Choose Yourself: Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the DreamChoose Yourself: Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the Dream by James Altucher

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book.

I want James Altucher to be my friend.

James Altucher is a chess-playing, marketing genius and idiot savant with silly hair. The type of person you’d want to have a drink with. His story is fascinating. He made and lost millions in business and investing several times over before making it as a writer.

I am of course none of these things. But both of us are called James so clearly we’d have a lot in common.

The message of the book is simple: The world has gone to hell. If you want to succeed then you have to choose yourself. That means taking care of your physical, mental and spiritual health. It also means putting yourself first in business and having the courage to pursue your dreams.

Basically all the usual self-help crap that you saw on Oprah or read in a Tony Robbins book but were too lazy to put into action.

He summarises the daily practice as follows:

“For now, the Simple Daily Practice means doing ONE thing every day. Try any one of these things each day: A) Sleep eight hours. B) Eat two meals instead of three. C) No TV. D) No junk food. E) No complaining for one whole day. F) No gossip. G) Return an e-mail from five years ago. H) Express thanks to a friend. I) Watch a funny movie or a stand-up comic. J) Write down a list of ideas. The ideas can be about anything. K) Read a spiritual text. Any one that is inspirational to you. The Bible, The Tao te Ching, anything you want. L) Say to yourself when you wake up, “I’m going to save a life today.” Keep an eye out for that life you can save. M) Take up a hobby. Don’t say you don’t have time. Learn the piano. Take chess lessons. Do stand-up comedy. Write a novel. Do something that takes you out of your current rhythm. N) Write down your entire schedule. The schedule you do every day. Cross out one item and don’t do that anymore. O) Surprise someone. P) Think of ten people you are grateful for. Q) Forgive someone. You don’t have to tell them. Just write it down on a piece of paper and burn the paper. It turns out this has the same effect in terms of releasing oxytocin in the brain as actually forgiving them in person. R) Take the stairs instead of the elevator. S) I’m going to steal this next one from the 1970s pop psychology book Don’t Say Yes When You Want to Say No: when you find yourself thinking of that special someone who is causing you grief, think very quietly, “No.” If you think of him and (or?) her again, think loudly, “No!” Again? Whisper, “No!” Again, say it. Louder. Yell it. Louder. And so on. T) Tell someone every day that you love them. U) Don’t have sex with someone you don’t love. V) Shower. Scrub. Clean the toxins off your body. W) Read a chapter in a biography about someone who is an inspiration to you. X) Make plans to spend time with a friend. Y) If you think, “Everything would be better off if I were dead,” then think, “That’s really cool. Now I can do anything I want and I can postpone this thought for a while, maybe even a few months.” Because what does it matter now? The planet might not even be around in a few months. Who knows what could happen with all these solar flares. You know the ones I’m talking about. Z) Deep breathing. When the vagus nerve is inflamed, your breathing becomes shallower. Your breath becomes quick. It’s fight-or-flight time! You are panicking. Stop it! Breathe deep. Let me tell you something: most people think “yoga” is all those exercises where people are standing upside down and doing weird things. In the Yoga Sutras, written in 300 B.C., there are 196 lines divided into four chapters. In all those lines, ONLY THREE OF THEM refer to physical exercise. It basically reads, “Be able to sit up straight.” That’s it. That’s the only reference in the Yoga Sutras to physical exercise. Claudia always tells me that yogis measure their lives in breaths, not years. Deep breathing is what keeps those breaths going.”

Don’t worry if you didn’t get all that the first time. He repeats it repeatedly throughout the book.
Repeated repetitive repetition? Sorry, my head hurts.

Anyway, you get the idea.

James Altucher’s honesty is compelling and that’s what kept me reading. It’s why I signed up to his mailing list, listened to his podcast, and downloaded as many of his books as I could get my grubby little hands on.

Like I said, I wanted to love this book. But I came away disappointed. The basic idea of a daily practice, taking better care of yourself and the people around you, and pursuing your creative dreams is perfectly sound. But you could write it on a postage stamp. That’s a stupid analogy. Who would do that? Ok, you could write it on a post-it note. Let’s go with that.

