Happy summer!


I am off work and in Europe until Tuesday, August 12, 2014.

I will not be maintaining my daily blog during this time, but have written my Tuesday posts — which are also distributed by email — in advance. The photograph above shows Amsterdam, which will be our first destination.

I hope you’re able to enjoy some summer holidays, too, and that you return relaxed and refreshed — and eager to write some more.

One Response/Posted July 23rd, 2014 in Holidays

How much sleep do writers really need?

how much sleep do writers needReading time: About 3 minutes

How does your writing life intersect with your sleeping one? In fact, how much sleep do writers need, anyway?

How often do you hear that it’s just about mandatory to start writing earlier in the day? About 30 seconds of research showed me that a great many people offer this advice quite blithely.

While I believe that it’s generally better for most people to write in the morning (for these reasons) I’ve studiously avoided telling people that they need to get up at 5 am. Or even 6.

In fact, I’m pretty vehement about protecting my sleep. This stems from a lifelong series of sleep problems, starting when I was doing my post-secondary degree. In those days, I worked at my family’s weekly newspaper business one night a week. I mean that bit about “night” literally — I went to work at 7 pm, right after dinner, and worked until breakfast at 7 am. I did that every week for nine years. I was young and felt indomitable.

When I left the family business, I started working at a then-large metropolitan daily (like all newspapers, now a shadow of its former self). There, I had to start at 6 am. This nearly killed me. A lifelong night owl, I would have been happier staying up all night. But I couldn’t very well do that five days a week, so, I dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 am every weekday. It was excruciating.

Then, I left newspapers when I became pregnant with triplets. And guess what? The sleep challenges continued. My kids were tiny and premature and didn’t start sleeping through the night until they were two. Worse, it took them another full year to settle into any sort of through-the-night pattern. I went from 1 am to 6 am feeding them and my husband took over. (This was my choice — I was the comfortable night owl; he was the morning lark.)

But by the time I was in my mid-40s, my world fell apart. I started waking up half a dozen times a night and had great difficulty falling back asleep. I always woke for the day at 5 am, if not earlier. Alarmed, I had myself referred to a sleep lab and met with a very kind doctor who told me the issue was probably hormonal. He also said my crazy sleep patterns of earlier years had likely contributed to the problem and gave me a lecture about sleep hygiene. Yes, it’s a real thing!

I spent 10 happy years as a well-adjusted early morning person — it’s much easier to thrive in this world as a morning lark — but now my life is starting to change again. I’m having a tough time falling asleep at 11 pm — despite feeling exhausted. And I’m finding it difficult to arise at 6 am, even in summer when it’s nice and bright outside.

Could my night-owl self be re-emerging after a long time of dormancy? Perhaps. But whatever is happening, I know better than to shortchange my sleep. New research shows that sleep is far more valuable than we’d previously understood. It not only helps repair heart and blood vessels, it also reduces the risk of kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. But here’s the really interesting part. Sleep is also essential for creativity —exactly the kind of behaviour you want to exhibit when you’re writing.

In reading a recent New York Times piece about business professor and bestselling author Jim Collins,  I learned that he protects his sleep even more vigorously than I do. He charts it on an Excel spreadsheet and ensures he gets 70 to 75 hours every 10 days. “If I start falling below that,” he says, “I can still teach and do ‘other,’ but I can’t create.”

I don’t know how long it will take me to sort out my current sleep conundrum, but I do know I don’t want to be part of the dreaded US statistic: some 40% of Americans get fewer than seven hours sleep per night.

If you’re part of the 40%, don’t even think about getting up 15 minutes earlier to write. Most adults — including writers — need 7 to 9 hours per night. Getting more sleep may be the best favour you can do for your writing.

How do you manage your sleep? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment below by July 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the very useful book The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

36 Responses/Posted July 22nd, 2014 in Power Writing

What does Weird Al know about word crimes?

word crimesReading time: About 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a song about word crimes written by Weird Al Yancovic…

I was charmed when my friend Marcelle sent me a link to a new song by Weird Al Yankovic. The beat is catchy and made me feel like dancing in my seat. (The music comes from Robin Thicke‘s song “Blurred Lines” from his 2013 album of the same name.) The graphics, which offer an inoculation of bliss, are both clever and compelling. And the rhymes? The rhymes are superb. Here are my faves, shown here in rhyming couplets:

You really need a/ full-time proofreader.

