We’re All Ears…

Last week on #TheBookshelf, I mentioned that when I’m working, I often try to drown out distracting noise with music. But there are some days when even music is too much and I need to lower the volume completely.

When that happens, I escalate to ear plugs. This week on #TheBookshelf, I’ll introduce you to five different styles of ear plugs (all under $40 CAD). I’ll give you my pros and cons, pricing, noise reduction levels, and my final verdict for each one.

(“Ear plugs” by 4nitsirk is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

When you’re looking for a good pair of earplugs, it’s important to understand that they’re not all created equally. There are foam ones, silicone ones, some that go in the ear, others that cover the ear. Some block sound (passive noise cancelling) while others eliminate it (active noise cancelling). They can be cheap and disposable or expensive and last for years. But whatever the type or style, most earplugs tend to be good for one type of use, but maybe not as ideal for others.

For instance, if you want to sleep, but you have a snoring spouse or noisy neighbours, you need earplugs that not only block noise, but are also comfortable for sleeping–after all, you’ll be using them for several hours and if you’re a side sleeper, you don’t want something that pushes into your ears.

If you need to focus in a noisy environment, you need earplugs that dampen the sound around you, but you don’t need to worry so much about them sticking out of your ears.

If, like me, your anxiety spikes when you’re surrounded and overwhelmed by too much sound (think busy house and happy kids playing, or a noisy workplace for instance), then earplugs are an absolutely brilliant solution to dampen the sharper sounds (shouting, or loud noises for instance) while still allowing you to hear what you need to. In this situation, comfort is key, but so is the right amount of attenuation.

For hearing protection, you need whatever has the highest decibel rating. Seriously. Because when it comes to protecting your hearing, you do not want to mess about.

But wait you say! What I’m you’re listening to my favourite band perform live (which, fingers crossed, we’ll all be able to do soon) and I want to hear every note, but not damage my hearing in the process? Well, there’s an earplug for that, too.

So let’s get to it.

First up, are the cheap and cheerful bright orange foam earplugs that you roll between your fingers and then cram into your ears. If you do it right, they expand to fit snugly in your ear canal. You can find them at most drugstores. They come in several different shapes and sizes.

Pros: They’re cheap. Shopper’s Drug Mart sells 4 pairs for $4.79 CAD

Cons: It’s not always easy to get them in your ear. They may not comfortable for side sleepers (They weren’t for me) because they tend to stick out of the ear. And finally, the pressure of the expanding foam pressing against the insides of your ear can be uncomfortable over long periods of time. Plus, you can only use them a few times before you have to throw them away–and if you can reduce waste, you should! Rated at a noise reduction of 33 dB.

Final verdict: Better for occasional earplug users, or users who need hefty hearing protection.

Next, we have these mouldable silicone earplugs from Mack’s.

These earplugs are interesting because they do not go into the ear canal. You mould them to cover the opening of the ear canal only (which also makes them great for swimmers, although I’ve never tried them in that capacity). These are slightly pricier per pair than the foam earplugs, and I had to get mine on Amazon because none of my local shops carried them. Price: about $20 CAD. Rated at a 22 dB noise reduction.

Pros: They’re comfortable and they can form a waterproof seal. Nice and flat for side sleepers. You can reuse each wad of silicone several times before having to throw them away.

Cons: The seal can be too good! On occasion, if you’re using them while sleeping, the seal can cause a slight suction effect that can be uncomfortable. Plus, they stick to hair.

Final verdict: Reasonably comfortable and easy to use. A bit on the pricey side for (somewhat) disposable earplugs. I like that they don’t go inside my ears.

Now, these intriguing-looking little earplugs are called Happy Ears. They’re made in Sweden but shipped from Canada. They don’t change shape or size to fit or cover your ear, so it’s up to you to buy a size that will fit. The Happy Ears solution to the fit issue is an introductory three pack, featuring one pair each of small, medium, and large size. This three pack will set you back $40 CAD. Rated at a 25 dB noise reduction.

Pros: Small, comfortable, and fit well. Reusable. Not too bad for side sleepers, but they do press into your ear quite a bit.

Cons: The initial cost is fairly steep, but once you find a pair that fit, you’re good to go. Shipping is fast and free. The hard stem is small, but can be poky for the side sleepers.

The Final Verdict: Having to buy 3 pairs to figure out what size you need is a bit of a pain, but these are comfortable and work well. Not great for side sleepers.

The last earplugs on my list are both from Loop and they take the earplug game to a whole new level.

