Friday, 31 July 2009

A Simpler Life?

Creative Content director Ali Muirden is thinkingabout a simpler life...

With so many people these days facing either redundancy, or at the very least job uncertainty, it does seem that this could be the right time to consider whether your life is really going in the direction you always imagined or dreamed it would.

I faced this dilemma a couple of years ago when the prospect of continuing to commute for four hours a day into London several times a week became untenable.

It’s not just the physical energy it requires - the mental “battle” to just get to and from work on the train and tube made me realise that I needed to change my lifestyle before it began affecting my health. I was already suffering shoulder pains from carrying large manuscripts and files to and from the office and some days as I walked up the stairs on the final leg up to my office I wanted to cry with tiredness… and that was even before the working day had properly begun!

I really wish I’d had a title like “The Lifestyle Lowdown: A Simpler Life” to help me work out just what it was I wanted to be doing in the future.

I’ve really enjoyed working on this project with Lifestyle authors Lucy McCarraher and Annabel Shaw. This title helps to focus your mind on what really matters to you, to find out what are your “core” values (and they might not be what you think they are when you really consider it seriously!) and to work out a plan to change your future in a practical and realistic way!

One of the exercises asks you to think about what your friends might say about you and your life on your 90th birthday. It’s really a hard question to ask yourself. I discovered that there are lots of things I’d like to be said about me when I am 90, but would they really be the truth? I’d like people to say I was a good and kind friend, but they would probably add in “bossy.” As a work colleague, I’d like them to consider me well organised, efficient and dynamic – but they might also add that I don’t take criticism at all well and hate to be in the wrong!

Rather than just imagining what people might say, I decided to ask two of my friends who have known me longer than anyone else (other than my family or my husband) to write what they thought they might say about me on my 90th birthday:

Lucy Hale, Sales Director at Hodder & Stoughton

“Well you certainly know where you are with Ali! In all the years I have known
her, she has been a very loyal and steadfast friend; but if she has ever felt
that you are not giving as much back in the relationship as she is giving, boy
do you know it! Irritatingly, she usually has a point. She called me a
selfish cow back in the 80s and it still rings in my ears …

I admire her for having the strength of character to follow her own instincts
rather than follow the crowd; once, when we worked together, our company went on
strike, but Ali changed her mind at the last minute and crossed the picket
line; I was very angry with her then, but I see now that she had the guts
to do what she believed was right.

She really knows how to enjoy herself and ‘treats’ are an important part of her life, be they in the form of a mini-break or a new outfit; she has always had a firm hold of her work/life balance in a way that I have failed to do.

Her temper! Well, if you have ever seen Ali’s eyes flash then you know to remove yourself to a safe difference. I think it has got her into trouble a few times.

I guess, in conclusion, I can safely say that Ali has followed the advice ‘to thine own self be true’- and at the same time managed to be very successful. Not a bad combination.”

Anne Mitchell, best friend

"Ali and I became friends well over 30 years ago, mainly through default. I was dating" her older brother and Ali loved to sit on the sofa with us (mainly between us), showing me the latest pony novel she had read and insisting on me taking it home to read (sorry Ali, never did read them - just not a pony person really)! Even in those early teenage years of hers, she had a love of reading, a drive for what interested her, and the passion and determination to persuade others and steer herself forward to whatever path she chose to take in life.

I admire her capacity to fit so much in to her very busy life. Believe me, I’ve witnessed a few ‘simple quiet weekends’ away with her: I never thought it possible firstly to cover so many miles in one weekend and secondly to do and see so much as well - totally exhausting, but so much fun and so much laughter!

Fun that is the word I would choose, if I had to choose just one word for Ali, her laughter is totally infectious, we have often been rendered totally helpless through laughing together!

Capable, oh so capable, Ali is the role model for the phrase, ‘to get something done, ask a busy person’ – she relishes a task or a challenge. Never mention a holiday in front of her, you’ll probably get an email from her within half an hour confirming you flight details etc!

Ali is not good at lying. She cannot lie to save her life. She was terrified before the birth of my two children that she would have to lie and say they were gorgeous (even if they weren’t) – I told her I would know if she was lying anyway, so to just tell the truth , thankfully they were both totally beautiful, so no lying was involved!

Kind, Ali is such a kind person, I don’t think I have the words to express how very kind she has been to me through all our years of friendship, unfailingly so.

Ali is the sort of person everyone should be allowed to choose to take to their Desert Island with them (Radio 4 please take note). Umm ...having said that, she would have to take her collection of make-up, perfumes, shoes, dvds, books, cats, her husband Al, etc. with her - and that may be asking just a little more than the statutory ‘one favourite book and piece of music please’, (other than the Complete Works of William Shakespeare!).”

