Selling your books – beware the anchoring effect

This article is from The Conversation; a news outlet funded by a number of universities, and it describes a psychological heuristic called the anchoring effect. I came across it as an undergraduate back in the last Ice Age and I’d forgotten about it but this reminder is timely. Exposure to a given top (or bottom) price makes us adjust our expectations as to what a fair price might be. In this example, seeing a ludicrously priced TV makes the next item on sale seem reasonable despite still being far greater than you might have considered acceptable without that first cognitive prompt.

For us as writers, I’d be concerned that the reverse is at play – sell your book through an outlet with a plethora of discounts and your own price – often not much above cost and sometimes less – might look outrageous. Have a read – re-publishing is by permission.

The science behind our bargain hunting foolishness

Joseph Devlin, UCL

What happens to your brain when you walk into a shop and are faced with a huge, ultra-high definition, 3D television at the startling price of £37,695? Assuming you actually need a new TV, you might dismiss this as ridiculous; laugh at the spendthrift fools who might buy it. And then, very sensibly, you start looking at more reasonably priced options, maybe at around the £1,500 mark. You have just been successfully manipulated. Welcome to the world of anchoring.

The above is precisely what happened to me, and it happens to all of us. Anchoring is a type of cognitive bias where the mere presence of an initial number can have a disproportionate influence on subsequent decision making. The outrageous price of the TV serves as an anchor that nudges customers towards spending more than they want. In other words, the price subconsciously influences your expectations about what you would be willing to pay. Safely back at home, the thought of spending £1,500 on a TV seems once again impossibly extravagant.

This example illustrates three key properties of anchoring. First, and perhaps most importantly: it really works.

Unlike many recent findings in psychology that fail to replicate, the anchoring effect is easy to demonstrate and repeat. For instance, in one experiment, a group of participants was asked whether Mahatma Gandhi was more than 140-years-old when he died. Another group was asked whether he was aged over nine. No one got that question wrong, of course, but when they were asked what age he actually was former group said 67, while the latter said 50. For what it’s worth, Gandhi was 78 when he died. The mere presence of an initial number however ludicrous, changes the perception of what is reasonable.

Court out

The effect is not limited to the lab, but shows up robustly in the real world. In the court room, the damages awarded are strongly influenced by anchors and even sentencing can be affected. In salary negotiations, the starting position influences the final outcome, indicating the importance of making that initial offer.

As susceptible as the rest of us.

The second key thing to bear in mind: everyone does it. Every time you buy an item “on sale” you experience anchoring. The original price influences your expectations so the 25% discount feels like a real bargain. Similarly, cars don’t cost the sticker price – that’s just there to anchor your expectations so negotiating a lower price makes you feel like you got a good deal. And as we have seen with the TV example, retailers take advantage of anchoring with in-store displays featuring extremely expensive items so that the nearby products look better in comparison. Heck, you will even use it when setting the asking price on your house when it’s time to sell.

Now, occasionally, companies get it wrong. A large retail chain in the US thought it was a smart move to eliminate coupons and instead create “everyday low pricing”. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t consider the effect of anchoring and sales quickly dropped. When they reversed their policy, customers started returning. We need that anchor to inform us that we’re getting a bargain.

And that leads on to the final aspect of the phenomenon: no one is immune.

Even when you are aware of cognitive biases, you can still be affected by them and anchoring is a particularly strong bias. Judges are experienced, well-trained, and highly motivated decision makers but even they can still fall prey to systematic biases in their judgments. And despite the fact that I have been teaching psychology for nearly 20 years, you’ve already heard how I fell for it.

The source of all your troubles.
Neil Conway/Flickr, CC BY


So how can you stop getting caught out? The truth is, anchoring is probably impossible to avoid entirely. You can, however, minimise its influence by following some simple steps:

  1. Be aware. Just by knowing what anchoring is and how it can affect your decision making, you limit its effectiveness. Obviously, recognising a nudge is a good start. But it is also worth being aware of your own thought processes. Some research suggests that people are particularly susceptible to cognitive biases when they are happy, making them less critical in evaluating their environment and their own judgements. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting you deliberately put yourself in a foul mood before going shopping with the family.
  2. Do your homework. The more information you have about a product and its price range, the less susceptible you are to anchoring. So before making a significant purchase, get as much unbiased information as you can. Consumer advocacy groups like Which? or Consumer Reports provide independent, evidence-based evaluations of products and services as well as a comparison of prices and are probably a good place to start.
  3. Set limits in advance. If you can decide on price limits before going out, then you are far less likely to go beyond them and make a rash decision. If you know, for instance, that you don’t want to spend more than £15 for a bottle of wine, then you are less likely to pick up the £25 bottle, even though it’s bargain compared to the Château Lafite Rothchild next to it.
Blurred vision?
Megan Cole/Flickr, CC BY

