Friday, December 31, 2010

Setting Your Goals for the New Year

Okay, now that I've blathered about my own goals for the New Year, you probably got bored and thought about something more interesting: your goals for the New Year. As a compulsive list-maker and goal setter, let me offer you some suggestions.

I do strongly suggest that you think in terms of goals rather than resolutions. So many resolutions involve "don't" behavior. Every time you think "Don't do ___," you're thinking about ___. In fact, you're starting to obsess about it. How can you stop without doing ___?

Phrasing can be very important in the case of goals that do involve stopping certain kinds of behavior, such as overeating. Losing weight is especially challenging, because you have to keep eating, while trying 'not' to eat too much. Try thinking in terms of eating 'enough' rather than 'not overeating'. It might help.

When you set your goals, be realistic. Be realistic in terms of what you think you can accomplish, not what you've heard other people can or did do. Sure, the fat people on those TV weight loss shows did lose a remarkable amount of weight in a relatively short time. They also had coaches and cooks helping them out. We're also learning that sometimes more time passes between episodes than a real-life week. Measuring yourself by those standards will make you feel like a failure every week you lose less than five pounds.

Speaking of realistic, be sure your goals are about you. Getting your husband to stop smoking isn't under your control, it's under his control. You may have an obedient child who wants to please, but if she's not a 'morning person', this is unlikely to change. Some goals, by definition, do involve other people. If you're trying to get better performance ratings at work, or peddle your book to a publisher, a good portion of the outcome is in other people's hands. In this case, being realistic means you must accept that you might fail despite your best actions. Sometimes your boss just has it in for you.

Be specific. What is the most important thing you're trying to accomplish? "Reduce debt" sounds good, but is sort of vague. You might consider paying the minimums on your credit cards 'reducing debt' (FYI: no, it's not). "Retire my VISA card" or "Close my Dillard's account for good" are clearer goals.

Prepare to stick with it. Weight Watchers has a successful program. So does SparkPeople. Frankly, there are a lot of diet systems that really can help you lose weight - if you stick to them. Ask yourself how serious you are about your goal before ponying up time and money for a gym membership, new running shoes, etc. Paying off that MasterCard? You're probably going to have to do without some indulgences to make those higher payments... every single month.

Look for tools to help. Educate yourself. I mentioned there are a lot of diet systems that can help you - there are also a number of financial advice sites that can steer you towards better credit or reduced debt, if that's your goal (look for advice columns, not people who want you to pay them money to 'repair your credit'). MSN Money's Personal Finance isn't a bad place to start. Trying to stop smok- uh, live tobacco-free? Look at the American Lung Association pages. Educate yourself, then work from there.


Don't make your list too long. Cut yourself a little slack, will you? You need downtime. You're starting the New Year with plenty of energy and zeal (or bloated regret), but both will wear off by the time January is over. Set a few really important goals and pursue them. If you accomplish some other stuff, great, but don't schedule every minute of every day for working on yourself. The brightest guy I know, a mathematician, takes time off to watch the Simpsons. If his brilliant brain needs time off from weighty issues, so does yours.


Thursday, December 30, 2010

Planning the New Year

“Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans”

- John Lennon

Some people make resolutions for the New Year: I make lists. Each January, I used to make long lists of what I wanted to accomplish that year. I set up goals for my health (read for this: lose weight), finances, employment, spirituality, and, of course, for my writing. When I married, I expanded the chart of goals to include my wife's goals as well (not sure how she felt about that, but I'm a little OCD). We bought a house, so I added a new category for work around the house (painting, fixing stuff, etc.).

Every December, I reviewed the list to see how I'd done. Gentle Reader, I'm sure you're intelligent enough to guess that I was lucky to get half of my goals anywhere near accomplishment in twelve months. My goals were set up for blue skies, not the changeable climate of real life. Why not aim for the best?

Oh, well.

A couple of years ago, I decided to do something simpler: a short list of things I thought were really important. Since then, December hasn't been nearly as brutal.

My goals for 2010:
Lose weight. Finish rewrite. Get an agent. Please note that I dropped 'Get out of debt' from the list after taking out a loan to replace our central air. A house is a money pit. We're just lucky we don't have children to raise.

Goals accomplished? Well, I didn't lose weight, but I maintained the weight I've lost (although the jury is still out until after I escape my mother's clutches). I did finish the rewrite. I didn't get that agent, but I got a publisher, which was better!

