Category Archives: Guest Posts

Guest Post: Writing a Humorous Murder Mystery by Robin Donovan

by Robin Donovan

Editing is always critical, no matter what you write. Editing a humorous murder mystery is considerably more critical than a non-humorous fictional murder because you can easily lose the empathy of your reader if the humor goes too far or becomes too macabre. Even if the victim was a vile person, there is still a line over which the protagonist dare not step. On the other hand, if you’re not into cozy mysteries, becoming too macabre may be your goal. Long live Stephen King!

The humorous murder mystery has to maintain something of a pathos throughout, while highlighting humorous components whenever possible. And there had better be enough tasteful humorous components or you will lose your audience to boredom.

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While my protagonist in Is It Still Murder Even If She Was A Bitch? can’t pretend to be sorry her horrible former colleague has been murdered, she does take the time to comment on her feelings of sadness for the widower and the now motherless child. In other parts of the story, through another character, we are informed that the clownishly large feet of the murdered woman were almost too big to fit in her coffin. Were these elements juxtaposed too closely and not timed perfectly, it might highlight the humor in a negative or cruel light, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of the reader.

That sounds like an extremely delicate balance – and it is. But hitting that sweet spot, that perfect balance of humor and compassion, can be so rewarding.

When I first started writing cozy mysteries, I took my cue for humor from the extremely successful Janet Evanovich. She typically employs about 6 different comedic incidents in every book. That’s harder than it sounds. Not to mention that a humorous undertone must work right alongside pathos when murder is involved, so the author must carefully interweave these elements with masterful timing.

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The husband of Is It Still has to make a somber decision to give up the woman he loves, his mistress, as it is in the best interest of his young son after his wife’s tragic death. At the same time, said mistress is having a laughable public meltdown as she decides that the dead woman’s mother is responsible for her being dumped. With these scenes, I hope to elicit respect for a man who is able to make a difficult decision to sacrifice his own needs for those of his son, and conversely, amusement over a woman who takes a completely self-centered viewpoint of a tragic event that does not directly involve her. If my timing misses, this whole scenario is likely to fall flatter than a pancake. But if it works, I will succeed in taking your emotions way down and then back up all the way to laughter. That’s a very heady feeling for an author.

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BookdeliverydayRobin Leemann Donovan is the author of the blog, Menologues, a humorous yet informative look at the trials and tribulations of menopause by someone who’s been there. Menologues has been republished on two commercial sites: Vibrant Nation and Alltop, and has won regional honors for social media at the AMA Pinnacles and PRSA Paper Anvil awards. Her first book in the Donna Leigh Mystery series: Is It Still Murder Even If She Was A Bitch? won an AMA Pinnacle award. Her second book: I Didn’t Kill Her, But That May Have Been Shortsighted, was released in November, 2015. And her third book: I Don’t Know Why They Killed Him He Wasn’t Really That Annoying, came out early last year.

Donovan was born and raised in New Jersey but lived and worked in Connecticut for a number of years before moving to Nebraska in 1999. Starting her career as a high school English teacher, Donovan moved into advertising in the early 80’s and became a VP Media Director working on brands like Duracell, Stanley Tools, IBM, Visa and Merck Pharmaceutical. In 1999 she accepted a job offer from Bozell, an Omaha based ad agency. In late 2001, she and three colleagues purchased Bozell from its New York-based parent company, where she is currently the president.

She has served on the boards of the Omaha Children’s Museum, the Omaha YWCA, and she was chairman of the Alzheimer’s of the Midlands board for two years, serving a total of six years on the board. She is currently the membership director for Kick for the Cure, an organization that raises funds for breast cancer through soccer tournaments.

Donovan lives with her husband and three bulldogs; Roxi, Frank and Sadie (Sweet Pea).

Be sure to visit Donna’s website and Facebook page.  Check out her book trailer, book page, books for sale on Amazon.

