Livia Blackburne's Blog, page 7

June 11, 2011

Note: Congratulations to Roz Morris, the winner of Writer's Guide to Creating Rich Back Stories. I will be in touch with you shortly.



Harvard University creativity researcher Shelley Carson recently published Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life. She was kind enough to mail me a review copy.



Carson divides creativity into seven distinct categories, or "brain sets." Each brain set is a different flavor of creativity, and different people will naturally have some brain sets that come more naturally to them. In her book, Carson describes each brain set and provides exercises for strengthening it, and I thought it would be fun to talk about these brainsets as they apply to writers.







Carson emphasizes that these are not scientifically proven fact, but a model inspired by current neuroscience research. I wouldn't view these as an ironclad description of the way things are, but rather as springboards to develop your own creativity.



The first brainset is the Absorb brainset. This brainset is all about being observant -- noticing the world around you, and paying attention to random thoughts that pop up from your subconscious.





Developing the absorb brainset will help you in several ways. First, it increases your resources for solving problems. Perhaps you need better character descriptions, setting details, or ideas for resolving  a pothole. The more material you have to work with, the better and more original your solutions will be. Second, being generally aware will open your eyes to new problems or projects that you want to tackle. After all, many great books were inspired by a single image or idea that caught the author's attention.



To access the absorb brain set, you want to do several things. First, you want to train yourself to notice and appreciate novelty and easily missed details. Second,  you want to delay judgment and let the ideas flow freely. Modern society and schooling often trains us to focus our attention on the task at hand, but to access the Absorb brainset, you want to defocus your attention, noticing everything that comes across your mind.



How do you strengthen the Absorb brain set? There are several ways:



1. Practice! Make it a game with yourself. Set a timer for a few minutes and just try to notice new things. Cycle through all your senses – what you see, hear, smell, and taste. Don't judge or evaluate, just absorb.



2. For writers, try doing the same thing with language and stories. Break out your favorite novel, a piece of poetry, or sit outside and listen to people talk to each other. What do you notice about their word choice, the cadence of the sentences? If you are reading something, what do you notice about the plot and the characters, how do they make you feel? This is how I come up with material for the majority of my blog posts on writing technique.



3. Some outside factors will also enhance the absorb brain set. Alcohol, for one thing -- the stereotype of the alcoholic artist is more than stereotype. For more liver-friendly creative enhancement, try exercising. Research has shown that the two hour period after exercise results in enhanced alpha and theta wave activity, which is associated with the absorb brain set.   You're also more creative during the period after waking from REM sleep, but that's a little harder to plan.



Now readers, your turn. What are some other ways to use or strengthen the absorb brain set? Stay tuned next time for the Envision brainset.



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" 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 11, 2011 20:32 • 13 views

June 4, 2011

Note: Fellow psychologist and friend of the blog Jeannie Campbell is launching her new site The Character Therapist, where she helps authors gain insight into the characters by doing a psychological workup based on the information you give her. She has graciously offered to give away a copy of her pamphlet "Writer's Guide to Creating Rich Backstories." See the end of this post for details.



Almost every character has at least one close friend. Done well, this "b33osom buddy" can act as an emotional touchstone and help us see the main character in a new light. But sometimes it's hard to show the reader how close the friendship is.  Closeness stems from a long history together -- often occurring before the start of the book.  How do you convey this closeness in their current interactions in a natural way?







I had some issues with this in my WIP. My main character has some good friends with limited screen time, and my beta readers weren't getting a strong sense of their relationship. This was a problem because the friends are a driving force behind many of my character's decisions, and without a believable emotional bond, the decisions don't make sense.



To tackle this problem, I once again dug into The Hunger Games and Graceling. Both these books have minor characters that mean a lot to the protagonists. In Hunger Games, Katniss' has her friend Gale. In Graceling, Katsa has her cousin Raffin and her maid Helda. I went through and picked out the little details that conveyed a strong relationship. For the curious, Gale appears on approximately 57 of The Hunger Games's 374 pages, Raffin appears on 88 of Graceling's 471 pages, and Helda appears on 20/471 pages. (Thank you Amazon's Search Inside feature).



So without further ado, 20 ways to convey a strong relationship between two characters, with relevant quotes.



1. The protagonist can relax and be herself around the friend



"In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening as I climb the hills …" (Hunger games, p.6)



2. Carefree joking



"' Look what I shot.' Gale holds up a loaf of bread with an arrow stuck in it, and I laugh." (HG, p.7)



-----



"I've been told to make myself pretty for dinner."





[Raffin] grinned. "Well, in that case, you'll be ages."





