Making Smart Goals

If you've spent any time in the corporate world, you've probably heard about SMART goals. I hate corporate buzzwords as much as the next guy, but seriously making smart goals is hugely important for writers (and, really, anyone who ever wants to achieve anything). It's an acronym: good goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.

You can't meet vague goals. "I want to be a writer" is not a good goal. How do you know when you've done it? Even "I want to write a novel" is kind of vague (how do you know when it's finished?). Good goals are clear and unambiguous.

This goes along with being specific. If you can't measure success, how do you know you've achieved it? How many words/pages are you going to write? How many drafts? What IS a draft (the first draft is obvious, but does running a spell and grammar check count as one revision)?

Making attainable goals is a matter of practice. A good goal is realistic, but it also stretches you. If a goal is too hard, you'll give up and throw your goals away. If it's too easy, the goal becomes meaningless.

A good practice is to start small. See what you're capable of. When you can hit small goals consistently, increase them.

This should really go without saying, but you'd be surprised. If my dream is to get published by a big publisher, I have to look at each goal and decide if it contributes towards that dream.

Selling short stories to professional markets? Relevant.
Publishing stories for free in a local newsletter? Aside from the writing experience, probably not relevant.
Publishing with a small press? Yeah, probably.
Self publishing? Probably not.

Tobias Buckell counted his number of rejections as a goal. On the surface, this would seem irrelevant -- you're not making progress if you're getting rejected, right? But to him, getting rejections meant he was producing and getting his work out there. Because "making a sale" was not in his control, he chose something that was, and it worked.

The most important way to make a goal measurable is to put a time limit on it. Without a time limit, there's no urgency. That goal could be taped to your computer monitor forever and ever, neither failing or succeeding.

The thing is, you can gain just as much from failure as from success. Maybe your time limit is too tight, or maybe you just have too many blogs to read or Facebook games to keep up with and you need to cut something (irrelevant) out. Whatever it is, if your goal has no deadline, you'll never evaluate and you'll never know.

So what are my goals, you ask? I'm still working on the larger goals (specifically the deadlines), which is a lot of the reason behind this post. But I keep daily goals with the idea that any kind of steady progress is progress. I try to do 500-800 words a day depending on how much planning/revising I have to do (I still have to figure out how to make a measurable goal out of "planning"). And I usually pick three or four things from my real life todo list to finish in a day. (That's about the best I can do, since most of my job is parenting. And if I've learned anything about parenting, it's that you can't plan it.)

So how about you? What are your goals, daily or long term? Do they fit the SMART criteria?

Parents, Talk to Your Kids About Malware

I fix a lot of computers. I'm kind of the unofficial tech support for the Chiang Mai missionary community,* and the number one problem I find when people complain their computer is slow or broken is malware.

What is malware? I'm glad you asked.

Malware is any malicious software that infiltrates your system without your consent. For example:
  • VIRUSES that copy themselves, infecting any system they come in contact with.
  • SPYWARE that secretly collects data about you and your computer, sending it to its host via the internet.
  • ADWARE that displays pop-up ads and other advertisements where there shouldn't be any.
  • TROJANS that pretend to be useful software while secretly hacking your system.
Scary, yeah? At best, malware is annoying, making you wonder what happened to your previously-state-of-the-art computer. At worst, it's the first step to identity theft and serious data loss.

With the worst types of malware, you can't tell without scanning software. But some are more obvious than others. Any of the following symptoms might be a sign of infection:
  1. Pop-up ads where there shouldn't be any (on your bank's website, on this blog, etc.).
  2. Your home page (i.e. the first web page that you see when you open your browser) is a page you don't know and never set as your home page.
  3. You do a search on Google and it redirects you to some other engine's search results.
  4. You receive error messages from programs you don't know and never installed. (I once saw a message suggesting I install an "anti-anti-virus" program. At first I thought it was a stupid typo, but no. It meant exactly what it said.)
  5. You try to uninstall a program or search bar, but it comes right back.

Most malware is easy to take care of. Unfortunately, I don't know of any one program that can catch them all. If your computer's infected really bad, you might need two or three different programs to get rid of it all. Don't worry, they're all free.
  • ClamWin: an open-source anti-virus program. Provides no real-time protection, but gets automatic updates and scheduled scans.
  • Spybot: designed to kill most spyware and adware. Provides some real-time browser protection. Can provide real-time system protection, but I find this more annoying than helpful. Mostly I use this program to scan a computer I think is already infected.
  • Ad-Aware: a smart program designed to kill malware. Provides real-time protection and automatic updates. There are pro versions, but the free version is usually good enough.
  • Avast!: I haven't used this one myself, but like Ad-Aware it has a free version designed for viruses and spyware.
There are also plenty of good pay-for programs (Symantec and McAfee's are usually good, for example). But understand that any program with real-time protection will take up some of your computer's RAM, possibly slowing things down on older computers. Just something to keep in mind.

So you've cleaned up your computer, now how do you keep it from getting infected again? That, really, is what this post is about.

