Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Six Steps to Setting Amazing Goals...and Keeping Them

Kicking ass in 2015? Don't got this.

Ah, December.

The end of another year.

When we're not consumed by the constant busyness that comes with the holidays, we're thinking about our goals for the New Year. What do we want to accomplish in 2015? How can we make the year count?

How can we actually keep those pesky goals and resolutions?

I recently enrolled in a free mini-course offered by my former life coach, Ashley Wilhite of Your Super Awesome Life. She has some interesting strategies for setting goals and holding yourself accountable.

1) Do a Brain Dump. This sounds kind of gross, but basically, you get out a piece of paper and write down absolutely anything and everything you'd like to accomplish in 2015. This is where you dream big! The sky is the limit. Don't worry if some of things you write down are impossible or far-fetched. Try not to censor yourself.

2) Pick Your Top Ten. Once you've exhausted every possible idea for the New Year, take a hard look at your list. If you could only pick ten things, what would they be? Write those ten things down in a list. I ranked mine in order of importance, but you don't have to. My Top Ten list includes writing three more novels, marketing myself more aggressively, and taking the green prajioud test at my muay thai dojo. No woman at my gym has ever taken this test, and only two men have. It's something I've wanted to accomplish for a long time.

3) Develop Action Steps. Now that you have your ten goals for 2015, what do you need to do to achieve them? Write down all of your action steps. For instance, to pass the green prajioud, I need to stick to an ambitious training schedule, get more sleep, follow a healthy diet, and make time for therapeutic massages on a regular basis.

4) Schedule Your Action Steps. Ashley insists this process is the key to keeping your goals, and it's one I haven't stuck with consistently before. Get a calendar or day planner with plenty of room. Mark down all of the dates you already know are taken--birthday celebrations, vacations, etc. With what's left, schedule your action steps into the calendar. If you want to write a novel, decide now what days you'll write and for how long. Pencil it in, or use pen if you're bold. Ashley suggests scheduling six months at a time.

5) Evaluate Your Success. Pick a day--it could be the last day of each month, the end of every week, whatever you want--as long as it's consistent. Spend an hour or two evaluating your progress. How are you doing? What's working and what isn't? I already know my goals are super ambitious, so this evaluation process will help me prioritize when something has to get crossed off the list, and I'll be able to flag any tendency to self-sabotage before it becomes a huge problem. This is something I've never tried before, and I'm excited to see how it will work. Corporations hold quarterly check-in meetings...why can't you?

6) Celebrate! When you make awesome progress or hit a milestone, reward yourself! Don't just go on to the next thing. Take the time to celebrate. I still haven't come up with my incentives yet. I don't want to spend a bunch of money or reward myself with food, because those things don't align with my "save money" and "treat myself better" goals. I'm going to have to get creative!

What would you like to accomplish in 2015? I'd love to hear about your goals.

Any idea how I could reward myself without using money or food?

If you'd like more help hitting your goals and accomplishing amazing things, consider signing up for Ashley's four-month DreamQuest program. There are still a few spaces available!

P.S. If you liked this post, you'll also enjoy Secrets of Success Part I and 2.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Five Secrets

Happy holidays, Dear Readers!

The lovely Samantha Dunway Bryant asked me to share five secrets about myself in a blog post. Some of these will be more secret than others, but here goes....

1) In honour of the holiday season, let's start here. I hate Christmas parties. I'm talking about those boring, awkward affairs where you're expected to play silly games with co-workers you haven't talked to all year. Or make small talk, trying to avoid the subject of work, even though that's the only thing you have in common. One of the best things about working for myself is I'm not obligated to go to a dreadful holiday party any more. Bah humbug! (There have been some I've enjoyed, but they were few and far between.)

2) I used to be a dog person. True story. I talk about my three cats on this blog, but my first pet was a Shetland Sheepdog named Casey. I thought cats were cute, but I didn't have much use for them. We had an outdoor cat when I was growing up, and the only time I saw him was when he was hungry. The first guy I lived with loved cats, so I adopted a kitten to surprise him. And then I adopted another one...I was not prepared for the intense bond that would develop between me and my first cat, Dusty. I still love dogs, but cats are much more my speed. I can't imagine not having a cat in my life now.

