Monthly Archives: August 2013

When business and creative writing collide: the annual performance appraisal self-assessment

It’s summer.  That once magical time of year that, as an adult, I dread.  I’m not talking about appearing in public in a swim suit, although that does have its own share of horrors. I’m talking about trying to figure out how to sum up a year’s worth of work using corporate-speak phrasing and tying my work to homogenized character traits that some HR person believes to represent our company’s model employee.  In short, it’s time to do the annual performance appraisal self-assessment.

I’ve been in the professional workforce for over twenty years now, which means I’ve written more than twenty of these things.  One would think that by now I write a solid self appraisal in my sleep.  Perhaps if I could stuff that side of me that hates bureaucracy in a box and bury it until after review time I would be able to just write the blasted thing and move on.  Instead I seem to find humor in the whole process and fight the urge to give my pervers humor a chance to stretch.

In my young and somewhat irreverent past, I had been known to have fun with them.  Early on in my career I worked for a large law firm on the east coast as a paralegal – or rather as what is now known as a litigation project manager.  In this job, we had to do these rather long thoughtful reflections on how we viewed our career, where we saw ourselves in five years, and whether we felt the firm was using us to our full potential.  In the mistaken belief that no one really read these self assessments – since no one had ever discussed the contents of my assessment other than to tell me what a great asset I was to the firm, I decided to see if anyone was paying attention.  In the middle a long paragraph around where I saw myself in five years, I wrote a sentence that stated that I felt the whole exercise was a complete waste of my time since no one ever discussed what I had written in prior reviews.  When the performance review came up, it was more of the same “great job…valuable asset” discussion.  At the conclusion of my review, as I was walking to the door, the managing partner said, “Oh, and by the way – I do read the self assessments. Every. Single. Word. I predict that with the right boss you will go far, or more likely, your warped sense of humor will get you in trouble one day.”  So, I have learned to be careful of what I write in self appraisals.

Getting started on the assessment isn’t all that different from working through writers block.  I stare at the blank screen until I realize that I have to start somewhere so I just write.  Most of the time, my first pass at an assessment is like a free-form, stream of consciousness list of everything I have done over the past year.  Then I start to make my connections to the key or buzz-words that HR requires.  From there, I begin to craft the actual narrative and justification statements.  Because I do have this irreverent side to me, I occasionally go ahead and write in the quirky, sardonic things I would love to say.  (Ex: I demonstrate tact and diplomacy when dealing with my peers by not commenting that Jane’s presentation could be used as a natural remedy for insomnia.)  But I am always careful to remove them from the final document.  When I think I have the document complete, I set it aside for a few hours to a day before going back and proof-reading.

I suppose I have to admit that the self assessment process has some value other than forcing me to consult a thesaurus to come up with different ways to say “I rock and deserve a raise.”  It does make you think about your contributions to the company over the course of the year.  I can even admit that when my boss and I have not agreed on a rating, it has sparked a conversation around development opportunities or areas of improvement that ultimately serve to make me a better person and a better employee.  I guess the hardest part for me is reigning in my sense of humor when faced with the Dilbert-esque nature of the average self-assessment document.

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.

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Old Dogs Part 2: The End of the Story

In January, I wrote a blog about Lui’Ka, my Chinese Shar-Pei, and how age was starting to catch up to her.  When I wrote the blog I knew our time with her was limited and the day was approaching where a decision would have to be made or nature would take its course. On Friday, two days before her 15th birthday, she passed away.

Thursday morning, she was an old dog who could move around on her own, albeit a bit gingerly but she was able to get up and go outside when she needed to.  Thursday night, she wasn’t able to stand up without help.

We were getting ready for bed Thursday night when one of my sons came in to tell us something was wrong with Lui’Ka.  “Mommy, her legs won’t work.”  She must have had some sort of mild stroke because she could walk if we helped her get up, but once she lay down it was as if she couldn’t get her muscles to respond to help her stand back up.  Lui’Ka did not want to sleep on her bed, she seemed to want to be outside beside the Koi Pond, so we carried her outside and made her comfortable beside the pond.  It had become her favorite spot in our yard.  She liked to lie on the slate slab over the skimmer and watch the Koi swim.  I personally think she also liked being able to lean over and get a drink out of what she viewed as a large water dish.

