11 April 2014

The Power of Habit

We moved house recently, not a totally unknown occurrence for us as we have nomadic tendencies, but we’d lived in the house for almost six years, which is pretty much a record for us.

The new place is only about 5 km and a couple of bays further up the coast, so I know the general area, and still use most of the same facilities, shopping etc. Because of this, there have been one or two occasions when I’ve got into the car and switched into autopilot mode, only to find myself taking a route back to the old house. Habits are powerful things!

Autopilot mode is useful and we use it in most aspects of our life. When we first learn to do something, like driving, we have to go through each individual movement, possibly even muttering instructions to ourselves as we do. However, once we’ve learned the sequence of movements and practiced them, dozens or possibly hundreds of times, the knowledge moves into a different area of our brain, and we don't think through each individual component or movement.

Habits of themselves aren’t good or bad, they are a part of our learning and development. When you get dressed tomorrow, look at what foot you put into your pants or socks first, and then the following day use the opposite foot first. It’s hard to break the habit because it’s something we do without thinking, but if we had to think through every movement or task we do, we’d be overwhelmed.

The writing work ethic is an interesting one. Some writers wait for the muse to attack, while others write every day.

My day job is non-fiction writing, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that waiting for the muse to attack doesn’t work. It may seem like a very ‘writerly’ thing to say, but in practise it means we’re not going to finish. The only way to finish a book is to write.

It’s certainly not the easiest thing in the world, especially when the sun is shining, but the bottom line is: writers write.

I speak from the experience of both sides. I’ve had periods when I’ve made myself sit down every day and write, and periods that, for various reasons, I haven’t been able to, or not felt like writing.

What I do know, is that when you sit down to write on a regular basis, magic happens. 

Now to practice the art of habit and follow the advice of Mary Heaton Vorse.
The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

30 March 2014

What's in a Name (again)

We’ve enjoyed glorious autumn weather this month, and that’s meant regular visits to the local beaches. I think I prefer spring and autumn weather as it’s still wonderfully warm, but without the humid element. One of my favourite beaches also has local stores one road back from the beach, which is very useful if you need to do the grocery shopping.

Last weekend, as I wandered along the street, a woman posed for a photo outside a clothes shop. It turned out that her name is Jean Jones, the same as the clothing store, hence the photo. Her husband added that his name is David Jones (the same name as a large department store in Australia). He joked that between them they had retail sewn up!

When starting a new piece of work, especially a novel, I find it important to get the right names for the characters. With some characters, the name comes very early in the process, and doesn't change. Other characters haven't been so fortunate, and go through several name changes before I find the right one for them.

I'm happy with the character's names in my current work in progress. However, I’ve been thinking about the next book, and toying with the idea of using a famous name. It’s made me wonder about the impact of having a well-known name, such as a character from a book. Imagine a shy female called Scarlett O’Hara, or a reticent male called James Bond. Using another slant, what would it be like having the name of a celebrity; perhaps a famous actor or a sports person? Would you be mistaken for them, get preferential treatment, or perhaps find yourself in trouble?

There are plenty of exciting possibilities.

24 March 2014

Google made me smile

I opened a browser window earlier to search for some information, and this was the Google graphic (for me) today.

I know it's just a piece of code buried deep in some computer, but it made me smile.

Google wished me happy birthday :)

13 March 2014

Book Blurbs and First Chapters

The first quarter of this year has been packed with a significant number of stressful life events. These are rather like public transport; they leave you alone for some time and then all come along together, as if you’ve been having things too easy and it’s time to see if you crack under the strain.

Selling our home and moving was planned, but the other events obviously decided this was waaaay too easy and they’d come along for the ride - big sigh! However, back to the moving. One of the things I decided to do before the move was to significantly cull my books and get rid of some of the bookshelves.

When choosing a print book to read, I tend to look at the cover and then reread the back page blurb to remind myself of the story and why it interested me. After doing this a few times I settle on one to read.

When I first starting using my Kindle I had a relatively small number of books on the device, and most were books by favourite authors or classics I hadn’t yet read. In all cases I was aware of the book premise simply by looking at the title. Since then I’ve purchased many more books, and often they’re on my Kindle for some time before I read them.

An eReader is a little like Mary Poppins' carpetbag. You can fit in a large number of books without it looking any different, whereas when I tried to find room on the bookshelves for new purchases I was always aware of the number of books I hadn’t yet read, and I felt guilty for buying more.

When I’m selecting a book to read from the electronic list on my Kindle, I tend to be too lazy to look at the book blurb on Amazon, so all I have to go on is the book cover and title, and a tagline if there is one. This means I often have very little to go on as to the storyline or setting.

From a writer’s perspective this means we’ve really got to make that first chapter work hard, (not forgetting that all important first paragraph). Is there enough to draw the reader in and keep them reading and wanting to know more, without confusing them totally?

The opening chapter needs to introduce the protagonist, give the reader a feel for the genre or type of book (you should also get an idea of this from the title and cover), give a feel of the narrative voice (is it a warm confiding tone, ironic, amusing, frightening), and introduce the setting and time period. By the end of the chapter there should also be an indication this is going somewhere, that there is conflict, problems to be solved and stakes high enough to ensure action is taken. As readers we don’t want endless ramblings of the protagonist's everyday life or lots of backstory.

Opening chapters have always had to do that, but now they need to work even harder if the reader doesn’t have an indication of the storyline from the back cover blurb.

