Resolutions and Business Plans

The end of December often invokes a mix of retrospection and looking forward.

How did the past year meet my expectations? What would I like to accomplish in the coming year? Do I need to make a fresh start? If so, what practical steps can I take to accomplish that?

In other words, it’s time for the dreaded New Years Resolutions.

As previously mentioned, I’m a SOTP writer. Not surprisingly, I go through life in much the same manner as I plot my novels. That is, I have goals in mind and clear principles by which I live while working toward those ends; but I’ve never been one to map out one-year, five-year and ten-year plans. The best I can comfortably manage is to decide while taking my morning shower what to make for dinner that evening.

My excuse is, I like to remain flexible enough to deal with unexpected obstacles and opportunities as they come. Instead of getting in the way of my plans, those surprises become a part of the plan that I’m continually drawing up on the fly.

However, to avoid meandering though life in aimless circles, we must have a specific destination in mind. Furthermore, we need to know the way to get there, even if we plan to do some sightseeing along the way. For people who prefer a little more certainty than my style of winging it provides, long-range plans and short-term New Years Resolutions are a good place to start.

Here’s an article that lays out the nuts and bolts of one method, which represents the farthest swing of the pendulum from my unstructured approach.

For those who don’t arrange their spices in alphabetical order, Mike Ehret shares a smart way for a writer to make plans and resolutions in a recent Novel Journey post entitled “Goal Setting For the Organizationally Challenged.”

While reading Mike’s post, I was surprised to discover that I actually follow the acronymic outline he suggests. I just don’t write anything down. Because, of course, if I don’t record it, no one can accuse me of not meeting my goals.

Do you make resolutions? Do you keep them? Please share your thoughts!

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More Holiday Thoughts

As I write this, snowflakes fall outside my window in slow, lazy flutters. In these parts, that makes a lot of people feel Christmasy.

Not sure what “Christmasy” means, exactly. I guess it means in the Christmas spirit. But what is that?

Answers.com says, “If you ask 10 people what the Christmas spirit is, you’ll probably get 7 to 8 different answers.”  I think most people think of it as a happy feeling, one of kindness and generosity. Hopefulness that the world will be better in the coming year.

I also think the older we get, the less likely we are to feel buoyed by the sight of snow and sparkling lights. Maybe because we’ve seen enough holiday seasons to know that, though things might change a bit in the coming year, the world will be headed pretty much in the same direction it’s headed now, and no amount of positive thinking and “goodwill toward men” is going to change that.

Sometimes we wish we could ban Christmas altogether – or at least, the various aspects that grate on our nerves or leave us feeling empty and disappointed. Maybe you love Christmas; maybe you enjoy holidays in general. But there are plenty of other people who’d rather hide from it.

I’ve sometimes wished I could ignore the demands of holiday celebrations and make them go away. I’ve felt this not only about Christmas, but other occasions that are supposed to be fun and festive, but which sometimes feel like an unnecessary bother and/or expense. Holidays disrupt routine, add to our workload and/or financial burden, create social stresses and anxieties, and can raise expectations only to send them crashing to lower levels than they were before. Why do we torture ourselves this way? Why not just eliminate holidays altogether?

I expect there are several reasons, but perhaps the most definitive is this: they were God’s invention to begin with, and He wants us to enjoy them. He not only suggested, but commanded, His people to celebrate certain occasions yearly. Not content to institute annual holidays, He commanded that His people celebrate every seventh day — one day of Sabbath rest and reflection each week.

As a Christian, I’m required to keep neither the Old Testament feasts, nor the Sabbath. But these holidays do have genuine relevance for Christ-followers today. Several resources on the subject are available, but one I’ve found helpful is The Feasts of the Lord by Kevin Howard and Marvin Rosenthal.

Beyond its ultimate prophetic purposes, the Old Testament also illustrates important truths about who God is, how He thinks, and how He wants us to live. Among other things, these ancient feasts teach us the wisdom of taking periodic breaks from our routine to think about eternal things.

