Showing posts with label New Year's resolutions. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New Year's resolutions. Show all posts

29 December 2017

Another Round of Resolutions? (And Better Luck Next Year?)

By Art Taylor

Around the last week of each year, I always find myself percolating over a new round of resolutions—and looking back over the previous new year's resolutions too, trying to tally how well I did.

To be honest, 2017's plans and promises (which I documented at SleuthSayers in early January) didn't get kept so successfully, despite some strong momentum early on.

Several small resolutions did get attention intermittently (eat more fruit, watch my posture, etc.), and I plan to be more diligent about those again continuing into 2018. One key component of keeping resolutions isn't just to develop a routine, but also to take clear steps toward maintaining that routine more easily; for example, like my fellow SleuthSayer Paul D. Marks, I'm thinking about some version of a standing desk to help that better-posture plan.

One joint resolution did get kept this year. My wife Tara and I are always cutting out recipes from newspapers, magazines, and more—saving them out more quickly than we actually make them, which I imagine others might do too. So this past year, we set out to either cook or discard at least one recipe a week‚ and in the process we ate very well and found a few favorites to save permanently.

But bigger resolutions unfortunately seemed hit-and-miss. I did keep what might best be called a gratitude journal through late summer—a daily reflection of something positive about each day—but our move this summer (the sale of our townhouse, purchase of new house, packing, unpacking, etc.) was so all-consuming that it threw that nightly routine out of whack, and I never regained traction. The same is true of my perennial "Write FIRST!" plans; my summer writing ambitions basically imploded. I did finish a few stories, but plans for the larger project—the novel—ultimately proved elusive.

Another year, another chance?

Clearly, better focus will be key.

One resolution I always enjoy planning relates to reading instead of writing. In years past, those reading resolutions have included finishing at least four new short stories each week (2014), tackling all of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels (2015), and pushing through War & Peace at the rate of one chapter a day (2016). I didn't make such a resolution this past year (for reasons I'll explain another time), but I'm currently considering several possibilities for 2018. The most rewarding thing about the chapter-a-day War & Peace wasn't just that I finally completed it (after trying and failing before) but also that I felt a deeper connection with the characters by inhabiting their world for a full year—enlightening in several ways to live with a book that long. In the spirit of that plan, I'm thinking about trying Dickens' Bleak House in 2018, and I've already calculated how to pace it out—basically a chapter every 4-5 days.

Another idea: With the just-released collection of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories, I could pace out over 12 months all 28 stand-alone tales and then the serialized stories that became Red Harvest and The Dain Curse; in fact, I've already made a head start of that one, since I read the first two stories aloud to Tara just this week. A final possibility: Because I have (like all of us) a stockpile of books I've bought and never read, I've considered some checklist of titles to pull down from the shelves and finally read—a resolution that Tara is considering for her bookshelves as well.

Any advice on which of these to pursue?

For those looking for their own reading challenges, check out My Reader's Block where Bev Hankins offers a list of fun possibilities each year, particularly good for folks interested in classic crime novels. (And Sergio Angelini at Tipping My Fedora has not only taken up these challenges but has also set the standard for charting your progress along the way, so check his posts out too.)

Do others have reading resolutions to share? Or resolutions generally? 

Looking forward to hearing about everyone's plans for 2018—and best wishes to all for a happy start to the new year!  

08 January 2016

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

By Art Taylor

The start of a new year always spurs me (and others, of course) both toward looking back and toward looking ahead—reflecting on what the last year has offered in terms of successes, failures, lessons, etc. and steeling myself to renew, refresh, or revise both my goals and my routines for the immediate future.

One of my constant goals is to "Write FIRST!!!"—a perennial resolution, though I'm lucky most days if I get to work on my own writing at all. But as I've struggled to keep that resolution and adhere to a writing routine, another routine has fallen into place. Whenever I do find time to work on my own fiction, I start out by reading a short something about writing—some little essay on craft, or another author's brief reflection on a published work or work-in-progress, or simply a glimpse into the writing life. Reading about writing, thinking about writing, somehow helps to set the gears in motion.

A book that I discovered last year and that has become a cherished companion in this regard is Rules of Thumb: 73 Authors Reveal Their Fiction Fixations, edited by Michael Martone and Susan Neville (Writer's Digest Books, 2006—now out of print, but worth seeking out used). It's taken me much longer than 73 days to read the essays here (testament to my irregular writing schedule), and in truth, I'm still a few essays away from finishing the full collection, but even as I push toward the end, I find myself still valuing the book immensely, whether or not "rules" offered are ones I'd ultimately apply fully to my own work. Just this week, for example, I read how short story writer Wendy Rawlings and her husband each write on desks made from unfinished doors (I like my own desk fine, thank you very much) and how she values "energetic disarray" as a means of getting work done—listing the books and objects on that desk and charting the ways in which they push her onward, something I can fully understand. (The essay is titled "Bricoleur's Mishmash.")

