Livia Blackburne's Blog, page 6

August 20, 2011

From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?) 

Hello all.  I'm running late on a blog post (hopefully will have it up by tomorrow), but I just heard from my publisher that From Words to Brain is 99 cents this weekend at the Kindle store, so it's a great time to check it out if you've been meaning to.  Take care!Code: Pyn

You can tell Livia is fascinated by people, the way we think and react, use language, read and write. That passion, backed up with solid scientific research, makes this highly recommended reading! KCW's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on August 20, 2011 19:03 • 64 views

August 13, 2011

Every once in a while I present some tools in the writer's arsenal for taking over the world. We've talked about writers as brain manipulators, and storytelling as Vulcan mind meld. Today, I will show you how Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowling are actually Borg queens, assimilating all unsuspecting readers in their path.

Reading assimilation is a common experience. Perhaps you're walking to work after reading Harry Potter and find yourself wishing for a broomstick. Or you step into the sun after reading Twilight and half-expect your skin to sparkle. Psychologists Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young have coined the term narrative-collective assimilation for the idea that reading a story will cause the reader to assimilate into the "collective", or people-groups, described in the narrative. And now they have experimental evidence.

The study they ran was a fun one for bookworms. Gabriel had 140 undergraduates read a passage from either Twilight (Chapter 13, Confessions), or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Chapter 7, The Sorting Hat, and Chapter 8, The Potions Master). They predicted that people who read Harry Potter would identify more with wizards after reading, and that people who read Twilight would identify more with vampires. After the participants read the passage, they took several tests to measure how much they had assimilated.

The first test was called the Implicit Association Test. It's a bit confusing, but I'll do my best to explain it. The task was to categorize words at a computer. For example, they see a display like this:

WIZARDS                                         VAMPIRES


The top line is just a reminder to press the left button for words having to do with wizards, and press the right button for words having to do with vampires. Then, words like "wand" appear underneath, and in this case, the correct answer would be to press the left button to categorize it as a wizard word.

Okay so far?  Then, the participants do the same task with different categories. For example, a display like this:

ME                                                  NOT ME



This time, they press the left button for words having to do with "me" (myself, mine, etc.), and the right button for "not me" words (they, there's, etc.).

Now comes the important part. They do both categorization tasks at once. For example:

WIZARDS                                     VAMPIRES

ME                                                 NOT ME


They get  vampire, wizard, "me," or "not me" words on the screen, and they have to categorize it to the correct side. They key is this: if the participant self-identifies as a vampire, they will be faster if the vampire words and  the "me" words are on the same side.  On the other hand, participants who self-identify with wizards will be faster if the "me" words are on the same side as the wizard words.

So by swapping whether the "me" words are on the same side as the vampires or the wizards, psychologists can get a measure of whether a participant identifies more with vampires or wizards. As predicted, Harry Potter readers identified more with wizards, and Twilight readers identified more with vampires.

The implicit association task is a strange one though, because it's very artificial. It's hard to take some data about reaction time differences for categorizing words and drawing any strong conclusions about what it actually means. So it's nice that the experimenters also rounded out their study with an explicit measure. They gave participants a questionnaire called  The Twilight/Harry Potter Narrative Collective Assimilation Scale (Ah, I love psychology). Mixed in amongst filler questions were some key questions like "How sharp are your teeth?"(vampire), "How British do you feel?" (Harry Potter), and "Do you think, if you tried really hard, you might be able to make an object moved just using the power of your mind?" (Accio horcrux!). Again, Twilight readers rated more highly for the vampire questions and Harry Potter readers rated more highly for the Wizard questions.

Not all participants were equally likely to be assimilated into the "collective". Participants were also tested on a scale that measured their tendency to fulfill their social needs by fitting into groups, with questions like "When I join a group, I usually develop a strong sense of identification with that group." It turns out that the people who were more likely to assimilate into groups in real life were also more likely to assimilate into the books they read.

