Monday, February 27, 2006

The Power of Words

I gave a workshop a week ago called the Power of Words. I’d like to share a little of that here because anyone who ever writes anything may find it useful.

The power of words. That isn’t as unfocused as it might sound. Words do have power—IF we use them effectively. That was the true focus of my workshop last week—how to use words effectively. How can we connect, mind to mind and heart to heart with our writing?

I’m not going to go into all of it here but I want to touch on one of the most important points of effective writing. It’s imperative to give readers a reason to CARE about what you are writing—as quickly as possible. Readers might care about the people in your writing or they might care about the situation—ideally they will care about both.

Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, it’s useful to keep in mind that everything is relevant only in terms of how it impacts SOMEONE. Readers will remember historical events far longer if they have a glimpse of how it impacted individual lives. Readers will remember scientific discoveries far longer if they know what it meant to both the person(s) who made the discovery and those whose lives changed because the discovery occurred.

If you are writing memoirs, the more three dimensional ALL of the people in the events you are writing about, the better! Let the reader see the hopes and dreams and fears of each person and they will care far more deeply about those events.

If you are writing fiction, ah, how it matters to give readers a reason to care! There are so many novels out there. How can yours stand out? Your novel will stand out, readers will remember it longer, if they forget they are reading a story and feel as if they have caught a glimpse of real lives. They will remember it longer if they feel the characters’s fears and share the characters’s hopes and dreams. This is why it is so important to make certain that your characters do what real people with the backgrounds you have given them would do. Many beginning writers focus on plot. What’s going to happen? Then they simply have characters do things because it fits the plot. And the manuscript doesn’t sell. It doesn’t FEEL right. A writer can either begin with characters and figure out what they would do to arrive at a plot OR the writer can choose events and then figure out how and why the characters would do these things, adding in background as necessary so that the reader will nod and say to himself or herself, “Yes, of course he/she would do that.”

Readers can certainly understand purely intellectual ideas. And sometimes it is at that level one wishes to connect. Other audiences will care about emotions more than anything else. It’s important to know for whom you are writing.

Even if you are writing technical material, it is always a wise strategy to let the reader know up front how or why this will be of interest to that person! If you write business material, it’s even more important. As they say, when you are writing sales material, it’s nice to list what you have to offer but what potential customers care about is what it will do for them!

So as you write, think about who you are writing for and what those potential readers care about. Give them a reason right up front to care.

All of the material I handed out last week was designed to help writers do just that. (One of the advantages of having a background in mathematics and operations research as well as a strong creative side is that I’m able to be extremely practical as well as talk about the intangible aspects of writing!) I encourage each of you to think carefully--what makes a story or a book or an article come alive for you? What makes you care about what you are reading? Then use that to give life to your writing.

Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself before you begin is: Do I care about this material? Because if YOU do not care about the material, neither will your readers.

Happy writing everyone!

Friday, February 24, 2006

Email and Privacy

We tend to think of email as private. I had a reminder yesterday that it is not. Now, most of the time it wouldn’t matter if someone else read my email. Yesterday it did. Yesterday I wrote an email and the person to whom I sent it accidentally marked it as spam. So the message, stripped of identifying headers, got sent back to the people who host my email service. And they forwarded it back to me with a note requesting I try to get myself un-marked as spam on AOL. (If anyone is on AOL and isn’t getting email you expect from me.....check your spam box!)

It didn’t include financial information or identity information such as a social security number but it did include some things I’d rather have kept private. (No, not THAT! Get your minds out of the gutter...) It was hurtful things someone once close to me had said and which I suppose I’m still afraid some people might believe are true.

Anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to post here about how while we may believe email is private; it isn’t as private as we think. Anyone might accidentally mark email spam and then someone at your ISP will see it.

Just a friendly reminder so that all of you won’t have the rather embarrassing experience I did yesterday!


Monday, February 20, 2006

Health Insurance, Pt. 2

Thanks to everyone who posted or wrote to me privately.

1) Short answer is that I looked into group insurance first and it either wasn’t offered, I wasn’t eligible, or I can do better with individual.

2) Forms are in the hands of the insurance agent.

3) The good thing about all of this is that as complicated as it all is, as frustrating and time consuming to try to remember every illness, doctor, etc from the past 10 years, I found myself counting my blessings, too. I found myself thinking how lucky I am that I’m in good health. I found myself thinking how lucky I am the list I had to prepare wasn’t longer. I found myself thinking how lucky I was to find Brooke Lagarde, the insurance agent, who knew the answers to things I couldn’t find out on my own.