Rules of Thumb is not, I should point out, a craft guide in the narrowest sense of the term. While various authors might touch on craft at times (construction of character, shape of plot, point of view, adverbs), the approach is more generally idiosyncratic—ultimately less process-oriented than simply personal. And yet, over the time I've been reading it, I've flagged several passages with post-it bookmarks—passages that must have struck me as important enough to return to eventually, to ponder over again.

So, in the spirit of that looking back, looking ahead as the old year turns toward the new, I decided to page back through the book and revisit those passages for the first time. For better or worse, here are five that stood out:

From Peter Turchi's "Make It More Complex"
I remind myself to make a story more complex when it seems one-dimensional, single-minded, predictable, familiar, or thoroughly understandable. Often the first draft of a story will feel flat, its options limited; I've allowed the events, dialogue, and characters' lives to become too narrowly focused. Make it more complex is my reminder to cultivate another aspect of the main character's life, a secondary character, a secondary line of investigation, a tertiary line of investigation, a pattern of images—something intriguing that is not (yet, apparently) directly related to whatever has become the story's whirlpool, its enormous, powerful, potentially reductive vortex.

From Scott Russell Sanders' "Pay Attention"
Write by ear, not by rules. To do that well, your ear must be trained, which means you should listen carefully to language in conversation and stories and songs, as well as on the page. If you've forgotten how sensuous language is, how captivating, how musical, spend time with a toddler who's learning to speak. Linger where people talk vividly—a job site, farmers market, courtroom, coffee house, union hall—and write down what you hear.

From Steve Almond's "The Busy Attributive: A Case of Said" (which I'm certain I marked to pass along to students in my own workshops)

The attributive clause (otherwise known as that thing that comes after the quotation marks) is not a place where writers should feel free to dump plot information, character sketches, or authorial asides. It has only one basic job: to help convey how a particular piece of dialogue has been spoken.

And even this role, by the way, is limited. Because a good piece of dialogue should—by virtue of word choice, rhythm, and syntax—convey tone.

From Deb Olin Unferth's "Don't Tell It Like It Is"
The external world is not like fiction. In real life we repeat ourselves—day in and out, year upon year. We sit beside our lovers and say the same endearments or curses, make the same confessions, tell the same stories whether the face before us changes or not. We walk down hallways, make phone calls, answer them, saying, hello, hello, hello, how are you, how are you, you wouldn't believe what happened yesterday, this morning, last night.... We walk the same streets, visit the same desks or others like them. Our clocks, our steps, our very heartbeats follow the same pattern. In fiction such repetitions would be disastrous, like a gibbering idiot's scrawl, the same sentences over and over and over.
Finally, from Dan Barden's "Upholsterer's Block"

My friend Michael Stephens...told me that he could finish a novel on a half-hour a day, but he could not finish a novel on six hours every Saturday. I wrote a letter to Walker Percy shortly before he died, and he responded within the week. He shared with me the prayer he said before work each day: "I am starting from nothing. Help me."

I found three principles that are the bedrock of my writing discipline.

1. Writing can be defined as "not doing anything else besides writing." I don't write: I provide the space for writing to happen.

2. Regularity is much more important than duration.

3. If I knew what I wanted to say, I wouldn't have to write, I could just say it.

05 January 2015

Old Odds and New Ends

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

Good grief, Charlie Brown where did 2014 go to? Seems like it was here and it was, until it wasn't. Now how long will it take me to remember to write 2015 on my checks instead of 2014? The year ended here in central TX with cold and sleet, but much more of the country had heavy snows, ice and tornadoes as they bid farewell to the old Year. Maybe it's time to let such a wild crazy year be on its way and welcome the New Year.

Did you finish all your projects? I didn't. I come from the school of Never Do Today What You Can Put Off Until Tomorrow. It could be that I'm lazy, but I honestly think it's just my born nature. I have a To-Do list about five miles long. I'll probably never live long enough to finish them, however, I do keep trying.

One thing I'd like to know from my fellow writers and readers, and please answer in the comments: Do you ever stop reading a book that you just flat-out don't like? Or do you trudge on until the very end?

Personally, I don't keep reading a book if I find that I don't care if these characters live or die or get together or whatever. I remember years ago, everyone was talking about a book that was on the New York Times bestselling list. I got a copy of the paperback when it was published and began reading it. I thought it was terrible, nothing really happened and I was bored. The characters were non-entities and I sure didn't care if they lived or died. But I kept reading and you know what? The book never got any better. And when I finished it, I was mad at the author for writing this nonsense. I was mad at whoever decided this was a must-read book. But mostly I was mad at myself for not throwing that book across the room and forgetting it. I decided I wouldn't do that again.

