9 Precious Ps of Long Distance Bike Rides (and other expeditions)

Patience

You can’t rush around Britain. Even if you rush one day, you’ve still got hundreds, thousands of miles still to go. There’s no point. If you try and rush, then you’ll just lose heart (and probably do yourself an injury). You’ve also got to keep your patience when things go wrong. When it rains, when your bike breaks in half, when you get lost. It doesn’t matter. Just calm down and ask someone to help you.

Perseverance & Persistence

There is nothing remarkable in a philatelist who has collected one stamp. Long distance bike rides are the same. There is nothing remarkable in one day’s ride, it is only by persisting through day after day after day of rain and pain that you’ll reach your goal.

Prosperity

I don’t mean you have to be super-rich to go on a long expedition. But you do need to have money. Taking three months off work to do something like this is already a big financial commitment. And you don’t want to be scared of spending money on a lot of food, between £10 and £20 per day, even if you go to supermarkets. If you’re not wild camping, then that’s another £20 to £40 per day on accommodation. You’ll also want to put aside a few hundred pounds for bike repairs and maintenance, just in case. You could easily find yourself £1000 out of pocket without even thinking about it.

Physical Fitness

This is an important one, but also a misleading one. Cycling gets you fit. But: cycling long distances every day will not feel good and you won’t feel fit, at least to begin with. You’ll probably feel rubbish. Personally, I’m five days in and I can hardly walk, my knees are in pain and my neck and back ache. Anticipate it and forget about it.

Planning & Preparation

Planning, the art of plotting out a route or coming up with a cycling concept, is hugely overrated. The chances are that all your plans will be thrown off the bike as soon as you get on it. Preparation, on the other hand, the art of ensuring that you have the right equipment to be able to handle these capricious changes of plan, is worth investing time and resources in.

Purpose & Pride

If you don’t have a strong purpose for doing your bike ride, then you might find it mentally tough to keep going. However, you’ll soon find that pride takes over. As long as you can’t think up an excuse to all those people back home you told about your expedition, then your pride will keep you purposelessly pedaling.

And so back to my purposeless pedaling!

p.s. I’m in Burnham Deepdale, in Norfolk. Done about 325 miles so far…

Cycling around Britain: #1 …ha ha ha!

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night. It didn’t have to be: I was lying in a field of nettles, my feet above my head and a slug in my face.

This, my friends, is the glamour of attempting to cycle around Britain (…ha ha ha!) without a tent or a proper map.

I say “…ha ha ha!” because really this doesn’t feel much like an attempt to cycle around Britain, more like a race to see which will break first: my body, my bike or my mind.

So where do we stand on that score?

1: The Bike

The first to break was my bike. The rack, on which one of my bags is strapped, snapped off. I heard a clunking noise from behind me and stopped. I looked around at my bag and stared. For a minute or two I couldn’t figure out what had happened. The bag and the rack were still attached to one another. That was good. But the bag was somehow further away than it should be. Slowly it dawned on me.

So I got out the trusty gorilla tape (stronger than duck tape) and Heath Robinsonned the rack to the bike. It’s behaved perfectly ever since.

2: The Body

Second to break has been my body. Both knees are destroyed, but in fascinatingly different ways. The right has reverted rather truculently to the old injury that I did cycling to Bordeaux two years ago. But the left, always inventive, has found a couple of tendons around the back and is attempting to saw them away from the muscle. This means that I can’t go faster than about 10mph (except, lethally, downhill) and I can’t go up hill at all.

I am lucky that cycling and walking use two completely different sets of muscles. So, while my knees scorn any attempt at cyclopic locomotion, they are sweet as pie when it comes to perambulation around town. It’s at that point that my quads kick up a fuss and I spent a happy ten minutes this morning staring at my calves while they twitched and spasmed quite joyfully. I was only sitting on a park bench.

3: The Mind

This is the most insidious and the most dangerous. Furthermore, the other two, bike and body, feed it with self-pitying cream cakes of depression and pointlessness.

