Day 21: “How Many Books Have You Sold?”

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It seems like anytime I meet a new group of people and tell them I’m a writer, I get questions like this at least once.

“How many books have you sold?”

“Are you able to make a living at that?”

“Are you successful?”

Or some variations thereof.

I hate these questions. I never have the right answers at hand, because the fact is, the answer is: If you knew me well enough for me to tell you the answers, you’d know already. If you don’t already know, you don’t know me well enough to ask.

Think about it. Essentially what these questions come down to is the age-old-taboo question: “How much money do you make?”

Sure, you might not know how much I make from the sale of each book. But if I told you I’ve sold 1,000 books, you’d make an estimate in your head. Same if I told you I’ve sold 1,000,000,000 books.

(For the record, it’s more than 1,000; less than 1,000,000,000.)

Look, I get it. People are curious. Behind the question are some other questions. People might be looking for inspiration (“I’ve always wanted to write a book … if she tells me she’s doing well, maybe I’ll pursue the dream, too!”). People might be looking for affirmation (“I’ve always been too afraid to follow my own dreams, so I just want to know it’s not worth it, it’s too hard, and you can’t make a living at it anyway”). The questions aren’t really about me. They’re about the person’s own dreams. I get that.

But every time someone asks me, I want to turn the question around: “Hm. Interesting question. Tell me, are you any good at what you do? Do you make a living at it? Would you consider yourself successful? Would your colleagues agree? Relative to other people in your field, where do you stand?” And so on.

Or I could go for the jugular:

Tell me, do you like what you do? Have you followed your dreams?” Because usually, I know the answer to that one.

So here, once and for all, is what I’ll tell you.

Unless you’re already in the process of publishing a book and are in the game with me, I won’t tell you how many books I’ve sold (and then, only maybe). Yes, I am able to survive. I have a roof over my head, and I get by just fine. In my opinion, my books are great; each one is better than the last, which is the goal, always to be improving. Am I successful? Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. Making the decision to try writing that first book was without a doubt the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s not easy, but it’s fantastic and I love it and I think I’ll keep doing it for a while (regardless of how many books I sell). I am happier with my career and my goals and my future than I’ve ever been.

That may not be the answer people want, but that’s what I’m giving.

 


The Universes Inside the Lighthouse by Pam StuckyP.S. Did you know you can read my entire first YA sci-fi adventure book, free, online? And if you’re a parent or educator, or just someone who enjoys activities, check out the free, thought-provoking, skill-building activities at the end of every chapter! The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (and subsequent books in the series) was inspired by my love of books like A Wrinkle In Time or shows like Doctor Who. It’s my own exploration and answer to the deep and sometimes unanswerable questions: what else is out there? What if we could meet aliens from other planets? What if everything were possible? What’s more, through the power of truth-through-fiction, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse addresses issues of loneliness and compassion and gives parents and educators an opening to discuss these challenging but important issues. I love this series so much and I hope you will too! Start reading chapter one here! And feel free to spread the word!


Check out Pam’s books!

Join Pam’s mailing list!

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Day 19: The Pros and Cons of NaNoWriMo

november

It’s November again, and if you know anyone who has ever thought about writing a book, you may already know: November is NaNoWriMo.

For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo parses out to National Novel Writing Month. Basically, writers are challenged to write 50,000 words—a novel—in the month of November. The challenge started in 1999 with 21 participants, and today has grown to nearly 500,000 ambitious writers each year.

My eighth novel, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse, actually started out as my first novel, and I started writing it for NaNoWriMo 2003. I got about 20,000 words in and could never get any further. Almost ten years (and seven completed and published books) later I picked up that first draft again with an aim to revive it. I realized then why I’d never managed to finish it: it was—pardon my French—crap.

But I still liked the core idea; the questions I’d been trying to answer still wouldn’t let me go. So in late 2013 I completely scrapped the entire first draft and started over again with just the kernel of the idea, and what I wrote became my eighth book (and one of my favorites).

Over the course of the last ten years, I’ve grappled with the question when would-be-writers ask me: “Do you recommend I try NaNoWriMo?” There are pros, of course, but there are also cons. And thus, this post.

First, the pros.

If you’ve always wanted to write, anything that gives you a nudge to get started is good. You can finally see if what you thought was a book inside you, waiting to get out, was actually a book; or if maybe it was just an idea you had but aren’t really passionate about. Writing isn’t a glamorous activity. There’s eye strain involved; there’s carpal tunnel and shoulder and back problems. And it’s not “hard” in the sense that coal mining or digging ditches is hard, but it’s hard in the sense that it brings up every insecurity you never knew you had, every fear, every resistance to judgment, every vulnerability. If you want to write well, you have to dive into those fears and vulnerabilities, and that can be hard. So, to my point, if NaNo (as it’s shortened) can give you that push over the fear hurdles, that’s great.

And, in theory, one could develop a habit from this. If you sit down and write every day for 30 days, by the end of 30 days you’ll have a writing habit, and that’s what it is to be a writer.

But on the other hand, the cons.

On the other hand, the 50,000-word mark is a not-entirely-arbitrary number; it’s the very lowest baseline for what most consider a “novel” as opposed to a “novella.” (See here and here.) It may come as no surprise that if you asked a hundred novelists how long it takes to write a novel, the most common answer would not be “one month.” Certainly some people write that fast. I do not. Even if I’d spent a year planning out my novel, I doubt I could write one in a month.

And as I said, 50,000 is really a baseline. Most novels (depending on genre) are longer. If you want to technically write a complete novel, you’ll be writing more than 50K. But beyond that, 50,000 words in 30 days amounts to almost 1,700 words per day. I’m a seasoned writer, and generally when I’m in my writing groove I aim for 1,500 to 2,000 per day. A huge number of writers aim for 1000 per day, every day (not just when they’re in their writing groove). The most words I’ve ever written in one day is somewhere over 6,000, and I’ll tell you, that is exhausting. 1,700 every day for 30 days (especially for a new writer) is a feat that leaves most people completely drained. Anyone who ends up writing 50,000 words in one month is likely to be too tired to continue. I’ve known far too many people who go hard in November and then don’t touch their work again for months.

