Four things I learned about project management

1. My biggest take-away

Back in February, I spent five days in Toronto, taking Project Management training.  While this was ostensibly for my day-job, my biggest take-away is that anything can be a project: my novel, a poem, a short story, training, training design, home renovation, a conference or vacation, even going out to celebrate a birthday, all of it.  And anything that can be considered a project can be made more successful by solid project management practices.

Our instructor for the week was Paul  S. Adler of Paul S. Adler and Associates, a certified Project Management Professional through the Project Management Institute (PMI).   In a practical demonstration of participant-centered training in action, Mr. Adler guided the class through content-relevant activities, integrated lecture and video segments, and tied the whole together with practical application sessions that culminated in a presentation of our team projects on Friday morning.

2. The PMBOK and the PMBOX

PMBOK stands for the Project Management Body of Knowledge.  The PMBOK Guide is the Bible of project management and is produced by PMI.

One of the mini-projects that the class had to produce was a commercial for a product.  My group chose the PMBOX, containing everything you would need to manage your next project.  While our tagline was “With the PMBOX, your projects will manage themselves,” there is no magic solution to project management.  The toolkit is in the project manager’s head and reference library, and it will take years of practice to implement, understand, and perfect those skills.

3. The Spectre of Groupthink

While I think Mr. Adler’s video library could stand some updating, each was relevant and elucidating.  In a serendipitous bit of media tie-in, Roger Boisjoly, the central figure of the video on “Groupthink” passed away on January 6, 2012.  His passing was publicized on February 8, 2012 in newspapers across the US.  I found the video challenging and the difficulty of Roger’s position tragic.  Moreover, his story following the Challenger disaster he tried to avert was compelling. 

Groupthink is a phenomenon in which coverconfidence, looming deadlines, and pressure to conform can conspire to silence conscientious dissenters.  In Boisjoly’s case, he warned of the potential failure of the O ring that ultimately resulted in the Challenger disaster.

Groupthink in my workplace (not my team specifically – we’re pretty awesome) is a hazard, and extremely difficult to overcome.  I’m now dreading the possibility of having to confront the beast.  Thankfully, I don’t think it’s imminent, and the projects I might work on would not involve life-or-death decision, but still … it’s both haunting, and daunting.

4. Let’s Talk Again

On Wednesday evening, the day after we discussed Groupthink, I watched the CTV broadcast of Michael Landsberg’s interviews with Darryl Strawberry, Stéphane Richer, and Clara Hughes about depression.  It was significant for me in the context of the course, because Mr. Adler had spent some time discussing stress management that day.  As someone prone to depression, I do what I can to combat negative stress every day.  Walking my dog, or walking home from work, making a physical as well as mental “switch” between work and home lives, and seeking the happy are all important parts of my life and my “process.”

Kim Covert, of the Postmedia News service calls depression in the workplace the “trillion dollar elephant in the room.”   It’s an issue that has a huge impact on both our professional and personal lives and people have been silent with respect to depression for too long.

Bottom line: find your bliss; follow your joy; do whatever you can to find the happy in your life.

In the end

There was too much course to cram into a little blog post like this.  We covered at least ten important topics every day.  That’s a lot of learning!  Project Management isn’t something that can be done, or done perfectly, out of the gate.  As Mr. Adler told us, we just need to start with one thing, practice it, and build on that practice gradually.  Also, he encouraged us to use project management at home.

I’d highly recommend the course, or one like it, to everyone.

As Drew Dudley says so succinctly and so beautifully, leadership in everyday life can change the world.

Have you attended a course recently that has had an impact on you?  What was the course?  What was its impact?  Do share!

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The things you learn when you look into your family tree

Or … the duty of a bard

This week, I thought I’d write a little bit about genealogy.  I’m not going to post any of my family trees (I have three, though they’re incomplete and slightly out of date) … I’m just going to write about the wonderful things you can learn when you do a bit of digging.

The first is this: genealogy is one of the duties of the bard.

Whether you think of a bard as a bard, or filidh, or ollamh, a bard wasn’t just a collector of tales, a memorizer of songs and poems, but they also held the responsibility to guard the family history and bloodlines.  They were scholars, doctors, law-givers, and just darned cool, and as a writer, I feel that I have some connection to that tradition, and some responsibility for the history of my family.

I’m a Celtophile, and unabashedly so (hence the interest in filidh and ollamhs), but the family I can trace is Finnish.  Yes, Marttila is a Finnish name.  You can generally tell because of the three consonants together.  That, or the double vowels (e.g. Saarinen) are pretty clear give-aways.

The larger family name in my genealogy is Wiirtanen.  There is a large Finnish community in the Sudbury area, many of them coming from the Long Lake area of town and the Pennala subdivision there.  That’s where the Wiirtanens settled.

One of my Wiirtanen relatives still lives out at Beaver Lake, a bit of a drive out of town.  He’s a trapper and owns a farm.  Other Finnish families moved into town around Lake Nepawin (Maki Avenue was named after one of them) and there have been a few books published on the Finnish roots of Sudbury.

A number of years ago, a genealogist visited me out of the blue.  I sat with him for a few hours in an afternoon and he taught me a few things about my family, which happened to be part of his family tree, which is why he looked me up.

In Finland, at the beginning of the last century (give or take a few years) families gave up their names, and took on the names of the farms or cities where they worked.

There’s a city in Finland called Marttila.  My uncle Walter and aunt Margaret visited it years ago.  Here’s a wee map and the city’s crest from their Web site:

Notice the image on the crest: It’s St. Martin of Tours cutting his cloak in half to give to a beggar.  So Marttila roughly translates to St. Martin, not a particularly Finnish icon, but at least I know where my family name comes from.

