Friday, 20 January 2012

In need of a time-turner, NOW

It's been a very chaotic start to the year for me. Two new writing initiatives. Relatively new job. High expectations of myself. Recipe for brian melt-down.

The first week I tried to do everything. I was up every morning before work writing, and after work I was back on the computer trying to catch up on all the Tweeting from my new 'pack' (the other 100 writers doing the blogging/social media platform course), reading lessons and trying to apply them, and on top of that trying to write my 500 words a day.

By the end of the week I was a wreck: high-strung, aggro, exhausted. But I did have the required quota of words!

However, it was pretty obvious to me after that one week that I wasn't going to be able to sustain such a pace. My goal is to write 500 words a day for the entire year -- or at least until I have a novel finished. But I also have to be realistic. I simply cannot do everything. If I'm exhausted, I can't actually do anything.

So I decided to accept that I could probably only do one thing each evening after work -- at least until I stop arriving home so drained. And I decided that burning the candle at both ends was counter-productive. I cannot function on 5 hours of sleep a night. I certainly cannot be creative. Everything suffers.

And I found myself resenting all that time spent with my face in front of the computer.

For the past two weeks I applied this decision. Didn't bother trying to be productive before work. And after work applied myself to one major activity: 500+ words . . . or a blog post . . . or a blog lesson . . . or some other activity out of the house. As a result I'm more sane, albeit still exhausted. But I am also frustrated by my failure to maintain my WIP500 goal. In theory it simply shouldn't be that hard! I can only hope that work will soon stop sapping my energy reserves and that all this blogging and social networking activity will calm down as well.

An unfortunate side-effect of all this activity is that I am having a lot of trouble focusing on one thing when I need to. I used to be really good at this, but these days I seem to have so many things in my head -- mostly things I want to be doing, or feel I should be doing -- that everything takes longer than it should. Especially the novel writing. I really hope I can regain my ability to focus. Maybe I need to do more exercise!

Because that's the other thing I need to try to fit into my life. Right now I don't know how I'm going to fit it in, but I do have plans to get back to the gym regularly. Eventually. Soon.

Simply too many things to do and not NEARLY enough time! I need Hermione's time-turner. Right Now!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

My Golf's in good hands

Is it just used car dealers that are slimy and dodgy, or is it supposed to apply to new car dealers as well? The reason I mention this is because, if the latter, I've had quite the opposite experience during the course of buying and now owning my new car. In fact, I've been so impressed with Barloworld Volkswagen that I'm giving them a plug.

(Except for the first time I went there and I got a total dud sales guy. But I've almost completely forgotten about him.)

My experience over the past couple of weeks proves that customer service still counts. Instead of walking away from the dealership with the keys to the car, never to return, I've been made to feel as though I've joined a club.

Tonight I've been to a new owners' evening, where they took us on a tour of the premises (so we know what goes on behind the scenes) and then had some of their service team talk us through several aspects of our cars. The shiny newness of the workshop, the expanse of the facility, the extent of their hospitality combined to make me feel like I'm in very good hands.

In the workshop -- which is so new and bright and clean, I could imagine quite happily working there myself -- they divided us into three groups and took us through:
1) Basic aspects of the engine (what's what under the hood, what's safe to touch, what's not)
2) Unique features of the deadlocking and electronics diagnostics system
3) Changing a tyre and the realities of the space saver spare wheel

Yes, so that's all rather basic, but still helpful to have pointed out. It also gave us the opportunity to ask questions, and it turns out I'm not the only one with the mysterious 'check deadlock! owners manual!' message flashing at me each time I switch off the ignition. They're looking into this for me...

I know that Barloworld go the extra mile because they want to retain my business, not only for servicing and panel beating (if required), but also for subsequent purchases. All I can say is their approach is working. I already feel immensely reassured to know that if I have any issue at all with this car (especially during the 3-year warranty period) that Barloworld are only a phone call away. They will take it under their wing and make it all better. They will check the oil and top it up anytime I'm driving past (although they did say not to put any oil in until after 10,000km, on account of the special factory additives for running in the engine).