So writers, go forth and assimilate your readers into your respective narrative worlds. Resistance is futile.  

In the meantime, tell me. Have you ever read a book that made you want to jump in and become one of the characters?

Gabriel S, & Young AF (2011). Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis. Psychological science PMID: 21750250

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Code: Pyn

You can tell Livia is fascinated by people, the way we think and react, use language, read and write. That passion, backed up with solid scientific research, makes this highly recommended reading! KCW's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on August 13, 2011 11:18 • 14 views

August 6, 2011

Late in the graduate school admissions process, there's a sudden flip. You've spent a year polishing up your cv, revising your personal statement, and doing your best not to bungle up interviews. Then suddenly, you're admitted, and everything changes. Suddenly, all these distinguished professors are courting you -- calling you up and doing their best to sell you on their department. And somehow, you have to decide where to spend the next 5+ years of your life.

When I finally got "the call" at the end of my querying process, I couldn't help but notice similarities between signing an agent and choosing a graduate advisor. There is the same disorienting role flip, the scrambled attempt to figure out working styles and personality. With just a few e-mails and phone calls, you're supposed to choose the person who will have more influence over your career than anyone else (except for you). And unlike for graduate school, this decision happens on the time course of weeks, rather than months.

So how do you do make the right decision? Beats me. I'm a brain scientist/writer, not a sage. But I will share what I did, and hopefully you'll find some useful tidbits.

Part One: Questions for the Agent

Probably the first thing that will happen when you receive an offer is a conversation with the agent. This is a lot of fun, and a great chance to ask questions.  I got most of these questions from Rachelle Gardner and Greenhouse Literary, and added a few of my own.

What are the agent's thoughts about the book? Any ideas for revision?

After you sign on, what happens next? What's the expected process?

How many clients does the agent have and how many is she planning on having eventually?

What are the terms of the representation being offered? Is there a time limit? Is it for one book, or is it open-ended?

What happens if either the agent or client wants to end the relationship?

If the relationship is terminated, what is the policy for unsold works the agent has represented? What about unsold subsidiary rights in works that the agent has sold?

How does the agent handle subsidiary and foreign rights?

Does the author receive payments directly from the publisher, or do payments go through the agent first?

How long after the agent receives advances and royalties will they send them to you? (Note: The AAR Canon of Ethics stipulates that agents should forward payments to clients no more than 10 days after receipt, but I've seen agreements from AAR agencies with longer payment periods, so I'm not quite sure how this works.)

Does the agency keep client funds in a separate bank account from the agency's other funds? (Note: This is also stipulated in the AAR code of ethics.)

Does the agent charge for mailing? Copies? Faxes? Phone calls? Any other fees?

What publishers does the agent think would be appropriate for your book?

What submission strategy does the agent have in mind? (How many editors at a time? Does she usually pitch by phone, email, or both? Does she follow up after a certain amount of time?)

When negotiating a contract, are there any specific points that the agent feels is important to negotiate for? 

(You can also ask about specific contract points also. I asked about ebook royalties, out of print clauses, and non-compete clauses because they were important to me.)

What, if anything, would make the agent council an author to walk away from a deal?

What are the agent's thoughts on self publishing? Does the agency offer, or plan to offer, self-publishing services? (Note: Even in the two months since I put these questions together, the landscape has changed greatly. Many agencies are now moving into self-publishing, with a wide range of models. There are a lot of very intelligent people with very different opinions on this, so read up and make your own decision. Here is an overview of different models from David Gaughran. And here's some articles about agent facilitating self-publishing, arranged roughly from supportive to against: Joe Konrath, Mark Coker, Barry Eisler, Mike Shatzkin, David Gaughran, Courtney Milan, Bob Mayer, Kristine Rusch, Victoria Strauss, Laura Resnick, Scott Nicholson)

How does the agent see agents' roles changing in the near future?

What is the agent's preferred communication style: what medium, and how often?

