Moving forwards by embracing what’s uncomfortable

Earlier this year I went along to the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Wales because I’d been asked to run a one hour seminar session on my research.

How on earth, I wondered, was I meant to saunter confidently into a meeting room, hoping that twenty professionals would not only turn up to listen to what I had to say, but also do what I asked them to do?

Pondering this, both then and now, has brought me to a little 1-2-3 of success in such situations that I’m going to share. It’s nothing too earth-shattering, and indeed largely reflects things said by wise folks such as Seth Godin.

  1. Frightening situations can be a source of strength, if approached in the right way. “What doesn’t kill you…” etc. etc.
  2. It’s all about the right group of people. If you’re at a conference, you can pretty much guarantee everyone is there to engage with you. After all, they’ve chosen to interrupt their busy schedules to come along.
  3. Prepare good content. Obvious really. Once you deal with the fear of challenging situations, and once you’re reasonably sure you’ve got a receptive audience to communicate with, you’ve then got to say something worth hearing.

That last point was the worrying one. Given it was a conference, and given that I’d been invited there in the first place, I felt reasonably happy about points 1 and 2, but as for content…? I’d need a little help.

Fortunately, working at a university, I was surrounded by people who are potential fonts of knowledge on this front. I had less experience of running seminars than presentations or student tutorials, and seminars are a little different as they take longer and require some form of discussion. I found a friend and asked for his advice. In essence, the gist of what I learned, both from him and from actually doing the thing, is as follows:

  • Warm up the room. Everyone is a bit nervous to start off. In fact, it may be simplest to assume that your guests are more nervous than you are. They know that seminars are interactive, after all. You might be one of those vindictive seminar leaders who likes to put people on the spot for no good reason. Taking a moment to chat to people as they come in, and doing a short intro speech saying who you are, is a great opportunity for a rapport to be started. Everyone in the room needs to feel comfortable that you aren’t going to do anything disturbing.
  • Splitting the room into groups is a great way of managing people. It allows you to ensure everyone is getting involved, and it also provides a perfect opportunity to play groups off against each other. That’s a great way of stimulating conversations, by the way. Speaking of which…
  • Good conversation is about getting the guests to interact with each other, rather than getting a one-way dialogue going between you and an individual. Finding ways to get them arguing with each other (constructively) is key. Groups come in handy.
  • Keep to time. Start and end promptly, even if there are stragglers. This also applies to tutorials, presentations, and anything similar where you’re managing a room. If you don’t (and I’ve been guilty of this myself) you’re insulting those who have bothered to turn up on time.
  • Structure. Related to timekeeping, I discovered it’s helpful to be really clear about when the activities of the session are, what order they’re in, how long they’re going to take. Some people don’t need too much liturgy, but for most, a clear sense of where they are in the session and how the different parts of it fit together is advantageous.
  • If you’re running an activity and intend to get people to feedback their results to the rest of the room, make this clear in advance. That way you’ll minimise the awkward moment where nobody wants to do it and the glance goes around before a victim is found and coerced into “volunteering”.
  • Assume everything will take slightly longer than it looks like it should on paper.
  • Consider how people are sitting in the room, what directions they’re facing. If you’re going to start out with a presentation to cover some background and introduce an activity, will everyone be able to see easily if they’re arranged in circles around tables? Similarly, if they’re sitting lecture-style, or in a horseshoe, how are they going to put their heads together?
  • Don’t be afraid of starting out with something intellectually provocative. The idea is to stimulate discussion, and that relies on investing people in the topic and making sure it’s a topic people will have different responses to. A hook at the outset can be thought of as a stepping-off point, something familiar to the guests that will serve as a starting point of the thought process you wish to explore.

With the above points in my notebook I was able to get a structure worked out that actually went pretty well, thus fulfilling the third of the three points I outlined at the start! I was really tired beforehand, mentally exhausted, and not sure I could pull it off. The effort hurt, but I met some lovely, interesting people, got Tweeted, got complemented by the great Ian Anstice, and forced myself to organise my thoughts for the benefit of others, which is often productive in its own right.

And that’s about all for now I think! I’m not the world’s most experienced seminar-runner, so I expect quite a lot of you folks are more clued up and could add points to this, so…

Are you a 24-carat seminar-smiting pro? What are your top tips for getting the most out of a room full of people? Does advice on organising a seminar translate well to other areas of life? Comments below…

PhDs: A dissection featuring bullet points

I’ve been thinking about something that was said to me recently… “PhDs aren’t worth it.”

