Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Now, tell the truth: Can you type?

Since Shock and Awe is now available in many Barnes and Noble bookstores, some of the students in a novel-writing class at a local college (a class I once attended, I might add) organized a signing. It was great fun; the Q&A went on for a good hour, no doubt throwing the class quite off schedule.

At one point someone asked how fast I write, and I replied that my average was a page per minute. But, then, I added, my typing skills are limited to four digits (left index, right index, right middle, and the left thumb for the space bar).

The professor then surprised us by announcing that he was limited to two index fingers ("Like a chimp with a typewriter.") He has knocked out roughly forty books this way since the 1970s, and he claims he averages 65 word a minute--"Too fast to be able to afford to learn to do it right."

I was thinking about this because a while back Alis Hawkins had a post on her blog that mentioned:

I know that lots of longhand first drafters say that when they type up what they’ve written and see the words appearing as print onscreen, they immediately see what needs to be changed, rewritten etc. The change from scrawl to ‘clean text’ seems to be part of the editing process.

That, coupled with the fact that my handwriting looks ridiculous, is one of the reasons I compose onscreen--the need to transcribe it would be incredibly painful. Putting words down out of my head isn't so bad, but I find transcription, even of my own words, to be tedious and headache-inducing. (Apparently JRR Tolkein wrote all of his manuscripts in long-hand, and then, after massive rewrites and revisions, typed them up himself. He claims that the books were long in coming because he couldn't afford to pay for "typing by the ten-fingered.")

The how-do-you-compose is probably the question writers get asked most frequently. (In moveis, of course, they compose on actual typewriters, because the hammering is so much more cinematic.) But the question that is left often asked is, can you, in fact, really type? With all ten fingers? (I've met several now who can't.)

Well, can you?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Good Books and Rereadable Books

I'm a big rereader, and there are books I return to again and again.

I won't try to sort out why I'm this way, as I don't know, and sorting it out might confront me with some unflattering truths. (Such as the fact that I have the emotional make-up of a five-year-old, and want to hear the same story over and over.)

But what puzzles me is that there are books I greatly enjoyed and admired that I feel no urge to revisit. Most of the Pynchon canon, for example. Ditto Jean Rhys. Much of Nabokov (although I expect to reread Lolita and some of the short stories a few more times before I go to that great library in they sky). I'm reading At Swim-Two-Birds right now, and having a great time, but despite that I doubt that it will land on my To Read stack again.

You might be tempted to remark that of course these are literary fiction, and therefore challenging rather than comforting, or some similar bit of reasoning. Nope, that's not it. I find much of Evelyn Waugh, and Robertson Davies, and John Barth, and Donald Barthelme, and several others, to call to be reread. Heck, I even want to revisit John Hawkes at times, and he's just plain difficult. (And Gatsby and Sun Also Rises get reread, but that goes without saying; and, in any case, both of them are easy reading as well as instruction manuals on craft.)

It isn't a literary thing. I once cheerfully read Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, but doubt I'll take them off the shelf again. Yet I've plowed through O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels more times than I care to admit. And, sure, O'Brian is a far greater writer--one you can read for the sheer joy of his prose--but that's not the key. I've also read Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy a few times, and expect to read it again...even though no one would ever mistake Asimov for a master of prose, and even though his characters are largely interchangeable, not only within a given novel, but between completely different books.

I think Alan Furst is brilliant, but I can't imagine I'd reread his novels. Some of James Ellroy, on the other hand, calls out for multiple perusals. Chandler, I want to reread. Hammett, not so much. How come? Dunno.

There's a third category here, too: Books I reread because I foolishly read them too young the first time around. In the last few years, this has included Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I was absorbed in them when I read them in my youth, but they were beyond me in many ways. Having reread them, I might or might not reread them again. Depends on how long I live, I suppose.

Come to think of it, there's a fourth category, nostalgia books. Here I'd place Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. Possibly Poe. (And possibly not. Poe is confusing. When you're young you think he's marvelous because he's so shocking, morbid, and gloomy. Get a little older, and the excesses of the language seem a bit silly. Get older yet, and you see that those excesses were carefully crafted, and that they author is winking at you from between the lines. I veer from thinking I've outgrown him to thinking I'm finally catching up with him, and expect a few more of these cycles over the coming decades.) These books are like visiting the old neighborhood, and it's hard not to be comforted by them.

