Browsing the blog archives for January, 2012.
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Finding the Perfect Attitude for Willpower, Part II

States of mind

In the first post in this series, I brought up the question of a perfect approach to willpower, some kind of zone we could get into that would make us automatically able to make the good choices we want for ourselves–exercising more, dealing better with people, eating healthier, working harder, stopping dangerous behaviors, or anything else. Lately I’ve gotten a glimpse of a frame of mind that is something like that zone, a frame of mind that has been making willpower much, much easier for me. Unfortunately, it’s not a single, simple change–but the pieces of it are ones we can master. Here are the ones I’ve been able to puzzle them out so far, and though I’m talking mainly about weight loss, the principles are the same for any other willpower challenge.

1. Resignation
This might seem like an odd thing to emphasize, but it’s become clear to me recently just how essential resignation is. Resignation is saying “OK, so this will be painful or inconvenient or unpleasant sometimes. I can deal with that.” Resignation is saying “I’ll embrace hunger, or loneliness, or whatever the challenge is for me, and find out what there is in it I can enjoy.”

Ineffective fad diets often claim they can help you lose weight without going hungry, or while still eating foods you love. It’s not impossible to lose weight without going hungry very much, or while eating foods you love, but it’s much easier if you’re willing to eat food you find boring, dull, and insufficient. If that sounds joyless, consider: what’s the best source of joy anyway? Yes, it can occasionally be delightful to eat a doughnut, but more often it’s just vaguely pleasant and we don’t pay that much attention anyway. Feeling successful, healthy, strong, and capable, however, pays off in joy consistently.

2. Going toward, not running away from
To eat well, it’s much easier to focus on getting healthy food than on avoiding unhealthy food. To quit smoking, it’s much more motivating to focus on how many non-smoking days one has had so far than on missing smoke breaks.  The more we think about things, the more our brains automatically configure themselves to be ready to do those things. If we spend a lot of time thinking about activities we’re trying to stop or do less of, it will make it harder to avoid them. Instead, we can focus on things that carry us forward.

3. Consistency and commitment
I don’t know how much this is my particular personality and how much this is true for most people, but it’s far easier for me to stop doing something I’m used to than to do just a little of it. For example, in 1985, concerned about environmental impact and mistreatment of livestock, I stopped eating meat, seafood, and poultry. I continued as an ovo-lacto vegetarian for more than 20 years, at which point I found that there were health issues for with my diet as it was (notably, it turns out that I’m allergic to soy and needed to reduce cholesterol consumption), and I added seafood and poultry back in. Vegetarianism was sometimes inconvenient, but it was never difficult. Similarly, I go years at a time without having any caffeine–coffee, chocolate, most sodas, etc.–because my body doesn’t handle caffeine well. That hasn’t been hard either.

By contrast, it can be very hard for us when we try to ration unhealthy foods or TV watching or Internet usage. Rationing seems to encourage us to think more about the things we’re trying to minimize, which as I’ve mentioned causes trouble. So the most successful attitude toward healthy eating for me has turned out to be “I’ll try to make healthy food choices every time.” Yes, there will be situations where I don’t have many good choices, and there may even be situations where I choose something less healthy because that’s the choice that makes sense to me at the time, but my practice now is to stop myself before any “recreational” eating choice and see if I can’t find a perspective that makes me happy to skip it. Not that this is always easy: more on that below.

4. Awareness
In order for me to make good choices, I have to realize it when one of those choices is in front of me. If I have four pieces of pizza in my belly before I remember to think about what I’m eating, then it’s already too late. Accordingly, the first thing I practice is being aware of making a choice. The second thing I practice is being willing to think about my motivations for making good choices. It shocks me how often I’ll realize I’m in a situation where I need to make a good choice and my first inclination is to not think about it. When I get past that and focus my attention on what I’m trying to achieve in my life, it becomes much easier to make the good choices. It’s when I don’t notice the opportunity or do notice but don’t allow myself to think about it that I run into problems.

5. Knowledge
I should say that any positive change needs to be founded on real knowledge. Meaningful facts–whether it’s calorie counts for eating well, knowing that people who have tried to quit smoking before are more likely to succeed when they try again, knowing what markets are available for the novel you’re working on, or really understanding the question of cardio versus strength training–facilitate reaching our goals, while lack of information gets in our way. For instance, if I try to lose weight but don’t realize that some of my “diet foods” are high in calories, I’m very likely to give up, because I’ll see I’m not making any progress.

So those are the pieces–at least, the ones I recognize so far. In the third post in this series, I’ll talk about how these pieces fit together and what it feels like to be fully engaged in changing a habit for the better.

Photo by sean dreilinger

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What Makes Characters Riveting?

