Tagwriting

What exactly goes on in the brain of a writer?

The New York Times reports on fMRI studies on what exactly goes on in the brain while people write. The first version of the study was conducted with amateur writers. The second was conducted with experienced creative writers. The researchers found that there were differences between the brain regions used while brainstorming and actually writing, and between the amateurs and professionals. But not everyone is impressed with the research:

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, was skeptical that the experiments could provide a clear picture of creativity. “It’s a messy comparison,” he said.

Dr. Pinker pointed out that the activity that Dr. Lotze saw during creative writing could be common to writing in general — or perhaps to any kind of thinking that requires more focus than copying. A better comparison would have been between writing a fictional story and writing an essay about some factual information.

Full Story: New York Times: This Is Your Brain on Writing

Mindful Cyborgs: Globalization, Writing and Japan

A quick catch-up episode in which Chris Dancy talks about his trip to Japan and the effects of globalization, and I talk a bit about the cognitive experience of writing. Here’s a taste:

One of them being this writer Arnon Grünberg who I think has actually might have been on Wired. I’m not sure. No. Where was it? Actually, it was New York Times. He is writing a book while he is connected to a bunch of sensors hundreds of sensors on his head, on his body and the book will be read by people wearing similar sensor. So, they have a bunch of volunteers to see if they can sync the feelings of what he wrote and what people experienced and I thought quite profound that we have almost a shared biological experience with the writing.

It was on November 29th. So, just couple of weeks ago in New York Times. Thoughts?

KF: That’s really interesting. I’d be curious to see what they find. I find the writing and reading are radically different experiences for me. So, I wouldn’t really expect the writer and the reader to really have synchronized experiences but I’m definitely curious to see how that plays out.

CD: I’ve never written fiction. So, if you’re like typing out a scene, I’m sure a lot of our listeners maybe aren’t writers, maybe some of them aren’t writers, professional, but when you’re doing science fiction and you’re in a really dramatic scene, you don’t get excited or you’re just seeing it and typing how it feels almost like you’re a court recorder or how does that work for you?

KF: Well, for me most of it . . . every writer’s different. I guess for me most of it is I already know what I’m going to write before I start typing it. So, by the time I’m trying to describe it, I think I’m a little bit more detached from the emotion of it and then the other thing to keep in mind is that. I don’t know what the saying is “75% of writing is rewriting” or whatever. Most of the time that you spend you spend on something is going to be revising it over and over again. So, I don’t know by the time you’re done, a lot of the visceral or emotional impact that you would expect to get from reading something is kind of worn off and you’re just sort of sick of reading the same sentence over and over again trying to figure out how to improve it.

CD: That’s really interesting.

KF: There are writers who don’t really know . . . I know that there are definitely a lot of writers who don’t really know what’s going to happen in a scene when they sit down and write it. I imagine that that would be kind of a different . . . they would be working in a very different state from me but I would still expect most of their time to be spent on rewriting and I would also expect . . . I would still expect like that feeling of sort of channeling creativity to be different from just reading it but again we’ll have to see how it plays out.

Download and Full Transcript Mindful Cyborgs: Episode 19 – Review, Musings, and Catch Up

Neil Gaimon Interview from 1993

I’ve been looking for this article for a long time. This particular quote was really important for me:

My old school got me in a few times to do “careers advice.” I was the token writer, and people would come up to me and say “How do I get to be a writer?” and I said “Well, first of all, if you can do anything else, do that. You know, there are lots of other things you can do that are an awful lot more fun, pay a lot better, will let you sleep far easier.” [laughs]

I also really like this bit:

Your fans are known as serious gift-givers. Jill Thompson says you’ve probably gotten more tapes than any writer at Musician magazine.

NEIL: Most of the tapes I’m given are terrible. You know, Scandanavian death-metal or whatever. You know: [sings in a deep, slightly American voice] “Oh, Morpheus, come down from the sky and give me good dreams CHA-DUNG CHA-DUNG CHA-DUNG” or one guy accompanies himself on a harmonium or whatever.

Well, that last one sounds interesting…

NEIL: It wasn’t. But I still play them. I had a tape given to me in San Diego a couple of years ago by somebody who said “A friend of mine is a huge Sandman fan, she’s just recorded this, she wants you to have it, she talks about you on one of the songs.” About three weeks later I got around to playing it, and it was terrific. Absolutely stunning. There was an address on it, and I wrote to her and said, “I think it’s wonderful, and thank you very much for mentioning me on the song,” and that was Tori Amos, and that was the tape that later became a number of tracks on Little Earthquakes.