Mind you, I still think our health care system is in crisis. I still think it’s appalling that we don’t have basic health care coverage for every man, woman, and child in this country. But today I’m also able to count my blessings, and as those of you who regularly read my blog know, I believe that the more we focus on the good things in our lives, the more we find the energy and resilience and ability to cope with whatever challenges do occur.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

Health Insurance

My COBRA runs out soon. I am faced with purchasing individual health insurance and it’s a daunting task. I’m in remarkably good health for my age. I can afford to buy something. And yet it’s daunting. The forms are complex. The options seem overwhelming. Accurate information is difficult to obtain.

How much do I want to spend on deductible? How much do I want to risk in out of pocket expenses? How often will premiums rise? Exactly what does a plan cover? (If you are an individual, insurance companies do not have to meet the same guidelines with coverage that they do for group policies. And within the same company it may vary greatly—always read the fine print!)

When I apply, I have to attach a check for one month’s premium. This means that applying for lots of policies is not going to happen.

There are websites that help—but none are complete in what they can tell you. All have contact numbers but the people you call don’t necessarily have the answers you need or they may be incorrect—even when you are contacting an agent for the company.

I’m intelligent. I know how to do my research. I still found myself on the brink of tears this week trying to sort it all out. That’s when I pulled out the local phone book and started looking for insurance agents. Since my homeowner’s and auto insurance are with a company I’m happy with, I ruled out agencies that handled those as well. I looked for someone who only handled health insurance. I looked for someone with a website. I went by instinct to choose which one to contact first.

Instinct has served me well over the past couple of years! Instinct led me to my real estate agent here in Austin, Kristi Holdgrafer, my apartment in Menlo Park, CA before that, etc. Instinct worked well again yesterday. I went to the website——and filled out the form. I got a call from a person, Brooke Lagarde, who knew what he was talking about. He knew the companies and their policies and information I had not been able to find out on my own. He was patient with my questions and helpful sorting out options.

Health insurance in this country is in crisis. If one is an individual needing insurance, it’s scary and confusing and expensive. I share my experience this week because maybe it will help someone else. Here are the steps I suggest if you need to find insurance:

1) If you are on COBRA, start 2 months before your benefits run out. It can take longer than you expect to explore options and there are certain protections that you have only if you get individual coverage after when you stay on COBRA to the end and then IMMEDIATELY get individual coverage.

2) Do research online. It’s good to have at least a general understanding of what sorts of policies are out there and what they might cost so you can begin thinking about the tradeoffs YOU will be willing to make.

3) If you feel yourself panicking at all the choices, take deep breaths and a break and go do something useful over which you do have control.

4) When you have familiarized yourself with the options out there, find an insurance agent to help you narrow it down and one who can answer questions. You may need to call more than one before you find someone you are happy with.

5) Do not accept as gospel what company agents tell you! One company agent assured me that all the policies covered the same thing. Most of their policies have some significant exclusions that you only discover when you read the actual application.

6) READ the application and all information you can find carefully!

7) Be honest. A company can cancel your policy if they discover you have lied to them.

8) Don’t let fear or feeling overwhelmed keep you from taking steps in a timely manner to arrange insurance. Putting it off won’t make it any easier.

9) When you do finally get the application(s) done, celebrate! You did something complicated and deserve to pat yourself on the back for navigating a tricky situation.

Good luck!


Saturday, February 11, 2006

Show Don't Tell

As writers, we hear that advice all the time. Anne Walradt of New Jersey Romance Writers gives a wonderful workshop on the subject. But why does it matter?

It matters because when we “tell,” we pull the reader out of the story, we break the spell we are weaving, and we risk losing readers completely. But what exactly does it mean to “show” rather than “tell?”

The simplest way I know to explain it is to imagine you are filming the story you are writing. What would your characters have to say and do so that the person watching the film knows what the people in your movie think and feel? In a film, everything is action or dialogue. What do readers need to “see” your characters do? What do readers need to “hear” your characters say?

