Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Finding your Muse

As I constantly tell anyone who will listen, the beauty of being a writer is that you can do your work anytime, anywhere with very little restrictions…except for the ubiquitous procrastination or creative blocks that can follow you wherever you go.  As I sit in my childhood bedroom with the pale blue walls, white curtains and bedspread with the blue flowers and ruffles, I am reminded that inspiration comes from a variety of sources but I’m having a hard time focusing as I’m mentally transported back to when I was 12 and my purple room was transformed into a more sophisticated blue as I headed into my teen years.  But, I digress.  I am home in Halifax, Nova Scotia for the holidays and am missing my muse – a 15-pound, black and white feline named Zorro.  It’s dawned on me that his furry presence keeps my creative juices flowing or jump-starts them when they’ve ground to a halt.  Sometimes he’ll just lay quietly curled up on the carpet behind me as I’m tapping away and when I can’t find the right word or phrase I’ll just spin around in my chair and watch him sleeping or languidly washing his face, curling both paws over the top of his head and around his ears.  Sometimes he feels the need to be a little closer and will fill in the remainder of the desk space that my laptop doesn’t take up.  At any point that my fingers lay motionless on the keyboard, he’ll gaze at me with those piercing yellow eyes, blink once slowly and almost telepathically transfer a brilliant idea.  I always thank him and he gives me a self-satisfied look as I resume my work with new fervor and my fingers again fly over the keyboard like the words are being channeled by some greater being.  That’s what having a muse is all about.

So, as I do travel quite a lot and I can’t usually cart my fat cat everywhere I go, it makes sense to me to create an army of muses that can be conjured up at will.  It’s like finding your happy place in a variety of locations.  An active imagination helps but what writer doesn’t have one of those?  As I glance out the window at a blustery winter morning I see the sun is about to come up (I’m still jetlagged so am waking up way before sunrise).  The wind blowing through the trees sounds like a hundred voices telling me that today’s a great day for writing.  Who am I to argue with my Muses?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Book Review: Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment by Tim Brookes

Join me the 1st of every month as I review a new book.  I will focus on travel, expat adventures and various small business resources.  For my first review I have chosen Tim Brooke's Thirty Percent Chance of EnlightenmentA journey across India in search of the meaning of water, supported by the Champlain College Publishing initiative.
Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment is a behind the scenes look at author Tim Brookes’ adventure to India while on assignment for National Geographic to do a story on forecasting and preparing for monsoon season.   I read it while in Malaysia, just recently (so it was actually during monsoon season) so I really got into the mood and anticipation of it all.  I read most of it while on a bus making my way from Kuala Lumpur to Penang Island.  I know most people can’t put themselves into a place that matches the location of a story physically, so Brookes does a great job bringing you into the story with him.

It’s a philosophical and comical look at circumstances that go way beyond his control and how he deals with it.  I often found myself grinning widely and even laughed out loud on several occasions.

He sets out on his assignment with a plan to interview experts and regular people about preparations for the coming monsoon season.  His first contact is logically the Meteorological Department of India.  Unbelievably, his requests for an interview are denied.  He’s shocked.  It’s National Geographic, isn’t it?  It’s explained to him that they won’t be able to help him because he doesn’t have a filming permit.  And, it doesn’t matter how many times he tries to explain that he’s a print journalist and does not have a TV crew with him so won’t be doing any filming the “access denied” message is sent throughout the system.  So he sets out trying to find a work around solution and meets up with lots of colorful characters who are more than willing to help him on his journey.  But, they don’t always have the same game plan in mind as he does. 

Early on in his research for the story he has a revelation… "some things are more important than meteorology.”  Even though he’s on assignment to write about how the people of India prepare for monsoon season he comes to the realization that the people who live there just don’t believe the monsoon is as big a deal as the weather forecasters in the U.S. do.  They really don’t do anything to “prepare” they just accept that when it comes, it comes and they deal with the aftermath as best they can. 

During the monsoon season, tourists stay away, thousands of people can be (and have been) killed every year but it’s prayed for as it is believed to be the lifeblood of India.  They ask: How can water be bad?  Our bodies are mostly water.  Blood is 92% water, brains and muscle are 75% water and bones are 25% water.  We can’t live without it. 

