Showing posts with label learning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label learning. Show all posts

29 April 2019

The Way We Talk, etc.


Back in the early eighties, I dated a social worker who worked at a clinic dealing with hardcore juvenile offenders. Her colleagues regarded her as a walking miracle for her ability to connect with kids who had severe issues of all kinds: emotional, behavioral, learning, you name it. She could get them to talk to her and reveal information they wouldn't tell anyone else, and she often put them on the path to recovery.
I taught at an inner-city school where a lot of my students had the same problems, albeit to a lesser degree, and I asked her how she could do what she did. She told me about a book by Bandler and Grinder called The Magic of Rapport. I find that title by Jerry Richardson on Amazon now, and other books by Bandler and Grinder, but the book I read forty years ago seems to be out of print. I'm sure Richardson's book covers the same material.

Briefly, people process information in one of three ways, and they prefer one over the others.

Roughly 75% of all people are VISUAL, which means they learn by "seeing" or "watching." Show them a diagram or picture, act something out, and they will grasp and retain what you what them to know. This is why teacher write on the board and why PowerPoint has become so popular.







Another 10 to 15% are AUDITORY. These people understand what they are told and can process verbal instructions well. Unfortunately, even though it's a small portion of the population, it's an overwhelming majority of TEACHERS, which is why you may have sat through classes with instructors who lectured you to death.




The rest of us are KINESTHETIC. They learn a skill by practicing it over and over and handling the objects in question, literal "hands-on" teaching. They may retain information by remembering the sensations during an activity: temperature, smell, or even their emotional response to what happened.

Thanks to that girlfriend whom I haven't seen in decades, I started experimenting with this information. Professional development workshops on the concept, called "Perceptual Modes," began to appear in my school system in the mid to late 1990s--fifteen years later.

You can see why the concept could be important in the classroom, but I use them in writing, too.

"How?" you ask with bated breath (I get this reaction a lot. I put it down to my dynamic presentations).

Well, people tell or show their preferred mode through their behavior. They way they talk, stand, or move all give you clues, and you can use the traits to make your fictional characters more varied and specific. The concept helps you create more personalized dialogue, too.

Let me SHOW you how (see the visual cue there?).

VISUAL people tend to dress neatly and have good posture. They look at you when you speak.
When they talk, they tend to use visual metaphors, too. They'll say "That LOOKS like a good idea."

Auditory people often tilt their head when they listen to you. They may speak more softly and they would state the idea above as "That SOUNDS good," or maybe even refer to music or harmony. These people gravitate to professions where listening is a valued skill: teaching, translating, sound recording, social work.

KINESTHETIC people are at home with their bodies. They may (not always) appear a little heavy, but they move gracefully. They value comfort and often dress more casually (I, for example, almost always have my sleeves rolled up). Many of them are dancers, athletes, or actors. They are empathetic (care-givers) and may touch you while they talk. Many of them hold an object to ground themselves. Remember Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny? I often unconsciously twirled my wedding ring or a ballpoint pen during class discussions.

Kinesthetic people can sense the atmosphere and moods of other people in a room. They're aware of senses beyond sight, often noticing the temperature or a smell that nobody else does. They will say "That FEELS like a good idea" and learn quickly from mistakes. They seldom read instructions, but they are the actors who can use "Sense Memory" and "Emotional Recall" to rehearse a scene or develop a character in a play.

Beth Shepard, Zach Barnes's girlfriend in my Connecticut series, is kinesthetic. She's gorgeous but prefers to dress casually. She's a former dancer and high school majorette, very in touch with her body. I gave her contact lenses because she's legally blind without them. Someday, I may let her have lasik surgery.

Zach Barnes is auditory. We know that because he's a good listener. One of my books hinges on his hearing a clue in conversation that nobody else "heard."

Zach's friend and and researcher, Svetlana Melanova Thirst, is kinesthetic, too. She's sinfully sybaritic, and a self-taught computer hacker. She learned by doing.

