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May 15, 2011

Links of the Week: April 8th-14th, 2011

Before I chuck myself in the shower and get psyched up for the Halo: Reach party I'm throwing for some friends on Xbox Live in half an hour (don't worry, folks; I'll do some serious work in the garden this afternoon), I thought I'd direct your Internet consciousnesses toward some articles I found interesting useful and inspiring this week.

Blogging

A pair of 5-tip posts today:

5 Reasons Not To Make Money With Your Blog…Yet
A very grounding post on what you should do instead of letting the idea of "getting paid to blog" carry you away.

5 Success Tips for Every Beginning Blogger
While I'm technically not a beginner - I've been posting personal updates since 2001 and started "blogging" with my Movable Type-powered site on Herstik.com a couple of years later, I'm fairly new to the idea of dedicating my blog to a specific focus and working to monetise it. I especially like tip #5: Know who you’re writing for.

Freelancing

The Number One Thing Holding You Back From Freelance Writing Success
It's easy to get down on the routine and / or mundane aspects of your job, whether you run your own business or are an employee (two words: booking slips). This article reminds you to focus on the positive.

Writing

Putting the Character into Characterization
Larry at Storyfix is big on the craft of writing fiction, something I'm still learning as I go. Here he hits on "the magic pill of effective, compelling characterization".

Getting Good: How I’m Trying to Be a Better Writer
Scott H. Young is a recent find via Zen Habits (see below), a uni student who blogs about his efforts to maximise his potential. Here, he discusses how to practice deliberately, in the sense of, "with deliberation".

Pictorial Ideas for Constructing Your Own Writing Routine
I'm trying to get myself into a a writing routine right now (which is why I have the 1,000 words per day calendar at the top of my main page). Author K. M. Weiland details how she spends the first half an hour of her two-hour block of daily writing time to get her mind into a state conducive to writing. One of the stages involves chocolate.

Self-Publishing

Self-publishing champion J. A. Konrath invites the legend of self-pub and podcast novels, Scott Sigler, onto his blog to discuss self-publishing success and future opportunities.

First Royalty Cheque For Pentecost
Here's one for everyone needing a boost whilst on the writing success hamster wheel: Joanna Penn celebrates getting her first fiction royalty cheque from Amazon in the mail for her thriller novel, Pentecost!

Living

The Really Simple Way to Get Work Done
In a Zen Habits guest post Scott Young (yes, the one from above) offers an alternative to complex personal productivity systems like David Allen's Getting Things Done. I'm adopting it now.

The Case for Being Negative
A reminder that while positive thinking certainly has power, sometimes the most powerful word in your arsenal is "No."

Picking Yourself

On one of my podcast subscriptions, someone said recently, “Stop waiting for someone else to pick you. Pick yourself.” That dug up a memory from the late nineties, when Mum, Dad and I visited my second cousin Phil and his wife Michelle in Sydney's inner suburbs (started with an E, can't remember what it was now, they've moved a few times since anyway). I distinctly remember having a negative reaction to something Phil said about making yourself marketable.

If you'd asked me to try an explain it at the time I'd probably have put it in terms of making yourself a commodity being a bad thing, but looking back I know that the main reason I felt so strongly against the concept of marketing myself was simply because I didn't believe Robert Farquhar was or could be anything worth marketing.

Here in 2011, I've finally built up enough perspective and confidence to realise that Rob Farquhar does indeed have something to offer, something that I could build a business around.

Have Netbook, Will Travel

I've got two avenues I want to start investigating. The first, naturally, is the written word. While Slamdance, my novel, is simmering away, it won't be ready to put to market for around six months (and given that it's my first novel, it might well get shelved while I improve my craft on something else). In the meantime, I'd like to go freelance. It'll help pay the bills and avoid a problem I discovered when I decided I needed to restart the novel from scratch: not having other projects I could pick up and work on if I run out of steam on Slamdance for a while and need to let it go back on creative simmer for a bit.