In my opinion, a better idea is to adapt NaNoWriMo to more realistic aims. If you want to build a writing habit, decide on a goal to write every day for 30 days for an hour. An hour is a reasonable amount of time to stare at your computer or pad of paper, even if at the end you only have 200 words. It’s the habit you’re trying to build, not the word count (just as I’m firming up my own writing habit with these daily blog posts). The word count will come with time and practice. When I started my first book, a 200-word day was not uncommon. Here I am, seven years later, and now a 1,000-word day is pretty easy. Start small and build up.

If, on the other hand, the goal is to write a novel, then by all means, start writing a novel. You don’t have to complete it in one month. Two of the hardest parts of writing a novel are starting it, and then finishing it. If you’ve done both, you’re miles ahead of the game—even if it takes you 31 days, or 90, or a year.

I think the idea behind NaNo has merit, but the execution of it leads people to focus too much on goals rather than on process, and further, leaves the “winners” exhausted. If a person’s goal is simply to put 50,000 words on paper (or computer) in 30 days, that’s one thing. But if your goal is to write a real, quality piece of work, or to build a writing practice, I think the NaNo project is best if adapted to your own needs, and if “success” is measured in some way other than 50,000 words.


The Universes Inside the Lighthouse by Pam StuckyP.S. Did you know you can read my entire first YA sci-fi adventure book, free, online? And if you’re a parent or educator, or just someone who enjoys activities, check out the free, thought-provoking, skill-building activities at the end of every chapter! The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (and subsequent books in the series) was inspired by my love of books like A Wrinkle In Time or shows like Doctor Who. It’s my own exploration and answer to the deep and sometimes unanswerable questions: what else is out there? What if we could meet aliens from other planets? What if everything were possible? What’s more, through the power of truth-through-fiction, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse addresses issues of loneliness and compassion and gives parents and educators an opening to discuss these challenging but important issues. I love this series so much and I hope you will too! Start reading chapter one here! And feel free to spread the word!


Check out Pam’s books!

Join Pam’s mailing list!

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Day 17: Habit vs. Routine

I’m on Day 17 of this posting a blog post every day, but the habit is definitely not ingrained yet. At the end of each day (such as now, as I wait for more trick-or-treaters to ring the doorbell), a moment comes where I realize I haven’t written anything yet.

I did get writing done on my mystery novel today, so that’s good. But the point is to write in the blog every day. Just for the sake of routine.

And therein, I think, lies the key: habit vs. routine.

I’m working on building a habit, but I haven’t worked out yet how to make it part of a routine. Routine means something you do in the same time and basically same way every day. Habit is just something you do but it might not be part of a routine.

To avoid this end-of-day scramble to get some words down, I think I’m going to need to add writing to a morning routine.

It’s so easy for the writing to get pushed off. In part because there’s always something else, seemingly more pressing, that needs to be done. And in part because whatever else might be pressing, writing is harder. It’s not hard in a coal-mining, back-breaking labor kind of way, but it’s hard. It’s far easier to answer some emails, send some things out to media, take care of a million minutia. To write means to take time to settle into silence. Get comfortable with the discomfort. And write, no matter what.

So tomorrow, I’ll start working on building a writing routine as well as a writing habit.

But for today, at least I showed up.


The Universes Inside the Lighthouse by Pam StuckyP.S. Did you know you can read my entire first YA sci-fi adventure book, free, online? And if you’re a parent or educator, or just someone who enjoys activities, check out the free, thought-provoking, skill-building activities at the end of every chapter! The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (and subsequent books in the series) was inspired by my love of books like A Wrinkle In Time or shows like Doctor Who. It’s my own exploration and answer to the deep and sometimes unanswerable questions: what else is out there? What if we could meet aliens from other planets? What if everything were possible? What’s more, through the power of truth-through-fiction, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse addresses issues of loneliness and compassion and gives parents and educators an opening to discuss these challenging but important issues. I love this series so much and I hope you will too! Start reading chapter one here! And feel free to spread the word!


Check out Pam’s books!

Join Pam’s mailing list!

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Day 12: When Hard Work Pays Off

In June 2009, without really realizing what I was doing, I joined the ranks of independent artists.

In the years since then I’ve had the joy, honor, and delight to meet dozens of independent artists in all genres: writers, visual artists, jewelers, musicians, film producers, and more.

I was talking last night with a friend who creates jewelry. We were commiserating over the fact that though we work hard and create, and work hard and create, it sometimes feels like no one is paying attention. Getting traction, finding our audiences, making progress on our goals, sometimes feels impossible.

We love the work, we agreed, but it would be nice if a few more people noticed what we’re doing.

I passed on to her a quote I’d read just that day from writer Zadie Smith: “Don’t confuse honours with achievement.” (See link for Zadie’s 10 Rules of Writing.)

Of course, we aren’t doing the work for the honors. (Or, if you’re British, honours.) We’re doing it because we can’t not do it. That creative instinct is more than an urge; it’s a drive.

“Unused creativity isn’t benign. It metastasizes.” So says Brené Brown, and I think she’s right. We don’t create just for the fun of it; we create because we must create in order to thrive.

And yet.

And yet, the honors, when they come, are nice. Very nice indeed.

Which is why I’d like today to congratulate my dear friend Damian McGinty on the release of his gorgeous new CD This Christmas Time, and its debut at #2 on the Billboard World and Holiday charts. I hate the word “deserve” as it implies that those who don’t receive the honors didn’t deserve them. But I do know Damian has worked so hard to get where he is. He poured every bit of himself into this album, and I’m beyond delighted to see him getting such great recognition for his efforts.

Creators keep creating because we can’t not create.

But the awards, when they come, are very nice.

