5 Steps Toward Healthy Sweets Success

“Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.”  — Erma Bombeck

Seizing every opportunity to dive into dessert isn’t always ideal, particularly if you struggle with poor body image, portion control, intense cravings or diabetes. But I value Bombeck’s point. Sugary sweets, while unnecessary from a nutritional standpoint, fit well within an overall healthy diet. And depriving ourselves can have serious negative consequences.

If you already have a super fabulous healthy relationship with food and your body, feel free to skip down to the chocolate cake recipe. If not, please hang with me as we explore healthy ways to satisfy our sweet teeth—strategies I consider delicious win-wins. ;)

Five Steps Toward Healthy SWEETS Success

1. Get rid of the guilt. Feeling guilty over indulging takes pleasure out of the experience and makes way for overeating, increased food cravings and weight gain—the very factors behind those shameful feelings. Allowing ourselves modest amounts of sweets, or other purely-for-pleasure food, can have the opposite effects. So have your cake and savor it, too. ;)

2. Eat more whole foods overall. Eating more whole foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, fish and legumes, helps keep our nutritional wellness, overall health and appetites in check. You’ll hopefully feel less guilty when you do indulge and can rest assured that those treats are unlikely to cause harm.

3. Please your eye, not just your tummy. Which looks more appealing to you?

Mini fruity ice cream sundae

Over-sized ice cream a la cardboard

*****

*****

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Eat mindfully. We get the most taste and pleasure out of the first few bites, so take your time—with those especially. Sit down to eat in a pleasant atmosphere* with few distractions (yes, even your cell phone). Observe the colors, flavors, textures and aromas. And take…your…time. Mindful eating promotes improved digestion, moods and weight control. *If you struggle with overeating, purchase single-size portions.

5. Seek healthy ways to prepare your favorites. I seldom make desserts without nutritious ingredients, so many conventional sweets now seem dry, heavy or flavorless. Add fresh or frozen fruit to ice cream, brownies and pies, and dried fruit and oats to cookies. Replace eggs or butter in sweet breads and muffins with apple sauce, pureed pumpkin or mashed banana, then cut back on the sugar. You can also replace butter with canola or olive oil, and white flours with whole grain. Get creative! (I know y’all can. ;))

Via last week’s bodacious blogger post, the cake honoring Kourtney Heinz won hands down. As promised, here is the recipe.

Flourless Chocolate Cake
This decadent torte is scrumptious, filling, simple to make and lots healthier than typical flourless choco-creations. For a lighter batch, swap out the butter/oil for 1/2 cup mashed banana. For more fiber, replace butter/oil with 1/2 cup pureed avocado, and load on the berries.

Ingredients:
4 oz. unsweetened baking chocolate
3 eggs
3/4 cup honey or agave
1/2 cup butter with olive oil
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp cinnamon or 1 tbsp espresso powder (optional)
Fresh berries and mint leaves (optional)

Directions:
Grease a round or square 8” pan with oil or butter. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Melt the baking chocolate and butter/oil on your stovetop over low to medium heat, stirring until smooth. Set it aside.

Combine remaining ingredients in a medium-size bowl, then add the melted chocolate. Whisk by hand or with an electric mixer until well-blended. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the center seems firm. After it cools, serve cake in small slices, topped with fresh berries. Add mint for a pretty, fresh-smelling garnish. Bon appetit!

Do you have a positive relationship with sweets? Or are they vicious villains, in your book? ;) Any questions or tips to add? I LOVE hearing your thoughts.

Flying High with Thriller Author David Freed

David Freed is a screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, pilot, father and dog lover with a passion for Mexican food and “virtually all things with wings”. He’s also one of my new favorite authors. David’s debut thriller, Flat Spin, is a witty, entertaining tale chock-full of captivating characters that never lets go. The Library Journal called it “a delightful romp” and “highly recommended.” Kirkus Reviews said it’s “full of interesting episodes and feels authentic…” TRUE THAT, says me.

Flat Spin overview:

Based in sunny Rancho Bonita – “California’s Monaco” as the city’s moneyed minions like to call it – Cordell Logan is a literate, sardonic flight instructor and aspiring Buddhist with dwindling savings and a shadowy past. When his beautiful ex-wife, Savannah, shows up out of the blue to tell him that her husband has been murdered in Los Angeles, Logan is quietly pleased. Savannah’s late husband, after all, is Arlo Echevarria, the man she left Logan for.

Logan and Echevarria were once comrades-in-arms assigned to a top-secret military assassination team known as “Alpha.” The only problem is, the LAPD can find no record of Echevarrias ever having toiled for Uncle Sam. Savannah wants Logan to tell the police what he knows. At first he refuses, but then, relying on his small, aging airplane, the “Ruptured Duck,” and the skills he honed working for Alpha, Logan doggedly hunts Echevarria’s killer.

His trail takes him from the glitzy Las Vegas Strip to the most dangerous ghettos of inner-city Oakland, from darkened, Russian Mafia haunts in West Los Angeles to the deserts of Arizona. But that’s the least of his problems. It is his love-hate relationship with Savannah, a woman Logan continues to pine for in spite of himself, that threatens to consume him.

Sounds thrilling, right??? Well, I have more good news. David is here with us today, in the form of his insight. Grab your favorite beverage and take a seat. I suspect you’ll want to take the time to savor what he has to say. ;)

AM: First, congratulations on your book release! How does it feel to have your first thriller published? What was launch day/week like for you? 

DF: Thanks, August. The experience has been thrilling, no pun intended, and surreal. As you know as a writer yourself, you spend many months or even years in a room all by your lonesome, filling one blank page after another with words conveying fanciful ideas from a world you’ve concocted in your head. Then, one day, if you’re incredibly fortunate, some publisher says, “I like the way you’ve arranged those words enough that I’m going to pay you—though not very much–to put them in the form of a book.” A year or so later, your friendly UPS delivery driver dumps a cardboard box on your doorstep and there you stand, hefting in your hand that very book, many copies of which you hope will find favor across the land.

All hyperbole aside, opening that box certainly rated as one of the great moments of my life to date. However, my ego balloon was quickly shot down by the handful of good friends I invited over to help me celebrate what a huge honking success I am. They quickly reminded me that I’m still the same guy who picks up the dog poop in his backyard, prefers turkey burgers over fine dining and wears his T-shirts into the ground.