In writing, we have the ability to fill in around the action and dialogue. And used judiciously, this adds to the story. Still, it’s a very useful exercise to begin by writing a scene as if it’s going to be filmed. It’s a safe bet that if you do so, your writing will be more vivid and readers will be more likely to feel as if they are there, part of the story, and not on the outside looking in.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Real Heroes

Yesterday the Austin RWA group invited three real life heroes to talk to us and give us insight into what life is like for firefighters, sheriffs and police officers. We got three great guys. They were surprisingly tolerant, too, of all the questions we writers had for them.

As I listened, I found myself thinking what a shame it is we only hear about police officers when something goes wrong, not all the thousands of times things go right. We hear about firefighters and how heroic they are putting out fires and saving lives but last night we got to hear how this one loves to spend time with his family.

These three men are clearly dedicated to their work and to making a difference in the world. They put heart, a sense of humor, and people skills at the top of their list of skills needed to be good at their jobs. Listening to what they do every day, it’s clear these guys are dedicated to their communities as well as to their jobs. Why else would a guy who already works 13 hour days take on the position of school board member and spend his Friday’s visiting schools?

Last night we got to see the human faces behind the hero roles. Yes, there are bad apples in any profession and a bad police officer or firefighter can do great damage. I suspect, though, that most people—men and women—who go into these professions are like the three guys we saw last night. They truly do want to make a difference in the world and to help people.


Saturday, February 04, 2006

I'm a Coward

Oh, yes, I’m a coward. I’m terrified that if I do something new, step outside my comfort zone, or speak up too much, people will verbally rip me to shreds.

Now any of you who have ever seen me give a workshop or heard one of my tapes are probably wondering what the heck I’m talking about! After all, I get up there and tell you about my flaws as a human being and as a writer.

The thing is, I think I’m not the only one who gets scared or has self-doubts. I suspect I’m not the only one who can’t stand the thought of someone making fun of me or criticizing what I love best. And that’s why I share what I share. Because I don’t want anyone else ever to feel alone with the self-doubts or fears or worries we all have, in one form or another.

No matter what we do or how well we do it, someone will always be dissatisfied. No matter how nice we are, there will always be someone we rub the wrong way.

That’s important to understand because otherwise it’s too easy to let fear keep us from doing what we want to do or what we need to do to create the lives we want to have. It’s important to understand that not taking those steps doesn’t protect us—not really.

I’ve tried it both ways, you see. For much of my adult life I tried to play it safe. I tried to fit into the roles others expected of me. I tried to be as invisible, except for the books I wrote. I made choices that I thought would keep me safe. Until I couldn’t do it anymore.

Looking back, I can see that these choices, little by little, not only ate away at who I was, but one by one eliminated options I might otherwise have had. These choices didn’t keep me safe. I still got criticized. All I did was cut myself from knowing what I truly could achieve. I cut myself off from knowing people who would have valued who I was and what I did. I cut myself off from experiences that would have enriched my life in so many ways!

I try not to play it safe anymore, but I’m still working on breaking old patterns. I’m still learning how to handle criticism so that one dissatisfied voice doesn’t have the power to drown out all the voices of those who do respect and value what I do. I’m learning the things that make stepping outside my comfort zone a little easier and that I can survive even if something doesn’t go as well as I hoped it would. I’m discovering the good things that can come into my life when I take the risk of doing something that scares me but which will move me closer to my goals.

It isn’t easy putting myself out there when I am such a coward, but it beats the heck out of trying to play it safe! So....

Any of you out there who are also finding the courage to take new steps and try new things—GOOD FOR YOU! Celebrate each new step you take, no matter how small. Celebrate the person you are and the person you are becoming.

A few things that make it a little easier for me to stretch outside my comfort zone:
1) Asking for support from friends or family
2) Mentally rehearsing what I’m going to do
3) Reminding myself of past successes and good things that happened because I took risks
4) Wearing clothes I love
5) Doing something that makes me smile after each challenge
6) Choosing to consciously focus on what went right
7) Allowing myself to be angry about any negative feedback and then, after I’ve calmed down, looking to see what I can learn from the experience and the feedback

It can be scary to do new things but I truly believe that the riskiest thing we can do in life is try to play things too safe, especially when our world is changing so rapidly.

So I’m raising a virtual toast to all of you out there who are finding the courage to step outside your comfort zone and do new things. Because as scary as it can be, it’s worth it.


PS I finally began assembling bookcases this weekend to hold all my research books. They are in a "white maple" finish so they will help to keep the room feeling light and airy.