Feb 022010

Image via Wikipedia

For the last seven years… give or take a month or two… I’ve been writing a weekly column for the cork based Evening Echo, one of Ireland’s leading regional newspapers.

Last week I got a call from John Dolan, the Echo’s features editor, to inform me that after a New Year review of their operations they’d decided to stop a number of long running columns from external contributors… mine included.

Given the plight of regional newspapers as they battle dwindling ad revenue and struggle to compete with ever more attractive and increasingly measurable online marketing options, this was hardly a surprise… but it was a bit sad.

If I’m honest it was something of a bitter-sweet moment for me. The column has been a part of my life for so long now that not having to write it every week will be strange… and of course there’s the fact that it leaves a hole in the monthly finances that I’ll have to plug, but I’d been feeling for some time that the column had run it’s course.

It was getting harder to sustain the momentum. When you’ve been writing on the same subject (a father’s perspective on parenting) for nearly seven years it can be difficult to break new ground… and while a good writer will always manage to keep things fresh for the reader, the process of writing becomes a bit stale. You stop enjoying it as much, it requires more effort and becomes less rewarding.

So, onwards and upwards to bigger and brighter things, I guess.

Now… anyone out there fancy paying me to write a weekly online marketing / social media column, or perhaps something on Ireland’s Wildlife.

Go on… make me an offer :-).

My very last column will run in the WOW! supplement of tomorrow’s Evening Echo (Wed 03/02/2010)… and will be posted here shortly thereafter.

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Nov 022009

Innocent smoothies latest campaign... innovative, but not all innocent!The girls love making up stories and writing them down. They’re forever scribbling in notebooks, on bits of paper, on the backs of envelopes… anywhere they can really. There are poems, short stories… even full-length children’s picture-books complete with accompanying illustrations, scattered all over the house. One of the twins has even set a career goal to become a writer and illustrator of children’s books when she grows up.

While it might be a bit early for that, I have to admit that some of the stories they come up with are surprisingly good, as long as you’re prepared to gloss over the spelling and grammar errors endemic to an eight-year-old’s writing. They’re entertaining, have a good balance of dialogue and narrative, compelling characters and even a workable plot. It’s fantastic to see the girls ready to engage with and explore written language at this age, but I guess making up stories is an intrinsic part of childhood, and writing those stories down is simply a natural progression of that.

For the last week or so they’ve been putting their love of stories to good use on the web, in an online competition being run by smoothie-maker, Innocent. The company has taken the classic paper and pencil game “consequences”, and adapted it for kids to play online. Traditionally the game involves writing a sentence on a piece of paper and passing it on to the next person. They then read it, and fold the paper over, hiding the original sentence before writing their own… and so on until the conclusion of the story. The web version Innocent has come up with is much simpler… and all the more ingenious for that.

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Oct 212009
A herd of savanna elephants in Western Africa

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Sometimes we humans use expressions that, while they seem plausible enough on the surface, actually have no bearing on life in the real world.

We do this all the time, without ever questioning the validity of what we’re saying, and we perpetuate these misconceptions by using the same expressions with our children. They in turn will pass on these falsehoods to their children and so it will go on unless someone makes a stand and sets things straight.

Anyone who’s ever had mice in the house will know that the old adage "as quiet as a mouse" is a complete fallacy. Mice can, in truth, make an unbelievable racket for their size as they scurry around under floors and behind skirting boards; chittering, squeeking and scraping as they forage for stray crumbs. The pitter-patter of their tiny feet is surprisingly audible in the dead of night, and the conclusive snap of a mouse-trap is enough to wake anyone from their slumber. I’ve taken to using a different version… one that’s far more accurate than the rodent equivalent. I tell the girls they should try to be "as quiet as a pineapple". When was the last time you heard fruit make a sound?

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Aug 122009

Image by J_O_I_D via Flickr

When I was a child I was bullied at school. Hard to believe if you know me today… but back then things were very different.

Tall, gangly and with a chronic lack of self-confidence, I guess I made an easy target. Picking on the "big meek kid" seemed to be the order of the day… and it hurt much more than just the physical pain.

