Chez Shaffner

Friday, January 26, 2007

Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

* * * * * If you’ve seen only the previews on television, you will be grossly unprepared for the pervasive darkness of Pan’s Labyrinth. Disturbing as the character with eyeballs in his palms may be when shown for five seconds in the trailer, I certainly imagined the fantasy aspects of this film as a form of escape for Ofelia (a strong performance from young Ivana Baquéro). Unfortunately, the poor girl has no such luck. The fantasy world of fauns and princesses offers her a slender ray of hope, but to reach it she must navigate several horrendous trials, from retrieving a golden key from the belly of a giant toad to facing down the aforementioned creature.

Throughout the film, watch for intersections between fantasy and reality. One cannot so easily dismiss the fantasy as pure escapism; the chalk on the wall, the mandrake beneath her mother’s bed, and the soiled dress are all too real to dismiss. Think about that when you reach the ending...

Visually arresting and keenly acted from start to finish, Pan’s Labyrinth seems a virtual lock on the upcoming foreign film Academy Award. It’s well deserving of such accolades, but first and foremost, this is a thriller. The tension swirled my guts from the first moment Ofelia and her mother arrive at the converted mill lorded over by Capitán Vidal all the way to the credits. I left the theatre trained and dumbstruck.

Capitán Vidal (portrayed masterfully by Sergi López) is one evil motherf#%&er. More than once my thoughts wandered to the scene in Schindler’s List when Ralph Fiennes picks off random concentration camp victims from his balcony. I remember watching that film in a packed theatre in Bangor, Maine, thinking that I could not have imagined such evil possible, in life or film. Well, Pan’s Vidal is one of the cruelest, most vile characters ever to grace the silver screen. We spot only minor cracks in his armor, such as the moment while shaving when he pantomimes slitting his own throat or later, when he stitches sutures.

Ultimately, the film’s second heroine, guerilla-conspirator-cum-head-servant Mercedes (well portrayed by Maribel Verdú), nearly saves Ofelia, but arrives too late. The ending, which I will not spoil for you today, was so much nastier than I could have anticipated. Brutal, dark, and almost happy.

This movie receives a perfect rating of 5 shaffners…

IMDB.com profile.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

While I’m Ranting…

Since I’m in kind of a rant-and-rave kind of mood, I thought I may as well share another gripe...

I bought my laptop (Dell XPS M1210) in August 2006. So it’s not quite six months old. This afternoon, I moved from the couch back to my desk and plugged the AC adapter into the back. Up pops a warning message:

“Your battery is able to charge normally. However it is reaching the end of its usable life. You can experience a longer operating time with a new battery. You might want to consider purchasing a replacement battery now.”

And then, to add insult to injury…

“A normal characteristic of a rechargable battery is that its operating duration decreases over time. The battery may eventually need to be replaced. Based on this characteristic, consumed batteries may not be covered under warranty.”

And finally, a button that takes you directly into the Dell accessories catalog. $197 for a replacement that probably will last me another six whole months.

Can you believe that? The battery has a six-month life expectancy? Yet I had the same ThinkPad for almost four years in my last job and never once replaced the battery (the screen had to be replaced twice, but that’s another story).

This strikes me as ripe fodder for a class action lawsuit down the line… Apparently this is not an isolated issue. This link discusses the same situation for other young laptops.

Phew, I feel better having these rants out of my system. Tomorrow I’ll get back to more fun-filled musings...

On Brooks Brothers

This afternoon, I picked up a shiny new suit from Brooks Brothers. After they re-cut the pants, hemmed the cuff, lifted the sleeves, and brought in the sides, it fits me like a…well, a tailored suit. The suit grants me über-confidence, remarkable powers of persuasion, super-human strength, movie star good looks, and x-ray vision. I am a better man for owning this garment.

The suit makes its world début from the Miss America Pageant next Monday in Las Vegas (Keryn’s doing, I swear). Program your TiVo / DVR for CMT and look for me in the balcony.

