23 February 2013

Questions and Answers

My other half rarely gives a short answer if he can tell you everything he knows about the topic in question. When the little people ask why the sea goes in and out, they're treated to information about the moon, gravity, spring tides, king tides etc. He does explain it in terms you can understand, but it's not a short answer. Likewise when I ask anything technical about the inner workings of my laptop or car.

I've learned (through long experience!) to preface any question with the words, 'I don't have much time, can I have the bullet point answer please.' It doesn't usually make any difference!

Today he met his match. We have just finished a few maintenance jobs and needed to match the paint for the outside of the house to repaint the porch. We didn't know the exact shade and took a small sample to our local DIY store, and started checking the paint charts.

If you've done this recently you'll know there are hundreds, if not thousands of shades. Fortunately the resident expert was on hand. He was extremely helpful with a good eye for colour matches. With his help we decided on the closest shade. Then he asked what building materials were used for the house. From there he began telling us about the different types of paint required for various building materials, and what can happen if you use the wrong type...

At this point I tuned out. My husband doesn't give up so easily, and carried on with the conversation, though he only managed to get in a few brief comments. I found it hard to keep a straight face watching him on the receiving end, and to stop myself laughing I had to wander away and pretend great interest in some chairs I didn't want.  

Needless to say he didn't see any similarity between this and his long answers to short questions. I enjoyed it, and it made a boring trip to the DIY store very entertaining. 

By the way, the colour match of the paint is excellent.

22 February 2013

Train Your Brain

Much of my 'day' work is in the area of learning and development. I've always been interested in how we learn, and what we can do to retain more of what we learn. That knowledge would have been useful when I took exams at school.

Here are a couple of learning tips I like because I also relate them to writing. Some of the links are tenuous, but that's how my brain works!

One thing that teachers have always known, and anyone sitting through a long PowerPoint presentation, is that we don't pay attention to boring things. Apparently research shows we check out after ten minutes. Believe me I've sat through some presentations and not even reached the ten-minute mark before my mind was somewhere else.  On the positive side emotion helps the brain to learn. There are talks I heard 5+ years ago that I remember clearly, because the presenter used stories or created a talk rich in emotion.

How does this apply to writing. Boring is not going to cut it, especially in fiction. If you absolutely have to read a non-fiction book for a test or exam then you'll do it, but how much better if you can enjoy what you're reading. Non-fiction doesn't have to mean dry and boring, we can use stories and anecdotes to make information relevant and easier to remember.

In fiction if the story doesn't grab me I'll put the book down. What does hook us is emotion. What type of emotion? That depends on your genre. The emotion used for a horror book will be different to writing a romance - at least I'd hope so, though I enjoy a touch of humour added to most things.

We have short and long-term memory. Moving something from short-term to long-term memory works better if we can link it to relevant existing knowledge or memories. Retrieving a piece of information, such as a name or a memory,  is much like searching for a book in a library - the better the storage system, the easier it is to retrieve what we want.

As you probably already knew, smell is very good at triggering memory.

How to use these things in writing. I watched the start of a mystery/thriller a few nights ago. A lone police officer turned up at an isolated house in a desert area. He walked around the house knocking on doors and windows, but couldn't get any answer. Up to that point it had been silent, but then came the sound of a single fly. Aha - there has to be a dead body. The viewer or reader links new information to current knowledge. 

There is an informal agreement between the writer and the viewer/reader. This is basically that if we put emphasis on something, the reader will assume it is important. If the police officer had merely swatted the fly and driven off, I would be unhappy, as I expected more. If we name and describe a character the reader puts effort into remembering this person. Futile and annoying if the character is just delivering pizza and doesn't play any further role. As the quote goes, 'If you put a gun in the first act, then it should be fired in the second act.'  In the case of the thriller, as the police officer approached the shed so the buzzing increased, as did the number of flies once he turned the corner.

Don't forget to use smell in your descriptions. I'm sure that became pertinent to the police officer as he got closer to the body. Smell is very evocative, and too often we spend a lot of time on visual descriptions and forget this very important sense. Likewise sound, the buzz of that single fly was a strong signal for what was to come

Now I just need to remember to apply all this. Simple!