His face dissolved into laughter, and [Katsa] tore a button from one of her bags and hurled it at him. 





He squealed and dropped to the floor, and the button hit the wall right where he'd been standing. 





When he peeked back over the railing, she stood in the courtyard with her hands on her hips, grinning.

"I missed on purpose," she said.



(Graceling, p. 56)



3. An ability to act as a team, automatically working in unison without discussion



"I almost forgot! Happy Hunger Games!" [Gale] plucks a few blackberries from the bushes around us. "And may the odds –" he tosses a very in a high arc towards me.





I catch it in my mouth and break the delicate skin with my teeth. The sweet tartness explodes across my tongue. "– be ever in your favor!" I finish with equal verve."



(HG, p.7-8)



[Note from Livia: In the previous quote, not only do Katniss and Gale act in unison, they finish each other's sentences. The next passage is nice too. This is right after Katniss volunteers to take Prim's place in the Hunger Games, and Prim is clinging to her, begging her not do this. I love how Gayle knows what Katniss wants and helps her with it, even though it's breaking his heart.]



"Prim, let go," I say harshly, because this is upsetting me and I don't want to cry. When they televise the replay of the reaping tonight, everyone will make note of my tears, and I'll be marked as an easy target. A weakling. I will give no one that satisfaction. "Let go!"





I can feel someone pulling her from my back. I turn and see Gale has lifted Prim off the ground and she's thrashing in his arms. "Up you go, Catnip," he says, in a voice he's fighting to keep steady, and then he carries Prim off toward my mother. (HG, p.9)



4. Including the other person in hypothetical plans for the future.



"We could do it, you know," Gale says quietly.





"What?"I ask.





"Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it," says Gale. (HG, p.9)



5. Jealousy, possessiveness of the other person.





"You can tell by the way the girls whisper about him when he walks by in school that they want him. It makes me jealous but not for the reason people would think. Good hunting partners are hard to find." (HG p.10)



6. Assuming that the friend will take her side in a disagreement





Raffin soft voice broke through her distress. "Let him explain, Katsa."





She turned to Raffin, incredulous, flabbergasted that he should know the truth and still take Po's side. 



(G, p.25)



7. Extensive knowledge of each others' opinions.





"On other days, deep in the woods, I listen to him rant about how the tesserae are just another tool to cause misery in our district. A way to plant hatred between the starving workers of the Seam and those who can generally count on supper and thereby ensure we will never trust one another. 'It's to the Capital's advantage to have us divided among ourselves,' [Gale] might say if there were no ears to hear but mine." (HG p.14)



-----



"What dress shall it be tonight, My Lady?" Helda called out.





"You know I don't care," Katsa called back. (G p.62)



8. Shared beliefs 





"I could be shot on a daily basis for hunting . . . . Anyway, Gale and I agree that if we have to choose between dying of hunger and a bullet in the head, the bullet would be much quicker. " (HG, p.17)



9. Automatically seeking that person out for comfort



"How she wished she could take Bitterblue north to Randa city and hide her there as they'd hidden her grandfather. North to Raffin's comfort, Raffin's patience and care." (G, p.370)



10. Fear of losing the person





"If her uncle died, [Katsa] didn't think she would grieve. She glanced at Giddon. She would not like to lose him, but she didn't think she would grieve his loss, either. Oll was different. She would grieve for Oll. And her lady servant, Helda. And Raffin. Raffin's loss would hurt more than a finger sliced off, or an arm broken, or a knife in her side." (G, p.50)



11. Drawing analogies to family



"[Katsa] didn't have a grandfather. But perhaps this grandfather meant to the Lienid prince what Oll – or Helda or Raffin – meant to her." (G, p.80)



12. Familiar rituals, perhaps spanning back to childhood or other more innocent times





"Raffin sat on her bed and curled his legs up, as he had done when he was a child. As they both had done so many times, sitting together on her bed, talking and laughing. He didn't laugh now, and he didn't talk." (G, p.148)



13. A fondness for talking about the person





"And then [Katsa] told the child, because it was on her own mind, about Katsa's cousin Raffin, who loved the art of medicine and would be ten times the king his father was; and about Helda, who had befriended Katsa when no one else was and thought of nothing but marry her off to some lord..." (G, p.336)



14. A desire to protect that person.





"[It was] unthinkable to take this crisis to those Katsa held most dear. She would not entangle Raffin . . . . She would not involve her friends at all." (G, p.371)



15. The character becomes a point of comparison for new events and settings. They color the way the protagonist sees things.



