Monday, 8 September 2014

Fresh Starts

I know everyone mentions the back-to-school feeling in the air, but it still affects me despite the fact that I'm not going back to school. It's been 3 years since I last faced a new academic year in full time education, which sounds preposterous because it doesn't feel that long ago, but every September brings a sense of excitement and apprehension. It's a time for fresh starts, so my attention turns to my goals — my New Year's Resolutions and other goals I've picked up along the way.

Fresh starts also involve tying up loose ends. A couple of loose ends have tied themselves over the past week or two: Murray's abscess has healed and the vet declared his scrotum normal, so he can go off the lead again! I'm more thrilled about this than he is, since I've had to put up with his excess energy. The other loose end was my Intro to Bookkeeping and Accounting course, which I somehow managed to pass with 91%. I suppose it shows that hard work can overcome most problems, even those concerning numbers!

My mentorship with Emylia Hall has started this week, which means that my major fresh start concerns my writing. After a summer of stagnancy, it's much needed. Some stories have fallen by the wayside, but there are a couple which I will (hopefully) be working on with renewed vigour. I've also got some ideas which could be turned into half decent stories...

One of my sticking points, however, is the novel I've been working on. Something doesn't feel right about it and I'm beginning to think that the best thing to do is to put it aside for a while. Part of me thinks I'm just being lazy for thinking this way, but it hasn't progressed much for months, despite me starting to rewrite it in a different way. I think it still has potential, but suspect it's not the right novel for me to write at the moment.

After all, fresh starts mean casting things aside so that new things can take their place. It might be saying goodbye to long, leisurely summer days in favour of studying an interesting subject or following a passion. It could mean cutting back on one hobby to pursue another wholeheartedly. For me, it's putting one novel away so that I can work on one that's right for me to write at this point in my life and career. It feels like a loss or a failure, but I hope I'm merely making space for something amazing.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Forget Recharging — I Need a Reboot!

I've spent a month doing very little, so why do I still feel tired and lacklustre? I'm supposed to be recharging, but my battery is still almost empty. My motivation is low, as is my mood in general, and I'm frustrated because I ought to be doing more writing.

I wish I could reboot. I'd revert to the settings I had a few months ago, when I was enthusiastic and productive. I keep telling myself that if I want to be successful — in writing and other areas in my life — I have to put in the work and take steps towards my goals. Trouble is, taking action involves more than good intentions...

It's been a tricky week: my puppy was neutered a week and a half ago and on Saturday, his supposedly empty scrotum had swollen to the size of a large apple. We took him to the vet and she was amazed that he was so lively, since his temperature was a few degrees above normal. He has an infection and had to be put on an antibiotic drip for a few hours. They drained the scrotum too and it's getting smaller as he continues a course of antibiotics. He doesn't try to lick it, which is just as well because he chews the cone-shaped collar that is supposed to stop him licking, but he's a Springer Spaniel and stopping him from jumping and running around is impossible. Suffice to say, I'm a little stressed!

But that's no excuse. I've been wasting time on TV and iPad games instead of writing. I have a few projects I should be working on, but I've done nothing except think about them a little. I wish I knew how to give myself a kick up the arse — all I've managed to do is write a minimal to-do list for today, to make sure I did something instead of nothing. I suppose I will keep going and try to do a little more each day. Until someone figures out how to reboot humans, what else can I do?

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Lazy Days

I've been meaning to blog for a while, but it's somehow fallen by the wayside... I have no excuse other than laziness: I've spent the past 3/4 weeks doing absolutely nothing. I've missed deadlines I meant to meet (nothing important, just competitions I would have liked to enter) and apart from generating a couple of story ideas, have done very little writing.

My excuse is that I needed to recharge. I haven't been ultra-busy, but doing a bookkeeping course from May to July took a lot out of me. I've also spent rather more time than usual socialising this year — April involved a hen weekend (for which I made a teddy bear cake!), May included lots of 30th birthday celebrations and June another birthday and a wedding. Having anxiety can be exhausting at the best of times and although I loved being with my friends, it sucked a lot of energy out of me.