Figure out the difference /irony is not coincidence.

It’s quite apparent /your grammar’s errant.

Go back to preschool /Get out of the gene pool.

So, watch the video if you want three minutes of great entertainment. But his message? That doesn’t do so much for me. I fix grammar and spelling when I’m editing, of course, but I don’t like to mock people for making mistakes. In fact, I’ve discovered that the fear of making mistakes is what keeps many people from writing. And I’d rather see them write than not.

Furthermore, language is a living, breathing thing and it changes all the time. New words are invented (crowd funding), and rendered obsolete (aerodrome) every year. Even punctuation rules change. For example, co-operate is now almost always cooperate, without the hyphen.

So, irritated as I may become by the grocery store sign reading “This line reserved for 12 items or less,” or people who say literally when they clearly mean figuratively, I take a deep breath and remind myself there are far more important things to worry about.

No Responses/Posted July 21st, 2014 in Writing about writing

Why you need fake deadlines

deadlinesReading time: Less than 1 minute

Have you ever had to work with someone who can’t manage to meet his or her deadlines? I think you’re going to find my post today very useful….

I don’t miss deadlines. I grew up in the newspaper business (my parents owned a weekly newspaper) and deadlines must be coded into my DNA.

But many writers, including some people I like to hire, are terrible with deadlines. I have a solution for this problem. It’s called the fake deadline.

Whenever I hire someone I don’t know or someone who has a deadline problem, I tell that person the deadline is about four to seven days before I actually need the work. Yes, this is a lie. But it’s a friendly one. It means that I won’t become snarly with them if they’re late (which can sometimes happen through no fault of their own.)

In planning projects it’s always wise to allow the sort of “cushion” time for the unexpected: a boss who can’t finish his letter-to-employees in time, a graphic artist who backs out at the last minute and needs to be replaced, a printing shop that has a crucial piece of equipment fail. Writers need this cushion time more than most. Sources can be unavailable or disappear. Key facts can be hard to uncover and require time-consuming research. As well, there’s the procrastination habit that undoes many freelance writers.

Until you find a freelancer who always delivers on time, do yourself a favour. Give your writers a fake deadline and see how much easier it makes your working life.

No Responses/Posted July 18th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

Are you inventing the better mousetrap?

Jack HittReading time: Less than 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a metaphor from Jack Hitt.

I started reading the New York Times on my iPhone a few months ago. I love it!  It’s relatively inexpensive ($3.75/week). It doesn’t require any newsprint. It doesn’t get my hands messy. And it’s always available in my purse.

It not only allows me to keep abreast of current news it also brings me some very fine pieces of writing. One such piece I read recently carried the headline: First Invent The Gadget. Then Take it to Hollywood. (I’ve hotlinked it so you can read it, too.)

In telling the story or inventor Mike Cram (the Homer Simpson beer opener was his brainchild), the article reflected on many inventions. Here is where writer Jack Hitt, started laying down his metaphors:

It’s well known that the taxonomy of invention splits into two grand phyla: practical and novelty. In other words, are you inventing the better mousetrap or the pet rock? Are you Thomas Edison with his light bulb, or Soren Sorenson Adams and his joy buzzer? 

I particularly liked the way Hitt used the grandly obscure word phyla, (plural of  phylum), known to grade 10 science students everywhere from the taxonomic list: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. I also appreciated the way he worked a mousetrap and a pet rock into the same sentence.

No Responses/Posted July 17th, 2014 in Figurative language

What’s a boffin?

boffinReading time: About 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: boffin. 

I lost interest in most popular music around 1979 when I graduated from university. I didn’t lose interest in all music, mind you. But as I aged, classical music and jazz began capturing more of my attention.

As a result, I had heard of Brian Eno but I’d never really registered what his music sounded like. I knew he was a synth player with Roxy Music, but I knew nothing else about the man, not even what he looked like.