So I started keeping a few files on my family tree.

Something else I did was to look into the kalevala, the national epic poem of Finland.  It’s a creation myth, set of legends, and features magicians and the mystical sampo, which could be, among other things, an analogy for an instrument that could track the precession of the stars.

It’s no wonder I’m into the fantasy 🙂

My mother was adopted and has no interest in looking into her family, so I’m kind of stumped there, though she tells me that she was Irish, something my grandfather liked to tease her with.  So maybe there’s a reason, I’m so enamoured of all things gaelic.

Have you delved into your genealogy?  What did you discover?

The endless, stuttering, intermittent draft

As promised, I’m taking a break from worldbuilding, itself a fairly endless task, to talk about my most recent draft.

Officially, this is number six (oh gawd, will I ever be finished?) but I’ve actually been through the MS once, and now I’m editing in fits and starts between critiquing and platform-building, and working.

I’m so tired, I feel like I’m sleepwalking.  With my somnabulant history, maybe I am …

I started honing number six in January when I joined my critique group on Author Salon.  The focus, at first, was my profile, which only featured about six pages of my writing, plus a short synopsis, hook line, conflict statement, protagonist, antagonist, and other character sketches, unique world, climax and denouement.

I still haven’t got the hang of it.

In February, AS announced their first Showcase, and I submitted my bits and pieces, only to be advised that my novel was far too long to be considered.  This happened at the same time that my original blog, labbydog, was hacked.

Faced with two fairly substantial pieces of bad news, I was initially paralyzed.  As I cobbled together my online life, I tried to figure out how I was going to compress a 250,000 word novel into 110,000 words (the AS upper limit).  I sat in a stunned boggle for days trying to think of what I could cut without sacrificing the story.

When my mind stopped spinning long enough to have a coherent thought, I realized the solution was simple, and had been staring me in the face the whole time: cut the bloody thing in half, revise, and edit down from there.  It was a far less daunting task that the one I was considering, and eminently doable.

So I cut, and went through the whole thing, tweaking as I went.  My mid-point was actually a little more than half-way through the original MS and even after that first review, I was still at 150,000 words.

In March, I also posted my first 50 pages to the AS critique group.  Well it was supposed to be the first 50 pages, but mine was close to 90.  The feedback I got was great, but meant that I would have to rewrite a fair chunk of my first act.  I started thinking about how I was going to do that.

Then life got a bit crazy.  March 14 would have been my dad’s 71st birthday, followed in quick succession by the anniversary of his death and funeral in April.  I wanted the world to stop at that point, but the crazy continued with some unexpected kudos at work and a new position in May.

At that point, I was just struggling to keep up, treading water and taking big gulps of air while the waves washed over me.  I know I was overwhelmed.  I knew it even then, I just didn’t have the time to feel it.  I didn’t work on my novel for the entire month of May.

Since then, I’ve conquered the rewrite, revised 30 pages out of the first part of Initiate of Stone, and just recently returned to the critiquing world.

So I haven’t finished this strange draft yet.  I have to work through the three remaining parts of the novel and cut the words/pages to the point where IoS is a streamlined machine, within the AS word limits, and hopefully suitable for a future AS Showcase.

I also have to revise my profile (again) to try and reflect the unique angle my novel presents.  This is a challenge, because IoS is a straight up, traditional fantasy.

What this process has taught me so far:

  • Life continues to happen while you’re making other plans.  It doesn’t stop because you want or even need it to.  The good and the bad crop up at the most inconvenient times and you just have to deal, take care of yourself, and stop worrying about what everyone else thinks.
  • Balance is the thing.  Time and project management skills come to the fore when you’re under stress.  Do what you can and don’t feel guilty.  It is enough.  You are enough.  All will be well.
  • Don’t stop writing.  Even though I wasn’t working on my novel, I was still writing, critiquing, and blogging.  Return to the words every day, and they will reward you every time.
  • Have a plan, or, if the plan you have isn’t working, change it up.  You can be the most meticulously organized person in the world, and something will always happen that sets everything awry.  It’s not a failure unless you quit.  Sometimes you just have to angle into the wind a bit more to keep sailing in a straight line 🙂
  • Write what you want to write, but then you have to find a way to make the concept of your novel interesting to an agent or publisher.  I’m still working on this one.

Will let you know how it goes.

A wee side note here: I’ve started using the super-cool journal my friend Margaret gave me for Christmas.  Embossed leather cover with a nifty semi-precious stone embedded in the leather, home-made, recycled paper laced into the cover.  I even have a refill that I can lace in when I’ve used up all of these pages.

Isn’t it just the coolest writer-gift ever?  I think so.

How is your creative project going?

What I’d like to do, but can’t …

Now I know what you’re thinking.  Those are the words of a whiner, but I’m stating a fact and not trying to make excuses.  Honest.  There’s only one of me, and I don’t have a time-turner, like the one Dumbledore gave Hermione in The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Last week, I expressed my coulda-woulda-shouldas with respect to a piece of computer-based training.  What I’m talking about this week is part of the same training beast.  The virtually-delivered piece.

In my role as training coordinator, it’s not my task to deliver the training or to design it, and though I am training this week, it’s because I’ve no choice in the matter.  If I didn’t step in, the project would have stalled, possibly fatally.

Even as a trainer though, I’m a total n00b.  I’ve only been a trainer for three years, and though I enjoy it, and believe I’m good at it, I know I have a lot to learn and am far from perfect.  I’m even greener with respect to instructional design.  I only started doing that last year.

