A Regular Day

Someone recently asked me what a regular writing day looked like for me. So…here you go (or at least the highlights):

  1. Get up & eat breakfast, during which I read email and Twitter. I usually don’t answer any email immediately unless it can be done in less than 3 lines. Also I do the NY Times mini-crossword puzzle and review my to-do list.(NOTE: I keep a daily to-do list in a straight-up text file. The file contains stuff for at least a week in advance. I also use my iPad’s calendar program to keep track of dates, but I copy any appointments from the calendar into the text to-do list. The to-do list is inspired by bullet journals but more informal.)
  2. Write a few morning pages longhand, mostly reviewing things I saw or heard the previous day. I try to record tangible experiences, rather than just chatting about ideas.
  3. Transcribe any longhand writing from the day before. Basically, when I’m writing something new, I write longhand first (yes, pen on paper). The next day, I start my writing session by transcribing the longhand stuff into Scrivener. This helps remind me where I was, and also gives me a chance to do quickie rewrites on what I produced the previous day.
  4. Use the Pomodoro technique to write longhand for two hours. That means 25 minutes of nothing but writing, then five minutes of break-time (bathroom, having a snack, etc.). Repeat the 25-on/5-off for a total of four sessions, giving about two hours of new writing.
  5. Take a longer break: half an hour. I’ll do my daily Duolingo (currently learning Japanese, and keeping up on Spanish) and have a small lunch
  6. Back to another four Pomodoro sessions: either writing or editing (if I have an editing job…and by the way, if you ever need editing services, feel free to inquire).
  7. Another longer break. Usually, this is when I go for a walk to my local library. I almost always have something I want to pick up at the library, or something I have to take back. Even if I don’t have anything to get or return, going to the library is a nice break.
  8. Back for another two hours of work. This is either editing work, or business stuff. Here is when I answer email, deal with business paperwork, etc. If I’m working on a definite project (e.g. editing), I’ll do it Pomodoro style again, but often it’s just little bits and pieces that don’t fit the work-in-depth system.
  9. Thus ends my writing/editing day. Now into other stuff. Half an hour for hobby-like activity.
  10. Walk or drive for errands (shopping, etc.) in the late afternoon.
  11. Most nights, I either do kung fu or role-playing games.
  12. Read for at least 15 minutes before going to bed.

Auxiliary reading:

For bathroom reading, I (very slowly) work through something “classic”. Recently, I worked my way through Christopher Logue’s poetry version of the Iliad. Now I’m working through Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo”.

For kitchen reading (when I’m eating snacks or drinking coffee), I do idle research. In preparation for writing Miranda in NOBODY TOLD ME YOU COULD BREAK THE MOON, I worked through a first-year physics textbook. Now, I’m reading BLACK EDGE by Sheelah Kolhatkar, so I’ll know about sleazy financiers. (This is preparation for something secret I think I’ll call Project 3H.)

And for times when I want a break from reading, I do cryptic crossword puzzles. Right now I’m working through a book of New Statesman crosswords from the 1980s.

So there: if there is such a thing as a typical day, that’s how it goes. Any questions?

Quickie Writing Tips: Establishing Shots

In  movies, it’s common for scenes to start with an establishing shot: a second or two that shows the audience where the scene will take place.

For example, if a scene is going to take place in the kitchen of a suburban house, the movie often doesn’t go there directly. Instead, the movie might start by showing an external view of the surrounding suburbs. Then when the movie cuts to the kitchen a few seconds later, you understand that the kitchen is inside a house that’s in the suburbs. Otherwise, one kitchen looks a lot like any other (at least if we’re talking modern day), so viewers may not be able to tell if it’s in a city, the country, in a desert, on the coast, wherever. The establishing shot orients the audience so that they have a better appreciation of where and when this is happening.

In fiction, quick establishing shots are also useful…but typically what you want to establish isn’t just where and when but who. Who is the viewpoint character whose experience you’re going to read about?

