Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Clear and Certain Plan

Later this month, I plan on announcing my publishing plans for 2014. I don't normally do that, but then I don't normally have the time to dedicate to writing from the offset.

Last January was an anomaly. I was lucky to get home early almost every night while on teaching placement. This gave me time to make tea in the comfort of my own home, work at my own desk and at my own pace, and free myself from the distractions that arise from the wonderful people I call my friends. (I would want to talk to them all the time - it's just easier to blame them for being so distracting than it is to accept that it's actually just my own fault. This doesn't count as a confession because it's in brackets. Obviously.)

With all of that in mind, I was able to write a book in the evenings, after I had my lessons planned for the next day. That book would become Planning Before Writing. I did not know when I started writing it that I would be able to publish it in March.

This December, I've already begun planning my publishing schedule. There are a couple of things I need to work on doing, still, and a couple of books that - when I announce the schedule - will be untitled, but overall I have a plan of what I'll be doing next year. This is unheard of for me.

What's changed? I'm not in college. I don't have exams to dread in May. I don't have essays due in throughout the year. I don't have teaching placement in January. Unless things change drastically for me, I'm looking at working only three and a half days a week on average - two in the bookshop, the remainder of the time minding my niece.

Effectively, my time is freed up completely at the time of the year when I'm most able to focus: January. It's been a need to develop that for the past few years, and last year I had the added bonus of creating a New Year's Resolution that would keep me writing consistently for a long time.

But let's just be clear on something: I didn't stick to it this year. There are days that I didn't write anything. By the time I'd written a poem every day for two months and blogged every day for that amount of time, too, I just ran out of things to say. Okay, not entirely true. I actually just hit a slump one week, and it took a while to get the ball rolling again. I'm still not entirely sure what happened, there.

What's different this time around is that I'm not just planning on writing every day. I'm not giving myself a big list of options to work from. I'm focusing entirely on one project at a time. It'll make more sense, soon, but effectively I'm giving myself assignments like I'd have in college, and using my time to create whatever book or article it is that I'm supposed to do.

This is my self-made work. It's all things I'm passionate about, things I've been wanting to do for a long time, now, and just never got around to doing. I'm approaching 2014 with a clear plan in mind, and I'm going to make sure that I actually stick to it. It's not just a hobby any more. This is work. This is business.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

What 'Work' Means

When applying for a job, the typical CV includes a number of details that effectively break down as a simple introduction to who you are and how you see yourself. Let's look at my CV briefly, leaving out the details like where I live, and the specifics of where I work. Safety first online.

Hi there. My name is Paul Carroll, I'm twenty two, and I'm a recent college graduate. I have six and a half years' experience as a bookseller, I write books and plays, I consider myself quite empathetic towards others, and I took part in Drama while in college. I'm technically a qualified teacher, a detail I include to indicate that I have developed skills in communication, organisation and working with large groups of people in sometimes stressful situations.

Looking at that, it's not a bad introduction. However, if I had this in in the form of a CV, what it looks like is:

Hi there. My name is Paul Carroll, I'm twenty two, and I'm a recent college graduate. I have six and a half years' experience as a bookseller, in a shop where my time is valued at minimum wage. I write books and plays, but I haven't ventured into the world of traditional publishing. As the current understanding of what it means to be published is still changing, you might think I'm either afraid of failure, or that I am a failure. I consider myself quite empathetic towards others, which is my way of saying I'm sensitive to others and their needs; while this is useful when working with the public, as a personality trait it's underestimated. I took part in Drama while in college, something I can point out to show that I had a balanced work-and-social life, but that might also suggest I could bring the theatrics with me. That is not always the case. I'm technically a qualified teacher, a detail I include to indicate that I have developed skills in communication, organisation and working with large groups of people in sometimes stressful situations. My lack of a teaching position might indicate that I never bothered, or no school would hire me. The former makes it look like I changed my mind, which makes me look fickle.

With the added cynicism, my CV doesn't look too great. It indicates that I am undervalued but not willing to take drastic measures to change that. It suggests I chose self-publication for reasons other than the challenge of doing it all myself. It doesn't say much about what it really means to pay attention to how others are feeling, or how Drama helps to develop a sense of belonging to a group about which I was passionate. Furthermore, it doesn't say much about how I feel about the teaching world right now, or my position in it.

On the latter, I'll be brief. Teaching in Ireland is tricky at the moment. There are union problems. There's a new Junior Cycle programme on its way in. At least, that was the plan. These are all adding to the workload and food for thought for teachers, who must still prepare lessons for pupils, grade work, prepare exams, and - when industrial action isn't taking place - arrange meetings and out-of-school trips. It's all quite headache inducing at the moment, and I'm barely four years older than the sixth year students.

