Sunday, August 29, 2010

Homo Sapiens Scriberens -- What do Your Bookmarks Say About You?

Homo sapiens sapiens (modern men and women) and their close but improved relatives homo sapiens scriberens (modern writers) use tools.  The use of tools was, until recently, one of the things that marked us as human.  Now we know that chimps do it.  Octopi do it.  Even crows do it.

Nothing against chimps or octopi, of course.

And especially nothing against crows.

As a result of the crows, the bulk of humanity is questioning why they're not as good as crows, but we writers are too busy for that:  we've got tools that need using.  From quill (not from a crow, though) to pencil to pen to typewriter to computer to voice recognition and so on, we use tools to help us write.  The tools we use say something about us, whether we like it or not.

Often, the simplest tools are the best.  I had to cringe while I wrote that sentence;  I rely on my computer a great deal, and I have to admit it's not a simple tool.  But within the crowputer I use tools that are simple and effective for me, tools that simplify the tasks I want to accomplish.  I cannot imagine writing and revising without the ability to search for text, for instance.

For reading, a bookmark is a simple tool.  It can be made from almost anything, especially flat things.  A scrap of paper makes fine bookmark, and you can almost always find a scrap to serve the purpose.  What does a scrap say about you though?

You can buy decorative bookmarks or you can make your own.  Years ago I made a number of them by cutting rectangles of suitable size from old birthday and Christmas cards.  I find these bookmarks deficient in one important respect -- they don't tell me where on the page I stopped reading.  I should explain.

I often read several books at once, and some of them (usually non-fiction) might get put aside for a couple of months.  I have a strong dislike for reading a passage twice by mistake.  My rectangular bookmarks tell me which page, and which half of that page I stopped on:  the bookmarks are one-sided, and the illustrated side points to the page of interest; the bookmarks have a top and a bottom (even if it's subtle), so a right-side-up bookmark signals the top half of the page, an inverted one signals the bottom.

In order to increase my precision in marking the spot to restart reading, I developed this bookmark:  I rotate it to show an upright 1 for the top quarter, an upright 2 for the 2nd quarter down the page, etc.  It's alright, but I'm not really happy with it.

My best bookmark is a well-worn two-piece.  I've read a lot of books published with extensive notes, and all too often those notes are buried at the back of the book.  I prefer them to be in with the text on the same page, but that's relatively rare.  At first I used two bookmarks -- one for the text and another for the notes, but all too often one (usually the one for the notes) fell out while I was reading at the other bookmark.  I solved that by linking two bookmarks with a string.  The larger piece with the arrow marks my place in the text, and the best part is that it is accurate to the line!  I position that part so the arrow is pointing to right where I'm leaving off.  Crows like this bookmark the best.

The string sticks out of the top of the book so I can always find what page my bookmark is hiding on.  Here are some action photos!

What does this bookmark say about me?  That I'm serious about reading?  That I value function over form?  That I have too much time on my hands?  That I have a knack for making anything complicated?

I don't care what it says about me.  I care that it works.  Just as I think a car is for getting me and my crow from place to place rather than for impressing my oh-so-human neighbors,  I believe a writer's choice of tools is a personal decision best made with the goal of improving the writing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Botox Harmful to Writers

It's simply not true that Botox will make non-writer brains explode.  At least not that I've heard about.  But we're not here to talk about non-writers, are we?

Directly after reading Wendy's post last week (about yet another birthday passing), where she mentioned Botox as one of the things some people consider when they feel down about the aging process, I came across an intriguing writeup in Science News for a study of the effects that Botox treatments have on our emotions.

You may think of Botox as relaxing muscles in your face as a way to do away with frown lines. That doesn't sound so terrible. In truth, a Botox treatment paralyzes selected facial muscles. In a first-time treatment, these muscles are disabled for three to four months. While we say we're attacking "frown lines," what we really attacking are the muscles used to show negative emotions.

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Bear with me a little longer.

It turns out that the face doesn't just mirror our emotions, transmitting them to anyone with a view. Nope. Our brains sense our facial response to the initial emotion, and use the facial expression to reinforce the original emotion. It's not a one-way street where our brains makes our facial expressions -- our faces change our brains too. If our faces don't respond to an emotion, the emotion doesn't fully form, and flickers out like a candle in a bad draft.

