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  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.