A few years after that I tried to read a book that is currently popular in the movies, something about Hobbits and the underworld. The books and movies have been highly successful. I read about 75 pages and that was my line in the sand. I gave the book back to my friend who had lent the book to me. "I just can't get interested in it." My friend said, "You have to read about 100 or so pages before it begins to get good." Thanks, but no thanks. I'll never live long enough to read all the wonderful books by people that I want to read.

This sounds like I won't read new authors but that's not so. I love to discover new writers but I'm just careful to choose a book that I think I'll like. Since I owned a bookstore for nine years, I learned the old trick that most readers use in a bookstore. First they pick up a book with a jacket or title which intrigues them. Then they'll read the back cover or the inside jacket cover to see if there is a plot synopsis. Then they will open the book and read the first page or two.

One nice thing about the bookstores online (the devils) have a few reviews, or at least allow you to read a bit of the first chapter. A review can't always sell me but I can usually tell from the reviews if I might or might not like the book. And if I read a few pages or a first chapter on line and I want more then I know I'll most likely enjoy that book and will often buy it.

Personal recommendations always play a big part. When a bookseller tells you about a particular book it helps. The Indie bookstore (which is quickly fading away) is great for this. Because they get to know their customers and know if they like Jim Doe that they will probably like John Doe also. I often suggested a customer read an anthology, especially a theme anthology, to find new authors. Many times they'd say, "Oh, I never read short stories." And I'd counter with: just think how you'll discover many new writers. The author may write a short story with the same characters they use in their books. Or they might write a new set of characters that you really like and want to read more about. Just no way to go wrong that way.

My final notes here, Do you make New Year's Resolutions?

I read somewhere that a study at a University has discovered only 8% of people keep their New Year's Resolutions. It's been suggested that maybe we aim too high. Resolving to quit smoking and lose weight at the same time, to organize your desk or office and to quit drinking too much wine
is likely too much for your brain's willpower to handle at once. Might be smart to try only one at a time.

I heard some people on TV the other day talking about this and one professor said January is just another month. One person countered that she liked to make a small change in January, then in Spring make another small change as a time of renewal. She also made a small change the end of September because that was the fiscal year where she worked. Her idea was to just make small resets all throughout the year. Smart lady.

Here are my Resolutions: I saw this on Facebook and then now when I want it I can't find it, so if someone you know came up with this, I'll credit them. I also can't recall the full list of 10, but it goes something like this.
  1. Buy more books.
  2. Read more books
  3. Build more bookcases to hold more books.
  4. Work to make more money to buy more books.
  5. Rearrange schedule to make more time to read books.
  6. Read more books.
Have a Fantastic New Year everyone and please buy and read more books.

05 January 2013

Problems and (Re)Solutions

by John M. Floyd

Since everybody around me seems to be talking about New Years's resolutions, I figured I should make a few.  Not the kind that one usually makes, though--we all know we won't really stop eating jelly doughnuts or get to every meeting on time or do three miles on the treadmill every morning.  My resolutions will be on the literary front, and therefore might stand a better chance of success.  (For some reason I seem to take my writing more seriously than other things, and I'm certainly more organized there than in the rest of my life.)  Besides, I needed something to put in my column for today.

Without further ado, here are my resolutions for 2013:

1.  Use fewer cliches.  Cliches are slippery little creatures, and often manage to sneak their way into my stories without my ever noticing them.  I realize they're tiring and amateurish and distracting, and I'm quick to spot and criticize them when I see them in the writing of others, but somehow I remain guilty of using them myself.  As a southerner, I can't seem to speak for two minutes without using a few cliches--I grew up with them.  As a writer, though, I should know by now that they have no place in good fiction, unless maybe as a part of dialogue.  Or unless you can change them around enough to make them original.  (To quote Mork from Ork, "You've buttered your bread, and now you'll have to lie in it.")

2.  Don't use passive voice.  This is one of my biggest faults, probably because I once did some technical writing, where passive voice works just fine.  In fiction, however, saying something like "the ball was hit by the boy" is not only dull, it's as backward-sounding as Yoda saying, "Down your weapons put."  I hereby resolve to try to write more sentences that have their subjects and verbs in the correct order.

3.  Put in more character development.  I know what you're thinking.  This is a basic rule of fiction, right?  Of course it is--your characters must be believable and interesting and "deep" enough that readers will care for and/or relate to them, and I think I do a fair job of that in most of my stories.  But I have to work at it.  My favorite kind of writing is dialogue and action scenes, and as a result, most of my characters' traits are revealed via what they do or what they say or what others say about them.  When description and exposition are needed as well, that doesn't come easy for me.

