Surprise in Fiction: Trent’s Last Case

Surprise – noun — a completely unexpected occurrence, appearance, or statement.

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Unsurprisingly, there’s been some research done on the science of surprise. I read this summary on Melissa Hughes’s blog.

There is science in surprise. Neuroscientists have discovered that surprise is one of the most powerful human emotions. As it turns out, the brain’s pleasure center (or the nucleus accumbens) lights up like a Christmas tree when you experience something that you didn’t expect. Not only do you get a nice boost of dopamine, the brain releases noradrenaline – the neurotransmitter responsible for focus and concentration. Think of it as the reset button for the brain. It actually stops all of the other brain activity to let you find meaning in the surprise.

An article on sciencedaily.com highlights the work of neuroscientists Dr. Gregory Berns and Dr. Read Montague who ran experiments that used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli, in this case, fruit juice and water.

“Until recently, scientists assumed that the neural reward pathways, which act as high-speed Internet connections to the pleasure centers of the brain, responded to what people like,” said Montague.

“However, when we tested this idea in brain scanning experiments, we found the reward pathways responded much more strongly to the unexpectedness of stimuli instead of their pleasurable effects.”

 

Given this data, maybe we authors should look closely at the element of surprise in our works. If we can cause the reader’s brain to suddenly experience a pleasurable shot of dopamine, we will have captured their attention and their loyalty.

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“Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise.” — Julia Cameron

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When we read a mystery novel, we expect to be surprised. All those twists and turns are designed to keep our attention. When the shy, gentle woman suddenly pulls a gun out of her purse, or the disconnected nerd leaps into the line of fire to save a stranger, we love it.

According to an essay on thenetwriters.com,

The importance of surprising your readers should never be forgotten by any aspiring writer. In fact, it should always be considered a vital part of a storyteller’s toolkit. By seeking to confound your audience with plot twists, subverting the reader’s expectations with ‘the element of surprise’ can often allow you to heighten dramatic tension in your story, add suspense, or introduce humour.

Mystery readers, though, are a fairly sophisticated bunch. Most dedicated mystery readers have a sense of the story. We’re accustomed to surprises in the form of strange clues and red herrings to distract us from figuring out who the real culprit is. Complex twists and turns are part of a good mystery, but readers know that no matter what surprises or unusual events are thrown at the amateur sleuth, she will eventually solve the mystery and save the day.

However, I read a book recently that took a couple of turns I didn’t expect. (Note: spoilers in the paragraphs below.)

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Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley was published in 1913 and is widely respected as one of the first, if not the first, modern detective novel. Agatha Christie called it, “One of the best detective stories ever written.” It was dedicated to Bentley’s friend G.K. Chesterton who encouraged him to write it and, maybe unsurprisingly, called it, “The finest detective story of modern times.”

The story begins when the body of a very unlikeable financial magnate, Sigsbee Manderson, is found by one of his servants, and there is concern that his death might shake up the financial markets  When the editor of an influential newspaper hears of the probable murder, he calls on the charismatic Philip Trent, an artist who is also a freelance reporter and amateur sleuth, to help solve the case. Highly respected by the police authorities, Trent seems to have the intellectual acuity of Sherlock Holmes since we’re told nothing can escape his astute powers of observation. (It turns out this is an intended comparison.)

There are the usual suspects in the case: the beautiful widow, the unhappy uncle, and various others who had reasons to do away with the unpleasant Mr. Manderson. And there is an abundance of strange clues to keep the reader busy trying to put the puzzle together. Not to worry, though. Trent puts his considerable analytical skills to work and comes up with a brilliant theory that satisfies all the clues. The only problem is that he has fallen in love with Manderson’s widow, and he believes she was having an affair with one of her husband’s employees who subsequently murdered Manderson.

Trent writes his dispatch to the newspaper editor but doesn’t send it. Unwilling to implicate the woman he loves, he gives the dispatch to the widow, leaves the site of the crime, and accepts a freelance reporting assignment in another country..

Surprise #1: Trent’s solution to the mystery comes just a little after the midpoint in the book. That threw me since I’m accustomed to the reveal coming in the last chapter. I read on, curious to see how the author would continue the story. Will the widow turn out to be a scheming murderer who hunts down Trent and kills him? Will she and her lover taunt Trent with his unwillingness to accuse them?

Several chapters later, we discover:

Surprise #2: The widow wasn’t involved. Trent was wrong.

Very clever, Mr. Bentley. You led me down the garden path, convinced that Trent could not make a mistake because he was modeled on the extraordinary Sherlock Holmes.

It turns out E.C. Bentley was not a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and he intended Trent’s Last Case to show the amateur sleuth as a fallible human, not a flawless reasoning superhero. But I didn’t know that when I began reading the book, and my expectations set me up for a few surprising plot twists.

There are a couple of other surprises in the book, but I won’t reveal them here in case anyone wants to read the story. Even though Bentley employs an early 20th-century style of writing that is no longer popular, the story is enjoyable and stands the test of time.

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“I love surprises! That’s what is great about reading. When you open a book, you never know what you’ll find.” –Jerry Spinelli

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An interesting postscript: I uploaded this post to the TKZ site last week. Over the weekend, my husband and I had lunch with a fellow author who was telling us about a book he recently read: Fade Away by Harlan Coben. Although I hadn’t said anything about my TKZ post, our well-read friend said the thing he loved about the book was that it held many surprises. So there you have it. The proof is in the pudding.

So TKZers: Have you read Trent’s Last Case? What books have you read that took you by surprise? How do you include elements of surprise in your books?

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Private pilot Cassie Deakin is in for a string of surprises when she lands in the middle of a murder mystery. Even Fiddlesticks the cat takes on a new persona that’s shocking.

Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play, or Apple Books.

 

How To Write a Dance Scene

I was eavesdropping on Quora again and stumbled across a thread about how to write a dance scene. Because I included a sensual dance in the WIP, the question piqued my interest. I’ve written dance scenes before, but my characters spent most of their time spying on bad guys. Nothing like the scene I wrote in the WIP (which also ties into the plot).