Ultimately cognitive biases like anchoring are fundamental to human decision making and we’re stuck with them. In truth, we probably wouldn’t want to reject them entirely because most of the time they provide rapid shortcuts that work well and save us a ton of mental effort. The flip side is that we are mostly unaware of it happening and if we’re not careful, a clever bit of anchoring can see us merrily walking out of the shopping centre clutching a futuristic TV, thinking we’ve just bagged an incredible bargain.

The Conversation

Joseph Devlin, Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Interview with Cathryn Grant; author of ‘Demise of the Soccer Moms’

book coverIndie  Author interview

Cathryn Grant: Demise of the Soccer Moms

Website: Suburban Noir

Q. Cathryn, you are the first person I have ‘known’ who has taken the publishing bull by the horns and gone Indie. Others have followed, and the quality says a lot about how difficult it is to crack the traditional route. What set you off in that direction? Had you tried other routes? How did you choose the publishing platform, and what did they offer that others didn’t? What surprised you most about the process?

Cathryn:   About ten years ago I started submitting short stories for publication because I’d been told that short fiction credits would help catch the eye of an agent. By the time I had a novel that was ready for the world, I had the credits, but the world was different. Agents said, “impressive credits, but no thanks.” The publishing industry was going through significant changes, and much of that, in my view, resulted in a desire for fiction that’s “the same but different”. My fiction is difficult to categorize. I kept changing my query intro: it’s “psychological suspense”, it’s “suburban noir”, “it’s crime fiction”.

Two key events made me decide to try the indie route.  The first was when an independent filmmaker in Melbourne, Australia contacted me through my website. He said he liked the short story I’d posted there and wondered if I’d let him consider developing a film script from it. Nothing ever came of that, but it made me realize, in a very personal way, the power and global reach of the web. The second was an ah-ha moment during a fiction podcasting class – the instructors shifted my thinking to recognize that a writer’s goal is to find readers not an agent or a publisher. (thunks head on keyboard) I’d spent a considerable amount of time focusing on what agents wanted, on what publishers were buying. Now that writers can go directly to readers, why wouldn’t we?

In terms of the publishing platform, I’m putting my work everywhere I can – Amazon in every region, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and iBook. I’ve had some challenges with iBook, but expect to have that resolved soon (long story). For POD, I use Lightning Source because they have broad distribution and a discount structure that allows a higher profit than CreateSpace.

What surprised me the most about going indie is how much the frustrating parts of traditional publication are exactly the same for an indie author! Don’t like trying to describe your novel in a way that entices an agent? Try writing a blurb that grabs interest in the online stores. Having a hard time categorizing your novel? I have to build a brand and choose a virtual shelf in the bookstore. Prefer to be writing instead of marketing? I know an author who is published with one of the big six and she’s doing all the marketing activities I am (and then some).

SCH: That’s worth knowing; the leg work is much the same for the traditional route as for the indie route, but with the latter, you have more control? And sadly, less credibility?

Cathryn:  Definitely more control. Yes, less credibility starting out. But I think that will be gradually overcome as my readership grows – I’ve had feedback from book reviewers that my novel is well-written and well-edited. I used to think there would be less credibility in literary circles beyond the foreseeable future, but when I look at how the view of self-publishing has changed so dramatically in the past 18 months or so, it makes me optimistic that self-publishing will continue to gain credibility, as long as a writer demonstrates she’s studied the craft, made use of editors, etc.

Q. Your book came out in December 2010 in paperback and on Kindle, and the first most striking thing about it is the cover. I understand that this is home grown as well. Tell us a bit about how that came about.

Cathryn:    What I love most about the cover is that the designer came up with the concept before she read the novel. She didn’t know that Charlotte (one of the three main characters) is working on a photo essay focused on women’s feet. The designer isn’t in the cover design business, but I love her photography and since she also works in marketing where she does online design work, she has a good eye for composition, so I asked her if she’d design my covers.