AM: Not to re-inflate that balloon or anything, but I think all of that makes you cooler. What inspired you to write Flat Spin?

DF: I’m a journalist by background, and I don’t think there’s ever been a journalist born that didn’t secretly aspire to write a novel. My goal, having reported more than my share of stories exploring the dark side of humanity, was to write a book that would be fun to read while incorporating into the plot subject material of which I was at least somewhat familiar. I also wanted to write something that I could claim at the end of the day was truly mine. When you’re hired as a writer in Hollywood, which is another hat I’ve worn, you sign a contract that literally states the studio is the author of your work. I cannot tell you how my scripts I’ve cranked out that ultimately and absolutely bore no resemblance to what I wrote.

AM: You really put the reader in Cordell Logan’s head. I felt like I was the secret military assassin turned Buddhist flight instructor. (I mean that as a compliment.) How similar is Logan to you?

DF: Thanks for the compliment. Hey, I’ll take all I can get! You’ve asked a tough question. In terms of life’s experience, I’d say that I’ve traveled on the periphery of where Logan’s gone—though, certainly, he’s led a much more bombastic life than me. For example, I didn’t played football for the Air Force Academy, as Logan did, but I did play football. I never flew Air Force A-10s during Desert Storm, but I did help cover Desert Storm for the Los Angeles Times. Like Logan, I’m an instrument-rated pilot. Unlike him, I am not a flight instructor. Nor am I an aspiring Buddhist, though I am intrigued with the religion. One more thing: Logan is a former member of a covert, since-disbanded government assassination team. I can assure you I have never worked for such a team, though I have done work in the intelligence community. If Logan and I share any undeniable similarities, it is that we both really enjoy flying airplanes and eating really good burritos, though not necessarily in that order.

AM: Nice. I liked the fact that you didn’t go overboard in describing characters’ appearances. I envisioned Savannah like Anna Nicole Smith for some reason… Way off? 

DF: Waaay off! [*August laughs, LOUDLY.*] But that’s cool. As a reader, you should have the right to imagine fictional characters however you wish. If you see Savannah as Anna Nicole Smith, you’re not gonna wreck my day, even though I may have conjured her with a completely different image in mind.

As a screenwriter, I learned that movie casting options dwindle proportionately to the degree of description you write into a script when it comes to your  characters’ physical attributes, or lack thereof. The perfect dilemma of too much detail can be found in the upcoming Jack Reacher film. Author Lee Child describes Reacher, a former military police officer, as a big, brawny guy, well over 6 feet. Who’s purportedly going to play Reacher?—5’-7” Tom Cruise. Not that Cruise wouldn’t do a great job with the role. But fans of Child’s books are already grousing about how casting Cruise will absolutely ruin the franchise. I’ve heard that author Sue Grafton refuses to sell the film rights to her wildly successful Kinsey Millhone series simply because she doesn’t want her readers equating Kinsey with the likes of a real life actress.

AM: What was the toughest part of the process, from beginning your first draft to publication?

DF: With Flat Spin, it was having no choice but to set aside the draft to work on gigs that paid. By the time I’d get back to the novel, weeks and sometimes months would have gone by; I would’ve forgotten major plot points and even characters’ names. It’s much easier to build a head of steam and maintain a daily momentum, writing a book start and finish without distraction.

AM: I imagine many writers can relate to that. Anything you’ll do differently next time around?

DF: I already am. I’ve turned down or postponed several other writing assignments to devote myself full-time to Flat Spin’s sequel.

AM: Love that. Your career background is extremely  intimidating impressive. How does thriller writing compare to your work as a journalist?

DF: They’re two distinct animals. A journalist is married to facts. In both reporting and writing a news story, you go where those facts take you. Writing a fictional thriller can be vastly more exhilarating and intimidating if for no other reason than the immensity of the potential creative landscape you, as a novelist, look out upon. You must make myriad creative choices that you don’t typically make in a news story. The process can be analogous to feeling your way through a minefield: every step bodes potential success or disaster.

Writing a thriller versus a journalistic story is also different because of the much more subjective nature of the final product. When you’ve published a first-rate piece of journalism, there is usually broad agreement you’ve accomplished something significant. With fiction, a writer rarely achieves that kind of consensus, if only because of the disparate tastes of individual readers. It’s like a Jackson Pollack painting. Many people will see genius in it; others will see it as one huge paint splatter.

AM: How many secret sources have you met in smoky bars? Has the work put you in danger? Do I watch too much crime TV? (If yes to that last bit, feel free to make up something saucy.)

DF: Meeting sources in bars is not nearly as sketchy as meeting them in underground parking garages or empty parks at night, where there are fewer witnesses to identify your body. I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been a few occasions when I felt like things got a little gnarly in such places. I remember once making arrangements to rendezvous in a bar with a really sketchy dude who’d called me, claiming to have direct knowledge of the alleged second gunman in the John F. Kennedy assassination. He insisted after we met that I come with him to his apartment where he had all of the “evidence” in safekeeping. I went to the men’s room, called my editors, and gave them the address, so that if I didn’t show up for work the next day, they’d know where to send the coroner. Turns out the guy, who proved to be a totally harmless whacko, had devised some theory that the second gunman was secretly hidden in the trunk of JFK’s limo. Yeah, right.

On another occasion, I was working on a series of stories targeting members of organized crime in a major land fraud scam. I came home late one night and my phone started ringing immediately. The anonymous caller proceeded to spent about 30 seconds telling me where things were in my cabinets and drawers that you wouldn’t have otherwise known about unless you’d been inside my apartment—and I lived in a secure building. The next morning, I went out to my car and discovered somebody had put a screwdriver through the fuel tank. There were was gas all over the parking lot. I carried a pistol for several weeks after that. For the most part, however, investigative reporting is incredibly tedious. You spend vast amounts of time interviewing boring bureaucrats, and hours sifting through government archives where you are much more likely to catch some obscure respiratory disease than you are a bullet.

AM: Yipes. Aside from staying healthy and bullet hole-free, what’s next in the pipeline? 

DF: I’m hard at work on the next Cordell Logan mystery. If all goes well, it’ll be out next year. I hope you enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed this!