I also use this information in my dialogue workshops. If you have five people in a scene and they all are visual (the most common perceptual mode), you need more speech tags to help the reader keep track of who's speaking. On the other hand, if a man and a woman are visual, another man is auditory, and the last man and woman are kinesthetic, their speaking styles may be all you need.

"It looks to me like the butler did it." Tome leered at Pam's perfect latex ensemble.

"It seems that way, doesn't it?" Pam admired the cut of Tom's jodhpurs and winked back. ("Seems" is the passive version of "look," too)

"Sounds wrong to me," Walt said, leaning toward the window where he thought the butler and maid were eavesdropping.

"It doesn't feel right to me, either." Jack rubbed his fingers over the blood-stained carpet.

"Something smells fishy to me, too." Patty scratched her nose and walked around the room, picking up the various heavy objects that might have bludgeoned Mr. Corpus to death.

A few years later, I stumbled on The Art of the Possible by Dawna Markova, which expands the original concept to show how people use all three modes, but in different combinations. The writing is less than lyrical, but it can help you understand how different types of thought processes will develop an idea or behavior. That book was the first one that proved many of my apparent inconsistencies really make sense.

My wife still doesn't think that's true.

Now for the BSP: My story "Par for the Corpse" appears in the first April issue of Tough.

And congratulations to Art Taylor, who won the Edgar Award last Thursday for best short story.


21 January 2019

Know When To Fold 'Em


Successful poker players recognize when they don't have a winning hand and fold before they toss good money after bad. It's like the Old Kenny Rogers song. Eventually, you learn lessons that work the same way in writing. Some ideas are bad, and repeating them won't make them any better.

 Last year, I participated in three author events that featured a cast the size of a Russian novel. Last March, my library brought 31 authors together, from all genres, and asked us to speak for five minutes each. That's two and a half hours of speakers for an event that would only last three hours.

Many of us cut our remarks short or didn't speak at all, but by the time everyone was through, most of the audience left. So did many of the authors. I sold two books and don't know if anyone else sold more than that.

On a beautiful Saturday in June, the first perfect beach day of the season, I joined 18 other mystery writers at a Barnes & Noble. My experience is that if you put more than four writers in the same genre together, they cancel each other out.

To make things even worse, this store wanted us to speak for 15 minutes each (Math wasn't the manager's strong suit), and a demonstration against the current immigration policy took off a mile away at the same time we did. We outnumbered the patrons who came into the store, even with a Starbuck's downstairs.

The same results transpired with 15 writers at a local venue in December. We represented several genres, but how many people come to an event planning to buy 15 books? I talked to ten of the other writers (most of us left early), and nobody sold a book.

Was it Einstein who said insanity is running the same experiment over and over the same way and expecting to get different results? Whoever it was, he was right.

Last summer, another library where I'd been trying to get a workshop off the ground for four years invited me to participate in a local event. Pending further details, I said I was interested. The tentative date was April, which gave me time to order books, get a haircut, and iron a shirt, right?

Three weeks ago, the librarian sent the result of four months' planning. They wanted four mystery writers to present a panel (No topic mentioned) from 10:30 to 11:30. Three more panels would follow, and all authors could sell and sign books from 2:30 to 4:00. No refreshments, no activity while panels that people might not wish to attend, no further details.

I decided this was a losing hand and bailed out (See Einstein and Kenny Rogers).

Since November, two indie bookstores have opened within 15 miles of my condo. One offers a consignment split with local authors at 55%-45%, the worst deal I've ever seen. Writers pay a fee to get into the store's data base to sell those books, and the store will only take three copies of a book. Given that arrangement, I can't break even. But if they DON'T sell the three books, they don't refund my fee. As real estate magnate Hollis Norton said back in the 80's "It takes money to make money, but nobody said it had to be your money."

Buh-bye...

The other store requested an email through their site that included a book title, ISBN, synopsis, cover shot, my website, my social media, and a bio. I was tempted to include a blood sample, but couldn't attach it to the email. I don't want to do an author event, but I'd like to know the consignment split. I've sent them three emails over the last month.

They haven't responded yet. This looks like another bad hand.

