Friday, September 30, 2011

eReader vs Printed Book

I think I first need to note here that I do not own an eReader, so anything I say may be biased according to that fact.

I recently started reading Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel.  As far as I can tell, it was published around 2001, 2002.  Inside, Maass says that an e-revolution is unlikely because an ebook does not fill a genuine need.  So it could become increasingly popular, but it will not be a revolution (i.e. replace paper books, as the printing press replaced hand-written books).

Thus far, ebooks have done amazingly well, so much in fact that a notable chain bookstore had to close (Borders).  Does this mean the end of printed books?  My guess would be the same as Maass’s back then.  No.

Why?  Well, maybe I’m just old fashioned, but here are my reasons.

If I buy something, I want to have physical proof that I have it.  I want to be able to hold it in my hand.  When I buy an ebook, I get some binary that tells my eReader what to show me.  It is stored on the Amazon network and I assume on the reader itself, but I still feel as though I don’t own it.  For the same reason, I never buy software that is only available for download.  I want a physical copy.

I want to be able to lend/borrow and give my books away.  I want to be able to exchange them at a second-hand bookstore.  It is definitely coming closer, what with Amazon starting that lend an ebook from your library thing, but currently, it is still lacking.  I can’t say to my friend, “Here, read this book, it is awesome!”.  Well, I could, but then I’d have to give him my eReader with my entire novel collection on it, and then I’d have nothing to read.  There are a lot of readers who like to give books away and see them to new homes.  Ebooks make this impossible (at least currently).

I want to be able to read for more than half an hour a day.  Kindle says that the battery will last up to a month.  Wow, I thought.  That’s amazing.  It turns out this is only if you put the Wi-Fi off and read half an hour a day.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I read for more than half an hour a day.  Maybe I just read slower.  Anyway, the battery is a problem.  Real books don’t run out of power.  If there is an apocalypse and after two years you find a book in the rubble, you can still use it.  (And apparently trauma to the battery may cause it to explode.  Real books do not explode.)

And finally, the cheapest Kindle that I can find in South Africa (there are some other scaly brands, but such ones tend to not work as well) is R 1300 ish.  That’s around $ 180.  I just don’t have the money for it.  Printed books are between R 20 and R 100 ($2.80 and $14.20).  That I can afford.

However, with all its downsides, the ebook thing has some useful features that I like.
Number one, I can read a 1000 page book without needing a wrist brace.
Number two, it’s easier and quicker to buy an ebook.
Number three, I can look up words I don’t understand and find passages I want to see again.

But even with these three things, it is simply useful.  Not necessary.  There is no genuine need for it.  If there are enough other people like me, the printed book won’t be dying for some time still.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Bomb under the Table

Fear of the unknown is probably one of the most common fears present in humans (maybe all humans?).  For example, humans fear death because they don’t know what will happen after (unless you have strong faith), or the dark, because they can’t see if there is something or someone there.

Despite this, humans are also drawn towards the unknown.  They do their best to find everything they don’t know.  Whether it is to activate adrenaline associated with fear or to curb the fear with knowledge, I don’t know.  Regardless, it’s important.

From this fear comes suspense.  Suspense is the anxiety that comes from belief of the imminent revelation of an unknown outcome.  For some reason (maybe our brains’ need for closure), we want to know what happens.  What the outcome will be.  If we take away the unknown, is the suspense defunct?  Somewhat, but not really.  As to why, my guess would be that our brains interpret the outcome as an unsure outcome every time around.  Maybe we subconsciously believe that a different outcome is somehow possible.

Anyway, there are two main types of suspense that appear in fiction (that I can remember at time of print):

The suspense that can be described by the following scenario.  “Alfred Hitchcock was asked to define suspense. He told the interviewer to imagine two people sitting at a table at a cafĂ©. Under the table is a bag. In the bag is a bomb. The characters don’t know that the bomb is there but the viewers do. That, he said, is suspense.” (via Crime Fiction Collective)

The other type is one where the reader knows as much as the character.  In the bomb scenario, the character might have gotten a threat and nervously looks around while talking to a man who he shouldn’t have been talking to.