God knows we’re busy, He understands when we’re strapped financially, and He’s fully aware of the inconvenience of some of our traditions. But I don’t think He’s so concerned with the parties and the decorations and the baking as He is with our spiritual health.

Just as a body needs regular periods of rest, so does our spirit. And one of the best ways to provide that is to break routine, step out of the hamster wheel, and focus our attention on the things that matter in the long run. If our holiday traditions don’t foster and encourage that, perhaps we should re-think some of those traditions.

The English word holiday suggests that very thing. If our holidays aren’t holy days, we just might be missing the point.

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Word Choice – Repetition

No matter what your creative style, sooner or later, you’ll have to do some self-editing. Probably, a lot of it.

Many factors must be considered when re-reading and editing your work. Probably the most important is word choice. And one aspect of that is repetition.

I don’t know the official rule on this, if there even is one. But a writer merely needs to combine common sense with good instinct.

Some things are obvious. For instance, Grandfather English gave us pronouns for a reason. But that’s just basic stuff. Sometimes, though, repetitions sneak in without our noticing it. Occasionally we’ll latch onto the perfect word and then use it to death. Sometimes the same item keeps coming up and you just about have to keep repeating it. How do you avoid the dreaded “repetitive word” complaint?

One thing, which you should be doing this anyway, is to choose nouns and verbs that are strong enough that they don’t need descriptive modifiers. Example: The big dog ate until the bowl was empty, but the small dog ate faster would be better written as The mastiff polished off his meal, but the terrier wolfed his down in seconds. Not only does the second version read smoother and draw clearer picture for the reader, but the only words that appear more than once are the and his.

Not sure if you’re repeating yourself? Fresh eyes can help detect the problem. If you have time, take what you’ve written and put it away for a day or two – even an hour or two will help – then re-read it. Often, the repetitions will jump out at you right away. If that’s not possible, reading it aloud will sometimes help.

What if you uncover repetition this way, but don’t know what word to use instead? If you find yourself stuck, a thesaurus is a useful tool. But beware, some of the synonyms suggested have different shades of meaning. Make sure the word you choose carries the meaning you want to convey.

Most of us tend to overuse the same wimpy words. When you’ve finished a story or a chapter, search your document for those on the list below. Whenever practical, either replace them with a stronger word, or eliminate them altogether. You might be surprised how often they’re not necessary:

actually, finally, good, just, kind of (yes, I know, this is a phrase, not a word – but whatever you do, don’t spell it kinda!), literally (be especially careful of this one: it’s not only overused, but often misused), look, lots, many, nice, pretty, quite, rather, real, really, simply, so, some, somehow, suddenly, such, that, very, up

When you’ve finished your search, you might get a kick out of playing with Wordle. This toy creates word clouds from text, with the most-used words showing up most prominently. Do it for fun, or to open your eyes to your own word usage habits.

Here’s the Wordle created from this article:

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Holiday Thoughts

Recently saw this video – maybe you’ve seen it too.

I don’t know how you feel about this, but initially, it struck me as rather petty. The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me.

I can relate to Christ-followers struggling to  “keep Christ in Christmas.” For several years, I bemoaned the commercialization and Santa Claus-ization of the holiday. After I’d beaten my head against the wall until I was nearly comatose, it finally dawned on me: keeping Christ in Christmas is like trying to keep a hat on puppy. The puppy knows that hat doesn’t belong, and the world knows that Christmas is not  a Christian holiday.

That’s not blasphemy; it’s scriptural and historical fact. There’s no mention in the Bible of Jesus’s disciples or the early church celebrating his birthday; and if they did, it would have been much earlier in the year. No, the holiday we call Christmas was pagan from its inception. December 25 used to be Saturnalia, the Roman winter solstice festival. It wasn’t until the fourth century AD, when Emperor Constantine married his version of Christianity to his pagan religion, that “Christmas” was born.

