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

Scratch my back, I'll scratch yours
Scratch my back, I'll scratch yours

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. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Overvaluing Our Creations

Image: I luv my Eddite
I luv my Edditer (Source: Blogspot)

How the "IKEA Effect" illustrates why writers need editors 

Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely, in his book The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic, tells of an concept dubbed "The IKEA Effect." Which means that we overvalue what we make. Even when we assemble pre-fabricated parts -- like IKEA furniture. 

If you know anything about Behavioral Economics, it turns standard economics on it's ear. Traditional Economics makes models based on assumptions. It's corner-stone assumption is that economic humans are rational, and calculate the "maximal utility" of  their decisions. 

Of course, even a cursory look at economic history makes this idea suspect. Think of the housing and internet stock bubbles. Or drill down to simpler example. Blind taste-tests show that people prefer McDonald's coffee to Starbucks' brews, yet drop $1 extra at Starbucks. 

Irrational, truth be told. 

So, Behavioral Economics begins by questioning economics' basic assumptions, using experiment instead of theory. Here is a paper from Harvard's Business School that discusses a few such experiments.  

Like all good social science experiments, Behavioral Economists' experiments are set up like a confidence game. The experimenter is the Con Artist. His subject a Patsy.

So Ariely describes an experiment he used to test the IKEA Effect. The people involved are Conman, the experimenter, and his subject, Patsy. Bystander1 & Bystander2 are people Conman recruits straight-men.

The experiment runs as follows...

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How the West Was Won -- Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the WestBlood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am really not sure of what I think about Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian . It traces the time an abandoned youth, "the Kid," spends rambling with the Galton gang through the ultra-violent days of the Wild West. At times the gang works as soldiers in the Indian Wars, slaughtering even the innocent, because they were paid per scalp. At other times, the gang acts like pure outlaw adventures -- for instance, tearing towns apart, or fleecing travelers at a ferry crossing that they commandeered. In fact, the majority of the book is filled with so much malicious gore -- both sanctioned and illicit -- that, after a while, the violence becomes dull as the reader grows inured -- "Okay. I get it. The world is often bloody, and men cruel."

But the way McCarthy writes about the cruelty is stark and evocative. He manages to bring a biblical cadence to the writing, while making his descriptions as stark and stripped-down as Hemingway. For instance...
"They rode like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote. For although each man among them was discrete unto himself, conjoined they made a thing that had not been before and in that communal soul were wastes hardly reckonable more than those whited regions on old maps where monsters do live and where there is nothing other of the known world save conjectural winds."

Indeed, McCarthy's command of language is part of the book's genius. But, unfortunately, not enough to save the book from "sagging" in the middle as the gang's catalog of atrocities grows. In fact, I left the book an my bedside for a couple weeks after getting about half way through, thinking, "where's the story?"

However, I am glad I finished. Because, like Melville before him, in McCarthy has written an evil little book, and you get the impression he feels spotless as a lamb. Indeed, Blood Meridian is even more stark than Moby Dick , and the antagonist -- the mindless cruel & sadistic, pederast & child murderer, and yet hairless and baby-like Judge -- is far more malevolent than the Great White Whale. Because, instead of representing a force of nature, the Judge is a human, who revels in humanity at its worst.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The High Price of Inequality

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do BetterThe Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An overall very interesting book that examines the negative impacts and/ or correlation of inequality on a variety social issues. While it seems to harp on the same theme -- inequality is bad for us, even the wealthy -- there are some times where I found myself thinking "correlation does not imply causation."

But the authors' case is very strong.

There seems little doubt that inequality, though, is driven by government policy. And thus reflects the hidden attitudes of those in power -- since the policies a nation's elite have followed across several decades and their effects are, rhetoric aside, the net effect of the power structures that run a country.

So what we are looking at is attitudes wrought in policies. Which impact people's lives, and come out as unequal distribution of income, with the rich getting richer, and the poor getting nothing.

The down side to this is that the United States is a negative outlier in nearly ever conceivable dimension when viewed against our peers. The rich get richer. Money flows into "cost-plus" military or engineers contracts given to influential contractors. And the profits flow to the wealthy shareholders, while those same companies move manufacturing jobs over seas.