Monday, July 15, 2013

Using Gaming Techniques for Spicing Up Life’s Flat Spots

Would you like a fun method for making some of life’s boring or trying aspects less so? Yes? Then consider applying gaming techniques to the boring activity. I’ll explain by giving two examples, one being the way I came across this approach while a grade-schooler. So go back with me to my sixth grade class, circa 1960, and my teacher, Mrs. Gullick, was a staunch anticommunist. She turned us all into little anticommunists by reading us published articles about the horrible things Communist regimes tended to do.

One was the first person account of a priest, an American, who was imprisoned by the Communists when they took control of the Chinese government. He was a credentialed diplomat for the Vatican, and he had been serving as an expert in Chinese language, history, and culture. His captors subjected him to intense interrogation techniques, including torture, for several weeks. And then they put him in solitary confinement in a relatively spacious, but bare prison cell. It was windowless except for a barred, square opening at eye level in the door, through which he could see a hallway and a guard who was apparently assigned to be his personal jailer.

Of course the priest was glad that the torture seemed over, but he found his confinement nearly as punishing. He was used to twelve hour workdays, plus reading that consumed every minute he was awake, even while he ate. Now he found himself with nothing to do except sit on the concrete floor. He tried conversing with his jailer, but the guard forbid it. When the priest persisted, the jailer punished him by depriving him of meals. Dismayed, and depressed by endless hours of solitude with absolutely nothing to do, the priest despaired for his sanity.

But then he got the idea of turning his frosty relationship with his guard into a game. After many days of trial and error, these are the rules he devised for the game he used to pass his waking hours. He would walk the three interior walls of the cell, touching each corner of the room; then he would go to the center of the cell and walk slowly, straight for the door. The object of the game was to reach the door and touch one of the bars on its window without being seen by the guard. Sometimes the guard would be pacing the hall, and the priest would have to time his approach so that the guard was not facing him. Other times, the guard would sit and read, in which case the priest would have to be stealthy enough to touch the bar without causing the guard to look up and notice him. If the guard did notice his approach to the door, apart from provoking a stern rebuke, the sighting would count as a negative point in the priest’s game. The object of the game was to score a minimum number of negative points in a day, defined as the time the guard spent on duty before leaving, presumably for the night. So the priest would execute his walk around the cell prior to his approach to the door, touch one of the bars, then repeat the procedure all through the day. He kept a mental tally of negative points for the day, trying each day for a new personal best. In the article read to us by Mrs. Gullick, the priest credited the game for keeping him sane for the months he was in solitary confinement before being deported by the Chinese Communists.

Now let me give you an example of how I’ve used this gaming technique. For many years, I commuted forty seven miles through Houston to work. During one of those years, a construction project forced me to take a six or seven mile stretch of State Highway 249 to IH-45. The speed limit was fifty mph, but that stretch of road also had fourteen—count ‘em—fourteen red lights. It was an aggravating and frustrating drive in a city known for its many freeways.

So I devised a game for turning the traffic gauntlet into something interesting. I got up earlier so that traffic on this stretch was light. Then I would try to see if I could adjust my speed—by downshifting on a manual transmission—so that I could get through the fourteen red lights without once touching the brake pedal. This was very challenging, so I had a secondary scoring system for the minimum times I could get through the gauntlet without touching the brake pedal until I had downshifted to a speed below twenty mph. Yes, I’m sure this sounds on paper like a very silly game. But trust me: it did succeed in turning this miserable drive into an interesting competition, one I actually looked forward to once I developed the driving skills to do it well. Plus it improved my gas mileage.

 So if you have something boring or aggravating in your life’s routine, you might want to see if you can turn it into some sort of game. It can make the difference between hating a boring routine and actually looking forward to doing it. Should be worth a try.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Accomplishing Big Things One Small Bite at a Time

The title above makes perfect sense, and we have all heard this saying in some form. But few take advantage of its potential…I guess because few of us realize just what can be accomplished using this approach.

How about an example? When my daughter became an adolescent, we realized that the public school system wasn’t meeting her needs. Plus she had a special interest in art and art appreciation. So we put her in a private school where she could get the learning she was ready for. Next thing I knew, she was wanting me to help with her art history studies. You can imagine how flabbergasted I was that my teenage daughter wanted to spend quality time with her dad. I certainly did not want to pass up this opportunity.