SCH: Can we credit the designer?

Cathryn: Absolutely. She’s credited on my website because she also provided the photograph for my header image – Lydia Schufreider. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a website yet. I’ve ended up really enjoying the cover creation side of being an indie author. The designer and I work together to come up with ideas for the image. She takes a ton of photographs and recommends which ones will work best. My novels will all be black and white photographs with a touch of blood, and my novellas will be color photographs. The flash fiction collections will all have photographs of cocktails on the covers. (I publish my flash fiction under the title Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour.)

Q. Demise is a story about friends whose relationships unravel to show the deep scars of personal trauma beneath a veneer of ‘soccer mom’ respectability. I found them convincing and awful, but somehow oddly able to evoke sympathy. How do you come by your characters? Is there an internal closet somewhere in which they sit, lifeless, waiting to be animated? Do they dash, fully formed onto your page without asking? Are they opportunistic encounters in supermarkets and cafes? Or do you have to construct them, watch how the pieces work together (or not), tweak out inconsistencies? Do they make you work for their living?

Cathryn: I’m so glad to hear that you think the characters evoke sympathy. Beta readers really hammered me with feedback that my characters were “unlikeable”. Although I worked a long time incorporating that feedback, at the end of the day, I didn’t change them significantly because theirs was the story I wanted to tell.

SCH: I like that view. There are people in the real world that I don’t like much but that intrigue me. Why should fiction be any different? Or are we not supposed to truly represent the real world?

Cathryn: You ask challenging questions – you’ve pushed me to do a lot of thinking! I like to represent the real world. Don’t they say that fiction is the only truth? Even if a story is science fiction or fantasy or a thriller with global stakes, to me it’s only enjoyable if there’s “truth” in the emotions, the dialog, the conflict, the details of the world that’s created. And I think most readers would agree that it’s truth that sets a book apart.

I may see a spark in an opportunistic encounter, but for the most part I construct characters by asking questions. I have a shadow of a figure and then start asking … Why do you think this? Why do you want that? What makes you afraid of this? I try not to tweak out all the inconsistencies because all of us have contradictory aspects to our personalities. They definitely make me work for a living!

SCH: That’s a really helpful hint. Interrogate your characters to make them give up the complexities of their personalities. Has anyone really surprised you during this process?

Cathryn: Amy surprised me because it came out that her father “blamed” her mother for being raped. Even though you still encounter that attitude with sickening frequency –”what was she doing at xyz at that time of day?” – the fact that Amy bought into her father’s view shocked me. I don’t want to give my own spoiler, but I think at the end Amy has a glimmer of understanding that she was so wrong to fall prey to that attitude. But when she had that slight shift in her thinking, I was surprised again (and pleased).

Q. I very much liked your writing style in Demise. You seem to use sentence construction in such a way as to roll out an uncomplicated internal dialogue for each character. The sentences are short, and have the feel of thought processes so that, without flagging it up, the reader ‘walks within’ each character, who becomes their host for the duration of their appearance. How conscious were you of delivering the story via the mental life of the key women? If it was a deliberate choice; what drove that choice, and what was your intention? If not, how do you think it turned out? Assuming you agree that this is what you did!

Cathryn: I’m very conscious of delivering stories via the mental life of the characters. I think the gap between what’s shown to the world and our interior lives is intriguing. At the risk of stating the obvious, what’s going on in the mind drives human behavior. We experience the world through our thoughts. To over-simplify, if a person thinks, “My manager thought the last project I delivered was sub-standard,” that thought will affect her behavior around her manager, her confidence in expressing her viewpoint, her approach to the next project, and her interaction with her peers. It could even ripple out to her personal relationships. To me, there’s a story in that, and it’s much more gripping than a car careening through city streets, in pursuit of the “bad guys”. In most thrillers, I already know they’ll catch the “bad guys”. I like the surprise of thoughts that take an unexpected direction and result in unanticipated actions. I like the “bad girls and bad guys” to be somewhat ambiguous.

SCH: Maybe because few people are all good or all bad?

Cathryn: Exactly. [But] I really can’t judge how it turned out. I hear from some readers and think, wow, it worked far beyond my expectations, and I hear from others and think, really? You read my book?

SCH: I sometimes wonder why some people choose to read, for example, a particular piece for critique, knowing they don’t really like the subject matter.

Cathryn:  Good question! I don’t know the answer.