People connect to people. It’s as simple as that. You connect your reader to a story by connecting the reader to a character. Once in a long while, the character can be a persona assumed by the writer. When I think of writers assuming a persona, I always think of Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett. Both have a habit of opening their books with little preambles, where the author directly addresses the reader. They basically send the message, “Sit down and let me tell you a story…”

But usually the viewpoint character is someone who actually takes part in the story. Whether the story is written in first-person or third, it’s almost always desirable to give the reader an immediate sense of who the viewpoint character is and what that person is like. Some simple examples:

  • I was nursing my third cup of coffee, trying to avoid going into the office because I expected I was going to be fired. This gives you an immediate feeling for what kind of person is telling the tale. You don’t know name, sex, or other particulars, but you already have a sense of personality. A connection has begun.
  • John Ling always hated trying to get the blood out afterward. In this case, you have a name, a probable sex (indicated by “John”), and a sense that this is someone who often experiences violence. Again, there’s the start of a connection—you don’t yet know if John is a “good guy” or “bad guy”, and you probably don’t have a lot of experience with bloodshed, but you can still sympathize with a guy who gets stuck with lousy jobs.By the way, it may be a cliche, but starting the very first sentence of a scene with the viewpoint character’s name is a damned useful technique. Hiding the character’s name seldom buys you anything. Even if you’re writing in the first person, it’s a good idea to reveal the character’s name as soon as possible.

Contrast the above openings with something like this:

It was a rainy night in Los Angeles. The headlights of cars reflected on the wet streets, occasionally accented by flashes of lightning and… 

<Snore…> This is the sort of establishing shot you might see in a movie—it shows the place and time—but it doesn’t connect the reader with a person. It doesn’t even present an interesting situation. Yet so many novice writers write this kind of opening. Maybe they do it because they’re used to seeing it in movies, but books and stories work differently.

People connect with people, not weather. Unless you’ve got a hell of a good reason, give the reader a person to connect with in the very first sentence. Better yet, give us a interesting person doing something interesting. That’s what makes a good establishing shot.

Half an Hour a Day

Many moons ago, I read an article by the writer Tom Robbins (or maybe just about Tom Robbins) in which he talked about keeping his brain alive. If I remember correctly, he said that he had a strict regimen:

  • Half an hour a day of reading poetry, since that would improve his feel for language
  • Half an hour a day of being outside, because he needed fresh air, plus the sights and sounds of nature
  • Half an hour a day of exercise, because a healthy mind needs a healthy body to sustain it
  • Half an hour of pornography…and we’ll just leave that one where it is.

I don’t have an urge to adopt that program exactly, but recently I started thinking about cultivating my brain a little more intentionally. So I decided to put in half an hour a day on activities that would expand my horizons and keep me sharp. I came up with a four-day cycle that I’ve been following for several weeks now:

  • Day One: Music. I’ve played the piano since I was a kid, and I even used to perform in coffee houses. In recent years, I’ve let that slip…but I decided to get back to playing and singing—half an hour a day, every fourth day.
  • Day Two: Math. I’ve loved math almost as long as I’ve been playing the piano. I adore working problems and finding answers. However, it’s been years since I tried to learn new stuff, or even reviewed old fields I ought to know cold. So I’ve begun swotting up on linear algebra, in preparation for bigger and better things. (I have several advanced books out from the University of Waterloo library, but haven’t decided which I’ll dive into once I’m back up to speed. Differential topology? Category theory? We’ll see.)
  • Day Three: Embroidery. I used to do a lot of embroidery while sitting in front of the television. I don’t watch TV anymore, so I’ve gotten out of the habit…but I still have plenty of cross-stitch patterns I’d love to work on, so why not start again? Embroidery is good for the brain and eye-hand coordination. I do it for half an hour every fourth day, and instead of watching TV as I stitch, I listen to podcasts. (Current faves: Writing Excuses, The Sisterhood, Hardcore History, and Revolutions.)
  • Day Four: Sculpture with Modeling Clay. I really wanted to do something involving visual art, but I’ve gradually come to realize that I’m not drawn to drawing, no matter how much I think I ought to be. So instead of picking up a pencil, I bought some modeling clay, took out some books from the library, and began messing around. The picture at the top of this post is one of the first things I made. I’ve ordered some simple tools, but they’re literally on a slow boat from China. When they arrive, I’ll start messing around in earnest.

