I love Book Sprints

Sigh…I don’t have much to do with Book Sprints these days. It is its own company now, I’m still the owner and founder, but it is it’s own thing. It’s own thing run by some amazing folk. Anyways…photos like those you find here from a Book Sprint happening right now in Capetown make me miss it sorely!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/129798087@N03/albums/72157686618588024

Some samples from that album below.

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The Road to PubSweet 1.0

We are pretty close to our PubSweet 1.0 with the RFC now out for PubSweet 2.0, and a PubSweet dev site release next week.

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It has been an amazing effort, particularly by Jure Triglav, the lead dev for PubSweet at Coko, but also fantastic work from Richard Smith-Unna, Alf Eaton, Yannis Barlas, and Christos Kokosias. Also more recently some great contribution from Alex Georgantas.

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So, we are pretty much there and I’m presenting in San Francisco this week as part of a small Coko event to reflect on the future of the framework and discuss the RFC. For this purpose I’d thought I’d write a post to help me think through the thinking that got us here.

So…the thinking behind PubSweet started when I came back from Antarctica around 2007 or so (I was there setting up an autonomous base for artist-scientist collaborations).

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I decided I wanted to give up the art world and try something new. The something new turned out to be FLOSS Manuals – a community writing free manuals about free software. I started it when I was living in Amsterdam somewhere around 2007. In order to execute on this mission I needed to get a couple of things sorted. Namely, learn how to build community, work out processes for rapid book production, and work out the tooling.

The tooling started with me scratching around with TWiki. A wiki written in Perl that happened to have the best plugins for rendering PDF. I scratched around, writing some Perl and cutting and pasting a whole lot more, and added some crazy .htaccess URL rewriting to produce a basic system for producing books. It was pretty scratchy but it actually worked. Later a buddy helped extend the system and later still I was able to pay him and others to extend it.

At the time it pretty much comprised a page (per book) for creating a table of contents.

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and an interface to edit the content (chapters). I ripped out the native wiki markup editor and replaced it with a WYSIWYG editor, I think it was TinyMCE…

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As you can see Right-to-Left content (in this case, Farsi) was also supported. There were also some basic things in place for keeping track of the status of a chapter, the version number, side by side diffs, side by side translation interfaces, and, later, dynamic table of contents organisation and edit locks.

Coupled with some basic PDF rendering stuff and a way to push the content from the ‘draft’ to the publishing front end and we were away.

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It actually had some other pretty cool stuff, such as side by side translation interfaces…

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Remix

..a built in live chat for talking with collaborators…

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and even a way to send books between different instances (eg for sending a book from the FLOSS Manuals French community site to FLOSS Manuals Finnish for translation)….

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We could even render book formatted PDF and push to the lulu.com print on demand services. I just now checked and some of the books are still there!

Not bad for a Perl-based system, built on top of a wiki that wasn’t supposed to do this kind of thing, and built very with very few resources. The TWiki extensions were contributed back upstream to the TWiki repo and it was all open source but it was pretty hard to rebuild and no one I knew actually had a similar use case.

After this, I embarked on a journey to replace the system with a custom built solution specifically for book production. I can’t remember exactly when this started, maybe 2008 or 2009 or something. It was originally called Booki…

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…which later became Booktype. Booki (and later Booktype) replaced the FLOSS Manuals tooling, although you can still see the working old tool here. That ole Perl code is still functional with no maintenance after 10 years, I can hardly believe it. The docs on how to use it also still exist.

Booki was built with Django (python) and pretty much had all the same stuff. Although the look and feel was changed quite a bit in the transition. There aren’t too many images around of Booki although I did find these screenshots of Booki taken by someone using it on the OLPC XO! (FLOSS Manuals did all the docs for OLPC/Sugar OS etc).

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It was hard to get financial support for it. Internet Archive gave us $25,000 at the time which seemed like a fortune. The evolution of Booki to Booktype represented me taking the project to a buddy’s in Berlin (I was living there at the time) based org (Sourcefabric) and parking it there so I could get more resources to build it out.

Booki/Booktype pretty much had, and has, the same stuff as the FLOSS Manuals system, just purpose built. So it had, a table of contents manager

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And a book (chapter) editor…

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…chat…

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And the other stuff. Perhaps the only new features (compared to the FLOSS Manuals system) were a dashboard…

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…groups…

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and an interesting way to have Twitter-like messaging to pass snippets from chapters to other users.

