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?

The Health Hazards of Freelancing

Twice during my career, I’ve jettisoned the 9-5 world for the independence and flexibility of freelancing. Twice I’ve had to face the pitfalls of being my own boss: the long hours searching for clients, the pulsating pressure of an hour to go before deadline while my husband is asking me how to make soup, and no colleagues down the hall to vent my troubles to or talk about the latest episode of Mad Men. But one pitfall I hadn’t anticipated was how easily this new stress could take down my health and, if I wasn’t careful, render me pretty much useless to my clients. If you’re new to freelancing, want to work for yourself, or even are a seasoned pro, watch out for these common health traps.

1. Don’t just sit there. Chances are, you did a lot of walking at your old job, and maybe not so much now that you’re working from home. Bodies were made to be in motion, not sitting in cramped positions for hours at a spell. Prolonged sitting, especially in an uncomfortable chair (more on that later) can lead to back and neck problems. Set an alarm if you need a reminder to take regular breaks. Or find some work tasks you can do standing up. I proofread standing up, and look upon it as a welcome break from sitting.

2. Get out of the house once a day. Even though my husband also works from home, I have to bust out once a day, otherwise I start to feel claustrophobic and “outside” of the real world. I’m much more efficient if I’ve had this break, even if it’s only a short walk around my neighborhood.

3. Keep regular hours. Setting regular work hours isn’t just about developing the discipline needed to be a successful freelancer. While you may have to work longer or later hours from time to time, especially when you’re first starting out, your mind and your body function best on a regular schedule. It will help your digestion, your metabolic functions and your sleep. Speaking of which…

4. Get enough sleep. Say you’ve underestimated the time you’d need to finish a project, you’re facing down a wicked deadline and now you’re looking for things you can put off to give yourself extra time. Cut out Conan or Dave, but don’t cheat yourself on sleep. You won’t be the sharpest pin in the voodoo doll the next day, and mainlining Starbucks will only make it worse.

5. Develop a stress-management practice. I like deep breathing. It only takes a few minutes a day, and for me, it’s a reminder to slow down and pay attention to my body. You might like meditation, yoga, or taking your dog for a long walk. Whatever relaxes you (and gets you away from the computer) is best. If you let that stuff build up, it’s like poison.

6. Keep your kitchen stocked with healthy food…where you can see it. It’s so tempting to take a break from a less-than-exciting task (data entry, ick!) and sneak down to raid the pantry. No wonder so many freelancers put on a few pounds at the start. But if there’s a bowl of fruit on the table, or a dish of cut-up veggies in the fridge, you’ll be more likely to grab those than the cookies your significant other insists on keeping in the snack drawer.

7. Get ergonomic. It’s vital to your health and productivity to design a workstation that is efficient and suited to your particular proportions. After your computer and your health insurance (you do have health insurance, don’t you?), your next largest expense should be your office chair. You don’t have to spring for Herman Miller’s latest Aeron, but you need something that’s adjustable and has a good lumbar support. As my physical therapist (to whom I’ve given lots of money because I spent a lot of years in lousy chairs) says, “Your chair should fit your body like a good shoe fits your foot.” Also, put the things you use regularly within easy reach to avoid repetitive strain. And, if I ever see you cradling that phone between your ear and your shoulder, I will come down there and give you a time-out. Don’t think I won’t, either.

What about you? If you work for yourself, what strategies do you use to stay healthy?

Don’t Censor Huck Finn

Next month, an updated, combined edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will be published by NewSouth Books, minus two-hundred-plus total instances of the “n-word” and several other racial slurs used at the time.

According to Twain scholar Alan Gribben, English professor and editor of the new release, as reported by Publisher’s Weekly, “This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind. Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

But Gribben’s choice of expression (mainly changing the “n-word” to “slave”) hobbles the sheer force of that word, a word so powerful many of us (myself included) refuse to speak or write in its entirety.

I can understand why Gribben, in his many years as a teacher in Alabama, found it more comfortable (for himself?) to replace the offensive expressions when he read the works aloud to his students. I’ve seen people flinch when the n-word spits from someone’s mouth like snake venom. As a Unitarian Jew, I’ve had my share of epithet-bombs lobbed my way, but I have no way of understanding how that particular word might feel to a young African-American reader. But whitewashing the ugly from America’s past is doing all of us a greater disservice.