"They followed Jem into a well-lit room that reminded Katsa of one of Raffin's workrooms, always cluttered with open books…" (G, p.382)



"I can't help, for a moment, comparing him with Gale, who would see that field as a potential source of food as well as a threat." (HG, p.295-296)



16. New events bring up memories of the person, and the protagonist generally has a lot of memories about that person.



"[Peeta] stops together a bunch of wildflowers for me. When he presents them, I work hard to look pleased. Because he can't know that the pink and white flowers are the tops of wild onions and only remind me of the hours I spent gathering them with Gale." (p.371)



"I rack my brains for good memories. Most of them involve Gale and me out hunting . . . ." (HG, p.268)



17. The protagonist automatically seeks out the friend when she has something important or sensitive to discuss.



"I realize I do want to talk to someone about the girl. Someone who might be able to help me figure out the story. Gale would be my first choice, but it's unlikely I'll ever see Gale again." (HG p.80)



18. The person immediately comes to mind when the subject of friends comes up



"' Who would you best friend be?'" asks Cinna.





"Gale,"I say instantly. (HG p.122)



19. The protagonist can predict the friend's actions.



"And Gale. I know him. He won't be shouting and cheering. But he'll be watching, every moment, every twists, and turned, and willing me to come home." (HG p.280)



20. Joyful reunions



"The noise of their horses and their shouts brought people to the balconies, to see who'd come. A steward came out to greet them. A moment later, Raffin came flying into the courtyard.



"You've arrived!"



(G, p.53)



Now your turn. How do you like to signal a deep connection between characters?





Ending note: In a nice dovetail to our discussion today, Jeannie Campbell has written a guide, "A Writer's Guide to Creating Rich Backstories," in which she discusses different parenting styles and how they might affect a character's personality, as well as different attachment styles and how they might affect a character's relationships. To enter the drawing for a free copy of the guide, do one of two things:



1. Share this post on twitter and leave your twitter handle in the comments



2. RSS subscribers will see a secret password at the bottom of the post. Send an e-mail with the password as the subject line to liviablackburne@gmail.com.



I will choose the winner on Tuesday, 6/7.  And remember to check out The Character Therapist for more pamphlets, psychological profiles, and articles!







Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from the blog, 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 04, 2011 09:00 • 13 views

May 28, 2011

As you might remember from my beta reading experiment, my test readers wanted more character development in my novel. Specifically, several beta readers wanted more back story. Now my first reaction to this was skepticism.



"Oh no you DI'N'T," I said, "I read about back-story on the internets and it's like the evilest thing evar. It'll bog your story down, make your readers fall asleep and make your butt look big. In fact, my critique partner added some back story to her WIP before she started querying agents and the next day she DIED."



But then I realized that I didn't actually know how much back story appears in your typical YA book. So, as I often do when I have questions about writing, I dug out Graceling and The Hunger Games for some analysis. They are my go-to books for several reasons:







1. So good! Not only did I love them, but they were well received by readers and critics, and both did well commercially.

2. They were published within the last five years (2008, to be exact).

3. They are in my genre (Young adult action-adventure in an alternate world).



I went through and underlined all the back story in the first few chapters. To make things more interesting, I classified back story into three types: exposition, summarized narrative, and detailed narrative.



Exposition is a simple statement of facts. For example, this passage from The Hunger Games.



When I was younger, I scared my mother to death, the things I would blurt out about District 12, about the people who rule our country, Panem, from the far-off city of the Capital. Eventually I understood this would only lead us to more trouble. So I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts…



A summarized narrative is a story told in a compressed timeline. Like this passage, again from The Hunger Games:



"Hey, Catnip," says Gail.





My real name is Katniss, but when I first told him, I had barely whispered it. So he thought I'd said Catnip. Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn't bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.





A detailed narrative is back story told with the same detail and pacing as the rest of the story. Like this passage from Graceling.





Oll and Giddon, and most of the rest of the secret Counsel, had wanted her to kill them. But at the meeting to plan this mission, she'd argued that killing them would gain no time.





"What if they wake?" Giddon had said.





Prince Raven had been offended. "You'd doubt my medicine. They won't wake."





"It would be faster to kill them," Giddon had said, his brown eyes insistent. Heads in the dark room had nodded.





"I can do it in the time allotted," Katsa had said, and when Giddon had started to protest, she held up her hand. "Enough. I won't kill them. If you want them killed, you can send someone else."



So here's what the first three chapters for Graceling look like. Blue is everything in the present time. Exposition is red, summarized narrative is orange, and detailed backstory is yellow. Every unit on the x-axis is roughly a page, although they don't match the page numbers exactly because I made this graph by counting lines and didn't take into account page breaks at the end of chapters.