In the process of acquiring this suit, I learned one important lesson: the folks at Brooks Brothers are assholes and they will never get another dollar of business from me. (Here’s hoping their corporate people read this and comment).

For too many years to admit, I have wanted a real Brooks Brothers suit to replace the bargain basement ones in my closet, but I never had the money (and frankly, I don’t wear suits often enough to justify the expense). A few months back, though, while transitioning out of my prior job, I set about analyzing options for redeeming my Amex Membership Rewards Points before they cut my corporate card into wafer-thin strips. “Ooh,” I said, “here’s my chance to get that magical navy blue two-button suit!”

One day later, the gift cards arrived by UPS (which means Brooks Brothers got my/their money six months ago, the ungrateful bastards). Keryn and I finally made the shopping excursion the week after Christmas, just in time for their semi-annual sale.

It may have been busy that day, but there’s no excuse for letting us stand in the middle of the store with our hands raised like schoolchildren without so much as a someone-will-be-with-you-shortly wave. Gift cards burning holes in my pocket, fifty years of potential suit-shopping ahead of me, not a single salesman stopped by…

Bad move.

I took matters into my own hands. Picked out a suit and marched into the fitting room. The tailor tried to ignore me, but once we were the only men in the small mirrored room, he had little choice but approach me, tape measure in hand. He advise me to pick a bigger size and asked “who was helping you?” When I answered that nobody was, I don’t think he believed me. I could see in his eyes (remember, ye tailors, that you’re measuring us in front of a mirror—we can see your face) that he thought I was trying to cheat some hard-working man out of his commission.

Brooks Brothers should go ahead and write out that commission payment to me… PayPal preferred.

Let this be a lesson to all you readers in the market for a new suit. May I suggest your favorite department store instead?

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How Long It Takes

If you were to ask a panel of average persons how long they think it takes to write a novel, the median estimate would probably come in somewhere between five and eight months. That’s pure conjecture, but I’d gamble $10 that it’s close to the mark. I can tell you with some certainty they wouldn’t think in terms of years… but they should.

Once upon a time…I, too, thought six months was in the neighborhood. Even after I began work on my first novel—200 pages cranked out in seven weeks—I thought I would have a finished product, ready for agents and auctions and galleys and gala release parties and book tours with nary a word changed by an intrusive editor… That book, which I’ve spoken of before in the blog, has been dead since early 2004.

Monday night I attended a meeting of a local writers’ group and when I announced that I finished my first novel over the holidays, everyone applauded. Within a few minutes, I had orally delivered my sharpened pitch (available over at Publishers Marketplace) and expanded on a few questions. I fended off attempts to paint the novel as autobiographical (perhaps I should have Billy re-matriculate at Princeton). And then someone asked the question prompting this blog: “how long did you work on it?”

The files have moved around from computer to computer, so those dates aren’t reliable. But I posted the first piece of the novel to an online workshop (Zoetrope) on 6/19/2004, one day before my 27th birthday. By then, I had to have been working on it for at least two months (probably more). One file, containing a mere scrap (too lousy to publish here), entitled “Paper Mill Murders,” bears a last modified date of 9/23/2003.

I mailed my first query letter on 1/7/2007.

A conservative estimate pegs this project at THREE YEARS from conception to representation. (That's assuming I find an agent in the next 2-3 months, hardly a certainty!)

Now, for all those non-writers out there, here's another dose of reality. Tack on an optimistic 3-6 months for an agent to sell my manuscript, and 18 months from publisher acceptance to publication, and you’re talking about FIVE YEARS from scribbling my first notes until my book finds space on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. (Actually, where I want to see that hardcover is in the greeting area of Trident, the coffee shop and bookstore where I edited half of it!)

