A Brain Scientist, an Editor, and an Agent Walk Into a Bar

My husband, astronomer and literary snob J Blackburne, welcomed the new year by growing his "winter coat." He argued that beards were basically de rigueur in academia now.   All the respectible academics have one. 

Given that news, I figured I should probably get one too -- might help me graduate quicker.  But alas, after weeks of not shaving, my chin was still silky smooth.  I think it's because I'm Asian.

Then later in January, I learned from Simon Larter that it was de rigueur to have a blog contest once you reach 100 followers.  Still smarting from my facial hair failure, I thought "By golly, I may have to disappoint academia, but I don't have to disappoint the blogosphere!"

So with that little story , I'm announcing the Neuropublishing Joke Contest.  Here are the details:

Open to:  Residents of any country for which shipping from Amazon is $10 or less (That includes US, Canada, Europe, and Australia.)  You can find more about their shipping here.
Since most of my followers are on RSS rather than Google Friend Connect, I won't make following me a requirement.  But if you do use Google Friend Connect, follow me, will ya?  It'll give you good karma.

Prize:  The winner can choose any book that's been reviewed thus far on my blog.

1. Complete one of the following beginnings.  You only have to complete one, but feel free to work more than one in.

a) A brain scientist, an agent, and an editor walk into a bar. . .
b) How many brain scientists does it make to write a bestseller?
c) Why did the neuroscientist cross the editor?

2.  Post your entry as a comment.

3.  After your entry, post the book that you would like if you win.  You must specify your book before the judging occurs if you wish to receive a prize.  Pretty much any book mentioned in any post is fair game.  You can browse through the archives on the right hand sidebar.

4.  Up to two entries per person.  If you submit more than two entries, I will judge the first two.

5.  The contest will end on February 13th 2010 at 11:59pm EST.

6.  Tweeting or linking the contest is not required, but encouraged.

7.  If you know me personally (ie, I have real life conversations with you on a regular  basis), please enter under a pseudoname with a hyperlink to your real website so I'm not swayed by your dashing personality.

Thanks all!  This should be fun :-)

Is Fast Paced Always Good?

First, let me emphasize that I liked the beginning of Graceling.  In fact, I wrote an entire entry explaining why I liked it. So this is not about what Graceling did right or wrong,  but rather the tradeoffs we make when going from one set of storytelling conventions to the other.

A while ago, I wrote a guest post at  Guide to Literary Agents on seven reasons agents stop reading your first chapter. Reason number 2 was "slow beginnings."  Some manuscripts start with too much pedestrian detail and unnecessary background information, losing the reader.

Upon reading the article, my husband (astronomer and literary snob J. Blackburne) asked me, “But what about all the old classics that begin really slowly?” I told him that many classics would not be published in today's market. He said that was dumb. I said he was dumb.  And we continued with dinner preparations.*

That discussion didn't bother me that much.  While I do enjoy some classics, and while I appreciate the literary value of all of them in principle, when I actually sit down and try to slog my way through 30+ introductory pages about a clergyman who isn't even a main character**, I get impatient and  reach for Stephenie Meyer Harry Potter the latest Newbury winner***.

It wasn't until I started thinking about Graceling for my blog that the conversation came back to mind.  Graceling’s beginning is well done in the modern sense. It begins with action at a point of change, grabbing the reader and engaging them right away.

The book is about Katsa, a girl graced with an ability to kill, who grew up as a thug for the King because of her deadly talent. The narrative opens at a point of change, as Katsa begins to realize she doesn’t have to be under her uncle’s control. A major character arc involves her gradual realization that she’s not the savage she always thought, but someone who can choose to do good.

While I appreciated this change in Katsa, I don’t think I experienced it to its full potential. Why? Because the story started with Katsa at the point of change. When I met Katsa, she was already making her first steps of rebellion against her uncle. With the exception of a few flashbacks, I never saw those years when she was doing his dirty work, torturing  and killing people. Therefore, when she wondered whether her past crimes made her a monster, my reaction was, “What are you talking about? I’ve only seen you perform good and heroic acts.”

Would my experience as a reader have been different if Graceling had been written under a different set of expectations for plotting and pace?  What if it had been written in an era where it was okay to just spend time with the character without advancing the plot?  Could I have met her earlier, and thus appreciated her transformation more?

What do you think? Are we losing out on parts of the story because of the fast paced modern novel?

*As you can tell, we're madly in love.
**I know, I know, it's really good.  I'll try again to read it at some point...
*** Don't judge me.

The Role of Repetition in Prose

I love it when people see new discussion points in my examples. In my last post, I used a passage from Graceling to illustrate creative internal narration. If you didn't read that post, you may want to hop over to get the full passage and context.

