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Archive for the ‘Mind-boggling Concepts’ Category

What is the Old Bat on about?

A few months ago, an artist friend contacted me to discuss ideas for writer-artist collaboration. She’s a member of a group of artists who all graduated from the brilliant Fine Art degree programme at the University of Nottingham (which, shamefully, the University has closed down) – the group calls themselves Untitled.

One thing led to another, and we have now formed a group that includes Untitled artists and Nottingham Writers’ Studio writers. We had our first meeting last week, and came up with all sorts of interesting questions. The first question was, “What should we call the group?”… hence Untitled/Anonymous.

Image of an extract from A Humument by Tom Phillips

Extract from ‘A Humument’ by Tom Phillips

Other questions, to which I don’t yet have but am greatly looking forward to finding answers, include:

How are the processes of writing and making art similar and different?
One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was finding out about each others’ processes. I hadn’t thought before about how writing and art are similar – you have an idea, skirt around it for a while, make sketches or write drafts, start to make the real thing, edit-edit-edit, produce ‘completed work’… we didn’t get into how the processes are different, but I’m sure more observations on this will arise during the collaboration.

What does the use of ‘cross-media’ do to a finished piece of visual/textual work?
i.e. not just combining words with visual elements, we can use the other senses too, including audio components and textures for instance. How will this affect the work we produce? How can we collaborate to find innovative ways of combining artistic elements?

How does the concept of narrative affect our work?
Narrative is an important concept for most people in the group – how a finished work contains and creates narrative, but also how narrative is inherent in most objects in the world. It’s obvious how narrative is contained in most writing, but how does it feature in visual art? and how can we find it in our surroundings and represent that in cross-media art?

I’m excited about the work this group will produce, I’m sure it’ll be fascinating, whichever direction it takes us in. I’ll keep you informed…

More about What Writing Is

Image of tape measure and steel ruleI enjoyed the exercise I wrote about in a recent blog post so much, that I tried it with the Nottingham Dovetail group. And they came up with some wonderful metaphors, which you can read here. My favourite keeps changing, but the current one is:

Writing is like a tailor’s measuring tape when you need a carpenter’s metal yard, when you need the stiff manageable steel that lays on ANYTHING flat. You have a floppy reel of cloth that falls off everything and is only tidy when it is rolled up in itself rendering it useless for its actual purpose. by Joêl Daniel

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OK… I’m thinking this through as I type, so please excuse the stream-of-consciousness nature of this post.

Someone suggested earlier today that people who do voluntary committee work for organisations or clubs shouldn’t use their positions to earn money – for example, if they’re asked to organise an event and that organisation performs at the event, they shouldn’t be paid. Angry words followed this suggestion, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

Why am I blogging about this at all? What does it have to do with my writing or my career in the writing industry? Bear with me, I hope you’ll see my point by the time I’ve finished. For now, you’ll have to trust me that there are important principles at stake here.

This is going to be hard to follow, as (for obvious reasons) I can’t go into any details. Bear with me.

Issue number 1 – let’s get this out of the way

The first issue I want to raise is that the example given to support the suggestion was wrong (assuming I’ve identified the correct example, the person who started this discussion (I’ll call them Person T from now on) refused to elucidate on this (and on many other points)). On that occasion, the person asked to programme the event (Person N) was hired in their capacity as ‘someone who can programme events’, rather than ‘someone on the committee of the organisation in question’ (Org O). The fact that Person N decided to include people from Org O in the event is surely to Org O‘s benefit, and not to Person N‘s benefit? Person N was, after all, going to be paid anyway, and could have completely ignored Org O when programming the event.

Issue number 2 – where it gets complicated

The second issue is that even if Person T was correct in their assumption that Person N was hired in their capacity as an Org O committee member, are they correct in their assertion that Person N shouldn’t be paid for their work in programming the event?