Goals for 2011... Hrm. Lose weight (perennial goal). Promote book. I was working on a separate book with a new character when I got the good news. Do I try to finish it, or restart work on the sequel for All This and Family, Too?

Lots to plan for... I may only accomplish the first two goals. Or... maybe only the second goal. I'll be satisfied if it comes off well.

I hope everyone has a great New Year. Try not to get too hung up on resolutions or lists.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Recipe: Mom's Avgolemono Soup

The finished product.

Today, I'm posting something you will rarely see here: a recipe. I rarely cook, and when I do it usually involves boiling water and some sort of powder or item in a can. However, I am visiting my mother, who is Greek, and she makes the best avgolemono soup in the world. All cultures seem to have some form of chicken soup; this is the Greek version.

Although I first posted this on, this is not a 'healthy' recipe. This is the way my mother, a real Greek, makes it... although the bouillon is a recent addition. Restaurants often just use the egg whites; my mother uses whole eggs.

Chicken Broth, 10 cup (8 fl oz)
Egg, fresh, 5 large
Lemon Juice, 4 lemon yields
White Rice, medium grain, 4 cup
Chicken bouillon, 3 cubes
Salt and pepper to taste

Boil a chicken for two hours. Remove the chicken from the pot, and use for chicken salad or some other purpose (you can add some of the meat back to the soup later if you want).

Add 1 and 1/3 cups dry rice to the pot. Let the rice cook. TURN DOWN THE HEAT.

Squeeze the 4 lemons. Beat the eggs, THEN add the lemon juice. Beat together.

Slowly add a LITTLE bit of the broth at a time to the egg-lemon mixture until the mixture gets very warm. Dump into the broth and stir.

Let the broth come to where it begins to boil again, and take the pot OFF the heat. I cannot stress this part enough; you don't want the egg to 'break'. The only reason Mom lets it boil at all is because of salmonella worries.

Side note: some people use orzo instead of rice. My mother is a purist. Also: don't add onions of any sort. Trust me on this one.

I added this to my repertoire at SparkPeople because I needed a calorie count (the vat above comes out to about 16 servings at 137 calories each, if you're curious). Since I shared it, I have received several responses from people who tried making it and loved the results. Guess I give better directions for cooking than doing the actual cooking.

If you try it, I hope it turns out well.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Traffic Tribulations

I apologize in advance to all Tennesseans reading this blog. I do not mean to cast aspersions on the state, at least not now that football season is over. I lived in Alcoa and Maryville for a few years during my childhood, and they were pretty good years.

However: Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge is a growing fistula on the state's backside, spewing road rage and concrete droppings of tourist traps from Sevierville to Cherokee, North Carolina. If you live there, I feel sorry for you. You seem like nice people, but I think your blood pressure might drop if you relocated.

When I was a child, we visited Gatlinburg a few times. We parked, got out of the car, and walked around to look at the tourist attractions. Finding a parking place was the only problem. Things have changed a lot in the last -um- twenty-five years.

The layout of the area probably 'just happened that way', but could not have been better planned by an anger management counselor looking for customers: Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Sevierville is one huge mall with four to six-lane service roads. There are precious few sidewalks, and nothing is close to anything else. Signs and lights are everywhere, telling you that you're simultaneously on a northbound and southbound road. That's not all: U.S. 441 splits at a right angle for north vs. south, too. Methinks someone didn't have a compass.

I drove through Denver during the Democratic National Convention. Every morning, I left from Aurora and entered its construction zones and rotating lane closures. They changed the lane closures every day for security reasons (malice, more likely). Denver earned its listing as a horrible town for traffic fair and square.

Surely I, a Denver Convention veteran, wouldn't get lost in Sevierville, a 'small town' in Tennessee..? Yes, I did, and lots of fun was had by all (NOT). It was even more 'fun' later, when we needed to take someone to the emergency department (I will not relate that story here because I've received death threats). Did GPS help on that trip? No, it didn't, not when they'd moved the hospital!

Oh, you're planning to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Drive into NC from I-40 and approach from Cherokee. Mapquest told me that a drive from one resort to another would take 10-11 minutes. It took 45 minutes to an hour each time we drove it. We tried driving through the park from the Tennessee side during warmer weather (FYI: Xmas is the busiest season), and it took three hours to get anywhere close to the park. Biggest use of the park's welcome center: to pee. Incidentally, we took the faster route. If you want to take a slower route, try the 'Gatlinburg Bypass'.

