The Art of Gratitude

I met a book reviewer recently. We’re about level in terms of career success, which is great because meeting other reviewers is always fun.

This time, though, it was like a labradoodle meeting a Zen master. I was not the Zen master.

To him, it’s a job. He’s not a big reader, he struggles to find books he wants to read, and he’s holding the opportunity for as long as it takes for something better to come along.

Me? Not so much.

Book reviewing is, seriously, one of the best jobs ever. People hand me books and let me read them. I get to hug books, and read them, and learn more about writing and editing, and storytelling in general. I get to talk to people about why I love the books I love, and what issues there are. They let me talk to writers. It’s insane.

I get to talk about something I’m ridiculously passionate about. I’m living the dream. And every time it gets overwhelming, I get to say hey, you’re overwhelmed by the awesomeness of your job. Not everyone gets to have that.

He asked me why I loved reviewing so much. Part of it is the reading, and being able to call it work. And hey, free books*. And part of it is having the chance to talk about books. But there’s another reason, one I don’t mention often.

The Brisbane writing scene is such an amazing community. People are wonderful, and compassionate, and so quick to offer help and advice, and to cheer each other on. Australian writers in general have always been more than happy to talk writing with me- and with anyone who’ll ask. Every time I read someone’s work and talk about it, it feels like I’m saying thank you.

Authors like Charmaine ClancyT. M. Clark, Anita Heiss, Peter M. Ball, Matthew J. Hellscream, and Michael Robotham? They’ve been such fantastic, gracious teachers to me. They’ve shaped my writing in ways I’ll probably never fully articulate, not just through their conversations with me, but through their writing.

And I… I get to hold up that writing and say hey, world, this might be something you like. You should check it out.

Best. Job. Ever.

 

* Yes, the whole ‘free books’ thing is a bone of contention. I get that. There’s a blurry line between getting the word out that you’ve written something, and undervaluing what you do. But that is a conversation for another day.

Advertisements

Life is Weird, Y’all.

When I was a girl, I was constantly told to smile. Boys don’t like frowning girls! So I smiled, and I obeyed. I didn’t show off my intelligence (boys don’t like that), played housekeeper rather than assassin (boys don’t like girls that seem stronger than they are), and tried not to ask why on earth it was so important that the idiots that pulled hair and sprayed water onto our white shirts should like me. Tried not to ask why some mythical person’s dislike should matter.

As a freelance writer, I’m constantly left with the feeling that the worst thing you can do is be yourself. There’s an idea of professionalism that goes with the territory, and it feels safer to hold to that and bury those unprofessional bits of myself for the duration of a job, and hopefully into perpetuity so that no one ever realises that I’m, well, me. You ask the set questions, you treat it like just another job.

It has an impact. I find myself far too often hesitating, scared to take that final step that might insult or offend, or not suit that pre-approved idea of who I should be. I look at my creative writing projects with a mind of keeping everyone happy, which of course is the death of creativity. I linger in that shadowland of purgatory rather than waging the war I want to. We’re such social creatures, and the quickest way to assert control is to promise isolation. Smile, or the boys won’t like you. Be professional, or no one will want to work with you.

In some places in the world, it’s said that the wild, seasonal winds bring change. And it’s a still day, but I like the imagery, so screw it. There’s a reason the winds of change is a common trope. Life is heading in new, brilliant directions, against the grain of the best laid plans of mice and men.

I got to interview one of my childhood heroes recently. Always a terrifying prospect. How can anyone live up to the image in your head of them? What if they’re mean, what if it destroys your ability to look fondly at those memories you’ve cherished?

The first time I heard DAAS, it was a revelation. I realised that I didn’t have to smile, and I didn’t have to care so much about what other people thought. I could be angry (and gods, was I an angry teenager), and it was okay. I could be crass, or sarcastic, or not suffer fools, and it would be fine. There were other people out there who were angry and sarcastic and who didn’t want to be liked by the people we’re constantly told need to like us.

It stole my breath, that realisation. Those three comedians shaped my personality in a fundamental way. They taught me the value of stepping through that hesitation, of choosing to be me instead of being that cookie-cutter idea of who people might like. I don’t always live up to it, I still hesitate far too often, but there’s power in accepting that the world probably won’t love you, and you’ll survive it.

