Mirror Neurons: Connecting Writer and Reader

Janet wondered how many of the students in her Monday morning culinary class were as hung over as she. Not to worry. She could get through this. As the skin of a perfect red bell pepper yielded to her knife blade, she asked, “How much Vitamin C–” Shrieks, her own mingled with those of students, accompanied the blade slicing into  her finger and coming to rest on the bone. . . .

Did you flinch? I hope so. Surprising, isn’t it, how words can affect us as readers. Language has the power to evoke empathy. We feel it not just in the physical sense, as in the above example, but also emotionally if we identify with a character or situation. So, if a character we’ve come to like and root for finds his wife in bed with his best friend, we feel his pain.

A somewhat controversial neuroscientific theory has it that our ability to empathize is rooted in specialized mirror neurons . The areas of our brain responsible for producing certain actions are the same areas involved in understanding others’ actions. In animal studies, specialized neurons fire whether a monkey reaches for a peanut or observes another monkey reaching for a peanut. Presumably the mirror neuron system works similarly in us humans, and we go monkeys one better: we can experience empathy simply by reading.

The next time you find yourself laughing, flinching, or crying  as you read, think about how the words and your imagination interacted to work such magic.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

–Gustave Flaubert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Domesticating the Paragraph

I have a confession to make. In writing my novels, I tend to take an intuitive approach to paragraphing, except there are two rules I follow religiously: 1) a shift in speakers, time, or place  requires a new paragraph, and 2) the end of the paragraph is the power position and to add anything beyond dilutes the power.

 

What’s Wrong With This Paragraphb

Monica entered the man cave where Dan was playing an online game of Texas Hold’em. “Your parents will be here in thirty minutes. Have you cleaned the guest bathroom?” “I’m on it,” Dan said. Monica stormed into the kitchen where she began to make queso. She cut up chunks of Velveeta with such a vengeance she almost sliced a finger. Dan wouldn’t budge until he finished his game.  Finally she grabbed a rag and a bottle of Clorox Bathroom Cleaner and went to the guest bathroom. She switched on the light and screamed. “There’s a body in the bathtub.” That got Dan’s attention. Peering through the bathroom door, he said, “Your timing sucks, Monica. Couldn’t this have waited five minutes? I was winning.”  “Whatever. But that bathroom had  better be clean when your parents arrive.”

I don’t think I can count the number of problems with that paragraph.  Now read this version:

Monica entered the man cave where Dan was playing an online game of Texas Hold’em. “Your parents will be here in thirty minutes. Have you cleaned the guest bathroom?”

“I’m on it,” Dan said.

Monica stormed into the kitchen where she began to make queso. She cut up chunks of Velveeta with such a vengeance she almost sliced a finger. Dan wouldn’t budge until he finished his game.  Finally she grabbed a rag and a bottle of Clorox Bathroom Cleaner and headed for the guest bathroom.

(location shift) She switched on the light and screamed. “There’s a body in the bathtub.”

(speaker shift) That got Dan’s attention. Peering through the bathroom door, he said, “Your timing sucks, Monica. Couldn’t this have waited five minutes? I was winning.”

(speaker shift) “Whatever. But that bathroom had  better be clean when your parents arrive.”

To add clout to the topic of paragraphs, I consulted my friend and fellow writer Gaylon Greer. I asked him specifically about handling stimulation and response, and he provided insight on how paragraphs control a novel’s pacing, and, hence, influence the reader’s experience. Here’s what he said:

Short, snappy paragraphs generally pick up the story pace; long, winding paragraphs slow things down. For that reason, action scenes rely heavily on short paragraphs, with stimulus and response boxed separately. Whether the action scene is dialogue or physical action, the short paragraphs give it snap and momentum. When you want to create a more relaxed mood, to give your readers a breather, perhaps, you will want to use longer paragraphs, perhaps combining stimulus and response in the same paragraph. Consider this example:

“Stop it,” Carla screamed.

 Beatrice, too terrified to hear her, clung to Carla’s back, her arms clasped tightly around her neck.

Carla fought to free herself, but Beatrice’s panicked grip was too strong to break. It was as though unbreakable tentacles were pulling her deeper and deeper.

 

 

If the writer wanted less tension or a slower pace, she might write:

Carla screamed for her to stop, but Beatrice was too terrified to hear. She pasted herself against Carla’s back, her arms clasping tightly around her neck. Carla fought to free herself, but it was as though unbreakable tentacles were pulling her deeper and deeper.