It would be easy to dismiss such a claim, bearing in mind the claimant was only 21 years old and hasn’t actually done a PhD, but at the same time, to pretend that any PhD student spends their whole four-plus years brimming with assurance would be a lie.

I would say I was one of the more confident people I knew of the dozen or so doing a similar thing, but that’s not just senility talking. Some people brim with confidence when they shouldn’t because their minds are incapable of grasping the enormity of their circumstances, but I’ll give myself slightly more credit than that for two reasons.

  • For one, I love writing. It’s my “thing”, as it were, and has been for many years. In fact, now I’ve finished the PhD I’ve taken up writing full time (for a year or so), but this love isn’t shared by all. Sometimes fellow students would say things to me like “I hate writing”, and my response would be one of blunt astonishment. Well why are you doing a PhD then? You’re basically writing a book!
  • Secondly, I’m very interested in the subject area. I wrote about the architecture of large, modern central public libraries in the UK, which is a topic that fascinates on a number of levels: architectural (obviously), library science (obviously), but also engineering, psychology, sociology, philosophy (there is a Ph in PhD, after all), history, politics… etc. etc.

Having made it through and out the other side, I have some suggestions for anyone wondering whether to take a PhD, little questions you must ask yourself whether you can achieve. Bear in mind that I did a qualitative PhD, meaning the data came from discussions and conversations, rather than from numbers and statics, so the following is relevant to PhDs more commonly found in humanities and social sciences.

  • A PhD is fundamentally three things.
    • There’s the academic study, the reading and writing. You’ll have to do a lot of this.
    • There’s the research, which tends to involve a plan to get data, legwork, resistance to failure, modification of the plan, and then more legwork. It also – crucially – involved analysing the data. Analysis is a big one. Assume it will take months and hurt a lot.
    • Then there’s the construction of the thesis. This isn’t just writing and it isn’t just analysis. It’s working out exactly what to write, planning how long it will take you, hitting writing targets for month after month, and then editing, editing, editing. Then printing. Then viva preparation. Then corrections. Then resubmission. Then, and only then, graduation.

Sounds pretty tiring, huh? Here are some pointers.

  • A good relationship with your supervisor is essential. My supervisor was absolutely brilliant. She understood the subject, she really engaged with what I’d been doing every month, she read stuff promptly and gave detailed feedback. We got on, so the whole things clicked along from start to end.
  • Discover something specific to write about. It doesn’t have to be there at first. It doesn’t even have to be there halfway through. It might not (probably won’t) arrive until you’ve got the data and are halfway through analysing it. I didn’t write about libraries, I wrote about young people’s (1) experiences (2) of the architecture (3) of large (4), modern (5), central public libraries (6) in the UK (7). That’s pretty specific, but it took the data to tell me what I really had.
  • Plan the writing. Even though I like writing I needed a detailed plan of all the sections and their word counts, complete with progress bars (see below).

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  • This was used in the final year, when I had to actually turn everything into a thesis. I already had a load of writing, but 80,000 is heck of a lot, so I had about 50,000 to go. I knew editing would take a long time (seriously – the version I handed in was draft #7. It took me six months just to edit and another month to proofread). Working backwards from when I wanted to finish meant to knew I had eight months to write those 50,000. That’s where the following table came in:

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  • This does several jobs. “Date” shows the current day. Every day I had to be writing. “Word target” shows the amount of writing I’d need to have by that point in order to hit 80,000 by my self-imposed deadline. “Word count” shows what I’ve actually got. This comes from the first table. “Daily total” shows how much I’ve written on any given day. Negative figures are when I’ve cut stuff out. “Difference” shows me how ahead or behind target I am. When I’m ahead the cell goes green. If I’m behind it’s red. “10 day avg” is how much I’ve averaged over the previous ten days. The idea is to sustain high output. Again, the cell goes green if the average is higher than what I need to finish on time. “Needed to finish” shows how many words I’d have to write each day in order to finish on time. Believe it or not, this is a lifesaver. If you stop when it begins to hurt, you probably won’t be writing enough.

