How We Can Master Our Habits: The Diamond Age of Content (Part II)

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Nasty Habits

For part 1, go here.

There’s an anecdote that David Foster Wallace recounted in an interview that keeps playing on my mind*. He talked about the fact that he didn’t own a TV because of the great anxiety it brought him; he would spend hours in front of it, mercilessly flicking through hundreds of channels, never actually watching anything, continuing to look for something “better” (without any real sense of what that meant) instead just watching one show [skip to 42:43 if you’re on a tablet/mobile device].

This example resonated with me because perhaps one of my worst habits is spending copious hours idling on the internet. Idling being key here. When there’s no notification activity going on my various social media accounts or email I’m filled with an almost anxious malaise, flitting aimlessly between my various accounts and scrolling, searching for a good feeling. The funny thing is that this rarely happens; I can swallow hours of time doing this to little effect. Part of this, I think is to make up for something. You know, like resisting that forever empty?

A background motivation is that I’m chasing that rush you get whenever you see all the likes pouring in. I don’t necessitate it but I do enjoy the validation. And without it, there’s that emptiness. When I flit about, I don’t get edified but neither do I feel terrible. Not only that, I use this method to “decompress” when I’ve been out, for example. It’s not just phone scrolling, TV can fall under this, too. I often unwind with it but not with moderation, neglecting more productive desires.

If I can figure out why it gets to this point perhaps I can end up doing the things I get upset not doing (including sleep!). I want to write my novel, these essays, go for a walk but I’m just glued to the screens. It’s a perverse Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) in overdrive.

This is partly due to the hook of modern entertainment is that it has the ability to tell more nuanced stories that explore a wide range of topics. And, with technological advancements, storytelling is at its most presentable. It’s very easy to immerse ourselves.

This kind of behaviour becomes ingrained. Had a bad day? I’ll watch some TV to make myself feel better. Didn’t get that job you were excited about? Fire Emblem’s looking enticing. Let’s do that instead of reading or writing or applying for more jobs.

Games like Uncharted 4 and The Witcher 3 can tell visually pleasing stories with an emotionality that rivals cinema and television. The culture and developers always had this desire to come about, but now we have the actual means to tell these kinds of stories because our technology has caught up with our vision.

I’m not saying that everyone should write a book or learn violin. Or even that unwinding in such a way is necessarily a bad thing—or at all!”Taking your mind off things” sometimes is necessary to be a functional and rounded person, I think. And entertainment can provide that brief respite. But surely entertainment cuts into productivity.

It’s just fascinating how we spend our time, when habits drift away from pure decompression and start bleeding into other aspects of our lives.

And the internet is fun because it’s brought me a lot of connectivity with friends close and far afield, as well as being a place for learning. The method that I researched and am sharing this essay, for example, can only exist because of the internet. Be that as it may, though, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause problems. We have options for media, that just begs us to click and Consume. Remember the tabbing issue? The Diamond Age is here.

A FE world map theme: Why get bogged down with the application process if there’s a 3DS game with beautiful music like this?

I always feel like I need to occupy my time in some way. I can’t sit with my thoughts, and have a quiet moment and hear the wind sing unless I’m doing something else. When there’s any degree of loading, like Netflix is booting up on my home console or on my TV, I’ll reach for my phone or, if I’m feeling “intellectual”, my book. It’s not long enough to do anything but I keep doing it anyway.

My suspicion is that we have so much available to us that our minimum threshold of stimulation has been greatly raised and so we need to keep doing something. In other words, the abundance of Stuff makes us aware of how limited our time is. So to make sure we get as much as possible from our 100 blocks per day to spend we need to be doing Something. We know implicitly that we can’t get through everything we want to but boy can we try.

Maybe the motivations don’t match up with my suspicions, but behaviour is certainly shifting more towards pluralism: according to a study done by Deloitte for American consumers of television, a whopping 90% of watchers reported doing something else when watching TV. The most common activity is surfing the internet (32%), followed by email, then texting (both 28%)—some groups doing up to three tasks at once.

And get this: the multitasking isn’t even about the show itself. Any of the generational groups studied (14 years and older) reported less than 30% of the time the multitasking they were doing was related to the actual show they were watching.

When I was reading this study I was sceptical. But then I reflected that it’s at least true for me. I tend to start with a search that relates to what I’m watching, but then it dovetails into a series of searches and clicks and then I’m on Facebook again and whoops it’s been twenty minutes without paying attention …

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve let bad habits seep into my daily life too readily. Although it feels like more of an inevitability, something beyond my choosing. And in a way, that’s correct. But it’s not a good feeling and I want to help assuage it by doing something about it. I’ll explain soon this supposed “correctness” but we have to zoom out a bit first and get a better feel of habits so that change can occur.

The Power of Habit

In my research about habits, one guy kept coming up: Charles Duhigg. He authored a book called The Power of Habit which will inevitably explore this topic in more detail. He indicates that up to 45% of what we do is habit, not decision-making.

Habits can be broken up into three constituent parts, also known as a “habit loop”. Identifying these aspects will help in changing them:

1.) Cue: the trigger for the behaviour to unfold.

2.) Routine: the automatic actions—the habits themselves

3.) Reward: This is what ensures the habit is encoded in neurology; there’s something to be gained from this action. It’s like our brain’s way of saying: “This is good. Remember this for next time.”

So to overwrite a habit, the best way, Duhigg argues, is to target the cue** and the reward.

The cue usually relies on one of five categories:

1.) The time of day.

2.) A certain place.

3.) The presence of others.

4.) An emotional state.

5.) Behaviour that is ritualised.

To get a habit broken, a good thing to do is to write down these five categories and figure out the cue. This will reveal the reward (or the craving). Rewards are pretty complex, though, so part of the challenge will be to locate a specific one.

Let’s take my TV viewing as one example. The time of day varies but it’s usually

1.) day time;

2.) in my room;

3.) without anyone else;

4.) with some distress and dissatisfaction with my life situation;

5.) and I do this at roughly consistent times of the day [usually in the early afternoon until evening where my activities become more computer based].

When it comes to how habits are formed, behaviour and routine are the main focus typically, but we should look at the reward to get the why. Why do I want to watch the TV? Because it’s entertaining. That’s a prima facie (on the surface) good reason for a reward. But that might not necessarily be the case. The TV could actually be the distraction from something: boredom? Close, but probably not enough.

The reality is much closer to feelings of unaccomplishment and, to not go down the rabbit hole of negativity, I distract myself. For me, I think TV is a stand-in: it could be any sort of media that is stimulating enough like music, games, writing a stream of tweets maybe two people read ever—whatever it is. The reward is I don’t have to deal with that shit in the moments that I’m doing those activities. At least that’s a little bit the case because they’re not assuaged, but we’ll return to that.

I mentioned this briefly before but the reason habits are so hard to break is that they don’t really feel like thought. This is what I referred to when I said “correctness” in thinking that this sort of behaviour is inevitable in some capacity. Now there’s two ways this can get cashed out.

The first way is when you don’t realise that you do something in a certain way. Take brushing your teeth. It’s apparently the case that you brush your teeth in the same way every time you brush them. If you start from the top then go to the bottom set, for example, you won’t even realise that this is so unless you actively start thinking about it. This is a good thing. It’s so we don’t have to think about every such action whenever we want to do it. It’s a neurological shortcut of sorts.

The second way is a far more stressful experience. It’s a realisation that this activity is not good but you do it anyway because not doing it is harder than doing it. You’re sat watching hours of Daredevil instead of revising for exams, for example, but keep going despite your imminent deadline. When I think of breaking habits, it’s this latter version. You slip into this state like a glove to distract yourself but of course the problem lingers, maybe intensifies. Why does this happen?

The basal ganglia is one of the oldest structures in the brain and is annoyingly and amazingly exempt from the process of what we call “thinking”, which is what Duhigg is getting at. It’s almost as if it’s run on autopilot. It’s the part of the brain that is linked to a lot of things like voluntary motor skills, procedural learning, and of course routine behaviours or “habits” like moving your eyes, cognition, and emotion. Its primary function is to make sure we can do voluntary actions more smoothly. Habit-formation is pretty strongly embedded into our lives and is necessary for us to function as we do.

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The basal ganglia and associated parts. In terms of habits, the basal ganglia can be contrasted with the cerebral cortex which is associated more with what we understand to be “thought” and awareness (consciousness anyone?)

Duhigg uses the example of complete amnesiacs who remember nothing, but are still able to form habits like everyone else. The “lack of” thought is why habits are so hard to overwrite. Think about walking or blinking. Providing that one is able, these are automatic things that we do and is part of our reality. Have you ever thought about changing your walk or thought about blinking? That’s the moment when those automatic things start feeling very, very weird. That’s because we don’t think about them in normal circumstances. I imagine it would be stressful to think about blinking while doing something else. Our brains are designed to make shortcuts so we can function and do other things like receive new information.

A quick note before we continue: I’m using “overwrite” here in lieu of “breaking” or “getting rid of” habits because I feel like overwriting is a more accurate picture of what’s happening when we change our behaviour. We’re encoding new activities that will be part of our passive everyday lives—so normal we won’t have to think about it. The elimination of one habit only allows space for a different—in our case better—habit to take its place.

Okay, let’s quickly take stock. There are three parts to a habit: cue, routine, reward. To overwrite a habit, you’ll need to look at the cue in depth and figure out, from the five categories above, how it came about and what the reward is. If you can do this, the benefits can bleed into many aspects of your life.

A keystone habit, for example, can cause a chain reaction that affects other habits. A common one (almost to the point of cliché) is exercise. Let’s say you spent a lot of time on the computer/phone/tablet/delete-as-necessary-or-until-I-stop-adding-needless-bits-of-this-forward-slash-list-and-want-to-do-that-less. You might consider going for a thirty minute run. As a result, you feel more awake and more productive, which in turn leads to less procrastination in general (it works, annoyingly). This is an example of a keystone habit. Identifying one of these might help in restructuring your relationship to a nebula of habits that you want to change, in rewriting your neurological code.

Next Steps

In psychology, there’s a term called “quantum changers” which refers to someone who is very specific about habits and their relationship with them, usually changing something in a pretty dramatic way, as the name implies. My Dad, for example, lost a lot of weight for his health in what seemed like all of a sudden. He did this through reshaping his diet alongside the exercise he did. What he and many other quantum changers have tapped into is the structure of habits. Once you understand that, it’s much easier to change things.

And it needn’t be big things, either. Incremental adjustments, in fact, are the things that change you; they are parts of a larger goal. The end result comes about because of these small steps. Remember stretch goals and a specific plan to get there? Well shit, we’ve come full circle.

In fact, not only is it a more realistic way of looking at habits, it’s probably the best. This is why you target the reward. The reward is the craving, a desire to be sated. The habit is just filling in the gaps, one way of many in order to achieve the same thing. It should stand to reason therefore that you can overwrite it by getting the same reward through a different habit.

And you need to actually do it. This sounds trite but how many times have you said that today’s the day you’re going to read 100 pages, write 1000 words, do the seminar reading, go for a run, etc. and end up not even starting? It’s upsetting isn’t it? Being in the right frame of mind is only a tiny fraction of it, but it is along the right lines. My research has revealed a lot of things and while intentions aren’t the be all and end all, they are an important stepping stone to overwriting habits.

In fact, it’s been shown that the more you believe you can, the more you can actually change it. Take Alcoholics Anonymous, a support group to overwrite the habits of alcohol with something like work. The reason it works is not because of its scientific basis (the famous “Twelve Steps” were created not from psychological expertise but a combination of spirituality and philosophy), but because it operates as a machine for habit change through the simple method of looking to others for support. And not necessarily in the “Friend, help me for I have lost my way” sense. No, it’s more like “That dickhead is well-adjusted? Him?! Well if he can, I sure as shit can too.” The effect of watching others to help us change is astonishing.