I’ll agree with one thing on the video: the presence of “Christ” in the word has a polarizing effect, and people tend to get a little worked up on the subject. For centuries, Christians have tried to make the holiday their own. But it’s never been so much of a religious holiday as a cultural one.

For most Americans, Christmas is trees and lights, gifts, cookies, and parties. You can do all that without Jesus, and the majority of us do it very nicely. I see no reason to get all huffy about it, since that’s what Christmas was all about from the beginning.

Instead of getting defensive, let’s get real.

If I’m offended when someone wishes me Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, what should be my response? As a Christian, I should respond in love. “Thank you,” would be a good answer, or maybe, “Merry Christmas to you, too.” If you want to start a conversation, you could say, “Thank you. What holiday do you celebrate? I celebrate the birth of my Savior Jesus Christ.”

Seems to me, the attitude expressed in the video does more harm to the kingdom of Christ than a thousand expressions of “Happy Holidays” ever could.

But don’t even get me started on the subject of Santa Claus. You don’t want to know what I think about that!

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How Doth Thy Novel Grow?

So you want to write a book!

Pretty easy to do, right? All you need is a working knowledge of your language of choice, a computer, and some time. Bits and pieces snatched here and there from your workday should be sufficient – rumor has it that former attorney John Grisham wrote his first novel on yellow legal pads while killing time waiting for his cases to be called in the courtroom.

We’ve all read novels and we know how they work. The average person could come up with a decent story line just from looking at the characters in his family and/or plagiarizing things she’s seen on TV and movies.

Sounds like a plan! Where do I start?

Step One:  For a reality check, watch this somewhat funny/somewhat annoying video.

Step Two: Maybe this isn’t really the next step, but it’s the subject of this post: Figure out your preferred modus operandi. This is what Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy call your creative paradigm in their book Writing Fiction for Dummies. But since I don’t like the word paradigm, I’ll call it your “creative style.”

When you were in school, did they teach you to start with an outline? There’s something to be said for that approach. It forces you to organize your thoughts, map out the story’s plot and structure, and get all your ducks in a row before you begin. If you get the story laid out first, it’s a cakewalk to flesh out the bare bones.

Outlining enables you complete your novel quickly and efficiently and can help prevent the infamous writer’s block. That is, lack of direction/focus – getting fifty pages or so into the story and then getting stuck. Or at least, I guess that’s what writer’s block is. I’m not really sure, since to my knowledge I’ve never suffered from it.

Outlining might be a good idea, but it’s also a pain in the neck. I hate outlining. It’s not my style.

The opposite end of the spectrum is my personal favorite, which is usually called seat-of-the-pants (SOTP). We Pantsers are linear thinkers. We start with a premise and an idea of where we want to end up; but everything in between is as much a surprise to us, the writer, as it will ultimately be to the reader. We create the plot as we go, allowing the story to take on a life of its own.

This is fun; it’s exhilarating; it can be sheer delight. But if you choose to use this method, you must be a ruthless and diligent reviser. In order to have the finished product hold together without unresolved lumps and bumps skewing your story arc, some of your favorite scenes and/or characters will have to be tossed out.

Between these extremes we have combinations thereof. Some writers like to make a very general outline, but for the most part they write SOTP; others like to write disconnected scenes and then later arrange them chronologically; some like to get to know their characters before they start their novel, even to the point of writing detailed studies on them before starting the story itself; and others like the flexibility of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method.

I love snow, and I welcome the coming winter; but somehow the creative method by that name doesn’t click with me. It suits many writers to a tee, though, so check it out. If you’ve been trying to figure out how to get started, that might be just what you’re looking for.

How do you know where you fall in the creative style spectrum?

I suggest you consider the various options and see which seems like a good fit for you. There’s no right or wrong way, it’s just a matter of how each writer is put together. If you cringe at outlines, you might be a Pantser. If you thrive on structure and orderliness, you might be an outliner. And if you own three shirts with cut-off sleeves, you might be a redneck.

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