3) I don't have cable or a cell phone. By choice. When I was a kid, the television was always on, and you weren't allowed to say a word that would outshine the Almighty TV. Even commercials were worthy of rapt attention in my house. So I pretty much hate TV. I'll watch the odd season of this or that on DVD or Netflix (the original 90210 and American Horror Story are my favourites) but I mostly avoid it because I don't want to get sucked in. I have too much I want to accomplish!

As for cell phones, smart or otherwise, I just hate how they've taken over our lives. I don't think they've improved communication at all, and although they're handy in emergencies, I would rather talk to the person I'm with than look things up on Google. When I'm away from the computer, I want a break from social media. (This won't be a secret to my friends, so to them I'll say--sometimes I consider getting a smart phone. Gasp! It would be handy when I travel.)

4) I wanted to be a forensic psychologist. I always wanted to be a novelist, don't get me wrong, but I thought forensic psychology would be a great day job. I've always been fascinated by the dark side of human nature, and I'm driven to understand what makes people tick. This interest definitely informs my books. Unfortunately, I was young and easily influenced, and I let an English teacher/mentor talk me out of pursuing psychology as a career. He thought it would be too hard on me. I ended up being a journalist instead. (Yep, never see anything disturbing or upsetting in that career.)

5) If I could have any talent in the world, I'd be a musician. I love music, and people who can play an instrument impress the hell out of me. When I go to the symphony, I never take my eyes off the musicians. I'd love to be able to play the piano, guitar, violin, or the drums. I had serious plans to take guitar lessons in 2015, but have no idea where I'd fit it in.

Hope you found this interesting! Tomorrow I'm going to be talking about how to set goals for 2015...and actually keep them.

I tag Stephanie Faris and Steven Symes to share their five secrets. I'm sure they both have some interesting skeletons in their closets.

What's your secret? Please share in the comments. How do you feel about the office Christmas party? Does everyone love it but me?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Five Things Cats Can Teach Us About Success

Those are some successful kitties! Just look at the
size of that castle.

I've lived with three cats for a while now.

You might say I'm a crazy cat lady in training, and I'm fine with that. If I wasn't limited by budget, time, and space, I'd probably have a few bunnies, a huge aquarium, a parrot, and a hedgehog rolling around too.

From my vantage point of working and living with cats, I've noticed there's a lot we can learn from these intelligent, affectionate-yet-choosy creatures. Here are five things your cat wishes you knew about success:

1) Always be curious. They say curiosity kills the cat, and I'm sure that's been true a few times, but
more often than not, it helps them succeed. Cats find all manner of things because they're curious: a tasty snack that's not meant for them, a new toy (that also wasn't meant for them), a cozy place to sleep that has more sunlight, the best lookout spot in the house. While I don't recommend taking things that aren't yours, there's something to be said for being curious. So take a lesson from your cat and try something new.

"Don't play with the stove, Fluffy." Hah!
Showed them.
2) Ignore criticism that doesn't work for you. Have you ever tried to tell a cat it can't do something? Exactly. Follow the same principle when someone says you'll never find a better job.

3) Choose your allies wisely. Cats get a bad rap because they don't love everyone, like dogs do. But that doesn't mean they're cold--it means they're selective. And you should be selective when it comes to who you spend your time with. Life is short. Spend it with the people you love the best.

4) Embrace work-life balance with both paws  hands. Ask any cat, and they will tell you life's not just about work. After a busy few minutes of hunting, guarding the house or playing, your cat will happily break for a snack or some cuddles. Which is as it should be. When was the last time you saw a stressed-out cat?

5) Get enough sleep. Some cats sleep for twenty hours a day! You just need seven. Doesn't sound so impossible now, does it?

What's the best advice about success you've ever received? What does your pet wish you knew?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why Zoe Sugg's Success is Good News for Writers

Have you heard of Zoe Sugg?

This British fashion, beauty, and lifestyle vlogger has earned quite the impressive following. At only 24 years old, she has 2.62 million followers on Twitter and over 6.5 million subscribers on YouTube.

In spite of this success, a lot of writers didn't know who she was until she released her first book.

Girl Online sold more than 78,000 copies in its first week, breaking records for British book sales and  sailing past the previous records set by J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown and E.L. James.

Predictably, the claws have started to come out.

