24 December 2012

Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere

We’ve survived the apocalypse, and it’s now Christmas Eve and we're into the last few hours of shopping. We ask ourselves those Christmas questions - have we got presents for everyone?  Do we have enough food to cope with that one day when the shops aren't open? Children, of course, are only concerned with whether the man in red will turn up with a full sleigh and all the reindeer.

Christmas is a great time for traditions. We might forget what we did last week, but we’ll usually be able to remember lots of Christmas days we’ve enjoyed – who was with us and where we were, who set off the big argument by saying something out of place, and the great (and not-so-great!) presents we've given and received.

I’ve spent Christmas in a number of different countries, but until arriving in New Zealand they had all been in the northern hemisphere, and so while some were warmer than others, it was still winter.  Living in the southern hemisphere creates new Christmas traditions.  We’re enjoying summer and have just had the longest day of the year, and although we don’t have the very high temperatures that Australia has, it is certainly warm here, in the mid to high 20s today. 

We have Christmas lights strung all around our deck and on the Christmas tree, but as we have those long summer evenings the lights don’t actually come on until late!  On the other hand we enjoy fresh strawberries and raspberries, and all the other lovely summer fruits for Christmas dessert.

We’ve just returned from a couple of wonderfully peaceful days at a quiet beach an hour or so north of where we live.  There was no mobile phone reception and no internet connectivity. The beach was beautiful and the sea warm, and I read two books in the few days away, so I feel wonderfully refreshed.

Wherever you are, and however you celebrate, I hope you have a wonderful time with family and friends. Happy Christmas.

21 December 2012

Popular Posts and Christmas Wishes

I've just been looking through my blog stats and noticed this is post 100 for this year.  Yay, as that means I'm not far off my goal for the year of posting twice a week.

I've been writing this blog for just over two years now and I've been amazed and humbled at how the readership has grown. When I first started it felt as though I was talking to myself, but then we writers are used to that!

My first posts were just before I had a publishing contract for Driftwood, and as I look back on them I realise how much I've learnt in that time and how much the publishing industry has changed, and the opportunities we now have as authors.

This time last year I published my second novel, Lives Interrupted, through Kindle and CreateSpace, and that was another learning curve.

The posts on my experiences on formatting and uploading a manuscript to Smashwords and KDP are searched regularly, and it's good to know they're  useful.  I've had some great emails from people asking questions and sharing their experiences.

I was interested to see what posts were the most popular for this year and thought I'd share links to the most viewed, excluding the formatting and uploading ones for Smashwords, KDP and CreateSpace as they're only interesting if you need the information.

So of the non-writing posts, one of the most viewed this year was The Sound of Thoughts. The photo of the Opera House is there because I wrote this post in Sydney.

Quite a few of the posts are writing related in some way, and another popular post was on Positive and Negative Character Traits, and this one on the topic and CSI.

I like sharing resources and interesting things I find and a TED talk inspired this post on what makes a good story, and I'm obviously not the only one who enjoys daydreaming.  

It's been an interesting year, and I'm looking forward to 2013 and am busy concocting plans and goals for the things I want to achieve.

Lives Interrupted is free to download on Amazon US and Amazon UK today (21st December), and if you missed it, or are waiting for Santa to deliver your eReader, it will also be free on 26/27th December.

Have a great weekend. 

20 December 2012

It's Beginning To Feel A Bit Like Christmas

The work projects are in their closing stages, the Christmas tree is up AND I’ve actually wrapped presents and put them underneath the tree, so to misquote a song title, it’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas.

I walked along my local beach earlier and the pohutukawas are looking beautiful. There are some photos of them sprinkled through this post. They bloom in December and so are known as New Zealand’s Christmas tree.  The cliffs at the end of the beach are ablaze with them at the moment.

Christmas in the southern hemisphere takes some getting used to if all you’ve known is northern hemisphere snowy celebrations.  At the moment all the windows and doors are open, and it’s still hot.

