Welcome to my weekly blog – the ramblings of a prolific procrastinator, rudimentary writer and Audible addict.
Read about my experiences and experiments to overcome procrastination and improve my writing.
The end point of this saga – a self-published first novel – may be light-years away, but the journey behind my “Lockdown Lit” effort may entertain you. It will also give me a reason to write SOMETHING at least once a week.
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- Characters: Personality
As a psychology graduate, being given a window into the inner workings of a character’s mind is one of the best parts of reading fiction. The golden rule, “show, don’t tell,” holds true – and being shown a character’s unique personality through their thoughts, words and actions is a gratifying experience – especially when you can relate to the character, or know someone just like them.
I remember learning about the Big Five Personality Traits from a clinical psychologist lecturing at my university in London. Even now I sometimes find myself thinking about someone I’ve met, in real life or fiction, ans where they fit on those five dimensions. I could be wrong with my educated guesses, as sometimes a person’s inner world is very different to the way they appear to conduct themselves e.g. the introvert who drinks alcohol to be more sociable or assertive, the neurotic who meditates daily to better control her hostility or stop her withdrawing from threatening situations, etc.
So with my characters, playing with those personality dimensions, giving the development of each trait a backstory and throwing in a few red herrings is great fun. There is no good or bad in terms of personality, but being high in a particular trait can make specific situations easier or harder due to how the character instinctively reacts e.g. criticism to a character high in neuroticism, is like a paper cut would be to a haemophiliac.
Below I’ve listed the five traits and their aspects, with a short description of each one and how sometimes, all is not as it seems.
Openness to Experience: Openness and Intellect
These characters like to learn new things, try new experiences, can be insightful, imaginative and have a wide variety of interests.
If they score low in intellect however (this is different to IQ – author sighs in relief) those interests will more likely be practical in nature as philosophical or complicated ideas are less appealing.
People tend to be more open to new experiences when they’re in a new place, with new people, like on holiday – which says a lot about the reinforcing nature of family and old friends on personality. We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, says Tim Ferriss, so allot that time wisely! Who are my character’s family/friends? Who is bringing my character’s average down…or is she the dead weight?
Conscientiousness: Industriousness and Orderliness
The characters scoring high on this trait are conscientious, reliable and prompt. They are generally organised, tidy, methodical, and thorough. Not bad traits for a professional hitman or surgeon.
Ask a child to tidy their room, or polish their shoes, or do homework and you are trying to instil the behaviours of this trait. But if they don’t understand WHY those tasks are important, or they understand why but those reasons just aren’t that important to them, they won’t become a habit. The behaviours don’t match their SELF-IDENTITY, so the habits won’t stick and you end up with a lazy or messy character.
A moderately conscientious person, with high neuroticism is the perfect storm when it comes to procrastination – useful to know. Increasing conscientiousness and reducing neuroticism, could be a potential cure?
Extraversion: Enthusiasm and Assertiveness
Extraverts become energised by interacting with others, while introverts get their energy from within themselves and find socialising draining. Extraverts are frequently energetic, enthusiastic, talkative, and assertive.
That doesn’t mean introverts can’t display all of the above…but it generally requires some chemical enhancement or extreme event. Parrots can ride mini-bicycles, but not if left to their own devices. Give me cosiness or camping over crowded pub any day.
Agreeableness: Compassion and Politeness
Those characters who act in a friendly, cooperative, or compassionate way would score highly in agreeableness. Whereas scoring low in this trait can make the character seem distant, unkind, cold and lacking empathy.
As with all of the other traits, agreeable people may not be so in every situation, and in certain situations scoring too highly on this trait could put you at a disadvantage. We all read and see characters who are too compassionate and polite, only to have their good nature taken advantage of.
Neuroticism: Withdrawal and Volatility
That moody, tense character who frequently experiences negative emotions and lacks emotional stability is the embodiment of the word, neurotic. Those with low scores of neuroticism would be unlikely to withdraw from anxiety producing situations and less prone to emotional outbursts.
I’ve blogged about 4D people before, and a high degree of neuroticism will definitely make a character more likely to fit this description. They may be a drain in real life, but neurotic characters are fantastic because there is so much going on – in their head, if nowhere else.
Plot vs Character?
