Writing a book for easy money – a myth examined

There’s a question I get asked a lot. So I thought I’d let two Rozzes, 15 years apart, slog it out.

Young Roz, fresh-faced ghostwriter: Why don’t you write a quick series of novels that would sell shedloads and make a mint. Then you can spend the rest of your time on your, er, slower-selling books. The arty ones.

Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. It’s not that simple.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But you’ve had the best bootcamp ever for commercial fiction writing. You’ve worked with ruthless and brilliant editors. You’ve seen your books as posters on the London Underground.

Older, wiser Roz: When I ghostwrote, I was new to professional writing. Unformed. Looking for my way.  Then I started on my own novel and everything changed. Once upon a time, my goal was to please those taskmasters. I discovered I could suddenly please myself. I’d learned to drive the car; now I could take it anywhere I wanted.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Well come on, why do those books take so long? I can hammer out a ghostwritten novel in six weeks. I thought My Memories of a Future Life would be a left-field suspense. Lifeform Three was supposed to be a light futuristic romp. What on earth were you doing?

Older, wiser Roz: The books kept changing. The more I worked on them, the more they seemed to pose an irresistible mystery about life. A novel in progress isn’t just a thing I pick up at the keyboard and put down again. It travels with me. An endless conversation. A personal crusade. Keyboard-time is when I catch up with the points I honed as I watched a film, worked an editing shift, went for a run, cooked dinner, groomed a horse. That process is one of the pleasures of building a novel. And frequently the frustration. Do you know what? I don’t want to live with a book unless I can take it to its genuine limit.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Don’t over-think it. Just write to a trend.

Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. I was chatting to a senior editor at a Big Five publisher. ‘Roz,’ he said,  ‘we’re looking for another Girl On The Train. Just knock one off. The manuscripts we’re getting from agents are rubbish. We need you.’

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: I am totally going to do that.

Older, wiser Roz: Yes, you will. You’ll take a publisher’s informal hint and write a thriller that chases a trend. By the time it’s ready, the trend will be over. And anyway, I don’t read books like that.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But … bestsellers. Hot categories. Salivating now.

Older, wiser Roz: Yes, the cash doesn’t just rain out of the air if you write one manuscript. You need to feed readers regularly. You won’t just write one, you’ll write several. Even a book that is fast to draft has a lot of other time behind it – knowledge of the market, promotion activities, reading the innovators so your work is fresh enough. Have I mentioned that readers will spot if you don’t adore that genre to your very boot-soles? Writing like that is not a part-time job, it’s a dedicated role. It’s full on, full time. What bandwidth does that leave for crafting a nice book for the soul?

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But there are surprise breakouts. I’ll take a few rejections on my determined chin, and eventually we’ll be Rowling in £££s. I’ll whack a book on Kindle when it’s invented, learn some sales-fu and watch it rain dollars.

Older, wiser Roz: Oh just buy a ticket for the lottery.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Think of those Tube posters for the books we ghostwrote. Wouldn’t it be nice to see our real name there?

Older, wiser Roz: Yes, there was a time when I could dash off a genre book. I was new and eager and didn’t know what I wanted to write for myself. I’m happy to ghostwrite non-fiction, because that’s creative journalism. I like editing too; it’s the fun part of problem-solving, helping another writer with their vision. Being a supportive godmother instead of the flailing, gnashing parent.

In the professional world of publishing, there’s no such thing as writing a book for easy money. So I prefer to be careful how I spend my creative energy. Because there’s a lot I want to do.

(Psst… if you’re curious to know more, sign up for my newsletter.)


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6 unusual tips for writing characters who’ll keep readers riveted – guest post at Ingram Spark

How do we create fictional people who feel just as real as our closest friends? How do we build layers of complexity that will bewitch a reader and keep them hooked for several hundred pages? Ingram Spark noticed I had a book about characters (here) invited me to their blog to write my six strongest tips on the subject. The first tip will cheer anybody who’s had feedback that said ‘I don’t believe your protagonist would do that …’ Do come over.