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  • Finally, we have a graph generated from the above table. I like visual things, and this graph shows me two important bits of information. I did my “writing up” from Jan to Sept 2015, shown here.
    • The blue line is what I needed to hit to reach 80,000 words at my self-imposed deadline (remember: finished is better than perfect). There’s a kink in it because on the 17th June I had my last internal review and decided to reward myself with a longer deadline. Setting impossible targets is fine if in missing them you still end up better off than you would otherwise have been.
    • The other one is not a line, it’s a scar, a wound on my soul, a slow, agonising ascent in which days of sustained effort could be wiped out in an instant by realising that something I’d written two years earlier was no longer usable and would have to be cut. As you can see though, sometimes, bits got pasted back in again too.

So, are you considering a PhD? Were you, until you read this? If so, what subject area?

All My Terrible Book Covers, Ranked

As I’m currently getting seriously into self-publishing, I thought I’d talk covers for a bit. Basically, they’re tricky…

I’m lucky enough to have had an education in architecture, so I’m reasonably handy with graphic design. Of course, if you spend a moment on any online advice for new authors they’ll invariably say if you’re anything less than full-on  pro don’t even think about doing your own cover.  Well, I’m obstinate and had the time, so I went ahead anyway.

Before my first effort, there was another book. Which will now be the next book. (Writing and publishing not necessarily in the same order – another thing I’ve learned). It was called Freya, until I realised how played out Freya is as a fantasy heroine name. Current working title is Fray the Sky, but it’s changed quite a lot and will probably change again.

Here are my efforts. Please don’t laugh too hard.

cover concept 4.jpg

Attempt 1: 1/10

I’ve awarded myself half a point here because the grey-brown and blue do sort of work together, even if they hardly stand out.

Plus another half point for putting a fancy shadow effect on the text. When everything else has gone wrong, just throw in a bit of shadowing.

 

 

 

 

cover concept 7.jpg

Attempt 2: 2/10

There are some elements of this that work. The blue over red is just hideous, but the tree-and-hand motif (the banner of a country within the story) is strong and there’s also the weird eye/roundel thing going on in the background. That’s actually got little scenes painted all the way around it, so it’s a phenomenal amount of work considering the miserable effect overall.

That’s the mark of a true novice – maximum effort, zero result!

 

 

 

mechanical apostles cover 3.jpg

Attempt 3: 7/10

Admission time: I actually rather like this one.

But it’s more the sort of thing I’d stick on my wall rather than the front of a book. It’s a fun picture, but there are a couple of problems.

Firstly, it’s got nothing to do with content of the story.

Secondly, the text would need reformatting. (Although that’s a small problem really).

 

 

 

mechanical apostles cover.jpg

Attempt 4: 5/10

This one actually is up on my wall. If you’re not familiar with printing, dark blues and purples are about the hardest thing you can ask a printer to turn out, so this image is one that’s very difficult to get looking good on paper. Most printers will make half of it pretty much black, although for screen display it’s okay.

Trouble is, it’s just too fiddly and dark an image. Book covers are advertisements – they need to hit hard and fast, and with this one there’s almost no place for the title and author either!

 

 

cover concept 8.jpg

Attempt 5: 6/10

So, want bold, do ya? How about this!

Well, it’s one option, I guess… I admit I do rather like it, but I wonder if it really reflects the content of the book. You might almost think it was for some kind of horror story.

Maybe changing the red to blue…?

Maybe not.

 

 

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Attempt 6: 2/10

Better than the first one. Barely.

Bland colours, badly drawn, dull idea, wrong genre, no relation to book content… No. No. No.

 

 

 

 

 

cover concept 10.jpg

Attempt 7: 4/10

Going back to the bold, flat graphics thing. Took me ages to draw those wings, and while I quite like the result, it looks more suitable for a political satire than any fantasy novel I’m likely to pick up soon. Totally wrong, tonally.

Back to the drawing board.

 

 

 

 

cover concept 11.jpg

Attempt 8: 4/10

Extreme perspective is difficult folks. I’m not a graphic artist. I tried, I failed. I accept that.

Also, grainy low contrast pictures don’t grab the attention,  you can barely tell what this image is meant to be of it’s so badly drawn, and the text doesn’t stand out enough.

Next!

 

 

 

cover concept 12.jpg

Attempt 9: -7/10

I don’t even know what to say.