For a while I thought I'd be starting any freelance effort cold; I have no formal writing qualifications or paid experience. Then I remembered that I have a portfolio of published work: my gaming and book reviews for The Cairns Post (a News Corporation paper, no less) plus my Starship Troopers RPG article for Mongoose Publishing's Signs & Portents Magazine. I just need to put them up somewhere that prospective clients can readily access them.

The Golden Tonsils

Then there's the other avenue. As you may know, I volunteered for a local radio station for a few years doing a weekly spot reading the news out of The Cairns Post. Although it ended a while ago, doing voice work, like reading of novels and short stories, has been of interest for a good while. People have been telling me I have a voice for radio for years, and most who know me know that I'm a repressed performer, so I reckon I have a decent shot at turning my talent into a source of revenue.

Heck, Tony C. Smith, host and editor of the Starship Sofa science fiction fan-magazine podcast (yes, it's a fan magazine in podcast form, containing short stories, articles on science and genre developments and interviews) has mentioned in the recent past that several of his team of volunteer story readers have gone on to make money as voice talent.

What's Next?

So far this posting is reading like a list of high ideals and not much action; a lotta “gunna”. The good news, gentle reader, is that I have some immediate, concrete steps I can take to kick this all off.

According to some freelance writers whose blogs I subscribe to, the main thing I need if I want to write freelance is a home page whose URL ideally has my name in it. My webmaster Marcus and I had a good long Skype chat Friday night and talked options. I've registered an ABN for myself and am maybe another chat with Marcus away from buying the domain name we picked out. The reason I want to talk with him first is because I'm looking at shifting this web log over from Movable Type to WordPress, which his hosting service directly supports, and part of the setup process involves getting the site's URL established. When I switch the new blog “on”, I want to make sure the URL I buy is pointing people straight to it.

Once that's done, then I set up a portfolio page under the blog so people can get samples of my work and start looking at what's available. I also get stuck back into making recordings for Project Gutenberg's voice recording community LibriVox (I think I can achieve a goal of one short story a week). I may even set a podcast feed up and make recordings available directly on my site, bookended with some updates from me.

Six Months to Save the World

All this work does have a time frame. I have six months to start bringing in a fairly regular stream of income. This deadline is a practical one. You know how I mentioned in the post that kicked all this off that most of our budget goes toward essentials? One of the non-essential costs I identified was my monthly web hosting fees. I even went as far as asking Marcus to pull Vickie's and my files at the end of the current billing period.

Marcus, awesome guy that he is, has offered me a six-month period of credit, after which I'll have to examine my options, be they cull other non-essentials (like Xbox Live) to cover the charges, shift over to a free blogging service somewhere or something else – I wouldn't expect anyone in business with me to let me have a charged service for nothing, much less a mate like Marcus.

Picking Myself

One of the biggest worries I have about the above endeavours is that I have no idea what I'm doing. As I mentioned above, I have no formal qualifications in the areas that I want to make money in and, at the moment, no spare cash to invest in training.

Yet that's been my situation for a good portion of my life, and do you know something? That bit about not waiting for others to pick me? When I look back at my life, I mean really look back at it, I realise that I've had a pretty darned good track record for people picking me. Though we've certainly had our issues, Mum and Dad did in many, many ways give me a great start in life – heck, the car I'm driving right now was their birthday present to me in 2004.

The school system picked me to get into North Sydney Boys High School (a major 'selective' public high school, for those outside New South Wales). EDS picked me for a good, well-paying job at the beginning of the decade. The Cairns Post picked me to administer their display advertising department in 2005 and that continues to be the longest full-time job I've ever held.

And most importantly, my wife Vickie decided that an uncertain yet earnest and endearing young man was worth getting to know better and then spending the rest of her life with.

With all these people having picked me, isn't it high time I realised that I'm worth taking a gamble on?

But Enough About Me, Gentle Readers: What About You?

What major, risky and / or uncertain endeavours have you undertaken?

How did they come out for you?

What have you learned about yourself from them?