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Do this before that: 5 production steps for brilliant books – guest post at Alliance of Independent Authors

A month or so ago, I wrote this advice in a post at the Alliance of Independent Authors: ‘Embrace the traditional publishing process and never rush it. It’s still the best way to ensure a book has proper development, error-catching and finessing.’

Debbie Young, who is editrix there, pounced – and asked me to explain.

So if you hop over to ALLi, you’ll find my concise guide to book production processes, why each phase is necessary and why the order is important. You wouldn’t believe how many times I see carts put before horses in the indie world. Step this way.


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3 wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process

How many drafts does a novel need? Some are ready for an editor by the second or third draft. Others – like mine – are assembled in slow layers of revisions, a process of discovery. There’s more about that in What Takes Literary Authors So Long.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I went through a manuscript at least 50 times, but I’ve never counted. So for Ever Rest I’m keeping a draft diary. How many times do I set out from the start? What am I doing each time and how much difference does it make?

Right now, I’m starting draft 10, which on my usual timescale is early days. But my draft diary has already revealed some surprising and paradoxical benefits of slow writing.

Outline first, obvs

Ever Rest has been with me a long time. I wrote it originally as a short story, read it out at a workshop and the feedback was unanimous – it had enough guts to be a novel. So began long hours of staring at plot cards in uffish thought, and much collecting of Undercover Soundtracks (music for writing… see here). Finally, I’d assembled a set of troubled characters and some torments for them. I put my headphones on and began writing.

Draft 1 – inhabiting the scenes for the first time. I was trotting nicely through the outline when a couple of characters went off piste and sent everything to pot. Somehow, though, it made glorious sense so I clung on and wrote to the end. And hurrah, I had a wordcount of 76,123. The original short story was 7,000 and I’d been worried it wouldn’t make novel length. Onwards.

Draft 2 – dealing properly with the disobedience in draft 1. It made intuitive sense, but why? Draft 2 was understanding this, pushing the characters harder. When I landed at the end I had 107,471 words. Shortness wasn’t going to be a problem. I suspected much of the wordcount was flab, but I now had room to cut.

Draft 3 – getting strict about facts. I’d left a lot of factual gaps so I didn’t nonce around with research I wasn’t going to use. What colour is a police uniform in Kathmandu? Now it was worth finding out. Also I filled the gaps in back story. How do x and y know each other? When did crucial event z happen?

This draft fizzled out, alas. Other deadlines intervened and I made my ghostwriting course for Jane Friedman. After that the manuscript looked like an exam in a language I didn’t speak, so I started again, draft 3.2. Pretty soon, draft 3.2 did something that disrupted the beginning, so I rewound again and started draft 3 for the third time.

Drafts 4-7 The original short story was a first-person narrative. In enlarging it, I added a lot of people and it grew into an ensemble piece, with short chapters from different viewpoints. Several characters had matured much further than their original roles, so I needed dedicated drafts to give them proper space.

Meanwhile, the book’s Undercover Soundtrack was now the size of a small record shop.

After a detour for a little travel memoir, draft 8 began with a radical scene reshuffle. The book had never felt balanced so I put a main character’s introduction earlier, where it ran more smoothly. Often I don’t know why something is wrong until I make a drastic change; then it seems to sigh with relief.

I was also worried about easing the reader into the story, so I promoted an outsider character to a bigger role. If I introduced the story through him, the reader could learn alongside him. His back story looked thin, so I tipped a lot more words in to give him a more defined life. But despite all this, he was boring. What to do? One of the other characters had a job that resonated with the novel’s main themes. What if he did her job? At first this seemed inspired; a perfect fit. Then I began to hear a false note. Instead of a pleasant resonance, it screamed the smart parallels in the reader’s face.

By the end of draft 8, they were back to their original professions. And I realised I’d been right the first time. The person who originally had that job had a bigger arc I hadn’t suspected. I only found out by breaking the book.

Draft 9. I now knew the supporting character couldn’t kick the book off. So I tried the most complicated character as centre stage. I hadn’t before because I’d thought her situation was too strange and required copious explanations. But if I could find one detail that would plug the reader into her world? I found it. Geronimo. With this new opening, I then chopped a number of redundant scenes and made a list of scenes that were missing. I usually find these tricky to write, but I found if I started typing and made the characters talk to each other, they took the scene further than I ever imagined. When you know the characters, they will surprise you when they talk for themselves.

