Plain and simple, with a bit of pizzaz!

Plain and simple, with a bit of pizzaz!

I often see ads for writing courses and conferences on various social media platforms, and it really surprises me that many of them are so visually unappealing. Weird colours and strange font combinations don’t make me want to sign up, and let’s face it, I’m probably their target audience.

I appreciate that the fine folks promoting these events are writers and not graphic designers, and they probably don’t have any money to spare, but I really think that design matters if you are trying to attract new readers, clients or customers.

I know I’ve written about this before, but for those of you who’ve missed it, here are three reasons why I think that you should care about your visual design.

  1. Good design makes you look professional and reassures your customers that you know what you are doing. If you are offering courses or promoting a conference, you want people to be confident that it is safe to spend their money. One way you can do this is by investing some time and effort into making sure your website is well organised, clean and attractive, and that your ads are informative and not laden with unnecessary information.
  2. Good visual design helps you tell a story about who you are and what you stand for without you having to use a lot of words. I love words, but I’m also a busy person so I don’t have time to read a lot of waffly stuff on your website or in your ad. Cut to the chase. People want to know when it’s happening and how much it costs. They also want to know a bit about you, so a photo of yourself is a good idea.
  3. Good design also makes your content more user-friendly. A nice uncluttered design is easy to read, and your visitors won’t have to search for the information they need.

I’m definitely not an expert, but here are a few tips that you can apply to any kind of graphic design.

  • Use a limited colour palette. Use one or two main colours and a third to highlight any really important information. Avoid using red unless it’s part of your branding. Red text, in particular, is very alarming and shouts warning, warning, so be very cautious about using it.
  • If you’re unsure about what colour combinations work, look to nature for inspiration. I’ve used the beautiful image of the blue kingfisher by Vincent van Zalinge as a header for this post as an example of how mother nature always seems to get the colours right.
  • Don’t use more than two fonts. Ever. And make them different, not similar. There are some classic font pairings if you’re not sure what to choose, but in general, choose one bold font and one lighter font.
  • Line things up neatly. Don’t plonk things all over the place. Don’t be afraid of being tidy, it’s very soothing and people like it.
  • Don’t centre justify your body text, it makes it very hard to read. If you aren’t sure what to do, just align everything left and use columns if necessary.
  • Use lots of negative space. This is sometimes called white space, but it doesn’t have to be white. Just make sure you have a bit of room around your words. They need to breathe.

You can be quirky, you don’t have to be boring. Let your personality shine through but don’t go mad with colours and fonts. In general, good design is about making careful choices. Everything needs to be there for a reason.

If this still seems all too hard, there’s plenty of help at hand. There are lots of graphic design apps that are free or very inexpensive and Shutterstock has a free online photo editor that helps you design Instagram ads and other social media posts. They want you to use their photos (which costs money) but you can also upload your own photos and just use their templates which are excellent. You can look more professional in no time at all.

If in doubt, make it plain and simple and use some nice images. It always works.

Back to work

Back to work

I retired from my day job a couple of months ago and naively thought that I would have the time to do whatever I wanted to do (chiefly, more writing), but instead I just futzed about generally enjoying myself, but definitely not making that much progress with my new writing career.

I occurred to me that this is because I haven’t been treating writing as a career at all.

I was always a good worker; conscientious and reliable. I always turned up on time or messaged my boss to explain why I would be late (medical appointment, pet emergency). I never turned up late because I couldn’t be bothered coming in on time. I went to work every day whether I felt like or not. I always met my deadlines and was able to work unsupervised because I was a grown-up and that’s what grown-ups do. So I don’t know why I thought I could take such a cavalier attitude to my writing career and simply not bother writing if I didn’t feel like it. Which turned out to be most days.

So I’ve decided to treat my writing like a job and disregard the fact that I don’t get paid to do it. After all, I didn’t get paid to do any of my degrees and I usually submitted my essays on time, although I did need a few extensions when the kids were sick. I took my studies seriously and I took myself seriously.

