Writing Craft Growth and Goals for 2011

Happy holidays, everyone! For the last week of the year, I'm turning the discussion over to you.

How has your writing craft improved over the last year, and what aspect of your craft to want to focus on for the next year?

I will go first. Over the last year, I've developed a sharper eye for ferreting out awkward sentences and unnecessary words. Interestingly, I think blogging was better practice for learning clean prose than long form fiction, although I do think the benefits transfer.*

Next year, I'd like to focus on character development. I just finished the first draft of my novel last week (woot!), and in the second draft I'd like to give the characters more dynamic range. Expect some blog posts on this soon. :-)

Okay dear readers, your turn!

*And of course, someone's going to leave a comment pointing out awkward sentences in this post :-)

What Mirror Images and Foreign Scripts Tell Us About the Reading Brain

Here’s a simple exercise. Count the number of times the letter ‘A’ appears in the sentences below. Easy enough, but, there's a catch. You have to do it without reading the words.


One day, after Little Red Riding hood woke up, mother called her into the kitchen and handed her a basket of cakes and pastries. “Take these to grandmother. She's sick, and perhaps these cakes will make her feel better.”

From Words to Brain

Once upon a time there was a girl. She was a sweet child, with bright blue eyes, a dimpled smile, and curly golden hair that tumbled over her shoulders. The most distinctive thing about her, however, was a red cloak that she wore everywhere she went. The village called her Little Red Riding Hood.

What is it that transforms a page full of words into a tale that entertains us, informs us, and ultimately leaves us changed? In her essay From Words to Brain, former MIT neuroscientist Livia Blackburne explores the brain basis of reading–a skill that is incredibly complex and integral to modern culture. Using the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood as a guide, Blackburne follows the story from its physical manifestation on the page, through the reader’s visual system, and ultimately into the reader’s imagination and beyond. Because the experience of reading a story does not end with the last page. That’s the point at which the real magic begins.

From Words to Brain is 6700 words long, or roughly 27 printed pages.

Read an excerpt here.


"MIT graduate student and neuroscientist Livia Blackburne penned the fantastic essay From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?), which uses the children’s classic “Little Red Riding Hood” to investigate the complex neural connections that take place while we read. Like the TEDBooks series, Blackburne’s piece contains big ideas in a compact, engaging, and accessible package."
--Kirsten Butler for Brainpickings

"I love psychology but am sometimes put off by how technical the science papers can get. Livia manages to cram psychological explanations into an easy to read essay that 'lay' readers can enjoy as well as those more scientifically minded. The up to date studies on how the brain interprets words are fascinating and I learned a lot from this fast read. Is Livia Blackburne the next pop science publishing phenomenon?!"

-- Joanna Penn,  Author

The essay is so well written that it reads like a piece of fiction. Blackburne manages to make an essay full of scientific information flow like an informal essay, which allows readers not familiar with neuroscience to grasp the results of complex studies without being faced with wading through dry material. Part of that accessibility is that she focuses specifically on the story "Little Red Riding Hood" and presents pieces of the well-known tale throughout the essay to demonstrate her points to readers. Her passion also shines through in her words in statements like these: "we'll explore just what it is that transforms a page full of words to an experience with the power to move us and leave us changed;" "you might say that a story is like a film reel, and the brain projects it into our imaginations;" and "some stories find resonance, spreading from reader to reader and setting in action changes that affect the world."

Anyone who has ever been touched by a written story should read this essay: It is a love letter to the writing and reading processes worthy of being read "just for fun" or for research. Livia Blackburne has a gift for writing, and her writing is a source for new ways of thinking about the art of writing and how it is, indeed, a process that affects the brain as well as the soul."

-- Jessie Sams, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University
Buy the essay from:

    Using Setting to Spice Up Dialogue

    I have a new blog banner! Thanks to Abby of Mavora Designs.

    I recently read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin. I like how she uses details from the setting to add tension and mood to dialogue.

    Here's an example. The main character, Minli, is looking for a mysterious thing called a “borrowed line” in order to change her family's fortune. She asks a King for advice. The King realizes that the borrowed line is a royal treasure -- a sheet of paper with words that change magically whenever you ask a question. Minli is excited find the borrowed line, but it belongs to the King, and she realizes that he is unlikely to give it to her.

    The dialogue starts as the King takes out the paper and reads from it. I annotated the passage to classify the ways that Lin breaks up the dialogue.

    "What does it say?" Minli asked.

    "It says," the King said slowly, "You only lose what you cling to."
    The King's words seemed to hang in the air. All was silent except for the soft rustling of the page in the gentle breeze. Minli, unable to speak, watched it flutter as if it were waving at her. [Setting detail]

    "So, it seems your request," the king said, "Deserves consideration. The line tells me as much. Let me think."

    Minli looked at the King, quiet but puzzled. [Action and emotion]

    "For generations, my family has prized this paper …." The king said slowly. "But what is it really?"

    Minli shook her head, unsure if she should respond. [Action, emotion]

    "It is, actually," the king said, "simply proof of my ancestors rudeness, his unprincipled anger and ruthless greed.…"

    The moon seemed to tremble as ripples spread over its reflection caught in the water. The King continued, again, speaking more to himself than to Minli. [Setting detail]

    "We have clung to it, always afraid of losing it," the king said. "But if I choose to release it, there is no loss."

    Minli felt her breath freeze in her chest. She knew that King's mind was in a delicate balance. If he refused to give her the line now, she knew she would never get it. [More elaborate internal observation]

    "And perhaps it was never meant for us to cling to…," The king said. "So, perhaps, it is time for the paper to return to the book."

    A wind skimmed the water, and Minli could see her anxious face as pale and as white as the moon reflected in it. [Setting detail]

    The author uses three primary ways to break up the dialogue: action, emotion/internal observation, and setting details. I've been using action and emotion, but setting is something I'll have to add to my writer's toolbox. I like how the short descriptions of moon, water, and wind enhance the atmosphere while increasing the tension as Minli waits for the king's decision.

    What's your favorite way to spice up dialogue?

    Worldview, Tolkien, and Why Catholics Write "Bad" Stories

    Hello everybody. First, I have a quick favor to ask. This blog is now available on Kindle. Right now, the Kindle page for the blog looks a little lonely, so if anyone has time and inclination to write a quick review on the page, I would really appreciate it.

    As a psychologist, I think a lot about worldview -- the way we see and interpret our surroundings. Worldview is so integral to the way we function that we often don't notice it at all. We take it for granted, and it's only when we meet people who think differently from us that we realize our original biases.

    Academic psychology is not immune to worldview blindness. Over the years, people have found that psychological principles we originally thought were universal actually hold true only for people from Western industrialized countries. For example, remember the fundamental attribution error? It’s the idea that when someone does something wrong, we blame it on character faults rather than external circumstances. If the new lunch lady is rude to you, we tend to assume that she's a bad person rather than blaming it on a bad day. This principle is taught in psychology courses around the country, but research now suggests that people from other cultures are more likely to take external circumstances into account.