Don't try to do an entire drive-through of the Park via the other direction, either: the traffic backup to the Terrible Tennessee Trio begins while you're still inside the park in a section where you can't do turnarounds. Expect to creep for a couple of miles before you reach the park exit. Oh, and keep those windows rolled up. There are still bears in the Park, and they love potato chips.

I know, I know. All these complaints, and I've offered no solutions. I have one: create a public shuttle system that stops at the various resorts/hotels and malls/tourist attractions. Stick a giant Park n' Ride at the outskirts of Sevierville, too, so daytime visitors would have a legal place to leave their cars. Yes, this would require an enormous number of shuttles to cover the area effective. The system would be large enough, though, if everyone who wanted the shuttle to stop at their establishment had to pony up a few thousand dollars and pay an annual fee for maintenance. There are very few 'small' businesses in the area, and no one is selling anything on the cheap.

They'd all pay the fee to be included, to keep the customers coming in. It's not like you can just walk any more.


Monday, December 06, 2010

Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No StarsFull Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stephen King is at the point in his career where he writes what he feels like writing, and publishes when he feels like publishing. In the Afterword to this collection, King states:

I have tried my best... to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances.

"1922" - 132 pages. This tale was the last one I read and required the most commitment to finish on my part. His inspiration was the photograph collection from the nonfiction book Wisconsin Death Trip. He hoped to capture some of the bleakness and isolation of the pictures in this story.

I believe he succeeded in doing this. Wilfred James certainly has a difficult life, made more so by a wife who wants to sell her land to a hog farmer, no matter the consequences to her husband's farm. Murder is the unsurprising result, with the somewhat reluctant assistance of James' son. This kicks off a series of events that culminate in an ending reminiscent of Poe, Lovecraft, or... er, Stephen King.

This story required the most commitment from me because I found it difficult to like any of the characters. King's portrayal of them isn't unrealistic or inaccurate; they are entirely believable. I just didn't like them, with the possible exception of the son's girlfriend. She was more sympathetic, but her existence and plight weren't really necessary to the core of the story. The interlude of her doomed romance with the son is more of a detour on the way to ruin.

"Big Driver" - 112 pages. This tale should prove very popular with female mystery readers and their fans. Tess, a cozy writer, is called to speak to a group after Janet Evanovich cancels. On a shortcut home through no-man's land, she is seized, raped, and left for dead. She finds her way back to safety, but she will never be the same. She cannot report what happened to her because of the damage it would do to her image as a cozy writer. The other option? Revenge, served Stephen King style.

I greatly enjoyed this story, especially with its salute to the writers' life and its nod to women mystery writers. Janet Evanovich is one of the most-read (and well-paid) living mystery writers, although the true mystery tends to center around whether she will hook up with Morelli or Ranger in the latest book. Tess outlines the presentation 'routine' of an author as she performs it. Later, she will talk to her cat... and the cat will talk back (an unfortunate occurrence in super-cozies). As she becomes increasingly not-cozy in outlook, she also talks to her GPS and the corpses of her victims. A fun read.

"Fair Extension" - 33 pages. This was the shortest, so I read this first. Yes, I am lazy.

Man dying of cancer makes a deal with Mr. "Elvid" to continue living. My comment: in Danse Macabre, King states that the horror reader has the moral sense of the average Puritan when it comes to who can (and should) have horrible things done to them. He did not invoke this rule when I thought he should. Not satisfied with the ending, but make your own judgment.

"A Good Marriage" - 103 pages. What do you do when you discover your husband is a serial killer? In the afterword, King cites the example of the BTK Killer: many people believed that his wife had to know what her husband was doing. King disagrees, and asks, "What if..."

I'm trying to think what to say about this story of Darcellen and her non-fun version of Dexter. I know it was a decent story, but I'd have to flip through it to come up with good or bad stuff. When I was trying to describe the stories in this collection to a friend, I had a mental block with this one: "And the other one, it was a good story, but... let me get the book. Oh, yeah... this is what it's about..." I think that tells me what I thought of it.

Time to assign some stars to this collection of novellas and one short story.

Overall? Four stars. I enjoyed the book overall and it gave me real pleasure to read it. Rating the individual stories...? Three stars for "1922", despite my complaints. If he meant to convey despair, he got what he wanted. Four stars for "Big Driver". Two stars for "Fair Extension". I would make it one for my dislike of the ending, but I save that for really crappy writing. Three stars for "A Good Marriage". It was a good story and it kept me turning pages. It just didn't stick with me.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

NaNoWriMo is Over: Now What?