There: my daily half-hour program of attempting more than the same-old same-old. So far it’s been fun. It gives me things to do away from the keyboard and computer screen. Of course, I still train in Kung Fu and go for walks every day…but moving in new directions and reviving old amusements has been invigorating.



For the past few weeks, I’ve been sick: first with a cold, then with a nasty flu. During that time, it was hard to write real work…but I kept writing anyway, because that’s what I do.

I came up with the following story. Since I doubt that it’s publishable, I thought I’d post it here just for my own amusement. Consider it the raving of a fevered mind.


Zeus holds a feast, but Eris is not invited. She sneaks in anyway, and throws a golden apple into the midst of the diners.

Hermes, the fastest of the gods, snatches the apple from the air. He reads the inscription. “To the best endowed.”

Clio, Muse of History and chronicler of events on Olympus, manages a creditable “record needle scratch” sound as her quill pen jerks across the official scroll.

“Say what?” Zeus asks Hermes.

“To the best endowed,” Hermes repeats. “And she’s made a little drawing—”

“We get the picture,” Artemis interrupts.

Athena sighs. “Eris has upped her game.”

* * *

Hera says, “We all know what Eris is doing. She’s just annoyed because you wouldn’t invite her.” She glares at her husband. “And didn’t I tell you something like this would happen? But no, you thought snubbing the Goddess of Discord would be a brilliant idea!”

“She makes everyone uncomfortable,” Zeus mumbles.

“She makes you uncomfortable,” Hera says. “Because she calls you out on the rape-y shit you do.”

Ares yells, “Yo, Hermes, where you going with that apple?”

Hermes has been edging toward the exit. “I’m just, uh, going to get rid of this,” he replies. “Cuz it’s an obvious provocation, and we gods, who aren’t like totally juvenile, would never treat it seriously, right?”

“You were taking it back to your room, weren’t you?” Ares says.


“Look, it is an obvious provocation,” Artemis says, “and since we’re all grownups here (except for Aphrodite’s date), we aren’t going to start making fools of ourselves by…guys, are you even listening to me?”

“Just hypothetically,” Zeus says, stroking his chin, “how would we go about determining such a thing?”

“You could just ask Aphrodite,” Athena says. “I imagine she’s schtupped you all, so she knows the truth.”

“Yeah, right,” Aphrodite says, glancing worriedly at Hera, “I may be indiscreet, but I’m not getting in the middle of anything like this. Ladies don’t kiss and tell.”

Ladies,” Hera says. “Darling Aphrodite, you can be so droll.”

Hephaestus says, “I never go anywhere without a tape measure.” He pulls it out and puts it on the table. The tape measure.

Demeter grimaces. “Please, no.”

“Wrong time and place completely,” Zeus agrees, “considering how much some of us have been drinking. We should name a date for an official weigh-in, so to speak. With an impartial judge.”

“Yes, that’s not going to end badly,” says Athena. “Oh, and just FYI, there’s no frickin’ way I’m going to be judge.”

“No one asked you to,” Poseidon says. “We need someone who won’t make us shrivel.”

“Next you’ll be suggesting some beautiful fourteen-year-old virgin,” Hera says in disgust. “Someone who’ll lead you to lengths unimagined, and who’ll you’ll all just love showing your—”

“Stop!” say Artemis and Hestia in unison.

“Well, there’s this girl Helen in Sparta…” Zeus says.

“Seriously?” Hera says. “Seriously?”

“Look,” Athena says, “we all know how this will play out. You men will be too afraid to compete on your actual ‘merits’, so as soon as someone gets picked to be judge, you’ll all try to bribe them with divine interventions. The winner won’t be the one with the most inches, but whoever makes the most obscenely irresponsible offer to some poor mortal who doesn’t know that gifts from the gods always blow up in your face.”

Zeus, Ares and Poseidon exchange looks. “Works for me,” Zeus says.

“Helen then?” Poseidon suggests. “Because I’m not showing my junk to a dude.”

Hera says, “For the love of—”

“Silence, wife!” Zeus bellows.

Hera glares at him. “Fine. You deserve what you’re going to get.”

