Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Remembering Robin Williams

I held back the tears from the moment I heard that Robin Williams had died, in what had been an unconfirmed report of suicide. I held them back while I was with friends, and while I was in public, until I was too tired to cry.

He was a man whose movies had helped shape my childhood. I knew him for Mrs. Doubtfire, for Patch Adams, for Jack, for Jumanji. He was a father, a healer, a misunderstood child, a lost hero. He was the boy who was never meant to grow up, a teacher, a doctor.

In the end, he was a husband, a father, a comic genius, and he was suffering.

Depression takes people to strange place. For some, it can mean the difference between a productive day, or staying in bed until the sun sets all over again. For others, it can mean sadness at every incident in the day, tears held back only for as long as someone else is looking. For others still, it can cloud the mind to reality, blocking out the bright lights of family and friends and loved ones, until the person gives in to something bigger than himself - alcoholism, drug abuse, suicidal ideation.

It can happen at any moment in our lives. It can affect teachers, doctors, lawyers, builders, actors. Whatever form it takes, depression leaves a path of ruin and wreck in its wake, a path that's visible only in hindsight in many cases.

No one could have predicted that Robin Williams would die by suicide.

Let it just be said: someone who dies by suicide is not being selfish. From idea to act, it is cruel to everyone it affects. From a mind plagued by the thought of it, to the family left behind after it, suicide hurts. Anyone who dares to say otherwise who has never suffered from suicidal ideation is only contributing to the hurt of loss felt by the mourners and grievers.

In many ways, Robin Williams was a lucky man. Though he met a tragic end, he gave the world the greatest gifts any human being could ever give. He gave us hope, and laughter, profound joy and wisdom in equal measure. He was adored by millions, and I have no doubt that he knew it, and he will be missed sorely.

He will be missed while people watch a lonely man attempt to reach out to his family again. He will be missed while a medical student plays a clown in an attempt to alleviate the suffering of his patients. He will be missed when a young boy in a grown-up's body makes friends and comes to terms with his mortality. And he will be missed when a man ripped from this world tries to protect those who brought him back.

Robin Williams was - and still is - many things, to many people, and it is only right that when we think about him, we remember his work, the joy he brought to so many people, the smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye. His death is tragic and terrible, but if we are to focus on it, it should be in light of making the world a better place for other people who suffer from a mental illness. Like a star in the night sky, Robin Williams light can still shine on for years to come.

At this time, we are right to mourn, and the world needs to give his family that opportunity, and its support.

Rest in Peace, Robin Williams.

Helplines: (Courtesy of thejournal.ie, amended)
Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org 
Console 1800 247 247 – (suicide bereavement)
1Life 1800 247 100 or text HELP to 51444 - (suicide prevention)
Aware 1890 303 302 (depression, anxiety)
Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie - (suicide, self-harm, bereavement)
Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Two on the Go!

I'm a reader. If you don't know that by now, you really don't know me. I love books - which is a good thing, too, considering I work in a bookshop - and I often find that one is never enough.

No, I have to have two on the go at all times. That's how I do it. One novel or memoir, and one book of non-fiction - usually one on business or writing or personal development. (The latter being an incredibly vague descriptor for a genre. Some are total mindset books that lead you to take action, some are totally practical books that attempt to alter your mindset through method, some rely on spirituality - the variants are seemingly endless.)

The main thing is that I don't attempt to juggle two stories at the same time. Anecdotal stuff in a non-fiction book is fine - it can help to illustrate a point - but I prefer not to mix the stories up in my head while reading them.

Here's how I do it:

The story I'm reading - at this moment in time, It's Kind of a Funny Story, is reserved for my lunch breaks in work, and bus journeys, when I'm not too tired to read. When I start college, that guarantees me two hours of reading per week, when I'll only work weekends. That's a minimum, because I'll probably make more of an effort to read on the bus when I love the extra day in work for reading.

I use this time for reading stories because I enjoy the escape, and I like to unwind with them. But there's another reason, and it's why I read the non-fiction books at home, in my personal time and space - I don't feel like I'm wasting time by reading non-fiction at home.

Let me clarify - fiction is not a waste of time. But when I'm at home, I'm presented with an option - my fiction, or someone else's. It's a better use of my time when I use it for (a) writing or (b) developing myself, my writing knowledge, or my business knowledge.

When I read non-fiction, my current book being Get Sh*t Done! by Niall Harbison, I think of it as investing my time in learning something important. In the case of my current read, it's using someone else's life lessons to develop a means towards living the life that I want - not the life other people want for me.

