Sunday, January 27, 2013

Risky Business

I Googled "risk quotes" and got back 159 million results in 0.29 seconds. Given my renewed focus on the written word (especially with respect to this blog) it seemed appropriate to get this post going with a quote about risk from a great writer.
"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."
~ T.S. Eliot
One thing I have discovered about being a writer is that every time you hit "publish" on that blog post, or submit work to a journal, your editor, or your friend, or even share a paragraph with a writer's group; you're putting a part of yourself on display and opening it up to critique. Not many people are comfortable taking that kind of risk and for a long time I was certainly one of them. I thought my skills were deficient, my vocabulary limited, and my thoughts uninteresting. The rewards did not seem to outweigh the cost so I just didn't write, but at some point something in me changed.
"The policy of being too cautious is the greatest risk of all."
~ Jawaharlal Nehru
I can't point to the exact moment, but I think a big part of it was when I decided to start singing. As some of you may know, I took singing lessons and surprised my wife with a performance for our anniversary. It was mindbogglingly terrifying, but I did it, and in the year that followed that initial performance I made more than half a dozen other appearances on stage at various open mic nights and other events in the city. I even sang at a charity event for the mayor where, for the first time, my kids were there to watch.
"Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit."
~ E. E. Cummings
So what is it about humans that see us go to such great lengths just to avoid risk? Certainly there are moments in human history where taking risks meant a greater chance of getting eaten by some large animal with claws and big teeth. So how come our species can come so far yet still struggle with the act of taking even one non life-threatening risk?

I'm not saying that it should be all risk all the time, but I find it extremely disheartening when I don't even see a modicum of effort put into doing something differently or for the first time. If we listen to Yoda ("Do... or do not. There is no try.") then we are left with only two things: success and failure, and the thought of the latter is what kept me on the sidelines for quite a long time, and what continues to keep others in the role of passive observer. Personally, I think it's a real shame.
"People who don't take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year."
~ Peter F. Drucker
Maybe it's because I've experienced failure and lived to write about it. Maybe it's because I worked as a people manager for a decade and saw how amazing it was when someone did something outside their comfort zone. Maybe it's because after years of sitting on the fence I finally submitted something for publication. Or maybe it's because I have children and I want them to experience everything life has to offer. No matter how you look at it, the only way to get stuff done is to actually do it.
"Life is not tried it is merely survived / If you're standing outside the fire."
~ Garth Brooks
So go out and write that novel, paint that picture, write that song, perform that experiment, open that dusty textbook, apply for that job, or call that person you met at the gym. Do more than merely survive.  I promise you will not get eaten by a large animal with claws and big teeth.

~ Andrew

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Plotter vs. Pantser


Most of my life is organized. There's a calendar on the fridge. Everyone has a colour and there's even a legend, because I'm also remarkably forgetful and can't often remember which colour is for whom. I have a writing schedule that I keep. Well, I keep a schedule, but I don't keep to the schedule - I'm also remarkably lazy. At my day job I'm a project manager, every moment filled with schedules, spreadsheets, and deliverables.  My job is infinitely easier when it's organized. Come to think of it, so is my life.  With writing I have found that there are two main camps - with the natural combinations, variations, and hybrids that tend to evolve from these sorts of things: 


  • Plotters; and
  • Pantsers.

Plotters plot. They map out ideas and organize them well ahead of putting words on a page. Pantsers are the opposite, opting to start with an idea that's often barely an idea, and then they wing it, or as the name suggests, they "fly by the seat of their pants".


So, when it comes to writing, what method do you think I would gravitate towards? In more ways than you can guess I'm a lot like a teenage boy. He meticulously takes care of his car; keeping it running smoothly, clean as a whistle on the inside (you could eat off the floor mats if you were allowed food in the car), and expertly polished on the outside. The bedroom, however, is a complete and total disaster. 

That's right; when it comes to writing I'm a 99.9% pantser, which is a bit ironic considering my extreme dislike of wearing pants. I say 99.9% because before I sit down to write anything, I have some idea of what I'm going to do. It's not often more than a vague idea of what the topic or scene is about, but it's something so I can't truly say that I'm a perfect pantser. Close, but not perfect. 

I know many writers that are plotters (a.k.a. planners). I even know one that has taken it to a very impressive level. My friend Wren Emerson plans her writing like she's drawing up schematics for a nuclear submarine. It's impressive and it works for her. She wrote a nice blog post about her process if you're interested. I bookmarked it in the unlikely event that I decide to map something out before I sit down to write. That was more than a year ago and I've clicked on the link once. 

I'm undecided as to which method is "better". I think most people will tell you that it's a personal choice and you have to go with what you're most comfortable. That being said, there will always be people who will tell you to do it their way. These also happen to be the same people who will tell you what type of underwear to put on in the morning. We have a name for folks like this: assholes. Just ignore them and move on. How you get from the spark of an idea to the finished product is as unique to an individual as their choice of clothing.

So what are you? Do you wear pants, and fly by the seat of them, or do you plan out each choice article by article? Either way, I'd recommend underwear of some kind. It helps reduce chafing. 