What takes so long? A few friends have asked me this question over the last two years, prompted, no doubt, by how far apart in time they heard me say “I’ve almost finished!” The answer is that you have to travel a good distance between the first draft and anything worthy of sharing. The shape of the story may remain, but wordsmithing takes hours and hours. My favorite quote on the challenge of a novel (and the difference between writing styles comes from A Moveable Feast. There, Hemingway is talking about Scott Fitzgerald (who wrote quickly) and says:

    "Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph." – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I wish I had the kind of discipline to get every word right the first time through (I have to believe the computer has all but eradicated that style of craft). But the reality is that I have gone over some chapters of my novel, red pen in hand, one hundred times. I know I’ve talked about this before on the old version of my blog, but it bears repeating. ONE HUNDRED TIMES. Just the other day, I deleted an entire chapter that contained sentences I wrote back at the beginning. That’s editing. (And I’m far from finished with that task!)

This has been a meandering entry, but it’s a topic that has been on my mind for a while now. Now I’ll go back to fidgeting over what a certain agent thinks of my manuscript…

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Song Stuck in My Head

Here’s a half-jesting plea to the pharmaceutical companies: can you devise a pill, elixir, or shot that will get a song unstuck from my head? I know that I'm not alone in facing this dire life challenge. (I mean, if it made it to WebMD, that makes it a legit medical condition, doesn't it?)

Think about how much it costs America when folks can’t shake awful songs from their brains. Lost productivity, increased potential for rage, infecting surrounding co-workers with their disease… Now, some of you might read this and say: “there you go, Shaffner, exaggerating again.” Well, all I can say is that you’re not in my head right now, so you don’t know the pain I’m suffering.

Going on four days now, what’s replaying in my head? How about the McDonald’s “Dollar Menu-naires” jingle. Why does it always have to be something so loathsome and irritating? That commercial annoys the shit out of me, and now…I can’t…escape…its clutches…must eat $1 cheeseburgers…

I suppose that’s the sign of an effective commercial: stirring strong emotions and slinking into viewers’ brains despite their vehement objections. It may be physically impossible to watch the NFL doubleheader (CBS or FOX) on Sunday without at least once humming that infernal Chevrolet advertisement. You know the one.

But why can’t I ever, just once, find a song stuck in my head that I actually enjoy? Why not Beethoven? Or the Allman Brothers? Or Cowboy Mouth? Or Imogen Heap? Let me give you a glimpse into two recent afflictions:

  • ”Dick in a Box” - The SNL Skit featuring Justin Timberlake. Funniest skit I’ve seen in a LONG time, but stay out of my head, Timberlake!
  • ”Shuffle off to Buffalo” – Not just any version, but Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street, and only the chorus. I blame myself for this; bought the Busby Berkeley Collection as Xmas gift to Keryn… Two weeks stuck in my head.

I plead to you today, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca: give me hope.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Up All Night...

Does it count as an all-nighter if you go to bed at 5:30am? I wonder where the true cut-off stands. I’m going to answer my own question and say that if you make it past 5:00am then your evening officially qualifies for all-nighter status. In that case, I’m nursing a mighty hangover from last night’s unexpected all-nighter.

You see, I got home from the grocery store last night at 8pm to find that a literary agent had requested my complete manuscript. My stomach hasn’t settled since then (going on 22 hours now), but I managed to get the manuscript out the door early this morning.

Of course the book was finished. There’s a rule about that: never submit to an agent unless your book is finished. It’s just that I have a to-do list of little tweaks I’d been postponing.

  • Add reference to “X” in Chapter 12.
  • Have Billy say “Y” in Chapter 6.
  • Check consistency of Billy’s friends’ parents’ names.
  • Confirm Billy and Ginny’s first date happens on a Wednesday.

As feedback trickled in from my various readers over the last month, I collected their nits and suggestions in a spreadsheet while I focused on writing the ending. (Digression: It’s no wonder so many endings suck. They’re awful hard to write.) Mr. King, I apologize for the curses I cast your way upon reaching the conclusion of The Stand...

