Tag Archives: time travel

547. Where Do You Get Your Ideas (2)

Continued from Monday.

In the movie Scrooge, just after Bob Cratchit leaves Scrooge to return home on Christmas eve, he meets his two youngest children outside a toyshop. Inside is a wonderland of toys, including mechanical marvels. Most notable is a clockwork strongman who lifts himself horizontally and then holds himself suspended by one arm. You’ll no doubt see the movie on TV sometime this month; you can watch for the scene.

When I saw it — and every time thereafter — I found myself asking who, in an obviously poor corner of London, would buy such toys? Who would make them? Why were they there?

I buy into Christmas and its magic 100%, but I also look behind the curtain. If you are a writer, you know the feeling.

Clearly, historically, these were late Victorian toys. Their existence was a product of Dickens’ push for humanity, kindness, and his desire to make childhood the joy it never was for him. In short, these toys existed in the 1970 version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol precisely because Dickens had called them forth by the writing of the novel in 1843.

If that confused you, don’t try to write time travel stories.

As I saw the toyshop, and the poor children outside who would never have such toys, I said to myself:

Let’s write a story about the toyshop, and the man who inhabits it. Let’s make him the toy maker, not simply the proprietor. How does he feel when he see children pressing their faces against the glass, knowing that they cannot afford the toys he makes? Why is he in this poor part of London? What is his backstory?

Let’s not make him a simple fellow like the one in the movie. Let’s make him a brooding figure. Let’s unfold his story slowly, and let him find his own kind of redemption. Let’s not make him anything like Scrooge, but the product of some irreversible tragedy outside himself. And then let’s reverse the irreversible, but slowly.

The skeleton of this idea floated about in the ether for decades. The final connections came when I was writing The Cost of Empire and getting acquainted with steampunk traditions.

Clockwork. Steampunk worlds work on steam and on clockwork. The toys in the toy shop are clockwork. Clocks are clockwork. Clocks measure time. Steampunk is full of time travel. Time travel is based on unsupportable science, so it touches on fantasy. A Christmas Carol is full of fantasy, if you count ghosts impinging on the “real” world as fantasy.

Remember, the subtitle of Dickens’ story was Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

When you come right down to it, A Christmas Carol is a story about time travel. Three ghosts take Scrooge to the past, present, and future. And it displays the most cliché time paradox, that Scrooge goes back in time (from the future to the present) and becomes a different person than he would have been if he had never seen the future.

So suppose a time traveler from the future goes back to Victorian London to — no, I don’t want to tell you that yet. I have to leave something for the book.

Don’t think of all this speculation as something that moves in linear order, like an outline. Think of it as ten thousand bees in a swarm inside the author’s head. Nine thousand of those bees will be blind alleys and will never appear in the final product.

The ones that made the cut were dragged out of the cosmos by hard thought and reflection over the year it took to write Like Clockwork. Those are the “ideas” no one ever asks about, but they are the ones that really count.

The ironic thing is that Like Clockwork ended up not being a Christmas story at all. In fact, it takes place in a universe where Christmas has been all but forgotten. The part of the novel actually dependent on the toy shop ends up as about ten percent of the whole.

So if, on some future date, you are reading Like Clockwork and you ask yourself, “Where the hell did all this come from?” — the answer is, “Dickens made me do it.”

Or the answer could be, “Out of the ether.” Both answers are true.

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538. Not Like Clockwork at All

I have been writing my latest novel Like Clockwork for ten months and today (October 17) I called it “first draft done”. But it’s not that simple.

I have a file on my computer called ???When???, where I keep track of starts and finishes because I would never remember dates otherwise. I went there to make note of the tentative conclusion of the first draft and took time to remind myself how I got here.

It’s a tangle. I’ve had books that took longer to write, and books that grew well beyond the size I had intended, but I have never before had a book that refused to tell me ahead of time what was going on. I decided to share the file of my progress(?), edited to remove irrelevant family matters.

===============

January 2, 2018. I began the first page of a novel/novella with the working title Clockwork Christmas.

Jan. 13, 2018.  Clockwork Christmas is now titled Like Clockwork, after the toy store where Snap works. As of today, I am about 12,000 words into the thing. I hope it will reach at least 60,000 words to be sold as a novel, but it still could possibly be finished at novella length.