I only sent a story to one market that didn't pay. They offered to promote my newest book, though. They published a black and white photo with no explanation on pulp paper (the dark cover became three blobs in shades of gray), formatted my story so the right margin looked like a seismograph, and asked me to get two reviews. The people I asked both gave the magazine a two-star review on Amazon and got hate mail in return.

Sayanora, Kid. Have a nice day.

Maybe I'm getting grumpy in my old age. Or maybe I've finally figured out that  I can use the time to write another scene or story. Or practice guitar. Or pet our cat. Or...

25 June 2018

Editors, Teachers and Writers (a restrained rant)


A few days ago, I took umbrage at the following post on the SMFS site:

Content editors--book doctors, developmental editors, or whatever else practitioners of this trade call themselves nowadays--are an unjustified expenditure for most aspiring writers. They commonly charge well into four figures and won't guarantee to make your book any better at all. They claim to be able to help with ethereal things like plot development, imagery, pace, and other nonquantifiable elements, but they won't guarantee those things will be any better whatsoever once they're done because they can't. The only thing a freelance story editor or a like contractor working with a tiny indie press can guarantee to authors is to separate them from a lot of their money with no provable advantage for them.

Bull.

Before I continue, let me say that the only published work I find for this writer on Amazon is a grammar, punctuation and STYLE guide that looks too expensive for its length. I didn't read it, but whether it's good or bad, the mention of style in the title makes the entire statement above eat its tail.

Many agents and publishers now encourage an "aspiring writer" to get a professional edit before submitting their work. They seem to think that an expert can someone's plot development, character arc, or pace, all of which are both quantifiable and qualifiable elements of writing. They're in a position to know, aren't they?

There's a law in physics that says conditions equalize because something (heat, cold, pressure, etc.) flows from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration. Education is based on a similar idea: that people with more knowledge or expertise can pass it on to students who have less of those things. That's why schools and colleges exist. We require American students to study English (including writing or composition) for their entire career. Centuries of experience prove the subject matter can be taught and learned. Those are different sides of the coin and there are good and poor teachers, just as there are good or poor students, mechanics, doctors, painters, plumbers, mechanics, cooks, photographers, drivers, critics or anything else you can name.

Since I started teaching and switched over to writing, I have read at least a thousand books about writing or teaching writing. A depressingly high percentage of them are poor, but even those usually taught me something.
 If you don't think you can improve your craft or help others improve theirs, you shouldn't sit at the table. When Stephen King accepted the 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he said, "I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded. I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack."

I quote King because, like anyone who stays around, he's a much better writer than he was when he wrote Carrie, and that was a heck of a book. Now he does character backstory and depth as well as anyone out there and he writes much better female characters than he used to. He uses throwaways and irony, too. In other words, he's learned to throw more than a fast ball. I'm about 3/4 of the way through his newest book, The Outsider, probably the best book I have read so far this year.

Writers use critique groups and beta readers, both cheap forms of editing. Some groups and readers are great and some are not, but you can learn a lot from people who do something better than you do, and maybe as much from people who love the work even if they don't do it (Writers need readers, if nobody ever mentioned that before). Feedback is a form of learning and teaching. Schools and colleges offer creative writing classes. Those enterprises are aimed at making writers better at the qualifiable and quantifiable elements mentioned above. Of course those teachers and institutions ask for money. Living isn't free, and nobody who is very good at something should have to do it for free, either. If you don't believe that, try comparison shopping for knee replacements.

At the first writing conference I attended, I signed up for a critique and sent 25 pages of my MS in advance. Kate Flora, an excellent writer and teacher, spent about twenty minutes with me, and I learned more in that conversation than in the last year of struggling through several how-to books. I didn't follow every suggestion Kate offered, but I considered them. Years later, when I sold my first novel (a different one), Kate blurbed it. She also edited my first few short stories. All of those stories were measurably better because of her work on them.

I am a freelance editor now, and I taught English in an urban high school and a community college for thirty-three years. I know or have worked with several other fiction editors--many of whom I met through MWA, SinC, or both, and they include Barb Goffman (also here on Sleuthsayers), Jill Fletcher, Chris Roerden, Lynne Heitman, Leslie Wainger and Ramona DeFelice Long.

