Saturday, October 31, 2015

Goals Happen More Easily with a Daybreak Habit

The sun peeps over the horizon, rays of light burnish a new day, a brisk wind holds the promise of a majestic day. What do you do with this time? Sleep through it? Drag your butt to the office with a twelve-ounce mug of coffee at the ready? Jog? Take the dog to the park? This time, in my opinion, is the best time to set the tone for the rest of the day, the best time to achieve success on an important goal.

If you have an ambition you want to accomplish (for me it’s completing a novel), this is the time to perform a habit that will help make that ambition happen. A morning writing habit will get the book done. Simply wishing for the book to write itself, or saying I’ll do it “tomorrow,” doesn’t make it happen.

If you have an important goal, try making a morning habit focused on it:
    If you want to lose weight, create a morning walking habit. Or morning strength training. Or prepare a healthy breakfast with fruits and non-fat yogurt.
    If you want to start a new business, create a morning session where you brainstorm new industry ideas over that first cup of coffee.
    If you want to become more mindful during your day, create a morning meditation habit.
    If you want to work on your relationship with your spouse, have a morning habit of talking about your relationship over coffee.
    If you want to journal or blog, make it a morning habit.

Why is morning a better time for important habits? Why not afternoons or evenings? I’ve found that time to be quieter, less chaotic, better for reflection and focus. I also feel that it sets the tone for the rest of the day.

My morning routine combines three of the objectives in the list above. Before sunrise, and first thing out of bed and after dressing, I enjoy a cup of coffee by myself. During that five minutes, I try not to think about anything. I simply let the enjoyment of sipping hot coffee pull me into the moment. As soon as that’s done, my husband and I leave the house for a brisk walk. We like to get out just as the sun makes its appearance, and we walk for three to four miles each daybreak.

I use that walk as a form of communication with my husband, as we usually spend several minutes talking over the day’s activity list or some future plans; I also use that time for meditation, as I let the sounds and smells and visual delights of sunrise in Palm Springs pull me deeper into the present moment; and during that last mile, I use that time to plan out what I want to accomplish on my story that day.

By the time I get back home, I’m ready for a quick breakfast, and more importantly, ready for work. I have a plan and I’m excited to get started. That brisk morning walk sets a tone. It relaxes me, it charges my creative batteries, and it carries me on through the rest of the morning. I love it, rain or shine.

I know many people are night people and don’t function well in the A.M., but I’ve come to depend on my morning rituals to help accomplish my writing goals. For me, it’s become a religion.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Writing Tip: Elements of a Romantic Comedy

For the past three weeks I’ve been trying to finish everything on my plate so I can focus on a new screenplay that my script-writing partner and I have begun. I’m almost there. And because the script we are writing is a romantic comedy, one of the things I’ve been doing in my spare time is researching what makes romantic comedies different from other types of stories. And although I’m focused on screenwriting, the principles apply to novels and short stories as well. 

So far I’ve found six distinguishing elements that separate romantic comedy from the rest of the field. They are:

1) The main character (Hero) must pursue some sexual or romantic interest. This sounds like a no-brainer, but a writer could decide to have the love interest be someone other than the hero. However, as with all successful stories, the most important character is the hero, with whom the reader or audience most strongly identifies with, and in romantic comedies it must be this character who is pursuing (or being pursued by) some compelling romantic desire. That’s what makes it a romantic comedy – the hero must desperately try to win (or win back) the affections of another character. 

2) The hero must pursue an additional goal. Simultaneously chasing two or more goals (often goals at odds with each other) adds complexity and originality to the story, and also accelerates the pacing.

3) The characters are desperate to achieve their goals, and fight apposing conflicts with tenacity. They should never think they, or the situation, is funny. It must be deadly serious to them. Strangely enough, the comedy grows out of the hero’s pain and loss. The plots of the most successful comedies deal with cheating spouses, disease, physical abuse, humiliation, unemployment, suicide and death. The humor arises from the way the hero overreacts to these situations. 

4) Although most romantic comedies almost never show actual sex, they are sexy. There is always lots of flirting, and the hero must confront his/her sexual desire. If the hero and love interest do slip into bed together, the audience must see everything leading up to that hot embrace before the bedroom door shuts in our face. 

5) The plot resolves around a deception. For instance, the hero is pretending to be someone he’s not (Mrs. Doubtfire, Tootsie, The Birdcage), or is lying to his beloved about his feelings or intentions in order to pursue the relationship. Dishonesty is a necessary element to increase the conflict and humor, and also to force the hero to confront his/her inner conflicts and deceptions. Only by facing the truth about themselves are they able to arc into someone better. 

6) It must have a happy ending, or if the hero doesn’t get the boy, the reader feels that the resolution is the most appropriate or satisfying ending for the hero.