They even prepared a pamphlet that displays all the dashboard warning lights, and what they mean, to save us thumbing through the complete manual.

OK, I'd better stop this before I make someone sick. But I think it's very comforting to have a goto point for all things Golf. The Barloworld team is friendly, and approachable and dependable. Between them and VW roadside assist I'm all sorted and I don't have to worry. Peace of mind is worth a lot.

And they provide coffee.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Working way out west

Now I have a car, the commute to work is a whole lot easier. Brooklyn (next door to Altona) is well serviced by the Geelong Freeway; public transport not so much.

There's a reason my workplace is located at the edge of the freeway. Trucks. Lots of them. That's what you get in the transport industry. Especially big double and triple semis. And car carriers. These massive vehicles thunder along Millers Rd, and rumble on and off the freeway, by the hundreds.

The Brooklyn/Altona area where I work is all concrete and steel and fumes and rubber. Apparently there is a park (of the flora kind) nearby somewhere, but I haven't found it.

It is not, I have to admit, an ideal place to work. Even if the commute is rendered less annoying by a car (and I'm yet to suffer the grind of regular peak hour -- the traffic at the moment is at about 50%), nothing can really overcome the industrialness of Brooklyn. There are no shady green streets down which to walk, and nowhere worth walking to. There are only trucks and traffic.

Definitely culture shock for me, used to working in Elwood and East St Kilda and then the CBD. In those locations, coffee was not only plentiful but exceptional -- if you knew where to go. And the food options were fabulous. I don't think I took my lunch to work in 10 years, and I never got bored. We used to eat together as a team and chat. Lunch used to be the highlight of the day.

My food options in this new job are terrible. OK, so there's Altona Gate shopping centre. If not for Altona Gate I would possibly be slitting wrists. It's walking distance -- a noisy, smelly walk with too many traffic lights per km -- but most of my colleagues get in the car and drive down. Once you're there, the options are fine -- it's a standard foodcourt -- but the round trip consumes most of my lunch half-hour.

For the first five weeks of this job I was eating Light n Easy meals for lunch, so I didn't need to think about it; but this week I've been exploring other options. I took an avocado in and smeared it on Sao crackers with smoked salmon for two lunches. Once I drove down to Altona Gate to get some supplies in Safeway (yoghurts and muesli bars etc) and grabbed some sushi. I realised almost immediately that it was stupid to drive, but plead the novelty of my new car as my excuse.

Today I decided to walk down to Altona Gate -- to get some exercise, some sunshine, and most importantly to get away from my desk. The awful culture in my workplace is to eat lunch at one's desk and I absolutely loathe this practice. It only makes me stare at the screen of my iPhone for social networks, surf the Internet -- or, worse, keep working. Half an hour isn't really enough of a break. And it definitely isn't a break at all if you remain at your desk. (I consider staring at my iPhone in the foodcourt acceptable...)

So I think I will endeavour to walk down to Altona Gate most days, for the same reasons as stated above. It gets me out of the office, and if I take 45 mins instead of half an hour, I'll wait until someone comments. I don't think they will. I work at least an extra 15 mins a day, after all.

But this brings me to the coffee situation. I developed a habit in 2010 of two flat whites a day -- one first thing at my desk in the morning, the second sometime after lunch. And then last year with my Nespresso machine, I pretty much abandoned instant coffee all together.

So what do I do now? A few times on public transport I grabbed a coffee on the way in, but I like lingering over it at my desk, not juggling it on the train. Fortunately I soon discovered the morning coffee ordered from reception. There's a drive-through coffee place nearby that actually makes decent coffee and -- best of all -- delivers if the order is large enough. So it was in my 3rd week I think that I negotiated my standing order at reception and resolved to pay my $20 coffee fund on the Monday of each week. I still have to bear with instant for my afternoon coffee, but by then I can handle it.