If I can paraphrase David Baboulene here, it’s all about subtext.  To create suspense, someone has to know more than someone else.  Either the reader and the villain knows there’s a bomb and the hero doesn’t, or the villain knows there’s a bomb and the reader and hero don’t.

However, the most important part of suspense (or tension) is that the reader must care about the outcome.  Humans want to know the unknown, but there are so many unknowns that they prioritise them.  If they don’t care about your characters, they won’t care about the outcome, and the book, to paraphrase James Scott Bell, will be left behind unread in the train.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Rehab for Explainers

As writers, it is important that we create words that a reader will understand.  If we don’t, we lose the reader to confusion and we don’t want that.

However, to counter this, a lot of writers over steer.  From this common over explanation came the phrase, “Resist the Urge to Explain”, or its acronym, RUE.

A big part of RUE is showing versus telling.  Telling is explaining while showing is letting the reader make their own conclusions.  This includes things like Swifties and telling of emotions (John was angry).

It mainly has to do with explaining things that are unnecessary (John jumped over the fence.  He was now inside the compound.).  Repeating information that was already given or explaining things that were implied earlier on is slowing down everything for no reason.  You have to be subtle in your explanations (this includes people telling one another the things you’re trying to explain).

Another common place where writers over explain is character motivations.  If you feel the need to jump in and explain why the character is acting a certain way, your character isn’t defined enough (John picked up the money and took it to the man who dropped it because he was too honest to keep it.).  Before the event happens, your reader should already know what kind of a person your character is.  Or other times, the motivation will be obvious and there’ll be no need to explain it (John gave one look at the rotting corpse and threw up, because he felt sick after seeing those maggots coming out of the man’s mouth.)

The basic principle behind RUE is that your readers aren’t stupid.  They can figure out that John is in the compound if he jumped over the fence or that Peter laughs because the joke was funny.

Trust your readers and trust your writing.  If you feel the need to explain something, rather rewrite and get the information in without explaining.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Deception Perception

Police and other law-related officials have a long history in detecting lies (especially on television and so on).  How does it work?  Is it as easy as they make it look?  In short, no.  But read on to see what I mean.

Firstly, the most important part of detecting deception is that you can’t.  You can only suspect.  To start, you need a baseline, i.e. an idea of how the person acts under normal circumstances.  After that, you can then compare his or her behaviour when he/she is being asked a question to the baseline.

There are a few things that stand out as indicating deception.

When the expression doesn’t fit the words, deception is taking place, obviously.  Therefore, to detect a lie, you have to make sure you know what every expression looks like exactly.  For example, most people can’t fake a smile completely.  If only the mouth smiles, and the eyes do not scrunch up (and make crow’s feet), the smile is not genuine.

Also, there is a whole department called micro expressions (popularised by Lie to me) that can also guide you.  A micro expression is a very quick display of an actual emotion (people have no control over this) which can reveal another emotion as the one that follows it, indicating deception.

Choice of words
Apparently, people use words like “actually” and “never” in ways that can indicate that something’s up.  When you use the word “actually”, you are comparing two things, so if the question raised no second option, there is likely deception going on.  E.g. “Is your car blue?” could be legitimately answered with “Actually, it’s red.”  But if the question is “What colour is your car?” and the answer is “Actually, it’s red,” it indicates that the answerer was comparing it to another colour, possibly the real colour.

The word “never” is often a way of avoiding the issue.  “Did you steal the car?” could be answered with “I would never steal a car.”  The answerer might be avoiding the answer and never really give a straight denial.

Body Language
People who are lying often try to minimize the space they take up (by keeping their extremities close to themselves) and thus appear less dangerous—a survival instinct that kicks in for the same reason that a polygraph works (lying is directly connected with danger and the person is nervous).

