Goals (reprise)

In my post on goal setting for writers, I wrote about things like setting measurable, achievable goals. Today’s longer post dives deeper into the idea of using goals to achieve what you want in life. It’s inspired by Brian Tracy’s Goals! (The link is to the new edition that just came out in December; I got the audio version of the 2003 original from the library, in keeping with my longstanding goal to get a handle on my overflowing bookshelves.)

The 5-minute summary

Write down your goals, make plans to achieve them, and work on your plans every single day.

Success starts inside

Tracy says, “you become what you think about most of the time.” Once you have clear goals, you’ll move towards them. Think about the future, what you want out of life, and who you want to be, and that’s what your life will be about. Don’t constantly think about the past, all the reasons you haven’t succeeded yet, all the people who hurt you – those negative emotions will hold you down. To free yourself, see yourself as in control of your own fate. Psychologists call this “locus of control,” and you’re happier if you have an internal one as opposed to external.

The timing for this couldn’t be better for me. In November, I used NaNoWriMo to write a memoir-y piece in which I dug deep into old memories, looking for characters and emotions I could work into my fiction. Great idea, right? Except…it was kind of like opening Pandora’s box. I tapped right into a deep well of fears, doubts, resentments, and guilt. And blame, which Tracy describes as the trunk of the tree of negative emotions. Good for my fiction, no doubt.

Ahem.

Clarify your values, because your goals need to be congruent with them. Integrity is the overarching value. When you have integrity, you live in alignment with your values, which makes you a happier person. Create a big dream, clearly envision your future, and don’t let self-limiting beliefs of your own inadequacy get in your way. You need burning desire to sustain the kind of work you’ll need to put in to achieve the highest level of success. Analyze your beliefs because whatever you believe with conviction becomes your reality. Your own self-limiting beliefs can be the biggest obstacle to your success. You have the intelligence, talent, and creativity you need; you have more potential than you could ever use in your lifetime. Reprogram yourself with positive statements, and learn to see setbacks as part of the plan because you’ll learn from them.

Live as though you were already the excellent person you want to become.

Now that you’ve set the stage…

You’re ready to determine and clarify your goals. You can’t hit a target you can’t see. Keep returning to the question, what do I want for my life? Start general, then move to more and more specific goals. Do a baseline assessment: identify your starting point, what good habits are helping you, what bad ones are holding you back, what your best and weakest qualities are, and what new habits and qualities you need to develop. Set deadlines and benchmarks to measure your progress. Commit to them, and discipline yourself to complete them. If you miss a deadline, set a new one: the more you use deadlines, the better you get at setting and achieving them, and the more dependable you become.

Achieving your goals

Remove roadblocks instead of giving up. Brainstorm potential obstacles and focus on solving the ones that will make the most difference. Most of your constraints will be within yourself. Don’t focus on causes of the roadblocks, but rewrite them as positive goals. Expect to fail and fall short many times.

Failure is an opportunity to begin again more intelligently.

Tracy says the best way to develop yourself is in the direction of your natural talents. Signs to look for: you enjoy doing a thing, you do it well, time stands still when you do it, and you really admire and respect other people who do it. Once you know what “it” is, become an expert: commit to excellence, to becoming one of the best people in your field. Put your whole heart into it. Work on developing the skills you need to be the best, by practicing imperfectly until you can do them perfectly. Remember that the top people in your field were at one time not even in the field at all.

Look for opportunities to help other people and make their lives easier. You’ll need lots of help to achieve your goals. Be kind, courteous, and compassionate; get to know people, and recognize and compliment their work. Come prepared, arrive early, volunteer, and cultivate a reputation as the person everyone can depend on. Choose a reference group (the people you associate with) of people you look up to; positive, goal-oriented people that you like, admire, and respect. Don’t neglect your home life, either. Treat everyone like a million dollar customer, and look for ways to make their lives better.

Plan how to achieve your goal. Even if you never look at the plan again, the process enables you to organize your thinking, figure out how to compensate for flaws or weaknesses, identify resources you need, focus on first things first, and avoid wasting time on things that aren’t possible with existing resources. Expect plans to fail at first, and learn from those failures. Manage your time by maintaining prioritized lists of what you need to do to achieve your goals, making decisions about what’s the most valuable use of your time at the moment, and following through.