Writing

I’ve been thinking about the question of what makes a good fictional character, and the result is this list of ways characters can draw readers’ interests, which I hope you’ll find useful.

There seem to be some basic requirements for characters that aren’t as much about drawing readers to them as about the character being workable at all, things like having flaws, actively pursuing goals, being vulnerable in some way, and being believable (at least in the context of the story). My list below is not so much about these things, which we might consider the character basics, but about the more difficult and touchy job of creating a character that pops off the page or that readers love.

With that said, my fictional success isn’t yet to the point where I can claim that all of my characters do this, so certainly you can take this list with a grain of salt.

So what I came up with when I dug into this question was five categories of things that get and keep readers interested in a character. They aren’t entirely exclusive of one another, but they seem to be helpful categories. They are:

1. sympathy (we like the character)
2. attention (we want to see what the character will do next)
3. entertainment (we enjoy seeing the character in action)
4. admiration (we aspire to be like the character), and
5. identification (we feel like the character reflects ourselves)

It’s likely that there are some other methods or even an entire category or two I’ve missed, but this list should be useful at least as a starting point.

By the way, I give a character for each of the below as an example of that item, but I’m not suggesting that the item in question is the only or even necessarily the primary thing that’s interesting about that particular character, just that the character is an example of that item in action.

SYMPATHY
* Suffering through something undeserved (Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
* Makes a sacrifice for someone else’s good (Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities)
* Consistently kind to others even when mistreated (Little Orphan Annie in the Little Orphan Annie comic, etc.)
* Extremely loyal (Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings)
* Highly principled (Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird)
* Not consistently nice, but sometimes willing to put real effort into being kind or friendly (Greg House in the TV series House)

ATTENTION
* Mysterious (Lestat in Interview with the Vampire)
* Trying really hard to accomplish something difficult (Hazel in Watership Down)
* Extremely resourceful, whether well-intentioned or not (Tom Sawyer in Tom Sawyer)
* Unique, fascinating, or exotic (Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear in The Golden Compass)
* Very powerful, whether in politics, money, physical prowess, etc. (Darth Vader in Star Wars)

ENTERTAINMENT
* Eccentric, unpredictable, fun to watch (Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Carribean)
* Willing to say things most people would only think (Sherlock Holmes in the modern movie and TV adaptations–I can’t comment on the originals, not having read them for a long time)
* Witty or intentionally entertaining (Bartimaeus in The Amulet of Samarkand)
* Strongly identifiable and partly–but not entirely–predictable (Homer Simpson in the TV series The Simpsons)

ADMIRATION
* Great at something (Zorro in various movies)
* Wise or knowledgeable (Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings)
* Unflappable; impossible to keep down (Lyra in The Golden Compass)

IDENTIFICATION
* Struggling with issues we can identify with, whether successful or not (Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye)
* Feels like a stand-in for the reader (Bella Swan in Twilight)

Of course, many of the best characters hit multiple points above.

As an exercise, it can be useful to think of a character you love from a book, movie, or television show, consider whether one or more of the above applies strongly to that character, and decide for yourself whether or not that has much to do with why you like the character. Recently I’ve been watching the excellent BBC series Masterpiece: Downton Abbey, and I was interested to realize that as I made this list, various characters from that show popped into my head without me even trying.

A more potent exercise: take a piece of your writing–or even someone else’s writing–in which there’s a character who doesn’t really stand out, and go through this list to find one or two of the above items that you can use to punch the character up. What are your results?

I’d appreciate your comments, additions, protests, and so on.

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Finding the Perfect Attitude for Willpower: Part I

States of mind

Since I started this blog more than two and a half years ago–actually, no, since long before that–I’ve been quietly searching for the perfect state of mind, the way of thinking or being that would make willpower simple. It always struck me that people sometimes go through experiences that affect them so much that their actions are completely different from that time forward, even though all that changed was their thoughts.

I was talking to an acquaintance the other day about her father. He’s been a diabetic for decades, but he never really got into the habit of checking his blood sugar regularly. It’s hard to blame him: who wants to draw their own blood twice a day for life? A few days ago, though, he called his daughter on the phone and told her something was wrong. His speech was slurred, he couldn’t stand up, and his daughter feared he was having a stroke. She called an ambulance.

The paramedics were able to rule out a stroke, and it turned out that the problem was just that the amount of insulin her father was taking was off. He should have been testing his blood sugar so that his doctor would know if it was getting too low (in this case it was much too low–a little lower and it would have sent him into a coma) and be able to adjust things accordingly.

You might not be surprised to know that my friend’s father is now checking his insulin religiously. Poking yourself with something sharp every once in a while suddenly stops feeling like so much of a nuisance if it’s going to prevent you from collapsing on the floor and going into a coma.