This is the worst kind of ‘effortless prose.’ Lazy, repetitive and sloppily written. Riddled with grammar, spelling and punctuation errors that make it look like you’re reading an unedited first draft.

At one point he even gets bored and announces his word count.

In case you haven’t guessed yet I’m trying to put as little effort into this review as James Altucher put into this book.

I guess it’s harder than it looks.

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Twitter for Writers (Writer's Craft)Twitter for Writers by Rayne Hall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve had this review to write for about a year. That says more about me than it does about the book. But I’ve genuinely wanted to review it all that time and now at last have done so. That says more about the book than it does about me.

Rayne Hall is a professional working writer, mostly of fantasy, horror, historical fiction and non-fiction, with a loyal fan base and an awesome cat called Sulu. I’m not a big reader of the genres that she writes in so her guidebooks on writing, and Twitter in particular, were of more interest to me than her fiction.

Rayne kindly sent me a review copy of Twitter for Writers after I engaged with her on Twitter. Ok, after I pestered her on Twitter. Just kidding. I like Rayne’s writing style and approach to social media, we follow each other on Twitter, and this was the book of hers that I most wanted to read. So I just asked nicely.

Let me say right out the gate that Twitter for Writers is a great primer on how to use Twitter if: 1) you’re an author, 2) self-published or indie and / or 3) you want to use Twitter to sell your books. No more, no less. It’s especially useful to writers who work in similar genres to the author.

The book gives you an overview of Twitter for the uninitiated writer, how to do stuff like build an audience and drive traffic to your website, and is perfect if you write SF, YA, Fantasy, Horror etc and want to use Twitter to pimp your wares without annoying your followers.

As it was a review copy I was asked to give my honest, unguarded opinion, including on which chapters I found most useful or entertaining, but also to speak a little about my background and how I use Twitter.

I’m an NCTJ-qualified journalist, currently working in the third-sector, who blogs and writes fiction on the side. I’ve used Twitter both personally, as an independent writer, and professionally, managing accounts for charities, creative industries and human rights organisations.

My personal account is supposed to be funny but I probably come across as a sarcastic git, part-time pedant and full-time grumpy arse. I even invented the hashtag #unfollowsunday — but the less said about that the better.

I spend an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter. At the time of writing this I’ve over 11,500 followers, mostly fellow writers, but I’ve yet to try my hand at selling books there. So my perspective on the application of this book is skewed in favour of people who promote themselves without shouting BUY MY BOOK with every single tweet.

Rayne offers some solid advice about starting a conversation, rather than a sales pitch, and how to tweet stuff that is relevant to your audience. For example, if you write vampire novels then talk about vampires — not about your novel.

She also gives practical advice on marketing and how to write engaging content, including models of successful marketing tweets, how to strike a good balance between marketing and conversation, and advises you to avoid automated Direct Messages like the plague.

Any fiction writer would do well to take this advice to heart. Far too often writers market at people rather than talk to them. To readers of your timeline all the typical author tweet says is: “Buy my book. Buy my book. BUY. MY. BOOK.”

There was, at least from my perspective, also some advice that was a little questionable. Namely that it’s ok to use non-photo pictures for your profile picture such as a painting or cartoon. There are of course plenty of examples of people that do this, for any number of reasons, but in my not-so-humble opinion it’s dead wrong. This is a just personal bugbear of mine rather than a damning indictment of the book.

People prefer to connect with people. Because psychology. So use a photo of your face. And not just of your ear, eye or forehead. You’ll get much better results with a real photo of yourself — it’s fine if you disagree but I refuse to justify myself to a cartoon squirrel.

And don’t get me started on cat pictures. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean your pictures of your cats. I love cats. Cats are awesome. And Rayne, for example, uses lovely pictures of her cat to promote her books to good effect. Every writer should have a cat — we all need our familiars. It’s just internet memes like lolcats that I can’t stand. No, you can’t ‘has cheezburger.’ Go back to Facebook. At least writers’ cats are good at spelling.