2-billboard-world-and-holiday-chart


The Universes Inside the Lighthouse by Pam StuckyP.S. Did you know you can read my entire first YA sci-fi adventure book, free, online? And if you’re a parent or educator, or just someone who enjoys activities, check out the free, thought-provoking, skill-building activities at the end of every chapter! The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (and subsequent books in the series) was inspired by my love of books like A Wrinkle In Time or shows like Doctor Who. It’s my own exploration and answer to the deep and sometimes unanswerable questions: what else is out there? What if we could meet aliens from other planets? What if everything were possible? What’s more, through the power of truth-through-fiction, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse addresses issues of loneliness and compassion and gives parents and educators an opening to discuss these challenging but important issues. I love this series so much and I hope you will too! Start reading chapter one here! And feel free to spread the word!


Check out Pam’s books!

Join Pam’s mailing list!

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Day 10: A House With No Books

One time in college, I went to stay the weekend at a friend’s house for the first time. As one does.

I expected the house to be normal. As one does.

But this house was not normal.

There were no books. I don’t even remember any bookshelves. There were no magazines lying out on tables, decorative or otherwise. Nowhere was there any evidence of the written word.

It felt disorienting and uncomfortable and awkward. Like I’d walked into a house with no oxygen. Like I’d discovered something about these people that no one was supposed to know.

“Why do you write?” someone asked me the other day.

The only real answer I could give was: “How do you not?”

shelf


The Universes Inside the Lighthouse by Pam StuckyP.S. Did you know you can read my entire first YA sci-fi adventure book, free, online? And if you’re a parent or educator, or just someone who enjoys activities, check out the free, thought-provoking, skill-building activities at the end of every chapter! The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (and subsequent books in the series) was inspired by my love of books like A Wrinkle In Time or shows like Doctor Who. It’s my own exploration and answer to the deep and sometimes unanswerable questions: what else is out there? What if we could meet aliens from other planets? What if everything were possible? What’s more, through the power of truth-through-fiction, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse addresses issues of loneliness and compassion and gives parents and educators an opening to discuss these challenging but important issues. I love this series so much and I hope you will too! Start reading chapter one here! And feel free to spread the word!


Check out Pam’s books!

Join Pam’s mailing list!

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On Failure, Daily Writing, and Being a Work in Progress

I’ve been meaning for a very long time to start writing daily blog posts.

Not for the blogging part of it, but for the daily writing practice part of it, and perhaps more than that, for the part of it that forces me to let go of expecting or hoping for my writing to be “perfect.”

Committing to writing (and posting) daily means that I can’t spend hours, days, or weeks trying to make the posts perfect. Committing to writing (and posting) daily means committing to being okay with simply making the effort, and learning from it. It means committing to the process more than the result, and trusting that the process is where the treasure lies.

Case in point: I have so, so, so many thoughts on failure. I have, in fact, considered writing a book on failure. (I even have the shell outline of the book in a folder on my computer.) At the very least, for a very long time I’ve been meaning to write even just a post about failure. But, ironically enough, because I feel so passionately about it, I wanted to make sure that whatever I wrote was “perfect.” “Just right.” I’ve been waiting (subconsciously, more or less) for the moment when I knew exactly what I wanted to say and exactly how I wanted to say it.

Oddly enough, that moment has not yet come.

Last night I started reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. (Tagline: “Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration,” by Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation.) I’ve heard great things about it from very smart people, and I am always interested in reading about creativity and about inspiration.

As I am wont to do—I don’t mind spoilers—I flipped to the middle of the book just to see what was there, and started reading. The passage I found had to do with failure. I only skimmed the page, but from what I’ve heard about Pixar and its culture, I knew there would be some brilliant and insightful thoughts within.

The index listings for "failure" in Creativity, Inc.
The index listings for “failure” in Creativity, Inc.

Immediately, I thought: “I can’t write my post on failure until I’ve read this book!”

Then I heard what I’d said, really heard it. Oh, the irony.

I thought of all the reasons I haven’t written the post yet, all the reasons I haven’t started a daily writing practice yet.

I realized that I’m not practicing what I preach.

I see aspiring writers going to endless conferences and reading mountains of how-to-write books and taking years of classes, but never getting around to actually writing. I think (and if they ask, I tell them), “Stop trying to get it all figured out. Just write. You’ll learn as you go along.”

Even my personal manifesto covers this: “You don’t have to know the exact path to or location of your dream. You just have to start walking.”

pam-stucky-manifesto

That feeling so many of us have that we have to have something figured out before we move, before we act on it, goes against what I believe. But not, apparently, against what I do. So today I’m writing (and posting) this. Imperfect as it is. Aligning my beliefs with my actions.

A daily writing (and posting) practice.

I haven’t yet figured out how long my posts will be. (My brain: “Before I start, I need to go back and figure out how Seth Godin started! I need to figure out if he told everyone he’d be writing short posts!”) I like the idea of shorter posts sometimes. I have a tendency to write too much. I like the idea of practicing being concise.

I haven’t yet figured out what topics I will cover. (My brain: “I can’t just write on everything! I need to have a focus! Successful people have focus!”) Likely, I will write on any and everything.

I haven’t yet figured out how long I’ll do this. I heard a podcast with Glennon Doyle Melton in which she talked about how she thinks she’s done blogging. Everything has a season and its own time. I’m trusting myself to know when is when.

My writing won’t be perfect.

I will, on occasion, change my mind.

I will very likely re-visit some topics many times. (My brain: “You can’t write fifteen posts on one topic! People will get sick of it! Wait until you have it figured out and write one brilliant, perfect post for the ages!”) Writing is how I figure things out. Maybe some topics need fifteen posts so I can start to understand.

I am a work in progress.

For now, though:

Welcome. Let’s begin.