*****

He’s GREAT, right??? To purchase Flat Spin, zip over to Amazon.com or David’s website for more options. In the meantime, or after, any thoughts or questions to share with David?

Mastering Your Author Headshot with Photographer Ken Dapper

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what does your headshot say about you?

If you don’t have one, I recommend it. Here’s why. Most of us know the value of showing more often than telling. A high-quality, professional headshot shows readers, agents, publishers and others that we take our careers seriously. Featured on our business cards or information sheets, they provide visual takeaways at writers conferences, making us and our work more memorable. Headshots also give viewers hints at who we are—if they’re taken appropriately. Consider the following examples. (You’ll see why I’m using myself in a minute.)

You can tell by the first image that I write something dark or mysterious (i.e., thrillers). You may also pick up on hint of mischievousness. ;) The image on the right suits multiple genres. Goofy shots of us hanging with pals work for Facebook, but even there we should use caution. Agents, publishers and others will probably look at your social media sites—so those drunken party shots none of you have (ha) should probably go.

Before I hand the blog microphone over to my friend, Ken, here are a few tips on having a successful headshot session—from the “model”/author perspective:

  • Choose a shoot time that works well schedule, mood and energy-wise. (Don’t start at 6am, for example, unless you tend to be perky then.)
  • Get enough restful sleep the night before, and fuel up with a balanced meal or snack. If your session is more than two hours, bring water and snacks along.
  • If you feel nervous or blah beforehand, go for a brisk walk or sing really loud in the shower—anything to cheer you up and get your juices flowing.
  • If you choose to do your own makeup, go with your usual “daytime” look—nothing too dark or heavy. (Unless you’re a goth author, and that’s how you normally look.)
  • If you go with a makeup artist, make sure they have headshot or fashion experience. If you’ve never met the person, you might want to bring a photo of how you look on a looking great, but natural, day.
  • Guys, you will need some make up—nothing scary, promise. Some moisturizer, powder and concealer is often enough. For more tips, check out Bonnie Johnson’s Headshot Make-Up Tips for Guys.
  • Look like you. Over-PhotoShopping or presenting ourselves in a style totally foreign to us is inauthentic—and it shows. Erasing a stray hair or blemish or tweaking the overall color is fine. But in my opinion, it ends there.
  • Don’t try too hard. Use your imagination to drift away during the shoot. Think about your book, your characters, your significant other… Anything but “Oh my god, I hope I don’t look stupid right now!” or “What should I be doing? AGH!” It’s unlikely you’ll drift so far that you forget to face the camera. And the last thing you want is to look stiff, frightened or posed.
  • In particular, don’t think about the photos during the shoot. This may sound odd, but it helps minimize self-conciousness—a potential awesome-photo wrecker. You know how we love characters with secrets? Have one! Look into the lens with your secret in mind… (Yep, that one. ;))
  • With digital photography the norm, you’ll probably have hundreds of shots to choose from. So move around. Make subtle shifts between shots—in your expression and body. When the photographer says, “Yes! Hold that!”, do. Playing around a bit is generally fun and helpful.
  • If you feel uncomfortable mid-shoot, take a break. Drink some water. Walk around. Tell the photographer how you’re feeling. It’s easier to snap out of awkwardness than you may think.
  • Have a trusted friend look over your proofs before deciding on your top picks. It’s hard to judge our own photos. That said, it’s important to choose images you feel strongly about. So as with many “writerly” decisions, get feedback then go with your gut.

Now for a TREAT. Ken Dapper is an artist in the truest sense of the word. He took both of the headshots above, and remains one of my all-time favorite photographers to work with. Since I couldn’t clone and send him to your homes, he’s agreed to share his expert insight here. (Thanks, Ken!)

AM: How did you get started as a photographer?

KD: I picked up a camera when I was in 6th grade. Over the years I shot as a hobby and really enjoyed landscape photography. I was lucky to have lived in great places growing up from SoCal to Texas and Alaska, so shooting was always an adventure. When I started acting and modeling after college I got to work with some amazing photographers in LA and NYC. That is when my interest really turned to shooting people. It just seemed like a natural fit given everything I was learning. I started to shoot my own and other models’ pictures for our portfolios so we didn’t have to pay photographers. I finally had the confidence and pictures that led my closest friends and agents to encourage me to shoot full-time.

AM: What do you love most about it?

KD: I love the freedom of photography on all levels. Everyday you pick up the camera there is something new to learn or experience, not only with the technical aspects of shooting, but with the subject matter as well. I also love the fact that ten people can shoot the same thing and come away with something so different. The freedom really lies within and trusting your choices in each moment as they can really make the difference between a great and OK photograph.

AM: What makes your approach so different from other photographers? 

KD: I think my experience in front of the camera has really helped my approach and knowing how to make the people I shoot comfortable. There is nothing worse than shooting with a photographer who is boring, can’t laugh or is not engaging. Knowing how to shoot is just a small part of it. I try to make it really comfortable and relaxed for everyone. I am a big fan of music and I always have it on. I often tell people,”We are going to crank up and listen to some tunes and oh by the way we’ll shoot some pictures too.”  It’s not the only way, but it’s what works for me and everyone really responds well.  Some Classic and Southern Rock, blues, country and everything in between always get the shoot jumping. Of course if you’ve got some favorites, bring your iPod.

AM: What common mistakes do people make regarding professional head shots? How can we avoid them?

KD: Too many people waste money by trying to save money. They end up spending more and getting pictures that do fit their style because ultimately hey have to re-shoot with someone else. Never settle for a photographer just to save a buck. Do your homework and find a photographer that you really think has great work at a reasonable rate and would represent your style.

AM: I hear this one a lot: “What should I wear?!?”

KD: Bring clothes that you feel and look great in, but stay away from busy clothing with stripes, logos or patterns. Stay solid and clean, and always bring plenty of choices.  You can never bring too much.

AM: How can we make sure our personalities shine and prevent looking nervous or “prom posing”? ;)

KD: Trust the photographer and the choice you made to shoot with him/her. The rest should take care of itself. If you settle for a photographer you are not completely comfortable with you open yourself up for doubt—never a good thing, as it relates to confidence.

