Lean Writer, Fat Word Count? Engineering Your Environment for Default Success

fruitIt is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good premise must be in want of a functioning brain with which to execute it. Said brain is best nourished by blood pumped by a healthy heart contained within a healthy body, yes? Unfortunately, we Westerners live in an environment which discourages activity and encourages overeating. Indeed, some have gone so far as it label it “toxic”. The result? More than 70% of us are losing the battle to stay trim and fit.

On WU we’ve had several conversations about staying active and reducing sitting time. (Don’t Take Author Obesity Sitting Down and Becoming a Stand-up Writer.) That’s excellent. Unfortunately, it’s also insufficient. It takes me 15 minutes to consume a grande Carmel Macchiato with soy milk, but 1 hour and 10 minutes of brisk walking to work it off.

In the hierarchy of lifestyle medicine, this is why diet is proclaimed king to exercise’s queen.

Hope for Science-based, Simple Solutions

We all know that diets don’t work. We can talk about the science of this in another post, but willpower is a finite and easily exhausted resource. Turns out it takes as little as 15 minutes of mental effort to diminish the brain’s supply of glucose, thus undermining the part of the brain which weighs the desires of our future self against the present-day temptation.

Nor does it help to frame food choices as a moral decision (i.e. apples = good, chocolate bars = bad). If we do, it’s not long before we:

1) brew an outright home-grown rebellion or
2) deal with the Healthy Halo Effect—having made the morally superior choice to eat a salad, we feel entitled to eat the burger and cookie, thus consuming more calories than we would have otherwise done, all while living in denial about the outcome.

So if white-knuckling doesn’t work, and morality-based decisions backfire, what can move us forward?

If only it was possible to tweak our environment so that healthful food choices could be made by default. If only there was a research team dedicated to disseminating science-based recommendations on how to mindlessly reduce caloric intake on an incremental basis.

Happily, there is such a group. But before we pay them a quick visit, care to take a brief quiz on your food-environment literacy?


  1. The maximum size of my dinner plate should be ___ inches.
  2. Assuming two glasses have the same volumetric capacity, which shape encourages me to pour less liquid: short and wide, or tall and skinny?
  3. What object should be given a prominent place on my kitchen counter?
  4. True or false: When asked to estimate the calories contained within a specific meal, heavy participants are less accurate than their skinnier counterparts?
  5. In a kitchen designed to facilitate slimness, the freezer will be in which position on the fridge: top, side, or bottom?
  6. My fridge should contain no more than ___  juices or soft drinks (diet or regular) or energy drinks in single-serving containers.
  7. On average we control what percent of our family’s nutrition?
  8. What item should be placed in the front center of a breakfast cupboard?
  9. True or false: When it comes to measuring out food portions, food researchers and professional cooks—the experts—are able to compensate for cues like bowl size, spoon size, etc.

What Is in the Drinking Water of Upstate New York?

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Wanted: Grim Reaper As Writing Coach

The Grim Reaper - geograph.org.uk - 522625
The Grim Reaper by Trish Steel [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Last month, through pure serendipity, I stumbled across an intellectual exercise which I’d like to recommend to all my fellow writers.  I believe it will be of particular benefit to those of you who  a) are overwhelmed with life and yearn for a reset button b) wish to clear away the cobwebs of smugness and complacency, or c) like me, write genre fiction that others might call “quiet” or, in a cruel moment, “escapist schlock”.

The procedure is as follows:

Step 1: Have an appointment with a new-to-you medical specialist and agree to go through a number of baseline tests.

Step 2: In the interest of saving time, review your results together over the phone. Without accounting for the fact that you’ve met for a grand total of twenty minutes or that you’re missing visual cues, assume that you understand his speech patterns and way of using subtext. For example, that brief hesitation as he explains a particular number? It’s not due to a brain glitch or the distractions which inevitably accompany a hospital practice. Rather, he’s attempting to deliver exceedingly bad news in an artful manner.

Step 3:  Because you prefer to fall apart in private, keep the extent of your devastation to yourself. Don’t ask clarifying questions and whatever you do, don’t cry until you’re finally off the phone.

Step 4: Once you’re over the worst of your shock, determine to flex your proactivity muscles. Read the medical literature. You’re on the lookout for what you can control.

Step 5: While revising the plans for your life, realize you can’t optimize them without information from your healthcare team. A full week after the original phone call, obtain your specialist’s email and fire off a list of questions.

Step 6: Discover you misunderstood one key piece of information and spun everything else forward in such a manner that—were Thomas Hardy alive, and were you to apply your talent for gloominess to fiction—he would view you as a serious rival. (As it turns out, not only are you not declining, you’ve actually improved your health.)

Now, why in the world would I recommend that writers go through such an exercise, Unboxeders? (Because, as you no doubt surmised, this was what I got up to during my summer vacation.) And why would it be true that I’m grateful for the experience? That I occasionally wish for—even long for—a few more days in the tortuous head-space of steps 2-5?

Before I answer that question, can I suggest you give yourself a few minutes to consider how you’d respond if you learned you had only a few years left on this mortal coil? Pull out a blank piece of paper or open a fresh text document. Give yourself time to envision a comparable scenario to the one mentioned above. (You’ll know you’re there when the hair on your nape is standing on end and your bowels are starting to shift.) Got it? Now, jot down everything you notice, and since this is a writing blog, after all, pay particular attention to your insights about fiction and its role in your life.