The Universes Inside the Lighthouse by Pam StuckyP.S. Did you know you can read my entire first YA sci-fi adventure book, free, online? And if you’re a parent or educator, or just someone who enjoys activities, check out the free, thought-provoking, skill-building activities at the end of every chapter! The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (and subsequent books in the series) was inspired by my love of books like A Wrinkle In Time or shows like Doctor Who. It’s my own exploration and answer to the deep and sometimes unanswerable questions: what else is out there? What if we could meet aliens from other planets? What if everything were possible? What’s more, through the power of truth-through-fiction, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse addresses issues of loneliness and compassion and gives parents and educators an opening to discuss these challenging but important issues. I love this series so much and I hope you will too! Start reading chapter one here! And feel free to spread the word!


Check out Pam’s books!

Join Pam’s mailing list!

“We Are All Broadcasters”: Q&A with Michelle Gielan on Her New Book, Broadcasting Happiness

Michelle Gielan, author of Broadcasting Happiness. Photo: Dartise Johnson.

Disclosure: BenBella Books, Inc. provided me with a copy of Broadcasting Happiness. No obligations were implied or inferred from this gift.

You’ve been there. You’re having a great day, and then you turn on the news and something horrible has happened: wildfires blazing across a drought-ravaged countryside, earthquakes toppling buildings and destroying lives, yet another mass shooting in yet another school, one more act of injustice leading to a week-long riot. Or maybe you turn on the computer and check Facebook, and somebody has posted a rant about their work or co-workers (and maybe we can relate). Or maybe it’s on Twitter. Or if it’s not Twitter or Facebook the news, maybe you’re in line at the grocery store, and the person in front of you is being rude to the clerk. Or the clerk is complaining about the working conditions or the customers. Or maybe the one complaining is you.

We all know the saying: happiness is an inside job. Each of us is responsible for our own emotions. And yet, the truth is, whether intentionally or not, every one of us influences others with our thoughts, our words, and our actions. Knowing this fact empowers us to consciously choose our interactions, and use our influence to make a positive impact on the world. This is the crux of Michelle Gielan’s new book Broadcasting Happiness, released August 11.

Most books about happiness (and I’ve read a lot, believe me) focus primarily on the self. What’s interesting about Broadcasting Happiness is that it acknowledges our greater role in the world, our power to affect change in our workplace, our communities, and our families, as well as ourselves. The ideas in Broadcasting Happiness are real-life applications of my strongly held belief that we all should “give what you need” (a tenet of my own personal manifesto).

Michelle’s introduction to her book could have been written by almost any of us. She tells of the time when, as a news reporter for CBS, she was covering the funeral of a ten-year-old child, a random victim of random violence.

“I was tired of it. As I sat in that church in Englewood … I was surrounded by a black congregation that was tired, too. Yet amidst the emotional exhaustion there were stories of hope, and those stories changed the trajectory of my life.”

Shortly after this experience, she left her job at CBS.

“It was not because we were telling negative stories or because of the long hours and early mornings,” she writes. “And it wasn’t lost on me what I would be giving up — broadcasting to millions of people every time that red light went on over the camera. I left because I had seen another light. This book is about that story.”

From the moment I started reading Broadcasting Happiness, I was filled with questions about the concepts and ideas Michelle was sharing. I was delighted to have the chance to ask her a few questions about new book, below. Thank you so much, Michelle, for your time!

Q: Let’s start by defining “happiness,” at least for the purposes of this interview.

A: In our work, we define happiness as “the joy we feel growing towards our potential.” This moves happiness beyond the momentary pleasure we get from a chocolate bar. We can grow in any domain of life from work to parenting to our tennis game, and find joy through the ups and downs along the way.

Q: You worked as a reporter many years ago in Chicago, and you say in your introduction in your book that attending the funeral of a ten-year-old child, yet another random victim of random violence, changed the trajectory of your life. Tell us about that briefly, and how that eventually led to your writing Broadcasting Happiness?

A: The funeral was for a 10-year-old girl struck by a stray bullet from gang gunfire while at her own birthday party at home. Sitting in the pews of the church, I saw another story unfolding beyond the violent, sensational one we reported the night of the shooting. That one centered on a strong community supporting the mother and a neighborhood becoming safer each day (by the stats) due to coordinated efforts by police and citizens. It was a story of progress and hope, and that story had the potential to spur even greater positive change, instead of leaving viewers feeling helpless and depressed. Seeing that, I knew there was a better way tell news stories so I traded in my anchor desk at CBS News for a research lab and to study under Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of the field of positive psychology.

But while there I had an epiphany. We are ALL broadcasters. As parents, friends, and colleagues, we all broadcast messages to people throughout the day, and that changes how others see life, not to mention a full range of business and educational measures including stress, profitability and intelligence.

Q: And that’s the core idea in your book. All of us — not just the traditional media — are “broadcasters” (“even if we don’t say a word”), and what we broadcast out into the world has an impact. Further, you say, “Our stories are predictive not only of happiness, but also of business, educational, and health outcomes”; that “small shifts in the way we communicate internally and with others can create big ripple effects.” Do you really believe that every person, regardless of title or role in society, has the ability to impact the world around them, for the negative or for the positive?

A: Too often we forget how powerful we are as individuals to shape how other people see the world. Each one of us constantly broadcasts to other people — whether consciously or unconsciously — verbally or non-verbally — and those messages influence their brain. Message such as “I am stressed,” or “I don’t deserve to be here,” are very different than “We can overcome this together,” and “I am grateful.” What’s your broadcast to your family, colleague or friends?

Our research shows that consciously changing those messages can raise business and educational outcomes, including sales, by 37%, productivity by 31%, and reduce the negative effects of stress by 23%. At one of our clients, Nationwide Brokerage Services, when employees changed the story from “If you’re having fun, you’re not working hard enough,” to “Broadcasting a positive mindset and prioritizing happiness fuels my success and connection with others,” the insurance agency tripled revenues from $350 million to more than $1 billion in just a few years. We’ve seen over and over that change like that can occur when people at any and all levels speak up and change their broadcast.

Michelle on "Over the Hump." Photo: Michelle Gielan.
Michelle on “Over the Hump.” Photo: Michelle Gielan.