The writers who responded on Quora had such great advice, I had to share.

Each answer attributed to the writer, of course.

Original question: How can you describe a dance in writing?

Emma Thomas, Novelist wrote:

Here’s two examples of how not to do it.

She stepped onto the floor and awed them all with her dancing.

Under-descriptive. Dancing is such a physical and emotional movement that you have to balance those two in your writing and neither happened here (Sue: She means in the above example).

She gazed across the lacquered wooden tiles and, with a sudden burst of courage that she hadn’t known she’d possessed, stepped onto the dance floor. As the thrumming rhythm of classical music whispered into her ears, she began to dance.

Sliding her right foot back and the other one forward, she dropped low so that her dress brushed the ground, then sprang back up again, so quickly that she got whiplash. She threw her arms out and waved them from side to side, perfectly in tune with the beat, before jumping into the air. Her dress spun around her and for a moment it felt like she was flying … then the ground was beneath her again.

That hurt as much to write as it did to read. I shouldn’t be telling the reader each one of the movements that our dancer makes, unless I want an incredibly monotonous one-hundred page instruction manual on how to jump up and down and fling your hands in the air, like what the MC is doing here. Did you catch that? Possibly not; it sounded like it had taken an hour for her to dance when it was really just a split-second.

When you write about someone dancing, make sure that it’s obvious. It’s okay to say the word “dance.” Not everything has to be a ten-page description — but not everything can be a one-word summary, either. Tie in enough of the surroundings to establish a mood and a sense of place. Lastly, make sure that the dance conveys what you want it to — if it’s careless, make it sound careless. If it’s more meaningful, make it sound like that.

Let’s try this again.

She was dancing. Arms flailing in the sky above her, she whirled around and whooped her happiness into the sweat-stained air. Foot forward. Back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done this — why had she ever stopped? A hand grabbed hers and she was swung backward, dipped low, then soaring into the air, the flashing colors momentarily blinding her … she touched ground again and skidded to a smiling, breathless halt.

That’s a rough paragraph but it conveys what it needs to. It established a sense of place, action, and a connection with the dancer. Not under-descriptive or over-descriptive, just effective.

Aaaand that’s it. Hope it helped.

Shreya Pandey wrote:

Do not describe each and every dance step in detail. It’ll get complex and it’ll sound very mechanical. Describe one step, then follow it up by describing how a character felt while they did it. Do they feel dizzy? Happy? Feel an adrenaline rush? Feel scared?

Describe what they see. Does the room start to spin? Do they see the audience looking at them in awe? Describe the way their body moves. Is it effortless? Are they having trouble remembering the steps? Is any part of their body sore?

Describe the atmosphere. Are they dancing at a party? What kind of music is playing in [t]he background? What kind of beats does it have? Can they fee the bass thumping through their body? Is it a popular song? How many people are there? Are they dancing in a crowd, or alone on a stage? What are they wearing?

Give meaning to the dance. It must be significant if you are introducing it in your text. Why is it significant? Is it about how liberated, happy and care free the character feels when they dance? Is it an intimate dance sequence the character shares with someone they love? Does the dance bring back memories? Is it demonstrating their hard work? Is it something they are doing to lose some steam? Do they have a purpose behind it?

The dance scene is always more than just the movement of the character’s body. It is significant to the plot in some way. You need to subtly highlight that significance. At most, if it isn’t anything serious, it can be used to manipulate the reader’s senses. Make them feel, hear, touch, smell, move, see, etc. Transport them. Make them feel as if they are dancing, or as if they are the audience and they are watching someone dance from up close. Writing the perfect atmosphere perfectly is the key.

And my favorite answer…

James Sams, Writer/Editor wrote:

I’d like to caution you against “over describing”. Books are not movies. We can see every step of the Tango in a movie, but no one wants to read what every step is. If you write things like…

“He moved his left foot backward in a smooth motion, sliding across the slick floor. She slid her right foot forward, chasing his retreating foot with hers, like a fox on the hunt. Dipping forward and looking into her eyes, his fingers tightened on her ribs as his left foot came forward again, surprising her foot and chasing it back. They stopped, toe to toe, and he pulled her hips in close to his.

Threatening to brush his lips against hers, he looked to the left, and then to the right. She mimicked him, turning her head opposite. To the right, then to the left.

He pushed her away as though she were too terrible, yet to[o] wonderful, to be near, yet he held on to her left hand with his right, catching her as their arms pulled taut and spinning her out and away. Then he reeled her back in, unable to give her up.

She fell into him, his strong arms wrapping her tight, protecting her before casting her out again.”

… you can get away with it for a paragraph, maybe two. Even with the nice similes and small details, it will soon become agony for a reader to get through. You have become a puppet master, forcing the reader to imagine each foot, each hand, each head motion exactly the way you want it to be. Readers don’t like that. They like to use their imaginations. They want you to give them a coloring book outline and then hint at what colors they should use when they color it in with their imagination.

To give them those subtle colors, only give sweeping descriptions, and add in the senses. Put in the emotions, even if they are only faux representative ones [that] describe the types of movement.

The best thing you can do with a dance, is keep it short, at least in your description. Focus on the characters’ feelings, fears, hopes and thoughts, and then come back for another quick description. If you took the dance I wrote above and stretched it out for the full dance, describing every move in detail, I guarantee even an editor will begin skipping over it as they read. Even if you don’t give every little dance step, it will be too long and people will just let their eyes slide over it, looking for the place you stop describing and get back to the story.

Don’t be afraid to use a dance, just remember, readers are reading for the characters and their thoughts, feelings, and stories. The descriptions, backgrounds, clothes, etc. need to always take a back seat.

I hope that helped.

What do you think, TKZers? Have you written a dance scene? If so, did you follow these guidelines? Any other tips to share?