“There are no extraordinary men… just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.” – Admiral William Halsey
People. Not just men. People. He was speaking to the navy back in the day, so he’s forgiven. Either way, I don’t think that I agree fully with the statement. Here comes my tangent…hear me out…
We find ourselves in our current circumstances (plot) because of how we have behaved (character) in the past.
If we find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances it is rare (possible, but rare) that we were acting in an ordinary way. It’s our past decisions and actions which have led to these present and future consequences.
I would argue therefore that extraordinary people do exist. They are the select few who decide and act in such a way so as to arrive at those extraordinary circumstances. Signing up for the navy or any military service in the first place is an extraordinary act. Continuing to work on the front line throughout this pandemic, is an extraordinary act. Homeschooling children with no background in teaching yourself? Continuing to provide necessary services and products in some evolved format? Habitually act in a certain way, and shouldn’t you earn the title of an extraordinary person?
I get that he may have just been trying to calm the nerves of his men, who were faced with overwhelming odds. I understand that reassuring them, that their leaders and their enemies were ordinary too, could have made those odds seem better. But there are a lot of professionals in the world at the moment, who I see as anything but ordinary.
Whilst I agree that ordinary people can be thrown into dramatic situations – and then either rise to the occasion, or not – most will not. They will let fear get the better of them, they will feel the overwhelm and run away, they will procrastinate. They will fail, confirming their ordinariness (anyway…that would be a crappy story. Rocky gets beaten – no rematch. Marty get stuck in 1955 – messes up everything…next!).
So plot and character are linked inextricably, but I do spend a lot of time of the character part. Not just because I enjoy the process, getting to know these “people”, but also because you can’t rush these things. Flat characters are the worst. It’s very easy to pigeonhole your character – especially using occupational stereotypes e.g. “Oh, she’s a rocket scientist, so she must be good at maths, and think about nothing but the physics involved 24/7.” That could be the case, but the professionals I’ve met are multifaceted. Flawed. Doctors who smoke. Divorced marriage counsellors. Bald hairdressers. For all we know, our rocket scientist took the job because it paid well enough to fund her drug habit and all the science, she doesn’t understand – it’s just her job five days a week. There is more to life. There is more to her. Even those lucky enough to do their dream job, will have elements that they would rather delegate – and these elements are far more interesting.
I have delayed writing anything useful for long enough…I’m off to meditate in the hope of becoming a little less neurotic, and I may reward myself afterwards, inadvertently making myself a little more extroverted.
- Step 5: Write Character Sketches
Step 5 instructs us Snowflake practitioners to write a few paragraphs (up to a page) on the main characters, including their backstory, story goals, values and ambitions, etc.
I find this part so interesting, which should be no surprise as a psychology graduate. I am going to be spending a lot of time with these characters, so unlike the cardboard characters in Netflix’s Top Boy (it might just be the terrible actors playing them), I want them to be believable, multi-dimensional and fun to be around. I inevitably started to brainstorm what that would entail and ended up on a google-sponsored tangent instead.
I read that K-Pop culture has invented a slang term 4D, to refer to a person who is strange, eccentric or has a big personality. It’s supposed to be a compliment, not a derogatory comment. But for years I’ve had my own meaning for a 4D person, that’s not so positive. In fact, I do everything I can to keep these people at a firm distance in real life – even before that was in vogue – but as a reader, I do enjoy these characters.
4D people are those individuals perpetually drawn towards Drama, Disease, Divorce and Debt. They will be totally oblivious to the fact that they are a 4D person, so there’s no point in telling them or even blogging about it. They have probably blogged about it in the past themselves and not even realised who they were writing about (too meta?).
Make no mistake. It is ALWAYS about them. Victim one minute, hero the next – but their challenges far outweigh anyone else’s. They have the unenviable ability to start a fight in an empty room. They use Machiavellian methods to stir shit up, but only if it would cause them to lose favour to be seen throwing the first punch. They are predictably unpredictable, and to keep your sanity it’s best to laugh and marvel at their endlessly inventive ways of starting shit.
The opposite is the character who won’t take the bait. They can chuckle to themselves and shake their head, or roll their eyes and sigh, because they hold a “live and let live” attitude and they are firm on their decision not to be drawn in to the person’s shitshow. Life is too short my friend, it will offer enough drama of its own, without you inviting/creating more. The second character may be a bit less entertaining on the page or the screen however, so God bless those drama queens.
