What learning the piano has taught me about writing

No learning is ever wasted

pianist-1149172_960_720What does learning the piano have to do with writing? I can hear you asking this question as you open this blog post. The answer is a heck of a lot more than you’d think (or I thought until recently). But one thing I have come to realise is that few lessons are only useful in the context in which we first learn them. To put it another way: no learning is ever wasted. So it has proved with my new pastime of learning the piano, which has delighted and frustrated me in equal measure. A few admissions about me and music before we start:

  1. I am tone deaf.
  2. I was worse than hopeless at Music in school.
  3. I had no idea what any of the funny squiggles on a page of music meant until a few weeks ago.
So, I am learning piano from the lowest of bases, which is pretty much the case with me and this new world of self-publishing and indie authorship too. This has meant that learning the piano has furnished me with many lessons that are equally applicable to being an author.

Five writing lessons from learning the piano

1. Some days are just hard, but that’s fine

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These cats are probably making a better sound than I do on many days.

Some days practising the piano has felt like wading through incredibly thick treacle while
wearing iron boots. I have had to force myself to stay on the piano stool for my allotted practice time, even though the urge to run screaming from the piano has, at times, been overwhelming. However, the following day, when I have returned to the piano stool, I have found things suddenly click. I have experienced this time and again with writing as well. This has taught me that I need to put the hours in (whether practising piano or writing) regardless of how difficult it feels on that particular day. I will reap the benefit of that input at a later date. I just need to have faith in the process

2. You can only improve by doing

Those of you who have read previous posts of mine will remember that I have had problems in the past with spending too much time researching and not enough time writing. Learning the piano has reminded me of the importance of doing in order to learn and improve. Reading about playing the piano isn’t going to make me Lang Lang (actually nor is practising, come to think of it), but practising might actually give me a chance of becoming half-decent.

3. The ‘slog’ is easier to bear when it’s something creative

This is a very important life lesson for me. I have found it much easier to persevere with the hard work of learning the piano and writing than I did with jobs I have done in the past. The common theme between these two pursuits (and what that previous work was missing) is the creativity involved. This is a sustaining force.

4. A change is as good as a rest

Watching TV is not the only way to relax and refresh the brain (in fact it’s probably a pretty bad way). Doing something else mentally stimulating is a good way to recover from work (whether it be writing or any other job) and can help you to do that work much better. I have found my creative thinking to be far greater and my brain to feel far fresher at the end of a session of piano practice (which always comes toward the end of the day) than with other, more passive means of relaxation.

5. If it’s tough, don’t stop, just take it slower

ice-climbing-1247606_960_720I am working my way through a fantastic book of piano pieces written by Bela Bartok which he composed specifically to teach his son the piano. This means that they are getting progressively more difficult and introducing new ‘concepts’ as they go along. I have found two or three of the pieces particularly challenging and almost overwhelming. Instead of throwing in the towel, though, I have simply slowed down and taken these particularly complicated pieces at a more manageable pace and in smaller chunks. This means I will get to my ‘destination’ more slowly than I intended, but it means I should still get there. There have been times when I have been writing when my narrative has become bogged down and I have found it hard to resolve a particular tension that has come into the story. taking this approach has helped me to work through these sections and come out the other side.

Over to you

I have applied the lessons above to my writing, but, on reviewing them, I can see that they are applicable to most things in life. What useful life lessons have you learnt from unexpected sources? I would love it if you let me know by leaving a comment below. If you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, please do share it with your friends through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. (you’ll find shortcut buttons for doing so below).

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You can sign up for email notifications here, follow me on Twitter (@BarfordFitzG) or ‘like’ my Facebook page to keep up with what I am doing and any future posts.

You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here. I hope to publish the first of these in Spring 2016.

Six of the best: favourite reads from my childhood (and today)

Childhood books stay with you

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Do you remember your favourite books when you were a child? Do you find that those books have stayed with you much more than books you’ve read in later life? Working on my first two children’s books (which will be published shortly – see here for more information) has made me reflect on my own favourite children’s books a great deal. It has also made me realise the extent to which they have influenced me (mostly unconsciously). When I considered the question of what my favourite children’s books were, I found it very hard to pick 6 above the others. So here are 6 from among my favourites.