Once upon a time, I’d have turned down the interview, too scared of pretending I could match wits with a comedy genius. If I’d somehow agreed, I’d have done the standard questions, and hidden away from the risk of making an idiot of myself by deviating from the tried and true. I’d go the professional option because that’s what’s expected. A while back, I talked about trickster energies, and it dawned on me that this was a total trickster moment. I could build a pillow fortress of professionalism around myself and pretend it would protect me from being an anxious little penmonkey. Or I could shrug, and see what happened when I approached it as a game rather than a deeply serious experience.

So I asked questions, but not always the ones he’s used to. I jumped in and asked for information when I didn’t understand something (rather than pretending to be on his level and freaking out researching it later), and I sassed back rather than nodding along. I gave him space to go on tangents, rather than trying to control where the conversation went. I approached the interview as me- flawed, fucked up sense of humour me, not the professional me I spend a lot of time pretending to be- and let it be whatever the hell is became.

I felt that hesitation, of course I did. It’s a scary thought to consider that someone you respect won’t like you as you really, truly are. But you know what? Comedians are really, really good at rolling with deviations from the routine. They kinda thrive on it. That twenty minute span of time ended up going for just shy of an hour, and it was fun.  And instead of a dry, boring Q&A, we had a conversation. It was weird, it was surreal, and yeah, I couldn’t keep up (and why should a non comedian be able to hold her ground against someone who has been rocking the scene since before she was born?)

And here’s the part that still baffles me: he gave me homework. Read ‘The Man In The Ring’ by Teddy Roosevelt. Which, fyi, is this:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

The interview ended with some fatherly advice, which was desperately needed: it’s time to stop idly watching and commenting on other people’s work, and to get my work out there. It’s time to stop waiting, and start dream chasing.

 

The truth is that I’m part way there- I love writing work, I love reading as my job. But, I know I can do more. So when one of the foundational figures of your life tells you to get your shit together and get the novel written (and try stand up comedy, but that’s a story for another day), really? How do you argue against that?

So, yeah. This is me, stepping up and getting shit happening. Wish me luck, and an overabundance of coffee. And if you see me IRL, pester me about the MS, will you?

Going Old School

There’s a moment that I’m pretty sure every aspiring and emerging writer goes through at some point on their expedition along this particular waterway (and because it’s been a good writing day, I’m not even gonna call it Shit Creek). There comes a moment when you find yourself thinking about the way you do things, and the reasons why you do them that particular way. It’s either going to drive you crazy, or be a lot of fun. It’s taken me a while to find the fun, but here we are.

I don’t know it all, clearly. But what I’m realising, especially after way too many conversations with other writery types, is that as much as I love typing, it doesn’t always love me.

I’m queen of the short attention span when there’s a screen in front of me. As I type this, I have 14 tabs open, and I’m fighting the urge to check Facebook. Again. And, oh, maybe I could find a picture for another post I’m part way through writing, or I could reply to that email I’ve just remembered, or talk to X about Y. It’s gotten to be habit to flick through to something else, to jump between tasks, and more often than not forget to wander back and finish things.

There’s always something to do, watch, listen to, reply to, or be distracted by. That’s the whole point of the internet, really.

Put me in a room with other writers, and I can rack up a hell of a word count. Leave me alone in a room with a laptop, and more often than I’d like, I’ll spend the time pissing around online and leap-frogging between things. Funnily enough, that’s not helping me get moving towards my goals.

So it’s got to go.

I’ve been trying a sneaky kind of experiment. I’ve gotten myself a nice, sturdy journal, and some pens I like to write with (yes, I’m an unapologetic stationery fiend who loathes certain pens and paper textures), and they’ve been living in my bag for about a month and a half now.

Has it worked?

Kinda. The problem, of course, is that when you pack up and move everything you own, and have to scrub clean the new place like you’re cosplaying pre-fairy godmother Cinderella, it doesn’t actually leave a lot of time to write.

From a scientific viewpoint, this hasn’t been well-timed, and the findings will be skewed because of it. More time will be needed to get a bigger picture of whether it’s worked or not. But what I do know is this:

