Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Using the 7 “Primitive” Defense Mechanisms to Juice-Up Your Characters

Defense mechanisms.

We all use them to protect ourselves when reality gets "real". Problem is, they're easy to locate in others -- just read the personal sniping in the comments section of any political article. But they're hard to see in ourselves. Since seeing oneself objectively takes hard work.

Perhaps that explains why writers seldom employ defense mechanisms in their characters. Since when behind a point-of-view character's mind, we identify with them. And thus, find fessing-up to having blind-spots makes us uncomfortable? Who knows.

Regardless, when characters use the same defense mechanisms we all do, they become believable. Not despite, but because of their contradictions. And once learned, defense mechanisms are easy to deploy in your work. And once deployed, they add depth with scant effort.

Fiction Writer's Guide to the 7 "Primitive" Defense Mechanisms

1) Denial 

We deny reality to avoid the pain of having our preconceived notions shattered. We may be so afraid of something harmful, and thus ignore it.

To illustrate, consider this line uttered in the emergency room by a patient suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. “Do I drink? You mean alcohol, like an drunk? Hell, no. I only drink beer.”

2) Regression 

At age 36, actor Sean Penn found a paparazzi photographer hiding in his hotel room. A healthy adult in their mid-30’s would call security to remove the man, and perhaps press charges. Penn, however, acted like an adolescent, dangling the man from his 9th story balcony.

That’s regression. When facing a stressful event, we “regress” to an earlier stage of development.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Why Adverbs Suck for Fiction Writers (unless you need them)

Kill your adverbs -- except the ones you need.
by Leo Walsh.
The first agent I met at a 1990’s writers’ conference table glowed after hearing my novel pitch. She loved the idea, a Shakespearean tragedy with Ninja warriors on a science fiction world. So I handed her my the first chapter. She read, scowling, and thrust it back saying, “Adverbs, adverbs, everywhere… kill ‘em, then stop by again.” 
Confused, I skulked away. Kill adverbs? Why limit your linguistic toolkit? 
 Well, that agent was right. Overusing adverbs weakens your writing. To Illustrate, I lifted some text from an early-draft of a thriller I started but lost interested in. The section isn’t bad. And yet, it contains three “problem” adverbs that weaken the writing. These problems many plague writer’s group submissions I’ve read.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Genre versus Literary Fiction – Are The Two are Meeting in the Best 21st Century Novels?

A man reading great books
by Leo Walsh.
My late-80's humanities professors -- and the powerful critics who influenced them -- focused student attention on hard-to-read works: like Ulysses by James Joyce, JR by William Gaddis and Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Each took work to understand. But once you solved the puzzle each author posed, these books told gripping, humorous and psychologically and sociologically complex tales.
My teachers said these novels laid-bare the path towards literature’s future. They took the high-Modernist experiments of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and would catapult them into the 21st Century.
Problem is, the critics failed to notice that those high-art techniques, though effective, also had limitations. For instance, when James Joyce tried to reproduce a Dubliner’s sleeping consciousness in Finnegans Wake, the entire artifice falls apart. The story gets buried under layers of language and allusion that most people find incomprehensible. Even people like me, who loved Ulysses, despised Finnegans Wake.
Because, unlike Finnegans Wake,  Ulysses told a story a regular person could follow -- albeit after work.. And despite some hyper-creative word-play and experimentation, the novel’s humanity shone through the often-thorny text.
Finnegans Wake's failure should have set alarms blaring.
Unfortunately, it didn't. The critics and academics held fast. And predicted that 21st Century writing would grow ever more complex.
They were wrong.

Monday, July 15, 2013

7 Steps to Effective Copy-Editing

Most writers need an Intellgent Editer [misspellings intentional]
Most writers need an Intellgent Editer [misspellings intentional]
(Major Clanger from Flickr

by Leo Walsh.

You can find his science fiction novel even snow melts on Amazon.

Like most writers, I loathe editing. It is boring, time-consuming – but necessary. Copy-editing requires detachment. Which is difficult, since we all tend to get attached to our work – an issue I addressed earlier using the lens of Behavioral Economics' IKEA Effect.

As an indie writer, I can not afford to hire an editor. And editing my first novel, even snow melts, took me a long time.

I realized that humans struggle with new tasks: assuming I would edit better as I grew more experienced. This seems universal. But not with editing. Months later, however, I still sucked at copy-editing.

I realized a truism: “I had no process for efficient and effective editing.” And processes at work – from checklists to project management flow charts – make me more effective than many.

But how do you bring in rational process so it does not kill the creative sparkle? I think I succeeded. But it required discovering a free online copy-editor called Pro Writing Aid (

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Don't Badger Readers with the "Never-Ending Plot Line"

You want me to read 20,000 pages to get to the punchline?
You want me to read 20,000 pages to get to the
punchline? (Titanic Belfast on Flickr)

...Learning from Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, Terry Pratchett and C.K. Chesterton

by Leo Walsh

Creative writing, like all arts, lacks rules: There is no algorithm that will provide a reliable best seller every time. There are conventions, of course -- writers workshop saws like "show, don't tell" and "kill your adverbs -- find stronger verbs" for instance.