Every little thing becomes a test of mental resolution. From struggling with the bungee ropes on the rack, to being unable to get the plastic wrapper from a lipsalve. From the prospect of the weather, to the sound of a mournful song on the radio in a cafe. From finding a bite to eat, to finding a place to sleep.

And what makes it worse is that, with a broken bike or a broken body, there is no dishonour in going home. With a broken mind, there is no excuse.

That’s when I remember Ed Stafford’s walk along the length of the Amazon. He hated it. Absolutely hated the whole damned thing. He got depressed, he got shot at, he got infected with strange parsasites. But did he go home? No.

See you in Lowestoft then!

p.s. I’m currently in Woodbridge. I’ve done 150 miles so far. Hurrah.

Lies, damned lies and real unemployment statistics

Unemployment is falling, the Office for National Statistics tells us. They say a lot of other things as well, but that’s all we hear from the government and in the press: unemployment is falling.

Unemployment, the ONS tells us, has fallen to 2.43 million, after the largest quarterly fall since August 2000. Or, as The Guardian put it last month: “UK unemployment falling at fastest pace in a decade”. Great news, you might think.

But the ONS also reports other figures. One of those is economic inactivity in the workforce, i.e. among 16 to 64 year-olds. That figure is up 0.1% to 23.3% of the workforce. That’s right: almost a quarter of the working population, don’t work. 9.37 million people.

Of these, 2.29 million are students inactive in the labour market. So they can be knocked off the total, assuming that they are at least doing something productive.

That leaves us with 7.08 million people not working, out of a workforce of about 40 million.

[Of these, incidentally, only 1.49 million are claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. You can look at this figure in one of two ways: 

  • The Daily Mail way – “5.5 million can’t even be bothered to look for a job!”
  • The Independent way – “5.5 million are being failed by the welfare state.”]

But there are also 1.21 million people who are underemployed. In other words, 1.21 million people forced to work part-time because they can’t find full-time work. This is the highest figure since records began in 1992.

So, in total, there are 8.29 million people of working age in Britain who are either out of work or unable to find full-time work. That is 20.6% of the working population, a fifth.

In August 2010, this figure was 8.12 million people or 20.2% of the workforce*.

Now you can judge for yourself whether unemployment is falling or not. Don’t just listen to the headlines, look at the figures.


April 2011: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=12
August 2010: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/lmsuk0810.pdf

*This is made up of 9.35m economically inactive; 2.3m students and 1.07m underemployed. In August, the ONS changed the way the number of economic inactive people were calculated, by raising the working age threshold for women from 59 to 64. Figures before August 2010, therefore, are not comparable with current figures.

Sleep Long: Be Awesome

Sleep 10 hours or more every night and you will reap huge benefits on your physical and mental performance and, not surprisingly, you’ll feel great! (You’ll also be less likely to get fat and die…)

Now, I’m not just making this up – science told me. Volume 34, Issue 7 of Sleep, in fact. More precisely, a snappily titled article, “The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players”.

A-ha. Basketball players, you notice. Yes, the fact that their free throw and 3-point field goal percentages both increased by 9%, might seem to be rather sport-specific, but they were also faster in sprints and had faster reaction times. Not only that, but their mood was also elevated, with increased vigour and decreased fatigue and the players reported increased physical and mental well-being.

That’s the carrot, anyway. So why not try to sleep a couple of hours longer at night for a couple of weeks and see what happens? It might be hard at first, but persevere.

And if you prefer the stick to the carrot:

  • Short sleep duration is associated with obesity
  • Short sleep duration is associated with greater risk of death

Off you go now – to bed with you!


You can access the articles here:
Sleep extension benefits: http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=28194
Sleep and obesity: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18239586
Sleep and mortality: http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=27780

How to Write a Real Novel in 30 days: Part 3

I have finished!

I have created, from scratch, a fully edited novel of 80,000 words, in 114.75 hours, over the course of 31 (44) days.

An Admission
Some of you might be thinking: he’s been going longer than 30 days! And you would be right. I started writing this novel on the 27th of May. Today is the 9th of July, so that makes 44 days.

However: I only worked on the novel for 31 out of those 44 days.