(For reference, SFWA sets novella length at 17,500-40,000 words. F&SF sets 25,000 as the largest piece they will publish.)

Like Clockwork is being constructed of (minimum and approximate) 1000 word chapters.

From roughly 17 to 22 January, 2018, I paused Like Clockwork to write posts for the website. (There were several pauses for colds and other minor illnesses which I will not record.)

On Jan 31, I wrote chapter 10 in which Balfour gets the idea for Jekyll and Hyde. He does not yet know that he already wrote it in another life.

Mar. 6, 2018, things are coming slowly. As of today, about 25 chapters done. That’s a large number, but each chapter is short.

March 11, 2018  Today Stevenson emerged into consciousness, absorbing both Balfour and Hyde. That lasted about a day, then Balfour realized he can’t be the actual Stevenson because he remembers Stevenson’s tombstone. What exactly  is he? As of now, I have no more idea than he does.

April 3, 2018, writing on the chapter Slow Time, I began to show Bartleby’s dogged determination to follow any task to its completion. The question occurred to me for the first time, is Bartleby human, or a robot or android. As of this date, I hadn’t decided if he is a person or an living story character with Melville as Fabulist, and now here is a third possibility.

April 4, 2018, writing the final paragraph of the chapter Slow Time I came to the realization that Like Clockwork is the story of a whole cadre of people who made a Faustian bargain, got what they asked for, and now are suffering from buyers’ remorse. I also came to the realization that yesterday’s question, “Is he a robot?” is answered this way — he is a cold, detached, hard boiled detective type who can’t be pushed aside from a goal or puzzle. He doesn’t need a personality any more than Sam Spade did. Not a machine, but thinks like one.

(Aside — Bartleby’s name changed as the writing progressed. First he was named after the Melville scrivener. Then he became Helmsman. I liked that name but it implied that he was a leader type, which he wasn’t. Finally he became Hemmings, because it’s just a name with no hidden meanings.)

About here, some time was devoted to my personal life, plus the completion of an unrelated short story.

On about June 28, I became aware the Tor would accept novellas beginning July 30. Like Clockwork had been nearing its end at about 70000 words. That doesn’t work for today’s publishing industry, and some of that was less that compelling writing in a long flashback section. I had three choices. Shorten and go for Tor novella publication, stretch even further and try to reach salable novel length, or let it find it’s own length and self-publish. I have opted to make it a Tor novella, although the other choices remain if Tor rejects it.

On July 14, 2018, I finished the Tor novella version of Like Clockwork, now retitled The Clock that Ate Time. I still have to do some e-formating to match their submission engine. The novella version runs 39,365 words. I had to cut out everything relating to Hemmings and Crump, which means cutting out the Babbage and Hemmings’s brief career as a sweeper in a factory, along with the extended memory-retrieved-as-flashback that details how the Founder set up the whole thing and why. I really hated to let go of all that.

I would enjoy the long version better, but the short version is less discursive. If the novella doesn’t fly, I may try it elsewhere (if there is any elsewhere — F&SF maxes out their novellas at 25,000 words) or I may go back and finish the long version. For now, I’m just glad to be at least temporarily done with it.

The novella version went off to tor.com.

You have to understand that writing is schizophrenic. I was sure that it would be accepted. No other outlook would allow a writer to retain his sanity. I was equally sure that it wouldn’t be accepted. The market being what it is, everyone on Earth with a novella ready is going to jump into the tor.com window of opportunity.

From the end of July until the beginning of October, I worked on other projects.

Oct 2, 2018   tor.com rejected The Clock that Ate Time, resulting in disappointment followed by relief. Now I can complete the novel version. Bear in mind, it is not insanity to carefully edit out feelings of irritation and disappointment, as long as you know that you are doing it.

Now I am expanding Hemmings part of the story and grafting it back onto the whole. It is called Like Clockwork again and it is taking forever to complete.

October 17, 2018 I finished both part one and part three of Like Clockwork months ago. I have recently been filling in the middle third, which amounts to a long flashback that explains how reiterant London came to be. Today I wrote the last line of the middle section. I still have several  half-page long dialogs or descriptions to fill in, and I still haven’t quite finished deciding how to integrate Hemmings and Crump into the big finale, but I am calling it “rough draft finished”.

