30 September 2014

The power of small words

I read an interesting article the other day about what our use of little words can reveal about us.
Our Use Of Little Words Can, uh, Reveal Hidden Interests.

The article talked about how the author was at a speed dating event and became fascinated by the volume of sound - all those words in one place, then about what the people were saying. The author spoke topsychologist, James Pennebacker, who is interested in our use of pronouns and function words (e.g. The. This. Though. I. And. An. There. That. ...). 

People generally don't listen to pronoun & function words, and most writing coaches will tell you they don't read them either. We know they're there but we let ourselves skim them. People focus on the important words. This allows us to process information much faster.
e.g I was in a swimming competition and I won first prize. -- the words the listener is interested in are: swimming competition won first prize. 

So if we mostly ignore these words, what was Pennebacker's interest? What he found after years of research was quite revealing. First let's look at what he learnt as it relates to speed dating. 

"Specifically, what Pennebaker found was that when the language style of two people matched, when they used pronouns, prepositions, articles and so forth in similar ways at similar rates, they were much more likely to end up on a date. ... 

This is not because similar people are attracted to each other, Pennebaker says; people can be very different. It's that when we are around people that we have a genuine interest in, our language subtly shifts. 

"When two people are paying close attention, they use language in the same way," he says. "And it's one of these things that humans do automatically."

What about more generally...
Pennebaker has counted words to better understand lots of things. He's looked at lying, at leadership, at who will recover from trauma.
But some of his most interesting work has to do with power dynamics. He says that by analyzing language you can easily tell who among two people has power in a relationship, and their relative social status.
"It's amazingly simple," Pennebaker says, "Listen to the relative use of the word "I."
What you find is completely different from what most people would think. The person with the higher status uses the word "I" less.
To demonstrate this, Pennebaker pointed to some of his own email, a batch written long before he began studying status.
First he shares an email written by one of his undergraduate students, a woman named Pam:
Dear Dr. Pennebaker:
I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I'velearned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by and talk about this?
Now consider Pennebaker's response:
Dear Pam -
This would be great. This week isn't good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30. It will be good to see you.
Jamie Pennebaker
Pam, the lowly undergraduate, used "I" many times, while Pennebaker didn't use it at all.
Now consider this email Pennebaker wrote to a famous professor.
Dear Famous Professor:
The reason I'm writing is that I'm helping to put together a conference on [a particular topic]. I have been contacting a large group of people and many have specifically asked if you were attending. Iwould absolutely love it if you could come... I really hope you can make it.
Jamie Pennebaker
And the return email from Famous Professor:
Dear Jamie -
Good to hear from you. Congratulations on the conference. The idea of a reunion is a nice one ... and the conference idea will provide us with a semiformal way of catching up with one another's current research.... Isn't there any way to get the university to dig up a few thousand dollars to defray travel expenses for the conference?
With all best regards,
Famous Professor
Pennebaker says that when he encountered these emails he was shocked to find that he himself obeyed this rule. He says he thought of himself as a very egalitarian person, and assumed he would never talk to people differently because of their status.
In fact, since this article first ran, Pennebaker has used his big data computer analysis to look at a wide range of new questions.
He's become a kind of literary detective, using the program to determine if a lost play was written by Shakespeare. (Results of that search should be published soon.)
He's also trying to figure out if function words can predict students' performance in college through an analysis of 25,000 admissions essays.
And he published an entire paper on the use of the filler words — um, like, uh, I mean and you know. One of the things that he found was that the use of these words — in addition to their function of annoying older people — was associated with conscientiousness.
Pennebaker has several other projects underway as well — using our simplest words as a window into our souls.
Fascinating stuff - I recommend the whole article

23 September 2014

Marrying Mr Darcy - your time to shine

Very cool game I had to share. I confess it's sitting on my kitchen bench waiting to be opened - I can't wait.
Card game: Marrying Mr. Darcy.
Based on Jane Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice.” 2-6 players.

Each player Each player selects a heroine. Each heroine has a defining characteristic or special ability that allows for different strategies during play.