It just goes to show you that there’s no one true way to ‘do Twitter.’ Everyone thinks that they do it better than anyone else. And everyone annoys someone else at some point because they’re ‘doing it wrong.’ And they’re all wrong, of course, because I do it better. Just kidding.

I liked the sections where Rayne candidly confesses mistakes she made, lessons learnt, and strategies she tried that didn’t work. And I loved (laughed out loud at) the hilarious aside on weird reasons she gets unfollowed. I’ve been unfollowed for some weird-ass reasons over the years. My favourites to date include because I use British spelling (I’m English), because I like the music of Nick Cave, and the venomous death threats I received because I’ve never read Harry Potter.

To be honest I didn’t learn anything new but no doubt a Twitter newbie would find the book much more helpful. Most of the so-called advanced strategies, such as scheduling tweets, I already do. If I died today you’d still get daily tweets from me until the end of the year. But it was still a worthy read, for me, and validating / reassuring to see the process of another writer and realise that my own process isn’t far off the mark.

The most practical advice I picked up from the book was that if you want a tweet to go viral it should be visual, funny and relevant — and the best size for an image on such a tweet is 512 by 1024 pixels. I think of these as ‘hero tweets’ because the hero image makes it perfect fodder for pinning to the top of your profile. Tweet something visual, funny and relevant — preferably with a call to action such as a link to your website — and people will most likely share it. Pin it to the top of your profile and even casual visitors to your profile will see it and respond.

I came away from reading Twitter for Writers feeling like the sort of person who could write his own how-to book on Twitter but is too lazy to do so. I really should get out more or get off my arse and write something — even if it is just a grumpy guide to Twitter. I could call it ‘Antisocial Media.’ Or, you know, I could just stop drinking whiskey, put on pants and leave the house.

I’m @jamesgarside_ on Twitter if you want to say hi.

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Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and with (Almost) No MoneyPossum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and with (Almost) No Money by Dolly Freed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and with (Almost) No Money’ could just as easily be called ‘How to Kill Stuff and Eat it’ as that’s what the lion’s share of this survivalism classic is about.

The true life story of the girl behind the pseudonym Dolly Freed is as fascinating as the book itself but you can google that.

I read it cold, knowing nothing much about it, and all I’m sharing here are a handful of my half-assed random impressions of the book.

What struck me like a blow to the head was how startling, forthright and downright funny it is.

The narrator extols the virtues of laziness, lying and tax evasion and makes no bones about killing animals — so long as you’re going to eat them.

She describes in graphic detail how to rear, kill and butcher animals for food. And more power to her for having the guts to do it herself.

There’s plenty of good, down to earth, common sense advice on homesteading, mixed in with homespun wisdom and the occasional bizarre contradiction.

She laughs at people who are squeamish about, for example, killing rabbits because they’re cute (also delicious) but doesn’t kill possums ‘for totemic reasons.’

In later sections there’s antiquated advice on how to buy a cheap property and do it up yourself. And although some of it creaks and groans like a screen door banging in the wind the underlying principles are sound.

Right near the end it gets really nutty and some of the things she says are outrageous. Gotten into a financial dispute with someone who is trying to rip you off? Don’t get a lawyer — just intimidate them. And if that doesn’t work, kill their dog.

So by all means take it with a giant pinch of salt.

But there’s an intelligent message here — an ecology even — that I’d take any day over any number of ‘white middle-class people throw out all their shit and feel better about themselves’ books that pass for advice on minimalist living.

Own your own property and land. Cut your expenses to the absolute minimum. Learn how to fend for yourself. Become self-sufficient rather than money dependent. And make sure that everything you do supports everything else.

Why throw rotten vegetables on a compost heap for months when you can feed them to rabbits, who shit it out the next day, and fertilise the garden with that instead? Then you raise, breed, kill and eat the rabbits (along with fresh vegetables).

I don’t doubt such advice is nothing new if you’re any type of survivalist, homesteader or sit on your porch with a shotgun. But it was interesting to read a dated self-help book that was still surprisingly funny and, dare I say it, helpful.