Situational Awareness

I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination. –Jimmy Dean

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Did you know the deadliest aviation accident in history happened on the ground? Yes, you read that correctly. It occurred in 1977 when two 747’s collided in dense fog on a runway in the Canary Islands. Here’s how it happened:

An incident at the airport on Gran Canaria Island had diverted aircraft to the smaller Los Rodeos Airport on Tenerife Island. The Los Rodeos Airport had only one runway and an adjacent parallel taxiway with several smaller taxiways connecting the two. Because of the increase in aircraft that had landed at Los Rodeos, several aircraft were parked on  the taxiway.

Two 747’s were lined up at one end of the taxiway, ready to depart. A KLM aircraft was to be first, followed by a PanAm flight. Because of the wind direction, each aircraft would have to move from its current position to the opposite end of the runway, but they couldn’t use the main taxiway because it was blocked by other aircraft.

An air traffic controller in the Los Rodeos tower instructed the KLM plane to taxi down the runway to the end and turn 180° in preparation for takeoff. While the KLM plane was taxiing, the controller told the PanAm plane to taxi on the same runway (which would put it behind the KLM) and then exit at a connecting taxiway. That way, the PanAm plane would be off the runway before the KLM started its takeoff roll.

Because of the fog, the crews of the two planes could not see each other, and the air traffic controller could not see the planes. They were relying on accurate communication to guide their movements. If the crews of both planes had obeyed the controller’s instructions, the accident would not have happened.

The KLM completed its taxi and turning maneuver and was positioned at the end of the runway. Now, an aircraft must have specific clearance from ATC before starting its takeoff roll. The tower never gave the KLM flight clearance to take off, but the captain of the KLM plane thought he had been given the okay. Because of his misunderstanding and his inability to see clearly, the giant 747 began barreling down the runway, unaware that the other plane was in its path.

The takeoff plane was traveling at approximately 160 mph when the crew spotted the other plane dead ahead. They were only one hundred meters apart. There was no time to stop or swerve to avoid the other plane. The captain of the takeoff plane pulled the nose up sharply in an effort to “leapfrog” over the other one. He didn’t make it. The lower part of the KLM aircraft struck the PanAm plane and crashed onto the runway, exploding in a huge fireball.

Although the crews of both planes were experienced, five hundred and eighty-three people died in that accident. All the people on the KLM flight perished, and most of the passengers on the PanAm plane also died. And it happened because the captain of the KLM plane lacked “situational awareness”, or the ability to fully understand his environment. He acted on an assumption that the runway was clear. He was wrong.

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Situational awareness applies to many aspects of life, not just flying. Fortunately for authors, lack of such an awareness will not endanger our lives, but it just might endanger our livelihoods!

So what is situational awareness for writers? Most writers (I hope) know what they want out of writing. It may be fame, financial success, independence, self-fulfillment, a way to touch other people’s lives, or just the experience of writing a very good book. But in order to achieve his/her goals, the writer has to know what the current landscape is. After all, if you don’t know where you are, how can you figure out how to get where you’re going?

If you’re a pilot, you depend on the air traffic controller to direct your flight. When you drive, you may use your car’s GPS system to get you to your destination. For those of us who are new to publishing, we rely on experts in the field to lead us. Add to that the notion that the publishing world keeps shifting beneath our feet, it’s more important than ever to be well-informed.

When I began writing my first novel, I understood early on that I needed an editor/mentor to help guide me. Imagine my surprise when she told me my omniscient narrator was out of style and I’d have to take a different approach. After I got over my “Well, it’s my book and that’s the way I want to do it” reaction, I realized I didn’t understand the big picture of where I was in this new world. I needed a map.

Fortunately for me, the first two resources that were recommended to me were Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Along with my editor, these books laid the groundwork for my moving forward.

Luckily, authors have an abundance of good information in craft books, podcasts, blogs, and a semi-infinite number of online resources. The information is there. We just have to take advantage of it.

Whatever methods you use to get you where you want to go, best wishes for a successful journey and a happy landing!

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So TKZers: What are your writing goals? What tools do you use to get you to your destination? Books? Blogs? Podcasts? Courses?

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Private pilot Cassie Deakin has her feet firmly planted in the air. But when she lands on the ground and has to help disentangle a murder mystery, the landscape isn’t nearly so friendly. 

Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play, or Apple Books.

 

 

Cautionary Tale in the Zone or Flow State

This is a cautionary tale of how “the zone” or flow state can skew reality and common sense.

Several years ago, I turned the sunroom into my office. All the windows allow me a panoramic view of “Animal Planet,” the lower level of the yard where I feed my crows, ravens, jays, cardinals, barn birds, squirrels, chippies, and anyone else who needs an easy meal.

It’s my happy place.

For years, I dreaded winter. The cold weather meant I had to move my office into the spare bedroom, because my converted office had no heat. That changed with the installation of a mini split, an electrical unit for heat and AC. But they can only handle so much.

Here in New Hampshire, the recent temps plummeted to single digits with “feels like” temperatures well below zero. It’s a big ask for a mini split. But I’m stubborn, so I bundle up in warm clothes and write for as long as possible before I must grab my MacBook and head into the living room for the rest of the day.

Yesterday (as of this writing), we had one of the coldest days we’ve had all winter. Downright frigid in my office, with frost crystalized around the windows. The mini split coughed out bursts of heat in between shutdowns to gain its bearings. Didn’t matter that I cranked the thermostat to 76 degrees.

The unit basically told me to pound sand. “Be happy with what I give you.”

Fair enough.

I’m at a point in the WIP where I’ve reached total obsession. You know that point in every project where things gel easier, words flow, excitement builds, milestones/goalposts whip by with less effort? Uh-ha, that’s the place. I’ve also had two scenes rolling around my head for days—weeks?—but it wasn’t time to write them yet.

There’s nothing wrong with jumping ahead to write a specific scene. Sometimes, I do the same. My preference is to let the scenes simmer inside me till they reach a boiling point. If my and my character’s obsession align, all that pent-up anticipation transfers to the page.

If you haven’t experienced this mild form of psychological torture, it’s effective. At least, it is for me.