Q. The characters in Demise are all psychologically complex, and as a professional psychologist, I found myself pondering diagnoses. I found none, and this is a tribute because, to my mind, you achieved that complexity by looking out through the eyes of the characters, and not by introducing ‘stand out’ signs or symptoms that they would not know how to describe. It makes me feel that you have a formal understanding of psychological and psychiatric issues. How far would you say that is true, and if so, which came first – the understanding or your genre preference?

Cathryn: Would it surprise you to know I have a copy of DSM-IV and DSM-IV Made Easy?!

SCH: Aha! Perhaps the diagnostic criteria have been leaking into your mind by passive osmosis!

Cathryn: It’s in the cabinet under my coffee table, so it’s possible it seeped up into my glass of wine once or twice. However, I didn’t use them for this novel. I’m fascinated by the “line” between sanity and madness, and by the people who live among us who are labelled “sane”, and those in institutions who are labelled “insane”. I think we all have varying degrees of madness, and I’m interested in what circumstances and pressures would drive a “normal” person to commit homicide. I have no educational background in psychology, I’m just fascinated by people. The notion that “All men live lives of quiet desperation” has been a bit of a touchstone in my life, partially because I’ve seen people who are slightly unbalanced or quirky suffer isolation and something close to shunning.

In marketing (my day job) they say, perception is reality. I think that’s true for our lives. The reality we experience is based on how we perceive the world.

SCH: The idea of the ordinary being capable of the extraordinary, whether that’s heroism as in tales of 9/11 rescues, or acts of horrendous inhumanity as in war crimes.

Cathryn: I think I’ve had those interests for most of my life (although I also wrote my first novel when I was ten, so who really knows what came first). I loved mysteries throughout my childhood and teens. As an adult, when I was starting to write seriously, I wrote general fiction. Then I read Ruth Rendell’s novel, The Bridesmaid. About a third of the way into that book, I knew what kind of novels and short stories I wanted to write. (Ms. Rendell is brilliant, her characters complex, her stories intriguing, and the writing in her non-series novels is at the literary end of the spectrum). I like the idea of crime as a device for creating extreme circumstances where character is revealed. I think the human mind is the “final frontier”.

SCH: I think you may be right. We are still technologically on the starting grid for producing any kind of computing that can replicate the mind’s complexities.

Cathryn: Despite Watson’s wins (, a computer, as far as I know, can still only produce data in response to what it’s fed!

Q. Since Demise, you have published Fatal Cut for Kindle and Nook. You have also made podcasts of your own readings of some of your stories, and you have flash fiction in an anthology of Every Day Fiction. You maintain a blog, and you use Twitter as prolifically as possible, given the need to be #amworking and #amwriting much of the time. How do you view these platforms with regards to developing a fan base and to marketing your work?

Cathryn: It’s a bit of a conundrum right now. Conventional wisdom says that Twitter and Facebook, blogging and participating in on-line forums is key to marketing fiction, especially if you’re an Indie Author. Writers, Indie or Traditional, are urged to develop a platform. A platform makes total sense for a non-fiction writer, blogging about dogs if you wrote a book on dog training. But the further I get into this, the more I struggle with the idea of a platform for a fiction writer. It’s getting more and more difficult for me to see how tweeting and blogging about writing is of interest to non-writing readers. I keep asking myself, if Joyce Carol Oates or Ruth Rendell blogged, what would I want to read? Would I want to read Ms. Oates’ tweets about how many words she wrote that day? No. Yet, here I am, tweeting my word counts, others’ blogs about writing, and my editing angst, as well as what I ate for dinner. All of that is great for connecting with other writers but not readers. In fact, my non-writer fans aren’t on Twitter and they rarely read my blog.

The question that plagues me is – shouldn’t my fiction be my platform? That’s why I post flash fiction – it gives readers a chance to sample my work. The fans that don’t read my blog do read my flash fiction. Right now, I’m focusing on writing more books. As a number of blogging writers have noted, if a reader falls in love with a writer’s work, she wants to read more of her books.

SCH: I can only barely claim to be a writer, so maybe I’m a twitter success story as I bought your book and enjoyed it!

Cathryn: Thank you!

Q. I know you contribute to twitter and blog post discussions with other authors, writers, and would-be writers. What would you say to new writers about the role of contact with this online community?