The Loop Experience model is made up of an ear tip, a filter and an acoustic channel (the loop!). Sound enters the acoustic channel goes around the loop, through the filter (that reduces sound by 20 dB across all frequencies), and into your ear. The result is sound that is quieter but maintains it’s integrity.

Pro: Comfortable enough to wear for long periods, and they sit quite flat against the ear, so not bad for side sleepers, too. They work well to attenuate noise. I purchased an additional accessory, the Loop Mute (that’s the little mint-coloured ring in the photo), and when you insert it into the centre of the Loop, it reduces sound by another 5 dB. The Loop, the ear tips and the Mute accessory come in a variety of colours for mixing and matching. Price for the basic model is $38 (CAD). Can be reused.

And I have to say it–they look really, really cool.

Con: A bit stiff for side sleeping, but definitely more comfortable than any of the others I tried…well, except for one…

…The Loop Quiet. This earplug looks a lot like it’s flashier sibling, but instead of an acoustic channel, it has a solid silicone loop that acts more like a traditional earplug. It reduces sound by 25 dB and is priced at $23 (CAD)

Pro: More flexible than the Loop Experience, good for side sleepers.

Con: None.

Final verdict: The Loops win! I use the Loop Experience for work, and Loop Quiet for sleep.

These are just five of the many kinds of hearing attenuation and/or protection that are out there. I hope this review helps you to get started toward finding the quieter solution!

Do you have a favourite kind of earplug? I’m all ears! Let me know in the comments below.

Join me again next week on #TheBookshelf when I explore Roy Peter Clark’s new(ish) book, Writing Short.

Disclaimer: unless otherwise specified, the opinions expressed on #TheBookshelf are those of the author. Reviews on this blog are unsolicited unless otherwise stated.

Featured cover image: “Sudden Loud Noises” by STML is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Write to this! The Propellerheads

When I’m writing, I usually turn to music to drown out the world around me (small apartment, everyone working from home, pesky cat, noisy neighbours, busy street…you get the idea).

That being said, song lyrics can be too distracting. Writing down the story that lives in my head is challenging enough, but trying to do it when someone else is crooning their story into my ears? Yeah, that’s a nope.

But give my brain some clever beats or a good melody? Bazinga! That musical magic is a solid distraction tactic that drowns out my inner critic (currently calling itself Frank), my impostor syndrome (as yet unnamed), and the myriad of other thoughts that insist they need me to deal with them RIGHT NOW!!

Sadly, while some magic burns hard and bright, it isn’t destined to burn for long.

Such was the case for the Propellerheads, the English electronic music duo of Will White and Alex Gifford.

Their debut album Decksanddrumsandrockandroll swaggered onto the big beat music scene in 1998 with a brash electronic sound, reworked samples from movie soundtracks, and, on the epic track “History Repeating,” the staggeringly awesome vocals of the one and only Dame Shirley Bassey.

It also turned out to be their last album <sob>.

There’s a cleverness to their music–a sly cheek–that makes it one of those albums that I never get tired of and one of my go-to albums for writing.

So, if you’re looking for some action-packed James-Bond-on-the-dance-floor-type magic for your next writing sprint, check out the 20th Anniversary Propellerheads Decksanddrumsandrockandroll double album.

Frank says you’ll like it.

Learn more about the Propellerheads here!

Full track listing for the double album:

Disc 1:

  1. “Take California” 7:23
  2. “Echo and Bounce” 5:29
  3. “Velvet Pants” 5:49
  4. “Better?” 2:05
  5. “Oh Yeah?” 5:28
  6. “History Repeating” Knee Length Mix (featuring Shirley Bassey) 4:05
  7. “Winning Style” 6:00
  8. “Bang On!” 5:57
  9. “A Number of Microphones” 0:48
  10. “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” 9:23
  11. “Bigger?” 2:22
  12. “Cominagetcha” 7:07
  13. “Spybreak!”

Disc 2:

  1. “Dive” 7:05
  2. “Ron’s Theory” 6:39
  3. “Lethal Cut” 7:27
  4. “Go Faster” 6:10
  5. “Big Dog” 5:43
  6. “Clang” 5:27
  7. “Bring Us Together” 6:32
  8. “History Repeating (Ankle Length Mix)” (featuring Shirley Bassey) 5:49
  9. “History Repeating (Hip Length Mix)” (featuring Shirley Bassey) 4:14
  10. “Props Vote of Gratitude” 5:07
  11. “360˚ (Oh Yeah)” (featuring De La Soul) 4:27
  12. “You Want It Back” (featuring Jungle Brothers) 5:59
  13. “Crash!”
Review, Uncategorized

The Write Stuff.