If a client doesn't hear back from the agent on an email, what would be an appropriate amount of time to wait before following up?

How much does the agent prefer to communicate during the submissions process? Does the agent forward rejection letters to the client?

Part Two: Speaking with the Agent's Other Clients.

When I was choosing a graduate advisor, I spoke with students and postdocs from his lab. It's also helpful to do the same thing with an agent. It's perfectly fine to (politely) ask for references. All the agents I spoke to were happy to provide names of current clients to contact, and I would consider it a huge red flag if an agent refuses or otherwise makes you feel uncomfortable for asking. You can speak to ctheir lients over e-mail or phone, although you will probably get a more honest and spontaneous opinion over the phone. Here are some possible questions.

What has your experience been like with your agent?

Can you take me through the process of selling a book with your agent, from beginning to end?

How often do you communicate with your agent?

How long does it take for your agent to reply to an email?

How long does it take for your agent to get back to you on a manuscript?

What was it like being on submission? How much did you communicate, and what did you communicate about?

What has your experience been like with foreign and subsidiary rights?

What were contract negotiations like once you sold your book? How much did you communicate, and what did you communicate about?

What role does your agent play in books that you're currently writing?

What role does your agent play, if any, in marketing your book?

For a new writer who's just signed on, do you have any advice about how to work well with your agent?

What kind of writer would not be compatible with your agent's working style?

Have you had any experiences in which something came up w/ your publisher (or anyone else) and your agent  had to go to bat for you?

Note: In the course of my conversations, I found it really helpful to speak to authors whose first books didn't sell. This lets you know whether the agent continues to work with authors if they can't sell the first book, and you can also learn about how long they keep books on submission.

Part three: The Agency Agreement

Agency agreements vary greatly in both style and content. Some are written in everyday language while others are written in contract language. Possible variations include whether the agent represents one book or all your work, commission rate on foreign and subsidiary rights, terms of termination, etc.

Here are some resources for understanding agency contracts.

Books: The Writer's Legal Companion and Negotiating a Book Contract are two great resources, and both have sections about agency agreements. The two books differ slightly in their advice, which is nice for getting a well-rounded view.

Websites: There are some resources on the web, although not as systematic as the books.  Kristin Nelson covers agency agreements on her blog. Writer beware has an article on perpetual agency clauses and what they mean. Passive Guy is also writes about both agency and publishing contract clauses. Not all these resources agree, which is a good thing, I think.

Ending Notes

So that's about all I can think of. In addition to this, you'll also want to take a look at the agent's sales record in your genre. If the agent posts sales to Publishers Marketplace, that is one place to look. You can also ask the agent about books that she's sold.

One word of caution. Please, please, PLEASE keep a level head. Remember that agenting is an unregulated industry. As is true with any industry, regulated or unregulated, there are many  agents who are professional, smart, and awesome, and many who are… not. It may be cliché to say that no agent is better than a bad agent, but I've had enough writer friends get burned to know just how true it is. So when you get an offer of representation, by all means, celebrate, but don't ignore red flags, and don't ignore your gut.

Even if you only have one offer, remember that you have other options. You can keep querying, you can submit directly to editors, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with self-publishing. For more on this topic, take a look at Anne R. Allen's post on literary agents in the new publishing world, and this post by author Caroline Tung Richmond. Don't be paranoid, but remember that you will be entrusting both your money and your career to this person, so choose wisely.

So now readers, your turn.  Did I miss anything in this article?  Share your wisdom please!