Monday, October 26, 2015

A Message to Myself

The book on the top of my reading stack is called The Letter Q. It is a collection of letters from many lgbt authors, giving messages to their earlier selves (in the spirit of “It Gets Better”.) I’ve been looking forward to reading this book because there are quite a few tremendously talented writers who have contributed their thoughts. It should be fascinating. 

Before I begin reading, however, I wanted to think about what kind of message I would like to have given my teenaged self. What would I want to change, what bit of wisdom would have helped me avoid the many hardships of my twenties, thirties, forties, and even fifties?

I am reminded of a quote from James Buckham: “Trials, temptations, disappointments -- all these are helps instead of hindrances, if one uses them rightly. They not only test the fibre of a character, but strengthen it. Every conquered temptation represents a new fund of moral energy. Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.”

So I think my message to my younger self would go along those lines: Set your moral compass toward something you believe in, and don’t let difficulty or public opinion or fear or any other damned thing sway you off that path. Don’t run from adversities, face them head on. Don’t shrink away from challenges where you might fail, jump in and fail if need be, for nothing is gained by not trying. Feel every disappointment right down to your bones, and learn from them, grow strong in the knowledge that you will overcome them. And above all, when you see ways to help others along their path, do so without needing or wanting anything in return. Be generous with others as well as with yourself. 

Would that make a difference in how I lived my life? Probably not. In my teens I didn’t listen to anyone over thirty….

Monday, October 19, 2015

Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park

While visiting a friend, Ben Wong, in San Francisco, we took in the amazing Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park. The weather was cool and clear, perfect for walking and picture taking. Being October, I wasn’t sure we’d see many blooms, but boy was I wrong. Check out these beauties:  

Friday, October 16, 2015

The 2015 Palm Springs Parade of Planes

Every other year, my hometown of Palm Springs hosts an aviation convention. They highlight of this this event is called The Parade of Planes, where dozens of prop-planes and jets taxi through the streets from the airport to the convention center. They park the planes around the streets of the convention center all weekend for people to see close up, but for me, the thrill is watching them taxi by. This year we had forty planes of all types and sizes. Sad to say, this year was the first time there were no WW2 vintage planes nor any ultra lites.

I love this event. Below are some pics of a few that caught my eye:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Writing Tip: Flashbacks - use them sparingly

I’ve read two books in the last month that managed to capture my interest, get a good pace and story momentum going, and then introduce a number of lengthy flashbacks, which killed all forward movement, stalled momentum and introduced back-story that was not needed. When that happens I want to toss the damned book out the window. 

In my humble opinion, the last thing a writer wants to do is stop the story’s momentum in order to introduce back-story. There are good reasons for doing so, but if you’re going to do it, make sure that it is absolutely critical because 1) back-story is seldom as interesting as the current storyline the reader is caught up in so you risk boring the reader, and 2) once you’ve stopped the storyline action to give back-story, it is very difficult to jumpstart that momentum once you come back to it. 
So the question is, how and when to introduce flashbacks.  

Flashbacks are important. Generally, a writer wants to start a story as late in the action as possible. Sometimes s/he may want to start the story long after an event that is crucial to the storyline. So what do you do? You start the story later, but then have a flashback in order to present the needed event or back-story. But understand that you are taking the reader away from the story in order to give him/her background, and background is BORING, or at least not as interesting as the storyline.

So there are a couple of tricks to using flashbacks that help minimize the damage. First, flashbacks in the first half of a story are much less disruptive than the ones that occur late in the story, because at the beginning it is expected that the writer will present information with which to build the story on. As the story progresses, the pacing usually quickens, the momentum builds, and the reader wants to get to the end of the story to find out what happens. So if you halt the momentum near the end, you risk pissing off the reader. So always try to introduce back-story early. 

Another tip is to keep the flashbacks as short as possible. Remember, you’re taking the reader away from the storyline, and the reader wants to find out what happens in the storyline. The longer you drag it out, the more you risk having a dissatisfied reader. 

So my personal rules of thumb when it comes to flashbacks are:
1) Use them only to introduce information CRITICAL to the story.
2) Avoid using any in the second half of the story.
3) Keep them as short as possible.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Madness of Art

In a story by Henry James, The Middle Years, his character, a writer, laments: “We live in the dark, we do what we can, the rest is the madness of art.” Or words to that effect.

I think James is saying that there is a dark part of our art, which puts us in a class with gamblers who shoot pool or bet at cards or even shuffle a pea under walnut shells. For the courageous writers who take risks, rather than churning out the same old shit, there is gambling going on. To devote a year or more to a project, never knowing if it will produce any significant fruit, is gambling. An example would be Truman Capote, who spend six years wandering around Kansas, never knowing if he had a book or not. The final result, of course, was In Cold Blood, which was a new art form—the nonfiction novel. He gambled and won.

I bring this up because my last gamble turned out to be a bust. Over the course of three years, I wrote six novella length stories, and gathered them in an anthology entitled Buddha’s Bad Boys. Each story stood on their own, yet, all six together formed a novel because of reoccurring characters and themes. I’m proud of what I accomplished with this effort, yet sales have been disappointing. I can’t even get people to review it.