Peta Andersen noticed something else about that passage:

Great examples - it's kind of cinematic, isn't it?

I'm wondering, though, about this section:

"She didn't see where Giddon came off feeling insulted. She didn't see how Giddon had any place in it at all. Who were they, to take her fight away from her and turn it into some sort of understanding between themselves?"

The rest of the text is so tight that adding "she didn't see" is distracting. Katsa doesn't need to explain that she doesn't see something because we're in her head. She doesn't need to frame her thoughts as if they were dialogue, either.

Cashore is a strong writer; if I had to guess, I'd say she left the phrase in for two reasons:

1. Cadence - spoken aloud, the lines sound better, and give the text a more aural feel.

2. Atmosphere/tension - the repetition builds tension, leading into Katsa' frustration with Giddon. It's almost like a refrain.

 Thanks for the observation, Peta!  Anyone else have good examples of selective repeating?

For regular updates to this blog, please use the subscription options in the left sidebar.

Creative Showing in Graceling

Kristin Cashore does a great job of narrating the main character Katsa's thoughts in Graceling.   For lack of a better term, I'm going to call it indirect internal observation.  You could also think of it as creative showing -- conveying the character's state of mind without simply stating it, but also without going to the physical descriptions we often fall back on when we're trying to "show, not tell."

Here's the first example.  Katsa just met Po, a prince who is graced, like her, with combat skills.  They have a fight that ends amiably but leaves them both pretty bruised.  Later, they run into Giddon, a friend of Katsa's, who is furious to see that Po scratched Katsa's face in the fight.  Giddon reaches for his sword and accuses Po of disrespect.

"Lord Giddon."  Po had risen to his feet...."If I've insulted your lady," he said, "you must forgive me. . ."
Giddon didn't take his hand from his sword, but his grimace lessened.
"I'm sorry to have insulted you, as well," Po said.  "I see now I should've taken greater care of her face.  Forgive me.  It was unpardonable."  He reached his hand across the table.
Giddon's angry eyes grew warm again.  He reached out and shook Po's hand.  "You understand my concern." Giddon said.
"Of course."
Katsa looked from one of them to the other, the two of them shaking hands, understanding each other's concern.  She didn't see where Giddon came off feeling insulted.  She didn't see how Giddon had any place in it at all.  Who were they, to take her fight away from her and turn it into some sort of understanding between themselves?  He should've taken more care of her face?  She would knock his nose from his face.  She would thump them both, and she did would apologize to neither.
Po caught her eyes then, and she did nothing to soften the silent fury she sent across the table to him.  "Shall we sit?" someone said.  Po held her eyes as they sat. . . he mouthed two words.  It was as clear as if he'd said them aloud.  "Forgive me."
Giddon was still a horse's ass.

That last line cracks me up every time.  I love how Katsa's personality comes through here, and I love the indirectness of the last line, like she's arguing with herself about whether to be angry or not. The thought that's conveyed is "Well, perhaps Po wasn't all that bad," but it's so much more colorful to say "Well, Giddon was still a horse's ass."

Here's another example from later in the book, when Katsa spends time with an attractive man who has the grace of mind reading.  To save herself from embarrassment, she has to keep herself from thinking about his good looks in his presence.

She glanced up at him, and in that moment he pulled his wet shirt over his head.  She forced her mind blank.  Blank as a new sheet of paper, blank as a starless sky.  He came to the fire and crouched before it.  He rubbed the water from his bare arms and flicked it in the flames.  She stared at the goose and sliced his drumstick carefully and thought of the blankest expression on the blankest face she could possibly imagine.  It was a chilly evening;  she thought about that.  The goose would be delicious, they must eat as much of it as possible, they must not waste it; she thought about that.

It never once explicitly says "Katsa did her best not to be distracted by his rippling muscles," but we get the idea.

What's your favorite non physical description way of showing a character's thoughts?

Hope you enjoyed the post!  To get regular updates from this blog, please use the subscribe options on the left sidebar.

A Long Recovery For Haiti

Update 5:  And the other donor has sent me her confirmation email too.  I'm not going to post it because once I blur out the personal details, it looks exactly the same as mine.  
Update 4:  Made my matching donation!

Update 3:  Thank you to all 32 donors who participated!  Will update with the final wrapup in a couple days.

Update 2:  There seems to be a trend of anonymous donors now.  It's totally fine to donate anonymously, but if you do, could you give some kind of nickname or hometown just so it's more personalized?  Thanks!

Update: An additional donor has also agreed to match donations, so now, for every donor, $20 will be donated to the American Red Cross, up to a limit of $1000.  Because of this new development, we are extending it one more day, to the end of Friday night. Thanks to all who have participated already. 