Q: One strategy you talk about in your book is the concept of the “Power Lead,” which is starting a conversation or other moment of connection by saying something positive. Can you give an example, and why is that so effective in fueling happiness and performance?

A: We have a million chances a day to deepen connection with others or shortchange ourselves that chance. Each time we begin a new conversation, meeting, email or phone call, starting with a power lead — a small positive fact or story — positively changes the trajectory of the interaction. It primes other people to be positive, and often they match what you’re broadcasting by sharing something positive as well. The perfect time to use the power lead is the next time someone says “How are you?” Try skipping “fine” or “tired” and saying something meaningful and positive. If you asked me today I might say “I’m doing great! I had breakfast with my son, and he was being really funny.” One manager I worked with started off meetings with three things he was grateful for: one about life in general, one about the team, one about someone specific on the team. He said that 45-second habit changed the tone of the meeting and improved productivity dramatically. In a study[1] where a manager was asked to deliver one piece of praise to one person on the team each day for 21 days, that team’s entire productivity jumped by 31%! Moments of connection directly relate to many business outcomes.

Q: Most of us are not members of traditional media, but many of us are active on social media, thus making a greater case for your suggestion that we are all broadcasters. I do like the idea of posting positive stories, but what about the argument that social media isn’t representative of true life, that people are becoming more depressed because they are comparing the truth of their own lives with the filtered and polished versions of other people’s posted lives? Where is the balance between positivity and truth/reality?

A: Social comparison that leads to unhappiness is the downside of social media. In addition, surfing the web often comes at the cost of face-to-face time with friends and family. The upside is that it is possible to use social media in a way that increases happiness.

First, following celebrities or people you don’t regularly see in person often doesn’t add to our happiness. The best use of social media is to deepen existing close relationships or create new ones. Catching up on pictures of your good friend’s kids ahead of a visit across the country to see her is a great way to deepen your time together. Following near-strangers can leave us feeling detached and lonely.

Additionally, being choosy about our friends based on what they broadcast is very healthy. The reason is that your feed influences your brain. A study from Cornell University[2] found that when researchers manipulated the news feed of more than 689,000 Facebook users, those who saw positive stories were substantially more likely to share positive ones themselves. The same holds true for negative stories. That study and a number of others show how we are more interconnected that we often think, and what we consume fuels our broadcast.

Q: In our life offline, I say over and over that we need to release negative people from our lives, but the reality is, it’s not that easy. These people might be family, co-workers, or other people from whom it is difficult to extricate ourselves without challenging repercussions. Aside from ignoring or “muting” those people, what can we do?

A: Too often we work with those negative people or we might find ourselves married to them! (That second case is definitely more challenging!) No matter who they are, we don’t need to let them have power over our mindset. I advocate a strategic retreat in three-parts: Retreat, Regroup, and Renter. Just like you wouldn’t show up for battle in your bathing suit, you need to be battle ready when engaging with negative people.

Sometimes the most effective way to deepen a conversation is to retreat from it. If the conditions are not in your favor, for instance the person is riled up or you’re out in public, choose to pause the conversation and regroup.

You’ll continually be frustrated by negative people if you’re not practicing positive habits (quick behavioral changes you can make in your life to increase your levels of positivity and reduce stress) to buffer against the negative. The best way to mentally regroup is to refocus your attention on the life-giving parts of your reality by counting your gratitudes, praising or thanking someone special in your life, or reviewing positive pictures you might have shot recently. These simple acts buffer your brain against the effects of negativity and stress.

When you reenter, make sure conditions are in your favor and minimize the length of time you interact with that person until you establish a track record of positive encounters. Keep your communications short and sweet, and hopefully soon you’ll together start to rewrite the script of your encounters or at minimum protect yourself from the consequences of being exposed to someone else’s negativity.

Michelle as keynote speaker for Training magazine. Photo: Michelle Gielan.
Michelle as keynote speaker for Training magazine. Photo: Training magazine.

Q: Who is more powerful — negative people or positive people?

A: I love this question because the answer is surprising! This is by far the most asked question when I give talks at companies. The answer is: It is not that either negative people or positive people are more powerful when it comes to setting culture at our companies and influencing the happiness levels of our families — it is the most expressive person that wins. Often the most expressive person on our team at work for instance, is the most anxious or negative person, and they bring everyone down. Instead of trying to change their minds, focusing on being more expressive about the positive or getting others to speak up can drown out the influence these Negative Norms have on everyone.

Q: You mention in the book that you suffered from depression for a year. I know that’s a fact that will resonate with so many readers, many of whom are looking for a way out. What were the first steps you took to start turning that around?

A: It was one of the hardest years of my life, but I am so thankful for it. Two things: Exercise daily and constantly doing what I call fact-checking. Every time my brain served up a story that was leading to unhappiness, I fact-checked it to find an equally true set of facts that illuminated a new story. For instance when I started stressing about how my job as a software developer was going nowhere, I uncovered new facts including that I had written a few lines of code that made it into the next project build or how no one at the company got a promotion in the first year so it was unreasonable for me to expect one. That helped change my thinking and the associated feelings. In my book I present fact-checking as a strategy you can use with other people if they are holding on to negative or stressful thoughts, but I first came to understand how powerful fact-checking can be by doing it with myself. After a while my brain became better at automatically seeing the positive side of life, the meaning embedded in every moment, and the things to feel grateful for, and I could more easily rewrite the thoughts that were at the root of the depression.

Q: You say several times in the book that social connection is the greatest predictor of happiness. Do you think much of society’s collective unhappiness is more about disconnection? Is one of our greatest problems simply that we are not connecting?

A: There is no greater prediction in the research of our levels of happiness than the breadth and depth of our relationships. You don’t need a ton of friends, just a few deep and meaningful relationships with others. These days with technology and over-scheduling, we are forgetting to invest time in simple connective moments with others. Even five minute meaningful conversations with other people not only fuel us in the moment but also build up a reserve of social capital so that when hard times strike, we can draw down on that bank account.