Ahem. Anyway…

When my husband left for work at 4:30 a.m., I ventured into my office with a hot tea and the expectation that I’d only write at my desk till sunrise, then I’d snuggle up by the wood stove with my MacBook.

The first time I noticed the clock it read 10:30 a.m. But I was mid-scene. I couldn’t switch to my MacBook now. If I’m on a roll, I’ll never mess with the mojo that got me there.

Yes, I know how superstitious that sounds. Don’t we all have a few weird writing quirks?

The next time I glanced up from the screen, the clock read 2:30 p.m. But again, I was midway through another scene and not willing to risk losing momentum. At this point, I was also super high on craft and probably not in any condition to make decisions about my well-being, with serotonin, adrenaline, and dopamine coursing through my system. 😉

There I stayed in a suspended state of euphoria till the sun lowered toward the horizon. And I marveled at the pink sky interspersed with violet hues.

All my animal pals returned to their burrows, trees, and nests, the lower level now devoid of wildlife.

Still, I ignored the darkness swallowing daylight, my complete focus on the screen, my fingers barely able to keep up with the enticing hum of neurons firing.

When my husband returned from running errands after work, he strode into my cold, dark office. “Step away from the desk, honey. Now. That heater shut off hours ago.”

“It did?”

“Must’ve. It’s freezing in here.”

“Is it?”

I never once felt cold. Not once. I was so immersed in my story world, and drunk on intoxicating hormones, I left New Hampshire before dawn. All day I’d been chasing bad guys through the woods of Montana, dodging bullets and encounters with predators. I laughed. I cried. I feared. I rejoiced. I experienced the entire spectrum of emotions right alongside my characters from dawn to dusk.

It wasn’t till I strolled into the warm living room that I felt the first pang of stiffness, muscle aches, and joint pain.

What can we learn from this, kiddies?

There are worse ways to die. Kidding.

Sort of.

Clear Takeaways

  • Don’t sacrifice your wellbeing, or safety.
  • The human body needs blood flow. Get up and move.
  • The mind is a beautiful place. Take good care of it.
  • You only get one life. Don’t sacrifice a second.
  • Lastly, take the time to admire the natural beauty around you, like sunrises and sunsets.

Do I regret it?

The correct answer is yes, but I don’t. Not one bit. Those chapters rock. 😉 Do as I say, not as I do.

Have you ever gotten “lost” while writing? Tell us about it.

Who Is In Control of What You Do?

It’s no secret that I’m slightly obsessed with the brain. Okay, okay, it’s a full-blown obsession, but it’s such a fascinating organ!

The other day, I watched a neuroscience documentary (like I often do). One episode asked the question: Who is in control of what you do? The neuroscientist then said…

“Every action you take, every decision you make, every belief you hold is driven by parts of your brain that you have no access to. We call this hidden world the unconscious, and it runs much more of your life than you would ever imagine.”

Shocking, right? The entire episode blew my mind (no pun intended) and drove me down a rabbit hole of research. What I discovered shows just how many superpowers we writers possess.

Let’s dig in…

The conscious you, or conscious awareness, makes up the smallest part of your brain. The conscious brain believes it’s in full control of the body, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Have you ever driven home and not remembered how you got there? One minute, a thought crosses your mind. And the next thing you know, you’re turning on to your street. It’s a wild feeling that we write off with, “I’ve driven this route so many times, the car knows its way.” But the truth is, this sensation occurs because the action is being done unconsciously and automatically. And somehow, you arrive home without harm.

Through clinical trials, Freud discovered that beneath the surface of each of us lies a swirling sea of hidden motivations, drives, and desires. The way we think and feel and act is profoundly influenced by our unconscious mind.

As the twentieth century progressed, many others dove into the brave new world of neuroscience. They were trying to uncover how much control the unconscious brain really has, but what they soon discovered was far stranger than anyone could have predicted.

In the 1960s, Eckhart Hess ran several experiments. In one, he asked men to look at women’s faces and make snap judgments about them.

  • How kind does she look?
  • How selfish or unselfish is she?
  • How friendly or unfriendly is she?
  • How attractive is she?

What the men didn’t know was how Hess manipulated the experiment. In half the photos, the women’s eyes were artificially dilated. Same women but with different sized pupils. Dilated eyes are, among other things, a biological sign of sexual arousal. This manipulation was meant to influence the choices made by the men, but without them being aware of it.

Can you guess the outcome?

The men found the women with dilated eyes more attractive. Here’s the important part. None of the men noticed the dilated pupils in the photographs, nor did any of the men know about the biological sign of sexual readiness. But somehow, their brains knew.

Hess and his team ran deeply evolutionary programs to steer the men toward the right sort of mate (the feminist in me is holding back here; please do the same). The subjects’ brains analyzed and recognized tiny details in the photos and then acted upon them. All of this occurred without a flicker of conscious awareness.

This type of experiment revealed fundamental knowledge about how the brain operates. The job of this organ is to gather information from the world, then steer appropriate behavior. And it makes absolutely no difference whether you (your conscious awareness) are involved. Most of the time, you’re not. Most of the time, you’re not even aware of the decisions being made on your behalf.

Check out these findings:

  • If you’re holding a warm cup of coffee, you’ll describe your relationship to your mother as closer than if you’re holding an iced coffee.
  • When you’re in a foul-smelling environment, you’ll make harsher moral decisions.
  • If you sit next to a bottle of hand sanitizer, it’ll shift your political opinions a little toward the conservative side, because it reminds your brain of outside threats.

Every day we’re influenced in countless ways by the world around us. And most of this flies completely under the radar of our conscious awareness. Though clueless to us, the unconscious brain is continually reacting to the outside world and making decisions on our behalf.

What separates us from zombie-like beings?

Even when we’re on autopilot, if we come across something we weren’t expecting, our conscious mind is called into action to figure out if this new thing is a threat or opportunity. It’s one of the jobs of consciousness—to assess what’s going on and make sense of the situation. When our expectations are violated, our conscious mind is summoned to work out the appropriate reaction.

