Writing Advice

Dream Sequences

30 June 2016

From author David Farland:

Most editors will warn you against writing too many dream sequences.  The problems in writing about dreams are multitudinous.  Very often, a new author will write an opening to a story and feel that it is dull, so he or she will spice it up by putting in an action scene—and then have the character wake up at the end.  The editor always feels cheated, and then has to wade through the tedious information that the author was trying to avoid.  Editors are very aware of that, and so we get angry when we find that we’ve been suckered into a dream sequence.  Usually, we get our vengeance: by gleefully rejecting the manuscript.

Now, the technique can work, but it’s hard to pull off.  Your description has to be vivid; your characters need to come alive and become strong protagonists; and you need to be very imaginative.  So you can open a tale with a dream sequence, but be forewarned.

The only cliché worse than opening with a dream is where the writer tells an entire story or novel and then ends with a character waking from his dream.  Don’t do that one folks.  If your editor reads it and then shoots you, it’s considered justifiable homicide.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

Here’s a link to Dave Farland’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

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What Kind of Writer are You: Cook or Baker?

29 June 2016

From LitHub:

People who know about food often say you’re either a cook or a baker; either you enjoy the freedom of putting together a savory meal to your own particular specifications, or you like the structure required for making sweets. I’ve always fallen squarely on the cook side of this divide. I’m happy, even excited, to make dinner out of whatever happens to be in my kitchen—in grad school, one of my staples was pasta with canned clams, canned black olives, and kale. I season liberally and always without measuring. Sometimes I don’t even taste a dish until I’m ready to serve it—it feels like cheating, somehow.

Baking, by contrast, has always intimidated me. You have to have all the right ingredients ready beforehand, sometimes even at the correct temperature, and then you have to put precise amounts of them together in just the right order. I love the outcome of baking: I’m always happy to eat a cookie or a scone. What scares me is all the planning.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my writing habits mirror my kitchen preferences. I hate to plot out anything in advance. Instead I like to feel my way through every scene, testing and tinkering as I go. When I start a book, I usually have a vague idea of a premise and a main character, and that’s it. Everything else I make up as I go along.

. . . .

But being a cook-writer also has serious downsides. Sometimes my writing goes completely off the rails—I had to throw out 75 pages of my first novel after it devolved into a bizarre story of collective hallucination. It takes me forever to get into a project—I fiddled around with Sophie Stark for a full year before I found the multiple point-of-view structure that let me really get into the story. And never knowing where you’re going is incredibly stressful—until I finish a project, I’m never sure how, or even if, it will turn out.

. . . .

I didn’t make charts or outlines—a cook can’t become a baker overnight—but I did try to plan ahead of time, especially for essays. I talked through ideas with my friends. I tried to come up with not just the germ of an idea, but an entire arc, before I started writing.

So far, it hasn’t worked. In every case, I end up throwing out my plans by paragraph two. An essay that was going to be about enjoying art we don’t understand turned into one about art created by people in pain (also, it still isn’t finished). Even this essay was supposed to end on a hopeful note—maybe, I was going to say, I’ll learn to use my newfound baking skills in writing someday. But the truth is, I probably won’t.

Link to the rest at LitHub

How Imaginary Friends Help Kids Grow Up

28 June 2016

From Science of Us:

In a movie stuffed full of emotional moments, perhaps nothing about Inside Out packs more of a feelings punch than Bing Bong. Once the imaginary friend of Riley, the girl whose mind plays host to all the movie’s action, he spends his days deep in the recesses of her memory, mostly forgotten but willfully believing that she’ll call him up again one day.

Bing Bong (spoiler!) eventually disappears completely, in the most heart-wrenching death Pixar could have possibly dreamed up. Until relatively recently, though, the loss of an imaginary friend wouldn’t be considered something worth mourning. As a recent Science Friday article noted, they were once considered a sign of something unhealthy, or even sinister:

Historically, many researchers and parents thought that imaginary companions were harmful or evil, and were a sign of a social deficit, demonic possession, or mental illness. For instance, at the University of Alabama’s Knowledge in Development (KID) Lab, lead psychologist Ansley Gilpin recently heard of a case where a parent thought her daughter might have schizophrenia. It turned out that the child just had an imaginaryfriend.

The stigma, as the anecdote about Gilpin illustrates, is still alive and well, but it’s fading. Over the past several decades, as Science Friday also recently documented in a series of episodes on the subject, researchers have established imaginary friendship as perhaps psychology’s most delightful area of study. And perhaps more importantly, they’ve discovered that having an imaginary companion isn’t abnormal or unusual – and living in an imaginary world might even help kids develop valuable skills for the real one.