I do feel sorry for the shopping mall Santa's.  They’re dressed in warm red robes while the rest of us are in shorts and t-shirts.  Hearing/singing  traditional Christmas songs about the cold and snow also seems a little out of place.

We are approaching the longest day of the year, and the children have just started the long summer holidays. This means that Christmas and New Year holidays tend to stretch well into January in New Zealand, as families head off to the beach for holidays. Turkey and ham are Christmas favourites, but so also are family BBQs at the beach.

I’ll put my hand up for some extra reading time during the holidays.  I’ve been doing some serious work on the Leaning Tower of Pisa that is my ‘to be read’ pile, and that’s just the overflow from the bookshelves. My Kindle is also bursting, though fortunately no-one but me knows that!

It’s a year since I first published Lives Interrupted, and as it’s a present-giving time of year, Lives Interrupted is free to download on Amazon on 20 and 21 December  - Amazon UK

If you don't have an eReader, but are getting one for Christmas it will also be free on 26 and 27 December. 

Happy holidays and happy reading. 

17 December 2012

Working Smarter – Action Triggers

A number of years ago I attended an NLP weekend.  One of the things I found  interesting was anchors.  An anchor is a trigger that leads to an emotional response. 

Hearing and smell are senses that link very strongly to memories or emotional states.  Think of the times you’ve heard a record and you're instantly back at an event in your past, or a particular scent recalls an experience.  Anchors are similar, except you are deliberately associating a particular stimulus with a specific feeling or response. 

We can create our own action triggers for writing.

For example: sitting down to write at the same time each day (once you’ve discovered your best writing time), using the same scented candle each time you write, or using the same pen and notebook for your creative writing (and not for anything else). 

Some organisations have dress codes for work.  The rationale behind this is that if people are dressed smartly, they have a more professional attitude at work.  I haven’t seen any research for this, and don’t have any strong feelings either way, but it’s something to take into consideration when discovering what works best for you in being creative and productive.  You may turn out your best writing dressed in pyjamas, or prefer to work after having a shower and being comfortably dressed.

Having goals and a schedule, and finding out where, how and when you are most productive and creative will help you on those days when you don’t feel like writing, and can increase your chance of success – it certainly won’t harm it.

Working smarter links


14 December 2012

Working Smarter - Where and How You Work

In the last few posts we've created some big hairy audacious goals, broken them down into achievable tasks, scheduled the best time to actually work on the tasks, and found the best way for us to be creative and productive.  

So where do you work?  Maybe you have an office at home, or the spare bedroom, or a corner of the living room.  My spot is the dining table, which is the reason we don’t invite people over for dinner very often!

I like the dining table, it’s big enough to spread out my papers when I’m developing training materials, or looking through a draft. Though there are times I’d love it to be a little larger.

While I don’t have a proper desk, I do have a good chair. If you’re going to be spending hours working you need to be comfortable.

The room is light and airy – this is important to me, though it might not be so important to you.  From my seat I can look out onto the deck, and see the birds eating the strawberries they think we grow for them.  There are a lot of trees and beyond that a glimpse of the sea.

There is research that shows we need space around us to have ideas and be creative.  I guess that's why we often find ourselves staring out of the window when we're trying to come up with ideas, after all the sky is a very high ceiling.

I can work with a certain amount of mess around me, my type of mess that is, with my papers in different piles so I can still find what I need quickly.  But I do enjoy the clear out at the end of a project, when I go through all the papers and electronic files and get rid of what isn’t needed.  Too much mess and I just can’t work, the same goes for mess in my head, as in jobs that need to be done. That’s why I find a schedule so useful, if the tasks have been written down and a time scheduled, I can clear them out of my head and not worry about them.