We stayed outside with her for awhile before coming in to put the boys to bed and prepare them for what was going to happen next.  I have to admit that a part of me still hoped she’d go in her sleep, but it was not to be that easy.  The next morning there was no doubt that another stroke had happened and the end was near.  A call was made to the veterinarians office to let them know what had happened and that we’d be coming in as soon as they could take us.

Lui’Ka left this world with the feel of my oldest son’s hand stroking her fur and the knowledge that she was loved.

Rest in peace my friend.

Lui'Ka by the Koi Pond

Lui’Ka by the Koi Pond

We plan to move an iris bed from one part of our yard to curve around the side of the pond.  When we get her ashes back, we’ll put them on the irises so that she will always be beside the pond.  I’d like to find a nice concrete statue of a sleeping Shar-Pei to go in the garden in memory of her.  If anyone has seen a statue like this, please let me know.

Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.

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Interview with Nichole R. Bennett, Author of “Ghost Mountain”

Ghost MountainWhat is your book about?

When Cerri Baker moves with her family to the Black Hills of South Dakota, she begins seeing things—things like murder. Cerri has spent her life trying to avoid the spirituality and “hocus-pocus” her mother embraces, but once in the Black Hills, Cerri doesn’t seem to have much choice as her spirit guide insists she find justice for a murdered man

How much of yourself is hidden in the characters in the book?

I think there’s probably a little of me.  People who have read Ghost Mountain say they can almost hear me when they read it.  I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?

Before I start, I know my main characters.  I know who the victim is and the antagonist.  I even know why the crime was committed.  It’s all that stuff in the middle I have to work out as I go along.

Do you have specific techniques you use to develop the plot and stay on track?

Years ago, I heard about the “fish bone” method of plotting and that seems to work for me.  If you’re not familiar with it, draw a horizontal line on the paper (that’s the spine of the “fish”).  In the middle of the line, draw a vertical line.  Then, on each side of that vertical line, draw another about half way between the line’s end and the middle.  You want to make sure there’s a “turning point” at each vertical line, with the middle one being the biggest surprise.  You want to include a smaller “zinger” between those bones.  I have the current story’s fish bone on a dry erase board in my home office.

How has your background influenced your writing?

I grew up in a home where reading was important.  My dad is a retired police officer, as was his mother.  (Yes, you read that right.  My grandmother was a cop!)  My mom is a huge mystery fan.  How could I write anything except mysteries?

How does your environment/upbringing color your writing?

I live in Western South Dakota, and write about the area where I live.

Do you have a favorite snack food or favorite beverage that you enjoy while you write?

Coffee and chocolate!

What are you working on right now?

I just finished the second of the “Cerri Baker” books and have started another mystery novel with a whole new set of characters!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes.  I originally wanted to be a newspaper reporter.

At what age did you discover writing?

I don’t remember ever NOT writing.  I was first published in Daisy Magazine when I was 7.  I had created a word search puzzle using the colors in my crayon box.

What advice you would give to an aspiring author?

Read a lot.  Write even more.  Find a critique group.  LISTEN to what they say, whether you agree or not.  Even if you think they’re wrong, they will have pointed out places where your work can be made stronger.

What genre are your books?

I write paranormal cozies.  What that means is I write mysteries where much of the violence takes place off the page and the crime is solved by a “regular person” (not someone in law enforcement).  That’s the cozy mystery part.  The paranormal part involves ghosts and spirits!

What do you wear when you write?

Clothes.

Where can we learn more about you and your books?

From my author page at Second Wind Publishing: http://www.secondwindpublishing.com/index.php?manufacturers_id=19

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Hidden gems

In the time since Ghost Mountain was released, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about writing in general and my writing in particular.

The questions have run the gambit from things like “what kind of books do you read?” (I prefer mysteries but will read just about anything that’s been recommended to me) to “what do you do when you aren’t writing?” (Knit, read, work as a web site designer at my day job).

However, the most asked question has to be “how’s the next book coming?”  I’m finally able to answer with something besides “I’m working on it.”

sturgis2010Sleeping Bear, the sequel to Ghost Mountain, is in the publication process and I really couldn’t be happier.  The story takes place in August during a well-known motorcycle event in South Dakota.  The influx of tourists during the annual affair increases the small town’s population 100-fold.