Overall, it is about being intentional about your broadcast choices. Choose not to engage in negative, gossipy conversations. Focus less on the problem and more on what can be done to solve it. When others come to you to complain, fact-check the story with them or use your leading questions to shift the focus of the conversation. Set the tone of conversations to positive using a power lead. Teach your kids an optimistic explanatory style. Continually build social capital with others through connective experiences. And turn off the radio or TV when all that is being transmitted is garbage. The clearer you are about your intentions and how you will connect with others, the more you’ll reap the advantages of broadcasting happiness.

[1] “Increase Your Team’s Productivity–It’s FRE(E),” Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin, Positive Psychology News Daily, last modified October 4, 2008, http://positivepsychologynews.com/ news/margaret-greenberg-and-senia-maymin/200810141081.

[2] Kramer, A. D. I., Guillory, J. E., and Hancock, J. T. “Experimental Evidence of Massive-Scale Emotional Contagion through Social Networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111, no. 24 (2014): 8788-90.

Michelle Gielan, Founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and an Executive Producer of The Happiness Advantage special on PBS, is an expert on the science of positive communication and how to use it to fuel success. To find out more about Michelle’s book, visit the Broadcasting Happiness website (while there you can also take a test to determine your personal Success Scale score). You can also find out more about Michelle at GoodThink, and find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Michelle with Arianna Huffington. Photo: Michelle Gielan.
Michelle with Arianna Huffington. Photo: Michelle Gielan.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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Q&A with Writer/Director Ben Caird on Writing and His Inspiration for His New Film, Halfway

Ben Caird. Photo by Ben Montemayor. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben Caird. Photo by Ben Montemayor. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: Tell us a little about your background — where did you grow up, where did you go to school, what inspired your writing and your love of film?

A: I’m half British (father) and half American (mother) and I grew up in London. My father is a writer and director of theatre, opera and pretty much anything else that can be staged. My mother also worked in theatre through which she met my father in New York.

My brothers and sisters (the ones of working age) all work in the arts. One sister is an art, culture and travel journalist, the other a musician. One brother is a theatre director and AD, the other a fine artist and graphic designer. We were encouraged to get stuck into whatever industry we wanted to; it just so happened that we all ended up in artistic pursuits. There aren’t really any individual seminal moments I can think of that drove me to what I do; rather I don’t really know what else I would do. When your family and so many close friends have careers in the arts, you do have some examples around that make it seem a tangible dream, however crazy it truly is.

My technical training ground was starting a small video production company with a friend that saw us produce music videos, short films and other viral media for tiny budgets where we performed almost every role ourselves. This really allowed us to experiment with cameras, lighting, editing, and the host of other jobs required. However, I knew I wanted to get more into narrative work so I decided to go to film school which is really where I kicked on my storytelling.

Once at The London Film School I really became a full-time student of cinema, an education ever ongoing. Every film I watch, script or story I read or set I work on, whether the experience is positive or negative, I learn a little more about what I think I can offer in my own work.

Ben writing in the shed on the set of Halfway. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: Is Halfway your first feature-length script?

A: Halfway is certainly my first completed feature-length script. I have other pieces in various stages of development, some as far along as redrafted full scripts, but given that the writing, especially when writing for yourself as a director, is never truly over until the scene is shot (and then even sometimes dialogue is rewritten and rerecorded whilst in post-production) Halfway probably must therefore be considered my first.

Q: Is this the first time you’ve been both writer and director?

A: I wrote [and directed] all of the short films that I’ve made that preceded Halfway. As a new director I think it’s invaluable being able to write for yourself. This is not to say you’re the best writer in the world, simply that, as a director, without being able to write for yourself, you’re relying on good writers letting you cut your teeth on their work. Then, if you do find a great script you want to make, be it short or feature, you have two egos you have to massage through the process.

The most important thing I’ve learned in my young career is not to be too precious about what you’re doing because things change very quickly and you have to be able to react to that. That becomes harder if you’re not just “killing your own babies,” but someone else’s too. This often plays into director’s careers later, when they’re perhaps better equipped to deal with it (or not as the case may be), but I think mitigating that in your first works is rather more liberating.

Ben directing on the set of Halfway
Ben directing on the set of Halfway

Q: Does directing change how you write? In what way?

A: I think knowing you’re going to be the one that directs the script can change the way you write, though it shouldn’t. I know in the beginning it did for me. I think it’s fine if a director’s voice is known. A PT Anderson or Coen Brothers script can be read by financiers, actors, all the key players and know what the deal is. I’m not saying their scripts won’t be complete, just that the bits left out can be filled in by the reader knowing what has come before so what is likely to be filled in.

As a first timer, it’s no good me giving a draft to my producer, who knows my work/style from my shorts, and expecting them to have all the time to make everyone watch my shorts and mood reels to get the tone/content. The script needs to stand-alone as a good piece of writing. Then, if drawn in by it, our collaborators will still want to see what I’ve done before and if I’m someone that has enough of a voice to carry the script.

Ben on the set of Halfway with the film's star, Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of Halfway with the film’s star, Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What inspired Halfway?

A: Although I was born and raised in London, UK, my mother is from Wisconsin, USA, so as a child I would spend summers in the States seeing family. With fond memories of playing on my family’s Wisconsin dairy farm, I always felt like an outsider in my inability, even as a child, to do the things my farm-raised cousin could.

As an adult revisiting my family’s farm, I found the chores performed incredibly hypnotic and calming to watch. Farms are a place of tremendous upheaval and mechanical power, but also of baseness, of simplistic physical duty.

Farms are so little understood by the urban dweller, of which our societies are increasingly more becoming. By in essence, sending my protagonist to a farm to cleanse him, I want to show an American Dream story, of social movement and rejection of his past transgressions through physical hard work in a new frontier.

The outsider element at the core of the film is race. I find perception and discrimination due to race fascinating. Clearly the United States still has a problem with race relations in many parts of the country and whilst I cannot try to tackle everything in this film, I certainly wish to pose some social questions.