But if I can think of a better way to design and deliver training, then it must need improvement.

I have to step back a bit and explain a couple of things before I get to the meat of the post.

About a month ago, the task of organizing the training of all staff in Ontario on a new initiative was assigned to me.  The training products were given to the two consultants who agreed to deliver the training.  I had two weeks to get everything together, the training schedule, WebEx meetings, and invitations.  I didn’t have time to read, let alone critique or redesign the course material for virtual delivery.

So now we’re into week three of the WebEx sessions and I’ve just started my week of training.  Already, I’ve received reports back on how boring the session is.  It wasn’t designed with virtual delivery in mind.  On average, the sessions are running two hours, which is too long to sit in front of your computer, staring at a screen.

What I’d do for this course (if I could):

  • There is a policy bulletin for the new initiative and a Job Aid.  Though technically, this was all supposed to be a “pre-read,” I’d like to have had the time to turn it into a true pre-course assignment with some form of assessment, submitted to the trainers in advance, so they could have some indication of the group’s level of understanding of the new initiative prior to the course.
  • Start with an activity reviewing the four aspects of their job that this new initiative will change and conduct a proper debrief.
  • Have the exercises on a PowerPoint or Notebook presentation with answers on a reveal.  Use the annotate feature in WebEx to have participants complete the blank assignments (one “scribe” with group support) and debrief using the revealed answers.
  • Let the participants “play” with the online tool designed to help them implement the new initiative by assigning them control of the application through WebEx.  Alternately, this could be a post-course assignment to assist with skill transfer.

Now of course, all of this would make the session considerably longer and comfort breaks would have to be worked in, or the session broken up into smaller pieces (four 30 minute sessions would be my preference).

Why none of this could happen:

This is our busiest time of year, compounded by summer leave.  The timing of this new initiative couldn’t be worse.  As a result, we had to fight for the time to do the one-cheeked job we’re doing.

The initiative will be effective in August.  The training had to be completed before then.

There simply wasn’t time to roll this out differently given the tools and the resources we have.

This is why I often wish I was Shakti, one of the Hindu goddesses of multiple aspects and multiple arms 🙂  Then I might really be able to be in two places at once, doing two (or even three) jobs.  The word “shak” in Sanskrit means “to be able.”

Ah well, so much for dreaming 🙂

Timing is everything, they say.  Have you had a situation in which you’ve been “under the gun” with respect to training?  Were you able to pull a rabbit out of your hat or did you have to make do?  Is good enough really good enough?

That’s all from the Learning Mutt this week.

Ten things I’ve learned from giving and receiving critique

You may remember from previous posts, that I’m part of an online critique group in Author Salon.  It’s intense.  AS does not want thin-skinned writers who wither and whine, nor do they want wimpy critiquers.  They have stringent guidelines and templates to follow.  The questions to answer make you think critically, analyze, dig deep, and justify every comment.

It’s hard as hell, but it’s also teh awesome (misspelling intentional) 🙂

I’m not going to blog about finding a critique group, group dynamics, or any of that stuff.  I’m just focusing in on what I’ve learned from being on both ends of the process.

I’ll start on the giving end, and really, the way to think about a critique is that you are not just giving one, but gifting one.   I’m not saying I’m all that and a bag of chips, but if you do the job well, and put your heart and soul into it, you’re giving your absolute best to your partners.  You’re giving them a gift.  It takes me forever to do what I think is a good job, and I’m still not great at it.  I apologize at some point in every one, because ultimately, it’s just my opinion.

And away we go!

Five things I’ve learned from giving critique

  1. Be honest.  If you like what you’ve read, great, but don’t stop there.  Figure out why you like it and explain your thinking honestly to your partners.  If you don’t like something that you’ve read, that’s fine too, but you can’t leave it there.  Figure out why it bothers you and articulate those thoughts honestly to your partners.
  2. Be specific.   Rather than writing, “S/he needs to figure this out sooner,” again, explain it in detailed and concrete terms.  So, “The character you’ve written is smart and thinks on her feet (you may want to summarize an example from the piece).  You’ve placed several clues in his/her way (again detail the clues) but she’s/he’s not picking up on them.  Your protagonist needs to be at least as smart as the reader.  Have him/her connect the dots along with the reader.  It will be a more immersive/engaging experience.”
  3. Be reflective.  One thing I discovered almost immediately is that as I started analyzing the work of others I figured out a few things about my own writing.  Make notes to carry back to your own work in revision.
  4. Be consistent.  This is about bringing your A game every time.  Feeling tired/uninspired?  Write through it anyway.  The words will come just like they do when you’re writing your novel.  You can always edit out the unintelligible crap later 🙂
  5. Be better.  The more you critique, the better you get, the deeper you can go, the more articulate you can be about why a certain change will improve your partner’s work.

Five things I’ve learned from receiving critique

  1. Be grateful.  If you’ve given your best, expect that your partners have done the same.  Thank them for all their hard work.
  2. Be receptive.  You won’t like everything your partners tell you about the weaknesses in your work.  Get out of your own way and consider every point.  Then …
  3. Be selective.  You don’t have to enact every change your partners recommend.  In doing that, you’ll try to please everyone and end up pleasing no one.  But …
  4. Be critical.  If you choose not to accept the blood, sweat, and tears that is the advice of your partners, then start digging again.  Find the compelling reason that this won’t work in your novel.  Defend your decision, but don’t get defensive.  Finally …
  5. Be honest (redux).  There comes a time when all your justifications and refutations fall apart into the random collection of words that they are and you have to admit that you still have work to do.  You could see this as a defeat, but I’d rather reframe it as an epiphany.  When you finally understand what needs to be done and can see how to do it, the way forward will appear as a glowing path through the darkness.  It won’t be easy.  It never is, but if you keep the path in sight and walk it faithfully, it will lead you to a better novel.

