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Five Things Friday: If You’re an Aspiring Influencer, You NEED This Book

Hey, guys! Welcome back to my blog. I really wasn’t sure how to format today’s post, but thanks to a book (one of the items in my five things) I’m learning that maybe it’s okay to experiment a little and see what works well for me. So today’s post is a bit of a hodgepodge of five things that I want to mention here.

1. The BBC and the Pulitzer Center have published an amazing report (for what it sheds light on) about accusations of witchcraft against children, which are resulting in the abuse, estrangement, and deaths of thousands of children (as young as 3) in Nigeria. This is horrific and a new trend, but the positive side of this (if it can be called that) is that of the shining light of journalism. Nigeria needs to do better, and this report will surely increase international pressure on them to do so. Please read it here.

2. At the end of May, I signed up for a new domain and hosting through GoDaddy. The truth is, as much as I love WordPress.com and blogging here (on Sweet Bliss), there are a few issues that a GoDaddy hosted site solves. The first is that the WordPress.org version of WordPress allows me to control the back end of things, to have more say over how my website looks, but also eventually on what type of content I publish and (if any) what sorts of ads will appear. While WordPress Premiums has been kind to me in that sense as well, I don’t find there are nearly as many free themes here, and there are also no widgets unless you upgrade to a business account—something you automatically have access to with WordPress.org. And metrics can be a great indicator of how well you are actually engaging with your audience, whether you are successfully building a community, and where people are finding you in order to fine-tune your strategy.The name of my new blog will be different, but I am still figuring out the nitty-gritty, and while I re-find my voice here on WordPress, Sweet Bliss is treating me well.

 
3. This is the item I am most excited about and the book you need if you want to become an influencer. Granted, I am only 1/3 of the way through and a proper review is bound to follow, but Influencer by Brittany Hennessy 100% should be on your radar. I am reading an advance copy, but you can get yours on Amazon, here. This is a no-nonsense book from somebody whose voice counts: Brittany worked for Hearst (the huge media company) booking influencers for lifestyle brands. She knows who catches a brand’s eye, who has the ability to engage people, etc. etc.And in this book, she is telling us all that just as it is, and I love the way she has categorized different types of influencers and ways to increase your following, what to do and when, why and why not. It’s actually quite informative, and there are a few pieces of advice and frameworks that I really haven’t seen elsewhere. Beyond all of that, I do find that this book is motivating me to try harder! Sure, I don’t want to be a latte-sipping, perennially summer-dress wearing, beach-posing “influencer.” I never have wanted to be that. But I am learning that that is not the only definition, and that ultimately, we influence people by providing value.In Brittany’s words, the definition of an influencer is essentially that “when you talk, people listen.” Really, so far, I can’t recommend this book enough. Like I said, beyond the informative aspect, this book is actually inspiring and motivating. You know that sluggish time at 1200 followers when nothing you do seems to work (my problem, though not on this feed), well, this book will encourage you to reframe your perspective and realize the value of an engaged following. For $15, this book is a bargain, and I can’t wait to come back and tell you the exact same thing once I’m done reading. For now, read an excerpt from Amazon by clicking the link above (truly my favourite feature. Why commit to a read before trying it out?).Screen Shot 2018-07-20 at 9.51.31 AM

 

4. I have mentioned writing warm ups before, but that was a bit of a rant post about how few writers understand what personal essays should be about. Today, though, I am just here to encourage you to give the treasure trove that is writing prompts a good try. You literally need—almost—nothing to get started, except an email address from Google that lets you use Google Docs.I prefer to leave my writing warm ups and some other pieces of writing in my Google Drive, through Google Docs, in order to avoid cramping my laptop’s precious memory space.

