Tuesday, 26 August 2008


If you missed Howard Goodall on Classic fm Monday night talking about and playing extracts from his Requiem, you still have time ...

It is incredible!

Thursday, 21 August 2008


I finally found time to put a powerful NLP technique into practise recently.

We've discussed triggers at length (although I would like to study them a little deeper shortly). I've set up a number of them already in The Commuters.
Here's how they work: I might have one character perform some terribly violent act upon another character whilst eating a ham salad sandwich. (I'm currently eating a ham salad sandwich. Yum. Er, but no violent act. Unless you're empathising with the ham salad sandwich.)
Thereafter, I can use the merest mention of a ham salad sandwich to trigger the memory of this act, and the associated emotional response. This gives the author instant access to any prepared emotional state; this gives the author the ability to change the emotional topography without breaking a sweat.
When the shooting stars begin, eight-year-old Ellie calls to her father to join her at the telescope (Contact [1997]). She hears a clatter, hurries downstairs, and finds him dying. Years later, standing on a faraway shore, she speaks with an alien who has taken her father's form. The shooting stars kick in and we are instantly reminded of her heartbreak when her father died. Our associated emotion is thrown into the mix and the scene is transformed.
(I wanted to find an example of a shooting star as anchor so that I could apologize for writing 'Pleiades' in my previous post when I meant 'Perseids'. Forgive me.)

A stimulus which is linked to and triggers a physiological state is called an anchor in NLP.
[Source: Introducing NLP, Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour.]

Given that there are always warnings surrounding the following technique, please do not attempt to use it until you have read up on it; what follows is an abbreviated version.

I rather fancied developing an anchor that would grant me instant access to a specific resource - confidence!
I began by specifying the anchor. This anchor is built from three elements: a kinaesthetic trigger, an aural trigger and a visual trigger. I picked the standard default kinaesthetic trigger - tapping my forefinger with my thumb. For my aural trigger, which is related to the resource, I chose Brian Blessed booming out the word 'Confidence!'; and for my visual trigger, I chose a glass of champagne (which has relevance to the resource in my world model!).

With my anchor prepared, I searched through my memories looking for a time when I felt supremely confident. It took a little time to find something appropriate - something almost iconic, which I could recreate vividly. I spent a good thirty minutes replaying this scene in my mind, building that sense of confidence, burning the scene into clarity, reliving the moment and the emotions of the resource.

The next step is to connect the anchor to the resource. This must occur as the resource peaks.
I replayed the scene once again, now fresh in my mind, building that sense of confidence, and then I instigated my anchor (tap thumb, 'Confidence!', champagne).
Having done this several times, assigning the anchor to the resource, I was ready to test my new technique. Would it really work? Could I really imbue myself with confidence so readily? Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could ... if I could change my state at will ..?

Sure it worked. I walked into the fish and chip shop and found myself in Brian Blessed mode. I joked and laughed with the girl serving me, and we found out more about each other in those fifteen minutes than we have done in years. (NB I'm more of an occasional than a regular.)
Could it be so easy?
Well, that was a week ago.
I tried triggering the state again at the weekend and it wasn't so forthcoming: I hadn't spent thirty minutes recreating that specific time when I felt supremely confident.
All a state of mind?
Well yes! That's precisely what many of these techniques are. Hypnosis comes from suggestion and from the subject willingly entering a different state. Much of Derren Brown's 'magic' comes from within his subjects themselves ... he simply invites these people to enter a certain state.

I daresay, with practise, I could strengthen the bond between my anchor and my resource. But will it ever be enough to bring me out of a negative, self-abasing state?
Either way, I have no doubt of the power of such techniques, and of their rightful places in our writing.

As an aside, and on my current theme of dialogue, check out this portion of conversation I had with the fish and chip girl:

GIRL: So what do you do then?
ME: I make computer games.

In my experience, the conversation here tends to move in one of three ways:
1) Oh, computer games are really bad.
2) Really, that's cool (feigning interest).
3) Really, that's cool (a bit interested).

