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.