The truth is that writing warm ups is not only a great way to practice writing and actually increase your skill level and ability by practicing crafting language in ways and about topics you otherwise wouldn’t broach, but it can take your ability to introspect and see your life to a whole new level!Yesterday’s warm up for me was simple. I followed a prompt that said “outside my window.” That’s it. There were really no requests; it was up to me to come up with something. So I looked outside my window and wrote. But it never ends there, does it?What I saw outside my window reminded me of old memories, things that happened nearly a decade ago, the changes that have taken place since then and how they have affected myself and my family. It was really beautiful to be able to express these things just by following a writing warm up. I felt a pleasant but unexpected release, and while not every day is going to be such a success, writing warm ups will never be a waste to me, because they encourage me to write better.

 

5. Before starting on this blog post, I was working on another blog post about the startup money that it takes to become an influencer. Almost a year ago, I started an Instagram microblog about plant-based food. But then I realized that I was listing a series of barriers that really weren’t stopping me, weren’t insurmountable, and that I was just making excuses. I love plant-based food, and most of my calories come from that. I believe that if we all ate more plants, the world could truly be a much better place; I believe in the ripple effects kindness to ourselves and to animals can have in this world. So even if  I could influence one single person to make a different choice for dinner one night, the effort would truly be worth it to me. After all, I also really enjoy the creative side of running a visual blog on Instagram. And it takes a lot of that to get the shots just right.But one problem is that it can also be very expensive to have a feed that is updated often enough. It’s not that I hadn’t tried before, but it can be exhausting. To get the right lights, for example, I used desk lamps with light bulbs that are far too high wattage and covering them with sheer fabric I found at a fabric store to create a makeshift photography light to save a few bucks. The thing is, yes, it is much easier to just spend money when you’re trying to become an influencer. It took a long time to do that, and it takes time to, for example, find tableware from a thrift store instead of waltzing into the nearest homewares department and buying whatever I want.After all, it takes money to stay on top of the trends in whatever area you’re trying to tackle, and if you’re not at the forefront, then why waste people’s time, right? I totally get that and agree with that.
But while I wrote, I also realized that there are also reasonable and doable ways of keeping consistent content without breaking the bank, and writing that post today made me realize that I was making a long list of invalid excuses. So, seriously, write it out!Who knows what type of blind spot you might have that you just haven’t taken a good look at. Don’t be afraid to write about subjects you’d rather avoid, things you’re ashamed of, or things you’re not quite sure you’ll have the answers for. Here’s the thing, you can rip out the page and delete the file if it’s so bad. But I promise you that it won’t be!

 

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Writing: What’s In a Hook? First Pages

I went to the book shop to read first pages of as many random books I could get my hands on. I wanted to know, what’s in a hook? What’s in a first page?

I usually read books based on friend’s recommendations, hype (bestseller lists), awards (another type of hype?), and because I have to (school). But which books would truly have the power to keep me reading past the first page if it weren’t for my knowing about them or their author? So often in writing classes, we’re taught to write sentences that keep the reader going. We’re taught about hooking them. But is the hook that important for novels that people have to interact with in some way before actually reading?

I wanted to find out.

The first thing I found is that it’s very difficult to not judge a book by its cover, or at least to not be affected by its cover. Even though I did my best to not look at the covers before opening to the first page, I’d still inadvertently get a peak. And from a single glance at the colours and design of the cover, I’d build expectations about what I would find inside.

Anyway, after about a dozen lacklustre first pages, including most of the highly marketed books paid by publishers to be displayed in special places like the front tables, I found a gem with a great first page tucked somewhere in the general fiction aisles.

It’s Her Mother’s Daughter by Leslie Crewe. After I Googled it, I felt a bit of pride that she’s actually Canadian and her story is set in Cape Breton. There aren’t enough books set in Canada. I hope to read the rest one day soon.

I took a sneaky picture of the first page. What do you think?

This book isn’t a bestseller as far as I could tell. It’s garnered nearly a couple hundred reviews on Goodreads, but otherwise it’s not that popular.

