Learning Languages Through a Systems-Oriented Process

I read this article on Inc a few weeks ago and it has completely changed my life. I would highly recommend that you read it in its entirety (don’t worry, it’s not very long), but I’m still going to talk about it in great detail anyway.

The author, James Clear, writing as a guest columnist for regular Inc writer Jeff Haden, describes an innovative way of accomplishing goals: don’t think about them at all. Instead, think about the systems you have in place on a day-to-day basis rather than the actual accomplishment of the goal. It sounds paradoxical, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

So what’s the difference between a goal and a system?

James describes it this way: if you’re an entrepreneur, your goal is building a business, while your system is the process you have for generating sales, marketing your product, etc. Another example he gives–I like this one because it is near and dear to my heart–is if you’re a writer, your goal is to write a book. Your system is your writing schedule (in my case, writing at least 500 words a day).

What’s the advantage to focusing on systems?

James lists three reasons why you should focus on systems, not goals. First, goals make us unhappy. As long as they’re not accomplished, we’re not “good enough” yet. And if we don’t accomplish them, then we’re failures. (It sounds extreme, but I’ve definitely had both of those thoughts before.) He says we should instead stick to a schedule. Don’t stress about writing a whole book. Instead, get a writing schedule and stick to it.

Second, he says goals are “strangely at odds with long-term progress.” As in, you don’t stay motivated for a long time. For example, a person finishes and sells a book manuscript, but then stops writing. If you instead focused on a system (your writing schedule), you would get a lot more writing done in the long term.

I confess I didn’t completely understand his third reason, so I’m not going to talk about it here. (If you read the article and understand it, feel free to let me know what you think.) Besides, the first two reasons are more than enough to convince me to try this idea out.

How does this relate to language learning?

Here’s how I plan to apply this to my language learning. No matter what language you’re working on, no matter what level you are at, I think everyone could benefit from thinking like this.

  • Instead of saying that my goal is to improve my Russian vocabulary, I am going to focus on learning one—just one—Russian verb a day. (Okay, technically it will be two verbs a day, since Russian verbs come in pairs, but that’s beside the point.) My weakness right now is vocabulary, especially verbs, so I need a system in place to learn more words.
  • Instead of setting a goal to read a certain amount of books in Russian, I am going to have a system in which I read a chapter or two of a Russian book every day. Right now I’m working on a nonfiction history book about Polish-Russian relations in the twentieth century.
  • I’m not going to worry about my goal of understanding the spoken Russian in movies and TV shows (excluding news programs—I’m pretty good at those right now!). Instead, I am going to watch Russian movies and TV on a regular basis.

Honestly, I feel better already just having written this. What language learning goals (or other goals) do you have that you could reframe using this idea of systems?

Two Recommended Posts For Aspiring Writers

If you’re an aspiring writer, I have found two excellent blog posts that you need to read, right now. Both are on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog (which every aspiring writer and writer ought to read regularly).

The first one I am going to talk about was written later (today) and concerns the issue of “sloppy first drafts.” There’s a myth in the writing world, Dean says, that the first draft you write of a work of fiction is bad, and then you go back later and fix it. What is the point of this, he asks.

But writing a sloppy first draft to just get something on the page has always puzzled me, right from the first time I heard that way of working in an English class.

Why not write it in the cleanest and best way you can the first time?

Why set up more work?

No need to write me on that with your passionate beliefs as to why you write sloppy to start. Trust me, I have heard all the reasons and still don’t understand. I believe that practice is trained into us by English teachers. It sure has nothing to do with the reality of creation of art.

I’m starting to think that the theory of a sloppy first draft is right there with the myths of needing an agent to sell a book and no one can make a living writing fiction. And clearly, the sloppy first draft myth plays hand-in-hand with the rewrite myth.