The problem was that art history wasn’t even close to being my cup of tea. Looking past the joy of receiving her request, I could see the drudgery of hour upon hour of studying dense, boring art history books—in this case, Janson’s History of art. But I was determined, so I dove into it with determination. The course was already a month or two along, so I needed to catch up to where my daughter was in the book. This took a couple of two hour sessions, and the fatigue factor was high enough that my resolve was sorely shaken. I couldn’t keep this up. I needed a better solution I could live with. But what could I live with? Well, I decided I could certainly live with reading four pages of text per day, six days per week. Yes, I could put up that effort indefinitely, but would it be enough to meet daughter’s need? Fortunately, it turned out to be more than enough. I put in the committed effort, and with time I pulled ahead of her in the course. This had unexpected benefits, as it gave me ammunition for asking better questions.

And something else occurred. I began to enjoy the study effort. After all, it typically took less than a half hour per study day, and if the day was hectic, skipping a day a week was okay. My daughter’s course ended, but my study continued, only at a reduced, two page per day rate. Eventually I completed both volumes of that particular edition of the Janson series. And the study has always paid dividends beyond measure. My daughter and I continue to use museum trips together as a special sort of bonding.

One of the big advantages of this technique is that it makes formidable projects easier to start. Fifteen years into my engineering career, I realized I would need to finally get professionally registered. This involved months of study as preparation for being able to pass two eight hour, open book tests. I had plenty going on in my life at the time, so this was an effort easy to keep putting off. But I was able to overcome my inertia by committing to studying just twenty minutes a day. It worked! As the test neared, I would be studying an hour, then an hour and a half per day. But by then I was hooked on this project and determined to succeed. The commitment to small bites of effort early on set the stage for the larger effort needed later for the project to be a success.

Now, this approach won’t work for everything. Recently, I decided to install plastic screens as guards to keep leaves and twigs out of my home’s rain gutters. But I dreaded it, so I decided to do it one small section of the house at a time. But it didn’t work as I had hoped. The effort to get set up and put all the tools and ladders and such in place was so large, I didn’t want to have to repeat all that work. So I broke out the sunscreen and got the whole job done in one long day’s effort.

 The small bite-at-a-time method works best when completion time is not much of an issue, and the set up time for each work session is small—as in pulling a book off a shelf. But if those conditions are met, then this approach can melt away resistance to getting large projects started, and it provides a structured routine for accomplishing even the largest undertaking.

Monday, July 1, 2013

One Way to Judge Your Own Writing

I’ve done a lot of writing contest judging for RWA and its chapters, and I've been surprised to learn that that judging can strengthen one’s writing skills (see previous post on this subject, available on this platform). But I also think that a writer can use the tools of judging to grade her own work. The key to this is a good scoresheet, and I intend to provide one as part of this posting.

The background is that once I got experienced as a judge, I noticed that some of the contests used poorly designed scoresheets. Sometimes the questions were badly expressed or ambiguous, resulting in uneven scoring by different judges. Other times the scoring would be disproportionately weighted toward one aspect of the writing craft. Quality or degree of story conflict is a frequent offender. Conflict is easy to generate in nonfiction, let alone fiction, so one question out of twenty dedicated to conflict is a good weighting. Yet I once judged a contest whose scoresheet had four out of twenty questions devoted to conflict. Some of the worst scoresheets are missing entire categories. For some unfathomable reason, dialogue is the most likely to be missing. No, I’m not kidding. I’ve judged several contests whose scoresheets had no questions evaluating the quality or effectiveness of dialogue.

But the worst offenders in my view are the contests that don’t even bother using a scoresheet. Judges are expected to produce a single overall score. I’ve tried it, and it produces a very amorphous, hugely subjective result. Worst of all, it deprives contestants of the quantitative feedback they need on the various categories of writing skills. Yes, judges are expected to add constructive comments to the manuscripts themselves, but these are also expected to be diplomatic enough that discouragement won’t be inflicted. This is a good point, and it is how judges are trained. But it also means that unless a contestant has a scoresheet for feedback, she won’t know how to prioritize her writing improvement needs.

I got fed up with the disservice these shortcomings were heaping on aspiring writers and decided to design a scoresheet to use when one wasn’t provided. Eventually I ended up offering it to various chapters, and it became the basis for the one currently used by my own chapter. I am enclosing it at the end of this post, and you are invited to use it freely.

But I also wanted to mention before closing that any writer can use this or any good scoresheet to evaluate (by judging) chunks or samples of their own work. If you’ve produced a work or part of it and you’re not sure how well it stacks up, then putting the first fifty pages through a judging cycle using a scoresheet may just give you the quantitative insight you need.


