08/23/14

Tricks of the mind


Reading

Reading involves bit of trickery. Mental trickery. It engages the imagination and fools us into thinking we are there within the book: nestled beside the author, or better yet, beside the characters. Immersed in the created world, floating through it like a ghost in a haunted house movie, or perhaps in the imagined flesh, interacting on the mental stage.

We ask ourselves how we would play the scene, how we would decide, take action, engage the other characters. How would we behave at the dinner table with Becky and Rawdon? Would we defend Nancy from the rages of Bill Sykes? Would we warn Caesar on the steps of the forum? How would we greet Paul Atreides in a dusty sietch? Would we hide or expose Jean Valjean?

Our minds put us there, let us explore and build the what-if world of our own thoughts. Every paragraph opens another possibility, and our minds add it to the infinite number of scenarios we play out in them.

We imagine the walls, the furniture, the coolness of the water, the scent of spice on the breeze, the rustle of the leaves as we snake along the forest trail. Our brains get into high gear, populating the microcosm and making it real. We feel the stiffness of the starched collar, the smoothness of the velvet, the coolness of the rain as it soaks our clothes, the heat of the sun on the beach. We see the wallpaper as the sun moves across it, taste the soup served at the table, smell the lavender as we walk in the fields.

Imagination is such a powerful force that it can affect us like the real thing. We get a jolt from the coffee the hero drinks, we get aroused by the imagined sexual touch of the heroine. Our own hearts beat faster as the protagonist runs away in fear from the killer, our hair prickles when she enters the darkened room to confront the danger.

As A Scribbler’s Dreams says:

The curse of a voracious reader is having an amazing imagination. Having an amazing imagination that you feed by reading more and more books and picturing each world vividly. From the power vibrating in the Elder Wand to the smoke curling from Smaug’s nostrils, you, the reader, can picture each world and be sucked in – the only problem is that you can’t physically go there and talk to Liz Bennet or Peter Pevensie or Percy Jackson, no matter how hard you wish.

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06/18/14

The Strange World of E-Writers


Pulp magazinesThere’s always been a place for amateur or new writers to present their efforts and hope to see print: publications where you could submit your work and hope the editors found it good enough to print in an upcoming issue. That’s how some famous writers got their start, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s: Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov and many more. But all of these depended on getting past the gatekeeper, someone like John Campbell: an editor who set standards – slim as they may sometimes be – and wrangled clumsy prose into shape for publication.

And then there have been self-publishing houses that can eschew the editor and simply print your book as you submit it – as long as you paid the bill to do so. This type of publishing house is still operating and plays an important role in getting many local and personal or family books into print. Many authors, frustrated at not being able to find a national publisher, has resorted to self-publishing. The wonderful book of local oral history, Butchers, Bakers and Building the Lakers used this method to get into print.*

Self-publishing runs the gamut from quality books like this to family genealogies, first novels and collections of atrociously sappy poems. It’s not simply self-printing: it’s self-editing, self-layout and self-design (unless you hire a professional to do it for you – there’s still a role for freelance editors and designers). Still, it has a respectable place in the history of publishing.

I remember in the 1950s and 60s there were ads in magazines for poetry books – submit your poem and an amount of money and you would get back a book of poems by aspiring writers like yourself, the printing paid for by the collective authors. No editor, just a compositor and printer. And usually awful stuff between the covers. But who cared about the rest if you saw your name in print?

Then came the internet and a new venue for self publishing: the website. And from that sprang the blog. But most of these efforts have been limited in scope and size. Almost no one reads a novel online, and would-be authors have had to either break their work into smaller parts or bundle it into a downloadable file for offline printing and reading. With the dwindling public attention span, it’s hard to get readers to stick around a website to read even something as long and rambling as these blog posts, let alone a whole book.

The Net also gave a boost to fan fiction because it allowed fans to collectivize and publish online. Like many other forms of writing, fan fiction has a long history. I remember many years ago, in the 70s, writing fantasy short stories in the world created by Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series. Never saw print, mind you, but it’s interesting and entertaining to work within the universe created by another writer – and great practice for the wannabe novelist.

In a similar vein, the original Dungeons and Dragons gamified a fantasy universe for players to both participate in and develop their own, personal story lines – some of which led to fan books and magazine stories.

Now, with the arrival of e-readers, those authors have a new platform, a new audience, and what a world it has spawned.

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01/21/14

For want of a nail…


Big SwitchBought a book at Loblaws (of all places) this week, one by Harry Turtledove: The Big Switch. It’s one of his many alternative history novels, about what might have happened if things had happened a certain way – a different way from what actually transpired – in the opening years of World War Two.

He’s written several in this vein and they’ve all been generally well received. I’ve liked what I’ve read of him in the past.

Many authors have taken up this sort of speculative fiction, although none as frequently as Turtledove. What would have happened if Hitler had invaded England? If the USA had not entered the war? If Germany had developed the atomic bomb? If India and the colonies had used the war to spark a rebellion against British rule? What if the USSR sent troops and materiel to Spain to help the republican cause?

I suspect every major theme in WWII has been explored in such speculative novels.

Every event in history is open to this sort of what-if debate. Since at least the 1950s, science fiction writers have been giving us alternate reality stories – that awkward neologism, Uchronia – where timeline-changing events have shaped a universe just like ours, but made different because of different choices or results. It’s a rich field, and great intellectual exercise.