Because if we selectively edit our nation’s history, how will generations after us remember? Could we just as easily remove references to Japanese internment camps in breathtaking works like David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars and Jane Smiley’s Private Life? Indian massacres? The shame of the 1921 Tulsa race riots? Lynchings? Matthew Shepard and other young men murdered for being gay? Could some future “scholar” come along and hack up Lolita because some may find the themes of pedophilia too offensive? Or The Help because of its racial overtones? The Godfather because some complain of its ethnic stereotypes?

Where will it end?

And why are we altering an artist’s original intent? That’s what I find wrong about censorship. Twain expressed the manner and mannerisms of a particular slice of America, told through the eyes of a particular American boy. (Make that two American boys.) The uneducated and ignorant people in the universe of Twain’s “boy adventures” used the “n-word” in reference to anyone of African descent, whether they were enslaved or free. (Therefore “slave” is, while true in some cases, not a 1:1 replacement for the ugly epithet.) If this book is to be taught in school (and many have banned or challenged it, as early as one year following its 1884 publication date to 1998 in Tempe, Arizona), it is to be taught in its historical context and in a greater discussion of racial conflict in America. Upper high school and certainly college students are mature and intelligent enough not to condemn an entire, important work because of the one or two words that people used at the time. I think they’re smart enough to know that those who use that word are showing their own ugliness.

Yet Gribben sees it from the opposite angle. Local teachers wanted to teach both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, but felt they couldn’t. “In the new classroom,” he said, “it’s really not acceptable.” He also said that for “…a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs.”

You can kill the word, but you can’t kill the concept, Professor Gribben.

Count me among the “textural purists” whom Gribben believe will be “horrified” by this act of censorship. We are all entitled to know the history of our culture – the good, the bad, and especially the ugly – as told by the road map of our great literature.

Acronymlish

Unlike the purity that the French desire to retain in their language (au revoir, le hamburger), American English is a dirtier affair: a living, breathing organism that adapts to changes in times and styles. Dictionaries, even the stodgier names, regularly add new words and phrases that hit the big time, and eventually phase out unused, obscure ones to rescue shelters like this. Also, we see annual lists of words and phrases that grate on us like nails on a blackboard, such as refudiate, epic fail and viral.

I like and hate this about my native tongue. I like the fluidity of our daily conversations, the LMAO moments of our melting pot. But I’m apprehensive about what our collective shorthand will do to our cultural communication skills. Will we graduate class after class of students who can’t master the art of the complete sentence? Already, I see it creeping into the workplace. My husband, once looking to hire a web designer, received an inquiry written completely in incomplete text-message-speak. “Ready when u r,” would not be too far off the mark. This dude’s first contact with a potential employer was tapped out as casually as the text he just sent his girlfriend.

Something’s wrong here. I’ve worked for myself and pitched jobs. I’ve worked for others and hired freelancers. But I don’t recall a single cover letter or e-mail to or from a potential employer that was worded so lackadaisically. (Now, there’s a word worth keeping.)

Maybe this was an isolated incident, and I’m being too hard on the class of 2011. After all, the only constant in this world is change. Who am I to even think I can hold back the advancing glacial foot of the English language? Perhaps some had bemoaned the introduction of movies, radio, and television as the death knell of civilized culture, as I rail against thumb-typing and strange acronyms now.

We survived early technology. We survived cartoon violence and Watergate. We survived Benny Hill, Wham! and Vanilla Ice. I have a feeling we’ll survive this current shift in our cultural paradigm.

After all, old expressions have their way of hanging on and easing us into the future. For every three sparkly new words entered into the Urban Dictionary, only one is jettisoned. We still say “dial” the phone even though we no longer have dials on our phones. We “cc” colleagues who may never have seen carbon paper. Collections of published music are still called “albums” even they may only exist as electronic files. Who knows? One day we might still “drive” cars that require little more than coordinate programming. Or “type” e-mails and blog posts (as I often do) by dictating into our computers. It will be a fascinating world. Although I do hope we continue talking to each other with our mouths, and not just with our thumbs.