So Brookes just lets himself go and embraces whatever experiences the countryside will bring…including those that may not be that pleasant. 

One balmy evening as he’s smearing bug juice on himself he comments, “Then the mosquitoes arrived.  I’d expected them to be as big as crocodiles but they actually seemed smaller than those in Vermont.  Of course, size doesn’t matter if you’re packing malaria, dengue fever or Japanese encephalitis.”

I know, it doesn’t sound very inviting but if you’ve ever been in the jungle (or even lake country in Canada in the spring) you’ll understand where he’s coming from and actually feel the stickiness of the bug repellent and smell the sour scent.  As I’m reading his story he reminds me that no matter where you go in the world, no matter what you see… “The single question, the one we all have to answer by and for ourselves:  What can you make of being here?”

He tells a story of superstitions and rituals like the woman who married a banana sapling (yes, a tree) because an astrologer predicted that her first marriage would be a disaster.  After the wedding the sapling was tossed in the river taking the bad marriage with it freeing the woman to find happiness in her second marriage with a more suitable mate.  Nothing to do with monsoons, right?  But what an experience to see this ritual in person.

Sometimes the story slows down a bit while Brookes delves a little deeper into details than needed into things that don’t really seem to have anything to do with the story.  For example, I didn’t know the history of the saying “raining cats and dogs” until I read Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment.   He also digressed at one point into a history lesson on umbrellas and water management.  It’s probably the professor in him.  He just can’t help himself.  But if you give yourself up to his in-depth descriptions you wind up enjoying the journey (it’s like value-added).  Forget about trying to follow a plot as it eventually dawns that it’s a different plot than you first set out to follow.  If you’re the type of person who needs to control the direction of a book, this isn’t for you.  But, if you’re a true wanderer and love to explore down unplanned, inviting pathways, this is exactly what the author does for you.

There are many twists and turns as Brookes attempts to find the experts to interview for his story but he’s thwarted at every turn and he even says at one point, “the monsoon forecast, my whole reason for going to India, was a joke, an international joke.”  He goes on to say, “In the end I learned most from the unpredictable and unplanned.”

I highly recommend joining the journey of Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment  Thirty Percent Chance of Enlightenment

About the Author (as printed in the back of the book)
Tim Brookes is the author of the cult hitchhiking classic A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow, chosen as one of the best travel books of 2000 by Booklist and the New York Times.  He has written for National Geographic, Outside and half a dozen other travel magazines and he has been one of National Public Radio’s top essayists for more than 20 years.  He is also the author of numerous other books, including Guitar: An American Life, chosen by library journal as one of the Best Books of 2005.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Holy Crap! Another App?

As 2010 wraps up and we get ready to head into another year full of unknown yet hopefully exciting adventures I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect back on my social networking learning curve of 2009.  At the beginning of the year, I started keeping a tally of all the Twitter apps that were available to help manage the sometimes overwhelming demands of the Twittersphere.  We’re still not sure if it’s going to be worthwhile in the long run but if you’re not Tweeting you’re missing the boat…maybe.  I keep trying to find the best measurement tool and tracking metrics and voraciously read about other people’s and companies’ experiences.  It really depends on what you’re hoping to accomplish but there’s rarely any time to step back and take a breath.

Anyways, I also wrote a couple articles and blogs about different apps I had found and was using but then as they kept coming at me thick and fast and I would find ones that were better or as I used a particular app more I realized its shortcomings and started searching for the ever-elusive all-in-one answer (i.e. Tweetdeck vs. Socialoomph – started with Socialoomph but now I use Tweetdeck more regularly).  Of course, we’re all looking for the freebees too (especially for us solo-preneurs and small business owners).  I stopped writing about any particular app for a while because I thought people might think I was wishy-washy or schizophrenic.  Now I realize it’s the race-to-create-the-best-app syndrome that’s actually the problem.  Developers have to rush to get theirs out because there’s bound to be 100 more just like it ready to compete.  First out is typically most used (generally speaking).