Bear Butte, called Mato Paha by the Lakota people, also plays a role in the upcoming novel.  The Butte—like Devils Tower from Ghost Mountain—is a sacred site located in the Black Hills, and is really not a butte but a small mountain.  Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull have all prayed at Bear Butte.  Today vision quests, sweat lodges and other ceremonies are held there and the trees are filled with colorful prayer cloths.

I don’t think I consciously set out to write about the sacred sites of the Lakota people.  I do, however, set my stories in the Black Hills and Western South Dakota.  I live here and it’s easy to visit the site and get a “feel” for the location.  Devils Tower and Bear Butte are two of the most beautiful places around.  And they both have a history that is long and fascinating.

I think everywhere has places that set the tone—historical sites, geographical anomalies, sacred places.  It’s the responsibility of people today to recognize those places and preserve the spot, the legend, and the history for future generations.

What are the places in your area like that?  Those “hidden gems” of the community?  More importantly, do you visit those sites?  Let me know!

Nichole

Nichole R. Bennett has been an avid mystery reader from a young age.  Her first novel, Ghost Mountain, is available from Second Wind Publishing. When she’s not writing, Nichole can be found doing a plethora of crafty things, drinking coffee, eating chocolate, or spending too much time online.  Oh, and reading.

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Hemingway and an E-book

ID-100101426-1I am sitting here wondering just what Ernest Hemingway would think of electronic media.  My first thought is that he would like the ability to quickly write whatever came to mind whenever, wherever.  Then I thought he must have always had a journal of some sort or Moleskine with him though so he was already doing that.  Electronic writing is only a convenience to those of us who didn’t want to be burdened with having pen and paper at the ready 24/7.  Now we aren’t even bound to our home PC.  In fact I am writing this from a hand-held device.

I believe nearly all of you will agree, it is a wonderful thing to be able to write and edit from an electronic format.  Ultimately I think Hemingway would have gotten used to writing electronically, eventually.  However, I believe he just may have found us a bit lazy as writers who must also be readers.  He and his famous writer friends were all about living in such a way as to have the best “experiences” to draw from in their writing.  They may have seen us as technology whores, waiting for the next post, waiting for the “like” or review; any instant response to our work.  They may have seen us keeping our “eyes on the screen” (nose in book) instead of living and capturing the life happening around us.

Who knows, maybe he would have been the biggest fan.  “Gertrude, you have to see this.  You can hold hundreds of books in the palm of your hand!”

Image courtesy of [adamr] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Our Mysterious Fascination with the Morbid by Sherrie Hansen

When I first began to write books, I remember saying that I would never write about murder and mayhem – that it just wasn’t in me to dwell on the grisly, gruesome details of such occurrences. These kinds of things were so foreign to my own life, that I couldn’t imagine the characters I concocted even remotely being in a situation where they’d encounter such experiences.  True to my intentions, the most traumatic things my characters in Night and Day, Stormy Weather, Water Lily, and Merry Go Round have to deal with are squabbling siblings, backstabbing friends, insensitive parents, nosy neighbors, troublesome children, minor medical problems, the rare encounter with a wild animal , the occasional disruptive weather emergency, and of course, broken hearts.  Not that lions and tigers and bears – oh, my – tornadoes, and bats in the house can’t  be unnerving, or that unplanned pregnancies, nasty exes, finding out your husband is gay or being betrayed by someone you trust  can’t be demoralizing, but you get my point. Nothing really bad or evil came close to touching my characters.  No one died. No one was hurt so badly that they couldn’t be fixed. Nothing unbearable happened.

With the release of Love Notes and Wild Rose, my readers saw a slight shift to a more suspenseful mode – bad guys that were truly bad, a kidnapping, gunshots, murder.  I’d crossed a line. I think that part of it was that my own reading tastes changed. Several of my favorite authors changed over from romance to suspense / thrillers and I went along for the ride. I read new authors, like Second Wind’s Christine Husom, who writes about comfortable, folksy Midwesterners like me who suddenly find themselves dealing with murdered parents and dismembered bodies in cornfields and cults in their backyards, and does it with dignity and aplomb.  Sadly, I think some of it is that the world has turned into such a crazy place that I can now clearly envision my characters having run-ins with evil, despite their best efforts to steer clear of it. As awful occurrences get more and more prevalent, it’s easier and easier for my imagination to “go there”.