    Tips from the Northern Ohio SCBWI

    First, I e-mailed nhile, winner of the Writing Great Books for Young Adults drawing, but haven't gotten a response yet. Please e-mail me with your mailing address if you would still like the book.

    Second, congratulations to Merna, winner of The Narrative Escape drawing. I will be contacting you as well.

    As I mentioned before, I attended the Northern Ohio SCBWI conference this summer. My previous post about book packagers was based on a session there by Emma Carlson Berne. Today, I'm passing along some more miscellaneous tidbits from the conference. Hope these are useful!

    On the Publishing Industry

    When an imprint with a staff of nine takes on your book, you automatically get nine diehard fans who want your book’s success.  -- Martha Mihalick, editor at Greenwillow

    An editor’s job is to be your ideal reader. Someone who has read thousands of books and likes yours. It’s also the editor’s job to tell everyone how amazing your book is. She talks to the art director, designers, sales team, etc. Martha Mihalick once even lent a cover model her shirt for a photo shoot.

    In her nine years as an editor, Martha Mihalick has taken 1 manuscript from the unsolicited slush pile.

    Publishing is about relationships. If editors know you and know you’re reliable, they will start calling you with work and asking about projects you’re working on. -- Emma Carlson Berne, author of Hard to Get

    Writing Tips

    One good way to test your children’s book. Have someone else read the book to a group of kids, and watch their reactions or better yet, their lack of emotion in a particular place where you expected or wanted a reaction. -- Eileen Robison, former editor at Scholastic and creater of F1rstPages

    On building strong characters. Make a strong first impression. The clothes, manner of moving, and the first thing out of the character’s mouth should all establish her character. A side character’s first interaction with the main character should set up their dynamic.  -- Emma Carlson Berne (For more on first impressions, see this post on the Hunger Games)

    On Picture Books

    Characteristics of strong illustrations:
    1. Creates strong, unique, and identifiable characters with their own personalities.
    2. Captures emotional connection and interaction between characters through facial expression and gestures.
    3. Has an intentional color palette that create mood and communicates meaning
    4. Captures movement, action, and gestures, which are so necessary for most storylines.
    5. The composition, type, and page design complements the story and emphasizes the action or themes of the story.
    6. There is a dynamic between art image & text type on page: creates something new together, balancing the action with the story & creating an emotionally satisfying experience of reading
    -- Anne Moore, Art Resource Buyer, Candlewick

    Picture books with strong story and characters are always in demand. With strong charcters you can do series spin offs, stuffed animals, a movie spinoff, etc. But uniqueness is King. There are a lot of bunny stories out there. How is your bunny unique?  -- Anne Moore

    From Words to Brain to Come Out With 40k Books!

    Congratulations to nhile, the winner of last week's drawing for Writing Great Books for Young Adults!

    Some of you might recognize the name 40k Books from my twitter stream or the recent interview with Tom Stafford. They are a new press that spends a lot of time thinking about digital books and the future of publishing. Their publishing model focuses on essays and novelettes, and they publish these works internationally in several different languages. I recommend their twitter feed, where they share useful links about writing and publishing.

    Today, I'm happy to announce that my essay From Word to Brain will be coming out with 40K books in a few months! Here's a short description from the original query letter:

    Tips for YA Writing from Literary Agent Regina Brooks -- Plus signed book giveaway!

    Writing Great Books for Young Adults: Everything You Need to Know, from Crafting the Idea to Landing a Publishing Deal

    I recently read Writing Great Books for Young Adults by Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency. Brooks gave some useful writing tips, and I'll share six of my favorites here.

    1. To get into young adult minds, there are the usual techniques of eavesdropping on their conversations and talking to them. But for a high-tech option, try going on Facebook. Teens these days live out much of their lives on the internet and it's a great way to see how they think.

    2. On coincidences in stories: It's much easier to get away with a coincidence if it makes the characters situation worse. If a coincidence happens to solve one of the characters problems, it will seem like a copout.

    3. Focus on what is unique about the setting of your novel. How does this particular town, planet, or culture  shape the behavior of the characters in a way that another setting wouldn't?

    4. If you are writing for particular age group and don't know what vocabulary is appropriate, spelling and reading textbooks at that grade level can give you a general idea.

    5. People often recommend reading your manuscript aloud to check the writing. Brooks recommends against this because you, as the author, already know how you're supposed to inflect all the sentences. She recommends instead to have someone else read the manuscript to you, both with natural inflection and in a flat monotone.

    6. On theme: Brooks describes theme as the moral of a fairytale. She spends an entire chapter explaining the concept, but one tip that stuck with me was that the theme should play a major role in the protagonist’s greatest choice -- the choice that resolves the conflict.

    I received a review copy of this book from the author to review.

    Tips for Dealing with Carpal Tunnel and Repetitive Strain Injury

    I've gotten enough questions about carpal tunnel that it’s easier to write a blog entry than rewrite the same e-mail repeatedly. Even if you don't have full-blown repetitive strain injury but just suffer from the occasional wrist pain after a long day, you may find some of the software or equipment I mention to be useful.  Prevention is better than treatment.

    I've had repetitive strain injury from computer use for about seven years. At its worst, it hurt to turn doorknobs, but now I've found ways to keep it under control. These are the treatment options that worked for me and also the tools and the technologies that I now use to work at a computer.

    First, the obligatory disclaimer. I am not a doctor. What I share is what worked for me, but other cases might be different.

    Books and resources:

    1. It's Not Carpal Tunnel Syndrome  is  worth reading to better understand repetitive strain injury. It has exercises too, but I found them less useful than the other books mentioned below.

    2. Sharon Butler has a good book with stretching exercises called Conquering Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Since then, she has developed more specialized stretching programs that she sells on her website.

    3. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook is a good book for a massage based self treatment. It covers soft tissue pain in all areas of the body, and not just the arms.

    4. Another book worth looking through is Pain Free at Your PC by Pete Egoscue, for its alternate viewpoint on ergonomics.

    Professional Treatment: 

    I tried many kinds of therapy, including physical therapy, massage therapy, shiatsu, acupuncture, and Alexander technique. These might have helped a little, but not much. The only therapy that made a difference was active release therapy. It's a soft tissue release technique, and I had it done with a chiropractor. This gave me noticeable results after the first appointment, and after a few weeks I was able to start typing again. This is pretty impressive since I had been unsuccessfully trying therapies for over a year at that point.

    Self treatment:
    1. I highly recommend the Armaid for forearm and wrist pain. It helps get rid of knots and loosen up the muscles.
    2. If you suffer from tight back muscles, the Theracane (in conjunction with the trigger point therapy workbook) is also nice for treating muscle spasms.