Today on #TheBookshelf we take a look at Nathan Bransford’s How To Write a Novel: 49 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever.

(…But we do tend to sit on a mighty hoard of craft books, do we not?)

Every writer I know has a collection of books about writing. Speaking for my own collection, think Smaug the dragon from The Hobbit and you’re not far off.

Some of these books are massive and cover the broader scope of story itself, like Alice LaPlante’s The Making of Story, while others are small enough to fit in your back pocket and distill their advice into it’s essentials, like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Some are semi-autobiographical, like Stephen King’s On Writing, and others contain workshop-style exercises, like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.

And while some have a serious, academic tone, others are more akin to having a conversation with a writer friend.

Buy the book here or at your favourite local independent bookstore.

Nathan Bransford’s How To Write a Novel definitely feels like the latter.

This guide to novel writing is a series of 49 rules, grouped into four sections: First Things First, Pen to Paper, Troubleshooting and Staying Sane, and Revising.

Writing a novel is a massive undertaking with a lot of moving parts. This book takes you through the process from concept to revision, covering bigger picture issues like the writing life and chasing trends (don’t), and the nitty-gritty things like formatting and (for the love of all things holy) backing up your work. There are rules for style, genre, ideas, plot and theme, setting, chapter beginnings and endings, and my favourite: tentpoles–the events that prop up your story like a circus tent. There are rules for things you could do, rules for things you should do, and rules for things that you absolutely must not do.

But it’s important to stop yourself from chasing after an idea by shaking your biography like a piggy bank to see what shiny things fall out.

Nathan Bransford, “How To Write a Novel.”

I really enjoyed this book. I re-read it and refer to it often, and I recommend it to writers at any stage of their writing journey.

First, the rules are short. I’m a freelance writer and editor working from home with two teenagers in remote school, a husband who is also working from home…and a cat. I am interrupted so much it’s should be comical–except it’s really not. In How To Write a Novel, each rule is 4-7 pages long and gets to the point without messing around. Easy to read a rule between interruptions!

Second, the advice. Within its pages, you will find valuable tools, tips and tricks that you can immediately put to use, no matter where you are with your current WIP (work in progress). Nathan’s rules are clear, helpful, and he uses relatable and familiar examples taken from his own work, popular fiction, and the classics. (It’s worth noting that while the foundational terms and theories he mentions are briefly-but well-explained, if someone is putting pen to paper for the very first time, they may want to check out a more detailed guide to the mechanics of story and then come back to this book.)

Finally–and most of all–I loved this book for the heart within its style. Nathan doesn’t pull any punches–writing a novel is hard– but time after time, I found myself laughing out loud at his take on the process. For me, his wit and tongue-in-cheek style are what make the rules easier to follow and remember. For some readers this casual, off-the-cuff approach might be off-putting, but I found it made the book more accessible.

When it comes to books on the writer’s craft, there is no one size fits all. The trick is to read widely and collect the advice that works for you from wherever you can. If you’re looking for guidance that is staid and/or academic, this book is not for you. But if it’s real talk and solid writing tools that you need, How To Write a Novel might be exactly the right book to add to your hoard collection!

For more information: Nathan Bransford is an author and former literary agent whose website and newsletters are packed with helpful information for writers. Find him at https://nathanbransford.com/

And don’t miss this interview with the author.

Join me again next week on #TheBookshelf for Write to this!, a segment exploring some of my favourite music to write to!

Review, Uncategorized

A Twist in the Tale.

Maybe, like me, you sometimes need an escape from all this <gestures vaguely>.

Okay, fine. Lately it’s been more often than sometimes.

When I need to be elsewhere, I look for a story to get lost in. Story is about as fundamental to human existence as breathing. I’d even go so far as to say that our need to tell and be told a story defines us as human beings. We humans share stories through oral traditions, visual art, music, dance, theatre, books, film, television…that IKEA commercial…the one with the little lamp…yes that one. And its sequel. <sniffle>

You feel sorry for the little lamp…
Photo credit, IKEA Canada


I digress.

Writers are students of story. When we find a story (or when a story finds us), it isn’t long before we’re tinkering. We examine it, carefully take it apart, try to figure out what makes it tick. Why do some things work in certain places but not in others. What is it about a particular story that makes it resonate more than another? Makes us feel more? Is it the clever twist? Or does the story unfold in an unusual way like a puzzle box? Of course we must have compelling characters, too. Someone to root for, someone to jeer for…. But in the end, it all comes down to how all these elements work together. Like your favourite cake recipe: you can tweak the formula, but in the end, you’ve got to have the right combination of flavours and binders—the right chemistry—for the story to work.