What does this have to do with willpower? Well, I’ve always wondered. On the one hand, I’ve thought, maybe it’s possible to jar ourselves into that state of complete dedication to making the smart choice, over and over again, in the same way my friend’s father was jarred. On the other, maybe that only applies to really traumatic experiences.

A little more background we’ll need to make sense of this topic: I’ve never had a friendly relationship with food. I’m one of four kids, raised in a household where the food budget was sometimes very tight. The kinds of food we liked weren’t always easy to come by, so if something was served that we considered especially good, we’d scarf down our first portion to get seconds before it was all gone. In this and other ways, we all learned some bad ways of dealing with and thinking about food, and for me this has been an issue into adulthood. I was unhappily overweight for years, gradually gaining mass, until about seven years ago, when I finally understood about exercise. I’d always thought it was something that you tried to put up with: I had never realized that exercise could be something you crave, and yet regular exercise made that transformation for me, and with that change along with some hard work to eat better, I eventually lost more than 60 pounds.

Over the past six months or a year, though, I hadn’t been bothering as much about fitness, having family matters to deal with that were a more important place to put my time and attention, and recently I realized I had started putting weight back on. The idea was very unappealing to me, as you can probably imagine, and I focused on the problem to piece together what I knew about willpower so that I could find a state of mind where I didn’t just eat well, but craved eating well–just like I crave exercise. I may have found it, but it’s not as simple as I once imagined it might be. I wasn’t scared into changing my life. Instead, I began looking at things in a different way. In my next post, I’ll talk about what that change of attitude was and how to get to it.

Photo by Chris Rimmer

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Online Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Courses with Cat Rambo

Resources

Writer Cat Rambo has recently been offering online classes and workshops that have proved fairly popular. Cat is a highly accomplished writer of fantasy and science fiction. Her work has appeared in top pro venues like Asimov’s Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Weird Tales, and Strange Horizons, and from there a number have made their way into year’s best anthologies. My experience is that she’s personable and insightful. If you write or are interested in writing science fiction or fantasy and want to improve your skills, the classes below might be just what the doctor ordered. They run from one to six sessions, are priced in the $100-$250 range, and are described in detail with schedule and price list at http://www.kittywumpus.net/blog/2012/01/04/online-classes-and-workshops-for-2012/ .

(Note: I don’t get a cut of any of this; I’m just mentioning it because I think Cat is an unusually good source of writing knowledge.)

About the class format, Cat says “I do them on Google Hangouts, which means that people can participate via video (or if they are shy, by audio only). The format allows for a class that is conducted both during the class time and also outside of it via discussions on Google+. I’ve been very happy with this – I feel as though the combo of in and out of class exchanges has let me connect with students in a deeper way than in a once a week face to face class, weirdly enough.”

Here are the current offerings:

Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction Stories: A six week workshop focusing on the basics of writing speculative fiction short stories, including plotting, creating believable and engaging characters, world-building, what to do with a story once it’s finished, dealing with editors and markets, and other necessities. Students will have the opportunity to workshop two stories over the course of the class.

Editing Basics: This three week workshop targets editing both other people’s works as well as your own. Topics include how to edit at both the sentence and story/book level, working well with writers, theory of ToCs, electronic publishing, copyright, and making a living as an editor. Each session is two hours and includes in-class editing exercises, with week one focusing on developmental editing, week two on copyediting and fact checking, and week three on publishing.

Bring On The Flash: A three-hour session focusing on writing flash fiction and consisting of a mixture of lecture, in-class writing exercises, discussion of how to turn fragments into flash, and an overview of flash fiction markets.

Your First Page: Co-taught with Louise Marley. Louise and I have done this workshop several times with great success – we thought we’d try an online version. You give us the first page of your novel and we’ll critique and discuss it in a way that will be helpful with the overall work as well as talking about agents, and editors and how important the first page is when engaging them. More than one students had told me this was the single most useful workshop they’d ever had.

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Amber Sistla’s Writer Wednesday Interview with Luc Reid

Luc's writing projects

Amber Sistla is running a series of well-designed interviews with neopro writers on her Web site every Wednesday, and her latest interview is with me. She asks me about some favorites, which is the kind of question I’m notoriously bad at answering, and throws me some other questions that led me to answers I didn’t expect myself. (For example, my favorite comfort food, which isn’t actually a food.)

You can read the whole interview here.

Some things have changed since Amber did the interview with me last month: for the moment, Futurismic is going semi-dormant, so I contributed my last scheduled “Brain Hacks for Writers Column” for now a couple of weeks ago (“Better Writing Through Writing About Writing“) and will be watching for Futurismic to rise again when publisher Paul Raven is free to return to it. My collection Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories is not available on Smashwords any more at the moment, and my birthday has already passed (it was pretty great, thanks).

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