Here is a more detailed listing of the backstory sections. The story starts on page 3, and the main narrative describes Katsa on a mission to rescue a prisoner named Grandfather Tealiff.



p.3 Start of story – Katsa in the dungeons.



p.7 One paragraph summarizing how she had set off for the dungeons this morning. Narrative then spends 2 paragraphs in the present, and then there are several paragraphs of detailed flashback describing the planning session for this dungeon raid (this is the example quoted above).



p.9-11 Three pages of detailed and summarized narrative describing Katsa's childhood, how she discovered her ability to kill, and her training.



p.17-19 Three pages of exposition on the history of the seven kingdoms and the kidnapping of Grandfather Tealiff.



p.27 One paragraph of exposition about why Katsa started the Council that organized this rescue.



p.28-32 Four pages of summarized narrative continuing the story of Katsa's childhood, starting from where the story left off on page 11. Tells of how she started to work for her uncle as a thug, and how the resulting guilt spurred her to form the Council.



So what does The Hunger Games look like? Same color scheme.







The story starts on page 3. These opening chapters begin with Katniss waking up and going hunting with Gale. Then the town gathers for the Hunger Games lottery, where Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place in the deadly Hunger Games.



p.3 Story starts – Katniss wakes up. After she sees their cat, one paragraph of summarized narrative about how they found the cat.



p.5 One sentence about how Katniss's father died.



p.6 One paragraph of exposition about how Katniss learn to hold her tongue about the government. (First example quoted above.)



p.7 One paragraph summarized narrative about how Katniss got the nickname Catnip. (Second example quoted above.)



p.8 One paragraph exposition about how Katniss' parents met.



p.9 Half paragraph exposition about how Katniss met Gale.



p.13 Half paragraph exposition about how Katniss had to take extra entries into the Hunger Games lottery in return for food rations from the government.



p.14 One paragraph exposition on how Gale feels about the Hunger Games and the government.



p.15 One sentence on Katniss's early relationship with her mother.



p.18 One paragraph on the history of their country and the Hunger Games, delivered as the mayor's speech.



p.21 One paragraph detailed narrative about a hunting experience.



p.23 One sentence about Katniss' father's death.



p.26-32 Six and a half pages of detailed and summarized narrative describing Katniss' backstory with Peeta, the male protagonist.



So what did I learn from this analysis? Well, I think the most can be learned just by getting a feel for how the narratives are structured. I can draw a few generalizations:



1. I shouldn't be so scared of backstory. Both Suzanne Collins and Kristen Cashore include at least one extended chunk of backstory early on in the book. I suspect that the rise of in media res beginnings make backstory even more important.



2. There's more than one way to do it. Kristin Cashore uses larger chunks of backstory, while Suzanne Collins sprinkles in a paragraph here and there, with the exception of one long flashback (There's another one several chapters later that I didn't include, which is a continuation of the Peeta flashback). As a reader, both styles worked for me, with the exception of the three-page exposition in Graceling on the history of the seven kingdoms, which I remember skipping.



3. In particular, I appreciate how a short summarized story can add color and flavor to the text. For example, the Catnip story quoted above. I like how Suzanne Collins sprinkled in little stories throughout, and I wonder if there is something about a present tense first-person narrative that makes it easier to include small, short, flashbacks. From a purely technical standpoint, you don't have to worry about all that past perfect verb conjugation.  And I wonder if being so present in someone's head gives you more permission to go on tangents.



4.  I'm not sure if it's a coincidence or not, but both authors broke their most extended flashback (Katsa's childhood and Katniss and Peeta's story) into two halves of roughly 4 pages each. Is there a natural upper bound for flashback length?



Of course, simply looking at how much backstory there is isn't enough. Backstory has to be done well. So here's the question I will pose for you, dear readers. What are the characteristics of skillfully incorporated back story?





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" Writers in the audience should go purchase and read it forthwith." Dana Hunter review of From Words to Brain [image error]



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Published on May 28, 2011 11:13 • 18 views

May 19, 2011

E-books have been causing some pretty dramatic changes in the publishing industry. Whether you're a beginning writer, a traditionally published author, or a grizzled veteran with a large out-of-print backlist, you need to know about this new medium if you want to make wise decisions about your career.



Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn recently released an online course on ebook publishing, and she was kind enough to give me a review copy. I'll first share some of my favorite tips and thoughts from her course, and then give a more general overview.







1. You know how writers groan about having to hook an agent within the first few pages? Now with the advent of e-books, the opening pages are even more important. This is because ebooks are sold by sampling. Sites like Amazon offer the first few pages as a free download, and many readers decide whether or not to purchase after they read those pages.