Do you have any critiquing experiences to share?  What have you learned from them?

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Writerly Goodness, signing off.  Good writing to you all!

How the magick works

Last time on Work in progress: I told you how I came up with my idea for Tellurin’s magic system, and the dark history of the craft.

But how does it work, you ask?  We all have Robert Heinlein to thank for that.

Ever read Stranger in a Strange Land?  Excellent, then you’ll know what I mean when I say “grok.”  You might even grok it 🙂

Grokking was what Martians did.  They raised Valentine Michael Smith and taught him how to do it.  When Val eventually came to earth, he started to teach humans how to do it too.

Grokking, is not just understanding a thing, it is understanding it in every way possible, through all the senses, emotionally, intellectually, physically, and sub-atomically.  Val could grok something so completely, it would cease to exist, having achieved its greatest purpose in having been so completely understood.  Yes, extreme grokking means understanding something into non-existence.

It’s not exactly the same thing, but sourcery and magick work in a similar way.  Sourcerors manipulate a thing by understanding its nature.  They understand a thing in its molecular structure, by its DNA, though they don’t call it that, and perhaps even to its atomic structure, but no further, and this understanding works on an instinctual basis.  No sourceror ever thinks in terms of modern science.  It’s just not a part of their vocabulary.

As I wrote in last week’s post, the source is a special kind of energy, but it’s still energy, and everything in Tellurin possesses its share.

Those born with a talent are also born with the innate understanding of how to use that talent.  The Agrothe magi have attempted to subvert those talents to their own ends.  They delay the expression of latent talents through their arduous initiation process and indoctrinate their students into thinking that their powers must somehow be “unlocked.”  If left to their own devices, anyone with talent could figure out how to use it on their own.  The Agrothe just want to ensure that the talent develops in an ethical framework.  Theirs.

Georges Merle’s The Sorceress.

As a child, the first creatures Ferathainn understood were the spirits of things: grass, flowers, rocks and trees all “talked” to her.  Because of this talent, Ferathainn understands the spirits of things well enough to evoke their qualities.  She can summon them too, though Aeldred hasn’t explained that what she’s doing is summoning.  He doesn’t want her to run amok.

With people, this understanding takes the form of being able to use thought speech.  Though she does not know it, Ferathainn can also read minds and project her thoughts into the minds of others.  Aeldred, not being a skilled mind-mage, has discouraged this avenue of Ferathainn’s development to the best of his ability.

Ferathainn’s understanding of spirits is also what makes it possible for her to excel at spirit travel.

Ultimately, her understanding of spirits will enable Ferathainn to master all of the elemental powers and talents, beginning with the earth, geomancy.  Hence, Initiate of Stone.

A note on source theft, farming, or poaching

As I mentioned last week, a person’s share of source is attached to their spirit or soul.  It’s part of what makes each person what he or she is.  Because of this, the soul and source may be called at the moment of death and taken by another sourceror.  This is usually accomplished by calling the source by its name, which for most people, is their everyday name.

Clever sourcerors have adopted source names, but these can easily be discovered by an adept mind-mage and so are no guarantee of protection.

In taking another person’s source, the sourceror risks taking not only the victim’s power, but also their personality and memories.  This can lead to insanity unless the sourceror can figure out a way to filter out the undesirable bits of the victim.

Waterhouse’s The Sorceress.

So … everything Ferathainn does is magic 🙂

Next week: a worldbuilding vacation.  I’m going to write about my most recent draft of IoS and what it’s taught me.  Stay tuned.

8 Good things I’ve learned from bad computer-based training

So … we were provided this computer-based training (CBT) product to help roll out what may appear on the surface to be a fairly minor change, but turns out to be quite a complicated change that has an impact of several aspects of the work our front-line and processing staff perform.

The intent was to send the product and its accompanying Job Aid out to all staff, and let them have at.  There would, of course, be a policy brief released and online tools to help with the adjustment.

At first blush, the CBT looked great: interactive, with exercises and self-assessment tools …  That was before anyone actually tried to work through it.  Early on in the process, when it had already been decided that the CBT would be insufficient for our needs (thank goodness) I and several of my colleagues had a chance to go through the CBT.

I had no problem, but I’m tech savvy, I know how these things are generally designed, and I also play with things.  I click in apparently inappropriate places.  I muck about until I figure out how something ticks, and then I git ‘er done 🙂

The first problem was the site onto which the CBT was loaded.  It wasn’t particularly user friendly and several people couldn’t figure out whether they needed to log in, set up a new account, or reset their passwords.  The system was a little glitchy too, and offered errors when the CBT was accessed, requiring a re-log.

After I helped everyone get logged in and set up, I waited for the reviews.  This is what we discovered:

  1. Though pretty, the CBT was very much of the “clicky-clicky, bling-bling” species that Cammy Bean reviles.  Read about it on her blog.  Go on, I’ll wait.
  2. There were no clear and easily accessible instructions to inform learners what they needed to do on any given page (e.g. you have a picture of a luggage rack on the screen … and … ?).
  3. Navigation was accomplished through varied small or awkwardly-positioned cues.
  4. Exercises and tests contained no clear instructions, nor any mention of the purpose of the activity or how it would apply to the learner’s work.
  5. When working through examples, the learner can not navigate back to the scenario page and so has to write everything down and work it out by hand, or muddle through on a memory and a guess.
  6. All the assessments were self-assessments.  How could anyone determine if learning had taken place?
  7. The CBT was filled with acronyms, but no definitions.
  8. There were errors in the examples.