What I like about the hook and what follows is that only common words are used, and the author isn’t trying very hard to set the details of a scene by using strange descriptions with unusual words. I think this gave me a chance to really ease into the story and out of my mind, and I actually turned to read the second page before stopping to move on with my exercise.

I lucked out by finding my next favourite first page pretty soon after the first.

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall. This one is told from a nine-year-old’s perspective. That’s a fact that isn’t immediately clear, but you can definitely tell it’s a child whose life is under the control of the adults around her.

What I found just slightly odd or unsettling is that at the end of the first page she makes an observation that I don’t think a child would be perceptive or mature enough to make. But then again people do grow and mature at different rates.

I’d give this one a try based on the first page, and on Goodreads, the book has over 24,000 reviews and a four star average rating.

I couldn’t resist rereading the first page of Bittersweet, either. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book, but Stephanie Danler has a way with words, even though I never truly connected with what she was writing about in this memoir. But it’s easy to slip into this one.

Really, anything written in the first person is easier to get hooked into, in my experience. But of course, it can’t work for every story.

Next I picked up a big book and before I could fold the front of the cover, I noticed Umberto Eco’s name. I couldn’t help the thoughts springing in my mind after that. I was supposed to like this book.

I didn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to read past three sentences of The Name of the Rose. Of course, this is a very, very popular and highly acclaimed novel. I just found the first sentences to be boring and jarring.

Another good first page. This is American War by Omar El Akkad. It turns out it’s also received some critical acclaim.

I recognized Jennifer Eagan’s name and thought I’d give the first page of her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad a try (why not?).

I was surprised that I didn’t like it. Based on the first page, I would never keep reading, but it did win the Pulitzer Prize, so there’s that.

Lucky Boy—another first page winner.

The Almost Moon. Winner… This was was written by Alice Sebold, the author of The Lovely bones.

After the Bloom. A very, very captivating first page by Leslie Shimotakahara.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. Great.

And I had to make a stop by the Nicholas Sparks shelf. I opened up The Longest Ride, one of his that I haven’t actually read yet. He can really tell a story, and his first pages tend to be as impeccable as the ones that follow.

I had to snap a photo. What do you think?

And finally, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This is my all-time favourite book by the most skillful author my eyes and ears have had the fortune of being graced by. That’s a little dramatic, but I had to read a few pages from this, too.

Tragically, I gave my copy away to someone, and it’s one of my life’s little regrets (especially because I had the BEAUTIFUL 1990 illustrated cover edition, which matched the other books I own by her).

Here’s what I learned from reading first pages…

In all, I read about fifty first pages. I was surprised by how few books have good or interesting beginnings. Most of them felt jarring, as if the story was beginning without me, and I had to force myself to enter into a world and adjust to a rhythm and style of writing that was bookish and foreign.

I was able to identify a few things that worked and a few that didn’t work.

Many stories began with overly detailed descriptions. This didn’t work. Imagine describing a chair instead of just calling it a chair, or describing the walls that create a passageway instead of just calling it that. This was jarring! Yes, in my own mind, I might  perceive the walls, but I certainly don’t articulate that.

So, simple sentences were preferred. Telling me as simply as possible was a winner.

I also found that the third person POV was a little more difficult to be absorbed by, but what helped was if the beginning focused on a character or person that I could immediately take an interest in, rather than a badly described scene.

Out of the ones I didn’t like, some were really just because I didn’t think the story would interest me. But most were because I felt left behind. The author hadn’t considered a point of entry for me…

Anyway, don’t take my word for it but this exercise was really helpful.

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Personal Essays, The Ability

Today, I was looking for writing prompts to practice my pen. I opened a list of prompts from the New York Times, and read through some of their reference articles. And it’s here I saw that even the top calibre writers are sometimes not all that good… Every story, even a personal essay (as these were), needs a reason, so there’s some inciting event, drama, issue, problem in the very beginning. But so often that thing is actually trivial and not worth the time it takes to read the words that follow.