Let me confess now: I am a huge cheater and rebel when it comes to NaNoWriMo. I did start my current WIP during NaNo, but I have used it since to force myself to work on the same book intensively for at least one month out of the year. 

Some other writers do this same thing, using the freedom and camaraderie of the event to get some serious writing done. I'm a serious introvert, but I love doing the write-ins. I get an excuse to drink coffee sweetened and creamed to shameful levels, swap war stories with other writers, and write side by side with other people.

There are a lot of true winners out there, though, people who began on 11/1 with zero words and had 50K written before 12/1. I've been congratulating them on Facebook, Twitter, and on the main NaNo site. You have a lot to be proud of, too! 50,000 words in one month is impressive. My personal best is about 14K, accomplished during NaNoWriMo (of course).

So... now what do you do with your magnum opus? Some people are content to write for themselves, but their numbers are a hell of a lot smaller than the numbers who want other people to read their material. If you're reading this blog based on the title, I know you fall into the latter category. Here are my suggestions and caveats for your new child:

Nota bene: The focus of NaNoWriMo, is quantity, not quality. They say so right in the intro material. This means it's time to work on the quality of your piece.

Not everyone gets this. A number of winners, flush with success and possibly an overdose of coffee, join AgentQuest immediately and start sending out their manuscripts as soon as they have some names and addresses. The NaNoWriMo blog addressed this last year:
In fact, several agents joke that December is "NaQuRejMo," which cruelly stands for "National Query Rejection Month." In all seriousness, though, we do see a lot of queries in December.
Take the time to reread and edit your work before sending it out. Once an agent has rejected your book, you  don't get to resubmit it. Agents always have lots of other query letters and manuscripts to read. Take the best shot you can the first time.

Okay, so I've convinced you to review your novel. What should you be looking for?

First things first: you need to make it longer. Fifty thousand words is really good, but publishers are generally looking for novels that run somewhere between seventy to ninety thousand. The good news: when you reread your MS (manuscript), you will spot places where you didn't give enough description or need to add a bridge scene so the reader will know what the hell is going on. Yes, you'll find them, even if you thought you did way too much description in that one scene (shorten that scene, BTW).

Next: there's a good chance your main character is a Mary Sue. You may find her adventures scintillating, but no one else will (because they know it's about YOU and not THEM). I read one story where the main character got a hot tub for Christmas. Several people died during the novel, all in connection with water, so I assumed the heroine would find herself in mortal danger from its roiling waters before the end of the book. Nope, all her dips were heavenly. She just wanted a hot tub, so she gave one to her character.

Finally: NaNo tactics don't always adapt well to the world of publishing: Unless your story is set in Japan, you really need to delete that Wall of Ninjas scene you used to boost your word count. Come up with something else. Like I said, you don't want to submit your manuscript during December anyway. If you can do 50K in one month, I am sure you can make up the word count before January.

Once you begin rereading your MS, you will begin to feel certain emotions. Remember all those pep talks from the NaNo folks about the way you would be feeling when you hit certain word counts? Excited during the first 15K words, in the doldrums at 25K, plunging down the hillside at 40K? The feeling you will get when really reviewing your NaNo MS will make you remember 25K as a joyous time.

Why? Because you're going to be thinking: "OMG! This is so disjointed and repetitive! It has all sorts of plot holes! This is the worst sex scene ever! I used the wrong character's name at least six times! I can't spell worth a damn, and look at all those typos! I thought I'd made a few in my rush to finish, but wow! I suck as a writer!"

No, you don't. In fact, you're thinking like a real writer.

NaNoWriMo is all about the joy (or, in some cases, madness) of creation. You've given birth to something. Like most infants, though, it looks like a squalling mess on arrival and it needs to be cleaned off and clothed before you introduce it to the world around you.

There are a few authors that - bang, right out of the box - can produce a marvelous story. Most of them learned how to do it through practice. Everyone else is doing what you did - brazening it out for the first writing, then berating themselves when they realize how many do-overs are needed. That's okay. That's normal.

It's also something you need to do before you send your MS to an agent. If you want them to take you seriously, you need to take the writing seriously. Not during the first write-up, but afterwards. If you decide that you really were doing it 'just for fun', fine. No harm, no foul. Please don't send it to an agent, though. The self-publishing industry can help you make great Xmas presents for your friends.