Capitalism vs. Socialism

The recent problem with capitalism is exactly because it is not being allowed to run its normal course. “Too big to fail” policies apply artificial pressure to the system in ways that do not allow capitalism to work in its most truly democratic nature – letting consumers decide who succeeds and who fails.

Perhaps well-meaning, but misguided politicians try to steady the ship, and end up capsizing it in the process. They pick winners and losers, rather than letting those who based their business on sound economic principles float to the top and letting those who took foolish risks fail.

It is evolution of business, but you have to let it do its job without unnecessary meddling, or you can’t very well blame capitalism itself when it fails to produce the kinds of results that it has produced in the past – when allowed to work as designed. Injecting government control causes capitalism to fail in the same ways that socialism and communism fail to produce sustainable economic growth and development.

When capitalism was allowed to work as designed, it led to the alleviation of more poverty and human suffering than any other system of government in the world’s history. When America was actually capitalist (not our current “socialist light” system), the wealth that it generated for its citizens was the envy of the world.

Now, you can argue whether that is a good thing or not in our consumption-driven society, but it’s difficult to make a good case against capitalism’s effectiveness in generating wealth. No other system even comes close, because capitalism is the extension of choice, which works in concert with people’s ambition to succeed and their “pursuit of happiness.”

Socialism limits those choices and tries to force people to act in ways that they don’t see as working in their best interest. It demotivates them and deflates their ambitions to be and do more. People have less incentive to produce and excel, so they do less, produce less, and become less in the process.

The size of the pie shrinks as government seeks to distribute it more evenly. This is an acceptable outcome to many, especially those who take a scarcity worldview, where when someone else gets more, that somehow must mean that I get less.

Personally, I believe that we must learn to be happy with less, because I’m not convinced that the pursuit of material things is a cause that’s worthy of our blood, tears, and sweat. Happiness is worth it – and it has seldom been my observation that more wealth produces more happiness. It may produce more comfort, but that’s not at all the same thing as happiness. In fact, the people who are most comfortable in life are often the most miserable, because they are not pursuing a dream.

A very wise man I know – a simple rancher named Dencil “Red” Rippey – said one of the most profound things that I have ever heard. “The happiest people in life are those who have a goal, and who get a little closer to that goal each day.”

I’m working to transform my life into one of happiness, where I have a sufficiently big goal to drive me to strive each day to get a little closer to attaining my dream.

Sustainability

My lifestyle overhaul will revolve around the acronym SHIP (Sustainable, Health-Promoting, Interest-Free, and Permanent).  Many of this blog’s posts will focus on the principles contained within the SHIP approach.

We’ll begin with Sustainable – reducing the amount spent every month on things whose benefits are temporary.  Examples of this include:

  • Heating
  • Electricity
  • Transportation
  • Insurance
  • Entertainment
  • Food
  • Rent

I need some of these things to sustain life, such as heating and food, but even with these, there are many ways in which we can reduce their drain on our monthly finances.

Staying Warm and Out of the Weather

I spend about $400 per month to keep my house warm.  It’s 4600 square feet – far more than my wife and the three children that live at home really need, so we’re downsizing to a home that’s less than half its size.  We’ll have to get rid of a lot of accumulated stuff that we don’t need, but I think it will feel great when we’re done.

We’re going through a bankruptcy, so in the short term, we’ll have to rent.  I’ll work to get into my own home as soon as possible, because renting feels like flushing money down the toilet, with no long-term gain.

However, this time around, we’re not getting a huge mortgage.  Instead, we’ll build one step at a time, paying as we go.  I have a somewhat unusual plan to make this happen that I won’t go into now, but let’s just say that my goal is to never pay another dime in mortgage interest if there’s any way around it.

As long as I must rent, I hope to find a rental that has a wood-burning stove, since I’m moving to an area with plenty of forest nearby.  If I can’t reduce my heating bill by burning wood, I can at least lower the thermostat in the winter.  Besides, cuddling with the missus is my favorite kind of warmth.

The home I plan to build will make use of passive solar heating to reduce the amount I spend to keep my family warm.