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Before I left Sourcefabric I wanted to get some other innovations built but didn’t get there. I did build some prototypes though. There was a task editor…

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…and live in-browser book design…

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Booktype is still going strong, now it is its own company (based in Berlin) and they also run the Omnibook commercial service using the software.

I left because John Chodacki and Kristen Ratan from PLoS invited me to come work for PLoS to design a new web-based journal submission system. I agreed…

But, before I leave the book story behind for a bit..I had set up Book Sprints as a company and put a small amount of my own money into building two new book production systems somewhere between leaving Sourcefabric and starting at PLoS. These two systems were PHP-based and Juan Gutierrez built them over some months.

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I wanted to do this because I was a little frustrated by Booktype not moving forward and also the platform was becoming more difficult to use. We were using it for Book Sprints but after I left the product took a new UI direction and I was finding Book Sprints participants were not enjoying using the system. So I built a Book Sprints specific system called… PubSweet… the namesake of the current Coko system which has eventually turned into something of a prototype for the new PubSweet… this new system was a lot simpler and easier to use than Booktype. It was initially meant to be modular but I think we lost that somewhere along the way. Cleanly modular systems take a lot of extra effort and time to produce so we gave in for speed of development’s sake.

The old PubSweet had a dashboard….

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..table of contents manager…

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and editor. Just like before!

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We also introduced some new innovations including visualisations of the book production process…

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Plus annotation (using Nick Stennings annotator software)…

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and other stuff…I think threaded discussions, outline views, review page, an in-browser book renderer, book stats and I can’t remember what.

Anyway …I also built a platform on top of this old PubSweet for the United Nations Development Project. It was called Lexicon. Lexicon was pretty interesting as it opened my mind for the first time to the idea that an editor is not an editor is not an editor. Different content types (in a book) may require different editors or production environments.

Lexicon was produced to collaboratively produce a tri-lingual (Arabic, French, English) lexicon of electoral terms for distribution in Arabic regions.

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Lexicon had all the same stuff as the old PubSweet but with one major innovation, you could create chapters that were WYSIWYG based, or you could create a chapter which enabled you to add and sort individual terms and provide translations.

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It was a pretty interesting idea and we were able to make a really cool book which the UNDP printed and distributed across many Arabic-speaking countries. I still have the book on my bookshelf.

The other interesting thing was that the total cost for building this on top of the old PubSweet was $10,000 USD. This was mostly because we could leverage all the existing stuff and just build the difference…interesting idea!

Ok, so then I dropped book production systems around 2013 or so for a while and went to work for PLoS on a system that was called Tahi and then became Aperta. The name Tahi came from the name of the street I was living on in New Zealand before I had a US work visa and was designing the system – Reotahi Road (cool road). Reotahi means ‘one voice’ and ‘tahi’ means ‘one’ in Maori. It was built on Rails with Ember. Essentially the front end and backend were decoupled although it was really pushing the technology at the time to do this. I designed the system and moved to San Francisco to manage the team to build it.

Tahi (Aperta) had a dashboard (surprise!) and editor, just like the book production systems but I introduced two major innovations – Cards, and card-based workflow management interfaces. Unfortunately, while I was asked to come and build an open source system, things went a little weird at PLoS and they closed the repos, effectively making it a closed platform. So I quit. That also means I don’t have any screenshots to show you. Pity. If you sign an NDA with PLoS I believe they might show it to you.

However, you can picture it a little – imagine something like Trello, or Wekan – these are card based kanban systems. But imagine if you could custom make cards to do anything. Effectively cards were first class citizens of the platform and could access the db, perform system operations, make external calls, do validations, whatever you wanted. In hindsight, I think they were as close to an idea of an ‘app’ that you could have in a browser platform, although that wasn’t the way I thought about them at the time. Additionally, cards were imported into the system since each card was actually a gem file. This meant any publisher could custom make their own cards to do whatever they wanted and place them within the kanban-like workflow space (task manager). Pretty neat.

So, cards could be surfaced and used anywhere in the system. We used them for authors to enter submission data, but also for production staff to perform operations, for reviewers etc etc etc. They could also be placed on a kanban board to make a workflow. Cards could be moved around the workflow and deleted or new ones added at any time.