Botox not only freezes our face; it freezes our emotional selves as well, at least when it comes to the negative emotions.

So (I told you -- here comes the writing part). As a writer are you willing to give up your ability to feel (and put on the page) the following; anger, aggravation, irritation, agitation, annoyance, grouchiness, grumpiness, crosspatch (I had to look this one up!), exasperation, frustration, rage, outrage, fury, wrath, hostility, ferocity, bitterness, hate, scorn, spite, vengefulness, dislike, resentment, disgust, revulsion, contempt, loathing, envy, jealousy, torment, sadness, suffering, agony, hurt, anguish, depression, despair, hopelessness, gloom, glumness, sadness, unhappiness, grief, sorrow, woe, misery, melancholy, disappointment, dismay, displeasure, shame, guilt, regret, remorse, neglect, alienation, isolation, loneliness, rejection, homesickness, defeat, dejection, insecurity, embarrassment, humiliation, insult, pity, sympathy, fear, horror, alarm, shock, fright, terror, panic, hysteria, mortification, nervousness, anxiety, tenseness, uneasiness, apprehension, worry, distress, and dread?

[Don't worry; I didn't come up with that list all by my lonesome. I copied it from wikipedia.]

It seems to me that you'd be in trouble without being able to fully utilize any of those emotions as you write. No jealous lovers, no hostile strangers, no contemptuous waiters, no terrors in dark alleys, no frustration at goals denied, no conflict.  (The Science News article talks about how this could negatively impact your real life, but we're talking about important stuff here.)

Have you ever frowned when your MC would? Have you ever gotten choked-up when something terribly sad happened to them? Have you ever been mortified by finding an awful grammar mistake after you sent out a writing sample? Of course you have -- because your face still works.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On Your (book)Mark, Get Set, Doh!

Reading sometimes gets interrupted by life, and bookmarks bring us back into the flow of our reading as rapidly as possible afterward.

We don't always get to break from our reading at a chapter break.  The phone, the doorbell, the kitchen fire -- all require us to put down the book more or less promptly.  In cases like these we may not even get to the end of the current sentence.  A ready bookmark slapped into the crease before closing ensures we'll be able to find where we left off without too much bother.  Even if we're reading other things in the meantime and we don't pick up that temporarily-abandoned book for weeks, we'll be alright.  Whew!

Sometimes life gets interrupted by life.  Okay, not sometimes -- all the time.  Too bad we don't have lifemarks.  Imagine you're driving to the grocery store when you realize you have a book you ordered waiting at your local bookstore.  You go to the bookstore and forget all about the groceries until later in the week when you finally figure out what's causing your entire family's synchronized stomach pains.

Lifemarks mean never forgetting what you meant to do next.  If you'd thrown down a lifemark at the turning, then you would have remembered to go for food after you stopped for your book.  Life is good.

Okay, that needs a little work.

Life is complex.  It's got multiple stories.  It doesn't always make sense and it won't wait for us.  It's constantly being interrupted, and things inevitably fall by the wayside as we neglect to pick up the pieces we dropped along the way.

Books (novels) are simple, even when they're complex.  They tell a single story even when they have multiple story lines.  They're told by a single person (the author) even when related by multiple narrators.  They are read in linear reader-time even when the story jumps back and forth in time.  They make sense even when they surprise.  They're in one piece, bound together so the reader never has to go looking for the next page.  The reader is there from the beginning right through to the end with no gaps, and has full control over the rate at which they read, whether they read at all, and if they want to re-read.  This is why bookmarks work as well as they do.

If reading is interrupted by life, use a bookmark.  If reading is interrupted by something in the novel itself... well, a bookmark won't help.  A novel that interrupts itself isn't lifelike; it's just broken.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The End is Near

We expect things to be wrapping-up as we near the end of a novel.  Usually we can tell when we're approaching the end of a book by a check of how many pages are left.  Even if you don't want to know, you can't help but receive messages from your eyes and hands about the relative thickness of pages already read on the left hand side, and pages remaining to be read on the right.  On e-readers you're given a running count or a progress bar to tell you where you are in the book.  You can't help but know that the end is approaching, and about how far off it is at any given time.