Whether it’s karma from a previous life, a genetic predisposition or sheer bad luck – if we are lucky to live long enough, we’re going to end up with some illness or other. A cheery thought, I know – but there are actually people out there, who are rubbing their hands together and hoping for that very thing – like I hope for a lottery win. The NHS website describes Munchausen’s syndrome (Factitious Disorder) as a psychological disorder where someone pretends to be ill or deliberately produces symptoms of illness in themselves. They might actually be ill – but they bring it on themselves. Their aim is to assume the “sick role” so that people care for them and they are the centre of attention. I try and keep the posts to 1000 words, so I can’t even begin to go into the how fucked up that is….and Munchausen’s by proxy? Don’t even get me started.
The opposite is someone who does their best to guard their own mental-emotional health, to sleep right, eat right and exercise. When they are concerned about their health, they go and see the doctor (after a terrifying morning on WebMD, we’ve all done it) and don’t trouble everyone else with their ailments until they’ve actually been diagnosed. They take the doctor’s advice and complete their treatment, they don’t see-saw between doing so and throwing caution to the wind – “well, you only live once”. They don’t have to say, “I’m a fighter,” because they show it with their continued efforts to get and stay well. They do not run, screaming from the burning building, only to start another fire outside.
A vegan, teetotal marathon runner may not sound like someone you would want to be sat next to at a party – but given the choice between them and Sick Note? Let’s talk tofu recipes. On the page however, at a distance, those characteristics might well make it into the DNA of one of my characters.
This is not necessarily marital divorce, but could be any strained relationship resulting in arguments, separation or lack of communication. People can have short-term falling outs, but these are generally over situational specific disputes, as opposed to ever-present personality conflicts.
It’s the difference between an argument caused by a momentary misinterpretation of someone’s intent, versus the long standing feud caused by them being so different in terms of their values, beliefs and behaviours, that people realise it’s better to keep their distance. They are not part of the same tribe.
Apparently there are lots of different types of toxic people, which again, make great fictional characters – but you wouldn’t want them as a room mate or partner. But we love to read about or watch them from the safety of our sofa, where they can’t penetrate our own like bubble of Hugge. We hope.
“Neither a lender nor borrower be.” – William Shakespeare
You will see these people win the jackpot on Friday, only to ask you if they can borrow a fiver the following Monday. They live beyond their means and any pay rises are accompanied by an increase in spending on excessively expensive possessions or ENC (pronounced, en-see, stands for emperor’s new clothes) experiences – you know the kind? You went, you thought it was shite, but you dare not say so to all of your friends who loved it, because you don’t want to seem uncultured or like a Neanderthal. Just smile for the selfie.
Money is a charged topic. Give a character an issue with handling their money (think, Snatch, Frankie Four Fingers) and you automatically have tension. It’s a car crash waiting to happen. Do I want someone like this as my accountant? No. But do I want to watch or read about a gambler getting further and further into debt to pay off his other debts…it would be a tense read, but it will keep me turning the pages.
He Who Fights With Monsters…
“…might take care lest he thereby become a monster.” – Fredrich Nietzsche
Basically you start to become like the people you associate with and think about the most. Tim Ferriss says something similar, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” So I shall be watching myself as I write about the dodgier of my characters – wary of any changes to my usual thinking or behaviour.
I am currently rereading James Clear’s Atomic Habits and he argues that a key component of changing your habits comes down to changing your identity. I’m nearly 40 years old, but I don’t believe my identity is fixed (as in stable, not repaired) – although it’s human nature for other people to want it to be.
I believe that change is possible. Improvement is possible. I hope that my characters change and grow throughout this novel – from this starting point I’m writing – and that some of those 4D characters are just 3D by the end.
- Three Gratitudes – A Journalling Practice
Most days, I write in my journal. It’s mostly gibberish, brain farts I have to get out so I can sleep or irrational worries I want to ridicule on the page so I can get on with the rest of my day. But one thing I do regularly in my mind, even when it doesn’t make it onto the page is the 3 Gs practice. No, it’s not an inferior cellular network – it’s just a very simple practice that leaves you in a better mood to start, or end, your day.