I’ve read a lot about the delights of writing in a cafĂ©, but it doesn't work for me.  I need quiet.  If it gets too busy or noisy around the house, either the other inhabitants or neighbours, I put on headphones and listen to some music. I have it just loud enough to drown the outside noise, but not so loud it’s intrusive.  Actually music is another interesting thing. A lot of writers swear by creating a specific sound track for their novel or project.  Again it doesn’t work for me unless I’m driven to it because of other noise.

What I’m saying is, try different things. Find out where, when and how you are most creative and productive, and use that knowledge to help your writing.

There isn't a magic solution that works for everyone, or just one way to work.  There is only the one ring rule you need to follow.  

Keep writing.  Regularly.

10 December 2012

Working Smarter - Managing Your Time

In the last post I talked about writing regularly and scheduling the tasks that are linked to our goals.  Time is our most precious commodity, so it is something we need to manage.

Let me make a confession here - I’ve never been much good at multi-tasking.  I used to feel a little guilty about admitting this, as most people seem to think of it as a good thing.  Yes, I can multi-task the automatic, easy things, but when it comes to an important project I need to concentrate on it. 

I’ve been encouraged in reading a few research studies that say multi-tasking makes us less efficient than when we focus on one project at a time, and that managing two tasks at the same time reduces the brainpower available for either task.  Apparently multi-tasking also boosts our levels of stress related hormones - not a good thing.

‘An interruption that breaks your concentration can cost you 10-20 minutes of lost focus.’   Imagine how much little you’re going to get done if you keep on flicking onto Facebook or Twitter or (add your own favourite site here!)

We all have lots of different things going on in our lives, and I often find myself flitting from one thing to another.  For simple automatic tasks it probably doesn't matter too much, but when it comes to those goals we've set, like finishing the first draft, or editing it, we need to be stricter with ourselves.  When we stop (for just a minute!) to look at an email or a website, it takes us time to get back into what we were originally doing, and of course that minute is never just one minute.

I used to teach personal efficiency programmes so I know most of the theory - though that doesn't necessarily make me great at actually doing it!  I started timing the little 'breaks'. You know the ones - I'll just look at this email, just have a quick look at Twitter/Facebook etc.  If you've ever timed yourself on these secondary activities you know how long they can take.  You promise yourself it will only be a moment, but it never is, and added to that is the time it takes to get back into your original task.

I mentioned in the last post about the eight weeks I had to finish Lives Interrupted.  At that point I decided to test a different way of working.  I worked for fifty-minute blocks, doing nothing other than write my novel.  I didn’t look at email or websites (not even for research), no phone calls, and I set an alarm so I didn’t have to worry about the time.  My focus was amazing.  I was often surprised when the alarm went off, and was stunned at how much I wrote during each of those fifty-minute periods.

I’d then have ten minutes to look at emails, take a break, get a drink or whatever else I wanted to do.  Then I’d set the alarm again and work for another fifty minutes.  My word count using this method was far better than it had ever been.

Setting these blocks of time worked whether I was writing the first draft, or editing subsequent drafts, and I use it for my contracting project work.  Developing training materials or a technical manual also needs extended periods of focus and concentration.

Now you might be thinking, if an interruption loses you time in focus why do you have a break at all.  The reason for that is we each have a limit on how long we can work without losing our focus anyway.  It will be different for each of us, but generally it’s around an hour.   

Work to your strengths, both in the time of day you write and the length of time.  I can jot down ideas for scenes, or snatches of dialogue in odd five-minute spaces, but I need a longer period of time to get into my writing.  

The next post we'll look at where and how you work.

Take yourself seriously and other people will.  

07 December 2012

Working Smarter – Set a Schedule

When I first started as a freelance writer, I worked out I had a window of eight weeks to complete my novel before I needed to look for contract work.  Believe me there’s nothing like that kind of deadline to keep you focussed. 

When I tell people that I work from home they often comment on the discipline needed so you don't waste time. If you're working on something in your spare time, you might think this doesn’t apply to you as you don’t have a deadline, but time is our most precious commodity.   