For the record, I will also put one other age-old question to rest: 

Boxers. 

~Andrew 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

An Open Letter to Writers


Dear Writers,

At this early stage in my writing career I thought it would be a good idea offer some of my insights into this fabulous craft that we are all so passionate about. You'll find that throughout this letter I have a fondness for certain phrases, have a certain style, and am wonderfully all over the place in the area of grammar and punctuation (my blog posts do not have the benefit of an amazing editor, or an editor of any kind, so you get what you get).

At this point I am convinced there are at least four things that every writer possesses:

  1. A desire to be a writer; 
  2. at least one idea; 
  3. a great support network; and
  4. something with which to write.


Naturally, to actually become a writer there are dozens upon dozens of other qualities, qualifications, and quirks you must possess, but in my opinion if you don't have those four you're not setting yourself up for success. Far be it for me, an unpaid, unpublished, part-time scribe to impart any advice; but I think those items are absolutely key - especially the third one. Contrary to the idea that writing is a solitary pursuit, I am finding that it actually requires quite a bit of input, feedback, and support from the many sources around me.

I am also in the extremely fortunate situation of having had a job working for someone else (and have since graduating from university), but for a lot of people writing is their job. It's a very real one, and at the rate my daughter is reading books it's a darned good thing they do it.

I have all the items from the list above and actually have something to show for it (writing wise) but I would only consider myself to be a part time writer. Due to my full time employment, my wife and kids, and all the activities that go along with them and the rest of the family and my friends, and all the costs and bills that come along as a result, I'm at the point that I need steady income in order to maintain the lifestyle I have chosen. I could cut back in a lot of areas and have some more time and money on hand but I suspect I'd be less fulfilled in many ways (hint: success and fulfillment have nothing to do with money).

There are times though, when I just feel compelled to create and this is where my support network really shines. I meet my commitments to my job and my family and in return they shower me with everything I need to bring my ideas to life. My job offers a work-life balance like none other. My wife will let me spitball ideas, or she will give me tips, or just sit and listen to me ramble, or she'll just leave me the hell alone. Heck, she said she'd go to the gym on her own after the kids go to bed so I can have an hour a night to just sit and write. Speaking of kids, mine are the greatest source of inspiration a person could ask for. They breathe life into my words even on topics they can't comprehend. My family is extremely supportive as well - especially my in-laws - and so are all my friends. I look forward to the day when some of them are beta readers for my novel (plus, I owe Neil Hedley a signature on his copy of my book at some point).


Unfortunately, I know some of you are actively discouraged from writing. Some of you are either published authors or aspiring to be, who have people in your life that would rather have you do something else. Anything else, in some cases. Your comments on this vary, but there seems to be an underlying theme: "When are you going to get a real job?"

Another common theme seems to be that many of these not-so-supportive comments come from the mouths of your family members: mothers, fathers, spouses, siblings, and the people closest to you. Now, I don't know about any of your personal situations or have any of the history behind your interactions so I've only been exposed to one side of the story. If I have learned anything from my thirty[mumble] years on Earth, it's that one side of a story is not enough to know the whole story. What I do know is that you are passionate about what you are doing, you are good at it, and you are remarkably supportive of others who choose to go down this path.


So I will close with this:

If you have the desire, the idea, and the something with which to write; and support is the only thing missing, then you have to do whatever you can do to find it. I'm not saying sell all your things, leave your spouse and kids, stop calling your mother, and move into a writer's commune, but I do think you owe it to yourself to find that support and try to work it into your life.

I can promise you that I'll do what I can to support you in a similar way that the people close to me are doing. I value the work that you do, and am grateful to have developed friendships with so many of you who do it.

~Andrew

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hockey's Back. Who Cares?

After the last NHL season lost due to a lockout of the players by the league, I, like just about every other crazy hockey fan, was so happy just to have it back that I scooped up tickets like nobody's business. Hell, all of the fans rewarded the league and its players with record crowds (and revenues) for the next several years. This past June, when hockey ended and the Stanley Cup was hoisted, and everyone in the world knew the collective bargaining agreement was coming to an end, what do you think the NHL and NHLPA did about it?

Nothing.

Both the league and its players just sat on their butts like a 4th line goon benched for picking one too many fights. In fact, it was well into the fall before any negotiations worth mentioning took place. Hell, half the season, the All Star Game, and the Winter Classic had to be cancelled before any real talking happened at all - and even then only the threat of billions of dollars in anti-trust lawsuits and the cancellation of an entire season got a deal done. In January. Almost 7 months AFTER both sides should have done something about it.

I know that hockey is big business and there are several hundred elite athletes and 30 ownership groups that invest a lot of time, energy, and money into the fastest team sport on ice. I get it. It's not simple, and when that many people are involved and that much is at stake, you can't just snap your fingers and make something happen. I don't expect that and neither did any other hockey fan. What we did expect is that both sides would to SOMETHING. Instead, both sides did nothing for a painstaking long time, and after that all we got was posturing and mud slinging.