While I realize this is a highly personal exercise, in the interest of sparking ideas, here’s some of what I noticed during the gift of that week:

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Nine Good Gifts for the New Year

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image16221614I’m not keen on New Year’s resolutions. It’s too easy for us to end up in a mire of guilt, weighed down by our failure to meet our own expectations. On the other hand, defined goals can help those of us who might otherwise become TV watching, junk food eating couch potatoes, with nothing more to show for 2013 than an empty file entitled First Draft and five extra kilos around the waistline.

This week, Facebook is chockers with people’s summaries of 2012 and their goals for 2013. There’s  some over-sharing about last year’s highs and lows, and some lofty goals for this year. Good luck, people. If I’d been you, I might have made those goals slightly more achievable: a steady, gradual weight loss rather than losing 20kg over the year, completing a certain number of pages a week rather than writing an entire novel before Christmas, reducing chocolate intake rather than giving it up altogether.

Making your resolutions public may steel your resolve, because of the shame you’ll feel if your entire social media circle sees you fail. (Not that they’ll care, but you’ll feel the shame anyway.) Or it may place unnecessary pressure on you, making it almost certain that you won’t meet your goals. Of course, if you are the kind of person who thrives on order, and if your resolutions are well thought out, the list may encourage you to stretch yourself and help you to stay on track.

I didn’t share my highlights and lowlights of 2012 on social media. Mine would have been a jumble of veterinary emergencies and scrambles to meet writing deadlines, a couple of novels published and some family ups and downs I choose to keep private. And I’m not making resolutions. I won’t put ‘finish both books before deadline’ on a list, because it’s something I have no choice about. I’m a professional; writing is my job. If there’s a deadline, that’s when the manuscript has to be ready. I won’t put ‘keep weight down’ on a list because, as a cancer survivor, I need no reminders of how important that is.

Instead of offering you 2013 Resolutions for Writers, then, I wave my magic wand and present you with nine good gifts for the coming year.  [Read more…]


Characters Welcome

Arrow Studio, Los Angeles

Today’s guest is bestselling Kindle author Kathleen Shoop. Her second historical fiction novel, After the Fog, is set in 1948 Donora, Pennsylvania. The mill town’s “killing smog” was one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, triggering clean air advocacy and eventually, the Clean Air Act. Kathleen’s debut novel, The Last Letter, sold more than 50,000 copies and garnered multiple awards in 2011, including the Independent Publisher Awards Gold Medal. A Language Arts Coach with a Ph.D. in Reading Education, Kathleen lives in Oakmont, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.

For every woman who thinks she left her past behind… Rose Pavlesic is a straight-talking, gifted nurse who is also controlling and demanding. She has to be to ensure her life is mistake-free and to create a life for her children that reflects everything she missed as an orphaned child. Rose has managed to keep her painful secrets buried, away from her loving husband–who she discovers has secrets of his own–their children and their extended, complicated family.

But, as a stagnant weather cycle works to trap poisonous gasses from the three mills in town, Rose’s nursing career thrusts her into a conflict of interest she never could have fathomed–putting the lives of her loved ones at risk and forcing her to come face to face with her past.

Kathleen’s exhaustive research for After the Fog included reading volumes of nursing reports and handwritten/typed accounts of what community/public health nurses did for a living. Her research also included the Nursing Manual: Public Health Nursing Association of Pittsburgh (1941), Community Health Association: Nursing Technique (1930) and the Donora Historical Society. Here, she provides insights into crafting characters from clay to when they take their first breath. Enjoy!

Characters Welcome

Crafting characters is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing a novel. Authors want their characters to leap off the page, sit beside readers, and yank them through the story by the hand.

When I break out the literary clay, I can’t help but think of USA Network’s tagline, “Characters Welcome.” To sculpt the people of my books I explore their pasts, career paths, and the historical context of the setting. For example, considering issues such as traditional gender roles of the time and studying the bold outliers who defy expectations for their era. Simple enough. [Read more…]


Ergonomics for Writerly Folk

PhotobucketTruth: Writers sit. A lot. We sit and type. We sit and edit. We sit and read. We sit and dream. We sit while sifting through Twitter and Facebook posts, and while digesting blogs. And then we sit and type some more.

It probably goes without saying that it’s important to have a decent setup in our writing spot—that our work area, chair and desk all jive together, and complement the proportions of our bodies. It goes without saying and we think we’ve done all we need to do, but sometimes things aren’t feeling quite right. We have a stiff neck at the end of the day, or aching wrists, or our chair makes us uncomfortable and we can’t figure out why.

Here are a few pointers I hope can help.

On the Desk

  • Place your keyboard and monitor front and center on your desk–never to the side of your work area–to prevent you from making awkward and potentially harmful body contortions in order to reach them.
  • Make sure your computer monitor is at eye level, to reduce both eye and neck strain.
  • Position your keyboard so that it’s accessible to you when your arm is bent 90 degrees at the elbow. The line of your forearm—from elbow to knuckles—should be parallel to the floor when you’re typing. Explains ergonomics expert Jonathan Bailin, Ph.D., “If you make a fist, the knuckles, top of the wrist, and forearm should form a straight line. When it is not extended or flexed, this is a neutral wrist posture.”
  • Be sure your mouse is on the same plane as your keyboard. Placing your mouse on a higher plane can put excessive strain on your wrists, shoulders and spine, which can lead to a repetitive strain injury.

Wondering how all of these computer rules translate to use with your laptop? [Read more…]