The step that will change your life

Get a spiral notebook and write your goals daily. Without looking at yesterday’s goals, list your top 10-15 goals, using the 3P formula: positive, present tense, personal. “I weigh X pounds by December 31, 2018.” Your goals will change from day to day, but over time you’ll refine them into a consistent list. What you’re doing is programming your subconscious so it will help ensure all your actions are consistent with your goals. Do it last thing at night so your subconscious will work on it while you sleep, or first thing in the morning to set up your day. To multiply the effectiveness, add three actions you can take to achieve each goal, also using the 3 Ps: “I plan my meals in advance. I eat fruit for dessert. I exercise every day.”

Take control of your mind

Use mental rehearsal and constructive visualization to help you achieve your goals. By changing your internal pictures, you’ll change your reality. Improvement starts with improving your mental pictures. This sounded like mumbo jumbo to me until Tracy pointed out the flip side of this coin: when you worry excessively, you’re mentally rehearsing the negative, with the result that your life is worse than it needs to be. I do believe that, and have a handful of aphorisms squirreled away in my brain, like:

Don’t borrow trouble, or the more fun-to-say don’t trouble trouble till trouble troubles you.

So my mind is open, which is Tracy’s next point: be open to possibility that comes through serendipity or synchronicity, and be open to new ideas. Change will happen, and you have to deal with things as they are. Be flexible – be clear about your goals, but flexible about the process of achieving them. Tap into your intuition by either working on your goal wholeheartedly or taking a break and getting your mind busy elsewhere.

Strengthen your creativity by using “mind storming” to generate ideas. Write your problem as a question, and force yourself to come up with at least 20 answers. The last ones will be really hard, but sometimes that’s where the breakthrough insight occurs. You can take the best idea and repeat the exercise by writing it as a question (“how can I…”); and you can repeat the exercise on the original question every day until you get the insight you need. Use mind storming to do scenario planning; start by thinking of the three worst and three best things that could happen in the next few months, then ask how to guard against the setbacks and how to encourage and take advantage of the good things. You need to have options so you can respond to change.

Action, self-discipline, and courage

Do something every day towards achieving your goals. Go beyond what’s expected, and persist until you succeed. Build the habit of persistence; do what you need to do, whether you feel like it or not. Disappointments and adversity are normal parts of life. The higher and more challenging your goals, the more adversity you’ll face. The way you respond to disappointment predicts your success. Don’t give up.

Tackle your fears head-on. Most of us fear failure and rejection, and that’s okay – courage is mastery of fear, not absence of fear. Confronting your fears will diminish them and build your confidence, while hiding from them allows them to grow. Write a list of your fears, identify the one that’s holding you back the most, and ask how it’s holding you back, how it’s helping you, and what the payoff would be for eliminating it. Take actions consistent with courage and self-confidence, and think of yourself as courageous and self-reliant.

Where do I go from here?

There’s a lot of great advice in Brian Tracy’s book, but as he says, the best advice in the world won’t help you if you don’t act on it. I’m going to try the write-your-goals-daily thing for the rest of January 2018, and I believe that will also help me with developing a clear vision and keeping it alive in my conscious and subconscious mind. I love his advice about treating other people well, and his counsel that you become what you think about most of the time. I might cross-stitch that on a sampler to hang over my desk.

What do you think? If you’ve tried any of these ideas, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

 

Advertisements

Show, don’t tell

I HATE this advice. I know myself well enough to know that probably means I need to pay attention when people say it about my writing. If you ask me about it, I’ll probably say something like “I’m skeptical; it’s a newfangled notion and I’ve read plenty of books that have stood the test of time while telling mercilessly.”

Honestly, though? I hate this advice because I don’t understand it well enough to heed it.

This blog post is my attempt to come to grips with this confusing notion.

It’s in the prose

Show, don’t tell, isn’t an aspect of the storytelling side of writing. You can have a terrific plot, compelling characters, and a meaningful theme, and still struggle with telling. Show, don’t tell happens in the prose you use to tell the story.