Storm sun beams Sunset - 8-24 close

So what are your thoughts? How do you account for our fascination with the morbid? I hear over and over again from readers that they’re not “into” romance, but that they love to read gritty mysteries and thriller or suspense novels. If you’re one of my readers, are you glad I’m inching towards the unthinkable? (Not to worry – there are still plenty of sweet, romantic moments in my books for those of you with tender hearts. ) Any of you who have read all of my books probably also noticed a shift from steamy to not so much. When I made this switch, I expected accolades, and have instead heard from many who are disappointed that I stopped crossing that squiggly line.  It’s interesting to me that while some readers find my steamy scenes offensive, they seem to have no trouble with reading about violent, evil people and the situations that ensue because of their hatefulness. Personally, if I’m going to “clutter” my mind with one thing or another, I’d rather it be with something I think of as beautiful and natural rather than deeds and actions that are ugly and perverse.

What do you think? Have we opened a can of worms with our mysterious fascination with the morbid? Does the art of writing and reading about it quell our fears or feed them? Does it give you a sense of triumphing over evil, or give you pause for fear we are planting the seeds of further evil? Do you feel anxious and terrified after reading a book where horrible things happen to good people, or do you feel inspired by people who get life’s worst thrown at them and live to tell the story?

I always illustrate my blogs with appropriate photos, so here is the most dark, foreboding photo I could find with it’s cheery, upbeat counterpart. Which would you rather read about?

Photo80Scotland - sheep

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For the Price of a Cup of Coffee by Calvin Davis

thumbnailCAZ5PHH5This time next month, I’ll be sitting in a café on the Left Bank of Paris, sipping an espresso or munching a croissant while perusing endless streams of humanity streaming up and down Boulevard Saint Michel. September is the ideal month to be in Paris. Most tourists have gone by then. And Frenchmen have returned from their month-long August vacation. Many cafes, shuttered in August, reopen for business.

In September, The City of Light stretches, yawns and awakens from its summer nap, reassuming its more natural routines, free of some of the foreign visitors. The metropolis on the Seine once again becomes the property of the natives.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to Paris. From time to time I have to return, to recharge. I was born in America, but I discovered years ago that my spiritual birthplace was not Virginia, but Paris.

Paris, where sitting in a café, sipping coffee and discussing art, literature…or even cooking, is not considered a waste of time, but a fruitful use of the same.

Paris, where it’s OK to be eccentric, even weird (being both are encouraged, if not celebrated). Where you can paint your hair green or blue, and either color is considered an artistic statement, not a sign of stupidity.

Paris, where you can sit all day over one cup of coffee and write your novel, and no waiter will dare tell you to move on, that you cannot not lease a table with the price of one cup of Java.thumbnailCA8PHDKJ

Paris, where if you don’t kiss the woman whose hand you’re holding, the French consider that an affront and insult to their culture and conclude that you lack good taste…if not good sense (regardless of how ugly the woman is). Paris, the one place in the world where you can be yourself and not worry about what others thinks.

Paris, where you can be eccentric and not worry about it, because in the City of Light there is always someone who is weirder than you. So you’ll be among friends.

Instead of yakking about the city I love, I’d better start packing for my trip. I’ll be sitting in a café in Paris soon. I hope I see you there. I’ll be looking for you. You’ll be able to identify me. I’ll be the guy with the electric blue hair.

**Calvin Davis is the author of The Phantom Lady of Paris.

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Telephone Killer – 5

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00023]Meet Detective Captain Vince Williams. The Department thinks he has some kind of knack for solving puzzles. And also let me introduce Tori Billingsly. She is Vince’s love. Some not-so-good things are going to happen to her later on and it will be up to Vince to save her.

Oh, dear, I’ve just given away some of the story. That’s OK. Maybe knowing Tori is going to be in some kind of trouble will bring you back to read more next month.

THE TELEPHONE KILLER
By
Paul J. Stam

CHAPTER FIVE

Vincent Williams sat in the corner of the couch wearing a short-sleeved sport shirt and flannel slacks. He was a large man with broad shoulders and white hair. His arm was around Tori Billingsly who sat leaning sideways against him with her knees folded and her long legs and feet up on the couch next to her. She had auburn hair and soft, brown eyes. She was fifteen years younger than Vince which kept him in a certain perpetual state of awe. She was wearing a blue turtleneck sweater and jeans. They were sitting in front of the fire listening to a symphony. He was not sure this was the right time to tell her, but then no time would be right.

‟I’m afraid they’ve thrown the case of the Telephone Killer in my lap,” he said.