But there are a few things that I’m going to do differently in my new job. I’ll have a quick peek at my emails in the morning but I’m not going to answer them until I have put some words down on the page. I’m not going to wander off to the kitchen and chat with people until I’ve done some actual work, and I’m not going to start reading interesting articles on topics unrelated to my work until I have done some writing. I’ll make an exception about getting up from my chair to hang out the washing because seriously, it can’t just sit in the machine all day.

I will change my hours to part-time because I’m my own boss now and I can do whatever I like. I might also schedule in some walks and some coffee dates because my back gets stiff when I sit for too long and I need to talk to someone other than my husband. He’s lovely, but there’s only so much you can say to the person who shares your home. Perhaps some kind of walking and talking arrangement with a friend might work?

I’m not going to work on weekends, and I’ll give myself some annual leave and a Christmas bonus (some new books!) if I’ve reached my writing quota on a regular basis. Perhaps I need to set myself some KPIs and develop a strategic plan as well?

I just can’t wait to get started in my new job which quite frankly, I think I’m going to love. The pay isn’t very good, but the conditions are excellent, and I hear the boss is nice.

December round-up

December round-up

I’ve been reading a few end of year blog posts this morning so I thought I would write my own. I always love to hear what people have been up to, and there are a few bloggers that I’ve been following for years, so it’s almost like hearing from family.

Here are some things that I’m grateful for:

1. Living in Australia

We are looking forward to seeing our grown-up children at Christmas and hope that the current Covid situation can be managed and controlled so that everyone stays safe. I heard a woman on the news say that it was appalling that people weren’t allowed to travel at Christmastime and I thought she was pretty stupid. It’s sad not to see your family at Christmas, but worse to never see them again. Mostly people are being sensible and realising that all of the restrictions are for a good reason. In Australia, we’ve been extraordinarily lucky compared to the UK and the US, so I hope that people continue to comply with the health orders.

I’m also grateful for the weather, even though it’s raining steadily outside and has been for days. Normally it’s very hot at this time of the year and we’re all complaining about the heat, so we are glad to have the rain and the cooler temperatures. This time last year the country was on fire so the endless drizzle has meant that the fire-fighters can have a peaceful Christmas.

2. Good neighbours

Through my window I can hear our new neighbours chatting to their children. I love having kids in the neighbourhood again. When we moved here we had young children and many of our neighbours did as well, but now we are all getting older and the children have grown up and moved away, so it’s great to have some new young families moving in. Our new neighbours seem very nice. I think you can tell a lot about people by the way they talk to their kids and the fact that they all know the words to The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round and don’t feel self-conscious about singing them loudly in their backyard.

We are fortunate to have good neighbours all around us and if you’ve ever had bad neighbours you know that they can make your life a misery.

3. Books

Because I retired this year I’ve done a lot more reading than usual. I think I read about 36 books which is roughly three a month. They weren’t all remarkable (I read quite a lot of light fiction during the lockdown) but a couple that I really enjoyed were Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

Dear Edward is about a young man who is the sole survivor of a plane crash. Despite its rather gloomy premise this is a beautifully written and thoughtful book. It rated very highly on the list that I’ve been keeping. I read A Gentleman in Moscow because several people in my family said it was good and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s about a Russian nobleman who is sentenced to spending the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel. I learnt so much about the Russian Revolution from this book, but in a painless way. I love books where you can just absorb history without any effort at all. It was also a beautiful meditation on what really matters in life and what you hold dear. It’s about friendship, loyalty and making the best of a situation. A great book for anyone who is going a bit stir crazy because they are stuck at home.

I still have a rather long TBR which includes The Dutch House by Ann Patchett and How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue. I’m also planning to read Monogamy by Sue Miller which has been recommended by both of my reading sisters.

4. Friends and family

I was a bit nervous about retiring because I was worried about how my husband would cope with me being at home (and vice versa). I thought we might drive one another crazy, but mostly it’s been pretty good. At the beginning of the Covid situation we were both very anxious and made an effort to be especially kind to one another and this seems to have set the tone for life at home. We are especially lucky because we have two studies (one each) so we always have somewhere to retreat to if we want to read or futz about on the computer. We also have a garden so it’s pretty easy to find a bit of space. I’m glad we aren’t squashed into a tiny flat the way some people are.

