Category Archives: Writing

It’s in the eyes

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Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

I write contemporary romance novels with a strong secondary plot, or contemporary novels with a strong romance plot, depending on which agent or editor you’re talking to. Although I like reading and writing romance, making the couple’s interest in each other believable is difficult. Escalating the romance with the action plot is complicated, and how do you show that these people are right for each other? As a writer, you have to get past looks. What makes readers know that these two will survive lust and hang in for the long haul? And how can I show that on the page?

As it (conveniently!) happens, two University of Chicago neuroscientists have studied how people look at each other when they’re in love—or lust. John and Stephanie Cacioppo examined whether people look at others differently if they perceive a long-term companion, or a temporary sexual partner.

They showed heterosexual college students photos of persons of the opposite sex. The researchers asked subjects whether an image elicited feelings of romance or lust, and tracking software recorded participants’ eye movements.

The results, published in Psychological Science, aren’t shocking, or even surprising. The researchers found that people interested in the long haul focus on the eyes and face of the other person. But those who want a fling focus on the rest of the body. Both men and women engage in this behavior, but women are less obvious about it. The scientists speculated that this might be because women have better peripheral vision.

This study corroborates their earlier findings. The Cacioppos had already conducted brain scans that proved that love and lust occupy different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, but sexual desire lights up its posterior. Posterior regions are involved in current, concrete sensations, feelings, and responses, according to the researchers, “whereas anterior regions are more involved in abstract, integrative representations.”

The study results seem obvious, but still good to know. As the researchers say: “Reading other people’s eyes is a valuable skill during interpersonal interaction.” And that’s got to be a good skill for romance—and any other kind of—writer to understand. When your heroine reveals her deepest secrets—that’s when the hero has to look into her eyes. But when they’re dancing and she’s wearing a short skirt—it’s all about the legs.

The eyes have it!

 

 

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

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A great American writer has joined history. The message of the poem she wrote and read at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural, “On the Pulse of Morning,” about how diversity enriches and strengthens us as a nation, stands in stark contrast to the actions of a young, disturbed madman in Santa Barbara recently.

Many others more eloquent than I have written about her themes of hope, love, inclusion, and dignity. If I can learn to write with one-third her power, I will count myself successful.

To hear her read the poem and find out what it meant to her, go here.

One million words and counting

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Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

I read recently that the next (third) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary would come out approximately in the year 2034. This seemed like a really long time until I read more. The first edition was proposed in 1858 as a 10-year project. Five years in, the philolgists were up to “ant.” They needed 70 years to pull the first edition together. It came out in 1928.

The second edition was started in 1933 (so they got a little vacation in there) and came out in 1989. The third edition, now underway, began in 1994. It will have one million or more words in it.

These facts were interesting to me because when I was a young editor, I decided that when I was old and established and could afford it, I’d buy a copy of the OED and keep it on a book stand. To me, the OED was like a badge to a cop or a tiara to a princess. It was an emblem of certification, of accomplishment: I’m an editor, see? I have the best dictionary in the world.

For one reason or another, I never bought it. And now it’s probably too late. When the third edition is finished, it will have 40 volumes if it’s published in print. But the current editor, Michael Proffitt, says that unless at the time of publication a market develops for the print version, the reference will be placed online.

The work is going slowly because new words are being added to the vocabulary at an unprecedented rate. Each edition has more words than the last, because once included in the reference, no word is ever taken out. “We can hear everything that’s going on in the world of English for the last 500 years, and it’s deafening,” said the associate editor Peter Gilliver in an interview with The New York Times. Gilliver spent nine months revising definitions for the word “run,” currently the longest single entry in the OED.

The current OED text contains, in addition to literary references, blog and Twitter postings, quotations from gravestones, and an inscription in a high school yearbook. The philologists want to find the earliest and most illustrative uses of a word—not certify a word as “proper English.”

I feel a little nostalgic that my first professional icon of editorship—that of owning a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary—won’t come to pass. Of course, I could still buy the second edition (20 volumes for about US$1,700), or I could buy an on-line subscription. I probably won’t, though.