4.  Don't overuse pet phrases.  All of us have little sayings that we like to use, in our fiction.  Maybe your characters like to squint into the distance or impatiently drum their fingers on the tabletop.  Such things are fine when mentioned occasionally--they're part of a writer's voice, sort of like Lee Child's frequent use of the phrase "Reacher said nothing."  On the other hand, their verbatim overuse can be irritating.  I was unaware that I have so many "pets" until I prepared the manuscript for my first collection of short mystery stories several years ago--and found that certain phrases showed up a lot in my grouped stories.  Even some words (blink, turn, stare, sigh, pause) were repeated way too often.  Since then I've tried to prevent that, but--like cliches--pet words and phrases enjoy scooting in under the fence when I'm not watching.

5.  Don't use too many commas and semicolons.  I'm one of those people who like commas and semicolons, and for some time now I've been trying to cut back.  Why?  Well, I've finally come to the conclusion that any commas that aren't absolutely necessary to either grammar or clarity are no more than speedbumps that slow the reader down, and as a writer I want my story's path to be as smooth and uncluttered as possible.  As for semicolons, they feel a little too stiff and formal for my kind of fiction writing.  I still use them now and then because they're so good at their main function: to separate complete sentences that are too closely related to need the long pause provided by a period.  But I'm trying to weed out as many as possible.  I once heard that using too many semicolons can make you an embarrassment to family and friends, and my cliches are already embarrassing enough.

6.  Read more literary novels.  When I do, I usually find that I like and admire them.  (The Shipping News, Daniel Martin, Beach Music, The Cider House Rules, etc.) but I confess that I don't actively seek them out.  I'm just one of those folks who'd rather spend a few hours with Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief than with Schindler and his List.  Sincere apologies to my more learned relatives and colleagues.

There.  Those are my resolutions for this year.  The truth is, if I follow through with them, I'll probably be a better writer.  The question is, can--or will--I do it?  Maybe so, now that I've written them down.  And maybe, like a southern lady I once read about, I'll just think about it later.

Right now I need a jelly doughnut.

01 January 2012


by Leigh Lundin

For our special brand of readers…

Paranoiac Resolutions
  1. I'll no longer waste my time reliving the past; I'll spend it seeking revenge.
  2. I'll channel my imagination into ever-soaring levels of suspicion and paranoia.
  3. I'll assume full responsibility for my actions, except when it's someone else's fault.
  4. I need not suffer in silence while I can still whine, whimper, and stalk my persecutors.
  5. I know forgiveness is blessed, but not nearly as satisfying as vengeance.
  6. I'll strive to live each day as if it were my enemies' last.
  7. When insulted, I'll honor and express all facets of my being, regardless of silly laws.
  8. As I let go of feelings of guilt, I'll channel my inner sociopath.
  9. I'll gladly share wisdom, for there are no sweeter words than "Gotcha!"
  10. I'll discover a scapegoat is almost as good as a solution.
  11. A complete lack of evidence is the surest proof a conspiracy is under way.
  12. I am at one with my duality.

A New Year's Poem
(Velma author unknown)

T'was the week after Christmas and all through the house,
Nothing would fit me, not even a blouse.

I recalled the meals I had to prepare,
The gravies and sauces and beef nicely rare,
The cookies I nibbled, the eggnog I taste.
All the holiday parties had gone to my waist.

When I climbed on the scales, there arose such a number!
The trip through the mall, less a walk than a lumber.
The wine and the rum balls, the bread and the cheese,
Never once had I protested, "No, none for me, please."

As I dressed again in my husband's old shirt
And prepared once again to do battle with dirt,
I said to myself, as only I can,
"You can't spend this year wearing duds of a man!"

Away with the last of the sour cream onion dip,
Get rid of the fruit cake, every candy and chip.
Every ounce of snacks I like must be banished
Till all the kilos and pounds again have vanished.

I won't have a cookie, not even a lick.
I'll allow myself one celery stick.
I won't have hot toddies, or ice cream, or pie.
I'll munch on a carrot and quietly cry.

I'm hungry, I'm lonesome, and life is a bore.
But isn't that what January is for?

New Year Notes

Happy new year, one and all. We start 2012 with our 107th article and continue featuring fourteen top crime writers. Janice retired at the end of the year, so we'll announce Thursday's co-columnist shortly.

This has been a good year for us and for me personally. I don't make resolutions, but I pave the road with good intentions. It's said an optimist stays up past midnight to see the new year in, while a pessimist waits up to make certain the old year leaves. Some of us are simply insomniacs.

Happy New Year!