I’ll leave you with her closing thoughts:

“Now, then, don’t you have a hobby you just don’t have time to pursue? Golf? Tennis? Partying? Studying? Music? Painting? Pottery? Hang gliding? Whatever? Even fishing or gardening — wouldn’t you like to change these from merely recreation to partly occupation?
Yes? Then why don’t you simply do so?
It’s feasible. It’s easy. It can be done. It should be done.
Do it.”

Now get off of my lawn.

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Everyone argues over whether or not writer’s block is real, or an excuse to put off tough work. But we can all agree our state of mind heavily affects our writing. To create consistently requires maintaining a state of mind conducive to creativity.

When I set out to write full time, I learned this lesson the hard way. I could see the place I wanted to go, but I couldn’t find the path. That worried me. Convinced I needed a gatekeeper to approve of my work, I set the goal of selling at least one short story to a professionally paying magazine. Even though short stories are my least favorite form of the medium (both to read and write), and even though my ultimate goal was to publish novels.

Rejections poured in. I saw my chances of success evaporating. Publishing is a tough industry, and it’s important for every new writer to be aware of that. But I forgot the journey is at least as important as our ultimate destination. During my struggle against my greatest ‘block’ of all time, I learned many important lessons that have helped me keep the beast at bay for good.

You are in control
If you look at the way traditional publishing is structured, breaking in seems a daunting task. You need to get an agent in order to get the attention of an editor or publisher. And finding the right agent can be like finding a needle in a haystack. You cast your work onto the desks of strangers hoping one of them will see your potential. And as the rejections pile up you wonder how anyone ever succeeds beyond random chance. Success feels beyond your control.

But it isn’t. That’s the fabulous thing about the world we live in now. You can choose when and how your work reaches a wider audience. You can publish a book yourself. You can start a blog and post snippets until you find your audience. Or you can set your current project aside and start a new one that might just wow all those agents who rejected you.

The point is, you get to shape your journey, and maintaining that control empowers you to maintain a creative state of mind.

Remember why you’re writing in the first place
If the answer is ‘to make money,’ you might be barking up the wrong tree. Of course every writer would like to pay the rent with their work, and it’s a worthwhile goal. But if the only reason you’re putting words on a page is to bring in the green stuff, you may have a problem. Readers like characters and stories to which they can form an emotional attachment. If you have no passion for your projects, it’s difficult to create and cultivate those intense bonds. If your words seem flat on the page to you, how can you expect a reader to invest in your story?

Writing is a lot of work, and sometimes you have to wade through the difficult scenes to get to the good stuff. But you should always be able to find joy at some point in the process. There’s no scene that can’t be salvaged, no passage that can’t be rewritten to breathe life into the prose, so long as you love what you’re doing.

Be Spontaneous
Writing every day takes discipline. If you want writing to be your job, you have to treat it like work. This can be particularly difficult if you work another job to pay the bills. The more something feels like work, the easier it becomes to generate excuses for putting it off. No matter how passionate you are about your projects, too much work can bog you down and burn you out. When writing feels too much like a chore, treat yourself to a reminder of why you love to write in the first place. Indulge in a recent plot bunny to get the fire burning again. Choose a writing prompt and write whatever comes to mind. Or let yourself flip ahead to a scene you’ve been anticipating for a long time to reignite your love of the project. Making writing fun again is a good way to shake off the funk.

Re-read your favorite pieces
If you need a break from writing (and we all do sometimes), try some reading instead. I like to re-read the books that inspired me to write in the first place. Another way to reconnect to your joy of writing is to dig out your favorite scenes and reread them. It doesn’t matter how old they are, or how bad they are, as long as you still enjoy them. I like to laugh about how bad some of my old favorites really are, though the events and characters still bring a smile to my face.

Talk to other writers
We don’t write in a vacuum. Or at least, we don’t need to. Every writer struggles, though not every writer talks about it. It can be easy to assume that we’re alone when we get lost. That we’ve done something wrong, something every other writer instinctively knew how to avoid. When we talk to each other, we realize that we all stumble. Best of all, talking to other writers allows us to support each other through the tough times. Let your writerly friends offer feedback for your work, act as a sounding board for ideas or even just help you write something fun and silly to get back in the mood.