Electricity

Maybe I’m the only one who can’t seem to get their teens to turn off the television when they’re done watching it, but it’s a bit frustrating.  Walking around the whole house each night to turn off lights and appliances can save good money on your electric bill.  Until I can figure out how to get the kids to buy into the idea of conservation, I guess I’ll just have to police the house each night.

Solar panels have become more efficient in recent years, so when I buy my next home, I’ll purchase some as another way to reduce my electric bill.

Food

I plan to plant a garden and I’d like to raise a couple of cows so I can produce much of my own food.  As long as I’m in a rental, the cows are probably out of the question, but I can grow some of my own vegetables, even if it’s just in containers that I can take with me when I buy my own home.

In the meantime, I’ll economize.  First, I’m cutting down on waste.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that at least a third of the perishable food we buy gets thrown away.  We buy too much bread and it molds.  Vegetables and meat don’t keep long, either.

To reduce waste, we’ll plan meals well ahead of time, so we shop for just the things we need for the meals we planned.  When we buy extra, it will be non-perishable food with a long shelf life.

Frozen foods?  Don’t get me started on how much money has gone to waste when past freezers broke down or when a child tripped over the cord powering the freezer, causing all the food in it to spoil.  We’re going to keep the amount of food that we keep in the freezer to a minimum to prevent these losses.  Besides, fresh meats and vegetables almost always taste better and are better for your body than frozen.

Entertainment

Our cable television and internet bill weighed in at over $300 per month.  We called our cable provider and said that we would keep our current internet service (which I need for my work at home job), but we were getting rid of cable altogether if they couldn’t come up with a really great deal.  We axed three of our five premium services and lost scores of channels that we didn’t watch anyway.  We dropped our bill to $110.  It’s still not cheap, but putting an extra $200 each month in our pockets feels great.

Next Steps

For me, the biggest challenge may be to get the rest of my family to really buy in on how aggressively I’m going after our budget, but they’re coming around.  As they see how many more fun things we can do as a family and the permanent things we’re able to buy by shedding wasteful expenditures that bleed our budget dry each month, I think they’ll be happy that we made some short-term sacrifices to make things better over the long haul.

Besides, when I feel like I’m making progress, I’m not such a grumpy bear, which they should appreciate.  See?  Everybody wins.

Life Overhaul

Everything is about to change for me.  Not because I recently filed bankruptcy. Not because I’m moving 500 miles.  It’s not because my old job vanished and I started working in a different role.

No, everything is about to change because I re-evaluated my life.  I decided to live purposely, focused on what’s most important to me and my family.  I’ll no longer settle for choosing from the limited, multiple-choice options that have enslaved me in the past.  I’m finding that when you open your mind to a wide variety of options, many of life’s questions become open-ended, with countless choices.

For example, rather than asking whether I want to rent a home or buy one, instead I’ll ask, “How am I going to provide safe shelter for my family?”  While that might include renting or buying a house, I might cast a wider net and consider living in a Recreational Vehicle for a time, staying with relatives a few months to save up money, or any number of other options that fall outside the traditional “Rent or buy?” question.

My new-found freedom started with what appeared to be a series of unfortunate events.  Due to a number of poorly made choices, unemployment, and just plain bad luck, I found myself increasingly herded into deciding between more and more limiting and undesirable options.

Liberation from what was becoming a life of quiet desperation was born in the most unlikely of places.  Sitting in a bankruptcy lawyer’s office, I stared at my budget.  The Excel spreadsheet stared back at me.  (I could swear that it sneered back.)

My monthly bottom line showed nearly $2,000 in the red.  I took a chainsaw to my budget.  Cable television would have to go.  Entertainment budget?  Yeah right.  I deleted that line item, too.  Soon $150 in school lunch for the kids got the axe, along with a spendy phone plan, and several other items we had convinced ourselves that we “couldn’t live without.”

If you’re thinking, “These are certainly first world problems,”  then you came to the same conclusion that I did.  For example, my family could live without HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, music on demand, and the rest of the cable television lineup.  I did it as a kid, who grew up poor, so I know it can be done.