But I do love a good reference book. What writer wouldn’t? When you’re looking for just that one perfect word, it’s nice to know that somebody has compiled a million of them for you.

So here’s a little quiz. The following entries are in the OED. See if you know when these terms first appeared in the language.

OMG, I Am, Like, Literally Unfriending You. Whatever!

OMG. The first recorded appearance of this breathless acronym for “Oh, my God!” comes in a letter to Winston Churchill.

1917 J. A. F. Fisher Let. 9 Sept. in Memories (1919) v. 78. I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis — O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) — Shower it on the Admiralty!!

LITERALLY. Examples of this inversion go back to 1769. Even Mark Twain did it.

1876 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Tom Sawyer ii. 20 And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.

LIKE. Few words annoy the purist like “like.”

1778 F. Burney Evelina II. xxiii. 222 Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.

UNFRIEND. Facebook was born in 2004. Unfriending began earlier.

1659 T. Fuller Let. P. Heylyn in Appeal Injured Innoc. iii, I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

WHATEVER. It’s not as old as “unfriend,” but it’s been around for a while.

1973 To our Returned Prisoners of War (U.S. Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs) 10 Whatever, equivalent to “that’s what I meant.” Usually implies boredom with topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning.

 

 

Banned books are good for you!

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Huck FinnHere’s good news: A new study of Texas teens finds no connection between reading “edgy” books and mental health issues or delinquent behavior. By “edgy,” what the researchers meant was books that contain “violent, sexual, or occult” elements (would that include Peter Pan? The Wizard of Oz? Cinderella?)—books that typically are banned in school and public libraries across this great nation, including the great state of Texas.

But wait, there’s more! Here’s what the researchers also said: “Consuming edgy material … may provide teachable moments to discuss ethical issues between parents and children. Banning such material may be counterproductive in removing these teachable opportunities.”

The new research, conducted by Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson,  and published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, suggests these “edgy” books may indeed have an impact on impressionable young minds.

A positive impact.

The study showed that South Texas teens who read “banned books” were more likely to be engaged in civic activities such as volunteer work. “[T]he influence of banned books on behavior are not worrisome, and may be positive overall,” Ferguson wrote.

Ferguson surveyed 282 students, aged 12–18, who live in a small, predominantly Hispanic Texas town. He gave them a list of 30 books that the American Library Association have identified as “commonly challenged…over the past decade because of content.” These books ranged from the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The youngsters read the books and responded to questions that were designed to reveal antisocial personality disorders about how they felt toward friends and family. The kids were also asked about whether and how frequently they engaged in three civic-minded activities: volunteer work, charitable giving, and elections/electoral processes. Their primary caregivers filled out a survey describing the student’s behavior and reported his or her most recent grade point average.

The results: “Reading banned books did not predict nonviolent or violent crime, or contribute to school GPA,” Ferguson reports, but was “positively associated with civic and volunteering behaviors.” Furthermore, “…reading challenging books may be eye-opening and move individuals to help others.”

Such works can prompt readers to ponder ethical dilemmas, or—better yet—to discuss them with parents or teachers. In this way, he writes, the books “may foster higher-level thinking about these issues and promote more civic mindedness, even if the material is dark.”

Furguson noted that a few kids showed a correlation in both the consumption of banned books and mental health symptoms. “It may be possible that youth with higher levels of mental health symptoms may select books that speak to them, offer them a chance for introspection, or a release from their symptoms,” he wrote. Although this correlation “may serve as a red flag for parents,” the study suggests that for the vast majority of kids, reading banned books isn’t harmful and may even contribute to emotional and moral growth.