Other Strategies

Here are three principles which will help in cultivating positive habits:

1.) Derail existing habits: where you make space to act on new intentions (see my point about overwriting, not destruction? It’s a replacement, homie.)

Moving city, for example, is a great way of doing this. Part of the call to move city must be tapping into the notion that a new place = change of existing habits.

Of course, this is an extreme reaction. Nobody my age*** has the kind of capital to all of a sudden move city, unless there’s a specific reason (i.e. university, a job or family.) On the more affordable end of things, going on holiday can actually help in rewriting habits. The cues (and as result rewards) are going to be different because of not only the setting but the context of them as well. It’s a good chance to change the habit. You’re not thinking in terms of your daily routine, but away from that all.

Smaller changes go a long way too, though. Let’s take phone use. Suppose your goal is to reduce how much your phone, try reducing your access. Some people lock themselves out of their phones. There are apps that do this sort of thing if you think that will help. I’ve found that having a lock code (that I have access to!) diminishes my access purely for the fact that I can’t as easily get to my phone. This means that I will only reach for it if I need it for certain purposes. That’s a tiny act but has put me on the right track.

2.) Repetition is key: It takes time to master but take heart because any goal can be subdivided again, stretch goals and specific plans. If you can do something for a little bit of the intended goal, over a longer period of time you will achieve it. Again, sounds simplistic, but the size of a goal is often enough to detract real effort.

The best way that I trained my thinking in this aspect is by doing NaNoWriMo which is when people challenge themselves to complete 50,000 words in a month, usually November****. The way forward is seeing the goal is over 30 days and 50,000 divided by 30 equals 1667 words (rounded up), the daily word count. Seen in this way, it’s still challenging but much more manageable. The task itself hasn’t changed, your thinking towards it has. The notion of writing daily, especially towards such a large goal, is quite daunting but once you get into it the actual process becomes more manageable.

NaNo needn’t be the only way you can change your thinking. There are other practical means with which you can apply this conceptual framework. Let’s say your room needs tidying and one of the tasks is to pick up the pile of clothes. The prospect of tidying the whole room is daunting: you haven’t tidied in months and there’s a lot of junk on the floor. But if you set yourself the task of dealing with one pile at a time, then the notion of the whole room being tidied feels a lot more realistic.

3.) Have stable context cues to trigger a pattern: a new cue following an existing one helps. Specific contexts attached to others help overwrite bad habits. Reading during breakfast/around it—either 10 minutes before or 10 minutes afterwards—for example will help in adding more reading into your life because it’s attached to the meal of breakfast.

The initial cue is necessary to create subsequent ones. This is like keystone habits.

Concluding Thoughts

If you can master your habits they won’t destroy you/consume all of your time. Some people go to extremes, like taking social media diets. Things like that must have something to counterbalance what they’re dieting. So the assumption is that they go on these diets to invest more time into things that social media is eating into, which tends to be the case. These aren’t the only way in which you deal with hangups, nor do I think they are necessarily the best. But if it works, it works.

For me, it seems I’m escaping in some capacity because I’m in a state that I dislike and I have to learn to be okay with that. I suppose it comes with life: there are bits of it which will be disappointing and painful but that comes with. If I can’t look at that in the face then I need to address why, especially if I just end up in a loop of Copious Entertainment instead of something productive. (Didn’t I say I want to draw more this year?)

Also, when I am “decompressing” with my phone, I’m endeavouring to reconsider that and just decompressing without any stimuli, just sit (or lay) with my thoughts for as long as needed.

To sum up: we learnt about habits, how they form, why they can become ingrained in our psychology and what to do about them. Pop culture is the most alluring its been ever—we’re in the midst of the Diamond Age—and establishing complex mental frameworks to resist passivity is going to be paramount, especially since this quality will only increase. With better presentation for entertainment, IMAX and 4k, for example, we’re constantly enhancing the experience of entertainment. We need to say no every once in a while, sit in silence and just hear the wind sing.

What about you: do you have any habits that you need to correct?

*I know I know I know I know, another dude talking about David Foster Wallace. But that particular anecdote freaked me the fuck out and will stay with me for a long time to come.

**I kept writing “the Cure” instead of cue. I feel a new habit forming.

***Dare I say: MILLENNIAL?

****How many times have I written this is in cover letters in the past year I wonder? I’ve lost count.

 

The Diamond Age of Content

In Search of Lost Time

I have a serious tabbing issue. Not dabbing, tabbing*.

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The tabbing problem. This isn’t even as bad as it has been but I’ve been on a pretty aggressive tab-reduction game and I forgot to document it as its worst so you’ll have to take this as evidence. (Also it’s cute that an earlier form of this piece is pictured here too.)

My issue is not easily tracked. It might be to do with focus but it has its roots in a more positive thing: data, information, excitement, etc. When they’re easily accessible I become so intrigued to investigate, to dive, explore, I end up with the tabbing travesty you see above.

I want to open up my avenues of interest rapidly and, not unlike a magpie, collect all the shiny things but never end up doing anything much with them.

That’s right: I’d rather open more tabs before looking at the content contained within the tabs already open.

I should note that I’m not saying we should close the internet. Far from it: I think I should be developing more complex systems in being able to engage with material in a good way rather than in a stressful way. When I think about the sheer multitude of things we have at our fingertips, though, it really astonishes me.

We live in a sort of Diamond Age of Content, with around 500 original scripted shows predicted this year, an increase from last year’s 455, for example, there’s a perspiration-worthy amount of material of interest. And that’s just TV. Think about the ways in which we can potentially amuse ourselves.

Our issue nowadays isn’t that we don’t have good enough content but rather that there’s so much more good stuff than time available to consume it all in. From books, TV, film, video games, podcasts, social media, and more, we can glut ourselves beyond the typical limits of satisfaction.

This is particularly startling when you consider that we only have a certain number of time per day, one hundred blocks, to be precise, and a limited overall number of blocks in our lifetime. That means how you spend them counts. Not so easy when everything is fighting for your attention. How many times in a week can you count someone saying “oh you have to watch/read/listen to this?” or seen an advert of something of interest? I’ll wait.

It bothers me a lot, which is part of a wider way of thought that’s led to the tabbing. But this is only at my laptop and while I spend a lot of time there, it’s not the only place I consume content.

Note: this is just an exercise in spending time in leisure effectively which means I’m omitting other things like eating or travelling.

Time Divided

The way I think I (unevenly) carve types of time—ways to spend time on a given activity. For example, reading. You could read a book—which can be read physically, digitally, or in audio—or an article, which could be a magazine, newspaper, on Wikipedia, etc.

Part of effective time use for reading time is picking one activity and doing it with some degree of depth. So I’ll read that NYT piece over bits of Infinite Jest or vice versa. I want to read both but if I flit between the two mercilessly then I get a great deal less reading done while also wasting time. One solution to deal with this inaction is to open the tab of the article(s), save it for later. Only, this has the potential to continue ad infinitum, especially when scrolling my newsfeed.

Infinite Jest or the New York Times? 

Listening time: Now consider other content, such as podcasts. There are so many podcasts of interest that I want to listen to. At the same time, however, several songs are buzzing in my head and are begging to be listened to and I can’t focus on the spoken words. If I don’t indulge then I’ll think about the music and not listen to the podcast. Of course I can’t do both and whatever I’ll pick will consume a significant portion of time. That’s in a good scenario. Often, I’ll just be so intrigued by the choice of music or podcasts on show that I won’t even listen to anything. I’ll just open the tabs on YouTube or click subscribe on my podcatcher.

 The Daily or Arctic Monkeys?

Watching time: All the TV, films released all the time, YouTube vids.

Brooklyn or Brooklyn Nine Nine? 

TV is so fucking good and there’s so much of it. When someone recommends me a show and it has an excess of five seasons I sigh because there’s just so much of it ahead. That might fill someone’s heart with joy, especially if you love the show. But I also think of it in terms of lost time. I’m a very picky watcher and I want to invest my time wisely. What if it isn’t for me and is instead detracted time from a show that does?

There are other things such as, I dunno, hobbies: games, playing an instrument, drawing, writing books (or these essays). Out of those I have to pick one, then do that thing for a set time.

Let’s not even talk about social media and what you can do with it. No wonder people call it the attention economy, things jumping for your attention and eating into your time.

That was fairly exhaustive because I like to make you work as a reader. In all seriousness though, what I hope to get at is to devise a (limited) system of pickiness as an entry point to cut through the fat.

What I Want From Content

You can’t save time like money, store it up and take it all at once snuggled under a pillow fort on a dreary day. At best you can economise by being selective. With it being limited, you want to invest it well with at least equal returns.

For such a selection process I might need to be a little more stringent than in the past and make harder choices, create a good way of judging if it’s worth the time. The things of interest should be least one of the following:

a.) educational: enhances existing or generates new knowledge.

b.) fun/pleasurable: sustains or increases pleasure.

[c.) cohere with certain values I possess]

Note: I’ve put c.) in brackets because I think that this selection criteria might not be within other people’s selection process. c.) is interesting, though, mostly because it can be overruled by either a or b (or both) so it’s really a third possibility. For example, if I don’t agree with the message of something, it will serve as educational.  I’ll explain a bit more but watch as someone proves me wrong.

What values am I talking about? The biggest one is: well-developed characters from many walks of life—or typically what we mean when we say “diverse fiction”. That’s well-developed characters including ones we see less of: women, “POC”** characters, characters who are non-heterosexual, etc. All of these needs also to not defined by such things.

So: a character (see: likes, dislikes, merits and flaws) who is gay; not the gay character who is inserted to serve some illusory sense of inclusion and representation. And there’s a correct execution for this as well.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has a great example of being aware of social issues but weaves them intricately into the tapestry of the show’s reality. Read on ahead and see some of the reasons why I enjoy it a lot. Again, though, it need not have these things to be entertaining but it’s nice to consider. I’d take one well-written black character than 25 shoddy stereotypes.

Anyway. It seems that the values of TV and film tend to reflect bankable trends opposed to any other values. This is usually because risk is not particularly financially viable. This isn’t the entire picture, true, but it is a strong guiding principle.

The common perception is that films in particular are made with the intention of making a well-selling piece before a well-told piece. Which is not to say that something that sells well isn’t well told, but films are a business and I suppose protecting those interests come first. There is a nexus between them, a sweet spot of good enough for both investors and audiences. It’s why franchises are huge right about now***.

An issue you might run into here is that a degree of variety is lost. Now, we have to stop here for a sec because this seems to contradict my central point of narrowing down how to spend to time. But I think it’s a worthwhile pursuit in having a variety of things to hold one’s interests.

For example, I was a little disappointed by Doctor Strange, which on one hand introduced newer elements to the exhaustive list of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This, however, was packaged in a fairly formulaic way. Not saying that formula is necessarily a problem, especially if the story is told well, but when it echoes a previous film in the same universe too sharply (Iron Man), in essence you could at best only derive an equal amount of pleasure from it.

But I kind of get it: it’s doing something different and if it’s too left-field then their wider ambitions will fall to the wayside. Film-making is more complicated than just a couple of people with a vision. There are lots of other factors (studios, investors, etc) which in some way dictate the shape of the finished product. But let’s move on.

So to summarise, I want my stuff to be varied on top of either being educational or pleasurable. This isn’t an extra letter in my list because it doesn’t target a specific medium as opposed to collectives. I want the types of books to be varied as opposed to one piece of thing with twenty different genres contained within, for example.

Now that that’s cleared up, I have to address the plenitude. The selection criteria must already apply in some capacity to the stuff that I’m foaming at the mouth over. Put simply: I have to say no to the new stuff. This sounds simple but is still somewhat tricky.

Time Regained: Saying No

Okay, so the tabbing issue can be summarised as such: I’ve seen something interesting and might not have the time to look at it, so I open a new tab with the intention of revisiting it at a later point.