To manage all this my other idea was to let these cards flow through a TweetDeck-like interface. So you could sort cards, per role, per user, at volume.

Tahi essentially had four spaces – a dashboard, a submission page (which displayed the manuscript in an editor, and submission data could be entered through cards), a task manager (workflow for the article, using cards as tasks), and a ‘flow manager’ (the TweetDeck-like interface for sorting all your cards across all your articles). While the FLOSS Manuals, Booki and Booktype platforms were pretty much monolithic systems, the old PubSweet was sort of modular. However, Tahi did decouple the front end and back end but I wanted to also break these four spaces into discreet components. That would have given the system enormous flexibility but unfortunately I wasn’t able to do this before I left.

Anyways, Tahi/Aperta is a little old now but it was pretty cool. I don’t know what happened to Aperta but I believe it is now being used for PLoS Biology.

After I left PLoS I was offered a Fellowship by the Shuttleworth Foundation to continue on the mission to reform publishing. So I started Coko with Kristen Ratan (who was the publisher at PLoS)….

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So there are some themes from building the past 7 or 8 publishing systems (depending on how you count it… there were also some other interesting experiments in between). First, the next system you build is always better. That is for sure. It’s an important thing to realise because when I developed the FLOSS Manuals system I thought that was it. Nothing could be better! But I was wrong. Then Booki/Booktype and I felt the same thing. I was so proud of it and nothing could be better! haha… you get the picture. The reason why it’s important to understand this is because I think it gives someone like me a bit of freedom. I can take some risks with systems knowing you get some stuff right, you get some stuff wrong. But the next system will get that bit you got wrong, right. Taking this attitude also takes the pressure off and you can have more fun which is good for your health, the team you are working with, and the system.

As far as technical lessons learned… well… after looking back at all these systems when we started Coko, I realised that the idea of independent ‘spaces’ for publishing workflows had a heap of currency. How many systems did I have to build with baked in dashboards, task managers, editors, table of content managers, etc etc etc before I could realise it doesn’t make sense to do this over and over. I wanted to take the idea of these kinds of spaces forward and not have to build them again and again… so some kind of system where you could include whatever spaces/components you wanted would be ideal… This would have two very important side benefits:

  1. I could learn so much because if the next system you build is always better, what about a framework that would allow you to easily build a whole lot of systems at once! Or build a lot quickly over a short amount of time… just imagine how much you could learn…
  2. It would open the door for others to innovate. I have since given up the idea that my system (so to speak) was the best ever and no one could top it. That’s just the testosterone talking. I’m kinda over it (sorta). I want other people to be able to make better stuff than what I have produced so far, to bring in innovations I never thought of. I want to make that easy for them and now I understand a whole lot better how publishing workflows actually work I’m in a very good position to do that.

That was a lot of the thinking behind the new PubSweet – PubSweet 1.0. But there is some other stuff too. Through my time at PLoS, I came to understand just how many variables affect workflow choices in journal publishing and that each publisher has slightly different conditions and roles that affect this. That means that the access control is complex. We might think there are various roles – author, editor, reviewer etc that shepherd an article through a process but it’s not that simple. Any number of conditions can affect who gets to see or do what and when. So we need to have a very sophisticated way to set and manage this.

There was a lot of other stuff to take into account to but I mention these two specifically because recently when I was talking to Jure (lead PubSweet dev) about PubSweet 1.0 and reflecting on how far we came he nailed it, he identified the two major innovations of the system being:

  1. reusable/sharable components (spaces)
  2. attribute-based access control

I agree entirely. I think I might add another:

  • developer experience

It is pretty easy, and getting easier, for developers to develop publishing platforms/workflows (call them what you will) with PubSweet. I think it is pretty astonishing and I think these 3 characteristics put together enable us to build multiple publishing systems fast and in parallel (with small teams) as well opening the door for other to do the same and huge opportunities for innovation.

If we are successful at building community this will be a huge contribution to the publishing sector.

In a future post, I’ll break PubSweet spaces / components down in more detail. There were also a lot of other similar stories regarding technical innovations on the way (eg Objavi->iHat->INK), but I’ll break them down into posts on another day.

