December 31, 2012

Moving my website, just a little too late

Illustration by Ayhan Yildiz • sxc.hu

I’ve never been one for new year's resolutions. If a change is going to be made, one might as well make it now as wait for some arbitrary date on the calendar. But it just happens that a change I’ve been planning for a while coincides with the turning of that page from December to January.

My website has needed an overhaul for ages, and I have heard from Author Media and tons of other sources that WordPress is the way to go. Since I’m already familiar with WordPress because it’s what New Authors’Fellowship is built on, it seemed like a great idea.

I’ve also been wanting to shift to a different website host, because having my site hosted by AT&T has not been a good experience. For example, I sent the help desk an e-mail asking how to set up WordPress on my site. I was told I couldn’t do that under my current hosting plan. This was not a surprise, because I was on the lowest-cost plan available. But the help desk did not say, as a helpful person would do, “We’ll need to upgrade your plan, which will cost an additional so many dollars per month. Shall I go ahead and do that for you today?” The answer to this question, had it been asked, would have been, “Yes, thank you.”

But in one of many Great Fails, The helpless desk said, “Your plan doesn’t support WordPress. You’ll have to contact the sales department for an upgrade.” So I e-mailed the sales department and asked how much an upgrade would cost.

Three weeks later, I got an e-mail back that said, “Did you ever get that upgrade you were asking about?”

No, because I was never told how much it would cost. At this point my answer was “never mind,” because I’d already decided to switch to a new host.

By the way, when I asked my new host, HostGator, how to set up my account for WordPress, I was given detailed instructions. I got off to an OK start, but when I ran into a snag and e-mailed the help desk again, I was sent another set of directions followed by "or, if you prefer, I can do it for you." To which the answer was, "Yes, thank you," and the job was done quickly.

Unfortunately, I then got hung up on the design.

Coming from a print page design background, I knew what I wanted my website to look like, but not how to make it happen. While with AT&T, I tried several different web-building apps, but none of them were ever as intuitive to use as they claimed, and none were as flexible as InDesign. I mean, using InDesign, I could place a graphic exactly where I want it, and overlay or run around text, and … well, anyway, every other page layout program pales by comparison, and web design apps are just not in the same league.

While I fiddled about on the design end of WordPress, AT&T “upgraded” my website and e-mail services. This “upgrade” produced two e-mail outages within three weeks. If only I had switched to my new host in October, instead of waiting. Oh, well. That’s what I get for being fussy about appearances.

I finally gave myself a deadline and picked up a copy of Launch a WordPress.com Blog In A Day For Dummies, though I've spent more than a day on it. I'm taking advantage of the end-of-year slowdown to migrate my site. I hope to have the shift completed by January 2. After that, articles related to writing, editing, and publishing will appear at kristenstieffel.com. Some of my articles about the writing journey, faith, and publishing will be at New Authors’ Fellowship. I’m going to try increasing the frequency with which I blog about business topics at Central Florida Christian Chamber of Commerce. Anything left over will go here.

I pray your new year will get off to a great start, and that if you have any changes to make, you will make them now, and not delay while waiting for another page to turn.

December 24, 2012

My Christmas prayer for you


Over at New Authors' Fellowship,  I wrote about the Mayan Doomsday Hoax and Christmas, which aren't as incompatible topics as you might think. Christ's second coming will herald the end of this world as we know it, and his first coming is what we gather to celebrate this week. Here's a summary of what I said over there.


© jurand - Fotolia.com
Christmas is incomplete if we forget why God put on flesh to dwell with us.

It wasn’t because he thought it would be personally fulfilling to be born in a pen with the livestock and grow up poor and learn to work for a living.

It wasn’t because it would be great fun to walk along dusty roads from one end of the country to the other preaching to people, most of whom wouldn’t even listen, let alone take his words to heart.

It wasn’t because he thought everyone would believe him if only he could be tried on trumped-up charges and get executed in the most brutal way ever devised.

It was because having gone through all that, his rising again on the third day demonstrated his ability to overcome anything — all opposition, all sorrow, even death itself. The cost of teaching us that lesson was the incarnate Word that governs the universe debasing himself to our level — to the lowest of the low, even into the grave. If he’d do that much for us, how much more will he meet all our earthly needs?


I pray that whatever opposition you face, whatever needs are weighing on your mind, whatever sorrows are breaking your heart, you will find comfort in the one who faced more opposition, poverty, and sorrow than we can imagine — and overcame them all.

Happy Christmas.

December 19, 2012

Blog Hop: The Next Big Thing

Lists of questions are often used as conversation-starters on the Internet. Lately, this is the string that's been running around my circle. Each writer answers these questions about her book, and then passes the baton, as it were, to five more writers. Pretty soon everyone who ever even thought of writing a book will be tagged.

Robynn Tolbert, author of Star of Justice, tagged me as part of a string of authors promoting their Next Big Thing. Her post went up last week; now it's my turn.

1) What is the title of your next book/work?
© Anyka -- Fotolia.com

Alara's Call, Book One of The Prophet's Chronicle

2) Where did the idea come from?

I had a kind of vision -- almost like watching a movie -- of troops riding through a gate, flags flapping in the wind. I started writing to find out who those troops were and why they were there. There's only a bare vestige of that scene -- the flags -- left in the book.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

"Sword Opera," which is like fantasy only without the magic, elves, and dragons. Thank you, Caprice Hokstad, for coining this term.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I have yet to see any actors who could play the heroine, Alara, or the hero, Dorrel. The only role I've been able to cast so far is Alara's mentor, General Rariden, who will be played by Harrison Ford.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Alara is called to prophesy to world leaders -- starting with her father.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Agents seem utterly unwilling to represent this genre. They say there's "no market" for that, but since I know plenty of people who read this genre, I know that what the agents really mean is "the market for that is too small to be worth my time. I am hoping to place the manuscript with a small press that doesn't require agent representation.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

A few months, but it was horrible, and sat in a drawer for ages before I took it out again and rewrote it. Several times. Eight, actually.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The Blood of Kings trilogy by Jill Williamson
The Legends of the Guardian King series by Karen Hancock
The Duke's Handmaid by Caprice Hokstad
Prophet by R.J. Larson
Daughter of Prophecy by Miles Owens
Star of Justice by Robynn Tolbert
Amberley by Mary Elizabeth Hall

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The aforementioned vision. And, I like to think, God. At least, I hope this book honors the gift he's given me.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Although most fantasy worlds are medieval (you can thank medieval expert J.R.R. Tolkien for that), Alara's world is more like 19th-century Europe. And although there's some swordplay, it's more about political intrigue.

I'll tag P.A. Baines, who has already done his homework, Ralene Burke, Diane Graham, Avily Jerome, and Will Ramirez. Yes, I picked all New Authors' Fellowship members. Because a fellowship sticks together.

December 14, 2012

A weird way to celebrate Christmas

Last week, I described the long trip "Mighty Fortress" took to publication, and I promised to explain how I came to write two drastically different Christmas stories.

"The Feast of Stevens" is a science fiction Christmas comedy about turkeys on a space station. "Mighty Fortress" is about the persecution of Jews in Austria in the 1930s. Yet both have a common origin.

