‘Let the soul dangle’: how mind-wandering spurs creativity

The Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer was regarded by his friends as a master in the art of mind-wandering. He could become ‘enwrapped’ in his own pleasant reflections, wrote the German humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, at which times Dürer ‘would seem the happiest person on Earth’.

Many of us are familiar with mind-wandering in a number of guises: procrastination, reflection, meditation, self-flagellation, daydreaming. But while some mental meandering seems fruitful, on other occasions it has the unmistakeable bite of a bad habit, something that holds us back from reaching our full potential. Reverie can be a reprieve from reality and a font of inspiration, yes. But equally familiar is the mind’s tendency to devolve into sour and fruitless rumination when left to its own devices, especially when we’re in the grip of depression, anxiety or obsession.

Can art itself be a useful catalyst for nudging us towards more helpful emotions and mental states? Whether in the form of literature, rap or abstract oil painting, many of us know we can improve the tenor of our thoughts by contemplating art. The Germans have a lovely saying for the benefits of keeping an idle (or idling) mind: ‘die Seele baumeln lassen’, meaning ‘let the soul dangle’. Now, the emerging science of neuroaesthetics is beginning to reveal the biological processes that sit behind such ‘dangling’.

To begin with, contemporary cognitive science has presented a vast amount of evidence that mental states send and receive ripples of cause and effect across the rest of the body. Think how your mouth might water when you look at a photo of a tasty chocolate cake, or how tense you feel when watching a suspenseful TV drama. Thoughts, feelings and emotions, whether aimless or deliberate, are a somatic cascade of multiple biological events. And it’s this cascade that art somehow taps into.

Galen, the second-century Greek physician, was well aware of the connection between mind and body. He believed that mind-wandering was the result of physical and mental lassitude, and so prescribed a regime of logic and hard, structured work to avoid it. ‘Laziness breeds humours of the blood!’ Galen is believed to have said. The assumption here is that concentration is a kind of psychobiological discipline, something we have to work at to stop our wayward minds and bodies from veering out of our control.

However, there’s an even older tradition from Ancient Greece that views daydreaming as a boost to our wellbeing. Galen’s Hippocratic forebears argued that mind-wandering was in fact the best strategy for guiding us back into healthy states. And modern-day research in developmental psychology has shown that children and adults who engage in certain kinds of mind-wandering actually display more cognitive flexibility, and perform better when called upon to exercise ‘executive’ functions such as problem-solving, planning and managing their own thoughts and feelings.

Neuroimaging – a method of ‘seeing’ the brain in action – has started to reveal the brain processes that correlate with these mental states. Far from falling idle, the brains of people asked to stay still and think of nothing in particular continue to fizz and pop in patterns of activity known as the default mode network (DMN). These activations are closely related to those engaged during self-referential thinking, the experience of the self, and intuition. Moreover, they are observed alongside activation patterns in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the area typically associated with those important ‘executive’ functions. Strikingly, the greater the strength of the relationship between these two domains of the brain – intuition and executive function – the more creativity a person tends to display when asked to solve a problem. Brain scans demonstrate correlation, not causation; but even so, they hint at the possibility that reverie might help to prime us to think both productively and creatively by somehow cementing our sense of self, drawing body and mind together in a train of thought and biological action.

Art can be a catalyst for this sort of reverie, as well as a tool to regulate and control it. Both the basic properties of art (whether it’s in a minor or major key; the colours of a painting), as well as the complexities of its content (the lyrics of a song, the facial expression of a person in a painting), can induce reflections and emotions – and will invariably affect our body’s physiology. Thinking creatively, and engaging with works of art, have both been correlated with DMN activity – especially when people report that the aesthetic experience was particularly strong and meaningful to them. In these moments, our encounter with art seems to trigger an autobiographical daydreaming, a flow experience with a ‘me factor’.

Of course, art can also provoke unhelpful ruminative urges. Listening over and again to that song might not help you get over a heartbreak. But art-induced sadness doesn’t always make you slide into negative mental loops. In fact, art can help us adapt to the immediate source of pain by acting as a prop for emotional catharsis. We all know the strange, pleasurable, consoling feeling that comes after having a good cry. This experience appears to be precipitated by the release of the hormone prolactin, which has also been associated with a boosted immune system, as well as bonding with other people. The arts are a relatively safe space in which to have such an emotional episode, compared with the real-life emotional situations that make us cry. Even sad or otherwise distressing art can be used to trigger a kind of positive, psychobiological cleansing via mind-wandering.

History is full of examples of the relationship between reverie and creativity. Here is one, idiosyncratic example: the German art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) organised his library of 50,000 books with the aim of promoting mind-wandering. His collection was the kernel for the Warburg Institute in London, where we now work as researchers. Each of the library’s four floors is devoted to one of four themes – image, word, orientation, and action – and separated into sub-themes, such as ‘magic and science’, ‘transmission of classical texts’, and ‘art history’. Guided by Warburg’s ideas about what makes a good neighbour for a book, this unique approach to classification allows a withered 17th-century medical tome to cluster next to texts on mathematics, the cosmos and harmony. The shelves promote intellectual serendipity as you skip from the book (or thought) you thought you wanted, to another intriguing idea or topic that hadn’t even occurred to you.

Art appreciation is held in high esteem in most cultures and societies. It is often portrayed as a laborious cognitive exercise, but this is to forget that the arts provide an opportunity for intense emotional experiences, positive mind-wandering and psychobiological self-regulation. Dürer perhaps captures the activity of such inactivity best of all. ‘If a man devotes himself to art,’ he wrote, ‘much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.’Aeon counter – do not remove

Julia Christensen, Guido Giglioni & Manos Tsakiris

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
https://aeon.co/ideas/let-the-soul-dangle-how-mind-wandering-spurs-creativity

Ten Types of Authors Who Can Go F@#$ Themselves

This blog post did the rounds a couple of years ago from . It’s a fun piece and makes some great points. Enjoy!

Find the original here.