I meant to also talk about Editoria here, the monograph production system built on top of PubSweet, and xpub – the PubSweet-based Journal system.

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They are both pretty amazing and leverage so much more than the previous systems identified above.

Login page for our first Journal platform.

I think the main thing with them is that we are working extremely closely with publishers using the method I developed – the Cabbage Tree Method.

Editoria Design Session

This means that I am no longer involved in building, what I would call, naive publishing systems. Naive in the sense that publishers could use, for example, Booktype, but it’s not really built for publishers. It’s a general book production system built by someone who didn’t know much about publishing at the time. That’s great of course, there is a place for it. However, Editoria is not a naive system. It is designed by publishers for publishers and the difference is enormous.

But I will leave a longer rant about this for another post.

I do however, want to say that I didn’t, of course, build any of the above systems by myself. There were many people involved and I have credited them elsewhere in this blog. I’m not going to do another roll call here except for Jure Triglav.

Jure and I sat down just over 18 months ago to discuss some of the lessons I learned as explained above. We jammed it out over post-its, whiteboards, coffee, and food in Slovenia and you can read a little more about that process in the PubSweet 2.0 RFC. But Jure trusted me, and I trusted him, and he took these ideas and, with a small team in very good speed, made them a reality. As a result, I think PubSweet is an exciting system and will only get better. Congratulations Jure, you deserve special thanks and recognition for the absolutely amazing job you have done.

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Thoughts on Facilitation

I’ve been sitting on the beach trying to not think about work, which means of course I thought about work…. but in the way where clearing the mind brings up new insights almost ‘out of the blue’. It happens to me a lot when I get away, which is why I sometimes do my best thinking on trains, or at the beach.

I have been pondering facilitation. So here are a few thoughts. The following is very much a sort of scratch pad of ideas / stream of consciousness. I’ll put structure to it and flesh it out later.

First, I have been pondering what makes a good facilitator. How do you know when someone might be good at this. I think there are 2 personal characteristics that might seem contradictory but are essential:

  1. they are very open
  2. they are very controlling

The second one sounds bad I know. I will work out a better way to state this. But in my experience every good facilitator I know is in some way a bit of a control freak. They are also very (very) open. That might seem like a difficult mix to get right – it is! Which is why I’m kinda leaning towards this theory because I have trained several facilitators and the ones that don’t make it don’t strongly represent simultaneously in these 2 categories.

Second, pretentiousness or a ‘high minded’ attitude *does not cut it*. I say this because you can have the above two characteristics right but I’ve seen this attached to a much removed holier than thou attitude and that is the worst. No good facilitator is above the fray in this way.

Ok.. I was about to break out in a rant there… phew…

Alrighty…

Next the facilitator’s role – what is the facilitators job? I see it as this. The facilitator’s role is to maintain process and to pass decisions to the participants over substance.

Sounds simple. But in no way is this simple. To maintain process the facilitator needs to find ways for the group to invest in an artificial culture that is born on the spot. The rules of that culture are almost completely evoked and maintained by the facilitator. This small little bubble, or micro universe with its own rationale and rules, is what the facilitator instantiates and maintains. It more or less comes down to these two things:

  1. methodology (more important than you think, but also not nearly as important as you think).
  2. shaping human dynamics

In other words, your job is to manage what is done (methodology eg. the Book Sprint Methodology), and how it gets done (shaping the internal behaviors).

I think number two is the hardest to master since you can’t be good at any methodology unless you know how to shape human dynamics. And this is all about who you are and finding your own voice as a facilitator. There are so many tricks and techniques here I don’t even know where to start. Maybe a subject for other posts. But what I’d like to point out is that these two things put together equal process. Facilitators manage process so the participants can focus on the substance of what it is they are deciding/creating etc.

I say this because sitting on the beach has made me aware of one of the biggest issues with facilitation that I have experienced. When I used to facilitate Book Sprints I used to ponder why it was that Humanities academics and facilitators were the hardest people to facilitate. Also, in other Book Sprints, staff documentation writers would often prove difficult when I did Book Sprints that focused on documentation. Ponder ponder… now I think I sorta see it. It is because these groups have a strong opinion on process. Academics are experienced in writing books, so they believe they know how books are written. You come at them with something else, another way of doing it, and many of them just flatly freak out. I had one academic who literally said “you can’t just make up how you make books”. That was a pretty extreme example. I was able to bring her round but it was hard work. Facilitators also think they know facilitation process, so you involve them in something new and they almost always think they can see better ways to do it. They are almost always wrong (mainly because no path works the same for any two facilitators because of the need for each and every facilitator, in themselves, to be the instantiation for a temporary, micro, but very real culture). . Same with documentation  writers… involve them in a doc sprint and you might very well be asking for trouble.