The specifics of individual events elude me now, but I still remember vividly how the taunting and physical bullying made me feel: worthless, insignificant and utterly, irrevocably alone.

It didn’t help that I was getting mixed messages at home. Mum was advocating a "turn the other cheek" approach while Dad was a staunch advocate of a "give them a dose of their own medicine" solution. It left me in limbo.

In the end it turned out that Dad was right, but I was in fifth year at secondary school before I’d finally had enough, faced my demons and turned the tables on the bullies. That’s when it stopped!

Bullying in any form is abhorrent on so many levels, but at least in my day the bullying was a tangible thing. I could see the people who were taunting you: real, flesh and blood boys standing in front of me. But today there’s an altogether more sinister aspect to bullying… a new dimension to an age old menace that’s being facilitated by modern communication technology.

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Apr 202009

"Empire" -- a fantasy novel by Calvin Jones -- Map of Bantara

Earlier today I dug into the bowels of my hard drive and unearthed something that hasn’t seen the light of day for around eight years. My 155,000 word fantasy novel manuscript “Empire”.

Most of those words were eked out on the tiny keyboard of a Psion Series 3c palmtop computer while travelling through Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and North and South America, in dodgy backpacker hostels, budget hotels and cheap cafés. There was no such thing as WiFi and netbooks!

I finished the book soon after moving to Ireland in 2000, and then life took over.

The twins — our first children — arrived around about the same time as our first mortgage, and mundane things like paying the bills took precedence. I’ve hardly peeked at “Empire” since… until now.

With a published non-fiction title on internet marketing under my belt now, I figure that this is a good time to resurrect my fiction-writing ambitions.

With that in mind I’m going to be writing to publishers and literary agents in Ireland and the UK over the coming weeks, and figured that I’d make a synopsis and the first two chapters of Empire available here for perusal / feedback / (constructive) comment.

So, you’ll find a brief synopsis of the book below, followed by a link to a PDF of the first two chapters. Let me know what you think in the comments, and if you’re an agent or publisher, and would like to see the full manuscript, just drop me a line. Continue reading »

Dec 222008
one string attached

Image by Darwin Bell via Flickr

Published in the Evening Echo on 18/12/2008.

Christmas is a wonderful time of year for children. You can sense the latent anticipation as the the decorations go up and the excitement mounts. It’s wonderful for parents too: the children’s excitement fuels our own in a sort of self perpetuating feedback loop. For parents though the wonder is tempered by the burgeoning to-do-list in the run-up to the holiday’s.

Preparing for Christmas is frantic at best, complete chaos at its worst (and somehow I always seem to veer towards the latter). There’s so much to do: shopping, decorating, making lists, checking them twice, trees, school concerts, all those jobs that need “to be done by Christmas”.

It amazes me how something that’s promoted from mid-October still manages to somehow creep up on you. My theory is this: because the shops and TV adverts start getting all Christmassy before we even get Halloween out of the way, we become desensitised to the whole thing. We switch off our festive radar, and pay little heed to the tinsel, singing Santas and fairy lights. Then, all of a sudden, there are only two weeks to go and we have nothing done. So we panic!

Yes, Christmas is a busy time for us parents. But the Children have been busy too: busy learning all the lines for their school plays. The twins are playing kids who skip school, bump into visiting aliens and convince them to kidnap their teachers… it’s quite a tale. In a separate epic the little one, in her first “big-school” play, is tackling the creatively demanding role of Fairy 2, with all of two lines to deliver. She’s taking the assignment very seriously.

We’ve been subjected to seemingly endless script readings over the last few weeks, and have become intimately familiar with the thrilling ins and outs of both stories. On Thursday evening we’ll all convene in the local community hall for an 8:00pm start. That’s right, 8:00 pm! We will be treated to three plays in not-so-rapid succession: the little one’s class, followed by the twins’ class, followed by the older children of the school, who’s play tends to be equally enthralling, only longer and more drawn out. The thespian endeavours will be punctuated by an eclectic selection of dance, music and song that will endure until about 11pm.