Turn all these negatives on their heads, and you have 8 take-aways for elearning.  See how that works?

When the CBT was given to staff, many of them were so frustrated with the experience, they stuck to (and got more out of) reading the print material.

Ultimately, the CBT was about how to get through the CBT, and the real learning was lost.

Admittedly, we don’t have the time to correct the existing CBT, or to develop a new product.  As flawed as it is, it’s what we have to use.

Next time, though, I hope the development team keeps a few things in mind:

  1. The importance of bringing subject matter experts (SMEs) who have some course design experience and technical aptitude into the fold. There are a few of us out there.  Use your networks and resources wisely!  Even if I had the time, I couldn’t redesign the CBT: I don’t have a license for the tool used to create it, or anything similar.
  2. Design for how people think.  This means keeping the end-user in mind.  It has to be a product that both your mother and your ten-year-old nephew could navigate through equally easily.  This means beta-testing on a group of your target audience and taking their criticisms seriously.
  3. Assessment is not just for the learner, it’s for team leaders and the advisors who are going to have to answer all the questions your learners have after the CBT experience.  It’s also for trainers, course designers, and IT, so they can figure out how to make a better product next time.

In the end, the CBT has to facilitate learning, support retention, and help the learner apply the knowledge when he or she returns to work.

Oh, if I were king of my little learning world 🙂  And yes, I’m a woman and I want to be king.  Got a problem with that, do ya?  I didn’t think so 😉

How have the best-laid plans of upper management and IT gone awry for you?  Did you tuck any lessons away for future application?  Have you learned good things from a bad CBT?

The Learning Mutt is signing off for another week.

A virtual tour of Mel’s office

I was inspired to blog this after seeing two similar posts from people in my writers’ learning network (hey professionally I can have a personal learning network, or PLN; why can’t I have a WLN?) Brian Braden, one of my critique partners from Author Salon, and Diana Gabaldon, one of my favourite authors.

I’d intended to do this as a vlog, or video blog, but I haven’t figured out my new tablet sufficiently to do a creditable job.

I’m going to do this a little differently than my compatriots though.  As with everything I blog, there’s a little story to go with this virtual tour.

Starting with the street on which I live.

My intent was to go out and take a picture of the street sign, but someone crashed into the post on which the sign used to hang last year, and while the post has been replaced, the street sign hasn’t.  So Googlemaps is the best I can do.  You can go there yourself and get the street view, but it’s from a few years ago.

But … did you notice anything about the street name?  That’s right!  It’s my last name.  It provides endless entertainment for just about everyone, and then I have to explain: yes, my grandfather bought the property that became Marttila Dr and then subsequently sold the lots to the city, who named the wee street after him.

And it is a wee street.  Please don’t go assuming I’m rich or something.  I don’t “own” the street, nor does anyone in my family.  I own the little house on the corner with the chunk of pre-cambrian shield in the unfinished basement and my mom owns the house next door.  Poor financial decisions on the part of a number of our family (myself included) mean that the house is all I have.

Sure, I’m gainfully employed and so is my husband, but all we have to show for our collective life’s work is a 2 bedroom bungalow on one of the busiest street corners in town.

We’ve made the best of her though, slowly renovating, inside and out.

Before we head inside, I’d like to point out my summer office.

When it’s not insanely hot (like it’s been this year), I’m outside most weekends, days off, and even evenings with my lap top.  If you’ve ever heard that relocating for revision is a effective way of shifting your creative mind out of writing mode and into editor mode, I’m here to tell you it’s abso-frickin’-lutely true.  Works a charm for me at any rate 🙂

Now let’s move into the office itself.

The first thing that every office needs is a door.  Right now, my office door is one of the originals that came with the house and is painted white … over blue … over white … over ?  When I have a significant period of time off, I want to strip the door and polish up the brass handle like I did last year with the door to our bedroom.  So this is what it eventually will look like when I get it done 😀

The first thing you see upon entering my office is this. Yes, it’s an altar.  I have distinctively pagan-ish, shamanic leanings.  What you may notice if you look down is that it’s also a bookshelf.  Another one of my stripping and refinishing projects, this cabinet used to hang on the wall of my mother’s  sewing room.  Originally, it was from the local school board.  My grandfather used to work there, and when they dismantled one of the schools, he nabbed this cupboard.  It’s crammed, top to bottom, with paperbacks.

Also, in the lower right corner of the picture, you’ll see my honourable mention from Ron L. Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest.  Having just refinished the room (down to the studs and rebuilt from there) I’m still reluctant to poke holes in the walls, even for cool stuff like degrees and awards.

On the far wall are my three additional bookshelves, purchased to harmonize with the massive desk (in a moment, hold your horses …) I inherited from my mother-in-law when she moved about ten years ago.

The first shelf from the left houses historical and spiritual research books.  The bottom row is devoted to books on gardening and herbalism.  The middle shelf is overflowing with fiction I don’t want to store away, or haven’t read yet.  Like the paperback bookshelf, it runs the gamut from fantasy and SF, YA, classics, UF, to mysteries and literary fiction, etc.

The final shelf is populated with a number of my books on the craft.  Interspersed on the shelves are a number of objects I value: artefacts from family and friends, old tins, kerosene lamps, masks, my degrees, my picture from the alumni address I gave a Laurentian University a few years ago, and a couple of framed poems, “Fire and Ice” which was featured in the ekphrastic art project Fusion, and “The Art of Floating,” the poem I wrote for my dad.