I tried to find the list of 30 books that Ferguson used for this study, but could not—well, I’m sure the list is in the original study paper, but I couldn’t get past the abstract page in the database. The ALA publishes a new list of “commonly banned books” every year and bases its choices on a historical time line of challenges. This is the list I found, starting in 1982. It looks like it might be the one Ferguson used, or at least it’s close:

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (nominated, National Book award)

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (winner, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction)

In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak (winner, Caldecott Medal)

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson (winner, Newbery Medal)

Forever, by Judy Blume

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

The Satanic Verses, By Salman Rushdie

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962)

Sex, by Madonna

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison (Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012)

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (winner, Pulitzer Prize. Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007)

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

All But Alice, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Daddy’s Roommate, Michael Willhoite

Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers (winner, Coretta Scott King Award)

Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey

Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Harry Potter (Series), by JK Rowling

The Giver, by Lois Lowry (winner, Newbery Medal)

King and King, by Linda De Hann

It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris

And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman (winner, Carnegie Medal)

Gossip Girl (Series), by Cecily von Ziegesar

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

TTYL, by Lauren Myracle

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (winner, National Book Award for Young Peoples Literature)

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire

 

Remembering our Roots

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Today I was talking to a friend about how all the TV shows these days are reruns. Are they waiting for the Olympics? Sweeps month? Out of ideas? Or scripts? Or just cheap? What?

rootsTV legends are born

Then I came home and googled around for fun, and learned that on this date 37 years ago, a TV legend began: The first installment of the TV miniseries Roots, starring LeVar Burton and based on Alex Haley’s novel, aired.

The TV miniseries was, of course, based on a book that Haley wrote after he retired from his Coast Guard service. Dropping out of college at age 17 after two years (he’d graduated high school at age 15), Haley signed up in 1939 and made the Coast Guard a career. He was a highly decorated veteran: he received the American Defense Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal and an honorary degree from the Coast Guard Academy. A Coast Guard Cutter was also named in his honor: the USCGC Alex Haley.

The genesis of story

Haley wrote short stories while still in the service, and he became a freelance writer after his retirement. He wrote a hugely successful set of interviews with prominent African Americans before he decided to write Roots. He wanted to tell the story of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves, and then their rise from slavery to freedom. He researched for 10 years on three continents. He visited his ancestral village, Juffure, Gambia, and listened to a tribal historian recount how Kunta Kinte, Haley’s ancestor and the protagonist of his book, was captured and sold into slavery.

Even so, Haley despaired that he could ever capture the essence of his story. He once said, “What right had I to be sitting in a carpeted, high-rise apartment writing about what it was like in the hold of a slave ship?” In an attempt to answer this question, he sailed from Liberia to America and spent his nights lying on a board in the hold of the ship in nothing but his underwear.

Book and TV miniseries made history

Doubleday published Roots—part novel, part historical account—in 1976. The book caused a national sensation and was published in more than two dozen foreign countries. More than 1.5 million copies were published in hard cover, and more than 4 million copies of the Dell paperback edition were sold. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

The television miniseries, first broadcast on January 23, 1977, still ranks among the 100 highest-rated programs. According to Nielsen Media Research, its eight episodes reached average audiences that ranged from 28.8 million households to 36.3 million households. Thirty-seven American cities declared January 23-30, the week the program aired, “Roots Week.” Television historian Les Brown wrote that the mini-series “emptied theaters, filled bars, caused social events to be canceled, and was the talk of the nation during the eight consecutive nights it played on ABC.”

Impact today

Haley died of a heart attack on February 10, 1992, at the age of 70. Today, he’s credited with inspiring a nationwide interest in genealogy and contributing to the easing of racial tensions in America. Time magazine called The Autobiography of Malcolm X, another of Haley’s well-known works, one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Speaking of his writing’s impact, Haley once said, “To this day, people, particularly African-American people but white people as well, will just totally, unexpectedly walk up and not say a word, just walk up and hug you and then say ‘Thank you.’”

Thank you from me, too, Mr. Haley.

To sleep, perchance to dream

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ScaredMany avid readers remember forever the novels that deeply affected them. Stephen King has said that Lord of the Flies changed his life, because it had a point to make and was at the same time a great adventure story. I couldn’t name just one book that changed my life, but several still haunt me decades after I read them.