  • Throwing a journal and pen into my bag has meant that in spare moments (like waiting for an appointment), I’ll tend to pull that out to work with, rather than jumping on my phone. Unless I’m stressed, at which point I’ll jump on Facebook and procrastinate.
  • Adding the date to pages is letting me see how productive I’ve been each day.
  • Titling each new project as I start on it hasn’t really been helpful, given the index. But I have the sneaking suspicion it’ll do something eventually.
  • Adding an organisational system is a pain in the ass, but it’s really helpful. It’s not exactly oodles of fun to sit and number every page before getting started, or to set up an index, but it’s really, really helpful later on at making sense of what I’ve done. This is what’s screwed me up on other attempts at hand writing- I’d flit between things, and come back and try and figure out where the different bits of, say, a specific story, were in the chaos of the notebook. Having a system has stopped the overwhelm that generally shows up and sabotages my efforts.
  • Colour coordination helps, too. I alternate between blue and black pen so I can see how much I’ve written each day. But if I switch projects during, say, a blue day, I’ll alternate blue pens. I have darker and lighter pens, so my easily distracted brain can clearly see that I’ve switched to another project now when I’m too lazy to read the titles.
  • My brain is getting bored with the whole dual toned approach, and I think I’ll need to add more colour somehow.
  • Being a ridiculous journal hugger helps. I want to move on to my next journal because it’s pretty and new, so I’m pushing myself to write more. But because I don’t want to hand write rambling crap, I’m thinking harder about what I’m writing.
  • Hand writing makes me pay more attention. It’s hard to delete pen, and I can’t rip pages out because I’m pedantic like that, so I tend to slow down, and think harder about what I’m trying to say and how to say it. That’s never a bad thing.

 

A Penmonkey’s Planner System

I talked recently about planners, and using them to get organised, and I mentioned quite a bit about what I found worked well for keeping my freelancing brain from exploding, and what became rage-making far too quickly.

What I didn’t really mention was how I make a single book that lives beside me actually work for freelancing that involves events, reviews, and research.

This is what my freelancing life looks like: I get a call asking if I’m free on a day, and I need to quickly check, and decide if I can juggle enough non-work stuff around so that I can say yes. Having really clear, obvious signposting that I have stuff on makes it so much easier for me.

My brain responds to colour better than it does with other systems, so that’s my overarching way of keeping track. I figure, maybe it’s easier to show you what I mean. Warning: dodgy photos ahead (I’ve had no time to organise pretty ones- sorry!)

2016 planner

This is the planner I’m working with at the moment, which I got from Kikki K because I have a thing for teals and blues at the moment. The planner before it was leather, which was beautiful but useless in a handbag.

tabs

I just used the stickers that came with the dividers, so I could easily see what went where. The Planning section is my general calendar, the Work one holds notes I need to remember for working with the different publications (quick style guides and the like) as well as a monthly view calendar. Notes and Expenses are pretty self explanatory, Projects is notes on things I need to be keeping an eye on or working on in my spare moments (story notes, research reminders, and the like). The Personal section is where I keep track of presents I want to buy for people, or things I want to tell others about. To Action is my to-do lists for while I’m out, so if I find myself in a spare moment (waiting for a bus, usually) I can keep track and actually be productive.

A week into living in my bag, my dividers were already looking a bit worse for wear, so I’ve laminated mine in hopes they’ll last the year. Below the ‘Planner’ section divider is a green bit of pattern- that’s one of the old planner dividers that I’m using to try and stop the papers getting so knocked around. It had writing on it, so I covered over it with tape to make it less ugly.

Colour coding and Post-It fetishes

colour coding and post its
I have a thing for colour. It’s why I have a ridiculous number of pens and notebooks in my office space. But as much as I love gel and felt tipped pens, because the planner refill pages I’m using are thin, I’m using coloured ball-point pens.

I need as much help as possible to pay attention to things, so colour works for me. I decide what colours represent what (red: freakin’ urgent, purple: writing, blue: business, pink: family and friends, green: Peta’s stuff, and orange: general) and I make sure to write each event or appointment in the right colour. Because I want to know roughly how busy I am over the longer-term, I also add a post-it flag to the top of the page. Yup, in that colour. I have a thing for Post-It notes. It’s a little sad, really.

I also use Post-It notes to keep track of events that have a habit of changing times and days. Marina and I meet up as often as possible to talk about our businesses and try to figure out what it is we’re actually doing. But we’re both victims of randomly intense schedules, so more often than not the day gets changed at least once. My perfectionist tendencies mean I wouldn’t cope with crossing things out so often- it’s too messy. So a note I can move around stops me pouting over messy bits of page.

Keeping track of reviews owing

review notes
I used to scrapbook, and I still art journal. It means I have an epic stash of pretty stuff lying about, taking up space. I’ve started adding useful bits and pieces, so I can keep track of what reviews I have to get done.

I use little journal cards to keep track of reviews. You can find knock-offs at cheap stores pretty easily, or go to craft stores and nab some of the various brands there. I have a piece of old planner paper to use as a template, and punch out holes so I can add them in and move them around easily.