Full Story: Neil Gaiman Interview, Hero Illustrated #4 (October 1993)

I’d give that same advice to anyone else considering a career in writing. I tried to find something else I could do for living, but I was never able to.

I thought I remembered a part with him talking about deciding to become a journalist, but I guess it was a different interview from around the same time. I did find this interview with him telling more or less the same story:

I’d always wanted to be a writer and I had a really bad night, the kind of long dark night of the soul, one of those nights you only get once or twice in a lifetime and I got one when I was about 20. I remember being unable to sleep and about four in the morning I keep thinking “I keep thinking I’m a writer. I like to think I could write stuff just as good as anybody else out there but I’m not really doing anything about it.” And that’s not the bad thing. What’s the bad thing is that in 50 or 60 years time I could be on my deathbed and I would say to myself, “I could’ve been a writer,” and I wouldn’t know if I was lying or not. It was the long dark night of the soul that genuinely changes everything. So I said “Okay, I’m gonna try and be a writer because even if I’m not, at least I’ll know that I’m not.” So I started writing. I wrote a children’s book, I wrote a bunch of short stories, and a lot of other stuff and sent them out to people . . .and the stories came back. Then I thought, “I’m doing this wrong. Either I’m not a very good writer (which I choose not to believe), or I’m doing this wrong. I want to understand how publishing and all that works. So I got up the next morning and said, “All right, I’m now a journalist. I’m a freelance journalist.” So I got on the phone to editors and pitched them story ideas about things I wanted to write and by the end of the day—by dint of lying cheerfully about previous experience—I now had several commissions and then had to turn them in.

FWOMP: And how did that go?

Neil Gaiman: It actually went fine although I must say as long as I had a typewriter, which was probably the next couple of years, there was a piece of paper taped to it that said, “Don’t let your mouth write no check that your tail can’t cash.” I think that’s a quote from Muddy Waters. And every now and then it would make me think, “I just got myself into a book contract. How the fuck did that happen? What do I do? I’ve never written a book and now I have a book contract.” So I’d write books. But it was good. There’s nothing for getting you good fast like having to be good fast, if that makes any sense.

Writing While Black

Black Panther

David Brothers writes:

What Alex is referring to here is something I’m going to call “writing while black,” because I honestly don’t know if there’s a proper term for it yet. In short, there’s a tendency for a certain subset of comics fans to view books written by black writers with a suspicious eye. The motivations of the writers come into question. Sometimes that suspicion manifests itself as viewing a book as a “black book” instead of a regular old comic book. Other times, it’s a kind of defensive, twisted white guilt, like when fans declared that Black Panther and Storm were only getting married because they’re black, and how offensive that is. (They didn’t. It’s not.) And other times, it’s just straight up racism, of course.

The specific thing that Alex is getting at, though, are the times when fans look at a book written by a black writer that feature a black character winning at something (or even being present, which I suppose is a type of win in and of itself) and go, “Hmmm… I dunno about all this. This seems pretty anti-white/preachy/political/angry/etc.” The accusations tend to reveal more about the complainer than the complained, in my experience. Nine times out of ten, it isn’t what they say it is.

Full Story: Comics Alliance: I’m David: Writing While Black and ‘One-Punch Man’

(via Ian MacEwan)

Top Science Writers On Making Complex Subjects Accessible

The Guardian did a group interview of five of the six nominees for the the Royal Society’s Winton prize for science books 2012 — Steven Pinker, James Gleick, Brian Greene, Lone Frank and Joshua Foer.

Here’s an exchange between Greene and Pinker:

How has the formal, technical way scientists write journal papers affected popular science writing?

BG: I was looking back over some quantum mechanics papers from the 1920s and in one article the scientist described an accident in his laboratory when a glass tube exploded, a nickel got tarnished and he heated it to get rid of the tarnish – he went through the whole story himself in the technical article. You don’t really see that much these days. I don’t know if that is a one-off example, I haven’t done an exhaustive study, but have journal articles moved away from telling the story of discovery to just a more cut-and-dried approach?

SP: They have; I think that’s been documented. There is scientifically a problem with that, as opposed to narrating what happened. The problem is that since you’re under pressure from the journal editor to tell your story leading up to your conclusion without talking about all the blind alleys and accidents, it actually distorts the story itself because it inflates the probability that what you discovered is really significant. If you tried 15 things that didn’t work and one thing that did work and didn’t talk about the 15 that didn’t work, then the statistic that makes it significant is actually mistaken. The statistic has to be computed over all of the experiments you ran, not just the one that happened to work. In the social sciences especially, we’re seeing that there’s a lot of damage done by the practice of only reporting the successes and telling the story as if it was a straight line to a successful result.