Writers everywhere are smacking their heads against their desks, bemoaning the state of a world that would make this young woman an international bestseller.

We heard much the same when E.L. James, author of the 50 Shades of Grey series, or Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, sold thousands of books.

When someone like heiress Paris Hilton pens a novel and it hits the bestseller list, the cries of protest are heard in writing groups and forums around the world. "But what about the good books who can't find their audience? What about the quiet literary novelists who can't find an agent or publisher?"

There's this perception, you see, that to succeed as a novelist, you have to be an extraordinarily talented writer.

But that's not true.

That's what you need (sometimes) to win high-brow awards in literature.

To achieve success at the level of E.L. James, Meyer, or Sugg, you need to write something a lot of people want to read. And that is an art all its own.

As writers, we're always hearing that books are dying. Brick and mortar bookstores are closing, Amazon is taking over the world, and people have shorter attention spans...blah blah blah.

Sugg's success proves that people will still read books. And if Girl Online gets more people to read--especially young people--that's a good thing for every writer.

Maybe they'll read other books. Maybe Penguin will be able to take a chance on more authors because of its success with Sugg. Maybe Sugg will blurb other writers, or refer them to her agent.

Anything that gets people reading is a good thing.

Maybe Girl Online isn't an upcoming National Book Award-winner, but why does it have to be? The easiest way to get people to read is to suggest that books are actually--gasp!--FUN. And not everyone wants to feel like they're in high school English class whenever they crack open a novel.

Some people just want to be entertained. And what's wrong with that?

If writers like Sugg convince thousands of people that books are a valid form of entertainment, that only helps the rest of us.

How do you feel about writers who achieve monumental success with "light" books? Why do you think people are so harsh when it comes to writers like Sugg? I'd love to hear your views.

It's recently come to light that a ghostwriter helped Sugg with "Girl Online," which only heightened the controversy. To this I say, "So what?" Sugg recognized she needed help, just like almost every other celebrity author on the planet.

And James Patterson.

That Sugg's book sales were so high in the first week speaks to her following, not to the quality of the writing. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

I've Lived in Haunted Houses--An Interview with Writer Steven Symes

Steven Symes is one of the most interesting people I've ever met, online or otherwise. Not only is he a kick-ass writer with a thriving freelance business, he's lived in more than one haunted house. I've asked Steve to share some of his paranormal experiences with us.

1) What sparked your interest in horror and the supernatural?

I'm a father, and the funny thing I've noticed with kids is that they like to be scared, just not too much. I think all of us, as long as we are psychologically healthy, need to feel that at least from time to time. That's where it probably started for me, but my interest goes much deeper and broader than most. I would have to say that it was early childhood experiences with unexplained phenomena that really intensified my interest. As I wanted to learn more about what I experienced, I in turn researched more and it's just gone from there. 

2) What was it like to live in a haunted house? 

I've actually lived in three houses I felt were haunted. I never did any electronic recordings or anything like that in the homes, because I really didn't want to know what I would discover. I know the original owner died in one of the houses. She was very old, and from what I was told, very kind. There was an inquisitive presence there that I supposed was hers. It was never scary, just curious and watchful, so I didn't feel creeped out by it. I wish I could say the same about the other two houses, which I lived in consecutively. In the first, we would hear noises like knocking on walls, things softly hitting the floor, etc. Furniture would rock back and forth. Two members of my family saw shadow people on separate occasions. There was also something that would pound on the front and back doors at night. One time I was right by the back door when it happened, so I quickly looked out the window in the door and saw that nothing was out there. After I watched for a moment and walked away, the thing pounded on the door even harder. 

In the house after that, things were even worse. I would be touched on the shoulders, neck, back, arms, and sides while I typed, day and night. I would constantly see things running past our windows in the daytime, yet nobody would be out there. Knocking was common, and my wife and I would think that the other one was calling for us all the time. When we were in the basement, there would be footsteps upstairs pretty regularly. My dog would bark at thin air, and sometimes sit there and growl, showing his teeth at nothing. A couple of times in the night we would hear what sounded like our kids calling out for us, only to find that they were completely asleep. When we moved in, there were some weird trinkets hidden around the house: candles, charms, etc. We also noticed that red paint had covered nearly every surface in the house, at least from what we could see at the seams. Our neighbors would only tell us that the people who lived there before were "weird" and hosted drum circles on the back deck on a regular basis. 