So, my New Year’s resolutions (that I promise to keep) are to: keep Tweeting, keep following, keep reading, keep testing, keep measuring and keep writing about my experiences (because we all learn from each other). 

Here’s a short-list of the apps I’ve gathered in 2010 (some I’ve tried and some I haven’t had a chance to yet), in alphabetical order because I couldn’t think of an easier way to categorize them.  Just pick one and give it a whirl!!!

Addictomatic – create your own tracking page with the latest on your chosen topics
Followerhub  - find friends and followers
FriendFeed – customized feed of your friends and collaborators
FutureTweets – schedule Tweets
hashtags.org – search top hashtags (to have your hashtag tracked you must follow)
Klout – identify influencers on Twitter
LaterBro – schedule Tweets
Manageflitter – a quick and easy unfollow tool
Mashable – the latest and greatest news and tips on social media (more a great resource than an app)
Monitter -  target specific geographic areas for searches
MrTweet -  recommend someone
MyTweetSpace – for fresh backgrounds or Twitbacks
Pu.ly – notifies you by email when you have an @reply or mention
Search.twitter - real time search for subjects being tweeted about
Seesmic – manage multiple Twitter accounts and Facebook feeds
SocialOomph – social media management tool
Twaitter – manage multiple accounts, archive, back-up and schedule Tweets
Twazzup.com – managing real time news feeds
TweetAdder – run multiple profiles
TweetAlarm – keyword notification service
Tweetbeeps – track what’s being said about you and/or your company
TweetBlocker – minimize SPAM
Tweetchat – choose hashtags to follow, converse in real-time
TweetDeck – monitor and manage multiple social media accounts
Tweepi – find and follow people
Tweetsqueus – schedule tweets
Twhirl – social media management
Twilert – key word alerts, social media monitoring
Twitpic – share photos
Twitstra – see who’s tweeting about you – will send you any @ messages about you
Twittercounter – shows followers from your website
TwitterGrader - will rank you on how you are doing with your updates and content (taking into account for example the number of RTs you give and receive)
Twitterkarma - dossy.org/twitter/karma – check to see who is following you back
TwitterSearch (like Google) – search Twitter conversations in real time
Twittersphere – search the most talked about stories
Twittertracker.com – monitoring tool
Twuffer – schedule tweets
Untweeps – unfollow Twitter users who don’t Tweet
Ugotwit – sends you a message if your twitter handle has been tweeted
We Follow – find Twitterers to follow

Friday, 26 November 2010

Word Play

I was chuckling to myself the other day as I was enjoying a day at the water park with my friend's two teenage daughters and one of them told me she liked my "swimming costume."  It took me a minute to realize what she meant.  Ah...It would be what my fellow Canadians would call a bathing suit.  Of course her terminology (which originated from her Kenyan upbringing) is more literally accurate, isn't it?  This is something that us global writers have to contemplate with every single project we take on.  Where does it originate and who is the main target audience?  We must choose our words very carefully.  I remembered another story this same friend was telling me about her daughters visiting their paternal grandmother in Canada.  When it was time for supper she told them to put their toys in the "bin."  Well, in Canada she was referring to the large plastic Tupperware container that she was using as their toy box.  The girls burst into tears not understanding what they had done that was so wrong that their grandmother was telling them to put their toys in the garbage can (which is called a "bin" where they grew up).

We can all be speaking the same language but depending on where we grew up the same words can have very different meanings depending where you are geographically.  Or some items just have totally different names like swimming costume verses bathing suit, running shoes verses sneakers, pants verses underwear, bathroom verses the loo, etc.  Using expressions that are common in your country may not work when writing copy for a more global audience. 

When I take on a new project, along with the general questions revolving around developing the content brief, I always ask, UK or American spelling?  Here in Dubai, it's usually UK but there are always exceptions to every rule, right? 

