Friday, December 30, 2011

The End (Of the Year)

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It’s nearly the end of the year.  I began this blog somewhere along the lines of one year ago, back when I had no clue what I was doing (now I have a twinkle of a clue, but it keeps hiding behind the freezer).

I cannot believe how many things I’ve learned during this time.  Here is a little list of the most important things (regarding writing):

1)  I don’t need a publisher to approve my work.  I defended against this point furiously until I finally came to the realisation that I was wrong.  A publisher is a business and they are in the business of repeating past success and can therefore not be trusted to approve the validity of a new work that stretches borders.  I learned to write for more for myself (though you never really write only for yourself) and less for the publishers.

2)  I’ve been struggling along in the lines of describing things too much and too little, but I finally found a perfect middle in which things make sense for me.  Describe only what is different.

3)  Revision was always an oddly-shaped cloud hanging over me.  This year I’ve finally figured out the point.  Revising isn’t about fixing little mistakes.  It’s about finding the things you want said and saying it.  Putting in motivation and changing things until they work.  Revising is about finding your true story.  After realising this, I could finally figure out the meaning behind ‘the first draft is always crappy’.  Characters and motivations can be added and removed at will.  Nothing is set in stone.

4)  Writing and living goes hand in hand.  What you write comes from experiences, so you can’t just sit in a room with a notebook.  You must live and experience the world to be able to describe it to others who sit in a room with a book.

5)  Writing is not about money.  This should seem obvious, but at the beginning of the year, the notion that I could become stinking rich was very ripe in my head.  Not a “I’m definitely going to be rich!” notion, but a “Maybe I’ll write a best-seller and become rich”.  But somewhere along the line, I realised that writing for a living will probably (almost certainly) be a life of poverty and scraping just enough money to make the rent of a sloppy apartment in a bad neighbourhood and maybe even a day job.  And I don’t care.  I accept that and I embrace that.  I will write for next to nothing, but I will do what I love for the rest of my life.

Finally, and most importantly, 6) There are no rules.  Every single best-selling author has other advice.  Follow your gut and hope for the best.

That’s all.  Happy new year to all of you.

By the way, my most popular post by far is my explanation of how binary works.  Guess I disappointed (or educated) quite a few people who were looking for computer-y information.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas and Some Fiction

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It’s almost Christmas.

I probably won’t post Friday, and maybe a few days next week too, but chances are that I’ll resume my posting before the end of the month.

Meanwhile, I need to write my story for the Lit Lab’s Variations on a Theme.  Only 10 days to go before the deadline.

Since I have no big post today, here is an awesome Christmas-themed story for you to read.  The Gift of the Magi by O.Henry.

Merry Christmas, all.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"“The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” - John le Carré

John le Carré is a British writer of spy novels.  He was born as David John Moore Cornwell and started writing under the pseudonym while working for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6.  He was ranked as one of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945” by The Times in 2008.  His third novel is the famous The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which became an international bestseller and was later adapted into a movie. (Wikipedia)

(Quote via @TheBookDoctors)

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Automated Learning has You

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One of these days, we might have automated learning on our doorsteps.  Imagine just plugging in the Spanish module and learning a new language in a few hours.

Boston University and ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Japan are working on a way to improve visual tasks through use of an fMRI.  The idea is to induce brain activity that is the same as known state and thereby carrying over proficiency.

In other words, the visual cortex of a human brain is able to learn through perception.  They use decoded fMRI neurofeedback to let certain areas of the brain activate so that it matches the activation pattern on a specific area of interest.  Repeating the activation patterns was shown to increase the visual performance.

What’s interesting is that the subjects didn’t even have to be aware of what they were learning.

Currently the method only seems to work with visual perceptual learning, but the future might hold ways to teach motor skills victims of accidents, or automated learning.

While this is both bright and shiny, the potential problems with it are great.  Think about it.  It will allow anyone to learn anything without any effort at all.  So for one thing, people will all be same.  And another thing to think about is the problem with learning something without working hard.  Just getting a skill without any work will make you use it irresponsibly.  The hard work and persistence it takes to learn a skill is in itself training for you to use it responsibly.  Just think of what would happen if anyone could learn how to build a hydrogen bomb in an hour.  Or how to shoot properly with a gun.  The instant-gratification age has already broken down the sense of responsibility in people.  Instant skills could make it even worse.

But it would be freakin’ cool.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Cause to Create

Source. Copyright Atlus

Why do writers write, painters paint and sculptors sculpt (etc.)?

I’m going to take writing as an example here (apply different terms for different professions).

Why does a writer spend months (if not years) writing a 60k word book and perfecting every sentence and word until it reads as smoothly as a licked popsicle and sparkles like a piece of metal which is also sparkly?

Certainly not for the pay.  If that is the reason, a lot of people are going to be disappointed and/or starving.  The chances of you being a big success (I mean J.K. Rowling success) is virtually zero.  Only a small amount of people make huge success.  Ergo, money cannot be the motivation unless there are no sharp tools in the shed.

The same logic applies to fame, so it’s not that either.  What other reason could there be?

A lot of writers say that they have a compulsion to write.  They become fidgety when they don’t.  Carlos Fuentes once said that you write in order to stall death, like Scheherazade told stories.  Others do it because they have no other way to communicate what they want to.

But that still does not answer the question.  It is all too specific.  There must be a universal reason that pools all the writers together that makes them sweat blood and ink to create something that will have gained them no visible benefit.