Recovery efforts are underway for the Haiti earthquake, but they still have a long way to go.  Please consider making a donation to relief efforts.  To try to jump start things, we're going to try a fundraiser of sorts on the blog.

Here's how it will work.
1.  Please make a donation to Haiti relief efforts.  You can donate to the American Red Cross by texting "HAITI" to 90999 (A $10 donation will be taken off your phone bill).  Or, make a donation via their web page* or another charity of choice. 
2.  Leave a comment in this post noting that you made a donation.  My husband and I will donate $10 to the American Red Cross for every donation listed in the comment section between now and the end of Thursday, up to a limit of $500 dollars.  

We're just going to go by the honor system here.  Please do consider making a donation.  Thank you!

*I've heard that with text donations, the money doesn't get there for 90 days, so a web page donation is better, but if you're short on time, a text donation is better than nothing!  Also, if you choose to make a web page donation, I recommend specifying the International Relief Fund rather than earmarking the funds for Haiti specifically, so that it gives the Red Cross some freedom to be flexible as circumstances dictate.

Current techniques for brain research

This is part two of a series of a posts in which I provide background knowledge for evaluating neuroscience findings reported in the news.  This post is rather basic, but it's important groundwork for my future posts on neuroscience and writing.

When evaluating experimental results, you have to understand the techniques used to get them.  Here is a summary of three ways neuroscientists learn about the brain.

Flash fiction should matter

Note:  Today we have a guest post on flash fiction from Simon Larter.  Some of Simon's flash pieces include Twister (published at Per Contra) and Rise, Lazarus (Flashquake).  In this article, Simon shares about a piece  that didn't make it to publication and draws some principles about what makes good flash fiction.

Thus far in my writing career (such as it is), I’ve specialized in flash fiction. That’s mainly due to my fiction writing class in my last term of college, which focused almost exclusively on flash, but I’ve found I enjoy the form. It allows me to explore small, yet important ideas without the burden of a minimum word count or expectations of elaboration.

Despite the low word count, though, flash fiction has to tell an interesting story, or it won’t work. The same strictures that apply to novels apply to flash, they’re just distilled and amplified due to the brevity of the form. Characters have to be immediately interesting, or at least identifiable; situations must be compelling, or at least evocative.

With those things in mind, why don’t we look at a bit of flash fiction? Hop on over to my blog to read the piece I’ll be examining. (I’m posting it there because I don’t want to clutter Livia’s blog with an epic-length post.)

(Waits. Whistles. Taps toes.)

You’re back? Good. Thanks for reading that.

So did you see anything wrong with it? On the surface, it’s not so bad. I feel that the prose is fairly decent, and I like a couple of turns of phrase in it—I kind of dig the “porcelain crescent” bit, and I’m quite pleased with the flashback scene in the bathroom. The editors at Flash Fiction Online thought it was all right too: this piece made it through the first round of editorial review, which places it in the top 20% of all submissions in a given time period. So again, is there anything wrong with it?

Needless to say (since you haven’t seen this piece in FFO recently), Cake and Coffee didn’t get accepted. In the second round of editorial reviews, I got some pretty crushing feedback. Here’s one of the comments:

The writing was good up to the ending. Even if I could figure out what angered Jean so violently, the story would still have no plot.

And that was the best of it. “Totally miserable and unappealing MC,” was another comment. Yeah. Not so good.

But what can that teach us about what good flash fiction should be? For my part, I think it tells us that something significant must happen to the characters. You might say that allowing someone to be scalded and possibly disfigured is significant, and in real life, yes, it is. But in fiction, being burned by hot coffee is only significant if it produces a change in the characters. Feeling “small and cruel inside” is not a significant change. And have I really set Jean up as capable of this kind of cruelty? I don’t think I have. It seems almost arbitrary, and at the very least, it’s a disproportionate response to the loss of a slice of cake, of all things.

Another problem—and all the rejecting editors noted this—is that I have a seriously unlikable main character. I might have been able to get away with that in a novel, where there’s potential for development and change. But in flash? There’s not much room for that. My main POV character was neither interesting nor sympathetic, and that brings the whole story down.

I hesitate to draw any concrete conclusions about flash fiction from this one example, since with all art, there are exceptions to every rule. A more talented writer might have been able to easily surmount the difficulties I’ve presented. Still, in my own fiction, I want to be able to learn from what I perceive are my mistakes.

In the end, I feel that Cake and Coffee turned out as a glorified anecdote, and not a particularly pleasant one. Flash fiction should be more than that. I feel it should mean something, express something true, tell an important story. Flash fiction should matter.