Both snippets communicate the same facts, but the first does so, it seems to me, in a manner that is more fraught with tension. The rational is that the initial stimulus creates tension because the reader wanders what the other character will do in response. The paragraph breaks in the action version of the scene serves two purposes:

  1. It emphasizes what has gone before by isolating it. In the first example, Carla’s scream is stark—it stands out. In the second example, the scream is buried, made secondary to Beatrice’s action.
  2. The end of a paragraph is a signal for the reader to pause briefly. In this case the pause permits her to savor the building tension. Using separate paragraphs keeps the tension building.

 

For another example, consider a tennis game. One player hits the ball; that is a stimulus for the other player, who must react. The reaction becomes a stimulus for the first player, and so on. If the stimulus and reaction are in separate paragraphs, each described in enough detail for the reader to picture the action, it becomes more dramatic. If the back-and-forth action is presented in a single paragraph, the tension is dissipated.

 

The issue is the same as for dialogue. There is no grammatical reason for two characters’ dialogue strings to be in separate paragraphs; the purpose is to emphasize each characters’ comments.

 

In an article for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop (Writing Fiction, New York, Bloomsbury, 2003) Hardy Griffin makes the point by contrasting a work by Joyce Carol Oates (“The Fine Mist of Winter”) with one by Arundhati Roy (“The God of Small Things”). Throughout her story, Oates employs long, winding paragraphs that combine stimulus and response in the same paragraph. But Roy achieves fast-paced drama by employing short paragraphs that separate stimulus and response.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

–Jodi Picoult

 

 

 

Hollywood Bidding War for Compromise With Sin

Rumors floating for weeks have just been confirmed: Compromise With Sin, the debut historical novel by Leanna Englert, is at the center of a fierce Hollywood bidding war. Said to be vying for the rights are Reese Witherspoon, Oprah, Steven Spielberg, Sheldon Shackleford, III, Roseanne Barr, and Norman Grabowski.

The novel, set in the early 1900s, tells the story of one woman’s betrayal and search for redemption after her loved ones are tragically ensnared in her web of deceit. The story is set amid a fictional account of the controversial campaign to prevent blindness in newborn babies, and presents Helen Keller as a confidante of protagonist Louise Morrissey.

“I was recently asked what my wildest hope was for this novel,” Englert said. “I truly hope it will bring about world peace. Barring that, I’d want people to say, ‘The book was better than the movie.'”

Happy April Fool’s, y’all.

 

 

 

The Sounds of Onomatopoeia

Do you remember where and when you learned about onomatopeoia? The word itself sort of knocks you down on first hearing, and then you get exposed to a very cool concept, the idea of words that sound like what they represent.

I  went web-surfing to find examples. The obvious words were sounds animals make, like meow, woof, and oink.

In the post “Onomatopoeia Examples” at EReading Worksheets, you’ll find some onomatopoeic words used in sentences:

  • The lunch lady plopped a scoop of something on Kristen’s tray.
  • The paintball splattered against the windshield.
  • The lawyer chased after the wail of the siren.
  • Did you forget to flush the toilet? (my personal favorite)

In “Onomatopoeia” on the site Literary Devices, there are examples from literature and song lyrics:

From the poem “Come Down, O Maid,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson: “The moan of doves in immemorial elms, and murmuring of innumerable bees . . .”

From the song “The Marvelous Toy,” by Tom Paxton: “It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped, and whirr when it stood still.”

And not to be overlooked on the same site is “A Huge List of Onomatopoeia Examples:” There you’ll find words like raspy, sizzle, belch, and swish, and citations from literature, such as this one from The Tempest, by William Shakespeare: “Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices.”

Fair warning: the sites I mentioned are seductive.  I could lose an afternoon on the Literary Devices’ pages, where there must be a hundred such devices listed, ranging from ad hominem to didacticism to nemesis to verisimilitude. Each  provides a definition and good examples.

Not to leave this post without a nod to the headline, if you didn’t know the definition of onomatopoeia, what would that word sound like?

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

“Meow” means “woof” in cat.

–George Carlin

 

 

 

 

Stories Unfold in a Season, not a Vacuum

Photo credit: Shannon Richards, Unsplash

I’m not fond of novels in which the author compulsively overuses weather and seasons or begins every chapter with atmospheric descriptions of clouds, sunlight, etc. That said, characters don’t exist in a vacuum, and I like getting a sense of their natural environment, especially if it has an impact on them.