Except this week and next, our coffee place is closed! So I've been making a stop at Altona Gate before arriving at the office. The coffee there is variable. Today I tried coffee from Michel's pastries and it was better than the bitter brew I had yesterday from one of the other cafes.

Before I end this ramble about my life working in the wild west, I should mention that we are quite close to Seddon and Yarraville and Williamstown, where there are nice cafes. So far I've been to Seddon a few times with some of my colleagues, usually on a Friday, and it's been wonderful to go somewhere with a little more groove. I should also note that we are nowhere near the centre of Altona, which is actually quite nice too, with cafes, parks, the beach and even a wetlands. But everywhere decent requires you to get in the car.

It's fair to say I'm still working out my routine at the moment, trying to work out what will work long term. I daresay I'll get annoyed with the traffic on the way to Altona Gate, so it might need to be a mix. I may need to bring my lunch in on occasion -- and then I'll see if I can find the park. I think the only way to escape my desk at lunchtime is to get out of the building. I think I'll be on a quest to find a lunch buddy as well.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Two exciting new writing initiatives for 2012

Today I have embarked on two exciting new initiatives related to my writing career.

The first, which I signed up for a few months ago, is an online course called "blogging to build brand". It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to sign-up, made when I had all the time in the world and was often to be found lost in blogland. I think the course goes for a month and I have no idea what it's going to entail, but the idea is to help authors (and aspiring authors) cement their brand on the interwebs through social media.

I've spend a deal of time thinking and reading about online branding over the past year. It's very hard to justify the time needed to read the vast number of interesting blogs, not to mention actually blogging oneself, when it's at the expense of actually writing. After all, what's the point of having a "brand" if one doesn't have anything to hang it on? The wisdom does seem to be, however, that even aspiring authors greatly benefit from having a strong brand, particularly when it comes to agents taking notice. Not in lieu of the writing or the story, of course, but every little bit helps.

Anyway, I decided that for a small fee and a little bit of time spent blogging (which I do anyway) I might as well find out some tips about how to make better use of my writing blog (the other one, not this one). Because the flipside of the "why bother worrying about brand?" argument is "why bother blogging at all if nobody is reading it?".

The course starts this month -- any day now I reckon -- and hopefully will result in some action on the other blog, which, like this one, has been somewhat dormant since I began work again. (I'll continue this blog in the same vein as ever -- a bit of this and a bit of that.)

An unanticipated side-effect of this course, however, is the Twitter interaction. There is a Twitter hashtag (#wana112) associated with our group of 100 or so writers, and we were all commanded to "stop using the Yahoo email group for chat" and instead get onto Twitter and start using either HootSuite or TweetDeck, which are more sophisticated Twitter handling interfaces than Twitter itself. (Many in the group had never used Twitter -- thank heavens I had, at least a little.)

I selected HootSuite in the end, on account of its being hosted in the Cloud, and now I have a dashboard containing several columns of Twitter feeds, all going off at once. This morning there was a flurry of messages and new people following me, and then I had to follow them all back, and between this and facebook I felt as though I was manning a complicated communications consul. It made me giggle. Since most of the other participants are in the USA, I'm going to be out of sync if they post in the evenings (our morning, when I'll be at work), so perhaps it won't be too demanding to keep up most of the time.

But the priority for this year, as already stated, is to complete a draft of a novel -- which brings me to the second initiative. Through one of my new blogging buddies, I was introduced to the #WIP500 project being run by writer, Cara Michaels. I daresay I will cross-announce this with the appropriate links on my other blog soon. It's being run like a low-key NaNoWriMo, where you aim to write 500 words a day for the entire year, and log them into the website daily -- and use the associated Twitter hashtag for chatting with others on the same journey. Since this coincided with my personal aim for 2012 anyway, it seemed a good idea to sign-up and have someone to be accountable to.

So there you have it. Pretty exciting! All I need to do NOW is go and write 500 words for today... and maybe some for yesterday as well.