3) When skeptics hear about stories like Amityville, etc. they tend to ask, "Why didn't the family just leave?" Can you explain why this isn't always as easy as people like to think?

To be upfront, I am pretty skeptical about most claims of paranormal events. If you are fielding information from the general public you have to be, because there unfortunately are people who just want to be famous, make money, or have some crazy need for attention. 

Having said that, just leaving one's home can be a pretty earth-shattering decision. Most people have a lot of their money locked up into their home, maybe even all of their savings. Not only that, but it isn't easy to find a new place to live. Even more important is that role that denial plays in hauntings. 

Having experienced them myself, I know that most rational people don't want to admit there's a problem in their house. Every house creaks and settles; everyone hears strange noises in the night. With a genuine haunting, most people realize there's a problem slowly, thanks to the denial factor. While the situation isn't the same for everyone, most people begin to feel incredibly cut off from others, often sinking into a deep depression. You don't do your best problem solving in that state. Add to that the fact that many people fear they will be called crazy or otherwise insulted if they tell people their house is haunted, and it encourages many to just stay and try to behave like everything is normal. 

4) What creepy unsolved mystery keeps you awake at night?

I guess I could say some alien conspiracy or something like that, but the one that stays with me is actually something that happened to me as a teenager in New Mexico. I've described the event in-depth on my blog. I was on a camping trip with my Scout troop in an area that used to be home to several homesteads. Three of us went to check out the remains of one of the old homes. It was night and we found nothing, but we did see two mysterious lights that at first I thought were headlights. One advanced on us quickly and I had a horrible feeling about it, so we took off running back to camp. The other light shadowed us almost the entire way there. When our leaders went out with guns to see what the lights were, they were gone. The next day we noticed that the ground was incredibly hilly, yet the lights stayed steady as they moved. I don't know what they were, and I've tried researching it as an adult and have only found that some people think that area is cursed. I've often thought about what would have happened if we hadn't run from the one light, but I'm glad we did. 

5) What unusual phenomena interests you that a lot of people don't know about?

Flame messages. Pretty much nobody knows what they are and assume that it's just watching to see if a candle flickers, like during a seance. In practice, a person lights a candle, then holds a piece of paper over it high enough that the paper won't combust. The smoke and heat will make images on the paper, which are then examined. This can be done over and over in the same session. It's somewhat like reading tea leaves or scrying. 

6) What's the scariest movie you've ever seen? Best scary book?

There are so many to choose from, but I'm going to say Let the Right One In is the scariest movie. To me, the cheap jump-scare stuff gets old really fast, which makes the vampire tale so much better. It's scary and has a great story, which sucks you in further and makes it more frightening. I still am traumatized from reading The Shining when I was young. The only way I could read the book was to sit in a park in the middle of the day. It was just too much to read in my room at night. 

7) Any go-to horror authors you love? Why do you love them?

I read and reread the tales of Poe and Lovecraft all the time. Both had such a way with language and building up the mysterious aura of a story that just fascinates me. I like Gaiman's work for the sheer imagination of it. There's also King, who probably got me started reading modern horror, and who writes these interesting characters that add quite a bit of texture to even his most mundane stories. I wish I could say I have more, but I actually read a huge variety of books instead of just horror. 

8) Please tell us about your latest project. What is it about, in a nutshell? What do you think sets your work apart from other novels in the genre?

I am in the middle of cleaning up a manuscript called The Devil's Nightmare. It's about a mother who is searching for her kidnapped son. She finds out that his disappearance is connected to her late husband's suicide and a clandestine organization that is running psychic experiments. So far, I've been receiving feedback from beta readers that it's unlike anything they've ever read, or seen, for that matter. It has some elements of other stories, but in the end the plot is an original. Obviously, I don't subscribe to the notion that all of the stories have been taken. 

9) How do your real-life experiences inform your writing?

I know that I pull from events in my real life and use them in my writings. My own personality, likes, beliefs, etc. inevitably end up manifesting in certain characters in my stories, but only the people who know me best can pick that out. I also use pieces of people I've known to put together characters. I often write about places that I know and have been, plus I make use of my own knowledge of Spanish and Latin America, since I lived there for some time. 