Years ago, the editors at Orlando Business Journal developed a contest for the staff called "Twisted Christmas." The idea was to write a Christmas story that was, in some way, not what one usually sees in Christmas stories. The stories were distributed, without names on them, to anyone on staff who cared to participate in the judging.

I was overconfident, figuring I had studied fiction most of my life and the others were deeply steeped in boring old journalism. But year after year, I lost to my editorial colleagues, always to stories that were macabre or gory. So I mistakenly tried to write that way. I put way too much pressure on myself for a contest that had no prize at all other than an announcement at the company Christmas party.

An earlier version of "Mighty Fortress," called "Ein Feste Burg," came in second or third one year. I honestly don't remember which and can't find it written down anywhere. It's dark, being set in Nazi Austria, but still lost to something more macabre.

Realizing I would never produce my best work by writing to what I thought judges liked, and that I was never going to write horror, I decided to go totally the other direction and write a comedy. The year I wrote "The Feast of Stevens" was the year I finally, finally, won that stinkin' contest.

I got a little vindication when "Ein Feste Burg" won First Place at the 2007 Royal Palm Literary Awards in the Best Short Story Unpublished category. And more still when "The Feast of Stevens" was published by The Cynic Online Magazine and subsequently won an Honorable Mention in the 2010 Royal Palm Literary Awards in the “short story, published” category.

When Cynic took "The Feast of Stevens" offline, I published it on Smashwords. And this year, unable to find a home for my award-winning historical, I published "Mighty Fortress."

After "The Feast of Stevens," I wrote one other Twisted Christmas story that won by default because I was the only one who entered the contest that year. A hollow victory, indeed. We stopped holding the contest after that. I haven't written any short stories since. I prefer to concentrate on my novel-writing, and on writing what comes naturally and what I love rather than trying to meet the expectations of judges.

December 10, 2012

Story published five years after winning award

Last year at about this time, I launched my first e-book, "The Feast of Stevens," though it's hard to call it a "book" when it's less than 5,000 words.

This year, I'm releasing another e-short-story, "Mighty Fortress." This story, under its previous title "Ein Feste Burg," won First Place at the 2007 Royal Palm Literary Awards in the Best Short Story Unpublished category. So here it is, published, after five years, a title change, and a kick-tail edit.

It's not as if I spent the last five years collecting rejections of this story. No, I gave up even trying to place it because I could not find a venue that would accept a 4,000-word historical short story. Every publication I could find required lower word counts than that. And as my aforementioned tail-kicking editor, Kat Heckenbach would tell you, this story was already too sparse.

So it was liberating when Kat told me I needed to add things. With no concerns about arbitrary word count limits, I was able to reveal much more about Pastor Gottlieb, the story's hero.

This is the great thing about e-publishing. It doesn't matter whether I call it a book or not. The story can be, as a pastor of mine used to say, "as long as a piece of string." Which is to say, as long as it needs to be.

I now have three stories on Smashwords, two of which are Christmas stories and all of which can be downloaded for free through January 6:

Mighty Fortress
Pastor Gottlieb helps a Jewish family escape the Nazis, but their elderly grandmother must stay behind. He hides her in the church, caring for her and learning from her, until one fateful Christmas Eve.

The Feast of Stevens
On a space station far from Earth, animal liberationists inadvertently jeopardize thirty-eight innocent turkeys. The station’s cook, Stevens, ensures the fowl shall not have died in vain. In this science fiction Christmas comedy, cultures clash, hearts are won, and dinner is served.

The Last Buffalo
The legendary White Buffalo Calf Woman said that when the last buffalo dies, the world will end. The zookeeper caring for the only remaining American Bison is about to see that prophecy fulfilled.

Next time, I'll discuss how I came to write two such drastically different Christmas stories as "The Feast of Stevens" and "Mighty Fortress."

November 26, 2012

This book doesn't quite live up to its billing

A Sustainable Presbyterian Future: What's Working and WhyA Sustainable Presbyterian Future: What's Working and Why by Louis Weeks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Disappointing. This book is loaded with anecdotes, which I suppose are meant to inspire one to try similar activities in one's own congregation. The writing is academic and a bit stiff in places. Each chapter closes with a set of study questions, but this book provides few answers. I borrowed it from our presbytery library, and I'm glad I did. As a leader in my congregation, I felt a duty to read it. But I'm glad I didn't spend money on it. The early chapters on Presbyterian identity and culture and the description of the "new Presbyterian ecology" were helpful, but from there the book kind of coasts.

The subtitle, "What's working and why," is half right. Weeks gives many examples of congregations doing things right, but offers little analysis as to why some programs work and others don't, or why some congregations flourish while others die. There are few "action items," by which I mean key takeaways that a church leader can implement. It's one thing to show a congregation with a successful ministry, and another to explain what another congregation would need to do to replicate those results.

One characteristic of this book struck me as particularly odd. The author notes that the "new Presbyterian ecology" he's studying "employs digital technology and social media more than printed and published literature." Yeah. More than. Direct quote. But this book is not, so far as I could discover, available in any digital format.

UPDATE: This book is now available on Kindle. This is the first title published by Geneva Press I've seen on Kindle. Hopefully there will be many more.

View all my reviews

November 19, 2012

Fiction Q&A: How to style royal and noble titles

Q: When referring to a king or lord, when do you capitalize--if at all--for sire and your majesty and such? For example:
All we can do now is wait and pray that you and your healers can help my sister, your majesty.
I'm so confused. Thanks for your help.


A:
Titles are tricky, because it depends how you're using them.

Generally speaking, the title will be capitalized if it's being used with or in place of the person's name. So in your example, Your Majesty would be capitalized. That's what we call "direct address." But if you and I are talking about the king, "king" isn't capitalized because we're talking about him, not to him.

See more at my website.

November 5, 2012

Fiction Q&A: Representing multiple languages

Q: I have several languages in most of my stories and I have yet to really decide how to denote the switches and whether to italicize when the word is spoken but not translated. When I use only two and switch sparingly, I just note that they said whatever in the new language. But repeatedly mentioning the switch becomes tedious to reader and writer.

Since I use up to four languages at once in a scene where not everyone speaks all the languages (yes, that creates chaos, which was the intent), how do I create the feel of switching languages for the reader, when the POV character does speak them all?

At one point I used single quotes for one language and double quotes for another (the two main languages) but there are not enough quotes types for more languages in order to be consistent. -- Shae

A: For single foreign words, even if they are from an invented language, you only need to use italics the first time you introduce the “untranslated” word. Back in the day, Tolkein italicized lembas, for example, throughout The Lord of the Rings. These days, we would italicize it only on first use, give the reader enough clues to figure out what it means, then leave it in plain type the rest of the book.

Using different fonts or quotemark schemes for different languages isn't advisable. Since it's not an established convention, readers may not know what to make of it.

The best way to signal that different characters are speaking different languages is to use different word choices and syntax for each language. You can see this in Shogun by James Clavell and Kim by Rudyard Kipling. They each had characters using "thee" and "thou" when speaking in Latin or Hindu, respectively. You don't need to use thee and thou if that doesn't work for you; there are other tricks you can use to give languages a different feel.

