January 2014

Awesome Ada Lovelace Day news!

by Suw on January 23, 2014

This week saw the announcement of a couple of pieces of Ada Lovelace Day news that I’m very excited about. Last year’s day was fantastic, but this year’s is already shaping up well and, dare I say it, may be even better!

Ada Lovelace Day at the Royal Institution

We’re partnering with the  Royal Institution for Ada Lovelace Day Live on 14 October. This is just the most awesome news, not least because the Ri is the home of the Christmas Lectures and their lecture theatres is one of the most iconic venues in science. Michael Faraday, of whom Lovelace was a huge fan, began the Christmas Lectures there in 1825, as well as the Friday Discourses.

Tickets will go on sale later in the year, direct from the Ri, but there’ll be very limited amounts as the lecture theatre only holds 440 people, so make sure you sign up to the Ada Lovelace Day newsletter to be the first to know!

Our ongoing passion for science

After the success of our first anthology of writing about women in STEM, A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention, we have decided to produce another. This time, we are opening up a formal call for contributions of articles about notable women or groups of women in science, technology, engineering and maths, as well as interesting users of technology.

Initially, we are asking people to send us 250 words on the woman or women that they want to write about, explaining why they are notable or interesting, along with a link to a writing sample. Ultimately, we’re looking for 20 articles of between 2,000 and 6,000 words. At this point, we don’t have any kind of budget, but we’re hoping to raise some money to pay for editing, cover design and an honorarium for writers. Profits go towards supporting Ada Lovelace Day, which remains essentially a budgetless organisation run by a very small group of volunteers.

To find out more, take a look at the call for submissionsauthor notes, and style guide. The deadline to submit an idea is 28 February 14, and please do let people  know!!

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The double-edged sword of mechanisation

by Suw on January 16, 2014

Via Mary Corbet’s Needle ‘n Thread blog I discovered this fantastic video about embroiderers in Appenzell in Switzerland and how their way of life was destroyed by mechanisation.

The documentary paints a fascinating picture of the rural families that earnt a living through incredibly delicate embroidery, supplementing what would have been a meagre income from fairly unproductive small-holdings. The woman of the household would pass on her skills to her children, boys and girls alike. They would all embroider from dawn til dusk and on into the night by candlelight. The school-age children would attend classes, but would still be expected to do significant amounts of embroidery in the evenings. The children who weren’t good with a needle worked at the household chores, often taking on many of the tasks that a mother would normally do so that she could embroider more.

The particular embroidery type that Appenzellers made was called whitework, and this still from the video show just how delicate it can be. (Sorry I couldn’t find a better picture that was also CC licensed!)

Appenzell whitework

Of course, fashions moved on which, along with mechanisation, put many embroiderers out of business. Those changes cannot have been easy for the rural families who depended on embroidery to make ends meet, and who didn’t have many, or any, other reliable income. But the life of an embroiderer would not have been easy either, working all hours and earning relatively little for very demanding work. One mistake would result in money being docked, and they weren’t being paid much in the first place.

Whilst mechanisation freed whole families from gruelling work, (although they may not have seen it like that whilst they were figuring out what else to do), it also likely resulted in the loss of many skills. The story is the same across the crafts. As mass produced materials superseded the hand-crafted, the knowledge that allowed those items to be made, that had been passed down from mother to daughter and father to son, was lost, if not in total then in major part.

The economics of hand-made items were never good. Time-consuming processes require either low-paid workers or very high prices that only a few can afford. The craft industry these days relies on both models, not just because of sweatshops in the developing world, but also Western hobbyist (or, in some cases, subsistence) crafters who sell their work for the cost of the materials rather than including time and other overheads because it’s hard to sell anything otherwise.

The results of this are, I fear, a gradual loss of skill and, worse, a loss of interest in those skills. That’s why I love blogs such as Mary Corbet’s, and why they are so fundamentally important. Although there are institutions such as the Royal School of Needlework who do a great job of preserving and passing on knowledge, craft blogs allow anyone to not only be inspired by the beautiful work on display, but to also learn a little about how it’s done. It is because of Mary’s blog that I’ve picked up an embroidery needle, with the intention of doing something more interesting than just a few French knots.

Argleton embroidered cover

But this is also why I like including aspects of crafting in my work, both my books and my writing. The Argleton project included a hand-embroidered silk-covered edition, and The Lacemaker, well, obviously, makes reference to the making of bobbin lace. I love learning about new crafts, as much as I love learning about engineering and physics – indeed, embroidery involves quite a bit of materials science, with different threads and fabrics behaving in different ways.