So yesterday I was thinking about an upcoming piece I’ll be writing for LitReactor and chuckled at the amount of reactions I’ll surely get. You see, I’ve been doing the columnist thing for almost a decade. It all started back home with a monthly political column. By the time I stopped writing it in early 2016, I’d received four death threats. In any case, I tweeted this: “Everyone who’s gotten angry at one of my columns should hear the stuff I don’t even bother to pitch.” The result was almost immediate; a bunch of authors said they wanted to read it. I’m all about making my friends happy, so here we are. Thank the writing deities that we have crazy, brave venues like CLASH. Let’s get started, shall we? Here are ten types of authors who can go fuck themselves (God I’m good at making friends!):

1. Authors who hate almost everything about writing

There are a bunch of authors out there who are constantly complaining about how hard editing is, how much it sucks not to be famous, how the market is flooded with books, how much rejection blows, and how they failed to meet their self-imposed word count for the day. Listen, if writing brings you nothing but pain, quit. Seriously. Everyone’s an author. We need more educators, honest police officers, taxi drivers, cooks, etc. There are other options. Editing is how you make your work better. Stop bitching about it. Rejection is part of the game. If you can’t take it, don’t play. I received a rejection last week. Did I complain? No, I thanked the editor for his time and sat down to read the story and try to figure out how I can make it better before sending it elsewhere. No one owes me anything, so I hustle and try to get into publications. I win, I celebrate. I lose, I work harder and try again. If writing is hard, painful task, stop doing it.

2. Authors who are professional coattail riders

Two things are bound to happen if you do the writing thing long enough. The first is that some good folks will reach out and help you. There are a lot of good folks in the publishing world, and they take the time to help others out. The second thing is that you will meet big-name authors at conventions or readings or online. We all need as much help as we can get, but what we do is mostly up to us. That’s why it makes me angry when I see authors out there befriending successful authors just because they think that being friends with them is a quick path to publication or an agent or a blurb. Stop doing that. Riding someone’s coattails makes you look like an asshole. I know many successful authors and the one thing they have in common is that they are humble people who sit down and put in the work. You should do the same.

3. Authors who forgot how to be humble

The previous one kinda ties in with this one. As many of you know, I’m also a book reviewer, and the easiest way to get me to turn down your book is an email telling me how exciting, great, amazing, genre-redefining, outstanding, unique, superb, and special your book is. You spent a lot of time working on your novel. I understand that. Trust me, I do. I want people to read it and enjoy it and say nice things about it. When that happens, you can quote them. What I don’t want is you to tell me how amazing your work is. Really, go fuck yourself. Stay humble, folks.

4. Authors who don’t know how to use social media

There are approximately a trillion articles online telling folks what works and what doesn’t when it comes to using social media as a selling platform. However, I still see folks every day sending out DMs about their book on Facebook and Twitter the second someone accepts their friend request or starts following them. Stop. Doing. That. Shit. It’s unprofessional and annoying. Yeah, too many people do it and this is probably the entry that’s gonna lead to the most hate. I don’t care. Pay attention to what people say about authors who do that and you’ll see I’m right. You can be interesting and engaging and that will lead to more sells and attention than plastering a link to your book in every thread you participate in. Don’t mention your book when folks ask for recommendations. Don’t use DMs to sell someone your book before you’ve ever interacted with them. Social media can be a great tool, but only if you use it right.

5. Authors who put down people for what they read and talk smack about other genres

I don’t read YA. I don’t read comics. I don’t read a lot of fantasy or cozy mysteries. You do? Awesome! If you make some good points, I’ll even check out stuff you recommend. Putting others down because they enjoy stuff you don’t is like considering someone an idiot because they like a different dressing on their salad. Likewise, I love horror, crime, bizarro, poetry, nonfiction, and many other things. I like to spend my time sharing my love for those genres instead of hating on romance and historical novels. The fact that I don’t like something doesn’t make it bad and doesn’t mean that someone who enjoys that thing is less smart. Authors who insult others based on what they love instead of sharing what they love can go fuck themselves.

6. Authors who want to “destroy narrative”

Let me explain this one before you react. I’ve seen too many authors who made their name with traditional narratives say that they now want to destroy narrative. I’ve also seen authors who have never told a story say that their main goal is to destroy narrative. I’m all for destroying shit. We can set out to destroy patriarchy, racism, or transphobia any day you want. However, when you say you want to destroy narrative, I have to stop, sit down, and analyze both your discourse and your work. Every time I’ve done that, the result is the same: usually it is an author who sucks at storytelling, or a known author who made his or her name writing traditional narratives, and is now out of ideas. Sure, I’ll check out your experimental work, but if your pitch is “My novel has no story, characters, plot, or dialogue. It’s basically about commas taking a shit on the page. I put some doodles in there, too,” well, I’m gonna take a pass on that one. Furthermore, this line almost always comes from folks who describe their work as “smart,” “cerebral,” or “post-narrative.” I’ve been fooled before, homie, so fooling me now is hard as fuck. You wanna kill narrative? Maybe we need to sit down and talk about how your storytelling sucks.

7. Authors who spend more time beefing than writing

You know who you are. You write 2000 words a day hating on folks, defending your previous comments, and engaging in nonsense. I look around at most of my successful friends and can’t find a single instance of them wasting time doing that. You’re angry? Write. You want to make a point? Write a piece like this one. I know some editors and will recommend your work if you need me to even if I disagree. You wanna spend all your time fighting online? Go ahead! We probably don’t wanna read the book you’re not writing anyway.

8. Authors who don’t support other authors

If you think every other author out there is your enemy, you can go fuck yourself. We’re all on the same boat regardless of our level of success. Retweet stuff. Share links. Give praise when someone deserves it. Be a good literary citizen and your grain of sand will help us all construct a nice little beach free of hate and stupid nonsense. Trying to hurt others or going out of your way to bring them down or mess up their careers makes you a douchebag. Don’t do it. Don’t engage with those who do it. Karma is a thing.

9. Authors who are so salty they feel the need to reply to this piece

Oh, went a little meta on you on that one, didn’t I? Hah. Seriously, if you’re guilty of one of these and you’re so angry at me that you have to write a blog post telling me I’m wrong and or you feel the need to drop a scathing comment below…go for it! Opinions and assholes, right? Well, these are my opinions and you’re not gonna change them, just like I’ll probably won’t get you to stop sending messages with a link to your book to every new friend you make (they’re gonna unfriend you with the quickness, by the way). In any case, I’m jaded. I don’t care about the opinions of most people, especially if they’re strangers. I care even less about the opinions strangers have about my opinions. I call it noncareception. You hate me and this piece so much that you wanna fight? Really? Fine, come see these hands or go fuck yourself, bud! Kisses.

