Sunday, 27 April 2014

Psycho Bites: Inside The Reader's Mind Part 2

This is part 2/3 of how writers manipulate the mental representations which they create - essentially, the psychology of how the words you choose can impact the images readers create, because there's more to writing than just words on a page. If you’re interested in subtle writing tricks and how the brain handles them, then keep reading (keep reading anyway – inspiration may happen).




Descriptions of Space and Associations

Your main girl/guy is more important than you think. Entities are faster to picture when they are spatially close to the protagonist in the story. For those quick paced scenes, you want stuff to go down right next to your main guy rather than across the room.

It is also harder to picture the whole scene after the writer hones in on precise details on a smaller feature. Therefore it’s good to describe the whole place before settling in on your main targets. Honing in and then out may give the illusion that your story isn’t progressing forward.

It takes longer to focus on a negative description of an image than a positive. If you write the chipmunk isn’t riding a raccoon, I’m likely to picture a chipmunk on top of a racoon first before rejecting the image. That’s great if you want to drop a suggestion into your reader’s mind. This may seem like a pointless nugget of information, but you can still use it to strengthen your writing. If the chipmunk is missing, the stronger image may come from the description of the empty room rather than bluntly writing the point – the whole ‘show don’t tell’ bonanza.

Similarly, readers will picture what you say and the things associated with what you say (I know that’s obvious, just stick with me here). Words like ‘stripes’ cause activation of similar concepts represented in your mind such as ‘tigers’. This is useful when embedding themes and series of metaphors known as a semantic field. Similarly, badly worded similes and metaphors will create strange images. ‘The teacup was the size of a fist’ may be correct size-wise but the imagery is just bizarre. In this situation, the concepts are not connected and therefore the spread of activation in a reader’s brain for those concepts will be thinner, diffused, and is likely to cause a weaker image which is less memorable. Plus when you stray too far, the more likely a person will picture both entities separately and wonder why you’ve made such an odd pairing.


These tips are based on the way the brain works. There’s a good chance you will already be doing these things on an intuitive level, but I think it’s fascinating to know why they work as well as what they are. Plus, now you’re aware of these subtle effects, you can use them more effectively.

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Just a note about little ol’ me: I have at least 2 interviews related to publishing and 4 exams for my Psychology degree to complete in May. Due to this exciting yet terrifying prospect, I may not get to post any articles in. As soon as my exams are over, I will most likely revert to my critique mode, taking on new clients and posting more articles than any other time of year. If all goes well, I may even be able to offer insider advice on the publishing business for all of you interested in more than just writing.

Cheers for all the support so far!

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Spellings you can throw out

Language is changing. It's its thing.

My favourite example is the word ‘tart’ which used to mean sweetheart... it doesn’t anymore in any shape or form, so don’t use it that way and think you’re being an endearing hipster! Another relatable example is the use of ‘queer’ in the first Harry Potter book – it’s not so politically correct now, although was perfectly acceptable when it was originally published in 1997. And lastly, it’s a good thing that Enid Blyton’s characters have been renamed. If you’ve read The Magic Faraway Tree series, which I fondly remember reading with my nan, you’ll know why. Kids with those names would get rather bullied in this day and age...

We as writers may not like the changes, but sometimes it’s better to adapt and avoid premature aging of your novel. Here are some current words to keep in mind:


Smelt, spilt, spelt – This issue cropped up in a manuscript I’m currently editing. The word in question was ‘smelt’ as the past tense of ‘to smell’. I advised them to change it to ‘smelled’ to preserve the youth of the book. In this case, ‘smelt’ has a second meaning which is more attributed to the spelling. The use of ‘t’ instead of ‘ed’ on some verbs is slowly evolving so that English becomes more standardised.

Sulphur – Sulfur: I attended a lecture by Nature Chemistry’s Editor who pointed out their recent editorial on why you should ‘f’ it, and how there is no etymological reason or hidden benefit behind ‘ph’. You can read the article for free here. It’s just a matter of time before Sulphur is no more.

Whom – This is a tricky one, but ‘whom’ is apparently unfashionable. I read an article which suggested to use ‘who’ if ever in doubt because few care about the distinction. This seems a bit messy to me as I like to know my stuff. It’s one to watch, and many individuals (especially those strong-willed tykes who managed to wrap their brains around the distinction) still regard it as a grave mistake to miss out on that ‘m’ action.


At the moment, these changes aren’t enforced by the grammar police. Just be aware that in a few years you may get a warning for sticking by these words. As always, I’d love to hear your views. Any words you think might disappear in 20 years time? Are you going to stick by ‘whom’ and other older words or do you believe writers should adapt? Post below!