Posts categorized “Books on Other Subjects”.

Excerpt from Write Like the Masters

Writers Digest has an excerpt from Write Like the Masters: Emulating the Best of Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, and Others by William Cane from Writer’s Digest. This Excerpt discusses how Hemingway wrote to make it read faster. Not just short sentences but taking out commas, etc.


One of Hemingway’s most recognizable stylistic traits is a fast sentence speed. A writer’s sentence speed refers to how quickly his sentences can be read, either aloud or silently. It’s as if Hemingway’s prose flies along at a rapid clip while the writing of other authors putters slowly in comparison.

…He uses two methods, the first of which involves choosing shorter words for simpler diction…. The second method is to omit commas. — read the Excerpt

Survivors Club - Newsweek Excerpt

Newsweek’s February 2, 2009 issue had a Book Excerpt for The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life by Ben Sherwood (Grand Central Publishing, January 2009) - currently 40% off at Amazon. This book sounds really useful if you are writing about people who keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs (not the ex Illinois Governor who quoted Kipling on that). The excerpt contains the following:

Why do some people live and others die? Why do a few stay calm and collected under extreme pressure when others panic and unravel. How do some bounce back from adversity while others collapse and surrender?

How do these people endur their trials? Were they always so strong and resiliennt—or did these abilities suddenly materialize? And what do they know about surviving and thriving that we don’t?

After two years of research, I discovered that everyone has a crisis personality—a Surviovr IQ—that they marshal in a moment of adversity: a mindset and ways of things about a situation. The best survivors and thrivers understand that crisis is inevitable, and they anticipate adversity. Understanding that even misfortune gets tired and needs a break, they’re able to hold back, identify the right moment and then do what they need to do. Psychologies have a clunky term for this: active passiveness. It means recongnizing when to stop and when to go, In a critical sense, doing something can mean doing nothing. Action can be inaction, and embracing this paradox can save your life.

In any emergency people divide into three categories, [Dr. John] Leach [who teaches an advanced course in survival psychology at Lancaster University] says. First, there are the survivors…. Second, there are unavoidable fatalities: people who never had a chance…. Third, there are victims who should ahve lived but perished unnecessarily…. First, around 10 percent of us will handle a crisis in a relatively calm and rational state of mind…. around 80 percent will ‘quite simply be stunned and bewildered.’ We’ll find that our ‘reasoining is significantly impaired and that thinking is difficult…. We’ll behave in ‘a reflexive, almost automatic or mechanical manner.’ …we’ll experience ‘perceptual narrowing’ or tunnel vision…. The key is to recover quickly from brain lock or analysis paralysis, shake off the shock and figure out what to do. The last group—the final 10 percent—is the one you definitely want to avoid in an emergency…. the third band does the wrong thing. They behave inappropriately and often counter-productively…. they freak out and can’t pull themselves together. And they often don’t survive.

Professor [Daniel] Simons…. [says]…. ‘Distinctive and unusual objects do not automatically capture our attention.’ ….Many… studies have demonstrated that it’s difficult—if not impossible—to be aware of everything going on around you, or even right in front of you.

Neuroticism is a personality trait of people who tend to be ancious, tense and sensitive to stress…. people will high levels of neuroticism are very serious and intense about the assignment…. People with low levels are calmer and less sensitive to stress…. lucky people usually are more laid-back and open to life’s possibilities… while unlucky people are more uptight, nervous and closed off.

“If you want to test yourself, take a quick look at this domain name sometimes used by stress researchers;”

What do you see? For many people, the web site seems discouraging: opportunity is nowhere. But others see the exact opposite: opportunity is now here. When it comes to hidden messages, lucky people perceive more of the world around them…. Wiseman writes in his book The Luck Factor This ability (or talent) ‘has a significant and positive effect on their lives.’

‘Luck in not a magical ability or gift from the gods,’ Wiseman writes. ‘Instead, it is a state of mind—a way of thinking and behaving.’ Above all, he insists that we have far more control over our lives—and our luck—than we realize…. Wiseman….believes tht only 10 percent of life is purely random. The remaining 90 percent is ‘actually defined by the way you think.’

“Wiseman has concluded that there are four reasons why good things happen to certain people.”

First, lucky people frequently happen upon chance opportunities. ‘Being in the right place at the right time is actually all about being in the right state of mind,’ Wiseman writes…. lucky people are more open and receptive to unexpected possibilities. They tend to be more relaxed about life and they operate with a heightened awareness of the world around them…. they spot and size upon openings that other people miss. They also tend to be more social and maintain what Wiseman calls a ‘network of luck.’

…Second, lucky people listen to their hunches and make good decisions without really knowing why. Unlucky people, by contrast, ted to make unsuccessful decisions and trust the wrong people….