10. Authors who think what they do is a gift to the world

You’ve met them. They share chunks of their WIP and want all of us to thank them with tears of joy running down our cheeks. They ignore all other authors because no one can surpass their greatness. They talk about writing all day and you have no idea when they actually sit and write. Oh, and their last published thing came out three years ago. They use words like “craft” and “polishing a gem.” Here’s the main things most authors need to internalize: if you stopped writing tomorrow, the only one you’d really hurt with your decision is yourself. Even if you have thousands of fans. Trust me, they’ll find something else to read. We’re lucky to do what we do. We love to do what we do. We write because that’s the only option. We write even when the stuff we write doesn’t get published. We take time away from friends and pets and partners and family and sit by ourselves and listen to the voices in our heads. It’s a beautiful thing and we need to be grateful that we get to do it. The moment you lose track of that and start thinking that everyone needs to pay attention, that people owe you their time and their focus, and that the world is a better place thanks to the stories you “gift” it, then…well, you can go fuck yourself.

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Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS (Broken River Books),HUNGRY DARKNESS (Severed Press), and GUTMOUTH (Eraserhead Press). His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist. Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbcide, and many other print and online venues. You can find him on Twitter at@Gabino_Iglesias

10½ commandments of writing

Sean Williams, Flinders University

Every author is asked by new writers for advice. There is, however, no all-encompassing, single answer that also happens to be correct. Quite a lot of commonly offered suggestions (“write every day”) don’t work for everyone and must be approached with caution.

A few years ago, I set out to create a list that will benefit all new writers. I put ten commandments through the wringer of my peers, who suggested modifications and noted that this list applies not just to new writers but to writers at every stage of their career. Indeed, I’ve needed reminding of more than one myself.

Here, then, are the 10½ commandments of writing – with an extra one for free.

1. Read widely

To succeed as a writer, you must occasionally read. Yet there are wannabe-novelists who haven’t picked up a book in years. There are also, more tragically, writers too busy to engage with the end-product of our craft. If the only thing you’re reading is yourself you are bound to miss out on valuable lessons.

The same applies to reading only within a favourite genre. A varied diet will strengthen your literary muscles.

2. Write

No need to thrash out 1,000 words a day or pen a perfect poem before breakfast, but you do have to write. The fundamental qualification for being a writer is putting words on the page.

If you aren’t doing that now, it’s possible you never will.

3. Follow your heart

When you really want to write literary fiction, but the market wants paranormal romance, write literary fiction. Chasing paranormal romance will be futile. Writing well is hard enough without cynicism getting in the way.

Passion doesn’t always pay, but it increases the odds of your work finding a home.

The best books come from the heart.
Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

4. Be strategic

But the choice is never between just literary fiction and paranormal romance. You might have poetry and narrative non-fiction passion projects as well, and it’s possible narrative non-fiction will appeal to the widest audience. If a wider audience is what you want, narrative non-fiction is the one to choose.

If, however, you don’t give two hoots about your audience, write what you like.

There are lots of different kinds of writers and lots of different paths to becoming the writer you want to be.

5. Be brave

Writing is hard, intellectually and physically. It also takes emotional work, dealing with exposure, rejection, fear and impostor syndrome. It’s better you know this upfront, in order to fortify yourself.

These crises, however, are surmountable. We know this because there are writers out there, leading somewhat normal lives, even healthy and happy ones. You can too, if you don’t give up.

The ones who persist are the ones who prevail.

6. Be visible

Many writers would prefer they remain hidden in a dark cave for all eternity. But stories demand to be communicated, which means leaving that cave. Whether it’s you or your written word, or both, broaching the bubble of self-isolation is important.

This doesn’t mean assaulting every social platform and attending every festival and convention. Find the kind of engagement that suits you and embrace it, and don’t overdo it. Remember: you still have to write.

You have to come out from there at some point.
Matthew Henry/Unsplash

7. Be professional

Don’t lie. Don’t belittle your peers and don’t steal from them. Keep your promises. Communicate. Try to behave like someone people will want to work with – because we all have to do that, at some point.

8. Listen

Heed what people you’re working with are saying, because you never know what gems of knowledge you might glean – about craft, about the market, about something you’re working on – among the knowledge you (think you) already possess.

9. Don’t settle

Every story requires different skills. You’ll never, therefore, stop learning how to write. The day you think you’ve worked it out is the day the ground beneath you begins to erode, dropping you headlong into a metaphorical sinkhole – and nobody wants that. Least of all your readers.

Readers can tell when you’re getting lazy, just like they can tell when you’re faking. You’re one of them. Deep down, you’ll be the first to know.

10. Work hard

Put in the hours and you’re likely to get some return on your investment. How many hours, though?

There’s a wonderful saying: “Even a thief takes ten years to learn her trade.” Writing is no different to any other career. Hope for overnight success; plan for being like everyone else.

The bonus commandments

When I put this list to my friends, several raised the importance of finding your people. Although I agree this is an important principle, I would argue it is implicit in commandments 6-8: these have no meaning without engaging. I decided to encapsulate this as 10.5. Embrace community

Find those who will walk alongside you.
Kenny Luo/Unsplash

After I’d been teaching and giving talks on this topic for several years, someone suggested another commandment that lies beneath the rest. It is so fundamental none will work unless you have this in spades. It is 0. Really want it, which sounds so obvious that it barely needs stating – except it does.

One day, I may no longer want to write. If that happens, I will take every mention of writing from this list and substitute the name of a new vocation – because this list applies to everything.

The Conversation

Sean Williams, Lecturer, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Serif and sans-serif fonts

Lately, I’ve been playing the submission game.

Let me rephrase that. I’m not talking BDSM, I’ll save that for another day. I’ve been submitting stories to various magazines. As part of this game – and it is a numbers game – there is the time-honoured tradition of every magazine having a slightly different requirement for one of the three standard manuscript formats. Which got me thinking about really sexy things, like kerning, justification, line spacing, indents, and whether my big capital I wears a hat or not. Reread that sentence with an erotic voice, and don’t you dare say bananas yet!

Now, I’m not an expert in formatting, layout, and graphic design. But since I have a blog on the internet, I’m apparently required to have an opinion on everything. Fortunately, I do actually have some experience with writing, editing, formatting, and laying out newsletters, ebooks, and webpages. Some of them even looked okay and used the correct their they’re there. I’ve even found myself in arguments defending the use of both serif and sans-serif fonts, which is like arguing over what colour black you want to wear to a metal concert (that’s a no-brainer: the darker one).

Anyway, there are plenty of anal-retentive science nerds like me who have gone and done research into what fonts work best for which applications. There are actually a surprising number of research studies on fonts and readability.

First, let’s define what is meant by serif and sans-serif fonts. (From Scribe Consulting) Consider the following characters. The first is set in Georgia, a lovely serif font. The second is set in Verdana, an easy-to-read sans-serif font.

serif sans-serif
    serif     sans serif

Notice the small decorative flourishes at the ends of the strokes in the left character. These are called serif. The right character does not have these strokes and is said to be a sans-serif font. Sans is the French word for without. So I could be currently sans-pants. Or I might be serif-pants.

