Monday, September 29, 2014

Brain tricks (part two)
          Last week in part one we thought about how our magnificent brains can be influencedeven sometimes utterly confoundedby stimuli such as optical illusion, visual context, distraction, and suggestion.  Noted architects, great composers, fine artists, magicians, and used-car salespersons are adept at myriad forms of brain trickery.  There are also many useful secret tricks in a skilled storyteller’s toolkit.

          First, of course, we must be telling a story that’s intrinsically intriguing and plausible and based on some conflict of import.  John D. MacDonald once said he would read the works of other writers either with envy or weary contempt, and what was always paramount was story, dammit, story.  Put another way, no amount of lyrical cleverness or trickery will rescue a bad story.  Conversely, a good story will nearly always survive a certain degree of clumsiness in the telling.  There are long-time best-selling novelists with vast followings who are not particularly adept at, say, realistic dialog, but who nevertheless always seem to have an engaging story to tell us.
          So, assuming we have that good story to begin with, what are some secret brain tricks we can use to make it even better?
          The next time you watch an emotional movie scene, pay close attention to the background music.  Someone once said, “It’s the violins that make you cry.”  Added to fine acting in a good story, they certainly can.  Every time.
          We writers don’t have the benefit of background music, but we do have access to the whole wonderful scope of exquisitely expressive language.  In the showing of a tender love scene or whenever we want to lead our readers to experience a reflective moment or to relax for a time or to dip into the innermost contemplation of a person in the story, we can choose smoother, longer, more soothing words with softer syllables strung out in somewhat longer sentences and paragraphs, gentling the reader along to stimulate empathy or vicarious pleasure or swelling pride.  All of this is a sort of background music, really, because it’s apart from what the words are actually saying, yet it enhances the story.   And it can work to great effect.
          Now recall that bloody shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.  The background violins shrieking hysterically, razoring our nerves.  Flashes of the shadowed killer and that wicked knife.  The beautiful bewildered victim.  The clutched curtain ripping loose, snapping its rings one by one.  Threads of blood twisting down the drain.  Those stark images scared a whole generation.
          For such a written scene, we can chose harsher words, phonetically jolting and cutting words.  Shorter paragraphs.  Sentence fragments.  Italics for the victim’s thoughts.  Again, all of this is apart from what the words are actually saying.  And again, if applied adroitly, these tricks can have stunning effect.
          We can insert a soothing scene just before we crash the reader head-on into a violent scene, which will then seem even more shocking for the sudden sharp contrast.  And isn't this often how it happens in reality, when a hellish night-cloaked tornado roars down on a serene sleeping village, or a drunk speeder runs a stop sign and T-bones a family SUV, or some deranged person pulls a gun in a holiday crowd on a fine cerulean day and begins shooting anyone in sight?  
          Using cutaways can be effective, alternating from a scene in our protagonist’s life to a scene with a scheming villain on the other side of town.  As the story action ramps up and the inevitable confrontation looms, we can shorten the cutaways, making them more choppy, more harsh-sounding and vivid.  Think of an intense movie chase with ever more rapid cutaways, with scenes reduced to breathless action flashes.  We can simply do the same with words.
          Adding a time element always enhances suspense.  This could be the cliché ticking bomb, of course, but more cleverly it could also be some time constraint such as a protagonist being caught out at night in brutally frigid gale weather but not dressed for it, facing imminent disabling hypothermia yet forced to search for a friend in danger.

          Studying any of the top writers will reveal other subtle brain tricks, and the more of them we can add to our repertoires and teach ourselves to use with skill, the more engaging and powerful our stories will be.



