I'm always interested in studies that can help sedentary types like most of us writers remain in good health, and this time there are two encouraging results, one about exercise, one about chocolate.
One study found that even one minute of vigorous exercise has measurable positive effects. That's not to say you need to exercise for only a minute a day, but it does suggest that you need not be a slave to the treadmill...and that a solid couple of minutes of fast pacing and enthusiastic swearing when a rejection comes in is a good thing.
Hmm, maybe I should make a DVD: The Rejection Workout.
HELLO CHOCOLATE, MY OLD FRIEND
A new study suggests that Including a small amount of chocolate each day could help prevent diabetes and insulin resistance. This is in addition to previous findings that eating up to 100 g of chocolate every day is linked to lowered heart disease, and that eating a moderate amount of chocolate each week may be associated with a lower risk of stroke in men.
If you're annoyed by the references to small or moderate amounts, you can fall back on another study that showed high levels of chocolate consumption might be associated with a one-third reduction in the risk of developing heart disease. Yes, that one's my favorite, too.
It's true that they're all referring to dark chocolate, with 70% or more cocoa content. This doesn't taste as good as regular chocolate but if that's the only kind you eat, you first get used to the taste and then you enjoy it.
By the way, you can also buy raw cocoa powder to integrate into smoothies. Not very sweet, but good for you. For sweet flavor, I recommend Xlitol. It sounds like it should be the name of the evil ruler of planet in a cheap sci-fi movie, but it's actually good stuff.
According to Wikipedia: "Unlike other natural or synthetic sweeteners, xylitol is actively beneficial for dental health by reducing caries (cavities) to a third in regular use and helpful to remineralization...A study in rats found that xylitol had reduced or eliminated side effects compared to other artificial sweeteners, and lower caloric value and cariogenicity than sucrose."
THE IDEAL WORKOUT FOR WRITERS
There we have it, the ideal workout for writers: run to your grocery store to get some dark chocolate and eat it when you get back. Then start writing.
I've always liked movies and novels about conspiracies, but I didn't know how realistic they were. Pretty much, it turns out.
THE ENERGY CONSPIRACY
"Pressure on Exxon Mobil and the energy industry increased on Wednesday with the release of a new cache of decades-old industry documents about climate change, even as Exxon pushed back against efforts to investigate the company over its climate claims through the years. The new documents were released by an activist research organization, the Center for International Environmental Law, which published the project on its website.
The documents, according to the environmental law center’s director, Carroll Muffett, suggest that the industry had the underlying knowledge of climate change even 60 years ago. “From 1957 onward, there is no doubt that Humble Oil, which is now Exxon, was clearly on notice” about rising CO2 in the atmosphere and the prospect that it was likely to cause global warming, he said. What’s more, he said, the documents show the industry was beginning to organize against regulation of air pollution.
As you've undoubtedly read, Volkswagon created software that would make diesel engines behave differently when being tested for emissions. Eleven million cars worldwide are fitted with the "defeat device." Other car manufacturers are now being investigated.
Tobacco Explained, a report based on internal memos and other documents from the tobacco industry itself, states:
"Publicly the industry denied and continues to deny that it is clear that smoking causes lung cancer - yet it has understood the carcinogenic nature of its product since the 1950s.
Until recently the industry has denied its product is addictive. Most recently it has used a definition of addictiveness so broad that it encompasses shopping and the Internet. Internally, it has known since the 1960s that the crucial selling point of its product is the chemical dependence of its customers.
The companies deny that they target the young. The documents reveal the obvious - that the market of young smokers is of central importance to the industry. Many documents reveal the companies’ pre-occupation with teenagers and younger children - and the lengths they have gone to in order to influence smoking behaviour in this age group."
I used to think the conspiracy theory that somebody somewhere came up with the cure for cancer but it was bought and kept secret by the pharmaceuticals industry is pretty far-fetched. I'm still not convinced, but there's enough to indict the industry without that. In the book, Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher, Gwen Olsen, a pharmaceuticals rep for 15 years, writes, "I was being encouraged to minimize side effects when I talked to doctors...we were being trained to misinform people..."