    Office Equipment:

    1.  I highly recommend typing gloves from Handeze. They are inexpensive and offer really good support to the wrist. Many of people are told to wear hard wrist braces. I didn't find them useful and found that the pain would return in a different place after a few days. One thing the hard wrist braces are good for however, is to wear to sleep if you find that you bend your wrists in a weird or irritating position at night.

    2. For upper back pain, get a reading stand that will hold books and papers vertically on the desk so you don't have to bend over them.

    Computer Hardware and equipment: There are many resources on ergonomic computer set up, so I won't cover that here. I'll give my preference is for hardware, but this can be subjective and these things are expensive, so ideally you want to try them out before you buy them

    1. An ergonomic keyboard is very important. I swear by my Goldtouch, but since they switched manufacturers, their keyboards haven't been as good and actually seem to exacerbate my symptoms. Some friends of mine prefer the Kinesis keyboards, but they take some getting used to.

    2. Ergonomic mice also help. I don't have a clear favorite here, but I like the 3M vertical mouse and the Kensington trackball. I've never used track pads but some people like them.

    Computer software:

    1. Install a stretch break reminder software on your computer. You can find lots of them for free online

    2. Because mouse clicking irritates my wrist, I use a software that clicks the mouse for me when I stop the pointer. The Windows version is called Mousetool. It's been so long since I downloaded it that I don't remember where I got it, but you can find download sites for it via Google. Just remember to take the necessary precautions when downloading programs from unknown websites.

    3. I also use voice recognition software. Dragon NaturallySpeaking has come a long way even since my college days. It does make mistakes, and annoyingly, the types of mistakes it makes tend to make you look like a bad writer, for example verb agreement mistakes or its/it's errors. I don't use Dragon for the final draft of anything important, but for first drafts that will still undergo several rounds of proofreading, it's helpful. If you use voice recognition, then you MUST get a good quality microphone. The microphone that comes in the box is worthless. I use the Plantronics DSP 400.  Here's a website that lists and rates compatible microphones.

    Okay, so that is all the information I can think of for now. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.

    On a completely random note, I was recently interviewed on an article about work related injuries at Redbook. This is what happens when you spend too much time hanging out on HARO.

    Erotic Romance, Condoms, and Social Responsibility

    Hey folks. Sorry for the sporadic posting lately. My writing time for the last two months has been tied up on a sekrit project. In true graduate student fashion, I attacked the project with some top sekrit procrastination, and things got pretty hectic towards the end. But that should be wrapping up soon.

    But enough about me. Let's talk about something more interesting. Like erotic romance novels. And condoms. And of course, science.

    Raymond Moore at On Fiction recently described a study about the influence of romance novels on condom use. Erotic romance as a genre generally focuses on spontaneous and passionate sex. Since rubbers don’t exactly scream passion, love scenes rarely mention their use.

    Our Brains Naturally Frame Events As Stories

    "Stories are efficient summaries of reality, but that isn't all they are. Stories have an arc, they put constraints on the future - when you've heard the first half there are some things which are more likely in the second, and some less. I'm sure our minds use stories because they describe the way the world is AND because they say something about how the world could or will be."

    I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Stafford, psychologist at the University of Sheffield and author of The Narrative Escape.  See the rest of our conversation about our brains' narrative habit at the 40k blog.

    Sally Feels Your Pain. Harry Just Points and Laughs.

    You could say that fiction is about pain. When you boil them down, stories describe characters taking hits and trying to emerge as unscathed as possible. Neighborhood under attack by zombies? Run hard and hope you have some painkillers on hand if they catch you. Or what if it’s actually a friendly, attractive zombie who loves you? In that case, it’s all good -- until you realize that mortals and undead can never be together. Oh the agonies of unfulfilled love!

    Read the rest of my guest post on pain, empathy, and fiction at Nathan Bransford's blog.   Older blog followers will recognize one of the studies. I also describe a new study about some interesting gender differences in empathy (Hint: see title).

    Book Packagers 101

    Congrats to Catherine Stine, winner of the Vordak ARC!

     I recently attended the Northern Ohio SCBWI conference, where I had the pleasure of meeting author Emma Carlson Berne. Berne is the author of over thirty fiction and nonfiction books for children and young adults. Some are written under her own name (check out her recent YA romantic comedy Hard to Get), while others were ghostwritten for book packagers under a pen name. Since we rarely hear about working with book packagers in the blogosphere, I thought I’d share my notes from her very informative session.

    What is a book packager? 

    A book packager acts as a layer between the writer and the publisher. Usually they come up with a concept and recruit writers on a work-for-hire basis. The popular series Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Gossip Girl were produced by book packager Alloy entertainment , and many nonfiction/educational book series for children are put together by book packagers as well.

    How does the writing process work?

    For fiction, the packager provides character sketches (sometimes with pictures) and a detailed plot outline. In nonfiction, the packager provides specification about style, content, and any limitations on sources to use. The writer is responsible for conducting the research.

    What are the advantages to working with a book packager?

    1.  If you’re hired on a work-for-hire basis, you’re paid a set fee. The amount of money you make is not dependent on whether a publisher buys your book or how well it sells.
    2.  You're generally not called on to do any publicity or marketing for the books.  Your job is done after you write the book.
    3.  Brene also found ghostwriting to be a good learning experience, comparing it to a paid apprenticeship in novel writing.

    What are the disadvantages?

    1. If you’re hired on a work-for-hire basis, the packager owns all rights, including rights to notes and drafts.
    2. There are often strict noncompete clauses, so you can’t write anything else that is considered competition for the book.
    3. After you finish te book, you have no control over what happens next. If the publisher doesn’t like what you wrote, they can hire someone else to rewrite it without consulting you. You can’t be too emotionally tied to your work.
    4. Writing for a set fee can either work for or against you. If your book does really well, you won’t make any more money. On the other hand, if you’re writing a book that’s not particularly likely to become a runaway bestseller (say, a biography of a historic figure), that maynot matter.

    How do you get a postion writing for a book packager?
    Berne got her first job wirting nonfiction for a book packager through a personal referral from another writer. Since then, she’s also gotten a lot of work simply by cold calling book packagers to see if they’re hiring. When she cold called Alloy entertainment, hey looked at her resume, asked her to write a sample chapter, and hired her based on the writing sample. Now that she’s more established, editors sometimes contact her for jobs.

    Is there a directory of book packagers?
    Check out the American Book Producers Association at www.abpaonline.org for a list of members and contact information.

    Revision tip from James Frey Part III: Be a Poet

    Today we have part three of our three-part revision series based on tips from How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey. Our first tip was be specific. Nate wrote a great entry for that, which we used as a starting point for our next tip: appeal to all the senses. As a reminder, here is Nate’s paragraph.