But reacting is not its only mission. The conscious brain plays a vital role in resolving internal conflict among the brain’s many automatic sub-systems, each working on its own task.

Take, for example, if you’re hungry but you just started a diet to drop a few holiday pounds. This is when the conscious brain needs to rise above the unconscious and make an executive decision on what to do. Consciousness is the arbiter of conflicting motivations in the brain, with a unique vantage point that no other part of the brain has access to. It’s a way for trillions of cells to see themselves as a unified whole.

For writers, our unconscious brain stores our superpowers.

Our unconscious is capable of truly remarkable feats if we stay out of its way. Therein lies the rub. We can train our unconscious to do many skills automatically, and some of them can seem almost superhuman. Through intense practice, we can harness the brain’s ability to run on autopilot to achieve almost anything.

See where I’m goin’ with this? Note the words “through intense practice.” Meaning, the more we practice, the more we hardwire our brains to work on autopilot. And yes, that includes writing. Those who write daily or several times per week have an easier time than writers who step away from the keyboard for weeks or months at a time.

We also enter the zone more often.

When our conscious awareness relinquishes control to our unconscious brain, we enter the flow state—a form of brain activity experienced by different kinds of people, from elite athletes and meditation experts to professional writers and musicians. Many of whom call this state “the zone,” which arrives during total emersion in a task. In flow states, neural circuits run without conscious mind interference. Our perception clears, our unconscious awareness heightens, and feel-good chemicals flood the brain, which allows for intense focus and gratification.

Thanks to neuroscience, a distinct pattern in the brain emerges when we’re in the zone.

When we first enter flow, dopamine increases attention, information flow, and pattern recognition. It’s essentially a skill booster.

Norepinephrine speeds up the heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration. It triggers a glucose response to give us more energy, increase arousal, attention, neural efficiency, and emotional control, thus producing a high.

Endorphins (rooted from the word “endogenous,” meaning naturally internal to the body) relieve pain and induce pleasure. Strangely, these chemicals function like opioids, with 100 times the power of morphine.

Anandamide (stemming from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”) is an endogenous cannabinoid and feels like the psychoactive effect of marijuana. In flow states, anandamide elevates mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels, and aids in respiration. It also amplifies lateral thinking—the ability to link ideas together.

At the end of a flow state, serotonin floods the brain with an after-glow effect. This leaves us with a feeling of bliss and only occurs once we exit the zone.

Unlike many ordinary people, writers dip in and out of the zone on a regular basis. Did I just call us extraordinary? You bet I did! We have a pretty cool superpower. Don’tcha think?

Tips to Achieving Flow

  1. Balance challenge and skill.

If you’ve never written nonfiction, for example, you may find it difficult to enter the zone because your conscious awareness is stressed out. You’re too afraid of making a mistake to enter flow.

If something isn’t challenging enough, you’ll get bored easily. In turn, so will your reader. Not only will adding plenty of conflict improve your plot, but you’ll enter the zone quicker while writing.

  1. Establish clear goals.

I will write for three hours. I will write at least 1000 words today. I will write two scenes or one chapter. By establishing a daily writing goal, it relieves the pressure of having to finish the entire first draft by a certain date. How you choose to establish those goals is up to you.

  1. Reduce distraction.

You will never enter the zone if you’re checking for social media notifications or email every ten minutes. When it’s time to write, write. Save play time and the inbox for later.

  1. Stop multitasking.

Have you ever turned down the radio while searching for a specific house number or highway exit? You’re instinctively helping your brain to concentrate on a visual task. For more on why multitasking is so difficult and why we should avoid it before a writing session, see my 2021 post entitled Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

  1. Don’t force it.

Some days, you’ll enter the zone. Other days, you won’t. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. You’ll still produce words and make progress.

  1. Enjoy the process.

You won’t enter flow unless you’re enjoying yourself. Simple as that. If you view writing as a chore, it may be time to step away from the WIP for a while. Yes, penning a novel is hard work, but it also should be enjoyable. If it’s not, you may want to ask yourself why you do it.

What were your biggest takeaways from this research? Are you surprised that we live on autopilot most of the time?

New Beginnings

The beginning is the most important part of the work. –Plato

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Happy New Year! I’m honored to be the first to welcome TKZers to 2024! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season, filled with family, food, and fun, Now that the turkey and dressing have all been eaten, the relatives and friends have left, and the decorations have been put away, let’s get back to business.

January 1 is a clear-cut marker, a notch in time for new beginnings. It’s the start of another trip around the sun. Another 365—366 this year—opportunities to imprint our written work on the human experience. So, naturally, we think about how we can best use our time in this new year. Many people choose to make resolutions.

resolution — noun — the act of resolving or determining upon an action, course of action, method, procedure, etc.

Since this first TKZ post of 2024 landed squarely on January 1, I thought it would be fun to see what resolutions are trending this year.

* * *

The following list of the most popular resolutions for 2024 was compiled at forbes.com. The list shows the percentage of people who mentioned each one.

  • Improved fitness (48%)
  • Improved finances (38%)
  • Improved mental health (36%)
  • Lose weight (34%)
  • Improved diet (32%)

Less popular resolutions include traveling more (6%), meditating regularly (5%), drinking less alcohol (3%) and performing better at work (3%).

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the five major resolutions all concerned health or money.

* * *

Although the Forbes list contains items with admirable intentions, I was more interested in resolutions targeted specifically at authors. So I looked around some more and found several sites that suggested resolutions for writers in 2024. I’ve included the major points from those sites here, but you should visit the sites to get more detail for the individual items.

This list comes from thgmwriters.com:

  1. Read more
  2. Write more
  3. Write to the audience
  4. Paint a picture
  5. Write simpler
  6. Get an editor
  7. Share your writings
  8. Call yourself a “writer”
  9. Start making money
  10. Remain true to yourself

Jeff Goins had a 17-item list:

  1. Measure activity, not results.
  2. Tell the truth
  3. Write what scares you.
  4. Don’t take yourself so seriously.
  5. Try a new genre.
  6. Write when you don’t feel like it.
  7. Do your research.
  8. Rewrite until it hurts.
  9. Shut up.
  10. Read widely.
  11. Fast from social media.
  12. Break a rule.
  13. Publish something
  14. Make money.
  15. Start a blog.
  16. Meet other writers
  17. Quit stalling and get writing!