Except for the case of collected works, or more specifically, multiple novels presented in a single binding.  I'm currently reading "The House of Myrth" by Edith Wharton in a collection of four of her novels.  This is the first in the set, and while I can feel the acceleration of the (at least social) death-spiral of the main character, I don't know how many pages are left.  I don't know if the final resolution is just around the corner or if there are five more chapters of reduction in her circumstances to go before the end.

It's like reading half-blind in a way.  We still experience the normal course of the novel form:  beginning, middle, and end.  We can still sense the end approaching by the increasing pace and power of events.  But in a normal reading situation we also have a subliminal (if not conscious) feeling for how close the end is because we know how many pages are left.  The two measures reinforce each other, and they affect how we read.  I know that for myself, if I'm enjoying a book because of what's happening in it, I find myself reading faster, trying to reach the end.  If, on the other hand, I'm enjoying a book because I enjoy spending time with the characters, then I slow down my reading, trying to make it last.

Multiple novels bound together shut off one half of the information streams we have that signal how close to the end we are.  It affects how we read.  It can affect the perceived importance of story events, much like the feeling we experience cresting a false summit on a hike to the top of a mountain.

"Oh.  There's more," we say with some degree of disappointment.

I looked to see where the next novel starts, so I'd know approximately how much further I had to go in the current novel.  I didn't want to.  I like to be surprised.  But I couldn't resist.  I had started to guess the ending in earnest, and part of me scolded the other part for, perhaps, jumping the gun.  If I was only halfway through, then it was much too early to start thinking I knew how it was going to end.  Then again, there might have been only ten pages left -- I didn't know.  So before I knew what I was doing I was eyeing a relatively thin set of pages between thumb and forefinger.  I didn't count.  I didn't look at page numbers and do the math.  I let it be at "the end is not right around the corner, not is it too far." 

Then I said "shame on me" for looking ahead.

How do you handle reading the approaches to endings?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

This Book Sucks

If all we can say about a book that we read is that it sucks or it was good, then we've failed.  Nathan Bransford talked about The One Question Writers Should Never Ask Themselves When Reading this past week, and while he was specifically talking about writers-as-readers, I'm mostly going to talk about readers in general.  Got that?

NB's question to be avoided was "Do I like this?"  Readers in general can ask themselves that question, sure, but they owe it to themselves to give more than a yes/no answer.  "Yes I liked it" or "no I didn't" is different from "it sucks" anyway.  The first two are statements about your reading experience.  The other is  a judgment that you pass on the writer.  We tend to use the two interchangeably, but we shouldn't be so sloppy;  we don't like our writers to be sloppy and careless, so we shouldn't be that way as readers.

It's a two-way street.

Even as a non-writer reader you should be able to articulate why you liked or disliked a piece of writing.  You should also be able to admit that your feelings were not all one-sided:  you didn't like the ending, but wished one of the minor characters was available to be your best friend, say.  There's something of value in everything we read.  If we can't see it, it's because we're deficient somehow.  We're blind, deaf, ... dumb.

And even if you loved a book, you have to be honest about its failings.  And it's got failings -- nothing's perfect.

As writers we can learn from what worked for us in someone else's work, and what didn't.  Did the story seem to be all setup until halfway through when things finally started to happen?  That's what I'm finding with "The Windup Girl".  I'll be sure to guard against that in my own writing.  The author manages a huge cast of diverse characters.  Too many for me to keep track of, almost.  But all those characters packed into a sweltering, teeming, sweaty city of decaying slums add to the claustrophobic setting of the book.  I never thought of the cast complementing the setting in quite that way before.

As non-writer readers, it makes sense to notice the same sorts of things.  If you stop reading when a story drags, you'll never hang tight and finish any of the books whose action doesn't kick in until the second half.  Reading with a critical eye gives a deeper experience.  The writer didn't bang out that book in a week or two, so you can take a few minutes during your week or two of reading it to examine it.  That way, even if you read a book that sucks, you'll still have profited by the reading.