The most common examples of these two font types are Times New Roman (serif) and Arial (sans-serif). Bleeding Cowboys would be an example of an overused serif font that is for try-hards, whilst Comic Sans is an overused sans-serif that shows a lack of taste.

Now there are some simple rules of thumb when it comes to using serif and sans-serif fonts, which are backed up by science. The first rule is that thumbs only hit the space bar once. The second rule is:

Use serif for printed work

Serif fonts are usually easier to read in printed works than sans-serif fonts.

This is because the serif makes the individual letters more distinctive and easier for our brains to recognise quickly. Without the serif, the brain has to spend longer identifying the letter because the shape is less distinctive.

The commonly used convention for printed work is to use a serif font for the body of the work. A sans-serif font is often used for headings, table text, captions, and ransom notes.

The third rule is:

Use sans-serif for online work

An important exception must be made for the web. Printed works generally have a resolution of at least 1,000 dots per inch; whereas, computer monitors are typically around 100 dots per inch. Even Apple’s much-vaunted retina display is only around 300 dots per inch — much lower than print.

This lower-resolution can make small serif characters harder to read than the equivalent sans-serif characters because of their more complex shapes. Yes, this does give you an excuse to buy a 4K monitor for your computer. Go nuts.

It follows that small on-screen text is better in a sans-serif font like Verdana or Arial.

Further reading: http://alexpoole.info/blog/which-are-more-legible-serif-or-sans-serif-typefaces/

Cool infographic:

serif-vs-sans-serif

Infographic from here.

7 Tips on How to Research Your Novel

I’m just going to say it: I’m comfortable with the label of nerd.

More specifically, I’m a Nerdius scientifica.

Being a nerd is more accepted nowadays, what with our bulging brains and chiselled knowledge. And the reality is that us nerds have a lot to offer, like research skills.

Writing requires a lot of research and writers generally fall into two categories in this regard: those who need to learn how to research, and those who took up writing to justify those dodgy topics they’ve researched. This post will hopefully help the former. But if anyone does want to know how much slack rope you need to hang someone correctly from your homemade gallows, I have a spreadsheet calculator for you.

I stole am reblogging a post from Writer’s Digest with a few of my own comments.

Ernest Hemingway said writers should develop a built-in bullshit detector. I imagine one reason he said that is because readers have their own BS indicators. They can tell when we writers are winging it. We have to know well the worlds in which our characters act. Readers don’t have to believe the story really happened, but they need to believe it could have happened. So with that in mind, I offer a few thoughts on research for fiction.

I’d argue everyone should have a BS detector. [Insert topical political joke here] But the important point to note is that a writer can’t be an expert in all topics, yet readers are likely to come from a wide background. So if you haven’t done your research thoroughly, readers who are well versed in a field will notice, which can ruin the book for them.

1) You can’t do too much research.  In the military, we often say time spent gathering intelligence is seldom wasted. The same concept applies in writing a novel. You never know what little detail will give a scene the ring of authenticity. In a college creative writing class, I wrote about how a scuba diver got cut underwater, and in the filtered light at depth, the blood appeared green. Though the professor didn’t think much of that particular story, he did concede he liked that detail. In fact, he said, “The author must have seen that.” And indeed, I had.

This point is both true and false.

Gee, thanks Tyson.

You’re welcome!

Okay, what I mean is that while you need to have done enough research to be able to include those little details that sell the story, at some point, you have to stop researching and write the damn thing. Maybe you want to be able to accurately describe what arterial spray looks like for your serial killer novel, but you can only research that for so long before you need to put down the knife and pick up your pen.

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2) You can write what you know. We’ve all heard it before. Experience may be a cruel teacher, but it is a thorough one, and experience is the purest form of research. Things you’ve done in life can inform your writing in surprising ways, even if your characters aren’t doing those same things. When I watch the old Star Trek shows, I can tell the creator of those stories knew something about how a military flight crew works together. He understood the dynamics of a chain of command, how a commander learns the strengths and weaknesses of his team, how those team members communicate and work together. Turns out that Gene Roddenberry flew B-17 bombers in World War II. Roddenberry, of course, never flew a starship. But he knew from experience how the crew of a starship might interact.

Soooo, about that serial killer novel… Pure research. No experience. I promise.

Writing what you know is one of those bits of advice authors receive that you can honestly shrug your shoulders at. It’s not untrue. If you’ve been involved in something as a professional you will know it better than anyone trying to research it. But it can also be severely limiting.

Take the example used. If Star Trek understands how military flight crews operated, why did it insist on sending the most important crew members on the dangerous away missions? Aside from the chance to shag the aliens, obviously.

I think the more helpful advice is seeking help from people who know. Go to forums, discussion groups, ask friends, put out the call on social media, cultivate contacts. The internet makes us closer than ever to experts, why limit yourself to what you’ve done?

3) You can do research on the cheap. If you can’t visit an exotic location, you can pick up the phone and ask questions. The worst that can happen is somebody thinks you’re crazy and they hang up. Then you just call somebody else. (Believe me; I used to be a reporter, and I’ve learned a lot by asking questions.) You can visit a museum, or a museum’s website. Develop an eye for small details.

While you CAN do research on the cheap you COULD still use your writing as an excuse for that holiday to an exotic location.* For your art. And tax write-offs.

The internet is the cheapest and best research tool ever invented. Things like Google Street View, location webpages, travel blogs, and that person you went to high school with who fancies themselves as an Influencer’s Instagram feed, all offer information from your desk. No travel required. The same applies to any other aspect of research.

But be careful. Your Influencer friend might be distorting the truth for clicks. That travel blog may have been paid content from a tourism company. And Google Street View may be tracking your data to target you with ads.** Lateral reading and critical research are key.

4) You can find anything on YouTube. Seriously. But you have to know your topic well enough to know how to search for it. In The Renegades, I have a character whose lungs collapse from a bullet wound. I wanted to find out how a medic would treat that condition. Sure enough, someone had posted on YouTube a video with detailed instructions on how to perform a needle decompression.

You can find anything on YouTube. If you want to know about how the Earth is actually hollow and filled with shape-shifting lizards who have roles in every government and are most celebrities, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how vaccines are a secret government conspiracy by the lizard people to depopulate the planet and make the survivors docile sheep ready for the coming invasion, then YouTube has you covered. If you want to know how white people are being replaced as part of a globalist agenda and the only way to stop it is by becoming a Nazi, then YouTube has you covered.***

Again, lateral reading and critical research are key.