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Guest Post: Silently Watching by Coral McCallum, Part 1

Pulling the laces tight on his well-worn running shoes, he glanced out of the patio doors at the reddening sky. Another beautiful summer evening for a long training run. With a nod to his wife, who was curled up on the opposite couch engrossed in a trashy TV soap opera, he slipped out of the front door, closing it quietly behind him so as not to disturb their sleeping children. Nestling his earphones into place, he pressed play on his iPod and set off down the hill at a leisurely pace. No sense in heading off too fast too soon since he had his sights set on at least twelve miles. As the hill began to level off he had a choice – go straight through more houses or take the right fork down a narrow single track road. The sight of a group of kids playing football in the middle of the road ahead made the decision an easy one and he turned off to his right into the immediate shade of the overhanging trees and into a cloud of midgies.

In front of him an elderly woman was walking an equally elderly looking terrier. He regularly ran passed them on his evening training runs and knew the dog wouldn’t give him a second glance, unlike the dog at the house next to the church. It would dearly love to sink its teeth into his tattooed calf! The old woman gave him a smile and a nod as he loped passed her towards the cemetery. Surrounded by crumbling dry stone walls, the village’s crowded cemetery lay a few yards further down the road to his left. At the first sight of the walls, he picked up his pace. Something about that short stretch of road sent icy chills to his very core, despite the warmth of the summer evening.

On the aged stone steps opposite the graveyard, the fallen angel sat hidden by the long evening shadows. She had heard his footsteps the moment he turned down the narrow road and had slipped out from the cool sanctuary of the ruined mausoleum that lay forgotten far back in the trees, to watch for him. For weeks she had observed him as he ran up and down the hill. It was the rich metallic scent of his blood mingled with sweat that had first attracted her. Resisting was becoming more of a challenge each time he was within her range. Once she had followed him as he ran down through the village and along the coast road towards the next town. Soundlessly she had flown just above the tree line until his route had reached the lighthouse. With no trees to shelter her and the risk that the lighthouse’s lamp would expose her, she had reluctantly flown home, tasting his scent in air as she retraced her path.

Tonight the air was perfectly still, no wind to rustle the leaves, and his musk was strong. It had been three days since she had last fed and the mere sight of the ripe veins pulsing in his neck as he ran passed her was almost too much. Licking her lips, she slipped further back into the shadows, deciding to wait for his return journey. She was patient; she could wait….for now.

Two hours later in the last dusky light of the day, he turned off the main street to run back up the hill, safe in the knowledge that a hot shower and a clean bed were waiting at the top. His muscles were screaming at him as he dug deep into the last of his reserves and powered his way passed the church. Loud rock music filled his head, keeping his mind from lingering on the hot pain that had crept into his right foot. Another blister was not what he needed.

The turn off to the single track cemetery road was just up ahead. If he took it the route was shorter but steeper; if he took the longer route he had to make it safely passed that nippy dog. Short and steep won. He turned off and was level with the gates of the cemetery when he spotted the old woman’s little dog sitting at the side of the road. There was no sign of its mistress. He paused to rub its ears, glancing round trying to spot the old woman in the fading light. A rustling from behind the walls of the cemetery suggested to him, in his tired state, that she may be on the far side paying her respects to a long gone loved one. Without a backward glance he picked up his pace once more and headed home.

In the graveyard the angel stood up, spreading her magnificent black purple tinged wings out behind her. Carefully she dabbed at her mouth with her long pale fingers, removing the last traces of blood from her full red lips. She had resisted the temptation of him for now. At her feet lay the drained corpse of the old woman, eyes vacantly staring up into the night sky.

Find Part 2 here.

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From author Coral McCallum:

I live on the West Coast of Scotland and am married with two student age children and am the human slave of four cats. I still work full time for a retail bank as a manager and write in my spare time. It’s my escape and my “me time.”

