Writing Career Advice From a Neuroscientist, Part I: Choose your Projects Carefully

As a graduate student studying the brain mechanisms of reading, I'm blessed with a pretty awesome day job (or more accurately, “afternoon, evening, and weekend job”). My adviser is a tenured professor at MIT and occasionally gives graduate students advice on building a scientific career. Not only is his advice spot on, but I've realized that many of his tips apply to building a writing career as well. His tips are the inspiration of this four part series: Writing Career Advice From a Neuroscientist

Tip #1: Choose Your Project Wisely

Before I came to my current lab, I worked as a behavioral psychologist -- I made people do experiments on computers and measured their responses and how quickly they responded. Behavioral experiments are very fast paced -- you can finish an experiment in a week if you work quickly. Because of the small time commitment, the cost of not planning a good behavioral experiment is minimal. If you have a crazy idea, just run a couple of participants and see if it works. Worst case scenario, you lose a few weeks and maybe the $100 that you paid your participants.

When I moved into my current lab, I started with the same mentality of just grab a crazy idea and dive in. However, I quickly learned to slow down and think things through more carefully. Why? Because now I was working in brain imaging. Rather than $100 and a few weeks, you're now talking $20,000 and months or years. An average brain imaging experiment takes about two years from conception to publication if everything goes well. Assuming that your professional life lasts 50 years, every experiment is four percent -- a significant chunk -- of your working life. Therefore, it's important to think before diving in. There's nothing worse than looking back and realizing you would have saved two years of work if you had just thought things through.

Writers would be wise to also consider the time investment factor when planning their projects. If you're just writing a short story, there's no harm in sitting at your computer and typing out any crazy idea you have. However, a novel can take anywhere from six months to several years to complete. It's not so bad to finish a short story and realize it's it's the dumbest thing ever written. However, it's a much worse feeling to finish a 90,000 word manuscript, and only then realize that your premise doesn't work or isn't publishable.

So how to you tell if something is worth working on? Stay tuned for Part II...

My blog featured on Jordan McCollum's website critique series!

About a month ago, agent Nathan Bransford hosted a blog entry contest. One of the winners was Jordan McCollum, who wrote a great post on essential components of an aspiring writer's website.

This week she's starting an author website critique series on her own blog, and my site was the first in line! She and internet designer Kathleen MacIver gave some really insightful and practical tips that are not only helpful to me, but would be useful to any writer looking to improve their web presence. Go check it out!

Since this review has put me in a "website improvement" mood, I figure it's good time to solicit feedback from you, my readers. Now that I've put up a few entries, do you have any comments or suggestions for improvement? Anything that you'd like to see more or less of? If you read Jordan's review, I'd love to hear whether or not you agree with her suggestions as well.

A week from Saturday I'm getting married (!!!!), and then I'll be gone for two weeks on my honeymoon in the Canadian Rockies. See you all when I return!

Character reactions can show their personality

How can you convey to the reader that a character is a kind and dedicated mother? One option would be to include scenes where she's actively caring for her children. Or, you could have a scene like this, from Carl Hiaasen's Newbery Honor book Hoot.

"His mom sent him off to military school," Roy explained, "and now she doesn't want him back. She said so herself..."
Roy's mother cocked her head, as if she wasn't sure that she'd heard him correctly. "His mom doesn't want him?"
Roy saw something flash in her eyes. He wasn't certain if it was sorrow or anger -- or both.
"She doesn't want him?" his mother repeated.
Roy nodded somberly.
"Oh, my," she said.
The words came out so softly that Roy was startled. He heard pain in his mother's voice.

I like how this passage gives us, in a few short lines of dialogue, a rich and poignant picture of Roy's mother. We know from this exchange that she's sensitive and feels strongly about maternal obligation. We also see that even though she's capable of strong feelings, she's more likely to keep the feelings under control than yell and scream. Somehow, I find this passage more compelling than a straightforward one where she's simply seen caring for her kids.

A good reminder that a character's reaction to news or events can tell the reader quite a bit about the character. What do you think?