Art originated as a way to convey a truth in an entertaining manner.  But after that?  Past necessity?  What drives artists to create things?

We write for the same reason we read.  We want to solve the unsolved puzzle, see what is unseen, find meaning in every situation.  Art lets us see inside all the cracks which are hidden in reality.  And the creators have the best seat.

But still that does not answer our question entirely.  There is more to creating something than to simply see it yourself.  A writer wants the story to be read.  No matter what they say, writers cannot only write for themselves.

In the end, art is about communication.  Why do we tell jokes?  Why do we share an interesting titbit of information?  To bond with whomever we’re telling it to.  To let them be as interested/amused as we were.  The same with stories.  You share a story to entertain others.  To gain their approval.

When we break it down to the basic principles, we write because we want to make other people happy (a pretty common human behaviour).

If we take this in conjunction with our other reason, I think we have a good answer.  Why do we write?  Why do we create?

Because we want to entertain other people by letting them see how we solved the puzzle so that the findings can amaze them as much as it amazed us.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"I try to leave out the parts that people skip." ~Elmore Leonard

Leonard is an American writer of novels and screenplays.  He started off by writing Westerns in the 1950s, but later branched into suspense and crime novels.  He has been noted for his excellent dialogue and realistic writing.  Apparently he also tweaks his grammar a bit for the purpose of speeding his story along.  Some of his best known works are Hombre, Out of Sight and Get Shorty.  A few of his short stories have been made into films as well as a TV series (these include 3:10 to Yuma and Justified). (Wikipedia)

(Quote via @RobCornellBooks)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Paperback vs Hardcover

Copyright Square Enix

In my collection of books (which isn’t very big, but I’m working on it), I only have one hardcover book.  And this isn’t by accident.

From what I can tell (correct me if I’m wrong), hardcovers are usually released first for a year or so after which the paperback follows.  Apparently this is to promote the author since a new book will be out soon.  Or something of the sort.

When I look for books, I look for paperbacks.  This means that I will often have to wait around a year to get a newly released book because it came out in hardcover first.  This is somewhat annoying, but it beats the alternative.

Hardcover books, for me, are extremely bulky and clumsy.  They’re heavy to hold and hard to handle with only one hand (which I do often with books I read) and they’re generally bigger which also adds to the previous two points.

Now I haven’t really had a lot of books for very long (gasp, I know) since I was a heavy library goer, but it seems (and logically follows) that paperbacks wear down quicker than hardcovers and thus will not last nearly as long.  While I’ll cling to the belief that proper care (and very little rereading) will keep them in good condition, that is a significant advantage the hardcovers have.

But even so, I prefer comfortableness over long-lasting-ness and I’ll be in the paperback camp for a long while yet.

I want to know, which do you prefer, paperback or hardcover?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Planting Peanuts

One day (I’m thinking almost a year ago), a person took upon himself the responsibility of growing a plant.  There happens to be some raw peanuts lying around, so he decides that he will plant them and speedily proceeds to the internet for some research on how he should go about this.

Some hours later, he gathers some courage and plops two peanuts into a pot.  From there, he waters the patch of ground for a week or two and finally his patience pays off.  A small green tuft of plant appeared.  In fact, two!

As they grow, he notices that one is stronger than the other, so he dismisses the weaker one (though it still gets water since it’s in the same pot).  Some weeks later, the stronger plant halts in its growth while the weaker one shoots past it.

The originally weaker plant makes one very long stem that eventually grows outside the pot and smears up against the window for more sunlight.

After a while, he decides that the plants aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, so he takes them out and plants a new peanut.  He reads somewhere that the peanut should not get water for the first few days (to make it hardier), so he leaves it.  After a while, he starts giving it water, but even after two weeks, nothing comes out, so he goes back to the growing board.

Finally, the person plants another peanut.  This one he makes sure does not dry out too much and does not get too much water.  In fact, he thinks he does everything correctly.  A plant sprouts and it grows in multiple shoots.  The person is happy with the result and lets it grow for a month or two.  The plant splays out over the pot and a part of the window sill, nothing like the pictures on the internet, but he braves on, hoping it will eventually right itself.

This is a peanut plant. (Source)

This is my (if you haven’t guessed, I am the unnamed person in the above story) peanut plant.

It doesn’t seem to be even the same species.  In fact, my guess is that it’s a weed of some kind.  Regardless, it is green and it owes its life to me.

This above scenario is often true of my writing as well as my gardening.  I start off with enthusiasm and plant my story.  As it grows, certain parts of the plot seem like they’re important, but then somewhere along the line another part takes the spotlight.  And then, even if it grows, it seems empty, so I start it over.  This one doesn’t even get past the planning phase.

Finally, I begin the story again.  It begins great with complexity and a lot of good things, but by the time I get to the end, it isn’t anything like I envisioned it to be.

A lot of times (in fact, most of the time) people who create can’t replicate the things in their head accurately in reality.  It is always better in the envisioning phase.

But even so, you have a story and it works.  It flows and you’re happy with it, even though it’s not exactly what you wanted.  Maybe you can fix it with some heavy editing, or maybe not.  Regardless, you’re proud, because you made it, and it grows.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"You see things as they are and ask, 'Why?' I dream things as they never were and ask, 'Why not?'" - George Bernard Shaw

Shaw was an Irish playwright as well as a socialist.  He wrote speeches and brochures for the Fabian society in an attempt to further their causes (i.e. equal rights for men and women and helping the working classes get out from under abuse).  His great passion was for drama (though he wrote a few novels and short stories) and he is best known for Pygmalion which he adapted for screen later and after that was made into a movie, My Fair Lady.  Shaw is the only person to have won both the Nobel prize for Literature and an Oscar. (Wikipedia)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Read Speed

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I am a pretty slow reader.  But what determines the speed at which I read?