May 09, 2011

Thor

I know I promised that I'd write my next post about going into business for myself, but Vickie and I saw MovieBob's review of Thor on Saturday and decided to go and see it for ourselves that evening. And before you raise your eyebrows, I had enough CineBuzz reward points to get a free ticket, so it wasn't a hole in the already-stretched finances. Besides, sometimes you need to have some fun, right?

And fun is definitely what Thor delivers. It's a straight-up special effects action film of good versus evil and never pretends to be otherwise. If you weren't sure what sort of film it is from the obligatory introductions, you know when you see Chris Hemsworth in full armour and silver-winged helm with a big grin on his face, encouraging throngs of Asgardians to greater exaltations as he approaches his father Odin's throne. Hemsworth's Thor is a cocky, yet endearingly cheeky young (although technically, I suppose he's hundreds of years old by now) warrior god all set to be taken down a peg or ten.

Of course, when the evil Frost Giants try to steal the ancient source of their power from Odin's weapons room, Thor gets the opportunity for a fight he's been itching for. In defiance of his father's orders, he takes the Rainbow Bridge to Jotunheim, the realm of the Frost Giants, seeking retribution. Instead, he ends the fragile truce between the Giants and his own people, the Gods of Asgard, and Odin - did I mention that Odin, King of Asgard, is played by no less than Anthony Hopkins? No? Well, he is, and he brings the awesome - strips Thor of his powers and weapons and casts him out of Asgard - to Earth.

Okay, have I lost any of you with all this business of Frost Giants and Rainbow Bridges? Seriously, do not let that put you off. I'm not going to touch on the Norse mythology which all this comes from, simply because I'm not schooled in it - but Thor basically takes all of the stuff that you wouldn’t think a bunch of burly pirates like the Vikings could believe in (The Rainbow Bridge, lads? Isn't that a bit pink ribbons, pigtails and ponies? Um, can you put the axes down? Please?) with a straight face and makes it awesome.

Damn it, I'm using the word “awesome” a lot. But that's the mood Thor puts you in; it's a big kid's action movie without any swearing or graphic violence to upset parents. It's well-produced, well-directed and acted by a bunch of folks who take it seriously enough to give their performances polish but not so seriously that you can't tell they're having fun.

Two people I have to mention. Tom Hiddlestone as Loki. He's pretty much set up to be the villain of the film, yet the script never let me figure out just what his angle was until the very end. That kind of ambiguity needs an actor with talent, and danmed if Hiddleston doesn't hold it right the way through. Awesome (sorry) work, sir.

Oh, and of course, there's the whole casting-a-black-guy-as-a-white-Norse-god business with Idris Elba as Heimdall, the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge. Well, I have a big issue with Idris Elba in Thor, and it's this: Why the hell is he only in five minutes of it? He nails brooding badass perfectly. Marvel, if you want to do a spin-off movie of one of your franchises, can I cast my vote for a Heimdall one, please? And if you wanted to be really bonkers, maybe make it a Heimdall / War Machine buddy flick? Just, y'know, 'cause?

One final point of note. We didn't see a 3D screening, but frankly, we didn't feel as though we'd missed anything. Except the bit at the end of the credits. Vickie wanted to get going, so I missed the Big Reveal. And NO, I don't want to know; I'll wait until it comes out on DVD, thank you!

Anyway, go and see Thor on the big screen. It's light entertainment, sure, but top-notch light entertainment. Take the kids. Well, the boys. Okay, maybe the girls, too. Just tell them, shirtless Chris Hemsworth. Shirtless, buff Chris Hemsworth. That'll do it.

But Enough About Me, Gentle Readers: What About You?

Have you seen Thor? What's your opinion?

What's your go-to action movie when you just want to have a good time?

May 07, 2011

Accepting the Situation and Dealing With It: Finances

In my last post, I mentioned a pair of simmering issues that came to the boil last week. The first was the trouble I'd been having whilst writing my first draft of Slamdance. The second is finances.

We've been doing pretty good over the past few years; we've got a great house which we've recently re-clad thanks to moving our loan to a new bank and while we're not keeping up with the Joneses, we're certainly not lacking in the mod cons department.