The Suitors are the six potential husbands inMarrying Mr. Darcy. Each suitor has different ideas of what sort of wife they are looking for. You must meet a Suitor's requirements before he will consider proposing to you.
Events from Pride and Prejudice, such as the Netherfield ball or Visiting Pemberley, instruct players on how their turn will proceed. The game will change each time you play depending on when events occur in the deck. For example if Mr. Bingley leaves for London early in the game, chances are good he will return to Netherfield and be available to marry. If he leaves near the end of the game, there could be one less suitor available to everyone.

Character cards can be used in a variety of ways. As the game begins, you are most concerned with earning points and building your Heroine's character to make yourself attractive to the best suitors possible. 

And this is where is sounds like it gets fun. 

As the game proceeds, you might become more concerned with making other players less attractive to suitors you are interested in, or in concealing cards to help secure your chances of a finding a good husband.
Not only that but there are cunning cards as well, these can be used to place attacks on the other players.

Perfect time to use: I anticipate a gathering of girlfriends and a couple of bottles on wine :)

11 August 2014

Transformers robots in disguise

Some very cool advances in technology I thought I'd post on today.

1. Origami Robots:
These crazy self-folding/self-constructing robots are inspired by Origami.
Check out the video.
Prof Wood, who is also part of Harvard's Wyss Institute for biologically inspired design said there were a huge number of applications for devices that self-fold.
"Imagine self-deploying structures - maybe shelters or structures for space exploration or for satellites," he told BBC News.
"Things where the logistics are difficult, like humanitarian aid in war zones."  "
2. Computer Chip full of artificial neurons.
Computer are fast when it comes to a lot of calculations, but there are some things the human brain can do better, but it maybe we are about to be outstripped.
I'm going to give a longer quote here: "Part of the reason is that both the architecture and behavior of neurons and transistors are radically different. It's possible to program software that incorporates neuron-like behavior, but the underlying mismatch makes the software relatively inefficient. 
   A team of scientists at Cornell University and IBM Research have gotten together to design a chip that's fundamentally different: an asynchronous collection of thousands of small processing cores, each capable of the erratic spikes of activity and complicated connections that are typical of neural behavior. When hosting a neural network, the chip is remarkably power efficient. And the researchers say their architecture can scale arbitrarily large, raising the prospect of a neural network supercomputer.

Conclusion: Together these things give the Transformers. Maybe one day we really will see Bumblebee and Optimus Prime - the thinking self-constructing robots of fiction could be made real.

22 July 2014

Word Crimes

Have you heard of Weird Al Yankovic? If you haven't now the time to find out :)

He does marvellous parodies of popular songs. This one has to be my favourite  - and I'm sure all the other writers and editors out there will agree with me :)

Parody of Blurred lines by Robin Thicke

18 July 2014


Sorry - no real post this week. I've got a cold and my brain isn't up to it.

08 July 2014

War art

I read a fascinating article on the BBC, it's about the painter Christopher Nevinson. What's interesting is the way this artist's view of war changed the longer he was there. The writer ties it to his own experiences as a war correspondent, which is also fascinating. War changes people there is no doubt, but this is such a visual representation of that change.

This picture was done in 1915. All sharp angles and energy. It's modern and clean. It's true one of the soldiers is dead, but he's not the focus and the angles oddly dehumanise.

Compare the above to this, faceless, nameless real men lying cast aside in a muddy wasteland. There is nothing that suggests hope or energy or even a reason for the deaths that the viewer.  

 I strongly recommend reading the article. 

02 July 2014

Ingredients for a powerful scene

I thought for the next few months - until it bores me, or I forget - I would make the first week of the month writing craft week. For the next few let's breakdown a scene - think of it as the 'Ingredients of a powerful scene'. What bits and pieces, tricks and tips, can help make a scene powerful and engaging? 

People have said to me: romance is easy thing to write because everyone knows what’s going to happen. Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy again, they live happily ever after. Easy.

To which I reply: that’s not what makes romance easy to write, it’s what makes it ever so tricksy. If readers know how a book is going to end before they even open the pages, then our jobs as writers is that much more difficult because we have to convince them the book is worth reading. We have to make the book about the journey as much as about the conclusion.

How do we take our readers on that journey? One scene at a time. Let's begin that journey in the natural place, the beginning. 