I’ve been writing stories/poems for a long as I can remember but only sat down to attempt to write my first novel 5 years ago. I write my first drafts long hand then use typing them up as my first re-draft.  My biggest fear as a writer is letting people read what I write so I started my blog at the tale end of 2013 to try to help me overcome that crippling fear. I set myself the challenge to post one “blog” a week for every week of 2014. I managed it and have been posting once a week ever since. I am still very nervous hitting “publish” on each blog though! I use my blog as a playground to try out short fiction pieces or to introduce characters that I am thinking of adding to my books. I’ve interviewed some of my characters to give insight into the books too. The blog is a good medium to connect with readers and give them an update on “book baby” progress.
Currently I am typing/editing/proofreading Book Baby 4 with the aim of publishing it in September. It is a standalone spin off from the Silver Lake series and features the band that appear as a “support act” for Silver Lake called After Life.  I’ve also included a few cameo appearances from other characters in the Silver Lake series so my readers will meet a few “old friends” in the pages.
Silently Watching as a short fiction series has been ongoing for 4 years. I let my dark angel out to play a couple of times a year and hope to add another installment at the end of the summer. I try to tie them into Pagan festivals.
So apart from working full time, writing and blogging, I love my rock music and run two social media fanpages supporting Myles Kennedy from Alter Bridge. I also write a music blog on occasion covering gig reviews and album releases –  The 525 to Glasgow. I use my own photos in my concert reviews and am a keen amateur photographer.
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Interested in having your work featured on this blog?  Contact me.

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Guest Flash Fiction: A Father by Scono Sciuto

Here’s a piece of flash fiction from fellow author Scono Sciuto.  Please note that it is a bit heavy and it may not be suited for all readers.  

© 2017

A Father

by Scono Sciuto

All rights reserved. 

 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

 

Printed in the United States of America.

 

Contact the author: SaviorSatin@icloud.com or authorsconosciuto@gmail.com

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the products of the author’s extremely vivid, and at time disturbing, imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

A Father

by Scono Sciuto

It is so close to the date, yet, your desire will not be denied. We make love, unbridled is our passion. To unimagined climax, we bring each other.

Behind closed lids, your beautiful eyes are now hidden. I lay next to you. My hand, upon the outline of our child. Eager to see the world, he presses against your belly. I kiss your cheek. My love, I proclaim. I am with my family.

We are not asleep long.

A contraction wakes you.

You feel a pop, then a trickle.

It is time. We rush to your house. When we are near, you phone your sister. Within the hour, she will be there.

I am like a kid on Christmas morning. I have never felt such joy. I have never been so happy. A life, one created by our love, will soon be here.

My breathing is rapid.

Our son is coming.

My heart races.

We near your home. Your contractions continue. Less than ten minutes after the last, arrives the next.

Your face turns sad.  As you place the next call, you tell me you love me. My excitation dims. At his work, your husband’s phone rings.

Of paternity, he is unaware. I am the father. However, he remains, your husband. My joy is gone, in its place, despair.

It is he, who will witness the birth of my son.

It is he, who will hold him when our son breathes his first.

It is he, who will sit next to you, to share the advent of the life which we created.

I stop in front of your house. There is little time. You aren’t sure when next we will speak. I reassure you, all is fine. Before darting from the car, you tell me you love me and kiss me. As I pull away, the headlights of your sister’s car greet me.

To the hospital, I hurry. I observe you arrive, close behind, so does he. Blissfully blind to the truth, in he rushes.

I leave. For hours, I drive. I am not by your side. I am not there to hold your hand. I am not there to tell you to push. I am not there to wipe the sweat from your brow or tears from your cheek.

I don’t know how you are doing. I don’t know if you have yet given birth. I don’t know if our son has seen his first sight.

What I do know —

It is he, who our son will cry out for in the night.

It is he, who our son will consider his father.

It is he, who my son will call daddy.

Unexpected and unplanned, but not unwelcomed, was his conception. You attempted to leave, but each time you tried, unforeseen events prevented you. Tears fill my eyes.