As the subtitle to my blog implies, I find it easy to nerd out over almost anything, and in that I don’t think I’m alone. There’s currently a boom in interest in knitting, which I hope will be followed by a revival of all sorts of other crafts, including embroidery and bobbin lace. Of course, if anything I write or create helps inspire anyone else to look into our rich crafting heritage, that’s great, but it’s people like Mary we should be looking to, and supporting, as they share their expertise in the crafts for all our benefit.

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Self-discipline is the mind-killer

by Suw on January 6, 2014

When I started my career as a freelance in the late 90s, I thought that working for myself would give me not only autonomy, but also more time to spend on creative projects such as writing. I was right about the autonomy, but very wrong about the spare time. The first couple of years I spent as a freelance I worked as a music journalist. I was very good at the writing part, but rubbish at the getting work part, and as a result I earnt around £8,000 over two years. Even back then, that wasn’t enough to live off and the financial trouble I found myself in killed my creativity stone dead for quite a few years.

I diversified my skillset, got into web design and then social media, even before it was called that, and built my freelance business into a successful tech consultancy which still earns me the majority of my income. (And if you want to hire me, please do get in touch!) As I developed my freelance work, I also learnt how to be self-disciplined. I’ll admit that, in those first two years, I was a bit rubbish at getting stuff done, and even worse at pitching stories to editors. I always hit my deadlines, but it was often a last-minute thing and I rarely had my next commission lined up.

Learning how to manage your time is an essential skill as a freelance, as there’s usually no one managing you, no one to make sure you’re on schedule, no one to help you make decisions and no one to check that you’re working on what is truly most important. In order to be successful, you have to learn how to prioritise, how to control your urge to skive off, how to be honest with yourself about how much work you’ve really done and whether it’s enough. In short, you need to develop your self-discipline learning how to prioritise your task list and then get on with the most important things first, whether you want to or not.

So whenever you have client work to do, work that brings in money and pays the bills, that work tends to get prioritised over everything else. I do love it when I’m really busy and focused on one big project, because it means that I can blot out everything else from my mind and develop a form of constructive tunnel vision that is hugely satisfying. Unfortunately, that also means that other tasks get put to one side, even if they are important. That’s not so good.

A side effect of being self-disciplined and focused on client work is that often, the first things to get put aside are the creative things, the blogging, the stories, the bookbinding. Whereas once I would have an idea for a blog post and then just write it, over the last several years I’ve developed the bad habit of having ideas and then thinking, “I don’t have time for this right now, I’ll write it when I have a moment”. Trouble is, those moments never come. Instead, the idea either gets forgotten, or, worse, written down on a To Do list where it can lurk at me and make me feel guilty about not writing it.

Creative writing is even worse. I have ideas for stories, think that I need a bit of time to flesh them out but that I’ll do it on the weekend rather than right now, and of course the weekend gets filled up with chores or social outings or the gym or work. I do jot them down, but again, they just lurk at me and never get the time or attention they  need to blossom into something writable.

Humans are very adept at learning, even when we don’t realise we are, even when we don’t want to. We might think that we’re in control, but our cats train us just as much as we train our cats. And we are more than capable of training ourselves without even realising it. Tell yourself that you’ll think about this story idea later, and soon enough your brain won’t bother telling you that it’s had an idea. After a while, you’ll forget that you’re even capable of having ideas, and they’ll dry up all together. The self-discipline that keeps business moving onwards is the same self-discipline that kills your creative life stone dead. Self-dicipline is the mind-killer.

At the root of this problem is the failure to align and integrate long-term goals with short-term needs. This is a problem I see a lot with my clients: They are so busy trying to deal with all the urgent stuff that’s screaming for their attention that they have no time or space to think about long-term planning and strategy. They’re too busy reacting to the now to invest resources in the future.

The same is true with our creative lives. We’re often too busy meeting our short term needs to be able to commit the time and resources required to reshape our future. This is especially the case with creative writing. Novels take a lot of time to write, edit and perfect, and the return on that time investment is uncertain at best. If you have a job and clear work-life boundaries, it’s easier to invest some of your personal time to your writing career, but it becomes difficult when those boundaries are blurred, as they so often are for the self-employed.

But “A-ha!” you might say. “All you have to do is turn this much vaunted self-discipline to your writing and bingo! Problem solved!” That is, however, the wrong starting point. The first thing to do is to recast writing not as a hobby or a lottery ticket or as a labour of love, but as work. It is work in the same way that doing the accounts is work, or doing marketing, or going to conferences. It may not pull in money directly, or at least, not to start with, but if you’re serious about becoming a full-time author, as I am, it is essential to commit time to doing it. It is an investment in your future.

