Jill’s Planning Process

© Flickr | nist6dh

Howdy, friends! A few weeks ago, someone asked me about my planning process. The question corresponds perfectly with an upcoming NaNoWriMo session, and my current blundering toward it without a plan.

New projects usually start life on a document called Master Story Idea List. There are currently a dozen or so on there, ranging from picture books to thrillers to contemporary YA, although most of the ideas hover somewhere around speculative fiction. Whenever I get a new idea, I jot it down on the master list and there it sits until I get around to it. Some have been there for years. Some only live there for a couple months, or even weeks. When my docket opens up for a new project, this is where I first look.

Choosing which project I want to do mostly comes down to interest; if I’m not that interested in the idea, it usually translates into a super boring draft that I abandon midway and stuff in a dark corner of my closet. But if I have more than one project that interests me, I consider other factors. How much research does the story require, and do I currently have time for it? Is the idea robust enough to make a whole book, or is it so robust it’ll need to be broken into a series? It may take me a few weeks, but I eventually narrow it down to one project.

Once I have a project selected, I open up a blank document, copy over everything from the idea list, and start typing. Most often, I end up with a basic storyline, interspersed with character or setting notes. This is usually created in a single brainstorming session, and these are always so laughably awful that it’s painful to read years later.

After I have this basic information down, I typically start to dial in either the plot or the characters; for some reason, I can’t do both at the same time. Usually, I work out the characters first. I’ve found that when I work out the plot first and then shoehorn character profiles into it, the cast tends to feels more cardboard. (But that’s just me! Different authors write differently.) When I’m fleshing out a character, I start with their background, then move on to their personality, and then fill in gaps from there. When I have a really firm grasp on the people I’m dealing with in the story, I have an easier time seeing where the story will go when I boot them out the door with inciting action.

At this point, I proceed to one of two methods: fill in the blank, or lazy bum’s snowflake.

Fill in the blank works best on projects that are already about sixty percent of the way there outline-wise. If I have a really good idea of all the things that need to happen throughout most of the book, I can just inject bits here and there. The things I’m filling in most often have to do with why-because gaps- I know where the character will be, I just need a good reason why. It’s important that a character’s goals and motivations shine throughout the entire story. (They can’t just end up somewhere because the plot needs them to.) Fill in the blank allows me to make sure that, not only are there no giant plot holes sulking about, but the character’s inner workings are driving them just as much, if not more, than the outer conflicts.

Snowflake is my go-to method on projects that have a super interesting premise and maybe a few vivid scenes, but not a whole lot more. (For those of you not familiar with the snowflake method, check it out here. What follows is the so-lazy-it-hardly-counts version.)  I take what I have and I see if I can mold it into three sentences, one for the beginning of each of the three acts of the book. Then I balloon each of those sentences out to a paragraph. That point is usually good enough for me to move on to fill in the blank method.

I always intentionally leave a lot out of the outline. Side stories are more or less left to evolve as they will. The conclusion is always undecided. I leave these gaps for two reasons. First is my own short attention span. If I have a story worked out from start to finish before I sit down and write the thing, all the fun of discovery is over and I find myself at least twice as likely to get bored with the project and drop it before it’s completed. The second reason is that if I don’t let any parts of the story happen “naturally”, I sometimes have a hard time getting any of the story to feel natural. This isn’t always true, but it’s true often enough to be a factor. (Another reason is just that I know things are going to deviate wildly from the plan before this is all over, and I hate wasted effort, haha. Again, that laziness issue.)

So once I get past the fill in the blanks stage, I usually let it all rest for a week or two and then I’m ready to write.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I just decide to sit down and smoothly work out a story without any hitches. This process usually takes weeks of picking at it and thinking about it and starts and stops and erasures and you name it. (And the ‘weeks’ assessment is assuming we don’t count the time before the idea gets plucked off the master list.)  But once I get into planning mode, I can usually work it all out in a couple weeks, sometimes less.

That makes this the perfect time for me to start working on the outline for my NaNo project this November. A few weeks to plan it, a few weeks to rest it, and then I’ll be ready to roll. Time to go check out that idea list!

Happy writing!