Some time ago I released a romantic suspense novella (Driftwood). In the reviews I’ve noticed a couple of comments along the lines of ‘it’s a quick read’. That’s true, it’s a novella, and comes in at around 46,000 words. The blurb on Amazon states it’s a novella, but of course, when you open it on your eReader you don’t have any idea whether it’s a doorstop of a book or a quick read. For these reasons I’ve decided that in future I’m going to add the short blurb to the front of my electronic books, so the reader is oriented as to the main outline or premise of the book before they begin. It doesn’t mean I can relax on that first paragraph and chapter, it still has to pull its weight, but at least the reader has the same information they would if they were reading a print version.

As readers or writers, what do you think?

11 January 2014

Other People's Goals and Resolutions

At the moment my hand is strapped up due to an injury, and because of that I've had to cut back on computer time. I had planned on spending a lot of the holidays writing so I was a little put-out by this (as you can guess!) However, on the positive side I've been able to read my way through a significant portion of the Leaning Tower of Pisa that is my to be read pile.

Keeping away from the computer means I haven't read quite as many online articles and blogs as I usually do, but I've noticed a recurring theme in those I have read. The theme is hardly surprising given the time of year. You've guessed it - goals and resolutions.

The ones I've read have been very realistic and helpful on the subject, and because I can't spend too long typing one-handed I thought I'd share a few of the links with you.

How to keep your writing going - Dean Wesley Smith

Find balance over your years, not your days - Raptitude 

Create an Action-Packed New Year - James J. Murray 

New Year Resolutions for Self-published Writers - The Alliance of Independent Authors

All ahead for a productive, but most importantly, happy time.

Now for a bit of shameless self-promotion - if your taste in reading is romantic suspense then Driftwood is free at the moment on Amazon.

The last person Juliet expects to meet on a work trip is Luke. She has changed her name and worked hard to ensure he wouldn't find her, but now he is back in her life again. Is it chance, or something more sinister?

Juliet has secrets she needs to keep hidden, but Luke wants to renew their relationship. After meeting him incidents occur that make her fear the unthinkable. Her life may be in danger.

She leaves Auckland for Sydney on a business trip, but Luke appears there. Can she trust him, or are his secrets more dangerous than the ones she hides.

Secrets and lies can be a killer.

20 December 2013

Have a Happy Day

Over the past couple of months we’ve had our own little mayoral problem here in Auckland. Internationally it hasn’t caught on, unlike the Toronto mayor, but it has kept the local papers busy.

The reason I mention it here is that on my way to work I saw the headline that it was a big decision day for the mayor and whether he would keep his job. I scanned the headline as I walked past and then continued thinking about work concerns (well I was on my way there), and the other personal and writing thoughts pushing through.

In our lives there are days we will never forget. Some of them are planned and anticipated such as a wedding, a milestone birthday or anniversary, or the birth of a child. Others happen when we least expect it: meeting someone who will have a big impact on our life, illness or the death of someone close. Those particular days, whether happy or heart-breaking, are momentous, but they are only momentous to us, and possibly to a few other people we know. Even hearing of the death of a favourite actor or famous person is unlikely to have the same effect on us.

For most of the time we’re unaware of these momentous occasions in other people’s lives. The people walking along the street around you may be bubbling with excitement and anticipation over an upcoming event, or in the depths of misery over the loss of someone close or an illness or health diagnosis.

I recall being very aware of this a few years ago when my father died unexpectedly, and instead of going to work that morning I found myself flying back to England. I looked around at the other people on the plane and wondered about their reasons for travel: holiday, business, family or some occasion not so happy.

We don’t know what’s going on in the life of others so why not give them a break if someone reacts unexpectedly or unpleasantly to us. Sure they may just be grumpy and rude all the time, but that’s their problem. However, they may be going through the worst day of their life.

I know it’s a cliché for this time of year, but by treating other people kindly we never know the effect it may have on them.

I still remember the unexpected pleasure and boost of happiness I had when a stranger smiled at me and wished me a ‘Happy Friday’ on the way to work one day.

If nothing else it will make you feel good.

15 December 2013


'History is memory, when our history is lost; our memory is always diminished.'

I jotted that quotation down in one of my notebooks some time ago, unfortunately I didn't make a note of where I found it or who said it, and therefore I’m not sure of the context of the quote, but it reminded me of an incident on holiday.

We spent a morning
walking and enjoying spectacular views at Cape Byron, and during our visit we saw a pod of humpback whales. It was a brilliant half hour watching these magnificent creatures on their migration journey. Needless to say most people had their camera’s, phones or tablets out taking photos. As I stood next to a small group I overheard one of them say, ‘Why don’t you come out from behind your camera for a few minutes and just enjoy watching.’

The technology we have is brilliant. We can capture events and upload the photos or video for the world to see. A lot of the news information we gain comes from ‘people on the street’ watching events unfold. However with that ability to capture so much, we also lose a lot. I guess it comes back to being in the moment. When we’re constantly behind a lens, or a phone or tablet screen, we don’t actually see the view other than through a lens.

I wouldn’t swap the technology we enjoy, but we shouldn’t forget what our memories capture: the feel of a child’s hand in ours, the sun on our skin, the scent of the sea, the sound of the waves pounding the rocks and children’s laughter.

I don't need a photo to remind me of the
sense of anticipation I had as a child on Christmas Eve, or going on holiday and wanting to be the first to catch that first glimpse of the sea, and the joy of holding my daughters as babies.

Yes, we should take photos and video, but we must live the memories as well.