P.S. And for those who haven't heard from my twitter stream, I'm thrilled to share that I've signed with Jim McCarthy of Dystel and Goderich for my young adult fantasy Midnight Thief . Jim has been awesome so far and I'm really looking forward to working with him further. I also want to give a shout out to agent sisters Carrie Ryan and Jessica Spotswood, who were kind enough to answer all my questions about their experiences.  Yay! :-)

Code: Pyn

You can tell Livia is fascinated by people, the way we think and react, use language, read and write. That passion, backed up with solid scientific research, makes this highly recommended reading! KCW's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on August 06, 2011 16:09 • 8 views

July 27, 2011

Regular readers will know that I write in what I jokingly call the "kickass girl genre" -- action adventure with female protagonists that could beat you up. I often look to The Hunger Games and Graceling, two popular books with similar heroines, for inspiration and guidance. After spending some time with the books, you start noticing things.

For example, has anyone ever noticed that the main characters both have names starting with the syllable "Kat"? (Katniss and Katsa). Could be a coincidence, but I also wonder if there's something about the explosive sound of the letters "K" and "T" that conjure up an impression of forcefulness. Funny enough, my main character (conceived before I read either book) also has a "K" name -- Kyra.

Sound to meaning mapping in language has its supporters and detractors, but there have been some thought provoking results. Check out this interesting article from New Scientist for some more examples.Code: Pyn

You can tell Livia is fascinated by people, the way we think and react, use language, read and write. That passion, backed up with solid scientific research, makes this highly recommended reading! KCW's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on July 27, 2011 08:00 • 17 views

July 21, 2011

Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments on author blogging and whether or not it's a good use of time. If you haven't already, you might want to drop by.

As a quick recap, my beef with author blogging is that writers rarely keep target audience in mind. They're writing fiction for kids, thriller lovers, or [insert some other reader profile], but they turn around and blog exclusively for writers.

Why do writers do this? My guess is because it's hard to define a target audience in fiction, and even harder to figure out how to reach that audience with blog entries. And what works for one author might not work for another author's audience.

Which was why I was intrigued to hear about a generalizable, "target audience" focused approach to blogging for fiction writers. And because the person presenting this plan was John Locke, self-publishing hero and first indie author to reach one million sales on Kindle, I listened.

Locke shares several strategies for launching e-books via social media in his ebook How I Sold 1 Million Kindle Books in Five Months, but what got me was his focus on target audience. Locke defines his target audience more precisely than most novelists. I think of my target audience as teenage girls, or more specifically, teenage girls who like Tamora Pierce and Kristin Cashore. Locke takes it a step further, working up a detailed psychological profile -- who they are and what they like about his stories. In his book, he writes a profile of the readers in his popular Donovan Creed series.

I'll attempt similar workup of my own target audience here:

My target audience consists of young women, from high school through early 20s. They read to be transported to other worlds, and they actively seek sword and sorcery with female protagonists. They like to read about – for lack of a better term -- girls kicking butt. My readers are attracted to strong, larger than life heroines, and they like reading about my main character Kyra because of the cool things she can do. They'd love to be Kyra for a day or two. My readers shy away from situations that are too cut and dry. They're drawn to moral complexity, hard decisions, and inner conflict. They like a heroine with a dark side (no Pollyanna heroines please), but they still expect good to triumph in the end. My readers want fast-paced action and adventure, with high stakes and lots of plot twists. They don't want to be bogged down with things like setting details and overly flowery prose.

How do I know this about my target audience? It's a combination of knowing the kind of story I want to write and listening to the feedback  I've gotten from my beta readers. In every group of beta readers, there will be readers who love your book, and readers who hate it. Look for the beta readers who really loved the story, and listen to what they have to say. For more ideas about what to ask your beta readers, see my beta reading series.

Once you have your psychological profile, you can come up with themes that resonate with your target audience. In my case, it might be girls kicking butt, larger-than-life heroes, and tough moral decisions. And you'd would write a blog post that encapsulated these themes. The idea is that you write blog posts that resonate with your target audience, making them curious to read your book.

Locke has written several of these blog posts, aimed at target audiences for his two series. Here's one example post titled Why I Love Joe Paterno and My Mom.  It's aimed at the target audience for his Donovan Creed series, which touches on many themes, including everyday heroes, humor, and a strong woman.