3 Gs stands for 3 Gratitudes (yes, that noun can be countable TEFL teachers) and the three gratitudes you choose fall into one of three categories.
The first gratitude is where you acknowledge a PERSON that you are grateful for. You don’t need to write the reason, but it will often amplify the feeling of gratitude if you can state specific reasons that you are grateful to, or for them in your life.
The second gratitude is where you acknowledge an EXPERIENCE that you are grateful for. Again, writing in detail about the experience will applify your gratitude for it. It doesn’t need to be an experience that you have already had – it could be from the past, present or future. I try to stick with the present or recent past, and only dip into the past of near future if I’m struggling.
The third gratitude is where you acknowledge a POSSESSION that you are grateful for. Don’t get all spiritual and feel guilty about the material world for a second – just be thankful for that phone, laptop or tablet, and if you can state the reasons why, it may make you feel even more so.
If for whatever reason you are struggling to come up with an example in each category or feel anything for your choices, rather than assuming that you are ungrateful or lacking imagination, answer these questions:
- What would life have been like (or currently would be like) without this person (just pick someone randomly) in my life?
- What would life have been like (or currently would be like) without this experience (just pick one) in your life?
- What would life have been like (or currently would be like) without this possession (just pick something) in my life?
Below I’ve written some ideas to get your gratitude juices flowing.
Partner, children, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, friends, mates, colleagues, customers…doctors, nurses, shop workers, postal workers, train drivers, carers, scientists, farmers, engineers, teachers…the list is endless.
Future holidays may be a distant dream, but past holidays can be a pleasant memory to be grateful for, but there are some really basic daily experiences that when you think about it, make you thankful e.g. breathing easily through your nose (no hay fever or cold), breathing at all (try WHM), hot showers, homemade food, walks in nature, my children’s laughter, my children wanting my attention, breaking a fast, waking up before my alarm goes off, reading a book, watching a film or TV show, electricity to power lights, kettle, internet…and again, I’ve been doing this for a few years so these come easily. Right now, this lockdown experience offers some positives, some reasons to be thankful – as well as all of the upheaval and tragedy. I’m not denying that the negative is there, or could be there the very next moment, just making the decision to focus on what’s positive.
I have too many possessions and I am making an effort to be more minimalist. The possessions that I do own that I’m regularly grateful for include my phone, my laptop, my TV and fire stick. My books, my clothes, my car, my home, my camera, my guitar.
Next Level Gratitude
Sometimes I look at something I own, maybe a shirt is missing a button or my bike tyre is flat – and a lot of the time, I’ll put off fixing those things. This is a habit that I need to change, if I want to take my gratitude to the next level.
It’s all well and good being grateful in my head, writing it down in my journal – it feels good and puts me in a better state of mind. But the next step is to tell that person, “Thank You”, to share that positive experience with those close to you – not necessarily on Facebook or Instagram, just a closed Whats app group perhaps? And I need to maintain my possessions – sew on those buttons, pump up those tyres, or give those possessions away if they start to feel as if they own me rather than other way around.
Thank you Uncle Michael – the life and soul of every party, thank you for those caravan holidays in Norfolk, thank you for the book of birds you gave me as a kid that I’m now sharing with my children.
Thank you everyone for reading, liking, sharing, commenting and subscribing. I made it to day 10, so these posts will be weekly from now on. With any luck the reduction in pressure to produce so much quantity will result in an improving quality.
- UBI and B******* Jobs
In typical No Rocket Scientist fashion, I have been trying to expand my mental horizons and read a bit wider afield than usual. I’m a fan of self-development, science and health books, but I find history, politics and religion a bit tedious.
Bregman argues that a Universal Basic Income (UBI – free money for all to cover basic expenses like food and rent) is a possibility and a positive solution to many problems such as homelessness, poverty and even environmental damage. Well I’m all in favour of that. Elon Musk, despite stating that it’s not what he would want to happen, sees UBI as inevitable due to the automation of so many jobs. The left and the right have their own versions and motivations for UBI – which is reassuring, as I’m repelled from either in side their extremes.