Third, lucky people persevere in the face of failur and have an uncanny knack for making their wishes come true. They’re convinced that life’s most unpredictable events will ‘consistently work our for them.’ …while unlucky people expect that things will always go wrong…. unlucky people gave up before they even started.

Fourth, lucky people have a special ability to turn bad luck into good fortune. Of all four defining factors involved in luck, Wiseman believes this one plays the most important role in survival.

There is a lot from this Newsweek article and I suspect even more from the book, I think I will look into getting the book myself.

Notes from “The Unthinkable”

A few months ago I mentioned hearing about the book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why by Amanda Ripley. I finally got a chance to read it and have made the following notes that might help writers figure out how their characters might act if they find themselves in a crisis:

What Prince discovered in Halifax was that our diaster personalities can be quite different from the ones we expect to meet. But that doesn’t mean they are unknowable. It just means we haven’t been looking in the right places. (p. x)

As Huntet S. Thompason said, ‘Call on God, but row away from the rocks. (p. xviii)

…we need to know our oldest personality, the one that takes over in a crisis and even makes fleeting apperarances in our daily lives. It is at the core of who we are. (p. xvii)

Real life doesn’t usually follow a linear arc… (xix)

My breath became effortless. My mind no longer wandered. Suddenly I wasn’t there anymore. I was just watching….The sounds were far away, and I was just hovering. I had no emotions. (p. 4)

We have a tendency to believe that everything is OK because, well, it almost always has been before. Psychologiest call this tendency ‘normalcy bias.’ The human brain works by identifying patterns. It uses information from the past to understand what is happening in the present and to anticiplate the future. This strategy works elegantly in most situations. But we inevitably see patterns when they don;t exist. In other words, we are slow to recognize exceptions. There is also the peer-pressure factor. All of us have been in situations that looked ominous, and they almost always tun out to be innocuous. If we behave otherswise, we ris social embarrassment by overreacting. So. we err on the side of underreacting.” (p. 9)

…everyone… can manufacture self-esteem through training and experience…. soldiers and police officers will tell you; that cofidence comes from doing…. the brain functions much better when it is familiar with a problem. We feel more in control because we are more in control. (p. 92-93)

I started to say, ‘Ok there is option one, option two. Decide. Act.’ I didn’t say, ‘Oh the boat is sinking.’ I didn’t even think of the wider perspective… I just saw my own little world. (p. 173)

Our brains search, under extreme stress, for an appropriate survival response and choose the wrong one. (p. 175)

Animals injected with adrenealine are more likely to freeze. (175)

Heroism, much as we revere it, is rather incomprehnsible. Isn’t it exactly the kind of behavior that should get naturally selected for extinction? (p. 180)

…heroes feel a nonnegotiable duty to help others when they can (p. 190)

I was pretty sure I was going to die…. But that was OK. I had internal calm. (p. 192)

A sense of empathy, combined with an identity as someone who helps and takes risks, may predispose one for heroism. (p.196)

Basically, you’re doing it for yourself… because you wouldn’t want to not do it and face the consequence internally…. he was afraid of disappointing himself. His determination at the crash site grew out of confidence — and insecurity…. Confidence because he knew he had the strength and skill to try to swim to those passengers… He didn’t jump into the river to be a hero, he did it to avoid being a coward. (p. 197)

… can come across as a man carefully guarding a large store of anger. (p. 215)

skill is my ability to do something autormatically, at the subconscious level. I don’t have to think about it. It is preprogrammed. How do I get that? I do that by repetition, by practicing the right thing. Ihe only way you can learn it — on a response level — is to program it (p. 246)

True Enough

I have discovered a remarkable book that is only slightly related to writing (related because it discusses human nature): True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society by Farhad Manjoo

I haven’t finished the book yet (for the same reason I haven’t posted recently, life has interfered) but I read a great review and didn’t think I could equal it so I wanted to quote from this Amazon review by “watzizname” (read the whole review on the page about the book on Amazon (book name linked above).

Manjoo tells the story of the ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,’ who created an almost entirely fictional story of John Kerry’s service in Vietnam to discredit his record as a war hero, because they were deeply offended by his declaration of opposition to the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after he returned from Vietnam. The SBV version was first presented publicly on numerous radio talk programs, with conservative hosts and audiences, to whom that version was truthy because they already held a low opinion of Democrats in general and a high opinion of George W. Bush. It felt right to them, and they accepted it as true, an opinion many hold to this day, despite conclusive evidence that Kerry did, in fact, genuinely earn his medals, and was truly a war hero.

This accords well with the observation of cognitive scientists that when the facts don’t fit a person’s frame, the frame stays and the facts are ignored or denied….