Generic Scoresheet for

RWA Chapter Writing Contests


Total Score      



Entry #:                                                            Entry Title:      

Category:                                                              Genre: NA

Judge’s Code:      


Judge Profile:

RWA Contest Finalist


Scoring Key:

5 = Outstanding   4 = Above Average    3 = Average      2 = Below Average 1 = Needs extensive work

Please Note: If a score of 3 or lower is entered, comments must be made in the comment sections below.

1. Does the story begin with an interesting hook, prompting you to read more?
2. Do you quickly develop a convincing sense of time and place?
3. Are the character’s descriptions effective? Can you picture them?
4. Are character’s actions/reactions appropriate, consistent, and credible for the genre?
5. Are main characters sympathetic despite flaws/faults?  Are you rooting for them as the story progresses?
6. Does conflict (internal or external) flow naturally from the character/s or does it seem artificial or forced?
7. Is the plot progression building into an interesting story?
8. Are plot elements logical and believable within this genre?
9. How well does the dialogue match the characters?
10. Is the dialogue realistic? Does it read naturally for the time period and genre? Does it accurately reveal the voices of the characters?
11. Is the narrative Clear? Does it provide imagery? How well does it animate the characters, time and place, as in showing rather than telling?
12. Is the pacing effective? Does the pace and amount of backstory fit the action, tone and tension of the story?
13. Do you get a vivid picture from the writing? Does the writer use creative figures of speech and at least a few of the five senses?
14. Are points-of-view and transitions handled well?
15. Is the entry presented professionally with few typos, good grammar, and generally accepted punctuation?
16. Is the prose dynamic, easily read, and dominated by active verbs?
17. Is your interest piqued? How much would you want to read more?
18. Overall, how well are the elements woven together to produce a promising story?
Total Score (highest possible is 90 points)


If a score of 3 or lower is entered, comments must be made. Please feel free to include additional comments in the body of the manuscript.



Monday, June 24, 2013

Personal Countdown of Best Love Stories on Film – Part IV of IV

Continuing from part III or four posts...

(#3) A Lot Like Love (2005). This is an unusual story of protagonists who wrestle with hit-or-miss romantic currents that rile a kind of slapstick friendship they develop…more or less by accident. The gist of the friendship is that each leans on the other when some third party has jilted them in love. Amanda Peet plays the female lead and it’s her stellar performance that makes this film so memorable. Ashton Kutcher plays the male lead, and he puts in a fine performance as well—though his acting is a subtle counterpoint to Peet’s. And that is probably the key. The chemistry between these two is marvelous, and for that the director deserves a lot of credit.

This feature would probably be in the top spot were it not for two flaws. The first is the early airplane scene. It has Peet sexually throwing herself at Kutcher in an airline restroom (can you imagine the smell?) and before they have even met. It's so ridiculously unbelievable, and so insulting to viewers' intelligence that I nearly turned the movie off the first time I saw it on pay-per-view. The good news is that it's worth suffering through one execrable scene to get on with a fine drama. The other weakness is that the screenwriter could have done so much more with the final scene. It's satisfying but lame. Kutcher's dialogue here is cliched when it needs to rise to something memorable, something with emotional gravity. But still, this is one you won’t want to miss.

(#2) Persuasion (2009). Many will be comparing this to the 1995 version starring Amanda Root—which has long been one of my favorite Austen movies. In that context, it's a bit of shock to watch this newer version because the casting is so different and, for the most part, inferior. That is, except for the two lead roles. Rupert Penry-Jones is perfectly cast, and he puts in an excellent performance throughout. But Sally Hawkin's performance is just breathtaking. She carries the whole movie to something infinitely better than what we have a right to expect from these production values. Indeed, this is one of those rare instances when an actress gives a performance so stellar, and so riveting, that it's hard to see how anyone could improve upon it. 

 As an interesting aside, this version generated much consternation among Austen purists because of a climactic running scene that is not in the book and contrary to Regency norms. But wait a minute. Shouldn’t any filmmaker try to improve upon the original book? Would anyone really want him to do less? This production actually does succeed in improving upon the Austen novel. That the running scene mildly breaks with social norms is the very point of it. This is a woman who, eight years after making a bad choice, one that has put her on the verge of spinsterhood, is being given a second chance. And it turbocharges her actions to grasping the opportunity she never thought she'd have. Her turbulent, action-oriented closing on triumph satisfies in a way the novel does not. It is the running scene that catapults this adaptation to one of the best love stories ever committed to film.