It’s all part of the hectic and exciting run-up to Christmas.

They have been busy with other things too, of course. Making Christmas cards for family, friends and anyone else they can think of. Cutting out and gluing seems to feature heavily in this year’s artistic extravaganza; that means little off-cuts of waste paper all over the kitchen and glue on fingers, clothes and, inevitably, in hair. But it’s all good fun, and that’s the main thing.

Then there’s the very important job of list making. For the twins the list situation was finalised some time back, and apart from the occasional suggestion for stocking fillers has remained reasonably static. The little one, however, changes her mind with complete disregard for any inconvenience to Santa, and has started to trawl through the catalogues again, felt-tip market in hand, initialing whatever takes her fancy. It’s going to be something of a lottery for Santa to get it right come Christmas morning.

So Christmas is a very busy time for children…. and for parents, largely because of their children. But it’s all good fun in the end, and I guess we wouldn’t have it any other way. Before long it will all be over, and another year will stretch ahead of us burgeoning with potential and opportunity. The goal for 2009? Pretty much the same as for 2008: surviving parenthood, one day at a time.

Nov 182008
Aer Lingus A320 EI-CVC

Image by caribb via Flickr

Last week Irish trade union SIPTU sent a letter to Aer Lingus letting them know that its members have approved strike action if the airline proceeds with plans to axe around 1,300 jobs.

While I feel for the Aer Lingus workers’ plight… I really do, reading part of the letter (released into the public domain as part of a SIPTU press release) made me cringe.

In a couple of paragraphs it demonstrates everything that’s wrong with communication in the workplace. It’s pompous and utterly unintelligible business writing at its very worst. Here’s an extract from the letter to show you what I mean.

This decision of our members in the Aer Lingus Branch, Cork No. 5 Branch and Shannon Aviation Branch has now been sanctioned by the National Executive of SIPTU and you are hereby served with fourteen days official notice of same.

Following the expiry of notice the decision will be activated as decided by the Union arising from the unilateral implementation by the company proceeding to implement new or changed terms and conditions of employment without agreement contained in their proposals of October 6, 2008 or any variation thereof. In this connection you should note that the sanction covers strike action and the full withdrawal of labour with the placing of pickets on the company locations, and [for] industrial action which is [for] limited work stoppages with the withdrawal of labour and the placing of pickets on … company locations. The nature, timing and duration of any or all of the foregoing will be determined by the Union.

Again, please… clearly, and in English this time! Reading the above made my heart sink, and my head hurt.

If workers, or anybody else for that matter, really want to get their message across they need to stop trying to sound important by throwing in formal, over elaborate and superfluous verbiage (much as I did there ;-)), and start writing clearly in plain, easy to understand English.

The latest entry in the Plain English Campaign’s “Gobbledegook of the week” reads as follows:

"By aggregating a range of public and commercial datasets, including global addressing and Directory Enquiries, voter databases, commercial data and documentation including dates of birth, and voice-based verification solutions, 192.com Business Services delivers the most comprehensive global online ID verification solution available. "

(from www.192.com)

I think the SIPTU letter trumps that with ease: it’s in a league of it’s own. Or rather, it isn’t, which I guess is the material point here. All too often business and workplace communication is bloated, jargon riddled dross written by people who think that throwing long words into overly intricate prose makes them sound more important than they really are.

But here’s the rub… when the name of the game is getting your message across, you’re audience doesn’t care how “important” you sound, or how many syllables you can cram into a single sentence. They care about the clarity with which you deliver the essential information. People are busy, they don’t have time to decrypt your missive – they need to understand it instantly, first time round.

Communicating clearly with your target audience – whether that’s your customers, your co-workers or your employer – is critical to any business, and never more so than during hard economic times. So, before you send anything – letters, e-mail, blog posts, comments… anything at all – read it through to yourself at least once, aloud if necessary, and ask yourself truthfully “does this achieve what it sets out to do efficiently and effectively”? If the answer is no, perhaps you should stop and take another look.

And by the way, if you happen to be a national union executives looking to serve strike notice on the CEO of a major company, and you’d like some help writing your letter, you could always drop me a line ;-).