Part of the problem is that newer interesting things appear and I open them up in a new tab as well. Eventually: tab-lock. The intention is to revisit but with every passing day the chances to revisit in a timely manner begin to dwindle. Often, the things I leave open aren’t half as interesting as I might have thought they’d be so it seems like a waste of time overall.

This is a good place to put in a notion of resistance. Maybe a time-limit: if I don’t revisit it in under say three days then it’s getting axed. I’m only going to stress myself out in spending several days clearing tabs. Eliminating sooner will help me guide my thinking towards actually beneficial content. I shit you not that to clear the tabs I would need about 3-5 complete days. Essays, articles, video features, walkthroughs … a lot of stuff that I don’t ever revisit for months at a time. It’s exhausting and it’s slowing my browser down.

It’s not all been bad though. I’ve been using The Great Suspender**** recently and it’s been an interesting extension for me. (It’s out now for Firefox as well as an add-on so if you want to give it a go, I say proceed.) I thought it would have been an enabler to my awful tabbing but it’s been a boon … to an extent.  It’s made me carefully consider what I find interesting to be really interesting.

When I do my tab cleanse every 3-6 months, I often leave the experience drained and not having gained much. But when they’re all suspended, a glance at the title, reloading the page reveals I’m not as interested in it at present as when I first viewed it. It’s helped in dropping the tabbage by maybe a few percent which is small but significant. This is an option but not the solution. I’ll definitely need to develop more defences against my problem but that’s do with my wiring–something to grow out of. At the very least, I could bookmark some of them for the future.

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The way this works is that you can set a time limit for how long a tab is inactive before it is suspended, like 1 hour, for example. You can also suspend and not suspend at will. I think the intention of this is to speed up the browser but I’ve been doing it as a tab killer. I’m sure that there are extensions that fit that need better, but that’s something to explore later on.

For other content I should do one of two things: 1.) Say no and 2.) apply the one episode rule. I can’t possibly watch everything suggested so some things I will need to pass up on. That’s not an easy decision to make but it needs to happen for peace of mind. I don’t have to consume anything. “I have to watch this show.” Nay, I say. I reject it!

A softer approach to decide if I can stomach spending more blocks of time on something will be through the one episode rule.

I’ve been considering the active implementation of this for a while. I say one episode because that should be the requisite amount of time to see if this this thing has piqued my interest. More broadly, though, it’s a way of thinking that is not exclusive to episodic content.

So the rule: If it grabs me within the first episode, I’ll keep watching. If not, drop it. It took me too long to get to this point. I stopped watching House of Cards about half a year ago during season 2. I realised too late that I hated the world and characters. The writing’s good but the aggressive amorality was wearing me down more than it was enthusing me: I had no-one to root for, essentially. So I stopped. Now I can watch other things in its place. Like *goes quiet* anime.

Same goes for books: I used to stick it out to the end even if it was mostly boring. But recently I’ve been using the library pretty heavily (my wallet is sickly). What it gives me is a better range of choice without the extra “but I paid money for this” which I guess keeps me reading something that I don’t like.

If it doesn’t work for you, don’t suffer through it. Especially if, like me, a fear of yours is wasted time. Move on to others; your to-read/watch list is waiting for you to make a dent in it. This isn’t to say stop after the first line. I know within 100 pages whether or not I’ll like a book. Often I stop well before then.

A good question to raise here is if the above stated criteria can overrule the one episode rule, to which I answer: I suppose so. If a book isn’t particularly pleasurable but is pretty educational then sticking with it is not such a wasted effort. At least then you walk away with something—you have something to show for your efforts. You need to approach this with some judgement; I can’t speak to your specific needs.

But if you walk away with nothing then what’s the point of engaging with it at all? You read for a reason that isn’t suffering, I assume? Just to make it crystal clear, here’s an example: if I don’t a certain philosophy (Ayn Rand’s, for example) when reading it but had never known about it before in-depth then that’s a worthwhile experience. I’ve learnt something new.

In saying all of this, there’s something that’s been neglected: before any of the above can happen, I’ll have to weigh the newer content with the existing stuff I want to get into/have already invested time into. For me, I would say that my pre-existing list takes precedence over newer content. I would say at a rate of at least two items on my existing list need to be engaged with before introducing new things into the fold. I think I can be pretty strict with this for myself. So finish several books before buying/renting new ones.

For time division, I’ve found that having specific times of day helps guide the content towards meaningful consumption instead of mass hording. I think the issue for me is the plenitude of it all isn’t ordered in a way that’s useful for me. It might be ordered by genre but we’re talking about music and podcasts fighting for your attention alongside books, TV, etc. I’ve found that giving them their own space helps.

So, I’ll try my best to start my day by reading at least 20 pages of a book at a time. Then after I might go through social media and see an article of interest and read that. The day at large I have to choose and shape it around what’s happening but the option to head outside for an extended period of time usually puts a podcast in the driver’s seat, as they work better listened-to at one time as opposed to in bits.

When my podcasts of choice have finished, then move to music. Inverse where desired. The push towards this is to create corners/boundaries where there aren’t any. I know what I like and, coupled with an elimination process means that there’s a high chance I will actually do it. For watching media, after the book, YouTube would be a good to watch, which leaves the evening free for either a film or a TV show. If I pick one on one day, the other must follow on the next. TV show one day, film the next. That way I can get through content sort of in tandem.

Morning: Read books (at least 20 pages); social media for articles specifically; YouTube (1 video)

Afternoon: Podcast > music

Evening: TV or film (pick one).

And I think … that’s a post. To summarise: To get over the tabbing issue, I’ll need to be strict and review whether or not opening up a new tab will be worth my while or an addition to the problem. For new content, consider the one-episode rule. That usually gives me enough of an impression to see if I want to continue. Finally, if I make the consumption slightly more structured then I think I can tackle it effectively. This is by no means a holistic approach, but it’s a nice start. After a trial run I might do a reflective post to assess its effectiveness and change or develop it as appropriate.

*first—and last—dabbing joke/reference
**As someone who fits under the umbrella of BAME/POC, I’m not actually fond of such terms. However, it’s commonly understood and it’s a simple catch-all; I’m not inventive enough to come up with an equivalent. Also, I can swallow my ego for twenty minutes when there are wider social issues at play here. My concerns surrounding this are pretty nuanced and not all coherent but I might write about this in the distant future. No promises though. Thanks for checking in but scroll back up for the main action you sweet silly person you.
***Thanks, Marvel, though you are most certainly not the cause, you’re definitely part of the problem. In saying that, though, I just gobble up your shit so who’s the real chump? In seriousness, what Marvel has done is interesting to analyse as it’s idiosyncratic of modern cinema: a film that’s familiar in the sense that we know what type of film it is, but it does the familiar in a well-enough executed way that audiences enjoy. It makes a tonne of cash, critics love it. The studios are then given essentially free-licence to build a franchise, which is in its own right is quite cool: doing a big connected universe of content for a slightly more fringe slice of pop culture. Marvel’s success pushed its comic book rivals DC to start creating a shared universe as well. No doubt, this is what prompted the Star Wars extended universe to happen. I mean, you look at the billion that Rogue One made worldwide … Star Wars is going nowhere. And neither are franchises. It leads me to wonder what the next big thing is after comic book related media stops, or at least cools down, in the next decade or so. Also, a quick point is that Marvel are by no means the first to do a franchise but they are the biggest and most successful. So.
****This is no way sponsored content. A friend recommended it to me is all.

Being a Better Writer

writing

I couldn’t sleep if this post didn’t have a picture like this to lead it.

In university I was a member of the Creative Writing Society. There I bonded with a diverse group of people who are crazy enough to spend copious amounts of time writing.

I was having coffee with one such friend from CWS (let’s call her Lana). Inevitably we strayed onto the topic of writing: We traded ideas about things we’ve either written or wanted to write (one of the best thing of having writer friends is being able to keep doing this without the person you’re speaking to getting weary by your earnest but misdirected insanity). Now I heard a lot of cool ideas from Lana, things that are possibly more original than anything I’ve seen in the market right now.

Her problem? She lacks focus. Dozens of ideas blossom in her mind to be chewed over, maybe even started, but are inevitably put aside for the next exciting idea, never to be finished.

This isn’t me having a go or deeply criticising her. Far be it for me of all people to be a critic of not being able to focus on one project at a time. I am victim of similar vices; I have a bunch of posts lying in the drafts because of the way my brain is designed, as well as numerous little side projects stuffed under the mattress. That being said, the amount of projects that I finish versus the amount I don’t is weighed greatly in favour of completed things. So while I’m not criticising my friend, she is one example of many that helps to show a ubiquity when it comes to writers and their relationship to the craft. I think it’s worthwhile so we can see what our issue is—of many—and maybe come to some sort of solution about fixing it.

Focus

First, when I say writing requires focus I mean a lot of focus. You have to translate your whirring thoughts into tangible and intelligible symbols and that takes a lot of effort. Also, you need time to work on your project, something that’s not easily available when you have other considerations like a job, a degree, kids, etc. To keep perspective about marrying your basic needs and your desire to craft, keeping focus in mind is key. Effective time management, for example.

Focus is the only way that Projects ever get finished though. All the poems, literature, songs, plays, TV shows, films, games, etc. that you may or may not have consumed, these all had people who sat down and wrote something. They focused on a Project; they finished what they set out to do.

If you explain this to a writer, you’ll get a dismissive wave and they’ll be wearing a distracted frown, eyes on their special Project. They know that. Who doesn’t? Way more qualified people have discussed this, so I’m not going to belabour the point.

What you might not see in the thinking of the writer is why they can’t focus. A large aspect of Not  Writing comes from fear. The Project is a delicate thing that is a part of them, part of their DNA. In a lot of ways, their writing is them.

I’m asking a lot, I know, but imagine having a newborn. A precious, squalling pile of flesh. It cannot speak or feed itself. It is so tiny, so vulnerable, and you love it very, very much.

Now imagine if someone—let’s suppose a tetchy nurse—says that your baby is ugly, apropos of nothing. Worse, imagine if your loved ones did that. That’d be devastating. Why would you say that about my baby? It hasn’t hurt anyone. It couldn’t.

Writing is like that. This precious thing you’ve invested energy into? What if it’s utter crap that no-one likes? And the potentiality of those negatives dulls the brain and freezes the fingers.

If you get to that stage in thinking, that’s sad.

First and foremost: writing should be selfish. It’s yours before it’s anyone else’s. If you like it, then no-one else need to. Seriously. If you can finish something and you look at it with endearment, you’ve succeeded. Nobody else’s opinion on it matters.

Besides, writing that is good and true to the writer will always find a way to its correct audience. Don’t get me wrong though: when those kind of doubts are assuaged, there’s still the issue of doing the thing. In that there will be snags.

The temptation here is to move onto the next thing as soon as you get stuck. Why bother with this thing if it’s not working out, especially considering there are millions of other better ideas that are howling for a little love? Lana might have this problem too. That issue will not suddenly change when you move to a new project because at some point you’ll run into the same difficulties and again, the temptation here is to move on to another idea. With this model, your ideas will be scattered like tombstones across the landscape behind you*. Sooner or later you’ll need to finish a thing.

I’m pretty sure she’s well aware of this. Even with that knowledge, it’s still fucking difficult. But there’ll be an ongoing dissatisfaction if this becomes your only relationship to the craft, much greater than any snag mid-project.

There are ways around this. One such is how writers like Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson write multiple books per year. The advice they usually give is that they tend to move projects when they get stuck and that keeps the words flowing. Splitting your attention across multiple projects might seem a little promiscuous but it might help in reducing an ideas overload in the head. Also, you needn’t write linearly if there’s a snag in the writing. You could write a different scene and come back to the issue later on. This is less confusing than you think and if anything it will reveal the path forwards. The point is to try something.