Still, it feels (and is) very unfinished at this stage. I think I need to fill in more of the Founder’s personality. That may take only a few touches here and there, but they have to be the exact right touches, and that can take a long time. I also have four versions to integrate: beginning, middle, and end of the latest version, along with the tor.com version which is the least extensive but most polished.

I need to find something to write next, or perhaps finally decide to begin self-publishing; it may take a long time for all the finalizing of Like Clockwork, a few hours here and a few hours there.

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See what I mean? This is my fourteenth book, and the only one that has driven me this crazy. I know that I did a lot of character name dropping, but that was unavoidable. I don’t expect you to understand anything except the level of madness this book has engendered.

Today I started deciding which potential novel will be number number fifteen. I plan to outline this one.

I think.

537. The Bridge of London (2)

. . . continued from Monday, and entirely appropriate for Halloween.

Balfour’s footsteps had led him to this passage outward toward a world beyond the fog, and he was determined to take it. But it was a strange passage. Balfour moved forward to touch the wall at his left and found it solid. The half-timbers were soft with age, but real; the brick infill was cracked and seamed, but real.

The London Bridge of 1850 was a span of steel supported on five stone arches. There had been a time, a brief year, when a man could walk across it and look downstream to the medieval bridge it had replaced, before that rotted hulk had been torn down.

The medieval London Bridge had so many arches that their combined resistance backed up the Thames. In flood time, the wider central gap erupted such a torrent that boats could not pass. On the bridge, over the centuries, houses, businesses and chapels were built until only a single narrow lane remained for human passage.

The house beneath Balfour’s hand was medieval in structure and in its state of decay. The roadway beneath the skiff of snow was the macadam of 1850. The path out over the Thames was narrow and dark.

He walked forward. The houses did not make a continuous line on either side, as the true medieval bridge had done, but left wide openings, first downstream, then up. Balfour could hear the Thames below, flowing quietly at first where the bridge arched high above, then grumbling when it had to force its way around a pier. The medieval buildings passed by him in the fog as he moved forward, but he did not turn aside again to examine them. He did not care about their mysteries. He only wanted to cross and see if London still extended beyond the river and the fog.

Ancient decay flanked him. Modern industry held him up above the water. His breath frosted the air before him, and the fog about him glowed as if there were moonlight.

He walked until he had surely reached the middle of the river. A chapel reared itself up before him. He knew it. It had been destroyed long before he was born, but he had read of the Chapel of Thomas à Becket. Henry II had built it after Becket was martyred at Canterbury. It had stood at the midpoint of the medieval London Bridge. Pilgrims had come here to begin their procession to Canterbury.

He passed inside, where the fog light barely penetrated. It was an empty, barn like structure, full of echoes, looking long deserted. He could see tall windows, devoid of glass, and the half timbers up high where some light penetrated, but the ground level was close to complete darkness.

Balfour heard the sound of footsteps in the dark. He felt a presence near him, and a cold breath on his face. He reached out his hands and touched nothing. He stepped forward, reaching, and found nothing. He said, “Who are you?”

A voice out of the darkness replied, “You call me Nemesis. You used to call me Hyde.”

Balfour lunged forward but whoever spoke remained just out of his reach. He shouted, “Why can’t I see you?”

“You could never see me. When you wrote me as Hyde, you made sure your readers could never see me. Oh, you said I was shrunken and evil, but there was no detail in your description. You didn’t want to know, and you didn’t want them to know.”

“But why?”

“You can no more see me than you can see the back of your own head. Come on, man, read the koan!”

Balfour stopped reaching out. He could hear breathing in the dark, but it might have been breath from his own lungs. The voice said, “Stop trying to write Jekyll and Hyde. You already wrote it, in a far country, a thousand years ago. It’s time to stop reliving and start remembering.”

“How do you know that?”

“How else? I am you. You hived me off. You separated from me because you feared me. You did it in our youth, when God and godly parents ruled your life, and you were afraid to sin. Once you became mature, you wrote a book to try to get me back, but you failed. That is what made you susceptible to the one who made this place.”

“Who made this place?”

“Why ask me? I am you. Ask yourself.”

Balfour went on, “Why did you come to me now?”

