Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sentence Structure

This is something that has come up a couple of times this week with writers I know so I figure maybe some of you out there might find it helpful to think about, too because if you're a writer, sentence structure is an extremely important tool. The sentences you write need to match what is occuring in the scene you're writing or the reader will feel a dissonance.

In an intense situation, how do you communicate—with yourself and with others? Odds are you use short sentences and short, blunt words. It’s when you’re relaxed that you may wax eloquent with long sentences and complex words. Doesn’t matter whether the emotion is anger or passion or grief or love. When the emotion is powerful, the words are in short supply.

If you use this in your writing, then just by using short, intense sentences and words you can convey the depth of emotion and/or sense of urgency your character is feeling.

By the same token, if you want to convey a sense that the characters are relaxed and everyone is safe, longer, more eloquent sentences will do that. You will be showing the reader how the characters feel rather than telling them.

If this sounds odd to you, watch people around you when they are in the caught up in powerful emotions.

Mind you, if you’re a writer, you already do that. One writer friend of mine jokes that we writers are all nosy. We can’t help watching and listening to people and making up stories in our heads about them. I think that if you read a book that captures your heart and resonates deeply with you, it’s a given that the author IS a people watcher.

Often writers long for the day they can be home full time to write. And it’s wonderful to be able to do that but.... But a writer NEEDS to be around people, too. So sometimes that day job is just what a reader needs to spur him or her on to write effectively. If you have to work to support your writing habit (and most writers do), take heart in knowing it adds to the depth and power of your work—or it can, if you let it. people around you. Notice how their speech patterns vary depending on the situation. Notice how they move, what they do with their hands, how they stand, sit or walk, how they breathe. And use it to make your writing feel real.

We, as writers, are privileged to have the chance to mirror for others what they might not see or notice on their own. We’re able to put into words what they may instinctively know but cannot articulate. It’s both a privilege and a responsibility. And sentence structure can help us do so more effectively. So whether you loved or hated grammar in school (and it was NOT my favorite subject!), if you want to be a writer, really pay attention to these details and it will make your writing increasingly powerful.


Friday, March 24, 2006


Those of you who followed my trip across country two years ago may remember the email I sent out titled 15 minutes ahead of the tornados about my drive from Oklahoma to Dallas. Ever since I moved to the Austin area I’ve been happily telling people that while Texas does get tornados they never come to Austin. That, of course, was just asking for trouble.

Last weekend, late Sunday night, they started warning that tornados might be headed for Austin. There were things showing up on radar that looked very scary. At least one tornado had already touched down in this storm’s path.

Fortunately, the storm started to fall apart right before it reached here. We still got heavy rain and some areas of Austin had small hail. But it was nothing like what they feared might hit. And I found myself thinking of that trip 2 years ago when I was driving 15 minutes ahead of the tornados.

I often get caught up in feeling as if I should be accomplishing more. It’s only when I stop and remember where I was a year or two ago that I realize how much I’ve done. On that trip, 2 years ago, I didn’t know where I was going or what the circumstances of my life were going to be. I still carried the weight of all the negative things anyone had ever said to me. It wasn’t until Austin, some of you will remember, that I realized I didn’t have to feel guilty about wanting to have a coffee maker! Those of you who were getting my email back then will remember how surprised I was at how easily I fit in everywhere I went and the respect with which I was treated.

I mention all of this for a couple of reasons. One is that I want to show how important it can be to stop and look back and compare where we were to where we are now, to give ourselves credit for how far we’ve come. Because I think it’s way too easy to get used to what we accomplish and discount it, thinking that if WE could do it, how impressive could it be? We find it way too easy to focus instead on what we haven’t done that we think we should have accomplished by now. It’s way too easy to forget that we are on our own path and there may be no clear road map for that path. That we can’t compare who we are and what we are doing with what anyone else is doing because we are all different and what we need may be completely different from what is right for someone else.

I mention all of this also because it is so important to realize that we all carry assumptions about ourselves and those assumptions may be all wrong. And the only way we can discover that is to step outside our comfort zones to challenge those assumptions.

Some of you know that I lived most of my life believing I was tone deaf—until I decided to try to play the violin and discovered that within 24 hours I could play Beethoven’s Ode to Joy perfectly in tune.