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”

Brandon Sanderson

This week on #TheBookshelf we explore three TV shows whose creators have done fascinating and unusual things with story, from reinventing and combining classic monster storylines, to playing with timelines in epic fantasy, and—in a science fiction story for the ages—exploring the vagaries of time itself.

Join me for a little escape…

Penny Dreadful

“It is too easy being monsters. Let us try to be human.”-Victor Frankenstein, from Showtime’s Penny Dreadful.
Photo credit, Showtime

First up is the delightfully gory, and very explicit, Victorian Gothic horror series Penny Dreadful (27 episodes, originally aired between 2014-2016 on Showtime). I’ve been a fan of horror for a long time, and I’ve read and seen a lot of great stuff, and a lot of shall we say “interesting” stuff (looking at you Afflicted). The creators of Penny Dreadful do what some of the monster movies from the 1940s used to do–toss iconic Victorian Gothic monsters and adventure novel characters together into the same storyline–and they do it exceptionally well. The show takes its name from the sensational Victorian novels containing stories of adventure and the supernatural and which cost…you guessed it…one penny (learn more about penny dreadfuls here!)

I’m tempted here to go into glorious detail about the show, but I know that in doing so I’d be dropping spoilery goodies all over the place, and I’m not about to ruin it for you. So let’s go with the IMDb description of the show: “Explorer Sir Malcolm Murray, American gunslinger Ethan Chandler, scientist Victor Frankenstein and medium Vanessa Ives unite to combat supernatural threats in Victorian London.”

Oh my. Do they ever.

Expect all your favourite monsters and monster hunters–and enough brilliant twists to keep the occasional whiff of campiness at bay. This show was at turns heart-stopping and heart-breaking. The main story follows Sir Malcolm (reportedly inspired by Allan Quartermain, the main character in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines) and Miss Ives as they try to discover the whereabouts of the missing Mina Murray, daughter and best friend, respectively. But woven into this main story are several other excellent storylines involving Frankenstein’s monster, Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll, several Egyptian gods, some witches, and–I’m sure I’m not spoiling anything, because you’re sure to have guessed it–Dracula himself (with an interesting twist on his backstory and some clever fiddling with the mythology, no less).

The series unfolds over three seasons with strong writing, good pacing, and lots of surprises. The cast is stellar–Eva Green does a lot–and I mean a LOT–of heavy lifting in the acting department. Her character is occasionally stiff, like she’s desperately trying not to move too much in case everything she’s holding in spills out. It would be easy to see it as a flaw in the acting, but I suspect it was a deliberate move on the part of the director and actor. I’d be remiss if I didn’t single out Billie Piper and Rory Kinnear for their exceptional performances as wonderfully human characters (no spoilers, Sweetie). (Also, watch for the fabulous Patti LuPone in not one, but two roles!)

I was emotionally wrung out by the end of most episodes–and if that’s not a sign of a good story, I don’t know what is.

As for the finale? Oof. So good.

Why I liked it: Penny Dreadful takes familiar literary monsters and puts them into new situations, with new or expanded lore, giving us broader insights into who they are and why they do what they do. It makes us question what makes a monster and puts new twists on several classic stories with depth, humanity, and ultimately, love.

The Witcher

When it comes to stories of fantasy and the supernatural–while I enjoyed The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings–I tend to lean more toward urban fantasy and sci-fi. But I’m also a bit of a gamer, so when Netflix announced that they were making a series based on The Witcher character, I was curious. The Witcher was created by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski. Sapkowski’s Witcher novels and short stories are incredibly popular in Poland, and the eponymous video games catapulted the series into the international spotlight. In the run-up to this Netflix version, I was particularly intrigued by Henry Cavill’s passion and preparation for the role. So I gave it a try. (The first season of The Witcher consists of eight episodes and first aired on Netflix in 2019. Season 2 is on its way.)

Toss a coin to your Witcher…
Photo credit, Netflix

Set against a backdrop of elves, mages, and political intrigue, this is a story about destiny and monsters and how neither are ever what they seem. Geralt is a mutant who hunts monsters for money, all the while being labelled a monster himself. More human than the humans who shun him, he really just wants to be left alone. But destiny has other plans…

The show is epic in every sense of the word. The story itself, the strong writing and dedication to the source material, the costumes (I could write an entire blog about the costumes alone), the effects, the incredible cast of strong female characters who fight their way through this world, Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Geralt of Rivia, Jaskier’s cheeky marketing ballad that I cannot get out of my head…I could go on.