If you ever intend to publish a novel and make money, or sell short stories or articles, then it’s a business and you can’t start early enough in being professional about it.

Over the years I've worked from home, and before, I’ve learned a number of things about working smarter, and in the run up to the holidays and preparing for the New Year I thought I'd cover some of the things I do.

The first one is to set goals. It’s the old but true, if you don’t know where you’re going… but I’ve already talked about that here, so let's look at some of the others:
  • Write regularly - Set a schedule
  • Manage your time
  • Where and how you work
  • Track Progress 
Write Regularly - Set a schedule

An important part of working smarter is thinking of yourself as a professional writer.  This can be difficult when the majority of your income doesn’t come from your novel/short stories/articles, and also if you have family or friends who talk about ‘your little hobby’.  But if your ambition is to be a published writer, then you need to start thinking like a professional.

A professional writer writes. Regularly, and not just when the muse attacks!

Think about your dream for a moment. The phone rings, it’s your agent or a publisher offering you a contract.  Once you’ve stopped floating around the room the details start to sink in, it’s a three book deal, with deadlines. You’re going to have to start writing, regularly. Everyday!  You’re going to have to come up with ideas for these other books. Oh, and they want you to build an online presence.  They suggest blogging regularly…

If you don’t take yourself and your writing seriously, then no-one else will. 
If you don’t have deadlines to meet, then set some yourself.  An important element of making goals and deadlines is to set yourself up for success rather than failure.

Setting a word count can work, but maybe setting a specific period of time for writing might be better, until you get a feel for what a good writing period looks like in word count.

When I set my goals I also schedule the time to complete them rather than just hoping I’ll find the time.  Believe me, you will never FIND the time, it’s like looking for lost keys.

Once I've set a goal I then outline the tasks needed to reach it, and estimate how long each task will take. You might only have 30 minutes a week for a particular task, but it's in the calendar.

I’m one of those awful people who wake bright and early, and I'm much more creative earlier in the day.  So if at all possible (unless I have a very tight work project deadline), I schedule some writing time early in the day, and leave time in the evening or late afternoon for tasks that don’t require so much creativity.  You might be the opposite.  Work to your strengths. Don’t do what someone else does, unless it suits your best working style.

I wasn’t joking about not waiting until the muse attacks. If I wrote only when I felt inspired I’d never finish an article or blog post let alone a novel.  If I’m developing some training material or a technical manual for a client I sit down every day and work at it.  We need to do the same with our own writing.  I’ve found that by writing regularly I stay in a creative state where ideas come (or I am more aware of them), and I’m a better writer when I write regularly.

Making new habits is difficult to begin with.  Whether it’s an exercise programme, eating healthily, or writing a novel, it feels like climbing a mountain.  That’s why breaking your big goal into smaller chunks, with milestones along the way, makes it more manageable. 

One of the things I did when I started running was to mark on the calendar the days I went for a run. I found I liked seeing the ticks on the calendar.  On the days when I wasn’t so motivated knowing I’d have a blank space on the calendar helped push me.  Just recently I found a couple of posts on the same subject.

Make a schedule, get writing, and don't break the chain.

Next post I'll talk about managing time.

03 December 2012

Big Hairy Audacious Goals

I first came across BHAGs during the years I had a real job. In case you hadn’t guessed it from the post title BHAGs are Big Hairy Audacious Goals.

In commercial terms they’re goals intended to change how a company does business, or even the way they’re seen in the industry or profession. BHAGs are generally bigger and bolder than regular goals, and make you work way out of your comfort zone.  Now I’m not suggesting you have to go out and change your life, but maybe there’s something you really want to do, and to accomplish it is going to take a huge change.

During the time we were preparing to move to New Zealand, I found people’s reactions very interesting. We were moving to a country we’d never visited, where we didn’t know anyone, and were ‘giving up’ up good jobs in the hope we’d find something on the other side of the world. The reactions were anywhere on the scale from ‘you’ve got to be out of your minds,’ to ‘wow how great, wish I had the courage to do that.’