Syntax is a good way to do this. Think of Yoda's "accent" in Star Wars. Or the note Sherlock Holmes receives in the story "Scandal in Bohemia." The note reads, "This account of you we have from all quarters received," leading Holmes to remark that a Frenchman or Russian would not write a sentence that way, as only a German "is so uncourteous to his verbs."

In the same way Holmes could discern the language of the letter-writer, readers can pick up on the nuances of the different “languages” in a novel if you write each one with a slightly different vocabulary and syntax. Early on in your book, you'll establish which POV characters speak which languages, so by one-third or halfway through, you should be able to stop writing "'Line of dialog,' someone said in his native language," and just tell the story. Readers are smart; they'll get it.

October 29, 2012

The most fun I’ve had with a novel in a long time

AmberlyAmberly by Mary E.  Hall

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amberly is a light fantasy of the type Caprice Hokstad calls "Sword Opera." It's set in a storyworld modeled after 18th-century Europe. The greater conflict between Royalists and Anti-Monarchists is mirrored in the relationship between Marsten, a Royalist, and Eleanor, whose father leads the Anti-Monarchists. But both factions are united when their nation is invaded by enemy forces.

Hall has created a rich storyworld full of engaging characters. Each person is a well-rounded yet multifaceted individual. Her dialogue and narrative are beautifully written, with snappy banter and vivid sensory detail.

After a rousing opening sequence in which Marsten heroically rescues Eleanor from a band of invaders, the beginning slows down a bit as they travel cross-country to get her home. Romance blooms, and sparks fly when they reach her hometown of Amberly and her Royalist sweetheart meets the Anti-Monarchist family.

I enjoy the monarcy/democracy debate, an element rarely seen in fantasy fiction, which is usually staunchly monarchist. Hall accepts no easy answers, mainly because there are none and partly because, well, there’s Book 2…which I eagerly anticipate.

View all my reviews

October 23, 2012

Publishing Q&A: Do you need a professional editor?

© JJAVA - Fotolia.com
This question came up several times during the recent Florida Writers Association conference.  Sometimes it was "Do you need a professional editor to work on your manuscript before you self-publish?" and other times it was "Do you need a professional editor to work on your manuscript before you submit for traditional publication?" Answers varied. Some said yes, unequivocally, and others said a good writer can produce a quality manuscript without help.

My answer falls somewhere between.

If you're preparing a manuscript for submission to agents or publishing houses, you may not need a paid editor. A good critique group and beta readers should help you get your manuscript polished enough for submission.

The difference? Critique partners usually read your manuscript a scene or a chapter at a time. They are good for copyediting-type feedback like grammar and spelling. Beta readers read the whole book in one go, just like a buying reader would. They are good for developmental-type feedback like character motivation and plot consistency. You need both.

If you are self-publishing, you must, at the very least, get a copyeditor. A copyeditor will check grammar, spelling, punctuation, and stylistic consistency. Ideally, your self-published book will go through every level of editing, though if you are an experienced writer, you may be able to get away without a developmental edit.

Do not skimp on proofreading. Get at least one proofreader who has not seen the manuscript before. Three is better. And you are still likely to go to press with errors in your book, because human beings are imperfect. But the more fresh eyes you have on your manuscript, the more likely you are to catch the mistakes.

But the real question is, do you need to pay for these services?

At the risk of putting myself out of work, I will say--maybe not. If you can find other writers who are at your skill level or above, you can often trade edits. But ideally, you want at least one editor who's above your skill level to evaluate your manuscript and tell you whether it's ready for submission or publication. Sometimes you can get this kind of critique through a workshop or writers' conference.

But then I have to ask, what is your timeframe? If you are in a hurry to publish, it may be faster to hire a professional who will give your project full attention than to rely on critique partners who will be editing in their spare time. And of course, you get what you pay for. The reason professionals are able to charge for these services is because we are highly trained and experienced.

Of one thing I am completely certain. No writer can edit herself. I have never denied this, but just to make the point, I'll share this story. I got pages back from a critique partner who pointed out an entirely unnecessary clause in my manuscript. See if you can spot it:
"Yes, sir." The barber draped a cloth around Dorrel's neck. With the sound of the barber's scissors clicking in his ears, Dorrel tried to figure out how to get into the palace.
If he posed as a groom, he could say he had taken a horse out for exercise. But the guards would know the palace grooms.
My clever critique partner pointed out that since the very next paragraph shows Dorrel's thought process, the phrase "Dorrel tried to figure out how to get into the palace" isn't needed, because it just tells us what he's going to do right before he does it. That was a major "D'oh!" moment for me. But it demonstrates that no one can edit herself. Not even an editor.

October 16, 2012

You can make a living writing

Neil Gaiman's inspirational university commencement address popped up on my YouTube page after I watched a Sally Hogshead video. I'm not sure why YouTube's algorithm classified these two speakers as comparable, but I'm glad it did, because Gaiman's talk fortified me like few others.



One of the first things he says is that he never expected to give such a speech, because he never graduated from college. Never even started.

This is one of the most reassuring things I've ever heard. Suddenly made me feel less ashamed of having dropped out of college. I mean, hey, at least I started. I have more college education than Neil Gaiman. Which adds rather a lot of weight to the argument that a college education may not be necessary.

Gaiman says he saw being an author as a mountain he had to hike to, and then climb. And he made decisions based on whether they would get him closer to the mountain. He started in journalism.

Why didn't I think of that?

More to the point, why didn't my English teachers or guidance counselors think of that? When I was in school and said "I want to be a writer,' people said "That's a nice hobby, but you can't make a living at it."

People working in an office
Monkey Business Images * iStockphoto
It wasn't until 20 years later, when I was sitting in a newsroom full of people making their living by writing, that I got irritated. Had I been told "try journalism," and ignored that advice because I thought journalism would be boring? I don't think so. I could be remembering wrong, but I just don't remember being offered options like copywriting or technical writing when I was in school.

Lacking both a clear goal and single-minded focus, I sort of blundered my way along, until I fell into journalism almost by accident.

It is difficult to make a living as a novelist. But, as Rachel Hauck once told me, "You can make money at it." It requires a lot of hard work, persistence, and Gaiman-like single-minded focus on the goal. And it is possible to earn a living from other kinds of writing in the meantime. Or at the same time.

When I compare life stories with other writers at conferences, I find that many of them heard the same thing when they were in school. "You can't make a living as a writer."

Yes, you can. You just have to broaden your definition of what "writer" means. And you have to keep moving toward the goal.

October 8, 2012

A charming heroine on a great epic quest

Curse Bearer by Rebecca P Minor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I had the pleasure of reading a portion of this manuscript while it was still in development. The character of Danae Baledric has intrigued me ever since, and I’m delighted to see her story published so others can enjoy it as much as I have.

Minor creates well-rounded characters who are engaging and sympathetic. Her villains are perhaps too vile, with no reedeming characteristics whatsoever. But they are also chilling.

Some reviewers have described the beginning as slow. I disagree. The beginning is just what it needs to be. There’s action and suspense moving the story forward, and the pace increases as you get further into the plotline. This is well-done pacing.

Minor’s storyworld, which also appears in her Windrider Saga, is more richly imagined here, with more detailed descriptions and varied locales.