The rest of my books are stored in approximately twelve Rubbermaid tubs in the basement.  Yup.  I’m a book addict, and happily so.

In the corner, you will notice three staves.  Actually, it’s one poplar staff, and one birch and one maple stang. All generously donated by the trees in my back yard (resulting from lightning strikes and wind storms).  Another project for the future: stripping the bark from these lovlies and waxing them to preserve.

Now comes the organized chaos I call my desk.

The first picture shows a collection of journals (the ones I write in and the ones I have subscriptions to), a few key reference books including the Guide to Literary Agents and Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, research DVDs, binders containing three earlier versions of my novel, my BIG binder of AS critique material, my Brother inkjet printer, and various pens, pencils, highlighters, clips, push-pins, and other tools that I make use of at my desk.

The keen observer may notice the ashtray and the wine glass.   Yup.  You caught me.  I’m a vile smoker and I drink wine on occasion.  Once again, unapologetic about it.

The second picture doesn’t look quite so chaotic, but shows the rest of what’s on my desk.  My computer, whatever project I’m currently working on (in this case, Rachel Walsh’s The Last Scribe) underneath which hides my laptop, my colour printer/scanner/copier (currently on the fritz), a couple of my poetry books, my African violets (green things essential), and my i-pod (in the corner, also essential).

Behind my desk, on the wall, are my cork board and white board.  On my first and second revisions (after the draft has been completed) I use these extensively to map out my story and make notes.  As each piece of paper is addressed, it comes down for shredding and as each note is incorporated into the novel, it’s erased.

Right now, the board it just reminding me of outstanding submissions I haven’t heard back about yet, my blogging schedule, and calendar.

And that’s it.  I didn’t clean up on purpose, because I thought I’d let everyone see what I really work like.

So I hope you enjoyed this little tour.  Take comfort in the chaos!  My office is as much a part of my process as a writer as anything else.

What does your office/writing space look like?  How does it reflect your process?

Mage or magus, magi or mages?

Last time on work in progress: The dull detailing of days, weeks, months, and years in Tellurin.

As promised, here is my theory of magic in Tellurin.  It actually starts about thirty years ago with me in confirmation class …

You may think confirmation a strange place for this, but I started theorizing things that had nothing to do with Christianity.  And you know what?  I was indulged, even encouraged by my instructors, two wonderful, open-minded people.  Shout of gratitude going out to Rick Shore and Marg Flath!  For them, it was healthy to question, explore the questions, and come to your own conclusions.

One of the things I theorized about was the nature of energy, consciousness, the soul, what might be termed miracles, and what might happen after we die … to me it was all connected.

In science (incidentally one of my confirmation instructors was also my grade 9 and 10 science teacher) we were learning that matter and energy were the same thing.  We learned about the laws of thermodynamics, including: energy can never be created or destroyed, but only changes form.

So to me, it wasn’t that far a leap to think that if we, humans, were made of matter (therefore energy) that thought, the soul, and all the wonderful things that made each of us uniquely ourselves was a kind of energy.  It couldn’t be destroyed when we died, it could only change forms.

So how does this relate to Tellurin magic?  Well really this species of thought contributed to both the magic and religious systems of my world, but here’s what I drew from my theorizing about magic: it could exist, just like any other kind of energy.  It would all be a matter of trial and error to figure it out.  It would be a kind of scientific experiment …

You may remember from my post about the cosmology of Tellurin that my interpretation of the big bang was that something within the homogeneous whatever that existed before the universe (I called it the One) recognized its independence.  In that moment, everything else within the One had to become distinct.  Boom!

But in my universe, not all kinds of energy are distributed equally.  The thing that recognized its independence (what became Auraya) carried more than its fair share of a specific kind of energy, and Tellurin, the planet, bore an equivalent amount.  That’s why the world has its own spirit and consciousness.

So Tellurin is a magic-rich world, and potentially any of the beings living on or in Tellurin can access that energy if they have the talent.  Talents are another group of senses that allow their possessors to recognise source and influence or manipulate it in specific ways.

Aside from Auraya, Tellurin, and the other gods of the world, everything holds its own share of the source of all things, or, simply the source.  In the people of Tellurin, this energy is bound to the spirit or soul.  It’s part of what makes them what they are.

When the primitive Tellurin first discovered their talents and their ability to manipulate the source, they called themselves sourcerors.  They learned in communities, experimenting with their various talents and expressions of source, categorizing and naming them as they went.

Along came a man named Halthyon Morrhynd.  He was actually an eleph from Elphindar, crossed over into Tellurin through one of the Ways Between the Worlds.  Incidentally, these Ways are just another expression of the source in Tellurin, a natural phenomenon.   If worm-holes could exist and function in a stable manner without affecting the matter and energy around them, that’s what the Ways would be.

Halthyon, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, is a bit of a megalomaniac.  In Elphindar, he’d tried to stage a coup against the anathas, or council of elders, and institute a kind of magocracy.  The eleph called source in their world the kaides esse, or the powers that be.  Sourcerors were called kaidin.

The result of Halthyon’s attempt to wrest power from the anathas was that he failed and was ostracized, or made shuriah.  The eleph were the only people in Elphindar.  Ostracism was generally a death-sentence.  Elphindar has no gods either, only the kaides esse, and those in significantly lower amounts than source in Tellurin.

Elphindar would not satisfy Halthyon’s ambitions, but once he found the Way and made it through to Tellurin, Halthyon saw this new world as a paradise.  He instantly made the connection between the source of all things, the kaides esse, and the gods of the new world.  He understood that if he could find a way to contain enough source within him, that he could transcend mortality and become a god himself.