To be honest we'd never considered we were being courageous.  To me the early settlers were courageous, if things were bad we could get on a plane.  We saw it as a great adventure. It was something we wanted to do, and we didn’t want to reach a point where we regretted not giving it a go.

What's she talking about you’re thinking. This doesn't apply to me, I’m writing a novel, or short stories to sell to magazines.  But do you have an overall plan?  Have you decided what success looks like for you?  Will you recognise it when you get there?

I used to make goals that were more like New Year resolutions. They were fuzzy, needed more stretch than a limo, and didn’t have any actions attached to them. I wouldn’t have known when I’d achieved any of them.  

Eventually the message got through to me and I started writing down my goals.  I added steps or tasks that gave me the route to achieving each goal, and also milestones to mark significant points on the way.  I now also add how I’m going to celebrate the success of reaching that milestone.

When I first started running, Pete, the trainer, put out four small cones about 25 metres apart in a square. We ran one side of the square, walked the second, ran the third etc.  After a session of that, the square became a rectangle and we ran the long side. Then the rectangle became bigger. You get the idea. We started small and gradually worked out way up to running around the field. If Pete had told me that first time to run around the field I’d never have made it. The goals he set stretched me, but were also achievable.

Celebrate successes and enjoy the journey. It’s not all about the destination.

30 November 2012

What Do You Need to Succeed?

If you want to be successful, start building the right habits now. 

So what are the right habits?

I was thinking about this when I wrote the last post, which I think sums up the attitude we need to have. We think of success as a destination, but really it’s just a part of the journey, because when we reach it there will be something else we want to aim for. But on the journey to success what are the right habits?

If we want to succeed at something we’ve got to take it seriously, learn the required skills, practice, and then keep on learning and practicing.  This is true whether it’s a skill we need for work, writing, or something else we’re trying to squeeze in between life, family and earning a crust. 

The first habit should be obvious, and to incorrectly quote a cat - ‘If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there.’ 

Goals, objectives, whatever you want to call them – we need them. At least one, and probably several. 

Here's an important question. What is success TO YOU?

What you think of as success will no doubt be different to my interpretation. 

If might be that you want the validation of a traditional publishing contract.

You may want to make heaps of money and be the next J K Rowling.

It might be to make enough money to give up the day job and write full-time, or do whatever is your passion – making boats, playing a sport professionally.

But if we don't have a vision of OUR success we won’t know when we get there. So the first habit we need to build is making goals.  I blogged about SMART goals, and this is a great time of year to start thinking about what we want to achieve next year.

26 November 2012

Learning and Success

When did you leave school, college, or university?

When did you stop learning?

In everyday life, as well as through my learning and development work, I’ve come across people for whom the answer to those two questions is the same.

Hopefully we realise that learning is a continuous process, and not a destination that we reach and then stop.  Learning and improvement is also an attitude. One which I’m sure people like Richard Branson and Seth Godin realised long ago.

One of my dreams is that I’ll become a successful author. I’m sure that most of you reading this have similar dreams. Maybe not about being a writer, but success in some field.  But being successful doesn’t mean you know all there is to know about your particular area.

I cringe when I read some of my older writing, and I can see why it didn’t win a competition, or wasn’t accepted for publication. Part of me realises that in a few years I’ll look at my current writing and see ways I can improve it.  That might sound depressing, but if it didn't happen it would mean I hadn’t improved.

There are many, many things to learn about the craft of writing, and while I feel I’ve grown and learnt huge amounts, I still have a journey ahead of me.  We’re all on our own particular journey, some further ahead than others, but whether we’re starting from scratch or moving from level 24 to 25, there is still more to learn.

I listened to a talk given by one of the members of Team New Zealand a number of years ago. He said it had been a difficult task winning the America’s Cup the first time, but an even harder task working to retain it.