As your scene opens, in first few lines, It needs anchor and re-engage the reader. People who write episodically (and there's more of that type of fiction coming out on places like Amazon, or fan fiction or internet serial writers), will be thinking about this, because they know their readers have had a break from the story.
But the rest of us should be thinking about it too, because scene changes are often where readers put down a book (a cup of tea, make dinner…). They are also the places where we transition between locations and characters. We don’t want our readers confused, we want them reading. So what does it mean to anchor & re-engage?

Anchoring & Re-engaging

As your scene opens, in first few lines, it needs anchor the reader. Unless you deliberately want you reader confused (which you may) you need to anchor them. You need to make sure your readers knows where they are, & whose point of view (POV) they’re in.

It's good to begin in a moment of action or interaction, something to grab the reader's attention right away (re-engage them in the story), but it's important to remember that your reader experiences your fictional world as your protagonist does. Thus a good scene opening is one that grounds the reader in the main character's perspective. Immediate action that's not grounded in character is just Stuff Happening and can be disorienting for a reader.

Think about the effort you put into the opening lines of the book, whilst quite the same level of effort may not be needed at each scene you should at least be thinking about it. (Remember that not everything has to be done the first time through - editing is the time to make your book shine).


Let's look at some examples. Below are the openings to four sequential scenes from THE UNSUNG HERO by Suzanne Brockmann. I haven't chosen the beginning of the book but the middle-ish, (chapter 8), this is to show that even though the reader is already in the story the writer hasn't stopped anchoring and re-engaging..
Just kick aside the laundry, Kelly had said. It seemed easy enough in theory. Execution, however, was slightly more difficult. Because it seemed to Tom as if most of the laundry that was scattered about the room was underwear. Lacy, silky, completely feminine underwear.
[Anchoring: POV - Tom’s, place - Kelly’s bedroom (because where else would a woman leave her underwear all over the place]
[Re-engaging: Tom’s vulnerable/awkward, also a little humour, we want to see what he’ll do next. Go in her room and finish his task, or give up and try again later, or get distracted from his task]
The printer fell silent, and Tom shut down Kelly’s computer. As he crossed to the door, he had to shake another piece of silk and lace from his foot. Cursing, he took the pictures he’d printed out into the hallway, down the stairs, and into the dining room, only to find Charles and Joe smack in the middle of another argument.
[Anchoring: Still Tom’s POV, but we’ve moved to the dining room]
[Re-engages with clear conflict, the argument which Tom’s walked into – What’s it about & again how will Tom respond]
After hearing at the farm stand that Mrs. Ellis had seen her father and Joe playing chess in the lobby of the Baldwin’s Bridge Hotel, Kelly had been in a real rush to get home. But now that she was here, she paused just outside the door. She could see Tom through the screen, sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by piles of papers and file folders.
[Anchoring: Kelly’s POV, kitchen of Kelly’s home]
[Re-engaging: well she rushed there so we know something urgent is driving her, but she’s paused, what’s important enough to change her action]
“She isn’t going to show.”
David glanced up from putting a new roll of film into his camera to see that Brandon still had on his jeans and T-shirt. “She’ll be here soon. Get changed, will you?”
“No way, bro. Not until she’s here. No point to it. I’ve got places to go, people to see—Sharon, that redheaded cocktail waitress who works the pool the same shift I do? She dropped a major hint she was going to go see the Jimmy Buffett wannabe over at the Marina Grill tonight. She’s definitely mine if I want her.” Bran wandered over to David’s drawing table. “Whoa. Is this Mallory?”
“Yeah.” David had done some preliminary sketches this afternoon, from memory.
“You’re using her just for her face, right? I mean, this body—that’s whatchamacallit… artistic license, right?”
David adjusted the white sheet he’d spread out on the bare wooden floor. “Nope.”
[Anchoring: David’s POV, this is dialogue so it takes a few lines longer but we’re clearly wherever David takes photos/ draws (could be a studio or his home, but it gives the reader enough that they're not lost)]
[Re-engages – I'm going to leave you to think about this one :)  ]
Next time we'll move on from the opening of the scene to the meat, the body, of the scene.