There’s more to the post and you definitely should read it. I love the post because it resonates with what I do. I’m not big on writing multiple drafts. I know I’m not a professional writer (yet!), but my drafts don’t change that much from start to finish. I correct typos, make sure everything flows (as in, make sure characters’ ages, physical appearance, etc. doesn’t change throughout the book), maybe reorder a couple of things—but that’s it. At the risk of sounding arrogant or pretentious, what comes out onto the page at first is pretty darn close to the finished product. This happened when I was in school, too. I rarely, if ever, revised anything. (And I earned top marks in all of my writing-related classes, just to let you know.)

The next post I want to draw your attention to is this one, which has a discussion on shifting projects. I am a chronic project-switcher, by which I mean I never finish anything. (Except until recently. I finally got my act together and am on track to finish my novel soon!) Dean has a few useful guidelines about project switching.

1) Never do it because you think a book sucks. I actually think what I wrote on Martian Lover is fine, if I had to make a judgment call, which I try not to do. And am often wrong with my own work.

If you stop at the 1/3 point, which is where most writers lose faith in a book and think it sucks, then you will always stop there with every book. Power on though and finish at that point.

2) Never look at switching projects as a failure. I switched out because I flat couldn’t get the Thunder Mountain universe out of my head and it was annoying me. And the book I was writing was humor and at the moment I don’t feel too damned funny. (grin)

3) Never switch out a book because you are bored. Change the damn book itself, make the book exciting to write. This happens the most often it seems when writers feel they need to outline. They have created the book in the outline, thus writing the book is boring after they get it started. If that happens, stop outlining and write into the dark.

4) If you switch out books very often, you more than likely have another issue you are not dealing with. I have written seventeen novels in the last 16 months or so. I have started and switched out of three others along the way. One out of every five or six feels decent to me.

5) Trust your subconscious to tell you what you are passionate about. Learn to listen to that little voice. I finished the other Thunder Mountain book a few days ago and figured I needed to write something else. That was my critical voice talking instead of listening to my creative voice which wanted to go on in the Thunder Mountain world. I finally listened.

If all that hasn’t convinced you that you should read Dean’s blog every day, I don’t know what will. :)

Tips For Writing A Young Adult Novel

I read a lot of free books on Kindle. (You can, too, if you want: type “free Kindle books” into the search bar in the Kindle store and you will be rewarded with thousands of free works to download.) Some of them are great, but most range from mediocre to bad. I read one in the latter category (somewhere along the mediocre-to-bad continuum) last weekend. When I finished it, I knew I definitely wasn’t going to read the next two in the series, even though I had downloaded a free box set of the first three novels in the series.

Then I realized what a great learning opportunity this was. I firmly believe that reading bad writing can be just as instructive as reading good writing. Good writing shows us what to do; bad writing shows us what notto do. So, without further ado, here is a list of points to consider when writing a young adult novel:

  • Likability of the main character: there’s got to be at least something redeeming about your main character. In the Bad Novel I read, the main character started off alright, but quickly took a turn for the worse. She turned into a bratty, rude, disrespectful, and overall unpleasant person. Look, I know she’s young (seventeen) and in a strange situation throughout the book, but her behavior was so annoying and a bit unrealistic. In the start of the book, she develops awesome superpowers and is being hunted by a psychopathic killer. An agency offers to take her in and help her. Naturally, since she’s never heard of them, she is distrustful of their motives and wonders if they really want to help her or just want to use her. She spends the entire book suspicious of all the people who work for this agency. But instead of being guarded and showing suspicion, she belittles them and is rude to them. By the end, I was rooting for the poor beleaguered agency employees to toss her out to deal with the psychopathic killer herself. Yes, she was so annoying, I literally was rooting for her to die so she couldn’t be in another book. It was that bad.
  • Characters should be realistic: one of the people working for the agency verbally sparred with our annoying main character on a frequent basis and sounded like a teenage girl every time he did so. The problem? He wasn’t a teenage girl—he was an adult man, about forty or so. Note to authors: please don’t make an adult man living in the northern US sound like a spoiled Valley girl.
  • Villains that are actually frightening: by definition, a villain should be scary. Yet the villain in this Bad Novel was not. The main thing that made him not terribly frightening was the way he spoke. He spoke about himself in the third person and he always sounded like an elementary school teacher talking to a bunch of little kids. Speaking about oneself in the third person is fine—if one is speaking to a group of five-year-olds. Seriously, drop the third person speech if you want your villain to be scary.