Six of my favourites

1. The Twits by Roald Dahl

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Copyright: Puffin Books

It was hard to single out only one of Roald Dahl’s books. He is a colossus of children’s literature. I almost chose the Witches, a book whose downright ghoulishness still haunts me to this day (in a good way). When I think of Mr. and Mrs. Twit, two of the vilest human beings ever committed to the page, I can’t stop a huge smile spreading across my face, so it had to be them. This tale of a couple who take pleasure in making each other miserable and torturing their pet monkeys and the local birds is filled with Dahl’s clear misanthropic tendencies. But it is still incredibly funny and a joy to read. I still laugh at the memory of the pranks these two awful people play on each other.

2. Funny Bones by Allan and Janet Ahlberg

Allan and Janet Ahlberg are the king and queen of picture books and have dozens of titles to their names (a good number of which I owned as a child), but Funny Bones remains supreme amongst them. “In a dark, dark town, there was a dark, dark street and in the dark, dark street, there was a dark, dark house…”. These opening lines will be familiar to thousands of parents and children alike. In spite of this rather spooky opening, this is a hugely entertaining and fun book, perfect for bedtime reading to even very small ones.

3. The Deptford Mice Trilogy by Robin Jarvis

I suppose this is a cheat as it’s three books rather than one, but, oh well. I picked up the first of these books, The Dark Portal, at a book fair at my primary school. I was hooked from the beginning to this tale of the Deptford mice’s struggles against the evil and shadowy Jupiter, a sort of feline Darth Vader as he seemed to my young imagination. These books are scary, action-packed and highly evocative of the underground world which they describe. Great fun.

4. Fred by Posy Simmonds

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Copyright: Andersen Press

 

You probably think of cartoons for adults, or graphic novels as I guess they are these days, such as Gemma Bovery, when you think of Posy Simmonds. I fondly think of her as the author of the fantastic children’s book Fred, which is a heart-warming story of two children whose cat, Fred, dies. They both loved Fred and are obviously sad to lose him, but they’d always thought he was a rather boring and lazy cat. How little they knew. After Fred’s death, they discover that they had him all wrong and that in actual fact he had been a megastar of the feline world who catkind now bitterly mourns. I now realise that Fred unconsciously influenced the cat character in my own upcoming book (click here for more information on this book). Fred is a brilliant creation.

5. Alfie gets in first by Shirley Williams

The Alfie books in general are great fun, always have a good moral and they have fantastic pictures. I’d recommend any of them. The characters are apparently based on Shirley Hughes’ own daughter and grandchildren and this comes through in the genuineness of the characters and the affection with which Hughes so clearly writes of them. In this particular tale, poor Alfie manages to get himself trapped in the house while his mum and little sister are stuck out on the doorstep (following a mishap as Alfie’s mum was struggling with Alfie’s little sister’s pushchair – a pain familiar to many parents, I am sure). All the neighbours club together on the doorstep to free young Alfie, while on the inside our young hero hatches his own scheme.

6. Mr. Stink by David Walliams

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Copyright: Harper Collins Children’s Books

I thought I would include a modern title for my final recommendation. David Walliams’ Mr. Stink, though fairly recent, is still a timeless tale that teaches us that there is more than meets the eye to all human beings. Our young heroine, Chloe, befriends a homeless man, Mr. Stink, with an interesting history and a very sad story of how he came to be homeless. This is a humorous tale which still manages to deal sensitively and not at all ‘childishly’ with some relatively grown-up themes.

Over to you

What children’s books would you have on your ‘favourites list’ and why? Leave me a comment below to let me know. If you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, please do share it with your friends through Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any other networks you use (you’ll find shortcut buttons for doing so below).

Want to find out more?

You can sign up for email notifications here, follow me on Twitter (@BarfordFitzG) or ‘like’ my Facebook page to keep up with what I am doing and any future posts.

You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here. I hope to publish the first of these in Spring 2016.

The top 5 mistakes I’ve made in my self-publishing journey (and what they’ve taught me)

Fantastic, accelerated learning experiences

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What are the times you’ve learned most? Probably the times you’ve made most mistakes, I would guess. Yet at the time you probably felt bad about making these mistakes, only to realise later how you benefitted from them. I, on the other hand, like to think of these not as mistakes, but fantastic, accelerated learning experiences. Since I started this self-publishing journey I have had many ‘fantastic, accelerated learning experiences’ (and my first book won’t even be published for just over a month)!