It was only when I made this cross country trip that I discovered I really could trust my instincts and my intelligence and my resilience.

Two years ago, as I out ran those tornados, literally 15 minutes behind me, I wondered if I was out of my mind for making that journey. Now, two years later, I am so very glad I did.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006


How do you deal with change? Does it scare you? Excite you? Do you fight it or go with it?

I ask because someone I know may be about to have an upheaval in her life. And it’s scary—for her and for those who care about her. Now it may not happen. At this point there are only rumors. But it still has an emotional impact—waiting to find out isn’t easy.

She’s got some good things going for her. She’s young. She’s got great academic and real world credentials. She loves challenges. She doesn’t have anything that requires her to stay where she is.

Those are assets unique to her. I think it’s useful, though, to look also at some things that she has going for her that all of us could think about.

1) She doesn’t carry much debt. She makes a real effort to pay off her credit cards in full every month and to save as much as she can. She defers purchases until after she’s put money into savings and she knows that she also has enough to pay cash. If she can’t afford it, she doesn’t buy it.
2) She stays in touch with friends and family all over the country and she keeps an eye on what’s going on in her field.
3) She is constantly choosing to learn new things and actively seeks out such opportunities.
4) She’s willing to let her support system know what’s going on.
5) She can look at the situation and see that panic won’t accomplish anything. She will defer some purchases and map out a financial strategy—just in case. She won’t allow herself to get caught up in nightmare imaginings.
6) She can look at the situation and ask herself: What good could come out of this?

This last one is the most important. There is real power in asking oneself, in the middle of any difficult situation: What good could come out of this?

Asking that question is important and powerful on many levels. By changing our focus, it reduces the level of panic. That lets our brains function better and we are more likely to see possible solutions to our situation. Those possibilities may lead to good—for us and for others. We may find ourselves with opportunities we would not otherwise have thought of or had the courage to reach for—if it had not been for whatever seems to be a disaster right now.

Change is inevitable. We can’t always control what happens to us—no matter how we live our lives. We can, however, choose how we will face those challenges.

How do you face change?


Friday, March 17, 2006


If you’ve been wondering where I am and why I haven’t been posting more often, well, I’ve been doing my taxes. (Hey, I see you out there making signs to ward off the evil eye!)

I’m usually very organized with my tax information. This year, with the moving and all, I’m finding that I misplaced information and receipts and it’s taking more time than I like to dig it out. In addition, having moved from one state to another complicates things in all sorts of ways and expenses and income have to be allocated to each instead of just lumped together.

But that gives me a chance to mention my approach to anything like taxes. By that, I mean things that can seem overwhelming and unpleasant (especially since I think I may owe money). I’m talking about tasks that we may want to put off because we dread doing them.

The problem with putting things off, of course, is that they always take more time than we expected and unexpected things crop up. Also, if we are doing them at the last minute, panic might set in and our brains literally do not work as well when we are scared. Plus, life may throw other things in our way. do I approach things like taxes? I do them in small blocks of time every day until they are done. I might start out working for 15 minute blocks of time doing whatever piece of the work is easiest. I don’t always do it beginning to end—I may start in the middle if that’s easiest. This builds the experience of success for me and I feel less overwhelmed and more confident I can do the task—whatever it may be. Plus it means I get a bunch of stuff out of the way and done so that I can focus on the harder or more complicated sections knowing I already have a certain amount completed.

It’s never going to be fun to do taxes. It’s never going to be something I enjoy. But this way I know that I have enough time to get them done and I can stop the moment I start to feel overwhelmed. I have time, when I get confused, to step back and think about it until I understand and/or remember where the information is that I need.

The other piece of it is that each time I complete a task; I do something that makes me smile. This lets me begin to associate pleasure with doing something that I otherwise dread. It makes me more relaxed and then my brain functions better. Often, as I’m doing whatever it is that makes me smile, I will suddenly understand what was confusing or remember where the information is that I need.

So that’s why I’m not posting as often. But I am thinking of all of you—especially those of you also wrestling with taxes now.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Health Insurance, Pt. 3

Someone reminded me that I haven’t posted here what happened about my search for health insurance. I now have health insurance. (Well, I’m told I do, I haven’t actually gotten the letter saying so.... Another advantage to working with an agent—he could get the information long before I will.)