I asked myself how I had arrived at the point where so much of my discretionary income silently bled away, month after month.  When I graduated from college and got a job as a newly-minted technician for Hewlett Packard, I felt like I had really arrived.  My income doubled overnight when I went from working as a night janitor to debugging hard drives.  Working the night shift, I earned an additional 15% differential, bringing me to almost $17 per hour.  I decided that I deserved a reward for all my hard work, so I ordered cable television, complete with HBO.

So it began.  Since then, I added premium movie channels and 4 DVRs (you sure wouldn’t want to miss a minute of mind-numbing network TV).  Of course, we “needed” a television in the living room and bedroom, but wouldn’t it be nice to have one in my office?  The kids don’t always want to watch what I do, so they’d need televisions in their rooms too… and so it went.

When my wife asked me which cable television service I wanted, she mentioned every available option except one… “None of the Above.”

Desperately wrangling my budget numbers in a bankruptcy lawyer’s office, and after deleting one line item after another, I finally did it.  I managed to shrink my expenses until they were less than my income… $16 per month less, to be exact.

Depression broke over me like a wave.  If I were a drinking man, I would probably have engaged in an extended group therapy session with Jack Daniels, Jose Quervo, and Captain Morgan.  Since I don’t drink (and now couldn’t afford to take up the habit) I had to face the hard truth, sober – something would have to change.

I decided to try something different.  Rather than starting from my current budget and cutting things, how about starting from the point of basic needs?  What do you need to survive?  Here’s what I came up with:

  • Sustenance – Healthy Food and Clean Drinking Water
  • Taxes – Pay federal, state, and local taxes and licenses (Don’t get on the wrong side of the law.)
  • Shelter – Safe, warm Protection from the Elements
  • Transportation – Reliable, Insured Vehicle
  • Sanitation – Keep clean to stay Healthy

We could add in health care and many other line items, but I decided to at least start with the ones above, which I refer to with the acronym STSTS (Sustenance, Taxes, Shelter, Transportation, Sanitation).

This entry is the first in a series of blog posts I’m going to write as I begin my life transformation.  I’m pretty flexible on most things, especially since I haven’t worked out all the details of my future lifestyle, but the following are the guiding principles I’m working with:

  • Sustainable: Reduce the constant flow of money for goods and services I can provide myself (or do without) and drastically reduce waste and overspending.
  • Healthy: Lose the flab, get in shape, and eat health-promoting foods.
  • Interest-Free: Unless there is absolutely no way to buy “must have” things with cash, do no incur debt.
  • Permanence: Spend most of my money on things that have lasting value – things I can enjoy both now and well into the future.  Money spent each month should provide a lasting lifestyle upgrade of some kind. I’ll delay gratification and spend a minimum amount of on momentary entertainment or recreation.  Those things will come as I achieve financial independence.

Acronyms help me to remember lists of items.  When I refer to the term SHIP, I’m talking about the four line items above: Sustainable, Healthy, Interest-Free, and Permanence, which I use as the foundational principles directing my lifestyle transformation.

I’ll document my journey to self-sufficiency in this blog.  I’m very open to ideas and suggestions, so feel free to contact me with your feedback.  I can’t wait to start making my life SHIP-shape, and I hope that you begin to catch the vision of the Life Overhaul I have set in motion.  If not, feel free to get a chuckle out of my misadventures.  If it turns out that I’m crazy, someone should at least get a good laugh out of it.

Why Join a Writing Group?

What are the Benefits?

It depends.  The most complete answers I give my clients in my day job as an online optimization consultant often start with, “it depends.”  What you want out of your writing has a lot to do with what you’ll gain by joining a writing group.

Do you write for fun, as a creative outlet?  Or do you want to get published?

Writing for Enjoyment

If you write strictly for the enjoyment of it, one benefit you’ll find in a writer’s group is friendship among others with similar interests.  Hobbyists, from photographers to sports fans enjoy getting together with those who like the same things, and writing is no exception.  You’ll share books you like and writing you’re doing with those like you.  That alone may be enough reason for you to join a writing group.