 

2. For some good marketing tips, download the free e-book marketing guide at Smashwords.



3. Also, if you're looking to hire someone to help you convert your e-book into different formats, check out the E-book conversion services directory.



4. Book review blogs are a great way to get the word out about your book. There's a good listing of them at the book blog search engine.









5. There's  a lot of talk about e-book pricing and the race to the bottom for fiction, but nonfiction books are often left out of the conversation. Joanna brings up the good point that people are often willing to pay more for nonfiction, especially if the information is useful in a practical way (and especially if it will help people make money). For example, Joanna straddles the fiction and nonfiction markets, selling her debut novel Pentecost at 99 cents while selling her epublishing course for $39.99.



6. Two of the major e-book retailers, Apple iBooks store and Barnes & Noble, currently require publishers to be US citizens with a tax number. If you're not a US citizen, you can get around this by publishing through Smashwords, which distributes your book to Apple, B&N and other retailers regardless of your citizenship. You can also sell directly from your website through a service like e-Junkie.com, which offers a shopping cart service for five dollars a month.



I was very impressed by this course. It's a comprehensive introduction to e-book publishing, starting with some background information and then going to a detailed walk-through of the publishing process. The course is comparable in quality to a Writer's Digest webinar, but at half the price and with roughly twice as much content. There's about two hours of video, and all the information is also written in a PDF file for quick reference.



The course is targeted to beginners and those fairly new to ebook publishing. If you're wondering whether you are at the right level to benefit, I've created a handy little quiz with a sampling of the topics covered.



1. What are the major e-book selling platforms, and which ones are most important to hit?

2. What are the pros and cons of different e-book pricing levels?

3. How do good ebook cover designs differ from good print cover designs?

4. How much does it cost to epublish? What parts should you do yourself, and what parts should you hire a professional for?

5. How do you deal with ebook piracy?



The course also includes two screen capture walk-through videos of the entire Amazon and Smashwords publishing process.



All in all, Ms Penn's course is a thorough and comprehensive introduction to e-book publishing. I highly recommend it to anyone thinking about diving in. You can learn more about the course

at her website(affiliate link).



Have you ever published anything electronically, or are you thinking about taking the leap?











Hope you enjoyed the post!  To get regular updates from this blog, please use the subscription options in the left sidebar.Bamboo People Giveaway Password: Karenni


" Writers in the audience should go purchase and read it forthwith." Dana Hunter review of From Words to Brain [image error]



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Published on May 19, 2011 20:31 • 15 views

May 11, 2011

Note: Congratulations to Hektor for winning the signed copy of Bamboo People. I will be contacting you for your information.



A while back, Douglas Morrison was kind enough to interview me on his blog . An excerpt is below, and you can see the entire interview here.







Talk about how the mind interprets Point of View and narrative distance.



We are social animals, so our brains are wired to interact with other people. We are equipped with many tools to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. Some of these tools include facial expressions, body language, our understanding of the situation, etc. As writers then, our job is to replicate these cues so the reader knows what the characters are thinking and feeling. It's an interesting way to look at the "show don't tell" rule -- you could frame it instead as saying that a writer should use natural emotion cues rather than just telling the reader that little Johnny is sad.







One particularly challenging social task is figuring out what someone else is thinking when it's different from what you are thinking. For example, if someone stole your friend's lunch while he wasn't looking, you know that the lunch is no longer in his lunch box, but your friend doesn't. Somehow, your brain has to keep those two ideas separate. It seems very easy now, but actually, children have a hard time with this type of task. And as a writer, I sometimes have trouble with more subtle variations on this. For example, if I'm not careful, my main character will start reacting to situations in ways that are more characteristic of my personality than hers.



In a number of my literary agent interviews, each has pointed to an increasing importance of a strong narrative voice. Any thoughts on narrative voice as it pertains to your field of expertise?





Livia: I took an introductory linguistics class during my early years as a grad student, and one interesting thing we learned was how everyone has their own unique dialect. We usually think about dialects as something shared by people of a certain region, but each individual person also has his own way of speaking, his preferred phrases and grammatical structures. On top of that, add a worldview, a past, and how that affects the way you see the world. Put it all together, and you have a strong narrative voice. Piece of cake, right?






Bamboo People Giveaway Password: Karenni


" Writers in the audience should go purchase and read it forthwith." Dana Hunter review of From Words to Brain [image error]



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Published on May 11, 2011 16:42 • 18 views
Note: Congratulations to Hektor for winning the signed copy of Bamboo People. I will be contacting you for your information.