In other words, for concerned parents who might want to see it spelled out: An imaginary friend is nothing to worry about. First of all, they’re incredibly common — by some estimates, 65 percent of kids have had an imaginary friend by age 7. And kids know they aren’t real; researchers today believe these made-up companions aren’t an indication of loneliness or a deficit of social skills so much as they are a normal way for kids to exercise their imaginations.

Link to the rest at Science of Us

PG suspects many authors may have had imaginary friends when they were younger.

How to Become a Ghostwriter

23 June 2016

From author Roz Morris via Jane Friedman:

Could you become a ghostwriter?

Before I ever published anything with my own byline, I’d already sold 4 million books as a ghostwriter.

Book ghostwriting is much more widespread than you’d suspect. Many writers—even well-known names—also use their skills for hire. Sometimes they’re credited. Sometimes they’re completely incognito.

Why do they do it? Well, money—obviously. Established ghostwriters get paid at a rate that’s fair for the time they spend. That’s pretty remarkable at a time when book advances are dwindling and authors are struggling to earn a decent living from book sales. Journalists, too, are finding that ghostwriting is a good career move. While magazines and online publications cut their staff to the bone, the book trade needs reliable wordsmiths who can quickly produce manuscripts to a brief, or interview a notable person to write their life story. But the ghostwriting world is broader and deeper than memoirs and celebrities. The deeper you dig, the more opportunities you find.

Even fiction publishers use ghostwriters. Funnily enough, people are surprised to hear this. But if you’re a fiction writer, you already know you didn’t learn your craft overnight. Neither can many of the people whose names go on novels.

. . . .

Publishers might look for ghostwriters to help an author they’d like to publish. You might spruce up an existing manuscript or write the book from scratch. Ghostwriters are also needed by literary and entertainment agents. A client might have a book idea and need to get a writer on board to sell it to a publisher. Writing book proposals is a significant part of the ghostwriter’s work.

. . . .

You need to be good at interviewing and earning the trust of the subject. That’s lovely if you get on well with them. You have to be willing to respect their work, their achievements and their goals. But sometimes you have to use ingenious wiles to get enough good book material.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Here’s a link to Roz Morris’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

The Oxford comma’s unlikely origin

22 June 2016

Why We Snap: From Road Rage to Barroom Brawls

21 June 2016

From Discover:

R. Douglas Fields, a neurobiologist in his 50s, won’t hesitate to lock a pickpocket into a deadly chokehold in the middle of the street. He’s done it before.

Fields isn’t a badass, crime-fighting martial artist whose cover is his day job in the lab — he’s just like everyone else. But when his wallet was snatched while traveling in Barcelona with his 17-year-old daughter in 2010, you could say he just, well, snapped. He didn’t have time to think. He jumped into action.

He got his wallet back.

That incident in Spain stuck with Fields, and it inspired his new book, Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain. Fields is a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland and the editor-in-chief of Neuron Glia Biology. He set out to understand the rage circuit and examined the latest research into human aggression.

Most violent behavior, Fields discovered, results from a clash between our evolutionary hardwiring and our modern world. To put it bluntly: Our rage circuit wasn’t designed for daily commutes on crowded highways or the deluge of social media affecting our relationships. Through his research, Fields outlines the nine primary triggers of the human rage circuit and puts them into the handy mnemonic LIFEMORTS: Life-or-death situation, Insult, Family, Environment, Mate, Order in society, Resources, Tribe and Stopped (being restrained or cornered).

. . . .

Discover: Snapping, or flipping out, is commonly seen as a negative response to a given situation. But in the book, you present a more agnostic view of this response. It’s both good — it’s essential for our survival — and bad. Can you explain the mechanisms that cause us to snap, and why they are both good and bad for us?

Fields: We call it snapping only when the outcome is inappropriate. But if you look inside the brain and look at the mechanisms that have been activated, it’s the same process that’s vital to responding quickly to any threatening situation. This mechanism isn’t in the cerebral cortex, it’s not conscious, because cortical thinking is too slow in a sudden, dangerous situation.

It involves neurocircuits of threat detection and sudden aggression. We need these circuits; we wouldn’t have them if we didn’t need them. That’s the double-edged sword of snapping.

. . . .

One of the most fascinating revelations from the book was the amount of information our brains process subconsciously. Can you talk a little about the work our brains are doing without our knowledge?