I’m very much drawn to rite-of-passage stories as I find tremendous drama in looking through a microscope at an individual’s life at certain stages of change, of challenge.

In this film I wish to take my certainly less-than-perfect protagonist and make his battle the audience’s battle.

Q: Did you do research while you were writing to help you understand the story?

A: I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years in Wisconsin, so my understanding of the setting and people was pretty good. I’ve also kept a keen eye on race relations (as I’m sure many do), and the systemic incarceration flaws over the last years, too, so thinking about the sort of a voice I might be able add to the conversation was key. As a white Brit writing a story dealing with American race issues I thought a good way in for me was by making my protagonist an outsider, as that is where my experience comes from (though of course in very different ways).

Ben on the set of Halfway with producer Jonny Paterson. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of Halfway with producer Jonny Paterson. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: Do you remember the first thing you wrote? What was it?

A: The first story I really remember writing was at twelve years old in an entrance exam to my middle school (secondary school in the UK). I was given a series of titles to select from and I chose “No Man’s Land.” The story involved an island a ship wrecks off of, and the protagonist swimming ashore to find only Amazonian women. I was very proud of my punny take on the title.

Q: When did you write your first script?

A: I wasn’t a filmmaker that started at eight with a video camera telling stories with my friends; far from it. In the last few years of high school I got into reading literature, mainly our course materials, and started to quite enjoy the required essay writing that went along with it. When I left school I took a “gap-year” (a pretty standard break from education in the UK where teenagers work and travel before starting further education).

Having lost my school writing to deadline, I started to really miss the process of writing. I started, like I’m sure many teenagers do, writing what I thought was a novel or a novella, a short semi-autobiographical piece based on a particular experience of mine and some friends. I gave a first pass to my father and he suggested that my writing felt like it had elements of screen/stage direction accidentally incorporated in it. He showed me a basic script structure and I started reworking it in that form. I never made that piece but it was certainly the first actual script I wrote.

Ben on the set of his London Film School MA graduation film Drift. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of his London Film School MA graduation film Drift. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What else have you written?

A: I have written numerous shorts. During my MA course at the London Film School I wrote many different pieces, some of which materialized as films, many of which hit the script graveyard. I wrote and directed two traditionally narrative shorts during my time there, one set entirely in a prison cell that we built on a school soundstage, The Castle, and my graduation film entitled Drift.

Q: What role do you think film has in our social awareness and in driving our discussions about culture and humanity?

A: I don’t think that filmmakers, or anyone in fact, has a responsibility to drive awareness or discussion of anything. However, clearly there are enough people that take it on themselves to do just that, and, for me, that’s vitally important. Any art form that has an audience, a reader or a listener has the opportunity to evoke some human emotion. Since its genesis film has been used as a platform to engage and inform its viewer, be that for social good or bad. I can’t see this changing. I certainly hope to be able to continue making films with themes I see as important to discuss.

Ben on the set of Halfway with star Quinton Aaron, who plays Byron in the film, and Linda Bright Clay, who plays Byron’s parole officer. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Q: What are your short- and long-term goals as a writer and director?

A: I hope that Halfway is received well and that I get to follow it up with another in the coming years. I have lots of stories I’d like to tell so hopefully this is the first of many.

Q: Do you hope to branch out even further, or is writer/director your niche?

A: I also produce. I’ve just finished a small film set in the countryside in the UK, a dark love story, entitled Long Forgotten Fields. We’re just taking that film out to the market now so hopefully there will be some positive news on that front in the coming months. I also have some other projects of varying scopes in the works, some other US, that we’ll hopefully have some exciting announcements about soon.

Two weeks ago: Halfway: the movie

Last week: Q&A with Halfway Producer Jonny Paterson.

Coming next week: Q&A with Halfway star Quinton Aaron.

Find Halfway on Facebook and Twitter. Find Ben Caird at his website.

Ben on the set of Halfway with Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015
Ben on the set of Halfway with Quinton Aaron. © Halfway Film LLC, 2015

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.


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Iceland Travelogue Combines Humor and Travel Insights

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

Pam on the Map: IcelandIceland. What used to be a rare destination is now all the rage, and with several airlines offering nonstop flights from many cities around the world, getting there is easier than ever.

If The Land of the Midnight Sun is in your travel plans this summer — or if you just want to make a date with Iceland and your traveling armchair — I invite you to check out my book, Pam on the Map: Iceland. It’s a travelogue-style book (with an easy, blog-esque flavor) in which I detailed my own travels to the small island country in the summer of 2013.

Many of the Iceland travel guides I’ve found focus on the same points — the Golden Circle, the south, Reykjavík — so in my own travels I tried to find some lesser-known spots, further from the beaten path. Even with all the research I did before my trip, though, there were still destinations I missed. Therefore, at the end of each chapter I noted what I would do differently if I visit again. Make that when. Iceland is a destination that seeps into your psyche and stays with your soul.

The view from Dyrhólaey in the south of Iceland.
The view from Dyrhólaey in the south of Iceland.

The following excerpt from Pam on the Map: Iceland is from the opening chapter, “Arrival.”

Finally, I see a young man coming through the door, looking rushed, a placard in hand. Is that my name on it? … YES! My Route 1 knight in shining armor. He has arrived.

He is a lovely young man, dark haired and bright eyed, but when he tells me his name I am still flushed with the excitement that he’s arrived at all, and it doesn’t register in my brain. I can’t guess his age, either, other than “young.” I’m not good at guessing ages anymore. I always assume everyone is about my age, but I keep getting younger (don’t you?), so it’s hard to tell. People my age look so old! I don’t look that old, surely. Neither does he. He just finished his first year in law school, that’s about all I know.

When he drives me from the Placard Zone to the Route 1 office, Car Rental Guy (as I shall now call him) explains that “We don’t have an office, really. We have a WAN.”

Really? They have a wide area network? I am confused.

“You have a what?”

“A WAN.”