(note:  Tupperware is probably a term that not everyone is familiar with either...it's a very popular brand name of a maker of plastic containers of varying sizes and a variety of kitchen implements)

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Pitch the Publisher

During a recent visit to my hometown, Halifax, Nova Scotia, I stumbled upon an amazing opportunity to learn more about the book publishing process.  As I was sitting around the kitchen table with my mom, having coffee and perusing the Chronicle Herald (the local paper), I spied a notice about an event that was coming up the following weekend called, "Pitch the Publisher" which was part of The Word on the Street Festival, a day long literary event that's held every year.  It was a call for all aspiring authors to bring their manuscripts, ideas or proposals and test them out on an actual panel of local publishers (yes, I am working on a book about living in Dubai and it's to the point where I'm developing my proposal and researching agents and publishers).  I decided it was too great an opportunity to pass up and called right away to find out how to get on the list.  Alas, the schedule was full but I was put on a waiting list and reassured that the previous year they did get around to hearing from everyone on the list.  I was psyched!  I fine-tuned my proposal, had it copied and bound at the UPS store, wrote out my pitch and practiced it over and over again.  I was excited!

The day arrived and I made my way to Victoria Park on Spring Garden Rd.  It was a crisp, cool day and the event was outside so I added an extra layer figuring the nervous energy coursing through me would keep me warm.  I often forget that I've been living in warm climates for 17 years...brrrr! is all I have to say.  Anyways, I sat through all the scheduled pitches eagerly awaiting my turn with butterflies in my stomach - not sure if it was the cold making me shiver or nerves!  The minutes ticked by and all of the sudden, they were wrapping up and thanking everyone for their time and the publishers were selecting their favorite pitch to award a prize to.  But wait!!!  I haven't done mine yet, I screamed inside my head.  It eventually sunk in that they had run out of time and weren't going to get to the waiting list.  Rats!  I made my way to the front, made a quick introduction to the publisher who had indicated that he was interested in books of my genre, handed him my proposal (I wasn't going to let the opportunity totally go to waste) and then gave the other two copies to the organizer of the event just in case she knew of other publishers who might be interested.

Initially I was so disappointed.  Then I sat back and reflected on the pitches I heard (which were amazing and I believe will result in more than a few book deals...which the publishers actually said during the process).  I looked at the notes I had taken during each publisher's critique.  It was a public forum with an audience and three publishers on stage who each commented after each pitch.  I realized what an invaluable experience I had just had.  Being new to the whole process, the more input I can get, the more I fine tune my proposal, the more I learn from other authors (and aspiring authors), the better chance I'll have in getting published.  It's a long haul and I'm still on the fence about whether or not to continue to seek an agent or publisher or to just self-publish.  The learning curve is steep but I'm enthralled with the business and everything I research and read is fascinating!  I'll keep you posted on my progress as I make my way through this sometimes frustrating but always exciting process.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Twitter - To follow or Unfollow? That is the question!

There is an ongoing raging debate in the Twittersphere around whether or not you should follow someone who is not following you. The opinions on the issue are as varied as the numbers of people who have weighed in on the discussion and the spectrum is from one extreme to the other. One of my gurus has admitted to deleting every single person she follows who doesn’t follow her. In other words, she regularly goes into a program where she can see at a glance all the people who aren’t following her back and click on an option to unfollow. There are many tools you can use to do this and there’s a link below from this expert to explain how by comparing two of the more popular apps. But, don’t rush off just yet. I’d like to weigh in on the opposite side of the spectrum.

I approach Twitter with a very critical eye and ask myself regularly, “What exactly do I want to achieve by Tweeting and by engaging other Tweeps?” (Let me pause here and add a little postscript: I marvel at how many new words are being created in the Social Networking realm. There’s always lots of jargon in any industry but this really takes the cake).

Anyways, my objective is twofold:

1. I want to learn and be inspired, therefore, I follow.
2. I want to connect with people who have similar interests as me and who may be in need of my services or advice at some point in time and whose services or advice I may need at some point in time (hopefully they are my followers and most times I follow them too).

Does every single person who I follow necessarily have an interest in me or what I have to offer? I can’t imagine that Jack Welch has any need to follow any advice I may spout in one of my tweets (by the way, he does not follow me) but does that mean I should deny myself his words of wisdom and any professional development I could gain from reading his books?