I’m lucky. I’m in good health and I qualified at a rate I can afford. I may not be thrilled at the cost of health insurance, but I have it. It does remind me, though, that many people are not as fortunate. The double whammy, of course, is that people who can’t get or afford health insurance on their own are the ones likely to be charged 4 to 10 times the amount that insurance companies pay for procedures.

We need some kind of universal health coverage in this country. It's not right that people should have to face bankruptcy if they get sick or not be able to get treatment that's needed because they can't afford to do so. I'm lucky. I was able to get health insurance. But I can't help being aware of all the people who are not so fortunate.

One good thing about all of this is that it reminded me that my health is, to some degree, in my hands. Although my health profile is already good, I found myself walking more (I’m up to at least 8000 steps every day now) and tweaking my diet just a little.

Now on another note.....

I have an alarm system. I put down a code word. I accidentally set off my alarm system when I opened a door before I turned off the alarm. Unfortunately, I forgot what code word I had put down. Fortunately, I remembered the correct code word before they sent the police. Just a little bit of excitement on a Saturday morning!

Anyway, that’s the latest here.


Friday, March 03, 2006


Exercise. I can imagine some of you making signs to ward off the evil eye when you see that word! Does it sound like a strange topic for writers? It’s actually something that comes up fairly often when I’m coaching writers. Our physical health profoundly affects our ability to focus on the writing and it profoundly affects our emotional state. The problem is that we tend to and need to spend a lot of time sitting in a chair to write. And if we are on deadline, we don’t want to or feel we can’t take the time to exercise.

The standard advice is to find exercise you love. Well, that works fine for me in summer when I can go swimming (if I have the time) and worked when I used an exercise bike in front of the television set while I played video games. But....both of these require large blocks of time and sometimes I don’t have large blocks of time. Nor do I have room for that exercise bike in my current home. So...

I have found something that is painless, easy, and gradual. At the same time, it can make a profound difference in our health. What I would suggest to every fellow writer (and anyone who wants to get more exercise but knows, bottom-line, that it’s not likely to happen) is to get a pedometer. It can be a fancy one or it can come from the dollar store—as my current one did.

1) Wear the pedometer every day, all day. For the first week, simply note how many steps a day you are taking.
2) Week 2: Add 100 steps each day. This simply means walking a few extra steps here and there.
3) Week 3: Keep adding 100 more steps each day. This is surprisingly easy to do. It does not stress the body and the body is able to adapt.
4) Keep adding 100 steps a day.

10,000 steps a day is what is suggested as an ultimate goal. If you try to start with 10,000 steps a day, odds are you won’t keep it up. Odds are your body will object unless you are in good shape to start with. But if you simply add 100 steps more each day, your body gradually adapts and it’s not that hard to do. Of course there will be days you do fewer steps and that’s okay.

You are also likely to find that as you increase the number of steps to above 6000 a day, you feel so much better that you want to do other forms of exercise as well. But even if you didn’t, you would be in better shape—without ever stressing your body. (If your average stride is a little over 2 feet then 10,000 steps is the equivalent of walking 4 miles.)

The good thing about this system is that you will find yourself moving all day long. It isn’t simply one burst and then sitting all the rest of the day.

In a way, I think of this like dieting. Every study shows that dieting is not as effective or good for the body as making life long changes in how we eat. It’s the little changes, at every meal, that make the difference that one can maintain without ever feeling deprived. This is the same principle with the pedometer. It’s little changes all day long. Nothing that stresses the body, nothing that requires big chunks of time, nothing that feels like punishment.

(Incidentally, my philosophy about losing weight is to make a list of foods you absolutely love that are healthy and good for you and make sure you include some in every meal as you eat a little less of everything. You will be associating pleasure with being healthy and eating well instead of with pain.)

Anyone who has been reading my blog for any length of time knows that I believe that when we are experiencing success, we are more likely to keep doing something. Well, it’s possible to fail to lift weights, it’s possible to fail to be able to do certain positions in yoga, but for most people, walking a little bit more each day is something they will find easy to achieve.

So...if you are a sedentary person or if you want to lose weight or if you simply want to be healthier and work more exercise into your day, get a pedometer. Just wearing it will remind you to move and odds are you will find yourself adding more steps to your path just to see those numbers go up! And it won’t take big blocks of time away from your writing or any other priority in your life.