The Time Issue

You might have got to this point and thought “Well, yeah, dude. This is nothing new.” Okay, true. But what have you done about it? To which another person might add “I don’t have time to write!”. This is something that’s worthwhile to investigate, because it kind of gets to the heart of some people’s issues:

  1. Writing takes a long time to produce.
  2. I do not have a lot of time to write (given commitments x, y, & z)
  3. Therefore, I’m literally unable to write (given commitments x, y, & z).

I want to take this opportunity to say that that’s not strictly speaking true. Mostly because of the second one. My target audience and likely readers are undergrads, post-grads, and maybe recent graduates. You know … grads of varying degrees (with varying degrees, ba-bum tsssh). These people with their varying degrees of busyness are quite different from a CEO, for example. But even with a 16-hour work day you can still write. You might not want to but you can.

For example, I recently did a work experience for two weeks, where I would work 9:30-17:30 daily. Impossibly strenuous, I know. To get there from my brother’s flat was a four-minute walk to the tube, then a half an hour ride. So an hour round trip, roughly. Now this placement was ongoing when NaNoWriMo began. On one day there was a problem on the tube line which meant having to get two buses back home.

Unfortunately, two of them terminated early so the journey, which should take an hour maximum, took two. So I got quite frustrated. Basically, I didn’t feel like writing when I got back. I vegged out for a little bit, true, but then I thought to myself the significance of NaNo to me—to commit to something that’s important to my well-being—and sat down and wrote.

It was horrible. Gruelling and miserable and slow. But I did it. I met my daily word count after a long while and then promptly went to bed. What I’m getting at is writing isn’t always going to be a barrel of laughs. If you wait to feel inspired—or are buoyed along by the enticing prospect of The Other Project—then you’ll write infrequently and that’s not going to be much help to your ambitions. Now, despite my next section I should add that I’m not necessarily advocating for a year-round write every day kind of situation. I don’t and I still manage to get quite large word counts in a year. I’ll explain more in a little while.

Narrow goal and stretch goal (word count limits)

NaNoWriMo is an event where you challenge yourself to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Crazy right? Fifty thousand words. To give you some perspective, The Great Gatsby tots up to just over 50,000 words, which is about 170 pages.

This sounds large and unattainable and it might be the first time you do it: I didn’t do it the first year I tried back in 2010, but since then I’ve completed it five years of the seven years I’ve done it. I’m not boasting but merely trying to say that if I can do it, you most certainly can, too.

To make something like that achievable you need to break it down into workable chunks. Think of working on something in relation to stretch goals and a specific plan to get there. For NaNo, the stretch goal is to complete your 50,000 word novel. The specific plan would be the minimum 1,667 words (rounded up) per day to get there. This is much less scary now, right? It’s still a fair amount to do in a day, especially considering commitments xyz.

But here’s a thought: you needn’t constrain your writing time to one part of the day.

If you commute to work, think about scribbling some ideas down to and from there. If you drive, of course don’t do that, but you still have lunch breaks, certainly? Even if you write a sentence down, which can literally take a few seconds, you’ve written. Oftentimes I’ve developed whole scenes from a few scribbled notes I did earlier on. No notebook? A note in your phone or a blank text work just the same. No phone? Leave a note on your hands.

The point is that it’s about those digestible chunks: If you find a spare few moments, use them. Even the daily word counts don’t need to be done all at once. Typically speaking on a “work day” my attention span can only really manage sub 2000 words which means the word count for NaNo is within my attention span limit. It might not be the case for you. Weekends are good for this sort of thing (provided they’re free).

Being pretty knowledgeable about your attention span will help you focus, especially when you break it down. Because when small digestible chunks get further subdivided, it really does make all the difference. 100 words every hour will be a breeze. Sure if you follow that strictly over the course of one day it will take you all day to get to the desired word count limit. But when you start and get a rhythm going, it’s pretty tough to break it: you’ll find that you’ll get a respectable word count much quicker than imagined. I tend to find that I write more than I thought I could by starting from modest goals: “Write 100 words and go eat dinner” but then I end up writing 500 words and my stomach is growling. Oops.

And, to be clear, the stretch goal needn’t be as extreme as 50,000 words in a month. It could be a different, much smaller, value. Last year, I was fairly committed to writing 3,000 per month** which is 750 words per week, which is just over 107 words per day. Broken down into those figures, they don’t seem so gargantuan or absurd, do they? That’s not even an hour’s work. It’s nice to look at it in terms of the bigger picture, too. 12 of these 3,000 word months will give you 36,000 words in a year. It’s no novel but you’re well on your way. And by the end of Year 2 you’ll have something much more substantial. Think about that long game.

The same for poetry: try a poem per week. Fit the structure to your needs. Script? Several pages per week. Song? You know the drill. Etc., etc.

It’s a work in progress that starts little and eventually adds up over time. To come back to my point from before: I don’t even think you need to write every day to produce the desired amount of work. Even though I am a committed (see: addicted) participant of the respective WriMo events, the main thrust of the advocacy is regularity of writing. Habit-setting is a good way of actually finishing things.

Quality

Beyond the fragility of feeling towards the Project, there might be an issue more localised which is to do with idealisation vs actuation. Last week I talked about how there was a disconnect between the art I consume, the art I want to produce, and the art I actually create. When I started writing novels for real that was very upsetting. I wanted my stuff to have lots of subtle foreshadowing, tasteful subtext, rich characterisation, and an engaging plot which will give it “unputdownable” status on its jacket. My books would make people more moral or some shit. No-one could stop me and my raging Genius.

The reality? Not so good.

Seriously. Those words you write the first time? Stale prose, 2-D characters, obvious unnecessary subplots. Incestuous undertones (don’t ask). Bad rhymes and lazy imagery. Nowhere near close to that ideal. It’s probably because you have good taste***. A lot of creators have that fear. Perfection is the Great Enemy of creators.

And that’s okay.

First drafts need to be crap so you can make it the thing you’ve always known it to be. But you need to finish it and you’ll do that through focusing on the long goal, of working toward its betterment. Now this seems to be in direct contravention of what I said up above. To be 100% clear: above I said that it’s sad if you think your writing’s utter crap. What I’m saying here is some understanding of the qualities and noticeable deficits of your work will go a long way. The first go isn’t going to be gold, but neither is it going to be entirely awful. It’s a learning experience!

Writing that you become acquainted with in popular spaces (novels, poetry, TV, film, etc.), is made in revision and the sooner that’s digested the better your relationship will be.

Writing’s hard and that’s probably why moving on is so enticing. When you start it’s so new and exciting, it might even be easy. But then doubt starts to set in and its flaws are on clear display, and the mood is definitely lowered. Resisting that harsh critic will be the first in many steps to higher quality writing. Sure, I’ve been writing for a while but I’m still learning new things all the time. There are some projects that I’m legitimately proud of that literally would not exist without me writing its shitty first draft. And yes, it’s easier said than done but the potential pay-off should help in assuaging some of those fears. It’s that ideal that you should be working towards, that stretch goal. The specific steps to get there is through constant reformation.

Editing, essentially, is where all the craft comes into writing. The first draft should be reserved for putting the ideas down. Once they’re down, it becomes much easier to develop things into what you want it to be. Thinking about producing that ideal thing the first try will only disappoint and stump you when you come to the page. Enter the writing room with the full knowledge that what you’re putting together needs to be a bit crap before it’s good.

“What about the ideas, man?”

A lot of the things discussed here presuppose that you have a fully-formed idea and the only thing stopping you is yourself. This section is to be the diving board for ideas.

I would recommend ogling. Not that perverted gazing, ogle (though it is about as intense). Focus on the way people talk: are they assertive dominant speakers with direct communication, measured and confident diction, or are they accommodating speakers who steer conversation less directly? Do they use hedges and markers of sympathetic circularity (“um … like … y’know”)?

The best way to collect information if you’re too self-aware to look at strangers (which, let’s be real here, is likely) is maybe pay attention to specific actions of your loved ones. How do they look when they’re excited versus when they’re mad? Are there specific actions attached to certain emotions or do they remain consistent irrespective of mood? Does someone have a lisp that’s noticeable, a way they kind of look up and away into the clouds between—or sometimes during!—conversations, only to pulled sharply back to the ground? Posture, hairstyle. What can you see? It can be the simplest thing. Someone biting their lip, for instance.

Despite what I just said, don’t simply steal from reality. What I’m trying to tease out is what your observations can tell you. What sort of story can they possible evoke?

If, for example, you have a character that has certain traits, don’t copy everything down to the appearance from whom you observed it from. Let’s say there’s someone you know who bites her lip when she’s deep in thought, and reacts to them in real-time, as if she’s engaged in a real verbal conversation. It might be a nice character feature—and will add to realism if you’re taking it from a real person as opposed to an imagined character—but part of the challenge (and fun!) of writing is the creative embellishments.

Take the image of the woman biting her lip again and ask yourself the range of possibilities involved. Why is she doing that? Is she bored? Why? Perhaps she’s in the waiting room. For whom? Is it her awaiting results or is she yet to have a test yet? What can she see, smell? What does this situation (or someone in this room) remind her of, make her fear?

Is she waiting on someone else’s results and here for moral support? Perhaps she’s more worried than her counterpart. But then, who is that supposed to be? Relation, lover? A stranger she feels responsible for? Why?

You could picture her on a date, or maybe just before, and she’s nervous, catching herself on a bench … where? NYC? Seattle? Hong Kong? Leeds? Mozambique?

You see how many different scenarios you can pull out from a simple action such as biting your lip? I pulled that out on the fly. It’s hard to believe because this has been written down so all you have is my word, but honestly, there are so many ways to tell a story from even the simplest of details. You just have to pick a thing and build. It might not lead to anything or might lead into something much bigger. You won’t know until you try. Either way it’s exceptional practice to be able to consider things like that, though they needn’t be so specific.

For other mediums, the same applies, but there might more specific needs. It’s nice to imbibe the rich imagery of your favourite poets, listen to the ways your favourite bands or artists make music, or observe how your favourite screenwriters or directors write and present their features.

The temptation from here is to maybe copy certain styles and then develop there. How about this: when consuming the art you like, what’s missing? What is it that you’d really wish to see? I’ve seen this a lot for people encouraging aspiring book writers but there’s some malleability—some universality—that can be applied here. That might be a good jumping off point for going forward in your writing crusade.

Okay, here are some things to get the juices flowing!

  1. Pick a place and a time of day. Who is your character and what are they doing there? 
  2. An invasion of your hometown has occurred it is [object to your right] but luckily [object to your left] is there to help out. What happens? (I acknowledge the wackiness of this one.)
  3. Write about something memorable in a character’s life. Why is it so significant and how does it shape who the character is? 
  4. Pick a colour! What’s significant about it in your character’s life?

If you think prompts are lame then you clearly don’t like writing as much as you pretend to. Anywhere can be a jumping off point, you just need the right sort of push.

Other resources include:

Writing Excuses. Great (and short!) podcasts about many aspects of writing with an added dimension of specificity.

There are other places like here.
For songs, try here.
For poems, have a look at this.
For scripts, have a peek.

You can also do a Google search. The possibilities are endless.

Okay, you’ve proven that you have more than enough focus to read this. Now go and write! Good luck.

* I took that line from Donny T’s inauguration speech. I found it to be darkly poetic.

**These days I’m averaging 5000 per week. For the most part these posts are part of the problem but I do get some other bits of creative writing done. Regularity has been a big boost.

***It says a lot that I’ve mentioned that Ira Glass quote twice in two weeks now. I hope this doesn’t become a trend, great as it is.

My Writing Story

 

Writing for pleasure began with a very tiny video game called Final Fantasy IX (FFIX).

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So many fond memories …

 

My brother got it for our PlayStation when I was about six or seven so it’s sometime in 2001. This game changed both of lives for the better but to understand its significance we have to talk about an even smaller book series called Harry Potter.