So how will we the fans reward the NHL and NHLPA for their antics? Probably with sellout crowds for the shortened season and record sales in merchandise. That seems to be how these things go. Now the "experts" are saying that this time around things will be different but I'm not so sure. I for one don't plan on giving the NHL or NHLPA a dime for many years if I can help it and I have a few friends who are of the same opinion. But the problem is that for every one of us there is another ten people with more money than brains and another hundred corporations with deep pockets scooping up the tickets and filling the rinks simply because they can. So, the corporate machine that is professional hockey in North America will continue to spin, albeit with a little less enthusiasm than a year ago. All it will take is an exciting Cup Final and an active off season with respect to trades and momentum will build back up - you just watch.

Mark my words. Bookmark this post and revisit it 18 months from now.

I predict that the NHL will be back into record revenues and crowds before the end of the 2013-2014 season. A few of us will have no part of it, but it's of little consolation. At least I'll have a few more dollars in my pocket at the end of the year.

A wise person once said, "As soon as money leaves your hand it stops being yours" and that's a great quote. The best thing I can think of to do is find a few more ways to ensure that it stays in my hand a bit longer.

~Andrew

P.S.
After the last lockout I was so frustrated with the Toronto Maple Leafs that I declared myself a "free agent fan" and the Ottawa Senators won that free agent battle and along with it my fan support for as long as I gave it to the Leafs - 31 years. Well, unfortunately once the CBA expired and we lost games in the season that "contract" is now null and void. I'm a "free agent fan" once again, only this time I'm not looking for a team... I'm looking for an entire league.

P.P.S.
The early leader is the Ontario Hockey League. There are several teams within an hour's drive of my house and you can get two tickets for $35 plus free parking. It's great to take the kids, and we get to see some pretty damn good hockey (the Kitchener Rangers goalie just won a gold medal for the USA in the most recent World Junior Championships).

P.P.P.S
If you want to see the original "free agent fan" story and letter I wrote to all 30 NHL teams you can click the links below to expand the sections (please ignore the fact that my writing back then was terrible).


Original Free Agent Fan Story

The Original Letter

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Out With The Old...

I don't like New Year's resolutions. Never have. However, I do think that as civilized people living in a free and democratic society we can collectively do a better job, and this becomes much easier to do if each individual does a little something different in an effort to improve. As such, last January I outlined a few goals for 2012 that went a little something like this:

Leverage some key P's:

  • Patience 
  • Persistence 
  • Practicality 
  • Positivity 

So how'd I do? Well, I was pretty good at persisting, being practical, and staying positive but patience was a bit of a challenge. To be honest, it always has been so I didn't expect to knock that one out of the park. For 2013 I plan on leveraging all of those things by doing all of these things:

  • Set goals outside my comfort zone
  • Think ahead more than one step
  • Think more about others
  • Breathe

If being off work for more than two months with a concussion taught me anything in 2011 it was that things do not happen overnight and there will always be setbacks. With that in mind, at the start of 2012 I vowed to do the following:

Work within my limits but always know that it's in me to do more. 

So how'd I do? Well, I managed to get on stage and sing in front of more than 10 people - twice - and I got a new job and did many more things around the house and with my family than I every thought possible, and you know what? I can do more. So this year I plan on focusing my attention in a slightly different way in an effort to get more out the next 12 months (I will explain this in a minute).

Lastly, I committed to three things that supersede everything else:

Be a better father to my kids;
a better husband to my wife;
and a better friend to all the people in my life.

I think I succeeded on all of these fronts, but as the previous section indicates, I am capable of doing more. So, I will do more:

  • When one of my kids is nearby I will put my laptop or phone aside, and even if they are not desiring my attention, I will give it to them
  • When asked to do something by my wife, I will do it right then or I will set a reminder in my phone if it needs to be done later
  • I will get out and see my friends. This means one event every now and then as well as coffee or tea with individuals at lunch or whenever our schedules align. This also includes golf :)
  • I will buy some local art
  • I will read more books written by people I know and I will give them honest and constructive feedback. I would be forever grateful if they would do the same for me

As for the specific goals for last year, I failed to accomplish all but one (the Twitter goal). A couple of them could be considered successes with an asterisk but that's not the point. The point is to be working towards something and to come closer to figuring out what I want to be when I grow up (without actually having to grow up).

When talking about my web presence with a friend last year he said I needed to focus on one thing; that between my blog... and writing... and photography... and music, that I was spread too thin. He was right. That's why I've decided to focus 2013 on writing. Winning NaNoWriMo, getting a short story published, and seeing so many friends have so much success with their writing is more than enough to light a fire under my ass. Personal, professional, and family goals aside, any goal with a number on it this year has to do with writing. In case you care, here they are:

  • Finish Novel #1 + edit
  • Write Novel #2 + partially edit
  • Win NaNoWriMo (again)
  • Write 2 screenplays (based on the novels)
  • Write 3 short stories + edit
  • Write 1 blog post every week

After I succeed I will have written roughly 300,000 words, and at least a few times I will have the pleasure of writing "The End".

So, here's to a great beginning! All the best to you and your loved ones in 2013.

~Andrew