 (#1) Notting Hill (1999). The irony of this as the top choice is that I didn't expect anything of significance from this film. In fact, I put off watching it for years because of low expectations. So I was shocked how good it turned out to be. Hugh Grant is superb, probably his best performance ever. Julia Roberts plays her role oddly, with a certain forbidding remoteness: detached with an air that's almost condescending. But she turns out to be the master of her craft here because her demeanor sets us up for the pivotal scene where her character frankly offers love in some of the best lines, brilliantly delivered, that you’ll find in any love story. And in that film instant, she also convinces us of what she’s willing to sacrifice for the love she is reaching out for. But as good as the acting is, the reason this film tops the list is the screenplay. This is a very interesting, intricate, and excellently nuanced love story. Very realistic, believable, and in the end, satisfying. The movie features much humor, some well done, but quite a bit that's downright poor. But this is a minor distraction, easy to overlook. In the end, this is a memorable love story, one that stays with you long after the credits have played through

Monday, June 17, 2013

Personal Countdown of Best Love Stories on Film – Part III of IV

Continuing from part II of four posts...

(#5) Pride and Prejudice (2005). Keira Knightly gives a breathtaking performance to distinguish this version from the five or six (dating from 1940) we have to choose from. Plus she gets help from others. Matthew MacFadyen delivers the performance of a lifetime in portraying the enigmatic Mr. Darcy. And Joe Wright needs to be congratulated for his brilliant directing. Indeed, the scene creation, which is truly unforgettable, is one of the best aspects of this film. This version is unlikely to be surpassed for its artistic credits any time soon.

(#4) The Count of Monte Cristo (2002). This is another one you won’t find on any of the IMDb lists. Stars Jim Caviezel. We all know the story. Edmund Dantes is betrayed by “friends” and spends umpteen years unjustly imprisoned. His fiancĂ©e, Mercedes, marries his arch-betrayer within a month. Edmund eventually escapes, recovers a huge fortune, and uses it to exact revenge. The setting is post Napoleonic France.

The first bonus of this film is that its romance is far superior to that of the original novel. So if you’ve read the book, you’re in for a pleasant surprise the first time you see this movie. 

 The other bonus is that it features one of the most poignant moments of romantic drama you’ll find in any production. Let me try to set you up for this without acting the spoiler. Edmund has staged the rescue of his archenemy’s son and that gets him an invitation to the son’s birthday party, held in the family’s Paris mansion. The whole movie’s drama thus far has built up to the tension of this scene. Edmund enters the palatial home as the Count of Monte Cristo, is greeted warmly by the son, who then introduces him to his father, Edmund’s archenemy, Count Mondego, who of course doesn’t recognize him; no one does after his imprisonment. The two chat with amiable formality, Edmund speaking in coded, ironic phrases. The archenemy turns. “May I present the Countess Mondego.” Mercedes turns and…that’s as far as I can take you. Needless to say, what follows, as filmmaking goes, is the perfect cinematic moment, with the players and the director turning in peak performances. And in the scenes that follow, you have something romantically unique because of the clash between vengeful intent—an intent we sympathize with—and love struggling to revive despite all that should have killed it forever.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Personal Countdown of Best Love Stories on Film – Part II of IV

Continuing our countdown from Part I or four posts...

(#8) A Walk to Remember (2002)

If you’re like me, you cringe at the thought of seeing a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel. The plot line is typically as punishing as it predictable: boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love despite their differences; boy and girl overcome opposition from friends or family; girl tells boy she is fatally ill; boy and girl treasure every moment until girl’s untimely end; boy goes off into the sunset, dolefully energized by memories that will fuel him for the rest of his life. Many if not most critics disdainfully view this formula as emotionally manipulative, and they’ll get no argument from me. On top of that, this film follows the formula exactly. And it has other strikes against it. The directing is merely workmanlike. And Shane West gives us an absolutely underwhelming performance as the male lead. It’s not his fault. Putting West in this role was one of the worst casting blunders of the new century. So how can this movie possibly be on the list? Well the answer is Mandy Moore, starring as the female lead. She gives us a virtuoso performance. In fact, her performance in this film is so many light years beyond anything she has done before or since that it makes you wonder if she has a slimmer, more talented twin sister that starred in this film and made it a memorable viewing experience. Credit must also be given to a screenplay that considerably upgraded the original Nicholas Sparks story.