Each month has two of those cards. There’s the stuff due that month, of course, but there’s also stuff that I want to try and read ahead if I have time.

Keeping track of multi-day events

taping off events
Sometimes, I’m a lucky little penmonkey and get to review multi-day events like Cons (yay for me!), and it’s good to be able to see at a glance what’s happening when.

I will admit, I go the washi tape. It draws my attention really quickly, and generally it can fit in the margins of the pages I’m using without too much trouble.

Oddly, this has nothing to do with my colour coding for smaller events. I just go with whatever I like in that particular moment, as long as it’s bold enough to show up. If it blends into the page, I won’t use it for this.

Tickets

tickets

I am terrible with keeping track of tickets. I always have great intentions, but sooner or later I’ll walk out the door and leave them sitting on the table. So with the printable sort at least, it’s easier to just cut them down to get rid of the unnecessary guff that fills the page, punch some holes in, and add them into the calendar.

Business Cards

biz card holder

I actually have two seperate cards: my fic writing card, and my freelancing card. Generally, both come with me when I leave the house. In the last planner convo, I talked about cannibalising old planner stuff to work in your new planner, and this card holder was from the tiny planner I tried earlier this year. Some washi tape over the original holes, a moment with a hole punch, and it fits into the new planner easily.

Daily jobs

We all have those daily to-do lists that feel terrifying. I use a post-it note that sits beside my laptop when I’m working from home. Again, colour coded: black ink for the stuff that isn’t urgent, and whatever colour takes my fancy to show off the really important stuff.

This also has an advantage: there’s only so much you can really write on one, so you have to be realistic about what you’re going to achieve. If I write out my list on a piece of paper (or worse, in a notebook) it’ll go on for pages. This way, I’m more honest about what I need to take care of.

Blogging

blog prep
Because I’m prone to bouts of busy, I’m trying to be better with blogging by actually setting up some of my posts in advance. That’s where the ‘work’ section of the planner comes in- it’s got the specific info I need when working for different publications, but it’s also got a monthly view calendar where I can just add stickers to remind myself of whether there’s a post prepped or not. Whenever I schedule a post, I add a sticker, and a Post-It in my general calendar section if I need to add links or images.

What I’ve learned

Time planners, where they have the hour by hour lines to keep track of appointments? They’re useless to me. I just need space to write notes.

I really don’t love it when the weekend sections are half the size of the weekday ones, but that’s pretty standard, unfortunately. I don’t get it though, because if you work, you’ve got to cram heaps into the weekend, right?

One planner is my limit. The more places I need to go for information or reminders, the less likely I am to actually do it.

Size matters. Too small, and I don’t have enough room to write everything into it. Too big and it becomes too heavy to take with me.

If it lives in your bag, it’s going to get knocked around. Leather won’t generally last as long because it’s more fragile than the plastic covers. Also? Those cute dividers are going to get really, really knocked around. Consider laminating them if you’re going to get frustrated with them tearing, or covering them with clear contact. Or, just buy an extra set or two.

Punch some holes in a piece of cardboard (or if you’re changing dividers, use one of your old ones) and add it to the back of your planner to keep your papers straighter. It gets knocked around in place of the back papers, so they last longer.

 

The Obligatory Organisation Conversation

It’s that time of year, word nerds. Suddenly, we’re all vowing to find a way to get our lives organised, and our schedules managed. We’ll be better in 2016. Sure we will. How can we not be, when there are eleventy-billion planners, diaries, organisational systems and gurus out there right this second, explaining how to take the wreck of our time, and make it something beautiful?

I have a confession to make: I really like planners. I love those ridiculous bastards. I’m still learning to effectively use them, but still, the love is there. But as Queen of ‘Been There, Done That’, let me assure you that it’s possible to spend far too much time and money trying to make it work for you, especially when so many of those systems are only a teensy bit different from the rest.

Every year, friends jump onto the planner bandwagon, spend a fortune on systems that *look* pretty, and then spend the rest of the year bitching and frantically searching for something that works for them. No moral high ground here- see my Queen status. So if you’re about to jump onto the organisational grenade, here are some things that’ll save you time, stress, and vodka.

Paper Vs Apps: the battle for souls
I tried planners on phone and iPad, and they didn’t do what I wanted. They were ugly, the colours sucked, and I stopped using them after a few days. A lot of the app planners have trial or lite versions to explore, so check them out before forking out for the full deal.