Cathryn: Protect yourself. That sounds very prickly, but I mean that in two ways, and hopefully not as standoffish as it sounds. It’s easy to lose your voice in any writing community, virtual or physical, and you have to know who you are and how you write and be confident in that and true to it. The other aspect is, it’s very easy to use a lot of creative energy blogging and commenting on other blogs. It takes thought to leave a comment that contributes to the conversation (at least it does for me!). At times, I’ve let too much of my energy drain into that. At the end of the day, writing is solitary. A community is a fantastic support, a lifeline, but you face the blank screen alone.

SCH: That seems very sound advice. I’ve seen the benefits of blogging and tweeting, but also noticed their capacity for to distract. Procrastination – the enemy of productivity!

Cathryn: I started tracking the hours I spent blogging, reading, commenting, and tweeting while listening to my complaints of “not enough time to write” and had to take a step back. However, you have to give kudos to Twitter for helping us pare our thoughts down to the essential!

Q. Finally, three things you would avoid, and three you would be sure to repeat in the process of writing and publishing your own book.

Cathryn: I love lists! Three things I would avoid:

  1. Editing the book after it had gone through the final proofing!
  2. Forgetting this: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” – Steve Jobs
  3. Obsessing over sales data on a daily basis (sometimes hourly). I now update my sales records once a week.

Three things I would be sure to repeat:

  1. Read my work out loud.
  2. Play.
  3. Celebrate every milestone.

SCH: No wonder you love lists, you write very very good ones that are well worth passing along!

Cathryn: Thanks again. And thanks for making me think.

SCH: Me too. Thank you for your time, and for courageously letting me cut my novice interviewing teeth on your work. I know we all wish you well-deserved success with ‘Demise’, and all your other publications.

Demise of the Soccer Moms is at both and and comes in paper and e-flavours.

Indie Authors’ page – new

The Forth Railway Bridge taken by Euchiasmus (...

Image via Wikipedia

This could just possibly be the daftest idea I ever had. I’ve opened a page where I will list indie publications as I hear of them. Mostly, I suspect, written by blog- and twitter-mates, but of course, the floodgates may be creaking on their hinges as I prepare this post.

I don’t intend to review or even read everything that’s listed, although I’m starting off with Cathryn Grant’s Demise of the Soccer Moms which I have reviewed (just waiting for Cathryn’s say so about using the cover image). But I’ll be ensuring nothing offensive – to me, as this is a personal blog – gets listed. Mostly, that will be gratuitous violence, racism, and pornography. I don’t intend to censor for rubbish so if that’s yours and you get listed, you take your chances. And anyway, judging by my preferences on CC and EscapePod, my dog’s dinner is more often than not, other people’s haute cuisine so I’m obviously not much of a judge! But – I don’t think it works the other way round so, when I say that Cathryn’s book is worth a sequel, trust me, I know a good thing when I see it.

So, would you like this list to go by author or by book title?

Image above is of the Forth Bridge in Scotland. It has nothing to do with anything here but how often do you get to shoehorn a structure like this into a post, eh?

If not the blog then, where?

image of bookI’ve seen this debate elsewhere, publish on your blog so you have a ‘presence’ or keep your work to yourself so that it remains saleable. So far, I’ve just put up early pieces; exercises, bits and bobs that might entertain but that wouldn’t make it into a slush pile, never mind a magazine. Last week though, on leave and with only myself to entertain, I wrote what I think is one of my best short stories EVER (nah – doesn’t take much!) and, it being under 500 words, I was about to sling it up here for my many thousands of readers (ok, might have shifted a decimal point or two) to peruse. STOP! I thought. If this is a winner, it can’t go here, it has to go somewhere to do its winning and for that, it has to be pristine, untrammelled, unseen, and unpublished (Six readers – hear me? Six!). I teetered on the verge and muttered things like OMG, and WTF, and even They’ll Never Know, I so wanted it to be seen!

And then a compromise hove into view – Critique Circle! I could put it there, let people rummage around and maybe even get some decent feedback, and then send it to a loving home – what could be better? Well, not much as it turned out. As a CC Newbie (not now – got elevated to the Grownups queues), my story went into the up front public queue and fairly quickly picked up critiques. Some of these were rather limited – the critiquers hadn’t ‘got’ the story and so didn’t know how to judge it – but others were spot on (these, of course, were the most intelligent and insightful of the bunch [irony alert, just in case…]), not only understanding the tale but also coming up independently with the complex driving theme – musicality, poetry, and rhythm. Blinding!