Science Daily posted this article in 2007 in which they discuss the different factors that affect reading speed.  I’ll do a quick breakdown for you.

1) Phonics
With this, you recognise words by decoding them letter by letter.  In other words, it’s the combination of letters that allow you to recognise it.

2) Holistic Word Recognition
With this, you recognise words by their shape.  Basically, your mind will already start recognising the word “and” just by the flat and then up shape it has.  (I’m guessing that most people will then confirm their suspicion, unconsciously, by turning to phonics.)

3) Whole Language
This one lets you know the meaning of a word by the sentence’s context.  As far as I understand, this means that you can guess a word in a sentence by relying on the rest of the words in it.  I’m thinking it works much the same way as figuring out the meaning of a word you don’t know.  The rest of the sentence (as well as the bigger context) gives you a hint at what word/meaning it is.  (You’d probably go back to a lower order method to confirm again.)

These three factors affect how fast you read.  Interestingly enough, they work separate from each other.  Each makes contributions to the overall speed on its own.

With the little that I know of speed-reading, I would guess that the higher up the order you go, the faster you read.  With speed reading, you often skip words because you already know what they are (i.e. “and”, “then”, etc.).  It works basically the same as Whole Language.  Also, when you recognise a word by its shape, you have no need to read it.  You know what it is and move on.

You lose speed when you read every word, but unless you have a very good database of words in your head so that you can recognise words without error, you’ll probably make some mistakes if you read at a complete Whole Language level (which is probably not entirely possible).  

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Copying Creativity

Source.  Copyright Nintendo

Yesterday I read this article that someone on Twitter linked to.  For those who don’t want to click through, it’s titled “Can Anyone Be a Novelist?”. In short, it tells of how certain qualities are needed in order for one to be a novelist.  The blogger says that anyone who can type and have an understanding of the language they’re writing in can write a book.  But it won’t necessarily be a good book.

He goes further to say that two types of talent are needed to write a good book, namely the means to communicate effectively (string coherent and intriguing sentences together) and imagination.  He says:
"To create good novels an author must be able to come up with new stories, settings, characters so the reader will be drawn in and held captive, not feel as though they’re reading a re-hash of some other story they’ve read.  This cannot be learned: creativity is inborn."
That last sentence is the topic of my post.

Let me start at the beginning.  I’m sort of a copier.  When I was little, I did everything other people did instead of being myself.  At some point I realised this and swung entirely in the reverse.  So when I got out of school, I had an interest in the same line of work my brother was studying to, but in a courageous effort to avoid copying him, I swung in another direction and started studying accounting.  Eventually I dropped that and started in the writing direction.

Which brings us to the present.  Through a series of similar events as the above, I have begun being terrified that I’m doing the wrong thing.  I.e. that I started something (like the accounting) that I don’t like or am good at, but which I’ve convinced myself is what I should do.  Basically, I worry that I might be lying to myself.

So when I read something like the post I mentioned above, I start to wonder.  Do I have this creativity?  Then I notice that I copy a lot of things and from there things get out of hand I and start to doubt myself (never mind the inclination to copy other people that is already ingrained in me).

That is probably the thing that terrifies me the most.  What if I’m not supposed to be a writer, i.e. what if I don’t have the necessary requirements to be a writer?  What if I’m wasting my time doing something I’ll never be able to do (well)?

Most writers report being born with a pen in hand and writing since they could put a pencil to paper.  Me?  I wrote a bit of scraps here and there, but never really dabbled in it.

How do you know when writing is supposed to be hard and when it’s supposed to be easy?  It seems to be always hard for me.

But I will just go on.  I will remind myself that stories (rather than specifically writing) were a part of me from early on.  Maybe I’ll never be a great writer, but then at least I’ll die trying.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

“If you think in pictures, write. If you think in words, paint.” ~ Frank O'Hara


O’Hara was an American writer, poet and art critic.  He had at least seven books under his belt (most of which were poetry).  He was forty when he died in 1966.  Quite a few books with his work in were published after his death and there were also a lot of books about him.  He was a member of the New York School of Poetry. (Wikipedia)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Unrelated Friday

I couldn’t think of anything to say today, so this isn’t going to be a very long post.
Source.  Copyright Capcom.

First off, happy Thanksgiving to any Americans who happen to be reading this.

If you haven’t heard, Anne McCaffrey passed away on Monday.  Her stories will always have a place in the recesses of my mind and though she didn’t know me, I came to know her through her books and I’m glad for that.

It was Davin Malasarn’s birthday on the 16th, I think, and J.C. Martin’s on the 23rd.  I’d like to say happy birthday to both of those awesome people.  On a similar note, J.C. is holding a contest on her blog that has a bucket-load of prizes, so hop over there and join in.

Finally, the Intern has revealed her secret identity!  If you haven’t heard, here is a link to the blog post doing the revealing.  She landed a publishing deal, and therefore shed her anonymity.

That’s all from me.  Enjoy your weekend.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

McCaffrey has gone Between

On 21 November 2011, the legendary science fiction and fantasy author, Anne McCaffrey passed away.