Great as apps can be, I’m talking paper here because that’s what I use, and that makes me useless in showcasing the wonders of tech. But overall, if you work better with tech, use it. Whatever works for you is perfect. Writers don’t get, nor do they deserve, cred for using paper.

What are you doing with this thing? No, really.
It’s a weird question, because clearly, you’re planning. Duh. But what are you planning? Is it work, life, a random blend of everything and everything? Before you skip merrily through your local office supply store (or, yknow, go online shopping like it’s an Olympic sport) figure out what you need to keep track of. 

Figure out what you need, and what you don’t.
Take some time, and figure out what you need, what you want, and what you can tolerate. Think about it: if you’re the sort of note taker who writes big, and writes a lot, then space is an issue. If you hate the colour yellow (no? Just me?) and there’s an entire month designed in yellow, think about whether you’ll be gritting your teeth through that month, and whether it’s worth it. 

What I need is space. Lots of it. I need my weekends to not be smooshed together into a tiny, pathetic little box. I need to colour code things so I can see at a glance what sort of things I’m doing. I need streamlined organisation, rather than rifling through multiple sections trying to keep track of everything.

What I want is pretty colours, fun designs, and cuteness overloads so that when I’m having a bad day, it’s like a random dose of cheerfulness. 

What I can tolerate is basic, functional, black and white pages if it means meeting my needs (though I’ll add colour to it, anyway).

Figure out what makes it feel less like a chore
If you’re anything like me, this is vital. If it feels like a chore every time you crack open your planning system, generally, you’ll stop bothering to use it. If using colour makes you forget you’re doing something work-like, then do it. If adding stickers is your jam, have at. But figure out what’ll keep you opening up that planner, and do it. 

MacGyver that SOB. Hard.
After a while, you realise that a lot of different planners have slightly different ring binding placements, ‘forcing’ you into buying only their brand. If you own washi tape, or any kind of decorative tape for that matter, then you can cannibalise other planner paper to include in your new one. You can get hand held punches pretty cheaply, and you can use a spare bit of the note paper as a template. Cover over the original holes with tape, punch out the new ones, and though it’s a thicker page than it was, you can still use it in your new planner. 

If something doesn’t work, change it. Add elements if you need to, and rip out what you don’t use. Seriously, just because it came with the set doesn’t mean it’s useful to you, and you’re not obliged to keep it in there ‘just in case’.

Pretty is great. Practical is better
If you want to add colour, the usual suspects are pens, stickers, post-it notes, and decorative tapes. If you’re working with a smaller planner, stickers and tape will eat into your space, hard.

As for those beautiful 3D additions you see on Pinterest? Bah humbug. Do you know how hard it is to use the paper when you’ve added a 3D skull or some bling to show what a unique little snowflake you are? Besides, depending on how thin the paper is, glues can mess with your ability to write on the underside of that page, anyway.

Most of those beautifully decorated planners never actually leave a desk, by the way. You know why? Because all that added bling and bulky yet beautiful decoration just adds weight, and damages the planner and pages after a while.

 

Size Matters
Paper is heavier than your phone. Duh. But seriously, consider that carefully. Those bigger planners are beautiful. You can fit more information in them, you can decorate them more easily if you want to.

And they weigh about as much as a baby elephant after a day hanging off your shoulder in a bag. They also make choosing a bag harder, and the weight of the bag ends up damaging your clothes after a while if you’ve regularly got the bag on your shoulders for hours at a time (like, oh, say when you’re walking around a Con for three days as a reviewer). This is important to remember, because clothes and bags are expensive, but so are chiropractors.

I thought I could bypass this by having two planners: the big one, with all the info I’d need, and a small one to be thrown into my handbag to be with me wherever I go. I thought I was so smart. WRONG.

The problem with that system is that I needed to remember to move info between the two. I needed to set aside time for it. For some people, it’s not an issue, but I remembered to do it maybe twice in six months.

It did not go well.

It goes back to figuring out what works for you: adding extra work doesn’t work for me because I’ll forget to do it.

The half-assed approach to figuring out what works
If you’ve wandered off and bought yourself a planner, chances are it came with inserts already. Use them for a few weeks- if they start on Jan 1, 2016, then see if you can find some free, similar looking ones online for this year and print the last weeks of December out and use them. You’ll figure out pretty quickly what works for you, and what turns you into a rage monster. That way, if that system fails, you go out to buy something better knowing what works for you.