It occurred to me too late that I should have announced the submission on twitter and my blog so that other members could go and take a look. I will next time. If CC offers a place to put work that might be published and doesn’t jeopardise its virginality, then that’s the place for me. I have another tale up shortly. If you’re a CC member, go take a look from the 18th (or 25th) for ‘Promotion’ and maybe give a crit if you fancy a go.

This story, ‘Dissolution’ was inspired by hearing Kate Baker narrate podcasts for Escape Pod and Clarkesworld. That voice, which turns out to have singer/musician and writer underpinnings (quelle surprise!) is one of the most evocative I have ever heard and if she were to read ‘Dissolution’, I would probably dissolute myself into a greasy blob on the carpet!

So there we are, a new phase entered in which I find I have something finally to guard. I welcome myself to the wicked and paranoid world of fiction writing!

What do you think? Use a critiquing service to find your potential readership and hone your skills or just keep it all very quiet before unleashing the lot on an uprepared public?

Hugo Nominee – are we suckered by techno-twaddle?

starsI like my sci-fi, really I do, and having been inducted at the age of eight into this genre, I am more than familiar with the essentials of pseudo-scientific terminology. Heck, I write it myself and I appreciate both the value and the pitfalls of inventing tech-speak to describe something that isn’t yet in existence.

For me, the best tech-speak conveys a sense of familiarity so that, on reading it, I have a feeling I know what this is even though that has to be impossible. The worst offers a stream of multi-hyphenated guff and tells me this is ‘normal’, as in ‘Kraark clicked into the usual teleo-spectro-binswanger protrusion and disappeared in a cloud of pre-insular tachyons‘. Come on, gimme a break!

Sadly, this sort of neologismical nightmare is often the product of minds that either are, or believe themselves to be, superior to the mundane equipment the rest of us possess. People who seem perfectly able to write a half way decent letter or report, go into paroxysms of verbiage when asked to write for entertainment. I know, I’ve done it (give or take the superior mind bit). Fancy footwork that packs in vocabulaic (see what I mean?) excess and delights the author, showy sentences that have so little redundancy of language that you need a scalpel to dissect out the meaning, and purple paragraphs that lilt, roll, undulate, and titillate with the lightness of gossamer made of fine steel, and – where exactly is the verb here? Subject or object anyone?

Well, I’ve done quite a lot of work on myself to expunge this kind of self indulgence and write so that the writing itself is not the message. I’ve learned about ‘show, not tell’, although not always to best effect when it comes to the practical, and I’ve pretty much got my clever-cleverness under control most of the time. I’ve let it off the leash a bit in this post for the purposes of illustration (so just imagine what I can do if I really mean it!) and because I believe I’ve been out garbaged by a Hugo Award nominee.

Yes. Up for a major prize. That sort of Hugo Award nominee.

Admittedly this was an audio podcast and so keeping track was more difficult as the presentation has its own pace and narrator delivery style. But even so, it was, to me, a turgid, self important, blind-em-with-science agglutination of made-up verbiage that lectured and postured its way to a blindingly obvious conclusion. But it got some good reviews, people who liked the style, people who thought it was smart and intricate. And it’s up for an award.

So what do I make of this? Emporer’s New Clothes or am I missing something maybe? I think not. I think the people who liked it have the same apparent need to show superiority as the author (this man claims to have a PhD in cognitive sciences and linguistics and to be a university academic) so their appreciation is based on a kind of intellectual snobbery. Some years ago, a one-off study showed that academics at a conference rated most highly a deliberately incomprehensible lecture, thereby illustrating what we all know to be true – no-one likes to be thought an idiot. I suspect the same may be true in this situation, pseudo-scientific twaddle being accepted on the basis of the apparent credentials of the author and rated accordingly.

So, where do I go from here then? Clever-clever comes easy, been doing it for years, and since I’ve also got a PhD handy, I reckon I might be able to knot up enough punters to get myself a reasonable, if perpetually bemused, following. But that’s not what it’s about is it? Since getting to grips with my florid and verbally dense passages, making a conscious effort at dialogue, and at least nodding towards the ‘show’ imperative, I’ve been much more satisfied with my writing and happier with the product so I’ll not be going back other than in momentary lapses and happy indulgences such as today.