So lockdown is giving us a taste of the future. Many employees have started to question (if they weren’t doing so already) the point of their current job. Many are learning the distinguishing features of a s*** job – a hard job with terrible conditions or low pay, but which is of use to society e.g. nurses, and a b******* job – a meaningless and pointless job you do but can’t justify the existence of e.g. advertising executive. I can therefore drop the “bull” from my job description, but that doesn’t negate the small print I ignored when I signed up. A few questions that thinking about these things has brought up for me are:
What meaning do we find in life without employment?
Without work, what’s your ikigai (reason for getting out of bed)?
What employment would we choose if our basic needs were covered and we could retrain?
The current crisis understandably throws some anomalies into my initial analysis of this concept.
I have heard people I admire (e.g. Russell Brand) talk about this in the past, and they lose me for the following (faulty or questionable? Happy to discuss) reasons:
If I go out and choose to drink more alcohol than my body is able to handle – there will be a consequence to that action. One I’m all too familiar with.
If I eat continuously, especially high carbohydrate or highly processed foods, and don’t move enough, there will be consequences to that action as well. As I get older, those consequences become apparent a lot more quickly than they used to – and take a longer time to put right again!
So if I spend more money than I earn, and borrow to spend more than I have saved, the obvious consequence to that behaviour is debt. My values, beliefs and actions i.e. habits, have landed me in that debt. My inability to spend only what I’ve earned (hopefully a little less than I’ve earned), my inability to wait, my insatiable desire to consume.
If I’m hungover, overweight or in debt, I don’t expect sympathy. As much as I would love someone to come and solve these problems for me, I don’t expect it or see it as a right. I don’t want to be in those situations in the first place, so I do my best not to end up in those places – and double my efforts if I do temporarily end up there.
What I’m saying is – does being “saved” from the consequences of our actions really help us in the long run? Shouldn’t we be assisted, helped to change our habits, rather than having our slates wiped clean and getting ourselves into the same mess all over again?
My initial knee-jerk reaction is a feeling of injustice. “Hold on a minute, I’ve been denying myself beer/donuts/expensive holidays for years…trying to be responsible…only for them to get a saline drip/liposuction/bail out?”
But two thoughts help me see this from a different perspective and rid me of those negative (insensitive? immature?) sentiments.
- What if it was my brother or friend who was being saved? I’d feel relieved for them, and joyful that their burden had been lifted. I’m sure they would learn whatever they could from the past and not end up in the same situation again without a fight.
- What if it was my arch enemy who had been saved? Let him drink – and mask the true consequences for a while. Let him post his six pack photos, but he knows, we all know, he didn’t earn them. Let him go to Bora Bora, and forget how boring boring the other 50 weeks of the year are (don’t worry, the booze will help ease the pain).
Win-Win. So governments will do what they will do, and I suppose the important thing is not letting them get in the way of us living a life of purpose and meaning.
For my own sanity, I need to work. It’s nice to feel needed. For my own self-respect, I’m not looking for handouts – but I don’t blame anyone for trying the occasional short cut (gotta love a lifehack)!
Our identity and self-worth can’t be solely based on our occupation however, and I am more than my job. So if my work does become automated, just like when marathons get cancelled, there are other parts of me to weather the storm. It does motivate me to start looking at alternatives to my current work though – and use this lockdown as a chance to retrain in something less vulnerable to automation. Apparently I’m a closet Luddite!
Post 9 out of 10…so close…just – one – more!!! Thanks so much for reading, liking, sharing, commenting and SUBSCRIBING! I really appreciate your time and attention, but I think I need to start trolling a few bloggers to get some comments! Either that or I need to start writing some more controversial posts that get me trolled?! I’ll work on it!
- Perfecting My Morning
As the name of this site suggests, I do not consider myself the sharpest tool in the shed e.g. there were three words missing from this sentence when I originally read it back, but in my head and as I typed it, it sounded perfect!
But there’s a lot to be said for being resourceful in the face of a lack of resources (just ask MacGuyver or The A Team). In fact, an awareness of our limited time, money, energy or attention is what drives us to get creative or at least seek out others’ ideas, to make the most of the little we do have. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.
The best non-fiction books, Audible audiobooks, podcasts and YouTube videos I read/listen to/watch make me change my way of looking at world, or behave differently. I want to learn better ways to use my resources – and even now, with so much of it on my hands, I appreciate how limited time is. So how should I spend it?