“Get it wrong quickly”

I used to work with someone who regularly said, “Get it wrong quickly”, when discussing some new task we needed to complete. This was their way of saying “just [expletive deleted] do it”. However, there is some wisdom in this advice if you apply it to activities or decisions that are not life or death or which do not have the potential to ruin you financially (and, to be fair, the activities to which this advice related were not in either of those two camps). Often having a crack at something and getting it wrong is the fastest way to learn how to do it. For your own enlightenment I share below perhaps my most fundamental mistakes / ‘fantastic, accelerated learning experiences’ to date.

My top 5 mistakes

1. Diving into action without a plan

I realise that for many people planning is probably even less preferable than having a tooth pulled, but it really can save quite a bit of wasted effort and heartache. I’ve dived into a few things related to setting myself up as an ‘independent author’ without really planning them (just in case you are worried, this doesn’t include the books themselves). The most obvious thing I failed to plan was my website, or should I say, my previous website, now firmly deleted from the WordPress universe.  You may well argue, though, that this current website too could benefit from a bit more planning (if so, please let me know your thoughts on my contact page here!). Anyway, having decided I needed a website, the first thing I did was go onto wordpress.com and start bashing about and setting one up. I hadn’t really planned what was going to be in it and how it might look. After a few hours of said ‘bashing about’, I decided I just needed to take the proverbial axe to the website and just canned it completely. I then spent about 30 minutes one evening brainstorming this one and then set it up in about another 30 minutes a few days later. A lot less elapsed time and effort for a much better outcome.

2. Too much time researching, not enough doing

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Jeremy had been researching the correct usage of ‘hashtags’ for 8 weeks now

Obviously there are lots of moving parts to this ‘self-publishing’ and ‘independent author’ thing and I am still getting to grips with it. That is not an excuse, though, for spending whole days doing ‘internet research’ into it. I realised very quickly I was using research as a proxy for action. If you are buying a house, choosing your child’s school or looking for a job (pretty big life choices) then days of research is fine and probably to be recommended. If you are thinking about how to set up a Twitter account and how to use it, days of research may not be very worthwhile (I know this now).  I’ve since realised that the amount of time researching should be proportionate to the importance and complexity of the decision or action that will follow it.

3. Believing ‘time out’ is wasted time

Have you ever had an epiphany in the shower or suddenly worked out what to do about that delicate situation at work while walking the dog? If you are anything like me, you often do your best and most creative thinking away from your desk or normal work environment. Although I probably knew this somewhere at the back of my mind, I would often force myself to forego anything more than a 5 minute break and any form of prolonged relaxation because I thought this was wasted time and I couldn’t justify it. However, a little like taking a few minutes to plan before starting something, time away from your main work is an investment that will save you time in the future. If nothing else, it will mean you are more productive in the hours that you are working, and in all likelihood it will also mean you come to that work with many more ideas.

4. Not treating writing like any other job

If you’ve read my previous posts, you will be aware that I am hoping to be able to make some form of living from writing. Something you make a living from is also known as a job (just in case you were wondering). However, I was not treating writing as a job. If you want to do something professionally, you have to approach it professionally. Jeff Goins, a great writer and blogger (go check him out if you haven’t), talks about the importance of ‘turning up’, i.e. you have to put in a day’s work and take writing seriously if you are going to get anything out of it (I paraphrase. Jeff puts it better me than me on his own site). So I now schedule writing and things related to it just as if it were a crucial meeting at work.

5. Editing as I write

Do you spend ages at work writing and re-writing the same sentence of the same email, thinking of just the right way to phrase it, instead of just writing the email? You can’t see the wood for the trees. I’ve done it myself many times and have caught myself doing it quite often while writing my first two books. This is, in effect, multi-tasking (something which we men, of course, are not meant to be able to do and something which I certainly cannot do) as writing and editing are two very different skills. I’ve now learned to turn off what many other writers call the ‘internal editor’ as I write. That is to say, when I’m writing, I’m just writing. I then worry about editing and finessing the words later. This is definitely more time-efficient and leads to a more cohesive piece overall.

Have you committed any of the mistakes above yourself? Or do you have further advice to add? Please let me know by leaving a comment. If you’ve enjoyed this post and found it useful, please do share it with your friends through Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any other networks you use (you’ll find shortcut buttons for doing so below).

Want to find out more?

You can sign up for email notifications here, follow me on Twitter (@BarfordFitzG) or ‘like’ my Facebook page to keep up with what I am doing and any future posts.

You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here. I hope to publish the first of these in Spring 2016.

What is an independent author and why am I doing this?