I’ve spent a lot more time talking to my own extended family this year and that’s been great. We all live in different states (except for one sister who is about 70 kilometres away) and I’ve really appreciated knowing more about their lives. I’ve also had more time to catch up with friends this year, which has been lovely.

5. Work

I missed work quite a bit when I left, but I have since joined the board of the Central Coast Community Women’s Health Centre. It’s great to be able to use some of the skills and knowledge I acquired during my working life, and it’s an organisation that aligns well with my values.

I haven’t done as much writing as I intended, but I’ve read a lot of writing books (does that count?) and learnt quite a bit, so I hope that next year I’ll be more disciplined and get my backside into my writing chair a lot more often. I’m coming round to the idea that writing is more about perseverance than talent. It’s really not a good idea to wait until the inspiration strikes you. It might never happen.

So that’s my wrap up for the year. I know it sounds a bit like one of those letters that people write at Xmas and then make a dozen copies to send to all their friends, but I’ve enjoyed thinking back over the year which has been mostly good. I hope you have survived the year and that next year brings you peace and happiness and good health.

Stay safe everyone and thank you for reading my blog.

Marg xxx

Why I hate starting new books

Why I hate starting new books

I often get books from the library and then they just sit there waiting for me to dive in. I’m not sure why this happens but I think it’s because starting new books requires extra concentration and sometimes this is in short supply. There’s a whole new bunch of characters to get acquainted with and you need to really focus to work out who’s who in the zoo. I find it especially hard when the book has a lot of foreign names or people with similar names, but sometimes I think I’m still attached to the people I met (and grew to love) in the last book that I was reading. I don’t want to let go of them just yet.

Once you are in a book and caught up in the story, the pages just seem to turn themselves and before you know it, it’s past your bedtime. You become invested in other people’s lives and think about them when you are washing up or cleaning the shower. I love it when that happens.

Someone once told me that if f you are going on a long plane trip or into hospital for any length of time, it’s best to take a book that you have already started reading. In both these situations your concentration is poor, so it’s preferable to be in the middle of a book rather than right at the beginning.

I remember trying to read “I know why the caged bird sings” by the writer and poet Maya Angelou when I was in early labour with my first child and realising that I should have brought a murder mystery or a romance novel with me.

I also recall going to Tasmania with my family for a lovely holiday and being unable to read any of the books I had ‘saved’ for the trip. I spent quite a bit of the plane trip trying to read Harry Potter over the shoulder of the woman next to me who was a complete stranger. I think she cottoned on in the end because she looked a bit annoyed and tried to angle the book away from me. It didn’t help that I’m quite a fast reader and kept getting to the end of the page before she did. I had taken three books with me but none of them were just right.

In Paula Munier’s book “The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings” she lists the questions that readers want answered when they start a new book.

We need to work out what kind of book we are reading, who is telling the story and where it takes place, but most of all we need to know why we should care about them. Very clever writers can answer most of these questions in the first couple of paragraphs. It doesn’t necessarily need to answer all our questions, we just need to get hooked enough to make us turn the first page.

Choosing your next book is also a very personal thing. I like to download samples onto my iPad and read the first couple of chapters before I purchase a book or request a title from the library (it’s usually the latter). When I’m looking for something new to read, I just browse through my sample chapters until something takes my fancy. Either that, or I go to my circle of friends (which includes my reading family) and ask them what they’ve been reading lately.

How do you choose your next read?

How stories work

How stories work

“I thought you’d write a book when you retired” someone remarked recently.

I did too, I think to myself, I just haven’t worked out what it’s going to be about yet…

But the reality is that I really have no idea how to write a book. The advice is to just start writing and see what happens, but this is a scary proposition. I’m concerned that my efforts will be clumsy or sub-standard, so I don’t do anything at all. Better to have tried and failed is a great adage, but the reality is that no-one really likes failing.