I will never know my son.

It is that truth, which leads me to the revolver.

It is that truth, I mutter as I press the barrel to my head

It is that truth, I repeat over and over, as I cock the hammer.

It is that truth, the last words I speak, before the explosion echoes.

The End

 

 Keep an eye on Scono’s Amazon Author Page for new releases.

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Ashley O’Melia is an independent author and freelancer from Southern Illinois.  She holds her Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University.  Her books include The Wanderer’s Guide to Dragon Keeping and The Graveside DetectiveHer short stories have been published in The Penmen Review, Paradox, and Subcutaneous.  Ashley’s freelance work has spanned numerous genres for clients around the world.  You can find her on Facebook and Amazon.

Interested in having your flash fiction or poetry featured here?  Contact me.

 

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Quixotic Undertakings or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write Nonfiction – Guest Post by Jennifer Kelly

by Jennifer Kelly

About five years ago, I was ready for a career change. I taught college writing classes, preparing students for both writing in college and for writing in the workplace, but, after more than a decade, though, I was ready to concentrate on my own writing career. That was when I decided to write my forthcoming book, my first attempt at nonfiction. After earning two degrees in English and years of teaching writing, I thought I had the right qualifications for that kind of project: I had conducted research, I had written many pages as both an instructor and a student, and I was a fan of the subject I had chosen. Surely, this would be easy, right?

Boy was I wrong!

Fiction vs. Nonfiction

At this point, outside of my academics, my writing had been focused on fiction. I had written a novel in middle school and had a long list of potential projects, but I needed something I could jumpstart this career with. The project that appeared to have the most potential was a book on America’s first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton. When I started in 2013, the 100th anniversary of his accomplishment was right around the corner – 2019 – so I had time to research and write, but I knew I could not take the whole six years to get it all done.

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Now, nearly five years later, the book is on schedule for a spring 2019 release from the University Press of Kentucky. With the manuscript done, I enter the final phase of the process where I contemplate revisions, marketing, and my future plans for both sides of my career, fiction and nonfiction. Here is what I learned about writing nonfiction after a lifetime of academic and fiction writing:

  • Academic background helps, but is not necessary – Though much of my academic writing technically was nonfiction, I did not have as much experience with the storytelling side of the genre. I was able to use my previous experience to conduct the research and to plan out the writing process for this type of book. However, you need not be an academic to learn and grow those skills. These can be picked up in other ways, such as writing for other publications in your field and researching the techniques of writing nonfiction.
  • You can be creative, just not in the same way – While all of the information I presented came from sources like newspaper articles and books, I still had leeway in how I wrote about the events in Sir Barton’s career. Nonfiction does not have to mean dry; while I must be objective, the language I use or the way I craft the timeline allows me to tell the story of this life in a way that is as engrossing as fiction can be.
  • Plan, plan, and plan – I know writers who use outlines in crafting their stories and others who might write in chunks they later weave together. For nonfiction, like the research papers you wrote as a student, you need a plan. Start with something simple and then layer in more information as necessary, but a plan is a must, especially if research is a big component of your project. Plan your research, your writing, and your search for an agent and a publisher.
  • Document your research and use tools to make citations easier – The two tasks that took the most time were not the actual writing, but the research and its accompanying documentation. Not only did I plan time to research, but I also kept tabs on the search terms, the libraries and other organizations I had searched, and the people I contacted. I also needed to be meticulous in keeping track of my sources; often, a paragraph might use five more sources and I needed to make sure that each one had its proper attribution. This can get unwieldy and complicated, especially as I had to create citations for each source.

One tool that can simplify that task is the citation generator that many word processors come with now. You can select your preferred citation style and then use the generator to create each citation; if you need to switch styles mid-project, your word processor can help you with that too. This tool can save so much time and grief! Even if you are using a limited number of sources, keep track of what you use to save you a step at the end.