When someone is lying, they tend to touch their facial features—the nose, ears, mouth and eyes.  They also subconsciously place objects between themselves and the questioner or turn away from him, also an instinct to protect themselves.

The most important factor to consider when “detecting lies”, is that most of these signs could mean anything.  Someone touching his nose could have hay fever and his nose is itching.  Someone sitting scrunched might be cold.  It’s important to take note of the context and work from a baseline, preferably in the same environment.

I got most of my information here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bring out the Box (If you need to)

When you start up with a story, you often begin with a certain character in mind.  However, other times, you focus on the plot first, then put in characters.  For me, it is often difficult to come to grips with a character at that point, since he will be simply another actor.  It takes time to develop a personality from nothing, so it’s especially problematic in short stories.

To combat this, I like to put my characters into personality archetypes and work from there in order to build up to more solid characters.  Otherwise they simply drift along with the story, never really sticking.

As a base, I sometimes just come up with something that fits the role (i.e. a rebellious teenager in a horror story), and other times I use one of the archetypes of several personality tests, like the Myers-Briggs.

Archetypes are usually bad because they put your character into a box and leave him there and then you have a character who is not developing, and a clichĂ©.  So the important part of picking an archetype is to build from it, not just lean on it for support.  It’s a lot like structure in stories.

If you can make a character without archetypes, do so immediately and joyfully.  If, however, you struggle to get a solid mass from your collection of words, consider picking a base, a structure, to help you build them up.

Using archetypes also allows you to deviate easily (since you know exactly who your character is—at least in the beginning) and therefore surprise readers convincingly.

Like adverbs, archetypes should be avoided if possible (except perhaps with minor characters that have two lines of dialogue), but used if necessary.  It is especially useful when there are multiple characters in order to differentiate between them and make them memorable, as Orson Scott Card did in Speaker for the Dead.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Should You Play Small?

Ever since Michelle spoke about her small publisher, I’ve thought about them.  Small publishers are, I think, often looked down upon, like an ugly cousin of the big 6.

So I did a bit of digging (okay, more like brushing sand off) and here are some of the pros and cons for small publishers:

More control
I think the most famous benefit of a small publisher is this.  You get more control, thus allowing the author more say in things like the cover, the edits and so forth.  Big publishers might not be so flexible.

Bigger chance of acceptance
Not because a small press has lower quality, but because of the number of submissions.  If there are fewer submissions, your manuscript will probably get more attention.  Plus, small publishers are more likely to help you fix your manuscript up.

Build a backlist
If you want to move to a larger publisher later on, having books published might make it easier to get an agent/publisher than if you’re an unknown writer.  This is nowhere close to a guarantee, but maybe that small step up can help.

Sell books for cheaper
This may seem like a con, but new authors will benefit from having cheaper books.  People will be more willing to take a chance on you and therefore you have a better chance of building a reader base.

Higher royalties
In counter to the previous point, small publishers will often have a higher royalty percentage for the author.

Can keep books in circulation
Because a lot of the small publishers use a print on demand system, the book will often stay in circulation for longer.  A big publisher could pull a book after a few weeks because it wasn’t doing well enough.

Easier to get obscure books published
A lot (all?) of the big publishers want fiction that fits into the categories that sell.  A small publisher is more likely to take a chance on that weird novel you wrote that doesn’t seem to fit in any specific category.

With a small publisher, chances are that they won’t have a big marketing budget.  You’re going to have to do a lot, if not all of the promotion yourself.  If you’re anything like me, blowing your own horn is like eating hot aeroplane propellers.  This would have been a pretty big drawback, except that these days, unless your Stephen King, you have to market your book anyway, even at the big publishers.