That's a different lesson to the previous book on my list - Creativity Inc. - which shed some light on how to run a creative business. This was, of course, in the context of a company with employees, and not a solo operation. However, there's something to remember here, about education and learning: while authors and teachers have their own intended learning outcomes, students may come out of the experience learning something else. In my case, how to better work on a creative team.

Why is that important? Well, my college course will require a lot of creative work with other people, people from different backgrounds, people I haven't even met before.

Do I have a book on how to better improve my people skills before then? Yes. Of course I do. I also have a book on how to feel more alive, one on dealing with change, one of being more effective, and one on public speaking - just in case I need to make a presentation. Those lessons are all valuable uses of my time, and I wouldn't be surprised if I found myself dedicating a lot more time than usual to reading them in an effort to draw some inspiration before my course begins.

But I won't just be reading those books. I'll be juggling some stories, like Maureen Johnson's The Last Little Blue Envelope, or Josh Sundquist's Just Don't Fall, or David Levithan's How They Met, or Darren Shan's Zom-B Clans - that's one novel on love and growing up and stuff, one memoir on growing up (with, and then without, cancer), one collection of short stories, and one zombie novel. Those are just the ones I think I can finish before college, comfortably, before I tackle Clash of Kings by George RR Martin.

This type of reading isn't sustainable, of course. There will come a time when I'll be forced to choose one or the other - and switching between the two as it suits me - because I'll have to read specific titles for college. But, while it's an option, it's the best one for me. Diversity in reading is important, and when I see people purposely choosing to avoid books that (a) have a story or (b) don't, I wonder if they've ever really given it a shot. I like to learn something new, and usually about something I wouldn't ever study in school or college (because, frankly, I don't think it's possible to grade somebody on something like personal growth), and I like to expose myself to new stories all the time.

Stories help us to develop a sense of empathy and understanding. That's one type of valuable lesson, and it's why I still write fiction when the truth of it has been revealed (the truth being that it's very difficult to make a living from writing fiction) - I believe that people can get something from reading lots of different types of stories, and that the exposure to new ideas and new people (albeit fictional ones) allows us to live a more open life.

At the same time, I believe that if we want to change our lives, we should. Society has this weird stigma attached to being different, and even when so many people read what are broadly described as "personal development" or "self-help" books, many people still look at them and wonder why they're reading something like that. (I used to. I'm speaking from experience here. My perception changed when I realised that I needed to.) Why do personal development books matter? Why should people care about what different people have to say about how to live life, or be happy, or run a business? Because we all live different lives and we can all learn from each other

If you don't know how to escape the 9-5 job, someone else has probably already written a book about it. If you don't know how to influence people towards your way of thinking, someone else can probably explain how they do it. If you don't know how to do more with your life that you actually want to do, someone has probably written a book about it. (In fact, books do exist on those three topics - The Four Hour Work-Week, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Get Sh*t Done! being the prime examples!)

I'm a reader, and while I still have the option, I'm going to continue taking on two books at a time. I'm not doing it because I think it'll make me a better person - I can change as a person, if I follow the lessons in the book, not just by reading it - but because it makes me a happier person. Reading is a pleasure, and whether I'm learning something new, or meeting new characters, I'll always find joy in a book (or two.)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Clean Up in Aisle 11!

Facts for context:

1. I still live at home with my parents.
2. At 23, still living at home with my parents, I still sometimes act like a teenager.
3. Teenagers aren't always known for tiny bedrooms.
4. I moved from the biggest bedroom in the house to the smallest.
5. I made that move in a day.
6. At one point, I had no floor-space because everything was dumped in the room.

All of that in mind, you will be please to know that I have actually tidied my room! This might not seem like such a big deal, but when you look at how I was living up until a few days ago, you'll see why this is so important for me.

For me to access my desk - which is where I sit when I'm using my laptop to write, or record/edit videos, or do anything else laptop-related - I had to:

1. Move everything off the floor and onto my bed, to access the chair. This included: a laptop bag, a backpack, two cameras, a portable DVD player, three boxes (two of which were empty!), a pile of books, a bag of stationary, a pile of folded up jeans, a pile of sheets and printed articles, and a birthday present.

2. With my access to the chair secured, I then needed to move a laptop tray from the chair. However, on this laptop tray was a pile of: magazines, notebooks, newspaper supplements, folders of various sizes accessories for the DVD player, and a belt. This required moving two, increasingly wobbly, piles of items to the bed.