5) You can find things anywhere. You’re a writer, so keep pen and paper within reach during all waking hours. You might get an idea from a news story on television, a song on the radio, or a Tweet from a friend. About a year ago, I was driving along on a warm day, listening to the radio with the windows down. An oldies station played “Wind of Change,” the Scorpions’ 1990 ballad hailing the end of the Cold War. I hadn’t heard that song in a long time, and I cranked it up loud. The power chords brought back memories of flying relief missions to Bosnia while based at a disused Cold War alert facility in Germany. Not really a pleasant memory–for Bosnia, the end of the Cold War brought something worse. But that flashback from early in my military career inspired a scene in the novel I’m working on now.

While I agree with this point, I think people get carried away with always having a pen and paper handy. A lot of the ideas you end up writing down are rubbish. The flight of fancy comes and goes. The things you write down should be the sticky things. That thing you wanted to look up, you’ll remember it if it was actually important.

6) You can use all of your senses. Find out what things taste like, smell like, feel like. Say, for example, you set your novel in Warsaw. Maybe you can’t afford to go to Warsaw, but you can go to a Polish restaurant. (See item number three above, about doing research on the cheap.) As you write one of your scenes, include a line about the texture and flavor of something your character eats. You’ve just made your writing more alive and authentic.

This is good advice, particularly with internet research. It is easy to look up photos of a location. Harder to look up what it smells like, or if the road is uneven underfoot, or if arterial blood feels warm on your skin. We’ve got roughly 20 senses, so your research (and writing descriptions) should reflect that.

7) You can leave some things out. If you do thorough research, you’ll find more material than you need, and no reader likes a data dump. In my own writing, I could bore you to death with the details of aircraft and weapons. But a very good creative writing professor once advised me to let the reader “overhear” the tech talk. Say, if my character punches off a HARM missile, that might sound authentic and pretty scary. But scary would turn to dull if I stopped the action to tell you that HARM stands for High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, which homes in on anti-aircraft missile radars. Who cares? The damn thing goes boom.

This is the most important point about research, even in science. Most of it doesn’t end up on the page. Nobody cares about the lab experiments that failed, they want to know about the results from the one that worked. Nobody wants to read your detailed and accurate Linux commands the hacker types in, sudo leave that stuff out.

I think the point of research is to better understand the universe we live in. For a writer, research will help to create more believable universes for their stories. It isn’t easy to tell the difference between good and bad information. It isn’t easy to know when to stop. And it is hardest of all to not brag about how big your research is.

* Ever notice that novels by successful authors are never set in boring locations? The characters are never having the exciting chase scene through the streets of Canberra, Adelaide, or Perth Australia, they are in Paris, or New York, or London. Funny how those places are regarded as top destinations for travel.

** Maybe? Try definitely. I said may because you can run tracking and ad blockers and deny cookies. Good advice to stop some… interesting ads coming your way.

*** I’m not even covering the worst and most obviously wrong conspiracies with these examples. Not even close. Two of those three examples are getting people killed.

The Write Noise

Recently on Twitter I was discussing writing in noisy environments with fellow writers. Jennifer mentioned she had managed to finish a draft whilst sitting in a particularly noisy cafe. You would think this would be the most distracting place to try and be creative in.

I’ve noticed that there is a certain amount of noise needed or not needed. Too much noise and it’s annoying, too little noise and it is distracting, and urgent noise like a truck reversing siren gets your heart pumping too much. That’s why I’ve been successfully able to work in cafes, airports, and buses, but have found libraries and open-plan offices too distracting.

It appears that there is some science to this sweet spot.

optimal-noise-level

The research suggests that most people reach peak creative performance at approximately 70dB. This is about the noise of a person talking on their phone on the train, or how loud your neighbours are during sex after you’ve just broken up with your partner. The reasoning as to why this level of noise isn’t distracting isn’t fully understood. But the authors reckon that:

We theorize that a moderate (vs. low) level of ambient noise is likely to induce processing disfluency or processing difficulty, which activates abstract cognition and consequently enhances creative performance. A high level of noise, however, reduces the extent of information processing, thus impairing creativity.

In other words, if you need to have a high level of focus for something requiring accuracy, detail, and/or linear reasoning, then silence can help make that happen. But it can be a distraction if you need to let your mind wander in that creative zone. Maybe you want to make several careful and precise cuts to a piece of leather as you make a woman suit, that requires quiet and not the distracting sounds of a small dog, so you lock the dog in your basement. However, if you wanted to write a compelling serial killer novel, you probably need a bit of noise to help you think.

Okay, put on some tunes and creative masterpiece here I come?

Not quite.

Why would a cafe level noise be conducive to concentrating but the co-workers in the next cubicle who are discussing how busy they are just makes you want to throw a stapler? Because it is about the sort of noise. It needs to be a constant background noise such that any one sound is mashed up with any other sound into a meaningless wall of sound. This means that music doesn’t really fit the bill and can be a distraction for creativity.* If you’re hearing lyrics or a cool riff, you’re trying to pick out the words or instrument and losing focus on what you’re meant to be… SQUIRREL! Better to have quiet library noise conditions.

But before you rush out and buy yourself a white noise generator or invite your child’s classmates over for a playdate, it is worth noting that this is pretty preliminary research. The study itself only used 65 participants. I’d want a lot of repeat experiments finding the same results before drawing any strong conclusions. It’s also worth noting that while there appears to be notable research on creativity (e.g. another paper from the same researcher), this aspect hasn’t been investigated further.

So while this research appears to confirm the anecdata of myself and other writers on Twitter, it’s hardly settled science.**

Hat tip: Jane Friedman.

* Although, many would argue that music can help creativity. I personally find it distracting. If I like the music, I’ll be listening to it and not focused. [Insert EDM or Pop joke here that doesn’t make me sound too old]. I’ve previously discussed a study showing music hurts your ability to be creative.

** Which is all too common in these studies on artistic endeavours. I’ve previously discussed how many wild claims are made from either marginal data, misrepresentations, or feelpinions.

Story Arcs

tumblr_lctxer4JSc1qcfl10

I’ve written before about plots and how there aren’t as many of them as you’d think – somewhere between 1 and 36 depending upon how you want to break them down. Often writers utilise some of the well-known plot structures, such as The Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat or The Plot Hole.

Some 70 years after Kurt Vonnegut proposed the idea of mapping story shapes for a rejected Masters thesis, some researchers decided it was time to crunch some data. They analysed 1,737 fiction novels to figure out how the story arcs are constructed. Let’s pretend there is a big difference between a plot and a story arc

The study used Project Gutenberg – i.e. public domain works – and the results suggest that there are only really six story arcs:

Fall-rise-fall: ‘Oedipus Rex’, ‘The Wonder Book of Bible Stories’, ‘A Hero of Our Time’ and ‘The Serpent River’.