Word up.

6 Commandments For Novelists

My uncle, who passed away some years ago, wrote and had published several novels, the bulk of them crafted roughly around his terrible relationship with his father and his childhood in the Catskills. I remember reading one of his unpublished works, the onionskin typewriter paper sticky to the touch as I turned the pages, desperately afraid that I would crinkle them or, God forbid, get them out of order. Even though computers abounded, my uncle refused to get on board right away, preferring the clatter of the keys and changing endless ribbons to the new technology.

As I began to write fiction (on the computer), and because I knew no one else who’d been published, I looked up to him as a kind of folk hero. I wanted him to read my first manuscript. While his enthusiasm at my request wasn’t exactly palpable-he taught college classes at the time and probably had all kinds of eager young manuscripts to read-he agreed.

The wait for his comments unnerved me. I kept anticipating his response, from “This is great, I will forward it to my agent at once!” to “For a first novel, this manuscript is remarkably free of typographical errors.”

Turns out it was a bit of both. Blaming his age and the fact that he didn’t consider himself the audience for my book, he said that he couldn’t really “connect” with my subject matter. That hurt, and overshadowed the positive feedback. It’s human nature, I guess, to hone in on the 2% of the negative things and ignore the 98% of positives. But one thing he did write stuck with me: “You have not, however, broken the first commandment of writing: ‘Thou shall not bore.'”

And I think of this and of him, with each novel I write and edit (and edit, and edit, and edit.) For a reader, cracking open a novel is a commitment, of time and mental disk space. My job is to make that worthwhile. Along my journey, I’ve learned five other commandments upon which he and I would probably both agree:

1. Thou shall not “info dump.”

It’s an honest impulse beginning writers have to throw every bit of backstory and description into the first chapter. They want the reader to know EVERYTHING right away. But, imagine if you meet someone at a party and start babbling about where you’re from, how many siblings you have and all of their names and bad habits, why you can’t finish projects because of your fear of success, which came from your mother, and that’s why you’ve been in therapy for thirty years. If he or she hasn’t run away screaming already, your companion is probably readying an excuse for a hasty exit. Don’t do that to your reader. Let the story and the details unfold. Seed in that important stuff as you write or revise. You may find that it can be expressed in better ways. Or even eliminated.

2. Thou shall not abuse dialogue.

Dialogue is best used to define a character or relationships between characters, and to advance the plot. The strongest mark of a rookie dialogue-writer is using it to summarize backstory. As in, “Well, Mary, as you remember, when our brother turned forty on April 25th, and his new girlfriend, Suzy, threw him a surprise party even though they’d only been dating for a week, that horrible Josabeth, who cheated on him while they were married with Thor, her personal trainer, canceled her ski vacation to attend, even though we didn’t invite her, and…” Augh! Way to slam the brakes on the story! How much simpler, and more intriguing, to write: “Can you believe that wench crashed Sam’s party? No wonder he’s drinking again.”

3. Thou shall not introduce characters that serve no purpose.

Just because you’ve always wanted to make that weird guy who shares your cubicle a character in your novel doesn’t always mean he deserves to be there. Yes, if he’s your protagonist or a character that will either help or hinder your protagonist in reaching his goals. Yes, if he provides background color relevant to the story. For example, if he’s a party reveler trying to waylay your protagonist from his promise to go straight home to his wife and kids. Or, as in The Grapes of Wrath, a used-car salesman who takes advantage of fleeing Dust Bowl victims. He serves to highlight the Joad family’s plight, but then disappears from the novel. He is no longer needed.

4. Thou shall serve no wine before its time. (With apologies to Paul Masson.)

Woo hoo! You just finished the first draft of your manuscript! Maybe it was your National Novel Writing Month project, and you can’t wait to see what literary agents think of it. Slowdown, bucko. Unless you’re Tom Robbins (who, it’s rumored, refuses to edit and somehow gets away with it because he sells a lot of books), keep polishing that manuscript until it glows. It could take four, five, six, seven, eight drafts or even more until you’re ready for prime time. That was my mistake with my first manuscript. (Not the one that will be published in July.) The characters and the plot were fairly good, but the writing wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t experienced enough to know it. However, 138 agents didn’t mind telling me. I still have all the rejection slips. Maybe one day I’ll make a collage.

