A Transformed You!

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Did you make a New Year’s resolution to read more? I suspect many of us have. While many of us value reading as something we enjoy doing and an activity that delivers some sort of hard-to-define intrinsic value, it’s often hard to pin down precisely what that value is. Keith Oatley and Maja Djikic have taken a good stab at it. They suggest writing transforms us. Here’s part of what they have to say:

A great deal has been written about art, but only recently has research begun in earnest about what goes on in the mind and brain when reading literature. Outside the domain of love relationships and some forms of psychotherapy, the idea of communication that has effects of a non-persuasive yet transformative kind has rarely been considered in psychology.

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Writing a Blockbuster!

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Want to write a blockbuster that will get optioned and made into a blockbuster movie. Consider this bit of wisdom:

Imagine “Jaws,” if it were released in 2014.
We open on a rock star (played by Shia LaBeouf) and his supermodel wife (played by a supermodel) snorkeling in the crystal blue waters off Bora Bora, when a fin the size of a house emerges from the water. They swim away frantically as the rock star yells: “I just wanted to go to Italy, but noooo! Bora Bora, you said. It had to be Bora freakin’ Bora!” We zoom in for a super-close-up of the shark’s enormous computer-generated teeth, in 3-D, chomping them both in half. As the rock star screams, the camera races into his mouth, down his throat, to his pumping red heart, which stops as his screams die out.

Cut to: Coast of South Africa. A world-renowned shark expert, Chloe Fabrice, 23, brisk and no-nonsense in her clinician’s white bikini, observes terrifying great whites from a shark-proof cage. “Gettin’ choppy!” a man’s voice says to her through her wristwatch walkie-talkie. As the cage lifts out of the water, we see an enormous shadow in the ocean behind it. We pull up for an aerial C.G.I. shot of a monstrous shark, bigger than a battleship, creating a giant wake that tosses Chloe’s tiny boat aside.

The original “Jaws,” released in 1975, was the first movie to make more than $100 million at the box office, and it has been blamed for every insipid summer blockbuster to hit the theaters ever since. For example: “ ‘Jaws’ whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, which is to say studios wanted every film to be ‘Jaws,’ ” writes Peter Biskind in his 1998 book, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” The movie’s success “single-handedly [drove] serious movies off the summertime calendar,” Walter Shapiro wrote in Slate in 2002. “Hollywood had been happy to hit for average,” John Podhoretz wrote in 2010 in The Weekly Standard. “After ‘Jaws,’ it began swinging for grand slams.”

If nothing else, though, we should once and for all stop blaming “Jaws” for all the terrible summer movies and start crediting it for the few, rare good ones instead….

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Harness Social Media

If you are a writer you need social media to spark sales. It works in commerce and it is important for books too. Here is what Business Insider has to say:

There’s been a lot of hype surrounding social commerce — the idea that posts and ads on sites like Facebook and Pinterest would generate lots of immediate sales on e-commerce sites.

Today only a fraction of retailer’s online sales are actually generated directly through a referral from a social network. But the volume of social commerce is growing quickly, in the triple digits in many cases. Overall, social commerce sales grew at three times the rate of overall e-commerce last year.

In a new report from BI Intelligence we break down how social media is impacting retail sales throughout the purchase process — whether a social media user clicks directly from a retailer’s Facebook ad to make a purchase, or sees a pin on Pinterest and ends up buying the product in-store a week later. We look at the varied metrics that underscore social commerce performance at the different networks, including conversion rates, average order value, and revenue generated by shares, likes, and tweets.  We also outline the latest commerce efforts by leading social networks.

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Are Strong Women Necessary?

Writing Techniques

Whether it is books or movies, strong female leads are not any more frequent today than they were a generation ago. Really? Here is how Frank Bruni addresses it in: “Waiting for Wonder Woman.”

But she’s in an industry where the overwhelming majority of decision makers and directors are men; where the reliance on pre-existing source material — comic books, video games — means that a gender disparity simply perpetuates itself; and where the robust ticket sales for “Aliens,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and even “Zero Dark Thirty” don’t seem to spawn all the take-charge female characters that they should. Studio executives treat such hits as if they’re one-offs. “There’s this collective amnesia,” said Susan Cartsonis, a veteran producer. “Whenever a movie with a female icon at the center is successful, it’s a glorious fluke.”

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Writing Revelations

Writing Techniques

Best-selling writer Marilynne Robinson offers tips to aspiring, emerging and established writers. In a wide-ranging interview, New York Times Magazine writer Wyatt Mason encourage Robinson to share some of her secrets. Some of her advice was targeted specifically at writers, while some had more universal appeal. For example:

“There was a very strong tendency among people to be kind of isolated,” she said. “More hermits per capita than you’d find in most places. We were positively encouraged to create for ourselves minds we would want to live with. I had teachers articulate that to me: ‘You have to live with your mind your whole life.’ You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with. Nobody has ever said anything more valuable to me.”

Here is more from Mason: This June, as a grandfather clock rang the quarter-hour in her modest Iowa City living room, the American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, a woman of 70 who speaks in sentences that accumulate into polished paragraphs, made a confession: “I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart. “What it comes down to — and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently — is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’ ”

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Life on a Warship

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The sea has inspired innumerable writers. Many of them have spent time at sea – while others have not. What happens when you take a well-known writer and provide him with total immersion at sea – in this case, the U.S. Navy’s newest super-carrier, USS George H. W. Bush? You learn a great deal about writing, about the sea, and about the U.S. Navy.