    Sarah arrived at school eager for the afternoon's Halloween party. As she sat down at her desk, she looked inside her backpack for her costume. She found the box, plastic piping, and gloves, all spray-painted a metallic silver, but couldn't find the robot's helmet. She searched through both closets and in every cabinet at the back of the classroom, but didn't see it anywhere. Mrs. Brannigan hadn't noticed it, either.

    By noon, when the rest of her class headed out to recess, Sarah was very worried indeed. What would she do? She couldn't possibly be Bender without his head. Finally, she had an idea. She found Mr. Hossburn, the school janitor, and begged him to unlock the supply closet. Beneath a stack of paper plates and a folded plastic tablecloth, she found what she was looking for: an old gray bucket that fit perfectly on her head. Her costume was saved!

    There were a lot of nicerevisions in the comment section of the last post. This time, I will feature Peta’s. Remember, Peta's task was to revise it to appeal to all the senses.

    Sarah arrived at school eager for the afternoon's Halloween party. Long, thin streamers ringed the room, bright orange and spooky black. As she sat down at her desk, the thick scent of cotton candy tickled her nose. Digging around in her backpack for her costume, Sarah’s fingers brushed against the box and stinky plastic piping. When she touched the gloves, she pulled a face--the silver metallic paint had dried easily enough on the box and piping, but her gloves were still tacky, like frosting that hadn’t set properly.

    Wiping her hands on her jeans, Sarah tried not to worry. Had she let the best part--the most important part!--of her costume at home? Tugging at her bottom lip, she searched both closets, made the class hamsters squee as she looked under their cage, and even poked her head under all the kids‘ desks. When she asked her teacher, a sweet old lady who loved sunflower hats and had pieces of liquorice stuck in her teeth, Mrs. Brannigan could only shake her head, and offer a condoling twizzler.

    Come recess, Sarah was frantic. She had to have a head! Bender had a head, the Tin Man had a head...the Tin Man! Pounding down the hall, Sarah found Mr. Hossburn, the school janitor, and begged him to unlock the supply closet. There, hiding beneath an old checked plastic tablecloth (still spotted with grease and Coke) and a stack of paper plates, she found it: a slightly rusted, slightly damp-smelling grey bucket that fit perfectly on her head. Her costume was saved!

    Peta has some great imagery here -- the tacky feel of paint on the gloves, the damp smell of the bucket, the bright orange and spooky black of the streamers. I especially like how Sarah pulls a face when she touches the tacky gloves. Here the psychologist in me comes out again. Our facial expressions are very tightly tied to our feelings. In fact, people who assume facial expressions often report their emotions shifting to match the expression. Forcing yourself to smile might actually make you feel happier. So I love how this expression of disgust works with the description of sticky paint to give us this “eww” feeling. Great job!

    So the final revision tip of the series is “be a poet.” Now this one is a lot of fun for writers, but be careful not to overdo it. Frey says that the corollary to this rule is “don't be too much of a poet,” but a few figures of speech here and there can really liven things up.

    Some categories of figures of speech:

    1. Personification -- giving human traits to nonhuman objects. “My bed, mournful and empty, begged me to return for just one more hour.”

    2. Hyperbole -- exaggeration. “The bean burrito and my digestive tract conspired to make a significant contribution to global warming today.” (Apologies. My husband is in town this week and I blame him for any juvenile references.)

    3. Metaphor - Describing one thing in terms of another. “My husband is a five-year-old.” (Okay, I'm done with all the husband digs for now. I love him dearly, not least because he lets me make fun of him.)

    4. Simile - Describing one thing in terms of another, using the words “like” or “as”.  An example from Peta's paragraph:  “Her gloves were still tacky, like frosting that hadn’t set properly.”

    Frey brings up another point, that a good figure speech applies in more than one way. For example, Peta’s comparison of the gloves to frosting not only provides a texture comparison, but also conjures  associations with cupcakes -- a apt association for a story about a party.

    It occurs to me that if we rewrite the entire passage using figures of speech, we might end up with some really purple prose. So instead of rewriting the entire story, let's just brainstorm some phrases that we can use in the story.  Share your gems in the comment section!

    Brain Science, Verbal Diarrhea, and How a Cup of Kahlua Got Me Into MIT

    Hello everyone!  Our revision series will continue shortly.  There's still time to write an entry to Part II and see what others have written in the comments, including one impressive entry in which Simon harnesses the five senses to ruin a happy ending.

    But for today, something different. I've followed author/blogger Joanna Penn for a while now and admire her greatly.  Her blog The Creative Penn takes writing blogs to the next level with insightful articles, podcasts, and video blogs about anything publishing related.  She was recently listed on Problogger's 30 Bloggers to Watch in 2010 .

    Joanna was kind enough to invite me for a podcast interview.  We had a nice chat about brain science and writing.  Click on over to hear the podcast.  There's a written summary as well (although it doesn't explain the Kahlua reference in the title of this post).

    Thanks Joanna!

    Revision tip from James Frey Part II: Appeal to All the Senses

    We’re in part II of our three part revision series, using tips from How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey to rework a passage as a group. As a reminder, we started with this:

    Sarah arrived at school eager for the afternoon's Halloween party. As she sat down at her desk, she looked inside her bag for her costume. Most of her robot costume was there, but she couldn't find the helmet. She looked around but couldn't see it anywhere. She asked her teacher whether she had seen it, but the teacher said no.

    By recess time, Sarah was very worried indeed. What would she do? She couldn't possibly be a robot without a helmet. Finally, she had an idea. She found the school janitor and asked him to open the supply closet. In the supply closet, she found an old bucket that fit perfectly on her head. Her costume was saved.

    And last week’s tip was to be specific. I encourage you to check out the revisions in the comments of last week’s entry. There’s some good ones there, including one memorable one by Eric, who rewrote the passage as a science fiction piece.

    Nate had a nice entry, which I've copied below.  It's pretty amazing how much of a difference a few more details can make.

    Sarah arrived at school eager for the afternoon's Halloween party. As she sat down at her desk, she looked inside her backpack for her costume. She found the box, plastic piping, and gloves, all spray-painted a metallic silver, but couldn't find the robot's helmet. She searched through both closets and in every cabinet at the back of the classroom, but didn't see it anywhere. Mrs. Brannigan hadn't noticed it, either.

    By noon, when the rest of her class headed out to recess, Sarah was very worried indeed. What would she do? She couldn't possibly be Bender without his head. Finally, she had an idea. She found Mr. Hossburn, the school janitor, and begged him to unlock the supply closet. Beneath a stack of paper plates and a folded plastic tablecloth, she found what she was looking for: an old gray bucket that fit perfectly on her head. Her costume was saved!

    So onto this week’s revision tip: appeal to all the senses. That one’s pretty self explanatory. So starting with Nate’s passage, can we rework it now to appeal to more senses?

    Revision tip from James Frey: Be specific

    Congratulations to Chris for winning a copy of Dreaming in Hindi. I will be e-mailing you for your mailing address.