But what really sold me was how the Witcher writers handled the timelines. There’s a lot of backstory and worldbuilding that needs to happen here to get a new audience up to speed. Instead of using flashbacks or taking a linear route through hundreds of years of story, three key storylines from three different timelines are cleverly braided together in a way I’ve never seen before. The action moves back and forth through time to develop character and plot, building tension not only in the story itself, but also in the anticipation of the eventual merging of the timelines. One of the ways that they make it work is by showing a scene from one character’s point of view, and then, in a later episode, going back and showing the same scene from a different character’s point of view. You have to just go with it for the first couple of episodes, but eventually, it all makes sense.

Geralt is a man of few words, instead conveying much with his facial expressions, actions, and an oft-used sardonic “hmm…” Shout-out to Henry Cavill, who plays Geralt to perfection, deftly conveying all the tightly-wound pain and the fatalistic humour you’d expect from this character. And while Geralt’s story is the main focus of the show, it is Anya Chalotra’s Yennifer of Vengerberg who just blew me away. Yennifer’s story arc is harrowing, beautiful, and sometimes achingly sad, and Anya’s masterful portrayal of the character is jaw-dropping.

Bonus: If you get chance and can find the accompanying “making of” documentary, it is totally worth it. Go behind the scenes to learn about the mythology, the inspiration, the incredible wardrobe department for the production…and more.

Why I liked it: Clever use of timelines to tell a long and complicated backstory, strong writing and acting, gorgeous to watch.


Where to begin. Or should I say when to begin.

“There are things out there that our little minds will never comprehend.” H.G. Tannhaus from the Netflix series, Dark.
Photo credit, Netflix

Eldest Son bugged me for months to watch Dark.

(Note to self: when ES recommends that you watch something, do it, but don’t expect him to help you out with any spoilers…#LawfulGood)

What starts out as a crime drama set in the fictional German town of Winden, very quickly reveals itself to be something else entirely. There’s something wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey about Winden. Especially in that cave.

Stay away from the cave, kids!

(Dark originally aired on Netflix from 2017-2020, there are 27 episodes over 3 seasons and it is in German with English subtitles.)

Where The Witcher braids together three timelines in a fairly linear fashion, Dark bounces through time with gleeful abandon, introducing us to characters at various points in their lives, spanning multiple time periods, and then following them as they move back and forth through time. Shout-out to the casting team who did an incredible job of finding actors to play the same character at multiple points in their lives in such a way that the viewer could recognize the character in every iteration.

According to ES, the creators of Dark, Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, originally had two series in mind: one, a crime/mystery/thriller, and the other, a time-travel story. They decided to combine the two and the result was, IMHO, one of the best sci-fi stories I’ve ever experienced. Here, we have a story that includes family drama, crime thriller, and sci-fi. It immerses you in questions about the nature of time, and what you would (or wouldn’t) do for the people you love.

What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.

Isaac Newton

Dark is clever. Sometimes, just when it seemed to be getting too clever for its own good and my brain was starting to hurt, something would happen to make me go “Ohhhh, I see what you did there…” At one point in season three, I turned to ES and said “I’d pay money to see how the writers plotted this.” Writing time travel is never not tricky, but in this case? To keep the interconnecting storylines straight, and to do so without a single plot hole? Remarkable. Utterly.

ES and I have found ourselves in so many fascinating conversations about time, nuclear and quantum physics, philosophy, and storytelling, all thanks to Dark. And I promise you, as ES promised me, when you reach the 27th episode, you will look at the Winden family tree that you drew around episode 2, and once again, you’ll go “Ohhhh…I see what you did there” and trust me, it will be glorious.

I cannot wait for Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar’s next outing for Netflix, the multi-lingual period drama/thriller 1899.

Why I liked it: You know how at the beginning of this blog I mentioned that writers like to take stories apart and study them? Dark is a masterclass in storytelling. The story reveals only what the viewer needs to move forward. It never insults your intelligence. In fact, it trusts that you will keep up–and in the end, it rewards your effort.

Have you watched any of the shows in this week’s post? What did you think of them? Did the stories resonate with you or did they leave you lost in time? Let me know in the comments!

Coming up next week: Join me as I take a leap into the non-fiction end of the pool with a review of Nathan Bransford’s How to Write a Novel.

Review, Uncategorized

Creep factor

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
Cover design by Faceout Studio and Tim Green

This week on #TheBookshelf we delve into the deliciously creepy Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

I loved everything about this book. From the exceptional cover design by Faceout Studio and Tim Green, to the wonderful sense of dread that grows with every moment spent within its pages.