Why did I do this? At what point did this seem like a clever idea? It’s bold and illegible, shouty and meaningless, busy and overcrowded…

 

 

 

 

 

cover concept 13.jpg

Attempt 10: 6/10 (10/10 for wackiness; 2/10 for effect)

Well, it’s different, I’ll give myself that. Illegible, admittedly, but different.

There are some rather lovely things going on with texture and surface here, but a book cover is first and foremost a functional piece of art, so this won’t wash.

 

 

 

 

cover concept 15.jpg

Attempt 11: 8/10

Could be a nine, I reckon, but the text isn’t quite right yet. Need to get the framing sorted a bit better.

This one’s actually the culmination of quite a lot of work – and not just the above. It started as a pencil drawing straight onto my bedroom wall, seven feet tall. The outline took two weeks to complete, and then I started painting it. Then we moved house.

It became a piece of graphic art from photos, for obvious reasons, and was completed in full colour using hand rendered photo textures, then that digital painting was turned into the cover you see here. Whew!

 

What do you reckon then? Favourite? Or should I have paid someone?

Adding paperback to a Kindle ebook

Did you know that in addition to digital publishing, Amazon also provides a print-on-demand service called Createspace? I’d heard good things about adding a paperback version because it integrates with Kindle. This means the product page for my (tense, mysterious) new book Ten Steps to Fray (now repackaged as Tempus Abbey) shows two products – one for the ebook and one for the paperback.

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This gives the (correct) impression that the book is available in more formats, which helps with the sense of professionalism your page gives off. It can be of genuine use too – One of my friends who doesn’t own a Kindle wanted the paperback version, and with just a click that wasn’t a problem!

embedded-product-types-2The other thing this allows you to do is show to comparative prices next to one another.

The 99p is the UK price for my Kindle version, the £4.55 the price for the paperback version, so when the customer looks at the sales page they see they are saving a whopping 78% by going with the Kindle version. Everyone likes a saving.

Anyway, the other wonderful thing a printed copy allows you to do is hold the actual book in your hand (as shown above!). To a new author that’s a pretty great feeling. The copy is sitting above my desk now.

So, what do you think of printed books? Worth the time to set up?

The numbers behind a rookie Kindle debut

It’s been a week since my first indie ebook, Ten Steps to Fray, went live on Amazon (Whoo!) and the results have been very enlightening. I went with a free listing for the full five days and paid a couple of websites to list it too, so the results were a mixture of paid and free sales. Here are said results:

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That’s paid sales. Pretty depressing in a way. I spent months working on this thing, so it’s clearly a bestseller-in-waiting, right? It’s going to go into the 1000’s of sales right off the bat, right? Right…?

As you can see, I’ve shifted a grand total of six copies. Priced at 99p, cents, etc. that works out at £1.45 so far in royalties. Great. But that’s not the whole story. As mentioned above, I paid two websites to display the book on their homepages for a couple of days.

There are plenty of places that do this sort of thing (I used Digital Book Today and It’s Write Now). Most have a couple of options. Either you already have enough good reviews (20+ at 4*+, for example) to convince them you’re acceptable to the book-buying public. Else you gotta fork out. I’m not proud, so I forked out.

Cost? $10 for one, $15 for the other. Call it just under twenty of our lately devalued Sterling.

Maths fans, where are you? Never mind. I’m actually on -£18.25 net, but hey, this is an investment in the future, in the household name that will be Sammy Woodford in ten years’ time!

So, did my investment have any effect?

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Huzzah!

Two things are now apparent to me. Firstly, as expected, the initial spike was not matched in the second, third, fourth and fifth days of the free promotion (but, importantly, they didn’t fall off completely on day two – five even outperformed four slightly!), and secondly, I missed a trick:

My book currently contains no call to action. This free blog (my “website”) features no landing page. I have no follow-up things for sale. I have no mailing list. So these 160 people who now have a copy of Ten Steps to Fray knocking around might well just disappear into the ether and never become repeat customers.

This is all fine. I’m starting out. Next time though…

Coming tomorrow!

Like fantasy? Like suspense? Like the idea of Pratchett and Pullman combining to make something not quite as good as either? Then you’ll LOVE Ten Steps to Fray!

On Sat 3rd Sept 2016 this new suspense fantasy novella will be launching FREE on Kindle for a limited time. Subscribe here for the download link, as well as writing on libraries, architecture and academia.