• Link love (Powered by picnics and houseguests)

    link love nzmuse

    Yesterday, I waved off our visitors as they headed into the city for a day of sightseeing. What I didn’t want to admit to them was that I planned to spend a significant amount of my day blogging – lining up posts, updating my theme, and making a few other tweaks here and there. Much like trying out a new recipe, any blog admin I do inevitably ends up riddled with speed bumps and ends up taking three times as long as I intended. Who knew it would be so hard to change my favicon now that I’m self-hosted?!

    In the middle of it all, I started wondering how well my current theme really reflects me. Like it or not (even if the majority of your readers subscribe through Google Reader or similar) your website design does matter. Your name and your look all tie into one cohesive overall brand and I’m torn between my love of clean and simple (à la  Our Freaking Budget) or pretty and fussy (along the lines of L Bee). Identity crisis alert.

    But now, to the business! I present my first link roundup for 2013, and it’s all about quality over quantity.

    First up, Money Life and More hosted an awesome carnival of personal finance with a Christmassy twist (including my post analysing the evolution of my frugality over the years)

    Jenny Blake has 13 prompts to get you thinking about what you want to achieve in 2013

    Wanderlust guaranteed: Traveling 9 to 5’s list of amazing places to celebrate NYE around the world

    Life, Etc on job perks that are well worth the cash equivalent

    Blue Milk on why education is a political issue (read the NYT article quoted; it’s worth it. While I don’t currently have any ties to particular charities, I’m starting to realise that helping to break the poverty cycle is something I’m really interested in – must seek out relevant causes I can donate to)

    Finally, I think Seth Godin is often overrated, but I loved basically every word in this post. An excerpt:

    “Doing what you love is as important as ever, but if you’re going to make a living at it, it helps to find a niche where money flows as a regular consequence of the success of your idea. Loving what you do is almost as important as doing what you love, especially if you need to make a living at it. Go find a job you can commit to, a career or a business you can fall in love with.

    A friend who loved music, who wanted to spend his life doing it, got a job doing PR for a record label. He hated doing PR, realized that just because he was in the record business didn’t mean he had anything at all to do with music. Instead of finding a job he could love, he ended up being in proximity to, but nowhere involved with, something he cared about. I wish he had become a committed school teacher instead, spending every minute of his spare time making music and sharing it online for free. Instead, he’s a frazzled publicity hound working twice as many hours for less money and doing no music at all.

    Maybe you can’t make money doing what you love (at least what you love right now). But I bet you can figure out how to love what you do to make money (if you choose wisely).

    Do your art. But don’t wreck your art if it doesn’t lend itself to paying the bills. That would be a tragedy.”

    And finally: “I mean, if you really want to make a living, go to Wall Street and trade oil futures … We’re writers. We’re doing something that is inherently a generous act. We’re exposing ourselves to the muse and to the things that frighten us. Why do that if you’re not willing to be generous?”

  • Review: Grammarly

    My boss is a bona fide grammar Nazi. I’ve learned all sorts of things from her, like not to hyphenate descriptors when the first adjective ends in ‘ly’. In comparison, I’m a dilettante – I know more than the average Joe Bloggs and I’m quite fanatical about it, but that’s not really saying much, I suppose. I’ve never even seen a Strunk and White, let alone read a copy. It wasn’t until this year that I definitively learned the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’ and ‘i.e’ vs ‘e.g’. My writing is based on gut; I can write well, though I can’t really explain how or why I do anything in terms of word choice, grammar or sentence structure aside from IT FEELS/LOOKS right. I’d be a terrible teacher in that regard.review grammarly

    Anyway, I recently got the chance to try Grammarly out for free – an editing tool that’s kind of an all-round writing helper (automated proofreader/personal grammar coach, to pinch their slogan) that will pick apart your text and check for plagiarism at the same time. There’s an online version, plus integration with Microsoft Word and Outlook, although if you’re a Mac user you’re out of luck.

    You can run Grammarly in several different modes: academic, business, casual, etc. That determines the kind of style you’ll be assessed on (for both work and play, I’m more or less always operating on ‘casual’. If you had to write serious policy reports all day, you’d probably go for a different one). It processes your writing, and spits out a scorecard that rates your piece overall out of 100. It also lists all the issues found in your writing, and takes you through them individually.

    Grammarly touts itself as ‘the world’s best grammar checker’, boasting that it corrects up to 10 times more errors than “popular word processors”. It tests for 150-odd types of mistakes as well as offering vocabulary suggestions (and as I said before, running your text to compare it to other material online for potential copy-and-paste jiggery pokery). Your basic spellcheck is included, and other errors it detects include boo-boos of passive voice, punctuation, capitalisation.