In an attempt to engage readers who couldn’t care less, writers begin to do something akin to gesticulating on the page, dramatizing and sensationalizing the same boring thing. But like one of my writing teachers used to say, reality is more interesting than fiction. If something, a story, is not interesting, you just don’t know enough about it or you’re considering the wrong angle.

At some point, we have to put our fingertips to the keyboard or we’d never write, but it’s so important to take the time to discover and think before just typing something. Typing is not writing and grammatically functional sentences are not enough when it comes to creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction is a slow Sunday morning’s afterthought while sitting on the front porch with nothing to do but savour the moment, not Monday morning’s coffee-running-up-your-nose necessity reading. In full view, with nothing to impede its birth in the reader’s mind, it simply needs to rise to the occasion. It needs to be better, to be something more.

Reading it should feel like the outer shell of a candy giving way to the syrup-filled centre, an irresistible explosion of sweetness. Irresistible. That’s a good word for the sort of elective reading material that personal essays are always comprised of. It should always be at least that.

Beyond the prospect of a sweet explosion or the fear of a pinch of pain, does anything matter? Without the threat of embarrassment for not knowing, or that of a stock portfolio crash, what prompts reading? Do essays myopic in scope, not because the dancing electrons of stories within are worthless but because the authors have missed the bigger picture (the connection of those particles to life), matter?

My answer is that they don’t. But they should… That is the actual skill; that is the ability. Not the use of literary devices, knowledge of commas or periods. It’s to make a personal essay important to a stranger on a day without prospects or threats.

 

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My Problem With Big Little Lies

Have you read a book and then debated with yourself for months about whether you liked it or not? That’s been me with Big Little Lies. I’ve been such a mess over Australian author Liane Moriarty’s bestselling women’s fiction title that I haven’t been able to even properly articulate what was getting on my nerves for so long.

In fact, I still don’t know if I can. But let’s try, shall we?

First of all, I’ll start by admitting that I’m pretty stingy with both my monthly Audible credit (even with their guaranteed return policy, which I’ve used often) and with my time. And women’s fiction hasn’t generally been a genre that has treated me well in the past. There, I said it.

While there have been a few books here and there that were really refreshing and fun (I’m thinking What Would Mary Berry Do? ), my expectations have much more often been crushed, leaving me feeling as though I’d wasted precious time.

So when I settled on reading/listening to Big Little Lies, it wasn’t just out of a desire for a good story, but from knowing that I’d be able to partake in so many conversations exploding around what was then about to be made into an HBO mini-series starring blockbuster Hollywood names like Reese Witherspoon (who actually acted in and also produced the series) and Julia Roberts.

And for much of the story, fourteen hours narrated by a pleasant-voiced woman with a mild Australian accent, I wasn’t unimpressed. I found the portrayal of a domestic abuser to be eerily accurate, and this was to my eyes (ears?) a big artistic/literary accomplishment. I mean, even after what I say next, by all means, read this novel just to get a great bird’s-eye view of the cycle of domestic violence, to get one too-common perspective on the question of why women don’t leave, and to see how horrid and even more disgusting it is than you may have previously imagined.

But then the story progressed and something happened to ruin it all… This book that I’d felt had really done a great deal to recover the broken image of chick-lit (okay, we call it women’s fiction now) as a bunch of sexist drivel was portraying women as spectacularly irrational, comically irrational.

Upon the death of one of the characters, an accidental murder of sorts as it were, rather than honestly fess up to authorities, the women chose to huddle together in what can only be described as a show of primitive tribal loyalty (to the woman tribe!) and to lie to investigators and police in order to protect one of their own. How heartwarming.

Amidst this, the only voices of doubt or reason were men’s—who it turns out stood no chance against the potential wrath of their wives, whose allegiance didn’t lie with democratic and civilized values but with their vagina tribe. (So those men were easily shushed.)

You should seriously read this book and tell me what you think. I want to know! I can’t be the only person who noticed this glaring issue.