Keeping You Motivated

We’re lazy.  Humans, left to lounge in our comfort zone, seldom achieve much.  Life happens.  The dishes need washing.  Kids need tending.  And your favorite TV show won’t watch itself, now will it?  Both time wasters and good things alike get in the way of writing.  Some can’t or shouldn’t be avoided.  But if you want the motivation to carve out even a half hour here and there when you have time, a writing group can help you spend the time writing.  You encourage each other.  If you know you’ll need to account for whether you wrote or not, or if you are scheduled to read something to the group that you wrote, this positive “peer pressure” can motivate you to make the time for writing.

And you will need to make the time for writing, if it’s important to you.  When I tell my friends that I’m a writer, I often hear, “Oh, I could never find the time to write.”  Few of us find the time to write.  We make the time to write.

Improving Your Work

If you’re serious about making your work the best it can be, with the goal of getting published, a critique group is critical.  Why?  Simple.  You’re often too close to your work to have an unbiased viewpoint of your work.  If something doesn’t make sense, you may not discover it, because you know far more about the story than your reader, and you may not have clearly conveyed it on paper the way you understand it in your mind.

Different writers have different strengths.  Some will be great at plotting, others at finding inconsistencies, while others know grammar rules like a school teacher.  Each writer in a group brings their own unique talents, background, and life lessons.  You can benefit from all of these.  For example, in our writer’s group, we have a man who serves part-time in the National Guard.  He can find problems with out stories related to military issues, such as chain of command, that the rest of us would not.

Increase Your Chances of Getting Published

Studies show that if you regularly participate in an active critique group, you have a much greater chance of getting published than if you’re going it alone.  Famous writers such as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were well-known for making their work better by bouncing their work off of other writers, but we can find more modern examples as well.

For example, Brandon Sanderson broke out as a writer along with others from his writing group, such as Dan Wells, Robison Wells, and Howard Taylor.  Simply put, you grow your skills as a group far better than you could do so on your own.

Finding a Writing Group

So, where do you find a writing group?  If you’re taking a creative writing class, just ask your classmates if they’re part of a writing group.  If not, see if others in the class are interested and start your own.

Writing conventions are another good place to seek other writers who want to improve their work.  Some conventions will even have classes dedicated to running a good writing group, and you can often find others seeking to get together with other writers.

Do a quick search online, and you’ll find local writing groups.  You’ll also find many opportunities to join a remote writing group, where you use technology like Google Hangouts to conference not only by voice, but also with video.

You’ll find many options out there to work with other writers to improve your work and to motivate you to keep writing.  Just make sure that before you sign up, you know what you’re trying to accomplish and find a group with similar goals who are willing to make and keep a commitment to dedicate time to honing their craft.

 

Showing Emotion: Annoyance

You get annoyed, and so do your characters. When they’re peeved, how will they act? Will they hide their annoyance, or let it show. What’s going on inside their head?

Learn How your Characters Can Better Show their Annoyance

Showing Emotion: Anger

Actions Reveal Anger

When anger bubbles just below the surface, how do your characters act?  Will they slam doors and rage, or will they take a defensive position and hold their tongues?

Thoughts and Feeling

What goes on in your character’s mind when they feel anger?  Do they think of revenge, or just feel hurt?  Will anger lead to depression or feelings of helplessness?

Click the link below to explore different ways your characters might react to feelings of anger and how they reveal their anger without saying a word.

Effectively Show Your Characters’ Anger

Showing Emotion: Amusement

In the first lesson in The Fictional Character’s Guide to Acting, we tackle our first emotion, Amusement.

You’ll learn how to teach your characters how to show this emotion in their body language, their actions, their thoughts, and the related emotions they might feel.

Learn How To Make Your Characters Effectively Show Amusement

The Fictional Character’s Guide to Acting

As a writer, you hear it everywhere.  “Show, don’t tell.”  Don’t tell me that it was a beautiful sunset.  Describe the colors, the chill of the air, scents, and let me hear the crickets chirp.  Most of us get that, and work the senses our characters experience into our writing.

Strong Characters Should Communicate Without Saying a Word

I write contemporary, and one of the things I enjoy most about the genre is describing interesting people, things, and places.  But when it came to showing emotion, I struggled.  My characters seemed to shrug and nod a lot.  They just didn’t know how to act, so before my readers boo’ed them off the stage, I took action.