Do you see what I did there? Storytelling. Prose that tells the story. This is probably a big reason I find this concept so vague: it’s a catchy phrase that doesn’t convey enough meaning to be helpful.

Dramatization versus exposition

The fabulously informative K.M. Weiland explains the phrase as code for mastering great narrative and allowing readers to fully inhabit the story. In the old novels I sink into when I have a bad day, I’m observing a character who’s watching something happen; the “show versus tell” goal is for me to watch something happen myself.

Weiland recommends examining every paragraph of your novel for the proper balance of showing, using a list of checkpoints.

  1. “Telling” verbs

These are verbs that put a layer of distance between the reader and the story. Weiland’s list includes ask, begin, feel, hear, look, see, smell, sound, taste, think, touch, and wonder. These words distance the reader because instead of engaging the reader’s own senses, you’re telling them what the narrator is sensing. It’s the difference between “Sally heard a lark singing” and something that describes the plaintive, desperate cry of a lark looking for a mate.

My impression of lark song from a hundred literary references was completely off base. There are no larks where I live, so I looked it up on YouTube to help me write that sentence. From reading all those old “telling” narratives, I imagined a beautiful melody, like the mockingbird outside my house sings. Now I know it’s more of a call, not very musical at all. If the way a lark sounds was important to a plot, I’d never have gotten the point.

2. Dramatize, don’t summarize

You can think of showing as dramatizing, and telling as summarizing. It’s the knife plunging into the victim’s heart versus the assassin killing the victim. Joe Bunting calls this being specific, and he says it’s the secret to showing, not telling. He recommends interrogating your story to reveal the hidden depths, and compares a summary to a closed accordion. The music happens when you pull it open and show the folds.

3. Balance

Don’t try to eliminate all the telling in your novel. You can use it to summarize tedious or extraneous events, remind readers of what they already know, and transition between scenes, times, and settings. Most of your writing should be showing, but there’s a place for telling. As a reader, I’m fine with a summary that says the second week in the new job was just like the first. Writer’s Digest says be brief, and make sure whatever you’re summarizing is really necessary for advancing the plot by developing backstory, establishing mood, or describing the setting. The flip side of adding specificity is that you’re adding length. Don’t bore the reader.

4. Show the one right detail

Find the one thing that will bring the scene to life, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Brandon Sanderson talks about this in his BYU lesson on world building: he says if you go deep on one little thing about your fantasy or science fiction world, it creates the illusion of the iceberg beneath the surface. Weiland says that trying to dramatize everything, so the reader sees exactly what you see in your imagination, doesn’t usually work, and adds unnecessary clutter. Along the same lines, Tom Leveen reminds us that everyone knows what bacon smells like, so you don’t need to waste a paragraph describing it. He says make that one right detail concrete: it’s not the length of the description but the specificity. You can choose to leave other things ambiguous.

The camera trick

The Writer’s Digest recommends Jeff Gerke’s idea from his book The First 50 Pages, to help you identify whether your prose is telling, not showing. Ask yourself, can the camera see it? “It was a peaceful land and the people lived in harmony” is telling because the camera can’t see peace and harmony.

You’ll have to imagine a camera that picks up things from the other senses. Also, interior monologue isn’t telling, even though the camera wouldn’t see it.

Showing better by stirring emotions

Another way to think about it is to say that showing is the ability to stir readers’ emotions, says Abigail Perry on the DIY MFA website. Using the courtroom verdict scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, you can see how three techniques heighten the reader’s connection to the character’s emotions:

  1. Metaphor and simile

Using vivid images and precise words pulls the reader in better than vague adverbs and adjectives. In Mockingbird, Scout says “I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers.” She could have said “the jury returned, moving slowly” but that wouldn’t have conveyed the agonizing pace. The metaphor also helps to show how Scout is perceiving the moment, in a dreamlike, time-stretched, somber way.

Metaphors and similes make scenes easier to imagine. Watch out for clichés, though – I know the first simile that comes to my mind is usually something that was overused a hundred years ago.

