Wednesday, 17 October 2012


I happened across this word the other day and it hit my funny receptors.

Sympathectomy – surgery to remove that completely superfluous and useless emotion...sympathy.

Sympahty? Ugh. It trips you over and gets you empathising with other people. Next thing you know, you’re taking time off your important and busy schedule and... listening to people, possibly even helping them. Economic rationalists will argue strongly about the resultant loss of productivity. And subsequently refer you to the nearest surgeon.

I thought I’d stumbled into a Dilbert-esque formula for creating winners in the rat-race. Surgery for CEOs to remove even the slightest possibility they base decisions on anything other than monetary concerns.

Darn it! Wrong again. It’s actually a procedure to remove a part of the Sympathetic Nervous System (the system that looks after things far too trivial for our conscious attention to deal with. Yanno, useless stuff such as heart rate, blood pressure, responses to dangerous stimuli and the immensely important actions of blushing and sweating.)
 A sympathectomy is actually a little more mundane, performed on those who blush and sweat too easily – or believe they do. It involves removing some nerves to cut down on cheeks that redden too quickly and underarms that could house a few fish.
Excessive blushing or sweating? Actually, that sounds kind of like a sensitive person to me. Prone to nervousness, anxiety. Maybe a nervous tic or two. Easily embarrassed. Takes on other’s emotions. Maybe gives in a little too readily. Tries to see it from another’s point of view. Everybody's point of view. Who'd want to be like that? Yep, an excess of sympathy/ empathy there. What a ditherer! Definately a candidate for the procedure to turn them into cold-hearted sharks.
No thanks. I think creative people need an abundance of empathy or sympathy. Writers need to see a conflict from many angles to make a multi-layered story. Good stories need heroes/ines the reader can immediately identify with. A great villain too. A great villain isn;t a shadowy figure who does nasty things randomly, and makes the protags life a misery. No, their goals need to clash with the protagonsists’ goals. The better a writer can flesh out everybody’s motives, the more lively the story. And writers need to dither, to experiment, to show sympathy and understanding and empathy for all.

Our softer sides might slow us down in the rat race, but as they say, the trouble with the rat race is that the rat wins.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

I"'ve got an idea for a story!"

"Great! Write it."

I always say this as enthusiastically as possible. Mainly becuase I don't want to discourage anybody but also because it sounds much nicer than "So what?"

I believe that everybody has an idea for a story. Ideas for stories are as rare as the ability to take air in through our noses. Actually, they're more common, because some people can't breathe nasally. Recounting tales is older than printing, older than writing, as old as communication itself. It's something we do everyday to help make sense of the world. We narrate our lives, directly and thorugh metaphor. We invent lives and narrate them. However, only a small handful of people tell stories that others actually want to pay to read.

I've heard people say that they had thought about a story about a school for wizards years before Rowling did, except she beat them to it, and look at how well she did with it. As if simple timing was what stood between them and the entire Harry Potter empire.

Which is rubbish. Sure, they might have had that idea. But on what planet does a story require just one single idea?

A story consisting of a single idea would be "Once upon a time there was a boy wizard called Harry who went to a wizarding school and defeated an evil guy who also happened to have killed his parents. The end." And I lied. That snippet's comprised of more than one idea. 

A story consists of millions of ideas. Ideas about characters and situations and complications and resolutions. About personalities and voices. About tension and drama and humour. Every word choice is itself an idea about effectiveness and economy.

Luckily, ideas are generous and gregarious and breed prolifically. Ideas are everywhere, and ideas come to those who are patient, and even those who are not. Some ideas are fantastic, many are not. I guess the art is to discriminate between them.

But what I've learnt since making the decision to take creative writing seriously is the more I encourage ideas, the more freely they flow. Ideas are social creatures, they attract more ideas. They like to party in my brain and are amenable to being pinned-down on paper. And the more ideas I have, the more confident I feel to cull the duds.