Did you notice that both lists of resolutions for writers include truth and money? I don’t know what conclusion to draw from that, but it’s interesting.

So resolutions are great. They represent a strong commitment to improvement. However, it’s important to measure progress, so while a resolution might be to “read more,” a goal sets an explicit target: “Read one novel each week in 2024.” Including measurable goals within each resolution gives the best chance for success.

But whether you prefer resolutions or goals, writing them down and posting them somewhere so that you’ll see them during the year is a good idea.

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So TKZers: Did you come up with a list of New Year’s resolutions for writing? Did you see anything on the lists here that inspires you? What other resolutions and goals would you suggest for 2024?

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“DiBianca’s plot is tightly woven, but her cast of quirky and lovable characters steals the spotlight.” –BookLife Reviews, Editor’s Pick

Buy at Amazon, Barnes & Noble. Apple Books, Kobo, or Google Play 

Are You Moonstruck?

For the last few days, I’ve felt off. Writing had been difficult. Words refused to flow. Pumping out a decent chapter likened to delivering a 10 lb. baby with wide shoulders and oversized head. Even my playlists didn’t match my mood.

And sure, moments of melancholy go hand-in-hand with the holidays, but that wasn’t it. So, like I often do, I turned to nature for the answer. Specifically, the ebb and flow of the Moon.

When the lunar calendar showed the waning crescent phase, I’d found my answer. We’ve done battle before, her and I.

The waning crescent means one thing: early nights. With the final stretch of this lunar cycle, it’s normal to feel exhausted by the past month and want to unwind as the New Moon approaches. It’s also a time of reflection. Perfect time for journaling and self-care.

I’ve long known how the Moon affects me. It’s undeniable. I also know my views may conflict with yours, and that’s okay. We’re writers, after all. It’s our job and passion to question the mysteries of life.

Why would I believe the Moon is responsible for my lackadaisical mood?

I’m glad you asked. 😉

Let’s first look at the composition of the human body.

According to the Journal of Biological Chemistry 158:

  • An adult human body is made up of about 60% water.
  • The brain and heart consist of 73% water.
  • Lungs are about 83% water.
  • Skin has 64% water.
  • Muscles and kidneys are 79% water.
  • Even bones are 31% water.

The above percentages vary by age, gender, and where people reside. An adult male, for example, needs about 3 liters per day of water while an adult female only needs 2.2 liters. Some of which we derive from food. Keep in mind, fat tissue doesn’t have as much water as lean tissue.

Infants are born with the most water — about 78% of their body. By their first birthday, that number decreases to about 65%.

Water serves several essential functions:

  • first acts as a building material, then provides nutrients to every cell in the body
  • regulates internal body temperature through sweating and respiration
  • metabolizes and transports carbohydrates and proteins in food to the bloodstream
  • assists in flushing waste through urination
  • acts as a shock absorber for brain, spinal cord, and fetus
  • creates saliva
  • lubricates joints

With all the water in our bodies, how could the Moon not affect us? 

If you’re still not convinced, perhaps it’ll help to understand how and why the Moon wields great power.

Tides

The Moon’s gravitational pull generates something called “the tidal force.” The tidal force causes Mother Earth — and its water — to swell on the sides closest and farthest from the Moon. These bulges of water are high tides. As the Earth rotates, our regions pass through both stages every day. If we’re in one of the bulges, we receive a high tide. If we’re not, it results in a low tide. This cycle of two high tides and two low tides occurs on almost all of the world’s coastlines. The rare exception is when the tide circles around an island, like in New Zealand.

In addition to the tides, the Moon controls time, light, and stable seasons.

For many animals, particularly birds, the Moon is essential to migration and navigation. Others will time their reproduction to coincide with the specific phases of the lunar cycle. There’s also a whole world of fascinating adaptations relating to tides and the unique properties of moonlight.

Power of Lunar Cycle

The lunar cycle changes circadian rhythms — day/night cycles driven by Earth orbiting the Sun. Human circadian rhythms are easily thrown off by jet lag or when we change the clocks. But circalunar rhythms, which are tied to lunar cycles, can also impact us.

Circalunar rhythms are difficult to discern, but they effect different types of organisms. Some animals respond to both a circadian rhythm and a lunar clock. I recently wrote an in-depth article about why animals don’t get lost that may interest you.

“The Moon has been up there as long as evolution has been taking place, and lunar rhythms are embedded in the life cycles of many organisms. The challenge is working out when the Moon truly is a factor and what is merely myth and legend.”

— Dr. Tom White, Senior Curator of Natural History Museum

Day Length

The gravitational pull of the Moon is slowing Earth’s rotation, an effect known as “tidal braking,” which increases the length of our day by 2.3 milliseconds per century. Early Earth was spinning at a much faster rate. According to computer models, we had a six-hour day 4.5 billion years ago. Since then, with the help of our Moon, the Earth’s rotation has been slowing. The result is longer days.

Seasons

The giant impact that formed the Moon may have tipped the Earth and contributed to the 23.5° tilt of our North Pole. This tilt gives us our seasons.

The Moon’s gravitational pull acts like training wheels for Earth on its journey around the Sun, and keeps the axis pointed at a consistent angle. Without the Moon, the Earth’s stately progression through spring, summer, fall, and winter would have massive fluctuations.

If the Moon controls tides (with help from our Sun), time, light, and seasons, it’s naïve to think it can’t impact human life. Or maybe, you’ve never given it much thought.

Fair enough. We do live busy lives and have different interests.

A few fun facts:

  • Behaviors of several species have been linked to lunar periodicity.
  • The word “lunacy” stems from the Latin word “lunar,” which means “Moon.”