Locke credits the majority of his sales to thesese blog posts, many of which went viral. Readers identified with them and shared them with their friends, and many ended up buying his books. I find his idea of viral marketing intriguing, and I'm curious as to how to generalizable it is. My own experience with blogging has been that it's very hard to predict what will go viral. I can probably guess with above-chance accuracy whether a blog will do well, but there's a huge amount of uncertainty. Sometimes I'll slave away at a blog post for days, just to have it fall flat, while other times I'll dash off a throwaway post that gets an enthusiastic response. In fact, I only have one blog post that truly went viral, and I actually thought was very mundane when I was writing it.  That'd be an interesting study -- see how good bloggers are at predicting a post's success, and see how much that prediction accuracy increases with experience.

Locke does give the blog posts a push with what he calls Loyalty Transfer. He looks for people on Twitter who are interested in the topic he blogs about, and reaches out to them, eventually sharing his blog post with them after he's built a connection. For the blog post mentioned earlier, he'd look for people tweeting about Joe Paterno.  Again, target audience.  Looking for people who will resonate with your posts. My hunch here is that  you need to be genuinely invested in the conversations you strike up for this to work. If not, I can see links falling flat, or even getting in trouble with Twitter terms of service for spamming.

All in all, Locke presents an interesting approach to blogging as a way to sell fiction, and it's definitely worth taking a look for an in-depth case study of one author's (very) successful marketing strategy.

Now you tell me. What is your target audience like, and how might you reach them?

Hope you enjoyed the post!  To get regular updates from the blog, please use one of the subscription options in the left sidebar.

Code: Pyn

You can tell Livia is fascinated by people, the way we think and react, use language, read and write. That passion, backed up with solid scientific research, makes this highly recommended reading! KCW's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on July 21, 2011 08:00 • 11 views

July 18, 2011

Note:  Congratulations to EC Sheedy for winning How to Write Science Fiction.  I will be contacting you w/ details.

I think blogging is a waste of time.

Now, I realize this is weird because I .. uh… blog. But let me explain. I think blogging is a great way to meet other writers, to network, and improve your craft. But I don't think blogging, as it's usually done by fiction writers, sells novels.

As far as I can tell, the idea of "author platform" started as a nonfiction concept. An author with an effective platform was an acknowledged expert in a certain subject -- say underwater basket weaving. This author often had an established speaking circuit, giving talks at all the important basket weaving conventions. Maybe she also ran The Wet Weaver, a helpful blog with a large following. She had access to her target audience, and when she finally wrote the Basket Weaving Manual to end all Basket Weaving Manuals, she had the means to sell it.

The key to this scenario is target audience. People with nonfiction platforms had access to people who were interested in their topic and likely to buy their book.

At some point, unpublished fiction authors started feeling the pressure to build platforms. The problem is, they forgot all about target audience. Rather than being a means to reach the right readers, blogging became an end in itself – a box to tick off self promotional checklist. Fiction writers, being somewhat one-track minded, overwhelmingly decided to blog about writing. And thus, the writing blogosphere was born, with articles, contests, and promotions all aimed at fellow writers.

The thing is, we haven't created effective platform. What we've created is a never-ending writing conference. Good for many things -- forming friendships, professional development, and learning your craft. But nobody (I think) would argue that attending SCBWI conferences every weekend will catapult your book onto the New York Times bestseller list. In the same way, blogging for writers will not sell your book to the general reading population. This is even more apparent in the field of children's literature. There are thousands of YA and MG writers (me included), blogging their hearts out to adoring readerships, while ignoring the inconvenient detail that their number of actual teens they're reaching can be counted on one hand.

A brief aside – people will argue that writers are readers too, and that some sales are better than none. Which is certainly true. And it's also true that some writers have successfully launched novels using their platform in the writing community (see Joanna Penn's inspiring book launch for her debut thriller Pentecost). But it's inefficient -- not all writers will read in your genre or enjoy your writing style. In Joanna's case, she also sells products directed primarily toward writers, which makes the blog more effective. If you're only selling general fiction, your conversion rate will be lower.

