Lessons learned and takeaways from my European adventure

Over the weeks since my return and interspersed with monthly updates, I’ve been recounting my European adventure. Now, I’m finally ready to talk about the benefits I’ve gained and the things I’ve learned from the experience.

Muse-inks

Planning and preparation are important

I committed to the Writing Excuses Retreat and WorldCon in early February. It could have been January, but I was hesitant because of the expense. Ultimately, it was a confluence of events: WXR doing a Baltic cruise—they usually cruise the Caribbean, WorldCon being in Helsinki, my desire to visit the country of my ancestry, and the fact that I could do all that AND get in some quality first time tourism at the same time as I continued my professional development as a writer.

Once I committed, I was hip-deep in making the travel arrangements. WXR had their own travel agents and I was able to get a great price on a return European flight through them. All of the cruise arrangements were made through the travel agency.

They facilitated the registration for the cruise, the booking of all the tours at each of the stops, and the issuing of all electronic travel documents.

I made my own hotel booking and, with very little back and forth, I was able to secure the convention rate for my extended stay.

While I attempted to make my additional travel arrangements through the travel agents associated with the cruise, they were busy enough handling the details for the cruise. I’d noticed that the Canadian Auto Association, of which I am a member, was promoting their European travel services. I decided to make the remaining arrangements through them.

There was much more back and forth, but by staying on top of the email thread, I had my flight from Hamburg to Helsinki booked, my rental car, and my bus tour to cover the days in between the cruise and WorldCon.

I went to the airline sites and to CATSA to help me with my packing. My thought was to travel light and only have my carryon luggage and my (fairly large) purse. I reviewed my itineraries for the flights, cruise, and the schedule for the convention to plan out, in rough strokes, where I’d have to be, when.

I was as prepared as I could be by the time I left, but while planning and preparation are important, they aren’t everything.

I still suffered panic attacks in the week leading up to my trip. I still had to deal with ongoing anxiety during the flights—not because I’m afraid of flying, but because I was afraid that despite all my planning, that something catastrophic in terms of making my connections, delays, or other uncontrollable elements (weather) that attend travel would render my planning useless.

Fortunately, none of that happened.

Travelling alone is empowering

Because so much is out of your control when you travel alone, you quickly realize you just have to put on your big girl (or big boy) pant(ie)s and git ‘er done.

Anxiety serves no purpose in these situations and, frankly, can’t be indulged. Yes. I wrote that. Anxiety, in some situations, is an indulgence. It’s an indulgence of imbalanced or malfunctioning neurotransmitters, and not easily managed, but it’s still an indulgence.

I have a friend who lives with obsessive compulsive disorder and its attendant anxiety. I invited her up for a short visit that, because of its brevity, was highly structured (I guess planning’s a thing with me). In the ensuing whirlwind, she didn’t have the time to perform her particular rituals.

Months (it might have been years) later, she told me how that visit had changed her. It was concrete evidence that even if she couldn’t indulge her OCD, that the things she feared would happen, didn’t. It was a breakthrough for her.

I travel alone all the time. I drive down to Ottawa, to Toronto, or to other cities in southern Ontario to train for my day job. I attend writing conferences, conventions, and workshops alone. Some of these have been across the country, or in the States. But I’d never been outside of continental North America before. In a very real way, I had never been more alone.

After the pre-departure panic attacks, though, I progressed straight to a semi-fugue state during travel. I was completely in the moment. I had to continually check my itinerary to make sure I was making progress to the next queue, or boarding, or whatever, because it was too tempting to slip into a place in which I wouldn’t care if I got anywhere at all.

Though I spent my waiting and flight time reading or watching movies to keep myself distracted, I wasn’t really forming solid memories of these things. I felt like a deer in the headlights most of the time. It was a test of endurance more than anything else, but I didn’t have a panic attack for the duration of my trip.

A little bit of that disconnect from reality followed me throughout my journey and reasserted itself for my days of solo travel. I was more in control once most of the uncertainty was behind me, once I’d reached the Atlantic Hotel in Kiel, for instance, or embarked on the cruise ship, or checked into the Sokkos Presidentti.

During the retreat itself, I had to be intentionally vulnerable, painfully honest, and resist attempts to make my work, accomplishments, or failures—essentially me—sound better, less devastating, or more professional than they were. It takes effort to do this when your body and brain is used to preventing you from doing these very things. It’s very liberating.

And, as my friend Kim told me, it’s also empowering. I can be authentic and the world doesn’t end. People still like me. I can be honest, and my tribe (writers) will support me.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts about this trip, the experience is still changing me. I’m a creature of habit and change is slow to come.