However ...

GIRL: I guess you have a security guard don't you?

Can you work out where she was leading the conversation ..?

ME: Yes. We have lots of expensive equipment on site!
GIRL: My friend's looking for security guard work. Could you find out if there are any jobs going?

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Being Other People

Still observing communications.

I don't see the woman next door much, but when we do bump into each other we always have a mighty fine chinwag.
This evening, she was telling me how she feeds the fox.
We actually have several foxes; they pop by every evening, indulging in noisy saturnalias (ooh, a tautological homage to Zadie Smith. Btw, get yourselves out of the light pollution and onto a nice hill for we're in the heart of Pleiades season!).

Yes, several foxes, but I saw no point in correcting my neighbour and we chatted some more and then I mentioned the fox. At that point, she saw fit to correct me: 'There are more than one you know!'
So what had I done? I had adapted - I had matched her words to create, what NLPers refer to as, a rapport. We know how essential body language is in creating a rapport, and, again, that mirroring creates a bond of trust. The same is true of the things we say.

Ooh, at this point I'd like to quote from O'Connor and Seymour's Introducing NLP:

Great literature always has a rich and varied mix of predicates, using all the representational systems equally, hence its universal appeal.

It's an interesting and valuable notion, although I'd wonder at the definition of 'great literature' in terms of 'universal appeal'. Certainly, Hemingway was somewhat biased in his choice of predicate, as are/were many other super authors, many of whom you'll find scattered upon this blog (probably under some PRS-esque heading).
Btw, predicates are sensory-based words.

One more thought before I go to bed, not that I sleep too well these days anyhoo ...

My son and I were killing some time on a train journey with the latest Doctor Who Top Trumps. However, rather than pitting our cards against each other, we played 'guess the character': one person looks at his top card and has to do an impersonation of that character and the other person has to guess correctly. Just for fun, you understand.
What occurred to me was that the dull characters were very hard to impersonate, and the cool characters were much easier to impersonate.
I'll leave that with you. Nite. x

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Word Palettes in Dialogue

Ooh look! Just been mooching around my favourites, catching up on submission guidelines, and the lovely Broo Doherty (of Wade and Doherty Literary Agency) has posted some top advice on writing your first novel!
Do go and have a read! You won't regret it! (Ricardo - what do you make of number 6?)

Several of her comments caught my eye. In particular, however, her thoughts on dialogue touch on something that's been gambolling upon the fallow fields of my brain.

5. Dialogue.

Do not shy away from allowing your characters to talk. But it is worth remembering that typically people are not allowed to talk for longer than two sentences before someone interrupts them. The other thing that may be useful if you are trying to characterise someone through their speech is to give them a catch phrase or a word that is unique to them. This gives them an individuality which is important.

Since reading Introducing NLP (by Joseph O'Connor and John Seymour), or maybe that had nothing to do with it, I've been picking up on themes in people's speech.

NLP suggests that everyone has a Primary Representational System for receiving information, and a second PRS for processing that information. So, I might typically draw the sounds from around me and display these in my head as images. What is important to remember is that everyone has their own unique model of the world. And everything we say, the words we use and the subjects we choose, our leads and our responses in dialogue, will patch into this model. Yep, Joseph and John are quick to point out that words form only about 7% of communication, with voice tonality coming in at around 38%, and body language hogging 55%. But, given that we have an awful lot of dialogue in our work, I'd agree with Broo that we would do well to consider how these words reflect their speaker's model - how they reveal the speaker's experience and background, education and beliefs and hopes and attitudes ...

The simplest demonstration might be the half glass. Your character remarks on the contents of her glass. Will she explain that it is half full, or half empty? Either way, you're saying something about her.

Maybe she thanks the Lord for the drink, or worries about drinking it too fast because it's expensive, or comments on the beautiful shape of the glass, or pays no heed and guzzles the contents, or shares it with someone else, or drinks even though she's not thirsty, or needs a straw, or needs three blue straws, or sticks out her little finger as she drinks ... all of these attitudes tell the reader something about her character - about her make-up.