Still, one of the various “gunnas” in my life – you know, those things you always say you're gunna get 'round to some time – is getting to understand and control our finances. Vickie decided a while back that as she'd been handling finances for most of her life she wanted to hand it all off now that she's retired, a sentiment I can certainly understand.

As a result, my recent feed-subscription binge has included a few personal finance blogs, like Get Rich Slowly and Man Vs. Debt. A recent post on how to plan a budget got my attention; I've got a spreadsheet tracking our expenses, but I've never attempted to formulate an actual budget. According to the post, the basic principles of budgeting are fairly easy to grasp; all you're doing is figuring out where your incoming funds need and / or ought to be directed.

The posting pointed me toward finance writer Liz Weston's basic principle for budgeting; the 50/30/20 rule. It works like this: Fifty percent of your income should go to any expense you either must meet to keep going every day or are contractually committed to meeting, like utilities, mortgage repayments, basic groceries and even new socks and undies.

Thirty percent goes to your wants, any expenses that, if push came to shove, you could eliminate from your expenses and still do okay. Wants can range from traditional “disposable income” luxuries (dinners out, movie tickets or fancy clothes) to semi-utilities like Internet access.

The final twenty percent goes into your savings, from paying your credit card/s off to voluntary super payments to “rainy-day” bank accounts, essentially making sure you're still solvent in the short and long term.

Early this week, I took my tracking spreadsheet and recategorised every expense on it into those three categories. The results shouldn't have been surprising, but as I put it together, I was still shocked – and petrified. Without going into specifics, our budget ratio looks more like 86/7/7 than 50/30/20.

(Snarky aside: You gamers out there who were puzzled when I didn't rush out and buy Big Title X at launch like you? I hope you consider your question answered.)

Now, let me state that we're not in this situation for want of trying. Vickie does a phenomenal job of making our grocery dollar stretch every week and her priority is always that we eat healthy. In fact, when I broke our listed expenses down, I figured there were a few things I could do to tighten my belt. One such is bowing out of indoor soccer, which saves me ten dollars a week plus one return trip into Cairns in petrol. (Before anyone asks, this shouldn't affect my overall health; I've recently started parking a mile from work again, so I get at least ten miles' walking exercise per week. Also, we've inherited a cross-trainer from one of my step-daughters, and ten minutes on that is one hell of a workout.)

Still, the unavoidable fact is that our finances are not in good shape. We're relying on credit to get us by at the moment, and while I expect that this year's tax return will help alleviate (if not eliminate) that, there are rises in council rates (we received our valuation notice in the post yesterday and it's gone up around five grand), electricity and even interest rates in the wind.

Let me be honest here, folks. As I wrote above, our situation is no surprise; we've been in it for the past few years. The problem is that whenever I've considered the situation in the past I've gone into one of two mental states: the “we're doing okay, we're in my comfort zone, there's no need to do anything now” state – which results in me not doing anything – or the state of utter panic, which folks can usually tell I'm in when I start proclaiming that I'm going to sell my Xbox 360. (Vickie has told me that she will be extremely upset with me if I ever do that; she sees it as one of the few “Me” things I have around nowadays.)

Now, though, I'm trying to get myself into another mindset: A mindset involving my accepting the facts that we do have some money problems and that we don't have much more belt to tighten, and my seriously, wilfully working to improve the other side of the equation: Our regular income.

Now this is a tricky, sensitive subject, mainly as the first way of increasing income that leaps to mind for any is “change jobs” and I'm fairly certain that some of my readers are work colleagues. Let me draw a line through that option straight off the bat. I've got security, something I definitely value in this age of global financial uncertainty. (See how I avoided writing “tough economic times”, there? Clever, eh? - Oh crap.) It's also a great company to work for if you're keen on writing (my book review gig pays in books). Finally, my colleagues are a great bunch, even with the regular turnover since I started. They give me a lot of emotional stability; I'm much better than the mess I was half the time when working in Sydney. My job has a lot going for it.