She was part of a very large business: according to one study, Big Pharma spends $18.5 billion per year promoting their drugs to doctors. That's $30,000 per doctor in the United States.
Did you know that drug companies publish only a fraction of the studies they fund--the ones with results favorable to their products? Also, they have ghostwriters write articles that appear in medical journals and pay doctors to put their names to them.
As someone observed, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you!" At this rate, conspiracy writers won't be running out of material anytime soon.
However, that doesn't mean it's going to feel good when it happens. Having been wrong only turns into something noble when you eventually are right (the old Edison quote about his lightbulb experiments applies here). Until then, it's no fun at all. But, like dental check-ups and eating our greens, it's necessary. Hmm, better call my dentist...
It's always a good idea to block out time on your calendar for appointments with yourself to be sure that you are working on the things that are important to you, not just the ones that are urgent. Now there’s a way to automate that process.
Google recently announced a new feature for their Google Calendar. It’s called Goals, and it lets you tell Google Calendar to fill in unallocated hours with goals that you might otherwise forget or keep pushing into the background. Examples include exercising, learning a language, or reading more.
Here’s a YouTube video with more information: https://youtu.be/qnZZInDyrZo
Finding a quiet place to work is harder these days, and one alternative is to generate sounds you find less distracting than the ambient ones.
For that purpose, a site I've discovered recently, Noisli.com, is useful and it features some attractive extra functions. The desktop version is free, the Web app/iOS app costs $1.99.
The sounds available:
You can also combine sounds, share your combinations with others, set a timer, and even have access to a distraction-free text editor (plain text or Markdown syntax). The latter will save your material locally and you can export it as well. The background colours change gradually but you can turn that feature off.
And the best way to have a lot of ideas is to give your inner critic time off when you are generating ideas.
Come up with as many as possible, write the all down (yes, even the bad ones), and put them aside.
Have a separate session for evaluating which ones you want to develop further.
(You'll find lots of tips about getting into a creative mindset, methods for generating ideas, and turning your ideas into action in my book, Creativity Now, publishing by Pearson and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
It’s Depression Week, not a week for everybody to get depressed but rather to make people more aware of the illness. I have personal experience with it, so I thought I’d share my thoughts.
At a low level, it saps your strength and confidence so you’re operating at maybe 70% of your capacity. It can sneak up on you and it can take a long time before you realize what’s happening.
At a medium level, you’re operating at 50% or so. Things pile up, you slow down or stop making contacts with friends, box sets of TV series have a sudden appeal.
At a high level, it can be a kind of paralysis, making getting out of bed or doing the simplest things seem like a huge undertaking.
It’s usually only if you’re at the high level that other people notice.
Medication can be helpful, but there is still a lot of controversy about the drugs’ effectiveness and side effects. In my experience, they can take a bit of the edge off but they’re far from a cure. Counselling, especially cognitive behaviour therapy, can be useful. Exercise has been shown to help, although it can be hard of motivate yourself to do it when you’re in the midst of depression.
There are some things NOT to say to a depressed person, no matter how well-intentioned these comments may be:
1: ”You really have nothing to be depressed about.”
Depression doesn’t have to be about any specific incident or situation, so this is like saying, “You have nothing to have measles about.”
2: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
Possibly, but there may be several shades of darker coming from where that person is at the time.
3: “Lots of people are in worse situations than you.”
Let me just poke you in the eye and remind you that some people have been poked in BOTH eyes, and we’ll see how much better that makes you feel.
4: “You should get out more, have more fun!”
That’s a bit like telling a person with a broken leg, “You should run more.”
5: “This, too, shall pass.”
Yep, and then the better times, too, shall pass. However, one of the few advantages of having survived a number of episodes of depression is the awareness that it will pass—the first time it hits you, you assume you’re going to feel like that forever, which is what leads to many suicides.