There are three cases that we need to consider:

  1. Person N doesn’t have the skills to do the job.
  2. Person N is an active committee member and has the skills to do the job.
  3. Person N is an inactive committee member and has the skills to do the job.

Case 1

If Person N doesn’t have the skills necessary to carry out the work, they should not be paid for doing that work, whatever the reason they were hired. Again, I don’t see a problem specifically with hiring Person N because they are on Org O‘s committee. This is irrelevant. The problem is that they can’t do the job.

Case 2

If Person N is someone who does a lot of voluntary work to support the activities of Org O and does not begrudge their time and energy, I don’t see a problem with them being paid for a specific piece of work they are hired for, even if one of the reasons they are hired is that they are on Org O‘s committee. As long as whoever does that piece of work would be paid, and Person N has the skills necessary to carry out the work, what’s the problem?

Chances are, if Person N is known as someone who does a lot of useful work for Org O, they’re more likely to be asked to do the job. Would anyone reasonable see this as unfair ‘reward’? I think not.

Case 3

The remaining case gives me pause for thought. If Person N is someone who turns up at committee meetings but does nothing else to support Org O‘s activities, and is given the job purely because they are on Org O‘s committee, but… coincidentally they happen to have the skills to do the job… then I don’t think it’s fair for them to get the job simply because of their position, purely because it seems wrong that they should be ‘rewarded’ for doing nothing.

On the other hand…

I could be wrong to think it’s unfair.

If you have the skills to do a job, and you do that job, and that job is a paid job, you should be paid for it. So the question is whether you should get the job in the first place. (yes, I know I’ve more or less already said this, but I’m just getting it straight in my head.) Several points come to mind.

  • If you’re known as someone who does not contribute to activites of Org O despite being on the committee, are you likely to be asked to do the job? Probably not. So the situation isn’t likely to arise.
  • The reasons for asking someone to take on a job are many and varied, and I would argue they are inherently unfair anyway. For example, I was involved in recruiting programmers for many years, and believe me, interview technique is not a predictor of job performance. So as long as someone who can do the job is recruited, shouldn’t that be a Good Thing?
  • Why shouldn’t someone who needs a job doing assume that Person N‘s voluntary involvement in Org O is a positive qualification for the job? After all, much committee activity happens below the surface, so the recruiter might not know that Person N is inactive.

So again, is there really a problem?

On the other hand… (yes, I’ve got three hands. In fact, I’ve got as many as I need when I’m arguing with myself.)

If Person N gives themselves the job without the agreement of Org O‘s governing body (which, in its turn, must be satisfied that Person N is the right and best person for the job), this counts as exploitation of their position. In that case, and only in that case, do I think there has been a violation of reasonable and fair standards of behaviour.

In conclusion

I’ve just about convinced myself that Person T‘s assumptions and assertions are, for the most part, invalid.

And… surely it’s stupid to refuse to pay (or even worse, refuse to employ) people who are competent simply because they actively (or inactively) are on the committee of a related organisation? If we go down that route, there are two (by no means mutually exclusive) possibilities:

  1. Competent people won’t do voluntary work for fear they will not be able to make a living.
  2. There will be few (if any) competent people available to do paid jobs.

We don’t want either of those, do we?

Phew

I feel better for having got that off my ample bosom. Thanks for bearing with me.

Any thoughts?

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When I was at university the first time round, decades ago, there was a period of six months when I was unaccountably grumpy. Eventually I realised it was because I wasn’t reading anything for fun. It’s always been my habit to read before going to sleep (and at other times, of course, but always before sleeping), and for a variety of reasons it wasn’t happening at that time in my life. So I started reading again, and returned to my usual approximation of a reasonable human being.

As anyone who reads my Facebook updates will know, I’ve been quite grumpy lately too. Not because I haven’t been reading. Oh no, I’ve learned that lesson. I thought it was because I’m so busy. I don’t think I’ve had a day off for a month or so now, that includes evenings and weekends. Enough to make anyone grumpy, you might think. I would disagree. I love everything I’m doing at the moment. Everything. How lucky does that make me? The only minor problems are lack of time and money, but they’re small irritations and will sort themselves out. So… what on earth is wrong with me?