    I want to try something different for today. James Frey in his book How to Write a Damn Good Novel gave some good tips on writing good prose. I thought it might be fun to use these tips to revise a passage as a group.

     Below is a passage written by yours truly. After the passage, I will give a tip from the book for improving it. I invite you to rewrite the passage in the comments. If people like exercise, I will choose one of the comments as a starting point for revision using the next tip and so on.

    Here's the passage:

    Sarah arrived at school eager for the afternoon's Halloween party. As she sat down at her desk, she looked inside her bag for her costume. Most of her robot costume was there, but she couldn't find the helmet. She looked around but couldn't see it anywhere. She asked her teacher whether she had seen it, but the teacher said no.

    By recess time, Sarah was very worried indeed. What would she do? She couldn't possibly be a robot without a helmet. Finally, she had an idea. She found the school janitor and asked him to open the supply closet. In the supply closet, she found an old bucket that fit perfectly on her head. Her costume was saved.

    And here's the first revision tip: be specific. Frey rewrites “When Mrs. Applegate arrived at the terminal, the train had already left,” as “When Beatriz Applegate arrived at the Reno's Amtrak terminal, she found the 5:15 for San Francisco disappearing on the western horizon.”  You don't necessarily have to be that elaborate, but you get the idea.

    Can used this tip to rework the passage? Please leave your revisions in the comments!

    How Language Affects Thought

    I recently read Dreaming in Hindi, Katherine Russell Rich’s memoir of her year in India learning Hindi. Rich intersperses quirky anecdotes of learning and culture shock with scientific insights about learning a second language. I was excited see her mention two of my favorite studies on language and thought.

    Psychologists and philosophers have long debated whether language shapes the way we think. While the most drastic viewpoint – that thought can’t exist without language -- has fallen out of favor, psychologists still study more subtle effects.

    The first study has to do with gender in language. Many languages assign genders to words. For example, in Spanish, the word for “key” is feminine, while the German word for” key” is masculine. Gender for the most part is arbitrary and varies from language to language, which allows for some interesting experiments.
    Psychologist Lera Boroditsky and colleagues asked Spanish and German speakers to provide descriptive adjectives for different objects. Interestingly, people produced adjectives that were consistent with gender stereotypes. For example, German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful, while Spanish speakers described them as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and shiny. For the word “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the opposite happened. Germans described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, and peaceful, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, and strong.

    (Methodological note: the masculinity or femininity of adjectives was determined by a separate group of English speakers, blind to the study’s purpose, who rated these adjectives on masculinity and femininity. It's kind of amusing to see which words received which rating.)

    In a second experiment, Boroditsky looked at language and the conception of time. English speakers primarily speak of time in horizontal terms. For example, we talk about moving meetings forward, or pushing deadlines back. Mandarin speakers, on the other hand, use up/down metaphors as well. So a Mandarin speaker would refer to the previous week as “up week” and next week as “down week.”

    Boroditsky performed an experiment to see whether priming people to think either vertically or horizontally would affect their ability to think about time. Participants first answered a question about horizontally or vertically placed objects. For example, they saw two worms in a row and had to say whether the black worm was in front. Or they’d see two vertically stacked balls and say whether the black ball was above the white ball. Then the participants answered a question about time (“ Does March come before April”, etc.).

    They found that English speakers were quicker to answer questions about time after answering horizontal spatial questions, while Mandarin speakers were quicker after vertical spatial questions. This reminds me of the scaffolded mind idea, in which concrete experiences provide a way to understand abstract concepts.

    What do these studies say to me as a writer? It's interesting to see how subtle aspects of language affect the way we think. It argues for thinking like poets and valuing each word were not just a dictionary meaning, but all the other layers of associations and meanings that come with it. I don’t think it’s worth obsessively wondering about subconscious associations, but it’s certainly something interesting to think about.

    Note: Dreaming in Hindi was given to me as a review copy.

    Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English Speakers' Conceptions of Time Cognitive Psychology, 43 (1), 1-22 DOI: 10.1006/cogp.2001.0748

    Storytellers and How They Force Their Brain Activity on Their Audience

    In a previous post, I suggested that writers were brain manipulators. Now I'm refining the description. It's more like a Vulcan mind meld.

    A recent experiment by scientists at Princeton University shows neural coupling (coordinated brain activity) between a storyteller and a listener. The researchers used fMRI to scan a speaker’s brain as she told an unrehearsed story about an experience from high school. They then scanned 10 volunteers as they listened to a recording of the story.

    The Power of Touch

    Touch imagery has always been a useful storytelling tool. Even when we're not putting together a lyrical masterpiece, it sneaks into our language. We talk about warm smiles, slippery personalities, getting caught between a rock and a hard place.

    As it turns out, touch imagery might be more than just a product of an overactive metaphor engine. It may have something to do with the underlying way our brain structures our thoughts. Psychologists sometimes call it the scaffolded mind hypothesis. It's the idea that sensory and motor experiences provide a type of scaffold for us to conceptualize more abstract ideas. For example, the physical warmth associated with affectionate touch later becomes a way to think about interpersonal warmth.

    Getting Blog Graphics on a Budget

    Holy smokes! Will Self Publishing Make You Die was shared more in the past week than  Narrative and the Brain, the previous top post, had been shared over the past 8 months. Since alarmist pseudoscience appears to be all the rage, I'm hard at work on the follow-ups:  1)  Bad Prologues and Other Signs of the Apocolypse and  2)  Do Adverbs Cause Erectile Dysfunction?*

    Today however, I'm braindead from my yearly committee meeting. It went well, but after puzzling over rather challenging data all week, I'm going to write a post that doesn't require coherent sentences.

     I've been looking into getting a blog header graphic and recently asked twitter for suggestions. As always, twitter rose to the challenge. Here is a compilation of the responses I got. If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

    *I may or may not actually be writing those follow-up articles.

    Places to get art or stock photos (copyright and permissions vary from site to site):
    1. DeviantART (@shaunduke)
    2. Take a photo of something relevant that photographs well & crop to needed shape (via @audryt)
    3. Dreamstime
    4. iStockPhoto
    5. Wikimedia Commons
    6. 123rf

    Ways to find graphic designers
    1. Etsy (go to Everything Else, then Custom or Graphic Design)
    2. Sites like 99designs and pimtim , and crowdspring let you hold design contests for a set monetary prize

    1. Kinetiva has a DIY Branding Toolkit
    2. Beautiful Blog Designs features blog designs, designers, and templates.

    Graphic designers on twitter or recommended by people on twitter:
    1. Bill Journee
    2. J.M. Lee
    3. Goofy girl designs (currently closed)
    4. The Fae Group
    5. Amanda Cobb
    6. Jane R.

    Will Self Publishing Make You Die???