So I was delighted when a friend recommended a book called Story Genius by Lisa Cron. It’s just what I needed at this point in my writing life because it lays out some foundational skills about how stories work.

Cron says that you should always try to jump into the middle of the action and then fill in the backstory. This helps to set the scene and pique the reader’s curiosity about how the protagonist (main character) got themselves into that situation.

I was thinking about this advice when I read the opening pages of The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James. The opening is set in a scary motel where a young woman is working alone on the night-desk. She hears a lot of strange noises and next thing you know, she’s disappeared. Already I’m filled with curiosity. Why is she working alone in this creepy place which is far away from her home, and what on earth happened to her?

Next we jump forward in time to another young woman arriving at the same motel. Immediately we want to know what she’s doing there. Is she related to the first young woman? Why is she interested in the disappearance of the first young woman and why now? All this is explained in the first 50 pages, by which time I’m hooked and want to read the rest of the story.

Cron suggests that stories fail when they are merely a series of events. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. It’s like you telling me in boring detail how you drove to my house. Quite frankly, I don’t care how you got here, I just care that you’ve arrived safely.

Good stories keep moving you forward because something happens that leads to something else happening. There’s a causal relationship between events that connects them and makes sense to the reader. Everything happens for a reason, but sometimes it takes a while for that reason to be revealed.

The author’s job is to make you wonder what happened and why it happened.

You might think that this is only true of mystery books, but this is not the case. Take the example of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. After the famous opening lines about happy and unhappy families, we immediately jump into the situation as it stands right now.

Everything was confusion in the Oblonsky’s house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been the governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him.

Leo Tolstoy

Do I want to know more? Why yes, I do.

In his weekly newsletter The Maven Game (which I heartily recommend if you’re an aspiring writer), David Moldawer claims that people are either born with the knack of storytelling or they aren’t. He doesn’t think that it’s something you can teach, but I’m hoping that he’s wrong and that I can learn to tell a good story.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep reading Lisa Cron’s book and hope that an idea for a book will pop into my head very soon. I’ll keep you posted.

Weighty matters

Weighty matters

A few years ago I made a New Year’s resolution that I would stop weighing myself for a whole year. I decided to do this because prior to Xmas there’d been a lot of discussion about what size ham we needed, and it occurred to me that since I wasn’t a ham, I shouldn’t keep worrying about my size and whether I was a few kilos heavier or lighter.

Like most women, I have spent a lifetime worrying about how much I weigh, and making new promises to myself that I would lose those extra few kilos that make our trousers a bit uncomfortable. I’ve never been very overweight, but I’ve never been as slim as I’d like to be except for a brief period after my second child was born. I was going to exercise classes three times a week and mysteriously lost all my baby weight over the course of six months or so.

I’ve always thought that weighing myself was a bit of a waste of time because when the scales go up, I feel really bad, and when they go down, I eat more because I figure I’m allowed to.

Anyway, a whole year went by and I felt a lot better without the weekly weigh-in (always on a Monday morning with as few clothes on as possible). The following New Year’s Day I jumped on the scales and found that I weighed almost exactly the same as I had a year before, so clearly the weekly torture was pointless in terms of helping me control my weight and no impact on whether I was fitter or healthier.

I know that for some people, weighing themselves regularly is very motivating, so I’m not giving advice about what you should or shouldn’t do, I’m just saying that it didn’t work for me.

For many people, how much they weigh is inextricably linked to how they feel about themselves, but lately I’ve been trying to think about this differently and I think it’s working.

One thing that has had a big impact on me is my pilates teacher. She’s about 40 and incredibly strong and fit. I don’t think I’ve seen many people with better core strength. And before you say that this is because she’s a fitness instructor, I should mention that she’s actually a high school teacher and she teaches pilates because she loves it. As well as being super strong, she also has very solid thighs (like me). When I look at her, I realise that this is just the shape she is, and that no amount of exercise is going to change that.

Unlike my instructor, I’m not very fit or very strong, but this is something that I am working on. Every week she reminds us that strength and stability (and especially good balance) is critical for avoiding the falls that so often lead to hip fractures, so I practice standing on one leg while the kettle is boiling and try to remember to stretch after sitting at the computer for any extended periods.