Monday, September 22, 2014

Brain tricks (part one)
          There’s a fascinating series on the National Geographic Channel called Brain Games.  It’s about how our miraculous brains have evolved exquisitely to learn and adapt and remember and solve problems and protect us, but also about how our brains can be influenced for better or worse and sometimes  can even be utterly confounded by optical illusions, suggestion, unusual motions, or sensory or instinct triggers. 
          Quite often the world around us is not at all what it seems to be.
          Consider, for a major example, that there are actually no colors in our world, or indeed throughout the universe.  That’s right.  No colors whatsoever.  There is only the pervasive electromagnetic spectrum, which is a wide range of colorless energy waves including many that constantly surround and bathe us but which we cannot perceive, such as microwaves, radio waves, infrared and ultraviolet waves and cosmic rays.  Included in this same broad spectrum is a relatively narrow band of waves we are attuned to and which our brains can translate into various colors.  In other words, colors occur only within our brains.  We have three kinds of cones in our retinas that receive certain wavelengths and send signals to the brain, where those incoming signals are cleverly blended to achieve millions of color shades.  And everything we perceive, including color, is influenced greatly by context.  A white sheet of paper under pink light will appear to be blue.  At twilight all color perceptions begin to fail because contrast diminishes.  The clearer the atmosphere, the closer distant objects appear to be.  The moon, which can appear to be brilliant white against the blackness of space, is actually the color of asphalt.
          For all creatures, what is seen is but a narrow range of electromagnetic waves which their brains have evolved to translate and interpret according to needs.  Bees can see ultraviolet waves to help them home in on flower nectar.  Other creatures like marine mammals are equipped with only one cone type in their eyes so must interpret their world in monochrome, but it’s all they need.  Dogs can’t perceive red, yellow, or orange nearly as well as we do, but their field of view is about 240 degrees as opposed to 180 degrees at best for us.  Their wide-angle sight helps them hunt.
          Consider that no movie you've ever seen has actually moved.  All we’re seeing on the screen is many still images presented to us in rapid succession.  As with the illusion of colors, the illusion of movie motion occurs only in our brains.  Pets probably see the flickering series of still TV  images because they’re far more sensitive to abrupt motion than we are.  Our brains automatically blend the flickering so we perceive smooth motion; it’s the only reason movies and TV work realistically for us.  And 3-D and giant-screen flicks, especially those with movable seats, can fool us into believing we’re speeding along on a roller coaster or hurtling down a ski slope or plunging through high seas, or standing on the slippery lip of a cliff, to such an extent we might actually become queasy and fearful. 
          Conjurers have long known how easily color, context, contrast, visual and mental distraction, and sensory manipulation can be employed to work their spellbinding magic for us.  Ancient architects knew that certain building elements had to be deliberately and subtly distorted so they would appear to be correctly proportioned.  There are intentionally no absolutely straight lines on the Parthenon, and the corner columns are very slightly larger and closer to the adjacent columns because they show against a bright sky, which would otherwise make them appear slimmer and farther apart than the interior columns with their darker building background.  In large part because of many such reasoned design tricks, the Parthenon remains magnificent twenty-four centuries after the Greeks built it.  (There’s a full-sized replica of it, by the way, in Nashville, of all places.)  Fine artists long ago learned how to control contrast and color and shadowing to create the illusion of depth in a two-dimensional painting.  Musicians have used subtle trickery to enhance their composed strains and evoke moods from romance to patriotism to melancholy to apprehension.  Beethoven was adept at this sort of thing, sometimes purposely introducing a jarring, dissonant phrase, for example, just so a following melodious phrase would sound all the more pleasant by contrast.  And who can resist tapping a toe to a rousing Sousa march with all its brassy, percussive trickery?  Movie makers, of course, have the benefit of such clever background music to enhance the stories unfolding on our screens.
          We writers, too, have our secret bag of effective brain tricks that can be most useful, especially in concocting suspense.
          Next Monday I’ll reveal a few of these closely-guarded secrets in part two of Brain Tricks.
If you don’t get the Geographic Channel, Google “Brain Games” for some astonishing videos that will tease and delight you.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Passing it on      
          I learned early in this tough business of writing that you can’t hope to make it on your own.  Publishing has always been a complex cooperative endeavor involving lots of folks.  And I vowed early that the least I could do would be to thank all those who help me along my way. 
          Aside from I’m sorry, a simple thank you may be the most powerful little phrase in the language when sincerely delivered.  Problem is, it’s heavily overused and abused.  How many times have you heard, “We truly appreciate your business. Your call is important to us.  We are committed to—” while you’re put on hold and made to wait until you fall asleep on top of your cell phone?  A pinnacle of insincerity. 
          I believe that an honest hand-written note, however, will always be warmly received and remembered.  I’ve tried to send them to everyone who has been kind over the years.  I’ll put an image of a new book on a 3-3/4” x 5-1/2” fold-over note so it fits in a standard 4-3/8” x 5-3/4” envelope.  There’s a simple “Thank You” across the image in white script.  Inside I’ll write a message for the person, such as, “Becky, you and your staff could hardly have been more cordial and accommodating at the signing.  I’m grateful.”  The notes go out via old-fashioned snail mail.  
          Folk who have really gone out of their way receive signed books, which I send out in tasteful white fold-together, peel-and-stick cartons I get from Staples.
          Some time back, in addition to the stores in which my publisher’s distributor placed my books, I set up two outlets on my own in the Smokies, where my stories take place (I also set up a number of other outlets nearer my home).  These mountain outlets are a Cherokee shop featuring authentic top-quality Indian arts and crafts called Bearmeat’s Den, and a restaurant in Maggie Valley called Country Vittles.  The two places alone have sold over a thousand of my books, insignificant by best-seller standards, but gratifying nonetheless.  Whenever I’ve made the day-long drive to the Smokies, I’ve visited both places, and the people there have become like family.  All of the waitresses at Country Vittles, including the owner, Judy, have read and liked the books, and talk about the characters as though they’re as real to them as they are to me. 
          How can you thank such folks? 
          They’re among the many people I’ll never be able to thank enough, much less repay, like those who’ve taken time out of frantic schedules to read and endorse my work, or to read and review it.  All I can do in those cases is pass their kindnesses on to some other strugglers as best I can.
          And I’m trying.  The biggest surprise in that endeavor is I’m discovering it can be good fun.

