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.