“………”

And then, it dawns on me. A VAN. V for van, pronounced like a W by some Icelanders. I know this because in preparation for my interview with Reykjavík’s mayor, Jón Gnarr, I watched several videos of other interviews he’d given previously. In one, he talked about the “Wikings” that came to Iceland. And I’ll tell you, it’s a good thing I heard him say “Wikings” before meeting him, because I am certain I wouldn’t have been able to suppress a giggle if I’d first heard him say it in my interview.

So Route 1 does not have an office but a wan. Car Rental Guy and I go to the wan, sort of a camper wan, really, where he gets me all hooked up. When I made my reservation online, I had declined all the extra types of insurance a person can get — gravel insurance, ash insurance, Super Duper Extra Insurance, etc. — but in my weary state, Car Rental Guy talks me into gravel and Super Duper. Who knows. He does say he doesn’t really think ash insurance is necessary, although I swear to you instead of saying “ash,” he said “ass.” At any rate, my ass is uninsured for the duration of the trip.

Car Rental Guy gives me a very thorough rundown of the car and the insurance and my rental, and then he pulls out the Big Map. (This is not a euphemism; it’s really a map. It’s a big map, and right on the front, it says, “Big Map.”) He then suggests places to see, circling them on the map as he goes: Grindavík, Fimmvörðuháls, Skaftafell, Jökulsárlón. In the north, he circles Dettifoss, Húsavík, Ásbyrgi, Mývatn. On a scrap piece of paper, he writes “Places: Silfra at Þingvellir, Kerið.”

He mentions Lagarfljót in the east, to which I reply, “home of the worm!” Car Rental Guy looks at me with a bit of surprise and a bit of delight.

“Not many people know about the worm,” he says with what I’m sure was a touch of admiration. The Lagarfljót Worm is Iceland’s Loch Ness Monster; it’s said to be a football field long, with many humps. It’s been noted in literature since the 1300s. So it must be real! Supposedly sightings of The Worm portend natural disaster, so I guess I’m hoping not to see it. But I’ll drive by on my route. I nod as he writes down: Lagarfljót.

And then, with no great hug or anything to commemorate the intimate time we’d just spent together, the thoughts on Iceland we’d shared, the moments we’ll always cherish, we parted ways.

A few thoughts about car rental: When I first started thinking about coming to Iceland, I investigated car rental prices and was a bit shocked at the cost, but I mentally prepared myself and added it to the budget. Then, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t make my reservation. When I finally got around to it, at the beginning of June (for an end of July/beginning of August reservation), the prices seemed to have doubled. Ack! I about had an apoplectic shock at that time. It then occurred to me that a place like Iceland, where tourism is growing, has a finite number of cars, and when they’re gone they’re gone. I realize that’s true of all places, but in my mind it makes sense, right? I mean, if you’re in Washington, there could be cars coming and going from Oregon or Idaho or even Canada. But Iceland is pretty isolated. What it has is more or less what it has. (The rental companies do note you may not take their cars out of Iceland. I found this quite amusing until they mentioned the ferry to Norway. Okay, check, not planning to go to Norway, and not planning to drive into the ocean, so we’re good.)

Read more in the book, available in both print and ebook!

Pam on the Map: Iceland

From setting off a hotel fire alarm, to getting a luxurious in-water spa massage, to going on a “traditional Icelandic ice cream car ride,” to interviewing Jón Gnarr, “the most interesting mayor in the world,” Pam experienced it all on a two-week summer journey that took her all around the outer edge of Iceland. Armed with a two-wheel drive car, a persnickety GPS, and a goal to discover the heart and soul of the country, Pam broke out of the boundaries of Iceland’s popular Golden Circle to travel the full Ring Road (the road that circles all the way around the country), and beyond.

In Pam on the Map: Iceland, Pam brings readers along on her trip as she discusses all things Iceland, including the restrooms at Keflavík airport, the Ring Road and travel infrastructure, the treacherous gravel roads and Highway 939, the omnipresent waterfalls, hot dogs and fermented shark, and the history and culture of the country and its people. Pam stops to talk with locals about their views and opinions on Iceland, tourism, writing, the economy, soil erosion, and happiness.

Filled with wit and wanderlust, Pam on the Map: Iceland offers one woman’s perspective on traveling around this tiny island in the far north Atlantic Ocean.

 Keep your eyes open as you drive around Iceland -- spectacular waterfalls pop up out of nowhere, like this one I found on the side of the road!
Keep your eyes open as you drive around Iceland — spectacular waterfalls pop up out of nowhere, like this one I found on the side of the road!

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Review: The Universes Inside the Lighthouse

The other day I received one of my favorite reviews ever, and I just have to share!

Jenny of Books, Babies, and Bows reviewed The Universes Inside the Lighthouse for me, at my request. The review she gave was not just a good review (as in a 5* review, which it was), but also a thorough, thoughtful, beautifully done review. She even pulled some quotes from my book and made them into fancy pinterest-worthy images! I’ve included the first part of her review below; for the full review, see her site.

pamstuckyquotes1Jenny’s review:

Pam Stucky’s book The Universes Inside the Lighthouse was a delightful surprise for me. As a scientist, I usually stray away from science fiction because when it isn’t done well, it leaves me screaming at the books; however this book was extremely intelligently written. I actually stayed up late on several nights because I couldn’t put the book down. The premise of the book, on the surface, appears to be far fetched, but trust me, read the book and discover an adventure of a lifetime. The characters in the story are well developed and the overall plot lays the foundation for a series of books to come in this Balky Point Adventure series.

learningIn particular, I found myself scribbling notes in the margins of the book because there were so many quotes from the book that spoke to me. The story reminds me of A Wrinkle in Time, but for a much older audience. After reading the book, I think it would be best suited for 10 and older. I tried to read it with my eight-year-old, but the concepts in the book were too abstract for her to understand. I think in a couple years, she will be ready and eager to read this book. I will be sending this book to my niece, who is a couple years older than Miss M, to see what she thinks as a young reader.

Read the rest here. Thank you, Jenny!!


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