The same goes for every single person who follows me. Each time I have a new follower, I do send an auto message (through SocialOomph) but I do not autofollow. They don’t necessarily have anything to say that would be of interest to me, so I check them first. I visit their profile, have a read through a page or two of Tweets, check out their bio and then decide if they have anything of value to me. I’ve gone to new followers pages that have thousands of follows and followers with zero tweets. Not someone I want to follow.

My guru that I refer to is a great source of tech info and she is the Lady Tech Tamer. She’s just posted a blog and video that shows the comparison between Twitter Karma and Twitter Unfollow. You can see she has a different opinion than I do regarding followers but that’s what makes the world go around, right? Check it out here:

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Overwhelmed by Social Media?

I really thought I had found my social networking rhythm a few months ago but the tempo’s been speeding up so fast and I’m caught in a crescendo that just seems to keep building.

Everyone’s so excited about Twitter (I’ll stick to Twitter here because if I add my anxiety about FaceBook, LinkedIn, UTube, etc. we’ll have a novel instead of a blog)! I’ve been in so many conversations lately that swirl around the questions: How many followers do you have? How often do you tweet a day? What topics are you trending? Are you using Tweetdeck? I try to keep up but I just feel I’m sinking deeper and deeper into the mire and am honestly a bit overwhelmed.

I believe in the theory that it’s a “social” network and you use it to develop relationships. So, I am trying not to automate it too much. However, I do see the value in having a program assist you in managing the deluge of information and applications. But what app(s) do you choose? I did finally join SocialOomph because at the very least I wanted new followers to be acknowledged right away and it seemed like the best way to accomplish that goal (even though I always go in at some point afterward and send them a personal direct message). But I’ve only scratched the surface of all the options within this program. I have a list of 28 applications (or supplemental websites) that I’ve been told by one expert or another that are “a must” in managing my Twitter account but as I plow through them (and the list keeps growing) there’s no one magic bullet and not even one that does almost everything…and there’s lots of cross over. For the apps that do the same thing there’s always just one thing missing. So, it becomes a case of hit and miss, trial and error or doing whatever the guru you’re following (or your best friend) is doing.

I love to read and I love to learn (and this is so totally up my alley) but this is never-ending! I just realized last night that I haven’t been checking my @annethewriter page which has been sitting there all along with a nice little link on the right hand side of my Twitter home page. I had a look and there are people who have been trying to engage me in conversation that I have been ignoring! Horrors no! I had just asked myself that question…how do I now truly engage? I immediately set about apologizing for the tardiness of my responses (the oldest I replied to was from March). I didn’t go back any further because I thought I’d just look like an idiot! Oh well, live and learn I always say. If anyone is reading this blog and I’ve not replied to you, please know that it’s only because I’m at the base of this very steep learning curve, climbing diligently upward with pick in hand, not because I didn’t want to engage. I'm reassured by the people climbing right beside and, believe it or not, there are a few I can see coming up from behind. I always try to reach down and give a hand up as well. I love the potential power of this communication vehicle and I will keep at it! I have to as I now have friends and colleagues asking me to help them build their Twitter platform. Lord help us all!

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

What is a Shamal?

As I was sitting in my home office the other day looking for inspiration to write and I heard a howl and a furious rustling of leaves and looked out my window.  The dust was so thick I could barely see into the neighbors back yard and the trees were being viciously whipped around by a wind that must have been 4 Beaufort (for you sailors out there)...it was a Shamal!  Not nearly the fear-inducing wind and rain that comes with a hurricane (and I've sat through a few of those sitting on the bathroom floor, hugging my cat in Fort Lauderdale) but it's still quite unsettling. 

Living in the Middle East (Dubai to be exact), we rarely see any rain so the few drops that the Shamal brought were welcome, although not enough to settle the dust down, other than in your teeth and eyelashes.  Yes, it's that pervasive.  It's so fine that it gets into the smallest cracks and crevices so you spend the next week sweeping and mopping dust and sand from the weirdest places.

We are in the middle of a cosmopolitan city filled with the most architecturally brilliant high rises, including the Burj Khalifa - the tallest building in the world - but a vast, rolling desert is just a couple clicks away and when the wind kicks up, if it's blowing westward, we get "the Shamal." 