Thus, I read a recent New Yorker piece by Sasaha Frere-Jones, headlined Ambient Genius, with more than usual interest. I’d always wanted to know who Brian Eno was! As the piece informed me, the musician is famous for his work in so-called “ambient music” — that is, music that emphasizes tone and atmosphere over musical structure or rhythm. And the piece even gave me my word of the week, boffin. Here is the sentence in which it appeared:

People often refer to Eno now as a boffin, or describe him as looking like a professor or an architect. 

Originally used as slang, in the armed forces, the noun refers to a technician or research scientist. The etymology of the term is much harder to trace. Some believe it sprang came from the Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend, which features a character named Nicodemus Boffin. Others propose it came from a variety of other Boffins in literature so named by such writers as J.R.R. Tolkien, William Morris and Nevil Shute.

Judging by the photograph above, don’t you agree that Eno appears rather boffinish?

No Responses/Posted July 16th, 2014 in Word of the week

The surprise value in collaborating as writers

writers collaboratingReading time: Less than 3 minutes

When I say there’s value in writers collaborating I DON’T mean “writing together” as Google suggests. I’m referring to a more generic type of collaborating — more like helping and supporting each other. 

My kids inducted me into the Nerdfighters club, curated and executed by best-selling author John Green and his brother Hank (pictured above). My triplets are now 20 and they did this about five years ago. But John and Hank are both awesome and entertaining enough that they’re forever protected from any sort of “follies-of-my-youth” status. (Unlike, say, readers of the Twilight series.)

If you haven’t heard of the Greens, rush out and buy John’s book The Fault in Our Stars, aimed at young adults but exquisitely calibrated for adult tastes as well. (It’s the story of young girl with cancer, and it’s sad, but it’s told with humour and without being the least bit saccharine.) You might also want to check out the Greens’ Vlog Brothers video channel. Or you might enjoy a recent New Yorker story on John.

Bottom line? I admire John immensely. He’s a talented, thoughtful writer and, an exceptionally engaging human being. And he’s damn funny, too. So when he talks, I listen. But here is a comment he made recently that puzzled me.

“Curiosity is not the most important human trait,” John said. “The urge to collaborate is…. We have the ability to cooperate, to make online communities and space telescopes and imaginariums and movies, so the great thrill of this whole experience is seeing humanity do what I think it’s best at, which is not competing, it’s cooperating.”

Because writers usually reside in their minds (a friend of mine describes it as listening to a bunch of mosquitoes buzzing around in her brain), and work alone at their keyboards, I initially wondered how collaborating could be the least bit relevant to writing. (Unless of course, you were a staff writer for a TV-show,  locked in a Hollywood writing room.)

But then I gave it some thought. Here’s why I think John is right about the value of collaboration:

  1. It gives us more raw material. Writing is isolating. If we don’t regularly step away from our desks, we won’t have enough to write about. Talking with friends, going to movies, taking walks in the park, living our lives informs our writing and gives it the richness and detail it needs.
  2. It gives us great reading ideas. Serious writers are always serious readers. One of the things I most enjoy about my friendships is getting book suggestions (and, sometimes, gifts) from people I love and respect. I learned about John Green from my children. My friend Eve gave me the marvellous book The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett last Christmas. My friend Greg, who knows I’m a rock-ribbed New Yorker fan, gave my husband and me a hardcover collection of its essays titled The 40s: The Story of a Decade, as a wedding anniversary gift.
  3. It allows us to exchange editing duties. I meet with a good friend once a week. She’s a talented writer and an insightful editor and I like to imagine I have similar skills. So, we exchange each other’s columns: She edits mine; I edit hers. This allows us to have a semi-professional edit at no cost to either of us. (Value? Priceless!)
  4. It improves our motivation. I know many of the writers who hire me for coaching discover the increased motivation to be the biggest payoff they get. Somehow, being responsible to someone else helps ensure we get the writing work done. Aside: You don’t even need to pay for this! Find a friend who’s willing to hold you accountable and arrange a regular meeting (Skype or phone is fine for this) during which you report in to each other.
  5. It allows us to connect with our readers. One of the great joys obsessions in my life is reading the comments you leave for me in my blog. I LOVE hearing from readers! It gives me a network of friends — that’s how I feel about you — around the world who always have something interesting and insightful to say about what I’ve written. I really appreciate hearing your views, even when you correct the mistakes I’ve made and especially when you don’t agree with me.

