Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bob the Brandname.... Can we sell it?

A few years ago, my good friend Karen wrote a little book called Consuming Innocence. If you haven't read it, then you should get your hands on a copy. It's a fascinating, frightening read. She takes you into the world of Big Marketing - deconstructing both the impact of modern mass marketing on our children, and the techniques which a lot of big brands use to increase their market penetration.

One of the big techniques utilised by marketing departments is to try and expose their brand and / or logo to as many children, as young as possible. To get them 'imprinted', if you will, so that certain brands and concepts form a 'natural' part of that child's social world. This, I recall reading somewhere, is the reason that a certain Large-American-Theme-Park,-Movie,-Television-And-Music Company is happy to have their copyrighted characters printed onto the crotch of nappies; toddlers and babies spend an inordinate amount of time lying on their backs with their feet in the air, staring at that particular part of their anatomy and in the process becoming firm friends with whichever cartoon characters happen to be staring back at them.

Karen's book looks at a lot of this kind of stuff, and takes you deeper into both the psychology and the economics involved, and some of the numbers are staggering. I won't say more than that about the book here, but it's something I think all parents should have a read of.

It certainly re-enforced my determination not to allow Toby (as much as was practicably possible) to be willingly inculcated into the sort of consumer culture that we spend our lives moving within. And, for the most part, we've been pretty successful. We don't buy him clothes or merchandise with big brands or characters on them, we avoid having the television on when he's up (though I'll admit to a couple of transgressions here; both shows involving trains. The boy is obsessed with trains and, to be honest, some times it's nice to be able to take ten minutes to get a load of washing done...) We deliberately sent him to a daycare which doesn't have or use television, but which has a whole lot of (un-branded, un-merchandise-y) toys and activities to fill the days.

And yet, despite all our best efforts, Toby uttered three terrifying words tonight*;

"Bob the Builder."

He said it while pointing to a picture of said cartoon builder in a catalogue which came with a 'Bananas in Pyjamas' DVD he'd been given for Christmas. The thing is, he knew who BTB was.

Which was news to Min and I. To the best of our knowledge, Toby has never seen an episode of BTB, nor read a BTB picture book. He doesn't have a BTB lunchbox, or any BTB clothes, or nappies, or wet wipes, or any of the myriad other objects which carry the BTB brand. The closest he's come to BTB is that he has a BTB-branded toy sander, which another friend gave him for Christmas** and which, since the moment it came out of the box, he's been convinced is a hairdryer just like his grandmother's.***

As far as we knew, Toby had never even heard the phrase 'Bob the Builder', let alone become familiar enough with the product to be able to pick it from a catalogue.

It's a triumph of market penetration; Bob the builder is firmly on Toby's radar, despite all our best efforts.

And, for me at least, the scarier aspect of this is the realisation that already, at just two-and-a-bit-years of age, Toby is already living and learning in a world of pop culture, brands, and highly targeted advertising. And at the same time as he's soaking up language, music, movement, numbers and everything else, he's soaking up brand identification, and it would seem that there's little we can do about it.

Except, perhaps, to introduce him tomorrow to 'Bob the Ballerina...'****


*actually, it's been an evening of landmarks. He also climbed out of his cot, fell on his head, and precipitated the sudden and unexpected conversion of said cot into a 'big boy's bed.' He's now tucked up firmly asleep under a sheet, while Min and I wait for the first 'thump' of boy hitting carpet...

**Toby did well out of last Christmas. We needed to borrow an extra suitcase just to get his presents back from Perth

*** A belief we have very wholeheartedly continued to cultivate...

**** Which, if truth be told, I've just spent two hours creating. That's how serious I am about this...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Writing Rhythms

So I'm here to report in, and the news is good.

My new-look-don't-you-dare-interrupt-me writing time programme is (so far, touch wood) working a treat. All it's taken is a polite sign on my office door, and the self control to turn off my phone, email, twitter reader, iPad, and mobile for the first two hours of every morning. Oh, and the self control to stop writing at the end of my 2 hours.

And, in the last week or so, I've put out a little over 12,000 words. This is about a third of my sum total for the previous 12 months of writing.

What has struck me most, though, is that this is kinda different to all the writing I've done previously. In years gone by* I used to write in intense 'blocks' of time - putting perhaps a couple of months of the year aside and just burying myself in my current book for up to 8 or 9 hours a day. The writing took over my head, and my life.

Nowdays, of course, I don't have that luxury. Last year one of the problems I faced was that I kept putting off my writing until a suitable block of time presented itself. And, of course, it didn't. Hence my horribly low word count, and lack of a 2011 book.

So, as I mentioned in my last post, this year I've adopted a different approach. I've got 2 hours a day - the first two hours. I get into my office, shut out the world, and write. From 8.30 until 10.30 each morning, there's just me, and the pattering rhythm of my keyboard. At 10.30 I make myself stop - regardless of where I'm at, or how much I'm enjoying it - and get on with the myriad other tasks which make up my days.**

The thing which has surprised me the most is how quickly those two hours have become one of the best bits of my day - something I actively look forward to. And that, in turn, is having a positive effect on the writing. I'm hoping this continues - one of the problems with my old 'intense' approach was that, especially towards the end of a book, I'd find myself feeling burnt out and unmotivated. Sure, I was knocking out perhaps 10,000 words in a day, but I was wiped at the end of it, and even more so the following morning.

But not any more. It turns out that 2 hours is, generally speaking, enough time for me to really get into the rhythm of the writing, and to turn out about 2000 words (give or take, it was only 1200 yesterday, but they were good words, IMHO). And then, at the end of it, I've got something to look forward to the following morning.