AM: Let’s say an author wants photos for his or her website and book cover. Do you recommend getting a variety of shots? Or will one look work?

KD: I always recommend shooting a few different looks. It gives the client a chance to grow into the shoot and get more comfortable with what we are trying to accomplish.  I always give more to the shoot, even if they only want one look because I want the client to leave feeling very satisfied that they have enough choices.

AM: How many years will head shots typically last? 

KD: That depends on age, look and how you age. Generally it’s good to update your look every 1 to 2 years. Kids 6 to 8 months. When you dramatically change your appearance, like hair or body, then its always recommended to update at that time.

AM: How much should head shots cost?

KD: It really depends on what you need and who your shooting with. I think spending $400 to $800 is reasonable. You can always find someone cheaper, but really examine what they are offering and how their work stacks up to those at a higher price.  A lot of photographers are flexible, as are many business. So it never hurts to call them up and talk about what you’re looking for.

AM:  If readers would like to work with you or inquire about your work, where can they get more information?

KD:  At www.dapperphotography.com  Facebook…. Ken Dapper Photography.com  …. kdapper@mac.com or 646.456.6381. If you can’t reach me I will always get back to you within a 24 hour period, unless of course I’m home fishing in Alaska or on a surfing trip.

Great stuff, right? Ken would love to hear your thoughts and questions, as would I. So…shoot! ;)

The Bodacious Blogger’s Essential Ingredients

I’ve never been great at following recipes, perhaps because my first works of fiction were faux cakes and pizzas baked in my magical kitchen. (Okay, the sandbox.) My recipe ineptness has its perks, though. First, it’s made coming up with my own concoctions practically necessary. (I’m happy to report that they no longer taste like air or sand.) Second, it prepared me for writing, on the page and in the blogosphere.

Like baking a cake, there is no one “right” way or “perfect” recipe to achieve blogging success. But there are useful guidelines…

Essential Ingredients for Blogging Bodacious-ness

1. Authenticity. We hear this word a lot in regards to blogging, for good reason. Writing about issues and topics we care about, in our own voice makes for captivating posts. Our blogs should be natural extensions—or reflections—of us and what our brands represent. In other words, bake your own “cake” from scratch, using your own ingredients (your thoughts, beliefs, knowledge…). Readers can tell if we use a mix or swap the bakery label for our own. ;)

2. Readability. Ever looked at a recipe and felt so daunted by the tiny print, long lists of unpronounceable ingredients or lack of photos? I personally believe that posts should be as long as they need to be. Breaking up longer paragraphs with spaces, bullet points or photos, and using clear fonts and non-distracting themes can help ensure a comfy reading experience.

3. Takeaways. Imagine going to a cooking demo and leaving with an empty, ravenous belly. Might be okay if the chef was highly entertaining, but if not, your low blood sugar and emotional upset would probably prevent you from visiting again. Blogging works similarly. Giving our readers some sort of takeaway, be it entertainment, inspiration or how-to tips, functions like welcome and thank you gifts, bundled into one.

4. Supportiveness. When I was a kid, I loved going door-to-door selling everything from candy and cookies to 1-child plays. But I was weird. And have grown up since then. Not only is pushiness counter-productive for writers, but ineffective. (Thank goodness!) Supporting others creates connectedness and community. Visit others’ blogs. Follow those you find intriguing. Post thoughtful comments when a post strikes you, and share links you enjoy. (Not convinced? Read social media guru Kristen Lamb’s post, 10 Ways to Increase Your Likability Quotient.)

5. Effective Titles. Would you have read this post if I titled it, Random Stuff? “With 500,000 new blog posts published per day on WordPress.com sites alone, we can’t afford to use vague or boring titles if we want our blog to stand out in tweets or in someone’s Google reader,” Marcy Kennedy, one of my favorite bloggers, wisely said. For more of her insight, read Four Little-Known Factors that Could Destroy Your Blog’s Chances of Success.

Bloggers Who Take the Cake
The proof is in the pudding, right??? The following bloggers bodacious supreme, in my opinion. They have their ingredients and style down pat, never cease to inspire, entertain or teach, and continually bring joy to my cyber-villa. I’ve awarded each blogger one of my cake concoctions.

Natalie Hartford takes the Pink Rainbow-licious Cake for bedazzling the blogosphere with her unique enthusiasm, color and pizazz. She’s as sweet as her blog is PINK! She spilled some of her fab blogging secrets here: Keeping Your Blogging Mojo Alive and Burning.

Tameri Etherton takes the Berry Yummy Oatmeal cake. She’s wholesome, fun and nurturing, with no need for added sweetener. Because Tameri loves happy endings, her natural cake has sweet surprises inside.

Louise Behiel takes the Sassy Salmon Cakes. Louise never fails to educate and inspire. Her gluten-free cakes are fortifying, like her posts, and delicious, much like her friendship and support. She recently shared 8 Steps to an Emotionally Rich Family, and drew a brilliant comparison between old-fashioned radios and kids.

Kourtney Heinz takes the Flourless Chocolate Cake for her rich writing skills and ability to savor every bit. No room for extra fluff in this writing woman’s life! You’ll see what I mean when you read her captivating post, Looking at Who You Were. Loved loved loved it.

Amber West takes the Fortune Cookie Cupcake for her entertaining, inspirational and grin-inducing posts. Her Friday Inspiration series is loaded with insight, and she’s consistently one of the first to lend a helping hand.

Susie Lindau takes the Crazy Cake. Whether Susie is giving us glimpses of her “wild ride,” throwing blog bashes or sporting flash fiction, her blog is a crazy-cool treat. Oh, and she’s also a mass murderer

Roni Loren takes the Hot Fodue Cake. Her novel, Crash Into You, caused more perspiration than the stairclimber I read it on. If you know what I mean. It’s one of my favorite reads of 2012, and her writing/blogging posts are some of the best. As for the “cake” portion of this recipe, that’s up to YOU. ;)

Nigel Blackwell takes the Blappleberry Pie Cake for his ability to blend education, entertainment and wit. His post, A Non-Controversial Sockumentary, is one of the most entertaining post I’ve ever read.