I'm glad I don't have to try to justify my preferences under cross-examination, because many of the books I value are books I don't care to read again, and some of the books I choose to reread don't have clear and obvious virtues. When it comes down to it, I have no idea why I read what I read in the first place, much less a second time around.

No wonder the publishers and booksellers are always nervous. If I'm any kind of example of the public, they have good reason to wonder what the hell people could be thinking.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Motivate Your Writing! by Stephen P Kelner, Jr (Part 2)

Now that we know statistics show that writers are megalomaniacs, we might wonder why we aren’t out leading the French Army against Russia, or at least dressing up in cone-pointed bras and vogueing on stage with Madonna. Kelner has an answer for this, too, though it requires some background.

There is a psychological tool called a Picture Story Explanation. (Those with good memories may recall Malcolm McDowell’s Alex being shown short versions of these in his hospital bed in the penultimate scenes of the movie A Clockwork Orange.) PSEs display an ambiguous situation and then ask the subject to tell—or write down—a story to explain what is happening. There are long and short versions; five minutes of writing and thirty minutes of writing are common.

PSEs are used to measure all manner of things. One of them is “activity inhibition,” sometimes simply called “socialization.” The simplest way to measure this is to merely search for the occurrence of the word “not” in the narrative of the PSE (including the “n’t” suffix).

Thirty-minute PSEs average 450 words. An average American will use 1.75 “nots” in those 450 words. If an American uses more, then he or she is well-socialized; that is, they are able to channel and control their basic motivations. Someone well-socialized may want to compel others to act in certain ways, but they are more likely to do this by exhortations than by fisticuffs.

While an American is well-socialized at a mere two “nots,” however, our British cousins aren’t considered well behaved unless they include at least four “nots” in every 450 words. (At the risk of perpetuating the mirror-reflection stereotypes of the inhibited Brit, researchers have found that among the French, Italians, and Spanish, even one “not” is considered massively socialized. Ah, those hot-blooded Mediterranean types.)

As enjoyable as it is to have our prejudices reinforced, that wasn’t the point of this discussion. Let’s recap those cultural differences. To be considered significantly inhibited, people display the following “not” frequency:

French, Italians, Spanish: 1 or more
Americans: 2 or more
British: 4 or more

The average for published writers in Kelner’s survey is 18. Should I spell that out? E-i-g-h-t-e-e-n. Twice nine, three times six. A whole buncha nots.

Kelner quotes psychologist David McClelland: “When a typical person gets mad at you, he hits you. When a mystery writer gets mad at you, he takes a year to write a novel killing you off.”

So, as a group we writers are all so power-mad as to be dangerous; but luckily for the safety of our streets, we’re all so inhibited that this drive all gets channeled into furious scribbling.

I’m afraid I’m giving a distorted impression of Kelner’s book, since I’m dwelling on the parts that interested me the most. In fact, Kelner’s book is about how to motivate yourself to write—not a problem that most of the visitors to this blog probably have.

Confused, frustrated, even sometimes blocked, we might well be at times; but I don’t think most of us have trouble finding the motivation for writing. Finding a way to channel that impulse elsewhere might be a more useful self-help book for many of us.

At any rate, if you want to write but don’t seem to be motivated to write but still want to write anyway, whatever the heck that means, this book might help you.

My advice, though: If you don't want to write, fer heaven's sakes don't write. For some it's a pleasure, for others an affliction, and for many it's both. But what it definitely isn't, is a duty.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Motivate Your Writing! by Stephen P Kelner, Jr (Part 1)

This is an unusual book, which I came across in a spirited discussion on a writer’s forum. From the title one might assume that it is about the problem of character motivation, but, no: This book purports to explain why writers write.

Now, I’ve always wondered why writers write, though secretly I’ve always assumed it was because they couldn’t dance. Here was my chance to find out for sure.

As it turns out, while the book examines the motivations for writing, the thrust of this treatise is describing how to motivate yourself to write. Now, that’s baffling. If you don’t want to write, then cry hallelujah and go do something else. I can see why someone who doesn’t want to exercise might want a book on how to motivate yourself to exercise, or why a student who doesn’t want to buckle down and study would want a book on how to become studious, but if breathing is the least optional of human activities then surely writing is at the polar opposite end of that continuum. Many people have not written and have apparently suffered no ill effects, while many who have in fact written have suffered greatly.