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Contrary to the common thoughts surrounding writers, I was an awful reader as a kid; I didn’t like it all that much. A distant part of myself understood its importance but as an activity of leisure? It was laborious. I’d much rather draw. Besides, where were the pictures?

The same year FFIX was released, the film for The Philsopher’s Stone came out. I think I was pushed to the books when I was told that the films were based on books.

So I went to the school’s library and read up to the Azkaban, which would later become my favourite. My engagement with this showed me the excitement of the written word. Reading could be fun and without pictures. Madness.

So how does this link to FFIX? Well, back in those days, games were rarely voice acted so stories had to be told through text. Now, FFIX had the benefit of (at the time) exceptionally gorgeous presentation, and bright colourful character models and settings. To interact with this story, you’d have to do a lot of reading. But that was fine, because my brother and I would act out the voices of the characters in the game to make it even more interesting. I began to digest ways about the structure of plot and setting, as well as characters from the game and at some point later in the year I wrote a comic, titled Final Fantasy XX.

I chose this title deliberately not for copyright reasons but because I thought I’d pick a future number that was unlikely to be realised in the comic’s lifetime. (I mean, XV only dropped a few months ago so I wasn’t wrong.)

The plot was simple, the narrative poor, but it had almost original (although derivative) characters. Zidane, the protagonist of FFIX is a dude with a monkey-like tail and so naturally my protagonist and any of my original cast would also have these tails. It’d also be derivative of Dragonball Z tropes of energy beams (look above) and transformations. In any case, this is really the first time that I’d engage with the idea of creating stories. At that time, I still wanted to make comic books, more specifically, combining my original love of drawing with a newly found one: Writing.

We continue on in my life, more Harry Potter releases occur that I devour, more films to gush over, and I get to my teens. The notion of reading soaked into my DNA properly now, I swallowed whole the Noughts & Crosses series, at some point Northern Lights coming in as well, alongside other games.

My life would change again by another book. I don’t even remember what it was specifically about it that drew my eye—perhaps, the colourful book jacket? All I know is as soon as I picked it up I needed to have it. It was Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings. Some pages have been loosened and have fallen out (not lost though, thankfully) but safe to say I read that book with some fervour.

 

 

In the early parts of the book, the main character Garion is a child. Eventually there is a time skip and Garion starts his adventure-proper at the age of fourteen, which so happened to be the age I was at the time. This was such a big deal to me that I violently fist-pumped, even though Harry Potter had by now gone through his fifth year at Hogwarts. The book had everything in it I wanted at the time: swords, sorcery, adventure, princesses, danger, gods.

It was an exciting quintet that made me decide to pen a story. Pen being quite literal: I wrote about 30 sides of it on ruled paper over about six months before giving up; I realised how difficult it was to write a novel, especially one with such scope.

Besides, it wasn’t very original. The home country of Garion, for example, is called Sendaria; the home country of my main character was called Rhendaria. Another way that Garion is referred to is as the pawn of prophecy, while my character, Varim, is called the decider of destiny. Even the names are similar: the “a”, “r” and “i” are in the same order and position in the name, being the second, third, and fourth letters. It’s a little uncanny. Not hugely original either.

This is between 2007-2009 and the book eventually fell to the wayside, forgotten about for some years.

Between me picking it up again I had another idea titled Our Dreams, Our Desires, a project that I did for my first ever NaNoWriMo project all the way back in 2010 about a magically-capable girl who is persecuted by armoured authorities sometime in the future. For those not in the know the aim of NaNoWriMo is for participants to set themselves the challenge of writing a 50,000 word “novel” during the month of November. I use scare quotes here because it’s often contested how long a novel is. Usually people say 60k and upwards.

Anyway, I failed, and got around 33,000 words. This is by no means a modest amount, true, however, it was ultimately abandoned. Something about it wasn’t working, I knew tacitly.

Jump forwards to sometime in 2011 and I learn of a similar event that happens in July (this is JulNoWriMo, which is now no longer running, not Camp NaNoWriMo which I do now that Jul is finished). This is a good thing for me because I was still in college during this period which meant I had coursework and exams to wrestle with on top of writing in long form. I had no assignments in the summer and I even had an extra day to write. I knew I had it in me to finish something. All I needed was that something.

I started another attempt at a YA book about 16 year olds. It’s around this time I got into John Green books which would influence me some more. I completed JulNo 2011 with this book named Just Like Old Times. It was a teen fic that I think has origins in about 2009, replete with outrageous plot lines. I was happy to write it though.

The November of that year was dedicated to a similarly-themed—school kids at the end of school*—but much more coherent book called The Heart of Summer. By the time JulNoWriMo 2012 came around, though, I was all out of ideas.

I scrambled around for some until I came  across my crumpled notes of the original draft of my book from back in school: the weathered character sheet, the old maps, the draft pages.

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Character list (right side), age of the character, and another number in brackets to denote position in story: 1 being main, 2 being secondary, etc. I think it also means when they’d be introduced in the story. On the left side of the page is a location list, with notations of what book the characters will visit them in. On the bottom of the page is a synopsis, below which are some words I learned and thought I might use at some point.

This unfinished world and its characters were demanding me to write it to completion. So I did, under the name Trick Fantasy. I can’t remember the reasoning for the title; I did retroactively locate that I had lifted the title from an ability in Kingdom Hearts II but I don’t know the referent of the title and, to be honest, don’t want to go back to that manuscript and find out why. Don’t make me do it!

My experiences writing it are kind of fuzzy but I imagine it was like any other writing month challenge: difficult, irritating, but very rewarding in the long run. Proud of myself, and very exhausted, I knew that this 50,000 words was only the beginning but I eventually left that by the wayside as well, thinking about how I could improve upon it.

Over the next few years Trick Fantasy morphed and developed, and became Trick Fantasy: The Dragon’s Amulet, a much bigger but mostly poorly plotted book about the various people caught in a power grab for an erstwhile fake artefact of a race of creatures believed to be extinct. I got that one to 105k and planned to do two more books in that sequence, but I opted to discontinue it.

When you’re writing a book, especially a big fantasy book, it takes a lot of time. Over that long period of time you grow and develop as person and, as a result, a writer. So naturally you think of the myriad ways in which you can redevelop a story. This book was no exception.

I had done it though; I’d finished my passion project born many years ago and it resembled little of the copy of David Eddings’ classic. It had become its own story. The first typed version of Trick Fantasy was a test in completing something; the second an attempt to tell an original story. There was a lot I was missing but I could chart noticeable differences and there are important elements in this version of the book that continue in its most recent rendition.

But despite this noticeable progress there was still a disconnect between the art I was consuming, the art I wanted to make, and the art I was actually making. Ira Glass mentions it in, you know, that quote of his.

By the time I had finished Trick Fantasy: The Dragon’s Amulet sometime in early 2013 I felt I had read more and played more games—lived more, experienced more—to the point I could do this story justice, and NaNo was just around the corner.

The first step in this change: lose the name. I had played the third Golden Sun game which I had fun with, but not as much as the original two. In it, there’s an equipment set called the Umbra Gear. I liked this name. It means shadow and there is a lot of darkness in my newer idea. In fact, an energy force is named after it because of the shadowy mist that trails from casting the magic. It will do: Umbra it is.

Much of what I wrote in that completed draft of my old story was gone by the time it came to redrafting the book for 2013’s NaNo. And it was at this point it finally left its stilted origins, and began matching my head in what I wanted a fantasy book to do. The world took on new dimensions. Some characters were lost, but newer ideas developed in their place, as well as new characters. It was a much bigger book, too, in that it took well over a year to finish it: January 14th 2015, two years ago Sunday, at just under 175,000 words. I’d only planned for it to get to 150k maximum, but it kept going and going and going. Turns out it’s pretty tricky to write an ending (it made me more forgiving on The Return of the King Extended, but then again I was already pretty soft on it).

I remember it quite clearly. I was in a group study room at the bottom of my university’s library for the Creative Writing Society. One of my good friends had gathered everyone around her laptop to watch a meme. I was hammering away, hurried along at regular intervals, but eventually came to my final line.

I felt nothing. Not complete abject, existential Nothingness, just nothing. I had poured maybe eight years of work into this book which, when done, was about 70-80% to my satisfaction. I announced that I had finished my book to the room, stood from my seat, ass numb from not moving, and watched the video.

Since finishing this draft I’ve started its sequel, but have already thought about the redraft of the first book in this sequence. The changes to this one are much smaller than before which leads me to believe that it’s almost ready, in the final stages of its chrysalis before it emerges Fully Formed (or so I hope). Then I can think about querying the thing (eek).

Now when people find out I’m a writer and ask how many books I’ve written, I often say that I’ve done nine books (as of December 2016). The reality is I’ve only really written about four; I’ve spent most of this last decade rewriting old ideas. That book I finished in December was the second reworking of The Heart of Summer (don’t worry, it’s lost that name, too).

Stories evolve so much over time, it’s kind of ridiculous—and exciting. Here are some things that have happened to my stories in the past decade:

  • Ideas can literally come at you from nowhere. The original idea of Our Dreams, Our Desires is lost to me. My suspicion is that the anime Witch Hunter Robin had some influence on it. The initial premises are near-identical, in fact, so I’m almost completely certain. My reworking of this idea is also lost to me. I know what I was influenced by but I pulled at a lot of threads that don’t resemble any fiction I’ve come across. I’ve come to accept that sometimes that happens though. Some of my more recent book ideas have just struck me from the æther but I think that’s a good thing. Their origins make fun talking points but their instantiations are where the real fun is.
  • Sometimes stories just stop being viable. While I’m firm believer in finishing things to understand what you’re working with (more on that next week) sometimes it just doesn’t work at all and you really need to step away. That’s what happened with my teen fic book. The characters had a reincarnation though. Which leads me onto my next point:
  • Characters can migrate whole projects—even genres. I reworked Our Dreams irregularly between 2012 & 2015**. If you want to think of my characters from that 2010 book as actors, then picture they went out of work. It was a show that had a short and fairly warm reception but was cancelled before the first series was even finished. The cast would reunite again two years later older and a little changed, which fitted my newer, darker book.

I think it’s fun to look back on your influences. If I hadn’t had come across Pawn of Prophecy, I wonder if I’d even be writing this post right now. God knows if I’d be doing anything of the sort without FFIX. 

My writing in non-comic form owes so much to that book though, it’s kind of crazy. In my mid-teens I would end up reading Sabriel, finishing the other two books in the original Abhorsen trilogy (but Nix has thankfully revisited the world on two occasions), a few years later. It’s been a significant influence on me. But what if I had read something like that first? Would I have reacted in a similar way? What if it was His Dark Materials or Noughts & Crosses? It’s so strange to think about.

What I’m influenced by now is so numerous I can’t even list them all. I am a sponge for influences. What’s really been consistent for me is artwork; it really gets the creative juices flowing, probably a symptom of my old drawing habits. Yoshitaka Amano and Akihiko Yoshida continue to be visionaries in the tradition. They’re known, for the most part, for the work they’ve contributed to the Final Fantasy series. They simulate how I could potentially present fantasy worlds.

Akihiko Yoshida’s work

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Some examples of the brillance of Amano.

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Getting a better look at this might be a good idea. 

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This is just a tiny, tiny taste.

What are you influenced by? Is there a piece of work that’s the linchpin for your writing/art?

 

*The main characters were fifteen and sixteen which, at the time someone could legally leave formal education. To think the change in education would be so recent is interesting to look back on.

**The first year was promising but then, for various reasons, it became Waylaid. For a first draft it went through Development Hell. I really struggled with this one.

A Few Thoughts on Publishing

Following on from my post last week, I thought I’d do a more career-specific thing. I couldn’t find a non-confusing way to post them as one entity so I went double. This is mostly for the people who I know personally and haven’t yet graduated and wanted a little insight into their industry of interest. But maybe some elements of it will help others. I don’t know.