Warning: this book is un-putdownable.

At first glance, you might mistake 22-year-old Noemí Taboada as nothing more than a party-going socialite. But it soon becomes apparent that there’s a lot more to Noemí than meets the eye. Fiercely intelligent, she is determined find a way to further her education, despite her family’s reluctance.

Fate steps in when Noemí’s father, a wealthy industrialist, makes her an offer: he will allow her to attend the master’s program she has her sights set on, if she is willing to first travel to the remote mining town of El Triunfo and check on the well-being of her cousin, Catalina. It seems that Catalina, recently married to Virgil Doyle, in a match that doesn’t quite sit right with the family, has sent Noemí’s father a desperate and somewhat garbled letter that makes it pretty clear that all is not well with her. Out of concern, and (perhaps more so) in the hopes of avoiding any family scandal, Noemí’s father dispatches her to High Place, the ancestral home of the Doyle family.

The plot is insidiously clever, drawing you in even as a claustrophobic sense of dread blooms–only to then sink under your skin, spreading deeper and deeper until you grasp the true horror of High Place.

Noemí shines as a brilliant hero: smart, open-minded, brave, and with a big heart. Almost from the outset, you feel the impact of her victories and her setbacks as if they were your own.

Photo credit: Alex Iby, Unsplash

As for the setting, it’s almost a character unto itself. High Place, damp and neglected, perched on its lonely mountain, is overflowing with horrors inside and out–from the devastating history of English mining operations in the area, to the deadly cliffs and deep crevasses hiding in the mist. As truly isolating as any desolate moor.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s writing is wonderful, putting you into each scene without getting in its own way. If you’re a fan of gothic horror and/or fiercely intelligent, beautifully human heroes, don’t miss this brilliant book!

Spoiler alert! (select the rest of this line to view): you will never look at mushrooms the same again.

When you’ve read the book, check out this great interview with the author.

(Featured image credit: Pixabay)

Ideas, Review, Uncategorized

Goals, habits, and productivity.

Maybe it’s because I was trained as a scientist. Maybe it’s why I became a scientist in the first place. Either way, I love to measure stuff. I love to make plans, set goals (both short- and long-term) and then use planners and schedules and habit trackers to see how I do.

Ummm…that’s rather a lot of post-it notes. Maybe time for a planner?
(Photo credit: Pixabay)

Do I hit every target or meet every goal? Nope. Do I stick to my schedule every day? Absolutely not. But I keep coming back to it because there’s something comforting about planning–being mindful about how you want to live your life or nurture your business–and then creating a framework to guide you.

And to be perfectly honest here, I’m a busy freelancer and mum, with probably far too many creative outlets, so making time for the people, work, and activities that I love, requires some organization!

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

Woody Allen

This week on #TheBookshelf, I’m sharing some of my favourite books, apps, tools, and websites to help you set goals (or not), improve your productivity, build better habits, and stay motivated.

1. Setting goals…or not!

My favourite paper planner: the Moleskine Large Weekly.
(Photo credit: Staples.ca)

I like to set goals. But my goals are a very fluid thing. I reevaluate often. Some people like to set their goals in January for the new year, but I look at my goals every three months or so (January, March, June, and September are the general time frames for me), and check in on how things are going and where things need tweaking. I mean, stuff happens, right? We learn as we go and sometimes plans change and we have to adjust accordingly.

Nathan Bransford is a writer, book editor, and former literary agent. His book How To Write A Novel is brilliant (I’ll be giving it an in-depth review in a future post) and his newsletter never fails to be interesting and helpful. Back in January he posted his thoughts on goals and a handy-dandy spreadsheet that you can use for your own goal-setting. It’s good stuff, so if goals are how you roll, I highly recommend that you check out his blog post here.

The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey.
(Photo credit: IndieBound)

If, on the other hand, goal setting is just not your thing, then my favourite productivity guru Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project and Hyperfocus, agrees with you! Chris doesn’t set goals for himself, but rather focuses on building habits. He rationalizes that it is the process that matters; as he explains over on his great website A Life of Productivity:

“Instead of aiming for a metric, focus on what will get you to the metric. Usually this means completing projects and developing habits that serve you.”

Chris Bailey

To read more of what Chris has to say about goal setting, check out these two blog posts: (and, of course, his books!)