A while back, Douglas Morrison was kind enough to interview me on his blog . An excerpt is below, and you can see the entire interview here.







Talk about how the mind interprets Point of View and narrative distance.



We are social animals, so our brains are wired to interact with other people. We are equipped with many tools to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. Some of these tools include facial expressions, body language, our understanding of the situation, etc. As writers then, our job is to replicate these cues so the reader knows what the characters are thinking and feeling. It's an interesting way to look at the "show don't tell" rule -- you could frame it instead as saying that a writer should use natural emotion cues rather than just telling the reader that little Johnny is sad.







One particularly challenging social task is figuring out what someone else is thinking when it's different from what you are thinking. For example, if someone stole your friend's lunch while he wasn't looking, you know that the lunch is no longer in his lunch box, but your friend doesn't. Somehow, your brain has to keep those two ideas separate. It seems very easy now, but actually, children have a hard time with this type of task. And as a writer, I sometimes have trouble with more subtle variations on this. For example, if I'm not careful, my main character will start reacting to situations in ways that are more characteristic of my personality than hers.



In a number of my literary agent interviews, each has pointed to an increasing importance of a strong narrative voice. Any thoughts on narrative voice as it pertains to your field of expertise?





Livia: I took an introductory linguistics class during my early years as a grad student, and one interesting thing we learned was how everyone has their own unique dialect. We usually think about dialects as something shared by people of a certain region, but each individual person also has his own way of speaking, his preferred phrases and grammatical structures. On top of that, add a worldview, a past, and how that affects the way you see the world. Put it all together, and you have a strong narrative voice. Piece of cake, right?






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 May 11, 2011 16:26 • 37 views

May 7, 2011

I recently read Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins, an eye-opening novel about child soldiers in modern-day Burma. It tells the story of two boys from different ethnic groups: Chiko, a Burmese boy forced into the Army, and Tu Reh, a Karenni boy whose family is driven from their home by Burmese soldiers. When chance events throw the two together, Chiko and Tu Reh get to know each other not as faceless enemies, but as people.



There's quite a bit of social psychology research on group identity, in-groups, and out-groups, but this story actually brought to mind some vision science experiments on a phenomenon called change blindness. The basic idea is that we notice a lot less than we think we do. For example, watch this video from psychologist Dan Simons.













The man who picks up the phone is a different actor wearing different clothes, but people very rarely notice the switch. We're less observant than we think.



But maybe we're less observant int his case because it's a video. Surely, people would notice changes in real life! And this is where we get another one of my favorite psychology experiments ever. It's explained in this video here.









In this experiment, psychologists posing as visitors to campus asked random pedestrians for directions. Halfway through the conversation, several people carrying a door forced their way between the speakers, and  took advantage of the distraction to substitute a different person as the direction-asker. Surprisingly, about 50% of the pedestrians did not notice the change in conversation partner.



The psychologists noticed that pedestrians closer in age to the direction-askers were the most likely to notice the switch. They guessed that this was because people paid more attention to individuals in their own social group.



To test this hypothesis, they reran the experiment, but this time the direction-askers were dressed as construction workers. And as predicted, the percentage of pedestrians who noticed the change dropped dramatically. It seemed that pedestrians labeled the direction-askers as construction workers and didn't notice any details beyond that.



I find it fascinating that people automatically sort the people they meet into different groups and adjust the amount of attention they pay to them. It's an interesting question to ask when building your characters. What types of people would your character view as part of her social group, and what types of people would your character see without really seeing?



This week, I am also giving away a signed copy of Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins. There are two ways to enter the drawing.



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



2. RSS subscribers will find a secret word at the end of this article. To enter the drawing, e-mail liviablackburne at gmail dot com with the secret word in the subject line.

I will draw a winner on Wednesday, May 11 2011.



Hope you enjoyed the post!  To get regular updates on psychology and writing, use the subscribe option in the left sidebar.



Daniel J. Simons, & Daniel T. Levin (1998). Failure to detect changes to people during a real-world interaction PSYCHONOMIC BULLETIN & REVIEW



Bamboo People Giveaway Password: Karenni


" Writers in the audience should go purchase and read it forthwith." Dana Hunter review of From Words to Brain [image error]



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Published on May 07, 2011 08:43 • 17 views

April 27, 2011

In earlier installments, we discussed finding beta readersgetting them to read while respecting their time, and extracting useful feedback. Today we'll continue the "beta reading as experiment" analogy. The final sections of a research paper are the results and discussion. First I'll share what I learned about my own manuscript, and then I will generalize to some broader lessons. Also, I promised Jake that I'd have charts, and I aim to deliver.