Consider it an addendum of sorts, so it’s a much more streamlined version of what I could have written, unfortunately. I want to really flag up that the intentions of this was supposed to give a generic overview of what’s going on so that further exploration has more direction, as opposed to an in-depth analysis of all the components of publishing. Doing something like that is way, way more complex. The finished result is flawed, true, but I think it will serve some function in at least getting the thinking juices flowing.

Another bummer is that again, I’m speaking from the perspective from one who is currently not an insider of the industry: I do have some direct insights because I have actually done some work experience in a publishing house so there’s that (and yes, it was really fun).

Okay, let’s get to it.

CVs and cover letters

For CVs, it’s kind of irritating of me to do this but have a look at that section of my last post. There are other resources like this and this one’s quite detailed as well. The core of these is playing to the potential desirable strengths that will be useful for the job you’re applying for. This will of course vary from job to job. If you’re not certain I will endeavour to cover some examples down below to give you a taste. But only a tiny taste. I don’t want this to get too swollen. From there it’s probably a good idea to do some research of your own then introspect. More on that in a bit.

For cover letters, this is by far the best place to go. Twice I’ve linked to Publishing Interns’ post and I’ll link it until my dying breath. It’s a more comprehensive than anything I, a non-industry member, could produce. At over 4000 words it’s a definitely a Sitting of reading but to centre yourself and your potential cover letter audience, taking some time out to understand what’s needed from a specific role will go a long way in a least making your path a little less winding.

For a little more specific discussion, it’s now time for some introspection: Why you?

Not in a cruel, dismissive way, but seriously, why you? What’s unique about you such that you want position x over Person A? Again, I touched on this in the previous post but what is it that distinguishes you as an individual?

There is a lot of people interested in this industry and it’s those little differences that will make you stand out. Very subscribed. This is a massive cliché, true. I don’t mean to be trite and repeat what people have been spewing at you for years. That, with your knowledge-base is really going to help you with regards to individuation. Knowing what’s what is going to be useful. More on that in a little bit. For now, though, it’s time to Get Real for a second. This industry is so competitive in terms of job applicants per vacancy so the possibility of rejection letters or maybe not even hearing back is basically guaranteed. Rejection is sadly part of its nature. Even with this notion of trying to individuate yourself. I don’t mean this to detract you, but rather to pre-empt the inevitable, so you can steel yourself. All I’m doing is trying to bump your chances, however slight that might be.

Relevant interests will go a long way. You like books? Sure you do. You wouldn’t apply for publishing if you didn’t. But how can you demonstrate that? What have you done as a result of your love? Do you have a place where you review them—a blog perchance? If you do, good, play that up. If not, I’m not sure if you need a blog; a Goodreads account or something equivalent will probably do. (I fully recognise the arrogance of a blog guy talking about starting a blog about blog things. Blog.) There are other platforms that seem to consolidate how people interact like Bookwitty. It seems to be growing in popularity.

The interests needn’t be solely book-related, either. The general idea is—you guessed it—transferable skills. Understanding how sales works for example will transfer (eh? Eh?) to something more industry-specific. There are a lot of ways to spin this because there are so many possibilities that a single, simple-minded person (hi) couldn’t possibly chart them all. But again, introspection. There is bound to be something that will identify you as unique. Working in shops (especially bookshops) might afford you some kind of insight into what people respond to, for example. Those skills might be useful in getting people to look at books.

Other things can involve activities such as having joined a society (and were you consistent with it?). But take it further and consider: Were you on committee? Was there anything specific you learnt during your studies? Then think about their relevance. They should be able to show things pertaining to commitment, cooperation, innovation, etc. Again, the bigger post does this in a little more detail. Let’s not re-tread familiar ground. Keep them in mind.

I had the extreme privilege of being referred to someone in academic publishing so that I could ask some questions. I basically threw questions at her which I’m forever sorry and grateful for her taking the time to answer. One thing that came up in that discussion is not necessarily doing the thing you set out to do.  Suppose you did a degree in History and also wanted to work in a History department for academic/scholarly publishing. She mentioned that while you have direct skills from your degree, doing another subject helps with being objective for the benefit of the manuscripts you could potentially work on. This struck a chord in me because it ran along a similar theme I’ve heard before. See, I’ve been to two talks on publishing at university and a thing I keep hearing is the idea of deviance: you might be gunning for something and find your calling in some place completely different. This might be later-career stuff but you might even be doing a job that at present doesn’t exist. That’s not a bad thing. Keep your mind open.

This would be helpful for someone like me because sure I said I wanted to Editorial before but I didn’t really understand the nuances of it. Some companies with their work experiences tend to let you select what departments you might be interested in and they sort you as best they can in accordance to your preferences. I’ll do a little about this—you guessed it—down below.

Departments & (potential) skills

Now we get to the fun part! Let’s take a look at some of the departments available and what they do and map on some skillsets based upon observations of job adverts. All of them require “organisation”, fyi. Also, these aren’t a complete list of skills but very basic jumping off points.

Understanding the different departments might lift you from the ever-alluring spell of Editorial. This is not to detract you aspiring editors but I do want to point out that there’s much, much more available to look at than just editorial. This is from someone who had vague (and lofty) goals of editing but then realised there are other departments of interest.

Keep in mind that where applicable there are general overlaps between trade and academic, although there is a slight stress for trade. I’ll put some resources down below (take a shot for how many times I type that across this post) that might be useful for academic.

Here are a few:

Editorial

Skills: attention to detail, adaptability, working to deadlines, high verbal and written communication skills, teamwork

Crossover: editorial work for a publication (school/college/university/local newspaper, magazine?) Societies, volunteering?

Ah yes, old reliable. I almost feel like I don’t need to explain this one because maybe some of you are already salivating (see: know more than me). But we’re going to go for it anyway.

Now here’s a thing: there are many different types of editor. Here are some.

Developmental editor: They deal with a book from inception (sometimes before anything’s even written) to publication, helping sort anything integral to the structure of it. Tonal and audience inconsistencies are the primary domain of the developmental editor. Often it’s the case that a developmental editor will see the vision of a book and try and help an author into fulfilling it down to the more structural and argumentative lines. Their job might see them changing headings, sections, removing parts altogether. As far as I’ve read, this is a type of editor who is usually found in non-fiction.

This is actually a really complex sort of position (so you probably won’t see a whole lot of junior DEs but it’s nice to know). Doing some research on these types of editor will go a long way.

Copy/manuscript editor: Before something is proofed, its copy is shaped into something much more manageable. When people think of what an editor does, I’m pretty sure this is the type of editor they picture. This, and maybe the acquisitions editor, as well. They deal with the typical grammarian’s interests (grammar, punctuation, syntax), and slash through inconsistencies in plot and style. Lots of rewrites can be suggested as well. Again, this is a taste. Do some digging into the role.

Proofreader: This is a later-stage kind of editor. Other copy-editors will have had a chance to polish a manuscript to a more presentable quality but there still might be errors, even after a good few rounds of edits. Images, diagrams, text, footnotes. Nothing is safe from error. Some proofreaders have been known to do line-by-line edits; they check for errors and inconsistencies in comparison to the last draft and go over it with a fine-tooth comb. The changes in the book aren’t super drastic here, mostly it’s just to make sure things are as tidy as possible.

Here’s a nice, digestible page that explains it in more detail.

Acquisitions/commissioning editor: These are the talent finders. These are the people an agent or an unrepresented author will send manuscripts to. Complications with this job lie with competing with other editors for the same work. If a bid is successful, and the editor acquires a book, they will work with a manuscript to improve on it. Another thing this type of editor might do is persuade people into potentially writing books to publish. For example, someone who is a researcher at a university might be working on something interesting. A editor might approach such a person and ask if they would like to publish a book on the topic, or something related to it. This requires a lot of tact and it’s useful to understand that the efforts might not even result in anything.

Keeping track of trends is essential for making an effective editor. There’s a lot of information out there so looking for what’s interesting and what could work in the market is a muscle that editors spend a lot of time training.

Design (& Production)

 Note: these two are often considered separate but their work has a lot of overlap (like how some companies put marketing and publicity together even responsibilities and roles are different (hence the different names)).

Skills: good communication, team-work, artistry (Design-specific), numeracy (more for Production)

Crossover: group work (presentations, art collabs?), socials for societies (where expenses and other costs were involved, for example. Treasurers?). Done anything bigger? SU events, perhaps?

So this is an interesting department because think about what editors do: the fine-tooth comb of a manuscript from tattered Promise to polished, publishable piece of work. Now design and production are an even finer aspect of that: where editors fix plot, grammar and punctuation, Design and Production are more associated with the aesthetics of the book as books you know and recognise.

In the case of Design, their jobs revolve around your first encounter with a book: the jacket.

This actually a much trickier process than you think because there are a lot of complicated factors involved that makes it a whole department/job, depending on what the publisher goes for. Therein lies one complexity: sometimes publishers have in-house designers, sometimes they outsource.

The kind of considerations that Design needs to be wary of to make an effective cover are wide-ranging. So part of the nuances of sales, marketing, and publicity lie in the state of the market itself. There may be certain regularities in terms of types of book jacket within a certain genre that designers have to be sensitive to: biographies and celebrity cookbooks tend to have more candid photography, as opposed to fiction, for example. Fiction might have an array of different covers that range from photographic, or art piece. Book covers are a kind of language of their own and convey the tone and mood of the material, to draw the eye and all that jazz.

Compare the two types of cover for A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

 

UK cover on the left, US on the right

They both kind of convey different moods: the UK edition conveys a sense that this is about city life in some capacity, while the US one goes for completely different route. I know the book is about suffering in some capacity (it’s on my shelf; I’ll get to it) so I think it’s playing into that.
(I’d love to know what influenced the decision for such a sharp distinction. The US cover kind of reminds me of one of The Secret History’s.)

Crime

From left to right: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling, The Likeness by Tana French, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Afterwards by Rosamund Upton.

These crime/mystery books have similarities. Not so much in colour scheme but in conveying mood: the dark, creepy natures they’ll inevitably explore. I particularly like Afterwards‘ cover. It’s kind of haunting.

YA

From left to right: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green; The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky; If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.

It’s not so striking but there are similarities in the style of the brightness of colours, the letters, the choice of image.

All of these kind of things Design has to be aware of so that books are on-brand and fit with both the market and the audience.

Now, this happens over the course of time and they have to be sensitive to the editors’ requests and the expertise of sales, marketing, and publicity. As mentioned before, there’s the actual manuscript to read to know what kind of mood to evoke on the cover (for example); it’ll be weird to have a crime-like cover for an otherwise upbeat and optimistic book.

Also, I’m pretty sure that, while the author rarely has direct creative control, they have vetoing power over what’s final—so they can approve or refuse a cover design. This, again, makes Design’s role lengthy and complicated.

There are a lot of forces at play, clearly. Now, outlining this makes it seem like it’s all doom and gloom but 1.) to ignore the difficulties and complexities involved in a job is strange and reductive and 2.) I want to expand upon what’s what because when you look over what Design are responsible for you probably have a deeper appreciation for what they do. I know I do. I don’t think I understand the depths of it completely but, especially if you’re creative, maybe this is something you might want to consider. Hopefully this makes sense.

There are slightly more complicated aspects of the process which this post explores much better (even though admitting too that they have streamlined) so have a read through that if it helps.

Now for Production. Production is the step after editing and after Design, and is handling of quite business-y aspects like the cost of printing and binding of books, as well as negotiating with suppliers of paper and the printers they use. There’s a fair bit of maths involved in Production because it’s about cost-control. There are some innovations regarding digital presses over book plates. I’m not going into book plates and why this is better than them in specific cases, but the basic gist is that backlist (older) titles have a chance to be reprinted on-demand in smaller amounts over doing bigger and more costly print runs as is necessary for other modes. If this is confusing, look here for a more expert look at Production.