And now I begin draft 10. What now? In the previous drafts, I’d been singling out particular threads or problems. Now I’m going to read the book in its entirety, to listen to the whole mix. I think I know what I’ve made, but I’m not yet certain. Wish me luck.

Oh and what’s the wordcount? 110,213. Each round, I’ve culled and added a lot, and I’m sure there’s more that can be trimmed, but it seems to have found its comfortable weight. Expect a whopper, guys.

So here are my 3 wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process

  • A massive switch in my original plan was so intuitively right … that discovering why helped me understand the whole book.
  • Sometimes you have to break the book to understand how it works. Swapping characters’ roles, giving the opening chapter to a different character, even changing the main viewpoint were all useful experiments. Even if you restore it to the way it was, you come away with a stronger understanding. (You might also like Revision is Re-vision.)
  • When you know the characters, that’s when they might surprise you most.

Thanks for the balcony pic, Maxpixel.

Are you a slow writer? Have you discovered any wondrous paradoxes? Share them here.

Need a writing plan? My method (including time spent staring at plot cards in uffish thought) is in Nail Your Novel.

Want to know more about Ever Rest’s progress? Get updates in my newsletter.


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The writer’s persona in the narrative, MFA courses and Englishness – interview at Rain Taxi

How much should a writer’s personality show in a book? Some authors keep themselves out of the narrative voice, even in a personal book such as a memoir. Others colour every page with their sensibilities and personality, even if they’re writing fiction. This is just one of the questions I’m discussing today in the literary magazine Rain Taxi.

You might recognise my interviewer – Garry Craig Powell, who has been a guest on The Undercover Soundtrack (he put Phil Collins songs to unforgettable and cheeky use). Garry has also taught creative writing at university level, so that’s another discussion we have – are these courses useful, necessary, a hindrance, something else? What about journalism – when is that a good start for a fiction author?

And then there’s Englishness. What is that? Well, it could be a quality of restraint – when saying less means more. It might also be a sense of Elysian yearning for an emblematically romantic world, including the tradition of stories about remarkable houses. We’re trying to thrash it out. Do come over, and bring tea.

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Biggest challenge as an indie author and how to stay creative – interview at ALLi

How do I stay creative, motivated and productive when there are so many non-writing demands on an author’s life?

Today I’m answering these questions at the website of the Alliance of Independent Authors. What was the best decision I ever made? (Thankfully they didn’t ask about my worst…) Do drop in.

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‘What is hope and how do we make more of it?’ The Undercover Soundtrack, Dwight Okita

It’s such a pleasure when an early contributor to this series returns with a new title. Today we’re rewinding to a guest from the first year of The Undercover Soundtrack. Dwight Okita was a finalist in the coveted Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award with The Prospect of My Arrival, a story that flirted with ideas of the supernatural and reincarnation. Now with his second novel, The Hope Store, he’s created a low-key magic realism/science fiction fable that centres around an invention that can bring happiness. Music was important for keeping him on message, and Dwight’s muses included U2 and my own favourite, Kate Bush. Drop by the Red Blog to hear more.

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Reaching readers if you write in multiple genres – could crowdfunding be the answer? An interview

What do you write? Not so long ago, most authors had to choose a genre and stick to it. But many of us are far more versatile. Our minds and our hearts don’t stand still. Book by book, we push boundaries or leap into genres where we hadn’t previously felt at home. As life reinvents us, we move on in our work.

No-one worried about that in the Renaissance, but it rarely went down well in traditional publishing, perhaps for sound commercial reasons. But now authors have more tools to reach audiences by our own efforts. We can take charge of our careers and our creative destinies. Will this breed of polyphonic, genre-agile author finally have their day?

I do hope so.

This path isn’t always easy, and that’s what I want to explore today.

You might recognise my interviewee – Victoria Dougherty, who recently hosted me on her blog and has also been a guest on The Undercover Soundtrack.