  • Write a book proposal and query agents BEFORE you finish writing – I went to a writers’ workshop where I discovered that I need not finish the book before I started looking for an agent and a publisher. For that, I needed a book proposal and a list of possible agents. I crafted my book proposal and query letter and then searched for potential agents. By the time I finished my third draft, I had a publisher and a deadline in place.

Research your field. What companies publish books in your area of interest? What agents look for projects like yours? What should your book proposal include? Start querying while you are writing and you might find the right agent and publisher before you have typed that last word.

There you have it: a bit of what I learned writing my forthcoming book. If you want to hear more, I am happy to share my perspective on this process. My journey into writing Sir Barton’s story might have felt quixotic at times; nevertheless I found that I had the right stuff to finish it as time went on. Good luck on your writing journey!

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Jennifer Kelly’s first book Sir Barton: Conqueror of the Classics (tentative title) will be out in spring 2019 from the University Press of Kentucky. See more from Jennifer on the companion blog The Sir Barton Project (www.thesirbartonproject.com) and follow her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/jenniferkellywrites/

Interested in writing a guest post for my blog?  Contact me!

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The Pen and the Sword – Guest Post by Kevin Coolidge

by Kevin Coolidge

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, though I much prefer my Swiss army knife. Still, I could not help but be fascinated by a class called “The Pen and the Sword” taught by an Aikido master.

Truly, now was my chance to learn to kill a man with a ballpoint pen and land that job with the CIA. If he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword, then he who lives by the pen…? Writing is not for the weak. I must be strong. I must be prepared. I must be ready.

I was ready to become both master of the pen and the sword. Anxiously I awaited the sensei’s arrival. The room was filled with gymnastic mats-also called tatami-and nervous energy. Here I would forge the weapon of my mind, the strength of my spirit, the tool of my will.

A stout man came waddling into the room with a Grizzly Adams beard and blazing blue eyes, like a half-crazed Viking warrior who forgot where he put his bearskin. This could not be the teacher? Surely such a man was born to wield an ungainly battle-axe, not the eloquently crafted katana. Lost? Searching for a Wagner opera? A drumming circle?

His voice boomed, “You have to write a poem. You have one minute. Go!”

A mad rush of students surged to the back wall where a table sat loaded with clean, white paper and pencils. Quickly, I grabbed a pencil. “Only a minute to craft a poem of truth and beauty, and it has to be great!” I looked to the heavens for inspiration; I pleaded to my muse for guidance. I looked within myself, and found me.

There’s a saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.” And there I was. There’s some that might say I’m bull-headed or have a blatant disregard for authority figures. Maybe, maybe not. But I was in the moment, and that rebel in me grabbed that pencil and wrote four quick lines that spilled out of me.

I have to write a poem.

It has to be good.

No, I don’t.

No, it doesn’t.

I put my pencil down and smiled smugly like that smart-ass kid in geometry class that always finishes his test before anyone else. Don’t you just hate that? The berserker glared at me and snarled, “Are you done?”

“Yep.” I arrogantly replied.

“You now have thirty seconds!” roared the madman…

Aikido (aikidō) is translated as the “way of harmonious spirit,” and emphasizes joining with an attack and redirecting the attacker’s energy. Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  So this class was not to turn me into a lethal weapon, but it did make the art of poetry more accessible to me. The arts of war have strong traditions in many art forms, from poetry to calligraphy to flower arranging.

Martial arts are more than what you do, or do to someone. Martial arts can help build confidence, fitness, discipline and awareness of one’s surroundings. It is something that you feel. Being what you are. Being in the moment and it ain’t always pretty.

What is poetry? Is it more than just words? If it has no structure, is it poetry? If it doesn’t rhyme, is it poetry? If it’s in free form, or freestyle, is that a poem? Poetry, and discussions of it, have a long history, and poets and scholars will never agree on a definition.

For me, poetry is a means of expressing an idea, emotion, feeling or memory in a concise way. It may be graceful, beautifully expressed, or even brutal-an elegant arc of a well-honed blade or a swift body blow to the breadbasket.