Simon is rediscovering writing after a 15 year hiatus, and wondering why he waited so long. He is a husband and father of three whose day job in lightning protection may someday provide a wealth of anecdotes for the next great American novel (although he’s Scottish by birth). Between work, home renovations, and child duty, he still manages to find time to write short stories and flash fiction. He graduated from Drexel University with a degree in Civil Engineering.

Three Ways the Opening of Graceling Draws the Reader In

I recently attended Kristin Cashore's reading of Fire at the Harvard Bookstore. Afterwards, I bought a copy of Graceling and started reading it as I waited in the signing line.  By the time my turn arrived, I was hooked.  Cashore does a great job of engaging the reader right away. Here's why I think it effectively drew me in:

1.  The story starts with movement.

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.  One that had so far proven correct, as Oll's maps tended to do.  Katsa ran her hand along the cold walls and counted doors and passageways as she went...

The opening paragraph puts us in the middle of something interesting --  a heroine running through a dungeon.  A few paragraphs later, she single handedly defeats 5 dungeon guards.   Intriguing.  I wanted to know more.

2.  The opening establishes the main character as worth rooting for.

...Oll and Giddon, and most of the rest of the secret Council, had wanted her to kill [the dungeon guards].  But at the meeting to plan this mission, she'd argued that killing them would gain no time. . . . 
She wouldn't kill, not if she didn't have to.  A killing couldn't be undone, and she'd killed enough....

For a reader to invest several hours in a character, he has to be convinced that the character is worth rooting for.  Given that our first impression of Katsa is fairly violent, it's not clear immediately whether she is likeable or sympathetic.  Therefore,  it was helpful for Cashore to establish early on that Katsa, though deadly, has principles and sticks to them.

3.  There is a Sexy Mysterious Guy on page 12 -- ahem, I mean --  It ends with a mystery.

...She caught the fall of every leaf in the garden, the rustle of every branch.  And so she was astonished when a man stepped out of the darkness and grabbed her from behind.  He wrapped his arm around her chest and held a knife to her throat.  He started to speak, but in an instant she had deadened his arm, wrenched the knife from his hand, and thrown the blade to the ground.  She flung him forward, over her shoulder.
He landed on his feet.

We spent the first few pages watching Katsa beating multiple armed men senseless with her bare hands. Now someone manages to sneak up on superhuman Katsa without her knowing, and when she throws him, he lands on his feet? Who is this guy? The scene ends without revealing the mystery man's identity, an I keep reading to find out more.

In your story openings, do you give thought to drawing the reader in?  What are your strategies?

Kristin Cashore on Adverbs

We're going to have a few posts on Kristin Cashore's Graceling and Fire coming up.  To start us off, here's a funny quote (paraphrase) from her recent author reading at the Harvard Bookstore.

Kristin Cashore:  Some people say that adverbs are bad in writing.  I think that's a stupid rule.  If used correctly, adverbs can be a really useful tool--
Audience member interruptsHow useful?


How do you feel about adverbs?


Three Exercises for Character Development from James Frey

I recently ran into a road block on my work-in-progress. While my critique group enjoyed scenes involving my main character, they didn't feel invested in a second story arc involving another second character named Tristam.

Peta suggested I didn't know Tristam well enough and recommended that I flesh him out.  At the time, I was reading How to Write an Damn Good Novel by James Frey (Which I won in a drawing on Jordan McCollum's blog.  Thanks Jordan!), so I decided to try his methods.  They were fun and helpful.  I'll share them with you here.

1.  The Autobiography - Not just the facts of a character's life, but a character's autobiography in his own voice, complete with ramblings, tangents, pontifications, and commentary.  Frey suggests that for a main character, this could be 10-50 pages long!

2.  Psychoanalysis - Pretend to be your character's therapist, sit them on the couch, and start asking them questions.  You can have fun with this.  How do they feel about their mother?  Will they be offended when you ask?  Taking the roll of psychoanlalyst helped me get under the surface to the issues that were important to Tristam.

3.  Ruling passion - What is your character's one driving passion, the "sum total of all the forces and drives within him?"  Power?  Career?  Self worth? Love?  Figure it out and write it down.

Epilogue -- I tried all three exercises (plus an additional one, see below*) and then revised the scenes in question.  The critique group all thought they were much improved.

What is your favorite way to get to know your characters?

*I rewrote the scenes in first person, present tense even though the manuscript is in 3rd person, past tense.  I was able to use phrases and details generated from first person version to add immediacy to the final versions

I hope you enjoyed the post!  To get regular updates from this blog, use one of the options in the left sidebar to subscribe.