Then consider that a theme is established. She will thank the Lord for a sunny day too; she will wish that she had the money to spend on an ice-cream on that sunny day; she will be amazed by the blueness of the sky on that sunny day; she will not even notice that it is a sunny day; etc.

Word palettes are more subtle and can be employed in every and any circumstance. Our protag may make the following remarks:

'That salmon is drowning in sauce.'

'That battery is dead.'

'It's so hot, I can barely breathe!'

Or pump up the superlatives:

'What an amazing meal!'

Or push into exaggeration mode:

'That's gotta be the best meal anyone has ever eaten!'

(This is a staple of my son's dialogue: in his world, things take forever or they are impossible or they are the best thing ever or there are infinity of them!)

In my life, I can think of people who always have something positive to say, people who will find the negatives and who expect the worst, people who will listen attentively and people who would rather talk about themselves, people who talk obssessively of their hobby, people who would rather not talk to anyone, people who ramble tangentially from one topic to the next, people who live in the past, people who speak apologetically, people who speak with authority ...

But, beneath the surface, I am fascinated by the word palettes - the themes - by the repetition of groups of words - by the nuances in dialogue which, when considered as part of a set, offer interesting insights into that person's model of the world. Go and have a chat with someone and look for their palette!

Friday, 8 August 2008


Don't laugh at me!

It's a curious emotion. Do we want to make our readers feel guilty?
Kung-Fu Panda ticked all the boxes. It employed a very unexpected emotional topography.

[No spoilers ahead!]

I noticed several occasions where the audience were laughing, usually at the foolish exploits of Panda, but were immediately plunged into sighs of 'Aw!' as Panda made a hurt expression. Sometimes, the topography was so abrupt as to have the audience laughing and aw-ing simultaneously.
It's an uncomfortable feeling. Look at Panda making a fool of himself ... ha ha ha ... oh, actually he's really upset ... oops. Sorry Panda.

[No spoilers end here ... or rather, there are still no spoilers, so I guess they continue here.]

Yet the audience goes with it ... the reader goes with it.

Recently, I had a little feedback from one of my readers on my opening chapter. She loved how I made her laugh, and then instantly shifted the tone to make her feel sad for Corus.
I often find myself comparing the emotion that I am about to offer the reader with my idea of what the reader would like to experience. I'm very careful not to prolong negative feelings, and to rapidly move from the negative emotions into a more positive emotion. I've discovered that, by standing my protag perpetually on the edge of a precipice, I can easily move between positive and negative states at the drop of a trigger. I'm also mindful of the feedback I received on my first draft (ooh, ages ago now): there was a strong sense that the novel was heading into very dark territories, and many of my readers did not want to go to such places.

There is a specific thrill in watching a horror movie. There is an expectation which exists even before the viewer sits down to watch, and this expectation is tempered by the opening few minutes, and is slowly shaped and tweaked throughout the movie. But, as Hitchcock observed, 'Laughter is the safety valve'. Implicit in this remark is the notion that very few individuals would enjoy sustained negativity. Certainly, my favourite horror movies are those with a sense of humour, or a sense of wonder, or a sense of something exciting and life-affirming pervading the topography.

As well as restricting the duration of negative states, I've also discovered quite how the tone of the writing influences how the state is received and processed. It's possible to describe something terrible with a wry tone, or to have my protag consider something awful by singing of it! Suddenly, all the darkness in my writing has been imbued with something more light-hearted, whilst retaining its integrity.

I do find it curious that anyone would desire to endure something awful. Certainly, I lost interest in Anne Enright's Man-Booker winner The Gathering at the instant the child abuse kicked in. To me, it felt hackneyed, and I had been enjoying the novel until that moment. And yet, I'm a big fat obsidian pot insulting a kettle.

Tension and release I guess. We must employ an amount of negativity in order to facilitate the formation of a greater positivity.
What is good without bad?