How abut a second job? There is a Caltex across the road from us and I could ask about putting in some shifts; that'd bring in some extra cash. That has some problems, though. For starters, I'd have to be an employee, which means more tax for working two jobs. Declaring the income as one must also means that Vickie's pension is likely to decrease. While it's an option, a second employment isn't really effective for the time I'd have to put into it.

Odd jobs? I could put some notices up around town; I'm still a young, fit fella who could do some odd jobs for the significant aging population who live within walking distance. Then again, I'm not sure Vickie would appreciate me popping around to any single fillies' places for an hour or two! More to the point, it's also an immediate patch instead of a long-term solution.

So what other options are available?

Well, now that I'm finally learning to listen to my instincts, I hope you'll forgive a minor indulgence as I paraphrase the great and esteemed Dr. Peter Venkman: Call it fate, call it luck, Karma, whatever. I think I've been destined to get this little financial wake up call.

For what purpose, you ask?

To go into business for myself.

More on that next post...

But Enough About Me, Gentle Readers: What About You?

Have you ever found yourself denying that you're in a tough situation? How did you go about evaluating your options for getting yourself out of it?

May 05, 2011

When Does Accepting The Suck Not Cut It?

You know, it's amazing how long I can sit in my little bubble and pretend things are going just fine. It's also amazing what a good job I can do of panicking when the bubble threatens to burst. Now, though, I think it's time I went ahead and burst it myself.

Two simmering issues came to a head this week, and the first was writing related. More specifically, the first was Slamdance related. In hindsight, the fact that it took me three weeks to meet my writing goal should have been an indicator. I've found a neat writing pattern for myself. I can crank out five hundred words in around twenty minutes if I use Write or Die; three twenty-minute sessions per day gives me at least one thousand, five hundred words. As long as I make sure to slip those writing breaks into my routine, I can continue to be productive in writing whilst making sure that I do other things and let my writing brain cool down and percolate.

After hitting seven thousand words on Saturday evening, though, I didn't sit down for one twenty-minute chunk until this morning. I was pretty busy with some exhausting physical work all weekend - Vickie and I did a heap of work in the garden during both long weekends, so much so that we had to borrow my stepson's ute on Monday to make two green runs to the local tip - and we had family over. Still, though, I didn't even try to sneak some writing time in there.

This morning, I opened Write or Die, my word count tracking spreadsheet (complete with graph) and Scrivener, found where I'd last finished writing, put my fingers on the keyboard, set my WoD session targets, hit "Write!"...

... and didn't.

Don't get me wrong. It wasn't that I couldn't think of anything to write; I couldn't think of anything that I wanted to write. I didn't like the scene, I didn't know where it was going, and I didn't like the rough idea I had in mind for What Happened Afterward.

I could have pressed on; I have written almost thirty-seven thousand words in this draft, after all. But something a bit deeper than panic or desperation or even the knowledge that it's okay to suck resisted the idea.

When I was writing The Second War of the Worlds, I'd have days where I didn't write anything. But they weren't many, and when I did put fingers to keys again, it wouldn't take me long to overcome the natural inertia when starting hard work, find a groove and be satisfied with my answers to the basic question of the first draft: What Happens Next? It was good exercise: strenuous yet fun at the same time.

Not so with Slamdance. My instincts kept telling me that what I'd written wasn't working. I don't like where my answers have been taking me and I'm sick of trying to milk my brain for more.

I decided to try something a little different. I've read about the creative exercise of interviewing characters before, but it took following the first draft blog of Ruth Ann Nordin, a self-published author whom Joanna Penn interviewed not long ago, for the penny to drop. I created a blank document in OpenOffice Writer and acted like Mike Ryan (a.k.a. Slamdance) had asked me to swing by for a chat. I only stopped at 257 words was because I had to leave for work.

What Mike told me (yes, I know, technically I'm talking to myself, but it's a fun mental exercise and it worked) was that I was trying to layer too much on top of what was a pretty good base; a cyborg superhero who lives with the operator of a struggling junkyard. Essentially, while dragging my five "darling" characters (Slamdance, Rev, Kaylee, the industrial golem, the shadowy warrior) into the plot for the first three draft chapters was fun, continuing on from that point was biting off more than I could chew.