10) You've done some paranormal investigations. What is that like? Has anything supernatural happened at one of your investigations? 

I'm not a paranormal investigator like you see on television shows. I've tagged along for investigations, but I'm not a part of an organized group. My approach is more of a folklorist, since that's my training and interest. I've visited all kinds of reportedly haunted places and heard stories that will really make you wonder. 

The scariest place I've been to is an abandoned mill that is located several miles from my house. It's abandoned and condemned now, having fallen into disrepair. People have died there in mysterious ways and there are countless stories about strange events that have taken place in the building before it was closed down. For example, the old groundskeeper shot himself in the head after he told a friend he was going to tear down an archway that was unstable and would likely kill someone. The shooting wasn't ruled a suicide and I've spoken with his family, who feel that whatever is in the mill is responsible. Just standing outside of it, the building feels incredibly creepy, like a place you would not want to go inside at night. I've been trying to gain access (during the daytime, of course) but it's not exactly easy. I also have a whole body of research on the place that I'm planning on turning into a book, because there is just something about the place that's fascinating and yet deeply horrifying. 

Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Steven! 

*  *  *

Does anyone have a question for Steven? Have you ever lived in a haunted house, or experienced a paranormal event? Please share your story in the comments.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The NaNoWriMo Blues (An IWSG Post)

The frantic writing sessions.

The cheering.

The constant accountability.

The camaraderie. 

It's over.

Another NaNoWriMo has come and gone, leaving me strangely bereft. 

I miss it.

I'm a freak of nature, according to the Internet--an extroverted writer. Sure, I need time away from people, but I also get energy from my interactions with people.

I'm a social creature. And writing full time has got to be one of the loneliest jobs on the planet. 

This is why I absolutely love NaNoWriMo. I'm in a writing group and I have writing friends, but this was different. It was going into the trenches everyday with a like-minded group of people.

I still have plenty of work to do. The novel I started last month has about 30,000 words left to go. 

I can set my own goals, form my own cheering section.

But it won't be the same.

Isn't it odd that achieving goals rarely feels like you thought it would? I experience the same sadness after finishing a novel. I miss the characters and the world I created...I miss the process.

I'm starting to think I actually enjoy the journey much more than the destination.

How about you, fellow writers? Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year? How did it go? Are you relieved that it's over, or a little sad, like me?

The Insecure Writer's Support Group's purpose is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It's a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Writing Fast ≠ Writing Crap

There's one writing myth I have to lay to rest, once and for all.

I never thought I'd have to. Dean Wesley Smith covered this beautifully a long time ago, but every time I turn around, there it is again.

If you create something quickly, it must be crap.

We just love the image of an artist pining over a single work for decades. We're still mystified that Harper Lee never wrote another book (that we know of). Creative people who are prolific, on the other hand, have tons of derogatory terms slung at them.

They "churn" the work out. (Not unless they work for a dairy.)

Or they "crank" it.

They "slap" something down on paper.

This myth becomes hugely powerful in the aftermath of National Novel Writing Month. During NaNoWriMo people all over the world are encouraged to write 50,000 words in thirty days.

In case you didn't already know this, I will tell you a secret.

50,000 words in thirty days is not that fast.

I'm not saying it's not a great accomplishment! It is. But let's do some writerly math.

50,000 in thirty days = approximately 1,667 words a day. For convenience's sake, let's round that up to 2,000 words per day.

I don't know about you, but I typically write 2,000 words in 90 minutes. On a really good day, I can do it in 60. On a horrible day, it might take me three hours.

Let's assume other people might take even more time. Okay, four hours a day. That's a bit more than 90 minutes, but is it doable, especially for full-time writers? Sure.

If you write 2,000 words every day for a year, you'll have 730,000. As most novels written for adults are around the 90,000-word mark, that's eight novels a year.

So why aren't most traditionally published authors "churning" out eight books a year?

Here's the other big secret--they probably are.

Publishers have to deal with lots of considerations when they release a book. They don't want to release something when it will be in competition with the house's similar titles; they don't want one of their authors to "over-saturate" the market, etc.

If you self-publish, you can release a novel whenever you want, which has resulted in some pretty incredible back lists of over thirty titles or more from a single author. Some self-published authors I know aim to release six or more books per year. Some release nine or twelve.