    Drilling down further, it also picks up often-overlooked things such as repeated words (as as or and and, anyone?) and incorrect usage of correctly spelled words (than vs then). This contextual technology is its real strength and the key differentiator. It’s not unlike Word in that it reiterates general rules with generic examples for each.

    It costs $139.95 for a year, $59.95 per quarter or $29.95 a month. And like all good software, it has a free trial period (seven days). Depending on your needs, that might be a worthwhile investment. My take? After having used it, I can’t say I’m a full convert. Its capabilities are definitely more impressive than, say, your built-in Office checker, but I don’t personally need them for what I do, and I can’t see myself ever paying that much for them.

    (And no, I didn’t run this post through Grammarly.)

  • Learning to take criticism

    Learning to take criticism

    I have been writing as long as I can remember being alive.

    Starting from when I could pick up a pen, I wrote. I wrote stories. I wrote diaries. I wrote songs. I wrote drafts of novels. I wrote blog posts. I wrote news articles and features and profiles.

    But I’ve never really learned to take criticism all that well.

    When faced with criticism, my heart and stomach sink. I flush red. It’s a little bit, I imagine, like that film camera technique where they track in and zoom out at the same (the dolly zoom?). The world skips a beat and fades away, the blood pounding in my ears quickens and grows louder.

    I am my own biggest fan

    In my second year of high school, I got a group of muso friends together and we performed one of my songs for the annual talent quest. It was a fabulous song. Short, tight, catchy, poppy. I got compliments from two people that I remember: one of my girlfriends and my music teacher.

    I was expecting more of my friends to be impressed, frankly. It’s darn hard to write a catchy pop song (though Gaga seems to churn them out no problem). I am still really proud of my amateur effort (which I reckon is on par with some of the Kiwi music that makes it out there) even if hardly anybody else appreciated it.

    And also, my own worst critic

    I actually can’t bear to read stuff that I’ve had published in print. Despite all the time spent agonising over every word choice, every paragraph, I just lose all perspective on the story. I flip to the page, cast a quick eye over,  then quickly slam it shut. Once it’s out of my hands, I don’t really want anything to do with it.

    So I’m probably always not the best judge of my own work…

    Sometimes I know I’m hot shit. I look back on stuff I had published in high school and am kind of surprised at how mature I was on paper. That song was pretty rad. I have a fond spot for my favourite blog posts (here, here and here). And usually, I find my best work happens when it just flows out of me. Writing that I labour over is sometimes up there, but it’s never on the same level.

    Learning to take criticism

    All my life I was one of those high achievers – a big fish in a small school pond. Then I got myself a pretty practical degree. Unlike friends who did more creative courses, I never learned to get ripped apart and take heat at uni. I’ve definitely never had anyone “shit all over my work”, as a designer I know once put it. I’ve never had my creative work criticised by peers in classes or workshops. The peer review part of every tutorial was kind of a joke; straightforward news stories don’t take much creativity, and writing clean copy was never a problem.

    Sometimes I fear news writing has drained me of my creativity. Even writing short, simple reviews sometimes proves an agonising exercise. (I’d be a terrible columnist – I’m a die-hard fence sitter and can never make my mind up on issues, paralysed as I am by both the pros and cons.)  And so although I started this old blog completely on the spur of the moment, I’m very grateful I did, because it gives me a space to write freely.

    One thing I don’t think I’ll ever forget is my ex telling me that his mother didn’t think I would make it in media, because I couldn’t hack the pressure, the criticism, the pace. And granted, criticism hasn’t featured often in my life. I’ve been spoiled.

    Criticism is part of the creative life. If you’re going to create art and put it out there, there will be haters. No creative work is going to appeal to everyone.

    Slowly, very slowly, I’m becoming better at receiving it. I’d like to think I get better at dealing every time it happens. My initial reaction is still a defensive one, I won’t lie (psychology dictates that we tend to hold others wholly responsible for their own actions, but play up external factors when the focus is on ourselves and our own faults). I can recognise criticism as being constructive and given in good faith, and appreciate the end result when pushed further.

    You need a bit of both, ultimately – the self-belief that keeps you going through those dark periods of creative despair, and the ability to accept and act on feedback.

    How are you with accepting – or giving – criticism?

  • So you want to be a writer…

    so you want to be a writer

    I’ve worked with a fair few interns in my time. They range from the one who didn’t last a day (so gung-ho at the start but quickly realised the reality of journalism was not what he envisioned) to outstanding candidates I wished we could pay. I’ve been asked by students for industry advice, which I most assuredly do not feel qualified to give.

