as to whether I would be able to sit down and get it on a page.

This continued for a while. Up until January 1st, 2015, I had written maybe 100,000 words. Since then, I’ve written something like 650,000. If your first million words suck – as is commonly claimed – then I’m ¾ of the way to writing non-sucking words.

What changed in 2015? I made a New Year’s Resolution to write more. And then, when that began to fall apart a few months later (as almost all New Year’s Resolutions do), I sought out better commitment devices.

Did you read my first paragraph and feel like it describes you? Do you want to stop trying to write and start actually writing? If your brain works like mine, you can use what I’ve learned to skip over (some of) the failing part and go right to the writing every single day part [1].

Step 1: Cultivate Love

I like having completed writing projects to show off as much as the next person, but I also enjoy the act of writing. If you don’t actually enjoy writing, you may have a problem. My techniques are designed to help people (like me) who genuinely enjoy writing once they get going but have trouble forcing themselves to even start.

If you find writing to be a grim chore, but want to enjoy writing so that you can have the social or financial benefits (heh) of writing, then it will be much harder for you to write regularly. If you aren’t sure if this describes you or not, pause and ask yourself: would writing every day still be worth it if no one ever read what I wrote and I never made a single cent off of it? There’s nothing wrong with preferring that people read what you write and preferring to make money off of writing if possible, but it is very helpful if you’re willing to write even without external validation.

Writing (at least partially) for the sake of writing means that you won’t become discouraged if your writing never “takes off”. Almost no one sees success (measured in book deals, blog traffic, or Amazon downloads) right away. So being able to keep going in the face of the world’s utter indifference is a key determinant of how robust your writing habit will be.

If you don’t like writing for its own sake, don’t despair completely. It’s possible you might come to love it if you spend more time on it. As you start to write regularly, try out lots of things and figure out what you like and dislike. It can be hard to tell the difference between not liking writing and not liking the types of writing you’ve done.

For example, I’m a really exploratory writer. I’ve found that I don’t enjoy writing if there’s a strict outline I’m trying to follow or if I’m constrained by something someone else has written. Fanfiction is one of the common ways that new writers develop their skills, but I really dislike writing fanfiction. Realizing this has allowed me to avoid a bunch of writing that I’d find tedious. Tedious writing is a big risk to your ability to write daily, so if you can reasonably avoid it, you should.

Step 2: Start Small

When learning a new skill or acquiring a new habit, it’s really tempting to try and dive right in and do everything at once. I’d like to strongly discourage this sort of thing. If you get overwhelmed right at the start you’re unlikely to keep with it. Sometimes jumping right into the deep end teaches you to swim, sure. But sometimes you drown. Or develop a fear of water.

It isn’t enough to set things up so that you’ll be fine if everything goes as planned. A good starting level is something that won’t be hard even if life gets in the way. Is your starting goal achievable even if you had to work overtime for the next two weeks? If not, consider toning it down a bit.

You should set a measurable, achievable, and atomic goal. In practice, measurable means numeric, so I’d recommend committing to a specific number of words each day or a specific amount of daily time writing. Here Beeminder will be your best friend [2].

Beeminder is a service that helps you bind your future self to your current goals. You set up a goal (like writing 100,000 words) and a desired daily progress (say, 200 words each day) towards that goal. Each day, Beeminder will make sure you’ve made enough progress towards your desired end-state. If you haven’t, Beeminder charges your credit card (you can choose to pay anywhere from $5 to $2430). Fail again and it charges you more (up to a point; you can set your own maximum). In this way, Beeminder can “sting” you into completing your goals.

For the first few months of my writing habit, I tracked my daily words in a notebook. This fell apart during my final exams. I brought in Beeminder at the start of the next month to salvage the habit and it worked like a charm. Beeminder provided me a daily kick in the pants to get writing; it made me unlikely to skip writing out of laziness, tiredness, or lack of a good idea.

Beeminder only works for numeric goals, so there’s the first of the triad I mentioned covered.

Next, your goal should be achievable; something you have no doubt you can do. Not something some idealized, better, or perfect version of you could do. Something you, with all your constraints and flaws are sure you can achieve. Don’t worry about making this too small. Fifty or one hundred words per day is a perfectly adequate starter goal.