Twenty-four hours, minus a third for sleep tax (I don’t resent paying this tax, as it ultimately serves me – take note Branson and Bezos!). So sixteen hours to invest – morning, afternoon, evening.
Below is a look at my current morning routine and the inspiration behind the various habits I am trying (does anyone else hear Yoda when they use that verb? Just me? OK) to instill – with varying degrees of success.
04:30 – Wake up / WHM Stretching
I’ve spoken in previous posts about WHM (Wim Hof Method) and my struggles with stretching, but why wake up so early? Jocko Willink‘s book Extreme Ownership convinced me that getting up before most people means I can get things done without interruption and with the minimum amount of stress. The alternative of oversleeping, missing out on exercise, arriving late, not being prepared and spending the rest of the day playing catch-up (the type of day that was all too common in my youth) just fills me with dread. It’s not easy leaving the comfort of my bed, but a few things that have helped are:
Three alarms – first, my vibrating wrist watch gently pulls me from my slumber, one minute before what will be a LOUD mobile phone alarm at the other side of the room. To save me from the wrath of my wife, I leap out of bed (or groan and roll) and dart (shuffle) over to the phone before that alarm can sound. Jocko recommends three alarms, but in all honesty I only have two – which is working fine, so why fix it?
Eating deadline – As recommended by Mark Sisson in The New Primal Blueprint, you should eat your last meal a couple of hours (or more) before bed so I stop eating by 18:00. I can’t eat too close to bed time. I just feel too uncomfortable and wake up in the morning with a horrible taste.
Bedtime routine – or sleep hygiene, as it’s often called includes going to bed and getting up at a regular time, limiting food, drink and screen usage for two hours before bed and keeping your bedroom at an optimum temperature (cooler is better). On a good night, I will turn off the screens at 19:00, stretch and maybe shower, and then read a paperback before going to sleep at 21:00. I’ll only journal if my head is busy, or I need to write down an idea or memory before I forget it. Some great tips on becoming a super sleeper are in Dr Richard Wiseman‘s book Night School – well worth a listen.
05:00 – WHM Breathing (4 rounds)
I use the Wim Hof Method app for this, specifically the Breathing Bubble. I’m generally able to hold my breath for over three minutes now and one time I even managed four minutes. That isn’t really the goal, but it is an indication of the method working, and honestly I just love “getting high on my own supply”. It really is a trippy feeling – well worth experiencing.
05:30 – Exercise
Cardio (running or cycling) for thirty to sixty minutes, OR bodyweight strength exercises (air squats, push ups, pull ups, planks). For the particulars on these, refer to the book The New Primal Blueprint mentioned earlier. I’m considering doing a vlog on this – comment if you would watch that!
06:30 – Warm and Cold Shower
I can’t go straight into a cold shower, and I am putting off doing my first ice plunge, but I’ve gone from thirty seconds to two minutes. I have to have a four or five minute hot shower first, to get clean and psyche myself up, but then I turn the tap. Have you ever eaten or drunk something so cold that it’s given you brain freeze? Next time it happens, try putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth – it works I promise! But not when the cold is coming from the shower head above you. The only way I can handle it, is to move around and focus the water on my back, chest and shoulders when my head-freeze gets too intense to bear!
07:00 – Ready to Write
Black coffee and pint of water (sometimes with lemon) positioned to my right, laptop open in front of me, I sit down to face the blank page (Word document, you know what I mean).
Until my first coffee break at 11:00, I will now struggle to produce WORDS. Which will only come if I can answer my THOUGHTS/QUESTIONS.
- What am I going to write about?
- How can I make it more entertaining/enlightening?
- Who is my ideal reader?
- How would he/she react to that part?
I’m going to do some research today on some better questions to ask before/while writing. That could result in me having some better questions, and therefore some better writing coming out of the answers…or, it could result in 4 hours of googling and youtubing and me asking the same questions all over again tomorrow. That, would be a wasted day – and enough days spent like that, would be a wasted life.
Thank you once again for reading, subscribing, liking and commenting! It’s much appreciated it!
This blog post is number 8 out of 10 – for the “10 blog posts in 10 days” challenge – just two more and I have met the challenge! Then it’s back to a weekly blog post, and a competition with a prize draw for subscribers (more details to follow).