2.  Verbs to trigger the senses

Scout notices that Jem’s hands are “white from gripping the rails.” From this image, we know Jem is upset, and we can feel the tension in his body. Atticus “pushes” his papers and “snaps” his briefcase. Using verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs is a stronger, more direct way to describe what and how the character sees, smells, hears, and feels. Tom Leveen says we can use more than 5 senses in our writing. The senses of temperature, pain, balance and acceleration, and where our limbs are in relation to ourselves can all help deepen the reader’s connection to our work.

3.  Interweaving dialogue

Dialogue is another way to show a character’s feelings and emotions. There’s not much dialogue in the Mockingbird  scene but what little there is pulls us in deeper. Not exactly dialogue, but description of dialogue – “Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny” – conveys that same slow-motion unreality as the “underwater swimmers” jury motion. At the end of the scene, as Scout is watching from the balcony as Atticus exits the courtroom, Reverend Sykes says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’…” The short statement conveys the respect the community has for Atticus, and supports the visuals.

How to show in four easy steps

The Daily Writing Tips blog summarizes the concept briefly:

  1. Use dialogue
  2. Use sensory language
  3. Be descriptive (but don’t go so far as to write a “police blotter” description)
  4. Be specific, not vague

The great lie of writing workshops?

Joshua Henkin has a different perspective on the “show don’t tell” advice. He says there is a kernel of truth in it – fiction is a dramatic art. However, a novel is not a movie. Movies are better at certain things, but they aren’t as good at others as novels are, like conveying what’s going on in the general sense that doesn’t fit into a specific scene, or more importantly, describing internal psychological states. A movie can suggest emotion by dialogue and gesture, or borrow from the novel with a voice-over; a novel can straight-out tell you what the person is feeling.

Henkin says “show don’t tell” can be a lazy way to say something isn’t working in a story, when the teacher and the student need to dig deeper to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. It’s easier to fiddle with the description so the reader can see the torn vinyl couch than it is to describe internal emotional states without using cheesy clichés. “Show don’t tell” can provide cover for writers who don’t want to do the hardest but most crucial work.

Mostly show but sometimes tell

Hannah Collins neatly straddles both sides of the question with this less catchy but more accurate phrase. She compares writing to music, where composers include silence to give the listener a rest from all the sounds. If you do nothing but show, your writing will be long and exhausting, and some things are better conveyed by simple telling.

Because telling comes naturally to writers, we need to learn to show, which is why the “show don’t tell” advice is so prevalent. Collins recommends practicing by writing a scene in simple “telling” style and then rewriting it to show, sprinkling in more details and context than the straightforward telling conveyed.

Ultimately, knowing when to show and when to tell comes from experience, practice, instinct, and feedback.

 

 

Editing a la Susan Spann

The brilliant Susan Spann (website and Amazon page) generously shared her editing process last month (Sept. 2017) with us lucky attendees at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference in Denver. Susan is an attorney specializing in intellectual property – another of her conference sessions focused on what to look out for in an agent or publishing contract – and an author of a mystery series set in 16th-century Japan starring a master ninja and a Portuguese Jesuit priest.

She stressed that this is her process – it works for her; if it works for you, great; if not, don’t do it this way. Before she starts, she spends 3-4 months reading and researching the world of the novel, and creates a brief outline of the 5-act structure and the events that occur on-stage and off.

Her process resonated with me in part because it ‘s similar to what I used to do while writing government reports in my previous career. We called it multi-pass editing, and the idea was that you’d:

1 – Get words on paper. If you don’t have anything to work with, you can’t make it better.

2 – Review the draft for content. Is the right information in the report, is there anything in there that doesn’t need to be, are the ideas adequately explained, using clarifying examples where needed, and is the information presented in context?

3 – Do another pass for organization. Does the report use headings and good paragraph structure, and does the information flow logically; can a reader skim the report and get the gist?

4 – The next pass was for style. You’d look for connections and transitions, active voice, clarity, conciseness, and any jargon that had snuck in.

5 – The last pass was for mechanics, like spelling, punctuation, grammar, and any errors you tend to make.

After we’d done everything we could to make it a good report, we’d pass it along to our in-house reviewers, editors, and quality control people, similar to fiction writers’ alpha and beta readers.