Here’s how I think it goes: Life is about collaboration. And writing is about life. They’re inextricably linked.

How do you collaborate with other writers? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by July 31, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the very useful book The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

19 Responses/Posted July 15th, 2014 in Power Writing

The benefits (?!) of messy desks

messy desksReading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article on messy desks written by David Burkus…

I’ve long advocated that writers clear their desks before writing. I hold this feeling so strongly that even looking at the photo, above, gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Is this simply procrastination, taken to world-class levels? (i.e.: I’m so busy cleaning my desk, I’m unable to write?) For me, no. I’m perfectly happy sweeping everything on top of my desk into a box (look — it takes mere seconds!) to calm myself. I just like everything to look neat and tidy before I start writing.

But a recent article in Forbes, by David Burkus, is making me re-think my position. Reporting on an experiment published in the Journal Psychological Science, Burkus says:

 If you need a creative insight or breakthrough idea, that same tidy office could be stifling your creative thinking.

Researchers discovered that people working in disorderly environments seemed better able to break free of tradition, gain fresh insights and produce more creative thinking. (Orderly environments, on the other hand, encouraged conventional thought and playing it safe.)

Interestingly, however, (or am I grasping at straws here?) he made the point that even while clean desks might appear to stifle creativity, there are times when they offer benefits. As Berkus puts it: “Who knows how much more Einstein could have accomplished had he known when to empty his desk and when to leave it cluttered?” 

No Responses/Posted July 14th, 2014 in Writing about writing

Driving home the benefits of humor…

benefits of humorReading time: About 1 minute

The next time you face a  big communications challenge, see if you can use the benefits of humor…

The Abbotsford Police Department is conducting a campaign for better road safety. Their secret weapon? Being funny.

For example, there’s the ticketed driver who told an officer, “My dad could buy you!”

The cop replied, “Get him to buy two of me, I could use the help.”

Or  there’s the response of a driver caught doing 123 km/h in a 50 km zone:

“There’s no way my car could go that fast, it would explode!”

I love that the police are publicizing these funny remarks using a lighthearted Twitter campaign. So smart! Twitter offers a relatively young demographic (63% of users are younger than 35) and, besides, people get the message better when they’re laughing.

This makes so much more sense than another police campaign I spotted yesterday, this one by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD). They’re putting stickers inside of city buses saying: “Assaults on bus operators will not be tolerated.”

Huh? Last time I checked, assaults were by definition illegal. So why would police put up with such assaults under any circumstance. (It shouldn’t be news that they won’t tolerate them!) Furthermore, most people who assault bus drivers are drunk, high or suffering from a mental illness. A small sticker like this one is not going to make a whit of difference.

Perhaps it’s time for the VPD to take a crash course (pun intended) in publicity from the APD.

No Responses/Posted July 11th, 2014 in Gray-Grant Communications

Finding a chocolate bar in Gwyneth Paltrow’s purse…

Elizabeth RenzettiReading time: Less than 1 minute

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a metaphor from newspaper columnist Elizabeth Renzetti.

I have almost no interest in sports. Even the Olympics and the World Cup can barely get me worked up (although the complete routing of Brazil earlier this week did grab my attention for a couple of minutes.) But Wimbeldon? Not so much. I don’t play tennis and I don’t watch it.

Still, when a Canadian woman made it to the finals, I was intrigued. Eugenie Bouchard seems like a winner (even though she lost) and while I didn’t watch the game, I applaud her effort and I’m glad to see a woman do so well and at such a young age.

I also agree with the opinion that women’s sports are under-reported upon by the media and not given nearly enough attention by the general public. In Canada, where I live, for example, we have an truly great women’s soccer team, but you’d barely know it existed for all the attention that men’s soccer gets. (And with so much less success, in Canada, anyway.)

Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti complained about this in her Monday column this week. I agree with her. Better than that, her figurative language made me laugh out loud. Here’s the line that did it:

Outside of the Olympics and a couple of other premium events, you’d have more luck finding a chocolate bar in Gwyneth Paltrow’s purse than a women’s sports match on prime-time TV in North America. 

I like the way she manages to skewer readers of Sports Illustrated and People Magazine with one sharply honed fingernail.

2 Responses/Posted July 10th, 2014 in Figurative language