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Pantsing v. Planning

blueprintWhen I was first getting serious about writing, somewhere between the ages of eleven and twenty-one (who can really pin down when they became serious about writing?), I was a definite pantster. I had one project and I flung myself into it with the careless abandon of a finger painting kindergartner. I let the story take me where it would. Characters sprang up out of nowhere. Story lines I never would have imagined branched off and grew. My one book grew into two, then three, and then four, finally fleshing out into a hefty five book series, each book clocking in at between 120- and 130k.

It. Was. Glorious.

And sloppy. And exhausting. And required so many drafts that I eventually stopped counting them after eleven or so. I mean, there’s no shame in taking 10+ years to draft a single project, but it’s hard to move other projects forward as well. And as a writer, I definitely hope to be more than a one-hit wonder.

These days, now that I’m an old lady and I’ve got things like jobs and kids to suck up my time, I tend to plan things out quite a bit more. I typically don’t start writing until I know the full cast, an unholy amount of setting, and at least eighty percent of the entire outline in detail. My books and characters still surprise me sometimes, leaving the path and running whooping and laughing down a flower-bedecked hillside instead. But generally, I know where things are going before I even type Chapter One.

I have sequentially planted my butt firmly on both sides of this fence, but I still can’t tell you which is better, pantsing or planning. (Hint: The better one is whichever one works best for you just then.) But just for the fun of it, let’s break these babies down a bit more.

Pantsing is typically a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants free-for-all where all you start with is an interesting premise and the determination to see it through to its unknown end. Planning is more in the vein of spreadsheets, flowcharts, and index cards; however they get it down, planners like to know what beast they’re working with and how to wrangle it- all before they step in the arena.

So what are the merits and demerits of these two schools of thought? I asked a bunch of my writing buddies on Twitter and Facebook their thoughts on this, and here’s what our think-tank was able to come up with:

  Advantages Disadvantages
Pantsing Room for surprises

Get right to the fun of writing

More organic characters and relationships

Allows for more exploration of a theme or topic without plot restrictions

Requires extra time in editing and cleanup

Wonky flow, pacing, and direction

Chaotic storylines

Bloated first drafts

More prone to ‘getting stuck’ mid-draft

Planning Gives sense of the story’s direction

Enough organization to remember what I’m doing

Less prone to writers block

Cleaner first drafts

Faster first drafts

Allows higher degree of story complexity without getting messy

Requires extra time spent in prep work

Can sap some of the fun and enthusiasm from a project

Sometimes creates rigid situations that serve the plot rather than agree with the character development

These are, of course, generalities. And like most things in life, these two poles rest on either end of a continuum, rather than being either a 1 or a 0. To reflect the murky middle ground, the term “plantster” has started cropping up around the internet as well, to represent those of us who like to hang out in the mix.

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I mentioned earlier that I like to start a project with a mere eighty percent of my plot planned out. Because of this, and quite a few other gaps I leave open at a project’s advent, I don’t really think of myself as a true planner. I’m more of a preparation-leaning plantster. I like to have a really strong structure in place at the start of a project, and most of the major plot points planned out. But I also like to leave myself a little wiggle room for exploration, and an unscripted ending. I like leaving the ending unplanned because it usually takes me up until that point in the story to come up with an ending that a) fits the story naturally and b) isn’t coming at the reader with all the subtle surprise of a regularly scheduled freight train. Because of this, I do tend to have to go back and rework a bit of the earlier story (adding foreshadowing, tweaking storylines that end up being important, dropping the ones that aren’t, etc), but I’m fine with an extra draft or two.

Just so long as it doesn’t end up being closer to twenty drafts.

So whether you plan, pants, or something in between, keep doing what works best for you! The best routines are the ones that work, and don’t let anyone (or any table) tell you otherwise. Happy writing!

(And a special thank you to the dozen or so folks on social media who pitched in to help me articulate all the plusses and minuses of planning and pantsing- you guys are awesome!)

Conference Lessons: Character Creation

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Sketch by Diane Wu

One of the last sessions I attended at last year’s conference was taught by author Robert Dugoni.  He taught us about crafting characters in his presentation, Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters.

He opened with this idea: “Whatever your character is, make them like everyone else, but a little bit better.”  So characters should be real (and relatable), but also larger than life.  We must believe them and believe in them.  If readers don’t believe the character is able to do the extraordinary things they must do, they won’t care whether your character makes it or not, or just won’t believe it when they do.