2. Building habits

Atomic Habits by James Clear.
(Photo credit: IndieBound)

This brings us to habits. I’ve been following James Clear’s website for years, and I snapped up his book Atomic Habits as soon as it came out. James also has a great weekly newsletter that you can sign up for here: https://jamesclear.com/3-2-1

Habits are a tricky thing for me. I love a routine, but with a busy family and a freelance business, my days are often unpredictable, and I am so frequently interrupted that it’s frankly maddening. This makes building new habits a challenge for me. Committing to sitting down at a certain hour for a set amount of time is difficult bordering on impossible. So I’ve had to learn to be flexible. James’ book has really helped with that.

When you’re building a new habit, James advocates shifting your mindset–making changes at the identity level and shifting how you see yourself–then tying the new habit to something that you already routinely do and building up in small steps. Read more about the compounding power of small here.

“Improvements are only temporary until they become part of who you are. The goal is not to read a book; the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to run a marathon; the goal is to become a runner. The goal is not to learn an instrument; the goal is to become a musician. This year, focus on the identity you want to build.”

James Clear
Loop habit tracker

The best way to both cheer yourself on and figure out what’s working and what isn’t, is to measure your progress (like all good scientists). I recommend the Loop habit tracker app https://loophabits.org/ It’s a simple, intuitive interface that allows you to track more than a dozen different habits. It displays data in a few different formats, and allows you to export your stats.

(I found it in the Google Play store, I’ll post an update if I find something similar for Apple devices.)

3. Tick, tock!

Toggl Track is a free app/plug-in that allows you to track your time on a project-by-project basis.

Whether you’re working towards a goal or building a habit, the key thing for me is finding the time. And this is the beauty of Chris Bailey’s philosophy; the more productive you are with your time, the more time you have to do the things you want to do! So the first thing you need to do is to account for your time.

In my freelancing business, I use Toggl track https://toggl.com/track/ to keep track of billable hours. So when it came to accounting for all my time, I put this clever app to use, tracking everything I did–for an entire week! It was an eye-opener to see the kinds of things I spent time on and how much time was spent on each. Self-care, work, sleep, household activities like preparing meals, cleaning, shopping, family time…seeing a pie chart of all the things you spend your time on can help you spot areas where you’d like to focus more or less of your time.

TIP: From a freelancer’s standpoint, Toggl Track is a powerful business tool, allowing users to generate project-specific reports on a weekly or monthly basis. When it’s in use, it will even prompt you if you’ve been idle (not typing or clicking) for more than a specified amount of time.

Mouse timer from LITALICO

When I’m working on personal writing projects, I like to work in sprints or Pomodoros (periods of focused work separated by a series of short and long breaks). To keep track, I could use a kitchen timer, or the clock function on my phone, or even Toggl Track, but who among us couldn’t use a bit more cuteness in their lives? I love the Mouse Timer app from LITALICO (linked here to the Google Play store for Android devices). I love listening to the wee mouse nom-nomming through apples as I rattle away on my keyboard. The ticking (munching) sound is pleasant and not at all obtrusive, and the bell at the end of the set time is not jarring. This timer is also great for setting focus times for my middle-schooler to do some homework!

4. Motivation and burnout

Building habits and creating routines are important from more than just a productivity standpoint. They’re also good for both your physical and mental health–especially during the pandemic.

Over the past year, many of us have found ourselves feeling tired, unmotivated, and burnt out. In a recent interview on CBC Radio’s The Current, Dr. Roger McIntyre (Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at the University of Toronto and Head of the Mood Disorders Psychopharmacology Unit at the University Health Network) talks about chronic, unpredictable stress; brain chemistry; and the importance of a routine to combat burnout. Have a listen here: https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-63-the-current/clip/15836533-understanding-pandemic-burnout

Do you have any tips, tricks, or tools that you use to help stay productive, motivated, or build habits? Do you have advice for burnout self-care? I’d love to hear from you! Share your strategies in the comments below!

(Feature photo credit: Pixabay)


The Kids Are All Right

On #TheBookshelf this week is the wonderfully weird and slyly compelling Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson.

Twenty-eight-year-old Lillian is stuck—and seems destined to stay that way. Resigned to her fate, she lacks the energy to fight her way out of the hand she’s been dealt, comprising two dead-end jobs and her sweltering attic room in the house she shares with her coldly indifferent mother. A letter from her high school best friend, containing a job offer and money for a bus ticket to Tennessee, might be just the jolt she needs to change her life. And for once, Lillian decides to jump.

The job? Governess to her friend Madison’s stepchildren. The catch? The ten-year-old twins spontaneously combust when they are agitated. Madison and her husband need to keep the kids out of the limelight, so their “condition” doesn’t disrupt the carefully crafted trajectory of his political career.