    Ergo: this braindump covering most of the things I would like to tell would-be writers.

    You will be overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. Perennially underresourced.

    Pay starts low and stays low. It’s not like, say, accounting – where you start on $40k and work on up to $100k in a few years.  The industry is relatively flat; it’s not like there is a huge ladder to climb.

    You will in all likelihood need to pay some serious dues. Internships help get your foot in the door. (I hope you got yourself qualified, because the degree is practically mandatory now.) Working the crappy shifts will help you get your foot in the door and rack up valuable experience. Although depending what you go on to (breakfast TV? online news? Talkback radio?) the hours may ALWAYS be bad. (At first you’ll feel SUPER IMPORTANT because you’re NEEDED at all hours! And then that novelty wears off and you’ll resent the intrusion.)

    It is not (always) as exciting or glamorous as you might think. Sometimes we get to meet important and/or famous people. Sometimes we get wined and dined and plied with crap. There’s also the mundane and often repetitive stuff. You’ll get used to writing stories about similar things: awards, surveys, reports, acquisitions, events, fires, arrests, issues that “spark a debate”, etc. You don’t always get to choose what you write about. The unsexy stuff (tech, business) pays better and has better hours. You might have overbearing subeditors – or none at all.

    You’ll need to be fast. Onto it. Understand digital. (I never want to hear “do you use hyperlinks in your web stories?” again.). It will be to your benefit to know what CMS stands for; have a few basic Photoshop skills; have profiles on social media so that you know how those networks work, for starters. You need to exist online. It freaks me out to Google you, expecting to see clips, or at least a Twitter or LinkedIn profile, and come up empty.

    It’s thankless. Not just in terms of readers, but also, the self-deprecating, self-mocking culture among us. (From what I can tell, this can be found in academia too – why do we keep doing this? There must be something wrong with us. But we keep plugging away anyway.)

    Some of this applies to wannabe pro bloggers, too. I am not one of them, so I won’t speak to this for long (I’ve made a few bucks online without trying but it took me a couple of years; the hourly rate is good but spread out over all the hours I spend on blogging, would be well into the many decimal points of cents).

    Again, you cannot simply write about whatever you want and expect to be able to make a living doing so off the bat. You’ll need to learn about SEO and marketing and find a niche, and it’s only getting harder from hereonin as everyone and their dog pursues the lifestyle design movement. You are relatively late to the game; you won’t be a Dooce or Tavi or Gala Darling. (But if that’s the path you want to pursue, you can do it authentically and without being a douchebag.)

    If you go the freelance route? Much the same. Learn to pitch. Learn to sell yourself. Learn to market your skills. Read the blogs of those at the top of their game, because you’ll find everything you need to know there: finding outlets, utilising social media, crafting pitches, crafting letters of introduction, setting rates, choosing markets. (See the Career section in my blogroll for some awesome resources.)

    I haven’t done the full-time freelancing thing, but I know people who are/have. It’s tough. Rates, at least here, haven’t changed in decades. There are fewer and fewer staff writers these days, which opens up freelance opportunities…but still. Hopefully these days there are also opportunities overseas too.

    They tend to supplement writing with non-editorial work (advertorial, marketing, corporate copywriting); many have steady or semi steady/ freelance subbing gigs (it’s infinitely tougher without some regular contracts to rely on). They’re always juggling multiple assignments and looking ahead to securing the next one.

    That said, we wannabe writers just keep coming. Most switch over to PR after a couple of years (I’m tempted to sit down and calculate the percentage from my graduating class, but I’ll restrain myself). A few soldier on.

    Last thoughts: Like Amy Poehler says in her kickass commencement speech to those who want to follow her into acting, don’t. But if you ignore this and insist on doing so anyway, then you’re probably in the right place.

  • Review: Socialpunk (plus Q&A with author Monica Leonelle O’Brien)

    I recently had the chance to interview Monica Leonelle, a Chicago-based writer, and review her latest e-book, Socialpunk (the first in a trilogy). Read on for some of her insights, and scroll down for my book review!

    Many authors find writing a creative outlet from an otherwise uncreative job. Can you talk about balancing writing a novel (a creative pursuit) with a marketing career (also a rather creative pursuit) and keeping those juices constantly fresh?

    I would go crazy if I just did one or the other. I like that marketing is all about strategy, and that I’m able to provide a ton of value to would-be writers. For example, I have free email consultations that are killer—they are getting really popular, actually. One allows you to ask three questions about writing, publishing, and/or marketing a book. I send back detailed answers. The other is for writers with a manuscript—they can upload their first 1000 words and received detailed feedback on how to make their book more hooking.