‟Telephone Killer?”

‟That’s the name he’s gotten around the department because he calls before he kills. It was not a case I wanted.”

‟Then why did you take it?”

‟You can’t just refuse to take a case. They think I have some kind of knack for solving puzzles.”

‟They call this ‘solving puzzles’?” she said pulling away to turn and look him in the eye. Continue reading

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Art is Art by Carole Howard

During our two months in Accra, Ghana in 2009, I started looking forward to our Saturday excursions to the beach, and to Bob’s sculptures, around Wednesday or Thursday.

He always set up shop in the same place, and he was always there by the time we arrived.  Short, stocky, with an easy smile on his round face and intense concentration while he worked with an eclectic bunch of tools, he usually had sand scattered all over his shorts and tee shirt.

A sample of his work:  A seated African elder in a flowing robe holding a cylindrical drum under his arm.  A couple stretched out lazily on the beach, she with her hand cradling his head, he with one hand coyly flirting with her bikini bottom.  An elephant with elaborately wrinkled skin crouching on his forelegs.

All – the fabric folds, the elephant wrinkles, the bikini – made from sand.

You could call them “sand sculptures” if you want, but that evokes images of kids’ sand castles, made with pail and shovel and maybe some shells stuck in the top.  Wrong image.

Just call them sculptures.  Representational, sensuous and beautiful. Sand and water, rudimentary tools, talent and creativity in abundance.  I’d never seen anything like them, and still haven’t.

We started going to the beach on weekends as a way to escape the heat, which was oppressive and crushing. I almost took it personally, the way it pressed me down and kept me from going forward easily and breathing freely, like a hand on my chest.  It was exhausting. We’d been to West Africa many times, even two other countries in the steamy part under the Western hump, so we expected heat and humidity.  But this was worse.  Or maybe it was just because we’d gotten older.  Either way, it was brutal, almost more than we could take.

At first, we felt a bit sheepish:  we didn’t think of ourselves as the kind of travelers who went to the beach every weekend.  No, we were more adventurous than that.  We traveled, we visited villages, we learned about the culture.  (Snobbery comes in many forms!)  But not this time:  We worked as volunteers, Monday to Friday, 9-to-5.  We were H-O-T.  We weren’t as young as we used to be.  We went to La Beach, “La” being the name of the neighborhood, not the definite article, as in French.

On the way, the first treat was passing the shops of whimsically carved and decorated coffins – a Ghanaian tradition since the 1950s.  Think Pepsi bottles, race cars, fish, cell phones, all carved and brightly painted, all coffins.  Every week we’d spot different ones.  They were as amazing as Bob’s sculptures, but we only saw them from the taxi.

Once there, we settled in under the awning outside the restaurant.  The restaurant guys knew us and greeted us as we arrived, starting us off with my husband’s ice-cold beer and my ice-cold Coke, hold the ice cubes. We ate, we lazed, we people-watched.

There were Africans and Westerners, young and old.  There were even Arabic women in black headscarves and veils, seemingly oblivious to the heat. Passing by the restaurant was an unending parade:  Vendors sold jewelry, trinkets, fabric.  Musicians with unusual homemade instruments put on a show.  Child acrobats with exaggerated smiles jumped, ran, tumbled, and made human pyramids.  Horse-back riders sold rides, meandering pedicurists sold the possibility of pretty feet.

We enjoyed whatever breeze we could catch. We swam in the narrow channel where swimming was permitted: it had a very long and gradual run-out to water that was thigh-high.  It wasn’t cold, but cool water filled the bill.  Aaaahhh.

We might not have been visiting villages, but seeing Bob was like going to a museum, a living sculpture museum.   Art is where you find it, and we found it at La Beach in Accra, Ghana.

Have you found art in unexpected places?

* * *

Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.

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Missed Any Sea of Destiny?

If you missed some of the earlier posts of Sea of Destiny, I’ve collected the links and listed them below. Dellani

Sea of Destiny part 1

Sea of Destiny part 2

Sea of Destiny part 3

Sea of Destiny part 4

Sea of Destiny part 5

Sea of Destiny part 6

Sea of Destiny part 7

Sea of Destiny part 8

Sea of Destiny part 9

Sea of Destiny part 10

Sea of Destiny part 11

Sea of Destiny part 12

Sea of Destiny part 13

Sea of Destiny part 14

Sea of Destiny part 15

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