So how did my beta reading experience go? These are the major themes.



What I did well: People kept reading. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of readers who finished in one or two sittings, stayed up late reading, or otherwise deviated from their normal routines. As expected, the closer a reader was to my target audience (young women who enjoy Tamora Pierce), the more she tended to like the manuscript. One definite high point was receiving an e-mail from a beta reader's sister saying she felt like the book was written just for her. I'm counting that as my first successful word of mouth referral :-)



What needs improvement: I was so focused on trying to keep the plot moving that I sacrificed depth. My readers found room for character development, world building, and scene setting. In my next round of revisions my focus will be on fleshing things out -- developing relationships, backstory, and world details. Much of it is convincing myself that I don't need a cliffhanger ending or knife fight in every chapter to keep the reader engaged.



Most controversial issue: My beta readers were pretty low key, but one particular subject brought out strong opinions of all possible shades. I had a slightly nontraditional romance thread, and here's a sampling of the reactions.



"EWWWWWW… Are you really going to put that in?"

"It was really really awkward."

"I really liked the tension between those two!"

"F---- Yeah! It made my stomach tingle."



(And no, it's not what you think. This is YA, folks. Get your mind out of the gutter. Besides, we've established already that my love scenes are very tame.)



Not only were reactions all over the board, but  people were very quick to attribute character flaws to fellow beta readers who disagreed with them.. Has anybody else had this experience? And if so, over what kind of passage?



So that was what I learned about my own manuscript. But what did I learn about writing in general?



Actually, it was a lesson I wasn't expecting. The beta reading process opened my eyes to the reader landscape. I really got to see how personalities and tastes affected someone's reading experience.



If you could represent my view of book quality before I did the experiment, it would've looked something like this.







The y axis represents a book's quality, and the error bars represent subjective differences in opinion.



After the experiment, my understanding is something more like this.







Here, the Z axis represents how much someone enjoys a book, and the X and Y axes represent reader characteristics, anything from their favorite genre, their attention span, their worldview, the number of traumatic childhood experiences they've had involving killer pigeons, etc. All come into play when they read a story.



Now I knew this already, in theory. In fact, I published an essay that talked at length about what a reader brings to the table. But I didn't really internalize this until I sat down (or e-mailed) with 14 different people and had 14 different conversations about my novel. Hopefully this epiphany will give me some psychological resiliance when I enter the land of queries and bad reviews.



So readers, what lessons have you learned from your beta readers?





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" Writers in the audience should go purchase and read it forthwith." Dana Hunter review of From Words to Brain [image error]



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Published on April 27, 2011 21:10 • 20 views

April 20, 2011

So far in this series we've talked about selecting beta readers, recruiting them, and getting them to read. Now is the part we've all be waiting for: getting feedback.



There are two challenges to soliciting feedback (especially if the beta readers are not writers themselves). First, readers might not have much to say beyond "It was okay." Second, even if they do say something,  they might just be telling you what you want to hear*. I tried to minimize these problems by doing the following:







1) Asking open-ended non-leading questions about my manuscript, and





2) Providing objective anchor points for subjective evaluations.



When a reader finished my book, I first asked them for general reactions. At this stage, writers tend to give detailed responses, while non-writers vary in how much they have to say. After I got a beta reader's unprompted response, I sent a list of questions.



The following questions are tailored specifically for my book, but they might give you some ideas.



1. On a scale of 1 to 7, please rate your average level of engagement throughout the book. (1 = you have to pay me to keep reading, 4 = I'll read it if it's lying around and I have free time, 7 = I am neglecting important life tasks to keep reading)



This was the closest I got to asking if they liked the book. To offset the ackwardness of putting betas on the spot, I tried to get as close as I could to an objective measure and provided concrete examples for different values of the scale. While people were still too nice to say that my book sucked, the concrete examples often prompted them to tell me how they arrived at their answer (i.e, "Six, because I found myself reading instead of going out to see a movie," or "Four and a half, because I stopped reading after chapter 10, but got more into it when I picked it up a week later"). This gave me a clearer picture of what people actually thought.



2. If your interest level varied throughout the book, can you tell me where it fluctuated and why?



This question was useful for picking up inconsistencies in pacing.



3. How did you feel about the interaction between [young impressionable protagonist] and [dangerous yet strangely intriguing antagonist] throughout the course of the book?



4. How did you feel about the development of [female protagonist] and [male protagonist]'s relationship throughout the course of the book?