Publicity & Marketing

Skills: Administration, knowledge of digital packets (Office, Excel, Word, etc.), social media experience, teamwork

Crossover: Office work, group projects, societies

So we have a book. It’s been edited, is close to being proofed, and had some design work done. Now we need to talk about it, get it out there, make people want to buy and read it. This department deals with the visibility of a book in a market. Typical days in this department usually revolve around mailing (tonnes of) books to journalists or bloggers for review, writing press releases (a document that details what a book’s about, its potential audience, when it’s out, who the author is, maybe some reviews from other authors and/or notable figures). Other things in their purview is advertisements both on the street (the Underground, billboards), and in newspapers and magazines, as well as promoting them on social media as well.

Market awareness is a must: what sells and when, what’s the best way to connect with audiences?

I’m doing a lot of broad brushstrokes here but there is a surprising amount that’s done. If you can think about ways in which people can connect audiences with books, this is what Marketing and Publicity are responsible for.

Now I picked these few because I feel that’s enough to whet the appetite. Of course I didn’t take into account the many other departments: sales, finance, digital, distribution, amongst others. Thing is about these, there are more aspects of the industry that all operate but aren’t commonly discussed. A real eye-opener when I did my work experience was the complexity of a publishing company, even in one tiny part of a floor, which can be very expansive. This makes sense but sometimes it needs direct exposure for that complexity to sink in. You have to think about the many ways in which just a single author with just one of their books is affected, and how many hands touch it. It isn’t just the editors but there a lot of components at play, all connected and working at the same time for a common goal.

Bonus round: literary agents and bookshops.

Literary agents

Skills: Verbal and written communication, teamwork, attention-to-detail, empathy

Crossover: Societies, volunteering, teamwork.

The literary agent is the essential conduit between publisher and author. They obtain manuscripts and represent authors, connecting them with an appropriate publisher. Because of the nature their work, above average knowledge of the market is crucial in their decision to represent authors. Their role also includes some editorial work for marketing purposes as well. Agencies are really worth looking into, especially for those looking into Editorial.

Working in a bookshop has many facets that are useful to the industry as a whole. I’ll leave this one to you to look into.

Knowledge and distinction

Right, let’s get back to that individuation thing I was blabbing on about before.

A good way to demonstrate your interest in the industry is showing your market awareness. This should be fairly straightforward but I feel like it’s pretty important to not miss out on.

Some right here:

BBC Radio 4, KCRW, Dear Book Nerd, Penguin Podcast, Book Riot.

Book Riot and BBC Radio 4 podcasts are perhaps the best way to engage in book news week-on-week. I have a slight preference for Book Riot but find mediums that work for you. A particularly notable podcast is from Penguin where Richard E. Grant interviews Neil Gaiman, who is a riot.

Podcasts are a non-strenuous way of getting useful information and they fit nicely around the commute and/or breaks.

Again, this is not a complete list. Finding out what’s useful is part of the fun of it all, actually. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still learning the ropes.

Non-podcast-y stuff

Essential news sources are the Bookseller & Publishers Weekly. Your newspapers and magazines? These go onto your list. Check regularly. For academic publishing, The Scholarly Kitchen is a must. If you’re interested in academic publishing, you might want to get to grips with the notion of Open Access. If you don’t know what that is, follow the link and type it into the search bar. From there, get reading.

Bookmachine is also a good resource for things happening within the industry. Articles on here tend to be quite short and easy to digest.

I am sure there are others but the best way to learn about what’s happening currently is to follow the publishing houses on social media. Twitter seems to be the popular way of communication but there are other means to keep on top of things. Facebook and LinkedIn, for example. Though, Twitter tends to be the most popular because information dissemination and reaction tends to be quicker.

Job things

Now’s the point where everyone takes a deep breath. This isn’t a holistic list but a good jumping off point. As I mentioned before, it’s a very, very popular industry of interest so it can be difficult to break in. The usual progression is from work experience and internships to assistant roles and onward. That being said, these aren’t always prerequisites for a job as sometimes other things might attract an employer’s attention. Even with that notion in place, you’d be hard-pressed to find roles, even entry-level ones, that didn’t require at least some prior experience in the industry. Most job adverts will have that in their descriptions. Knowing that will be helpful in directing your attention into where to begin. My advice would be to go for a wider spread of opportunities. Language typical in some adverts mention ideal candidates, so there is some wiggle room to demonstrate those oft-discussed transferable skills that might circumnavigate the need for some kind of experience. If it’s within your financial range, gaining some inside knowledge is worthwhile, the most accessible being work experience. Though for many the work experience might not be an option, especially since the larger publishing houses tend to be in London. If you’re broke and far, I think there’s some room to negotiate. I’d ask about that though.

Work experience is typically unpaid, but houses do reimburse travel expenses and lunch up to a certain price. PRH, for example, reimburses up to £75 per week for both travel and lunch costs (up to 60 per week for travel, 15 for lunch).

Internships are typically paid and have to be above minimum wage. All the companies I’ve listed below do pay so it’s not a concern here but do keep that in mind.

There’s a rant in me but I’m not going to let it out. Anyway, let’s get to where you can look for some opportunities.

Bloomsbury: For work experience, they have speculative applications. Apparently they’re booked up from at least half a year in advance. In terms of jobs, there are fairly regular postings of assistant roles.

Creative Access: if, like me, you’re from what’s known as a BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) background then CA have opportunities that they post year-round with really, really good salaries. Recent news sees them in danger. I hope they pull through.

Faber & Faber: They post on their site as and when opportunities arrive, which is not on a set schedule. If you want to be hired by them, your best bet is to follow their social media and keep your ears to the ground. They no longer do work experience and internships, opting instead to package that with certain degree courses.

Hachette: pretty regular work experience that gives you a shortlist of imprints and departments of your interest to help shape it to you as much as possible. Looks like they’re opening up new schemes for the new year so keep your eyes peeled for that.

HarperCollins: work experience seasonally, 18-month paid internships advertised in Spring according to the site, so keep an eye out for that. Opportunities across the year. Lots of assistant roles.

Penguin Random House: Work experience year-round but closing dates around certain times. The January-February slots have closed but there’ll be more openings soon. Internships are ten week paid affairs, usually advertised around March, according to their site.

Verso: They offer six paid internships for Spring, Summer, and Autumn, respectively. Spring internships have closed with Summer deadlines to be announced.

Others
The Guardian (Updates Mon & Fri): Lots of opportunities here. Check as regularly as you can.

The Bookseller (Updates Sat, typically): Some graduate stuff, some assistant stuff. Check as often as possible.

Independent Publishers Guild or IPG (updates fairly regularly; I’m not certain when): Quite a few regular opportunities that offer a mix of entry-level and experienced roles from independent publishers (hence the name). Worthwhile to check in every now and then.

Bookbrunch: Updates less frequently but, again, check in.

bookcareers: In terms of jobs they operate through a CV clearing house where your CV is uploaded to their site and potential employers will look for you. If this sounds terrifying, it is, but it’s all the more reason to polish your CV.

Atwood Tate & Inspired Selection [two links]: Recruitment agencies. There are a fair mix of jobs from entry-level to more experienced. Useful to keep in mind.

Publishing Interns updates regularly regarding entry-level work. Keep an eye on the blog for a collection of opportunities available in a given week, and the Twitter pages for new jobs that roll in as the week goes by.

The Society of Young Publishers (SYP) offers a lot perks in terms of book events and the like that come with the cost of membership. Not so much on job things though I’m pretty sure they have a few they host on their site. Even without jobs, it could be a useful resource.

I think I’ve exhausted all my limited wells of knowledge of jobs and publishing. Remember when I said an addendum? It’s actually bigger than the last one! Apologies. I got excited when I was researching the thing. I omitted a lot so I could actually get through the content though so I hope this helps. If there are any more resources, please send them my way. These are the ones I encounter where the pages are updated pretty regularly.

In terms of the blog more broadly, no more jobs things for a while now. The next two weeks are going to be about writing.

On Unemployment and Graduate Life

I apologise: it’s a bit of a clickbait title to say that this graduate has a discernible “life”.

At the point of writing I’m still an unemployed graduate so you might already be thinking about why I of all people should be writing a post such as this? This is further proof that you should approach my stuff with a certain degree of dubiousness. I do think my missteps have allowed some clarity which could be useful, though.

Being unemployed is difficult.

It’s isolating and lonely because you can’t soak in the joys of fellowship because you have no money so people asking to hang out brings you pain not pleasure. The internet’s a useful tool to make sure you’re not completely alone but it’s still not the same as a flesh-and-blood conversation. The degree that you sweated your arse off for seems like a flimsy piece of paper that has little to no value. You never have enough experience and it’s impossible to get it with your budget of zero quid. You must be Objectively Bad.

It’s a head-clutching time that, if not dealt with as much grace and determination that you can muster (which needn’t be a huge amount, just enough to take it a day at a time), it can be very Sad, a long haunting spectre of “I’m not good enough!” dogging your footsteps.

Here’s a weird paradox that you might encounter during this time: you want to be employed for a career but you also want to sustain yourself in some way so that means getting a job, but having a job of course means that you can’t partake in the vetting process that’s involved in getting the desired job (interviews and stuff). Here’s another niggle: some sites list job adverts naming them as “graduate” roles but they come with the caveat of requiring 2 years of experience in a chosen field, something that’s not at all likely if you’ve studied full time. It’s agitating.

If a job is not on the cards due to it being irregular shift work, or the vetting process for even part-time work is being as quick (slow) as your desired career, consider welfare.

Getting on some welfare is not the end of the world.

A lot of media likes to vilify the very concept of welfare. Often it seems that the only people who are on welfare are scroungers—frauds, low-lifes, nobodies—and if you ever get to the point that you require it then you’re a failure. This is sad for a lot of reasons I’m going to refrain from expanding upon, but anyway, get on it if you need it. It exists for this exact purpose so if you’re not walking into the welcoming arms of employment when you graduate, you’ll probably have nothing. It’s not like our job market’s booming. It’s understandable.

Moving in on this early is especially pertinent if you’re eligible for Universal Credit. The payment process takes 6 weeks but it’s at least a week on top of that for your registration to be acknowledged. The sooner you do it, the better. The requirements for JSA/welfare are usually that you should be searching for employment for such and such hours per day but I assume that you want to be employed so behaviourally you won’t be doing anything different (it might be a bit more than you think but it’s by no means a taxing amount). Co-operate with your work coaches. In general, they’re pretty friendly and patient people. They get it: the economy’s bust. The children have been failed. Broken Britain. Thanks, Brexit, etc.

The bulk of this post is to explore some other things I’ve picked up on the Long Road.

CVs and cover letter tips

1.) CVs

With regards to the old curriculum vitae: brevity is a gift. You’ve probably heard this enough times before but the CV is about information, facts: you’ve got to get out where you studied, where you’ve worked, skills, hobbies & interests, all within two pages. You haven’t got time to chart a tome-sized epic, as large as the temptation is.
That being said, being specific with what you did in certain roles will go a long way. So describe your duties, responsibilities, and main achievements, then quantify these accomplishments where possible.

(Improvements and expansions are obviously favourable: “I worked in a team that managed project X and we got firsts,” as a stock example that definitely did not happen to me. Seriously.)

CVs needn’t be the standard format either: they can even be a little creative (within reason/it’s relevant).

Here’s a thing you might not have thought about: think about making a CV into a pdf.

I was at a graduate jobs fair many moons ago at university and the person presenting, a recent graduate, told a horror story about how she did an application. It took her hours of careful formatting to produce but the person she sent it to gave it right back, saying that she “didn’t bother” formatting it—it was a mess.

The truth of the matter was that both the person and the employer had different versions of Word and that meant that the formatting for one didn’t carry over to the other. So putting your CV into pdf format will preserve your formatting. This is something I’ve not seen enough of before. Unless expressly asked for as a Word document, which has happened to me (though it didn’t result in anything—not bitter, promise), I would go for making your Word CV into a pdf, and keep a copy in either format, making sure to edit both of them when appropriate.