Monday, September 8, 2014

That’s it

          Typed “end” on my novel, Deathsman, this week at 104,520 words and 337 manuscript pages after fifteen months of often-difficult labor.  I feel bittersweet, as usual.  Naomi will criticize it unmercifully now, scraping away adverbs and sweeping clever but superfluous phrases out the door and turning clunky sentences inside-out (or rather outside-in) and patching up grammar,  and I’ll flip a switch in my brain from “Create” to “Polish” and put it through a thorough sprucing-up before sending it off to an agent I met at the Killer Nashville conference last year.  I think the story is pretty damned good, myself.  We’ll see who agrees.

          I’ve managed to cull out about 150 volumes from my home library.  Sold a few yesterday at a flea market along with some household stuff.  Now I’ll have a stamp made at Staples that says, “This book was donated by author Phil Bowie.  Phil’s books are available in print and Kindle on”  Then I’ll stamp the fly-leafs of all the remaining books and donate them to my local library, where they’ll continue giving pleasure to other addicted readers and perhaps serve as small ads for my own work.

          Rainy day today, so I’ll gather obsolete and excess paperwork from my desk and file cabinets and take a trip to the recycle center.

          All this is probably part of the novel completion process.

          I may even go through my closets.


Monday, September 1, 2014

The Culling

It’s time again to go through my accumulation of old-fashioned printed books and cull out enough of them to de-clutter the place.  Not a job I relish, but it has to be done or I’ll perish in the avalanche.

My current hoard is an estimated 375 books, which is actually lean (I've had as many as 500 on hand).  They fill the shelf space in my small office and spill over everywhere.

They include:

15 volumes on writing, such as an indispensable copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, Roget’s Thesaurus, and On Writing by Stephen King, and Hit Lit by James W. Hall.  And a new/old discovery, Professional Fiction Writing from 1978 by Jean Z Owen.  Read it if you can find a copy.

12 old editions that are worth money but are richer in nostalgia.  A 1944 edition of Tom Sawyer by the incomparable Twain.  A 1936 How to Win Friends and Influence People by Carnegie.   Several ornately-bound  books of poetry and drama, favorites of  my newspaper-reporter mother, Edith.

3 by or about Albert Einstein, and A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.  I can only dimly understand them, but I keep trying.

2 tomes on guns and other weaponry.

6 novels by foreigners such as Val McDermid, Steig Larsson, Heine Mankell and  genteel Anne Perry.

1 1996 debut romance novel, The Notebook,  by Nicholas Sparks, who lives only a few miles from my modest riverside cottage but a number of economic strata higher in an incredible 35,000-square-foot mansion that love built.

8 about the arts of magic.  One is a rare 1940 edition by H.J. Burlingame disclosing secrets of the world-famous prestidigitator Herrmann the Great, with an up-front quotation by legendary Robert Houdin: “A thorough understanding of the human mind is the necessary key to all conjuring.”  I think that’s applicable to the art of fiction writing as well, if we wish to conjure up captivating stories.

12 of my college textbooks, because I never could see sweating through a course only to abandon the book.  New Highways in College Composition, for example.  And The World’s Great Letters.  And books on art and classical architecture and science and philosophy.

7 short story volumes.  Thriller, for one.  The Cocaine Chronicles.   And Just After Sunset, by King.

1 book on wood carving that belonged to my Dad, Erol.

3 cartoon books by insane Gary Larson, and a compendium of hilarious New Yorker cartoons.  A paperback by Erma Bombeck, in my view one of the best American humorists ever birthed.  Also one by Andy Rooney.  A Rooney-ism: “If you smile when no one else is around, you really mean it.”

6 on how to fly and navigate an airplane, from my student pilot days.

5 on seamanship and sailing and small boat handling.

1 NASA operator’s manual for the Space Shuttle.  It’s 3-1/2 inches thick, in a massive ring binder, a gift from a man I knew who’s job it was to video from multiple angles all the STS launches.  I think he stole the manual from Cape Kennedy.  It’s fascinating.

A scattering of nonfiction by Bill O’Reilly, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bob Berman and others.

And many, many hardcover and paperback mysteries and thrillers , mostly by the top 20 or so best-selling authors of today and yesteryear.

Many of these books will inhabit my office the day I expire (probably from writerly frustration).  But others must go.  It’ll mean tough choices, but those culled will just have to give way to the constant influx of new volumes.  Some will depart via yard sale or donationnever by ignominious discard.

More will accumulate.  Even now I’m reading four new novels concurrently.

What does your library look like?

 99,918 words in the bank on my novel.  Enmeshed in the final difficult scenes.