It is the facilitator’s job to bring the process to the people. If the people are domain experts (ie. know a lot about the topic) then no sweat, they will usually get in there quickly and invest in the mini culture you lay down. But if the participants have opinions on the process you get into all sorts of trouble.

So, that means there are two categories of people that need to be kept in mind:

  1. domain experts – good to go, you should be able to get them inside of the bubble no problems
  2. process experTs – spelled with a capital T for Trouble 🙂

Ok…. so I want to say one last thing before I go practice falling off a surf board inelegantly. There is a group of people that are also difficult to keep inside this bubble. They are, for want of a better word, the ‘power retainers’. These are people that either hold sway with the group because of their massive cultural capital (eg the elder states-person in a sector, or they are the boss), or they have such big egos they think they know whats best (usually they also don’t know when to shut up).

There are three possible ways these people can go:

  1. they give the power away – they step back and let other people in, are careful not to dominate, they get in there shoulder to shoulder with others, really listen, go with the flow
  2. you coach the power away – this can be exhausting, but it works more often than not and when it does it can be dramatic. I’ve seen people swing around from being destructively blocking to being the biggest advocates of the process within a day.
  3. they don’t give it up – i have rarely seen this. Interestingly the two examples that come to mind have been Ministers (I won’t name the country or position!). The way they avoided ‘being one of the people’ was just to disappear from the process entirely. Maybe that’s their job – professional avoiders (hoho). Sigh.

I have to say, when I see people migrate from 2 -> 1 (above) they do nothing but earn my utmost respect. That is humility and human connectedness at its best right there.

But if someone is stuck on 3… that is really trouble and you might need to ask them outside for a talking to. In the past I have threatened to remove them from the process. That’s a tough tough call right there, but you have to get the rest of the group to where they need to be in the time they have. If you don’t make these tough calls you won’t make it. I have, by the way, only had to sideline people for a while. I’ve never had to remove anyone and I even had one elder statesman front up the next day and apologize to me and recognise why things had to flow the way they had to flow. That dude earned a place in my heart forever.

Anyways…back to the beach 🙂  ….

New Coko Foundation Website

The new Collaborative Knowledge Foundation website is now live. It was designed by the fabulous Dutch design company the van Leeuwen Brothers. I have known designer Henrik van Leeuwen for many years. He’s a good friend, talented designer, and great artist. Henrik has done all the illustrations for Book Sprint books for many years now and does almost all the Book Sprint cover designs. He developed the Book Sprint and Coko logos and now the Coko website. Henrik and his brother Kresten are huge talents and if you are looking around for good designers I highly recommend them.

The first not-really Book Sprint

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Korčula

I have been poking around in my own archives recently. It’s pretty cool to remember things that I had completely forgotten. Anyway, the following is a post I found about the first Book Sprint. It was about Pure Data and held on the little island of Korčula, Croatia. A buddy, Darko Fritz, let us use his apartment in the center of the old town. I was to join two friends, Derek Holzer and Luka Prinčič, at the apartment for 3-ish days. However, on the way I had a health freak out and had to participate remotely. It was our first attempt at a Book Sprint and looks almost nothing like how Book Sprints are done now, but it was a starting point and gave me a lot to think about.

The following is the report written by Luka for the FLOSS Manuals site. I love the two images in the post. They are the only images Luka and Derek sent me of this mysterious event.