We think of conscious functions in the brain, but we don’t realize how much information processing is going on unconsciously. We can hold only a tiny fraction of the sensory information coming into our brains in our consciousness; most of this is going on unconsciously. We talk about this as trusting your gut.

Your amygdala gets sensory input from every one of your senses through a high-speed pathway reaching the threat-detection mechanism before it even goes to the cortex, where we have conscious awareness. That’s because your unconscious brain is surveying the world for threats. When it calculates that we’re in danger, it communicates that to the cortex with emotions like fear, anger or anxiety.

In general, people do not appreciate how much the brain is doing below the level of consciousness. You may not be able to put your finger on what’s wrong; If you suddenly just don’t feel right, you back off. Your brain is taking in enormous amounts of information and calculated there’s something wrong.

. . . .

Q: How do seemingly normal, sane people suddenly become killers?

A: Every day we read about violence, murder and mayhem not caused by people who are mentally ill. It’s people who suddenly snap in rage, and in many cases — domestic disputes or barroom brawls — the person ends up snapping and murdering a person they are close to, even a loved one.

When I read about snapping in the newspaper, it’s left as a mystery because we don’t understand the backstory. There’s always a reason in these instances, and that information doesn’t get into the news story.

We all have the capability for violence. It’s wired into our brain over the struggle of evolution. We need it for protection. We needed it to kill animals. It doesn’t need to be taught. Unfortunately, it can be triggered inappropriately. One thing that is always behind this is a chronic stress that isn’t understood. Stress puts these triggers for violence on edge.

Link to the rest at Discover and thanks to Livia, who thinks this might help authors, for the tip.

The Last Word: Stephen King

16 June 2016
Comments Off on The Last Word: Stephen King

From Rolling Stone:

Stephen King’s newest novel End of Watch (which arrived in bookstores earlier this month) is the concluding chapter in his Mr. Mercedes trilogy, centered around a demented killer and the retired police officer obsessed with tracking him down. The author spoke to Rolling Stone about his new book, his views on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the inspiration behind his next work and his favorite Dr. Seuss book.

. . . .

How would your life have gone if you hadn’t become a writer?
I would have been a perfectly adequate high school English teacher, possibly a college English teacher. I probably would have died of alcoholism around age 50. And I’m not sure my marriage would have lasted. I think people are extremely hard to live with when they have a talent they aren’t able to use.

What’s the best advice you ever got?
It boils down to what Satchel Paige said: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” There will be people who like what you do and people who don’t. But if they’re picking over the last thing and you’re working on the next thing, that’s all yours.

. . . .

What advice about the industry do you wish someone had given you when you started out?
That you don’t always have to take the editor’s advice. Sometimes the way you see it is the way it should be. I assumed that every writer was a lot smarter and a lot craftier than I was. That turned out not to be the truth.

What do you hope people say about you after you’re gone?
It would be nice if people said, “He worked hard. He left a rich legacy of novels and did the right things in the community.” Beyond that, I don’t expect much of an afterlife. I think there’s more for singers and songwriters and musicians than writers.

You don’t think people in 50 years will be reading The Stand?
That would be really nice. They might read The Shining. They might read Salem’s Lot. I think horror novels and fantasy novels have a longer shelf life than other kinds of books. I think of big bestsellers from when I was a kid, like Seven Days in May and the novels of Irving Wallace. You get a blank look if you mention those names. That’s what happens to most writers. People move on.

Link to the rest at Rolling Stone and thanks to Matt for the tip.

Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style

15 June 2016

From The New York Times:

One of the oldest forms of punctuation may be dying

The period — the full-stop signal we all learn as children, whose use stretches back at least to the Middle Ages — is gradually being felled in the barrage of instant messaging that has become synonymous with the digital age

So says David Crystal, who has written more than 100 books on language and is a former master of original pronunciation at Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London — a man who understands the power of tradition in language

The conspicuous omission of the period in text messages and in instant messaging on social media, he says, is a product of the punctuation-free staccato sentences favored by millennials — and increasingly their elders — a trend fueled by the freewheeling style of Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter

. . . .

“In an instant message, it is pretty obvious a sentence has come to an end, and none will have a full stop,” he added “So why use it?”