Lastly, atomic. Atomic goals can’t be broken down any further. Don’t start by Beeminding blog posts or gods forfend, novels! Pick the smallest unit of writing you can, probably either time or word count, and make your goal about this. When you’re Beeminding words or time, you can’t fail and get discouraged for lack of ideas or “writer’s block” [3]. It’s much better to spend a week writing detailed journals of every day (or even a detailed description of your bedroom) than it is to spend a week not writing because you can’t think of what to write.

My recommended starter goals are either: write 150 words each day or write 15 minutes each day. Both of these are easy to Beeminder and should be easy for most people to achieve.

Step 3: Acquire Confidence

Even with goals that easy, your first few days or weeks may very well be spent just barely meeting them, perhaps as Beeminder breaths down your neck. Writing is like exercise. It’s surprising how hard it can be to do it every day if you’re starting from nothing.

Here’s the start of my very first Beeminder writing goal. You’ll notice that I started slowly, panicked and wrote a lot, then ran into trouble and realized that I needed to tone things down a bit. It wasn’t until almost four months in that I finally hit my stride and started to regularly exceed my goal.

Dip below the yellow and orange line and you pay up. Green data points mean I had at least three safe days before paying Beeminder. Blue data points are two days. Orange is one.

You can see a similar pattern when I started Beeminding fiction:

The trouble at the beginning is growing pains. The trouble around the end of October came from dropping out of graduate school, moving back home, and beginning a job search.

And when I started Beeminding time spent writing:

Those little spurs three data points into the time graph and seven into the fiction one? That’s where I failed to keep up and ended up giving Beeminder money. They call this “derailing”.

It may take a few derailments, but you should eventually find yourself routinely exceeding your starting goal (if you don’t, either this advice doesn’t work well for you, or you set your original goal too high). Be careful of allowing success to ruin your habit; try and write at least X words each day, not X words each day on average over the course of a week.

The number of days before you derail on a goal in Beeminder is called “safety buffer”. For outputs you intend to Beemind daily, I recommend setting yourself up so that you can have no more than two days of safety buffer. This lets you save up some writing for a busy day or two, but doesn’t let you skip a whole week. If you have a premium plan, Beeminder allows you to automatically cap your safety buffer, but you can also do it manually if you’re disciplined (I did this for many months until I could afford a premium plan).

The set-up on my daily writing time goal.

When you get to the point of regularly trimming your safety buffer you’re almost ready to move on up. Once you’re really, really sure you can handle more (i.e. exceeded your minimum every day for two weeks), slowly increase your commitment. You don’t want to get too cocky here. If you’re currently aiming for 150 words/day and 9 days out of 10 you write 250, set your new goal to 200, not 250. You want to feel like you’re successfully and competently meeting your goal, not like you’re scrapping by by the skin of your teeth.

Step 4: Make Molecules

Once you become comfortable with your atomic goals and find stable long term resting spots for them, you can start to Beemind more complex outputs. This is using Beeminder to directly push you towards your goals. Want to work on your blog? Beemind blog posts. Want to work on a book? Beemind pages or chapters or scenes. Want to keep a record of your life? Beemind weekly journals.

These are all complicated outputs made up of many words or minutes of writing. You won’t finish them as regularly. It’s easy to sit down and crank out enough words in an hour to hit most word count goals. But these larger outputs might not be achievable in a single day, especially if you have work or family commitments. That’s why you want your writing habit well established and predictable by the time you take them on.

Remember, you don’t want to set yourself up for failure if it’s at all avoidable. Don’t take on a more complex output as a Beeminder goal until you have a sense of how long it will take you to produce each unit of it and always start at a rate where you’re sure you can deliver. Had a few weeks of finishing one chapter a week? Start your Beeminder goal at one chapter every ten days.

It’s easy to up your Beeminder goal when you find it’s too lenient. It’s really hard to get back into writing after a string of discouragements caused by setting your goals too aggressive.

Even when you manage to meet overambitious goals, you might suffer for it in other ways. I’m not even talking about your social life or general happiness taking a hit (even though those are both very possible). Stretching yourself too thin can make your writing worse!

I had a period where I was Beeminding regularly publishing writing at a rate faster than I was really capable of. I managed to make my goal anyway, but I did it by writing simple, low-risk posts. I shoved aside some of the more complex and rewarding things I was looking forward to writing because I was too stubborn to ease back on my goal. It took me months to realize that I’d messed up and get rid of the over-ambitious goal.