The Believer by Francis Upritchard

The Believer by Francis Upritchard

Yesterday I went to Nottingham Contemporary for the first time since the new exhibition opened – I’d enrolled on the Study Sessions series of workshops with Wayne Burrows and Sarah Jackson (wonderful poets and All Round Good Eggs). The aim of the sessions is to write one or more pieces of text departing from the work of the two artists currently being exhibited – Alfred Kubin and Francis Upritchard.

First of all, I was completely blown away by the artwork on display. Kubin’s drawings are grotesque but at the same time intensely human, drawing out the uncertainties and fears we all repress. And Upritchard’s sculptures are also grotesque and intensely human, but in a completely different way. They seem to be open to possibilities, not scary at all. I could have spent the two hours simply wandering around the exhibition and gazing at everything.

Writing notes

Pages from my notebook

That wasn’t the point though. The point was to write something. And I did. I scribbled notes and paragraphs and descriptions and free-writing, I jotted down thoughts and made diagrams with arrows and footnotes, I filled pages of my notebook with ideas for a story. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I want to finish all my work so I can start writing. I’m cheerful and energetic and bouncy. I want to stop writing this blog so I can write the story, and another story, and a poem or several, and…

I NEED TO WRITE!

Believe it or not, this is a surprising discovery. I knew I liked writing, but I never really understood people who said they ‘need’ to write. I thought I wasn’t a proper writer, because I didn’t share that ‘need’. I thought to myself… well, I’ll just make myself a career around writing, I’ll teach and publish and edit and proofread and typeset. And it doesn’t matter if I don’t have time to write.

How wrong I was.

Now all I have to do is make sure I have that time. It’s a good job I can get by on a couple of hours sleep a night. (I’m lying. I can’t.)

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I’ve just written a paragraph about how I don’t have time to do everything I want to do. But I’ve done that before on this blog, and I don’t see why I should keep making you read about how stupidly busy I make myself… that’s not what you’re here for. [I hope I’m not speaking to a big empty room…]

So, today I thought I’d tell you about some oddities I’ve come across lately.

Just hanging around

Just hanging around

I was walking through Jubilee Campus the other day, and saw these two strange characters hanging around. It’s normal to see students loitering outside the buildings – usually smoking – but you don’t often see spades that have nipped out for a bit of ‘fresh air’…

Then I saw the resident heron being mobbed by a couple of nasty crows. You’d think that a heron, which is a big bird, wouldn’t be in the least bit bothered by this… but he was obviously panicking about the whole thing. He kept trying to put them off by pretending to fly away and then sneaking back, but the bullies weren’t having any of it. They chased the poor bugger mercilessly. The last I saw of the drama, the heron was sitting on the edge of the island in the lake looking VERY grumpy, while the crows were sneaking up on him in a pincer formation…

A duck that thinks it's a mallard

A duck that thinks it's a mallard

There are two ducks at Jubilee who think they’re mallards. One of them has most features of a mallard drake, but his neck and chest are brown mottled with white. The other is a female, shaped like a mallard, but her feathers are completely brown and white. She’s still managed to find herself a boyfriend though, so there’s obviously no racism among ducks.