I had never heard of one before I moved here and you've got to experience it to believe it.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica a Shamal is a "hot and dry, dusty wind from the north or northwest in Iraq, Iran, and the Arabian Peninsula. In June and July it blows almost continuously, but usually under 50 km (about 30 miles) per hour."  O.K., maybe I exaggerated with the Beaufort 4, but it was kickin'! "The wind causes great dust storms, especially in July, when Baghdad may experience five or more such storms. The shamal is part of a widespread flow toward a low-pressure centre over Pakistan.

So, there you have it.  We may not have hurricanes anymore and we may have escaped the snow and cold when we moved to Florida from Canada many years ago...but now we have the Shamal.  Fortunately it doesn't devastate entire communities and you don't have to shovel it...just have a broom handy at all times.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Born to Play

Last night I had the very great pleasure of attending the closing ceremonies of the 6th Emirates International Peace Music Festival...FREE!  It was organized by the Emirates Youth symphony, which I didn't even know existed until my friend Mimi told me her son played in the orchestra and invited me to attend. 

Anyways, what's inspired me to write this today is that we (my husband and I) were absolutely blown away by the talent of these kids, especially the guest violinist, Ellie Choi from Korea.  This "virtuoso" was only 8 years old and held the audience spellbound.  When the conductor and director of the festival, Riad Kudsi, introduced her, he shared with us that her music selection would typically be played by a very well-seasoned musician but that she had insisted so he left the rest for us to decide.  She was not only meticulous in her playing but exuded a unique flare and passion that's rare in one so young.  I sat there thinking, "this little girl was born to do exactly what she's doing."  Her playing brought tears to my eyes and I think it was a combination of admiration for the beautiful music she was sharing so openly and enthusiastically but also  amazement at the fact that she (and her parents, of course) had recognized and nurtured this rare and very special talent.  She used no sheet music and almost seemed to be reading the pages behind her closed eyes.  She was incredible.  Some people criticize parents for forcing children so young (she started playing at 3) to commit so completely to a craft (whether it be music or athletics) but I believe in this case it would be a horrible waste for this child not to be pursuing her musical purpose.  We were told that she also plays piano with equal skill and passion.  She is attending Julliard in NY on full scholarship and is one of the youngest students ever to be admitted. 

She was truly inspiring and left me wondering as I walked out of the performance totally uplifted, "Was I born to write?"  I sure hope so!!!  :)

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Lessons My Mother Taught Me

In the run of a day (any day) there is always a moment at some point that I think or say out loud, "as my mother always says"...followed by some pithy quote I've heard her say more than once. She's a wise woman and her words have stayed with me over the years. Just this morning, as I was drying my hair, I found myself grinning as I heard her voice in my head saying, "don't go out with wet hair. You'll catch your death of cold." My smile got even broader the more I thought about it because I live in a desert climate now. A little different from the snow and cold I grew up with in Nova Scotia. But there had to be a reason it popped in my head at that moment. Probably just a moment of pause to make sure I was ready to face the day.

Sometimes I hear people say that if they started to sound like their parents to stop them. I feel quite differently. When I mention to my mother that I always quote her she says that most of her pearls of wisdom came from her father (who would have been born in the late 1800s). So, if you're starting to sound like your parents you're passing along advice and wisdom to the next generation. I think more of that should be happening. My mother has always been a great sounding board for me (saved a lot on therapy that's for sure) and she always knows the right thing to say (even if it's something her father used to say to her). She has a 6th sense and seems to intuitively know the essence of people and situations. It seems we've forgotten that we need to learn from from the past and those who lived it.

So many trite sayings are running through my head that, when you come right down to it, actually revolve around self-preservation and planning for the future: a penny saved is a penny earned; don't sit on the wet ground, you'll get a cold in your kidneys; an apple a day keeps the doctor away; you're not too old for the years you've been born; save for a rainy day; give them an inch and they'll take a yard; that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger...and so on. I could go on but, I think I've made my point. It pays to listen more closely to the generation that lived before we were born.