[The reasons for this are varied. I took a few days off to hitch-hike up to the Lake District, raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support. I took a few more days off to be ill. Another couple of days here and there for various reasons that I won’t bother mentioning. Suffice to say, excuses should never be a part of a writer’s conversation.]

So, by my reckoning, I’m only 1 day over budget. Not bad for a first attempt.

Anyway, in 31 or 44 days, it all happened in two phases.

Phase One: Write like crazy

I wrote in a straight line, from 0 to 65,000 words in 71.75 hours of writing time, over the course of 21 (25) days.

At the end of each day’s writing, I transferred everything from my electronic typewriter to my computer. Sometimes I broke these chunks into scenes, sometimes I didn’t bother. But, thanks to the concentrated writing each day, I spent even my hours of leisure thinking about the problems of the novel. Quite often I’d think of some way out that I’d write the next day. Occasionally, and increasingly towards the end of the novel, I’d think of something that I wanted to have in the final chapter, some loose end that would need tying up, and I’d note this down for later.

By the end of Phase One, I had broken down the massive chunks of writing (about 3,000 words a day) into scenes. I had also decided that I wanted the novel to fall into five parts, plus an epilogue. Some of these parts arrived better formed than others. For example: most of the parts had about 13 scenes in them. Part II, however, had 27. This was ridiculous, especially as it was the shortest part in terms of words!

It would need a lot of editing in Phase Two.

Phase Two: Edit like crazy

I went back to the beginning and re-wrote, edited and generally tidied up the rough stuff of Phase One. This took me 43 hours, over the course of 10 (19) days.

There were quite a lot of things that didn’t quite make sense. So I had to write new scenes and completely redevelop some existing scenes. This made the novel grow quite substantially.

As an indication, by the end of Phase One, my novel looked like this:

  • Part I: 14,000 words
  • Part II: 10,000 words
  • Part III: 14,000 words
  • Part IV: 10,000 words
  • Part V: 17,000 words

By the end of Phase Two, it was looking like this:

  • Part I: 14,000 words
  • Part II: 17,000 words
  • Part III: 14,500 words
  • Part IV: 16,500 words
  • Part V: 19,000 words

As you can see, Parts II and IV expanded by two thirds between the first draft and the first edit. The other sections also increased in size, but more modestly.

The reason why Part I didn’t grow was because I actually started editing this Part during Phase One. The first draft of Part I was only 10,000 words in length, so it too grew significantly during the editing process.

Reflections on the 30-day process

The process, I believe, is devastatingly effective, but only if you can dedicate the hours to it. I spent between 3 and 5 hours every day that I worked.

Essentially, I worked for 21 days straight on Phase One, then took a week-long break, then spent 10 days straight on Phase Two. I would not necessarily recommend this week-long break, but it didn’t seem to hold me back too much. Perhaps it helped, perhaps it didn’t. I won’t know until I try and do this again.

One thing I probably would not recommend is starting to edit before you’ve finished the first draft. I did this with Part I. Although I felt at the time that it was helping me, in retrospect, I’m not sure it did. But again: who knows?

I do know for certain that some parts of the novel came very easily and some parts were difficult. Parts II and IV, notably, took longer to edit and required more smoothing out of the plot. Parts I, III and V were much more coherent from the first draft.

I think this is no coincidence. These parts contained much more of the action of the novel, rather than reaction and set-up. Action is no doubt easier to write: with action, you can write with the flow, whereas reaction is more circumspect and much harder to keep interesting.

So why bother with reaction at all? Because the reader needs a break! Also because I like to write novels that are a little more thoughtful than most smash-bang thrillers. So, while this novel is a thriller, it is perhaps a little more considered than Dan Brown.

Personally, I think this is a good thing; financially, it’s a disaster!

What’s next?

I’m still not entirely happy with the novel, after only one full edit. So I am going to spend the next 5 days doing a second edit to the whole novel, making sure that the plot is logically consistent. Then I am going to hand the whole thing over to my editors and first readers. So I fully expect to have finished this project after just 36 (or, if you like, 49) days.

Then I’m going to cycle around Britain…

And now? Over to you! I’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to have a thrash at this crazy, wild, magical 30-day real-novel-writing technique!