Zeus, who clearly has some cognitive deficiency, as evidenced by every story ever, thinks she’s cheering him on.

* * *

Helen of Sparta is indeed beautiful: fourteen years old, except that she looks like twenty (if you know what I mean), except that she really looks fourteen (if you know what I really mean)…so yeah, basically, god-bait.

And king-bait too: her father, Tyndareus of Sparta, raffled her off by inviting a bunch of kings to ogle her, having them each pay a fortune for the chance to compete for her, and giving her away to whoever won some nude wrestling contest (or whatever), but not before making all the suitors swear they wouldn’t get mad if they lost, and wouldn’t ask for their money back, or burn down Sparta, or rape and kill Helen out of spite. (As one does, if one isn’t forced to promise otherwise. These were, after all, kings.) Helen was won by Menelaus, and the couple ascended the throne of Sparta, reigning with co-equal power.

Just kidding. Menelaus ascended the throne, Helen got locked into a backroom of the palace, and life unfolded as per paternalistic usual on the Greek peninsula.

Until the night when a succession of gods visits Helen in her room like the worst version of A Christmas Carol ever.

Zeus is the first to arrive. He intended to be third, because it’s always the third contestant who eventually wins the prize, but Zeus has jumped the gun, as is his tradition. He shows up in the form of a platypus, since it’s one of the few animals he hasn’t done yet. He has a box of chocolates clutched in his bill, which he figures is necessary, because seriously, platypus.

Helen takes the chocolates, and begins to eat them as Zeus explains the contest. She nearly chokes to death with surprise as Zeus lays out the details.

“So you’ve come here to show me…” Helen’s voice trails off as she regards the platypus with all the dubiousness a fourteen-year-old can muster. Marsupial anatomy is not her particular study, yet she makes an educated guess that platypi are not gifted to any apple-winning extent.

“No,” Zeus says. “In deference to your tender years, I will instead offer a generous inducement to name me the winner.”

“You mean you want to bribe me to cheat?”

“Look, girl, it’s either that or I show you—”

“Right,” Helen says, “bribery it is. Induce me.”

“I offer you Power,” Zeus says, occasionally referring to notes he’s written on 3×5 index cards. “Power to rule the greatest empire this world has ever known, to command wisely and well, to live a long happy life, and to be remembered as a great and beloved monarch down through the centuries.”

“Huh.” Helen contemplates the prospect. “It doesn’t matter that I’m a girl?”

“Well…” Zeus says, not making eye contact, which is quite easy when you’re a platypus, “Option #1 would be to make you not a girl.”

“You mean turn me into a man.”

“Yes. A vigorous manly man who can crush his enemies beneath his feet and forge a legacy with the strength of his mighty arm.”

“Yeah, no,” Helen says. “That not me.”

“I realized you might say that,” Zeus replies, “for am I not the wise all-father of the gods? Option #2 is trickier, and I normally like to avoid time travel, but I could swap you into a life where you’d get the empire, the happiness, etc. in a time and place where girls wearing a crown isn’t quite so beyond the pale. Tell me, what do you think of the name Victoria?”

“You’re saying you would swap me into…wait, does that mean you’d be swapping out some other girl and putting me in her place?”


“And she’d end up here as Menelaus’s wife? And spend the rest of her life as me?”


“I assume she’s a terrible person and fully deserves to have her wonderful glorious life ripped away from her so I can enjoy myself in her stead?”

Zeus shrugs. “Probably? But I can’t whether she’s really good or bad because I’m basically incapable of seeing women as sapient beings.”

“Oh-kay then,” Helen says. “Inducement noted. Thank you. When you leave, please send in the next applicant.”

She thinks, They weren’t even very good chocolates.

* * *

Next comes Poseidon, smelling of the sea: briny and slightly rotten like a haddock that’s been dead for three days. This is less of a turnoff than you might expect, because Helen is a true blue Greek girl. The low-tide aroma brings back happy memories of expeditions to the seashore before men starting lining up to kidnap her, rape her, buy her from her father, etc.

Poseidon himself is an old bearded dude encrusted with barnacles, but Helen has encountered a lot of old bearded dudes encrusted with barnacles, so Day In The Life. “Are you going to bribe me too?” she asks.