I’ve had some luck with this approach in the past, but it can be hard to keep up. The first big client deadline results in the writing and blogging being put on the backburner as priorities shift. Often, though, they don’t shift back again when the deadline passes. The commitment to my writing is, after all, to me and not to an external party who has expectations. It is easier to prioritise external demands over internal desires, and so once again, the balance between client work and writing tips in the wrong direction and it gets harder and harder to get the scales level again.

Complicating matters is the fact that income from writing is unpredictable and patchy. I’ve done well the last few months with the sales of A Passion for Science, the Ada Lovelace Day anthology that I put together. That was only possible because of the generosity and kindness of my contributors, though. My fiction has done less well, not least because I’ve not had much chance to write, so haven’t put new work out, so sales have just fallen off a cliff. It’s a catch-22 in some ways: I could write more if my writing income were higher, but it won’t get higher unless I write more, so we’re back to prioritising the future.

This all leads me to wonder whether using a service like Patreon.com would be a good idea. In short, readers commit to paying a small amount on a regular basis if (and when) I produce a new story, novel chapter, etc. If I had a commitment to keep, and a commitment that involved money, perhaps it would be easier for me to re-catagorise and prioritise my fiction writing as ‘work’. So, what do you think? Is the Patreon model a goer? Would you be up for it?  Let me know what you think!

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2014: A year of massive change?

by Suw on January 1, 2014

I have high hopes for this year. Last year, 2013, was a weird year. After a great first half, the second half became one giant effort to just cope with everything that was going on. I had my oophorectomy, but lost four work leads because I was off recuperating. As a freelance, that’s really frustrating, because every lead is valuable. Kevin’s job evaporated into the thin air of small organisation politics and so he rejoined me in consulting whilst carrying out a job search that was longer than either of us had hoped for or anticipated.

Ada Lovelace Day ate my brain. Seriously, it was so much more work this year, not least because I decided to put together an anthology of writing about women in STEM, which I called A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention. I’m very glad that I did – I got some just gorgeous writing in and the book has been very well received indeed. I’m looking forward to starting on organising a Kickstarter project to get a physical copy printed up. So that’s something to get started on when I’m back in the office properly next week. 

But most frustratingly of all, last year started off really well on the writing front but then it just got lost in the morass of ALD organisation. By the time that was over I was so behind with actual paying work that I spent every waking moment either working or so knackered that I couldn’t do much more than crochet. 

So this year, I’m taking my writing by the jugular and shaking it up. To that end I’m setting myself some goals: 

Write morning pages every day
I wrote recently on Forbes about writing to discard, and how as writers we really need to practice in the safety of our own notebooks. Self-publishing has a nasty habit of making you feel that everything you write is and must be for publication, but that takes away our permission to be a bit shit, to experiment and to mess up. Morning pages are an idea from The Artist’s Way that allow you to write without judgement, write without your inner editor looking over your shoulder and, hopefully, free up those creative cogs. So, starting today, I shall write at least a page of whatever comes to mind every day. 

Blog at least once a week
In both 2013 and 2012, I wrote just 28 times on this blog. In 2011 it was no better with just 29 posts, and in 2010, it was 38. In 2004, I was doing more than that in one month. So, I’m going to try to up my output to, erm, 52 posts in 2014. That’s one a week. You’re going to have to hold me to it, though, because blogging is always the first against the wall when the revolution comes, or when I get busy. And this year, well, it might get busy. 

Publish fiction at least once a month
Last year started well for me as regards writing. I got Queen of the May done and published, wrote The Lacemaker, jotted down lots of ideas, got two new stories drafted, and then it all went to hell in a handcart. So this year, I’m going to promise to publish at least one thing each month. It may be a short story, a piece of flash fiction, a chapter from something longer, or even just a vignette, but something will get published. In fact, I may even join Patreon, a micro-patronage site, to provide some motivation. I’d love to know what you think of that idea – is it a good one? Or just a distraction? 

Restart my author’s notebook
A while back, I started carrying round a small notebook with me, in which I jotted down ideas. It really does help to get the ideas flowing, as the more you write them down, the more they come to you. I need to get back into doing that, and not just shoving stuff aside when I think of it “to remember later”, because I invariably forget. 

So, those are my plans. This year has some sharks lurking in the shallows, sharks that I know are there and which could easily eat my plans for lunch, but I hope to be able to make friends with them using age old shark whispering techniques so that they don’t leave more than the occasional bite mark behind. 

Wish me luck, and keep me honest on Twitter

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