You may have seen me using the term ‘independent author’ on this site or elsewhere and wondered what that’s all about. You also may have wondered why on earth I am trying to become one (I do sometimes myself). This week I will be looking at both those questions and doing my best to answer them.

What is an independent author?

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Ernest Hemingway – definitely not an ‘independent author’
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘author’? Probably some incredibly arty type with their mind on higher things. Someone who is a ‘creative’ and doesn’t deal with petty everyday things like work and business. Such authors still do exist, but their numbers are dwindling. Even traditionally published authors with a publishing house behind them are increasingly having to get involved with the ‘business’ side of writing, in particular marketing their books, as advances and publicity budgets fall. Independent authors actively embrace this business side of writing, rather than seeing it as a necessary evil. They self-publish their work (managing all the elements of getting the book to market), they market their work, they deal with the distributors of their work (and this isn’t just Amazon). This doesn’t mean they do it all themselves. In that sense ’self-publishing’ is a misnomer. I, for example, have commissioned an editor, book cover design and illustrations for my first book (more on these in a later post). It probably sounds a lot of hassle. So, why am I doing it?

Why have I decided to become an ‘independent author’?

I already had the idea for my first book and had begun to draft it (almost idly without a clear view of what I’d ‘do’ with it) before I heard about self-publishing and independent authors. Once I’d heard about this route, I made a clear decision to pursue it. Perhaps unusually I hadn’t even bothered to approach an agent, let alone a publishing house. I decided I would go the ‘independent’ route without trying these traditional paths first. I imagine this is a decision which will become increasingly more common and self-publishing will move from being the last resort for those who were unable to secure a contract to an attractive and equal alternative. In fact,  many advocates of self-publishing point to the fact that royalties for the self-published author are much higher than with traditional publishing as the publishing house isn’t taking its cut to cover its investment. While true, for me this is not a compelling reason to be an independent author as the flip side is you do not have the machinery of the publishing house behind you to sell your books (even if many are saying this isn’t what it once was). If that isn’t the reason, why have I taken this decision then?

 

  1. Greater control – I want to have control over my work and my rights to it – a traditional publishing route almost certainly would reduce that.
  2. Speed to market – I want to get my work and my message out without the hassle of taking years to find an agent and publisher (if I ever did found one, that is – even J.K. Rowling struggled to find a publisher!).
  3. Use my business skills – I have many years experience as a management consultant and want to use these skills to build my own business based on what I enjoy.
  4. Not dependent on marketing’s whims – I am aware of many authors whose book ideas have been accepted by a publisher before being rejected by the marketing department.
  5. No regrets – I will definitely regret it if I don’t give it a go.

If you have any thoughts yourself on the above please leave me a comment below. You can sign up for email notifications here, follow me on Twitter (@BarfordFitzG) or ‘like’ my Facebook page to keep up with what I am doing and any future posts.

You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here. I hope to publish the first of these in Spring 2016.

Five key things I’ve learned trying to forge a new career

Inspiring dreams and doom-mongering fear

Have you ever considered making some kind of big change in your life, but felt too afraid to take the plunge? Have you imagined yourself taking that plunge and what it could do for you and felt pretty awesome about the whole thing? Have you then found yourself worrying about what could go wrong or what your partner / friends / sister’s cat (delete as applicable) might think?

In that case I can tell you two things – you’re human and you’re not massively different to me.

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Do you feel a bit like this guy when contemplating a big change?

I have oscillated many times between a sense of overwhelming inspiration and doom-mongering fear whenever I’ve thought about trying a new career path. For many years, the doom-mongering fear won hands-down. No contest. In my last year at university I thought ‘I need a job’ (you may also remember a panicked trip of your own to the careers office). I never really considered what I wanted from said ‘job’ and didn’t realise (or wanted to ignore the fact) that ‘a job’ (in whatever shape it came) would be the thing I would spend most of the rest of my life doing.

So, I left university and tried a number of different jobs which taught me a lot, but none of which inspired me for very long. What I was really missing, I soon realised (well, after about 8 or 9 years), was a sense of creativity. Until now, though, I was too nervous to try something different and, potentially, risky to satisfy this desire for a sense of creativity.

Becoming a writer

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This is probably what you’re thinking when you think ‘writer’

I’ve now finally decided to put the doom-mongering fear aside (though he likes to make a little cameo now and again) and try to become a writer. Surely, you say, to become a writer all you need to do is pick up a pen (or tablet or smartphone) or turn on your computer and get going? That’s the bit I’d been missing (a pretty crucial part of becoming a writer it would seem). Instead I’d just been thinking about it.