So, have you got an idea for a story? Well, great ... write it. And keep going.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Hooks and friends

Who are our friends? They’re the people we have an emotional connection with. The stronger the connection, the stronger and more resilient that bond is. Hardly rocket science.

Take the example of two school bullies, swaggering and scanning the yard for a victim to harass (their favourite pastime). “Look at that dumb bastard,” one mutters, flicking his head in the direction of the small boy, playing alone. “Yeah, hate his f***ing guts,” the second sneers.

The bullies might deny it, (“Emotions? Pppht” I can hear them snort at the mere suggestion). But they share identical motivations and emotions. In their case, they despise anybody who differs from them, and have an urge to feel powerful by giving somebody a hard time.

It’s what binds them and makes a point of difference between them and everybody else. They’re hardly likely to feel a connection with, say, a teacher who tells them how nasty they are being, and nags about 'what was that poor boy doing to you?' The teacher doesn’t get it, does she? And their shared contempt for the teacher strengthens their connection.

It’s those who ‘get’ us, those whom we ‘get’ in return, that we choose to spend time with.

(It operates at many levels We pick out those we want to get to know. We identify them before they’ve even opened their mouths. Cues such as their clothing, body language, facial expressions and the company they keep. All tiny signs that scream volumes about the sort of person they may be... decisions made within about 15 seconds)

It’s exactly the same with fiction. We choose books on the basis of visual cues on the cover (all strategically placed there by marketing folk who have researched all of this) and on recommendations (ie, the company these books keep).

But it’s the emotional connection we have with the character determines whether  we want to read on, whether we care enough to feel their journey is important enough for us to want to read on.  

When the reader ‘gets’ the character, relates to their dilemma enough to want to know what happens next is when the story hooks them. And this is meant to happen within the first few pages or so.

So the challenge for the writer is to provide enough cues about the characters’ motivations and personality early enough so the reader can relate.

So... what hooks you as a reader?

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Always learning stuff

On Sunday, I was fortunate to attend a 3 hour seminar on writing for children and young adults. Australian writing royalty, Melina Marchetta and Morris Gleitzman each conducted a 90 minute session. Totally worth the entry fee to the Melbourne Writers festival.

 I admit to a writerly crush on Melina. Looking For Alibrani kick started the YA novel scene in this country, with her intelligent and ambitious MC, Josie Alibrandi. The book has not been out of print for the past twenty years, and was made into a feature movie, and on high school English syllabuses (syllabi?) all over the country.  I loved that the MC was articulate and scholarly but not in the least bit nerdy. It touched on multiple issues, such as an unforgiving small community, the stigma of illegitimacy, her sense of cultural identity, and the change in her relationship with her mother (especially when the 17 year old girl acted like a total baby at the possibility of Mama dating). But this is not a review post.

I was delighted to learn that Melina’s creative style is similar to mine. She stews on her plots for ages, and does not plan. She lets her characters talk to her, the character, their voice, is always the starting point for her stories (Me too! Me too! It’s not psychosis, it’s the creative process). She writes and rewrites, and with each subsequent draft more plot points are revealed to her (I’m glad I’m not the only one). She hates writing action (not an issue in Alibrandi, but certainly a required skill for her fantasy trilogy). Her process is to start with a bland, factual description of the action (X punches Y, then gets hit from behind by Z. Z trips and X runs for cover etc) and gradually builds up layers, adding tone and pacing and other features which convey a sense of urgency.  

The few times I’ve written action scenes, they have unfolded in the same way. But I’m not sure I’ve got them right.

She revealed a great tip... which I shall share with you. It’s all to do with consonants. Words featuring mainly soft consonant sounds (f, s, sh, l, m, n, p, and the soft th – as in ‘thing’, and the soft forms of g, j and c) are gentle. Words with ‘hard’ consonant sounds (the hard c, g, j, b,d, g, ch, t, and th as in ‘this’) are prickly and challenging. Marchetta culls soft words from her action scenes and substitutes them with words with a higher proportion of harsh sounds. She does the opposite in the slower, more reflective scenes. The sound and feel of the words contributes to the overall mood and tone of the piece. What a great way to add tension to an action scene – include uncomfortable words, rather than those to savour. Marshmallow is soft, candy is hard. Melt - softer, crunch - harder. Soothe - soothing. Judge – prickles the conscious. Go on, say them aloud.