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Nov 122008
the 44th President of the United States...Bara...

Image by jmtimages via Flickr

On the 4th of November 2008 Barack Obama made history when he was elected as the first black president of the United States of America. It’s an achievement that is remarkable for a lot of reasons… and one that has far reaching implications not just for Americans, but for people around the globe.

One of the most striking things for me about Obama’s election has nothing to do with race. It is the overwhelming impression I get that here, finally, is a politician who has been elected into office on merit. That may not sound like such a revolutionary a concept – but here in modern Ireland it’s practically unheard of. Our incumbent administration endures because a large chunk of the electorate has zero confidence in the competence of the opposition to govern. It really is that simple.

Back across the Atlantic (I refuse to call any ocean a “pond”) you could argue that the same thing applied last week. The alternative to the Obama / Biden ticket was hardly a compelling proposition. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could convincingly dub John McCain a dynamic force for change, and as for Sarah Palin… well, I think enough has already been said on that score.

But despite the fact that Obama would probably have won the election anyway, through lack of viable opposition… I’m still left with the very strong feeling that he won the votes of the undecided masses largely on the merits of his policies, and the overwhelming belief that here was a man who had the best interests of the American people at heart.

That last point is an important one… but one that seems to have been overshadowed by the “Obama Mania” that’s gripped the world over the last week. Buoyed on a wave of euphoria that spread from its epicentre in Chicago to engulf the globe, people seem to have lost sight of the fact that Barack Obama is, in fact, President Elect of the United States of America. He is not President Elect of the World at large.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Mr Obama will make an excellent president. His biggest obstacle will be the incredible burden of anticipation that now weighs heavily upon him. People expect incredible things from this man, and I’m sure he’ll prove a force for long-overdue change in the US. The knock on effects of that change will ripple out to impact many nations around the world – our little island state included. Much of that impact will be positive; some of it won’t. Whatever changes the new president decides to implement, you can be certain of one thing: those changes will be driven by policies forged around the best interests of the American people. The wellbeing, economic or otherwise, of Ireland, Europe and the rest of the world, simply won’t factor into the equation.

I always find it amusing when blockbuster Hollywood disaster movies – the likes of “Independence Day”, “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Armageddon” – portray the rest of the world waiting with baited breath for America to save the day, save the planet and save humanity. The truth of the matter is that, despite the hype surrounding this election, we are not beholden to the US or any other nation.

The US president is not, in fact, the “Leader of the Free World”. The independent nations that constitute “The Free World” are, and always have been, free to make their own decisions, based on what’s best for their own people. What it ultimately boils down to is this: Barack Obama will do a great job of looking after America’s best interests… here in Ireland we’ll have to make do with Brian Cowan!

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Oct 292008

Door Mat Mid-term was here…. goodness knows where the weeks had gone, but gone they most certainly had! Our house was a hive of activity in the run up to the school holiday… or at least it should have been.

We were having friends over to stay for the holiday… a family of five we hadn’t seen for over three years, and who hadn’t seen our place in West Cork since we moved down here nearly six years ago. Naturally we wanted the house and garden in tip-top shape before they came, and it was going to be a case of all-hands-on-deck to get everything done.

And then the winter vomiting bug paid us a visit.

The winter vomiting bug is a nefariously gregarious little microbe. It thrives on company, likes to spread itself around, and brings all of its friends along for the party. Once one person in the family gets it… that’s it, everyone gets it. It started with one of the twins… moved on to the other one and then hit the little one and my wife. Three sleepless nights and around ten wash-loads later it was my turn.

I’ll spare you the unpleasant details, but I will comment on how well behaved the children seem to be when they’re genuinely sick. They were little angels one and all – I’m talking complete personality transplant here. There was no cheek, no back-chat and they didn’t have the energy to run riot as they usually would. So apart from the vomiting (and the ceaseless cleaning and washing that entailed) things were in fact much more serene than usual around here.

Except of course serene wasn’t what we needed… not with visitors arriving. By the time we’d recovered enough to think about it we only had a day to prepare for our guests’ arrival. Instead of “action stations” it was more “panic stations” as we struggled to shrug off illness-induced lethargy and get everything done.