    There's been quite a bit of talk on the interwebz lately about self-publishing, and I'm jumping on the bandwagon. I’ll leave discussions of sales numbers, platform, production values, etc. to other blogs. Today, we're going to take a look at a much more basic concern. That's right folks, we're going to look at whether self-publishing makes you die.

    Now this requires some context. A couple weeks ago, agent Mary Kole (who keeps a very helpful blog, btw) posted an article arguing against self-publishing. Now my own views on self publishing are pretty moderate (It’s doable, but incredibly hard work, and you should get objective confirmation that your writing is up to par.), but I hopped over to read the lively debate in the comments.

    One argument caught my attention. Given the odds for traditional publication, good manuscripts do slip through the cracks. Since you've worked so hard on the novel, isn't it worth it just to try?

    That kind of made sense. What do you have to lose? If you fail, at least you know it’s your fault and not because the acquisitions editor read your manuscript the week his mother-in-law was in town. Sure, there's stigma, and there will always be people who say you’re selling your failures. But what's that to the knowledge that you really tried your best?

    At that point, I caught myself. “But wait, Livia,” I said. “ You're a psychologist. You can't just blithely ignore social factors as if they don't matter.” And I was right (funny how often that happens when you argue with yourself). Social status has considerable impact on health and quality of life.

    There's one study that looked at the effect of social status on longevity. The researchers compared the lifespan of Nobel laureates to Nobel Prize nominees who didn't get the prize. The Nobel Prize winners ended up living on average 1.4 years longer than the nominees. Now remember that even the nominees were highly respected in their field and financially pretty well off. But being a laureate added over a year to the winners’ lifespans!

    Once I remembered this, I became highly agitated. Was it possible that self-publishing writers were jumping in without realizing the risk to their health? Should I warn people, or should I just sit back and wait for the coming holocaust? I could just see it -- self published writers dying off in droves, 1.4 years before their time.

    Luckily, I caught myself again and realized I was jumping too quickly to conclusions.  Because many other factors contribute to your health. Among those is ability to control your circumstances .

    And self publishers do win in the control department. They don't have to deal with the publishing roller coaster -- the agent who loves your work but decides to leave the industry to become an organic farmer. The editor who inherits your manuscript from the editor who inherited your manuscript from the editor who took over your manuscript after your original editor left publishing house. The art department who decides that your children's book about puppies would really sell much better with hot vampires on the cover. All stressful events out of an author's control -- events that in combination just might start shaving days off your life.

    So what's the moral of the story? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps the best thing is not to think about it too much, and write the best book that you can.

    Hm.. Isn't that always the conclusion we come to at the end of the day?  *sigh*  Here's to many more happy years of writing for all.

    So what do you think, writer friends?  Any aspects of your writing life cutting your days short?  Or is it smooth sailing?

    Note: The research described and linked to from this article is real. If you haven't figured out by now, everything else -- including interpretation of research, implications for the publishing industry and the pros and cons of self-publishing --  should be taken with tongue planted firmly in cheek.

    Tips from Muse and the Marketplace

    In couple months ago, I attended Muse and the Marketplace in Boston. As is becoming my tradition with conferences, I'm passing on a few helpful tips below.

    But first, I shall reenact for you my first conference critique.  It went something like this.

    Livia enters dimly lit dungeo conference room,clutching manuscript and scanning different tables for her agent.  Finally spies Agent at very end of room and crosses over, bravely ignoring the tortured screams, cackles, and tongues of flame that burst occasionally from neighboring tables.

    Agent:  Hello.

    Livia:  Hello. (Kicks at enormous rat, which hisses but promptly get eaten by an even bigger cockroach)

    Agent:  I have a question.  Was this the first thing you've written?

    Livia:   Uhhh.... (madly brainstorming ways to appear less dumb) Oh, uh... this little thing?  Uh, yeah, of course.  I mean. OH YEAH, it's not like I consider this a REAL manuscript or something.  Just a little bit 'o fun on the side, in case you were wondering why it sucked -- I mean not that I'm saying that you're saying that it sucked but yeah, totally, if it read like a first manuscript it's just cuz ...... (Keeps digging grave for a few more minutes.  Vultures circle overhead.)

    Agent:  Oh okay.  I was just wondering, cuz this was actually my favorite submission.  I actually didn't have much to say because I just wanted to keep reading.

    Livia: (Blank stare)

    Dungeon transforms into hotel conference room.  Carrion eaters disappear.  Screams from neighboring tables transform into polite conversation.  Tongues of flame turn out to be smartphone LCD displays.

    Hehe, yeah, so the first few minutes took a few days off my life, but the encouraging feedback afterwards counteracted that, for (hopefully)  no let loss of lifespan.   And after I stopped pscyhing myself out, I realized that Agent was very nice.

    But anyways, on to the conference tips.

    Writing Tips (On writing children, but applicable to other characters)

    Observe kids in the age range you're writing. How do they move? How do they interact? For example, ever noticed that toddlers have a bow legged stance and a stomach-forward way of moving? Even if you don't write that out, it will show through in your writing.
     -- Lauren Grodstein, author of A Friend of the Family

    In the same way, listen to them talk. Listen to their patterns of speech.
    -- Lauren Grodstein
    [Note from Livia: Alan Rinzler also has a good article on eavesdropping for dialogue on his blog]

    If your research is thorough and people still aren't believing your character, then it's a writing problem, not a research problem. Make your writing strong and authoritative enough that the readers have to believe it.
    -- Lauren Grodstein

    Generally speaking, the YA market responds to big drama. A girl reconciling with mom? Maybe. A girl reconciling with mom after Dad dies in a space shuttle explosion? More marketable.
    --Lauren Grodstein

    On Platform and Publicity

    If you're an aspiring fiction writer, focus your time on making your book better rather than on blogging. Unless your numbers are huge, blog followings won't help you get published.
    – Julie Barer, Barer Literary
    [Note from Livia: The other panelists agreed with this, and I've also been seeing this advice elsewhere  -- it seems like there is a  backlash against the recent push for aspiring writers to build up their internet presence. What do you think?]

    Five years ago, writers were beholden to their publicists to make their book known. Now you have much more control. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”
    Allison Winn Scotch, author of The One That I Want

    On Self Publishing
    There isn't as much of a stigma anymore to self publishing. Agents and editors watch self published books to see if they do well (Upwards of 15-20,000 copies sold).
    – Julie Barer

    While it's true that in self publishing, you get a higher percentage of the cover price, you're also taking all the financial risk of publishing the book upon yourself. In traditional publishing, you share the risk with the publisher. Remember that most books don’t earn out their advance.
    Sanj Kharbanda, VP Digital Marketing Strategy for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

    Do you need a publisher? There are parallels to the music industry. If you want to be Lady Gaga, you need a traditional publisher. But just as recording technology has made it possible for indie bands to put out cds, self publishing now makes it possible for indie authors to put out their own books.
     – Joshua Benton, director of Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University

    On Ebooks and the Digital Marketplace

    On a family vacation, Julie Barer's mother started chatting with another woman on the beach.  They were both reading on their kindles, and Julie's mom thought the other woman’s book was interesting. Four seconds later, Julie's mother also owned the book.
    – Julie Barer

    In the digital marketplace, you get a small number of extreme blockbusters and a long tail. It’s easier than ever to get a book out, but it’s getting harder to make a lot of money from it.
    – Joshua Benton

    In digital formats, books are no longer limited by length. You don't have to add filler or cut out content to make a book fit the expected word count for the genre. A digital book can be just as long as it needs to be.
     – Joshua Benton

    Hope you found these useful!  Let me know your thoughts.