“I didn’t come to you. I am within you. I always have been, and you have been seeking me all our life. You simply found me, at last. Why now? Why not now?”

“What . . .?”

“Stop asking. I am not separate from you. We are one, and we’re talking to ourself. It’s time to stop that.”

There was anger in the voice that rang around them. “You wrote the coward Jekyll. You gave him the elixir that would let him destroy me. I sat on your shoulder in your mind and watched you write those first words, then I took over the story.

“You wrote Treasure Island with its prissy squire and its self-certain doctor and its self-centered child actor. I wrote Jekyll and Hyde through your hand and against your will. I am your pride and your lust. I am the fire that lives inside you. I am the one whom you repressed when you agreed to help with the building of the Great Clock. I am the part of you which regrets what we did.

“You won’t even call yourself by our own name. You must stop that. We have a battle to fight together. You can’t fight it without me.”

And then Balfour — or call him Stevenson — was alone. And not alone.

#                   #                   #

There was no other exit from the chapel, although he searched for hours. What lay beyond, if anything, would remain a mystery. He emerged from the door where he had gone in. The bridge lay before him, disappearing into fog, and down its center was the single line of footsteps which he had laid down in coming here. Hyde had left no footprints. It was a mobius bridge, that only carried him back to his beginning.   finis, for now

536. The Bridge of London (1)

These events occur some days later than last post. Balfour has returned to Inner London, where he encountered the assailant who gave him the idea of the nemesis.

It is a story fit for Halloween, and it is continued on Wednesday.

The fog had moved lower. Now the tops of the tenements and deserted warehouses were all lost in quavering masses of shapeless gray. Balfour passed through populated areas to empty stretches, and back again. The ragged men eyed him warily and drew back. The old women did the same. The brash young women chaffed him, and offered him comforts he did not want.

This was the land of the nemesis. Balfour did not expect to see a dead man emerge from the fog, but he hoped to better understand his fictional nemesis by walking where the real man had walked.

A woman in a low cut dress, sour smelling and unwashed, threw herself on him, brushing her face against his shoulder as her hand slipped inside his coat to take his wallet. He pushed her aside; she snarled, cat-like, and called him foul names. A man moved in as if to aid her. He was lean and hard, in stained waistcoat and greasy trousers. Balfour raised his cane and snarled back. The man retreated. Fear had come into his eyes.

As if Balfour were the nemesis.

The fog had come down to the street now. No one accosted him further. He could hear voices in the fog, and the whispers seemed to warn everyone back from him.

It was strange to be feared, and yet familiar.

Balfour continued on his way, now tapping the cobblestones with his stick. He veered from gutter to gutter like a drunken man, but his senses had never been more alert.

He had begun on Cannon Street, but soon he had no idea where he was. None of the streets in Inner London are wide, but for a man picking his way blindly through opaque fog, they were wide enough to leave him stranded in mid-street, with no sense of direction. When he crossed King William’s Street, he lost contact with the gutters, turned about, tapped the ground, turned again, and found himself heading unknowingly southward

There he came for the first time to the ruined Bridge of London.

Of all the dozens of bridges spanning the Thames, only London Bridge had become a household word outside the city. The moment it loomed out of the fog, Balfour recognized it. And yet . . .

The Great Clock had turned time into an Ouroboros worm. The people of London had worked with the Clock to make it so. In fear of death, they had turned their backs on the future and whittled Time down to a single repeating Year.

No one considered that these actions might have jumbled history in the process, yet here was London Bridge, not as it had been in the unmodified 1850 and not as it had been in medieval times, but a scraggly combination of both.

Of all the people in either London, only Balfour would have recognized the discontinuity. He lived in the rolling present of necessity and in the past because his work as a writer took him there, so he was probably the only man in either London who could look at this iteration of the bridge, and know that it was strange.

This was a bridge of steel and stone as it should have been in 1850, but on its margins were medieval houses now gone to rot. It was something that had never existed in reality, but such a bridge as might have been imagined in novels of gothic horror.

Curious.

The fog had thickened even further. Turrets and dormers, and dark gaping eyeholes of absent windows wandered in and out of visibility. It had to be nearly midnight, and that made Balfour smile. It was always midnight in gothic novels, so why not here and now? The cold had deepened. A thin layer of snow crunched under his feet. There was still some light, as if a full moon rode high above the fog.