6: You should try St. John’s Wort/ get acupuncture / have Reiki treatments / take long baths --it really helped my cousin/ uncle/ sister/ brother.
Actually, there’s nothing wrong with suggesting treatments because some of these things do seem to help some people. The problem is that sometimes this is said in a tone that suggests you’re dealing with an easily solved little condition.
I think the only thing that is helpful to say is that you care about the person and you’re there for them if they would like to talk or take refuge if things get too difficult for them to handle.
The problem is that in the darkest phases of depression it’s not that you think there’s nobody willing to help, it’s that you believe nobody can help. Even so, knowing there are people in your life who stand by you even when you’re not functioning fully can be comforting.
If a depressed person chooses to talk about their feelings, understanding and empathy is helpful. Trying to rebut their feelings with logic isn’t. And sometimes a hug is better than a lot of words.
If you are suffering from depression, do reach out to your doctor and consider getting counselling even if you feel there’s no point. That’s one of the symptoms of deep depression, and leaving it untreated is no different from trying to ignore a broken arm. At worst, you have nothing to lose; at best, you'll find that people care and there are methods that help you get back to feeling better and participating fully in life.
As a comment on one of my older posts, a reader asked which would you rather have: a handful of book sales of your self-published book on Amazon, or thousands of readers gained by giving the book away?
People download tons of free ebooks and never actually read any of them. I was on the mailing list of several free ebook services but I've unsubscribed because my Kindle is full of books (mostly not free ones) that I haven't had time to read yet. So going free may lead to thousands of downloads, but nobody knows how many of those will ever be read.
Free as a way to prime the pump
If you can manage to target readers effectively and if you have several books in the same genre, it can make sense to give the first one away free in hopes that readers will then go on to buy others.
However, targeting readers these days costs money. One expert I talked to feels that currently Facebook ads are the best medium for this. You can risk a relatively small amount of money to see whether the ads lead to sales and justify the investment.
In his opinion, free social media doesn't work for unknown authors of fiction (although I'm sure, as always, there's are exceptions).
The other point this raises is why this choice seems to come up only for writers and artists. I don't think shoemakers debate whether it's better to charge for their shoes or give them away so they can have the satisfaction of seeing more people wearing them. They expect to be paid for providing something of value, and I think it's reasonable for authors to expect the same.
Of course, that requires authors to convince potential buyers that what they are offering does have value. That's going to require us to be as creative in marketing as we are in spinning stories.
We keep hearing that exercise is good for your brain as well as the rest of your body, but what kind of exercise is best?
A study in Finland looked at three types of exercises. The subjects were rats, so this may or may not apply to humans, although we seem to have an embarrassing similarity to rats In lots of ways.
They tested the brain's ability to develop new nerve cells. Running or jogging had the best results (they didn’t say whether the rats wore little jogging shorts).
Next best was high-intensity interval training.
Weight training didn’t increase nerve cells but presumably made it easier for those rats to push the other ones around.
Journalist Michael Grothaus decided to check whether he’d experience the same benefits. He already walked a lot, but for seven days he ran 45 minutes a day. The next week he did weight training four times. The third week he did 30 minutes of high-intensity interval training daily.
He didn’t stick to any of them long enough to increase nerve cells, and there was no measurement other than how he felt, so as a study it’s pretty worthless. However, running made him feel more clear mentally. He didn’t get that from weight training or high-intensity interval training. You can read his full account here.
If you’ve been thinking about taking up some exercise perhaps his experience and that of the rats might inspire you to get started.
I’ve been doing weight training three times a week for a long time, and I feel it helps me to stay healthy, especially as I don’t do anything else more physically demanding than working the TV remote. I lie, I don’t even do that; the remote is firmly in my partner’s control.
I’m just about to add some cardio again (cross trainer and rowing in the gym) because when I’ve done that consistently in the past it definitely improved my mood and focus.
The trick, of course, is finding what makes you feel good because that's also most likely what you'll continue to do consistently.