3. With the chair cleared, I then had to move a pile of notebooks from the desk to - you guessed it - the bed, so I would room on the desk for just about anything else.

All in all, it took at least five minutes to do it, and I had to put it all back at the end of the night to get into bed. That's not good. That's very much not good. The amount of effort it took to access my desk meant that I didn't even bother half the time. Translation: I didn't use my laptop an awful lot of the time. This is the primary reason I didn't finish my novel last month, because I had created a physical obstacle to work.

So, I fixed it. I still have the laptop tray on my chair, but it now only holds the cameras and the DVD player. One easy move. If I want to clear the floor, I only have a couple of bags to move - one of which contains the birthday present, which won't be around for much longer. I can now easily access my laptop. But I didn't stop there.

Because I had to clear the way to the laptop, it meant I also had to put a lot of stuff away. Every magazine is now stored properly under my bed. In fact, everything that didn't belong in the open, has been put away, and my bookshelves have been re-organised.

The process took me just over an hour - because I was rushing to finish by noon yesterday - and it means I can now easily find my books on business, personal development, writing, and mental health. Plus, all the fiction I want easy access to is either on the main shelves, or on the easiest to of the secondary shelves at the end of my bed. (Those books can't really be seen, because of how close the shelves are to the bed. Which is where a lot of the books I wanted to access were stored!)

All in all, the room feels cleaner, I can relax more easily in it, and I know that whenever I want to read a book from my shelf, I don't have to look very hard to find it. I may still sometimes act like a teenager, but finally I'm starting to treat my bedroom like I'm an adult. And by bedroom, I mean bedroom-cum-office. I think I'm going to need a bigger room.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The End and the Beginning

Operation Overdrive has come to an end. Sort of.

I started this month with a big idea: to write a 75,000 word novel, posting daily blog posts, poems and videos. 31 days to do an awful lot of work, whether I did the novel or the daily posts. Attempting to do everything, that was where I fell behind.

And, life got in the way. But that's okay. That will happen.

I don't consider Operation Overdrive a failure, however. Quite the contrary. I think, with everything I did, it's been a success of sorts. I've managed to get back to blogging in a way that makes me happy. I've managed to put out a lot of poems, some of which were quite popular as far as my little poetry and prose blog is concerned, and I've managed to get back my confidence in front of a camera for my YouTube channel.

I've also discovered that I can't force myself to write a book if I only end up feeling guilty about not doing anything else.

Is this a problem for the dream of being a writer? No. It's a problem for any future attempts at NaNoWriMo in any way, shape or form. At least, not when the word count target is set to 150%.

The issue, you see, was trying to balance the workload when I was finding myself at my busiest, when I was working more hours in the bookshop, and when the sun was actually shining in Ireland. (Honestly - we had a weird summer.)

I know that I can write a novella in a week.

I know that I can write a non-fiction book using all of my spare time during a busy period.

I now know that I cannot dedicate a whole month to a book, while doing everything else in my life that I don't have any control over - like work, or babysitting, or burning up in the heat - because I will only tire myself out.

Part of the issue, for me, has been sleep, though. I haven't gotten much lately. We're talking the past couple of months. Since the sun started shining brightly in the morning, I haven't been able to sleep on past six most of the time. But this is after going to bed at twelve. I was drained, and that made me too groggy to start work earlier. The end result was guilt. Guilt at doing anything that wasn't writing. Guilt that carried over into the book. Guilt at trying something new.

And that last one? That's where the biggest issue for me was this month. I bought a new camera, my first DSLR. I wanted to take photographs. I wanted to practice, to get better, to really improve upon the very basics of photography that I had. And every time I did that - guilt.

Bad. Very bad.

That's why I left the book behind. I made a conscious decision, when I found myself incapable of writing the book because of how badly I felt for not doing it as much as I should have, to drop it. Not forever. Just until I get a couple of things in order. I have other books to write. I want to practice my photography more.

Operation Overdrive finishes today, officially, but the aftermath is this:

I want to write blog posts more often. I want to record videos more often, and I want to put more effort into them than a direct upload. I want to write poems with greater purpose for ParagraVerse. I want to set up a photography blog - and a business - and I want to get out more to take photographs. I want to write a couple of books that have been on my mind for a long time, and I want to continue to write my novel.