I don’t know if the title turns readers off—many Christians shun anything regarding the Buddha or Islam—or if readers are not interesting in an anthology of short works. I suppose there could be other reasons, but for the life of me I can’t comprehend them. What is most discouraging is that I feel those six stories are some of my best writing, yet I can’t get readers interested in them.

So, sometimes you win, sometimes you bust, and it’s all part of the madness within the madness of art.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Regrets of the Dying

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She recorded their dying epiphanies in a blog called Inspiration and Chai, which gathered so much attention that she put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

Here are the most common five regrets for men, as witnessed by Ware:
1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

The more I thought about these regrets of other people, the more I wondered about my own regrets, should I die tomorrow. I can somewhat identify with working so hard, because it takes me away from time with my husband, yet writing is so fulfilling to me that I don’t think I would regret that. My husband and my writing are two lovers that I have to balance my time with. Made to choose, I would never write another word, yet I would deeply regret that.

I’ve given number five a lot of consideration. Allowing myself to be happier is an interesting one. I do realize that people—including me—can choose to be happy, or not. Happiness is a choice, and for me it means appreciating what you have at the moment, without dwelling on what you don’t have. It is something I strive for constantly. Being one of the key principles of Buddhism, it is something I’ve been working on for decades.
I think if I were to die tomorrow, my #1 regret would be that I was not more generous with people in my life. There have been so many times when I could have reached out to family, friends, even strangers on the street and given them a helping hand, but I chose to deal with my own issues instead. 
So, knowledge is power. Armed with knowing that would be my regret, hopefully I still have time to do something about it.  Work less, be happy with what I have, and give more to others. Sounds like a good plan to minimize regrets.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Writing Tip: Killing the army of ly

So far I’ve stayed away from tips on editing prose and focused on the larger issues of plot, developing characters and story structure. But this week, because I’ve been doing just this for two days, I want to focus on adjectives and adverbs, those pesky words that end in ‘ly’.

Adverbs and adjectives can bloat your prose and slow the pacing to a craw if you don’t keep a strict handle on them. They give the impression of giving your prose a lofty tone, yet they add very little to the content. And when overdone, they make the read difficult.

For the past two days I’ve performed an exercise on my work-in-progress. I’ve done a search on “ly “(ly plus a space.) So I’m going through the entire document evaluating each word that ends in ly to see if I can get rid of it, without effecting the meaning.

I’ve found that I have overused a number of words: finally, simply, suddenly, slightly, only, perfectly, really, etc.

And what I’ve found is that, 90% of the time when I delete these words, the prose becomes stronger, flows better. I wish I could stop myself from putting them there in the first place, but I can’t for some reason. But thank God for a text editor that can do a search. The difference is astounding (I first typed ‘truly astounding’, but then realized I was doing it again… And of course the word ‘truly’ adds nothing to the sentence.)

So a very simple way to improve your prose is to cut adjectives and adverbs to the bone, and cutting most of the words that end in ‘ly’ is a good start.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Getting Excited About Walking 500 Miles

Last year, my ex-husband told us he and his lover are planning to walk part of the Camino de Santiago, a five-hundred-mile pilgrimage that starts in southern France and winds through northern Spain. To walk the entire route takes thirty to thirty-five days, depending on pace and days off for rest. I was impressed that he wanted to try such an arduous journey, but had no interest in joining him.

But last week we had visitors here in Palm Springs, and one of them had walked this pilgrimage back in May, and could talk of nothing else. Herman and I became intrigued.  You see, Herman and I were already planning to visit northern Spain next spring. Our idea was to rent a car and drive along the coast for a week or two, then drop down into Lisbon. But then we started talking about how much more we would enjoy seeing Spain by foot. Of course there are hotels, hostels, restaurants, cafes, and facilities set up all along the way.

Following our friend’s visit, we watched the movie, The Way, with Martin Sheen, which gives a great overview of this pilgrimage. At that point, we were hooked.

Our friend completed the walk in thirty-one days by walking fifteen to twenty miles every day. Herman and I will, at our age, will take rest days in the larger cities along the path, giving ourselves a chance to see the cities and give our bodies a chance to recuperate. So we’ve begun planning on a thirty-five day trek.

Last year 237,000 pilgrims completed the journey. Today, hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims and many others set out each year from their front doorsteps or from popular starting points across Europe, to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few travel as some of their medieval counterparts did, on horseback or by donkey. In addition to those undertaking a religious pilgrimage, many are hikers who walk the route for other reasons: travel, sport, or simply the challenge of weeks of walking in a foreign land. Also, many consider the experience a spiritual adventure to remove themselves from the bustle of modern life. It serves as a retreat for many modern "pilgrims".

For Herman and I, it would combine out love for walking with the chance to see northern Spain in a unique way, and also hopefully be a path to self-discovery.

I can’t wait.