My one complaint -- and it’s hardly worth knocking a whole star off for it -- is that Minor reaches for a lofty tone that doesn’t quite ring true. I felt this in the Windrider Saga also—as if she’s trying to be the next J.R.R. Tolkein instead of being the first Rebecca P. Minor. In the passages where Minor has found her own voice, the writing sings. But every once in a while, there’s an off note. I have the same problem when I try to sing soprano.

That said, Minor does a great job of getting her heroine into more and deeper trouble as the story progresses. And since not all of those troubles are resolved, a sequel is in the offing. I’m looking forward to it.

Disclaimer: I was given an advance copy of this book for review purposes.

View all my reviews

October 1, 2012

I finally figured out what Pinterest is for

Pinterest screenshot. Need to describe a gothic church? There you go.
Every time a new social media network comes along, I resist. I do not need one more thing to occupy my time. For a long time, I felt that way about Pinterest, despite some excellent articles about how authors can use Pinterest.

For example, Heather A. Titus, one of my writing buddies from New Authors Fellowship, has a great collection of Pinterest boards related to her writing and other stuff.

I finally took the plunge when I came home from the ACFW conference with a conference program book full of ads for books. I’ve designed a couple of book covers for myself, and a couple for clients. But since my graphic design training is all from the newspaper business, which is totally different, I know I still have a lot to learn. So I wanted to start collecting book covers.
   
As I flipped through the program book, I thought about clipping the covers I liked and then scanning them, but that seemed like a hassle. And then I thought -- Pinterest.

So there you have it. I now have Pinterest boards for different genres that I can use for design inspiration.

I haven’t started amassing “inspiration” boards for my writing, as Heather has, but I did find another benefit to Pinterest. Just by typing in a single keyword from a novel I’m editing, I was able to get a lot of visual references to help my client develop her settings. I didn’t repin those search results to a new board. I figure I’ll just re-do the search if I need to, because I expect to get a whole new set of results.

This service is useful, but addictive. I can see I’m going to need to monitor my time on it carefully. But it’s worth it.

September 23, 2012

The significance of remembrance

On the left is a poster with photos, names, and stories about those lost in combat. The center and right are posters with handwritten messages to the troops. This is near gate C-1 at DFW airport.
A Texan advised me to arrive at Dallas Fort Worth airport extra early because the Transportation Safety Administration lines are notoriously long there. Turns out this is not the case at Terminal C at 11:15 on a Sunday morning. At least, not this morning. A zero-minute wait at TSA left me with two hours to kill before my flight.

Since I'm coming off a four-day writers' conference at which I totally ignored my calorie count, I figured I could use the time and get some exercise by walking from one end of the terminal to the other.

At the far end of DFW's Terminal C, which is occupied entirely by American Airlines, I found this Memory Wall. Posters contain messages of support for the armed forces, alongside the names, faces, and stories of military personnel killed in combat between Memorial Day 2011 and Memorial Day 2012.

I admit it's possible that American Airlines put up this display as a public relations stunt, so people like me will see it and tell the story. But I think that's unlikely. I think this is a gracious gesture by a company that transports members of the military on a regular basis and chose to honor their service and sacrifice. That this results in a little PR is a side effect.

I only hesitated to write this post for a moment. If a company is going to make an effort to show love for our troops, I can take a few minutes to share the story. If an endorsement of American Airlines is implied, so be it.

September 3, 2012

Constructive encouragement for those with multiple interests

The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just OneThe Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One by Margaret Lobenstine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Much workplace advice is based on becoming an “expert” in one’s field. But some of us don’t have the kind of single-minded devotion required to dedicate oneself to a single field for a lifetime. For years, I worried that my career was hampered by the odd personality bent that led me to pursue diverse hobbies or topics of study, sometimes for years on end, only to drop them later for something else. My jack-of-all-trades nature made single-mindedness impossible, but I sometimes regretted my lack of focus. I carved out a niche for myself as the newsroom factotum, but I felt I couldn’t be considered an “expert,” even at copyediting, because I lacked that single-mindedness.

Then I discovered this book.

Margaret Lobenstine has done us a great favor by giving us a reassuring label for our predilection. Being able to label one’s behavior is to increase one’s understanding of it. Better still, by collecting the stories of other Renaissance Souls -- people like Maya Angelou and Ken Burns -- Lobenstine reassures us that we’re not alone.

Reading this book, I discovered that I’m not odd. I’m not scatterbrained. I’m not a failure. I’m a Renaissance Soul.

Lobenstine proposes a continuum of interest, ranging from the single-minded pursuit of one art from an early age, as we see in Wolfgang Mozart, to the multitude of changing interests pursued throughout a lifetime, as we see in Benjamin Franklin. People will fall at different points along this interest continuum, and knowing where you are on it can help you design a career and a life that will be fulfilling.

Lobenstine gives us another helpful label: focal point. This is her term for any area of interest, regardless of whether it’s a job, a hobby, or a hobby you want to turn into a job. She outlines a variety of career paths, including options such as developing an umbrella title to embraces several interests -- writing, for example, can embody numerous topics -- and pursuing two careers simultaneously that complement one another -- such as banking and financial planning.

The book contains a number of exercises meant to help one identify one’s values and interests and prioritize them. These will be familiar if you’ve worked with a life coach or executive coach before, or if you’ve read life and career design books. But the attitude of this book -- the way it embraces the variety we crave -- distinguishes it from all other such books. Because this isn’t just about career design. It’s about designing a life around your interests and desires, with the understanding that those interests WILL change.

Lobenstine recommends picking four or five focal points to concentrate on in any season, while keeping a notebook filled with ideas for pursuing other interests you may wish to keep in store for the future. Then, when you feel you’ve exhausted your possibilities for one focal point, you can pull your notebook out and choose another to take its place. She offers a structure and plan for the kind of interest-shifting Renaissance Souls will do anyway.

But one of the best lessons I learned from this book is that expertise does not require exclusivity. It may take longer to develop -- In my case, it took ten years in a newsroom -- but that doesn’t make one any less an expert.

View all my reviews

August 28, 2012

Fiction Q&A: Including character names in dialog

© JJAVA - Fotolia.com
Q: I’ve been told not to use names in dialog, except in rare cases. If that’s the case, would the line “I’m speaking to you, Judy” be incorrect?

A: Calling such inclusions “incorrect” overstates the case. An occasional inclusion of another character’s name is entirely appropriate.

What the person who gave this advice is trying to point out is that when real people really converse, they rarely use one another’s names. So we need to be aware whether characters are doing so too often. One symptom frequently found in the manuscripts of newbies is dialog like this:

“Ismene, mine own dear sister,” Antigone said, “what new edict is this of which they tell, that our Captain hath just published to all Thebes? Knowest thou aught? Hast thou heard? Or is it hidden from thee that our friends are threatened with the doom of our foes?”

Ismene answered, “No word of friends, Antigone, gladsome or painful, hath come to me, since we two sisters were bereft of brothers twain, killed in one day by twofold blow.”

“I knew it well, Ismene,” Antigone said, “and therefore sought to bring thee beyond the gates of the court, that thou mightest hear alone.”

Ismene leaned closer. “What is it, Antigone? 'Tis plain that thou art brooding on some dark tidings.”

“Ismene, hath not Creon destined our brothers, the one to honoured burial, the other to unburied shame?” Antigone replied.