While building up an interesting character, think about their strengths, inner conflicts, and weaknesses.

A character’s strengths can be physical (muscles, speed, laser eyes, etc), mental (humor, a knack for lateral thinking, mind reading, etc), or moral (loyalty, a sense of justice, compassion, etc).  As with all  things, there’s room for overlap, so don’t stress categories. (Is resilience mental or moral? Is the ability to perform magic a physical trait or a mental one?  Who cares?)  Whatever you choose, make your characters’ strengths just a little bit stronger than average.  And be sure that these strengths come up throughout the difficulties that your characters encounter.

Consider as well the inner conflicts that plague your character.  These are different from the conflicts that the antagonist or the plot inflict on them, and from the internal conflicts that arise throughout the story.  (This caused a bit of confusion for me during the presentation at first.  I kind of wish he’d used a more dissimilar term, but I figured out what he was talking about eventually.)  Inner conflicts are things like anxiety, addiction, insecurity, low self esteem, a huge ego, phobias, or guilt.

By Mr. Dugoni’s definition, an inner conflict is not the same thing as a weakness.  A weakness is something you can fix, but for whatever reason, you don’t.  Inner conflicts are a part of who you are.  For example, your character may learn some better coping mechanisms for dealing with their depression, without ever being ‘cured’.  Mental illness is an inner conflict.  A refusal to wash the laundry until you’re out of underwear is a weakness.  (I am weak.)

Also, characters must have what Mr. Dugoni called ‘self regard’.  Self regard is recognition of one’s own shortcomings.  Plus, it makes their development more plausible.  A character who doesn’t realize they’re a misogynist isn’t going to change.  If you don’t realize there’s a problem, you can’t fix it.

So now that you have this cool character, how to you show all these traits to the reader without telling?  Mr. Dugoni specified these five ways:

Physical Appearance  A character’s physical appearance changes how they interact with the world.  When learning about this aspect of character, I immediately thought of CM Schofield’s character Tony (who is a tiny fairy in a human world) and Madison Dusome’s character Adrien (who is a skinny, scrappy one-armed orphan).  Both these authors are fantastic at showing their characters’ personalities and strengths through the lens of their physical differences.

How They Dress  People wear what they wear for a reason, and these sorts of details tell us something about them.  So think about how your character might express themselves through dress.  I also like to consider makeup, piercings, tattoos, anything unnatural that a person chooses to add to their body.  Do they wear their uniform even on their days off?  Do they favor Gothic Lolita?  Leather and spikes all week, and an airy dress for church on Sundays?  Think about what they wear, understanding that your readers will be forming ideas about why they wear it.

Physical Behavior  Think also about the way your character carries themselves.  How do they sit, stand, walk, or run?  Stance and cadence can tell us a lot about a character, like the difference between James Bonds’ cool, one-hand-in-pocket smirk and Steve Urkels’ bespectacled, face-scrunching squint.  Whenever your character guffaws, slouches, sneers, or pops a knuckle, it tells readers something.

Dialog  How does your character speak?  What does their diction say about their past and experiences?  Consider word choice, phrases, accent.  Even topic choices can tell us something about characters- for example, think about the Lego Movie and the differences in voice between Batman (gravelly, growly tone and an insistence on trumpeting his own awesomeness) and Unikitty (high, cheerful tone and a refusal to hold an unhappy thought).

Character Insight  Each of us sees the world through a different lens, a lens which is carved and polished by our past experiences.  How does your character view the world?  Who do they vote for?  What do they believe in?  What do they argue about?  What’s worth fighting for?

Use all of these cues to show readers your character, and what’s going on in their head.

So!  Once you have a realistic, believable, and interesting character, toss them into the shark tank of your story.  How does the character change over the course of the events?  Mr. Dugoni talked about change as the different levels a character starts at and finishes at.  I pictured it like this:

CaringLevels

The important thing is that the level your character is on changes over the course of the book.  If your character starts out only caring about themselves, they’d better open up a bit more by the end of the book.  Characters that don’t change levels probably aren’t changing much elsewhere either, and that’s boring and unrealistic.

Of course, characters can change in both directions.  Just as a character can start out only caring about their mom and their cat, and eventually become the hometown hero, a person can also move in a more selfish direction.  But Mr. Dugoni warns that that’s a hard sell.  Most people don’t want to read a story about a caring, generous person who becomes a self-absorbed miser.