    Novel writing is what I do for fun, but it also ties into my business nicely, I suppose. I am working on a better balance between the two at the moment, and considering doing more serialized fiction so I can get my fiction out and into the world faster. I spend a lot more of my time on my writing consults and editing services, at this time.

    Tell me about the differences between writing a novel and business/nonfiction – the process, how you approach it?

    They aren’t that different for me. I use Scrivener to do detailed outlines, regardless of what I’m writing. And in both, I try to create lots of tension. Though, I guess with non-fiction I really try to give detailed information, which isn’t always tension-based. Linked Prospect is a leading software for automating invites, auto-responders and bulk message campaigns on LinkedIn. We have a system that saves you time and targets the exact people that you want to talk to about your products or services.

    What was the inspiration for Socialpunk and what message do you hope to deliver through it?

    I don’t do messages, really. I can’t honestly understand authors who try to give a message. I prefer to present the world through my viewpoint and let people decide what they believe for themselves. As for inspiration, the book is inspired by Chicago winters, technology and digital media, and the Terminator series. James Cameron continues to be a huge inspiration for me as a writer.

    The book publishing industry is going through some massive upheaval and very fundamental changes – what are your thoughts on the future of publishing?

    I don’t know that books will really be around, to be honest (in the far future). In the Socialpunk universe, people don’t have books anymore. All media is interactive and visual. Text isn’t needed as much because thoughts are communicated without words.

    Tell me about your book marketing strategy – did you start blogging first to build a fan base? Are other authors adopting a similar strategy?

    I don’t believe in blogging to build an audience, at least not in its typical form. I’m still building a fan base for my novels, but one of the ways I do so is via an email list. I have about 500 people who are willing to hear about my new releases… of course, the more the better. I haven’t launched a campaign to increase this number, but I’m definitely thinking about how to do so.

    Your one piece of advice for would-be authors?

    Patience! It’s not just for would-be authors, but also for authors. And also for myself :). I want to speed things along whenever I can, but books are a slow business.


    Socialpunk – Monica Leonelle O’Brien

    A little bit YA, a little bit sci-fi, Socialpunk follows a teenaged Ima living in a post-apocalyptic America. The novel opens as she, along with her best friend/something more Dash, sneaks out under her abusive father’s nose to a rave in the city. Her night begins to unravel as Dash abandons her to hook up with beautiful, catty Lia (urk. Granted, sci-fi isn’t always strong on characterisation), and takes a definite turn for the worse when the entire club blows up.

    And thus, she learns her entire universe – The Dome – is a lie. Along with the mysterious Nahum and VR “tester” Vaughn – who’s just as surprised to discover that real people exist in this dimension as Ima is to realise that her Chicago isn’t all it seems to be – she travels beyond the boundaries of her train line to a place where the line between human and machine is blurred; the currency of choice is Clout (does anybody else now find it strange to see the word spelled correctly?); and art and creatives rule. I particularly liked that.

    As Ima plunges into the real Chicago, she must piece together a puzzle much larger than she could ever have imagined. It’s a world where, in order to survive, she has to undergo a Terminator-style makeover to fit in, emerging bigger, faster, stronger (it’s a bit Bella in Breaking Dawn post turning – and yes, I read all those books). On the plus side, in this new phase of her life, she has not one but two guys vying for her affection – every awkward teenage girl’s dream.

    While slow to start, the author does eventually pick up the pace and from then on it’s all action action action. Admittedly, some parts are clunky and unpolished, and from about halfway through small grammatical errors and typos start creeping in. And personally, I think it would have been stronger without the very last chapter. But I think the key question is: would I read the sequels? The answer is yes.

    Want to win stuff? There’re giveaways going on around Socialpunk’s release – click here for more details.

    Are you much of a sci-fi fan? An aspiring novelist? (I bet a fair few of you are – I used to want to write a YA novel, but now I think I’d be more likely to write something non-fiction. Can non-famous people write memoirs?)

  • Want to be a freelance writer? Act like one

    Magazine rack.

    Image by Randy Weiner Photography via Flickr

    The secret to making a living out of writing does not lie in job boards and content mills.

    You gotta HUSTLE.

    Maybe you don’t know anything about the journalism industry. That’s fine. But you do need good ideas, to put yourself out there, and pitch. To magazines. To big blogs. To corporates whose websites need a revamp. Whatever. It’s not enough to be creative; you need to get business savvy. In other words, targeting better-paying markets. Real markets. Scary, I know.

    Writing is a profession. If you want to make a living from it, treat it as such. Professionals take their business very seriously. They cultivate and maintain relationships with editors. They spend a lot of time on marketing as well as admin (invoicing is probably half a job in itself), and they’re organised enough to juggle multiple projects, multiple deadlines and multiple clients. They carve out niches for themselves; while a broad base is important, specialising is often where the bucks are.