Alternate history fiction offers different sorts of challenges to fiction writers, as opposed to say, scifi where writers can create their own new worlds. And for readers too, because the skeins have to be both imaginative and close enough to reality to make sense. Orson Scott Card’s Redemption of Christopher Columbus, for example, offers an alternate history world where Columbus is shipwrecked in the Americas, and rises to political power there. Fascinating stuff.

More recently, the TV series Fringe explored the alternate-universe concept through five seasons of entertaining shows. (Well, entertaining at least through the three-and-a-half seasons we’ve watched so far).

It’s always fun to explore the ideas, and to read what intellectual landscapes others have created around them. Such speculation is even captured in colloquial proverbs often called for want of a nail:

For want of a naile the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost.
George Herbert: Outlandish Proverbs, 1640

Those readers who are also M*A*S*H fans will recall the episode in season two called, “For Want of a Boot.” Shakespeare aficionados will think of King Richard shouting “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in Act V, Sc. 4 of Richard III.

Small changes can have ripple effects that run through to shape the larger history. or as Wikipedia says it, “a failure to anticipate or correct some initially small dysfunction leads by successively more critical stages to an egregious outcome.”
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01/14/14

Brands, Buzz & Going Viral


Municipal WorldMy third book for Municipal World, Brands, Buzz & Going Viral, has just been published as part of the Municipal Information Series. I received my author’s copies yesterday.

I am very proud of this book; it took a lot of work to research and write. I enjoyed writing it. I hope my municipal readers find it both informative and interesting.

I am also delighted to be able to share my knowledge and experience with others in the municipal governance realm across Canada. It’s a humbling experience to be among the respected authors and experts in MW’s stable – authors whose books I have bought and read ever since I was first elected, a decade ago.

It is nice to be able to add a voice from Collingwood to their ranks, so show the rest of Canada’s municipal politicians and staff that we’re not just a pretty place to live; that we can be leaders in the areas of governance, that we can be be forerunners for ideas and knowledge.

Brands, Buzz & Going Viral is subtitled “A sourcebook of modern marketing strategies, tips and practices to promote your municipality.” Unlike my previous two books, it includes considerable material culled from printed and online sources: quotes with links and references back to them, and a healthy bibliography at the back.

BB&GV covers a wide array of related topics. While working on the book, I purchased and read dozens of books on marketing, advertising, public relations, branding, destination marketing, storytelling, communication and social media. I also went online and read thousands of articles and posts on the sites of experts, practitioners, and professional organizations. I listened to podcasts, watched slide shows and video lectures. I subscribed to email newsletters about PR and marketing.

Along the way, I learned about such topics as gamification, advocacy, cohorts and influencers, content marketing, infographics, newsjacking, viral marketing, reputation management, corporate social responsibility, crisis management, integrated marketing, rebranding, market research and persuasion. Some of which I had experience in, but I renewed my own knowledge as I researched. I hope I am able to apply my new knowledge to help formulate ideas and strategies for our town’s future marketing and economic development strategies.

The folder of PDFs printed from websites I read as resource material for the book is 2GB in size, with more than 1,100 files. (Contact me if you are interested in this source material.)

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11/27/13

The Weird World of Plotto


PlottoI came across Plotto a few years back – references to it in other works, rather than the actual book. it sounded strange, complex and wildly over-reaching. I couldn’t find one – it was long out of print. It wasn’t until I got my own copy that I realized how really odd, clumsy – and delightful – it is.

Plotto was first published in 1928, and not reprinted until recently as far as I can tell, which is why it’s not been readily available to read and comment on. But it has been lurking in the background, a collector’s item. The young Alfred Hitchcock was one of the early adopters of the work. So was Earle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason books. It’s been  referred to, with a combination of reverence, humour and skepticism, by many other writers about writing.

In 2011, it was reprinted by Tin House Books, and finally made available to the general public again. My recently-received copy is the 2012 second printing (another edition was released in 2011 by Norton Creek Press). And I’m gobsmacked by it.

What’s all the fuss?

Plotto was the brainchild of a wildly prolific, early 20th century pulp writer, William Cook (he also wrote screenplays for silent films). Cook was a writing machine: he pumped out the paperbacks, sometimes more than one a week. But he was also passionate about the process of writing itself. He made it his goal to catalogue all types of plot and create a mechanism for writers to be able to create their own novels by selecting from a menu of plots, activities and characters.

And we was obsessive about it, drilling down deep into levels of minute detail. On its own site, Tin House says:

In the first stage, Cook demonstrates that “a character with particular traits . . . finds himself in a situation . . . and this is how it turns out.” Following this, each Master Plot leads the reader to a list of circumstances, distributed among twenty different Conflict Groups (these range from “Love’s Beginning,” to “Personal Limitations,” to “Transgression”). Finally, in Character Combinations, Cook offers an extensive index of protagonists for what serves as an inexhaustible reservoir of suggestions and inspiration.

Once you have the skeletal structure chosen, all you need to do is fill in the blanks – the verbs, the adjectives, the dialogue, and voila: your own novel. Sort of. It’s not that easy, of course, but Cook wanted to take the guesswork out of the cogitation part of the formative process that often led to writer’s block. So he catalogued and indexed and outlined like crazy. And ended up with a combination encyclopedia and rebus puzzle.

The result is stunning – and confusing. As Brainpickings tells us:

In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster. In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.

That’s a lot more than the three or four I learned about in school! And more than the 36 basic plot situations the French writer, Georges Polti, described.*

Here’s a sample (see here for some follow-up numbers):

Plotto sample

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10/24/13

Words, words, words


Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

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