I remember reading her Pern books in my mid-teens.  They were the first series I seriously began to read, and also one of my early looks into science fiction and fantasy which are now my most read/written genres.

Her first novel, Restoree, was published in 1967 and told the story of a woman who was intelligent and acted on her own, unlike most heroines in the science fiction of those times.

McCaffrey won both a Hugo and a Nebula award (and was the first woman who accomplished that) for the Pern novella Weyr Search in 1967 and Dragonrider in 1969 respectively.

The Pern novels were by far her most notable work, telling the story of a colony of humans who crash-land on the planet, Pern, and eventually learn to ride dragons in order to fight off Thread, a mycorrhizoid spore, that periodically rains down on the planet.

Though the Pern novels are the most known, her personal favourite was The Ship Who Sang, a story about Helva, who was severely disabled at birth but because of her exceptional brain was allowed to become a shell person, someone who is infused with a ship and acts as its pilot.

Anne McCaffrey was a brilliant writer and person, and I’m sure she will be widely missed.  I’ll leave you with the advice she gave an aspiring writer on her blog:

First — keep reading. Writers are readers. Writers are also people who can’t not write.
Second, follow Heinlein’s rules for getting published:
1. Write it.
2. Finish it.
3. Send it out.
4. Keep sending it out until someone sends you a check.
There are variations on that, but that’s basically what works.
~ Anne McCaffrey

Monday, November 21, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"We should be taught not to wait for inspiration ... Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action." - F Tibolt

Tibolt was, as far as I can see, not a fiction writer, but his words are applicable to us all.  In 1981, when he was 84, he wrote a book called A Touch of Greatness, a non-fiction book on how to get success in one’s life.  It was often compared to Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.  After a time of studying the methods and habits of successful people, he made a self-help course and later expanded it to include things like public speaking, salesmanship and the art of living.  He passed away in 1989 at age 92.

(I found the quotation via @JaneFriedman on Twitter.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Three Walls that Block your Way

Source. Copyright Activision

We all want to get somewhere.  Achieve something (even if it’s only the opportunity to achieve nothing).  As writers, most of us have a similar goal: Getting published, being widely read, being read by people who understand our work, etc.  The problem is that most of us never reach that goal because of a multitude of reasons.  Here are three points that stand in our way (there are more, but I think these ones are primary):

Prejudice
A lot of unpublished (or even just less successful) writers, including me, often avoid telling people what they do.  It’s because writing is not often seen as a “real job”, unless you’re selling books by the million.  For that reason, you limit yourself and your ability because you don’t even believe in your cause.  If you don’t tell people you’re a writer, you’re telling your mind that you’re not a writer. 

That impedes your progress as a writer because you’re still trying to convince yourself that you are “allowed” to do this.  In the end, it’s not the prejudices other people have against writers, but the prejudices you have.

Preconception
A lot of people start out with the image of a writer being a dude in an office, smoking a cigar and wearing a tweed jacket (or is that a private investigator?), or whatever other image they have (maybe sitting in a café).  But the reality doesn’t often pan out to be this way and I think a lot of people are disappointed, either thinking that writing isn’t so cool after all, or deciding that they’re not good enough to write, or maybe that they can’t write while in their specific circumstances.

Either way, they give up and don’t make it, because they allowed their preconceptions of the job (yes, job) to get in the way of acceptance of whatever it is that’s bothering them.  The world will likely turn out differently than you imagine, but the trick is just to hang on until it evens out again.

Pride
While you keep your pride intact, the chances are pretty slim that you’ll actually get anywhere.  Why?  Because pride doesn’t allow you to make mistakes.  And the only way to grow is to take risks, and that invariably leads to mistakes.  Ergo, your pride stops you from growing.

As a writer, you might continue polishing that manuscript, but never take a leap and ship it, or you might get to the end of your first draft and see the problems, then decide that it was just a dummy run and throw it away, beginning from scratch.  Or maybe you just refuse to learn new ways to write because you know your method works and don’t want to try something that might break it.

---

In these three things, your way to the end you want is blocked.  You have to break down each to reach your goal.  I’ve certainly entertained all of these at least once (and some probably still), but it’s time to let go.

If you go on and push through, you’ll find new heights where new challenges await, but that’s just all part of the fun, isn’t it?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Up for the Test

Copyright Square-Enix

A while back, I made a post that included instructions to write in short bursts.  Sadly, I had completely been ignoring it (and it’s actually pretty good advice).

See, I often sit in front of the glowing screen for a few hours and then manage to get seven words.  After a few times of this, I say to myself, ‘Self, I am disappoint.’  The first draft is supposed to be quick(ish).  With the start of NaNoWriMo (which I do in order to force myself to write a first draft faster, and they have a cool word count stat thingie), I decided to improve on my seven words in three hours speed.  But first, I had to get a more accurate recording of how many words I actually wrote in three hours.  Not having three hours, I decided to time myself for thirty minutes and see how many words I could get.

Challenge accepted.

So I smashed out as many words as I could, my only criteria being that they had to be parts of coherent sentences and that they had to be vaguely part of the story.  In the end I got seven hundred and forty three.  Which is more than I usually do in an hour.  This presented the problem that often occurs with me.  I always perform better in tests (even if I’m the only one present) than I do normally.  I.e. I can never do one of those monkey puzzle tests where they tell you your personality type, because I try to figure out which one of the options will lead me to the result that I want.  Ergo, they are never accurate.

So I redid the test, this time for ten minutes.  Three hundred words.  That means nine hundred in thirty minutes.  I did even better.