I realized that the reason my characters didn’t express outwardly what they experienced on the inside stemmed from one thing.  I don’t pay enough attention to the body language of those around me.

Assumptions and Biases – Sometimes Good Things

Why?  It’s simple.  Your mind does a lot of pattern matching in the background.  You don’t think, “That person lowered their head, so maybe they’re sad.”  Your brain picks up on signals it has noticed before, and makes a lot of assumptions based on the “tells” of those around you.  And most of the time, the pattern matching proves correct, so the mind confirms the assumptions, helping you pick up on more and more subtle cues as you learn and develop.

This saves a lot of thinking and helps us to deal with the barrage of data with which our mind must cope, without suffering from information overload.

However, for writers, since so much of this processing happens at the subconscious level, this can prevent us from accurately describing body language, tone of voice, and other ways in which we pick up on what others feel and think.  Those around us communicate an incredible amount of information, all without saying a word.  Some body language experts estimate that as much of 80% of all communication happens non-verbally.

To cope with my own deficiencies in describing non-verbal cues, I researched how to “show, not tell” how my characters might let you, the reader know what they’re thinking and feeling, from a variety of sources, including body language experts and authorities on effective public speaking.

I have compiled this research into 50+ categories of emotion, from love to hate, from confidence to fear.  I will release these emotion-specific articles frequently, until you have them all.  These entries include body language, broken down by parts of the body.  Beyond this, they also describe common reactions to emotion, how they affect how we interact with those around us, as well as thoughts and feelings that often accompany the core emotion.  We also cross-reference related emotions and words one frequently associates with the emotion.

Begin to Teach Your Characters How to Project Their Thoughts and Emotions

Get started by visiting The Fictional Character’s Guide to Acting or go directly to the first emotion we’ll explore – Amusement.

Building Your Writing Web Site

There is a lot of advice out there about how to build an effective writer’s web site or blog.  The one piece of advice that’s hardest to argue is that you need one.

As publishing changes in ways that give writers more control over how their content is sold and distributed, that control comes at a cost.  A traditional publisher or agent may handle much of the promotion of your books, but you’re in charge of your personal brand, and your web site is a big part of that.

I am a full-time senior online marketing consultant, working with Fortune 500 companies, but before I turned to the marketing “dark side,” I was a web developer.  I started doing professional web design and programming in 1994.  At one point, it was difficult to build web sites, but it’s not that challenging now, if you have some idea of how to start.

How to Get Started – Choose Your Style

My recommendation is to select a pre-built template from a site like www.templatemonster.com and then have a designer customize it.  They have templates for both standard web sites as well as WordPress templates.  A good template will cost around $100 and you should be able to get it customized for a few hundred dollars more.  Using a prebuilt template can save a lot on the design cost and you can browse many designs before deciding on the one you like.

Even if you decide to have a designer build your site from scratch, you can save a lot of time and expense by exploring designs on Template Monster, then using them to show your designer which aspects of each you like and what you don’t.

Learn the Basics of Content Creation

Making frequent changes to your web site can make its upkeep far more expensive over the long run than the initial cost of creating it in the first place.  Unless you have a bottomless budget, I would suggest learning to create much of your own web content.

A blog is one way to create content without a lot of knowledge of web development, but it has limitations.

If you decide to go with a standard web site, you can pick Dreamweaver up for about $400.  There are plenty of tutorials on how to do basic content changes or you can get a little help from anyone who has used Dreamweaver before.  If you have a teenager, chances are great that they or one of their friends can show you the fundamentals.

If you have a template from which to work, it’s not hard to build new pages or modify existing ones.  Dreamweaver has its own templates from which to build pages.  Certain areas of the page can be made editable, while the layout, navigation, and other common areas can be locked, protecting you from messing things up.

Without some ability to do your own changes, you’ll always be at the mercy of either your budget or the availability of someone who works on the cheap. Dreamweaver isn’t much more difficult than formatting content in Word, once you use it a bit.

If you know someone with even a basic level of understanding of Dreamweaver, they’ll be able to shorten your learning curve enough that you should be able to pick up the basics in a few hours.