Every one of them will make a manuscript better. They can all explain how and why it's better, too. But only a fool would guarantee that editing will result in a sale. Taste is a personal thing; connecting it to quality is like juxtaposing apples and snow tires.

As I write this, I'm also reading reports that Koko, a 46-year-old gorilla, has passed away. Koko revealed aspects of primates we'd never suspected before, showing maternal love for kittens and other small animals, and telling her handlers she wanted to be a mother. She told her handlers through the more than one thousand words she learned in sign language. People taught a gorilla a larger vocabulary than the average politician.

Think what she could have done with a word processor and a good agent...to go along with those teachers.

05 June 2014

A Matter of Belief


There's been a lot of talk on-line about a movie called "God's Not Dead" in which an evil atheist professor forces his students to sign a declaration saying "God is Dead" to pass his class.  (Of course the Christian hero doesn't and wins the day.)  Well, contrary to certain ultra-fundamentalist myths, that doesn't happen.  No professor requires anyone to sign anything against their personal beliefs.  But we do often require them to learn things that don't necessarily agree with their beliefs and therein hangs a tale.
When I was teaching World and Asian history at university, I honestly developed a resentment towards certain types of the home-schooled.  There was the guy who, when I started talking about Charles Darwin, put down his pencil and refused to take a single note.  He didn't care that I wasn't teaching science but history. He didn't care that Social Darwinism was a major part of racism, militarism and WWI.  He wasn't going to learn about Darwin.  Period. Full-stop.

There was another who, when I asked for the connection between the Mexican Revolution and Karl Marx, wrote "Communism is a failed ideology".  (By the way, the correct answer is that Mexico claims that its revolution was the first Communist revolution, which it is.)  He wrote this for EVERY question about Communism, and I gave him a zero every time.  Communism was a huge problem for a number of people, by the way.  They just didn't want to have to learn about it, since, after all, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Empire was destroyed, and Communism was dead.  (I'd remind them about China, and sometimes there would be a moment of silence followed by a long sigh as most of them picked their pencils back up.  But not all...)




There was always one person who, when I was teaching about Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, etc., had to explain to the class how Christianity was the only true religion.  Sometimes they would demand to know my beliefs, and I would say "I'm here to teach history, not proselytize", but they wouldn't get the hint. In fact, they usually decided that I must be an atheist, since I didn't let them preach to the class.  That or I was a Roman Catholic, and if you can see the logic to that, please explain it to me.


The connecting thread here is that these people all thought that learning ABOUT something was the same as believing IN it.  They really felt that if they learned about a political alternative, like socialism or communism, or a religious alternative, like Buddhism or Islam, they were (1) accepting it, (2) approving it, (3) in danger of becoming it.  Even though they had no problem hosing up all the info they could get about Nazis or serial killers.  Sometimes  they could take it if it was far enough in the past - I could talk paganism till the cows came home, and discuss Plato and Aristotle, Stoicism and Epicureanism.  Although they did get a little nervous when I'd point out the points in Platonism and Stoicism that had been adopted by early Christianity...

But, as I said, I developed a resentment.  I got so sick of trying to teach them that learning about something outside their comfort zone was not me trying to convert them, but was quite simply trying to get them to understand how the world got the way it is, today.  I had to teach them how to learn fearlessly.  And in the process, I realized how much the concept of learning about something = believing in something is a wonderful tool to control people. I don't know what these students were being taught at home, but I do know that if you scare people so they won't learn, you can tell them almost anything.  You have gotten them to put bars on their own minds, which only makes it harder to ever get them off.




Orwell got these statements straight from Jean Jacques Rousseau's "The Social Contract".  But you'd have to have taken notes in my class to know it.