  1. Get an anti-malware program with real-time protection. Although, as I said above, if your computer is older or doesn't have much RAM, you may not want to do this.
  2. Scan your computer regularly. Like once a week. You don't have to watch the scan, just be notified of any bad results.
  3. Be careful what you download. Don't accept attachments from strangers. Don't open executable attachments (.exe files usually) from anyone ever. Don't download from sketchy sites, or if you do, scan the file first.
  4. Be careful what you install. Don't install something if you don't know what it does or why you need to install it. And for God's sake, READ THE INSTALLATION MESSAGES. Some adware will warn you -- even ask you -- before installing itself so that it can be legal, and you know what? It is.
  5. Pirates. Do you download pirated music, books, or games? I won't tell you not to,** but if you download pirated stuff and your computer gets infected, it's your own dang fault. More malware comes via pirated software than any other means.
  6. Talk to your kids about malware. No joke. The worst computers I see are almost always the result of a parent who knows little about computers combined with a teenager who thinks they know a lot. If your kids download pirated software, but think they don't need to scan it because "they know what they're doing," your computer is probably already infected.
  7. Don't share your computer. Buy a cheap, second-hand computer for your kids. When they complain it's too slow and can't play the latest games, tell them to buy their own.
  8. Restrict admin privileges. On Windows machines, a user is considered either an 'Administrator' or not. Administrators can install software and change system settings, and therefore have permission to (unknowingly) install malware. My kids don't get Administrator privileges on the computers I buy for them, mainly because I don't want to have to fix them. If they want something installed, they ask me.

I hope this is helpful to someone out there. Getting rid of malware may not be as critical as backing up your data, but it can save you some headaches and maybe even protect your identity online. Have you had a nasty experience with malware? How did you take care of it?

* Which is weird to me, actually. When I lived in San Diego, everybody knew how to do what I do.

** I should, but I feel weird saying that when I live in a country where I couldn't buy a legitimate copy of MS Office even if I wanted to.

Books I Read: Graceling

Title: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore
Genre: YA Fantasy
Published: 2008
Content Rating: R for sex (this surprised me actually; though it's written in such a way that if you didn't know much about sex, you might have no idea that's what they were doing)

Graced with an unnatural ability to kill, Katsa has been her royal uncle's thug and assassin since she was little. Over the years, she has grown to regret what she has become and begun to work against some of her uncle's bullying. On one such mission, she meets a Graced fighter named Po, and gets drawn into a rescue on the far side of the world, against a man with a more frightening power than any the world has known.

At first, I was a little jaded by this book. Katsa seemed a lot like Katniss from that other book I read -- both of them killers who don't want to be killers. Both of them beautiful, but totally oblivious to their beauty. (I realize this comparison is totally unfair, as these two books came out within a month of each other, but you have to admit their names are really similar). Where it got interesting for me was when Katsa started spending time with Po, and they began learning more about each other's powers.

The climax was less...explosive than I expected, but that doesn't mean I didn't like it. In contrast, the resolution felt long, but it was exactly what I wanted, plus a twist. (Maybe what I wanted was a book about Po?).

But my favorite, favorite thing about this book was the dialog. I laughed out loud so many times at the dry, clever humor of Katsa, Raffin, Oll, and Po. I'd read a whole book with nothing but Katsa's secret missions, just to hear the four of them take jabs at each other.

Overall, I thought this was a good fantasy adventure with a well-developed (if small) world and clever characters. I'd buy a sequel (or maybe the prequel).

Flashbacks (and Cunning Folk Excerpts!)

Flashbacks are hard. Why? Because they're about the past and are, therefore, backstory infodump. On top of that, they're really easy to screw up. So here are some tips I've learned to keep from giving the reader flashback whiplash.

Keep it relevant. This is the same as the rule for infodumps. Only tell them what they need to know to understand this part of the story. This is especially true in beginnings, when we don't know the characters or their conflicts yet. The last thing we want to do is jump back into the past and get to know even more characters and conflicts.

Keep it short. Or rather, only make it as long as it needs to be (really, this is just an extension of the first tip). For example, the flashback below (in italics) is only 10 words long:
(from Cunning Folk)
How could Suriya lose control like that? Aunt Pern had told her how, as a baby, Suriya’s fire kept them warm at night, but that was a long time ago. For as long as she could remember, Suriya had been able to control her power, even in her sleep – to the point where releasing was difficult simply because she never did it.

Don't be heavy-handed. When I first started writing, I thought I had to make the flashback obvious. Like this:
Five minutes to curtain, and Steve was nervous. He stared at the guitar in his hand--the same guitar he'd played with for ten years. It reminded him of the first time he played on stage...

Can you hear the Wayne's World flashback sound? Don't do this. As long as the reader can tell you're going into a flashback, you can just jump right in: "Five minutes to curtain, and Steve was nervous. The first time he played on stage..."

Same with when the flashback ends. Don't toss in a handful of sentences about Steve looking at the guitar and "remembering where he was." Jump right in. Have a stagehand or something (who was not in the flashback) say, "Steve? It's time," and then Steve goes on stage to his legions of fans. So long as the present is sufficiently different from the past, the reader will have no problem keeping up.