In fact, the understated period — the punctuation equivalent of stagehands who dress in black to be less conspicuous — may have suddenly taken on meanings all its own

Increasingly, says Professor Crystal, whose books include “Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation,” the period is being deployed as a weapon to show irony, syntactic snark, insincerity, even aggression

If the love of your life just canceled the candlelit, six-course, home-cooked dinner you have prepared, you are best advised to include a period when you respond “Fine.” to show annoyance

“Fine” or “Fine!,” in contrast, could denote acquiescence or blithe acceptance

“The period now has an emotional charge and has become an emoticon of sorts,” Professor Crystal said “In the 1990s the internet created an ethos of linguistic free love where breaking the rules was encouraged and punctuation was one of the ways this could be done”

. . . .

Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter and the reading of messages on a cellphone or hand-held device has repurposed the punctuation mark

“It is not necessary to use a period in a text message, so to make something explicit that is already implicit makes a point of it,” he said “It’s like when you say, ‘I am not going – period’ It’s a mark It can be aggressive It can be emphatic It can mean, ‘I have no more to say’

Can ardent fans of punctuation take heart in any part of the period’s decline? Perhaps.

The shunning of the period, Professor Crystal said, has paradoxically been accompanied by spasms of overpunctuation

“If someone texts, ‘Are you coming to the party?’ the response,” he noted, was increasingly, “Yes, fantastic!!!!!!!!!!!”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Syntactic Complexity of Reading Content Directly Impacts Complexity of Mature Students’ Writing

14 June 2016


Increasingly, schools and colleges of business focus on the quality of their students’ writing, reflecting complaints from business and industry about the quality of writing of entry-level employees.

. . . .

However, research also suggests that reading content and frequency may exert more significant impacts on students’ writing than writing instruction and frequency. This study surveyed a cohort of MBA students on their regular reading content and sampled their writing. We then used algorithm-based software to assess the syntactic complexity of both reading content and writing samples. Our findings reveal strong correlations between students’ most common reading content and their writing on widely-used measures of writing sophistication: mean sentence length and mean clause length.

. . . .

For decades, researchers have understood that reading and writing skills more or less track closely, particularly during students’ elementary and secondary education.

. . . .

Using a similar focus, psycholinguists have also discovered that our speech reflects the language we encounter most frequently, with even fleeting grammatical constructions in spoken dialogues eliciting similar grammatical constructions from others.

. . . .

More tellingly, the amount of time away from school that students spent reading clearly influenced their facility at writing. . . . students’ writing improved more markedly when their classroom instruction included more reading . . . than when students focused more on producing regular writing.

. . . .

Yet several key questions remain unanswered:

(1) Can syntactic sophistication of our reading influence our writing?

(2) Do these effects persist over long periods of time?

(3) Are adults as susceptible to these effects as children perhaps mimicking the language they struggle to master?

This study hypothesized that clear correlations exist between the regular sources read by adults and adults’ writing, evident in two markers of syntactic complexity: mean length of sentences and mean length of clauses.

. . . .

[E]ven when faculty commonly reference academic journals in their daily instruction, faculty generally assign course textbooks, many of which are poorly written and receive minimal editing due to publishers’ cutting costs by requiring writers to submit camera-ready texts for rapid publication.

. . . .

In identifying their most frequently-read sources, participants indicated reading web-based only sources, genre fiction, business and general non-fiction, literary fiction, and academic journals. These indications eliminated weekly business-focused periodicals and all newspapers from our correlations between reading sources and writing samples.

. . . .

The age range of participants provides an excellent snapshot of the reading habits of both Gen X and Millennials but showed surprisingly few differences between the reading preferences of the two groups, particularly in their equal preferences for staples of business-focused periodicals—The Economist, Business Weekly, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal—and online-only, often amateur-provided content from web sources that included Tumblr, Reddit, BuzzFeed, and the Huffington Post.

. . . .

The amount of time spent reading for adult writers may prove less influential than patterns of reading over longer periods of time, as adults have left behind the developmental stages where frequency of practice in reading can exert strong influences on writing, via either the acquisition of syntactic knowledge or of domain-based knowledge. Perhaps still more important, the duration of time spent reading mattered far less than the syntactic complexity of the majority of their reading.

. . . .

Students who read academic journals, “literary” fiction, or general non-fiction wrote with greater syntactic sophistication than students who read genre fiction (mysteries, fantasy, or science fiction) or exclusively web-based content aggregators like Reddit, Tumblr, and BuzzFeed. In fact, when we examined the scores on L2 measures of syntactic complexity, writing with the lowest syntactic complexity was associated with heavy or exclusive reading of web-based content from the likes of BuzzFeed, Tumblr, and Reddit. In contrast, students with the highest scores of syntactic complexity in their writing read academic journals more frequently than their peers.