Lawrence Block once said, as an illustration of nutty thinking, that many writers were afraid to stop writing because they might discover that they liked not writing and then they’d stop writing even though they didn’t want to. Well, I’m crazy, but I’m not that crazy. If I really don’t want to do something, I start casting about for a way to avoid it, not for ways to make myself do it.

Even though I clearly am not the target demographic for this book, I admit that it’s damned interesting material. The author is a motivational psychologist, and the leaders of his field have broken down human motivations beyond the basics (hunger, thirst, sex, etc.) into three main categories: Affiliation, Achievement, and Power. Beyond getting wined, dined, and laid, the reason we persist in any activity is supposedly one of those three motivators. Now, I think these could be better named, but that’s academia for you. Here’s what these are all about:

Affiliation. This means maintaining or extending relationships with others in your life. If you write for affiliative reasons, then you do it to please friends or relatives and to cement existing bonds. What close associates think of your work is vitally important to you, more important than what a wider public thinks of your work; more important, in fact, than your assessment of the intrinsic worth of the work.

Achievement. This one is particularly poorly named. “Achievement” is not necessarily a matter of recognition or awards; it can be nothing more than being motivated by a desire to accomplish certain artistic tasks to one’s own standards of excellence. Better terms might be “craftsmanship,” or “originality,” or “mastery.” Achievement can be satisfied in many ways depending on your own goal; the goal might be writing a story that rivals Joyce’s The Dead, or might it be writing a comprehensible novel without ever using the letter “k.” It might or might not matter whether your friends or relatives like it, and it might not matter if it is published; the only criterion is whether or not you met your stated goal as you perceive it.

Power. Again, a bad name. “Power” in motivational psychology apparently refers to “influence” or “having an impact.” Having power means that you can affect others—either convert them to your way of thinking, or open up new vistas for them, or, hell, just make them laugh or cry.

Motivational psychologists have studied people and developed profiles of the extent to which individuals are driven by these three poorly named factors. The author has also conducted such interviews with published writers. Care to guess which factors predominate?

Published writers rank far below the average on Affliation*. They might care what Mom or Uncle Bob think, but not as much as most people, and when it comes to friends, I guess writers figure that if their friends don’t like their writing, it’s time for a new set of friends.

You’d think writers would be high on Achievement*. Writing is one of the most painstaking of crafts, and every story or novel must succeed in its own framework. The archetype of the novelist is someone obsessively scribbling away in a garret, sure of his or her genius—possibly grumbling about being misunderstood, or possibly serene in the knowledge that their masterpiece will be recognized as a major work of art. Sorry. Published writers rank far lower on this measure of motivation than normal, nonwriting folk. (Note the caveat that these are published writers. The confident genius in the garret may be a perfect description of the average unpublished writer.)

Sorry to be the bearer of this tiding, but where published writers’ motivational energy is high is in Power*. Yep. We’re power-hungry nutjobs, driven by this mad lust to a far greater extent than Joe Citizen. “Power” isn’t a particularly popular word with delicate flowers like us, but there it is.

A friend of mine attended graduate school in psychology. On the opening day of a class in communication theory, the professor said that he wanted to start with a statement that he considered self-evident, but that many students would take issue with: The purpose of communication is to effect a change in another person.

The statement caused a slow but increasing uproar. Why, that isn’t communication—that’s manipulation! I don’t communicate in an attempt to change anyone—I’m just sharing! I’m not trying to affect anyone else—I just want them to understand me! And so on, ad, I gather, relatively infinitum.

That’s us, I’m afraid. People might write for any number of reasons, but those who go through the trouble to publish their writing want to effect a change in the readers. The goal might be as big as changing the reader’s mind about some social issue, or as small as changing the reader’s mood.

We’re power-mad. How about that?

More on this topic in the next post.
*If you’d like the hard numbers, published writers scored in the 20th percentile on Achievement and the 18th percentile on Affiliation, meaning that about 80 percent of the population is more driven by Achievement and Affiliation. On the other hand, published writers scored in the 88th percentile on Power…