Circulation will be smaller
Bookstores won’t easily buy a lot of books from small publishers, for in case they don’t sell and the publisher can’t buy the books back.  Maybe the budget of the publisher is also an issue.  However, with the (rapid) growing success of e-books, getting the book into bookstores might not be high priority anymore.  Some people (like me) like having an actual book with them, but most conform to the new e-book regime.

If you publish with one of the big 6, you’re pretty much guaranteed that it’s not a fake company.  Little Hamburger Press might not be a real publisher though.

Might get skipped because of your publisher
Some people might see the logo of a little-known publisher and decide not to buy your book, thinking it is bad quality.  It used to be the same with self-publishing, but with the rise of this particular publishing method, people are getting over that mindset.  However, if a potential reader sees a new writer by an unknown press and a new writer by a big 6 press, chances are that he’ll take the big 6 one.

A small press has a few downsides (less money being an important one, if you plan on living off your writing), but especially in the age of e-books, it is becoming a more and more attractive option and I think one that needs to be seriously considered, instead of simply discarded.

(My information came from here and here.  Great information if you’re thinking of going the small press route.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Walk a Mile in my Muse

It is often said that walking (or other exercises) can increase, among other things, your creativity.  I’ve never been much of a walker, but I thought I’d look into it.

I found several articles that spoke of studies that were done showing that brain deterioration was combatted by walking, cognitive functions were improved, and memory became better after as little as a fifteen minute walk.

The reason for this might be a number of things.  Firstly, muscles and the brain have an intricate relationship through the connection of the nerves that send signals to the neurons in the muscles to let them contract.  So perhaps excessive usage of the muscles will lead to better communication between the brain and the muscles and thus more stimulation for the neurons in the brain.  Secondly, when you exercise, your body releases endorphins and serotonin that is natural pain and stress removers.  I’m sure there are a number of other things that could contribute, but I’m no brain scientist.

The question is, of course, does it actually help creativity?  Many, many people say that it does.  They swear by walking if they have a block.  One author, Henry David Thoreau, even said “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

The endorphins and serotonin can definitely help, since it can relax us and let us clear our heads of worries about other things—a prime reason for blocks in the first place.

Another important thing is the active meditation involved in exercise.  Most people picture a monk sitting cross-legged and humming when they hear the word meditation, but running or walking (or any other exercise) can be meditation too.  By concentrating on the exercise or some part of it, you essentially clear the mind of other thoughts and thus the exercise becomes your anchor (sitting meditation often uses a mantra as an anchor; a thought to fix your mind to).  Specifically in running, it is somewhat important to control your breathing, so if you count seconds for each breath, you will distract yourself so much that you will essentially be meditating.

Whether it actually improves creativity or not (the consensus seems to be yes), it cannot hurt to try.  It’s a healthy habit and getting out and seeing things might not be a bad way to hunt inspiration.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

From a Different Perspective

People (myself included) often have problems writing from the point of view of the opposite gender, and with good reason.

Men and women are wired differently and therefore think differently.  In the most basic terms, men think logically and women think empathetically.

Neither of these two types (called male and female brains) is exclusive to either men or women, but they do tend to be generally associated with their respective genders.

Male brains are wired to try and fix things and figure out logical solutions to problems.  Female brains are adept at sensing other people’s feelings (which came in handy when they needed to figure out what a baby needed, as it cannot talk) and they excel at languages.

While men seem to isolate language skills in the dominant (usually left) side of the brain, women are usually able to draw those skills from both sides, resulting in a better understanding and usage of language.  That is one of the reasons why men tend to speak less than women (according to BBC UK, men speak average 7000 words a day while women speak 20000).  Men tend to communicate more through actions (maybe it has something to do with the fact that women can pick up on their feelings).

A simple way of saying it is this:  “There are people people, and things people.” (William D. Hamilton)

There is an extreme of each side of the spectrum, i.e. an extreme male brain and an extreme female brain.