Whoever your character may be- a priest, a mobster, the baker from Belle’s hometown- create them in a way that makes them leap off the page (or pounce, or trip, or however they move).  Make them interesting, make them realistic, and make them powerful and flawed and changing.  Your story (and your readers) will thank you.

Happy writing!

Creating Cultures

(Sorry I didn’t post yesterday.  I am dying of an exciting new plague [again]. Today’s CYOA was: will I spend the evening posting on the blog, or languishing in a hospital gurney?  I figured posting was cheaper.  If you don’t hear from me next week, assume I died.)

culture

Image from the Anthropology Dept of Drew University. Thanks, guys!

Toward the end of last year’s post Setting the Scene, I mentioned the importance and influence of realistic cultures in a story’s setting.  This week, we’re going to geek out on sociology to create a flexible framework for cultures.

While there’s a bit of overlap between them, there are five widely accepted aspects of culture: symbols, language, values, beliefs, and norms.  When creating your own cultures, try to incorporate something of each of these aspects to have a layered, realistic culture.  If you’re not creating your own culture, but rather writing about a premade one (maybe you’re writing historical, contemporary, fanfic, whatevs), you should also include these aspects to avoid a society that seems more like a cardboard cutout than an actual culture.

But before we get into any definitions, let’s chat for a moment about keeping things appropriate.  No, I’m not talking about your characters’ potty language or sextivities.  I’m talking about keeping your culture in sync with your setting.  It wouldn’t make sense for a language to have forty words for ice if its speakers lived in the tropics.  Or if it does, there had better be a good reason, like mass immigration or cultural appropriation or whatnot.

As we work through each of these aspects (and order really doesn’t matter), keep in mind the climate and resources this culture would develop in.  Don’t make all the houses log cabins if they live on the tundra.  Don’t develop detailed hunting ceremonies for your herbivorous aliens.  Don’t have your country’s national flower be a blossom that doesn’t grow there.  You get the idea.  (But seriously, if there are great reasons, let ‘er rip.  Weird little discrepancies are wonderful, like how California’s state animal doesn’t actually exist in California because settlers and gold panners hunted it to extinction a century ago.)

Values  Although this will vary a bit from person to person, each culture has an ‘average’ set of values that people care about.  Values help to define acceptable behaviors within the cultural group by delineating between good and bad.  Keep in mind that a single character commonly juggles the values of multiple culture groups, such as a character who holds the values of an average Australian (such as egalitarianism) in addition to the values of an Orthodox Jew (such as daily study of the Torah).   For your culture, think about the values that people hold dear, such as freedom, wealth, lineage, etc.

Beliefs  Belief systems are the convictions and understandings that people hold as truth, and are structured upon values.  These beliefs often mirror those of a religion, but can also be purely secular.  Think about people’s beliefs concerning the dangers of GMOs (value of health and safety) or the glory of communism (value of cooperation and group-before-self) or the messianic Coming of Trump (value of success and independence); no matter where you stand on these issues, there are little culture pockets at the fringes of the spectrum with irrational beliefs about whether these things will save or destroy the world, and there is no convincing them otherwise.  Whether your culture has strong ties to religion, or strives to keep itself separate from such things, make sure to have a set of beliefs that factor into the decision-making process of your characters.

Norms  The rules and traditions of a culture make up its social norms.  Norms run the gamut from the practice of ‘folkways’, or things that are expected but not insisted upon (American examples: handshake at first meeting, eye contact during conversation), to the observance of taboos (no pedophilia, no cannibalism, nooo).  Breaking of norms can result in mild censure (an annoyed parent sighing “Kids these days”) to severe societal punishment (imprisonment, exile, execution) depending on the values and beliefs that they violate.  The more precious the value, the more harsh the punishment.  When creating your culture, think of the traditions and social rules that would arise surrounding a high value on knowing one’s lineage, or maintaining a prescribed diet, or raising children to be successful hunters, or whatever values your culture holds, and weave that into the norms.