Here’s an example of how seasons matter. I live in Austin, Texas, where one of my favorite things about the Easter season is the profusion of wildflowers, which bring out legions of families plopping kids among the bluebonnets for iconic photos.  But the season also brings out a plethora of snakes on the move. This is the time of year you’re most likely to see them. They’ve just awakened from hibernation, they’re hungry, and they’re hunting for food.

I’ve just given you two facts. Do one or both matter if your novel is set in Austin in late March or early April? Maybe or maybe not. After all, most of your readers don’t live in Texas. But if you’re aware of these and other seasonal characteristics, you’re better equipped to craft a scene that will feel real to readers.

I could write more about seasons here, but the topic has been covered very well in this post, “Seasonally Adjusted Writing” on Alison Morton’s Writing Blog. Alison is the author of the Roma Nova althistory thriller series, the latest being Carina.

Here’s something else to consider. Brad Whittington, prolific author of novels such as Muffin Man and The Reluctant Saint, uses actual information about weather, and the hour the sun and moon rise and set to inform his writing. His sources are The Farmers Almanac and the U.S. Naval Observatory website. Check them out.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

A Request

I could use your help in promoting Compromise With Sin. I’ve posted a trailer on YouTube. I’d appreciate your taking a look and sharing it with friends. Thank you.

Quotable

Whenever I have to choose between two evils, I always like to try the one I haven’t tried before.

–Mae West

 

Crooked Path to Strong Dialogue

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Too often, dialogue follows a straight, predictable path when it should veer off into the unexpected. In real life conversations, people often talk past one another. Putting this fact to work in your dialogue can enhance credibility and/or tension.

Imagine a writer creating dialogue between a therapist and a patient who’d tried to kill his own mother:

 

The therapist says, “Your mother was cited seventeen times for neglect and abuse. Do you hate her?”

The patient balls one hand into a fist. “My mother might not be perfect, but she’s a goddamn saint. Don’t you forget that.”

Instead of answering the therapist’s question directly, the patient reacts not to the question itself, but to what he perceives as the therapist impugning his mother’s integrity.

Another way one character responding to another rings true is when there’s apparent misunderstanding, which may or may not be deliberate. In this example, a couple has just finished setting up the crib and other furniture for the baby they’re expecting:

Eve imagines what it will be like to watch their baby sleeping on his back, his little chest rising and falling with each breath.  She takes Adam’s hand. “It seems almost too good to be true.”

He gives her hand a squeeze. “I know.  To think we got all this for under two hundred dollars.”

Here’s another example, this one from an oft-cited scene in Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist. Sarah and Macon are grieving parents whose relationship disintegrates as they drive in the rain:

There was a moment of watery blindness till the truck had dropped behind. Sarah gripped the dashboard with one hand.

“I don’t know how you can see to drive,” she said.

“Maybe you should put on your glasses.”

“Putting on my glasses would help you to see?”

“Not me; you,” Macon said. “You’re focused on the windshield instead of the road.”

Your thoughts? Examples of dialogue? Leave a comment.

Quotable

A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That is why there are so few good conversations; due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.

–Truman Capote

 

 

 

 

“The Embezzler’s Curse”

In my lifetime I’ve probably written fewer than a dozen short stories, mostly for my own amusement. Thought I’d publish one here.

 

 

 

 

“The Embezzler’s Curse,” by Leanna Englert

I’m squatting here in what used to be Gospel Bob’s double-wide. He ain’t here no more—he’s got a new address at the county jail because of what he done over at the courthouse. Me and Bob used to spend a lot of time in this double-wide watching TV. Here’s where I got away from the wife and the projects she was always hounding me to do. He never had no beer, though, so when she really got to me, I’d go drink at her at The Thirsty Goat in Canyon, and afterwards, when my head exploded, Bob would say, “You sure got her good.” He just had a way about him, that Bob. But I digress. (Got that word from Wheel of Fortune.) The sheriff’s boys turned this junk heap Bob called home inside out—found some cash and Lucchese ostrich boots and a Rolex–but never found the jewels Bob bought with the money.

You see, me and Bob watched PBS is how I knowed where they was hid. Out here in the West Texas boondocks we wiggle the rabbit ears every which way, but PBS is about all we can get.