Autism is, according to Simon Baron-Cohen, an extreme male brain.  People who have it tend to see everything as ‘things’ instead of the people they are.  Thus, they view people not as thinking and feeling humans, but rather as machines or systems that can be analysed and understood.  It is also interesting to note that eighty per cent of autistics are male.

On the other hand, an extreme female brain, according to Bernard Crespi and Christopher Badcock, is Schizophrenia.  They see minds and people in everything.  They hear voices where there are none and believe people are conspiring against them when no one is.

Using all this information, one could perhaps get a better perspective of the opposite gender in order to write a convincing character.

For those interested in the differences between male and female brains, here is an article.  An article about the extreme male and female brains is here.  Finally, see this post (from Writer’s Digest site) that explains a bit about writing from the male perspective.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Myers-Briggs Personality Types

The Myers-Briggs Type indicator was originally derived by Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers.  In turn, they used Carl Jung’s writings in the 1921 book Psychological Types.

These days, it is used to determine what kind of psychological preferences someone has.  It was originally used to determine what types of jobs women in World War II could do best and most comfortably, but this was later rebuffed and now it is used only as an indicator for personality.

There are 16 types, denominated by a combination of four letters:
Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I), Sensing (S) or Intuition (N), Thinking (T) or Feeling (F), and Judgement (J) or Perception (P).

Every person is dominant on one side of the four scales and the combination of dominant traits then determines the personality type.

Extraversion or Introversion
People who lean to extraversion focuses on the outside world; things, people, actions.  Those who lean to introversion channels their focus inward, reflecting, ideas and beliefs.

Sensing or Intuition
Those with dominance in sensing prefer to deal with facts, details and things that are certain; they trust information gotten from their 5 senses.  Those who lean toward intuition like to add meaning to information and find things that aren’t obvious; they listen to their inner voice and trust insight.

Thinking or Feeling
Those who prefer thinking make decisions by using objective logic and an analytical approach, while those who prefer feeling look to their values, the needs of themselves and the other people and beliefs.

Judgement or Perception
Those who prefer judgement want their lives to be stable and decided while those who prefer perception want flexibility and new options.

Each in combination forms a unique personality type.  A free test is available here.

I find it useful to divide my characters into personality types if I struggle to differentiate between them.  I use it as a base to work from, giving me a clearer image of who this person is.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Write Courageously

To write courageously means to write honestly and unafraid.

I’ve spoken before about putting a part of yourself in everything you write.  Every word you choose shows the world who you are.  When you write, you wear a mask of your own making, your voice.  Are you putting forth an honest voice?

I’ve often found myself restricting my words.  Stopping myself (and my flow of letters) and changing the sentence to something more appropriate.  Is that honest?  Not really.  First write honestly, then edit out that which is inappropriate (for your audience or otherwise).

Secondly, write unafraid.  Apparently, one of the main causes of procrastination is the fear of failing at what you’re doing; creating something sub-par.  Don’t be afraid of failing.  Failing is part of learning and a necessary step.  Just write.

Cherish whatever it is that you hope to achieve with your writing (and your life).  Don’t back down because it doesn’t fall in the necessary conventions or because you think you might fail.  Push on and fight with courage until you reach your goal.

Write, live.  Do it honestly.  Don’t be afraid.  Be courageous in everything you do.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Culture Gap

While the thumbs-up sign means okay or good in most places, it is an insulting gesture in Greece.  With different cultures comes different interpretation of signs, and writers often do not take this into consideration.

When writing fiction, specifically science fiction or fantasy, people tend to make the world exactly like western culture (if they belong to that group anyway).  This is most probably not so, and it creates a very good foreign feel if the writer adds culture specific gestures to certain people (for example, people living in isolation on the moon might have formulated gestures tied to the existence on the moon).

Research published by the American Psychological Association suggests that facial expressions are also subject to different interpretations across cultures.  A lot of body language depends on culture rather than just human nature.