I won’t half be narked though if that undeconstructible, hyper-formal, word-saladic, pomposificatory, faux techno baffle-babble wins!

Authors and writers in Second Life

cafe in second lifeJust a little while ago, we were talking about the kinds of support we get from other writers and how we value the small communities that build up around blogs and tweets. Some of us are beginners with little to offer except awe for those who are into their third novel. Published or not, that’s tenacity, and if so far they haven’t hooked a publisher, this may say more about the vastness of the market than the quality of their work. If you can’t find ’em, you can’t impress ’em, and as the same principle applies in reverse, getting an airing for your product is an imperative.

But how to do this? How to rise above the sheer oceanic mass of other wannabes, float above the rest on the literary tide, and (to do the metaphor to death) avoid catching a crab of a duff publishing outfit? Self evidently, social networking has to be part of the answer although some balk at its apparent trivialising and intrusive drip-feeding of drivel into every minute cranny of our day. Like it or not though, it’s here and it’s probably staying, so we’d better buy it slippers and set a place at the table for it.

I have to admit I don’t find that too much of a problem. It took me a while to get to grips with twitter and blogs but now that I have, I really do see their potential for showcasing, communicating, supporting and generally getting oneself  ‘out there’. Assuming ‘out there’ is in any mood to listen, that is. But there’s another platform that takes the whole business one step further. Suppose you could hire a smart-looking venue and invite your writer/blogger community to come and listen as you read some of your work? Suppose you could engage in discussion with all of them at once wherever they were in the world? Imagine if you could see each other, sit next to each other, have a bit of a boogie to relax? And what if you could do this without any of you having to leave your homes?

For all sorts of reasons, I spend a fair bit of time in Second Life. I had a meeting there today with a research colleague to discuss doing a joint live seminar from our simulation next week – him from one part of the country and me from another. I’ve met artists and musicians who display their work at venues in Second Life, some by streaming their music live into a purpose designed club with a multinational audience. Indigo Mertal is a Second Life designer and artisan who is part of a group called East River Community which is one of the most beautiful areas in SL that I have seen. Indigo is very interested in thinking about hosting events for writers wanting a place to meet and talk about their work, and I’m interested in passing along the idea because I think this would be a fantastic development.

And maybe also because I quite like the idea of going ‘out’, meeting up with nice people, having a great time, and not needing to run for the last bus in impossible heels. Actually, I’ll be there anyway, all you have to do is sign up and teleport over!

Here are some more photos to pique your interest:

second life cafe area second life cafe area

Writing as cabaret

sketchHere’s a thought. Ever seen those sketch artists on the street or at local fayres who produce a portrait of you in a matter of minutes and you love it just because of the unique focused attention it offers? Well, how about an equivalent for writers/wannabe writers? Quite a few talk about doing their writing in cafes or bars (here, it would be the local pub – wey hey!) which presumably means either buying quantities of coffee or beer or trying to avoid attention while making just one last three hours. What about trading your services for a bit of free sustenance? What about offering punters a 250/500 word story with their name in it in exchange for the odd freebie drink? Netbook, mini-printer, instant profile raising, and a comfy seat for the afternoon in convivial surroundings, what’s to dislike?

I live within walking distance of several pubs so that’s my summer sorted out!

Language most foul

I have recently unfollowed someone for using the C word in a tweet. The offender gave a cursory apology but, in suggesting that those of us with ‘delicate sensibilities’ should ‘cover our ears’, rather belied himself.

As a writer of court reports, some of them addressing abusive and criminal behaviours and requiring verbatim quotes, I am not unfamiliar with offensive language nor too fragile of constitution to repeat it when required. In fact, in therapy sessions, when clients have no other words for something and use, let’s call it a ‘street’ word so as not to attract unwelcome attention, I will use that word myself in the interests of unambiguous communication.

But what about fiction? I’ve noticed that none of my characters is inclined to swear. They don’t use profanities any more than I would myself and they would certainly never use that word even in extremis. So am I being prudish, unreal, and disconnected? Avoiding the gritty and down to earth man-in-the-street dialogue that demonstrates urban credibility? I’m not sure. You see, I’m pretty happy with dramas that manage without it – or at least without the peppering that seems to go with some writers’ view of realism.