But unfortunately, there's that nasty myth that writing fast = writing crap, and I believe that myth has hurt the self-published.

You may have noticed Stephen King is writing a lot more these days. Instead of waiting an entire year for a new King release, we're now able to read three or more. But I'm willing to bet that he's not writing more--his publisher is releasing more. I'm also willing to bet King has a still-unpublished back list that would blow our minds.

(Even King has said that he writes slower these days. So the increase in King books has nothing to do with his productivity.)

If the average writer can produce eight books a year by writing just 2,000 words per day, imagine what King, as an expert writer, can do.

And just in case you're one of those people who turn their nose up at him (and to them I say, he makes it look easy by being really, really good at it), National Book Award-winner Jacqueline Woodson wrote one of her books in two weeks. 

And it needed almost no changes.

Think of the assembly-line worker for a minute. When he first starts at the factory, his fingers are slow and clumsy. He makes mistakes. But in time, he gets better. Faster. By the time he's worked at that factory for ten years, his hands are a blur.

The more you do something, the better you become. (Usually.) Your mind and body become trained to do that task, and are able to complete it in a shorter amount of time.

This is why I cringe when I hear all the rhetoric about churning and slapping and cranking at this time of year.

Sure, some NaNoWriMo books are crap. But that has more to do with the writer and their level of craft, experience, and skill than it has to do with time frame.

Writing fast ≠ writing crap.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Exploring the Dark Side with Middle Grade Author Stephanie Faris

Photo Credit: Doug Walton

I always knew I had a lot in common with author Stephanie Faris. We're both journalists who write fiction. We freelance to supplement our writing income. We're both crazy about the '80s. She's a nice person and I love nice people.

But I was shocked to learn that Stephanie--who may just be the nicest blogger-writer on the planet--has a dark side. 

I immediately knew I had to interview her about it. 

1) I'm sure some of your fans would be surprised to discover you're interested in horror and the supernatural. What sparked your interest? Would you ever consider writing darker fiction?

I know. It’s a strange mix for a middle grade/chapter book author who generally has cutesy, girly covers, isn’t it? I landed my agent with a middle grade series called Ghost Patrol that was inspired by my fascination with ghost hunting. The series was about a team of tween ghost hunters.

It started around 2002 or so, when I was driving into work and heard this ghost hunting series they were doing on the Rick and Bubba Show. I was hooked. A couple of years later, Ghost Hunters debuted on SyFy and for a long time, I was hooked on the show. I even took a ghost-hunting class once as research for Ghost Patrol!

2) Has anything supernatural ever happened to you? Details, please. :)

No! Isn’t that horrible? I’ve been on so many ghost tours and even in the ghost-hunting class we did a hunt and…nothing. The instructor said I have that skeptical mind and I think he’s right. Even though I’m fascinated by other people’s stories, I’m just not the type of person who sees dead people. I wish I could! I have a feeling you aren’t going to see such a thing on a ghost tour, though. You have to be alone in a house overnight before the ghosts will come out and play.

3) What creepy unsolved mystery keeps you awake at night?

This isn’t really a ghost story, but I’m fascinated with the show Disappeared on Investigation Discovery. There are these haunting stories of people who just vanish without a trace one day. They’ll even have surveillance footage of them in their last moments. There’s something about a person just disappearing and never being found that definitely spooks me. I can’t watch the show when I’m home alone!

4) Do you believe in ghosts? UFOs? Nessie? Why or why not?

I’m fascinated by everything, so I close my mind off to absolutely nothing. Ghosts and life-after-death stories are so interesting to me. UFO stories fascinate me, too, especially the one they depicted in Fire in the Sky. Something had to have happened there. As for the Loch Ness Monster—that sort of thing doesn’t really interest me. It’s not that I don’t believe they exist. Monsters just don’t do anything to impress me. Now stories about the Mothman reel me right in—especially all of the events that happened around that big bridge collapse in West Virginia in the '60s.

5) What's the scariest movie you've ever seen? Best scary book?

I remember seeing The Blair Witch Project in the '90s and realizing the scariest thing in the world was when their friends had disappeared and they heard sounds of someone yelling from far away later that night. It’s what you can’t see that’s scariest. In a sense, the Paranormal Activity movies have done that, too, but for me, it hasn’t ever been as scary as The Blair Witch Project was in the theater. Books? I’m going to point to a short story because it really freaked me out when I read it as a teenager—The Boogeyman by Stephen King. It was in one of his anthologies and I’m surprised it doesn’t still keep me up nights!