“Gladly,” says Poseidon, who’s much more at ease paying women than talking to them. “I offer you all the treasure beneath the waves! Gold and jewels from every sunken ship! The fine spermaceti oil of whales! The healthful fins of sharks!”

“That’s an old wives’ tale, you know,” Helen says.

“Okay, how about rich deposits of petroleum, more valuable than gold itself? And methane clathrates? Athena keeps going on about methane clathrates. They’re going to be very big one day. And black smokers, whatever they are. You can have those too.”

“Are they cute black smokers?” Helen asks.

“They are oily plumes of sulphuric chemicals emitted by hydrothermal vents, thereby supporting unique biological communities,” Poseidon replies, trying not to sound like he’s reading off an index card. “Conceivably, some of the tube worms are cute, when viewed from a flattering angle. Or when bejazzled.”

“Okay then,” Helen says. “That’s your offer? Cash?” She nods. “I like it. Simple. To the point.”

“Good,” Poseidon says. “Now would you like to see my—”

“That won’t be necessary,” Helen says.

“It’s really no trouble,” Poseidon says.

“Leave a photo in one of the treasure chests,” Helen tells him. “If I happen to choose you. Next!”

* * *

Next is Hermes, who slips in fast in front of Ares. Hermes doesn’t have an offer, he just wanted to be third, because everyone knows that’s best. He eats all the chocolates left by Zeus, steals some of Helen’s clothing, and zips out again without saying a word.

* * *

The last in line is Ares. There are, of course, other gods in Olympus; but Hephaestus says the whole contest is shite, Dionysus is too drunk to find Greece, let alone some girl’s place in Sparta, Apollo never competes in anything he isn’t one hundred percent guaranteed to win, and of course, nobody has bothered to tell Hades there’s a contest at all, because nobody bothered to tell Hades about the original feast, or about the twenty previous feasts that Zeus has hosted, and there’s a whole Eris-to-the-power-of-OMG situation just waiting to go off like a powder keg when Hades finds out what he’s missed, but everyone kicks that one down the road a little farther because no one has ever accused the Greek pantheon of future-oriented thinking.

Ares arrives dressed in his best bronze and leather, with his hair cut short and with numerous barracks tattoos. Helen considers it a much better look than barnacles or marsupial fur. She can’t immediately think of a look that wouldn’t be better than barnacles or marsupial fur, but kudos to Ares for not finding one.

“So,” Helen says, “is this another bribe offer?”

“Well,” Ares says, “my wife wants me to call it a present, not at bribe.”

“You have a wife?” Helen asks.

“Sort of. It’s not official, but after the whole blowup with Hephaestus catching me with Aphrodite, we all cooled down and worked out an arrangement. Because Aphrodite. So she and Hephaestus and I are kind of together now, and it’s working out okay.”

Helen remains silent for a moment, then says, “I don’t know what to do with this information.”

“Well, actually, it’s going to work out well for you. I didn’t know what to get you for a present, because Aphrodite usually handles that kind of stuff—you know, remembering birthdays, clipping the toenails on Phobos and Deimos, booking me for a checkup with Asclepius once a year—so I asked her what a girl like you might want, and she said, ‘How about helping her go off somewhere nice with a person of her own choosing?’ Not another husband, unless that’s what you and he want…not even a ‘he’ if you aren’t into guys, and nobody’s saying this is even a sexual thing, just go with a friend, have some laughs…but basically this is a Get out of Sparta free card, with a full-paid two-person vacation away from Menelaus for the rest of your life.” Ares scratched his beard. “Personally, I think it sounds kind of cheap, considering that Zeus and Poseidon must have offered you, what, a gazillion drachmas, or maybe elevation into a god yourself. But Aphrodite seemed to think…”

Helen throws her arms around Ares and hugs him. “It’s a lovely gift.”

Embarrassed, Ares says, “I could sweeten the pot by killing someone for you. Your choice of whether or not he suffers.”

“No, getting out of here is all I need,” Helen says. “Except it’ll have to be someplace Menelaus won’t find me. He’ll look high and low, I know he will.”