The source existing in the things around him wouldn’t do.  He’d have to expend nearly as much source in the destruction of inanimate objects as he would receive from said destruction.  The gain would be negligible.  The people though, them he could use.

So he found the fledgling sourcerors of Tellurin and taught them.  In time, they “grew ripe” and he was able to “harvest” them by killing them and stealing the source carried with their souls.  The way to do this, was to call the deceased sourceror by name, and thus summon his soul.

Sourcerors began to take source-names, secret names to prevent Halthyon from learning the name that could call their soul and source to him, but Halthyon was skilled at telepathy, and could discover their secrets.

As he waited for some of them to ripen, other sourcerors grew powerful in their own rights, learned what he was doing to their fellows, and mimicked the practice to accrue their own stores of source.

The brothers Kane and Jareth were two of these surprising sourcerors.  Kane was as obsessed with gaining power as Halthyon, but he was also concerned that Halthyon would murder him before he could get very far, so he started to develop defences, the chief of them being binding.

His early experiments were with animals.  He bound his soul and source to a creature, and if he was killed, so the theory went, his soul and source would remain safe in the beast.  These he called familiars.  Kane was a good scientist, and decided to test his theory after sharing it with some of his fellow sourcerors.

Unfortunately, the consciousness of the animal interfered with that of the bound sourceror, and the animal hadn’t the capacity to use source, and so quickly fell prey to the predatory sourceror.

His next experiments involved people who had no noticeable talent.  These he referred to as homunculi.  Sadly the same thing happened with them as did with the animals, and these too, he discarded as a failed experiment.

Then he started playing with constructs, which he called golems.  These experiments were never wholly successful.

In the meantime, Kane’s brother Jareth, whose primary talent was geomancy, or manipulating the earth element, conducted experiments of his own.  He decided that inanimate objects would make better subjects for binding.  There would be no consciousness to interfere with the bound sourceror’s, but this would necessitate having a partner who would be able to release and restore the sourceror after the death of his or her body.

Jareth’s experiment was much more successful than Kane’s and was widely adopted, even by Kane himself, but no solution was perfect.

Sourcerors like Halthyon and Kane, after killing another sourceror, would search out the partner, and torture them until they revealed the secret of unbinding their victim.  If the partner was stubborn enough, or faithful enough, to keep the secret, then they could simply be killed.  Although the murderer would never benefit from the source of their victims this way, their victim would forever remain trapped in whatever object they’d bound themselves to.

This is eventually what happened to Jareth.  Halthyon slew him in sourcerous combat and went in search of his partner.  Kane got to her first.  Laleina was not only Jareth’s binding partner, but they were also lovers, a relationship that Kane always envied.

Laleina wasn’t cooperative and would not divulge Jareth’s secrets.  Kane knew, to his regret, that he could not keep her alive.  Halthyon would eventually come calling and Kane wasn’t ready to face the eleph.  In a twisted bit of experimentation, Kane bound Laleina’s soul and source to one of his failed golems.  He’d noticed that metal tended to dampen the effect of source.

And so Laleina was trapped in the thing that would eventually become the Machine.

The sourcerous world continued along the same violent lines for centuries, but Auremon eventually decided that he couldn’t let things go on this way.

His idea was to voluntarily surrender his godhood, and his god’s share of source, to Tellurin, hoping that more source in the world would allow Tellurin to even the playing field among the sourcerors, and keep the power-hungry ones from victimizing the rest.

It didn’t work out as well as he thought.  Too close to one of the Ways Between the Worlds, he tore it open and half the population of Elphindar was sucked into Tellurin before the Way could be repaired by Auraya.  The sourcerors didn’t behave any differently, and Auremon had to concede his failure.

The only thing he could think to do, was to teach young sourcerors how to use their powers responsibly.  So he set himself up as a sage in a mountainous island off the western coast of the main continent.  Auraya created a great castle for him there, and eventually all sourcerors found their way to Auremsart.

Auremon taught ethics more than anything else.  It was the sourcerors themselves who thought that if they changed the names of things, that they could change the way people behaved more effectively.  So source became magick, sourcerors became magi, and they instituted a rigorous initiation process that would so instil Auremon’s ethical code into their students that there would be no risk of any of them becoming monsters.  They called their new discipline Agrothe, the followers of the code, in the old language of the land.

They policed themselves too, and started setting up schools of magick in other cities.  Business was booming.  And then Yllel came in disguise and killed his father.  Auremsart crumbled, became the Spire, and two kindly elementals from Elphindar resurrected Auremon and bound his spirit to the stone that was all that remained of his earthly home.

How the Agrothe functions in Tellurin at the time of the novel:

  • As soon as the prospect’s talent begins to manifest, training begins.  This can be anywhere between five and thirteen suns of age.  The prospect becomes an aspirant.
  • This period is one of intense theoretical and ethical training, highly structured, lasting thirteen suns. This phase of training does not guarantee initiation.  If evidence of cruelty or insanity is detected by the Master, the aspirant is taken to a mind-mage, and their talent crippled.
  • The aspirant is initiated.  This phase of the training introduces the initiate to their talent(s) in a gradual, disciplined fashion, and also lasts thirteen suns.
  • The initiate is apprenticed, gains some autonomy and is allowed to experiment in a limited fashion.
  • After thirteen more years, the apprentice could become a master in his or her own right.  If further training is deemed necessary, an interim period of guided practice could be instituted.  The mage operated independently, but under the watchful eye of their master.  This period could also last thirteen suns.
  • At any time, if the student decides, they can withdraw from training, once more having their talent crippled so that it cannot be used in an unauthorized or unethical fashion.
  • This is why most women, wanting a family and life outside of the Agrothe, never make it to initiation.