Regardless, I think I'm not starting another draft without having a sit-down chat with each of my intended main characters in order to work out where they are and what they want come the start of the book. I also think I'm going to concentrate on Slamdance and Rev for the first few chapters.

I've also decided on a new writing rule: Trust my instincts. This rule rates above "Don't be afraid to suck." Case in point: My instincts are to jettison the entirety of the thirty-seven thousand words I've written thus far and start again with a new chapter one. I may even take another shot at working an outline up.

What was the other simmering issue? More on that in another post, which, given that it's quarter past ten tonight and I'm working tomorrow, I'll get stuck into later. I'll post Sunday at the latest.

But Enough About Me, Gentle Readers: What About You?

How did you develop your instincts that relate to your craft? Was there a particular moment when they warned you against or directed you toward a particular course?

May 01, 2011

Branding: Finding The Author's Angle

At the moment, a couple of projects of mine are merging. I've been meaning to update my web log's back end for ages. It's at least two version points behind the latest version of Movable Type and the last CSS implementation I applied has some problems, like a crisp-yet-uninspiring colour scheme and fonts everywhere but the articles that are too small to read.

At the same time, I've been thinking about how to present myself as an author online. Although I'm yet to complete the first draft of my first book, I'm taking to heart advice from the writers whose blogs I've been reading online that it's never too early to start thinking about just how I want to present myself. I want to start changing the core of my web presence from “online diary of some guy” to “centralised web presence of a talented author working on an awesome story”. I want to start getting people keen on what I'm doing, building an audience ready to buy my book when it hits the market – and then move on to the sequels.

Since I answered Joanna Penn's author brand questions last week, I've been mulling over the eventual form of my web log, which resulted with a light bulb a few days ago.

I'm something of a geek; that goes without saying. I love science fiction, especially big, flashy, in-your-face SF that knows how to have fun. Doctor Who, Tron, Spider Robinson, Halo, Mass Effect, Anne McCaffrey, The Terminator, Predator, Aliens, Scott Sigler, Star Wars, David Gerrold, Macross, Bubblegum Crisis, Battlestar Galactica, Robert A. Heinlien, Ghost In The Shell, Roughnecks, Heavy Gear and, of course, TransFormers. I love the lot. That love is getting distilled into Slamdance, and although I don't think it'll be as big or flashy as some of the influences I've listed above, I still want it to be big and fun with lots of action and cool toys.

Now, one thing I really like about the presentation of a lot of modern SF works are presented, especially in the media of movies and games, is the amount of extra material you can get. Buy a movie or season of a TV series on DVD (or Blu-Ray) and you can expect to get deleted scenes, audio commentaries, making-of documentaries. Get a collector's edition of a game and you can probably expect all of the above, plus a concept art book and maybe even a neat statuette.

The Lord of the Rings DVDs were the apotheosis of this, with making-ofs that covered virtually every aspect of production and filming, even to the very silly, incredibly clever things Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan got up to to keep themselves amused during shooting.

I love watching these. I don't see myself being involved in the making of a movie, TV series or game any time soon, but discovering just how everyone involved in the production of the work I purchased created all the impossibilities on the screen is an entertainment in and of itself.

That's what I want my online presence to be. I want to talk about what I find fun, both in terms of SF in general and what I'm doing, and open the curtain on how I'm making my own version of the fun I've been imbibing since my parents made the fatal mistake of taking me to see Tron those many years ago. Or was it sitting me down in front of the telly for my first ever episode of Doctor Who?

For a while, I had the idea of styling my web presence as a “production company” as a way of hedging my bets in case I write stories in another genre, but I think for the time being I'll stick with just being me, the author, telling you about what I think is cool so that you know whether what I'm making will be to your taste.

Next week: What do I do about that name of mine?

But Enough About Me, Gentle Readers: What About You?

What kinds of entertainment do you seek out? Are you curious about how they're produced? If so, how do you like to find out?