I'm also trying to spend some time thinking about my next moves. An unexpected opportunity has come my way and I need to figure out how to get the best out of it: I've been offered mentoring via the fabulous WoMentoring Project. I'm thrilled to have been chosen by Emylia Hall — I had to wait a day to reply to her email because I was so excited I couldn't think straight! 

The trouble with not having expected to be chosen is that I haven't done a great deal of thinking about the mentorship since submitting my application. I've never been the type of person to attract mentors; I'm socially awkward rather than charming and while some tutors/lecturers seemed to like me, I was never confident enough to ask for their help. I'm still kicking myself for not getting more feedback throughout my MA by attending office hours, though I was too an xious. Hence I'm glad that my mentorship will be via email!

My writing goals have shifted a little and I need to recalibrate. I've been focused on getting published for so long that now I'm going to have a short story published in October, I'm not entirely sure what's next. The biggest questions surround my novel-in-progress and the short story markets I ought to target. I need to think about the direction I want my writing career to take and the type of writer I want to be. And if that involves lazing in the sunshine, it's just something I'll have to cope with!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014


After feeling quite crappy for the past few weeks, I've been cheered up by some rewards for my hard work. The big news is that I received an email from a literary magazine, saying they want to include my story in their October issue! I will give details when it's actually published, but I don't want to jinx it; they asked me to confirm that the story hasn't been published elsewhere and that I accept their terms and conditions (it hasn't and I do!) and said they will send a more detailed email, but I've no idea if anything can/will go wrong. It might be unlikely, but I would rather keep quiet until it's a dead cert. Needless to say, I am thrilled.

If all goes well, this means that I can tick off another of my New Year's Resolutions: to get published. Technically, I've written some columns for a local newspaper so have technically been published, but I meant the resolution to refer to my fiction. Getting some Fabulous Rejections has been encouraging, but getting an acceptance makes the hassle of submitting work and the disappointment of form rejections worth the effort.

I'm also feeling pretty pleased with myself because I managed to run 5 miles on Sunday. I did it on my treadmill and was incredibly slow, but as I'm very overweight and struggled to run for 10 minutes at the start of this year, I'm happy with my progress. It also earned me a reward: I allowed myself to buy a book! I'm getting Bark by Lorrie Moore, which has been on my wishlist since before it came out.

Rewards reassure me that I'm on the right track to achieving my goals. They also motivate me to work harder and achieve more. Rewards from other people, that are out of my control, are awesome. They give me a great buzz. However, giving myself rewards is also important; it reminds me that I'm progressing (even if others don't notice or care) and feels pretty damn good!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

I've Lost My Mojo!

I've been writing only in dribs and drabs for the past month. Even when I came up with an interesting idea for a short story, the spark failed to ignite. It's waiting in the wings, like a hopeful understudy. I once read that writer's block indicates either a problem with the material, or a problem with the writer. I'm not sure whether or not I should be pleased that the problem is definitely me!

I've been feeling more depressed. Don't get me wrong; I'm nowhere near the depths of my worst episodes of depression. I just feel empty and less motivated. I'm doing my best to ride it out and do things that help, like exercising and focusing on other stuff, but it's still difficult. That's one of the most annoying things about depression and the hardest to understand: even when you've experienced worse in the past, you feel like you can't fight through the fog of your current depression.

I honestly do feel like I've lost my mojo. Plus saying 'I've lost my mojo' in an Austin Powers mockney accent makes me smile! I'm not sure how to get it back, but I'm trying to figure it out. In the meantime, I'm nearing the end of my bookkeeping course, so I'm focusing on completing my end-of-course assessment rather than my writing. Nothing involving numbers comes easily to me (except sudoku, but that's really just logic), so wish me luck!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

From Small Changes to Life Changes

I bought How I Changed My Life in a Year by Shelley Wilson a couple of days ago — and I've already finished! Shelley blogs at My Resolution Challenge and in 2013, set 12 New Year's Resolutions. She focused on one goal a month, blogging about it as she went. She was already satisfied with her life — she has 3 children and enjoys her career as an holistic therapist — but everyone has unfulfilled goals and lists of things they want to try. Shelley wasn't expecting to change her life, but that was the result!