No, my aikido teacher was not a tyrant, or a bully, but a kind, gentle man with lessons to teach and a wicked sense of humor. The real power and truth of a poem is the honesty and truth to it. You can dress it up, flesh it out, or make it dance the salsa, but if it isn’t real it really isn’t anything at all. What is poetry? All I can say is, “You’ll know it when you feel it…”

For further reading check out, Sword and Brush by Dave Lowry: The way of the brush reflects the strategic principles of the sword; Lowry is master of both.

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury: A celebration of the act of writing, by a master storyteller. I am unaware of his prowess in the deadly arts, but I don’t recommend meeting him in a dark alleyway.

Kevin resides in Wellsboro, just a short hike from the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. When he’s not writing, you can find him at From My Shelf Books & Gifts, an independent bookstore he runs with his lovely wife, several helpful employees, and two friendly bookstore cats, Huck & Finn. He’s recently become an honorary member of the Cat Board, and when he’s not scooping the litter box, taking out the garbage, or feeding Gypsy her tuna, he’s writing more stories about the Totally Ninja Raccoons.

 

 

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Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone – Guest Post by J.S. Frankel

by J.S. Frankel

It’s easy to write what you know. As a guy, white and cisgender straight, that’s what I started writing roughly six years ago because it was what I knew best. I wrote about white dudes and dudettes, introduced outlandish (at times) situations, had fight scenes and romances and it was all very good.

After all, I had to go with what I knew and pen a story about it. That’s what the experts say, and who are we to question them?

But is it the best way to improve? It depends. It’s my contention that a writer can improve within the genre they’ve chosen, working on narrative, dialogue, action, and so on, without having to switch to another genre.

At the same time, though, some writers can become complacent, coasting along on the formula that got them noticed in the first place. So, it depends.

In my case, not only did I want to improve my narrative technique, I also wanted to grow as a writer. For me, that meant stepping out of my comfort zone. It meant writing about the unfamiliar.

In the past, I’ve written lesfic as well as explored transgender issues. I did this because those two areas are unfamiliar to me, because there are people who are in the LGBT category, and because they have their own stories to tell, that is, the characters that I wanted to write.

If you are going to step outside your comfort zone, how you approach it is up to you, but this is what I’ve learned.

1. If you don’t know–ask. With the transgender crowd, I asked a few people to tell me their experiences. They were more than willing, and I incorporated their ideas.

2. Do your research. I cannot stress this enough. If you’re going to write about something unfamiliar to you, research it first and then research some more. Then ask if you are truly stumped. A wise person admits their ignorance; a fool does not, and thereby exposes everything.

3. Expect to be called on it. In fact, even if you’re writing about something you know, chances are at least one person will call you on it. When writing about a different orientation, the chances of messing up are doubly so, so expect criticism.

That’s what happened to me. Some of it was justified; much of it was not. It had nothing to do with the style or the narrative. Some people simply couldn’t accept a straight guy writing about lesbians. That’s how it goes.

4. Make the characters real. An excellent novel I read, Crimson Fire, had a black lesbian as the main character. The way the writer, Mirren Hogan, approached it, was nothing short of incredible, and yet it was so naturally and simply done, I had to keep reading.

Her main character said that she preferred women and that was that. No muss, no fuss, no much ado about anything; it was stated clearly and it is to Ms. Hogan’s credit that she not only created a very fine novel, it also showed her main character in a very positive light. The orientation of the character turned out to be unimportant. It was the character, what she did and how she conquered, that was the most compelling part of the story.

To me, that’s how you should portray someone who is different from the default, not dramatizing, but simply showing.

Even if you do everything right, see point #3. Sooner or later, someone will take offense at what you write. It doesn’t matter how good it is or how sympathetic the characters are or how well it’s written…at least one person will always find fault with what you do.