We know that successful people are not immune to fearing failure, so how do they still manage to succeed?
This is my third and last post that steals, er, curates, the ideas proposed by organizational psychologist Adam Grant in his TED talk. He says that successful people do fear failure…but, even more, they fear not having tried.
These people can put aside their fear long enough to come up with lots of ideas and lots of projects. They look at bad ideas as part of the process, and the same goes for rejection and failure. They see those as steps on the road to success.
They don't give up, so if one day they face death without having realized their dream, well, at least they will know they gave it their best shot. A study of the regrets of very old people backs this up--most of them said they regretted more the things they didn't do than the things they did.
My quest for 100 rejections
I’ve recently put this into action with something that I was finding depressing—the fact that so far agents have failed to grasp the greatness of my YA novel. I'd received about a dozen rejections, most in the form of hearing nothing back.
Rather than suffer with each new rejection, I decided I to go for 100 rejections. I don’t rule out the idea of rewriting the manuscript if I get useful feedback, and I’m moving forward on other projects at the same time. If some astute agent wants to handle it before I get to 100, that’s fine, too. But in the meantime, it allows me to be playful and philosophical instead of depressed.
Three ways to re-frame a problem
The cliché, “It’s all how you look at it,” is true, as is the maxim, “It’s not what happens, it’s how you respond to what happens.” (Actually, it IS partly about what happens, but your response is even more important.)
In the previous post, I mentioned “the best-friend strategy,” in which you consider your own problem as though it belonged to your best friend, and decide what advice you’d give them. That’s one example of re-framing.
Another is to change the time context of whatever is happening. If you are upset about something, imagine going forward a month in time. Do you think it will still upset you? What about six months from now? A year from now? In many cases, putting it into perspective as one of many things that are happening and will happen brings down your anxiety level immediately.
The third re-frame is good for situations in which you can’t see the way forward.You're taking something you consider impossible and re-frame it as possible.
Even if you have come to the conclusion there is nothing you can do about it, imagine you’re interviewing yourself and ask, “But if you could, how would you do it?”
You repeat the question until you come up with something. Here’s an example:
"I’d like to take a two-week vacation in Europe this summer, but I can’t, I don’t have the money."
But if you could, how would you do it?
But if you could, how would you do it?
"I’d have to find a way that’s free or really, really cheap. And the places I want to go aren’t cheap."
If you could find a way to go free or really cheaply, how would you do it?
"I’d have to find somebody who has a place who’d let me stay, but I don’t know anybody like that."
If you could look for somebody who has a place to let you stay free, how would you do it?
"Well, maybe I could do some work for them, but I really want to enjoy myself…wait a minute, there are house-swaps and house-sitting agencies…"
A solution may not come quite that quickly, but often if you persist you will find a way.
REFRAMING IN THE FACE OF DISASTER
Admittedly, there are situations that are just plain awful, but even in those a re-frame can be helpful.
For instance, the Irish practice of holding a wake for the departed moves the emphasis from grief for what we have lost to a celebration of what we had. That doesn’t negate the loss, but it helps balance it with a more positive element.
The reframes that work in the face of true disaster don’t deny that terrible things happen, but they can help us remember that sooner or later the wheel of fate will turn.
Two Types of Self-doubt
In a TED talk, organizational psychologist Adam Grant mentions that there are two types of doubt. One is positive, one is negative.
Self-doubt tends to be paralyzing. If you continually question whether you are up to a task, the odds are that you’ll get stuck and give up, perhaps continually moving on to different projects instead of seeing any through.
However, “idea doubt” can be useful because it leads you to think about all the possible things that could go wrong and develop backup plans and alternatives.
We sabotage ourselves when we get the two kinds of doubt mixed up. For example, if you write a first draft of something and decide it’s really bad, you can come to either of these conclusions:
“I’m a crappy writer.”
“This is a crappy first draft.”