So, Adam sent us (he was supposed to come too, but couldn't at the end) - he sent Derek Holzer and myself to this Croatian island Korcula, into the little (but very very cute) town ­named the same (Korcula) so that we Sprint-it up and write a Pure Data manual for FLOSS Manuals. I took my little old red car and drove down from Ljubljana over Rijeka and under scary stoney Velebit entering the warm sunny region of Dalmatia and driving further towards Split. Now this was a fun ride, especially under Velebit was very scenic. My cup of tea, as I hate the boredom of motorways. And my clutch was going to hell too, so my fingers were crossed. In split I caught this superfast catamaran-pedestrian-ferry that took me in under three hours to Korcula where Derek was waiting for me. And for phone line. And for internet connection.

news-_img_2484_1-enIn this lovely little town with incredible feel of Venetian architecture, tiny little streets, all set in stone, we waited for ADSLine to appear, which it did right next morning. The evening before we discussed over a plate of Italian pasta and a beer what would be good to work on in the coming days. After the internet magically appeared (yeah right!) we could also discuss with Adam, who was in Amsterdam, over Skype how to work and what to work on. Derek was somewhat the main captain although each of us worked on our own chapter. Adam was going after installation instructions for various platforms, Derek was rewriting and expanding tutorial on how to build a simple synth, and I was going deep into 'Dataflow' tutorials.

news-_img_2496-en On Monday when I arrived, the sea was quite wild as there was a lot of wind. Tuesday was all gray and rainy. We had some talk about doing some hiking, as Derek had already explored some terrain, but Tuesday was a bit too wet, so we stayed in and worked on bits and pieces trying to see how much work there is and how writing feels. It seems from the after-perspective that this was the day to slowly get the grip on how the writing will go.

On Wednesday, we took a bus in the morning to a nearby village by the coast and with a little map from the tourist office tried to find that little path that would correspond to a tiny dashed black line that goes up the hill towards another village about 500m higher. We searched for more than an hour until finally a communicative small but wide man told us that old paths were overridden with a new tarmacced road. "I used to go up those little paths, when I was young..." he said, "but now there's a road so why would one bother, but if you really want there's a little path there, you can find it...." We walked a path for a while and than decended slightly to find a road and walked the road for an hour, maybe two, under not-too-hot spring-ish sun. It was lovely. After icecream in a local shop (those local shops are always something!) we caught a bus and went back 'home'. We started to work immediately, had some lunch and worked quite late into the night. We talked to Adam over Skype and kept working each on our own part.

Interestingly, and maybe because we were supposed to leave on Saturday morning (Derek had a plane ticket), next two days somewhat turned into a bit of frenzied work. As we knew we had just two days left, we tried to finish our parts. In consequence, at the end of Friday, we realized we hadn't gone out much. A real Sprint! One of us would go to the shop now and then, couple of times a day, and cook something (mostly pasta! - but I found some local home-made from Istria, and also Korcula olive oil!) The weather was nice, not cold, with many bits of sun. The voices of kids, sometimes horny cats, and other inhabitants were protruding through an open door and were making a special kind of atmosphere. It was lovely to feel this Venetian-medieval town around you. Our flat was on the third, top floor, we could see the sea from it and the roofs around us.

On the friday evening we found ourselves with two huge finished chapters, both quite satisfied with it. We were tired but happy we made something. We searched the town for fish and found an empty but slick-looking restaurant with a young owner-cook who made us some fish and vegetables. I guess we could have made them ourselves at home, but none of us spotted a fishery and had much time and energy left. I must say it has also been very educational for me to listen to Derek's peculiar playlist which included a lot of metal, old rock (Black Sabbath, etc) and African (Angolan) music from 70s. Luckily, Derek had a near perfect (or at least compatible) feel for sound levels, so it was always very enjoyable to become aquanted with a genre I haven't explored yet in my life much.

In the aftermath of the Sprint of two-and-a-half days, we both felt we wouldn't be able to go like this for another day. If anything, we would need a day, or ideally two days of real break from this and than we could come back to the book with passion. I was thinking this would be great to do three or four times. In waves. Either that, or steadily work for 8, maybe 10 hours per day and then have a break. But I think this also depends on the writer and her/his ability and fitness to write. 

At the last moment I decided to stay for another two days (as our 'landlord' told us we could stay for us long as we liked, and Adam agreed). So Derek left on Saturday morning (6 am, ugh) and I worked on some of my music and had couple of walks around town and surroundings, really enjoying it immensely.

My car was still where I left it in Split, and the clutch was still functioning (barely), so I drove back, under lovely Velebit of course. It was almost like summer all the way to the border with Slovenia, where heavy rain was waiting for me.

Korčula image by PJL (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)