We’ve both got eclectic portfolios. I’ve done non-fiction with my Nail Your Novel books and literary fiction that sometimes nudges into futurism. Victoria writes Cold War historical thrillers and personal essays. We’ve both written memoir after a fashion – she has Cold; I have Not Quite Lost. And Victoria has a radical new departure into young adult historical romance, Breath (coming summer 2018). What’s more, she’s having her first stab at crowdfunding – another brave new world.

We’ll come back to the crowdfunding in a bit. My first question was this: how have you ended up with such a varied oeuvre?

Victoria Honestly, I think I’m just bored easily. And I’m usually writing more than one story at a time, too. I find it keeps the creative juices flowing and also adds texture to my work.

Roz How do you manage them all?

Victoria Currently, I’m switching between Breath edits, storyboarding a new Cold War thriller, and writing essays on everything from family squabbles to creating compelling male characters.

Roz So much for versatility. What’s consistent in your work?

Victoria History, spirituality, family lore, dark humour. All of those tend to find their way into my work in one way or another.

Roz I have recurring themes too. I am curious about forces that lie beneath the surface; unusual ways we can be haunted and how we seek soulmates. At heart I’m an unashamed romantic. Places with lively pasts are often a trigger for me – crumbled mansions, houses scheduled for demolition, seaside towns closed for the winter.

Victoria I’m so with you on this, and I, too, get haunted by places. I wrote The Bone Church after visiting an ossuary near Prague with my then infant son. There were bones piled up all over the place. It occurred to me how there were so many different manners of death in that small chamber. People who had died of childbirth, a sword to the ribs, plague, a broken heart. The whole experience made me ache – but in a good way.

The ossuary at Kutna Hora, Prague. Pic by David Staedtler

Roz Your latest project is for a new audience – YA fantasy. What steered you in this direction?

Victoria I never thought I’d write in this genre. Especially a romance, which is a genre I haven’t read very much of. But several years ago, I wrote a piece for the New York Times Modern Love column in their Sunday edition. It was about my youngest daughter being born with a catastrophic illness and how that brought my mother and me closer together. It was also about the curious, counter-intuitive blessings that come with tragic events. Things like wisdom, deeper friendships and getting to know people so far out of my own little universe. Hospitals are tremendously equalising that way.

I could not have imagined the response I got from that essay. People began writing to me, telling me about their stories – their love stories specifically. I have a blog, Cold, where I write personal essays, so it wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for people to tell me about their lives, but this was different.

Told you you’d seen this before

Without meaning to, I started training my writer’s eye on love. I noticed that every time I wrote an essay about love – especially the romantic kind – there was a swell of interest. Then I started writing little love stories for my own amusement – sometimes no more than a paragraph long. One of those, about a girl born at the dawn of civilisation, became the basis for Breath.

Roz And Breath is more than just prose, isn’t it? There’s artwork too.

Victoria I’m a very visual person. I love old photographs especially, and as I was writing Breath, I dreamed up a pre-Sumerian civilisation and imagined myself on an archaeological dig, excavating my characters’ lives. That’s when I started thinking of adding a visual component to this novel – original artwork from the world I’d dreamed up and old, brown-tinted photographs from some of the great archaeological digs, like the ones taken in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century. And I loved the idea of writing about past, present, and perhaps even future archaeologists, as they uncovered my fictional universe and helped my characters solve the mysteries of their existence.

Roz So the visuals will be published in the book? Or will they be a separate special edition?

Victoria Both. I think prose and images go together like a face and a voice and can really enhance a story – especially if it’s a planned epic, where a whole world is being created. This isn’t to spoon-feed a certain aesthetic to a reader, never that, but to enhance their experience with elements of beauty and mystery that go beyond the written word. Take their imaginations even further.

Roz Let’s talk about crowdfunding Breath. How did that happen?

Victoria I’m one of 10 authors selected by Instafreebie – a company that connects readers and authors – to pilot a program that teaches authors how to use crowdfunding not only to fund projects but to energise and expand their fan base.