Symbols  You know how Americans can look at a picture of a flying eagle and immediately start shooting off fireworks and chanting, “USA! USA!”?  That’s because this bird, who doesn’t give a flying poop about nationality, is a culture symbol (as are the fireworks and the USA chanting).  Symbols can be a physical object, such as the cross of Christianity, or a nonphysical act, such as a formal bow typifying Japanese politeness.  So think about what kind of symbols you can work into your culture.  What styles of art, music, architecture do your characters employ?  What significance do certain colors carry/shapes/etc carry?  What goes on the banner snapping in the wind over the troops?

Language  You don’t really have to go out and make up a whole language from scratch- although it is way fun- but have an understanding of how your characters speak.  What words and ideas come up frequently?  What kinds of phrases and idioms arise that wouldn’t necessarily find use in whatever language your book is written in?  Make sure that these language quirks shine through in your characters’ voices.  (If you do want to make a language from scratch, check out Language Building Basics to get started.)

Once you have considered each of these cultural aspects, go back and make sure that they make sense as a whole.  Do the different aspects all support one another?  Are these social norms something a person would actually be willing to live?  Does the culture make sense within the region that gave birth to it (allowing for the natural evolution of human societies)?  And as always, give yourself lots of room to tweak and adjust, since it probably won’t all come together on the first go.

A final note on creating cultures: as with all worldbuilding, not everything you come up with will make its way into the story (hopefully).  But understanding it as the author will lend more depth to your work, allowing for deeper immersion and a richer backdrop.  Plus, I am a nerd and this stuff is more fun than dishes.

Until next week, happy writing!

Weathering the Weather

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A little good luck rain for my brother’s wedding 🙂

I know I just spent all of October talking about setting, but with the solstice coming up this week, the weather is heavy on my mind.  Struggling as I do with SAD, I’m acutely aware of how dark it is and how cold it is and how maddeningly close we are to inching our way back to the light.  (For context, daylight for today in Fairbanks Alaska is 3.6 hours total, and still shrinking.  An emphatic boo to that.)

When I wrote in October, I mostly concentrated on the physical setting, and weather definitely falls within that realm.  But today I’d like to elaborate more about the psychological and contextual aspects that they impart.  (You may recall from October’s Setting the Scene that there are four primary aspects of setting: chronological, psychological, physical, and contextual.)

So first off, what is weather?  Weather is the ever-changing state of the atmosphere that surrounds our fair planet.  Humidity, daylight, temperature, cloud coverage, pollution levels, wind speed, moon phase, and a host of other qualities are all aspects of weather.  As writers, we’ve got a lot of room to play here.

Books often start with a mention of the weather (the pollution in Sanderson’s Mistborn; the sunlight and temperature in Orwell’s 1984; the humidity in Plath’s The Bell Jar).  (I’m not saying to do this; weather as an opener can get you an autoreject from agents, editors, and readers alike.  That said, some writers do it very well.)  Weather immediately tells us something about the world these characters live in and the kind of story this might be.  Weather has long been known to play a role symbolically and foreshadowingly.  (Yes, that’s a word, sh.)  This affects the context of your story.  So if a story starts with a dark and stormy night, expectations are already being set in place.  Likewise, mentions of pollution, strong winds, extreme heat, etc, can all be used to symbolize larger and/or parallel problems within the story.

It doesn’t just have to be opening lines, though.  Weather can, and ought to, be sprinkled throughout an entire story, because our atmosphere is ever present.  Even its absence can be telling, or its artificial masking.  Who doesn’t recognize the antiseptic smell of a hospital hall, the strangely perfumed stink of a public restroom?  Use weather in your stories to help readers understand where they are and what’s going on, and to foreshadow where things might be going.

Similarly, weather can be notched up another power rung and take on the role of abstract antagonist, either as a secondary antagonist along with some other opponent, or directly, as is common in man v. nature stories.  In books such as The Perfect Storm, 81 Days below Zero, and Endurance, each story pits its characters against merciless weather.  As humans with thoughts and emotions and motives, we often anthropomorphize these features onto entities that don’t.  When faced with the raw power of nature, it can be terrifying to realize that we are mere specks on the face of this earth, and the tornado picking up our car or the storm flooding the baby’s nursery or the cold slowly stealing the movement from our limbs doesn’t give a used fig about us.  There’s no bargaining, no begging, no convincing.  It simply is.