Now if you look at the original text, you’ll see that Sophocles is not quite that ham-fisted. Only the first two lines contain the interlocutors’ names. The rest proceed without them. You need them once to show who’s talking, but after that, as there are only two people in the scene, you don't really need any more reminders. Although if it’s a long scene, another once in a while can help -- and can even reduce the need for dialog tags.

Moreover, sometimes such insertions are needed to help the reader keep track of who’s speaking to whom. If three women are working in a kitchen, and Judy is closest to the sink, a line of dialog like “Judy, would you hand me a dish towel?” is ideal.

Dialog needs to be realistic. But that's different from being real.

August 21, 2012

Intriguing but risky investment guide

Ashes To Riches: How To Profit Spectacularly During The Economic Collapse of 2012 to 2022 by John F. Carlucci

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not a book for those who like to play things safe. Carlucci seems to have developed some pretty solid analytics. I disagree with him about stopping all trading when the market is down. I prefer Warren Buffet's advice to buy when the market is down. But honestly, I'm a buy-and-hold, dollar-cost averaging kind of girl, so Carlucci's market-timing strategies are a little too far outside my comfort zone.

Nevertheless, I admire the chutzpah of anyone with the nerve to follow through on this advice. His description of end-of-day trading is thought-provoking -- and explains that bounce we so often see in the charts after 3:30 p.m. You can tell the traders get active then. I didn't realize just how much thought went into those trades.

I read this book mainly for its perspective on how the economy is likely to perform over the next decade, and Carlucci offers some good insights there. Lots to think about, and some advice on commodities trading that might be worth pursuing if you have a high tolerance for risk.

Disclosure: I downloaded this book when it was offered for free on Kindle.

August 15, 2012

Discovering treasures on my own bookshelf

Photo by Kristen Stieffel
Like most bibliophiles, I own more books than I can keep track of. I came across one recently that turned out to be such a gem, I thought I'd share.

You may have seen an earlier post here about the wonderful old books we cleared out of the library when we had to close our old church. The members of the Christian Education Committee, myself included, got dibs. I remember one of the other teachers sidling up to me and saying, "Do I have to arm-wrestle you for the Interpreter's Bible?" As it was twelve volumes, I said he could have it, if I could have the five-volume Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Deal.

Once the committee members had their pick, the congregation was allowed to take home anything they liked from what remained. Once they were done, we returned, faced with the nearly impossible task of sorting the remainders into two categories: those another church might want, and those to be put in the dumpster. There were way too many in the second group for any bibliophile's stomach to take.

I admit, I cheated. Many of those books fell in a no-man's land. Too old to be desired by another church's librarian, but to precious to throw out. By the end of the afternoon, I was checking the inside cover of each book for the words "Donated by R.L. Hall." I figure any book that came from the library of the founding pastor was worth keeping. So I started a third box, under the category of "books I have to keep because they once belonged to Pastor Hall."

You may be thinking, "Yeah, but he didn't keep them, right? So they couldn't have been that good, if he wanted to get rid of them." Nope. Pastor Hall died in 1962, and his family donated the books to the church.

While preparing a Sunday school lesson on the second commandment, I perused my shelves for commentaries. One of them, Smoke on the Mountain, was one of those I inherited from Pastor Hall. When I had brought it home, I didn't take much notice of it, beyond noting its topic (so I could shelve it in the right place) and its rather worn and foxed state.

Photo by Kristen Stieffel
But this week, when I took it out, I noticed that it's dedicated to C.S. Lewis. Well, I suppose a lot of books are, but I looked to see how the author knew him. The author turned out to be Joy Davidman. Also known as Joy Gresham. Also known as Mrs. Lewis.

Are you kidding me? I didn't even realize she wrote, let alone that I had a book of hers in my collection. I'm an idiot, clearly.

She wrote the book in 1953-54; it was published in the U.S. in 1954 and in the U.K. in 1955. The British version apparently has a preface by Lewis that's not in my edition. (She married Lewis in 1956). It's a brilliant little book. For example, she warns against putting our focus on the physical trappings of the worship space:
I have fallen into the last and subtlest trap; I bow down to wood and stone, in the shape of a church building…I have forgotten that the church itself is not God.…And yet, if the church is anything except a means to the knowledge of God, the church is nothing but a bore. (Perhaps that's why it so often is a bore.)
I still have several more of Pastor Hall's books sitting unread on my shelves. I look forward to discovering what other treasures they hold.

July 26, 2012

Does God only help those who help themselves?

Photo by Nat Arnett — sxc.hu
I just finished leading a study group at church using Cheri Cowell's excellent book Direction. I'll write a full review later, but for now, I want to look at an interesting aside in the book.

As part of a larger discussion of the lack of biblical literacy, Cowell cites a 2001 Barna survey that found, among those who identified themselves as Christians, the most widely recognized Bible verse is "God helps those who help themselves."

Do you see the problem there?

It's not from the Bible.

Cowell went on to emphasize the importance of biblical literacy, but I was left behind wondering whether this well-known aphorism has a detectable origin, or whether it's just one of those things handed down orally from the depths of time.

Indeed, we can find its origin if we look hard enough. A cursory Google leads you to Benjamin Franklin, but some additional digging turns up Algernon Sidney's Discourses on Government, published in 1698. The relevant passage appears under the heading "Section 23: That is the best Government, which best provides for War."
"...kingdoms and commonwealths acknowledging no superior, except God alone, can reasonably hope to be protected by him only; and by him, if with industry and courage they make use of the means he has given them for their own defence. God helps those who help themselves; and men are by several reasons (suppose to prevent the increase of a suspected power) induced to succour an industrious and brave people: But such as neglect the means of their own preservation, are ever left to perish with shame."
It's highly unlikely that enough people read Sidney for this to achieve a tipping point. But it is highly likely that Franklin read Sidney, which explains how that little nugget wound up out being reprinted out of context in Poor Richard's Almanac. But that is no doubt where enough people read it for it to become so popular as to be held up alongside the wisdom of Solomon and Jesus, if not actually mistaken as their words.

Cowell notes in Direction that spiritual illiteracy is a result of our sound bite culture. The scriptures are dense and hard to understand. It takes more work to understand them than many people are willing to apply. And even those who do read the Bible don't read much of it.

The worst of it is that Sidney's statement, which so many believers mistake for a Biblical truth, actually contradicts basic Christian doctrine. While it's true we are called to put to good use the talents God has given us, we are not called to do so in service to ourselves. We are called to serve others.

So if God doesn't help those who help themselves, whom does he help? "All who call on him in truth."
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
Psalm 46:1-3

July 16, 2012

Fiction Q&A: Using italics for character thoughts

© JJAVA - Fotolia.com
Hey Kristen —

Sorry to pester you, but I didn't know who else to ask. I was going over a critique someone gave me, and they mentioned that top editors teach to never use italics, even with internal thought. Some say never to use italics at all.

Here's my concern. Almost everyone else I've run into says italics should be used for internal thoughts that would normally be spoken as words.

For example:

His eyes surveyed the plain below, then turned back to Albione. “That’s not good, brother.” 
No, it wasn't. His older brother didn’t complicate matters with fancy words. That only made the pit in his stomach emptier. If anyone in the temple finds out what happened here, I’ll be in a lot of trouble.