Susan’s approach seems familiar:

First draft: 

  • Unfiltered draft, written with the aid of a 3-page bullet point outline. She looks at the outline at the beginning and end of the day, but not while writing.
  • She writes on a device called an Alpha Smart Neo that only lets her see three lines at a time, for distraction-free writing; she downloads to Word every night.
  • No deleting anything till the draft is finished. Fix in editing is the mantra.
  • Set a word count goal.  Figure out your baseline – how much you’re currently writing in a day. Make that your goal till you can do it consistently on however many days a week you write. Then reset your goal to something attainable but that will push you, and stick with that till you can meet it consistently. Repeat. Using this approach, she went from a goal of writing 15 minutes a day, 200 words, to her current 6,000 a day in 4-5 hours.

    You have to touch the wall every day.

  • Don’t measure your speed against anyone else’s. She does her first draft in about 10 days now, but see above bullet for where she started out.
  • Write every day. She requires herself to write an hour a day, although she usually does more.
  • Stop for the day right before the cool thing happens, not at the end of the scene.
  • If you get stuck, think “what’s the least plausible, but possible in this book’s world, thing that can happen here?”

    Celebrate everything!

Second draft: 

  • She spends 2 1/2 months on this draft, editing 2-3 pages a day at a pace of about 2 hours per page. She doesn’t do a complete read before she starts; just starts at the beginning.
  • Focus on structure, plot/subplot, world building, big inconsistencies.
  • Remove unnecessary characters; maybe combine characters who fill small roles
  • Remove scenes where nothing’s really happening, it doesn’t advance the plot, or it duplicates another scene. Think about what information was gained in the scene and where else it could go if you delete it. Save deleted scenes in a separate file.
  • Make sure the character’s actions make sense. Is there a good reason they’re chasing down a killer instead of staying home and eating tacos?
  • If you notice a grammar mistake, typo, etc., fix it, but don’t look for them.
  • Put a square bracket where you need to research something, figure out how to fix something, or check internal consistency.
  • Make notes at the end of the manuscript of things you need to think about more. If she thinks the reader would have a question, she puts it at the end.

Third draft: 

  • Research and detail insertion. Take care of all those square brackets.
  • Make the characters distinct.
    • Every character gets something that sets them apart, as recommended in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. This could be a physical characteristic, a typical gesture, etc.
    • Make them sound distinct. Add their inner dialogue. With every line of dialogue, ask what they’re feeling (or what they want others to think they’re feeling), and how their gestures or movements convey that.
  • Triple verify everything you find on the Internet. Email experts; go to the place, stay there, and talk to people
  • If you have characters from a different culture than your own, research until people in that culture say you got it right. If you can’t do it justice, delete it.
  • Reverse engineer any subplots. Fill any holes in the plot.

Fourth draft: 

  • Add the chapter breaks.
    • Put the break where the reader will want to turn the page, not where they’ll want to put a bookmark in and go to bed.
    • She goes to the 5th page, scans the action to see where a break should go. If there isn’t a good place, she keeps reading. If the natural break isn’t till page 8, she cuts 2-3 pages out of the chapter so she can break it on page 5 or 6. Whatever chapter length works for you, be consistent.
  • Look at the chapters individually:
    • is there a beginning, middle, and end?
    • is there conflict on every page? You can add tension by making a character obstreperous, not necessarily related to the master story arc.
  • Make sure the dialogue is snappy.
  • Make sure the changes you’ve made haven’t messed up something else

Fifth draft:

  • First polishing draft
  • From here on, read the draft out loud. You want it to read smoothly, and reading out loud will also help develop your writing voice and lyricism.
  • Look for grammar, sentence structure, and voice.
  • Look for echo words that you’ve repeated over and over. Use the thesaurus to fix this, but watch out – some words are so high-impact you can only get away with using them once in the whole book.
  • If you fix something in a scene, go back and start reading 2 paragraphs earlier. It’s like smoothing a tablecloth, where you can create more wrinkles.

Send the draft to your alpha and beta readers. Her alpha reader is her son; her beta readers are her critique partners. None of them sees the draft until this point. Tell your readers to crush the manuscript with a mighty hammer. There’s nothing they can tell you that will be as mean as what someone will post on Amazon.