    Top Ten Posts of Year One

    We had lots of kind retweeters and insightful commenters last post, but only one person wanted the copy of Lost Mission, so Taffy, it's all yours.

    The blog has turned 1!  It's been exactly one year and 4 days since my rather random first post.  I didn't start out planning to write about psychology and neuroscience -- but then, blogs do take on a life of their own.  A huge thank you  to all of you for your support.

    Here's a list of my favorite posts from the last year, in chronological order.

    1. Pillars of the Earth: an example of a prologue done well:  Prologues are such a contentious topic these days.  Here's my analysis of a good one.  Do you agree?

    2. Three useful pointers from "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy":  Tips on world building, exposition, and finding readers from Orson Scott Card -- useful for other genres as well.

    3. Narrative and the Brain:  This is the one that started the blog on a neuroscience trajectory.

    4. Voice Finding Techniques from Cathy Yardley:  Wondering about that ever elusive voice?  Some tips on discovering your own.

    5. Seven Reasons Agents Stop Reading Your First Page:  Actually a guest post for Guide to Literary Agents.

    6. Neil Gaiman Breaks Writing Rules!:  I wrote this as an afterthought, and it turned into one of my most popular posts.  I guess writers like to rail against the rules.

    7. 100% Absolutely and Completely Realistic Neuroscience Love Scene:  Pure silliness.  But oh so much fun.

    8. Helpful Tips From a Harvard Writer's Conference:  A hodgepodge of helpful tips from an excellent conference.

    9. Loading the First Impression for Quick Characterization:  Suzanne Collins is who I want to be when I grow up, and I really admire the way she does supporting characters.

    10. How To Get (And Keep) People's Attention:  What's the difference between getting people interested and putting them to sleep?

    Thank you all again for a great year.

    Do Flashbacks Change Reader Expectations? (Lost Mission Giveaway)

    I was reading Lost Mission by Athol Dickenson and noticed a curious thing in the narrative structure. One of the storylines focuses on Lupe, a small town shopkeeper in Mexico who feels called by God to preach in America. She shares her thoughts with her priest, who upon hearing her, takes her to see the retablo, a miraculous alterpiece said to date back to the early conquistadors.

    Lupe made no move.
    The priest's voice came from the shadows. "Come with me, daughter. Have no fear."
    "But Padre--"
    "Lupe, do you have faith in our Lord?"
    "Yes, Padre, I do."
    "Then come."
    And thus commanded, Lupe bowed her head and entered.

    The scene ends here. The next time we see Lupe, she is already on her way to America. It's only after she loses her way that we finally flash back to the scene where the priest takes her to the alterpiece. When Lupe first sees it, it looks like a normal painting of the crucifixion. But ...

    "You must look more carefully.  Draw closer, daughter."
    Then Lupe saw the mourners and the Virgin... and she thought it could not be, and yet...
    Lupe collapsed.. . .
    Kneeling she stared at the altarpiece and trembled.
    "Do not fear it, Lupe," said Padre Hinojosa, bending down beside her with a grunt, for he was not young. "It was ordained in love more than two centuries ago.
    "But it is blasphemy!"
    "Blasphemy? No, daughter. Not that."

    After more arguing, the priest convinces Lupe that the altarpiece is indeed from God, and he gives it to her to take to America.

    It's very rare for a writer to skip forward in a narrative and continue the the story later in flashback. I'm guessing Dickson had several reasons for doing this.

    For one thing, marking a passage this way sets it apart as a crucial point in the story. I remember  when a critique buddy submitted a scene with the same structure: buildup to climax -> jump cut -> reveal climax as flashback. In that case, the content of the flashback was a side plot, and not important to the core of the story. Narrating it this way felt too dramatic for the material, and all the group members independently suggested that the writer to narrate it more straightforwardly.

    So Dickson uses the flashback to mark the scene as important -- which it certainly is. The altarpiece serves as a touchstone for the entire novel. But I think there's something else going on here too. In the flashback, we learn that the altarpiece is miraculous, but we don't know why. Lupe clearly reacts to something, but we never see what it is. We don't find that out until the big reveal towards the end.

    Now if Dickson had narrated the whole thing straight without telling what Lupe saw, it would have seemed dishonest. There's something about a flashback that allows the writer more freedom to pick and choose information. We know that the narrator is hiding something, but it's less strange for him to do so in a flashback.

    What do you guys think? Is there something about flashbacks (and perhaps other modes of narrativing -- prologues? epilogues?), that changes reader expectations?

    Also, I received Lost Mission as a free review copy from the publisher and I will now pass it on to someone else who'd like to read it. If you'd like me to send you the book, retweet this post and paste the link to the tweet in the comments. I'll draw a name on Wednesday morning, June 30th.

    Me too, Vicki. Me too.

    Tonight Vicki has dressed for leisure, not work, as she sports baggy purple sweatpants and a loose sweater. It is time to go to work, but she strolls with me around Alonzo de Mendoza. Sometimes it is like this; she takes a night off and visits with me as I treat my street patients . . . .

    At 1:35 am, I pack my things and prepare to go home. Vicki strolls over. “We should go and party sometime, Chi” she tells me, trying to make eye contact. “You can take me clubbing.”

    “I don’t think that would be a good idea.” I try to take control with a serious stare.

    “Come on, Chi.” She maneuvers about, shaking off my stare. “What is a little dancing and a few drinks? It won’t hurt anyone.” For street girls, “Dancing” means that the man pays for the girl’s drinks and the girl lets the man have sex with her.

    “Vicki,” I say,” you know I don’t dance. You see these two left feet. Plus, I have the rhythm of a chicken.”

    She giggles. “I can teach the chicken how to dance.” She grabs hold of my arm and scoots her hip against mine.

    “No.” I parry her hand away and back off. “Vicki.” I look her square in the eyses.


    Vicki sits down on a bench. She pouts. I sit down too, on the other side. Cold silence. She looks out into the distance and sniffs, then sniffles. He doesn’t want to dance with me. I can hear the words in her head. . . . She looks at me. Looks me square in the eyes. She narrows her eyes at me – out of hate or out of curiousity. “I wish,” says Vicki, “I wish there were more good men like you out there.”