Full Story: The Guardian: Science writing: how do you make complex issues accessible and readable?

Literary Fiction As Genre

Edan Lepucki posits that literary fiction is indeed genre fiction and lists its attributes:

1. The Long Title
2. Adultery
3. Scene, Exposition, Scene, Flashback, Scene, Cue Epiphany
4. A Dog barks, someone eats a watermelon, a car drives away.
5. The plate drops!

Full Story: Literary Fiction is a Genre: A List

(via Coe)

Coders Can’t Put Writers Out Of A Job Yet, But We’d Better Watch Our Backs


Screenshot from Current, see Ethan Zuckerman’s post for an explanation

I wrote for TechCrunch about the way automation and machine learning algorithms may start putting writers out of jobs:

Discovering news stories is actually the business that Narrative Science wants to get into, according to Wired, and CTO Kristian Hammond believes finding more stories will actually create more jobs for journalists. I’m not so sure. It will depend on a few things, like how much more efficient writers can be made through technology and how much risk publishers will take on “unproven” story ideas vs. safe computer generated ideas. The idea behind Current was that it could help publishers find lucrative stories to run to subsidize more substantial reporting. Of course publications will continue to run original, differentiating human written reporting. But the amount resources dedicated to that sort of content may change, depending on the economics of automation.

And the possibilities get weirder. Look at drone journalism. Today drones, if they are used at all, are just used to extend journalists capabilities, not to make us more efficient or replace us. But how could drones change, say, event or travel coverage in coming years? Will one reporter with a suitcase full of drones and a server full of AI algorithms do the work of three?

TechCrunch: Coders Can’t Put Writers Out Of A Job Yet, But We’d Better Watch Our Backs

Previously: DARPA Training Computers to Write Dossiers

10 Hand to Hand Combat Myths That Writers Need To Stop Using

Andrew Jack lists his top 10 fighting myths:

  • You Can Kill Someone by Shoving Their Nose Back Into Their Brain
  • Getting Knocked Out Is No Big Deal
  • Pressure Points Work In Real Fights
  • A Kick To The Groin is Game Over
  • A Kick To The Groin Is Just Painful
  • Grappling Beats Everything
  • Grappling Is Useless In Real Fights
  • You Can Punch People In The Head With Impunity
  • Complex, Esoteric Martial Arts Are Better
  • Martial Arts Guarantee A Win

Full Story (with more detail for each myth): Andrew Jack Writing: 10 Hand to Hand Combat Myths That Writers Need To Stop Using

(via Cat Vincent)

Warren Ellis on Hunter S. Thompson’s Legacy

In a wide ranging interview with Disinfo’s Matt Staggs, Transmetropolitan writer Warren Ellis discussed the legacy of Hunter S. Thompson.

You can listen to or download the interview at Disinfo. Here are some of the points Ellis made:

  • In Transmet Ellis was more interested in the effects of celebrity on Thompson.
  • Celebrity had a corrosive effect on Thompson. Although he became more well known, he was portrayed as a cartoon character and that resulted in him being defanged and not taken seriously.
  • Because Thompson’s work is so seductively well written, it can actually be a bad influence on writers who try to imitate his style.
  • The point of drawing on 60s and 70s politics in Transmet was to show how little things had changed in the 90s and 00s when Ellis was writing it, and how unlikely it was that things would change substantially in the future.

I love Thompson’s work but think he can be a bad influence on writers and journalists who wind up writing crappy prose in an attempt to be edgy and play it fast and loose with the facts to be “gonzo.” And because of his image and style, his message was often lost. Too many people remember him as a character.

China’s Freemium Self-Publishing System is Working

… at least for serialized genre fiction writers:

These aren’t Authonomy-esque, publish-and-be-encouraged-by-fellow-writers sorts of sites, though, or even collections of self-published novels. The websites host what is being dubbed “freemium” publishing. Publishing Perspectives has more details: a growing number of self-publishing websites host thousands of free-to-read web serials – anything from historical epics to sci-fi – posted by their authors. As a serial gathers critical mass, the author is invited to become a “VIP”, and readers have to pay for the new instalments – only a few yuan, but these micropayments from readers can number in the millions: China Daily reports that one author, the 26-year-old Huang Wei, makes more than more than Y1m a year (£100,000).

The Guardian: Has China found the future of publishing?

See also: Writers: you can make a living selling e-books on the Kindle

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