That’s the risk every writer must take. It is then up to the writer to either accept that criticism–if justified–or discard it. In any case, keep writing. That’s been my mantra from day one. To quote Captain Picard: “Make it so.”

J.S. Frankel was born in Toronto, Canada and grew up there, receiving his tertiary education from the University of Toronto and graduating with a double major in English Literature and Political Science.

After working at Gray Coach Lines for a grand total of three years, he came to Japan at the age of twenty-six and has been there ever since, teaching English to any and all students who enter his hallowed school of learning.

In 1997, he married Akiko Koike. He, his wife and his two children, Kai and Ray, currently reside in Osaka. His hobbies include weight training, watching movies when his writing schedule allows, and listening to various kinds of music.

His novels, all for the YA set, include Twisted, Lindsay Versus the Marauders and it’s sequels, Lindsay, Jo, and the Tree of Forever, and Lindsay, Jo and the Well of Nevermore, all courtesy of Regal Crest Enterprises. He has also written the Catnip series (five novels), Mr. Taxi, The Titans of Ardana and its sequel, The Titans of Ardana 2: Battlefield, along with Picture (Im)perfect and more novels, courtesy of DevineDestinies.com.

Future projects for Devine Destinies include the final novel in the Titans trilogy, the final novel in the Just Another Quiet… trilogy, The Undernet, the re-release of Star Maps, and more. He is also the author of The Menagerie and The Nightmare Crew trilogy, all courtesy of Finch Books.

You can find J.S. Frankel on Amazon and Twitter.

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Guest Post: Review of Better than Before by Vijay Rajamani

by Vijay Rajamani

Habits shape our existence and future.  Scientists claim that we repeat about 45 percent of our behavior almost daily.

Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. By changing our habits, we can change our lives. But is it easy to change habits? No.

Gretchen Rubin’s book, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, addresses the question:  How do we change our habits?

There are numerous categories of books on habits. Most are interesting reads that give you great insights on habits. However, I found some limitations such as:

(a) Many books train you to intellectually appreciate the science or art of habit formation. They talk about how the brain makes neural connections, which parts of the brains are involved in habit formation process, etc. You may not connect well with these if you don’t enjoy authors who don the persona of a professor.

(b) Most don’t consider the role of your own personality in building and sustaining habits. Unfortunately, no one size fits all — especially when it comes to habits.

(c) Some try to tell you the best habits to build, which may not resonate with your own ideas of good habits.

(d) Few others get in to research findings and reel out statistics of behavioural experiments, which are insightful for academic discussions, but may not be easy to adopt in your own life.

These make you treat the science of habits as an intellectual read, rather than something easy enough to try out yourself and make remarkable changes.

However, Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before is a refreshingly different take on habit formation and change. “Better than before” is a transformational state that we all seek to achieve.

An epiphany that Gretchen had during a chance conversation with a friend is the starting point of this book. Her friend struggles with sustaining her exercise habit post-marriage.

That gets Gretchen to ponder over many interesting questions about habits, such as:  It is understandable why it’s hard to form a habit we don’t enjoy, but why is it hard to form a habit we do enjoy? Why is it that sometimes people acquire habits overnight, and sometimes they drop longtime habits just as abruptly?

Gretchen’s sister Elizabeth, nudges her to be a guinea pig herself (Gretchen) to try out various habit formation, habit change strategies, and share her insights to the world. Gretchen picks up the challenge and the result is Better than Before.

Gretchen divides the book in to 5 sections.

Section I: “Self-Knowledge,” explores the two strategies that help us to understand ourselves.

Gretchen ties habit formation to your personality type. Gretchen divides humans in to 4 personality types (or tendencies), based on how one meets (or doesn’t meet) internal and external expectations. (1) Upholder (meet both internal and external expectations) (2) Obliger (meets external but not internal expectations) (3) Questioner (meets internal but not external expectations) and (4) Rebel (meets neither external nor internal expectations). If you are interested in taking her quiz to find out your tendency, here’s the link.