With several more tests, I came to this conclusion.  I consistently performed better when put under a time limit, whether my own or not, than when I just wrote with no time limit in mind.  Also (to a point), the less time I have, the better I perform.  Ergo, I must conclude that writing in short self-timed bursts are most effective for me, even if I have a three hour gap open in which to write.

The point?  Use your weaknesses to your advantage.  Mine is that I (for some reason) want to impress myself.  I use that by letting myself test myself.  If you have the need to impress your second cousin twice removed, tell him that you’re going to write 50 000 words in a month.  If you like impressing your cat, let her sit on your lap and continually report your progress.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"You must want to enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like." - Phyllis A. Whitney

Whitney was an American writer of the mystery genre.  She is the author of 73 written over the span of 56 years.  She published her first novel, A Place for Ann, in 1941, when she was 38, and her last, Amethyst Dreams, in 1997 when she was 94 years old.  She died of pneumonia in 2008, aged 104.  (Wikipedia) (Official Website)

(I found the quotation via @TheBookDoctors on Twitter.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Neuron See, Neuron Do

You have the ability to read minds (sort of).

How, you ask?  Well, I’ll get to that later.  First, let me tell you a story.

In the early 1990s, there was a group of researchers.  They were in the process of doing a few studies on macaque monkeys to monitor their brain activity (via implanted electrodes) when they performed various motor functions.  One of these was the clutching of food.

One day, one of the researchers was busy in the lab checking the screens for the neuron activity.  He was hungry though, so he picked up the sandwich he had brought with him.  But before he could take a bite, he made an interesting discovery.  The monkeys’ neurons had fired when they had watched him pick up the food.  The same neurons that fired when they themselves picked up food.

Copyright Shift
Mirror neurons.  These little fellows are a select group of neurons that fires both when you perform an action and when you watch someone else perform the action.

Through this effect, we (and apparently monkeys) are able to feel what other people feel.  We simulate the same situation in our head if we see someone else perform an action.  But more than just the physical aspect, we feel the intention and emotional aspects as well.  Better known as empathy.

Empathy allows us to feel the same as another person.  When you see someone smile, your mirror neurons for smiling fires and you also feel the feeling that you connect to smiling, i.e. being happy.

Studies done also concluded that we can judge intentions via mirror neurons.  For example, we are able to discern between someone picking up a cup with the purpose of drinking from it and someone picking up a cup to clear the table, as opposed to just having a feeling for clutching cup.  Therefore, you can, by watching someone’s actions, get a feeling of what they’re thinking, i.e. mind reading.

As a last note, I have often observed in myself that I change into to what I am exposed to, to an extent.  For example, I’m currently reading Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, which is a pretty old book.  If I read it just before writing, my style, or voice if you will, changes to fit in with Shelly’s.  I find myself using old sentence structures and words that had fallen from use (i.e. I almost used the *cough*adverb*cough* gaily, which has so many other connotations these days that it is not in use in the way of happy any more).

So I’m wondering, do mirror neurons have the same effect during reading as it does during observing?  And that poses another question.  Do our mirror neurons for smiling fire when we read about someone smiling?

Perhaps, if the writer is good enough, we see the image of a smile so clearly that we are, in fact, observing it.

(Source of info and more thorough explanation here)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The More Things Change, the More they Stay the Same

Source Copyright Square-Enix

E-book (or is it ebook? or eBook?) sales are on the rise.  No doubt, this is causing self-publishing to become an ever more intimidating presence while the publishers are scrambling to stay in the game.  Are publishers on their way out to make way for the new and hip self-publishing?

Allow me to insert and inspect a hypothetical situation here.

Let’s say, in about thirty to forty years, no more physical books are sold.  And more than that, there are no more publishers, and every author self-publishes their books.

That would mean that the market opened for more people (what with no “gatekeepers”).  The editors, book designers and marketers that worked for the publishers before will probably have gone into the freelancing business, selling their services for the self-publishing authors (or flipping burgers if business is tough).  There will be a massive amount of books released every day, of which most will be pretty bad (see my next point).  A lot of people will either have no money or just not feel like it and therefore refrain from hiring an editor or book designer.

Let’s look at the cost of self-publishing an e-book.*  Say $400 for a book designer and $400 for a proper editor.  You can buy an ISBN for $100 via Lulu.com.  Then comes the marketing and promotion.  Let’s be very conservative and say good marketing would cost $500.  So, adding it up, you come to $1400 to self-publish.  But let’s be reasonable, giving competitive prices, the prices could come down to $1200 or so.  And maybe the marketers, book designers and editors even join forces and start a company that does all three in a package deal.  So let’s say that brings the price down to $1000.

With that in mind, there would be little chance for a budding author to publish a book unless he’s got a well-paying job (Stephen King and his wife worked for minimum wage and struggled to make ends meet, so they didn’t have a thousand dollars to spend on publishing a book) or financial backing.  So maybe a rich businessman sees the manuscript of a friend and agrees to pay his publishing costs in exchange for a return on whatever the author makes.  I.e. Royalties.

After this happened, someone might see an opportunity and make a company that connects financial backers to authors (with a small usage fee, of course).  Some rich people think that it could be a good investment, but know nothing about books, so they hire an editor/ex-literary agent/old man who reads a lot to tell them if the book is worth investing in.  Because they are desperate to be published, the budding authors send their manuscripts to the financial backers to be scrutinised by the literary experts and given a place in the world via the financial backer’s money.  Maybe the rich man sees another opportunity, calling his old friends, the marketer, the editor and the book designer to join his team.  Together, they form a company and they decide to call themselves a publisher.