Jennifer L. Oliver and M.G. Miller take the (Practically) Instant Chocolate Cake, for Jennifer’s fine author interviews—her latest of which featured M.G. and his spectacular book, Bayou Jesus. Read it. Once you start, you won’t want to waste time slaving over baked goods. This whole grain cake takes minutes in the microwave. And it’s delish.

Debra Kristi, Coleen Patrick, Fabio Bueno and Ellie Ann Soderstrom take Health-Nut Choco-Copia Cake for their versatile mix of upbeat, inspiring posts on everything from mythology and HILARIOUS mistaken song lyrics, to family pets and sustainable agriculture. You can’t go wrong with these sweet tweeps. Ya just can’t.

So there you have it. My baker’s dozen. (Told you we bloggers can break rules. ;)) What blogging ingredients do you find most important? What kind of cake might your blog be?

****If you’re interested in preparing one of the cakes above, hop over to my Facebook author page and place your vote!****

Savoring Every Step: The Happy Road to Writing Success

Savor: To appreciate fully; enjoy or relish. (verb)

Before I finished the first draft of my first novel, I envisioned celebrating its completion. So once I’d typed the last sentence and wiped a few happy tears, I plotted something new—a “novel-tea” party with artist friends. We chatted about our progress, goals and dreams, ate my mom’s awesome Indian food and made crafty “things” based on our projects. I knew I still had significant work to do, but as many of you know, reaching ‘the end’ on a manuscript is no simple feat. I wanted to dance around in the glee of what doing so represented, including what could happen next. Sharing that glee with others and celebrating their work magnified it—such a treat!

As I look back at some the cool things that have happened in the year-and-a-half since, from signing with my agent to finishing a major revision I’m stoked about, I can’t help but wonder if savoring every step is, well…vital. So I did a bit of investigating, and guess what. Savoring is practically a super power! And even cooler than I’d thought. ;)

Savoring may not be as important as working our butts off, sitting down to the proverbial grunt work, but it is important. And research shows that it not only makes for a more enjoyable experience, but boosts our chance of success.

Psychologist and researcher Fred B. Bryant has studied the art of savoring for decades. In his book, Savoring, A New Model of Positive Experience, he says we can savor in three time frames: reminiscing, enjoying the present and anticipating the future. Apparently most of us have a far easier time savoring the past than the present and future. (We’re more likely to get excited about a book launch, for example, than revising or starting our next.)

If we don’t embrace what lies ahead, we’re less likely to move forward. Savoring the past, present and future, on the other hand, breeds success. (I’m not talking about financial success, though that can be a sweet reward.)  Savoring also promotes happiness, which is associated with everything from boosted creativity and physical health to attractiveness. Awesome, right???

Five Ways to Savor More (& Boost Our Chance of Success)

1. Focus on the positive. We writers can be tough on ourselves. (No, seriously! ;)) While it’s natural to want to push ourselves, hoping for more and better, viewing pages as half empty instead of full won’t help much. Rather than think or complain about the words and pages you didn’t write this week, consider the words and pages you did. When you feel Grumpy Smurf, make like Sunshine Smurf: ponder the good stuff. (Trust me, there’s lots.)

2. Don’t fixate on “the numbers.” From blog stats and word counts to Klout scores and book sales, the modern world makes it way too easy to obsess over our numeric rank. But they are just numbers. I’d personally rather write an awesome quality page than five flat ones (not that the flat aren’t beneficial ;)). I’d also rather have quality connections with writers and readers than thousands of “hits” that mean little. Numbers can be useful tools, if we keep them in perspective and focus more on what really counts.

3. Recognize and celebrate. When you reach a milestone, whether it be committing yourself to writing or completing your first or five-hundreth draft, savor it—on purpose. One of the best ways to do so, says Bryant, is by savoring with others. Chat about your success, including the future coolness it’ll bring, with friends. Share it on on your blog or Facebook. Or take a more private route by purchasing a new outfit, playing hooky from work or spending an afternoon at the spa.

4. Hang on to reminders. Why do you write? What accomplishments are you proud of so far? What are you striving toward next? Keeping visible reminders—meaningful photos, positive reviews, awards—nearby can help keep us on-track, while keeping our inner-naysayers at bay.

5. Congratulate yourself. This is a tough one, but Bryant recommends self-congratulations as an ultra-useful tool. And don’t worry. Unless you are a narcissist, morphing into an egomaniac is highly unlikely. ;) Storing positive feelings about achievement, he says, strengthens our abilities to savor and cheer ourselves up in the future. Even short, silent praise works—i.e., in our heads or typed into a journal. To balance any “braggy” feelings out, follow self-congratulations with gratitude—another useful savoring tool.

How do you savor your successes? What step are you most stoked about lately? 

Marc Schuster on The Grievers — A Hilarious, Inspiring Must-Read

Sometime during high school, I watched The Dead Poet’s Society on VHS. I remember thinking, “This’ll be good,” before watching it, and “Holy crap, that was awesome!” at the end. Watching the two-ish hour film felt more like living years within the character’s lives. I laughed, cried, wondered and learned along with them. The story made me examine my own life and decisions, and has stuck with me since.

Marc Schuster’s The Grievers reminds me of The Dead Poet’s Society, only slightly because it involves a prep school. The relatively short book felt as rich as a series. I laughed, ached and learned, thanks to the main character, Charley. (Did I mention laughed?) He had me pondering my own life and changed the way I look at the dancing chickens on Hollywood street corners…forever. Though it’s not been long since I read it, I have no doubt I’ll think of The Grievers again in the coming years. In a word, I found it inspiring.

Synopsis:
When Charley Schwartz learns that an old high school pal has killed himself, he agrees to help his alma mater organize a memorial service to honor his fallen comrade. Soon, however, devestation turns to disgust as Charley discovers that his friend’s passing means less to the school than the bottom line. As the memorial service quickly degenerates into a fundraising fiasco, Charley must also deal with a host of other quandaries including a dead-end job as an anthropomorphic dollar sign, his best firned’s imminent move to Maryland, an intervention with a drug-addled megalomaniac, and his own ongoing crusade to enforce the proper use of apostrophes among the proprietors of local dining establishments.