What follows is a laugh-out-loud funny, heartwarming story about finding your weirdos and making them your family…about discovering what matters most and deciding to fight for it—glorious flaws and all.

(Featured image: Pixabay)


Unforgettable Shorts

Looking for a short read that packs a wallop? From a pair of paranormal mysteries in an unforgettably steampunk vision of Cairo, to a wild and hilarious mingling of revenge, old magic and nano-tech in post-apocalypse Kathmandu, and finally, to a quietly powerful, heart-filling love story among the the ancient trees and still older gods of England’s forests–here are this month’s #thebookshelf recommendations for a round-the-world journey through some short but unforgettable reads.

A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark

A Dead Djinn in Cairo, by P. Djèlí Clark.

I stumbled across this first recommendation quite by accident, as a free story on the Tor.com website. P. Djèlí Clark’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo gives us a world that is so realistically rendered that you can hear the crackle of electricity from the tram car lines and taste the sugary sweetness of the baqlawa. I’ve been a fan of stories about the magic of the djinn since I discovered the Bartimaeus sequence by Jonathan Stroud many years ago and I’ve read many takes on the lore. Here in Clark’s Cairo, we have a whole new spin on the mythology, in a world that effortlessly blends steampunk technology, alternate dimensions, magic, and murder mystery together with life in a vibrant, post-colonial city. The story follows Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi–the unforgettably dapper special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities–as an unusual murder case turns out to be a much bigger problem than she could have imagined.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark. Can we have a moment to swoon over this cover by Stephan Martiniere?

Set in the same world, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 introduces us to Agent Hamed Nasr, who–like Fatma–is an investigator with the Ministry. Here, the apparently simple task of handling a possessed tram car soon becomes far more complicated. Clark creates the most wonderfully real characters, full of quirks that make them step off the page (not literally…yet, anyway) and puts them in challenging situations with wildly entertaining results.

Initially, I was rooting for the delightfully unflappable Fatma to appear in this story, but it wasn’t long before I’d settled in and was content to let Nasr’s story unfold. Mind you (and in the interest of no spoilers) I will just say that I do love it when I get my way! I look forward to reading more adventures from this universe. And when you’ve finished these two, check out P. Djèlí Clark’s The Black God’s Drums.

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Z. Hossain. Cover art by Eric Nyquist

Next up, the djinn takes the reins. And not just any djinn…

King Melek Ahmar, Lord of Mars, the Red King, Lord of of Tuesday, Most August Rajah of Djinn has awoken from 4,000 years of slumber trapped inside a Himalayan mountain, and all he wants is to go back to what he does best: having a good time. But his plan for a little light conquering is derailed when he discovers that the world is very much not as he left it. When he encounters the crafty, pista-eating, knife-wielding Gurkha Bhan Gurung on the road to Kathmandu (which is now a government-controlled utopia presided over by the all-seeing AI Karma), it isn’t long before the Lord of Tuesday finds himself the bemused accomplice in a plot for revenge, 40 years in the making. With loads of wit and a clever plot, this is a great read!

Silver in the Wood (Book One of the Greenhollow Duology) by Emily Tesh

Silver in the Wood, by Emily Tesh. Cover art by David Curtis

Finally, from the murder and mayhem of djinn and AI, to the seemingly quiet, but no less powerful forests of England, we have Emily Tesh’s Silver in the Wood. Tobias, the Wild Man of Greenhollow lives a quiet life and he’s just fine with that, thank you very much. With his cat and the forest’s dryads for company, he listens to the trees and tries not to think about his past. But when the handsome and intensely curious new owner of Greenhollow Hall pushes his way into Tobias’s cottage–and life–in a very Jane Austen-approved manner, the Wild Man of Greenhollow soon finds his quiet life turned upside down by new love, old magic and the darkness of the past. Take a walk among the trees of Greenhollow for a sweet love story, full of mythology, hilarious family drama, and a lush setting that might just be the perfect break on a hot summer afternoon. I can’t wait for book two, Drowned Country, coming out in August, 2020.

Featured image artwork by Kevin Hong


Welcome to #TheBookshelf

Join me here on #TheBookshelf every Friday for book reviews, resources for writers and editors, thoughts on creativity, and tips for the care and feeding of the writers in your life…especially if that writer is you!

And if you’re a #WordNerd like me, in the meantime check out these two fascinating TED talks about our ever-changing language!

John McWhorter: Txtng is killing language. JK!!!

Anne Curzan: What makes a word real?