In practice, there is considerable lee-way; readers read for the story, and not the mechanics. For instance, many Postmodern novels break the "Third Wall," and announce that there is a narrator telling a story -- Slaughterhouse Five comes to mind. This is a writer's workshop taboo. Yet, Vonnegut's wonderful character, the hapless Billy Pilgrim, and creative treatment of the themes of the pointlessness of war keeps me rereading the story every few years.

By the way, Vonnegut enchants, makes me laugh and covers an immense theme in 288 pages. That's writing.

But there are, of course, trends in an publishing. At present, most Fantasy -- from Urban to High Fantasy -- suffers from the "Multi-Tome Epic Arc" plague.

Fantasy author Charles de Lint's book review column in the July 2013 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction addressed this trend, and solidified my thoughts on epics, which has bothered me for many years. He maintains, and I concur, that focusing on marketing the Series instead of creatively writing an excellent book is hurting the Fantasy genre. 

Genre fiction, even in its pulpiest days, was never like this. De Lint mentions the Edgar Rice Boroughs' John Carter books as examples -- stand-alone books filled with brilliant characters with quirky action. Rice Boroughs draws readers into his world, introducing them to setting and characters in the course of storytelling. Once a reader completes one of his books, Rice Boroughs offers an invitation. If you like Mars and John Carter and wanted more, you could buy another book. If you didn't, at least you read a rousing good yarn that resolved.

If this is the high-road, contemporary authors frequently take the low-road. They withhold the "ending" by finishing a novel on a cliff-hanger. This engages the human bias for completion. Whether readers like a book or not, they desire completion. Which manipulates them into buying the next book in the series.

The high-road is an invitation to read more. The low-road manipulates people into buying a book. Both de Lint and I find the practice tawdry. It leads to predictable books with comfortable plots instead of forcing a writer to "dig deep," and produce something original. One need only compare a classic like Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle to Robert Jordan's interminable, albeit popular, Wheel of Time series to sense the difference.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Scratch my Back, I'll Scratch Yours

Reciprocity -- Scratch my back, I'll scratch yours
Help another, and they'll [be more likely] help you.
(Source: Regis-AND from Deviant Art)

The amazing social power of Reciprocity.

#2 In the Series "Applied Social Psychology"

by Leo Walsh

What makes Cognitive Science and Social Psychology fascinating to me is that we are very much "hard wired" to behave in almost scripted ways. There are itches that, try as we may, we have to scratch. Some of it is how we were raised, but a solid majority seems to be inherited. 

Arizona State University psychologist dubs one of these tendencies "Reciprocity." Which is just a fancy way of saying "One good turn deserves another." Or, "Scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." Regardless of the content, if a person does you a good turn, you are much more likely to comply with a request from them. Because we seem to maintain an internal "tit for tat" scorecard.

This is great under normal circumstances. But people can use this knowledge to exploit our better natures. This article examines Reciprocity in some depth.

I. The case of the Hare Krisna's

In his famous book on social psychology, Influence, Dr. Cialdini uses the case of the Hare Krisnas to illustrate the Reciprocity Principle.

The Hare Krisnas -- popular name for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) --  are Hindu religion based upon that country's ages deep religious traditions. It became popular with many Westerners during the late 60's. For instance, former Beatles' member George Harrison's song "My Sweet Lord," is a hymn to Lord Krisna.

However, most people in America and Britain found the Krisna's religion foreign. This posed serious fundraising issues for ISKCON. That was before, of course, the group stumbled upon an ingenious way to increase it's haul.

It went like this....
  1. A group of devotees would gather in a public place, typically an airport.
  2. They would approach a person, and give the passer-by a flower. They would insist. "It's a gift," and refuse to take it back
  3. After they "gave" the "gift," the Krisna Member would proffer their top jar. 
  4. As a result, their donations increased markedly, allowing ISKCON to purchase several large communal farms.
Notice that few "donors" supported the Krisna religion. Even fewer knew who they were. Most found them a nuisance. In fact, the comedy classic Airplane spoofs their tactice, where Robert Stack fights through a phalanx of Krisnas and other groups collecting alms.

II. Dennis Regan's experiment on returning a favor

And yet they gave. Why? Cialdini calls this type of knee-jerk reaction to social stimuli "Click-whirr."

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Science and the "Experimental Method?" -- [un]Common Sense (Pt. 3)

Image: The bottle Louis Pasture used to detect bacterial activity
The bottle Louis Pasture used to detect
bacterial activity (Wikimedia Commons)
by Leo Walsh

A lot of science relies on experiments. But not all. Massimo Pigliucci, a professor at the City University of New York, examines this issue in his wonderful book,  Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk,

Pigliucci re-considers the notion of experimentation as the "end all" of science. He lists out a series of scientific disciplines that resemble detective work rather than mad scientist, surrounded by test tubes: examples include climate science and geology. In these disciplines, scientists gather data and then "connect the dots," but cannot not run controlled experiments.

The hard sciences, like chemistry and physics, deal with simpler systems according to the author. Biological, cognitive and social sciences, by contrast, study much more complex systems.

An electron, for example, will not have it's trajectory influenced by an argument with its wife. Humans, on the other hand, are messy.