The actual content of your CV usually follows a basic structure: your name and contact details; a four or five line personal statement, education, work experience, skills and achievements, and hobbies and interests. Again, within two pages.

I’ll break down each bit from top to tail.

i.) Name and contact details. Fairly self-explanatory. Your name, address, phone number, and email address all go here. Should go without saying that crudeness in the email should be avoided (no “wellhung@hotmail.co.uk”, thank you very much).

ii.) Personal statement. This is pretty tricky but having four or five lines describing who you are (graduate, current job role, etc.), what you can offer. It’s best to update this regularly and for every job you apply for because certain jobs might require you to privilege certain skills over others. In a lot of ways, the personal statement is a truncation of the CV-proper, but with the added bonus of being even more directed at the specific role. It’s like a synopsis for you.

As I said, it’s pretty tricky to get this right. Reed has a good guide for one if you’re stuck and have never done one before. Through this link, there is more general advice (if you scroll down there’s stuff to help out graduates).

iii.) Education. Where did you go to school/college and/or university? What did you get? Don’t laboriously list every grade. “number of GCSEs between grades and z” usually is enough. That’s if you even want to include your GCSEs. If all your A-Levels are different letters then do that. That won’t take up too much space. Neither should your degree result (or equivalent) if you just put the grade and subject, as well as the place you got it from. Go from most recent to least recent so university downwards if you’re a university graduate, for example.

iv.) Work experience. This covers work experience, internships, and actual jobs you’ve undertaken. Listing what you’ve done in each of these roles and understanding their relevance is useful to highlight. For example, going for a marketing role? Highlight where you might’ve aided a customer, helped shift products, or promote and distributed things. This needn’t be huge. Retail experience will give you similar skills that you can highlight, and demonstrates your understanding of how you can help transfer skills from one role to another. Again, start from the most recent thing you did.

If it’s been over four years since you had an experience, it’s probably worth removing it from your CV altogether.

v.) Skills and achievements. This is to cover anything not part of your work experience. Any extra-curricular activities. What societies have you joined, for example? If so, were you committee? Any other kinds of things? Part of any student-bodies?

vi.) Hobbies and interests. There might be overlaps with skills and interests but this section is for anything else that rounds you out as an individual. Anyone can put that they like to read on their CV but that’s hardly uncommon. Besides, it has little relevance. Let’s say that you want a finance role. If you put “reading” what do you read that relates to that? The Financial Times, The Economist? Do you read anything else?

When people say “tailor” your CV, really tailor it. Every aspect of it has to reflect your interest and relevance for the desired role.

Don’t bullshit in this because your interviewer can see pretty easily if you’ve lied. My general rule for people who are worried about what to put in sections v.) & vi.) is that everyone has something of interest that they do/have done. Think carefully and list them down, then decide on which ones are likely to be useful on a CV.

N.B.: I’ve laid out the CV structure as such but honestly you can mess around with it. Example: you might want to put your work experience before your education. Keep your personal statement near the top though. It’s supposed to tease the CV and it’s pretty useless in the middle or the bottom.

2.) Cover letters

Sweet Mother Goddess cover letters. The bane/boon of the application process. This can either be the best or worst time during your application.

I’ll do what the cover letter is not: it is not CV Redux: The Long And Accomplished Times of [name]. It is a way to demonstrate a vested interest in the company and role that you are applying for. This is hard to pull off. It requires very specific skills that can be the difference between an interview and the dreaded no response.

It has to convey your interest in the role, the skills you’ve cultivated that are relevant for the role, as well as why you might be an asset to this company as opposed to an awkward flailing mess (that’s a band name to shelf). For a more detailed way of cover letter etiquette, have a look at Pub Interns’ incredible post. I found it just after sending off an application that followed basically none of those rules and I didn’t get a response (surprise, surprise). Though it’s specific to publishing, it has a lot of things in it that are transferable for other sectors, I’m sure.

Also, another weird thing is that you have to marry the idea of job application promiscuity and showing a vested interest in a specific job role which, considering the likelihood of even getting a rejection letter is hard to think about, and is worse if your interests are multifarious—even worse if you’re applying for different roles in the same company.

The probability that your dream company (if you have one, that is) will hire you and you’ll land your dream career in mere weeks is low. That’s just the reality.

But if you have a dream sector and you apply for all the companies doing that then the response probability increases … but is still low. So of course the natural solution is to focus on a maximal set of companies: just fire off a bunch of CVs and cover letters and hope that there’s a fair ratio of call-backs from that large quantity.

Unfortunately, companies have a lot of applications to sift through so they’ll know what they don’t like in an application fairly quickly, and unoriginal, template-filled affairs are going to be ignored. I learnt this hard way.

Treat every cover letter like it’s a work of art. They take time to write, I know, but the potential pay-off, both literal and metaphorical, makes it worthwhile.

3.) Interviews

Preamble: Okay so I’ve only really had like four interviews in my life, two of which were a formality because they needed the numbers for their workforce and just wanted to know that they weren’t hiring a complete buffoon (jury’s still out, sadly) and the other two I flopped despite them being low-energy and casual.

This is slightly tangential data but the first of the two low-energy-and-casual interview was a gentle Stage 1 before Stage 2 which was supposed to be a much more rigorous and stressful experience. The second of these low-energy-and-casual interviews was a diabolical cocktail of Literally Unavoidable Lateness (I planned my journey to account for an extra hour Just In Case and my coach swallowed that hour whole and crapped out another ten minutes so I ended up getting there just about on time but very flustered) and General Unpreparedness. I researched, sure, but being flustered meant I couldn’t centre myself. Naturally I did not get the job. That was a very dark day.

The short: I am quite possibly—quite certainly—the worst person to ask about interviews in terms of what one ought to do. But what I hope this section will do instead is show you something from someone who has slipped up enough to know what’s what. A learning process, if you will. Learn from the buffoon and avoid everything he has done.

Clichés incoming:

i.) Do your research into the company you’re interviewing for.

This should be obvious but if you legitimately show interest in the job and company you’re interviewing for, it will go a long way. It’s bandied around a lot, true. But an easy way to know if a company’s a good fit for you is when you research them you don’t feel exceptionally drained. Enthusiasm for a company is fairly difficult to feign. Though I am certain people will try to prove me wrong.

The kind of research has to be a little deeper than the research for your cover letter, more than the About page and a couple of blog posts. Look to trends and previously favourable incentives the company has done. Stay positive. If you criticise (which I say it’s better to stay away from but hey, what do I know?) then do so with the intention of effecting change, improvement. Note this, however: you’re clearly desirable if you’ve got to the interview stage and there are a lot of fresh things that graduates can contribute in terms of new ideas, but remember that people already working in the industry trump you in experience of said industry. Obviously. Again, this is not to say that a fresh perspective is not desirable. I mean I’m going into detail on a less-than-likely scenario but really, really be careful with this.

Bonus round: be wary of the news. I don’t mean have a grasp of it in a I Know Everything There Is sense, I just mean know what’s what in the news. Current affairs, and the like. You’re more likely to be asked about your industry and the news therein but don’t rule out general news. I think they ask this so you can demonstrate awareness of wider cultural impacts and changes to the social sphere both locally and globally.

Every time I’ve been asked about this I’ve fluffed it and since then I’ve been reading New Statesman and Guardian long reads feverishly to make up for my awful failing* of Not Being Informed. These take a while. Just explore farther afield than your Twitter or Facebook feed for more realistic and less time-consuming endeavours. Most articles online average around the 800-word mark which is about a 10 minutes committed read at most. 10 minutes of your day is not going to be a burden, especially if you’ve got nothing going for you.

Hell, even read papers and magazines you don’t normally go to. There’s always new stuff to learn. Everyone tells it differently.

*it was literally only one time. That was enough for me.

ii.) Answer the question. If you don’t know, it’s fine to take a moment and think about it. It’s way better to not know than bullshit an answer. It’s embarrassing. Also, sometimes interviewers ask questions that even they can’t answer so demonstrating your abilities to solve a problem shows off your skills, especially in unfamiliar territory, which you’re more than likely to land in during the job. It’s not the answer per se, but rather how you get there that matters.

iii.) Handle your nerves. This is not always the easiest the thing to do, I know. Sounds lame, I know. But if you charitably acknowledge that the interviewer is not trying to catch you out, but genuinely trying to ascertain your skills, especially in relation to your application, then things should fall into place. At least a tiny bit. Nerves are natural. Remember to breathe and take your time.

iv.) Follow up; ask some questions. People love this because it does two things:

1.) Shows your interest because you’re listening and;

2.) Brings the interview as close to a conversation—a two-way interaction—as possible.

A good one that I like to use is asking about the qualities and challenges of the interviewer’s day-to-day life. This is a good and simple one because you’ll get a quick insight of what you’d be doing on a daily basis.

There are others but ruminate on them further.

Think about what you don’t know about the industry as opposed to asking a question through the lens of what you do know (though that can be good if it’s framed well). This way it’s from genuine curiosity. Scribble a few ideas down before your interview or—even better—ask after things you’re curious about across the course of the dialogue. Here’s a useful post to get the ideas flowing.

I think it’s fair to say that there’s an implication in your interview you want a job for more selfish reasons, like basic sustenance as well as non-essentials. This is of course beyond what the role provides intellectually and skills-wise, so being sensitive to the idea that it is Known you want the Basic Sustenance As Well As Non-Essentials, while not explicitly saying that is what you want, will go a long way. You should probably not mention salary at all. Only if you’re asked.

I don’t know the nuances of salary expectations when it’s requested of you but it’s generally accepted that the starting salary of a graduate in 2016/17 is between £19,000 and £22,000 so negotiate between there. If there’s demand (which I doubt) I’ll come back to this point because I wouldn’t know where to begin with this but it’ll be pretty useful to know.

The hilarious thing is that even through learning more about improving your chances, it’s still very plausible that you might not get what you’re after. This has been one of the hardest parts of the job application process.

It might sound trite but do your best and try not to take it personally, which is biting advice considering, and very tough to swallow, trust me. But it is true. Take every loss as a chance for growth, fuel for determination. It takes some time to actually secure work but you’ll get there. Those articles are gloomy in tone, the process might seem crushing, but we still have to try. Else what’s the point?

Right, how about some actual job resources, eh?

LinkedIn is constantly bandied around for where one can find potential jobs. I personally have not mastered the resource so I can’t massively vouch for it. But it might be worthwhile to do some investigating in case it can be useful. Here’s a way to help use it. And another right here.

If you know what industry you want to get into, following their Twitter and Facebook pages and checking frequently is useful for any new job opportunities that may or may not be posted on their respective company websites. Some people have spoken about asking companies directly about opportunities. Some people love this and there are some success stories. I have not done that yet. I’ve sent off an application for some courage but it’s still pending, so *shrugs*.

The Guardian has a comprehensive list of jobs that can be subdivided into industry and job level. Good resource. I know it updates on Mondays and Saturdays but I only have this information in relationship to the publishing industry but I can’t see how it doesn’t apply to the site more broadly. Check frequently.

Graduate Talent Pool from the Government posts fairly frequently in a variety of industries that you can sort through the drop-down menu.

Inspiring Interns has a system where grads post a video CV (usually about 30-60 seconds) and potential employers will offer interviews if they’re interested. Good spread of a wide-range of jobs. The sign-up for this is pretty painless.

Target Jobs tends to have a lot of opportunities about. Less so for some creative jobs but if you’re interested in stuff like finance there tends to be some arable pickings.

Prospects is another site. Not too familiar with it but it is a resource worth investigating.

Then there are the typical job sites such as Reed and Indeed.

Any others, I’d love to know about to add to the list. You know for, er, unselfish reasons.

Good luck out there. Leave some for me, too.