    You can bet they wouldn’t waste time writing for eHow.


  • What qualifies someone to write about food?

    When the Shore’s most famous restaurant The Engine Room refused a request from Canvas (a food shot to accompany a review), the magazine responded by vowing never to return.

    Initially, I sided with the mag. What a diva, I thought. But then I watched this Campbell Live piece on restaurant reviewers and I started to doubt myself.

    If you don’t have the time to watch it, the story was pretty scathing of reviewers. Too many publications are just sending out staff writers with the company credit card; and hard-done-by restaurateurs putting their heart, soul and life savings into their business can be undone with one bad write-up. Reviewers need to know what they’re talking about in order to gain credibility (although it sounded as though the credibility was more among industry peeps than readers). Another gripe was they put too much emphasis on factors like decor and fellow customers … rather than spotlighting the food.

    Now, I couldn’t agree more with several of the points brought up. In this line of work, there can’t be anything more important than a) keeping your cover (I’ve always wondered how and when they get photos) and keeping your distance personally from chefs and owners b) dining at one place multiple times to get a fair picture. But, at least in NZ, this isn’t happening.

    I am still not sure refusing to cooperate is the best move. No doubt restaurateurs are sincere in merely wanting to check that the facts are right (and let’s be honest, journalists and writers can’t and don’t always get it right). But it’s a fine line. It’s hard to be objective about your own work, and what others may see as constructive or justified criticism may not be taken as such. The last thing we need is reviews being censored by restaurant owners and chefs before they go to print.

    Personally, I would not make the greatest of food reviewers. I like what I like and I am wary of strange new combinations (I really don’t get excited about top-end, innovative cuisine). I’m not a vegetarian, but am certainly picky about meat. And though I’ve waitressed in cafes, I don’t really know very much about the industry at all.

    But how much is fair to ask of a food reviewer? We can’t expect them all to be ex-chefs, realistically. (I guess you might get better hours in journalism but I doubt the money is better.) It would be great if all writers had a background in their industry – be it sport, science, entertainment, politics – but that is never going to happen.

    Personally, I’m of the thinking that restaurant reviews are just as much for the average person on the street as they are for those in the food industry. What about you?

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  • Update on the job front

    I start my new (temporary full time) hours this week!

    I also randomly got myself a small contributing gig writing for an online women’s mag (unpaid) and will be doing a little work – mostly from home – compiling newsletters for another magazine.

    I always do this: load myself up with commitments, that is.

    [picapp src=”0286/03689a6d-735b-4932-a9c2-49a884b0e272.jpg?adImageId=6889607&imageId=289439″ width=”230″ height=”350″ /]

    Speaking of which, I was just thinking the other day that the creative industries seem to dominate unpaid work. By that I mean, in how many other fields are you expected to work for free to prove yourself? This Idealog article sums up what it’s like for graduates in the arts and media trying to kickstart a career.

    It’s been a while since I did unpaid work. I’ve done a reasonable amount of voluntary writing. Last year, I landed my first paid writing assignments, and this new gig is my first step back into the world of writing for free. Not that I mind; it’s going to be great experience and it’s an up and coming publication.

    How many of you have done unpaid work experience or internships, and for how long?

  • Why do YOU blog?

    Just a wee little topic I replied to on a 20SB thread.

    Why do I have a blog? I guess, to keep myself accountable. Tolearn more about money, and be part of a community.

    So I can be totally open about personal finance in a way i can’t IRL. I mean, I am pretty honest with the people I know, but none of them are in even a remotely similar situation financially speaking so it’s quite isolating sometimes. Nor do I want to burden them with my worries. So I vent here…

    To satisfy my narcissistic streak! Of course.   target=”blank”>i_love_blogging-787805

    And to a small extent, to be creative – I no longer play guitar, or write songs. I’ve tried photography and enjoyed it and might take it up as a hobby next year. I really enjoyed my advertising papers last year; the process of creating a visual and painstakingly refining it for hours at a time until it’s JUST right. But I wasn’t quite creative enough for it. My domain lies in writing, and maybe in page design – because I am LOVING doing page layout at the moment. Editing & Design is possibly my most favourite paper. Blogging isn’t super creative, but it does the trick for now given how little leisure time I have this year.

    And it’s addictive! When I first started I never imagined I’d be posting so frequently. I thought I’d run out of things to write about pretty fast. But I’ve been writing posts pretty regularly, and it hasn’t been difficult at all.

    What about you – why do you blog? Does it ever feel like a chore?