Gospel Bob was night janitor over in the Randall County courthouse—that’s where he did his embezzling. He pastored our little True Gospel Church for a dollar a year in what used to be the Washateria—it still smelled like soap so bad the wife couldn’t go there because she was allergic. It wasn’t no proper church with an organ and choir and hymnbooks. Some of us brought our own camp chairs, and the rest leaned against the walls where posters half-peeling off said: “No loitering. Washer, 50 cents. Dryer 30 minutes 25 cents.” The place felt more church-like after Bob got the accordion last year. Sheriff Gearhart’s wife played it, and the sheriff sang the hymns. They said he cried when he clamped the handcuffs on Bob, and I believe it. When I heard, I about cried myself.

I always liked Bob, partly because he allowed as how he was forty-five years old and got his sinning out of the way before he got born again. The wife didn’t like him, though, probably for the same reason. What she didn’t know is he kept me from running off, told me I’d feel some kind of miserable if I left and her weak heart gave out, said when I needed to get away to pay him a visit. That’s how we got to watching so much TV together.

He preached a lot about tithing—could make even us dirt-scratching farmers ante up come time for the offering. He walked the walk. He give most of his janitor’s pay to the church. He didn’t have a car. He hitched or rode a rusty old bicycle so small his knees bowed out. His only extravagance was Western stuff, like horseshoes and Navajo blankets he bought at flea markets and yard sales. His pride and joy was this great big wagon wheel chandelier from the old Stagecoach Inn fire. It was only burnt on one side. The chandelier, that is. The Stagecoach Inn pretty near burnt to the ground.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Ain’t no way a wagon wheel chandelier could fit in a trailer, not even a big old double-wide. You wouldn’t even be able to stand up under it. Well, Bob is handy. He knocked out the roof and raised that ceiling up so high, why it felt like the lobby of a grand hotel. OK, maybe I exaggerate.

Sometimes Bob would hitchhike to Amarillo. I swear by all that’s holy, I thought all he was doing was prowling the flea markets. I know for a fact that’s where he got the accordion. I never seen him myself when I was on the road—I’d of picked him up–but folks said he was a sight, standing on the highway with the dust devils and grasshoppers. He’d be holding a saddle or something and trying to thumb a ride.

Turns out this pious old bachelor was leading a double life with a bottle-blonde sweetheart named Rita over in Amarillo. Here’s how I found out. I seen it on the TV at The Thirsty Goat where they get the NBC channel pretty good. I was drinking a cold one and watching a Will and Grace re-run when the Amarillo news broke in, just when Jack was trying to tell his mother he was gay. I about fell off the stool when I seen Bob on the TV in handcuffs. Seems that Rita told the cops and TV everything when he dumped her. There she was, quite a looker, telling the reporter how Bob would come to Amarillo with a wad of cash, buy him and her some fine clothes, and they’d stay at the Marriott and order room service, the whole nine yards. They’d go around to pawn shops, and sometimes he’d buy precious gems, like diamonds. Never gave her any, she said. Sure, he didn’t. She said he stuffed them in his overalls pockets before he hitchhiked home.

It struck me funny when Rita said he’d whine about not being able to live like a rich man in his own town for fear of getting caught—he told her that was the embezzler’s curse.

Anyway, here I am in the double-wide. I bought it for a song when they auctioned off his stuff to pay back some of the money he embezzled. Told folks I wanted it for a workshop. Didn’t tell a soul about my PBS theory. See, Bob and me seen this documentary about this Russian czar who had a grand palace and rubles to burn. Besides showing off with paintings of naked ladies and gold faucets and priceless antiques, he had these jewels stuck atop the chandeliers where no one could see them. But he knew they was up there, and I guess that made him feel rich. I remember now Bob saying how silly that was, but he never said nothing about it being a good hiding place.

I held my breath when I first come inside that double-wide, my double-wide. I had to clear a path through all the junk so I could drag a step ladder over to the chandelier. I climbed up and sure enough, there they was—diamonds and sapphires and emeralds. Looked like Gospel Bob had routered out a groove in the wagon wheel so’s you couldn’t see the jewels unless you got way up high. I got dizzy standing on that ladder thinking about how rich I was. I climbed down, shaking like a whore in church.