But I’m not really here to talk about my book; I’m here to contemplate The All-Nighter.

There is something special about staying awake through the night and accomplishing a goal while the rest of the city sleeps. Those lazy people, think what they could have done if they had worked through the night!

I enjoy the peculiar silence of 3:00-5:00am on a weekday. I remember, like it was yesterday, walking through the corridors of my dormitory in search of one more can of Mountain Dew. All the thermostats were set at 63deg on the assumption that everyone would be nestled in their beds at that hour; I shivered under woolen layers and pinned my eyelids back with another swig of caffeine.

At some point in the night, one you fight past the depths of fatigue, you find a special clarity, a hyper-awareness of your world. You notice the sounds of pipes and wonder who has called them into service. Staring at your computer screen, you find errors you overlooked when others filled adjacent seats in the library. Fresh ideas spring onto the page, since it seems that the internal editor (the hyper-critical one, anyway) heads to bed around 3:30am.

Anyone who has stayed up through the night knows the unique feeling of observing the dawn. When you get up to an alarm clock before sunrise and the room slowly brightens, it is expected rather than profound. But when you stay up all night, the brightening is different somehow, nearly magical.

Eventually, weariness overwhelms you. But even that fatigue is special, different from the sleepiness one feels at a normal bedtime.

I think everyone should sneak an all-nighter into their itinerary once or twice a year, if only to feel that blend of excitement and fatigue in their bones.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Where Does It Go?

That’s what I want to know. Where does the time vanish to? I’ve been at work for a little over an hour already, and Outlook tells me it’s time to move on from my new writing project to do some real (paid) work. It doesn’t seem like my morning writing hour can be over so quickly. Yet there’s the clock telling me it’s 9:05am and Outlook saying that I’m five minutes overdue to start the next task in my daily agenda.

It seems that every day zips past like a rogue express train and leaves me standing on the platform. Take yesterday, for example. According to this nifty gadget in my Google Desktop Sidebar, I worked 3.0 hours for my part-time employer and worked on fiction for 3.0 hours, too. Add to that an hour and a half for the gym, half an hour for lunch, half an hour for showers and other bathroom trips, thirty minutes of Spanish lessons on CD-ROM, one hour blogging, and I still can’t explain why I felt so BUSY yesterday from 8:00am to 1:15am and fell asleep on the couch obsessing over how little I’d accomplished…

I’m hardly the first person to notice the acceleration of time with age, but lately it has seemed so damn acute. Feels like I work more hours on my work now than I ever could during my years on the road, yet I don’t feel as if I accomplish any more than before! That’s a debilitating feeling.

Well, I’ve gone and done it now. Another ten minutes down the tubes. Outlook is pissed; I’d best appease her before she chooses to punish me by purging all those hard-won Contacts…

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Delurking Week


I have to make a confession even though I’m not Catholic and don’t know the lyrics to Hail Mary (I can do a wicked Our Father, however).

Here goes: When it comes to following blogs, I’m sort of a novice...

There, I’ve said it. There are some that I check every day, but I marvel at how many people out there read two dozen blogs every day. Where do they find the time? As soon as I launch my first barrage of query letters, I’m going to try to spend twenty minutes per day scouring the blogosphere, because I feel a little left behind sometimes...

Earlier tonight, I learned that we are in the midst of Delurking Week. Seems that I’m not the only one who shies away from commenting. Interestingly, the more dedicated I am to maintaining my blog, the more I feel compelled to comment on other blogs. Probably that’s because I get so few comments around these parts… (how’s that for a guilt trip?)

Okay, I’m off to add my inane comments to a bunch of random blogs…

A Fun Lunchtime Diversion

Reporting back on yesterday’s workshop. Rather than forty-five minutes of free writing, the session had a big more structure, as the instructor came with handouts. The handouts suggested ways of turning every day’s lunch hour into a writing exercise. For example:

  • Choose two people in the cafeteria or restaurant and imagine their conversation.
  • Describe your sandwich.
  • Close your eyes and observe the lunchroom through the sounds.
  • Repeat, using the aromas in the room.