Weather can be akin to a character, so large and powerful that it shapes lives and landscapes.  But consider also the many small ways in which weather affects our daily lives, even in temperate climates.  It affects our health, our mood, and what sounds good to eat.  Sure, we can become hypothermic in a spring rain or suffocate for want of oxygen in a closed room, but mostly we just want an ice cream when it’s hot, or steal an older sibling’s sweater when the house is cold, or become embarrassed when the wind messes up our hair on the way to the party, or when a storm kicks up and we’re the only dork who forgot an umbrella.  Weather can be huge and scary, but it can also be small and annoying, perfect and inspiring, cozy and comforting.  No matter where you are, weather is there, and it’s shaping your day.

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Hmmm… Yep, it’s still dark.

Which brings me back to my original impetus for this post.  I live in a nicely warmed box all winter, and day to day life is usually pretty tame.  I have to bundle up to go outside, but mostly I stay in and bake and do laundry and other adult things.  But I long for the kiss of dawn, for sun I can feel like baby’s breath warm on my skin.  I daydream about putting in more windows.  I scroll through pictures of blindingly green-and-gold summer.  And in the middle of a cloudless day, those scant hours when the sun hangs low in the sky, I pause at the windows to stare through the skeletal boughs of aspen toward that southern horizon, forgetting my chores for just a little while.  I ache for sunlight, and more than metaphorically.  I have to take vitamin D tablets so that my bones and muscles don’t turn to jelly.  I have to spend time in front of my happy light each day or I’m weepy and tired before the kids even get home from school.  And this is just short-term stuff.  A whole slew of physical and mental ailments can creep in over time, courtesy of the endless night.

You have these bits of weather that you live with, too, whether it’s staying parked in front of the AC from May through August, or constantly fighting black mold off your windowsills and out of your carpets, or wearing a mask at work to keep particulates out of your lungs, or never forgetting a rain jacket when you go out, because if you do you will always, always regret it.  Weather is more than what it feels like or what it smells like.  Weather changes our thoughts, changes our actions.  Weather changes the game.

Think about where your story takes place.  What’s the weather like?  How will this affect the character’s wardrobe?  The activities for the day?  How do they live with their weather?  What problems can the weather cause for your character?  What havoc can the heavens rain down on your MC’s plans?  What difficulties can arise in the plot?

Set fog around your fleet of warships.  Let an arctic vortex freeze your plucky heroine in her tracks.  Dawn the day of the funeral bright and glorious.  Hail on weddings.

Weather is magnificent, merciless, and inescapable.  Weather determines what we wear, how we travel, even the foods we eat and the pastimes we engage in.  Making sure that it affects your characters in these ways too will add an immersive new layer of reality to your work.

Happy writing!

Sample Settings: Historical

bents-fortGreetings, earthlings! In this post, we wrap up our month long focus on settings with this final batch of sample settings.  So let’s hop in our time machine and head back to a few historical settings.  I only have three for you this week, but I’ve got a few ideas for future ones on the back burner (including pestering my mom! just like the good ol’ days!).

Historical Settings:

Bent’s Fort Trading Post, La Junta CA, circa 1840

English Camp Formal Garden, San Juan Island WA, circa 1870

Moran Mansion Library and Music Room, Rosario, Orcas Island WA, circa 1910

PS- You may have noticed that I haven’t posted the jail setting yet.  And that is because my notes were, in fact, not in the car.  They’re… somewhere else.  This is the plight of having a zillion spiralbound notebooks.  The hunt continues!

Sample Settings: Urban

patsy-s-original-candiesHey, y’all!  Here is your second week of sample settings!

As mentioned last time, this week’s settings are urban, meaning there are tons of people and buildings about.  (Last week’s settings were rural, whereas next week’s will be historical.  And then on to this month’s stupid comic! Ho!)

Urban Settings:

Amtrack Train Car in Transit, WA USA to BC CAN

Patsy’s Candy Factory, Colorado Springs CO

BP Energy Center western door, Anchorage AK

I also really want to put up my notes on a jail admission lobby in Colorado, buuuuuut… they’re out in the car and it’s late and it’s cold and I don’t want to go outside.  *hunkers down in blanket fort* That just means that you lucky readers will get a super-exciting-special midweek update at some point!  Lucky, lucky you!

In the interest of not spamming my fantastic followers’ inboxes, I’ll just update this post instead of doing a new one.  So be sure to check back Wednesday-ish. Until then, happy writing!