Like smoking, gratuitous use of offensive language (language designed to offend, not language that has been defined as offensive by some mysterious authority) bothers me as it seems to represent a laziness of thinking. I wonder what else the characters could be doing or saying if they weren’t mouthing off or manipulating a cigarette without adding anything to the story. I particularly dislike it in books because the writer is forcing me to articulate, albeit sub-vocally, a word I would not normally use in a similar situation. Critically, I notice gratuitous swearing and smoking and I absolutely don’t notice its absence.

What I also notice and find laughable are the attempts of family magazines to asterix out particular words. Our Radio Times, a bastion of British Middle English Society, does this frequently with reports of interviews in which rock, film, and acting legends feel moved to express themselves rather strongly. Sometimes I agree entirely with their use of the word and so, to see it represented by its first and last letter bookending a bunch of  *****s as if we wouldn’t know what the word might be seems bizarre. More bizarre can be the RT’s decision about what constitutes an offensive word – the colloquial for excrement apparently is, while ‘arse’ is not – and so children can read about the latter but have to guess, giggle, and smirk about the former. And substitute words such as ‘sugar’ and, in more contemporary context, ‘frack’ (Battle Star Galactica) – well, what is that all about?! After a while, we all know what it represents so how is different from the word it is replacing?

What’s the deal, then, on ‘language’ in literature? Is there a difference between the way male and female writers approach this? Do some women go overboard with it as a kind of compensatory strategy? Is there room for wusses whose characters will more likely say ‘Oh bother!’ than ‘*****!’ when the ghoul from deepest Hades rounds the end of their blind alley? And, rather like the writing of scenes of intimacy, how do you convince your mates that this is fiction darn it, and not a window on your own perverse little world!

Post script: spellcheck did not argue with ‘frack’, what’s that tell you I wonder!

Writers and writerly things: Part 2

Appended to my last post (the text, not the bugle) was a suggested link titled ‘Aww man, we gotta blog?!‘ An unpromising catch at first glance but, being trapped in the middle of an edit for a clinical journal, I was tempted as if to chocolate and made the click. This was it, a blog about blogging for PhD candidates (PhD.umpingground) which neatly articulated my drift of yesterday and collided it with another from my research world. So, writing blogs are for writing, practising writing, practising writing for an audience, marshalling thoughts, expressing ideas, asking questions, learning how to present arguments, and keeping a running commentary of your progress without trivialising either the work or yourself. Staggeringly useful, staggeringly relevant. Unlike the ‘People who bought this also bought that..’ nonsense you get on shopping sites, although I do feel for the author whose book brought up no suggestions at all. I mean, could they not find even a pamphlet that might fit?!

New nano fiction page

pretty lightsYesterday, with Pirates of the Caribbean providing the surreal, comedic soundtrack, I was trying to write a short story without using a first person pronoun. You know the ones; ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘we’, ‘us’, those chappies. My first effort was a tricksy side step; people with an autistic condition sometimes speak in the third person and so ‘Alan wants the key’ began to take shape. Nice work, I thought to myself as I pressed a few more examples of communication disorder into service. It wasn’t though; it was cheating, a smug exploitation of specialist knowledge to fool the reader. Alan and his key got shelved and in his place came Prune-ella, Queen of the Dessert; an aging drag artist about to take revenge on the nightclub owner under the detached eye of the narrator. It’s not done yet but it has promise so I’ll be on its case pre or post David Tennant’s last ever Dr Who. But what then? Writing exercises are journals, developmental life histories, the tracks of a writer’s progress. Some are quite obviously rubbish and some will later be perceived as such with hindsight but what about the good ‘uns? Those little gems that hit the page running and deliver a complete tale in 300 words? Flash fiction publishers take stories up to about 1000 words but generally balk at anything under 500 and most of these exercises come in at 500, 250 or even fewer words. So they stay hidden away in the archives of critique groups or on the hard drive that just crashed and refuses entry to all but a twelve-year-old with a digital screwdriver and spots.

Time to give them their place in the sun, I think! I’ll be back to the Day Job next week so I know that fiction writing will lose its priority. The goals are too big, too distant and elusive while those for which I’m paid are in my face, demanding and also, it has to be said, immensely exciting. However, I reckon I could tickle out the odd half ton word count from time to time and if I did, I could put it here. You could comment or contribute if you felt so inclined; that would be a nice, community spirited sort of thing wouldn’t it? Well then, click your way to the Nano fiction page and give it the once-over. If you come back for a twice or thrice-over, I’ll be honoured.