States of Independence, March 17 2012I spent much of last Monday putting the new States of Independence webpage together. I uploaded it to the Five Leaves webspace… but it didn’t appear. All that came up was last year’s page. OK, I thought, it’s cached somewhere. I waited ten minutes, and sure enough, the cache refreshed, and the correct page appeared. But, for some reason, Google still has an image of the old page cached. So people are getting completely confused about dates, and I’m wondering what it’ll take for that particular cache to refresh…

“So, Pippa, what’s States of Independence all about?” I hear you cry… SoI is a mini-book-festival – a packed day of events celebrating all aspects of independent publishing in the East Midlands and beyond. It’s held in Leicester at the De Montfort University (Clephan Building), and runs from 10.30 till 4.30. There will be talks and panels and book launches and, for the first time this year, a performance of a play. And everyone who’s anyone in the independent publishing world will be showing off their wares – we have 23 stalls booked already, so bring plenty of money. One thing you won’t have to pay for is entry to the event – it’s all free!

Get Stuffed: The Home Taxidermist's HandbookI’ll finish with this little gem. 50p from Oxfam, and packed with entertainment value. It contains instructions for many projects that ensure your furry/scaly/feathery friends can live in your home even after they’re dead. It includes such things as ‘Gerbil Salt and Pepper Pots’, ‘Koi Carp Tie Rack’, and my personal favourite, the ‘Dachshund Baby Cushion’. Yes, indeed.

If there’s enough demand, I’ll devote my next blog post to this amazing book…

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How do you read?

Helena Nelson and Lynn Roberts

Helena Nelson listens to Lynn Roberts read her third-prize-winning poem, "Entropy and the Maiden"

Before I get into that… the results of the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition were announced on Saturday, along with interesting and informative adjudication notes from the wonderful Helena Nelson of Happenstance Press. It was lovely to hear the best thirteen poems read aloud, selected from 664 entries in a process that sounds like it took an inordinate amount of time. In fact, Helena blogged about it… it makes for fascinating reading.

CJ Allen

CJ Allen reading his second-prize-winning poem "Likeness"

I was pleased to be asked to read a disturbing but quite brilliant poem on behalf of Princess Monrufat Ayelofan, who won a merit prize but was unable to attend as she lives in France. It’s called “Nobody Will Bury My Dog With Me”… the dog in question turns out to be a philandering husband, who is chopped up and fed to all his women. I loved it!

Carole Coates

Carole Coates, first prize winner.

Carole Coates won first prize for her poem “Reading” (no, not the town, I’ve already established to my own satisfaction that there is nothing poetic about Reading), a faintly sinister yet beautifully realised poem about a boy who wants to improve his reading so he can progress faster through Huckleberry Finn.

So anyway, I was chatting to Carole about something or other, and she said something which made me ask her how she processed the material she reads. I discovered she, like me, doesn’t get images in her head at all. This has been bugging me for a while… I first really noticed it when Daniel Radcliffe seemed wrong as Harry Potter. Not wrong as in different from the way I imagined him, but wrong as in he actually had a face.

Now, I could bang on about this for hours, and I fully intend to do so in future blogs. For now, though, my question is How do you read? When you read a detailed description, do you conjure up the images in your mind? Do you have to try hard to visualise what the author has written about? Or do you just skip over the descriptive passages to get to the next bit of plot?

Think about it…

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Dinner

Dumplings for dinner...

I’ve just read this — technology that allows people to type with their minds. It’s intended for severely injured or paralysed patients, but… but… WOW!

Why “WOW!”?

Well, you know when you’re lying in bed at night trying to get to sleep, and your thoughts drift all over the place? And you suddenly realise that you’ve managed to get from thinking about tonight’s dinner to pondering memories of a mushroom you once saw on the front lawn?

Vicious One-Eyed Mushroom

A vicious one-eyed mushroom

Wouldn’t it be UTTERLY AWESOME to have that train of thought recorded? OK, maybe a bit scary, and imagine the opportunities for messing with civil liberties (“Dr Hennessy, I’m arresting you on suspicion of immoral and subversive thought behaviour, you have the right to remain silent but it won’t do you much good.”), but even so… you’d never ever have to worry about keeping a notebook with you at all times, and you’d end up with so much source material for writing…

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Pinched from The Rejectionist’s storming blog. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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Cliché or not cliché?