One editor said it’s perfectly fine to use first-person internal monologue without italics. As a reader, this doesn't bother me at all. But I don't want to look like a hack when I send my stuff to an editor without italics, because they might think I have no clue about Point of View.

—Will


Will, there's still some disagreement on this.

The editor you mention is in line with the Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, which says:

We no longer recommend that a person's thoughts, imagined words, and unspoken prayers (called unspoken discourse), when expressed in the first person, always be set in italics.

I tend to agree that you don't need italics for internal monologue because in deep POV everything is in the main character's head. Where we run into problems is when the narrative is in third person past tense (as yours is) and the internal monologue is in first person present tense (as yours is). Some, like the editor you mention, think it’s OK to leave it all in Roman, but others disagree. CWMS doesn’t recommend italics, but they don’t prohibit italics, either. Which is why you still see a lot of published books in which the internal monologue is in italics, just as you have it above. There are still plenty of editors who like it that way. But the trend seems to be away from that.

When the interior monologue changes person and tense, the italics provide a kind of "I meant to do this" visual cue to the reader signaling the change. But if the monologue is in the same person and tense as the rest of the narrative, there's no need. So what most editors advise is to keep everything in deep POV and in the same voice and typeface. This is what I recommend. So your example would look like this:
That only made the pit in his stomach emptier. If anyone in the temple found out what happened there, he'd be in a lot of trouble.
One place where many publishers still use italics is in what CWMS calls "unspoken discourse" and I call "silent dialog." This includes prayer, God talking to the POV character, and, for those of us who write speculative fiction, telepathy. A lot of publishers still put those in italics, although the Christian Writer's Manual of Style says it's not necessary for prayer. CWMS, oddly enough, does not directly address the issue of telepathy.

In your manuscript, I'd do it the way that makes the most sense to you. Of all the things that might make you look like a hack, this is the least of them, because it's a matter of style, not of right or wrong. Ultimately, whether italics are banned or encouraged depends on the publisher.

And you can pester me with questions any time. I use them as blog fodder.

— Kristen

July 9, 2012

Awesome Epic Quest

DawnSingerDawnSinger by Janalyn Voigt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Kai and Shae, the central characters in DawnSinger, are intriguing and engaging. They’re been raised as brother and sister, but Kai knows this is a ruse. Shae’s true identity has been concealed for her own protection. This puts an unusual twist on their relationship, especially when the court minstrel starts flirting with Shae. The romantic element is a relatively small part of the story, but it’s filled with unexpected intricacies and ties firmly into the main plot.

The first half of the book is cloak-and-dagger political intrigue in the High Queen’s court, and the second half is straight-ahead epic quest. The stakes and tension are high right up through the end.

Voigt’s prose is eloquent, and she creates a lot of wonderful word pictures. When this is applied to dialog, the results can be a bit high and lofty and stilted, but many fantasy fans will see this not as a bug, but as a feature. The settings are rich, and there’s a map. All the best fantasy novels have maps.

This is the kind of story that stays with you long after the last page. The kind that keeps you wondering where your new friends are and what they’re doing. I’m looking forward to the sequel so I can find out.


Disclosure: I was given an advance e-version of this book for review purposes.

View all my reviews

July 3, 2012

Your hard drive will crash

Photo by Marcin Barłowski — www.sxc.hu
Several writing buddies have suffered computer crashes lately, and I feel their pain. We all have horror stories about writing a great scene or story that later disappeared in a hard drive crash. In my case, an entire short story vanished into the ether because when we restored from the backup, it wasn’t there. The backup hadn’t been run between the time I wrote the story and the time of the hard drive crash.

Hard drives are mechanical and like other mechanical goods they WILL fail -- it is just a matter of when. A good hard drive will last up to 10 years -- I've even seen a few little engines that kept chugging longer than that with some TLC -- but most fail after about 5-10 years.

The best approach is to have redundant backups: one local and one in the cloud. If one fails, you can use the other. And yes, I have a horror story about the failure of the backup drive. Drive Savers can help if your data is truly mission critical, but their service is so pricey you may find (as we did) that it’s less expensive to pay people to re-do the lost work than to pay Drive Savers to recover it.

Ideally, you want something automated that backs up continually. Microsoft’s Backup and Restore and Apple’s Time Machine will do this. You just need a honkin’ big external drive to connect them to.

There are a variety of online backup solutions available. I use CrashPlan because it was recommended by someone I trust, and got good reviews in the magazines I follow.

But external drives and service plans come with a price tag, and most writers are on tight budgets. If you don't need to back up your whole computer and just need a place to store your Word documents, a flash drive will work for your local backup; I've seen them at office supply stores for as little as $10. Dropbox rocks for cloud backups, and it's free for 2 GB, which is hard to exceed if you're only storing Word files. And if you store your working files (not just copies) to Dropbox, they will be backed up constantly.

Automated backups are best. If you don’t have them, put a system or procedure in place to help remind you to back up your current work at the end of each session. Or even hourly. This is an area where you really can’t afford to do things by halves.

June 7, 2012

Rich storyworld with an intriguing culture

The Duke's HandmaidThe Duke's Handmaid by Caprice Hokstad

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


At the outset it seems that Kee's choosing slavery over a life of freedom and poverty is based on a desire to live in the Duke's palatial home, with access to luxuries like hot running water and abundant food. But in truth, she is drawn to his house not by material things, but by her loyalty to him.

I may be reading into things a bit, but I see Kee's decision to willingly be the duke's slave as mirroring the church's "enslavement" to Christ. I asked Caprice about this:

I didn't really try to make everything fit a tight analogy, but I think I did create some parallels here and there, some conscious, some not. Some critics have said my books are anti-Christian, and to them I point out that St. Paul used "bondservant of the Lord" far more often than he called himself an apostle.

After some action-packed and unflinchingly violent opening chapters, the book settles into a slower pace, as farmgirl Kee is trained in etiquette and protocol so she can serve the duke as a slave. She learns about the brutal realities of slavery, but teaches others some lessons about submission and servanthood in the process.

The plot shifts into high hear for the second half, which is loaded with intrigue and chicanery, daring escape and noble sacrifice.

The author is occasionally a little too textbook-like in describing her speculative storyworld. Nevertheless, it is a rich setting, and her descriptions of it, though forced at times, are quite good. Although the duke’s culture is very different from our own, it is internally consistent -- a necessity for good fantasy.

The characters are well-rounded and engaging, and I enjoyed the story. I look forward to reading the sequel, Nor Iron Bars A Cage.


View all my reviews

May 30, 2012

Small changes, consistency, and big results

Guest Blogger: Terri Main
Photo by Kriss Szkurlatowski
I know many writers, myself included, often put ourselves down for small word counts at the end of a day. But those small numbers add up. Here are a few to think about.
  • 100 words a day = 36,500 words in a year. That's half a novel or 10 short stories for writing less than half a page a day (double spaced).
  • 200 words a day = 73,000 words in a year. That's a full novel or 20 short stories writing a little less than a page a day.
  • 250 words a day = 91,250 words in a year. Writing just one page a day gives you a novel and a novella or close to two novels or 30 short stories.
  • 500 words a day = 180,500 words in a year. That's close to three novels or 60 short stories or 6-7 novellas. That's two double spaced pages a day.
  • 750 words a day = 271,750 words in a year. That's about four novels or 90 short stories or 10 novellas writing three pages a day.
  • 1,000 words a day = 365,000 words in a year. That's 5-6 novels, 100 short stories or 12 novellas writing just four pages a day.