These may sound kind of cheesy, but her central thesis was that by forcing yourself to write from some pretty mundane prompts, you’re bound to stumble across something good. In other words, you’re bound to find a seed somewhere along the line, and if you plant that seed you might end up with a short story (or whatever it is that you write).

With fifteen minutes remaining, she asked us to write about breakfast. For ten minutes, fifteen writers scrawled as quickly as they could. And then she made us read. Not an option. Around the room (counter-clockwise, which seemed wrong), each of us read our first and last sentences. It wasn’t that awful after all.

I promise something more interesting tomorrow… Tying up loose ends in my novel’s ending is sucking the life out of me…

Just for the hell of it, here’s what I produced in that ten minutes yesterday… Ain’t pretty.

    When Keryn sits beside me on the edge of the bed, it’s my cue to wake. I have been varying degrees of awake since her alarm sounded an hour ago. She has showered and dressed, consumed her daily bowl of cereal with soy milk, and applied her makeup at the coffee table while watching Sex and the City on DVD. I haven’t moved from my pillow. It’s still too early for my taste, quarter to eight. She has to leave now, walk to the garage, and drive to Waltham. My commute is somewhat less arduous—soon I must move from the bedroom to the dining room table, my makeshift workspace. She kisses me good-bye and I wish she could stay ten minutes more. But she can’t. She’s already running late.

    I’m never hungry so soon after waking, but my stomach grumbles for tea and caffeine. A year ago, before I met her, I had never sipped hot tea. (Impossible! you protest. But true.) Now a dozen varieties are arranged neatly in a flip-top chest on our counter. I set the water to boil and drop a tea bag in an empty cup. A year ago the word “bergamot” was not in my vocabulary, never mind its scent one I could recognize from across a crowded restaurant.

That’s what you get in ten minutes without editing…

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Brown Bag Lunch

Above: Portrait of the artist when called on during group discussion or writing workshop…

Tomorrow I’m going to an event around the corner at Grub Street. As their weekly newsletter, the Grub Street Rag, puts it: “Bring your lunch and come on over to Grub Street for a Brown Bag Writing Workshop. In 45 jam-packed minutes, you’ll meet fellow writers and get your creative juices flowing with some great writing exercises.”

I’m kind of a novice when it comes to these kinds of events. Although the binder on the desk contains 400 manuscript pages, writing workshops terrify me.

If I had to guess, I’d say that my friends, family, and former colleagues would characterize me as talkative, loud, and sometimes overbearing. But in a classroom situation I freeze. Several weeks ago, while sorting through old boxes in my basement, I unearthed a cache of papers from college. In the comments on a paper about Dreiser I found the following: “Great ideas, wish you’d express them more often in class.” Similar comments peppered my weekly response papers across the spectrum of disciplines, from sociology to economics to literature. In fact, when I examined syllabi for potential classes, I eliminated any that weighted class participation more than 5%. For four years in Cambridge, whenever I did conceive something insightful, sweat erupted from my palms. By the time I spat my brilliance into the air, it came out so mangled that it seldom (never) prompted the oohs and ahhs I desired. I retreated into terrapin ritual.

In May 2006, my first week as a consultant, one of the clients wondered to a colleague whether I was capable of speaking. By the time I parted ways with that client three years later, she could not believe she could ever said such a thing. It has never been a problem at work in seven years. As a result, until recently I thought myself cured of stage fright. If only I could go back to college now, what a sparkling contributor I’d be!

And then I went to the Grub Street Brown Bag lunch in December.

The exercises were fun enough (hey, I’m going back, aren’t I?). There was an opening line (I couldn’t believe what I saw) and every two minutes she gave us a word we had to use (e.g., black, hose). It was liberating to let my pencil fly, especially since I’m so accustomed to composing on the computer. After twenty minutes, she switched us over to another exercise. Basically, start with “I remember” and run with it. She endorsed it as an effective block-breaker, and I might even use it that way if the need arises.