10 February 2013

Taste of Summer

A hot drive along narrow dusty tracks. Collect cardboard baskets from the gloomy barn. The best strawberries are in the distant corner of the field, where lazy folk don't go.

Sunny afternoons picking strawberries. Shorts and t-shirt stained with red juice and dust.

The drive back to town, windows open to catch the breeze, singing along to the radio.

Jam was a mistake, too many hours of boiling. Search through the recipe books for something else. 

Another hot day, and another visit to the farm.

Cream, strawberries and sugar. Mix and freeze slightly. Mix again and freeze.

After all the years and miles, I still remember the taste.

08 February 2013

Adventures in the Outside World

A few days ago workmen descended on a neighbouring house, armed with noisy machines and a loud radio. They made it almost impossible for me to think, let alone work. Desperate measures were needed. No, not murder most foul, but a trip to the outside world.

I was editing at the time, a reader-experience type edit. I wanted to read as much of the manuscript as possible in a sitting, and hopefully not find anything to change! The impossible dream.

To be honest, doing this at home wasn’t working. Every time I found something I wanted to change, I’d jump across to the laptop and make the changes, and then find myself reading the manuscript on the laptop, or worse, opening a browser window to look at something else.

I put the latest copy on my Kindle, and took myself off to the beach. For a few hours I became one of those people sitting in a car at the beach, rather than walking or enjoying the scenery. It worked really well. It was a weekday morning, and reasonably quiet. The children have just gone back to school after the long summer holidays, so most of the people around were either walking dogs, or exercising. 

I was able to read in peace, mark up changes on my Kindle without getting side-tracked, and every now and again glance at the beautiful view before me. Then came the man in the van. The man in the van was listening to music, which actually wasn’t the problem, his out of time accompaniment on the van door was more annoying. The man in the man had a large dog, which may or may not have been fed that morning. Call me a coward if you want, I won’t disagree. 

I had been in the car for a couple of hours, and so I decided it was time to stretch my legs. I went for a walk along the beach, and found a quiet bench where I carried on with my reading and note-making. This happy state of affairs continued until I decided that benches aren’t that comfortable. It was now late morning and significantly hotter than when I’d arrived. Definitely time for some refreshment.
I’ve read many blog posts and articles about writers working in cafés, but until then I hadn’t felt the need to try it. Most cafés seem to be noisy, and as you can tell from this post, I prefer to work somewhere quiet. Yes, you can call me picky as well as a coward!

I spent a productive hour in the café – reading and note-making. When lunch hour loomed and it became busier, I returned to the car. The man in the van had departed, presumably to annoy someone else, so I finished my work there.

A complete read-through, notes, and time outside. What a great day.

03 February 2013

The Shape of a Year

I think years have a shape.

I've never liked winter much. I used to think of January and February as cold, dark months that only existed to make us wait for March.

March can be cold, but brings possibilities. Spring flowers and a lightening of the evenings - and my birthday!

April meant the hope of real spring, warmer weather and summer around the corner. From then until September life should be good.

I lived in the north of Scotland for a couple of years, where winter days (and daylight) are very short, and so I wasn't surprised to learn about Seasonal Affective Disorder and sunlight deficiency, and how it affects mood.

Moving to New Zealand changed the shape of my year. January and February mean summer and the beach, and therefore aren't the dark months I had associated with them for so long.

For the first eighteen months or so, I took every day, every season, as it came. If I didn't think about what month it was, then it wasn't so confusing.

Daffodils in September! Easter during autumn and Christmas in summer!

The shape of my year has changed, but ultimately what I do, and how I approach each season and month, is up to me.

The little people were in the back of the car the other day discussing what they wanted to do when they grew up. One was very definite. When she grew up she wanted to make a potion that took her back to the age of seven (her age now). 

Why now? Because now was wonderful.

Now is what we have. We should make the most it.

She said she'd give me some of the potion so I could go back to the age I am now. I asked if the potion could take off another ten years for me, and she said of course, her potion would be able to do that easily.

Such confidence!