Fourteen hours of listening is, what, two weeks worth of cardio time? Do it!

Pick up the Audible audiobook here (you get a free trial membership that you can cancel immediately after picking up the book…)

Or pick up the actual book here.

 

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The Most Important Quality of a Successful Memoir

Today, I want to consider the best quality that a narrator can exhibit while writing a memoir. It’s not a nuanced understanding of words or a crafty way with sentences. It’s not a great memory for outside events and circumstances or the ability to patiently pore over descriptions of minute details. These things are certainly important, and without them an otherwise good memoir might fail, but there’s another quality that is necessary in order for a memoir with all of these virtues to succeed yet.

What is that quality? It’s the author’s level of self awareness! Self awareness is the key to framing unique personal experiences in a way that they can enrich and interest the minds and lives of strangers with whom we might have precious little in common.

I was recently reading the first chapters of a memoir. The writing wasn’t bad–it could have improved with some structural edits, but nothing major. But the pages almost reeked of self-delusion. Small inconveniences were stretched for paragraphs against the background of a life of immense privilege and unusual luck. And yet these foundational building blocks of the very inconveniences that were bemoaned were not even acknowledged.

I personally believe there is no life not worth writing about and no human whose story, given a good storyteller, isn’t good. And yet it takes great awareness to connect the dots and figure out what the story is. In this case, the aforementioned author’s despair had nothing to do with the trivialities of life, but with the immensity of the prospect of having peaked before middle age, being stuck, etc.

It’s important to not only find the maturity to meet and acknowledge such despair but to share it with readers who might then root for the arc to follow, one of rising to the occasion and finding the courage to sail against winds, come what may.

That’s an arc that can inspire anybody. And yet this person entirely missed their own heroic journey.

On that note, my favourite memoir of all time is Broken Music by Sting. You can check it out by clicking the link (Amazon) and you can read an excerpt from it.

Comment your thoughts. Writing to you from my mobile device.

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The Thing That Refreshes My Soul

Tonight, I felt a calling to write here, and though I didn’t have any topics in mind, I knew I’d find some by turning to my trusty friend—Google. That’s where I found the title of this post on a list of blog post idea (thank you, Do a New Thing!). I realized immediately this would be my post’s title because it’s so timely and relevant.

Stress and the need to refresh our soul

I think we are all chasing the idea of refreshing our soul. Many of us are caught in cycles of chasing our own dreams and goals, and sometimes we can even experience severe stress that can leave us unmotivated and “burned out.”

I know because I was there just weeks ago, and I am still dealing with the symptoms of severe stress, of the disappointment of trying for objectives that haven’t yet come to pass. Amid all this, I spent a great deal of time and money trying to release my soul, to refresh myself.

I went on weeklong resort vacation, spent countless hours watching funny videos and movies, took too many naps, bought fancy wine and cooked nice meals or went out to dinner with friends, etc. I did all of these things out of a need to refresh my soul, and I think that’s exactly the reason many others do these things.

Vacations are taken nearly compulsively by some, not because they are truly curious to see and explore a new place, but because they feel they need to get away from where they are.

And yes, does it work for them? For me it didn’t!

Entertainment And Escape Bring Temporary Relief

I found that escaping the issues that were making me feel worn down, that were testing my faith to exhaustion and that made me feel as though I couldn’t think one more thought or take one more step towards what I knew was right and knew I needed to keep working for, just wasn’t working.

I could refresh my soul for that hour while watching an episode of Grace and Frankie, or for  that eight-minute video of the Colbert Report, or the two-hour brunch with a friend, or even a week spent on the most mesmerizing Caribbean white sand beach. But it was just a distraction… I had to pick everything back up immediately following all of those activities; the crushing weight of my stresses would come back to me.

And the moment I realized this (it took a long time) was when, in my cab ride home from a stunning week in the Caribbean/Cuba, I felt the heaviness I’d abandoned just before leaving come back to find me. I found that all of my worries and bad thoughts had been just waiting for me to get back.

