Are You Appositive About That?

dreamstime_14649214One of the trickier tricks with commas is figuring out how to use them around appositives. An appositive is a noun or a noun phrase in apposition (used to describe) another noun. Um…what? Here’s an example:

Professor Katydid, award-winning entomologist, will be lecturing tonight on the mating habits of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Continue reading

Stupid Human Brain Tricks and Your Productivity

brain_power_memory_2_3I love being a writer. It’s one of my main reasons for living, but it’s tough sometimes. Okay, it’s tough a lot of the time. Sometimes the enemy is my own brain. Even the most facile thinker can have problems bouncing from project to project, reorienting his or her brain toward the required task. You’re tapping away at your magnum opus, when BOOM, the phone rings— your best client needs to talk to you right away about Madagascar hissing cockroaches. You scribble down notes about revisions to the project and go back to your computer to find fifty new e-mails, a handful of which require your immediate action.

So how can you shift your focus and apply your best self to each task?

Discipline, yes. Those things you’re supposed to do, like keeping a to-do list, blocking out spaces of time for each project, returning messages promptly… those Highly Effective Steps all of those Highly Effective People use every day.

But there’s much more to the task of balancing tasks than mere paperwork or better productivity software. According to Dr. Nick Hall, internationally recognized psychoneuroimmunologist, (try fitting that on a business card) we can work with our own biology to become more productive.

For instance, some studies show that our brain hemisphere activity cycles every 90 to 110 minutes. This is a brilliant method the brain uses to manage its energy throughout the day. The trick is to harness and work with your gray matter’s natural rhythms.

The first step is to figure out which brain hemisphere happens to be switched on.  According to Dr. Hall, you only need to pay attention to your breathing. More specifically, your nostrils. Sit very quietly, inhale through your nose a few times (blow your nose if you’re congested), and note which nostril feels less constricted as you breathe. As I’m writing this, my left nostril is definitely doing more than its fair share of the work. Using Dr. Hall’s hypothesis (cribbed from ancient India), my right-brain is more active. So it’s a good thing I’m using my right-brain language skills now. And in about 90 to 110 minutes, I should switch to my left-brained tasks, like sorting out my inbox or updating my contacts list. Theoretically, this will make performing all types of tasks more efficient.

Another way Hall recommends you improve productivity is to match your breaks to your tasks. After spending 45 minutes composing a proposal (language skills), don’t hop on down to chat with your friends at the water cooler (or the virtual representation of the watercooler) for a break. Okay, this is not really a break. This is a continuation of language skills. Sure, we need breaks. But if I hang out on FaceTwit for fifteen or twenty five or ten minutes and then return to that proposal, my brain is already tired and hasn’t rested. Probably a more effective break would have been a quieter activity like fetching a cup of tea, going for a short walk, or taking a few deep breaths. Then I can go back to my linguistic pursuits refreshed.

One method I use is to work with my biological rhythms. I am peppier and more creative in the morning. That’s when I do the bulk of my fiction writing or tackle tasks that require more energy or focus. After lunch, I work best at editing or revising. At around four or five o’clock, though, my mental energy plummets. This is when I normally exercise. And from banging my head against the wall time and time again, I’ve learned that the part of my brain that makes sentences checks out after about ten o’clock, so I have no business writing then. Better to perform a more rote task, or even better, chill out and get ready for sleep.

You probably know when you’re at your best for certain things and not for others. It’s much easier to fit your tasks around your rhythms than trying to muscle your way through something your brain is not up for.

But I know what you’re thinking: “I’m at work, and my report is due in two hours. According to my ‘nostril clock,’ I’m on the right side of my brain. So I’m screwed, right?”

You might not be. Some studies have suggested that you can change which side of your brain is “switched on” by closing the currently active nostril and forcing the other to do the work. I’ve been playing with this trick for a couple of years, on and off, and it has worked for me about fifty percent of the time. Maybe you’ll have more success.

What are your favorite productivity tips that don’t involve your nostrils?

2012 By The Monkeys

No, not those monkeys. They don’t even spell their name that way. Although I would pretty much let Davy Jones post anything he wanted, if he were still alive. Since Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith are not available and Micky Dolenz will not return my calls, the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog. Mainly, it nagged me to write more and questioned my obsession with Cloris Leachman and Madagascar hissing cockroaches. But I’ll leave the final judgment to you.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,700 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 10 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Super Italicize Me!

Authors have been pondering this question since Og figured out he could write dirty limericks on the cave walls with a charred stick: Why didn’t I just become a doctor like my mother wanted? Well…that, and how the heck are we supposed to use italics in our manuscripts?

