27 May 2012

A Positive Outlook

As I've mentioned a few times on this blog, the 'other' side of my writing is in training and development.  I was a trainer for a number of years, and one of the things I noticed, couldn't help but notice in some cases, were the varying attitudes that people had about the training.

The majority saw the training as a way of learning something new that would help them in their job.  Some were desperate for the information, and knew exactly how the topics of the day would help them in various tasks.

For a few the training was a perk, and sometimes it was usefully focussed.  Occasionally the training was unwanted. As one person put it - my manager told me I had to come.

Guess which people got the most out of the training?

When we experience positive emotions our brains are flooded with dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals make us feel good, but they also help to make more neural connections in the brain, which in turn assists us to organise and file new information, retrieve it faster when we need it, and allows us to think more quickly and creatively.

Every time we experience positive emotions, dare I say it, happiness, we are priming ourselves to be more creative.

From Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience.

The constitution of the WHO states “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This may sound exaggerated but positive mood within the normal range is an important predictor of health and longevity. In a classic study, those in the lowest quartile for positive emotions, rated from autobiographies written at a mean age of 22 years, died on average 10 years earlier than those in the highest quartile. Even taking into account possible confounders, other studies “found the same solid link between feeling good and living longer.”

So a positive mood not only helps us learn and retain new things, but could also mean we live longer, as long as we don't get run over by the proverbial bus.

When I first moved to this house, I set up the spare bedroom as my office. It's a small room on the cold side of the house, and looks onto a high retaining wall, which means it gets very little sunshine. Guess what. It doesn't inspire me. Much of my writing time is spent at the dining table. It's in a sunny room with doors that open onto wooden decking, and from the deck I have a distant view of the sea. I feel happier here, and far more inspired.

21 May 2012

Audio Books

Like most people born in the last century I grew up reading print books.  I never even thought of them as print books, that's just how they came.

Looking around at people's activities on my last flight a few weeks ago, and on my bus trips, people seem to be evenly divided between eReaders and print books, though I noticed on my last visit to Sydney that electronic devices outnumbered books, but they were also being used for texting/emailing and playing games, oh and maybe doing some work!

When travelling the majority of people are plugged into headphones (myself included).  I listen to music, but also podcasts and audio books.

In addition to the obvious requirement of it being a good story, an audio book also needs a good voice.  The last book I listened to was narrated by an actor I hadn't heard of, but he was excellent, especially in changing his voice for the dialogue sequences.

In contrast the person narrating the book I read before that irritated me immensely.  The book was set in England and was about living in England, but the narrator was American - although I didn't hold that against him.  Some well-known place names were (often) ridiculously pronounced, and if I hadn't been in public I would have shouted corrections at him.  This was no cheap offering.  It was a traditionally published book by a well-known author, and I would have expected a greater level of care.

On that thought I'll make a note to myself.  When I'm famous enough to be able to choose someone to narrate my books I'll certainly check the finished product carefully, and I won't be narrating it myself.  A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to narrate part of a work in progress.  I certainly wouldn't win any Oscar equivalents, but you can listen to it here if you're interested.  The tag says it's from Ordinary Day (which was my working title for Lives Interrupted), but it's actually from an unpublished novel, still untitled!

20 May 2012

The Delights of English

English is a funny language.

My mother's response to that would be, 'Funny ha ha, or funny peculiar?' 

We're often imprecise with the words we choose, and so can give the wrong impression or message.  If we're talking to someone we give them additional information through our body language, facial expressions and tone of voice.  Problems occur when we aren’t there, and the other person only has our words.

For a week or two I've seen a sign on a door that says, 'This door is alarmed.' Maybe it's just my juvenile sense of humour, but I can't help smiling as I wonder what events alarm doors.

Another day I walked along the road behind two men in suits as they discussed a project execution plan. I thought project deliverables were used in business jargon, seems like things have got a lot more serious. Maybe there are more terminal outcomes now if you don't meet a deadline.

15 May 2012

Thoughts of a Random Nature

One of the pleasures of going into the city is the view while travelling over the Auckland harbour bridge.  Most cities have a landmark that people associate with that city.  For me it's Rangitoto - the volcanic island in the Hauraki Gulf.
This morning, as I looked at the city buildings ahead of me, two sheets of flame shimmered.  Not flame, but the sun reflecting off the glass fa├žade of two buildings.  I turned to look at Rangitoto, and there was the sun cradled in the volcanic cone.  Stunning.

14 May 2012

Rest, Recovery and Pushing Boundaries

A few years ago I worked with a personal trainer of the ‘keep-fit’ gym variety.  From her I learnt the necessity of pushing beyond my comfort zone to stretch my capabilities, and also the importance of rest and variety.

For example rather than just walking or jogging at the same pace all the time, intersperse that with walking faster, or running flat out for a minute.  

Recovery/rest periods are as important as the workout, as it allows muscles to recover and build, and doing different types of exercise helps to stop us getting bored, and also means we work different muscle groups.

If you're wondering whether this blog has been taken over by someone else, no, it's still me, and there is method in my madness.

When I'm really pushed by a deadline, the first thing to go is my morning exercise or walk, and I head straight to the computer and start work.  I also tend to forget to take small rests to change posture/position, or to stretch muscles.  At the very time I need to work smarter, what I'm doing is working harder, and the stupid thing is - it doesn't work. 