Roz To me, crowdfunding has one rather offputting aspect – having to push for contributions. But obviously you’ve found a balance that suits you. Tell me how you do it – and how other authors might be persuaded to embrace it!

Victoria This is without a doubt the hardest thing to get over. I’ve come to look at it this way: crowdfunding is a bit like venture capital for artists. No-one blinks when any other business raises money, but somehow artists are expected to self-finance, often work for free and even give their work away without any compensation. I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking and in fact find it untenable.

Roz I’m totally with you there. I’ve blogged about it at length elsewhere. We can’t give the impression that books can be produced out of fresh air or just for love, like a hobby. Even priests and doctors get paid. All the other people who work for us need to be paid. Creating books is not free. And writing them isn’t either.

Victoria For most artists, entrepreneurship is the only way we can continue to do what we do. We need to move beyond our own reticence and value what we offer. Joy, meaning, reflection, empathy, and entertainment are worthy and important elements in our lives. They should never be taken for granted.

You mentioned doctors, so I’ve got a good analogy for you: I remember my doctor, who was from Sri Lanka and used to run a medical clinic for the poor there, telling me how once they started charging patients, the entire dynamic of the clinic changed. They were serving the poor, so they only charged a pittance, and were barely able to buy coffee with what they took in, but both the function and the spirit of the clinic changed remarkably. Not only did the patients become more vigilant about their health, they trusted the doctors more and were far more likely to listen to their advice and change unhealthy behaviours. The overall health of the clinic population improved as a result.

The same is true with us artists and the people who consume our work, I think. It’s a pretty basic human response – to invest in something that means something to you rather than just be a passive observer.

Roz I want to do some tyre-kicking here because what you say is so important. A lot of crowdfunding campaigns don’t meet their targets. How do we get people to care enough? Especially as readers could buy a book that’s already finished and have it immediately. What makes them want to pledge money and wait for the product? How are you tackling these challenges?

Victoria Not only has this crowdfunding process forced me well beyond my comfort zone, it has illuminated how to deepen my relationships with present and future readers so that they feel connected and my characters begin to feel like a real part of their lives. Like family.

Roz How are you doing that? Can you give examples? You’ve mentioned to me that it’s already been a formative and amazing experience. Tell me how! And what feedback have you had from supporters to show that it’s working?

Victoria For me, it’s about creating value and making the experience as interactive as possible. Writers spend a lot of time alone and most of us are interior people, but we’re not necessarily introverts. We love being able to talk to readers and feel honoured when they share their stories with us. In fact, I truly consider readers like friends. We confide in each other, support each other, and are there during times of loneliness and self-doubt. The rewards I’m offering in my Breath campaign reflect that. It’s not only a matter of offering advance copies, which are great, but deleted scenes from the novel, personal emails, an exclusive short story and even story-consulting.

Roz Are there any common mistakes that authors make with crowdfunding and community building?

Victoria The first mistake is that they won’t try it. I can tell you without reservation that even if my campaign isn’t a funding success, what I will have learned and experienced in this process has been worth it. As for campaign mistakes – there are a lot of them, and I would have made them all if I hadn’t gotten such excellent advice from Instafreebie.

Videos are crucial. People want to know who they’re dealing with. It builds trust and makes your page more interesting. Really thinking through rewards you offer, so that when people get involved, they feel like they got something substantial in return for their support. Always, always focus on the reader. That’s probably the most important part.

Roz You mentioned that Instafreebie is helping with tactics, especially in terms of using the campaign to establish a long-term fanbase. How does that work? Can you tell us a few surprising things they’ve taught you? What is the basis of their expertise?

Victoria First, they will be featuring our books in their newsletter and then sharing our campaigns with those who expressed interested in our genres. They’re doing their best to create a virtuous circle for us. Most importantly, they’ve taken us through – step by step – the way to build a successful campaign page. That doesn’t mean the campaigns themselves will all be successes – even veteran campaigners have unsuccessful campaigns under their belts – but it helps us minimise mistakes, certainly.

Roz I want to return to where we started – the author who doesn’t fit into tidy boxes. There supposedly are two ways to market books – by category and by author. The latter is the slow road, because we have to seek commitment on a deeper and more individual level.