I love this kind of book. It charts Shelley's progress, but offers plenty of inspiration and advice for readers to follow their own goals. It reminds me of The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, another book I enjoyed which has a similar format (which I wrote about here). I'm left feeling pretty motivated...

The book also fits in with a theme that keeps cropping up in my life recently: making time for what is important. It's no use bitching about wanting to do something but never having the time. It's up to you to set goals, divide them into 'chunks' small enough to fit into your life and manage your time effectively so that you can do what matters to you. After all, most of us can fit Friends reruns (or other TV programmes) into our lives, so we ought to be able to fit in getting fit or learning a new language.

Shelley's book reminds me that we are defined by what we do every day, not what we do once  in a blue moon. Writing is a good example — how many people have you met who say 'I quite fancy writing a novel one day'? Are these people you think of as writers? Or are writers the people who find time to work on their novels/poetry/short stories/essays/whatever inbetween work and childcare and studying and walking the dog?

I've introduced 5 minute wonders into my life. These are tasks that take 5 minutes or less, but which accumulate and make a difference. It doesn't mean I won't ever spend more time on any of these tasks; it's an easy way to ensure I do something towards my bigger goals. My current 5 minute wonders are yoga, push-ups, squats, Italian and meditation. 

I've been trying to do more yoga and resistance exercise, but running has been my focus so strength and flexibility get left behind. 5 minute wonders are a way of fitting in something — anything — so that I'm actively working towards my goal. I hope to build up momentum and do more of these things, but I'm not going to stress about it. Ditto for Italian and mediation. Stressing about meditation would be pretty crazy anyway!

It's a fun way of bringing more kaizen into my life (I blogged about kaizen here and here). 
I keep track of my daily actions in a page-a-day planner, so I simply list my 5 minute wonders beforehand and tick them off. I might not do them all every day, but I'm happy as long as I hit 3 out of 5. Try it and you might find these little seeds grow into big life changes.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Scatterbrain's Guide to Getting — and Staying — Organised 2

My original post, The Scatterbrain's Guide to Getting - and Staying - Organised, is one of the most popular I've written, so I thought I'd share a few more tips I've picked up. As I explained back then, I'm not naturally organised. I would forget everything if I hadn't developed strategies to get myself organised. 

Yet people who met me after the age of 16 tend to assume that being organised is something I find easy. Not so! I just find it easier to put a little effort into being organised than to sort out the mess created when I'm disorganised. These tips/tricks/tactics (or whatever else you wish to call them) might seem like a hassle at first, but once they're set up it takes little effort to maintain them.

1. Create more email folders
In The Scatterbrain's Guide to Getting - and Staying - Organised, I suggested you create an email folder labelled 'Important' to keep emails with important information separate from everything else clogging up your inbox. I also love the tip provided by Stina Lindenblatt in the comments, which is to create a 'Pending' folder for emails that need a reply, but which you don't have the time/info/energy to reply to immediately.

Now I'm saying make more folders! Since I've been submitting work more regularly, I've got folders which separate my writing-related emails into relevant categories. Mine are 'Writing Submissions' which I use to save acknowledgements of stories I submit, 'Writing Rejections', 'Writing Acceptances', 'Writing Back-ups' and 'Writing Miscellany'. If I find myself wondering where I submitted a story or if a magazine ever responded to my submission, I can find the emails I need (if they exist!) in about 3 seconds.

2. Learn to love spreadsheets
Okay, so regular readers are probably fed up with reading about how I'm no longer scared of spreadsheets since doing a computer course earlier this year, but learning to use spreadsheets for basic tasks makes life a lot easier. I have an Excel file which I use to keep track of what I'm submitting where. It has worksheets detailing what stories I've submitted, any non-fiction I've submitted and a list of upcoming competition/submission deadlines.

I've even inserted some formulae to help me out, since I now know how! It's handy to see how many stories I've submitted at a glance. It's also handy to see how many half-decent stories I've written. Using formulae may seem superfluous if, like me, you haven't written that many stories (well, stories I care to submit), but if you put these mechanisms in place at the start you will still be well organised when you're submitting dozens at a time.