It was only after I dialed everything back and gave myself more space to work that I started producing things I was really proud of again. That period with the overambitious goal stands out as one of the few times since I started writing again where I produced nothing I’m particularly proud of.

Tuning down the publishing goal didn’t even cause me to write less. I didn’t dial back my atomic goals, just my more complicated one, so I was still writing the same amount. When I was ready to begin publishing things I’d written again, I started the goal at a much lower rate. After a few months of consistently exceeding it, I raised the rate.

Here’s what my original goal looked like:

It’s hard to see, but I derailed five times between the end of December 2015 and the start of May 2016. I wasn’t derailing much in March in April, but I also wasn’t writing anything I was proud of. It was a terrible dilemma. Do I write thoughtful posts and lose money? Or do I churn out work I’m not proud of to save me the costs of a derailment? I think now I’d rather the derailments. At least I liked what I was writing when I was derailing.

Here’s my new blogging goal:

No derailments here! I started this at the rate of one post per month and only increased the slope at the end of March after I’d proved to myself that I wouldn’t have any problems keeping up the pace. It was a near thing at the start of May after two weeks of vacation where I’d had less chance to write than I hoped, but it turned out okay. In retrospect, it probably would have been smarter to increase the rate after my vacation, not before.

As you can see, I learned my lesson about over-ambition.

Step 5: Vanquish Guilt

At the same time as you work on Beeminding more complex outputs, you will want to be examining and replacing the guilt based motivation structure you may have built to get there.

Guilt can be a useful motivator to do the bare minimum on a project; guilt (and terror) is largely what got me through university. But guilt is a terrible way to build a long-term habit. If writing is something you do to avoid a creeping guilt, you may start to associate negative feelings with writing; if you started a writing habit because you love writing, then you’re risking that very love if you motivate yourself solely with guilt.

I recommend looking at Beeminder not as a tool to effectively guilt yourself into writing, but as a reminder of what writing is worth to you. You value consistently writing at $X. You know that every time you skip writing for a day or a week, there is a Y% chance that you might lose the habit. Multiply those two together and you get your ideal maximum Beeminder pledge.

$0 pledges are another fancy premium Beeminder feature. It’s only $0 once though. Every time I derail, it goes up to the next highest pledge level. It takes a full week to lower your pledge by one level, so bee careful.

It’s entirely rational to choose to derail on Beeminder if you value something else more than you value writing just then Here Beeminder is helping you make this trade-off explicit. You may know that not writing tonight costs you $Z of estimated future utility (this doesn’t necessarily mean future earnings; it could also represent the how much writing is worth to you as an entertainment), but without Beeminder you wouldn’t be facing it head on. When you can directly compare the utility of two ways to spend your time, you can make better decisions and trade-offs.

That said, it rarely comes to mutual exclusion. Often Beeminder prompts me to find a way to write, even if there’s something else I really want to do that partially conflicts. Things that I might lazily view as mutually exclusive often turn out not to be, once there’s money on the line.

It may seem hard to make this leap, especially when you start out with Beeminder. But after two years of regularly Beeminder use, I can honestly say that it doesn’t guilt me into anything. Even when it forces me to write, the emotional tone isn’t quite guilt. Beeminder is an effective goad because it helps me see the causal chain between writing tonight and having a robust writing habit. I write because I’m proud of the amount I write and I want to keep being proud of it. I’m not spurring myself with guilt and using that negativity to move forward. I’m latching onto the pride I want to be able to feel and navigating towards that.

Mere reminders to write are the least of what I get out Beeminder though. Beeminder became so much more effective for me once I started to regularly surpass my goals. Slowly, I began to be motivated mostly by exceeding them and that motivation led me to exceed them by ever greater margins and enjoy every minute of it.

For more about the perils of guilt as a motivational tool (and some suggestions on how to replace it), check out the replacing guilt sequence on Nate Soare’s blog, Minding Our Way. For a TL;DR, try “Don’t steer with guilt“.

Step 6: Success Spiral

This is the part where everything starts to come together. When you get here, guilt based motivation is but a dim memory. You write because you want to. Beeminder helps keep you on track, but you’re more likely to spend a bit of extra time writing to see the spike in your graphs than you are because you’ll derail otherwise.