Sixth draft:

  • Integrate your readers’ comments and do a second polish.
  • Pay attention to the comments:
    • Even if reader has it wrong, there’s a reason they had the question, so look at why they had that reaction, and figure out how to change.
    • The change needed may not be what the reader suggests. Their question might be triggered by something you did earlier. Talk to them, ask why they had that reaction.

This is where she sends the manuscript to her agent. She has an editorial agent, so her seventh draft is integrating her agent’s comments.

If the process sounds grueling, I’m sure it is, based on my past experience writing and editing reports. But it makes sense, and I believe if I try to follow Susan’s process for editing my novel, I’ll end up with a much better final product than I’ve ever accomplished before.

What do you think? Do you have an editing process that works for you? Please share in the comments below!

 

Screwball comedy – it’s not what I thought

I’ve been thinking of my current project as kind of a screwball comedy, modeled roughly after Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. The key features I had in mind were:

  • Things spiral out of control in a crazy way. Ordinary events, like mislaid keys or misunderstood messages, pile on each other, leading to worst-case but wacky consequences.
  • The heroines are likable and capable though quirky, the supporting characters are even quirkier, and the antagonists are straitlaced and controlling.
  • Even though the stakes are high, like the end of the world as we know it, the reader doesn’t feel unduly anxious or stressed, because the whole situation is so absurd.

Through the wonders of Interlibrary Loan, I got my hands on Romantic vs. Screwball Comedy: Charting the Difference by Wes D. Gehring, who teaches film at Ball State University. He’s talking about movies, not books, and that’s an important distinction, since some of the features of screwball comedies only apply to movies.

As it turns out, screwball comedies have some features that never occurred to me. Some of them are irrelevant to my book, but others sparked new ideas for me, like these:

  • The central character is an antihero, a “little man” who’s always going to be thwarted, because he’s trying to create order in a world where order is impossible.
  • The plots often have couples from different classes coming together, a metaphor for reconciliation between classes, generations, genders, and attitudes (anxiety vs happy-go-lucky optimism).
  • The movies use nutty behavior as a prism through which to view a topsy-turvy period in history.

Other features of classic screwball comedies are more tied up in gender roles and romance. There’s typically a childlike man who has lots of leisure time and is frustrated in his relationships with women, and a zany eccentric woman rescues him from a domineering mother-like wife or fiancee. The movies involve ritualistic humiliation of the male, and Dr. Gehring says the vanquishing of male rigidity is the goal of all good screwball comedies.

Screwball comedies often parody more serious movies, usually romance (there’s a great sendup of Love Story’s most famous line in What’s Up, Doc?) but not always, as in Analyze This and others that spoof gangster movies. There’s usually a lot of physical comedy in screwball, unlike in romantic comedy, where attempted slapstick can be really awkward (I’m looking at you, Woman of the Year kitchen scene).

Dr. Gehring’s discussion of how the Great Depression and the transition from silent pictures to talkies influenced the development of the screwball genre is fascinating. For example, he talks about how screwball was intrigued with the wealthy classes but had a softer take on class differences than the class warfare and anarchy of some other comedies at the time, like some Marx Brother and W.C. Fields films. In screwball comedy, the idle rich are “entertainingly odd.” Talking pictures brought writers in from all over to produce the witty conversation.

Even though I was off base in my ideas about screwball comedy, I enjoyed reading the book, and I’ve assigned myself some movie watching homework. If you’re interested in experiencing some screwball comedy yourself, here are a few movies you might start with:

  • My Man Godfrey (1936), based on a novel by Eric Hatch
  • Topper (1937), based on a novel by Thorne Smith
  • Some Like it Hot (1959)
  • What’s Up, Doc? (1974)
  • All of Me (1984), based on the novel Me Two by Ed Davis
  • A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

 

Surviving summer in Phoenix

It’s the middle of June, it was 110 today, and it’s supposed to be 120 in a couple of days. I just got back from a few days in L.A., where it was a civilized 90 or so, and I needed my sweater when I was waiting for the shuttle bus at the Griffith Observatory. Driving home across the desert, especially in the stretch where they tell you to turn off your air conditioning to avoid overheating – a message reinforced by the U-Haul truck with its hood up at the side of the road – I thought about how many summers I’ve spent here. These are the lessons I’ve learned.