And you also have to look at the opportunity cost. Think about the number of blog followers you have, and suppose that a fifth of them buy your book (that's a high percentage, IMHO). Now think about the amount of time you spend blogging. Time spent on the blog is time spent away from something else: writing another book, contacting book clubs, taking a part-time job and investing that money in advertising or a publicist. Given these myriad other options, is blogging still an efficient way to reach readers?

Sometimes in online platform discussions, someone will mention the elephant in the room, that we're only blogging for other writers. Usually, that comment is met with thoughtful nods. Comments of "Yeah, we should think about that". More awkward silence, and then we go back to our blogging. We can't help it. It's too much fun, and it's a path of least resistance. I 've never heard anyone come up with a thoughtful, generalizable, plan for reaching targeted fiction audiences through blogging.

At least, I had never encountered a plan until last week -- when I ran across an intriguing blueprint that keeps the target audience in mind. And that was actually what I had been planning to blog about before I went off on my fatalistic rant.

But I'm already many days late on this blog entry, so I will stop here for now. Sorry to end on such a downer – I will be back in a few days with some happier thoughts. In the meantime, what do you think? Is blogging a waste of time?

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Code: Pyn

You can tell Livia is fascinated by people, the way we think and react, use language, read and write. That passion, backed up with solid scientific research, makes this highly recommended reading! KCW's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on July 18, 2011 08:54 • 86 views

July 9, 2011

Today we are diving back into our series on improving creativity for writers, based on Shelley Carson's book Your Creative Brain. If you are just joining us, check out the first two installments: the Absorb brainset and the Envision brainset.

Today's brainset is the Connect brain set.

The Connect brain set is the closest to our usual idea of creativity. It involves the ability to generate a large number of unique and out-of-the-box ideas. Instead of settling on obvious solutions, a person who's comfortable in Connect brainset imagines all kinds of off-the-wall possibilities. To a Connecter, a glass isn't merely a vessel for holding water. It's a paperweight, cookie-cutter, bug trapping tool, weapon, rolling pin, musical instrument, and more.

This brainset is also characterized by the ability to make unusual associations. For example, someone less comfortable with the Connect brain set might associate the word 'cake' with birthdays, flour, candles, etc. But someone strong in the Connect brainset might think about mud, the computer game Portal (The cake is a lie!), cabaret girls jumping out at parties, pie, cakewalks, etc.

How to strengthen the connect brainset:

1. Practice turning off the critical side of your brain. You can evaluate the ideas later. The more ideas you generate, the more likely it is that you'll hit upon a really good one.

2. Brainstorming with other people helps, but you'll get more unique ideas by brainstorming separately before sharing what you came up with.

3. Take advantage of good moods. Studies have shown that people perform better in these creative tasks after receiving an unexpected gift, laughing, or hearing a good joke. And this seems to work in the opposite direction as well -- generating ideas quickly can improve your mood.

4. Go outside. Studies suggest that exposure to bright light and beautiful scenery improves mood and decreases cognitive inhibition, putting you in a better frame of mind to create freely.

Exercises for the Connect brainset, inspired by Carson's exercises but tailored for writers.

1. Plot Development Sprint:

Think of an undeveloped story idea, and write down a few areas where the plot needs fleshing out. For example, say you're writing a story about a girl who visits her grandmother. You might list as questions for more exploration: Why is she visiting her grandmother? How does she get there? What obstacles do she meet along the way? Now set a timer for 3 min., and write down as many answers as possible to your first question. Remember, don't evaluate these ideas. That's for later. After these 3 min., move onto the next question, trying to come up with more ideas each round.