My initial thought was that I needed to book another vacation because at least those six days of not worrying, of not having to deal with the trouble, or being able to feel fresh within my soul, had been amazing—and worth it.

But then I realized that these activities, including vacations, were not truly decompressing activities. They were just sold as such! They were marketed with false promises.

Finding True Decompression To Refresh The Soul

I think the secret to feeling fresh is feeding our soul, resting, etc. So there is no one size fits all. For me, I wasn’t under any great amount of physical stress, so while being at the beach was nice for the physical restfulness, what I was really getting out of it was the promise of inner refreshment.

And yet, I only got that as a result of distraction from the things my soul was truly starving for. I had wound up so tightly because I truly just wasn’t feeding my soul the correct things…the things it needed and required in order to flourish and love and feel enthusiasm. I’d almost stopped feeling alive.

I had to “dig deep” and think about the things that had truly allowed me to feel alive rather than those purported or “sold” as being connecting activities. I found that volunteerism and positive/good times around relatives/extended family are the two things that had recharged me in the past.

For me, fundraising for a cause I believe in or volunteering to make runs or helping to prepare food for a food rescue organization are the activities that in the end had made me feel connected and full. Full of something that extended beyond the few hours I actually spent on the activity.

I think as soon as we decompress, we can let the light inside. So I believe that helping to provide for another person, helping to create something so, so intimate (food is! we all need it…) made me feel so useful. It helped to feel like I was a part of a community and a part that mattered.

Until I can align all of the rest of my life with objectives and activities that give me this true sense of fulfillment everyday, I need to incorporate activities that decompress and fill me genuinely rather than trying to get away.

So that is my answer! Volunteering in a way that makes me feel directly and immediately useful to others is what refreshes my soul.

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Pompous Words—Oh, How I’m Learning

There was a time when I was so proud of my “hold” over the English language that I would throw in big words to conversations or choose unusual sentence constructions with simple ones while sipping coffee with friends at Starbucks or walking down the halls to a meeting with coworkers.

I thought that if I didn’t, it would slip my friends’ and coworkers’ minds that I was smart. I felt there was truly no other way for them to know, and maybe that fear was well-founded. I didn’t have any educational or extracurricular achievements to recommend me as an erudite thinker (or someone to listen to), after all.

But those days are past, and it’s only now I come face-to-face with what is truly having the tactfulness of using the right words in the right ways.

I started noticing because I’ve been reading critically lately because I’m writing a novel-length story. No, it’s not my first try, but the first one in a while, and the longest I’ve persisted (in terms of word count). Along with my increasing word count has come a maybe as of yet inexplicable and slightly useless anxiety about doing well. All sorts of questions pop into my mind as I write: can I make this scene more descriptive and sensuous to attract the reader’s attention? Does this action defy my character’s motivations? Is this flow of words boring?

And all this writing and wondering has naturally led me to find out just what is all this rightness that famous/top-selling authors find themselves with all the time! Of course, I don’t have time to read every best-seller or good story, so I’ve also scoured quite a number of reviews on Goodreads, and what am I noticing?

The pompous reviewer that thinks big words, overuse of literary devices, formal constructions, etc. validate their opinions, somehow elevating them above those of the other reviewers (who are normally writing like regular human beings in an informal forum) or even that of the work they are reviewing. I mean, give me a break.

Here’s an excerpt from one I just came across for a James Patterson book (but it’s NOT the only one of its kind, believe me):

“It’s the worst thing I imagine a book can be. It’s the bane of my existence. Its prose, bone dry and then suddenly flashing purple, dogs my literary footsteps. Generic characterization, stilted dialogue, predictable plot, cheap shock fodder …”

COME ON. This is James Patterson you’re talking about, and while it might not be down your alley, I’m damn sure it’s not the “bane” of your existence, nor is it the worst thing a book can be—unless you don’t read very much.

Anyway, I’m back to working on my story.