Manjoo tells about a study by Stanford professor Shanto Iyengar and Richard Morin of the Washington Post, in which they obtained a list of headlines in six categories: politics, Iraq war, race, travel, crime, and sports, and randomly placed beside each headline one of four logos: BBC, CNN, Fox, and NPR. Democrats somewhat preferred CNN and NPR, and Republicans very strongly preferred Fox. The Fox logo tripled the interest of Republicans in stories about politics and Iraq, and even increased Republicans’ interest and decreased Democrats’ interest in headlines about travel and sports. Professor Iyengar says that people “have generalized their preference for politically consonant news to nonpolitical domains.”

…consider the study by Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach, in which 237 students were asked what they thought about people who were different from them and what they thought was going on in the TV show ALL IN THE FAMILY.

“The majority of those surveyed found ALL IN THE FAMILY hilarious. But bigots and nonbigots harbored vastly different ideas about what was happening on the show. It was a classic case of selective perception. When asked who seemed to win most of the arguments–was it Archie [the bigot] or his hippie [non-bigoted] son-in-alw, Mike?–the bigots thought it was Archie. Those who weren’t bigoted thought it was Mike.”

There are 16 reviews on Amazon, four were four stars, one was one star and all the others were the maximum five stars. Most people found the one above (which was one of the five stars) to be the most useful. There is a lot in this book that I was not aware of including the “All in the Family” study (although I did have doubts that of all the people watching when this show was in the top 10 everyone got all the jokes in that the way they were meant). But I didn’t know a study had been done.

I have gotten the impression recently that more and more people are less and less interested in the real facts. Instead they prefer impressions that reinforce their own beliefs. But then who doesn’t. But when the facts show us to be wrong, we really do need to rethink what we believe and it seems many people won’t do the work that that entails.

Interesting when developing fictional characters that are fully human although there might be a tendency to be too blatant about this.

Another Amazon reviewer (Jean E. Pouliot) said of the author of True Enough, “He cites examples from both sides of the aisle — the attack of “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” on Senator John Kerry’s Vietnam heroism as well as the claim of certain Democrats that George W. Bush had stolen the 2004 election in Ohio and Florida. Manjoo exposes the personal vendettas (Swift Boaters) and the mistaken calculations (Dems) that started the ball rolling.”

More on Sway

Earlier on this blog, I mentioned hearing about a new book called, Sway, The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior. I thought it was important for a person writing about fictional characters to understand.

I finally got the book by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman and found it interesting. They are concerned with “How often… do we turn a blind eye to objective information.” (p. 3) One of the ways we become irrational is over avoiding loss: “The word loss alone… elicits a surprisingly powerful reaction in us.” (p. 20)

As Columbia Business school professor Eric Johnson explained to us, the more meaningful a potential loss is, the more loss averse we become. In other words, the more there is on the line, the easier it is to get swept into an irrational decision. (p. 21-22)

Nobel Prize-wining economist Daniel Kahneman, who together with Amos Tversky, first discovered and chronicaled the phenomenon of loss averson, offers a telling reflection of our psychology during such situations. ‘To withdraw now is to accept a sure loss… and that option is deeply unattractive. When you combine this with the force of commitment, the option of hanging on will therefore be relatively attractive even if the chances of success are samll and the cost of delaying failure is high.’ (p. 39)

They go from talking about how we become irrational in our decisions that involve loss and commitment to how we judge people. “Once we attribute a certain value to a person or thing, it dramatically alters our perceptions of subsequent information.” (p. 55) And then they quote Dan Ariely, study author who has found, “expectations change the reality we live in.” (p. 56)

We do need to attach labels, however, we need to be aware of what we are doing it seems.

Each day we’re bombared with so much information that if we had no way to filter it, we’d be unable to function. Psychologist Franz Epting… explained… ‘Once you get a label in mind, you don’t notice things that don’t fit within the categories that do make a difference.’ (p. 75) …explained Epting: ‘The baggage that comes with labeling…. causes us to distort or even ignore objective data.” (p. 75)

To get over the sway caused by commitment, the advice is:

When we find outselves unsure about whether or not to continue particular approach, it’s useful to ask, ‘If I were just arriving on the scene and were given the choice to either jump into this project as it stands now or pass on it, would I choose to jump in?’ If the answer is no, then chances are we’ve been swayed by the hidden force of commitment. (p. 175)

And then there is the fairness sway where we are so focused on someone else not being fair that we ignore our own goal just so that person doesn’t get away with being unfair.

When it comes to the fairness sway, our emotional reaction can be… intractable and difficult to set aside. One way to counter the fairness sway is to try to weigh things objectively and not succumb to emotional maneuvers or moral judgments (would I rather achieve my goals or teach the other person a lesson?). (p. 178)