Before we get into when to use or not use them in our stories, let’s fix ourselves a nice cup of tea and talk about formatting. You may have wandered around the Interwebs and read a certain manuscript-formatting commandment bequeathed unto us by a variety of literary agents, editors, and publishers:

Forsooth! Thou shall not employ the italic font in the hard copies of thine manuscripts, for that which thou require to be italic is to be underlined instead. Continue reading

Five-Star Reviews Make My Day

I’d been having a bad day. I was trying to get too much done at once, the Madagascar hissing cockroaches escaped from their pen, and I’d allowed various disappointments to take up too much real estate in my head. Then I saw this five-star review in my Google Alerts. (Writers, do you use Google Alerts? Excellent tool. I’ll write more about it one day soon.) Anyway, even though a few hours after kvelling over the review I fell and hurt my back, reading this somehow makes the painkillers work better.

“Crisply written and filled with irony, The Joke’s on Me is fun and witty with snappy dialogue sure to please those who like their romance with quirk and spirit. This is a great first novel and I hope to see more from Ms. Boris in future. I will certainly put Ms. Boris on my authors to follow list.” – Karen at The Parents’ Little Black Book of Books

Read the whole review here.

More Reasons Why I Hate Your Website

A while back, I wrote a post about irritating website features. I’ve just done another round of heavy Internet research, and ran into more disturbing trends–not as much in the data, but in the execution. Maybe these features sounded like a good idea when you planned your website, but consider their effect on the user. Or at least on this user. Here are six more reasons why I hate your website:

1. Slideshows. Oh, how I hate slideshows. When I’m doing research, I’m on the clock. I want my information and I want it quickly. If I’m writing an article on cooking with insects, I don’t want to manually scroll through 45 separate windows containing a paragraph each on different ways to serve Madagascar hissing cockroaches. This makes me not only want to leave your site and never return, but write you a nasty letter demanding a refund for all the time I wasted going through all those slides. Yes, they can be fun and entertaining. But please, either limit your slideshows to ten panes or offer the information in a quick list form.

2. Save your surveys. Imagine that I’ve just arrived at your home page. I’m quickly scanning the information, looking for what I need. I find the right link, and just before I’m about to click on it–Bam! The entire window fills with an invitation to take your survey. I am not happy. I don’t know you, you’ve done nothing for me, but you’re asking me how I like your business. If I approached a brick-and-mortar establishment, and a salesperson stopped me as I was opening the door to ask what they could have done to improve my shopping experience, I’d wonder what she’d been imbibing during lunch break. If you have given me information, for instance, if I’ve downloaded something or signed up for your newsletter, if I’d spent a lot of time on the site or was a returning customer, then I’d consider your survey invitation more seriously. Otherwise, keep it to yourself. New Balance’s website, shopnewbalance.com, has this down to a science. They wait until you’ve bought a product to ask for your comments.

3. Readability, people! I was recently sent an HTML e-mail chock full of links. It was for something that I really wanted: a fun-filled day at ComicCon as a reward for attending a trade show last year. Unfortunately, these links were dark blue on a black background. I couldn’t even read them to figure out what I wanted to click on. Prevent this from happening by sending a preview of your HTML e-mails to someone over 40 before you blast them to your entire database.

4. The geek factor. Now, I love geeks. I am 70% geek, by my estimation. Even if your website was designed by your IT department, don’t make it look that way. Dead giveaways? Type that runs all the way to the edge of the windows. Lots of charts. Too many fonts and no apparent thought as to their alignment. More attention given to navigation than design. For the best combination of user appeal and user friendliness, your site should be designed by an artist who has been trained to create websites, rather than a technologist who has been trained to create art.

5. No means no.  Unless I’ve experienced a power failure, leaving your website requires a decision and a physical action. When, upon deciding to leave, various windows keep opening imploring that I reconsider my decision to go elsewhere, it smacks of desperation. I’ve made my mind up. Leave me alone. Okay, maybe I’ll tolerate one reminder in case I’ve accidentally closed the window. After all, my software says, “Are you sure?” to my decisions throughout the day, so I’m accustomed to one bit of nagging. But that’s all. I mean it. Don’t make me come down there.

6. Proofread. Just because you can make changes to your website any time you wish does not excuse you from throwing it up there full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. We’re all human (gasp, even me!) and we all make mistakes. But when the errors are excessive or unfortunate—for example, “pubic” when you meant to write “public” (yes, I’ve seen this, in an e-book)—it makes your pages unreadable and seriously undermines your credibility. If proofreading isn’t your thing, hire a professional. Otherwise, I’ll be navigating somewhere else.

What are you seeing lately on the web that ticks you off? Anything going on that you especially like? Let’s talk!