The month is over, but the desire to create, and the aspiration that I began with, they've only grown stronger.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Why I Self-Published

In 2012, when I was preparing to write Balor Reborn, I had to make a decision - write and prepare a book for publication in a week, or do the whole thing by myself. The first option would have only been exciting if (a) I had written a full-length novel that (b) was accepted by a publisher in (c) a short period of time after the writing.

The second option at least allowed me to publish by the end of week.

But that wasn't the only reason I decided to self-publish. It wasn't just a time issue. It was also a case that there weren't, at the time, many publishers of novellas that excited me. There was no one there to take my book seriously, that I knew of, because of its length.

I was aiming for short and snappy, and I could only provide that publishing service myself.

The same reason stands for why I continue to self-publish some books, and why I don't self-publish others. At the end of the day, I still want my first full-length novel to reach publication to be through a traditional publisher.

However, self-publishing, for the time and books that are in it, is ideal for me. It gives me complete control over everything I want to do with particular stories, and allows me to figure out what does and does not work in an actual marketplace - not just in terms of what books sell and what books don't, but also which marketing methods I can pull off, how I can run a business, that sort of thing.

All in all, I like the control I can get from self-publishing, and I like that I can bring certain stories into the world without going through a gateway.

This isn't to say I don't appreciate the work of publishers, because I do appreciate it, but when it comes to new projects that require particular care in terms of pacing and publication, I'd like the risk of not meeting publication deadlines to be entirely on me, and not down to a department in a company not being ready to deliver, or doubting the decision to publish at a particular time.

(Some context: I plan on releasing a series of books with publication dates at very particular times of the year - several books per year. Only big-name authors can get away with that in the traditional publishing field, because of the cost involved in printing the books. This is why I'm sticking with ebooks, for the time being, too, because I don't have to worry about finding the right price from a printer, while trying to balance several other aspects of life.)

All in all, the decision to self-publish comes down to my lifestyle. I work three days a week, and mind my niece every week, too, and this is on the back of spending my entire week either in college or working. I have a limited amount of hours free in the week, one way or another, and that's all about to happen again - I need to know that the deadlines are mine to impose, around everything else I've had to do in my life for the past few years. To be perfectly honest, I'm still striving for the right balance in my life. I'm not ashamed to admit that. But I'm getting there. I'm figuring things out. And at least I get to do it on my own time.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Non-Writing Book Recommendations

After my other list of books for writers, it makes sense to follow up with one that isn't primarily focused on writing, but can illustrate some important ideas and styles for writers to take note of. This isn't extensive, and it all comes down to my personal tastes, but I can guarantee you one thing: a book won't make it onto this list if I haven't read it - because there are already dozens of articles online with the same books on them as recommendations.

Paper Towns by John Green

Why? It is, in essence, a road-trip novel, and one that captures the experience so perfectly that it made me want to go on one myself. (Though, for the record, I don't actually have my a car of my own to do that with.) Don't attempt to write a road-trip book unless (a) you've been on one and (b) you've read a road-trip book. This one is my suggestion.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

One reason: a thought provoking but inoffensive exploration of suicide, and why one girl in particular took her own life. It's a very sensitive issue, and Asher manages to tread carefully, while covering the necessary ground - how the girl felt, how those she blames felt, their reactions to her death. It's not an easy read, in the sense that it's emotionally unsettling, but overall it's worth the experience.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

For it's treatment of racism, and the exploration of race through a child's eyes, it's a vital read. Why any school would ever ban this, I'll never understand. Bare-faced and daring, tense and unnerving, if you haven't read it, you need to.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Lawson's only book to date, this memoir of growing up in Texas explores a number of topics that many writers may never find themselves going through - and many more than writers are incredibly likely to experience. From a bizarre childhood to issues in parenting and motherhood, as well as an exploration of depression, Lawson somehow managed to create a book that was both hilarious and insightful, and, for a couple of chapters, heartbreaking.

One Red Paperclip by Kyle McDonald

The message from this memoir is simple: strange things are possible for ordinary people. If you think writing about suicide or racism or motherhood or road trips might present themselves as being too out-there for some readers, seemingly normal, but just a stretch too far with the imagination, then look no further than the Canadian who, through a series of trades, went from owning one red paperclip to owning a house. It's happened in real life - so who's to say whether or not you're pushing your luck with an idea? There are no limits in fiction, but especially not after Kyle McDonald pulled off this amazing feat.