Desperate to set the world right and keep his own life from spiraling out of control, Charley rages through his days and nights, plotting all the while the ultimate eulogy for his deceased friend and a scathing indictment of a world gone wrong. (The Permanent Press, 2012)

The Grievers officially releases today. (CONGRATS, MARC!) I’m so thrilled to bring you insight from the author himself…

 

AM: You’ve called The Grievers “a coming of age story for a generation that’s still struggling to come of age.” What did you mean by that?

MS: There’s such an emphasis upon entertainment in our culture that we’re losing the ability to take things seriously. We’re really into melodrama, into quick laughs, into anything that amuses us. Look at The Daily Show for example. I love watching it, but there’s something mildly disturbing about the fact that I get a lot—if not most—of my news from John Stewart. It’s like I can’t digest serious information without a heaping teaspoon of humor to help me get it down. What does this say about me? About people of my generation? When am I going to start taking things seriously? Questions like these were in the back of my mind as I was writing the novel, and they’re also the kinds of questions that plague its narrator.

AM: Tell us about the main character, Charley Schwartz. How similar is he to you?

MS: It’s probably fair to say that he’s an extremely exaggerated version of myself. What separates us, I hope, is that I think before I speak, whereas Charley is a lot more impulsive. As a result, he puts his foot in his mouth far more frequently than I do. In terms of biography, though, we do have a few things in common. We both went to prep schools in our teenage years, and we are both the products of our respective educations. Perhaps most importantly, Charley and I have extremely patient wives who let us know when we’re making fools of ourselves. The difference, again, is that I usually have the good sense to listen, whereas Charley doesn’t.

 AM: The Grievers presents numerous lessons. Was that intentional?

MS: I don’t think I set out to teach specific lessons as I was writing. Had I done that, I’m pretty sure those lessons would stifle the novel, or it might come across as preachy. Instead, it’s probably a matter of having certain values, beliefs, and assumptions in the back of my mind as I was writing, and they crept into the finished product on an unconscious level.

AM: You came close to self-publishing The Grievers some years back. What prompted you to consider that option and then change your mind? 

MS: I’d written a few novel-length manuscripts by then, but The Grievers was the first one that I thought really had potential for publication. Unfortunately—or so I thought at the time—agents and editors didn’t agree with me. So I imagined self-publishing might be the way to go. At about the same time, I wrote a fan letter to Chuck Palahniuk in which I told him about the book and my plans to publish it on my own. He wrote back saying that he liked the idea for The Grievers, but he urged me not to self-publish. His point was that instead of putting my efforts into publishing the novel, I should start working on a new one and then return to The Grievers with fresh eyes. In the end, I decided to take his advice, and I’m glad I did. Setting the manuscript aside for a couple of years gave me the perspective I needed to do a thorough revision, and having another novel published in the interim taught me a lot about publishing.

AM: You’ve shared some great deleted scenes from The Grievers on your blog. How did you decide what to cut and keep? 

MS: In many cases, the cutting had to do with the pacing of the novel. I might, for example, realize that I’d already established an idea or theme and cut a passage because it was redundant. In other cases, I was striving to make the novel as much a work of fiction as possible. The germ of the story started with my own life and observations, but for the novel to work as a piece of fiction, I felt I really needed to make Charley his own person. So I cut anything that struck me as too autobiographical. The final thing that helped me decide what to cut and what to keep was input from other readers. I’m fortunate to have a lot of avid readers in my life, so I had a lot of very strong, very informed opinions to draw upon. If someone I respected enough to show the manuscript told me that something wasn’t working, we’d talk a bit about why and whether or not it was something that could be fixed or simply didn’t fit. If, in the end, we decided it didn’t fit, I’d cut it.

AM: Any chance we’ll see it on the big screen someday? (Spielberg might read this. You never know…) Who would you cast as Charley?

MS: I could definitely see Jason Schwartzman as Charley. I loved him in Rushmore, and to an extent, I see an affinity betweenThe Grievers and that movie. Charley could conceivably be described as an adult version of Schwartzman’s character, Max Fischer.

AM: You’ve received some awesome praise from reviewers. (Congrats, by the way.) Do you have a favorite? Any nail your book on the head or surprise you?

MS: Thank you! I’ve been so flattered by all of the praise that the book has received. A blogger named FP Dorchak made me smile when he wrote, “To be utterly blunt if not politically correct, this book had me laughing my ass off.” But I’m also glad that reviewers are picking up on the balance between humor and tragedy that I tried to bring to the novel. Robin Black is an author I admire immensely, so her praise also meant a lot to me: “The Grievers is a an extraordinary weave of humor, insight and intelligence. Marc Schuster has written a perfect comic novel, one that never strays far from either poignance or hilarity.” He book If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is one of my favorite short story collections.

*****

For more information, check out Marc Schuster’s blog and follow him on Twitter. To purchase The Grievers, zip over to Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

Any thoughts or questions to share with Marc? I’m sure he’d love hearing from you!


Intuition: Tuning in Like Moms

In the spring of 2005, Rachel Schoger, a 29-year-old mother in Caldwell, Idaho, received devastating news from her doctor. After several miscarriages, she learned that her pregnancy was ectopic, and her baby had no chance of survival. If the baby wasn’t aborted, Schoger risked life-threatening complications.

After her first round on injections to terminate the pregnancy, Schoger sensed that something was wrong—not with her baby, but the diagnosis. She dreamed that the infant was screaming in pain inside of her, and demanded more tests.

Despite the thorough testing she’d endured, the next ultrasound showed a seemingly healthy infant in her womb. In January 2006, baby Seraphine was born. Though she required surgeries to correct deformities Shoger attributes to the injections, Seraphine is now a healthy six-year-old—largely due to her mother’s ability to sense and respond to her instincts. And as we’ve addressed before, instincts (those gut feelings) and intuition (relying on them), aren’t hype, but science.

For years, it was believed that women, particularly mothers, have stronger intuition than men. Although studies have proven otherwise—we actually come out pretty even—mothers have significant intuitive strengths, including faith in their abilities. In honor of Mother’s Day weekend, I say we celebrate them and follow suit. Are you in??? ;)

When it comes to mothers’ intuition, I see three major strengths. Moms tend to trump others in regards to motivation, awareness and action. They are expected to have strong instincts, trust them fiercely and act on them with gusto. Whether the chicken or egg came first here, I couldn’t tell ya. (No pun intended. ;)) Regardless, we can all learn a lot from mamas’ intuitive skill-sets.