It was never fully dark in London, and that was another wrong thing that Balfour had never noticed before. In deepest night, every night, whatever the phase of the absent moon, the dome of fog glowed with faint light.

A poor illusion, but good enough for the incurious who lived beneath it.

Balfour was sick of illusions. He had come to Inner London tonight partly to ask about the absence of a world beyond London, and the nemesis that lived in his mind had seduced him into seeking out the dark streets where he made his home. Still, his footsteps had led him to this passage outward toward a world beyond the fog, and he was determined to take it.

Continued Wednesday.

535. Meeting the Nemesis

I introduced you to Balfour two weeks ago. He is, and is not, Robert Louis Stevenson. I don’t plan to explain that here; you’ll just have to read the book when it comes out.

Writers write about writing. It’s inevitable. I have mostly avoided the temptation, but it finally got to me through Balfour. This — somewhat modified to remove references that wouldn’t make sense without context — is Balfour struggling with inspiration.

==========

Balfour got out of bed and went to his desk without bothering to dress. He took paper and pen, and stared out his window at the street below. Everyone in Outer London was going to work. He watched them for a moment, caught up in the novelty of a daily scene he was rarely awake in time to see, but then his eyes moved back to the blank page before him.

An hour later, the page was still blank when he rose to make tea and put on his clothing. It didn’t bother him. There was not one scratch on the pristine paper, but he was weary already with the work he had done.

There weren’t any words — yet. Words would come later. There were not even concepts yet, only inchoate pictures moving behind his eyes. No matter. He had been here before, and he had faith in the process which he had begun. The pictures would sharpen, the concepts would explain themselves to him, and then, finally, the words would come. Most of the early words would be discarded anyway, but that was all right too. It didn’t matter how long it would take, as long as the journey had begun. And it had.

Again. And it had been so long.

It was like filling his lungs with air again, after being trapped underwater until he thought he would not survive. Breathing again, after thinking so long that he would never breathe again.

He was hungry for food, but hungrier still to continue working. He sat the cup of tea on the table beside the still pristine paper and took up his pen. After a while, he put the pen down again and sipped, then took it up again. If you had asked him later where the tea went, he could not have told you. He stared out the window as the day unfolded. If you asked him later who had walked by on the street below, he could not have told you.

It will not be the story of an event. It will be the story of a man.

Who?

For now, just call him the nemesis.

What does he look like?

There was a picture in Balfour’s head. It was mostly the ruffian he had met last night, although he had already begun to morph into something universal.

The picture was clear in Balfour’s mind, but he could not write it yet. It was not wrong, but it was incomplete. His pen moved across the page and he tried a few lines, then impatiently scratched them out.

Balfour stared at the picture in his head and it became more fearsome. The eyes became blacker; the soul became blacker. The creature’s hands moved. They were powerful, like Snap’s hands were, but these were not the hands of a builder. These were the hands of a destroyer.

Looking at the picture in his mind, he knew that he should feel fear. But he didn’t — yet. The picture was fearsome, but it was only a picture. Until Balfour could understand this nemesis, dive deep into his soul and find the source of his anger, his writing would be superficial.

Until he knew this creature well enough to actually fear him, he could not do him justice. But how do you learn fear? Where do you search for it?

In memory. Yet in the clean, ordinariness of Outer London, there was no room for fear, and little enough room for memory.

==========

Poor Balfour. He doesn’t know that he has already written the story he is struggling with, in the Before, when he was actually RLS. If that seems confusing, hang on. There are two more posts coming, which will carry us to Halloween.

529. Dystopia Lost

A few days ago, as I was working on Like Clockwork, a matter came up that calls for sharing a thought. Many dystopian stories end in a catastrophe. This is particularly true in movies, where special effects are always a temptation. Walls fall, the city burns, people flee or die, and the old order is disrupted or brought down. End of story.

Things haven’t quite worked out that way in Like Clockwork, although some of that is certainly on the horizon in my pocket London. I know this because I have already written the bulk of the first half and the bulk of the second half, and now I’m trying to stitch up the middle.