In another part of the world, a woman sees the opportunity to make money.  There are so many books out there, and people don’t know what to buy, so she decides that she will get a team who will read books and review them, making a list of good books.  People stream to the website to avoid buying yet another badly written book.

The publishers see this and notice that the woman and her team often miss some of the books they publish and thus create a loss in sales.  To fix this, the publisher asks to get a certification of sorts for all their books so that it is automatically a part of the list (for a fee, of course).  Because of the brilliant editor and all the good books they had published in the past, the woman agrees and puts an entry on her site that says, all books by Publisher X.

End of hypothetical situation.

Though the sequence of events is a bit unlikely, the core of it remains.  You cannot have anarchy in publishing (except for already well-known authors of course).  It will always be a business and there will always be people who need money and people who have money.  Any change in the publishing industry will circle back to a new version of the same thing.

The same equilibrium, but at another level.

* These prices are based on present currency values, so ignore the possible changes in monetary value that may or may not occur.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon." - E.L. Doctorow

Doctorow is an American author of Russian-Jewish descent with 11 novels under his belt.  He was a book editor working with authors like Ian Fleming.  He left his position as editor to start writing in 1969.  His most famous works include The Book of Daniel, Ragtime and World’s Fair.  He is a descendant of the Russian general Dmitry Dokhturov.  (Wikipedia)

(I found the quotation via @TheBookDoctors on Twitter.)

Friday, November 4, 2011

How We Justify Choice

Copyright SEGA

We rationalize.  Say, a man stole something.  His conscience will haunt him, but he will try to counter it with a rationalization.  Moreover for smaller things.  Say, you’re on a diet.  You see a piece of cake.  If you are inclined to eat it, your mind will come up with all sorts of rationalizations to explain why you can make an exception.

In the same way, we rationalize when we find ourselves in bad situations we can’t get out of.  The human mind defends itself in this way.  When you can’t fight against it, why bother?  You’ll fight only if you believe that you have a way out (incidentally, if there is a way out, you’ll want the better situation even more, making you fight harder for it).

If you take an example, divorce rates.  In the early 1900s, I’d bet there wasn’t even close to the amount of divorces as there is now.  (7% in 1900 and 50% in 1998)  Why?  Because divorce was not much of an option back then.  But more than that, how many old couples are unhappy in their marriages?  I can’t get statistics about that, but I’d wager it isn’t much.  Young couples?  Plenty.  Why?  Because they now have a way out.

There was a study done (can’t find it now) where people were given a choice of painting they could take home.  To one group was said that they could exchange their paintings the following week if they wanted to, while the other was told that their choice was final.  The next week, both groups were told that they could exchange their paintings.  The second group that had believed their choice was final ended up exchanging less than the first group.

When you made your choice and know there is no way out, your mind will rationalize that it was the best pick anyway.

Another example is the phrase, “Fake it ‘til you make it”.  If you pretend to be something, you will eventually become it.  Why?  You guessed it, you rationalize.  If you pretend to be an accountant for two years with no specific purpose, your mind will be asking, “Why am I doing all this if I don’t like it?”  Not wanting to look stupid, it then concludes that you do like it.  Unless you have a very strong dislike for it or another reason as to why you’re pretending that can be used to rationalize, you will begin to like it.

And finally, an example from Abe Lincoln.  Apparently, he had an enemy at one point who he wanted to make a friend (who needs more enemies, I suppose).  To do that, he called up the man and asked him a favour (to borrow a book, I think).  The man was so flattered that he lent Lincoln the book.  His mind was whirring in the “Why did I do a favour for Lincoln if he’s my enemy?” area, and concluded that Lincoln is his friend and so started a long and bountiful friendship.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Of Hitler and Overthinking

Source.  Copyright Westwood

You know that saying (I think it’s a saying, anyway) pressure makes diamonds?  Well, let’s just say that I’m not carbon (well, actually…).  What I’m saying is that I don’t do so well under pressure.  It’s not that I break down and hide under tables.  When I find myself under pressure, my perfectionism kicks in and I overthink, leading to a horrible product.

I remember that my Afrikaans teacher in high school gave us an assignment to write a story about one of several topics, one being something along the lines of “Die monster wat hom jaag” (the monster that chases him).  I thought about it a bit and came up with a possible concept.  So I asked my teacher if I could make the monster in the theme be kleptomania (the irresistible compulsion to steal things) and thus make the story about a man fighting against his disorder.  She seemed delighted at my idea and said that she looked forward to reading it.

We got time to prepare (and outline) for a few days beforehand.  After creating an expectation of delivering a good product, I started researching (this was for a 300 word story).  I looked all sorts of things up and overthought every possible aspect of the story that I possibly could.  I ended up with a lame attempt that included a German kleptomaniac that just sat there and thought and eventually killed himself in the exact (read, EXACT) way Hitler killed himself (why Hitler?  I have no idea).  Basically, nothing happened and it was very lame.  I got a mediocre grade and to this day, I feel like a moron for handing in such a piece of trash after creating an expectation of something great.

In another class, we got an assignment for a story that we had to complete in one period (maybe, but regardless, I didn’t plan it at all).  I wrote something and gave it in and got a good grade and some encouraging comments from the teacher.