The funny thing is that, early on in my writing career, I used to hear writers - big name writers - talk about their writing methodologies and I used to dismiss out of hand those who used the '1000 words per day' or similar approaches. I just knew they wouldn't work for me: writing was too BIG to be contained like that. Too spontaneous. Writing couldn't be contained to a number of words or a period of time - it had to be free and unfettered and all-consuming.

And, at the time, that was the right (write?) philosophy for me.

But - I guess like all things - needs must when the devil drives, and as my life and attitude to writing has changed so too have my needs in terms of time and approach. It's just taken me a while to realise it. I might even be able to attempt NANOWRIMO this year. Perhaps.

What about you? How do you write?

*ie: before marriage, fatherhood and full time work at a University
** Naturally I don't do this on weekends. The EBA*** I worked out with myself 6 years ago is quite emphatic on that point...
*** For Rivka and my other overseas readers: EBA = Enterprise Bargaining Agreement - a draconian piece of industrial relations legislation, and a hangover from the days of Australia's last conservative government. Now, thankfully, overturned...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Writing Again...

As a general rule, I'm pretty good at time management. I think it's one of those things that you learn by natural attrition when you first hit out as a writer. I know that my productivity in the first couple of months after I left high school teaching was pretty much through the floor. The sudden luxury of being able to go to the movies in the middle of the day, or the beach, or the pool, or even just the post office, was one which pretty much killed my writing for a while there.

Of course, you very quickly work out that if you're not writing, then you soon won't be eating, and so like most writers I learned fast that if I wanted to get things done, then I needed to be more proactive (Urgh! I hate that word...) about making time to write. I guess most people would call it 'self discipline'

But, in the last 12 months, to be honest, I've slipped a bit. In 2009, I wrote roughly 100,000 words of creative stuff. Last year, I managed only 32,000.

This is just my creative writing, though. Last year I also put out roughly 50,000 words in lecture notes, 10,000 words in journal articles, and a good whack of time writing for this blog.

So I'm not a complete time-waster, it's just that I've allowed my writing to take a second place to some of the other writing priorities in my life.

Which brings me to my new year's resolution for this year. I'm going to do my darnedest to write for at least two hours every day. I've blocked out the first two hours of the day on my calendar, put a polite sign on the office door and now I get to work, turn off my phone, don't fire up my email, place my iPad in a drawer, and get to work. And so far this week I've managed to put out the best part of 5000 words, which isn't too bad, given that it always takes me a few days to get back into the rhythm of a book, especially if it's one I haven't worked on for a while. In this case, it's been six months since I wrote a single word of my current book, so I'm pretty happy to be getting back into the swing of it. It's kind of comfortable, falling back into a writing routine.

All going well, my current book should be finished in a couple of weeks (this is the long-awaited adventure thingy), and then I can turn my attention to a few other exciting little ideas that have been churning around in the dark corners of my mind.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Of Droughts, and Flooding Rains

My heart is breaking this morning.

A few years ago, when Imogen and I lived in Brisbane, just after I left teaching and hit out as a full-time writer, I made my living doing speaking engagments. Most of them were in the areas around Brisbane; little towns like Toogoolawah, Laidley, Toowoomba and numerous others. I got to know the Lockyer Valley and the Warrigal Highway very well indeed.

In the small town of Laidley, I worked with students from the high school - I particularly remember Laidley because one of those students - I won't name her - kept in touch with me for years after my visit; she used to email me when things happened; often big and sometimes awful things - a friend's death, moving away from home. She used to say what a huge impact my visit had on her. Though I never told her this, her sporadic emails helped me understand small town life in Australia from a teenage point of view, and had a real impact on my writing; her voice was utterly authentic and her emails gave me a real sense of the sometimes crushing difficulties that come with being an adolescent in such a small and isolated community. And even though I haven't heard from her for a few years, now, I've always had very fond memories of Laidley and the kids I worked with there.

A couple of years ago I was invited to the 'Voices on the Range' festival in Toowoomba. I spent a lovely week there, living in one of the most beautiful B&B's I've ever seen, and talking to some of the most engaging and enthusiastic audiences of school students that I've ever come across. I also had the time to explore Toowoomba properly - it's the most beautiful little town, perched on top of the Great Dividing Range like a sentinal at the edge of the vast Darling Downs.

This morning I, like so many other Australians, woke to the news that this beautiful part of the country, filled with people I've met, laughed with, worked with and lived with, is facing one of its darkest hours.

When I toured Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley, the whole area was in the grip of drought. In a couple of towns, I was advised not to drink the tap water, because the dams were running dry and there was a lot of sediment in the drinking water. The folks who lived there were living their lives under some of the most stringent water restriction laws in the country.

Last year - finally - the drought broke.

And yesterday afternoon, in an example of just how savage and unforgiving this country can be, a storm of such savage intensity that it's been described as an 'inland tsunami' hit Toowoomba; taking lives, destroying homes, and wreaking utter, utter havoc.

After Toowoomba, the waters dropped down the height of the Great Dividing Range, causing rivers and streams to flood in moments; the waters rising 9 or 10 metres above their usual banks, and sweeping away everything before them as they surged down the plain towards Brisbane.

Laidley, was among the towns hit hard. But not the only one.

So today, as families across the plains from Brisbane all the way west to the foothills are battling against the rising waters, my heart is breaking for them. And for my many friends in Brisbane, who are bracing for the now almost inevitable floods as the water makes its way out to sea via the Brisbane River.

Good luck, all of you. You're in my thoughts.

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