Hemmings — who used to be called Helmsman, and before that was called Bartleby after the scrivener, and who may still have another new name before I’m finished — has just destroyed the God he worships, metaphorically speaking. No problem, it happens all the time, but now he has destroyer’s remorse.

I didn’t expect that, as I sent him out to (deleted to avoid spoiler). It is a peculiarity of the way I think, that every time one of my characters does something I ask myself, “What would happen now in the real world?” Not what would Heinlein do, or what would Zelazny do, or what would Neal or Neil do, but what would Life do?

I can’t imagine Hemmings doing what he just did and getting away clean. He would certainly have to wring his hands and cry, “What have I done?”

When you burn down the church, metaphorically, there is no way to avoid ending up hip deep in ashes. To quote yesterday’s draft, “God had hurled Lucifer out of heaven; Hemmings had hurled himself out.” Hemmings didn’t expect that, nor the regrets which followed. Neither did I.

Writing is certainly an interesting way to spend your time.

512. Time Jacks

Beginning last July I wrote a steampunk novel called Cost of Empire. It is presently seeking a home. I am now working on a second but very different steampunk novel called Like Clockwork. Besides being weird, it also insists on being about 65,000 words long. I really don’t know what I’m going to do about that; that would be a happy length for a 70s or 80s novel, but today’s market demands 100,000 words. Writing is easy compared to meeting the artificial needs of publishing, but short or long, LC is nearing completion.

(Of course, the post last Wednesday makes some of this obsolete. That is the problem with writing ahead.)

It is time to start thinking about a new novel. I have a time travel trilogy I began outlining about two years ago, just before Empire demanded to be written. I’ve been looking over my notes from then, to get my head in order before plunging in. At that time, I wrote a short first chapter, just to test things out.

Would you like to see it? I thought so. The novel will be called Time Jacks.

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In the middle of the continent is a state called Kansas, and in the middle of Kansas is a medium sized town devoted to Time.

Near the middle of the town is a university devoted to the study of time, its mathematical nature, manipulation, inviolability (or lack thereof), and philosophical implications. Bleekman University is the most theoretical of all theoretical institutions, where the finest mathematicians and the finest of philosophers meet and attempt to understand each other, while both are trying to understand Bleekman’s legacy.

On a lintel stone over the entrance to the campus is an engraving of Bleekman’s Theorem. It takes one hundred seventeen symbols, some of which are seen nowhere else in the history of human thought, and some of which are still disputed by those mathematicians and philosophers.

There are three other institutions in Bleekman — surely you guessed that would be the name of the town. Near the university on the north is the Institute of Applications, where the knowledge brought back from alterlines is studied before it is released to the world at large. Scholars at the Institute ask, ”How does it work?” and “What use can we make of it?”

Scholars at Bleekman University do not care for such questions. They spend their time — that statement is almost a pun in itself — poking about on the edges of the Universal Why, knowing that they will never penetrate to its core.

Scholars from the Institute and from the University rarely talk to each other. That may be fortunate for mankind. Opinions differ on this matter.

South of both is “The Academy”. It has a longer name, but no one uses it. Here the brightest and best from all over the Earth come to become Time Agents. Ten thousand are admitted each autumn, having been previously winnowed by harsh competitive examinations. After three years, a few hundred become technicians and a few dozen become agents.

As you might expect, the graduates are a cocky lot.

[I left space here for several paragraphs I wasn’t yet ready to write.]

Oh, you noticed? Not surprising, really. I mentioned the University and three other institutions, then only told you about two.

In the center of Bleekman is a dome, a hundred meters high and a thousand meters across. You can see it from space, but I can’t tell you much more than that. Agents go in through the dome’s only entrance and a year or so later they come out, changed forever. Within the dome are the mechanisms of transference, which anyone is welcome to understand. Just study Bleekman’s Theorem, and good luck to you.

There are many other exits from the dome, but they are all in other timelines; alterlines, most people call them. This Bleekman, this Kansas, this Earth, and this universe constitute the homeline.

Time agents go through the dome to various elsewheres and bring back treasure. They go with the courage of a lion and the stealth of a mouse, changing nothing, and stealing nothing but knowledge.

That is all I can tell you. No one knows more, except for the few who have passed the entrance exams and the three years of winnowing that produces time agents.

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Okay, it’s clearly a rough draft, but I like where it is going. This will be fun.