How to Heighten the Tension In Your Novel

Your novel’s protagonist has a goal. It could be as simple as bouncing back from heartache or as complex as saving the world from an evil genius and his army of giant, irradiated Madagascar hissing cockroaches. But if your character achieves his or her goals too quickly or too easily, it will make for pretty boring reading, and mire you in that dreaded dead zone of a manuscript: the sagging middle. Here’s how you can raise the stakes and heighten the tension:

1.  Toss in a good, old-fashioned monkey wrench. Imagine your protagonist is a bored kindergarten teacher who teams up with her father, a retired detective, to solve mysteries on her summer break. She agrees to meet a potential source in a dicey neighborhood. But she gets lost. Yes, she has a high-tech GPS gizmo that will help her find the address in a trice, but how much fun would it be if everything went according to plan? Have her leave it in her father’s car. Or break it. How else could she meet that sort-of creepy guy on the corner who gives her directions and ends up being an undercover cop who saves her life?

2.  Let things go terribly wrong. It’s hard, I know, to see any pain befall your beloved protagonist or secondary actors. But adversity can build character. Does the kindergarten teacher quit the case because someone tosses a brick through her window, poisons her dog, or tries to shoot her or her father? Or does this just double her resolve to see justice done?

3. Add a few unintended consequences. The kindergarten teacher’s mother, hating the whole idea of her daughter traipsing off to God-knows-what dangers with her obsessed husband, and worried sick when it’s one in the morning and she hasn’t returned, drives off into the night to find her. She makes an inquiry to the wrong person at a seedy bar. The bad guys kidnap her to force the kindergarten teacher off their tails. Okay…now what is our fearless detective to do?

4. Always ask, “What if?” Mom is no slouch. She tries to escape from the bad guys, using the lock-picking skills she developed while a student at a very unusual boarding school for girls. What if she gets out of the shed in which she’d been held prisoner, only to overhear the bad guys planning their next heist? They desperately lack a safe-cracker. What if she goes rogue and joins them? What does she have to do to convince them she’s on their side?

5. Let a character hit bottom. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a tea bag–you never know how strong she is until gets in hot water.” In our kindergarten teacher’s story, perhaps all looks lost. Her mother has gone to the dark side. Her father is drinking again. And someone just blew up her car, broke into her apartment and rearranged all of the jars in her spice rack. As she’s calling the police, she hears footsteps. She turns to see a man with a gun. It’s her ex-husband, a sketchy dude, but the love of her life. He assaults her, steals her purse and takes off, leaving her bloodied on the living room floor. Now what? Okay, she’s allowed to brush away a few tears (she’s only human), but a strong protagonist in a situation like this will rise to the occasion. She’ll solve the mystery. She’ll give that bastard what he deserves and clear her mother’s name. Then she can collapse, perhaps in the arms of her now-sober father, and gather her strength for the sequel.

How’s your middle these days? A little soft? How do you raise the stakes for your characters?

How to Love Editing Your Novel, Step One

Over ten years ago, a close friend died from cystic fibrosis. The courage with which he conducted his life, doing all the things he loved, touched me deeply. I wanted to honor his memory by writing him into my next novel. After I completed two drafts of this story (my writing group offering encouragement along the way), I showed it to my husband. Some writers would rather subject themselves to Charlie Sheen’s bayonet arms or eat a Madagascar hissing cockroach than share an early draft of their novel with their spouse. But I trust Hub’s instincts and he’s given me some very good feedback.

On this project, however, what he said stopped me cold. “You’re too close to the subject,” he said. He elaborated that because I had elevated our friend to hero status, I didn’t allow for the character to have any flaws, which made the story less realistic.

I haven’t touched it since.

I know someday I will get back to it. It’s a good story with fascinating characters. But as a younger writer, comments like this made me wish I’d gone to nursing school like my mother always wanted.

As the days following his critique stretched forward, and that manuscript composted in my closet, I kept wondering when I would attain enough emotional distance, not just to make this character multidimensional, but to start the revision process in general. A week? A month? A year?

The answer is, as with so many other things in life, it depends. Some people are ready to go into the next draft right after typing “the end” on the last one. Some people take longer. For me, it depends how excited I am about the story. The Joke’s on Me, which is coming out this summer, was one of those stories. I could hardly wait to start revising each time I neared the completion of a draft. But some stories have plodded on, and I put them aside to work on more exciting things.

You might find, though, setting your first draft aside for a short time (at least a couple of weeks to a month) to be helpful in gaining perspective. If you jump back into it right away, you run the risk of what I call “story saturation.” You will read this manuscript so many times during its lifespan that you may stop seeing the words. Even if you’ve gone through six, seven, eight drafts before you pronounce it ready to shop around, you will go through even more with your agent, your publisher and their editors. I lost track of how many times I’ve read The Joke’s on Me during its various iterations. Multiple readings without a break increases your risk of typos, grammatical errors, missing words, dangling plot lines, unnatural dialogue, and all of the other demons we massage out of our manuscripts.