This is a game-changing insight because each personality type has a different worldview and different ways of solving problems. What works for one type may not work for another. You need to understand what type you are and adopt different strategies based on your personality type.

Forinstance if you are a questioner, you won’t do anything unless you have convinced yourself that a habit is of value before you pick it up. If you try to start a habit before you have passed that test, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Similarly, if you are an obliger you need someone that you are accountable for. If you don’t find yourself accountable to anything or anyone for a habit, then you may not be successful at that. She also underlines certain other personality differences such as lark vs. owl and sprinter vs marathoner that greatly influence how we form habits.

Section II: “Pillars of Habits,” examines the strategies of Monitoring, Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability.

As for monitoring, Gretchen talks about her experiences with monitoring her health using fitness bots, and how it helped her use the data to get insights to change habits.

She talks about the foundational habits of sleep, eating and drinking right, and uncluttering, and how she tried to embrace them.

In scheduling, she describes her experience of trying to schedule things, and offers helpful suggestions on how you can be smart about them if you factor in your personality types (such as owls vs. larks).

Using accountability as a strategy, she argues that you can strengthen your habit-building if you make yourself accountable to someone (even yourself) for your actions. That improves your self-command.

Section III: “The Best Time to Begin” considers the importance of the time of beginning when forming a habit, as explored in the strategies of First Steps, Clean Slate, and Lightning Bolt.

Section IV: “Desire, Ease, and Excuses” considers our desires to avoid effort and experience pleasure—which play a role in the strategies of Abstaining, Convenience, Inconvenience, Safeguards, Loophole-Spotting, Distraction, Reward, Treats, and Pairing.

Section V: “Unique, Just like Everyone Else” investigates the strategies that arise from our drive to understand and define ourselves in the context of other people, in the strategies of Clarity, Identity, and Other People.

Gretchen writes most of the book in first person, talking about her own struggles in picking up habits and how she goes about approaching them. She also narrates how she influences her friends and family with these strategies and documents their success or failure with those strategies. These are almost in story format, so your attention is certainly hooked.

I could feel totally connected with the way she narrates her strategies and experiments. Each sentence in the book is packed with wisdom. These stem from Gretchen’s own experiences, as well as the research material that she has gone through in arriving at these conclusions (if you read through the appendix).

Gretchen has taken care not to bore you through all the statistics and to keep it interesting. She makes the point that if something works for you, it is as significant or more significant than the insights from research and data.

The way she has interspersed some of her “Secrets of Adulthood” as part of the habit-formation strategies, blends naturally and enhances the narrative. The one I particularly liked was “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”

The book takes a human view of habit formation. It talks about potential traps that you may face and what you can do about them.

It doesn’t offer iron-clad guarantees on what strategies will stick and what will not. It depends on you and your tendency. This is not also a prescriptive attempt to define what habits are right for you.

Think of it as a catalogue of strategies that Gretchen picked to try certain habits, and her experiences with those.

Most of the strategies are so simple that you can adopt them very easily and quickly. It is totally up to you to decide and adopt the habits that are important to you, and the strategy you think will work best for you.

You may not particularly enjoy this book: (a) If you want a more analytical narrative that focuses more on research findings, data, graphs and ties everything back to the statements; (b) If you want the organization of the book to be bulletized list of things to do; (c) If you need a list of actions or habits all outlined clearly for you to extract the summary; (d) If you think first-person narrative of personal experiences is not conducive to a subject like this.

I found this book to be a fascinating read. The narrative is simple, concise, and well-organized. No wonder it is a NY Times bestseller.

I am actively trying out some of the strategies (like scheduling, monitoring etc.). I find that some strategies work and some don’t. I hope you find it enjoyable too.

This article is by Vijay Rajamani, a blogger based out of Bangalore, India. He is a productivity enthusiast, who writes about Productivity topics in his blog My Productivity Lab.

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