Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Writing exercise: Perspective with an open mind

The following is a writing exercise from Susan Bell's The Artful Edit. Bell says it's designed to make you aware of your blind spots as a reader.

1. Name one or two of your favorite books and explain why you love them.

Two of my favorite books are Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Han Kang's The Vegetarian. Both books are lyrical and yet raw with emotion, and underlying both tales is an existential yearning. In The Secret History, the protagonist Richard Papen is involved in a murder and by retelling how he might the clique he wanted to be a part of, he tries to rationalize his involvement. Yeong-hye in Han's The Vegetarian becomes unsettled when one day she revolts from eating meat and then wanting to eat anything or live as a normal person in the world. What is fascinating about The Vegetarian too is the way in which Yeong-hye's refusal to function as a person unsettles the other people in her life, her husband, sister, brother-in-law.

2. Reflect: Do you read with standards of quality or an agenda of taste?

I read when some aesthetic standards in mind but I'd be hard-pressed to spell them out. I wouldn't be surprised if in the past I had a tendency to reject reading some works because of this so-called standards. However, as I get older, I'm more willing to let a work of fiction speak for itself. I want to be surprised by good writing. I started reading for fun when I was in the fifth grade. First it was Goosebumps books. I told myself only Goosebumps books. Next it was Goosebumps and Shakespeare (weird combo, I know). Then Goosebumps, Shakespeare, and anything Stephen King wrote. By the time I got to high school, I discovered Ernest Hemingway, but I was still picky about what I read, and for a long time. It probably, genuinely, wasn't until I was out of college for undergrad that I would read almost anything that was put in front of me, time permitting.

Susan Bell suggests in The Artful Edit that you shouldn't not read a book or story because it does not initially seem like your cup of tea. Read it through and then see what you think. Advice I want to take to heart.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Exercises in developing characters for fiction

Renni Browne and Dave King in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers advise writers to let their characters do things to reveal to the readers what kind of people they are. They write, "When you present your readers with already-arrived-at conclusions about your characters, you leave your readers with nothing to do, and passive readers are at best unengaged and at worst bored. You need to let your readers take an active role in the writer-reader partnership to draw them into your story" (30). And this occurs when you let your readers draw their own conclusions about characters' actions. The following are exercises to improve developing characters that comes from Browne and King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2004, 48-9).
1. How would you develop the following characters through a series of scenes? Keep in mind that the scenes don't have to be consecutive and that some of the material need not be included at all.
Maggie had reached the cusp of her childhood, that gray area between girl and woman when she could be either, neither, or both almost at will. There had not been (and probably would not be) a lonelier time in her life. She could no longer associate with children, whose interests now bored her. But she she wasn't comfortable with adults, for she still carried the energy of a child and couldn't slow herself down to the adults' pace.
And so she found herself trapped between the banal and the dull, trying to shape her life with only the help of her contemporaries, who were as adrift as she was. Given all this, was it any wonder she sometimes seemed, well, exasperated (and exasperating) to her parents?
2. Now try the same thing with a passage of exposition.
The country had changed over the years. It had all started with the George Washington Bridge, which finally put the west side of the Hudson within commuting distance of New York City without the bother of trains and ferries. Then had come the Tappan Zee Bridge, a second artery running right through the heart of the country. It was only a matter of time before the family farms were turned into developments and the little two-lane roads became four-lane highways.
Fred could remember when Nanuet had only traffic light. Now it had a string of twelve of them on Route 59 alone, mostly in front of the mall. (The Mall!) And Route 59 itself was well on its way to becoming a continuous string of malls and shopping centres, all the way from Nyack to Suffern and beyond. It had reached the point where shoppers outnumbered residents three to one on a busy day.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Exercises in storytelling (showing versus telling)