The Commitments by Roddy Doyle

Why? The music. You don't necessarily have to like Soul music, but as a novel, it's a good example of how a band can come together, and how to include songs in a book. It also works as a great example of how a book can be written almost entirely using dialogue. Some of the colloquialisms may be difficult to understand for readers outside of Ireland, but there are always Irish readers out there who will happily translate for you.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

For an understanding of Asperger's Syndrome - albeit one that should be taken with a pinch of salt - Haddon's novel is a must read. A story of emotional difficulty, a search for meaning, and a seemingly impossible journey, it's ideal for writers trying to figure out how to make their characters different without making them weird. Even today, few writers include stories with autistic characters in the main cast - I've only ever seen one other character who fell into the category, in Cassandra Clare's latest novel, City of Heavenly Fire, and even then it isn't stated explicitly. If it doesn't challenge you to do something out of the ordinary with your protagonist(s), then nothing will. (Just, you know, be respectful of people who are actually going through the same things as your characters, and don't glorify what makes them different.)

Do you have any recommendations?

My list isn't comprehensive, but the books here present vast differences in stories and how they're told. I hope that, when you're working on your own ideas, these books might help highlight some key ideas for you to explore in a contemporary setting. (Or not.) Do you have any recommendations of your own? What books do you think writer should be reading?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Books for Writers

I have a habit of reading a lot of different types of books, but my non-fiction focuses on writing and business, for the most part. With that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to recommend some books for writers, no matter what stage they're at. (Though, obviously, more established writers may find less benefit from these than relative newbies.)

1. Screenplay, by Syd Field

Not everyone will write a movie. Not everyone should write a movie. However, as far as stories go, getting a strong overview of how to write one for one medium is a good idea, so long as you're prepared to transfer the lessons to another. Syd Field's book is incredibly approachable, and it covers all aspects of writing a story. The actual screenplay aspect of the book is limited to particular chapters. The rest is applicable to writers generally, with exercises most books on writing fiction don't include at all.

2. The Millionaire Messenger, by Brendon Burchard

While I would consider it of greater benefit to someone writing a non-fiction book than it would be for a novelist, The Millionaire Messenger is an excellent way of ensuring you focus on the task at hand. It's an important book for understanding the value of your message, whatever it may be, and it can help inspire you towards greater things.

3. Write and Get Paid For It, by Terry Prone

The title alone is worth paying attention to, nevermind the how-to information in the book. Terry Prone's guide on how to earn money from writing is important for writers who actually want to do that, and while the most recent edition is before most of the major successes in self-publishing and ebook publishing, the advise is still applicable to writers today. (The last edition was published in 2010, but take it from someone who's been publishing for a couple of years, and from a long-time bookseller - it's now an "old" book.)

4. The Curve, by Nicholas Lovell

Not everyone believes the future is digital. That's a problem for those people. Nicholas Lovell reveals what he knows and believes about digital technology, "superfans" and the power of free in his book The Curve, published in October 2013. It's an important book for understanding the challenges you could well be facing in the future, and it's handy to be able to prepare for them now rather than waiting to respond to them as they happen.

5. Is There a Book in You?, by Alison Baverstock

Alison Baverstock has always been a go-to writer for me. She writes plainly (which is a plus - everyone can understand her!), and she writes about topics that are important for writers. This book, her first about writing, is a good tool for self-identity. Not only does it help address the issue for many people - whether or not they can write a book - it also provides tips from the pros about how to write. It's old, at this point, but it's still a useful book to read, especially if you're just starting out.

6. The Writer's And Artist's Yearbook

AND/OR

Writer's Market

While you only technically need one or the other - the former being for the UK market, the latter for the US market - they're both incredibly handy to have at hand. Keep in mind they update annually. While older copies are good for finding listings, and for the advice articles inside, you need to be sure that (a) the agent or publisher is still in business and (b) that the contact details and editors listed are still current. If new copies are out of your budget (and the library doesn't have them in stock), a good Internet search should give you the answers you need.

7. Teach Yourself: *Insert preferred genre/form here* (e.g. Write a Play, Write a Novel, Write Children's Fiction, Write a Romance)

Some people wouldn't dare recommend Teach Yourself or For Dummies books, but I find them useful for getting down to the bare essentials of a writing style or genre. Pick one, and give it a read, but don't rely on it for everything. The most important thing is to find out how to do what you need to, or to uncover the tropes of your genre, and then to discover more about it all by writing. That's the best way to learn.

For marketing advice... go to Seth Godin.

For life-hack advice... go to Timothy Ferriss, Chris Guillebeau, and Niall Harbison.

For my books on writing... click here.