This reminded me of a piece of research I recall from undergrad psych... (I don’t know if Marchetta based her approach on it) ... when reading silently, the larynx still has a level of activity to it, suggesting we sound out some of the keywords, even if we are not aware of doing so. So we ‘feel’ the words in our throats when reading. The harsh ones therefore physically unsettle us when reading.
It’s a lot of work, but next time I write an action scene, I’ll definitely edit in terms of sound tones.

 And on the subject of soothing, on way home I bought gourmet chocolates for the darlings, as compensation for abandoning them. Still... it gave me an excuse to duck into a Chocolaterie at Melbourne Central. What a shame!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Tolkien vs. Lewis

I recently read that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were both members of Inkblots, a writing group, when they were both dons in  Cambridge in the 40's.

Oh - to have been a fly on the wall!

And the goss is...Tolky was so scathing about an early draft of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, that Lewis contemplated dropping the project altogether. (And aren't we glad he didn't).

There was a lot that JRR thought sucked, but he particularly hated that Father Christmas made an appeareance in Narnia.

Seems that Lewis grew a thick skin and told Tolkien to shove it (actually, he probably thanked Tolkien for his thoughtful input).

Having read it as a kid, I did not see anything wrong with Father Christmas dropping by into Narnia once eternal winter was thawing. And as for those cool gifts he gave the kids... I think Peter got short changed with a non-magical sword and shield, but Susan and Lucy did very well with their magical horn and cordial.

Looking at it now... Tolkien had a point. I mean, a story that's essentially a Christian allegory featuring beasts from classical mythology is already an unusual mash-up (from before the time mash-ups were invented)... but chucking in a figure from contemporary Western consumer culture is just... well, I wonder what he was on.

But it worked for my eight year old self, (and every other kid, it seems), so who am I to judge now that I'm an ex-kid? I guess the lesson here is to keep the crazy stuff in your kids' stories. They tend to enjoy stuff, we adults ruin it by over analysing.

And I wonder if CS ever suggested to JRR that perhaps an occasional word-cull/ darling slaughter might have... yanno.... made his story more readable?

Lewis: 1; Tolkien: 0.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Choosing a partner.

A bunch of American university students – freshies (the natural prey of the research student) – were given the chance to try a free dating service. Based on psychological profiling, the service promised to hook them up with their ideal partner.

Hey, it was the start of the year, they were new to the place, so it sounded like a great idea. Lots signed up.

They completed reams of paperwork about their views and opinions, and were duly assigned a date. So far so good. After their night out, they were asked a single question by the researchers: Did they want to see this person again?

Did I mention this was a psychological study? Well, that's code for there being a sneaky element to it. When they first signed up for it (in person, not on line, this was back in the 70’s yanno) a panel of judges hidden behind a screen rated each participant in terms of a single factor: how attractive they were.

(Hold on for a minute while I get this picture of geeky researchers surreptitiously rating younger peoples' attractiveness out of my mind. Ick.)

(And there is no way this would get ethics-panel approval these days)

And so what do you think was the most pertinent factor in determining how much a person wanted to see their date again?  Was it their wit? Their ambition? Their scintillating conversational ability? Their shared views of life?

None of the above. For both men and women, it was overwhelmingly how attractive their date was. Hotness rules.

It’s the kind of result I hoped would have been different.  But I'm kind of not surprised about. Ah, we humans are a predictable lot.

Brains: 0; Hormones: 1.

Ok, there's more to the psychology of romantic relationships than that... but not much. I'll save it for a later post.