I’ve been mulling this one over for a while. It takes all sorts, and there’s no accounting for taste… but is it OK to use clichés in proper literarily-acceptable writing?

(is literarily even a word? do I care? nah, you know what I mean…)

Six of one, half a dozen of the other, if you ask me.

The Cat's Pyjamas

The Cat's Pyjamas

Incidentally, I have recently acquired a copy of ‘The Cat’s Pyjamas – the Penguin Book of Clichés’ by Julia Creswell. Good fun, and a tough act to follow.

Why one should use clichés

Everyone uses them in everyday conversation, more often than not. They are phrases that have become so much part of the language that everyone knows what they mean, and everyone knows that they do not mean what they say. (Don Rumsfeld, eat your heart out.)

George Orwell said, ‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’ As so ably pointed out by Mark Liberman, ‘If you really tried to put that advice into effect, you’d find it difficult to write anything at all.’

And isn’t it ironic that so many clichés have arisen from Orwell’s work?

The point of a cliché is that it is a figure of speech that does the job it was intended for so well it has become generally accepted as an integral part of the language. So why not use it, if it’s appropriate?

My ultimate aim as a writer is to communicate my ideas and thoughts to whoever’s reading my ramblings. If the best way to do that is to use a cliché, then that’s what I shall do. Being original for the sake of being original seems daft. There’s nothing worse than tweaking a cliché for the sake of it. After all, a nod’s as good as a curtsey to a blind diplodocus… (say whaaa??)

Why one should not use clichés

A cliché will not give the reader any information above and beyond the understood meaning of the phrase. The actual meaning of the phrase is ignored. If I want to really make the reader think, really draw them into the story I’m telling, I do need to come up with something striking and original at appropriate points.

Saying someone’s eyes are as cold as ice is fine, it gets the point across. Saying ‘her glance sent slivers of ice into my heart’ is much more powerful. (I know it’s corny, but it was the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment, and I still contend that it’s stronger.) So if at this moment it’s really important to send a shiver through the reader, the second version is appropriate. However, if it doesn’t really matter that much there’s nothing wrong with using the cliché.

Even science agrees

I was delighted to read this blog post by Keith Oatley last week, which explained the different reactions based on proper experimental psychology research. (The On Fiction blog is full of fascinating stuff, by the way.)

A brief summary would go as follows:

  • When we carry out a specific action, say, falling, a particular area of the brain is activated to make the appropriate muscles do their thing.
  • When we think about falling, the same area of the brain is activated even if we don’t actually fall over anything.
  • So when we read, ‘The boy fell to the floor,’ that area of the brain which would make us fall down is activated.
  • It seems reasonable to assume that this makes us ‘feel’ the act of falling.
  • However, when we read, ‘The boy fell ill,’ that area of the brain is not activated.
  • The assumption here is that the reader does not actually ‘feel’ the act of falling.
  • Interestingly, the blog post doesn’t tell us if that area of the brain would be activated by, ‘The boy hit the dust.’ Or whether an alternative area of the brain is triggered instead.
  • So I’m not sure if I have proved my point… I only spotted this while I was writing this summary… maybe I should go and check the source research papers…

Anyway, it all backs up the theory that one shouldn’t use clichés if one wants to make a real impact on the reader. I think.

Discuss!

(and there are no prizes for correctly counting the number of clichés used in this post)

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Would you believe me if I told you I was the first person to discover the underlying principles of story-writing and how it all fits together?

No?

Fair enough. You’re almost certainly right. After all, I’m just starting on this writing journey, and finer minds than mine have been wrestling with issues such as ‘what is story?’ and ‘character vs plot’ for yonks without coming to any agreement.

But I’m beginning to come to an understanding in my own mind of what story-writing means to me, how I do it, which bits I’m feeblest at… and as I’m thinking about it a lot as I read Weighty Tomes about the Craft of Writing and listen to Wise Words from Master Crafts(wo)men, I’ll update my theories and see if I get anywhere near something coherent in the end.