Life is short and I don’t think denying myself a piece of bread and jam is going to make me a happier or healthier person, but I hope that in a year’s time I will have sorted out some of my back and hip issues so that I can enjoy being retired. I figure it’s never too late to be fitter and stronger and I don’t really have any excuses for not trying to improve my health.

A bunch of nonsense

A bunch of nonsense

I grew up in a house filled with books. To be honest, they were mainly from the library (we visited every week), but the books we did own included a set of encyclopedias, a few well-worn paperback novels, and quite a few children’s books, received as gifts from various relatives or as prizes at the Sunday School Anniversary.

Our library included two volumes of poetry, one by A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh, and the other a collection of poems by Ogden Nash (1902 – 1971).

Nash wrote over 500 poems in his lifetime, for both adults and children, and early in his career he was employed as a copywriter for an advertising company. His poems are funny and clever; he had just the right type of temperament for an advertising man.

Here are a few of my favourites:

The Fly

The Lord in His wisdom made the fly, 
And then forgot to tell us why.

The Camel

The Camel has a single hump, 
The dromedary two, 
Or is it just the other way, 
I’m never sure – are you?

Celery

Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

Nash was just 29 when he published his first collection of humorous poems to critical acclaim. The following year he left his job to concentrate fully on writing.

He also wrote the scripts for three MGM films and the lyrics for three Broadway musicals including the hugely successful A Touch of Venus, starring Ava Gardner and Robert Walker about a mannequin who comes to life.

Watching this old clip from reminded me of the 1987 film Mannequin which I have always loved.

Despite being a poet at heart, he still needed to make a living. He sums it up beautifully in this short poem.

Introspective Reflection

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

This is an example of a nonsense poem. Nonsense poems often change the spelling of words to make things rhyme or make them more amusing. They are best read out loud and children usually love them. Other writers of nonsense poems include Lewis Carroll (The Jabberwocky) and Edward Lear (The Owl and the Pussycat).

Do you have any favourite poems from your childhood?

Writing better content

Writing better content

Over the past few months a lot of free courses have been offered on the internet, so I’ve been madly signing up for things that interest me. These are mainly around writing and using social media, so I’ve got a thousand ideas about things I could do, but of course I’m still nervous about doing anything in case it fails and I look like an idiot.

I’m acutely aware that it doesn’t really matter if things don’t work out, but if you’ve spent a whole lifetime trying to make things perfect (or at least pretty good), then it’s hard to really adopt the idea of sharing a minimum viable product. It doesn’t come easily to put something out there until you’ve double and tripled checked that it looks good and doesn’t have any errors.

But the reality is that even when you check everything carefully, you still make mistakes. It can be incredibly hard to see your own errors, even though it’s pretty easy to spot mistakes in other people’s work. Fortunately, I have an eagle-eyed family who are quick to let me know if I’ve made any major blunders, or even just repeated words which I have a habit of doing.

A few weeks ago I watched an interesting webinar on content writing, so I thought I would share some of my key take-aways in case they are relevant to you and your writing,

  1. Manage your time. Try to draft your work quickly so that you can spend the bulk of your time on editing and polishing. You can’t edit your words until you’ve got something on the page to work with.
  2. Edit your work but don’t keep polishing it endlessly. Focus on getting it finished. It doesn’t need to be perfect. You can spend a lot of time and energy fiddling around with the wrong thing, for example drafting and re-drafting the first sentence, only to chop it off before you hit send.
  3. Don’t try to impress people with your writing. Instead focus on what your post/email/report is trying to say. You should have a clear message, so put your energy into working out what that message is.
  4. Write in your natural voice. I find it very odd when people write in a stuffy, overly wordy way, when this is not the way they usually talk. Write as simply as possible. I promise you that no-one will complain.
  5. Bounce back quickly from mistakes. Make a checklist of your frequent errors and check your work before you publish. Examples might be using one particular word too often. Keep a sticky note on your desk to remind you how to spell any words that you commonly misspell.
  6. Ask someone else to read your draft. As I mentioned earlier, it can be almost impossible to see your own errors. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to check your work.
  7. Try leaving your work to marinate overnight. Sometimes the right words just jump into your brain when you stop thinking so hard. If possible, leave your work as a draft and come back to it the next day. You will usually be able spot any errors or fluffy bits straight away.