It was bucket-listy

When I started to attend conferences, conventions, and workshops, I started to set goals. Attend  Ad Astra. Check. I’ve now attended three. Attend the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Check. Attend When Words Collide. Check. Attend Can-Con. Check. Attend WorldCon. Check.

When I started to listen to the Writing Excuses podcast, I became aware of their writing retreats. Initially, they were held at Mary’s parent’s house. Eventually, though, they became more ambitious and the retreat took place on a cruise ship.

So I put that on my list of writerly goals. The Baltic cruise was special, though. The Writing Excuses cast will likely not be doing something similar in the near future. I could have made it even more bucket-listy by attending the German castle tour that followed the cruise, but I had to draw my financial line somewhere.

Still, to attend a writing retreat on a cruise ship, in Europe, and to be able to see some of the world in addition to developing my skill as a writer? As they say on the credit card commercial, that was priceless. It was the perfect storm of opportunity.

Travel and experience are critical parts of becoming a better writer. You have to push your limits, get out of your comfort zone, to make a breakthrough.

Ask and you shall receive

I left on my trip with a couple of personal goals in mind aside from travelling Europe and participating in the cruise.

Again, as I’ve mentioned previously, I have been having increasing difficulty with creative burnout. I wanted to see if I could get some practical advice and solid strategies for identifying and addressing the underlying reasons for this.

K. Tempest Bradford and Emma Newman were particularly helpful in this respect. The path they’ve lit the way to is one I’m still walking. I’ll have to devote another blog to this in the future, once I’ve sorted more of it out.

For now, I’m easing up on the writerly goal setting. I’m making room for other entertainment, down time, and self-care. I’m not so obsessed with heeding the siren song of production (moar!). I’m working on understanding that what I can get done is enough, that I am enough, and that reminding myself of the reasons I chose to write in the first place (love!) take precedence over external validation.

The other thing I was looking for was something that I’ve been trying for a couple of years to get in place, a mentor, editor, or some other form of support to help me get to the next level, so to speak, in my writing. I’ve tried to get a situation in place, but often personalities, interests, or skill sets have not meshed.

I’ve also been a part of many informal writing groups in real life as well as on line over the years. Again, personal goals, interests, and skill sets have not meshed. Or the methodology has been, in my opinion, flawed. Focusing on the first X pages or chapters doesn’t result in appropriate feedback, and feeding chapters, or sections, to readers over months or years isn’t necessarily productive either. Neither approach allows the reader or critique partner to get a feeling for the whole story, which I think is critical to feedback that results in improvement.

By the end of the cruise, I’d expressed interest in a full-novel critique group. Over the course of WorldCon, connections were made and things were firmed up. Starting in January of 2018, there’s a group of us that are going to give it a shot. I have hope and expectations, but not so many, nor so high, that they will be easily disappointed 🙂

One thing that I wasn’t expecting to receive was the excellent advice of Thomas Olde Heuvelt on how to develop and maintain a creative life plan. I’ve been setting writerly goals for years, but they’ve been primarily one-dimensional and focused on production.

Thomas’s advice to let the over-the-top, blue-sky, dreamy goals inform your overall writing goals and to include holistic life goals, like health—physical and mental—and financial, in the plan helped me to realize how much wellbeing I’ve been leaving out of my goals in recent years. He also recommended having a five year plan in place, subject to change (life does have a habit of intervening).

My European adventure was truly a life-changing experience, in many ways.

I’ll have to let you know how everything works out, but as many of my takeaways were things I’m going to be implementing over time, the results may be a while in coming.

Next week, I’ll be devoting some time to Kim’s launch of Some Other Sky and my presentation for the Sudbury Writers’ Guild on Fantasy (yes, the topic is wide open—it’s going to be fun). After that, I’m going to be participating in NaNoWriMo and taking a month-long blogging break, except for the Thoughty Thursday coming out on November 2nd.

I’ll catch everyone up in December with another bonanza October/November next chapter update. There are also going to be some writerly events coming up in November, including WordStock Sudbury and a possible Gail Anderson-Dargatz workshop with the Sudbury Writers’ Guild.

There will be more writerly goodness coming up.

Until next I blog, be kind, be well, and stay strong, my friends. The world needs your stories.

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The next chapter: March 2015 update

Last month, I wrote about how I was reprioritizing my life because I’d made the realization that pouring all my creative energy into the day-job was not making me happy. It wasn’t getting me any closer to my goals as a writer, either.