Showing versus telling. While it is good to have a blend of both, contemporary fiction favors setting a scene by showing the action, not narrating it. Here are some writing exercises to improve showing versus telling in writing fiction from Renni Browne and Dave King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2004, 20-2).
Spot the telling in the following and convert it to showing. The answers (at least, our answers) appear at the back of the book.  
1. "Mortimer? Mortimer?" Simon Hedges said. "Where are you?"
 "Look up, you ninny. I'm on the roof."
"What in blazes are you doing perched up there?"
Mortimer Twill explained to Simon how his long-awaited copula and weather vane had finally arrived. He just couldn't wait for Simon to install the gadgets, so Mortimer had decided to climb up to the roof and complete the installation himself. He was still sorting through the directions.
"Come on down before you kill yourself," Simon said. "I swear I'll put them up for you this afternoon." 
2. I'd known Uncle Zeb for years, of course, but I didn't feel like I really knew him until that first time I walked into his shop. All that time I'd thought he was just kind of handy, but looking at his tools--hundreds of them--and what they were and the way they were organised, well, I could see he was a craftsman.
If you're in an ambitious mood, take the following bit of narrative summary and convert it into a scene. Hint: feel free to create any characters or elaborate on the settings.
3. Once you got off Route 9W, though, you were in another world, a world where two streets never met at a right angle, where streets, in fact, didn't exist. Instead you had "courts," "terraces," "ways," a "landing" or two. And lining these street-like things were row on row of little houses that could be distinguished, it seemed, only by the lawn ornaments. Travelers who disappeared into the developments had been known to call taxis just to lead them out again.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

An exchange with Daniel Miessler about free will

What follows is an exchange I (BP) had via email with Daniel Miessler, a swell guy whose website is, which is very popular already, especially among people who enjoy philosophy. A long time ago we had discussed the concept of free will on the members forums of Partially Examined Life, a great philosophy website I both subscribe and contribute to. Daniel has written extensively about free will on his website, and what has emerged from our exchange, as far as I can tell, is that Daniel believes there's more conceptual clarification that can be done with the concepts free will and moral responsibility, and I don't; I believe instead that if any new ideas emerge regarding free will (I'm skeptical about moral responsibility as a commonsense concept apart or unique from the concept responsibility) they'll emerge only because new real-life cases (and thought-experiments, too, I suppose) will make us more sensitive about how fragile our capacity is to act on our thoughts, wishes, and principles.

What used to be called democracy is now called crowdsourcing, I'm afraid, but in any case what I'm essentially doing by offering up these letters that Daniel and I exchanged is crowdsourcing, allowing you, Dear Reader, to peruse the exchange and hopefully constructively point out the errors of our ways. It's less important what our hedged conclusions are, Daniel and I, and more important the reasons we have for believing those conclusions. Also, it's an unfortunate circumstance that when people debate ideas philosophical, religious, or political, there is a tendency toward digging in heels and accidentally pushing thoughts as though they were dogma or Gospel Truth, and even worse if the discussion turns ugly. Even though I think we did a pretty good job keeping things civil, I'm sure, for example, that some parts of the exchange that follows, at least on my end, occasionally look more caustic than intended. There's also a tendency in the discussion of ideas toward self-deception. I hope that some loving readers out there could disabuse me of my notions, but being only human, I actually bet I'll be stubborn and recalcitrant with regard change in these areas. To quote biologist Robert Trivers who's studied the phenomenon of self-deception, "Some real fraction of what I write must inevitably be wrong, but I hope that the logic being advanced and facts asserted will easily invite improvements" toward a richer understanding, even if I'm wrong. And I think Daniel feels the same.

Without further ado, here's the exchange between Daniel and me.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Free will and moral theory: On the Sam Harris and Very Bad Wizards discussion

UPDATE (Saturday, 21 February 2015): I cleaned up some of the spelling errors in this article but going back and reading it I realized there wasn't much I could do to change the article's frenzied style, since it was written in something like a fugue state. I hope I've got it mostly cleaned up now...

Quick Note: I'm not taking any particular stand with regard the discussion. I only want to clarify the issues and what seems to be at stake. I wrote this in a rush so apologies for the spelling errors. If I have time, I might go back and edit it. I doubt it's even going to be read, though. Haha.

Philosopher Tamler Sommers of University of Houston and psychologist David Pizarro of Cornell University have a great podcast called Very Bad Wizards, and in their most recent episodes, they interview author Sam Harris and discuss that interview in a subsequent episode. A lot was covered in the interview with Sam Harris, but the discussion turned mainly on two topics: (1) the metaphysics of free will and (2) moral theory. The two topics bisected in the conversation because there's a question of whether our knowledge of having or lacking free will bears on our moral judgments, especially our judgments of moral responsibility.