Consider these examples:

#1: Imagine you’re a young, single woman heading into an upscale restaurant, alone. A man approaches and offers you a drink. The man is charming, yet something inside you tells you to say ‘no.’ But you don’t have other plans…and don’t want to hurt his feelings… And besides, you’d promised to get out and let loose once in a while. One drink can’t hurt. Can it?

#2: Now imagine you’re the same woman, walking into the same restaurant, holding an infant. The same man approaches. He offers you a drink, says he “adores children,” even has one of his own. When you hesitate he gives you a winning grin and suggests non-alcoholic drinks. Heck, a glass of water? You hold your child closer and give an affirmative, “NO,” then walk away.

See the difference?

A girlfriend of mine told me she never knew how much she could worry until she had kids. That “worry” is the same fear (“Gift of Fear”, as renowned safety expert Gavin de Becker would say) we all experience. Having kids heightens parents’ motivation to do and say whatever it takes to protect them, and, by by extension, themselves.

In previous posts, we discussed how fear and instincts can enhance personal safety and even save our lives. Trusting and acting upon instincts can also help in countless other ways, from making the right romantic and financial decisions to building successful careers. In order to follow our instincts, we have to sense them. Whether your instinctive habits are super-mom savvy or far from it, the following steps can help.

5 Ways to Make Your “Inner Voice” Loud and Clear

1. Keep a journal. I first read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way about 10 years ago while living in Miami. I was amazed at what those daily “morning pages” —3 pages of free-writing—revealed. Letting our thoughts spill out on paper, or other creative mediums, helps de-clutter and clarify our needs, hunches and wants.

2. Pay attention. Simply deciding to stay more aware is often enough to make our instincts roar.

3. Take some quiet time. Whether you’re trying to make a decision, texting while watching TV and eating dinner probably won’t help. ;) Whether you have five minutes or 60 to devote to daily solitude, do it. If you’re not a fan of sitting still, take a bath, go for a walk or think while doing something fairly mindless, like folding laundry.

4. Talk it out. Little beats supportive friends when it comes to exploring our instincts. If your friend or partner challenges your inclination and you feel defensive, you probablyl know exactly how you feel. ;) If they agree, it can be affirming. Your loved ones might even recognize what your intuitive voice is saying before you do.

5. Sleep on it. Yeah, I’m not great at this either, you insomniacs. ;) But seriously, our minds work through problems while we sleep. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken in the morning, knowing exactly what to do about a particular plot point or character in my novel after feeling torn or clueless the night prior.

In what area of your life do you most rely on your instincts? Have you responded to them lately? Any “mother’s intuition” stories to share? 

Body Image: Exploring Myths & Walking the Walk

At the gym the other day I overheard two women discussing the importance of inner-beauty. Minutes later, their topic shifted to a fad diet one was following in hopes of landing a “guy like this.” Now she could’ve been referring to the guy’s wit and intelligence—what do I know? But judging from the half-naked celebrities they were gazing at in a magazine, I had to wonder. Many of us claim we value inner-beauty and health over appearance. But if our values mismatch our words and behaviors, which speaks louder?

There’s nothing wrong with admiring physical attractiveness, and for all I know, the women weren’t terribly serious. But their ellipti-chatter got me thinking. While there’s no shortage of “how to boost body image” information on the web, I’ve noticed some holes. Today, I’ve decided to address them.

5 Myths About Low Body Image

1. It’s normal, and thus “no big deal.” Common, yes. But poor body image isn’t any more “normal’ than having a perpetual cold or flu. Also like illness, cases range from mild, short-lived and annoying to severe, chronic and life-threatening. Chalking body dissatisfaction up to “normal insecurity” makes us less likely to seek solutions and more likely to fuel the growing epidemic.

2. It’s a female (only) thing. Not anymore. Recent research shows that over 500,000 men in the United States undergo cosmetic surgery each year—many opting for more than one procedure. Magazine covers routinely feature men’s “rock hard abs,” and “miraculous” ways to get them. In any given week, the latest Hollywood “it” guys likely boasts a physique as unattainable for most men as super model physiques present for women. And the stats on male body image issues are low-ball, because men are far less likely than women to reveal these insecurities.

3. It’s less important than weight control. Imagine if rather than resolving to lose weight or bulk up next New Year’s eve, we resolved to embrace our bodies as is. Sound foolish? It isn’t. Self-acceptance makes way way for self-care. Healthy weight and muscle tone are common by-products. But many of us believe that if we just lost those 5, 10 or 100 pounds, or grunted our way to a six-pack, we’d feel better, look better, be better. On the contrary, countless studies link physique fixation and dieting with binge eating, increased stress, anxiety, sleep problems, weight gain, depression and obesity.

4. It’s the fashion/entertainment/advertising industry’s fault. It’s easy to point fingers, but it’s more complicated than that. If we didn’t support these industries’ ideals, they’d change. They can’t function without our support ($$$). Some argue that we’re brainwashed. In my opinion, that’s passing the buck rather than sharing it. Stronger contributors to poor body image include the diet and weight loss industry (another public-reliant machine) and our upbringing—such as the behaviors and attitudes modeled by our parents and other role models.

5. “If I accept my body as it, it won’t improve. I’d probably go off the overeating/weight gain deep-end. And besides, I can’t accept a body that looks like…this.” If this sounds like a quip from your mental diary, I empathize. But I also know what it’s like to prove these beliefs wrong. Little is as empowering as turning self-loathing into respect. And unless we flip that dark coin over, we’ll never know what we’re capable of. If this myth applies to you, imagine taking all of the energy, time, money and thoughts you invest into disliking, shrinking or sculpting your body into your wildest dreams.

12 Effective Ways to Boost Your Body Image Here’s the good news. With awareness, desire and effort, we can improve the way we feel about ourselves and bodies. Not sure where to start? Consider the following.

1. Make a list of wonderful things your body does for you. Keep it on your refrigerator, your dining table, in your car—where ever you tend to experience negative self-talk.

2. Look away from the mirror and into yourself. The more we fixate on our appearance, the more we judge ourselves and others. Spend as much time as you need before the mirror. Smile at yourself while you’re at it. :) Poor body image often symptomizes a deeper problem—work stress, loneliness, perfectionism, fear… Addressing underlying issues makes way for improvement.