3. Get yourself a ring binder
And some file dividers. Into your ring binder, put anything and everything that you might need to refer to on a day-to-day basis. I've got sections for upcoming competitions, magazines/literary journals publishing the type of stories I write, odd articles of writing advice, leaflets from the non-profit organisation I do volunteer work for, etc. What you put in your folder is up to you, but there are 2 essential sections: current work and miscellany.

For me, the current work section simply provides somewhere I can put my most recent drafts without them getting lost or chewed by my springer spaniel puppy. I also find it useful to keep all drafts for my current work in one place, so that I can refer back to them easily. A miscellaneous section is essential because, in my experience, there will always be something that doesn't quite fit into another category. 

4. The important/urgent matrix
I've stolen this idea, but I don't know who to credit because I've seen it in several places. It's a handy tool for figuring out which tasks to prioritise. You divide a piece of paper into quarters and label the top edge 'Important' on one side and 'Not Important' on the other. The side edge is labelled 'Urgent' and 'Not Urgent.' 

This results in 4 boxes: 

  • Important and Urgent
  • Important but Not Urgent
  • Urgent but Not Important
  • Not Important and Not Urgent

You can then insert each item on your to-do list into one of the boxes. Your priorities are the tasks in the 'Important and Urgent' box. The 'Important but Not Urgent' box is the trickiest, since these are the tasks you need to make an effort to fit in. It's hard to remember that they should take precedence over the 'Urgent but Not Important' box because they don't have a deadline attached, but important stuff should be near the top of your list of priorities.

So, should you do the 'Not Important' tasks at all? It depends. Some of these tasks may become important if left undone - cleaning the kitchen floor, for instance - but other things can be removed from your to-do list with no consequences. This exercise may serve as a reminder to avoid drains on your time and energy, if your 'Not Important' boxes are cluttered.

Of course, it also depends on the time you have available: if you want to bake a cake for your children's school's summer fete, for example, and have a couple of hours to spare, it's a nice thing to do. However, if you have a million and one 'Important' things to do, your time is best spent tackling those things. No one should criticise you for prioritising work, health, family, friends, etc. over everything else.

5. Use 'dead' time
I've talked about this before, in Stop Pre-Wasting Time! and Killing Time Thieves. If you are indeed a scatterbrain, chances are your day is stuffed with dead time. What do I mean by 'dead' time? Any period of time you're not using to its full potential. This may include:

  • Short periods of time between tasks, which you think are too short to use to do anything productive.
  • Time spent waiting for something, or which consists mainly of waiting between small tasks. Eg. waiting for dinner to cook/stirring it every 10 minutes ir si.
  • Travel time - if you travel on public transport or have a driver!
  • Time spent zoning in front of the TV.
This is by no means an extensive list, but I hope you get my drift. 

Dead time is the time you write off; you may think it's not practical to do something more important at the same time as cooking dinner or you might think the 10 minutes between getting home from work and walking the dogs isn't worth filling. These are poor excuses! You can check (and organise) your email in 10 minutes, or even 5. You can research short story markets as you keep an eye on dinner. You can plan a story on the bus. Some tasks are better suited to doing little and often - you might find it's easier to learn a new skill this way, for example, than it is to spend 3 straight hours learning at the weekend.

Think of creative ways to use the time you've got. I once read in a self-help book or article (I can't remember where, but it's been oft-repeated) that we all have the same amount of time as Einstein, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King and everyone else. We all have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. You can waste as much of that time as you like bitching and moaning about the pressures you're under and your never-ending to-do list, or you can tackle the tasks you need to get done and find ways to achieve your goals. Your choice.

I saw this post on How to Remember Everything earlier and found myself nodding along. It's about Evernote, which is my favourite app and a great way to help yourself stay organised. It's useful for synching information I need on my iPad with my non-Apple smartphone. I use it a lot when I'm out and about, for writing down ideas, noting important stuff and shopping lists. Check it out!