It was a little fraught, but we more or less made it before our friends arrived with their three children. Six kids, one house: pandemonium reigned.

I don’t know how my mother-in-law managed with six kids for all those years. It was complete and utter chaos… but in a fun way. While we were catching up with old friends, the children were busy making new friends… which, when you think about it is kind of neat.

I’m just praying for some good weather this week – because if we can get out and about with the children all will be well with the world. If we can’t, we’re pretty much snookered.

West Cork is terribly limited when it comes to indoor activities. If it’s raining there’s very little on offer, and lets face it, for all its good points it tends to rain quite a lot here. If the sun shines there are plenty of beaches, walks and all sorts of fun outdoor places to go… but everything is weather dependent. Unfortunately the weather is the one thing you really can’t depend on!

I often wonder why on earth nobody invests in providing more indoor activities in West Cork. Surely there’s scope for something like a bowling alley in Clonakilty, an indoor play area in Skibbereen, and other things of that ilk in Bantry or Dunmanway? I’d imagine such places would be packed to the rafters on soggy weekends, of which there is no shortage.

But that, as they say, is another story. For now we’re focussing on catching up with our guests, and making sure that the girls enjoy their school holiday. With their new friends to play with at least that shouldn’t be too much trouble.

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(Photo by rbieber on Flickr)

Oct 032008
The writer, the written and the writing tool

Image by Ravages via Flickr

Sometimes writing is HARD!

It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to write, there are times when the words just won’t come. Trying to write anything when your brain is mush can be an incredibly frustrating exercise.

When writing is a hobby, a pastime, something you do “just for fun”, that’s not such a big problem… you can simply walk away, disengage, and come back to your writing when you feel a bit more productive.

But when you write for a living… when you have clients, and deadlines and bills and all those other things a professional writer has to worry about… then you have to persevere and get on with it.

So how do writers cope with the challenges of producing, day in, day out? What do you do to overcome the dreaded spectre of writers’ block?

Here are a few of the things I find useful to get the prose flowing again.

1. Write something completely different

If I’m genuinely getting nowhere with a particular writing project, and its obvious that will-power and plain old fashioned hard graft alone aren’t going to get me past the wall, I tend to turn to something completely different. This is where having a blog (or three :-)) comes in very handy.

Focusing on something completely different in a short, concentrated burst can kick start the writing process, helping the words to flow. Often (… but not always :-()when I turn my attention back to the original project, that flow continues.

2. Tweet yourself productive (…no, seriously)

Micro Blogging services like Twitter are often dismissed as a frivolous time-sink, but as a writer I find the constraints of expressing an idea in 140 characters or less curiously liberating.

It forces you to strip away the clutter and focus on the message.

Believe it or not, I find posting to twitter can actually help to lubricate the mental cogs that make my writing work… when I go back to whatever I was working on I often find the seemingly insurmountable obstacles I was battling with has evaporated.

3. Read something inspirational

We all have our favourite blogs, web sites, books, magazines, newspapers… whatever. Choose something by a writer who inspires you — someone whose writing you admire and respect. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something in your feed reader, on a blog, in a print publication or a book, as long as its written by someone you find inspiring.

Try not to analyse and deconstruct the prose (it’s an occupational hazards of writing that I actively try to avoid, but invariably slip into occasionally), just immerse yourself in the written word.

More often than not when you return to your own writing everything seems to come together much more easily.

4. Listen to/watch something relevant

There’s an awful lot of rubbish on media sharing sites and podcast portals, but there’s also a tonne of really useful and interesting content. Taking a short break from your writing project to listen to or watch a podcast related to the topic you’re writing about can help focus your mind, and give you new ideas and inspiration for your writing. Just make sure you limit yourself to one or two items… or you’ll be amazed how quickly your day will disappear!

What do you do?

Those are just a few of the things that help me to get over the occasional hurdles that plague every writer. How about you? What tools and techniques do you use to get over the dreaded writers’ block? Let us know in the comments.

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