Rise-fall: ‘Stories from Hans Andersen’, ‘The Rome Express’, ‘How to Read Human Nature’ and ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’.

Fall-rise: ‘The Magic of Oz’, ‘Teddy Bears’, ‘The Autobiography of St. Ignatius’ and ‘Typhoon’.

Steady fall: ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘The House of the Vampire’, ‘Savrola’ and ‘The Dance’.

Steady rise: ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’, ‘Dream’, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ and ‘The Human Comedy’.

Rise-fall-rise: ‘Cinderella’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘Sophist’ and ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’.

The most popular stories have been found to follow the ‘fall-rise-fall’ and ‘rise-fall’ arcs.

Or for those that prefer to read graphs because it makes them feel intellectual:

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 8.22.03 PM.png

For those that just saw a bunch of squiggles in those graphs, what you are looking at is the story arc plotted over time for each story analysed. They’ve broken these into similar groups then added an average (the orange line). You can see how some of the story arcs follow the average more, whilst some types vary more. To see an individual story arc, they picked out Harry Potter as an example in the paper, but have the rest archived here (Project Gutenberg books) and here (a selection of classic and popular novels). As they note:

The entire seven book series can be classified as a “Rags to riches” and “Kill the monster” story, while the many sub plots and connections between them complicate the emotional arc of each individual book. The emotional arc shown here, captures the major highs and lows of the story, and should be familiar to any reader well acquainted with Harry Potter. Our method does not pick up emotional moments discussed briefly, perhaps in one paragraph or sentence (e.g., the first kiss of Harry and Ginny).

Harry Potter plot

It is interesting to see how close Vonnegut’s proposed shapes aligns with the research.

story arcs vonnegut

Source.

The above is from graphic designer Maya Eilam and can be viewed at her website.

Here is Vonnegut explaining the story shapes:

This is all nice and good, but why is this interesting? Well, aside from the study using my favourite statistical technique – principal components analysis – it shows that authors create, and the audience expects, structures that are familiar. The fact that two of the story arcs (rise-fall and fall-rise-fall) are the most common emphasises this point. Our ability to communicate relies in part upon a shared emotional experience, with stories often following distinct emotional trajectories, forming patterns that are meaningful and familiar to us. There is scope to play within the formula, but ultimately we desire stories that fit conventions.

So yes, there is no original art being made.

Word limits: or how to learn to stop writing and love the full stop

 

140-characters
Source

Every now and then I masochistically log onto Twitter to see what passes for civil discourse amongst the people trying to sell you stuff and those not quite racist enough to be booted to Gab. When I recently logged on, a couple of the authors I follow were updating their fans with their novel progress, or what was currently distracting them from writing.

What interested me about these updates was that several authors were talking about having to trim their draft by 50-65%. That’s right, authors who needed to hand in a 100,000 word manuscript to their publisher were having to trim 100-200,000 words from their novel.

Word limits are a funny thing. I’ve never had a problem being succinct, to the point that my editing usually involves added 15-20%. Yet these successful authors* are having to sit down with their editors to cull half their manuscript. And if we’re being honest, some successful authors** should have culled a lot more and saved their readers all that page skipping.

One of the good things that Twitter trains you to do, aside from teaching you that trolling people is perfectly okay, is how to express yourself succinctly in 140 280 characters. It forces you to practice creating a thought or sentence in a manner that may be foreign. For example, the complex phrase:

I disagree with your supposition as it is currently unsupported by any evidence, either presented by yourself or in the scientific literature, thus there is no reason for me to support your statements. I would also question how rational your supposition is, because despite the lack of evidence, there is no reason to suspect that there is any industry conspiracy trying to deny Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson an Oscar for Best Actor.

Can be replaced with:

Lol, moron!

This says everything that is needed and doesn’t dance around the topic. Conversely, the reply to this can be shortened from:

Whilst you are allowed to disagree with me, my opinion still stands. I cannot provide a summary of the relevant scientific literature at this time, but this is information that is readily understood and referenced in the literature. Thus I will endevour to provide a few examples when I am able to, but in the meantime I’d invite you to read further on the topic, as I suspect that you will agree with me once you have. I will admit, however, that the literature on this topic is currently inaccessible due to paywall restrictions, thus this unsourced blog post will have to suffice until such time as the academic publishing model is reformed.

Can be replaced with:

Well screw you and the horse you road up on.

The trick is to start with what your key points are and not overuse exposition to explain those points. The 140 280 character limit can help with this a lot.

In the meantime, if you aren’t a fan of See Mike Draw, I suggest you become one now.

* Maybe that is why they are successful authors and I’m still in that emerging author category. Perhaps it is time to write double the amount I need.

** Obviously not the authors I follow.

How to write suspense

'Oh-oh!... The tempo of the background music just changed.'

TL/DW = the unknown.

  1. Limit the point of view so the reader has limited information.
  2. Choose the right setting to limit the known.
  3. Style and form can be used to mess with the conveying and pacing of information.
  4. Dramatic irony can be used to reveal some information to the reader that the characters don’t know.
  5. Cliffhangers can be used… If you also like coming up with implausible resolutions to them.

creating-suspense-using-gen

See also: http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-conferencesevents/nine-tricks-to-writing-suspense-fiction

The Hero’s Journey

Ever thought that Harry Potter’s adventures shared a lot in common with Luke Skywalker’s? Ever thought that Simba and Neo were soul mates? Can you believe I just used the term soul mates?

The reason so many of the stories we know and love feel familiar is because of one of the most popular narrative structures writers like to use. The Hero’s Journey is explained below using Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Matrix, Spiderman, The Lion King, and The Lord of the Rings. Worth also seeing how this structure fits into the 6 Story Arcs.

herosjourney10

Source: https://venngage.com/blog/heros-journey/

How to Write an FAQ

faq-2

Most companies and organisations have an FAQ page these days. What should be a chance to address Frequently Asked Questions often turns into a telling display of the values the company or organisation holds. A lot can be gleaned from the FAQ, and not just opening times and how many health code violations they have accumulated.

Recently I was looking for local martial arts facilities and came across an FAQ page that painted the organisation in a bad light. This isn’t the only poorly written FAQ I’ve come across, but I’ll use some quotes from it as an example.

What you don’t include says as much as what you do include.