But then she wanted us to read. I never know whether it’s better to make gratuitous eye contact or to exaggeratedly avoid eye contact. Seems like different instructors respond differently. I chose to make eye contact, and when she asked me to read, I said no. The shock on her face was worth the price of admission (that’s $0, in case I failed to mention it). “No?” I gave in, reading four lines of unedited crap.

Tomorrow I hope to read the nerve to recite five lines. Ought to conquer that fear sooner or later, don’t you think?


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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Revamped Website

I have been talking about wanting to revamp this website for about four years now. As you can see, I've finally gone and done it. I've been debugging and programming for about seven hours now, but I think it was well worth it.

My intention on rising this morning was not to re-write the website and blog, but to work on my novel and work on debugging a data migration (don't ask). But after one quick search, I found open source web layouts. In fifteen minutes of tinkering, I had a working replacement for my home page. Six hours later, I had reposted most entries in this blog...

With that task complete, and the Chiefs on the board in their showdown against the Colts, I'm going to call it a day.

I would really appreciate any comments or feedback on the new look!

Friday, January 05, 2007

My Publishers Marketplace Page

As I struggle to revise the final chapter to my novel (so close to finished I can taste it), I am gearing up for the long road to finding an agent. Over the next several months, I’ll have plenty to say about this arduous process.

But for now, I’m here to announce I created a skeleton of an entry on Publishers Marketplace. Like this website and blog, it will be receiving an overhaul through the upcoming month, but at least it’s a start! Let me know what you think...

By the way, I was amazed to find that after one day live, the page had already climbed onto the first page of Google results for my name (yes, I'll own to googling myself from time to time...) It took six months for my other blog to do that!

For those in my audience who aren’t writers or agents (in other words, for 95% of you), Publishers Marketplace provides various services to writing professionals, including a daily email of all writing deals closed during the prior business day. You can look up an agent and find out his/her clients and recent deals, which is critical information in determining the right list of potential agents. I’ve been scouring it and other sources, building up a master list of those agents who would be the best fits for my little story.

The first batch of queries should head out by postal and electronic mail next week sometime... Keep your fingers crossed.

Wild Hogs and Mall Hair

It seems there’s a wild hog story everywhere these days.

Until a year ago, I lived a simpler life, one where the phrase “feral hogs” had never fallen from my lips. And then I read an article in The New Yorker (December 12, 2005) by Ian Frazier, that provided more information than you can imagine regarding the grave problem facing America—the proliferation of wild boars. (Mr. Frazier also took time to note that if you plot the population density of feral hogs on a blue to red scale, with red being those areas most heavily populated, you’ll end up with a map closely mapping to the 2004 Presidential Election – funny stuff). If you can dig up the issue, I recommend it highly. Feral pigs are a national menace!

The big news out of Georgia is that a local man killed a giant boar that may be (or may not be) the world-famous Hogzilla. Check out the CNN video (if the link doesn’t work right, go to http://www.cnn.com and search for it).

My favorite part of the whole thing is the teen boy who says that this dead hog “feels like a girl wearing hairspray.” Wow. I shudder to think of what his girlfriend looks like. I grew up in rural Maine during the late 80’s and early 90’s, so I’ve seen my fair share of “mall hair” (one girl in my senior yearbook lists her nickname as “the girl with the hair”). It’s safe to say that I never thought to compare that hair to a 1,100 lb. pig carcass hanging from a maple.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Why I Hate Resolutions

Riffing on my earlier posting about “under-promise and over-deliver” -- thought I would spend a couple hundred words on New Year’s Resolutions. Sure, it’s a banal enough topic, covered last week on ten thousand blogs and in every newspaper and magazine at the corner store.

That’s why I waited until January 4th to bring it up. (Also, because I'm lazy.)