(#7) Sense and Sensibility (1995). Spectacularly well cast and acted, and featuring two classic stories of frustrated love, this is one that begs to be on any top ten list. And the superb acting extends beyond the stars to some of the supporting roles. Alan Rickman makes the Colonel Brandon role his own. And Greg Wise gives us an excellent performance as the villainous Willoughby.

(#6) Secret Admirer (1985). Here’s one you won’t find on any of the IMDb lists. This is a lighthearted teen love story whose plot has a secret admirer letter getting misplaced to cause an avalanche of unintended consequences, most of them humorous. I think the reason I like this movie so much, why I have seen it at least a dozen times over the years, is its balance. It’s a great comedy. The teen supporting actors are extremely well cast, and they do a terrific job of generating laughs. The parents are well cast too, and their scenes are even funnier. I got a cramp in my stomach the first time I saw the bridge party fight scene. Look for it; it’s truly hilarious.

 But the plot also converges into a good love story. The ending is satisfying because it grows out of a tender, then frustrating tale of unrequited love, love strong enough to offer sacrifices. This is a story of teens growing and learning, finding themselves, and discovering that it can actually be perverse to get what you want. You’ll laugh your way to the end, but you’ll be touched by the closing sequence.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Personal Countdown of Best Love Stories on Film – Part I of IV

If you’re partial to romance, then you probably enjoy a good love story on film. I do; in fact, I think the suspension of disbelief comes easier on film than in print. And the various lists of favorites provided on IMDb are a good way to select movies to take a chance on watching. Plus the lists can be interesting in their own right because of what they say about their authors. Either way, the lists are a helpful service, and for that reason, I thought I’d volunteer a list of my own. So for the next several posts, I’ll do a countdown on a personal top ten.

Having established our basis, I’m going to veer from it briefly to discuss a film that isn’t on the list. It doesn’t fit on the list because, although this is a touching story of love’s dynamics, it’s not a conventional romance. The Girl with the Pearl Earring (2003) is a kind of inverse romance: a story of protagonists who sublimate their mutual attraction for the sake of the artistic ideal they both feel drawn to. I must admit, it took a third viewing to comprehend fully just what the filmmaker was striving for in this story. For me, this film was unexplored territory, and it offers a unique treatise on the forms love can take and the sacrifices it is capable of making. The acting and production values are superb. And the historic setting, the sense of being immersed in 17th century Dutch culture, is top-notch. You won’t want to miss this poignant story of love sacrificed for a chance to produce artistic beauty beyond anything words can express.

Okay, so back to the list. But again, I’m going to stray from convention by listing two films in the number nine spot. No, I just couldn’t decide which to choose and feel there’s value added in describing them both. Plus, there’s no ambiguity in my mind about what title follows them in the number ten spot.

(#10) Electric Dreams (1984). This is an unusual love story. It features a love triangle between a boy, a girl, and a computer. The drama in this one is not particularly high, and the acting is below mid-rate, but what nudges this film into the “special” category is the music. It’s original, composed by Giorgio Moroder, plus others, with some of the songs performed by Culture Club. But it’s perfect for this film, and what the director has done is structure the film as drama plus side scenes that are really music videos. So in a way, the movie is a kind of musical. Whatever it is, it works to produce a great entertainment experience. The music videos are good or better on their own merits, and they nicely complement the love story and the progression of the lead characters’ emotions. This one is a unique viewing experience, a true change of pace love story.

(#9) Jane Eyre (1996). There are many film versions of this story, and most of them fail spectacularly on the story’s most challenging point. Why would a nineteenth century English landed gentleman fall for the unattractive governess of his young ward? It’s a difficult emotional transaction to put across credibly, and only William Hurt manages to do it in masterly fashion in a version that also stars Charlotte Gainsbourg. She is perfectly cast in the way she combines physical plainness with a spunky intellect and personality, a love of what life has to offer despite her underprivileged upbringing.

 (#9) Mansfield Park (1999). Francis O’Connor plays Fanny Price in this ultra-loose adaptation of the Jane Austen novel. Production values are fine, but the acting here is middling at best. But I keep coming back to this one because of how well O’Connor portrays a disadvantaged nineteen century girl’s travails from holding onto a love that’s essentially unattainable. It’s an unspoken, hopeless commitment that nearly breaks her, and the manner of her patient triumph is downright thrilling after all the story has put us through.