I was almost dreading finding out what Lucy and Anne would say about me. They both know me so well, in both my personal and working lives, so it was fascinating to discover what my key personality traits are when seen from a different viewpoint. The 90th birthday exercise in ‘A Simpler Life’ suggests using this exercise to see what things you might like to change in the here and now to ensure that people are saying what you would like them to say about you in the future. My friends were astonishingly kind in what they said, but I can see that perhaps I should work on my diplomacy skills a bit – and maybe think about downsizing my personal possessions!

Working on a Simpler Life has enabled me to take a step back from myself, think about what I really want from my life and to look forward to a 90th Birthday Party with my family and friends around me knowing I’ve had a life well lived, full of fun and laughter and hoping that I got the balance right between work and play. It’s important not to forget that. - AM

What would you want your friends to say about you on your 90th Birthday?

Friday, 24 July 2009

The Path to A Simpler Life...

This week guest blogger Lucy McCarraher, co-author of 'A Simpler Life,' talks about the childhood dreams that led her to a simpler life.
When in “A Simpler Life” we were writing about the value of revisiting childhood dreams, I thought I’d better go back and check my own. There they were, three of them: the earliest and most enduring was to be A Writer; a later one was to be A Psychologist (aged 11, I had Lucy from “Peanuts” with the caption, “The Psychiatrist Is In” on my bedroom door); and in my teens I was definitely going to be An Actress.

I’ve never been a psychologist or acted professionally, but every job I’ve had has involved writing: journalist, editor, reviewer, script writer… even when I moved out of the media and into researching parenting, children and families, it was still about presenting the material in compelling and comprehensible ways. As a consultant in work-life balance, working with blue chip and public sector organisations, I battled with the deficiencies of business jargon – but enjoyed learning to blur the boundaries between corporate-speak and campaigning rhetoric in the interests of both productivity and people.

For me, language is thought; the medium and the message. A restricted vocabulary diminishes the ability to think broadly, to process rich and subtle emotions; poor grammar undermines clarity and creates confusion; cliché kills creative conversation.

When Macmillan signed up my first novel I found myself in a whole new linguistic arena – one where there were no obvious restrictions, and I had to develop a writing style that would stand as my own “voice”. What I also found was that in fiction I could combine the roles of all my youthful dreams. Not only did I finally feel like a “real” writer, but I also had the chance to develop psychologically authentic characters with realistic dialogue that I acted out in my head as the plot progressed.

Three novels later, I felt I’d become reasonably proficient as a fiction writer and was starting a fourth about several women addicted to different self help manuals in their quest for a wonderful life. I’ve always enjoyed self help books and had even written one, so reading more for research purposes was a pleasure. But as I read, I began to feel that none of them quite hit the spot – not only in terms of content but in the way they were written. The authors were specialists in their fields, but not professional writers. My plans changed to writing not a novel about self help, but a novel self help book.

Neurolinguistic Programming tells us that using enriched language which appeals to all the senses is the most powerful form of communication. I brought the experience of plot and structure, depictions of thought and feeling, engagement through imagery and metaphor to My Wonderful Life, along with my background of social research and report writing.

Luckily, though, Annabel Shaw, a real psychologist, agreed to collaborate. We have a brilliantly complementary working relationship, in which she is in charge of evidence and research while I get to rewrite and edit our manuscripts. But whenever I’m tempted to stray into the realms of fiction or hyperbole, she hauls me back to the scientific straight and narrow. And I am never, ever allowed to compare the brain to a machine or computer! -LM

Friday, 17 July 2009

The thrill of it all! How it felt to have a Number One Bestseller on iTunes.

I have to admit, the moment I discovered one of our launch titles was climbing high on the iTunes audio bestsellers list, it was like Christmas had come early…very early - especially as this was only in January!

The excitement of tracking its progress became a daily - who am I kidding! - hourly obsession, especially for Lorelei, who delighted in giving me frequent email updates telling me our latest ‘slot.’

The point at which “Improve Your Speech - British English” was outselling Barack Obama’s audio book “Audacity of Hope” was probably the sweetest so far. To think that we were rivaling the superstar of US politics, especially in the week following his inauguration, was a real triumph.

Thanks for all this go to Rob, our contact at iTunes, who had given us great exposure on their home page when it featured “Improve Your Speech - British English” prominently in the centre of the audio books site.

The book is a neat way to tidy up your speech… a series of fun exercises show you how to warm up your voice, exercise muscles in your tongue and mouth you probably never knew you had and banish once and for all any dread of having to talk in public. (Did you know more people fear public speaking than they do dying? Go figure!) The result is a feeling of confidence and control whenever you need to voice your opinion in any situation!

And who knew there would be so many people out there wishing they could speak like us Brits?

A slightly disgruntled and somewhat envious American guy did say to me recently that a British accent seems to makes men irresistible to American girls… - Ali Muirden

We'd love to know: Do you think good speech is crucial to getting ahead these days?