That is until one day when it struck me: the only person who decides if I’m a writer is me. I would simply have to write something, firstly, to be a writer. Secondly, I would have to call myself a writer. And that’s it. Obviously, many of us assume, as I think I had previously, that ‘writer’ means someone who has sold lots of books and is a celebrity of minor or major standing in their own right. That is a ’successful writer’, but being a ‘writer’ only really requires those first two things: write something and call yourself a writer.

So, anyway, I started writing and telling some people, but only a few as I was slightly nervous about doing this, that I was an aspiring writer (I always added the term ‘aspiring’ as if I aspired to write, but I hadn’t got round to it, which I guess, until recently, was true). Then I heard about ‘independent authors’ and self-publishing and thought that this might be the right path for me. I will explain a bit more about what these two things entail in a future post. Suffice to say, for now, that I am on the brink (in the next few months) of self-publishing my first two books for ‘middle grades’ children (approximately 8 to 12 years-old). So, what have I learned from the first few months of this journey?

5 things I’ve learned from trying my new path

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This guy is waiting to pounce. I just know he is.
  1. No one’s going to tell you off – This is something I regularly have to remind myself before I write something or give it to someone to review (this blog post included to be honest with you). I get this odd feeling that I’ve done something wrong like a little boy who’s just been called to the headteacher’s office (obviously I was never called to the headteacher’s office myself…that much). I think people will be angry or disappointed (not sure who these people are or why they might be angry, but I couldn’t bear to disappoint these imagined people). I have learned that it is highly unlikely that people will be angry or disappointed (unless you’ve committed a crime or written something pretty unpleasant about them) and people are normally more supportive than you think they’ll be.
  2. You need to know what you want and WHY – Identifying a vision of what you want and why you want it makes it easier to navigate the times of doubt and difficulty. This is because you know what’s at stake if you don’t do it. Doing this myself has also given me the confidence to know that any setbacks I’ve encountered aren’t fatal to achieving my vision – you just need to find a different route.
  3. It doesn’t matter what others think (they probably don’t think it anyway) – We all suffer self-doubt based on our perception of what others think of us (my friend the ‘doom-mongering fear’) and, sadly, often this leads to inaction. The truth is that other people are not thinking of you the vast majority of the time: they are thinking of themselves. As Eleanor Roosevelt once put it, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do”.
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    Have I really spent 6 hours watching QVC?

    We decide how we use our time – We often tell ourselves we don’t have time, whether it’s to call that friend, take a short break away or even write a book. The truth is, we choose not to make time. This is perfectly acceptable as long as we’re making that decision on an informed and sound basis. The truth is, I’m not sure that I was making those decisions on an informed and sound basis in the past. Instead I was spending quite a bit of time doing things I didn’t like or things I’d drifted into without thinking. Being more intentional about how I use my time now has meant I am using more of my time for the things I find fulfilling (you will always still have to do some things you don’t like, of course).

  5.  If you don’t define happiness someone else will do it for you – We don’t define happiness. We let society define it for us. Few people stop and identify what happiness is for them, but instead fall into patterns determined by what they see in the media, on adverts or by what they think others think they should do (I’ve definitely been guilty of this). Then they stop after a number of years and wonder why they are unhappy.

And a sixth bonus learning (just thought of it as I was writing this):

  1. The journey is as important as the destination – We shouldn’t be too impatient to arrive at the goals we’ve set ourselves and the aspirations we want to achieve. Instead, we should appreciate and enjoy the journey – it is as much a part of our lives as the fleeting moments of ‘arrival’. This is something I need to remind myself of regularly as I go down this new route I’ve chosen.

This particular journey into writing and self-publishing is still new and I’m very much at the beginning. It may not work and I will no doubt make more mistakes. But I’m glad I’m doing it and I look forward to sharing with you more thoughts on my journey.

Have you tried a big change in your life or are you thinking about it? If you have any thoughts yourself on the above please leave me a comment below. You can sign up for email notifications here, follow me on Twitter (@BarfordFitzG) or ‘like’ my Facebook page to keep up with what I am doing and any future posts.

You can find out about the two books on which I am currently working here. I hope to publish the first of these in Spring 2016.

Image credits:

Cliff Image – Patrick Pilz, unsplash.com

Oscar Wilde, angry man and ghoulish face – pixabay.com