The journey to the distant island of success is a long one, so don’t forget to enjoy it.

Megan Cutler is an avid writer of science fiction and fantasy in all its forms. Her characters keep her up late and wake her up early, but she loves them anyway. She published her first book, Island of Lost Forevers, in May of 2014 and is scheduled to release the final book in the trilogy in April this year. For more about her work, including free fiction every Friday, check out megancutler.net

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“First Thought, Best Thought.” — Allen Ginsberg

“You are a genius all of the time.” — Jack Kerouac

“Language is a virus.” — William Burroughs

A friend asked me for some links to stuff to do with the beats to help her with a creative writing lesson plan. I got a little carried away, so thought I’d share them here too.
Classroom resources / exercises we’ve used in the past include:
Jack Kerouac’s ‘Belief and Technique for Modern Prose’: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/kerouac-technique.html
And his ‘Essentials for Spontaneous Prose’: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/kerouac-spontaneous.html
Though in both cases you checked and edited slightly for language used. So definitely do that again before using them.
THE ABOVE TWO PIECES ARE ALL YOU NEED to teach students about the beats and get them hooked in a creative writing workshop.
That said, here’s some more links and background information on the beats.
The three who count are Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. All have colourful language, sexual content etc and I’d especially steer clear of Burroughs’ work, for younger students, due to its graphic violence and crude humour.
The main thing to convey to students is their approach to writing, and that a group of friends basically encouraged each other into pretending that they were great writers, by believing in and supporting each other, until they became great writers.
Wikipedia has ‘good enough’ bios and overviews:
And info about their most famous works:
On the Road is the most beloved of older and more rebellious students for obvious reasons.
Jack Kerouac
The official site for Jack Kerouac (managed by his estate): http://www.jackkerouac.com has some useful links to audio etc.
Kerouac.net: http://kerouac.net

Jack Kerouac – Writing Lesson: https://youtu.be/J7IeCEvT_CM

Allen Ginsberg
 
Allen Ginsberg.org: http://allenginsberg.org
Howl: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/howl-parts-i-ii (most famous poem, brilliant but graphic)
Small selection of Ginsberg poems: http://www.poemhunter.com/allen-ginsberg/
Howl (great film about his life and obscenity trial): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1049402/?ref_=fn_al_tt_2
The film ends with this genuine footage of the real Allen Ginsberg performing ‘Father Death Blues’ towards the end of his life: https://youtu.be/Ew6ef3nE-E4 (This breaks my heart every time I see it, I’ve been known to cry just watching it, and this is the exact version of the song that I want playing at my funeral)
 
Burroughs
 
Whilst I’d steer clear of teaching Burroughs’ work to young students it’s worth teaching them about 1) cut-up techniques and 2) the third mind (two heads are better than one)
Burroughs popularised the cut-up technique: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cut-up_technique (he took it from painter Brion Gysin and applied it to writing instead)
There’s lots of different methods and stuff written about this, but best not get hung up on the details.
For example:
Burroughs also wrote a book with Brion Gysin, including cut-ups, called The Third Mind: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Third_Mind
One of the core concepts from the book though is that when you put two artists together (or two minds) their collaboration becomes greater than the sum of its parts (as though created by a third mind)
THIS is very inspiring to groups of students for obvious reasons.
Other Stuff

Naropa University has The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Jack’s honour: http://www.naropa.edu/academics/jks/about.php

And Saving the Best for Last
Naropa’s audio archives are AMAZING and include recordings of class lessons taught by Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, including ones devoted to Jack Kerouac: https://archive.org/details/naropa?&sort=-downloads&page=2
 
There’s a LOT of audio there. A small selection was released as ‘First Thought, Best Thought’ on CD. But it’s a great place to point students to if they want to be taught creative writing by William Burroughs and poetry by Allen Ginsberg!