FAQs are meant to be about sharing information. Hey, we’re a friendly organisation, just letting you know a bit more about us. So when you avoid sharing information you come across as deceptive as a used car salesman, or as useless as a Scottish underwear store.

How much does training cost?
We do not have contracts or direct debit arrangements; you simply pay the fees to your Branch Instructor at the beginning of each calendar month. You do not pay any fees for months in which you do not train. Our monthly training fees are probably the lowest on average for any mainstream martial art school in Australia.

So, those fees would be how much again?

By not actually including the pricing people can only assume that the fees are ridiculously high, or that they want you to sign over your soul as payment. At least they don’t straight up ask for your firstborn.

Obviously the answer was intended to convey that the fees were competitive to similar services, and that they have easy payment options. They probably didn’t include the pricing because it probably varies by dojo and class sizes. But by not putting these competitive prices in the FAQ it gives the impression that a guy with a curled up moustache will con you into signing up to a ski resort timeshare, while also pressuring you to join up and pay exorbitant fees.

Lesson: be transparent.

What you do say says a lot about you.

If you are a relaxed organisation or business you might include some joke Q&As. If you are friendly you might include some oversharing information to appear personable – or possibly unhinged if you go too far. If you are a jerk then you won’t be able to help yourself.

Can I compete in tournaments?
No. [Our martial art] is a traditional martial art, not a martial sport. We train to perfect technique for real self-defence applications, not for point-scoring or competitions. We believe that, as opposed to the sports approach, the traditional art approach builds physically stronger and more mentally confident practitioners.

So, other martial arts suck?

Nothing makes you sound like a prat more than belittling others…

I’m doing this to help. Not to be a prat. Honest.

Obviously you want to promote your organisation or business, and obviously you think your organisation or business is better than others. But there are ways to do that without walking over to the competitor’s place and taking a dump in the middle of the floor.

This answer could have been phrased in many ways. They could have suggested that their martial art is a good base for moving onto sports applications, perhaps name drop some members who have done that. They could have just left the answer at stating the two are quite different styles of the same martial art, and they focus on the self-defence style. Instead they couldn’t help but stick the boot in and suggest the other styles are crap.

Lesson: don’t be a dick.

How you say something says a lot about you.

There are several ways to say the same thing. There are several ways to skin a cat. If you decide to skin that cat by starting from the tail down, it says one thing, whilst starting once the cat is dead says something else. What the hell did that cat ever do to you anyway?

Can I cross-train in other martial arts?
No. [Our martial art] is a traditional martial art, so all members are expected to show the traditional loyalty to a single master instructor… Bear in mind that our general philosophy is that it is better to learn one art, and learn it extremely well, than to learn several arts to a lower level.

So, I should phone you before I make any decisions? Do I pledge my fealty in writing or by polishing your shoes with my tongue?

What was obviously meant to be a diplomatic answer about the rise of mixed martial arts (MMA) and people learning multiple skills, comes off as a decree about slavishly devoting your soul to this martial art and the master. How dare you be unfaithful!

The mindset of telling someone what they can and can’t do in the hours they don’t spend at this dojo is that of a manipulative bully. You will obey. You will conform. And we’re doing it for your benefit, so you will take our abuse and love us for it. You kinda expect them to have a lesson listed on how to be abusive to your spouse or partner somewhere else on the website.

They could have stated that most students don’t cross train. They could have paraphrased some Liam Neeson, ‘You will learn a particular set of skills. Skills you will acquire over years of dedicated training. Skills that will make you awesome at breaking boards.’ Instead they showed themselves to be exactly the sort of people you don’t want to learn martial arts from.

Lesson: don’t be a dick.

Hope that helps.

How to commit the perfect murder to paper: Advice from David Thomas, aka Tom Cain

David Thomas’, aka Tom Cain, first novel

I’m not a fan of The Daily Fail. They really do seem to swim in the shallow end of the wading pool of intelligence. That said, today they featured an article from a very good novelist, someone with whom I’ve had some interesting conversations: David Thomas / Tom Cain. So like any good blogger, I’ve stolen the article and reposted it here. Enjoy!

All over the world, on countless flights, heading to an infinite number of sun-loungers people are burying their heads in stories about secret agents, serial killers, ace detectives, evil villains and sexy heroines.

Thrillers are a huge business. They make up about a third of all books sold, and 60 per cent of them are bought by women.

For the very top writers, the rewards are astonishing. In 2009, James Patterson signed a four-year, 17-book deal worth almost £100 million. At the peak of Da Vinci Code mania, Dan Brown was making more than £50 million a year.

For every one of those megastars, of course, there are hundreds of professional thriller writers who just about make it pay – even a best-selling paperback in the UK, shifting 100,000 copies won’t earn much above £50,000 in royalties – and thousands of wannabes. I’m lucky enough to come in the ‘make it pay’ category. So I know what the job entails. And trust me, it isn’t easy.

One Monday morning in June 2006 my literary agent sent out a book proposal to publishers: the first 150 pages of a thriller called The Accident Man that I’d written under the pseudonym Tom Cain. The book had a very simple, high-concept premise. Its hero, Sam Carver, was the man who killed Princess Diana. Her name appeared nowhere in the book. But on the night of August 31, 1997, Carver makes a black Mercedes saloon crash in Paris.

He’s been told the Merc’s passenger is a terrorist. But of course it’s actually a woman – the most famous woman in the world.

By lunchtime on Wednesday, I’d received a six-figure offer for the UK rights to the book and a sequel and Hollywood bought an option on the film rights.

Before you even try to write a thriller, take a good look at how other people have done it. It looked like an overnight success, but I’d spent two years producing one useless draft after another. My agent made it perfectly clear to me that I’d made a bundle of rookie mistakes. My plot didn’t hold together. My writing was hopelessly cluttered with unnecessary descriptions of Parisian streets and buildings as I tried to stuff all my endless research down on to the page.

The characters weren’t believable and the one the agency boss liked best – Carver’s love-interest, a Russian girl called Alix – was killed in the second act. The only crumb of comfort the agency boss could offer me was: ‘I never quite hated it enough to stop reading.’

In the end, we managed to fix all the problems. But in 25 years as a journalist and author, during which I’d written countless articles, edited three magazines and published half-a-dozen non-fiction books, nothing had been as difficult as writing a half-decent thriller.

But what if you want to write a thriller of your own? Here are ten tips that I would give to anyone who dreams of seeing their book piled up in airport bookstores . . .