5. Thou shall honor thy main character’s integrity.

You might have heard people talking about fiction as either “character driven” or “plot driven.” The former means that the story emerges organically as the character develops. The latter uses strong storytelling techniques and moves the characters through the plot. Very well known and successful novelists use both techniques. But here’s where it starts to go wonky: when you make a character do something that isn’t in his or her nature, just because it’s part of the plot. Readers hate this. It sounds a false note and erodes your credibility as a storyteller. If your mild-mannered software engineer becomes a raving ax murderer at the end of the book, then you better show the seeds of this behavior in the development of his character, or we’re not going to believe it when he gives his mother 40 whacks.

What other commandments would you add? Or have you violated? Readers: what do writers do that make you not just put down their books but wing them against the nearest wall?

Have You Hugged Your Proofreader Today?

Every glamorous profession requires its share of trench workers. For every Kate Moss wannabe strutting down the catwalk during Fashion Week, there are dozens of people toiling away behind the curtain to make sure she doesn’t fall on her pretty face. For every Lady Gaga kicking butt and wearing meat on tour, there are legions of roadies, carpenters, lighting designers, costumers, drivers, and caterers making sure everything goes right and everything ends up in the right venue.

In publishing-although some segments are more glamorous than others-one of the most unsung heroes is the proofreader. Writers write their dreams, literary agents and editors help turn them into novels, but if the proofreader slacks at his or her job, a book becomes difficult and sometimes impossible to read.

But maybe you think proofreading is an easy gig. You’ll get to read all day, right? While proofreaders do get to read their projects (one hopes, anyway), it’s not really reading. It’s scanning; it’s analyzing. It’s akin to taking a Renoir and teasing it apart into brushstrokes, color, and light. Still, for every masterpiece, you’ll get an apprentice’s first project. For every New York Times bestseller, you’ll get a dozen textbooks, legal briefs, or reference manuals. You might get projects so dull, you’ll be fighting sleep in your chair. Which, if you work from home, may not be so terrible, but in an office, is not your supervisor’s preferred way for you to spend your time.

Proofreading is hard, physical work. Imagine spending your entire day, day after day, combing through manuscripts line by line, word by word, hunting for misspellings and missing words, when our human eye is trained to take in chunks of words and therefore skip over missing words and misspellings! Even if your posture and ergonomic set up are perfect, our spines were not designed to be sat upon for hours, our bodies were not meant to be still for such long stretches, and our eyes – especially the eyes of someone over forty – do not like maintaining a constant focus. Many proofreaders develop chronic neck, shoulder, and upper back problems. Now that many proofreaders have abandoned hard copies and red pens for the seeming ease of the computer, the strain just moves to other parts of their bodies. Eyes, in particular, don’t like hours of staring at monitors that reflect light, which was a problem e-reader manufacturers had to contend with in their earliest stages. Scientific eye studies show that we blink less when we look at a monitor, so those who proofread at the computer can end up with dry, stinging eyes.

So next time you dive into a book that reads like smooth, single-malt Scotch, thank the author, the editor, the agent, and the publisher, but don’t forget to thank the proofreader. Preferably with a shoulder massage and a bottle of eye drops.

Who are the unsung heroes in your profession?

(PS: One of my goals for 2011 is to blog more. Rather than just fretting about it or making endless attempts at first paragraphs that go nowhere, I’m starting right now. I will be posting on this blog as daily as possible for all of this coming year.

I know it won’t be easy, and some posts might plain suck, but it might be fun, inspiring, awesome and wonderful. Therefore I’m promising to make use of The DailyPost, and the community of other bloggers with similiar goals, to help me along the way, including (gasp) asking for help when I need it and encouraging others when I can.

If you already read my blog, I hope you’ll encourage me with comments and likes, and good will along the way.)