3. Trash your scale. Weighing ourselves can seem like a useful way to track physical health and weight loss progress. But weighing-in often is risky. We’re likely to mistake normal fluctuations for undesirable loss or gain. And health is far more complex than our weight in pounds.

4. Trade fashion and fitness mags for something better. Yes, there are exceptions. But by and large, the images, ideals and tactics presented in popular magazines aren’t helpful. Read empowering non-fiction and fantastic fiction instead. Get your news from magazines and health tips from qualified sources.

5. Just breathe… In effort to present a flat stomach, many of us have learned to “suck in.” This interferes with breathing, which can increase stress and other problems—including body image. Breathing exercises, on the other hand, promote emotional well-being. To learn more, check out Harvard Medical School’s Relaxation Techniques: Breath Control Helps Quell Errant Stress Response.

6. Give back. Volunteering can go a long way toward keeping our personal complaints and stressors in perspective. When we fixate on our bodies and appearance, we are highly self-involved. Becoming others-involved provides a positive means of distraction and emotional gratification.

7. Fight negative self-talk with gratitude. Counting blessings is more fulfilling than counting calories or body fat ounces. Every time a negative, judgmental thought enters your brain—about you or others—jot down something you’re thankful for. Gratitude is powerful medicine.

8. Swap porn for empowerment. There are many way to celebrate and nurture sexuality, which can enhance body image big time. Generally speaking, porn isn’t one of them. Read the Vagina Monologues. Practice self-pleasure. Try something new with your partner. If all of this is way out of your comfort zone, seek guidance from a qualified sex therapist.

9. Eat a healthy, happy diet. Eating well provides a broad range of benefits, including positive body image. Avoid dieting. Instead, aim for a healthy, balanced diet that contains a variety of foods. Pleasure, flexibility and “gentle nutrition” are important parts of a body image-boosting diet.

10. Exercise, but not too much. Physical activity helps the brain produce feel-good chemicals, improves overall physical health and guards against low body image—immediately, according to studies. And you don’t need to spend hours in the gym. Over-exercise can detract from body image as much as staying sedentary. Seek exercise you enjoy. Hike. Dance. Walk your dog. Play with kids. For most people 30 minutes or more most days is plenty.

11. Pursue your passions. A sadly common thread among people with severe low body image is a lack of passion. We can’t fix body image issues and recognize or our passions when we are enraptured by self hate and illness. Even mild body dissatisfaction can hold us back. The more we focus on our passions the less likely we are to view body shape, size or muscle mass as top priorities. And the happier we are, the more attractive we are to ourselves and others. 

12. Seek support. Body image issues are contagious within families, classrooms and communities. Surrounding ourselves with people who over-value physical appearance increases our likelihood of the same. Seek friendship and support from others with positive values you hold and desire. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. Self-help books, support groups and therapy are valuable resources.

So what do you think? Does your body image walk match your thoughts and talk? Any trials or triumphs to share?

GOF Moments: Could You Save Your Life?

My grandmother was sweeter than honey, as cheerful as a rainbow and trusting—arguably to a fault. In her later years, she watched every episode of Divorce Court in great anticipation. “How sad…” she’d respond to the verdict. “I wanted them both to win!” She never gave up hope, particularly in others. But even Grandma had her limits…

One day during a cheery walk near her home, a car pulled up beside her. As the window rolled down, Grandma smiled, assuming it was a nice man from a nearby retirement community she recognized.

“Hop in,” the driver said. “I’ll give you a ride.”

Grandma entered the car, closed the door, fastened her seatbelt then looked at the driver—a total stranger. After a silent ride, during which she scarcely breathed, the car reached a stop sign. Grandma didn’t hesitate; she opened the door and fled.

That story, though gratefully anticlimactic, has popped into my head over the years, inspiring wonder. What was my sweet grandmother thinking? What was he thinking? Did more than lack of familiarity prompt her to flee? What if she hadn’t fled, or if the man stopped her? In my favorite imagined scenario my Swedish, Hindi-speaking grandmother lures the man to an Indian restaurant and kung fu-flings him into a samosa fryer. (Hi-YA!) In a way, that’s what she did. Grandma’s actions told the driver she wouldn’t succumb to his desires, whatever they were. She had no need to look back and probably never assumed someone’s identity again.

The one time I sought more details, Grandma chuckled and offered me snacks. ;) Alas, I’ve come to my own conclusions.

Trust wasn’t my grandmother’s detriment, but her strength. So she was a bit lax on the awareness factor. But once inside that car, she trusted her instincts and reacted. Her quick decision at the stop sign could very well have saved her life.

If you read my Life-Saving Resolutions series, you know how much I value awareness and intuition in regards to personal safety, much due to Gavin de Becker’s revolutionary book, The Gift of Fear. When I use my fear as a tool—rather than talk myself out of it—and react responsibly, I tell friends I had a “GOF moment.” I’m amazed at how many we all experience. We may never how much listening and responding to our instincts helps us, and that’s perfectly okay by me. 

One of many things I love about The Gift of Fear is its emphasis on people who overcame the odds, escaping their attackers to survive. Because I find such stories ultra-inspiring, I’ve decided to launch a new series featuring GOF fear moments. We can learn a lot from others’ experiences. Take, for example, these posts:

Stacy Green: Thriller Thursday: Personal Tragedy While this story doesn’t have a happy ending, it reminds us how important gut instincts are. When we feel creeped out, it’s for a reason.

Kourtney Heinz: The Cost of Distracted Driving No phone call or text is worth taking our minds and eyes off the road. The woman featured survived, but barely. And she and her family can use our help.

Natalie Hartford: He Watched His Grandmother Die: Words from a Survivor This heart-wrenching post gives a face and name to an issue that continues to run rampant, though most of us know the risks. Knowing without reacting is like not knowing at all.

Moi: In case you missed it, my post Lifesaving Resolution #4: Trusting Your Instincts, details the time I was followed home from photo shoot in NYC. Numerous readers shared GOF moments in the comments—insightful stuff!

What sticky situations have you managed to get out of? What “stop sign” inspired a turn for the better? Any GOF moments to share? I’m all eyes/ears. ;)

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