By now, I bet 25% of the resolutions made prior to midnight kisses and champagne toasts have fallen by the wayside. (I wrote 50%, but realized I might not be giving folks enough credit--for now I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt).

The problem with resolutions is that people fall into the same trap as those rah-rah consultants I talked about this morning: they aim too high, promise too much, and land on their noses.

When most of us set goals--and what are resolutions if not a set of goals we establish for ourselves the same time each year--we define ones that are, plainly, unachievable. We may have our reasons for this behavior. The person who says he’s going to quit smoking or drinking or eating red meat might not want to succeed. But most people enter January 1st with the best intentions.

Jenny wants to lose ten pounds--for real.

Harry wants to write his novel this year--and this time around he means it.

LuAnn wants to meet Mr. Right in 2007.

I say it’s time for a little under-promising. Rather than resolve to “go to the gym every day,” register for a 5K race on April 20th (preferably one with an entrance fee--that's extra binding). Similarly, instead of resolving to pen an entire novel-- which is way more challenging than anyone who hasn’t written one can imagine--promise you'll write 1,000 words each week. When you find inspiration one week and explode with 3,891 words, you’ll have something to get amped up about, something to propel you though the upcoming doldrums.

This is the first year I’ve taken my own advice to heart. As a result, my resolutions are weird. I’m not going to list them here, for fear of documenting my failure...

Okay, I’ll give you one: take a Spanish class at the Boston Center for Adult Ed. Last year, I would have listed “Learn Spanish” as my resolution, and given up by February.

Hasta luego... y Prospero Año Nuevo (gearing up for that class!).

Under-Promise - Over-Deliver

One of my favorite old bosses used to tell us all the time that we should strive to under-promise and over-deliver for our clients. In other words, if you think something requires ten hours of effort, tell the client it might take up to fifteen. Then, when you deliver the goods in ten, they will smile.

When I first heard this mote of wisdom, my initial thought was that it was kind of sneaky. Like reading Dilbert and watching Office Space before I’d spent a day trapped between cubicle walls, the sagacity of this simple statement—under-promise; over-deliver—escaped me. But its truth grew apparent in due time.

Basic psychology underlies this concept. If you come to expect something and receive only that, you are pleased, but not excited. Let’s look at that effort estimate described above. If I said ten hours and it took ten hours, my estimate was spot-on, and you got what you asked for. But if I told you fifteen, then you would look on that very same ten hours with a different eye.

What do most people do? They know it'll take ten, but they say nine. Where's the wisdom in that? No wonder there are so many disappointed people in the world.

My old boss's primary concern was not in bringing a smile to the client’s face, precisely, but that if you promise too much, you can set yourself up for failure. He espoused cautious realism rather than the rampant optimism some consultants bring to the table (I hate those rah-rah types). And in the end, his approach led to higher client satisfaction than if we had promised the world and fallen short.

Several months back, I finally realized this simple tenet ought not be limited to the consulting/double-speak lexicon. Instead, it can become a way of life.

For example. let’s suppose I’m cooking dinner for my girl:

- I’m not really sure how this is going to come out...

- I couldn’t find the recipe I wanted, so I guess I’ll have to wing it...

- I hope you like it...

- Just in case, I picked up a frozen pizza. You know, in case I burn the stew...

What happens when you string together--carefully now, or you ride the slippery slope to irritating self-deprecation--such phrases?

Your audience comes to expect an utterly miserable dining experience. And that’s exactly what you want! If you actually do--God forbid--burn the stew, you’ve covered your ass. And if it comes out great (or even marginal) your guest will come away impressed. You under-promised, and over-delivered.

Only problem is that, after a while, folks tend to catch on. Solution: Mix it up. Sometimes you need to hit your estimate on the head. And once in a blue moon you should fail—with something that doesn’t count. Burn the toast, maybe?

A little later, I’ll share how this relates to the problem of NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS. Come visit again soon.