Ares thinks for a moment, then says, “Go to Troy. I know people there; I’ll set you up. And I’ll introduce you to a few of the guys. Who knows, maybe you’ll hit it off with someone.”

Helen hugs him again. “Thanks. I declare you the winner.”

* * *

Ten years later, in the ashes of Troy, with the Age of Heroes dead and Olympus ruptured by schisms that would lead to its irrelevance, Zeus says to Ares and Poseidon, “Okay, so we pay some poet to blame this on the women, right?”

The men nod in agreement.


Chase Scenes in RPGs

I take part in tabletop role-playing games on a regular basis, both as a player and as GM. Some of my absolute most favorite sessions are based around chase scenes, so I thought I’d write a little about them.

Chase scenes are classic bits in adventure movies and TV. They’re less common in books and stories, perhaps because it’s harder to pace them well in prose. If a chase in a book goes on more than a page or two, it feels slow. You just can’t create the breakneck pace that you get on a screen.

In typical tabletop games, chase scenes tend to be short. If you’re using a tabletop map, the quarry escapes by reaching the edge of the map. That’s often possible in a single turn. But players feel cheated if a quarry gets away when it seems easy to catch. On the other hand, it’s not very interesting if a chase just comes down to seeing whose running speed is higher. In movies, chases aren’t just a case of comparing numbers.

The first time I saw a good mechanic for chases was in Night’s Black Agents from Pelgrane Press. It’s an abstract mechanic that works quite well.

All pursuers start a chase with a distance number of 5 from the quarry. Each turn, everyone in the chase can just keep going as is, or they can take a risk to improve their situation. A risk may be some crazy running/driving maneuver, or it may involve using a skill (e.g. knowledge of the city streets) to outdo the opposition.

If the quarry succeeds in a risk, all pursuers have their distance number go up by 1. If the quarry fails, the distance numbers go down. Similarly, if a pursuer succeeds in a risk, his or her distance number goes down; if the pursuer fails, the distance number goes up. Particularly crazy risks may change the distance number by 2 (up or down).

If a pursuer’s distance number reaches zero, the pursuer has caught the quarry. If a pursuer’s number reaches 10, that pursuer is out of the chase. Maybe the pursuer has just lost the trail. Maybe the pursuer’s horse has gone lame, or the car smashes into a building. It’s up to the GM to come up with something interesting, usually based on the individual pursuer’s most recent risk.

This system is simple and easy to adjust. For example, if you want a shorter chase, set the initial distance number at 3 and declare that the quarry gets away at 6.

But distance numbers are just a way of keeping score. The real fun comes from the risks, especially when you use them to emulate the kind of action that happens in movie chases.

Ideally, the GM should prepare a list of props and events in advance. As an example, here’s what I did when I ran a chase in a cyberpunk campaign set in Vancouver.

First, I set up the stakes: a bad guy does a deal and acquires a suitcase nuke at a gigantic rock concert. He then hops onto a motorbike and speeds away.

Obviously, the heroes will want to pursue. What can they chase the bad guy with? I supplied a selection of interesting vehicles. It just so happens that a gang of outlaw bikers have left their Harleys unattended. Throw in a sports car, an autogyro, a jetpack, and maybe a cybernetic horse. Each player character gets a choice of how to pursue. The horse and jetpack are bound to go first, then a lot of motorbikes. I made sure to have bikes left over, so the outlaw bikers could chase after the heroes: all part of the same chase.

One way or another, all the player characters had a chance to grab a vehicle and speed off in pursuit. From that point on, I made sure to have an appropriate set of hazards to spring along the way. For example, the quarry chose the risk of driving into a street festival: one with fireworks, a Chinese dragon parade, etc., etc. The quarry had to make a driving roll to get through the crowd. Pursuers could make similar rolls…but what if a player character is better at acrobatics than driving? In that case, maybe the character is better off doing wire fu moves up the side of a building and along the rooftops, avoiding all the confusion in the street. On the far side of the festival, there happens to be a taxi idling its engine. “Follow that motorbike!” And the chase continues.