When you get to this point (or earlier, depending on how you like to work), something like Complice can really help you make the most of all your motivation. Complice helps you tie your daily actions into the set long- and medium-term goals you’ve set. It has a kickass Beeminder integration that makes Beeminding as easy checking off a box. It has integrated Pomodoro timers for tracking how much time you work (and can send the results to Beeminder). It allows you and a friend to sign up as accountability buddies and see what each other get done [4]. And it shows you how much work you’ve done in the past, allowing you to use the “don’t break the chain” productivity hack if it works for you (it works for me).

The last few weeks of my writing goal in Complice. For two of the days in the pictured period, I only wrote because I couldn’t bear to lose my streak of days where I’d hit my writing goal.

As I finish off this piece, I find myself tired and lethargic. It’s not that I particularly want to be writing (although some of the tiredness fell away as soon as I started to type). It’s that writing every night feels like the default option of my life. As weird as it sounds, it feels like it would take me more effort to skip writing than to do it.

This is really good, because any grumpiness about writing I might start with is often gone in under five minutes. The end result of me writing – even on a day when starting was hard – is improved mood for the whole day. I love the sense of accomplishment that creating something brings.

The road here wasn’t exactly easy. It’s taken more than two and a half years, hundreds of thousands of words, incipient carpal tunnel, and many false starts. It’s the false starts that inspired me to write this. I doubt, dear reader, that you are exactly like me. Likely some of this advice won’t work for you. It is, however, my hope that it can point you in the right direction. Perhaps my false starts can save you some of your own.

I would feel deeply uncomfortable giving anyone advice on how to be a better writer; I don’t feel confident enough in my craft for that [5]. But I do feel like I know how to develop a kickass writing habit, the sort of habit that gives you the practice you need to get better. If you too want to write regularly, how about you give this a try?

Postscript

I think the steps outlined here could be used to help build a variety of durable habits across disciplines. Want to program, cook, draw, or learn a new language? Think that in any of those cases a daily habit would be helpful? This advice is probably transferable to some degree. That said, I haven’t tried to repeat this process for any of those things, so I don’t know what the caveats are or where it will break down. If you adapt this post for anything else, let me know and I’ll link to it here.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the kind folks at Beeminder for helping me create some of the graphs used in this post. In addition, thanks are due for fielding my semi-panicked support requests when the graph generation caused some problems with my account.

Thanks to Malcolm Ocean of Complice for pointing me towards Beeminder in the first place and for the year in review post that spurred me to make writing my New Year’s Resolution in 2015.

Disclaimer

I genuinely like the people whose products I recommend in this blog post. I genuinely like their creations. They aren’t giving me anything to recommend their stuff.

True story: Beeminder sent out a survey about referral links and I told them they could set up a referral system, but I’d never use it. I think Beeminder and Complice are incredibly valuable tools that are tragically under-used and I don’t want to risk even the appearance of a conflict of interest that might make people less likely to follow my recommendations to use them. For me, they’ve been literally life-changing.

I’ve linked to my specific Beeminder writing goals (there are four of them) at various points throughout this post, but if you want the proof that I’m not talking out of my ass all nicely collected in one place, you can check out my progress towards all of my Beeminder goals at: https://www.beeminder.com/zacharyjacobi.

Footnotes:

[1] If this advice doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it. I’m just a dude on the internet. This isn’t the bible. What works for me may not work for you and there’s nothing wrong with you if it doesn’t. You’ll just have to find your own way, is all. ^

[2] If Beeminder doesn’t work for you, I recommend a human accountability buddy (who will check up on your writing progress each day and maybe take your money if you aren’t hitting your goals). ^

[3] The best advice about writer’s block I’ve ever seen came from Cory Doctorow. He said that some days he feels like he’s inspired and a heavenly chorus is writing for him and other days he feels like he can’t write worth shit and has no clue what’s he’s supposed to be doing. He goes on to say that no matter how strong these feelings are, a month later he can’t tell the which words were written in which state. ^

[4] I cannot recommend this feature highly enough for people in long-distance relationships. ^

[5] For non-fiction writing advice, try the Slate Star Codex post of the same name. For more general advice, here’s tips from 23 different authors. ^