30 July 2012

Brain Exercises


How do we learn? Have you ever watched babies or toddlers interact with each other? Many times it's monkey see, monkey do. They learn from each other. If one rolls a ball, the other laughs and then he gets the ball and rolls it. If one stacks one block on top of the other, then on of the other children will see that and stack one block on top of the other. Babies and little children learn from their parents and their siblings. Their teachers and friends. Babies and little children are like sponges, they soak up everything.

Guess what? Animals also learn from each other. My female cat, Nora, is the one I call the smart one. She learns something, like jumping from the floor to the big stuffed chair to the top of the bar and down onto the kitchen counter top in order to get the the sink and water faucet. Her brother, Nick, is Mr. Friendly and is somewhat like the dog, Odie in the Garfield comic strip. He goes along happily ignoring most everything, until suddenly he sees Nora doing her jumping act and then he copies her. They both love jumping to the counter to get to the kitchen sink and then try to get me to turn on the water faucet so they can drink. (I ignore them.)

As writers we read other writers and learn from them. At times we are just baby writers, we read and study and learn how to write. We can see how other writers make a character seem real and intriguing. We see how someone plots and we learn how to do the same. We learn from someone how to build tension. We read a book by someone we think is an excellent writer and we learn from them. We go "wow" I never thought of that. Or how in the heck did they do that? We learn how to set the scene, how to write realistic dialog. We learn how to end chapters. We learn how to get through the middle part of the book. We learn how to bring everything to a climatic end and bring it all to a closure.

I don't mean we copy from them. But we can analyze other's work and learn. And then we practice, practice, practice. Yes, you can learn how to write better by practice writing. You can take a published book and actually set out to copy it on paper word for word. I hope you've picked up and are using a really good book. Use one that you know has won an Edgar or a Shamus award if you're interested in writing mysteries or thrillers. This exercise is for practice, not to plagiarize someone.

You begin copying the first line, the first paragraph, and the first page. Pay attention as you copy. How did the author grab your attention? If that book doesn't grab you on the first page. Put that book down and pick up another one. As a retired book seller I learned just how important that first page is because a person who picks up your book just might not buy that book if you lose them on the first page.

Take Stieg Larrson's, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. Chapter one begins and reads as follows:
Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land. It was just before 1:30 in the morning.

Tell me that doesn't grab your attention. Who is this doctor? Where is he that a helicopter is on its way? And who do you think might be in the helicopter? Man, woman or child? Is the doctor in the military because a helicopter is expected to land in five minutes. Or could he be on an aircraft carrier bringing a wounded soldier? Is the doctor a good guy or a bad guy? Is the incoming patient a good guy or a bad guy? We don't know yet, but I can almost guarantee that you're going to want to read at least a little more to see what is going on.

I chose the next example just to show how after a very intriguing opening scene, and then when you get only a few pages into the story, how you are hooked and grabbed once again.  Look at this paragraph on Page 6 of Lee Child's book, Echo Burning. 

Seven thirty-nine, more than three hundred miles to the north and east, Jack Reacher climbed out of his motel room window. One minute earlier, he had been in the bathroom, brushing his teeth. One minute before that, he had opened the door of his room to check the morning temperature. He had left it open, and the closet just inside the entrance passageway was faced with a mirrored glass, and there was a shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm, and by a freak of optical chance he caught sight of four men getting out of a car and walking toward the motel office. Pure luck, but a guy as vigilant as Jack Reacher gets lucky more times than the average.

A big wow. Five sentences in that paragraph but what a wealth of information here. A man, a vigilant man, named Jack Reacher is running from someone. There's a brief description of the motel room...can't you just see it? The mirrored glass on the closet door? The shaving mirror in the bathroom on a cantilevered arm? How can you not keep reading?

I honestly think good writing is a talent but great writing takes some effort on your part. And if you learn from other outstanding writers you almost have to learn to be a better writer.

Don't think there's anything wrong in copying another's writing. You're only doing this as a learning experience, a writing exercise. Like I said at the beginning, we learn from each other. Even as a baby. Even as one animal or bird learns from their parent. We can learn. And if you're going to learn to be a better writer, then copy from the best. Learn from the award winners or the best-selling authors. But strive to be a better writer. You'll be glad you did and so will your readers.