In the first example, I had pressure to create something great and a long time to think about it and in the second one, I had pressure in the amount of time I had and had created no expectations as to how good it would be.

Don’t overthink it.

Back in 2009, I took my first step in becoming a writer by signing up for NaNoWriMo.  Against all odds, I somehow finished 50k words in a month.  I was surprised and relieved.  I didn’t think I would be able to write a novel length manuscript.  I just didn’t have the will.  But I proved myself wrong.

Because of the reasonably short timeframe, there was no time to overthink anything.  My fake novel had so many plotholes in it that it looked like a South African road, but it was done and it didn’t stink (too much) for a first draft.

This is not about outlining and (as Donald Maass calls it) organic writing.  This is about worrying too much about getting the finer points right.  The correct shade of blue the police cruiser should be, the number of switches a pilot has to flip to start a Cessna’s engine.  The best way to symbolically make a reference to Hitler.  Leave all that for later.  That’s what revision is for.  First you write your draft.  Your first draft, or as some call it, your zero draft.  It will kind of suck, and it might be wrong on the procedures a detective has to follow, but at least it won’t be boring—and that is a pretty good start.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

"Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you're doomed." - Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is a quite famous American writer.  He is often called a science fiction author, but he himself does not agree with the categorisation.  Most famous for his novel, Fahrenheit 451, he is also the author of 10 other novels (some of which are loosely connected short stories) and his short stories have appeared in many collections.  He also wrote a few plays and some non-fiction, including Zen in the Art of Writing.  He got married in 1947 and never got a driver’s licence. (Wikipedia)

(I found the quotation via @TheBookDoctors on Twitter.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Tips on Scaling the NaNo-Mountain

Source.  Copyright Nintendo

Since NaNoWriMo is around the corner (that’s four days if you’re counting), I thought I’d do a vaguely NaNo-themed post today.

I think one of the biggest problems (and functions) of NaNoWriMo is the consistency at which you are forced to write.  That’s 1667 words a day.  If you take into consideration that Stephen King reportedly writes 2000 words a day, you’ll note that it’s quite a lot.

So, how do you keep up such a consistency?  Here are some pointers I’ve picked up in the past:

1)  Begin writing.  In Stephen King’s words, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”  Just force yourself to write that first sentence or two, and the rest will come easier.

2)  Learn how to write in short bursts.  This is especially applicable to people with long hours at work, holiday preparations to make, and a family that needs a lot of attention.  Teach yourself that you don’t need two hours free time to write.  You can squeeze in a paragraph in the ten minutes the spaghetti takes to cook.  (In fact, this works wonders either way, since you’ll probably stop in the middle of a thought, making starting off again much easier.)

3)  Set smaller goals.  Use a trick they use for running.  To run a long distance, set up a series of short distances.  When you run, aim for your target (that can be anything from one metre to twenty kilometres away, depending on your fitness level), telling yourself “Okay, I’ll just run up to that point” and then when you get there, move on to the next point, making the entire distance that way.  It sounds crazy, but it works.  When writing, set smaller goals like 500 words.  It’s a lot easier to achieve.  It will not only motivate you more (by finishing of goals), but it will be easier to start if you don’t have such a mountain ahead of you.  (“Just 200 words more…”)

4)  Tell a lot of people about your effort.  You ego will help you here.  By telling people that you’re going to write 1667 words a day, you set up an expectation.  If you don’t finish because you were playing solitaire, you’re going to feel mighty stupid when someone asks how far you are.

That’s all from me.  Check out this post by Mood if you’ve always wanted to do an outline but it never seemed to work.  (Though it’s probably a bit late to start an outline now.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

No Choice in Voice

Source (copyright Square Enix)

Ah, voice.  The little Pandora’s box of the writing world.  Few people actually completely understands the concept, but everyone agrees that it is important (well, I’m sure not everybody, but most).

The first taste I had of voice was that it was simply the way you wrote.  I.e. the way you project yourself.  You don’t speak like everyone else, so you probably don’t write like anyone else either.  That’s why people tell you that voice develops by itself as you write.  Because as you go on, you will eventually stop trying to say something in a certain way and just say something.  That is your voice.

So I always had a little bit of trouble with this, because my native tongue is Afrikaans and not English (I have a similar problem with that piece of advice for better dialogue where you listen to how other people speak; Most people I am able to overhear is talking a language other than English).  My thoughts and speech all comes out in Afrikaans, normally, so how could I naturally project my voice in English?

I recently read about voice in Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel.  Here is what he said:

“(Voice is) not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre(*).”

So I might be saved yet.  The way you look at things and experience them is your voice.  Your outlook, your expectations.  All of these are you and you are your voice.

Some time back, I wrote about different characters with different voices.  When you write (from a point of view that includes the character, i.e. not distant 3rd person), the character whose POV you’re in will be a lens through which you put your voice.  Therefore, although every character is different and will see the world different, your own views will invariably dribble into the narrative so that your voice will still ring clear.

Your voice is you.  Your character has a voice of his own.  The combination of the two is the mask that you put on when you face the world in order to tell your story.

* I had no clue what this word meant, so in case you didn’t either, here is a definition.

oeu·vre/ˈœvrə/
Noun:          1. The works of a painter, composer, or author regarded collectively: "the complete oeuvre of Mozart".
2. A work of art, music, or literature.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Quotation of the Week

Every week, I’ll put up a quotation related to writing or creation and tell you a little bit about the person who said it.  I’ll try to vary the speakers as much as possible.