Ask your local police if crime rises during a full Moon. Many will say yes. A registered nurse friend of mine swears the nursing home goes berserk during a full Moon. Yet, neither have been scientifically proven as cold, hard facts. Doesn’t mean they aren’t true, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

  • Some philosophers say the Moon affects human behavior and health by its gravitational pull on body fluids.

The gravitational pull is so strong, our planet’s crust is stretched by these same tidal effects on a daily basis.

Can the Moon Disrupt Sleep?

2021 study found that people fell asleep later and slept less overall on the nights before the full moon — called Moonstruck sleep. Other research suggests the full Moon may be associated with less deep sleep and increased REM (rapid eye movement) latency.

Sleep latency is the period between when you first fall asleep and when you enter the first stage of REM sleep. So, increased latency means it takes longer to reach REM sleep.

As restrictions in sleep duration have been shown to adversely affect glucose regulation and physical activity to improve glucose regulation, one could argue cardiometabolic risk factors might also be affected by the lunar phase.

Despite dismissal by many non-holistic practitioners, scientific studies show we sleep less during certain Moon cycles.

“While the sun is the most important source of light and synchronizer of circadian rhythms for almost all species, moonlight also modulates nocturnal activity in organisms ranging from invertebrate larvae to primates. Moonlight is so bright to the human eye that it is entirely reasonable to imagine that, in the absence of other sources of light, this source of nocturnal light could have had a role in modulating human nocturnal activity and sleep.

 

However, whether the moon cycle can modulate human nocturnal activity and sleep remains a matter of controversy. Some authors have argued against strong effects of moon phase on human behavior and biological rhythms, but recent studies have reported that human sleep and cortical activity under strictly controlled laboratory conditions are synchronized with lunar phases.”

Some people are biologically more sensitive to the lunar clock than others, along with the Moon’s alignment with astrological signs.

So, TKZers, if you’d rather snuggle up with a good book or watch a sappy Christmas movie, I grant you whatever permission you may need to go for it. When the New Moon arrives on the 13th, light up the keyboard!

I have only one question for you today. How are you, friend? 

This is my last post before our holiday break. Wishing you and yours a joyous season!

 

 

 

Wrapping It Up

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” ― T.S. Eliot

* * *

As we approach the end of another year, it’s time to look back on 2023, assess our performance, and make preparations for 2024. If you’re like me, you have a list of goals you set for 2023 that you’re reviewing to see how you did.

I had twenty-eight writing goals for 2023. It was an ambitious list (I tend to be overly optimistic about what I can accomplish) that included books I wanted to write and publish, audiobooks I wanted to have made, and the number of books I intended to read. I also set goals for blog posts, reviews, book sales, X (Twitter) posts and followers, conferences, and other categories.

I reviewed the list a couple of days ago. I accomplished some things (specifically 65% of my goals, depending on how you count them), but others will have to wait until 2024.

* * *

Do you take time at the end of the year to reflect on the past and plan for the future? Here are a few suggestions I came across recently that may be helpful:

  1. Celebrate the accomplishments. Whatever progress was made in 2023 is worth a pat on the back. If you published a book, met your weekly word quota, got more Bookbub followers, or did anything else that moved the ball forward, take time to bask in the joy of your achievements. Chocolate is always a nice reward.
  2. Take a look at areas you want to improve in your writing and make a plan to tackle them in 2024.
  3. Acknowledge the people who helped you with your writing this year by sending them a thank-you note or donating to a charity in their honor.
  4. Decide on the number of words you want to write in 2024 and make a note of it. Tape the note to your desk.
  5. Choose a social media platform you want to concentrate on and decide how many posts you’ll make each week.
  6. Look over the writers’ conference schedules for 2024 and start making plans to attend one.
  7. Decide on promotions you want to run.
  8. Become a part of a blog community by commenting regularly.

Maybe most importantly, remember the words of the great runner Dean Karnazes, who ran a marathon in each of the 50 states in the U.S. on 50 consecutive days: “Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must, just never give up.” It’s just as relevant to writing as it is to running.

* * *

Since this is my last TKZ post for 2023, I want to express my gratitude to all of you for the insights, guidance, humor, and friendship I’ve enjoyed here during the past year. I wish you all a Happy Holiday season and best wishes for a productive and joyful writing year in 2024.

So TKZers: Did you achieve your goals in 2023? What accomplishments can you tell us about? What are your plans for 2024?

* * *

 

“DiBianca launches her Lady Pilot-in-Command series with a spectacular tale of decades-old murder mystery, human drama, and a hint of romance…. a surefire winner.” –Prairie Book Reviews

Lacey’s Star is on sale here.

What type of writer and reader are you?

Back in 2015, I was chatting with a dear writer friend, Paul Dale Anderson, about the different types of writers and readers.

If you’re a new writer searching for your voice, understanding which classification you fall into might help. Professional writers should also find this interesting.

Some of you may be familiar with Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). Though many call it junk science, most agree with the basic theory behind it: Our brains process information through one of our five senses. Though some rare individuals favor their sense of taste or smell (usually together, and these people are often chefs or perfumers), for most of us, it comes down to either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.

Kinesthetic links the process of learning to physical activity. Meaning, kinesthetic people can read or listen to instructions, but deep learning occurs via the process of doing. Obviously, this doesn’t mean kinesthetic readers need to act out the plot — though that’d be cool to watch! — they better absorb the storyline when it relates to experiences and actions.

Clear as mud? Cool. Moving on…

Paul Dale Anderson authored 27 novels and hundreds of short stories. He earned graduate degrees in Educational Psychology, taught college-level Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), and earned an MA in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin. He also taught creative writing for Writers Digest School (both Novel and Short Story) and for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Paul was also a Certified Hypnotist and National Guild of Hypnotists Certified Instructor.

Sadly, the writing community lost our dear friend Paul on December 13, 2018. You can still plant a tree in his honor here, which I just discovered. Seems fitting for such a kind and generous soul. Anyway…

What he shared with me in 2015 is pure gold. And today, I’ll share it with you. The italicized paragraphs below are Paul’s words, not mine.