Staying at my desk for longer, not taking breaks, or stretching doesn't help me produce more.

The intermittent recovery period is as important in the mental/work aspects of our life, as it is in the physical side.  Thinking uses up a lot of energy.

To stay focussed, inspired, and to work positively, we need short rest and recovery periods, together with a brief change of channel.

When up against a deadline I feel a self-imposed pressure to work through any tiredness or lack of inspiration.

I asked myself where I am when I get my inspiration, whether for my own writing, or for non-fiction contract work.

I would bet it's in similar places or situations to most of you reading this.  I get inspired when I'm out walking, exercising, in the shower, or sometimes I'll wake up with the answer.  Most times it's not when I'm in front of the computer.

Yet I will stay at the computer struggling to create an assessment for training material, or trying to come up with a way of making a dry piece of information interesting for the people who will take the course.

Here is a quote from Leonardo da Vinci.  'Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose power of judgment.  Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller, and more of it can be taken in at a glance, and a lack of harmony or portion is more readily seen.'

Who am I to argue with da Vinci?

13 May 2012


Officially it's autumn, and we have been enjoying a beautiful time here - lots of clear blue skies and sunshine.

I tend to think that much of the top-half of New Zealand's north island only has two seasons - a long warm one, and a short cold season, which are separated by a short transitional period.  Most of the native trees are evergreen, and the view from my deck is mostly the same whatever the season.

On Friday I looked down from an office window onto a stand of deciduous trees, which covered every hue from rich green to an almost-ready-to-fall golden red. It was glorious. Nature manages to humble us on every front.

10 May 2012

Writers and Readers

For the next month or so I'm working in Auckland central business district, rather than from home as I usually do.  I haven't spent a lot of time in the city in recent months, and so it's been interesting finding out what's changed, and what is going on. 

I walked to the office a slightly different way yesterday and by chance came across this exhibition in the Bledisloe Lightboxes. I was hurrying at the time so didn't have chance to stop and take in each individual narrative (that's a sad reflection of the way we live), but I did so today.

This weekend is the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, and there is a good line-up of non-fiction writers, novelists, short story writers and journalists.  I enjoy pouring over the information on all the sessions and deciding which to attend.  It's lovely to mix with so many other people who are passionate about the written word.

I always come away with more books to add to the pile waiting to be read.  Since having a Kindle the pile (both physical and electronic) has increased with two channels to feed my book buying habit.

06 May 2012


John and Mary had a beautiful wedding day, even the weather behaved.  As the years went by John received several well-deserved promotions, and they bought a large house.  Their two daughters, Anna and Jenny, were always top of their class in school, and excelled at university.  Anna became a lawyer and Jenny a doctor.  When John retired, he and Mary were rich enough to spend the winter months cruising around the world.

Are you bored yet?

While we might wish ourselves a happy and prosperous life, it doesn't make an exciting read.

'Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.' - Dalai Lama.

Drama, tension, conflict - call it what you will, but these are elements we need in our storytelling.

What type of drama?  That depends on your genre.  If you're writing action, then it might be a bomb.  If you write murder mysteries, then it will probably be a body.  But it doesn't always have to be drama on a huge scale.  If the reader is emotionally invested in the character they will feel the tension and conflict the character feels.  

I've read books with 'small' drama's that have gripped me as much as large scale conflicts.  We just need to make sure we cut out the dull bits.

03 May 2012

How Do I Get Feedback?

Like many authors (or at least those I know), I own a lot of books on writing.  They cover such things as how to write a novel and writing craft basics, to those on specific craft topics such as character development.  I have tried many of the suggestions, discarded ones that didn't work for me, and learned a lot about the craft of writing.  I won't get rid of any of these books, but there is nothing like getting advice and feedback on your own writing to help you improve.

This can come in several ways:
  • A group who meet to give feedback on submitted writing
  • Beta-readers 
  • Writing assessments/reports
  • Competitions where a report or feedback may be part of the competition, or supplied for an additional payment.
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you will know I belong to a writing group and have blogged about them before.  It's the second writing group I've been a part of, and both have helped my writing in many ways.

Beta-readers are people who will give you honest feedback, and who read a lot, preferably in your genre or area.  The difference between beta-readers and a writing group is that the writing group sees your work in various stages, and in smaller chunks. Sometimes a problem only becomes visible when someone reads your book from beginning to end.

Writing assessments or reports are very useful as you remove the friendship element.  The person writing the report isn't trying to spare your feelings or stroke your ego, though hopefully they will phrase the feedback in a constructive way.  The report should acknowledge what is good about your writing, and point out the areas that need work.  I'm a member of the New Zealand Society of Authors, and after finishing Driftwood I applied for one of the Manuscript Assessments available through the society each year.  I was fortunate to have my manuscript assessed by a published author, and her feedback was invaluable in a further edit.

I enjoy writing short stories.  There's something satisfying about creating a story in a shorter timeframe than a novel, and sometimes I write a short story for a specific competition.  Over the years I've received a number of feedback reports through competitions.  Sometimes there is an additional payment required, but I've also entered competitions which offer a sentence or two of feedback, written by the judge on the entry, included in the entry fee.  

In whatever form it takes, feedback is essential for writers.  We get caught up in our story and characters, and this makes it very difficult to be objective.