The draft itself only provides evidence for the second conclusion. But what if this is the fifth or tenth first draft that you’ve written, and they’ve all be bad, and you’ve given up on all of them? You still have a choice of beliefs:
“I’m a crappy writer.” This kind of conclusion often spirals down into depression and existential angst.
“I’m crappy writer of first drafts.” By putting a fence around your crappiness, this conclusion is not so damaging—in fact, it implies a solution.
Again, the evidence supports the second conclusion, and there’s something you can do about it: find an appropriate book, writing group, course, or writing coach so that you get help in identifying what you’re not doing well enough, and find out how to do it better.
I’m no stranger to self-doubt but when I start to jump to conclusions I try to remember to use the best friend solution: describe the situation as though it pertained to your best friend.
We know that men and women typically respond a bit differently to hearing a problem. Women tend to empathize, men tend to give advice.
Embrace both your feminine side and your masculine side. First, if you’re beating yourself up, be kinder to yourself—just as you would be with your best friend.
Then come up with the constructive advice you’d give them. This harnesses the fact that we are always better at giving other people advice than knowing what to do ourselves.
If you write down that advice and follow it as though it came from an expert (it did), often that gives you the confidence to move forward and engage in the constructive kind of doubt that focuses on the task, not on your basic right to exist.
In a TED talk, organizational psychologist Adam Grant says a study showed that people who rush into doing things and people who wait until the last minute both have fewer innovative ideas than those who procrastinate for a little while but then get to work.
The period of moderate procrastination allows people to let the challenge or the task marinate for a bit, and often that leads to new ideas.
By the way, it was news to me that there are people who can’t wait to get started on an essay or report or anything else with a deadline. I don’t think I’ve ever met one. You can guess which camp I’m in (and I bet you’re in the same one).
He also points out that the first-mover advantage is mostly a myth.
Generally, you’re better off being an “improver”—one who lets somebody else pioneer and educate the customer, and then comes up with something similar but better. He cites the statistic that in business, first movers have a 47% failure rate, whereas for improvers it’s only 8%.
If you tend to rush to start or wait until the last possible moment, consider trying the middle path and see whether you get better results. I’m planning to try it myself…in a little while.
First. I'm not making this up.
On the "Friday Fun" section of their web site, The National Rifle Association has featured its own version of two classic fairy tales.
In their take on Little Red Riding Hood, Grandma is packing serious heat. When the wolf shows up, Granny (undoubtedly to be played by Clint Eastwood in a wig in the film) swings into action:
"The wolf leaned in, jaws open wide, then stopped suddenly. Those big ears heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun's safety being clicked off. Those big eyes looked down and saw that grandma had a scattergun aimed right at him...
" 'I don't think I'll be eaten today,' said Grandma, 'and you won't be eating anyone again.' Grandma kept her gun trained on the wolf, who was too scared to move. Before long, he heard a familiar voice call 'Grandmother, I'm here!' Red peeked her head in the door. The wolf couldn't believe his luck—he had come across two capable ladies in the same day, and they were related! Oh, how he hated when families learned how to protect themselves."
I can imagine another version, in which Grandma is the nervous type and when Red knocks on the door the old lady thinks it's the wolf and lets Red have it with both barrels.
The NRA also came up with a version of Hansel and Gretel in which the siblings rescue two boys being held captive by the witch. Gretel covers the sleeping witch with a hunting rifle ("for she was a better shot than her brother") while Hansel unlocks the cage . The witch doesn't wake up and the local cops arrive to cart her away.
See, no violence in either story! They live happily ever after. Then again, maybe after doing a few years of time, the wolf gets out of jail and picks up an AK47 at a gun fair and stalks the now grown-up Red. Grandma (I see Meryl Streep) has hung up her guns due to deteriorating vision, but has to pick up that shotgun one last time...
In a Daily Mail article about a new contest for first-time writers, best-selling author Lisa Jewell shared this advice:
"Don’t write for the publishers and don’t try to second guess the market; it’s elusive and impossible to pin down.