It doesn't take a lot of words per day, it just takes some consistency.

I knew a psychologist who had been a Navy commander. One day he showed me a map and marked New York City on one side and the west coast of England on the other.

"If I set course from New York to this place on the British Coast and change it by just one degree..." He paused and took out a protractor to measure off one degree and drew a line. "I end up in northern Africa. Small changes maintained over the long run make a huge difference."

The same goes for small increases in our writing output. Just because you can't write 2,000 words today doesn't mean you should forgo writing. Even a hundred words adds to your total.

Creative Calisthenics

Terri Main is the author of Creative Calisthenics: The Ultimate Workout for the Writers imagination. Visit her online: http://tinyurl.com/terrimainauthor, or follow @terrimain on Twitter, where she gives daily "minidevotions" and periodic writing tips.

May 24, 2012

A beautiful fairy tale. Literally.

I Am Ocilla I Am Ocilla by Diane M. Graham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Diane Graham brings new life to an old genre, the fairy tale, with her vision of five kingdoms separated and oppressed by a cruel overlord. Her storyworld contains all the old favorites: dragons, fairies, talking animals, evil curses, and true love.

The first-person, present-tense voice takes some getting used to, but it totally works. Since Ocilla is an amnesiac, all she has at the outset is her "here and now." As the story progresses, she discovers her world and herself anew.

The story is an episodic quest, as Ocilla and her allies travel across the five kingdoms, breaking curses and preparing for the final showdown. It's all wrapped in lyrical, beautiful prose. Vivid sensory details put you right in the story.

Most of the story progresses through slow, lyrical periods of discovery alternating with moments of sheer terror. The first 80 or 90 percent of the story proceeds at a measured pace, but the ending comes in a rush -- almost too hurried, leaving some questions unanswered. But this is a quibble. Great story. Great characters. Happy ending. And it has what I've come to see as the essential element of great speculative fiction: a storyworld you'd like to go visit. Often.

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May 18, 2012

You have to start somewhere

Fiction writers often tell this lie to one another: "Don't use words like started or began." I've even heard it referred to as "the start rule."

Photo by Robert Linder • www.sxc.hu
They don't realize they're lying, of course. But this not a rule. It's advice. The more accurate way to express it is to say, "If the character is going to 'start' doing something, make sure it's an activity that will continue awhile."

Not recommended:

Blayse started to take a bill from her wallet. "Can you change a twenty?"

Recommended:

Blayse pinched the bill in her wallet. "Can you change a twenty?"

The removal of a bill takes a second, so here "start" is inaccurate. She either takes it out or she doesn't. But some actions take longer. For example, here's an excerpt from my current work in progress:

Blayse started down the stairs. “Will you come to church with me?”

Slider followed. “Umm…no. Thanks."

“You went with Reuben and Marisol.”

“Marisol made me. You don’t think she wanted to leave me in her house alone, do you?”

“I think more likely she wanted to get you into the church.” She turned down the second-floor hallway and looked over her shoulder at him. “You liked the music.” What was she saying? She didn’t encourage people to attend worship for the music.

"Started" works there, letting the reader know the stair descending continues through the subsequent lines of dialog. If I blindly followed "the start rule," I'd have put "Blayse walked down the stairs," which would sound as if all of her subsequent dialog happened at the foot of the stairs.

Do you agree? Disagree? Feel free to edit me. I have thick skin.

What "rules" have you heard that seemed too absolute or far-reaching?

April 21, 2012

Sorting out the levels of editing

By Jennifer
Borton •
iStockphoto
Even those of us who edit for a living can have trouble figuring out what it entails. When do you cross the line from copy editing to line editing? It's even harder for the uninitiated to figure out. The lines are a bit blurry, but here’s a rough breakdown.
  • Developmental editors look at the big picture, working with content and structure to ensure the work gives the readers what they need in an easily comprehensible format.
  • Line editors correct grammar, streamline wordy prose, and ensure that what you say is what you meant. They smooth out rough patches and reduce redundancies. They make clunky sentences elegant.
  • Copy editors make sure sentences are grammatical, and if they're not, that there’s a good reason for it. They often check facts and always ensure stylistic consistency.
  • Proofreaders correct spelling errors, misplaced punctuation, and typographical inconsistencies.
Ideally, your manuscript will go through each of these steps before publication. There is some overlap among these roles, though. For example, the last three all include taking care of pesky details like ensuring plural possessives of surnames ending in S are formed correctly.

If you are self-publishing and looking to contain costs, you can combine line editing with either the developmental edit or the copy edit, if you find an editor who is trained in both disciplines. Under no circumstances skip proofreading. And don't try to do it yourself. No one can proofread their own work. Not even those of us who edit for a living.

April 11, 2012

A different way to think about character development

Photo illustration by Beniamin Pop
Os Hillman, writing at Marketplace Leaders, talks about three stages we go through in our Christian walk:

Stage One: “Bless me, Lord.” This is where we accept salvation. It is understanding that Jesus saves us.
Stage Two: “Help me, Lord.” Some of us reach this stage only when a crisis comes. It is understanding that we can do nothing in our own power.
Stage Three: “Have me, Lord." This is bowing to the complete lordship of Christ. it is understanding that we must yield our will to his.

Hillman asks, "Where are you today?" and this is a question we all need to answer.

But as a fiction writer, I also have to ask, "Where are my characters?" These stages are as applicable to the faith journey of a character in a novel as they are to the development of our own character. In any novel, the hero's inner journey -- in Christian fiction, his spiritual journey -- is as important as the outer journey described by the surface plot.

I recently completed the first draft of a novel in which the hero goes from agnosticism to Stage One. Meanwhile, the heroine progresses from Stage One to Stage Two. I hadn't realized it until I read Hillman's article, but that's what happens in that storyline. By keeping this in mind as I edit, I think I can bring these spiritual journeys into greater clarity.

March 29, 2012

Weight loss takes time

Recently a friend said, "Have you lost weight? I came up from behind you, and you don't look the same."

Well, I'm glad my behind looks different these days. I told her, "Yes, I've lost 35 pounds since May."

She asked how I did it.

"Ruthless calorie counting. I have an app for that."

Tap & Track HD may not be the best calorie-counting app, but it's working for me. I chose this app from among the many calorie-counting apps available because it doesn't require an Internet connection to access its calorie database, as others do. All the data is stored in the app.

When I say losing weight takes time, I don't only mean it requires months to lose in a healthful way. I mean several minutes at each meal need to be invested in calculating and recording one's intake. Weighing or measuring each portion takes time.

Tap & Track helps cut down on this time with its list of common foods and an extensive list of restaurants. I looks like pretty much every restaurant chain that publishes its nutritional information on the web is included. So, for example, I now know that my Chipotle chicken bowl contains 540 calories. That's almost 40 percent of my calorie allotment for a day, so I'm trying to discipline myself to eat only half the bowl. In fact, I've learned that at just about every restaurant, it's a good idea to take whatever meat and carbs they bring you and cut the portions in half.