I'm not on a sub list for teaching at the moment as a result of a combination of the above paragraph and, more significantly with regards timing and scheduling my life, the time I spend working in the bookshop and minding my niece. The sub list is not a guarantee for work. Few people on it will work every week, fewer of them every day of every week, and fewer still will be lucky enough to find sub work as maternity leave cover. I'm not currently in a position to drop everything with an hour's notice Monday to Friday. Social obligations are less of an issue - friends would understand. It's the days I could be working in the bookshop, or the days I'm minding my niece, that would cause problems.

So, that's that. That's why I'm not currently working as a teacher.

However, even that represents only a limited understanding of what it means to be a teacher. Looking at my CV again, we can see a few key points jumping out: I'm a writer, with speaking practice, trained as a teacher. Those three points actually go together remarkably well.

You see, my college experience has helped shape me into someone who is quite capable of doing something I wouldn't have thought possible fifteen years ago - when I didn't know what it meant to be a published writer, when writing books wasn't even an option because I had never found a book for my age that told a story I really loved. (That came later.) What's changed is that I'm in a position to make my own work as a teacher.

Classrooms are important for group teaching. That said, they're only vital when the group is consistently larger than a dozen - at least on the class list. Nowadays, technology allows for group discussions through video conferencing (and conversing) software. Google Hangouts make talking to a group of people an easy to manage environment. But even with that in mind, the Internet and the advent of digital publishing and the decreased requirement for a "gatekeeper" allows for someone like me to redefine what 'work' means.

I've spoken about this already, but this is what I'm planning in 2014. I'll be back to working barely any hours in the week, still on minimum wage. I'll have plenty of time to myself during the week, time which I can use to revalue myself publicly. Lets face it, I have nothing to lose in trying to work on things I'm actually passionate about - not magazines and newspapers and stationery, not someone's problem with a book they received, or the finer details that arise from working under a brand name, but in a different company altogether.

Work shouldn't have to be about doing things at a pay-rate that belittles the trouble you go to for people, or the effort you put in to make sure everything runs smoothly. Work shouldn't have to involve doing something that doesn't make you happy.

Yes, I'm grateful to have a job. But it's not good work. Retail, especially at Christmas, is difficult. I'm at the end of six days working full time, leaving me exhausted and exasperated, and the closest thing I get to a Christmas bonus is €20 under my name for a Christmas party that hasn't even been arranged yet. This is after restocking and re-merchandising the shop for six days in a row. This is after customer complaints over transactions I wasn't involved in - too often not even from my shop. This is after customers failing to observe the store's opening hours. This is after recommending and/or locating books at least a dozen times a day - most likely more than that. That, for minimum wage.

I'd like to clarify: I understand the company's financial situation. I understand the rush at Christmas. This isn't about the job itself. It's about how much value is placed on the work I do, from where I'm sitting. I know that come January, things will go back to what could loosely be described as normal. I know I'll be back to working just weekends, despite having proved myself as being able to handle more than just the few hours I receive with the responsibility that's placed on me.

Having a job and being valued for your work are two different things. I know what it would take when I control my work to indicate that I am valued. I know the difference between the job I have in the bookshop and the work I'm putting into place for next year. I know what work means to me, and what I ought to be valued at, and I know how it looks from the outside. All I have to do now is make sure it's clear from the point of view of others when I'm working and when I'm not. (Here's a hint: if I'm typing a lot on my laptop, writing a lot on notepad, or looking intently at a screen - sometimes with a tablet and a pen in my hand - then I'm probably working. Even if you hear music blaring at the same time. It's called a 'working environment'.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Last Minute Gift Ideas

With Christmas just around the corner, it's possible you're still struggling to find a present for someone. Every shop is recommending their products, every newspaper seems to have their own ideas of what people want for Christmas - usually watches, or a gadget, or perfume - and still, somehow, nobody knows what to buy. This is especially true when you fall into one of two categories: you have a limited budget, or you don't know what someone actually needs. (We're going to assume, in this, that you're not just getting someone a random piece of equipment they would never think of getting for themselves, like a pen that lights up when you start writing, or a pair of slippers you put in the microwave before wearing.)

Let's start with a simple one: a voucher. Personally, I hate giving someone a voucher for Christmas. I feel like when I give someone a voucher, it says I don't know them well enough to buy them a present. Except, that's not necessarily the case. Your voucher doesn't have to be a shopping voucher. Consider getting someone an experience for Christmas; you can buy someone a voucher for paint-balling, or go-karting, or a restaurant voucher. You can give someone a day out in a spa, or a night out enjoying a good meal.