I’m sure there are more problems I could talk about, but I can’t think of any more off the top of my head (and as you’ve probably gathered, I’m not about to go reread the book!).

Bottom line: it’s okay if your main character sometimes does and says stupid things. That makes the book realistic, which is great! Just don’t make the character so annoying that by the end, the poor reader is rooting for this character to get bumped off.

An Important Milestone

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen that I’m working on a novel. It’s a redraft of what I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2013 and I’ve been working on it since August. Prior to this book, which I have resolved to finish no matter what, I started and abandoned tons of manuscripts. Seriously, it’s ridiculous. My hard drive is littered with old novel attempts. The longest I wrote without finishing it was just over 65,000 words.

I am happy to report that my current manuscript is 68,000 words. I feel like I have broken through a psychological barrier. The end is in sight. I can feel it. Things are getting very exciting for my main character. I’m also a terrible judge of my own writing, but I think this novel is probably the best work of fiction I’ve written so far. It flows better than the 65,000-word behemoth I abandoned, that’s for sure.

I just wrote 1,215 words in forty-five minutes. That’s an excellent rate. If I had kept writing, I probably would have hit about 1,600 before the hour was up. I do have a brand-new book on my Kindle calling to me, though, so I am going to go read that. :)


The most random things make me happy. There’s this Russian TV series that looks like it’s going to be amazing. Don’t believe me? Watch the trailer embedded below. Yes, it has English subtitles. :)

Or click here for the video on YouTube.

It’s called “Sun of the Wolf” (that sounds weird in English but I don’t now how else to translate it). Doesn’t the trailer look amazing? It has everything I like: history, spies, Russia, the Russian civil war, attractive dudes speaking Russian… what’s not to like?!?

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to watch the series as I couldn’t find it anywhere online. It was supposed to come out this year. I think it just came out recently because I searched for it, yet again, but this time was rewarded with actual episodes.

Now please excuse me while I go watch the first episode…

The Most Popular Politician In Moldova

This is priceless:

The Socialist Party’s billboard advertisement shows the party’s top leaders in an intimate conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The party’s election campaign motto was, “A Prosperous Moldova Together with a Powerful Russia.” The Socialist Party calls for abrogating Moldova’s Association Agreement with the European Union and for holding a referendum on Moldova’s accession to the Russia-led Customs Union (to be expanded into the Eurasian Union as of January 1, 2015). Symbolically at least, this is a party of the Red Left (Soviet five-pointed red star as electoral trademark, red flag, no political affiliations in Europe).

Putin has long ranked as the most popular of all politicians in Moldovan opinion surveys (a reflection of Russian television’s impact on this society). Socialist Party leader Dodon has become the first Moldovan politician to associate himself with the Putin image and capitalize on it. The Kremlin has evidently authorized this image transfer, which catapulted Dodon from obscurity to sudden prominence.

You know a country has bad politicians if the most popular politician in that country is foreign!

Tsarist Symbol Returns To Winter Palace

My friends, this story makes me so happy. You probably know by now that I am an ardent admirer of all things imperial Russia, so the news that the double-headed eagle that used to grace the tower at the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, warms my heart.

A golden double headed eagle, a symbol of Tsarist Russia will be installed on top of the Telegraph Tower of the Winter Palace later this week in St. Petersburg.

The three-sided sculpture, cast in bronze by Russian experts, is gilded with gold leaf, is more than 2.5 m high, 2 m wide, and weighs 600 kg. The recreation of the sculpture took seven months to complete.

The double-headed eagle was removed from the Telegraph Tower of the Winter Palace in 1930, after which the original sculpture disappeared.

One of the symbols of state power of the Russian Empire, it was decided to recreate the sculpture for the 250th anniversary of the State Hermitage Museum, which is celebrated at the end of the year.

And since a picture’s worth a thousand words, here’s a photo of the emblem in question:

Click to see larger

Click to see larger