Just write what’s in your head and what’s in your heart and give the reader a reason to keep turning the pages, whether it’s love for your characters or a need to find out what happened ten years ago or what happens next."
Jewell doesn't mention support explicitly but it's obvious from her account of her own writing history that it played an important role. When she sent out the first chapters of her book, she had nine rejections but the tenth agent wanted to read the whole book. That motivated her to finish it, although it took another year.
She says, "A friend in Australia read my daily output and cheered me on."
That book was Ralph's Party, which got her a six-figure advance for two novels and eventually sold more than 250,000 copies the first year it was out. Her newest novel is The Girls. It will be available from May 6, 2016.
Jewell says, "Don't worry if it feels impossible. It's supposed to feel that way."
The contest for first-time novelists
The contest has a first prize of £20,000 and guaranteed publication, and is free to enter. Details are here. Entries must be received by April 16, 2016, and if your novel isn't finished you must be able to complete it by October 30, 2016.
This is one of those, "Is it just me?" quandaries, where you wonder whether what you're experiencing is universal, or personal and probably you'll just embarrass yourself by mentioning it. I'm talking about how disappointing my Future Self often turns out to be when he turns into my Present Self.
Here's an example. I belong to a lot of MeetUp groups. If you haven't heard of those, check out MeetUp.com, and you'll find hundreds, probably thousands, of groups of people interested in specific topics and activities, like photography, art, cooking and just about every other subject you can imagine.
I'll see something interesting scheduled for a week from now, like an interesting talk or a visit to a gallery or a mini-workshop.
I imagine my Future Self going to the event, meeting people, enjoying the activity.
My Future Self is a gregarious, fine fellow, a man of the world who pursues many interests. I sign him up for the event and we are both happy.
When it's time to go to the event, my Future Self has turned into my Present Self, and something has definitely gone wrong in the interim.
My future self is unconcerned with trivial details like the weather. My Present Self looks out the window and sees that it's drizzling and thinks, 'Do I really want to go out? '
Whereas my Future Self was certain he would meet interesting new people, my Present Self remembers that time I went to an event and got buttonholed for thirty minutes by The World's Most Boring Man Who Also Had Bad Breath.
My Future Self didn't bother with the details of how he would get to the venue. My Present Self looks at the Underground map and sees he'd have to change twice and walk twenty minutes.
My Present Self decides to stay home and Get Things Done. He can envision the short-term Future Self catching up on paperwork, clearing up the home office, getting a start on organizing those documents for the tax return. Yes, we have made the right decision and the Future Self will get to work right after dinner!
After dinner, the former Future Self notices that one of our favorite movies is starting on BBC2. When the movie ends he decides it's too late to get started on any work, it'll be best to leave it for tomorrow.
My Future Self was going to finish this post with a brilliant solution to this problem, but once again he's let us down.
I'm pretty sure he'll come up with it tomorrow.
The key to success as a novelist
In a Daily Mail article about a new contest for first-time novelists, best-selling author James Patterson shared this advice:
"Obviously, and I know this from experience, perseverance is the key to making it as a writer. You have to be able to accept rejection and keep doing. If you know it's what you want to do, then you need to make it happen. No one else will make it happen for you."
Patterson writes, "In my novels it’s all about the story. I don’t try to be a great prose stylist; I try to be a great storyteller. I like to imagine the reader is sitting opposite me and I’m telling the story directly to them.
I don’t want that person to get up until I’m finished. I want to keep their attention with continual surprises and twists so they’re not bored for a single moment."
I think most writers would say it's the middle of the story that's the toughest, but Patterson says for him it's the ending. He says, "Expectation has been built up through the course of the novel and you need to deliver a conclusion that fulfils it. If you can do that, you’ll have a satisfied reader."
If you want to check out how he does it, Patterson's latest novel is Truth or Die, published in paperback by Arrow.
The contest has a first prize of £20,000 and guaranteed publication, and is free to enter. Details are here. Entries must be received by April 16, 2016, and if your novel isn't finished you must be able to complete it by October 30, 2016.