The British author Geoff Dyer is known for being a genre bender — a writer of novels that sometimes read like nonfiction, and nonfiction that occasionally feels invented — and for being what he calls a gate crasher: someone who writes about whatever happens to interest him at the moment. His newest book, “Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H. W. Bush,” recounts two weeks he spent embedded on an American aircraft carrier, a life for which he was almost comically ill-suited.

To begin with, Mr. Dyer is a beanpole of a man: tall, skinny, unable to walk around below deck except by stooping. He is also, by his own account, a slacker, a whiner, an eater so fussy he couldn’t abide mess hall food, a hater of anything having to do with engines or oil, and someone so bad at sharing that he insisted the Navy give him a private cabin, an almost unheard-of luxury aboard an aircraft carrier. And yet his account of his stay on the ship is mostly blissful, filled with curiosity and with admiration for the crew and the dangerous, difficult work it does: repairing airplanes, flinging them up into the sky and then snagging them when they come back down again.

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Reading and Writing

Writing Techniques

“Beyond the First Draft” is a collection of essays about writing. Because they are about writing, they’re also about reading. For John Casey, as I would judge for most good writers, it’s difficult to separate the two activities. One feeds into the other, and the process is repeated in reverse. No doubt there are exceptions, because there is scarcely a rule to which there aren’t, but it is rare to find a writer who wasn’t first, and for a long part of his life, a devoted and compulsive reader, though not necessarily a discriminating one.

Eventually some writers may get beyond reading, but if they do so, it usually means that they are beyond writing too. The narrator of Somerset Maugham’s novel “Cakes and Ale” visits the home of celebrated novelist Edward Driffield, whom he had known in the author’s less reputable youth. There is a library with books neatly and tastefully arranged by the novelist’s second wife, but, on seeing a pile of magazines, the narrator remarks wryly that if Driffield now read anything it was probably only “the Gardeners’ Chronicle.”

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What is Your Muse?

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Writing isn’t easy. You have to give it your all – but you have to be OK if you fail. In fact, there is a day dedicated to writing failure. July 8 is Fitz-Greene Halleck Day, a chance to remember the most intensely forgotten writer in American history. “No name in the American poetical world is more firmly established than that of Fitz-Greene Halleck,” Edgar Allan Poe wrote in 1843. And yet, despite a Central Park statue that still stands in his honor, Fitz-Greene Halleck may now be the most famous man ever to achieve total obscurity.

Failure is big right now — a subject of commencement speeches and business conferences like FailCon, at which triumphant entrepreneurs detail all their ideas that went bust. But businessmen are only amateurs at failure, just getting used to the notion. Writers are the real professionals.

Three hundred thousand books are published in the United States every year. A few hundred, at most, could be called financial or creative successes. The majority of books by successful writers are failures. The majority of writers are failures. And then there are the would-be writers, those who have failed to be writers in the first place, a category which, if you believe what people tell you at parties, constitutes the bulk of the species.

For every Shakespeare who retired to the country and to permanent fame, there are a thousand who took hard breaks and vanished: George Chapman, the first translator of Homer, begging in the streets because his patrons kept dying on him; Thomas Dekker, whose hair went white in debtors’ prison; and my favorite, the playwright John Webster, whose birth and death dates in the Dictionary of Literary Biography have question marks, symbolic hooks into oblivion.

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Teaching Writing

Writing Techniques

Can good – or even effective – writing be taught? Or is it a gift only the lucky few possess? In this Bookends piece, the New York Times asked well-known writers Rivka Galchen and Zoe Heller what they thought. A few points:

From Rivka

I wonder if we can really teach someone to be a biologist. I mean, sure, we can say, This is what a cell is, and here’s this thing called RNA, and here’s this thing called DNA, and here’s this technique called agarose gel electrophoresis that will separate your DNA and RNA fragments by size — but will teaching really produce the next Charles Darwin or Rachel Carson or Francis Crick? A real scientist follows her own visionary gleam. Penicillin was discovered when Alexander Fleming returned to his messy lab after a long vacation and made sense of a moldy petri dish most people would have thrown out as contaminated. The structure of the benzene ring came to the chemist Friedrich August Kekule after a daydream about a snake biting its own tail. You can’t teach that kind of dreaming.

From Zoe

The other night I took a look at my daughter’s English essay and suggested that she try excising the words “extremely,” “totally” and “incredibly” wherever they appeared in her prose. She did this and was surprised to discover that not only were the intensifiers superfluous, but that her sentences were stronger without them.

The question of whether writing can be taught is often framed as a “great” or “perennial” debate, when in fact it is neither. No one seriously disputes that good writing has certain demonstrable rules, principles and techniques. (All writers, insofar as they are readers, have been “taught” by the example of other writers.) What passes for controversy on this issue turns out, in most cases, to be some smaller and more specific disagreement — usually having to do with the efficacy of creative writing courses and whether they foster false hope in students without literary promise.

Read the entire article here.

Promoting Your Writing – Gently

Writing Techniques

With the explosion of e-publishing and the need for writers to help promote their own work, all writers – first-timers and best-selling pros face the ongoing dilemma of promoting their work without being shrill about it. But much self-promotion on social media seems less about utility and effective advertising and more about ego sustenance. How do you avoid this pitfall?

In April, Rebecca Makkai, a fiction writer, published a satirical piece on the blog for the literary magazine Ploughshares titled “Writers You Want to Punch in the Face(book).” In it, she depicted the Facebook posts of a fictional writer, Todd Manly-Krauss, who is “the world’s most irritating writer.” Teddy Wayne offers some useful tips for all of us in his “Of Myself I Sing” NYT piece.

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