I started March out, work-wise, by applying for my self-funded leave and putting in my vacation requests for the first two quarters of the 2015-16 fiscal (to the end of September). I started expressing my opinion (which, of course, did me no favours, professionally) and reframing my experience with the perspective my wee revelation had provided me.

A series of serendipitous learning opportunities came my way, many of them concerned with following one’s dreams, or finding one’s calling. Funny how these things happen when we really need them to.

As I write this post, I’m listening to Michael Hyatt’s podcast on the Disciplined Pursuit of Less. This month’s newsletter from Katie Weiland included a piece on her “spring cleaning” of her subscriptions and social media. She was doing this to reclaim writing time from potentially wasteful or distracting electronic practices.

Having said all that, I was burned out by the time March rolled around. Last fall, when I had originally intended to take my self-funded leave but decided to defer it, I said that I was a little toasty around the edges, but that I’d probably be able to hold out until the spring.

That was before this acting consultancy.

Truthfully, I was burnt before the end of January. Part-way through February, I stopped revising Initiate of Stone and then I stopped drafting Marushka.

With IoS, I had to shift back into drafting mode to rewrite a chapter that was completely altered by my decision to remove a character from the novel. I was blocked, essentially, as I tried to write around the hole I’d decided to make in my plot. I didn’t stop writing per se, but I was having trouble finding my way out of the maze.

I made several abortive attempts to redraft the chapter in Word (which I didn’t count), but ultimately found that drafting by hand (which I also do not count) was much more effective. Once I had the chapter mapped and pieces of it written out, I was able to regain my momentum and complete the new chapter in Word.

Shifting gears with IoS meant that I didn’t have the drafting mojo going for Marushka. By looking at my spreadsheets, I can see clearly that when I stopped revising IoS, about a week later, I stopped drafting Marushka. Once I got back on track with IoS (the word counts recorded in red), again, about a week later, I was able to pick up with the drafting of Marushka again.

So, clearly, while it is possible for me to work on multiple projects at once, I definitely have to be working on them in different phases (drafting vs. revising). I’ve also realized that with the exception of the blog and some short stories, that the limit of my focus with regard to multiple novel-length projects is two.

Interestingly enough, I’m getting close to the end of drafting Marushka. I’ll be short of my 75k goal for the draft, but I’m okay with that. So far what seems to be my evolving pattern is to draft short, rewrite long, and revise/edit to goal length. Will let you know if this new piece of my process puzzle proves to be effective in the long run.

After my staggered, two-week disruptions in IoS and Marushka respectively, I got back on track for the rest of the month.

Judging for the Friends of the Merril contest continues. Originally, when I was notified that my story made the long-list, I was also advised that judging would be complete by March 31st. On March 31st, a post was released on the site indicating that deliberations continued.

I have a 25% chance of placing. The delay is a little nerve-wracking, but I’m trying to remain positive. It means I have some tough competition, but that we’re all in the same quality boat.

I also spiffed up three short stories, including the one I submitted to the FotM contest, and sent them off for consideration in the Sudbury Writers’ Guild anthology.

I’d wanted to revise my longer short story for submission to a magazine, but didn’t have the energy or focus to spare.

I did, however, submit my short story “The Broken Places,” which was published in Bastion last year, for consideration in the Imaginarium anthology. It’s a year’s best anthology put out by ChiZine Publications. It’s a long shot, but I can’t win if I don’t play 😉 So sayeth the lottery gods.

Now, at the beginning of April, and with a long weekend to enjoy, I’ve decided that I’m taking a breather. I’m still burnt, and trying to work all day and then come home and write all night is making things worse.

I have a writing sample to prepare for my workshop with Julie Czerneda and Ad Astra next weekend. So . . . I’m being evil and burning through Avatar on Netflix 🙂

This past week, I walked home from work. Once. I’m still sore. Mellie is out of shape. So I’m going to get back on track with regard to that. My goal is to walk home from work three evenings a week. It’s about five kilometres and takes about an hour. I have a number of books on Audible ready for the purpose.

There are a couple of anthologies that I’d like to write stories for in April, but I’m not sure if I’m going to manage them. My main goal is to complete this round of revision on IoS and my draft of Marushka. Anything else is gravy. Not saying that I’m purposefully disregarding these anthologies; I like gravy, but I’m also aware of my limitations, now more than ever.

Once that’s done, I’m going to shift gears again with IoS and get into query mode and I’ll then be completing my draft of Gerod and the Lions.

Those are my goals for the intermediate future.

Now to take a look at my progress for the month:

March Writing Progress

IoS Revisions (remember these are half counts, except for the new chapter in red, which were all new words): 11,901 words. Compare this with 11,851 in February, and 7,789 in January. I’m at the 50% mark of the novel.