2. Story idea brainstorm

This idea is inspired by writer Dean Wesley Smith's short story challenge. Flip through any random book and pick out a phrase that stands out to you. Now write that phrase down, and set your timer for 3 min. Now pretend that phrase as the title of the story, and generate as many scenarios as you can to fit that title. Next, pick two phrases and brainstorm as many stories as you can incorporating both of those phrases in some fashion. If you're adventurous, move on to three or even more.

There are four more brainsets, but I won't cover them on the blog because I don't want to give away too much of the book. If you're interested in learning more, check out Your Creative Brain.

What have you learned about creativity from the series?

Note: In a nice dovetail to this post, science fiction writer Paul de Filippo just published an essay with 40K books on writing science fiction -- more specifically, science fiction that isn't stingy with ideas, but crams as many as possible into one story. 40K books was kind enough to give me a copy to give away on this blog.

How To Write Science Fiction (A Maximalist And Recomplicated Travel Into Sci-Fi)

Here's the description of the book:

The complete title of this work is: How to write wild-eyed, overstuffed, multiplex, maximalist, recomplicated, high-bandwidth Science Fiction, or, "realize I don't wanna be a miser/how come everybody wanna keep it like the Kaiser?"

Don't expect this book to be a traditional "How To". It's a travel into the Science Fiction.

"Science fiction is the literature of ideas?

Sure it is—on a tightly rationed basis!

The truth is, most writers of science fiction and fantasy are naturally stingy.

We tend to hoard ideas, like the dragon Smaug lying on his treasure. We parcel them out in dribs and drabs. One notion per story. Maybe two High Concepts per novel.

Why do we do this?"

To enter to win a copy of the book, do one of two things:

1. Share this article on twitter, and leave a comment with your twitter handle

2. RSS subscribers will see a secret password at the bottom of their post. E-mail scratch that send an e-mail to with that code as the subject line.

I will choose a winner on Wednesday, July 13.

Code: Pyn

You can tell Livia is fascinated by people, the way we think and react, use language, read and write. That passion, backed up with solid scientific research, makes this highly recommended reading! KCW's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on July 09, 2011 15:12 • 20 views

July 1, 2011

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is a zany tale about an apocalypse gone wrong. As might be expected from a novel about the end of the world, Good Omens features a giant cast and multiple interconnected narrative threads. When you have so much going on, how do you keep the reader oriented?

One way is through reoccurring elements. For example, set of scenes involves the angel Arizaphale as he sits down to read a book of prophecies. The scenes are nicely tied together with  a cup of cocoa.

"Steady, steady,"Arizaphale muttered to himself. He went into the little kitchenette and made himself some cocoa and took some deep breaths.

Then he came back and read a prophecy at random.

40 minutes later, the cocoa was still untouched.

There are several intervening scenes, and then the next Arizaphale scene starts with the line.

Arizaphale's cocoa was stone cold...

A few more scenes, and then the next scene begins:

The cocoa was a congealed brown sludge half filling the cup.. .

And then the last scene in this series:

The cocoa had nearly all solidified. Green fur was growing on the inside of the month.

There was a thin layer of dust on Arizaphale, too

Can you think of other uses for recurring elements, or alternate ways to tie related scenes together?

Character Therapist Giveaway Password: Bosom Buddy

" It is a love letter to the writing and reading processes worthy of being read 'just for fun' or for research." Jessica Sams, review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on July 01, 2011 08:00 • 27 views

June 25, 2011

Hello everybody! The series on creativity will return in a few weeks, but  I'm mixing things up since seven creativity articles in a row might get monotonous. We're closing in on the end of of this blog's second year. Yay! Thank you all so much for sticking around and for your thoughtful comments and support. As I did for Year 1, this seems a good time to do a round-up of Year 2's most popular articles. So without further ado, in chronological order:

1. The Power of Touch

Do you use touch imagery in your writing? Some intriguing psychological studies suggest that it may be more powerful than you think.

2. Will Self Publishing Make You Die?

I had fun writing this post. And it's interesting  how much the industry's perceptions of self publishing have changed even since I first wrote this article.