So what’s your style? Plow ahead or let it compost?

Five Reasons Why I Hate Your Web Site

I’m a writer, which means I spend a lot of time on Facebook and reading my friend’s blogs doing research on the web. Consequently, I must have landed on more pages than ex-Senator Mark Foley. Many of these sites are great, and I can get what I need quickly and easily and get on with my article about the medicinal value of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Some sites, however, have ticked me off so thoroughly that I’ve vowed never to return. Here’s what I hate about your web site:

1. You make me give up my e-mail address just so I can read your content. This is so wrong. Not only does that input window block everything I want to read (I imagine that’s its purpose), but it immediately raises all kinds of red flags. What’s going on? What are you hiding from me? Is your confidence in your content so low you won’t think I’d add myself voluntarily to your mailing list? Because I’m easy that way. I’ve come to your site of my own volition, probably because I thought I’d find something useful or interesting there. All you had to do was ask for my addy. Now, I won’t give it to you, no way, no how. So there.

2. Things blink and flash at me. This is obnoxious. Cut it out. Tell the advertisers on your website to cut it out. It makes you look cheap and spammy, and not like a place I, nor my editors, trust for reliable information.

3. Your color scheme is atrocious. Science backs me up; some color combinations make text more readable than others. Also, like many other people navigating around the web, I no longer have 20-year-old eyes. Forcing me to read gray content on a white background does not make me very happy with you. If there’s absolutely nothing you can do about your color scheme, at least offer a “print article” button that puts your content in an easy-to-read, lovely, black-on-white format.

4. Your embedded media starts up without my say-so. I liked your direct mail piece enough to click through to your website. I liked your headline enough to keep reading. But then, into the serenity of my writing room comes blaring music or a bright, chipper voice extolling the virtues of your upcoming FREE webinar. Sorry. I won’t be attending. Give me the option of hitting the “start” button next time.

5. Your ad claims are egregious. I’m not stupid. I know there are no miracle cures for certain diseases, and there is simply not one thing I need to do to eliminate belly fat. When I see stuff like that, I want to run. Which is probably the one thing you need to do to eliminate belly fat.

What are your web-surfing deal breakers? Let me know! Maybe if enough of us get together on this, we can make them stop.

Hocus Focus

At latest count, I had a half-dozen projects in the works. Being the good little Franklin-Covey acolyte that I am (hey, don’t laugh, it works…at least for me), each of these projects is divided into its own sub-projects, which are divided into tasks, each with a priority level, a time frame and a whole bunch of sticky notes. So it’s no wonder that sometimes I have a bit of trouble focusing. For instance, I’ll be writing an article about the downfall of the Madagascar hissing cockroach when suddenly I’m ticking off a shopping list in my head and…hey, wait a minute. Mandibles. I was writing something about mandibles. Oh, hell, now where did I put that piece of paper with the anatomy chart…and don’t forget to buy quinoa…or maybe I should get millet this week…

You’ve been in this position, I’m sure.

Some days, focus comes naturally to me. I prioritize my tasks and knock them off my list, one after the other, a powerful feeling of smugness taking over as I lean on the pen for each checkmark. I’ll write an entire first draft of an article in one gulp. But because there are days when I am so easily distracted that the sound of Husband clipping his toenails downstairs bugs the pants off me, I have strategies to help focus my attention, even if I sometimes have to fake it at first. For instance:

1. Instrumental music, especially jazz, especially Miles Davis, can help me block out the background jibber-jabber in my mind.

2. When I’m feeling scattered, honing in on my mantra, “Be here now,” often reins me in. I practice mindfulness, which for a writer is like herding cats, and these simple words help me focus on the present moment.

3. Lack of focus can sometimes mean I’m trying too hard. I take a quick break for a physical task like tidying my studio, getting the mail or folding laundry. Then I go back to my project refreshed.

4. In The Wealthy Freelancer, Steve Slaunwhite recommends a great way to get through a task more efficiently: the 50 Minute Focus, originally developed by marketing expert Dean Jackson. For this, you make a bargain with yourself. If you can focus exclusively (no phone, no e-mail, nothing) on one task for 50 minutes, you take 20 minutes off to do whatever you want (assuming your schedule is that flexible.) So if I write my article about the articulation of Madagascar hissing cockroach mandibles for 50 minutes (okay, I’m starting at 40), I’ll have a cup of tea and a full-body stretch break. And maybe sneak in a few minutes of deep breathing before starting the cycle again.

5. Sometimes I’ll get squirrel-brain from too much external stimulation. Then I go into commando sensory-deprivation mode: shut Husband’s office door, shut mine, ignore phone, turn off e-mail and Facebook, and, if I’m especially fritzed, insert earplugs. I love my earplugs.

What helps you focus?