But whatever we write, I think community will become more significant for all of us. And everything you’ve been saying here chimes with this prediction by Orna Ross at the Alliance of Independent Authors.

More and more authors will embrace the craft and trade of publishing and business as well as that of writing, and develop sustainable author businesses that allow them to make a living from their writing. At the heart of this will be working out their offering to readers and how to build a  community around that offering.’

I love this emphasis on community. Although writing is apparently a solitary activity, we have phenomenal resources for harnessing the positive energy that readers give us if they like our work.

I think readers enjoy keeping in touch and – like you say – feeling involved. I’ve particularly noticed it after publishing Not Quite Lost. People feel they know me. It opens a conversation and they want it to continue. And that’s lovely. It’s not cynical, about selling.

Some authors are setting up private Facebook groups – though I feel that’s risky because Facebook likes to move the goalposts if they think they can monetise. I’ve started using my newsletter much more. In that past, I didn’t know what to do with it.

I used to send newsletters only when I had a book or a course to launch. A year could go by before I had a piece of news, and all the while I was losing touch with people who hoped I was working on another book. So I decided I’d try writing more regularly, about the in-between times while a book is taking shape. Sometimes it’s about making progress; sometimes it’s about life and going round in circles. Like a blog but more personal. Some people unsubscribed because that wasn’t what they were expecting, or they’d forgotten why they were ever interested, but most have stayed with me. (Winning smile: if you want to try it out, it’s here.)

What I’ve described here is slow, of course. It has to grow organically. And here’s where I guess crowdfunding creates an occasion, a way to invite people in because it’s the start of something. It not only kick-starts a book, it can kick-start your community.

Have you got any final thoughts on this?

Victoria You said it so well. We’re in this for the long game and it’s not cynical. It’s actually very special and deeply gratifying.

You can tweet Victoria on @vicdougherty, find her blog here, here books here, and her Kickstarter campaign here. 

Thanks for the ossuary pic Davis Staedtler on Flickr

What am I up to behind the scenes? My latest newsletter

And this blog begins 2018 on two lovely best-of lists. Both The Write Life and Feedspot nominated it as a Top 100 site for writers and self-publishers. If any of you were instrumental in this, xxxxxxxx

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The culture of a close marriage and weird little trips – guest spot at Victoria Dougherty’s COLD

I ran into Victoria Dougherty a while ago in a Facebook group and recognised a kindred spirit. Not just because she writes fiction, personal essays and memoir, but because of the way she is inspired by family, place and relationships. (Take a look at this piece, Growing Old(er) Together, and tell me you don’t want to know her too.) She took a shine to Not Quite Lost and invited me to her blog, Cold, for a chat about the culture of a long marriage, the delight of exploring places that no-one else would bother with, the micro-cultures of quiet English towns and whether I should get out more. She raided my photo album too, as you can see. Do come over.

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Achieve your publishing goals for 2018 – win a year’s mentoring and development from Triskele Books

competition for writers - win a year's mentoring from manuscript to publicationHave you got a manuscript that might be ready by July 2018? You might be interested in this competition from the writing/publishing collective Triskele Books. And I’m honoured to announce that I’m the judge in the final!

If you’ve been around this blog a bit, you’ll know that Triskele is a publishing house owned and run by authors. The members provide all the support and editorial finessing that occur in a publishing house (many other posts about them here).

Anyone can enter, whether it’s your first book or whether you’ve published many times before. Triskele are looking for a standout manuscript they can help along and the winner can tailor their input to their needs – whether it’s polishing or developmental work or help with the nitty-gritty of publishing. Last year’s winner, Sophie Wellstood, was so excited after working with Triskele’s feedback that she pitched to a literary agent – and had representation in three days. The only proviso is that the manuscript must be unpublished. Other rules? You’ll find them here.

Triskele’s team will sift through the entries and choose six finalists … and then it’s my job to pick the final winner! I’m sure there will be adventures and insights to report, so stay tuned. If you want to tweet it there’s a hashtag #thebigfive. And perhaps you’d like to have a go.

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