5. How did you feel about [ZOMG major plot twist]? Did you buy it? Did you see it coming?



6. How did you feel about the climax and resolution? Did it feel believable? Was it a satisfying ending?



7. What would you say is the novel's biggest strength and biggest weakness?



My betas found this question obnoxious, like those job interview questions where they ask you about your biggest weakness (The correct answer is "I work too hard."), but it was good for balancing out beta reader personalities. For the overwhelmingly positive people, it was useful to get something that they didn't like.For the "praise is for pansies"camp, it was nice (and soothing to my ego :-P) to see if they liked anything at all.



8. Did you get a good sense of the characters? Were there any characters that were particularly well fleshed out or needed more fleshing out?



Note that different readers will have different criteria for strong characterization. For example, some readers thought my villain was my strongest character, while others thought he needed the most fleshing out. It turned out that the readers who thought he was strong were drawn to his dialogue and mannerisms (on-screen charisma, if you will), while the readers who thought he needed work placed more value on backstory and motivation. It's helpful to ask for clarification if you're not  sure what people mean.



9. What type of books do you usually read for pleasure, and what percentage of those books are fantasy? What about YA fantasy? What are some books that you think were done well?



The most important question in the survey. You must know where your readers are coming from, and what they are using as the gold standard. A comment on pacing from a classics lover is completely different from the same comment made by a thriller reader. The same goes for character development, plot structure, voice, and pretty much everything else. In general, people who regularly read your subgenre will be the most helpful, but I ended up getting useful tidbits from every beta reader regardless of their reading habits.



A few other notes:



1. You will be getting a lot of comments. Which ones should you actually address?



One rule of thumb is to address 1) feedback that immediately resonates with you and 2) feedback that doesn't resonate, but comes up too many times to ignore. Sometimes it's a tough call, which leads me to the second point.



2.It helps to have an objective and trusted sounding board to help you with borderline cases



When I wasn't sure about a certain piece of advice, I was lucky enough to have my critique group to bounce e-mails and ideas off of.



3.Don't argue with feedback.



Remember, you're a psychologist, and the last thing you want to do is contaminate your data by arguing with your test subject. Instead, think to yourself "my, what an interesting specimen of reader," and ask him to elaborate while taking copious notes. Then you can go home and write a five page psychoanalysis about how that reader's early relationship with his mother ended up giving him tragically bad taste in literature. (I'm just kidding about that last part. I swear.)



4.  Be prepared to give feedback on the feedback

I found that non-writers were more likely than writers to ask about the quality of their feedback. This is probably the because the process is new to them. So be prepared for the question, and use your judgment. Sometimes beta readers were curious about whether they agreed with others, so I went through their comments and summarized what other people thought. Other times, I just picked a few points and commented on those. I avoided bringing up issues I disagreed strongly with because I'm the type of person who once embroiled in a debate, MUST WIN.



5. Some other helpful tips from blog readers:

Friends of the blog have been sharing their own ways of getting feedback. Margo provided her beta readers with a PDF with the link at the end of each chapter to a Google survey with questions about what worked, what didn't, and what was boring. Jack does his writing on Google talk and has beta readers interact with him and each other using the chat function while he's actually writing.



Next week, we'll talk about what I learned from the experiment.  Now readers, it's your turn. Any suggestions for good questions to ask your beta readers?



*In experimental psychology, this is referred to as demand characteristics, when a participant develops a theory of what the experiment is testing and therefore doesn't act naturally. The most common instance would be the "good participant," the beta readers that tells you your book was awesome because they think that's what you want to hear. But there are also "bad participants ." One particularly mischievous beta reader (who may or may not be married to me) made a point of reading to the middle of the most exciting parts and then making an elaborate display of yawning and announcing that he was going to do something else. *sigh*





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" Writers in the audience should go purchase and read it forthwith." Dana Hunter review of From Words to Brain [image error]



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Published on April 20, 2011 20:01 • 45 views

April 16, 2011

"Mythology, science fiction and comic books are chock full of stories of heroes and their battles against the ills of society—the eternal struggle between good and evil. We are meant to view these two main characters—the Hero and the Villain—as opposites on the spectrum of ethics and morality. But are they really so different when you look at their individual traits and behaviors?





Contrary to popular belief, right and wrong, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical—are not always on opposite ends of the spectrum of good and evil. In addition, the people who fight for the cause on either side may not always look or act like the one you would expect. Science may finally give some support to the old saying: There is a fine line between good and evil."





Read the rest of this fascinating article by Andrea Kuszewski at Scientific American.


" Writers in the audience should go purchase and read it forthwith." Dana Hunter review of From Words to Brain [image error]



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Published on April 16, 2011 09:16 • 19 views