Hosting Options

Web hosting with a service like bluehost.com costs between $5 and $10 per month, with more features than you’re likely to ever use, including one-click install of WordPress.

Do It Yourself When You Can

Leave the programming and major design changes to professional web developers, but you should be able to make most updates yourself with a little training and practice.

Writing Style – Asset or Liability?

In a recent Writer’s Digest magazine, one expert said the following: “Novels – and especially screenplays – don’t sell because of writing voice.  But they do get rejected because of writing voice.  What sells are great stories, told well.”

While I have never been an editor, I have certainly been a reader.  What I can tell you is that for me, novels get set aside most often because their style is boring.  Maybe I’m not a typical reader, but I’m one who samples.  A lot.  In a typical trip to the library, I’ll pick up 5-10 books, with the best of intentions to read them all, cover to cover.

However, out of a pile of books, at most one in five keeps my interest. It’s not that the story doesn’t grab me, though that’s often the case.  Nor is it that the story has poor grammar or spelling, or any of the other things that make a manuscript “wrong.”  It’s just that there’s not enough that’s “right” about the books to get me to keep reading.

I mostly read contemporary and high fantasy, with some science fiction thrown in.  Since a typical epic fantasy can easily weigh in at 200,000 words or more, when I decide to read one of these monsters, it’s a big commitment.  After all, every hour I spend reading one book is an hour I can’t spend reading another.  It’s 60 minutes during which I’m not writing, spending time with my children, keeping up with my friends on Facebook, and so on.

As a kid, I recall getting bored easily.  Okay, I would never admit this to my parents, who saw an admission of boredom as an invitation for them to assign me more chores, but I would complain about boredom to myself, anyway.  During my free time for the last twenty years, I can’t remember getting bored too often.  There’s just so much to do.  So many things demand my attention.  It’s like walking through a carnival and hearing dozens of barkers calling out to you to try your luck at this or that game.

Reading isn’t like that.  It beacons quietly, usually without demand or timeline, and perhaps that’s its charm.  It’s an invitation to slow down and leave the world to itself for a few hours (it will get along fine without you for a little while).  It’s a golden ticket to enter another world where you suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride.  You accept made-up characters and even find yourself caring about them.  We worry that something bad is going to happen to these people that never were, and if their struggles are without purpose, we might just pitch the book across the room, never to open it again.

So, why do we do it?  For me, it’s the entire experience.  And a big part of that for me is the voice in which the book is told.  I’m not talking about an actual narrator’s voice here.  I’m talking about the soul of the book that leaks from the mind of the writer onto the pages and into my mind and heart.  It sets a mood, but most importantly, it sets my mood while I read.

Again, I’m probably not a typical reader, but I want someone to tell me a tale with the flair of a skilled showman.  I want unexpected turns of phrase, quotable lines, and words put together in creative ways that prevent me from skimming, for fear of what I might miss.

To me, those things are what I consider the style and voice of the book.  It is what makes me buy books written by the same author again and again.  It’s also what makes me avoid works by authors if their style just doesn’t call out to me in a voice that’s all its own.  I know it’s not fair, but if an author’s style doesn’t excite me, I probably won’t pick up another by the same author.

So whose style has grabbed me lately?  I have really enjoyed “Return to Exile” by E. J. Patten, a middle school book that catches me off guard with interesting word combinations I find myself wishing I had created.  Another author that I enjoy is P. R. Frost, whose style is fresh and spunky (did I really just use the word “spunky”?)

While some Writer’s Digest contributors may claim that a unique voice or style is a downside, just two pages later in the same magazine, another author, Steven Harper, said the following.

“Almost every set of submission guidelines from agents and editors says they’re looking for authors with a strong voice, a unique voice or a powerful voice. …  And publishing pros of all sorts are fond of advising writers that a good voice will grab their eye above anything else.  …  A fascinating voice can get the reader to overlook other problems, or even fail to notice things like cliches entirely.  The unique voice overcomes the tired archetypes.”

So, it seems that even writing experts don’t agree on the importance of voice and style.  Mr. Harper’s statement rang true to me, making me more likely to read his articles in the future, and creating a readership is what sells books and pays the bills for professional writers everywhere.