So I was interested to learn that researchers at Emory University devised a study to see if reading a novel could trigger measurable changes in a student’s brain. And they found out that it does—and those changes can linger for up to five days after the student stopped reading.

The study worked like this: The 21 participating students all read the same book: Pompeii, a thriller by Robert Harris that was published in 2003. For the first five days of the 19-day study, participants did no reading, but had their brains scanned for baseline measures. Then at a fixed time of day for the next nine days, the students read a portion of the novel. The next morning the researchers scanned their brains. After nine days when the students finished the novel, researchers scanned their brains for another five days.

The results: researchers measured heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persisted in a way similar to muscle memory, and these changes continued during the five-day post-reading phase of the study. The changes registered in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said neuroscientist Professor Gregory Berns, lead author of the study, in an interview with The Independent, a newspaper based in the UK.

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense,” he said. “Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

Writers have always tried to create protagonists and antagonists that readers identify with, and to write books that people get caught up in. Now we know that if we succeed, we can literally change the minds of our readers. Cool. But spooky.

Stephen King would love that.

Writing obituaries

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In my younger days, I wrote a few obituaries. Every time I did, I thought about that person’s life. What they must have experienced. How it felt. Who they left behind. How they’d be remembered.

The other night on the news, somebody interviewed two guys in the San Francisco airport who were bound for Green Bay, Wisconsin, to attend the Packer/49er playoff game. They were dressed in tee-shirts and their 49er (lightweight) jackets.

I don’t have to tell you how cold it’s been in the Midwest. The predicted wind chill factor for tomorrow’s game is -40. That’s right, minus 40. The actual air temperature by the end of the game will be below 0. People watching from the stands, if they stick it out to the end, will be sitting outside in those conditions for up to three hours.

The interviewer said, “How are you preparing for the cold?”

One guy said, “We have our Jerry Rice tee-shirts and our team spirit!”

The interviewer said, “Packer management is issuing hand warmers to all 70,000 fans—Packer and 49er. What about that?”

One guy said, “We won’t need hand warmers! We have our team spirit!” He might also have mentioned he’d be clapping too much. I might have over-interpreted his remarks.

I’m worried about those guys. To sit outside and watch that game, they need long underwear, lined pants, snowmobile suits, insulated boots, thermal socks, heavy mittens, fur hats, heat packs, foot warmers, hand warmers, blankets, and something warm to sit on. And probably other things I’m not thinking of. Living in the Bay Area, those guys probably don’t own that stuff. And they looked like they were traveling light.

As much as I admire—if “admire” it is—their courage and team spirit, those guys won’t survive the weather conditions in Green Bay wearing Jerry Rice tee-shirts and their team spirit. They just don’t have a clue about how cold -40 is. I’m worried about them, and I’m worried about their families.

I’m even worried about the obit writers. Just thinking about what it must feel like to freeze to death in -40 conditions is enough to send a chill down my spine.

So stay warm, my friends. Sometimes team spirit just isn’t enough.

Malingering…

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All right, I had major surgery, then I had a setback. Then I got bit by a tick. Then I got busy at work. Still, I wrote most days during NaNoWriMo, the first time I ever joined. I surpassed my personal goal. (Okay, goal was 15K words, and I hit 16K. Not earthshaking, since NaNo’s goal for writers is 50K for the month. But it’s been surgery, setback, tick, work.) I can’t say I’m a huge fan of NaNo, but I thought it would put me on the Right Track. Get me Moving again. Help me Set Up A Schedule.

Yeah, that didn’t work.

I haven’t written for a week, since the close of NaNo. I’m really busy, I’ve still had the surgery, the setback, and the tick. In a week I’ll leave for a long and complicated family holiday visit. But no more fooling around. I’m going to get up and get going and write. Most days. If I can surpass my personal goals in November, I can surpass them in December, too. They aren’t huge.

But if they’re steady, I’ll finish the book.

And that’s the Pep Talk to Me. Just like from NaNo!