Respect the heat

Every summer, people trying to hike, bike, or jog in our beautiful desert collapse from the extreme heat. Some are rescued; some die. This article says it’s nearly impossible to replace the water you lose while hiking in these temperatures, even if you’re carrying enough water (you lose a liter an hour while hiking, double that in extreme heat, and your body can only absorb half a liter an hour). Heat stroke and dehydration kill dogs, too.

 …but don’t let it ruin your life

You don’t have to hole up all summer long. We average 110 days per year over 100 degrees, and 19 days over 110; that means you’ll lose almost a third of your life if you don’t learn to live with the heat. If you plan ahead, you can actually enjoy Phoenix in the summertime. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s less crowded without the winter visitors and university students. There’s not as much to do, which is okay, because in this heat you probably won’t feel like doing much anyway.

Follow these tips:

  1. Take advantage of free air conditioning. Movie theaters, libraries, museums, the gym, indoor malls – if you can find one – and stores are air conditioned on someone else’s dime. So’s your office, probably. Summer might be a time to forego telecommuting. Keep a sweater in your car for those places that are kept too cold for comfort.
  2. Go out in the morning, by which I mean as soon as it starts to get light out. It’s the coolest part of the day, using the word “cool” loosely, This is especially important if your dog walks with you. The sidewalk is way too hot for their feet later on.
  3. Hydrate inside and out. Carry water with you everywhere and sip it constantly. Walk under the misters at outdoor malls. Jump in the pool – yours, a friend’s, or the public pool. Visit the splash pad with the kids.
  4. Park in the shade. Yes, you’ll have to walk farther in the sun to get to your car, but you’ll be able to touch the steering wheel when you get there. Better yet, run your errands after dark if you can.
  5. Get out of town. Flagstaff, the White Mountains, Prescott, and Payson are all within a three-hour drive of Phoenix. If you want to hike, those are the places to do it in the summer. You can even drive to the beach in less than eight hours, or catch a cheap flight and be there in a couple of hours. Even a short break away makes the summer more bearable.
  6. Keep your house cool. Plant a fast-growing shade tree or two, replace your old windows with the kind that keep heat out, and install ceiling fans and cool-burning light bulbs. Use your vent fans and don’t use the oven. Learn to love salads. Use your swamp cooler, if you have one, before monsoon season hits – it’ll keep your house more comfortable for less $ than a/c.
  7. Give yourself permission to veg out. Other people do jigsaw puzzles in the winter when it’s too cold to go outside; you can do them when it’s too hot. Same with adult coloring books. Read. Alphabetize your spice rack. Plan your next big vacation. Take it easy, it’s summer.

What did I miss? Add your tips in the comments below.

Forget to learn

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about learning. I’m studying banjo and fiction writing and Spanish at the moment. Sometimes things seem to be going well, other times, not so much. Thanks to the magic of the YouTube recommendations algorithm and the generosity of people in my FaceBook writing groups, I’ve found some terrific information recently that I think is going to be really helpful.

The Feynman approach

If you want to understand something, explain it simply.

You can do this in person, if you have someone handy, preferably a kid who will keep asking you “why?” I often discover how inadequate my own understanding is when I try to explain something to someone else. Of course, that can be embarrassing, and not everyone may want to listen to you flail around.

An easier approach is to explain it on paper. Here are the steps:

  1. Write the name of the thing you want to understand at the top
  2. Explain it in simple terms. Include examples and ways to use the iScreen Shot 2017-06-04 at 11.14.23 AMnformation.
  3. Identify problem areas where your explanation is weak or your understanding is shaky. Go back and learn more, then revise your explanation.
  4. Identify any technical terms or complexity, and try to simplify your explanation.

Here’s a post from Thomas Frank with more details, a video, and links.

And I recommend checking out Richard Feynman himself. He was a brilliant theoretical physicist and a great explainer.Here’s a website dedicated to him, and here’s one
of his books that even us non-physicists can enjoy.