And if not, I’ll have fun doing it.

Constructing a story

This all started with the distinction between story, plot and structure described by our Writing for Radio teacher. Then we had the playwriting session with Kevin Fegan, and he gave us a fab way to generate a plot. Basically, you decide how many characters you want, who they are, then draw a character map…

Example Character Map

Example Character Map

… which gives you lots of ideas for what the situation is, where the plot might take the characters, how the characters interact … and if you combine this with a theme (which for this example could be infidelity, or need) you’ve got a very good starting point.

Anyway, while Kevin was nattering about this, I found myself drawing a diagram something like:

Grand Unified Theory version 1

Grand Unified Theory version 1

It had a bit less detail and a lot more scribbling out, but that was basically it, and even though I’ve been thinking about it for nearly a week it still makes sense. Note that this is very much the first version and I’m still thinking about it a lot, so there will doubtless be further elaboration and modification.

I’d better elaborate on what I mean by all the terms, I guess…

Theme – what the piece is about. Not the surface text, what the characters say and do, but the message you want to give to your audience that is revealed in the subtext. You need to know what this is. It may not emerge until you’ve written a first draft, or it may be the starting point for the whole exercise, but if you can’t state your theme in a sentence by the time you’ve finished, you haven’t done your job.

Characters – the people that inhabit your world. You need to know something about their background (not an exhaustive study, IMO), and, more importantly (again, IMO) you need to understand their motivations (hopes, fears, desires) and relationships with each other. Usually, one character will be the ‘main’ character.

Situation – what is happening that makes the journey necessary? What triggered the actions and conflict and change and chaos? What are the factors that limit the characters’ actions? Where is the story set, what is the social context?

Journey – what are the changes that happen in the main character’s life? Are these changes made by the character, or changes that happen to him/her? What are the start and end points of the journey?

I think all the above are vital elements that form the basis of the story, and they are likely to be in your head before you start trying to turn them into a coherent tale. They are by no means fixed, I’d be surprised if I wrote a piece and didn’t have to make substantial changes to at least two or three of these elements during the process. But they will always form the core of the story.

Story – this is the (explicit or implicit) summation of the four preceding elements, combined to make a coherent world. It includes backstory and other ‘off-stage; action that the audience may not be aware of.

Plot – the window on the world of the story that you plan to let your audience look through. This will usually be implicit, but it is important for you to be clear which parts of your world it is necessary or desirable for the audience to see.

Beginning – the state of the world at the start of the plot, before the onset of conflict that necessitates the journey.

Middle – the journey itself.

End – the resolution, the return to a stable state (unlikely to be the same as the beginning), the end of the journey.

Structure – the actual skeleton of the piece – a series of paragraphs or scenes to be fleshed out with words. This isn’t necessarily the same as beginning-middle-end, flashbacks and foreshadowing can be used to good effect.

Comments please!

Well, that’s the starting point. I’d be really interested to hear what anyone thinks about this. It is very much a work in progress, and I’m coming across relevant ideas and commentaries all the time. I’ve already got loads of things to follow up and elaborate on.

For example, one obvious drawback is the assumption of an Aristotelian structure of beginning/middle/end. I need to think about that one a bit more, I might just accept it as a limitation of the theory for now and see what happens…

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Priming

Having mentioned priming in yesterday’s blog, I’ve been thinking about it… so I might as well write about it today.

What is priming?

The Wikipedia definition of it works for me:

… where an early stimulus influences response to a later stimulus. For example, when a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that subject answers table is higher than for non-primed people.

Of course it isn’t as simple as the given example. Priming effects can be quite complex and interesting… and I believe they form one of the underpinnings for neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

Bargh et al’s experiment

Three groups of subjects were given the ‘scrambled sentence’ test – they were presented with six sets of five words (e.g. ‘he it hides finds instantly’) and asked to make as many four-word sentences from each five word set as they could, as quickly as possible.