6) Any go-to horror authors you love? Why do you love them?

Stephen King will always be my favorite, although I’m not sure he’s quite as scary as he used to be. These days he’s a little more literary, I think. But when I read the beginning of Under the Dome, I thought, “THIS is the Stephen King I remember.” I found out later that he started the book years ago. That made me realize just how he’s changed. I do miss the Stephen King that kept me up nights, but I love his newer work, as well.

7) Please tell us about your latest book. What is it about? When does it come out?

It’s called 25 Roses and it’s a middle-grade novel, written for the tween market. When I was in high school, we did a carnation sale for Valentine’s Day. We bought flowers for classmates and sent them with a little card attached. In 25 Roses, the girl coordinating the sale gets the idea to purchase some of the flowers out of her own money and send them to the students who don’t normally get flowers.

Thanks for such an awesome interview, Stephanie. I feel the same way about that Mothman...brr. 

Have you ever had a paranormal experience? What scary books and movies give you nightmares? Are you a fan of King as well, or do you think he's lost his touch? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

So You Wanna Work in Your Bathrobe: Five Survival Tips for Small-Scale Entrepreneurs

My quality assurance team, hard at work.

I got called an entrepreneur today.

It startled me.

The family with the most amazing pho restaurant in the world (Viva, for those interested) is an entrepreneur. My friend Andrea, who runs a kick-ass design firm with several employees, is an entrepreneur. My friend Dave, who bought a food truck and then opened a kickboxing gym, is an entrepreneur.

I just write articles and novels, often while I'm sitting on the couch in my bathrobe. Or lately, in my amazing Sarah McLachlan hoodie (thanks, Sarah!).

It's pretty amazing that I get paid to write for a living, but I don't think of myself as a business. Is writing a business? Sure. Is journalism a business? Sure.

But I have no storefront, no negative reviews to deal with (yet), no unhappy customers, no silverware stealing-employees, no long meetings with people in suits (thank god! I've spent enough of my time in those).

So I never think of myself as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs are people who have to hustle all day, negotiating and making deals, while I can do a good day's work in four hours and then take a nap if it suits me.

Getting called an entrepreneur made me wonder if the way we think of business is changing. When I started my life as a freelancer, I got asked when I planned on getting a real job. Now the first thing people tend to say is, "You work for yourself? Cool! How do you do that?"

Here are my five secrets to being a successful small-scale entrepreneur:

1) Get Clear About What It Is You Have To Offer: I'm a writer, but you may have noticed there's about, oh, five billion of us out there. So how did I figure out what makes me different? I listened to my clients, even in the beginning when I only had one. I'm a fast writer, an accurate writer, and a reliable writer. I'm good at putting people at ease, and getting even seemingly boring people to say interesting things. Apparently that sets me apart without even getting into specialization, which I've only started to dive into.

Maybe you also do something a lot of other people do. Figure out what it is about you--your process, your approach, a certain skill set--that makes you stand out from the pack. And then market the hell out of it (and by market, I do not mean spamming all your followers on Twitter and Facebook. That is not marketing. That is annoying. Two different things.)

2) Sometimes, You Have to Hustle: People who look at my life with envy often don't realize what it took to get here. Three-hour breakfasts? Naps in the afternoon when required? Sure. But I wasn't doing so much of that in my early twenties while I was building my client list. And even when it seems like I'm taking it easy, I always have my eye on the months to come. If those months seem slow, you better believe I'm getting in touch with my clients and letting them know I'm available. Will they contact me if they need me? Probably, but I still put myself out there. It never hurts to remind people that you're alive and willing to work, as long as "reminding" doesn't turn into "stalking." Companies don't tend to hire freelancers who stalk them.

3) Get Comfortable With the Unpredictable: Here's two other things that are said to me a lot: "You're up early," or "You're up late." When you're your own boss, there are no set hours. You work when there's work. You're probably going to work through a lot of weekends and evenings, even long weekends. How else are you going to make up for those random Thursday afternoons when you decide it's a good time to go Christmas shopping? It balances out.