“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” - Elbert Hubbard

Elbert Hubbard was an American writer who lived in the second half of the 19th century and the early nineteen hundreds.  He was also an artist, philosopher and publisher.  He is best known for his contribution to the Arts and Crafts Movement.  His most notable works include a nine-volume work titled Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great. (Wikipedia)

(I found the quotation via @TheBookDoctors on Twitter.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Distractions (The Internet is Making us Dumber)

Last time, I talked about the rise of the instant-gratification age.  With it came the need for people to be constantly engaged in something.  Everything needs to be now.  In the same line of thought, it is possible that the internet is making us dumber.

Humans have the basic instinct to get distracted.  That is our default state.  While this is very useful in situations where we need to look out for constant danger, it impedes our ability to concentrate on a task.

Nicholas Carr is of the opinion that the usage of the internet is training our brains to think more widely and less deeply.  Reading a webpage filled with hyperlinks, or a stream of short Twitter messages distracts our minds.  Increasing the speed at which we find information seems to be becoming more important than understanding it.  We are sort of skimming all the time, instead of just using skimming to find information worth reading.

Most people would recommend blog posts to be around 250 to 400 words long.  Any longer than that, and you will lose readers.  This is not untrue.  I’ve often skipped posts (or at least postponed it) because it would take too long to read the entire thing.  Short bursts of information are easier to digest and take up a lot less time.  Since we are so inclined to do everything quickly, we give up on long, time-consuming tasks and rather turn to things like Facebook and Twitter that gives us a slew of short information bursts.  There are a lot of blogs that go over that word limit, but they seem to be dwindling from what I’ve seen.

The internet (and other distracting media) does have its benefits (besides the obvious).  It increases the speed at which we process things and keep track of them.  Nicholas Carr says that it can increase our ability to monitor a lot of signals at once, like a pilot or surgeon does.

Directly opposed to the internet that spreads our attention to multiple points, our own trade as writers, books, focuses attention into one spot.  But even they have been affected by the speed change that society has undergone.  Readers demand more immediacy and less content that does not contribute directly to the story.

Do short blog posts and the internet as a whole make us dumber?  Not really.  But we are in the process of sacrificing depth in order to get speed and width.  Carr mentions a Roman philosopher who said, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”  It might be the very cliff over which we are currently standing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Pages of the Ages

Times have changed, and with it, the people.  Nowadays, we live in an age of instant-gratification, where we expect the things we want in the smallest amount of time possible.  Fast food, the internet, the new best super lose your weight in two days diets, etc.  As Queen said, we want it all and we want it now.

With this change in attention span, writers had to adapt to stay alive.  Where in the olden days we were allowed to start with backstory, it is now recommended that we start with a hook and action.

To illustrate, I’m going to quote the first paragraph or so of four books.  Dracula, by Bram Stoker, first published in 1897.  Dune, by Frank Herbert, first published in 1965.  Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, first published in 1985.  And finally, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, first published in 2008. (Publication dates via Wikipedia)

Dracula
            3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. 
The story is told through a series of journal entries.  The opening paragraph gives us a summary of where Harker had gone, and a little trivia (i.e. the train that was late).  In fact, there is little to no hook.  The only question that could arise from that paragraph is where Harker is going.

Dune
          In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, the old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
          It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Artreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.

(There is a quoted paragraph from a scripture of the Dune world before this paragraph, but it is not really a part of the story, so I left it out.)  We are given a place and an action (going to Arrakis) like in Dracula, but in the very first paragraph, there is already a question.  Why is an old crone coming to visit Paul’s mother?  And who is she that she can visit someone in the castle?

Ender’s Game
          “I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.  Or at least as close as we’re going to get.”
          “That’s what you said about the brother.”
          “The brother tested out impossible.  For other reasons.  Nothing to do with his ability.”
          “Same with the sister.  And there are doubts about him.  He’s too malleable.  Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”

We start off with detached dialogue.  We don’t know who’s speaking (note that this is something writers are usually warned not to do).  There is no place described, but numerous questions raised.  What will the “he” do, for which he is the one?  How did the speaker listen through his ears and see through his eyes?  Why was the brother rejected?  Why was the sister rejected?

The Hunger Games
          When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.  My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress.  She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.  Of course, she did.  This was the day of the reaping.

We begin with Katniss waking up (another alleged no-no) and looking for her sister Prim.  We get a feeling of poverty (“rough canvas” and the fact that they have to share a bed).  Then at a quick pace, we get a huge question.  What is the reaping?  More so, we get a feeling of tension because the reaping would give Prim nightmares.

As you see, in progression from 1897 to 2008, the questions start to rise earlier and involve bigger things.  In the first few paragraphs, Dracula has no real questions, Dune raises one mildly interesting one, Ender’s Game raises a few mildly interesting ones (though Card quickly throws in a big one a few lines later), and then The Hunger Games give us a tension-filled question.

Since there are many instant-gratification sources in this age, (i.e. television, internet) we need to convince readers to keep reading.  In 1897, reading was probably the easy entertainment (except maybe for super-literary pieces), so they didn’t need so much constant tension.  Today, the written word has to contend with moving pictures, and tension (i.e. questions) is the only way to achieve that.

The point of this overly long post is that you have to keep your audience in mind when writing (and taking writing advice).  If Bram Stoker gave you advice about putting in backstory to ground the readers or something, you have to remember that you’re not living in 1897.  So unless you write for time-travellers from the late eighteen hundreds, you have to pile on tension and keep it going ‘til the end.