Don't worry about tense. I mean, do worry about tense, cuz you're a writer. But don't feel like it has to be perfect. Technically, when you're writing about the past of the past, you're supposed to use "had" a lot (past perfect tense, for you grammarians). "Steve's first time on stage, he had tripped over his bellbottoms." But in practice, doing this for every single verb is annoying.

Instead, use "had" near the beginning of the flashback as a clue to the reader, but then don't be afraid to back off. Mostly, you only need "had" when the reader might be confused as to when the action took place (i.e. in the present, or in the flashback). "Steve's first time on stage, he tripped over his bellbottoms." See? No confusion.

Okay, for those of you still with me, I have a (multi-paragraph) excerpt from my current work-in-progress. It's a flashback that uses all of these tips...hopefully. If I screwed it up, acting like a better writer than I am, I'm really, really sorry.

(SETUP: It's Suriya's first morning after losing her Aunt Pern and after being chased by bounty hunters through the streets of Chiang Mai.)

No dreams. Thank God.

When Suriya was very little, they had lived in a village where people knew what she was and for a while even liked her. Because of her dreams.

The village was called Umong. Suriya couldn't have been more than six years old at the time – old enough to realize her dreams meant something, too young to keep them to herself. It started when she saved an old man's life. She dreamed he had been crushed by a falling tree. Later that day, when Suriya saw her dream was about to happen, she cried out.

The tree missed the old man by a hand's width.

He had thanked her. The whole village had thanked her. They gave her gifts and roasted pigs in her honor.

Then they wanted their own dreams. Almost every morning, they came to ask what she had seen in the night. She told them with the innocence of a child.

Some nights she had no dreams, and the villagers' reactions frightened her. Sometimes she even lied about her dreams just to make people happy.

Other nights she didn't dream enough. She had seen one man – she still remembered his name was Danilay – lying dead on the ground, but she didn't know where or how. Danilay got mad. He shook her and slapped her until Aunt Pern had intervened.

They left Umong that night. She never found out how or even if her dream came true. And she never told her dreams again to anyone, except Aunt Pern.

Aunt Pern. Oh, God.

Suriya jerked upright. She was still in the strange guesthouse. A soft light filtered through the curtains. Anna sat on the stool watching the morning news.

“Good morning,” Anna's voice came into her mind. She didn't turn away from the TV.

¡Viva la Revolución!

(This post brought to you by the inspiration and revolutionary cake of L. T. Host, the Jokerman font, and That Thing Where I DrawPhotoshop)

I'm seeing a pattern. My first novel generated no requests. My second novel is getting partial requests, but no fulls (so far). I fear my third novel will generate fulls but no offers--those will come with my fourth novel.

And then what? Will I have to write yet another novel before I get a book deal? To that I say: NO!

Down with our (imaginary) oppressors! We will not have to write three more novels. THIS is the novel that will be published.

No more slush pile! Representation for everyone!


* CARPE EDITIO: Seize the book deal (or, if you want to be literal, "the publishing of a book.").

Boy Books on Ink Spells

From Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller:
I understand you can learn a great deal about girldom by reading Pride and Prejudice, and I own a copy, but I have never read it. I tried. It was given to me by a girl with a little note inside that read: What is in this book is the heart of a woman.

I am sure the heart of a woman is pure and lovely, but the first chapter of said heart is hopelessly boring. Nobody dies at all.

I talk about boy books over at Susan Quinn's place. Check it out.

Books I Read: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2004
Content Rating: PG (there are a couple mildly freakish bits, like a woman's finger in a box, or dead men brought back to life, but nothing I wouldn't let my (older) kids read)

In early 19th-century England, the great magic of Merlin and the Raven King has disappeared. The only magicians left are merely theoretical -- men who call themselves magicians, but are more akin to historians than anything -- until Mr. Norrell. He's a stuffy, controlling, arrogant little man, but also a practical magician. And he desperately wants to restore magic to England. He is moderately successful when Jonathan Strange applies to be his pupil. Where Norrell is academic, Strange is showy and charismatic, and where Norrell fears the most powerful kinds of magic -- that of the faeries -- Strange believes that is who they should learn from most.

My friend who gave this to me characterized it as "Sense and Sensibility and Sorcery". What shines about this book are the two main characters and their relationship, both as friends and enemies. The story is as funny and charming as Strange, and as stuffy and academic as Norrell. By the latter, I mean that the story frequently tangents into vignettes of English magical history. For example, Norrell and Strange will be arguing about whether the Raven King is really gone forever, and Strange will say something like, "There are stories of people having seen him. What about the conquistador, the farmer in Yorkshire, or the girl in Manchester," and each of those will have a (sometimes very long) footnote relating the story he refers to.

These infodumps are very much part of the style of the book. They are very enjoyable, and they made the alternate history that much more believable, but there were times when I was tempted to skip them and continue with the story. (Oh, but you can't skip them. That's the secret.) This is not a thriller or a fast read (though it has a few exciting and frightening bits). This is a book to live in for a while, and to believe sometimes that maybe magic is real.