. . . .

Based on our findings, graduate business curricula could benefit significantly from incorporating more content drawn from academic journals, rather than textbook paraphrases of significant studies. In addition, courses in organizational behavior, economics, marketing and finance could enhance MBAs’ writing skills by requiring students to apply domain-specific knowledge from business-related news in the likes of The Economist and Wall Street Journal in case-based assignments and tests.

Link to the rest at SCIEDU

PG is disappointed that TPV was not included in the study. Based on his syntactic analysis of comments, visitors to TPV write wonderfully well.

PG also disagrees that syntactic complexity is a generally appropriate goal for authors of business documents.

“That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.” – Steve Jobs

Lovingly, Stridently, Unapologetically

3 June 2016

From Slate:

Who will be the Lorax for the adverb, that most-maligned part of speech? Who will speak on the adverb’s behalf? For once again, it would seem, it is under attack. Christian Lorentzen’s New York Magazine piece, “Could We Just Lose Adverbs (Already)” is not quite the diatribe its title (parenthetically) promises: Lorentzen is more nuanced and reflective than to call for an outright ban, and by essay’s end, he has arrived at reluctant acceptance. But even then, Lorentzen maintains “their power is best spent in small doses”; he expounds on ways to prune adverbs and other “needless” words from one’s writing. It reminded me once again that we desperately lack a full-throated defense of this runt of the grammatical litter. We need an outright celebration of adverbs, and it is that celebration that I offer—stridently, boisterously, unapologetically.

The hatred of adverbs amongst writers, and specifically teachers of creative writing, has become so commonplace, so unquestioned, and so unthinking, that it ranks only with “show don’t tell” as the most ubiquitous cliché in writing advice. One finds it everywhere. When Lorentzen comments that an “excess of adverbs in prose signals ageneral lack of vividness in verbs and adjectives,” he’s only parroting the same advice writers have been doling out for years. One finds it throughout William Zinsser’s oft-taught Writing Well (first published in 1976), which advises that “the secret to good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

Zinsser here basically follows his forebears, William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, whoseThe Elements of Style (published first by Strunk in 1918; expanded in 1959 by White) loudly proclaims: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” The word “adverb” doesn’t cross the page, but Lorentzen is correct that “they’re talking about adverbs without their having to say it.”

Henry James once wrote of adverbs, “I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect,” but his is most definitely a minority report. To Graham Greene, adverbs were “beastly.” Elmore Leonard thought their use constituted a “mortal sin.” Italian futurist F. T. Marinetti called for their abolition, complaining they give sentences a “tedious unity of tone” (though, to be fair, Marinetti also called for abolishing adjectives, punctuation, conjugated verbs, and syntax in general). Even Hollywood, the last refuge of all manner of clichéd and hackneyed writing, understands the adverb to be verboten: in 1995’s Outbreak, Kevin Spacey’s character, during the height of a public health crisis, takes time out to dismiss the adverb as “a lazy tool of a weak mind.”

. . . .

A few years ago, Adam Haslett lamented that bans on parts of speech lead inevitably not to better writing, but to a uniformity in bad writing. “Too often the instruction to ‘omit needless words’ (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull,” he notes; “minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.” Writers who militate against adverbs have given up on the pleasures of writing; they have been beaten down by a few examples of bad writing, and, wary of dealing with more, they advocate that all of us adopt the same remedy: writing denuded of anything unusual, stripped down to its barest elements so as to be the least likely to offend.

. . . .

Anne Carson writes of adjectives that they “are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity.” Adverbs, then, curtail and refine—but in doing so they can pick out the unexpected resonances, the hidden valences in the words they modify. An adverb, at its best, offers a sudden shift in direction or tone, all the more unexpected considering the adverb’s seemingly slavish subservience to the word it modifies.

Adverb detractors tend to focus on the straw man example of a weak verb modified by an adverb: don’t write “he said indistinctly,” write “he mumbled” instead. It’s true that this is not great writing, and in many cases the replacement verb is indeed better. But where adverbs get interesting is when they modify an already strong verb. The adverb in such a situation allows for far more complexity: it can contradict the verb, alter it subtly or dramatically, change the meaning of the sentence in some irrevocable manner, or provide a puzzle of sorts for the reader, giving her pause. If “he walked slowly” is bad, and “he ambled” is good, then “he ambled purposefully” is great—a kind of precision that emerges only when words are at cross purposes with one another.

Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

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