Thank you for reading my blog. If you like it, please share this post with a friend or colleague.

And if you see any errors, please let me know.

No morning tea please

No morning tea please

After making the big decision to retire, I had to formally submit my resignation through our online HR portal. This triggered what is known as a “termination process” also known as “offboarding”.

The language made me feel quite ill and a little bit anxious. I’ve been working at the organisation for 14 years, so to end my career in this impersonal way felt a bit sad and confirmed my view that working for a large government department turns you into little more than a number, fodder for the machine.

I emailed my manager to let him know that I was submitting the form and he emailed me back the offboarding checklist. This is to ensure that you settle all your accounts and hand back any equipment that’s been issued over the years. He also rang to say that he would miss me, which was nice. I specifically requested that there be no fuss as I just wanted to walk away quietly.

I’ve always hated those corporate morning teas that are usually held when someone leaves. I dislike the people who only turn up for the free sponge cake and the ubiquitous cheese and crackers. I hate those speeches where the top brass talks mainly about themselves or tells embarrassing stories about the poor person who is leaving.

I hate the bit where the person says that they won’t miss the work, but they’ll miss the people. I know that for most people this is true, but I will genuinely miss the work and the people.

I will miss laughing with my team-mates, helping people solve problems, and moaning about senior staff who send you long rambling emails but don’t ever say what they actually want you to do.

I’ll miss people shouting across the room to ask me how to spell accommodation and other tricky words.

When I went in yesterday to return my laptop and security pass, I was still a bit surprised at how upset I was. There were only about four people in the office and the place was a wasteland of blank screens and empty chairs. I handed over my computer and the admin person said weakly, “we should have bought a cake”.

I wandered off down the corridor and came across a lovely colleague that I’ve known for years. She could see that I was upset so she gave me a hug (verboten).  She told me that I would be missed and that I’d had a big impact on the organisation.

It was nice after all.

Emma Peel: feminist icon

Emma Peel: feminist icon

I was sad to hear that the British actress, Diana Rigg, had passed away at the age of 82. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Rigg was most famous for her role as the female lead in the TV show, The Avengers, which ran from 1965 to 1968. In the show she was strong and fearless, solving crimes with her partner John Steed, who sported a bowler hat and carried a cane. Very British.

I loved that show and I desperately wanted an Emma Peel doll, so it was something of a miracle when I received one for my 10th birthday. I suppose I was a little old for playing with dolls, but I thought she was the ant’s pants.

Like the actress, the doll had long reddish hair and came wearing tight black leather trousers and knee-length black boots. She came with three different outfits, all black, as well as a shiny gun! This makes me laugh now. I can’t imagine a doll coming with her own gun these days, but in the show, Emma could shoot the cork out of a bottle of champagne at twenty paces and was also skilled at fencing, karate and judo. She was whip smart and able to outwit even the most diabolical criminals. She never lost her cool.

She could do anything and I wanted to be just like her. Maybe not so sporty, but smart and sassy. I loved her independence and secretly thought that a life of fighting crime would suit me very well.

In the show Emma Peel worked for the British Secret Service, which is interesting because the marriage bar – legislation that prohibited married women from joining the civil service – was only lifted in 1946 for the Home Civil Service, and not until 1973 for the Foreign Service. In Australia, the marriage bar wasn’t lifted until 1966, so for the audience it would have seemed very audacious for Emma to have been working in such a powerful role, let alone as a sexy spy.

Emma had a husband, but he conveniently went missing in the Amazonian jungle after his plane crashed. She also drove a white convertible (a Lotus) which only added to her appeal.

Diana Rigg was also well known for her role as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones and was also a Bond girl, playing opposite George Lazenby in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but she will always be Emma Peel to me.