Similarly, you might try a concert ticket. Think within your budget, and within the tastes of the other person. Don't assume that everyone shares your love of death metal, and don't assume you have to be the one to go with them to the concert. Sometimes that's implied (especially if it's for your significant other), but it's not always necessary. (Just make sure you give the recipient more than one ticket if you're not getting one for yourself, or have someone lined up to go with them.)

Alternatively, you can make your own presents. This works well when everyone is on a limited budget. You'd be surprised how far money can stretch when all the production is done by you. Some ideas for your consideration:

- A frame, made from a cereal box. Decorating it even with paint, or with glued-on sea shells or pasta pieces, can make it unique. Don't forget to put a photo in it.

- A scrapbook of memories. This works well for friends or romantic partners, but family can also enjoy it. Select photographs of the recipient that capture happy moments from their lives - even just over the past few months - and create captions for them. Fill the entire scrapbook. Use wrapping paper to redesign the cover, and think about using cheap packets of stickers to spruce it up a bit.

- A calender. You can get one made professionally using your own photographs, or you can print it yourself from home. If you present the entire year on one page, consider a strong piece of backing board. Most art shops should sell it. It will make the finished piece last longer.

- Knit an item of clothing. Give it a personal touch like Mrs Weasley, or just aim for comfort and style.

Of course, your present might not be a physical item. In the digital age, you can give someone a present that they'll never lay their hands on. In my ebook Writing Gifts, on a Shoestring, I consider a few different ways to use your writing as a present. Here are some more ideas on using the Internet as part as your presentation, including different ways to get creative.

- Write a song, and record it. Use the best microphone or camera you have access to. You can post it on YouTube - publicly or privately - and send the link when you're ready. (This helps you maintain the quality of the video, so you don't have to reduce it to attach to an email.) You can also write a poem or story and read it for someone, or just send it to them in an email.

- If you're abroad for the holidays, grab a camera and go for a walk. Record everything you can see - all the scenery, all the people - and record a message for your loved ones to go with it. Put in on YouTube, as recommended above, and send on the link later.

- Arrange a time to eat together online. Share a meal from across the world, even if it means one person eating breakfast while the other sits down for dinner. The important thing is that you're doing it together. Skype and Google Hangouts are ideal for this sort of thing, the latter especially so if you know a lot of people in a lot of different places and you all want to spend some time together.

The other, more obvious routes you could head down include DVDs, books (including ebooks) and clothing. There's a lot that goes into choosing any of these, which is why I try to avoid them unless I know it's going to be appreciated. The simple way to make sure you're getting someone something they want is to ask. Beyond that, just listen more closely. It would surprise you how liberal people are about talking about what they want, especially when the holiday season is coming. (The surprise is on them if you find out before the holidays even become an issue!)

Of course, if you know a writer or musician, a good way to support them around the holiday season is to consider buying their books or tracks, for yourself or for others. Not only are you helping out a friend or loved one, you're also getting someone else something out of it. (As a writer, I feel it makes some sense to mention this at some point in this point. As someone who knows a lot of other writers, and quite a few musicians, I have a social obligation to emphasis how much work goes into a single book, or an album, and independent artists are always in need of support.)

Do you have any other gift ideas you'd like to share with people? Comment below so others can see them, and help make the holiday season a little bit less stressful.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Daily Content and a Publishing Schedule

While reading The Millionaire Messenger (and yes, eventually I will stop mentioning that book), it occurred to me that if I really want to sell books, I need to do more than just write books, or writing articles or stories when I wanted to sell a book. Having brought up the book so much, and thought about it a lot, I got the idea to publish The Winter Folk over the period of December.

It was a no-end-in-sight plan. Not that it had no end, but that I wasn't doing it for a particular reason other than: (1) I wanted to do something nice in the run up to Christmas and (2) ParagraVerse has been awfully lonely, lately. So, I wrote it as twelve-part poem, to help make it last longer while my work schedule picked up.

As it happens, the poem created its own end.

In the writing of it, I began to think about how interesting I might find the story to write. In particular, I wanted to write the story of the Ice Queen. The world has seen Jack Frost. The world knows all about Santa Claus. But the Ice Queen... well, any time there's a queen or a witch who dresses in white and surrounds herself in ice or snow, she seems to be a villain.

Not for me, not this time.

So, that's what I'm writing now. The Ice Queen. It's a short story. I'm hoping to publish it for Kindle later this month. I'll need to design a cover, soon. And write the two flash stories I want to publish this month on ParagraVerse, too. All of this, out of a little wish to write a poem and make it last.