Even from beyond the grave, his knowledge and expertise still dazzles…

Too many writers are unaware of how the human mind processes language. Various structures in the brain—some in the left hemisphere and some in the right—work together to make sense out of symbols. Symbols include, besides alpha-numeric digital representations, sounds, gestures, signs, maps, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. It is the mind that gives meaning to each symbol based on prior associations dredged out of memory. The map is not the territory but merely a representation of the territory.

During conversations with fellow writers at the 2015 Nebula Award Banquet in Chicago, I identified successful new writers by which symbols had salience for them and the way they accessed information.

Some writers were very verbal and had a fluidity of language based primarily on auditory processing of sensory input. Those people were able to instantly duplicate and respond to what they heard as they heard it. Sounds themselves had salience. Those writers are akin to the musician who plays mostly by ear, translating auditory input into kinesthetic output without the additional steps auditory-digital types like me require to process input and output.

I work differently. I “see” stories, then translate them into words that describe my visions. First I see the scenes. Then I see the written symbols that best represent that scene. I see each letter, each punctuation mark, each space at the beginning of a new paragraph, the way words and white space look laid-out on a page, the way each page contributes to the story as a whole.

I write at the keyboard where my fingers automatically translate the symbols in my head into kinesthetic actions that produce the symbols that appear on the screen or piece of paper. I cannot listen to music while writing. Background music interferes with the words in my head. Other writers find that listening to music while writing is a big help.

If you are primarily kinesthetic, you might prefer to write with a pen on paper before revising your works on a keyboard or sending your notebooks to a typist. The feel of the paper itself, the touch of the pen to paper, produces words from your subconscious faster and better than any other process. Kinesthetic writers also love to pound out words on manual typewriters. They write with a flourish that adds to their style. James Patterson is a kinesthetic writer.

If you’re more like me, however, you separate the process into a series of “drafts.” The first draft is primarily visual, and you describe what you see.

The second draft includes imagined sounds, tastes, feelings, smells. During the third draft I read all the words aloud to hear how the words sound and to feel how they roll off my tongue. I add punctuation marks to match my pauses, inflections, intonations. I tend to cut unnecessary flourishes out of my stories unless they add momentum to the plot or help describe a specific character.

If a story is to work, it must engage all of the reader’s senses. Some readers are primarily auditory, some are visual, some are kinesthetic, some olfactory, and some gustatory.

The majority of people in this world are auditory. They respond best to dialogue, to alliteration, to phrasing. If you are primarily auditory like Stephen King, you might find writing easier if you dictate and capture the words into a digital recorder. Kinesthetic people respond best to action and they translate words on paper into muscle movements. If you want to appeal to every reader, you need to reach each of them in their own personal comfort zones.

That last line is a killer, right? No pressure. LOL

I fall into the auditory category, both as a writer and a reader. I write with headphones on, but the music becomes white noise that narrows my focus, transporting me into my story worlds. My first drafts consist of mainly dialogue with no tags and minimal narrative and description. After I gain critical distance, I’ll add sensory details and other enhancements.

As an auditory reader, I can’t listen to audiobooks. I need to read the words to hear the story rhythm. Audiobooks rob me of that.

Paul told us readers fall into the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic categories. For fun, let’s look at reading subcategories as well.

  • Motor reader: These readers tend to move their lips and may even mimic speech with their tongues and vocal cords when reading. Their reading range is very slow (150 to 200 words per minute) because they must read word-by-word at the rate they speak.
  • Auditory reader: These readers vocalize minimally or not at all, but they do silently say and/or  hear the words. They read in the 200 to 400 words-per-minute range. Auditory readers are skillful readers with vocabularies large enough that they can quickly recognize words.
  • Visual reader: These readers engage their eyes and minds when they read, but not their mouths, throats, or ears. They can read many words at once because they read ideas, not individual words. They read at a rate of 400+ words per minute.

If we believe Paul, with all his experience and degrees, most people fall into the auditory reader category. If your sentences don’t sing, the auditory reader may DNF your book. We also can’t forget about the visual or kinesthetic reader. Striking the perfect balance for all three can wrench a writer’s stomach, but it’s a goal worth shooting for.

What type of writer are you? What type of reader are you? If you’re an auditory reader, do you enjoy audiobooks? Or can you only hear the story rhythm by reading the actual words?

Something To Do …

This season of Thanksgiving calls to mind a quote by the 18th-century Scottish writer Alexander Chalmers:

“The three grand essentials of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.”

For those of us who write, we can be grateful that the “something to do” part of that is pretty well covered.

* * *

Every now and then, a friend will stop by our home and venture into my office. They’re usually surprised at what they find there. Books are standing or lying on bookshelves in some kind of semi-organized chaos, and the three-door closet is covered with Post-it notes I’m using to plot my next book.

The desk is a riot of papers, laptops, to-do lists, notes, and more books. Whiteboards lean against walls that are covered with pictures and papers, and the back of the office door has more lists taped to it.

Invariably, someone will ask, “How do you get everything done?” The answer is simple: I don’t.

One of life’s greatest blessings is, I think, to have more to do than one can possibly get done. I’m happy to tell the story I’m working on as well as I can, aware that there are many more in the future. I’m like a kid in a magnificent toy store, captivated by the puzzle I’m trying to put together and excited by the endless supply of new and shiny artifacts yet to be tackled. I am so grateful, and I’m reminded of another wonderful and timely quote, this one by a 13th-century theologian:

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” –Meister Eckhart.

* * *

So, TKZers: Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for all the wisdom shared here over the past year!

Do you have more to do than you can ever accomplish? What things in your writing life are you grateful for?

I’ll be traveling today, but I’ll check in whenever I can to respond to comments.

* * *

 

Private pilot Cassie Deakin has something to do: find the culprits who assaulted her beloved uncle. But can she accomplish her mission before she becomes the next victim?  Buy it here.