Spaced repetition

To remember more, give your brain more time to consolidate the information, and give yourself a chance to forget a bit so when you come back to it, you’ll learn more and your recall will be strengthened. This is that “forget to learn” idea. The harder you have to work to retrieve the information, the better you’ll be able to remember it later. Two obvious ways to make retrieval harder are letting some time go by (giving time for interfering information to seep in) and focusing on something else (e.g., interleaving study topics, like ABCABC instead of AABBCC).

Thomas Frank recommends a flash card setup called the Leitner system with five boxes Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.29.21 PMor piles:

  1. Review every day
  2. Review every other day
  3. Review weekly
  4. Review biweekly
  5. Review when you need it (i.e. before a test)

All the cards start out in box 1, and you move each card to the next box when you’ve mastered it. If a card’s in a higher box and you discover you don’t remember it, you move it back to box 1. Frank’s post lists several apps you can use for this. Duolingo, the language learning app I’m using to learn Spanish, seems to follow this principle.

Here’s Robert Bjork explaining the “new theory of disuse” which is behind this idea.

 

Practicing and engagement

Engagement is key to effective practice when learning a skill. You have to be there, focused on what you’re learning. This is going to be my challenge – I’ve gotten used to practicing banjo rolls and running through pieces I’m trying to memorize while watching Netflix, or even while reading (more difficult. Banjo picks get in the way of turning pages.)Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.35.53 PM

Here’s what it takes:

  1. Focus when engaged in practice
  2. Minimize distractions
  3. Start slow, and increase speed later
  4. Practice repeatedly with frequent breaks
  5. Visualize the skill to reinforce practice

To reach a big goal, you have to really want it. You also need to be able to break it down into bite-sized pieces, and take pleasure in completing each piece.

This article, about a kid auditioning for Juilliard, explains this and more in a clear and entertaining way. I followed some of the links in the article, including this one, which includes a TedEd talk about how practice works, and this link to The Bulletproof Musician.

Do you have any tips on learning or resources you’ve found helpful? Please share in the comments below.

 

 

Purging books

Today, I’m acknowledging three things. #1, I am not going to live forever. (What?!?) #2, I am never going to live in an English country manor with an enormous library with shelves to the ceiling. #3, my daughter and granddaughters are not going to see it as a positive thing if they inherit thousands of books. Okay, four things: #4, my paperback Soylent Greencopy of Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room with the movie tie-in picture from Soylent Green, cover price 95 cents, whose glue has disintegrated so the cover is just a holder for the loose pages, isn’t worth any money now and never will be.

So I’m purging my shelves

The Marie Kondo approach didn’t work for me. You know – take all your books out of the shelves and touch each one, and only give shelf space to the ones that spark joy. I’m not the exact same person every day, and I don’t trust myself to guess what will spark joy for Future Me.

Deciding if you can safely purge

The best advice I found online is The Booklover’s Guide to Purging Books, which recommends using Google to help figure out what to get rid of:

  • Can you get it digitally for free?
  • Is it obsolete? This applies mostly to nonfiction.
  • Is it worth something?
  • Is it still in print? I would add, is it available as a paid ebook?

Once you’ve done your research, you can decide:

  • Would you absolutely love reading it again?
  • Is it a book you cherish and want to keep? (Ah, there’s that spark of joy!)

And I would add to that:

  • Is it cited often? I like being able to pull my Modern Library edition of Poe Poeoff the shelf to read The Raven when I come across a reference to it. Same with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and Shakespeare’s plays. I know I can easily find these things online but what if the internet’s down?

Which brings me to the zombie apocalypse. Or, if you prefer, the lingering illness or debilitating injury. I can easily imagine a scenario in which I’m trapped at home and have no internet or even have no electricity, so couldn’t charge up my Kindle. (And by the way, I’m on my fourth Kindle; they don’t last forever.) This is the real reason I’ve accumulated so many books – the fear of having nothing to read (Twitter calls this abibliophobia).

I’m pretty sure that once I’ve finished my purge, there will still be plenty of things to read in my house. So I’m making a start today with the top shelf of my science fiction paperback bookcase – Aldiss through Bova, with a smattering of others that snuck in because their own shelves were full.

How do you manage to keep your bookshelves under control? I have a feeling I’ll be working on this for a long time. Any tips gladly appreciated.