Bloggage: 7,200 words. This has held more or less steady with 6,676 words in February and 8,432 words in January. I’m at 23% of my annual goal, which is more or less where I expected to be for March (one quarter through the year).

Drafting Marushka: 4,520 words in March; 3,859 in February; and my blow-me-away 9,462 in January. I’m at 44% of my drafting goal. I might make 60% by the time the story is finished.

Short stories: 90 words in March; 1,206 in February; and 34 in January. I’m at 27% of my goal for the year which is good.

Totals: 23,711 for March; 23,592 for February; 25,717 for January.

March Summary

So there we are.

Progress is, as ever, being made.

Now, season 3 of Avatar is calling, and Bitten this evening.

Have a lovely Easter, everyone.

See you on Tipdsay!

The Next Chapter

What I learned observing the Business Expertise Advisor Curriculum

In between my wintery road trips and getting stuck in an elevator last week, I was actually in Toronto for work.

Last summer, while I was still an acting consultant, the opportunity to observe and/or facilitate this course arose. The initial plan was that two sessions would be held, one in January and one in February.

I would observe the course in January with an eye to facilitating it in February. Unfortunately, the second session never materialized. It may not be until next year that I’m able to try my facilitation chops out on this course.

It’s a long time to wait in the wacky world of facilitation.

Here’s what I learned:

1. The course is a very demanding one for facilitators.

Class1One of the facilitators, who had actually delivered the course once in the past, said she didn’t want to facilitate the course again. It’s a fairly cerebral course, and a lot of material is packed in to four and a half days.

The course is intended to be an introduction to the basic duties of an advisor and as such, it covers working on a virtual team, change management, interpersonal relationships, providing advice and guidance, teaching adult learners, and workload/time management. Things are pretty tight and there’s not a lot of room to wiggle. It’s difficult to keep on track.

Because the course starts Monday morning, the facilitators and participants must travel in overtime (something management frowns on), and the facilitators can’t get into the room until the first morning of training. I prefer to prepare as much as possible in advance and to keep activities queued up and flowing well. Having an hour or an hour and a half for set up would be demanding. It also means that I’d have to come in earlier and stay later each day to stay on top of activities and exercises.

2. The course is something that every new BEA should attendClass2

And, the sooner the better.

Many of the attendees of this course had been BEAs for years and had had the course on their performance and learning agreements for years as well.

As a result, we had a lot of great discussion about our quality control processes, technology, communications, and training. I don’t know that a class of entirely new BEAs would have been half so dynamic.

We also had a varied group of participants from different business lines. One of the big questions I had when I started out as a BEA was what other BEAs elsewhere in our organization did and how those duties compared to my own.

Even though I knew there was a BEA course, it was being redesigned when I started as a BEA and was only piloted to select groups of participants in the next couple of years.

In the positions I’d held previously, there was training, weeks of it. Plus post-training monitoring. I learned the role of advisor by doing it, which is fine because it works with my learning gestalt, but I’m sure for others it was a bit of a culture shock.

After the BEA level, most of the training is piecemeal and you have to actively pursue those courses if you want to take them. Task or competency-based training is not mandatory once you’re out of production.

3. The BEAs in attendance thought the course had value for them

Class3This was a concern, because, after one of my colleagues attended a pilot of the course years ago, she did not have many positive things to say about it.

The BEA Curriculum is a course where you derive benefit proportional to the time and effort you invest.

It’s also one in which the participant should have clearly defined goals and expectations of the training. When the modules of the course that hold the most value for them come up, participants are more likely to play a more active role in their learning.

I presented a short exercise about performance management. I prefaced it with Cathy Moore’s flowchart: Is training really the answer?

Once the advisor has determined that neither training nor monitoring is the answer, what do they do? They perform a needs analysis to identify learning gaps and see if they can devise a plan, working with management, to bring the employee’s behaviour into line with the employer’s expectations.

I asked them to come up with some scenarios from their own experience, and once we had a few, divided them up by business line to review a tool in the training package and see if it would help them in those performance management situations.

Several of the participants told me they thought both the flowchart and the checklist were great resources.

So while the BEA Curriculum was not an unmitigated success (I forgot one of the groups in a breakout room and they didn’t return until after everyone else had left—bad Mellie!) I think it was a good course and one that I’ll enjoy facilitating in the future. If I can remember all the tips and trick I learned this time around!

Do you have any facilitation stories to share? New courses learned or delivered? Lessons learned in the delivery?

Do share.