The words presented differed slightly for each group. One group had 15 rude words included (such as ‘aggressively’, ‘intrude’, ‘brazen’, ‘impolitely’). For another group, 15 polite words were substituted for the rude words, and for the final control group neutral words were substituted. The subjects were not aware of these differences, and thought the five-minute scrambled sentence test was the point of the experiment.

When each of the 34 subjects came out of the room to report that they’d finished the test, the experimenter was engaged in conversation, and ignored the subject for ten minutes.

Only just over 15% of those who’d been primed with polite words interrupted within 10 minutes, while of those who’d been using rude words, more than 60% interrupted in that time.

Subjects who did interrupt also did so faster if they’d been in the ‘impolite’ group – they took an average of 5.5 minutes to intrude, whereas even when you discounted the 85% of the politely primed group who didn’t interrupt at all, subjects from that group took over 9 minutes to interrupt on average.

Despite the small sample size, the results were statistically significant.

[Bargh JA, Chen M, Burrows L. (1996) Automaticity of social behavior: direct effects of trait construct and stereotype-activation on action. J Pers Soc Psychol. 71(2):230–244.]

This experiment effectively demonstrates how significant the effect of even a short period of priming can have on subsequent behaviour.

Other examples

Derren Brown is one of the most well-known exponents of NLP. I have to admit I find him creepy, but the tricks he can pull are certainly very clever. I saw him on TV once, running rings round Simon Pegg. He’d bought Simon a gift, and had it wrapped up ready to give to him, but Simon would only get the gift (a BMX bike) if he asked for it correctly by name. Derren burbled for a while, doubtless working lots of priming in that I didn’t notice, but I did spot it when he said, ‘you could ask for anything you like, a BM, XBox, whatever.’ Still and all, I was impressed when Mr Pegg duly asked for and received his BMX bike.

I know it’s fiction, but there’s a fabulous bit in Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony (Eoin Colfer) where Artemis allows the baddy to pick a place to meet, then primes him to pick Taipei 101 in Taiwan with the following:

Now why don’t you name your preferred location. I’ll be wearing a burgundy tie. Pay attention to that. There are a hundred and one ways this could go wrong. If it does, the police could tie one of us up for a long time.

And finally, we’ve all subjected family and/or friends to discussions of waterfalls and dripping taps when they’re desperate for the loo… which is (in more ways than one) a crude form of priming.

The Velten Mood Induction Procedure

This is an explicit use of priming to affect mood. Basically, Velten demonstrated that asking subjects to read, silently then aloud, a series of 60 increasingly elative (e.g. ‘I feel happy’) or depressive statements (e.g. ‘I am worthless’) would tend to induce elated or depressed moods respectively.

Subsequent research has shown that the effects can be achieved with silent reading alone, and sometimes with as few as 12 statements. However, the effects aren’t observed in all subjects, and tend to last only around ten minutes (although they have been seen to last for over half an hour).

[Velten, E. (1968) A laboratory task for the induction of mood states. Behaviour Research and Therapy 6;473-482.]

How is this useful for writers?

One obvious way for writers to make use of the priming effect is to carefully choose metaphors and adjectives to induce a particular mood or expectation in the reader. I’ve started to play with this a bit. One story I wrote recently used grayscale descriptions of colours and stark black and white metaphors, apart from the scarf worn by the central character, which was blood-red. I don’t know if it worked, but it was fun to do, and it all tied in nicely with the ending, which involved someone’s throat being cut. I haven’t tried explicitly manipulating the reader’s mood, but it must be a reasonable assumption that it is possible.

I guess another way to use the VMIP is to raise mood and self-confidence prior to starting to write. Again, I haven’t tried this myself, but it’s something I’m holding in reserve for when things start to get me down.

I’m pretty sure I’ve only just scratched the surface of the possibilities…

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