The GM should let players improvise within the spirit of such chases. For example, if a player successfully makes an acrobatics roll to reach the rooftops, don’t require a roll for a taxi to be waiting. In movies, there’s always a taxi waiting…or a motorbike or a horse, a beautiful woman in a Ferrari or a hot-looking guy on a hover-board. You want your players to feel free to try wild stunts without penalty—just like in the movies.

Naturally, everyone will be shooting while all this is going on: guns, arrows, magic spells, whatever. But as in the movies, a successful shot doesn’t end the chase prematurely. If you shoot out the bad guy’s tires, he simply steals a new car…or he stays on foot and runs down into the subway where the chase continues.

As GM, you should have plenty of contingency plans to avoid premature endings. On the other hand, if the players do something really clever (or lucky), don’t be afraid to reward them by letting them catch the quarry, even though their distance number isn’t zero yet.

My favorite chases have been deliriously over the top. That cyberpunk campaign also included a highway chase with 18-wheelers, and it had a super-high death count. (The exploding oil truck was a contributing factor.) But you can always have more serious chases, especially if the heroes are the ones being pursued. The secret is still to have a big toolkit ready ahead of time: a list of possible events and stunts inspired by appropriate movie chases. Running across dark rooftops while you try to stay silent can be a nail-biting experience if done right.

If you’ve never done a chase in a role-playing game, I encourage you give it a shot. We did one in my 13th Age campaign last night…and as soon as the players realized a chase was coming, they practically started cheering. (Flying brooms and a flying Ford Anglia were involved.)

Pain and Suffering

I’ve had a positive response to some references to Buddhism I’ve made on Twitter, so I’ve decided that as an occasional thing, I’ll talk about my understanding of basic Buddhist concepts.

Writing stuff like this is actually a non-Buddhist thing to do—a constant theme in Buddhism is that putting things into words tends to blind you to your actual experiences. However, Buddhist teachers grudgingly admit that words can help you get started. The usual metaphor is that talking is a raft that gets you across the first river. After that, your journey continues, but you should leave the raft behind. Trying to carry it with you would just slow you down.

So let’s start with pain and suffering. Why? Because that’s what the Buddha focused on—ending his own suffering, and helping other people end theirs.

The key insight is simple: pain and suffering are two different things.

We can have pain without suffering. My favorite example is the pain I often feel during and after a good physical workout. It may hurt, but it doesn’t bother me. As they say, it’s “good pain”. It’s pain that I chose to take on; I know it will go away, and I realize it’s a side effect of becoming stronger and healthier.

Other examples: standard nicks and bruises. Usually, I just ignore them. I’ve seen kids get obsessed about microscopic cuts that I probably wouldn’t even notice. Adults have other things to think about…and yes, maybe we’re also more skilled at repression, which is not necessarily a good thing. But most grownups don’t get upset by little wounds. We accept them and pay attention to other things.

So pain doesn’t necessarily lead to suffering. The converse is also true: suffering isn’t always due to pain.

We’ve all experienced suffering when nothing is really wrong. The first example I can think of is when I’m driving and someone else on the road cuts me off or does something that scares me. It’s often a momentary thing, come and gone in a split-second without anything actually happening…but I can brood on such incidents for hours, dwelling on what-ifs and all the angry things I want to say to that idiot.

I suffer. I fixate. I can’t get it out of my head. But literally nothing happened. Nothing went wrong except that I got upset. It’s one thing if I make some decision like, “The next time I’m in that situation, I’ll slow down and watch for trouble,” (or whatever else makes sense for safety). Learning from a situation is what the Buddha would call “skillful”. But tying yourself in knots is unskillful: a source of unproductive suffering.

Boredom is another example of suffering without pain. Boredom is suffering when nothing is really wrong. So is yearning for ice cream or some other treat, even though you aren’t really hungry and you have plenty of food on hand. So is envy of someone else when really, you’re doing okay. You’re bothered by the comparison, not by your actual life.

Et cetera, et cetera. You can have pain without suffering. You can suffer without pain.

Even when you suffer in response to pain, they can still be disproportionate. A tiny pain can cause huge suffering; I prove that every time I have a mosquito bite.

So if suffering isn’t directly caused by pain, where does suffering come from? The Buddha said, “Watch and see.” We’ll talk about that the next time I feel like pontificating.