1) Study the masters…

Before you even try to write a thriller, take a good look at how other people have done it. Read every book you can get your hands on, but watch great TV series and movies, too. The Accident Man was hugely influenced by the way the writers of 24 kept multiple storylines running simultaneously, each with its own cliffhanger, so there was always someone, somewhere, in desperate trouble. 24 was relentless, it never for one moment let you relax. And you always wanted more.

2) …but don’t overdose on them

I devoured Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books. I tried to imitate his terse, punchy, bone-dry style. The result was garbage. Then I realised that Lee writes the way he does because that’s how he naturally expresses himself. So I went back to the way I write naturally, and it made a huge difference. Your book will work best if it’s told in your voice.

3) Structure, structure, structure…

Property is all about location, thrillers are all about structure. Everything has to fit together with the precision of a Swiss watch, powered by a coiled spring. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of The Jackal is a masterpiece of construction. I once drew a chart on a couple of sheets of A2 paper that consisted of a scene-by-scene analysis of Jackal, showing which characters appeared when, and how Forsyth balanced character development, plot and action over the course of the book. It really helped me understand the structural skeleton beneath the flesh and blood of the words.

4) Show, don’t tell

Always make your point through action and dialogue, rather than exposition. At the beginning of The Accident Man I had a few paragraphs explaining that Sam Carver was an assassin who created fatal ‘accidents’. An American publisher said: ‘Nice idea, but it would be much better if we could see him do it.’ So I wrote a new opening scene in which he killed a people trafficker by sabotaging his helicopter using a miniature spanner, a hacksaw and two blobs of Blu-Tack. So we saw Carver at work. Better.

Some thrillers are whodunits: the hero arrests the bad guy. Some are action thrillers: the hero kills the bad guy. Either way, you’re going to be thinking of new ways to kill people and cool weapons to kill them with

5) It’s the people, stupid

Stieg Larsson thought his Millennium Trilogy was all about the sexism and corruption at the rotten heart of Swedish society. But the millions who devoured The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo couldn’t care less about that. They just fell in love with an emaciated, autistic computer genius called Lisbeth Salander. It’s the characters in a book – and that means the villains, lovers and supporting cast, too – that make it work. So if you ever think, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a thriller,’ make sure you’ve got great characters for it too.

6) Grab them by the throat and their minds will follow

If you don’t grab your readers’ attention in the opening chapter, they’ll find another book. Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity has one of the all-time great opening sequences: a man, fished from the Mediterranean, unaware of who or what he really is, unknowingly possessed of all the deadly skills of a CIA assassin. The men from Hollywood threw away 90 per cent of what Ludlum wrote in the Bourne trilogy. But they kept that opening and it gave them a billion-dollar franchise.

7) Think like a killer

Some thrillers are whodunits: the hero arrests the bad guy. Some are action thrillers: the hero kills the bad guy. Either way, you’re going to be thinking of new ways to kill people and cool weapons to kill them with. So clip grisly news stories. Read books about real killers. Go on the gun-nut channels on YouTube. And read books by Patricia Cornwell and Jonathan Hayes. They’re professional forensic pathologists. Dead bodies are, quite literally, their business.

8) Count the bullets in the gun

If you want your readers to believe your story, get the details right. Either write about what you know, or do your research properly. Don’t have your hero firing 15 bullets from a Walther PPK if it can only hold nine. And speaking of James Bond’s favourite gun, Ian Fleming pulled off a brilliant trick when he created 007. The idea of a cool, sophisticated, lady-killing assassin, touring the world On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, bumping off bad guys who wanted to rule the world was as much a fantasy as Harry Potter playing Quidditch. But because the details were so brilliantly observed – Bond’s cars, his Sea Island cotton shirts, the exotic locations – it all felt completely real.

9) Always think of Option C

The fun part of thriller writing is getting your characters into dangerous situations and then getting them out again. An editor once gave me a great tip: put your protagonist in a situation where they have to choose between two options, A and B. Then write option C. In one of my books, Carver is on holiday in the Greek islands with a girl. They’re having lunch. The restaurant is attacked by gunmen. The girl is shot. Carver just escapes, after a frantic chase. He stops for a second to think. Should he go after the gunmen, or should he get the hell off the island? That’s options A and B. Then the phone rings. He takes the call. It’s the girl – the one who’s just been shot dead. And that’s Option C.

10) If you’re a man, ditch the dumb blondes and tough girls

You have a male lead, and chances are he’s going to want a girl. And she’s going to be sexy, sultry and splendidly beddable. That’s fine – being ravished by the hunky hero works for girls too. Just don’t make her a cliché. Very few men now dare write a ditsy, screaming blonde. But many dream up superchicks who are as tough and deadly as any man. Most women don’t see themselves that way. Strong, yes. Gorgeous, certainly. But intelligent, complex and vulnerable, too, if you don’t mind. And if you’re a woman, bin the bad guys and the goody-goodies. Men are more complicated than that.

…but finally, and most importantly

Forget the rules . . . except one. The first four, clunkingly tabloid words of The Da Vinci Code, ‘Renowned curator Jacques Saunier’ tell you that Dan Brown can’t write for toffee. There’s not a character in the book that’s close to being interesting and the ‘facts’ on which the whole thing depends have been debunked. Yet somehow it’s is completely unputdownable. So in the end, the only rule that really counts is: keep the reader reading.

Revenger’, Tom Cain’s latest Sam Carver novel is published in paperback by Corgi, £6.99. ‘Ostland’, by David Thomas, is published by Quercus, £16.99

Word limits

140-charactersWord limits are a funny thing. I’ve never had a problem being succinct, in fact I can be too brief in my writing. Yet other writers are known for sitting down with editors to cull half their manuscript. There are other writers still that should have sat down with an editor and culled half their manuscript and saved the readers all that page skipping.

This is one of the reasons to like Twitter. It forces you to practice creating a thought or sentence in a manner that may be foreign. For example, the complex phrase:

I disagree with your supposition as it is currently unsupported by any evidence, either presented by yourself or in the scientific literature, thus there is no way you can sway my position.

Can be replaced with:

Lol, moron!

This says everything that is needed and doesn’t dance around the topic. Conversely the reply to this can be shortened from:

Whilst you are allowed to disagree with me, my opinion still stands. I cannot provide a summary of the relevant scientific literature at this time, but this is information that is readily understood and referenced in the literature. Thus I will endevour to provide a few examples when I am able to, but in the meantime I’d invite you to read further on the topic, as I suspect that you will agree with me once you have.

Can be replaced with:

Well screw you and the horse you road up on.

The trick is to start with what your key points are and not overuse exposition to explain those points. The 140 character limit can help with this a lot.

In the meantime, if you aren’t a fan of See Mike Draw, I suggest you become one now.