    Me too, I say to myself. Me too. . . .

    She walks over to the street boys. As she approaches them, her steps stutter. Vicki turns around and looks at me. I see on her face a look of pain – if not pain, then some sad question about her fate. When? Where? How?

    Me too, Vicki. Me too.

    When Dr. Chi Huang was about to graduate from Harvard Medical School, he took a half-year sabbatical with organization that provided medical care to street children in Bolivia.  Fifteen years later, he's still there, splitting his time between Boston and Bolivia.  He has since founded Kaya Children International, an organization that provides shelter for street children around the world.

    I've had the privilage of hearing Dr. Huang speak about his work several times, and it is truly inspiring.  The story above, from his book When Invisible Children Sing, has a happy ending.  Vicki, who was working as a child prostitute, eventually moved off the streets and as of 2005 was attending classes to become a beautician.

    Why am I telling you about this group?  Well, today is donation matching day at GlobalGiving.org.  Any donations made before 11:59pm EST time on Wednesday, June 16th will be matched by 50%.  If the group's work intrigues you, I invite you to join me in making a donation at their project page.
    Thank y'all for tuning in.  We'll return to our regular programming next week.

    In Which I Claim Prehensile Lips and Keep Government Secrets...

    Some of you might know Kristi, aka HowDidYouGetThere, from around the blogosphere. Her blog is the world's first blog com -- part comedy, part sitcom --  and was recently short listed for the Irish Blog Awards for humor. She was kind enough to have me as a guest star this week. Hop on over to the interview for some laughs, as well as some insight into life as a neuroscientist and my secret plans to take over the world.

    When Trying to Be Creative, Go It Alone

    I recently read Mysterious Benedict Society, a story about children recruited by the mysterious Mr. Benedict to save the world.  To join the society, they had to pass several tests, one of which was to navigate a maze. To insure that they had solved the maze and not stumbled through by luck, they went through the maze twice, and the second time through had to be faster.

    Each child attacked the maze in his/her own way.  Reynie, who was clever and creative, found hidden symbols on the walls that guided him to the exit. Kate, who had spent some time performing with the circus, climbed into a ventilation shaft and crawled to the other side, bypassing the maze altogether. Sticky had a photographic memory and wandered through randomly. He was still faster the second time though, because he retraced his steps exactly, replicating over 100 turns without hesitation.

    I liked this story because it shows the benefits of solving a problem individually before solving it as a group. Since the kids acted alone, each came up with a unique solution.

    Even those of us not joining the Mysterious Benedict society often have to find creative solutions to problems. While we often attack these problems in group brainstorming sessions, they may not be the best option. A recent study by psychologists Nicholas Kohn and Steven Smith found that people in brainstorming sessions fell victim to “collaborative fixation” and remained limited to a few ideas. Individuals working separately came up with more ideas and more unique ideas than individuals who brainstormed with others.  A summary of the study says:

    In keeping with previous studies, the authors first found that participants produced fewer ideas, in total, when taking part in a brainstorming session than if they had been working separately. The difference was as high as 44% in the first 5 minutes of a brainstorming session. The authors also found that when working separately participants explored a greater variety of ideas, up to 55% more idea categories than during brainstorming sessions.

    So the next time you want to have a brainstorming session, you may want to have people generate ideas separately first.

    Seven Tips on Book Publicity from Rusty Shelton

    I recently attended “Publishing Books, Memoirs, and Other Creative Nonfiction,” at Harvard Medical School. Rusty Shelton, managing director of Phenix and Phenix Literary Publicists, gave a great talk on book publicity. Here are seven of my favorite tips.

    1. Media is changing. Before the Internet era, the media landscape was like a classroom. The teacher (i.e., The New York Times or the Washington Post) stood at the podium and disseminated information. Now, with social media, the students are passing notes amongst themselves. Plus, if a note gets very popular, the teacher picks it up and reads it to the class.

    Read the rest of my guest post at Guide to Literary Agents.

    How to Get (and Keep) People's Attention

    Clever readers might have noticed that my blog’s tagline has changed. Rather than “A Brain Scientist’s Take on Creative Writing,” it’s now “A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing.” No, I haven't decided to stop being creative. It’s just that my interests are broadening to nonfiction.

    My biggest hurdle when writing nonfiction is -– who cares? How do you convince people to stick around for 200 pages of facts? Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, dedicates a chapter to the art of gaining and keeping someone's attention.

    The easiest way to get attention is surprise. Tell people something unexpected, and they’ll pay attention. Many urban legends (You only use 10 percent or your brain, or the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure visible from space), have the element of surprise. (Yes, they are both myths, so stop fantasizing about what you'll be able to do once you tap that extra 90%.)

    But it’s easy to get attention. How do you keep it? The key to curiosity, according to the Heaths, is the knowledge gap. People get interested when they feel a gap in their knowledge.

    Note that the gap is not the whole story. It’s not enough that your audience doesn’t know what you’re going to tell them. They have to be aware of the gap. Here are a couple methods for making them aware.

    1. Pull the rug out from under them.
    Tell them something so surprising that it overturns their schema of how things work. The 10% brain myth is a good example. (Well, in this case, it's surprising and counterintuitive because it’s false).

    2.Create a mystery.
     The Heaths tell the story of a professor named Robert Cialdini, who studied popular science books and analyzed the way they engaged their audience. He found books that presented the scientific question as a mystery to be very effective. One particularly gripping article chronicled the race by three groups of scientists to determine the composition of Saturn's rings. (One group thought gas, another dust, and the third ice.)

    Cialdini says,” Do you know what the answer was at the end of twenty pages? Dust. Dust. Actually, ice-covered dust, which accounts for some of the confusion. Now, I don't care about dust, and the makeup of the rings of Saturn is entirely irrelevant to my life. But that writer had me turning pages like a speed-reader.”

    Cialdini started applying what he learned to his teaching – presenting a mystery at the beginning of each class and revealing the answer at the end. This approach was so successful that when he ran overtime, students refused to leave until he revealed the answer.

    3.Give your audience enough information to create a gap. “Gaps start with knowledge,” say the Heaths. Give enough context to make the audience care, and then present the question.

    They give an example from NCAA football coverage. In the 60’s, college football games were televised without frills. Announcers just set up a camera and described what was happening in the game. Roone Arledge, however, came up with the idea of providing context. Before the game, he introduced shots of the city, the campus, the traditions, and rivalries. He gave enough information so that the viewers knew enough to care about the outcome. His approach was wildly successful.

    The more I think about it it, the clearer it becomes that fiction and nonfiction hook their readers in fundamentally the same way. It’s all about providing a bit of context to make the reader care and introducing a mystery to keep her hooked.

    What keeps you interested?

    P.S. I highly recommend Made to Stick. It's a quick, interesting read, and very practical advice for anyone trying to get a message across.