Before I bought the double-wide and found the jewels, I used to lie awake nights stewing over how I could make the payments on my second-hand Ford 150. Now I thrash around nights stewing over what to do with my fortune. Sure, I could sell the jewels and buy ten brand-new pickups, Ford 350s, even, and I’d still be richer than sin. But I ain’t clever enough to make up a story anyone would buy. Everybody, including the wife, would suspicion the money was ill-gotten gain. I’d just end up sitting next to Bob in jail.

The wife’s on my back, after me to build her a cabinet for her sewing machine now that I got a workshop. Damn. That ain’t the worst of it, though. You know what chaps my butt? I can’t help Bob, even though I could have enough money to post bond and buy him one crackerjack lawyer like that Kardashian fellow who got O.J. off.  But I guess he’s dead anyway.

I sure do miss Bob.

Quotable

If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.

–Beverly Cleary

 

Break up Dialogue With Beats

Why does dialogue, especially in long conversations, need beats? Two reasons: 1) To anchor the reader in the scene so it doesn’t read like a ping-pong volley between talking heads, and 2) To add subtext, and 3) To add tension (I never was good at numbers.)

What are beats? They’re little actions or sometimes internal thoughts accompanying dialogue.

Anchor the Reader in the Scene

A couple working in a garden:

“Your mother called last night.” She took the tulip bulb from his extended hand.

Add Subtext

A boss meeting an employee at a busy restaurant arrives fifteen minutes late:

“You did put our name in, didn’t you?”

She resisted glancing at her watch. “Yes.”

Add Tension

Action scenes in which characters talk depend heavily on beats. A patrolman stops a speeding motorist:

“Get out of the car.”

“Yes, sir.” Slamming the car into reverse, the driver backed up, stopped, and aimed the vehicle at the officer.

Internal thought can be a good way to add tension to dialogue. Here’s a teen leaving the house to go drinking with friends:

“‘Bye, Mom. I’m meeting Carol to study at Starbucks.”

“Take your key if you’ll be out late.”

“OK.” She’s such a pushover.

The tricky part about beats is to know when, where, and how often to use them. Renni Browne and Dave King cover the subject well in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

Quotable

If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.

–Somerset Maugham

A Word’s Disturbing Origin

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 4.0

I had planned a different post for today, but it got highjacked by a thought that grabbed my mind and held it hostage. So bear with me, please.

Have you ever felt like exercising on a treadmill was torture? I know I have. But that was before I learned the disturbing origin of the word treadmill and came face to face with my own ignorance of a shameful piece of our history.

In the early 19th century, the treadmill, which only vaguely resembles its namesake, was invented in England with a dual purpose: to punish convicts and grind grain. Presumably if the punishment was sufficiently brutal, it would discourage the miscreant from further criminal activity.

The treadmill spread to the colonies and America where it caught on in prisons and workhouses. There’s an unforgettable scene in Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Invention of Wings. It’s set in the workhouse on Magazine Street in Charleston, South Carolina, where slaves sent by their masters worked the treadmill grinding corn. To punish the slave girl, Hettie, her owner sends her there. Hettie describes the treadmill as “a spinning drum, twice as tall as a man, with steps on it. Twelve scrambling people were climbing it fast as they could go, making the wheel turn.” Read the book.

Prior to its appearance in gyms and homes, the treadmmill was a device used by doctors to perform cardio stress tests. Who named it? Could the person who coined that word have been ignorant of its pedigree? Or knew it and didn’t care?

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Quotable

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.

–Elmore Leonard

Writing To Admire and Emulate

It’s no secret that I’m enamored with Janet Fitch’s writing. Here’s another example from White Oleander:

Excerpt: If I were a poet, that’s what I’d write about. People who worked in the middle of the night. Men who loaded trains, emergency room nurses with their gentle hands. Nightclerks in hotels, cabdrivers on graveyard, waitresses in all-night coffee shops. They knew the world, how precious it was when a person remembered your name, the comfort of a rhetorical question, “How’s it going, how’s the kids?” They knew how long the night was. They knew the sound life made as it left. It rattled, like a slamming screen door in the wind. Night workers lived without illusions, they wiped dreams off counters, they loaded freight. They headed back to the airport for one last fare.

My Take-away:
“If I were a poet,” then comes, in essence, a poem about people who work in the middle of the night. I love the humanity of this description that avoids “shorthand” adjectives, such as “disenfranchised” or “fringe.”

Quotable

Cheat your landlord, if you must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality anymore than you can fake a good meal.

–William S. Burroughs Continue reading Writing To Admire and Emulate