I hadn't even been set on writing this, until yesterday. And even then, I only thought about it. It wasn't until I actually sat down to plan a schedule that I also decided to plan the book. The schedule was for daily content online this month. I know I missed December 1st, but from then on out I've got things in mind. The Winter Folk helps by taking up half the days between now and Christmas. Thankfully, the poem also sparked a book which sparked a couple of other pieces that need to go online.

Somehow, the poem created a published schedule around itself.

It wasn't the practice I had in mind, but that's fine. At least I know in January, when I get to work on a campaign towards launching another book, I'll have an idea of how best to follow through on my ideas. Scheduling is definitely of benefit to me. It's basically the only way I'm managing this right now.

Anyway, my original plan for daily content, now fully completed, is seeing the following going online:

- 8 blog posts,
- 9 videos,
- 2 flash stories,
- 2 poems - one in 12 parts, and
- 1 ebook.

How much of this is written or prepared? Less than half. How much will be prepared in advance and pre-scheduled? More than half. And how much of it is going to be fun to put together?

I'm going to go with just about all of it.

What this all boils down to is releasing a lot of content that I find interesting, setting new challenges for myself on a regular basis, writing about what I know and, with the exception of the ebook, making it all free for anyone to look at. I think it's a fair deal, getting all of that for nothing and having no obligation to buy the story in the end. And if you enjoy yourself along the way, all the better. That is the point of this sort of stuff, after all, to provide some entertainment.

If all goes well, I'll keep up this sort of thing in 2014, and not just because I'll be releasing new books in the future. This is the essence of The Millionaire Messenger, I think, or part of it at least. The best way to reach an audience is to give people something for nothing, and tell them that there's also something they can buy if they want. The point, though, is that the "messenger" is passionate about what they're talking about.

I think in this case, that goes without saying.

(P.S. If you want to keep up with everything I post this month, Twitter is probably your best bet. You can find me @writeranonymous.)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Small-Scale Practice

One of my aims for next year is to post something online regularly. I don't just mean a tweet or a Facebook status. I mean a video, or a poem (or a piece of poem), a short story, a blog post, an article, an interview - something that adds some sort of value. If I could, I'd do it every day. And so, that's what I'm trying to do from this week on.

Monday saw the first part of a poem go online. Entitled The Winter Folk, it's my run up to Christmas poem. You can read the first part here: http://paragraverse.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/the-winter-folk-part-1/

Tuesday featured a video, uploaded to my YouTube channel. I'm normally adverse to posting my videos on my Facebook page, so if you're reading this you're seeing something I wouldn't have otherwise shared with you.

Wednesday saw part two of The Winter Folk go online, and automatically so. I made the decision from day one that I wouldn't have to worry about when I posted the poem. ParagraVerse would sort it all out for me. I just needed to share the link later in the day. Thankfully, the site has a few subscribers already, so they'll receive it without my having to do anything.

And today, I have a blog post. Friday will see part three of The Winter Folk. Saturday, who knows. It depends on how my time gets divided between now and then. The important thing is, I'm keeping up with my schedule of posting online.

Obviously, it won't be this easy when I'm doing it all the time. I won't always have a twelve-mini-part poem to post online, because it won't always be the run up to Christmas. I can, however, begin sticking to a posting schedule that isn't too difficult to main, by writing regularly. If I wanted to, I could make a proper schedule for when things roll out properly. I already know that I'd like articles up on Saturdays, poems on Tuesdays, and short stories on Fridays. But that doesn't say much about the rest of the week.

Essentially, though, keeping up posting online is relatively easy when you take a page out of Alex Day's book: create a lot of content in one day, and schedule it for release over a number of days and weeks without your having to be there. That's the kind of intention I have, simply because I find that the reason I don't do something is because I couldn't get to my laptop to type it up.

However, I can share from my tablet or my phone. I don't need to worry about typing something like a blog post or an article on them when they're already written and just going live at a particular time. I can still be there to respond to people's comments, or tweet about something else entirely, without having to concern myself with the practicalities of how and when I'll be able to write something on a given day. When I have Drama or work, that challenge becomes ever more difficult to address, and the end result is that I avoid posting anything online at all.

So, I'm starting small. I have The Winter Folk on schedule to publish, and this very blog post will be set up to post, even though I'll probably be at my laptop when it goes live anyway. Why? Because it means I don't have to stop doing what I was doing to write (or even just publish) a blog post that I could have easily written before and just didn't because it wasn't the right day. I plan on writing for an hour or so every day, no matter what, but I already know when that'll become impractical. On days like that, at least I won't have to concern myself with whether or not I'm producing enough regularly. Scheduling might be the key to keeping up regular posting. We'll see how it works out this month - my busiest in the bookshop - before rolling it out officially in January.