3.  How Language Affects Thought

Does the language you speak affect the way you think?

4.  Storytellers and How They Force Their Brain Activity On Their Audience

That's right. You can control people's minds.

5.Erotic Romance, Condoms, and Social Responsibility

When psychologists rewrite romance novels to include safe sex practices, hilarity and science ensues.

6. Worldview, Tolkien, and Why Catholics Write Bad Stories

In which I wonder about our idea of  "a good story" and how dependent it is on culture.

7. What Mirror Images and Foreign Scripts Tell Us About The Reading Brain

An excerpt from my essay From Words to Brain about what makes letters and writing systems special.

8.  Typing Vs Longhand:  Does it Affect Your Writing?

This is by far my most popular blog post ever. Funny, because I almost didn't think it was interesting enough to post. Just goes to show that you never know.

9. The Blogification of Writing Tips

In which I become all angsty about the value of writing blogs.

10.  On Writing Realistic Male Characters:  (aka, Men Are Jerks)

Are your male characters unrealistic? Maybe they're too nice.

And that's the top 10 for year two. Thank you all!

Character Therapist Giveaway Password: Bosom Buddy

" It is a love letter to the writing and reading processes worthy of being read 'just for fun' or for research." Jessica Sams, review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on June 25, 2011 11:12 • 58 views

June 16, 2011

We're in the second installment of our series based on psychologist Shelley Carson's book Your Creative Brain. In each installment, we discuss one of Carson's six categories of creativity (aka "brainsets"). As I mentioned last time, these should not be viewed as ironclad descriptions of the way things are, but rather a helpful model for thinking about creativity.

Last time, we discussed the Absorb brainset. Today's brainset is the Envision brainset. 

The Envision brainset is your brain's scratchpad or mental palette -- your ability to form images of things that do not exist. It could involve attempting to see your living room with a different furniture arrangement, or remembering the smell of your favorite lamb stew.

For a writer, the benefits of mental imagery are obvious. For one thing, it lets you create rich imaginary worlds. You can write about UFO abductions without having been to outer space, or a serial killer's rampage without actually having murdered someone (we hope).

And just as important, the Envision brainset lets us ask "What if?" What if a vampire fell in love with a human girl? What if space battles were commanded by child prodigies, and what if those kids were trained in special military programs? (Orson Scott Card, in his excellent book How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction, describes how he came up with the idea for Ender's Game precisely by asking "what if" questions).

So what are some exercises for the Envision brainset?

1. Mental imagery.


Close your eyes and imagine a landscape. First, sketch out all the visual details. What do you see? Is it urban or natural? Are there other living things? What are they doing? What do you hear? Are there steady noises, or the occasional surprising sound? What do you feel on your skin? Is there wind? Are you warm? Cold? Wet? What does the air smell like? If you open your mouth, you taste anything?

Now do the same thing, but with a character. What does he look like? How does he move? How expressive is his face when he talks? Is his voice high or low? Does he have an accent, or any other speech affect? When you shake his hand, is the skin rough or smooth? Is he cuddly? Muscular? Cuddly in a muscular way? What does he smell like? How does he taste? (I imagine romance and horror writers would have very different takes on that last question.)

2. The What If Game


Try making a habit of asking "what if?" And then once you have a question, answer it to the best of your ability. Try to go beyond just a cursory answer and follow the train of thought for as long as you can. Carson suggests setting a timer.

What are other ways to use or improve the Envision brainset?

For more on the Envision brainset and exercises for improving it, check out Your Creative Brain. And stay tuned next time for the Connect brainset.

Hope you enjoyed this post! To receive updates for future posts, use one of the subscription options in the left sidebar.

Character Therapist Giveaway Password: Bosom Buddy

" It is a love letter to the writing and reading processes worthy of being read 'just for fun' or for research." Jessica Sams, review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on June 16, 2011 10:49 • 24 views