And while you’re at it: Does having a British accent make it easier to wow the opposite sex from other countries?

Friday, 10 July 2009

It takes two, baby! More on business partners...

I’d like to expand on my business partner’s post the other week.

When Ali approached me with her great idea for Creative Content and asked if I’d come onboard, my immediate reaction was YES! I’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity to work with a woman who has over 27 years of experience in publishing and who is so well respected within the industry.

Of course, after the thrill of that wholehearted ‘yes,’ the fear set in: I’ve been a self-employed freelancer for years – and the thought of taking on a partner was daunting ... a bit like marriage, I suppose!

I knew I liked her as a person. We’d worked well together organising some charity quiz nights. We both loved audio. And cats. That was a start!

If I’m honest, the main thing that worried me was that we’re both control freaks. I should say at this point that I think control freaks get a bad rap – to me, a control freak is someone who takes personal responsibility in all areas of work, who cares about details, who wants things to turn out as well as possible and who’ll go the extra mile to achieve that. All good.

Only tiny problem is, they sometimes think they’re the only ones who are capable of doing anything properly!

But in fact, my fears were unfounded and it’s been fantastic. I know that I can rely on my partner: if something needs doing, it will get done. And working with someone so competent has forced me to up my own game! It’s even turned out surprisingly well when it comes to working out areas of (admittedly rare) conflict. We agreed early on to be honest with each other and – so far, anyway! – we’ve each been willing to step back once in awhile and let the other take the lead if necessary.

I’ve been very lucky with my business partner – and it’s got me thinking about why it’s crucial to choose the right person: this is someone you’re going to be spending a lot of time with (real world and virtual), a person you’ll be trusting with your investment (both of time and money), a person who will perhaps see you at your worst (under stress!) and will still have to like you and want to work with you – a person who’ll be in it for the long haul.

So if you’re looking for a business partner, I hope you’ll be as lucky as I’ve been and find someone who’s like Ali: hard-working, responsible, incredibly creative, with a good sense of humour and a great sense of fun! - Lorelei King

We’d love to know:

What are your business partner’s best qualities?

Friday, 3 July 2009

New York City Girls

I was going to be in New York this spring (recording Janet Evanovich’s "Finger Lickin' 15" for Macmillan and Patricia Briggs’ "Moon Called and Blood Bound" for Penguin), and thought it would be a great idea if my business partner Ali flew over too so that we could meet some of our US retailers.

Ali said that in principle it was a great idea, but we had to ‘justify the cost.’ These are words I hear a lot from my partner. You see, she’s convinced that my idea of marketing is to write our company name on a bunch of £50 pound notes and run down the street chucking them away with both hands. For some reason, she doesn’t let me anywhere near the checkbook.

But the download gods were with us – Virgin Atlantic had a seat sale and Ali had a discount voucher! Add to that the fact that New York hotels were virtually giving rooms away – we were set!

We crammed a lot of meetings into two days – hard work, but it was so great to put names to faces and to meet our contacts at IODA and emusic (great energy in those companies!). And I had my first trip to New Jersey, Stephanie Plum’s turf, when we popped in on Audible. Impressive setup they have there, with in-house studios, enormous open-plan offices and spectacular views. What a terrific group – we left fizzing with ideas!

Speaking of fizz: On Ali’s last night in town, we had a bit of supper at a tiny restaurant on Columbus. And of course we had to have a glass of champagne to celebrate our successful meetings. The champagne was poured into very pretty heavy glass goblets and at the last minute - with a great flourish - our waiter dropped in a gorgeous, fat strawberry. I didn’t know why Ali looked so unhappy. As it turns out, when it comes to business, my business partner may know how to pinch a penny ‘til it squeaks – but she can only drink champagne out of a proper champagne flute. Our adorable waiter was dumbfounded when Ali sweetly asked if he’d mind going and borrowing one from one of the other restaurants nearby. It’s a testament to her powers of persuasion that, like a sleepwalker, he walked out of the restaurant - and came back with a flute!

The next day, after a great lunch with Mary Beth Roche from Macmillan, we had a few hours to kill before Ali had to leave for the airport – so we decided to do the tourist thing on an open-topped bus. Trouble was, we were nowhere near an official stop. Not a problem. Ali jumped into the road, flagged down a passing tour bus and persuaded them to let us on - for free. You can see why she’s in charge of the money.

A really fun and useful trip! We agreed that there may not be an immediately tangible result, but it’s all about building relationships – and relationships are everything, both in life and in business. - Lorelei King

Happy 4th of July to all our stateside friends! We’d like to know:

What’s your favourite city for doing business?

And just out of curiosity...

Do you HAVE to drink champagne out of a flute?