Aeldred sensed Ferathainn’s potential at the eleph ceremony of Shir’Authe, when she was only a day old and newly abandoned in Hartsgrove.  Her talent was prodigious and he began her training when she was four suns old.

Most aspirants only evidence one or two talents, the rest developing with age and experience.  Most full-fledged magi might have five talents at their disposal, but it will be the one or two that showed themselves first that will be the mage’s primary talents.

Ferathainn possesses aliopathy, or the ability to speak to the spirits of things, which in turn feeds into her talent at evocation and summoning.  She is uncommonly talented in mind magick, able to communicate through thought speech with those who do not share the talent, and can travel in spirit with ease.

Aspirants are not allowed to use their talents prior to initiation, but Aeldred does not want to lose Ferathainn as a student, so he allows the girl latitude.  Besides, mind-magick is not one of his stronger talents, and he cannot prevent her from doing what comes naturally to her.

He does not want to call one of his Agrothe brothers in for fear that Fer will be taken away from him.  Further, he fears reprimand for his unorthodox training methods.  For similar reasons, he has not prevented Ferathainn from becoming betrothed or married.  He feels that if anyone can balance a life of magick and domesticity, it will be Ferathiann.

He hasn’t explained much of this to Ferathainn.  He hasn’t even explained her talents to her.  In truth, he’s a little afraid of what she might become, and that his lenience may lead her to the forbidden ways of sourcery.

She will be the first Agrotha initiated in two hundred suns.  That’s too great a prize for Aeldred to resist.

Next week: Everything little thing she does is magick!

Have a great weekend everyone!

Learning about learning coordination

There’s no guidebook or manual for what I do.  There’s no course that can teach me how to foresee the rough beast that slouches toward me, defend against it, or turn it away.

My title is training coordinator, and the main thrust of my job is to plan the year’s training, and try to keep everything within budget.  Along with that came a whole set of tasks that I was neither familiar nor comfortable with.

Still, I learned, I dealt, and I made the best of it.

My first big test was to plan the year’s training.  The skeleton was there, but surgery was required.  A titanium joint here, a transplanted bone there, the odd amputation and prosthesis, and voila: a training plan.  Call me Frankenstein.

Then I had to cost it all out given a reduced budget.

I did well though, made it through my first all-day meeting via conference call … for a moment there, I thought I understood what my job was all about.

I think I have to have another look at my job description.  There must be a clause in there somewhere that says “and all other duties as required.”  Or maybe the key phrase is “must tolerate ambiguity.”

I can do most of what’s been asked of me.  I can make pretty tables and Excel worksheets.  I can write proposals, and while my manager rewrites most of what I submit, that’s part of his job.  I haven’t quite learned to cater to my new audience yet.  Give me a defined task, and I’ll make it happen.  It’s all the little stuff that I wasn’t expecting that’s getting to me.  It’s all the chaos.  For a creative person, I don’t do chaos well …

It’s all the last-minute training that no one knows about until a week before it has to be delivered.  Add to that the reassignment of the training team to other duties (so no one to deliver the training) and the necessity of training nearly all the processing staff in the province, and you have a narsty beast indeed.

Though there’s a whole slew of other prioritized work that I need to get done, I’m stuck in scheduling hell.  Nearly 600 staff over 40 sessions, plus independent study groups.  My head spun with that alone, but then I was asked to co-facilitate 6 of the sessions.  Hey, I’m a trainer.  It’s what I did for 3 years.  I can hack it.

And then …  I was asked to do the invitations for all the sessions, and set up the sessions in WebEx because the trainers we recruited weren’t familiar with the technology.  It wasn’t what they signed up for, which is understandable.  They have their own overflowing workloads to deal with too.  Plus, each set of invitations I sent out returned half a dozen changes to the schedule. That is a lot of work for one person.  And it’s not over yet.

Once again, I’m managing.  I’m making it happen.  I’ve even made some suggestions in the event something like this happens in the future (which I think is inevitable).

Regardless what work they may have been assigned to, the best people to handle training is the training team.  They know the technology.  They’re experienced trainers.  They can set up their own sessions and create and send out their own invitations. If I was able to work with them, this training would have gone off without a hitch.  Well there’s still the schedule to consider, but I think that might be a problem under any circumstances (more on this in a moment).

With a team of 6, we could have rotated them through the sessions, so they still could have dedicated most of their time to their reassigned duties, the work would have been distributed, and everyone would have gotten what they needed to out of the deal … with a little compromise.

Failing that plan of action, we have to ensure that anyone recruited to deliver training will be able to fulfill all the duties that the training entails, such as setting up WebEx sessions and doing their own invitations.

I’ve figured out what to do about the schedule too.  Now this was my fault, because I didn’t think of asking for some key information that it turned out I needed.  Another learning experience.  That too, is on the books for “next time.”

For now, things are slowly starting to level out.  It’s still chaos, but it’s an organized kind of chaos.  The rough and slouching beast sits beside my desk, growing only occasionally, and I think we’ll all come out of this intact.  

This may sound like a blog-of-complaint, but I’m trying to keep this as a statement of facts rather than an indictment.  I’ll be fine.  These are just growing pains.  I’m essentially optimistic.  This has just been a heck of a couple of weeks.  It’s hard not to be overwhelmed when you’re … well, overwhelmed.

Had a trial by fire?  What did your rough beast look like?  Were you able to figure out a way to make things work?  Success stories welcome 🙂

I’m the Learning Mutt, circling three times and curling up for a nice nap.