Another note about unpredictability: I don't suggest going into business for yourself without savings. You will have busy times and lean times, and lean times are awesome for long-range planning, focusing on smaller-but-still-important projects, and cleaning that house. If you have savings, you don't have to waste those precious lulls by worrying over how you're going to pay the mortgage. (You probably will still worry, just not as much. And that leads me to...)

4) Accept That Worrying Is Normal: If you've worked for a large corporation, you probably had a stressed-out boss. I had several. These creatures run around from meeting to meeting, usually in an ill-fitting suit, arriving early and staying late. They often grab lunch at their desks, and if they do stop to chat for a moment, they're usually looking uneasily over their shoulder, as if at any moment some huge mountain lion is going to pounce.

Being an employee can be stressful too. But the closest you will ever get to understanding a CEO is working for yourself. All those things your boss worried about? They're now your responsibility. Maybe you don't have a board or an accounting department, but the day-to-day stuff? How to pay that bill, how to expand the business, how in the hell do I pay GST? Yep, that's all on you now. So a little worrying is normal. Just use it to spur you into action (see point number two).

5)  Be Grateful: It's human nature to dwell on what we don't have. When you work for yourself, you won't have those nice, seemingly free benefits (you did know you were actually paying for those, right?). You may not have people stopping by your office to ask about your weekend. You won't have a regime, or schedules, or someone to keep you on track--unless you build those systems for yourself. You won't have a pay check that arrives like clockwork every two weeks (unless you're really, really lucky. I'm still waiting to get paid for work I did in August. In AUGUST!)

But if you obsess over that stuff, the best thing you can do is get another job in an office. Because you're missing the point. And the point is all the things you do have, and number one is Freedom. Creative freedom, personal freedom, the freedom to set your own hours and turn down projects that don't interest you. And freedom is priceless. Do you know how many cubicle drones would kill for freedom? So miss your old co-workers for a minute and then shut the fuck up. Cause you can always meet them for lunch. And then go have a nap while they drag themselves back to the office for yet another meeting.

Do you work for yourself? What helps you be successful? Please share your tips in the comment section. Or, conversely, would you ever work for yourself? What stops you?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Importance of Keeping Your Promises

Balinese children at a friend's English school. Another friend and I
sponsored two children so they could attend as well.

It's easy to get swept away when you travel, especially when you travel to a country that is radically different from your own.

If you've visited developing countries, it's probably a given that you've met wonderful people who are in desperate need. You want to help them, but maybe you don't have the means at the moment, with your bare essentials crammed into a backpack and a meagre travel budget.

So you make promises.

Almost everyone does.

Once you're back home, jet-lagged and playing catch up at work, those promises are easy to forget. Or maybe you've changed your mind. That money you'd said you would donate might seem difficult to part with when the Visa bills roll in.

And packing up those old clothes and books takes so much time.

You put it off. You push it to the back of your mind. And eventually, you forget about it.

But the person you've made the promise to doesn't.

What may seem like a small amount to some of us can make a world of difference to someone else.

And the promise of help--however small--is intensely meaningful to someone who can't afford to eat everyday. Or go to school. Or get medical care.

With those well-meant promises, you are offering hope. All they have to do is wait patiently for you to get home, and you will follow through, right? You will remember their friendship, their kindness.

Can you imagine how they feel when they receive nothing?

What if you're the only Canadian, American, or European they met that year? Doubtful, given the amount of travel that takes place in the world today, but still possible. Or what if you were the first experience they had with a Westerner?

When I traveled to Zimbabwe in 2001, I met so many lovely people. And most were in desperate need. The country was in the middle of an uprising, so tourism had dramatically declined, and with it many of the villagers' sources of income.

I gave them everything I could spare at the time, and promised to send more clothes and shoes when I got home. I actually followed through, but it cost me almost $100 to send that box, which seemed like a lot of money. I never heard back from anyone, and I had no idea if the people who needed those things had received them or not.

As a result, many of those who'd been promised photographs from me never received them. I feel badly about that. I should have taken the time.

It feels good to know that you can make a difference, however small, in the lives of the people you meet when you travel. But if you're not 100 percent sure you can fulfill that promise, please don't make it.

It does more harm than good.

Has traveling inspired you to make a difference? Have you ever regretted a promise you made during a trip?

Photo credit: Greg Klassen