The app is a little rough around the edges:
  • It has a favorites list for things you eat often, but it doesn't handle nonpackaged foods like fruit and vegetables well. When you pick an item from the food list, you can measure in grams or cups, or in the case of fruit, "one medium," etc. But add it to the favorites list, and you're limited to fractions of a serving, which requires knowing what the original serving size was. It turns out to be more precise to just pick it from the master list every time and enter the portion size in grams, since I prefer to weigh. The favorites list does work well for packaged goods like cereal bars and bread, where the serving size is uniform.
  • The recipes feature is useful, but would be better if it were possible to edit the quantities. For example, l started with a salad recipe that was half romaine and half spinach, but decided to use more romaine and less spinach. I couldn't just change the quantities. I had to delete and re-add the ingredients.
  • l love that the help file is built-in instead of being online, but its grammar needs some help.
  • There are some typos in the food list, e.g. diary instead of dairy, drak instead of dark. OK, that's a really picky nit. Sorry.
Enough complaining. Here's what I like:
  • There's a list of previous items which keeps track of several days' worth of items, which is useful for creatures of habit like me who tend to eat the same things repeatedly. Things I eat every day, like apples and tangerines, I can just pick from the previous list instead of looking them up in the master list every time. Unlike the favorites list, the previous list remembers the unit of measurement I used last time, so if I had a 52-gram tangerine yesterday and today one that's 56 grams, I just have to change the number.
  • The overview screen shows a breakdown by nutrient type, so l can see when I'm overdoing the carbs. Which is often.
  • The history page lets me see how good -- or bad -- I've been during the week.
  • The profile automatically calculates my daily calorie count based on my current size and sedentary job.
  • The exercise list shows that I could burn more calories at yoga than t'ai chi, and informs me that 20 minutes of housecleaning burns 87 calories.
This may not be the best calorie tracker (My rating: 4 of 5 stars), but it's the best $5 I ever spent.

March 21, 2012

Behold the power of the outline

At a chamber fellowship meeting, I was asked to share my top editing tip. Didn't have to think long about it: outline.

I resisted outlining for many years, because it reeked of term papers and therefore seemed uncreative. Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Pro software convinced me otherwise.

Once I realized the power of outlining to organize my novels, it became obvious that the same power could be harnessed for any writing task. And should be. I have seen repeatedly in journalism, in fiction, and in non-fiction that omitting an outline results in disorganized work.

Even if your outline is just five items on a Post-It note, or two items in your head, have one. The longer and more complex your work (hello, novelists), the more you need an outline.

Many fiction writers resist outlining. Ingermanson discussed with Larry Brooks how even writers who prefer to work by the seat of their pants can be helped by judicious use of structure.

An outline is not a constraint. It is a guideline and a set of goals. As for creativity? Goal-setting practically requires it.

March 15, 2012

Windrider II makes for a grand quest

The Windrider II: A Greater Strength by Rebecca P. Minor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This volume continues the quest begun in book one. Here, the Windrider Squadron gains some new members, but Vinyanel and Majestrin are still, as far as I'm concerned, the stars of the show. Vinyanel's mentor/teammate Veranna has a key role to play, but some of the best bits are from Majestrin's point of view, showing that the dragon is a true partner with the elves.

For an experienced warrior, Vinyanel still has a lot to learn, and he grows a lot in the course of this story. We're often told every hero must have a flaw, but often our heroes are sort of blissfully unaware of their flaws until the bitter end. Not Vinyanel. His flaws were sharply revealed in book one, and in book two he learns to deal with them. We also see a heretofore unmentioned weakness for a woman. A whole new facet of his personality.

The woman, I think I can say without spoiling too much, is not Veranna. That the hero and heroine of this story are not also one another's romantic interests is one of the things I love about it. Veranna is enamored of another Windrider, and Vinyanel professes to be interested only in his weapons.

Other things I love about this story: the elves are like real flesh-and-blood beings with flaws and feelings, not just aloof, serene caricatures; there are words in it I have to look up; faith lessons are woven into the story without being plunked in awkwardly; and -- of course -- dragons.



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February 29, 2012

No, you don't deserve a response

Agne Kveselyte — stock.xchng
An item on Chip MacGregor's blog earlier this month got me thinking.

If you send unsolicited mail to a business—that is, something the recipient did not ask for—do you expect a response?

When I worked at the business journal, I got about a hundred e-mails a day. That's not hyperbole. That's an average. I counted. OK, I let Entourage count.

If I answered every story pitch or press release, at a minute per answer, I would have spent almost a quarter of my day just answering e-mail.

But most public relations professionals know that only about 10 percent of stories pitched to media outlets actually get used. That's in line with Sturgeon's Law, which states that 90 percent of everything is crap. The ratio must hold for agent queries and book pitches as well.

The writer who complained to Chip about the lack of response to a query needs to understand that sending unsolicited mail is not your entrée to a conversation. I mean, if a car dealership sends you a letter suggesting that you trade in your Toyota for a new Chevy, the dealer doesn't expect you to send a note back saying "no, thank you." A query to an agent or editor is the same thing: an offer to do business. It's theirs to take or leave. Consider this: unsolicited mail is also the polite name for what we otherwise call spam.

February 21, 2012

A new label for us quiet types

A couple of weeks ago, after a board meeting, one of the other members thanked me for my input. She noted that I don't speak often, but when I do, it's a good contribution.
Photo by Laflor Photography — iStockphoto

I said I believe it's important to speak only when I have something useful to say. She said the very scarcity of my speech gives what little I do say more power.

Truthfully, I'm naturally reserved and am inclined to believe the proverb about it being better to remain silent and be thought foolish than to speak and remove all doubt. But there may still be more to it than that.

I followed a link in the recent issue of Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine to Sally Hogshead's website to learn my F-score.

According to Hogshead's matrix, I'm a "Wise Owl," which means "observant, assured, and unruffled." I think some of my past colleagues would debate that final point.

Hogshead studies personality, a subject that has intrigued me since I learned about Myers-Briggs. I'm a sucker for any sort of "answer these questions and we'll tell you about yourself" assessment. I like this one because Hogshead focuses on the aspects of your personality that make you "fascinating" to others.

I was surprised to learn my primary "trigger," as Hogshead calls it, is "Mystique." Yet, as I read the description, this totally clicked:
When you do share an idea or opinion, it carries more influence than it would for those who tend to 'over-share.'

That is what my fellow board member was talking about.

Mystique! I have mystique. Who knew?

But how is this useful?

Anyone in business must at some point figure out what separates them from the competition. This is usually presented as being your "unique selling position," or USP. Assessments like this one can help you develop the concepts you need to express your USP.

Am I, then, going to bill myself as the Mystique-y editor? No. But get this: one feature of Mystique is, "You persuade others by selectively culling your words and actions."

Hu-lo? Selectively culling words? It's what I do!

I probably won't use the same language as Hogshead's assessment, or the Strengthsfinder one either, but I can use them as a starting point for positioning. I'll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, I've added her book Fascinate to my shopping list, along with StandOut by Marcus Buckingham and Enchantment by Guy Kawasaki.