A lot of gestures and/or expressions come from ancient times and were adopted by the newer ages, even though they aren’t being used for the same purpose.  For example, the thumbs-up sign, as far as I know, comes from the Romans, in which Caesar indicated thumbs-up if the gladiator should live and thumbs-down if he should die.

So let’s say the people on our moon used to excavate minerals (until it was banned due to moon instability).  It was pretty dark down there and they couldn’t easily get bright light.  It was also pretty dangerous due to caves that collapsed, so they would send one guy to check the passages for minerals before they brought the machinery in.  This guy, when he saw minerals that needed to be excavated, he would signal his comrades (radio signals didn’t work because of interference by the strange minerals).  However, it was dark and dusty, and neither nodding nor thumbs-up could be clearly seen, so he holds his arm in the air for yes and points it down for no.  This would eventually seep into society and they might make a smaller version of it (say, a palm up for yes and down for no) and use that instead of nodding (especially if a lot of the population were miners).

So by putting in a small gesture, you can automatically show some history.  With it, you let the reader know that he/she is in a foreign place.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Four Basic Writing Stances : From the Roof

From the Roof.  Source

From the Roof (or Vom Dach in German) is an intimidating stance that is achieved by holding the sword overhead, at a 45 degree angle from the ground.  An alternate version of this has the swordsman hold it over one shoulder, since some armours didn’t allow the arms to raise so high.

By holding the sword over your head, you gain a lot of power with your strikes.  However, it can slow both your parries and attacks because of the momentum you need to generate in order to bring the blade down.  The position, however, allows easy transition into the other three stances with a shift of the sword and moving of the feet.

In writing, From the Roof is a versatile but somewhat disordered stance.  Though it can certainly act as a stance of its own, I think it often leaks into my writing along with the others.  This stance is also, like the Fool, kind of a combination between the Ox and the Plough.  With From the Roof, you start out either with an outline or without, depending on how good you know your story.  Then, if you get to a point where you struggle, you swap to the other style.  Thus, you start out with Ox, then you get to a point where you need some structure, then you swap over to Plough.

This stance shares a lot of advantages and disadvantages with the Fool, but optimises all the areas.  However, the trick lies in knowing when to switch.  If you swap between the styles too often, or not often enough, then you get all the problems from the first two.

From the Roof is very confusing, and can be pretty useless if you’re good with only Ox or Plough.  Also, you’re outline will never be as clear as it could be if you do it throughout the entire story.  For both the Fool and From the Roof, you need to know what you’re doing, and more importantly, you have to need it.  For most people, just outlining or just winging it is best.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Different Masks We Wear

In the introduction of the author’s definitive edition of Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card said something that is very true that I never really implemented in my own fiction.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that every person has different “voices” they use when talking to different people.  They change themselves (even if it’s only slightly) to fit in the interaction in which they take part.  Essentially, we each have multiple personas; one for each relationship we have (including strangers).

If you look at the psychology of it, I’d guess that it has to do with our need to fit in.  Humans are social by nature.  If you are in a group of people, or even just in the company of one person, you want the other party to accept you.  Your mannerisms, attitude and the like changes to something that you believe will cause them to include you.  Ergo, we have a collection of masks hidden in our psyche, and we swop them continually in order to fit the different situations/contexts we find ourselves in.

If you apply this to characters in a story, it is obvious that for every relationship, you’re going to have to develop a persona for your character.  If there are three characters in a story, you’re going to need four personas for every character—one for each relationship.  One and two, two and three, one and three and when they’re all together.

While this is probably going to be a lot of hard work (especially if you have a lot of characters), I think it’ll add a depth to your character that you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.  And you’ll have a lot of fun doing it.

On another note, we, as writers, have another mask.  It’s the persona we assume when we write things down.  The smart people call this voice.  It’s sort of like a public mask, the one we put on when we speak to the world.  The question is this:  Will you craft a porcelain mask, or go out in public with a cardboard face?