It's going to be a brilliant year!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Introducing my new wheels

The year 2012 is already off to a flying start, because I've bought myself a Christmas present...

It's a Volkswagen Golf and it's rather lovely.

Deciding on a make of car was initially daunting. There are so many to chose from! The first time I went looking we took a drive down the strip between Elsternwick and Brighton, stopping at Ford, Mazda, Toyota, Citroen, Peugeot and VW. I was quite impressed at that point by the Ford Focus, the Mazda 3 and the VW Golf -- the last despite the useless sales person, who explained the difference between the Polo and Golf as "having different body shapes with the same engine", and whose method of trying to sell me a car was to ask me how much I wanted to spend and then identifying a specific vehicle that I could have for that price. (Frankly, they are very lucky I went back to that dealer... Perhaps I forgave them because I enjoyed some verbal sparring with that imbecile.)

It was a few weeks before I had time to resume my investigations, by which time I was desperate for a vehicle. My daily commute to work has been two trains and a bus: train to Flinders Street, train to Footscray, bus to Brooklyn. Door to door it has been about 1h 25m on average, but worse has been the lack of flexibility. In the mornings, if I didn't leave by 7:25am all my connections stuffed up, making pre-work activities (such as gym) a bit of a challenge. In the evenings, I wasn't getting home until about 7:15pm. Suddenly, the thought of returning to public transport after the Christmas/New Year break was unpalatable.

So the weekend before Christmas, after more hours poring through downloaded car catalogues to compare features, I went out again to look. In the meantime, the RACV had published its top cars in each category. Interestingly the winners in the small car section were Golf, Focus, Hyundai (X2) and Mazda 3. Seems I had been onto a good thing so I decided to stick with it. I had, however, by this stage ruled out the Mazda 3 on account of a USB media interface being unavailable on any model (this may not seem like much, but to me it's one of the most essential features!!), but I wanted to go and look at the other 4 cars a little more closely...

It turns out that on Sunday afternoons not all car dealerships are open, including the Ford and Hyundai dealers. We went to VW again and got a MUCH more helpful sales guy, and came away with a Golf test drive booked for Christmas Eve. The rest, as they say, is history. Had the Ford place been open, I might have booked a test drive for that as well, but I never did.

I fronted up last weekend for my Golf test drive, fairly decided that unless I hated it, I was getting a Golf. And of course I didn't hate it! In fact, I have to confess I went through the motions of the test drive, already resolved to buy, and all was eventually arranged for a new car to be collected on Friday two days ago.

It is officially "United Grey" and has alloy wheels and five doors and a "liquefied ceramic" coating on the exterior to keep it shiny forever. It also has dual climate control and the all-important USB connection (so I can listen to audiobooks or music without having to fumble around with a separate MP3 player); plus hooks for hanging shopping bags on and heated side mirrors and cup holders in the back as well as the front and and and heaps of other stuff.

An unexpected thrill has been the bluetooth connectivity of my iPhone. My phone contacts have been synchronised with the car, so I can now make and receive phone calls from the steering wheel controls, with my phone in my handbag on the back seat. That wasn't something I thought I needed, but now I have it, it's pretty damn cool!

The best thing about this car is that it gives me the flexibility and freedom I've been needing. Most of this past year I haven't missed having a car much -- only on the odd occasion. I've enjoyed walking a lot, and catching public transport about the place (when not under any time pressure). But I also like to be able to visit Phillip Island on my own for the weekend, to go out at night without wondering how I'm going to get home, and to head off on outings without having to plan ahead how I'm going to get there.

I'm particularly excited that it's going to liberate my early mornings. Whether it's going to the gym or writing, those pre-work hours are going to be essential for me this year. If I have a new year's resolution (other than my already stated goal of completing a full draft of a novel), it's to utilise my mornings. It's always much harder to drag myself to the gym, or make myself write, after work. Besides, I've found in the past that writing before work actually increases the likelihood that I'll also write after work.

So there you have it. Bring on 2012! I'm armed with car and very determined.