Reading about writing

A little more about learning from experts

One thing I have been reading a lot about recent is writing. I love reading authors insights about their work.

I’m a writer by trade and instinct: a commercial, non-fiction, corporate communicator, yes – but a writer still. I dream of writing art, of fiction – and I may get round to getting more of that done soon or I may not. Even if I don’t the truth is that the dream is a sweet one, and the pursuit of it makes me better at my day job.

A few years ago I took a screenwriting course. I didn’t produce a screenplay, nor did I even finish the course, but I still learned a great deal about writing by looking at it through the screenwriter’s eyes. Structure, function, discipline, how the shape of text on a page, the mix of dialogue and exposition can tell an experienced reader whether a document is worth reading, before they’ve even read a word. How a producer can tell how much it would cost and how it would run by weighing the sheaf of paper in their hand.

Writers always have interesting things to say about writing. Some writers more interesting than others (Laurence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit is my favourite right now, but more on that another time) and the ones that begin by admitting that it is different for everyone and their set of rules and practices may or may not work for you are usually the most useful of all.

Experts, framing and starting with the end in mind

One thing I have learned from listening to and spending time with experts is that a lot of expertise is not articulated explicitly. Their mental models, short-cuts (heuristics as Kahenman describes them) can be buried deep in their behaviours. They don’t necessarily talk about them or even realise they are happening. They are second nature, the outcome of thousands of hours tackling the same problems again and again.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman uses chess Grandmasters as an example. Grandmasters look at a chess game and don’t see a series of moves that could be taken – they see patterns of play, shapes and model options for the players to win in a few moves. They have a kind of cognitive short-cut for each, sometimes a name for them – they don’t see a set of moves, they see a pattern that they have seen before.

Theysee the problem differently to non-experts as a result of their thousands of hours of practice. Myself, I would see a set of options for the next move and then struggle to hold those options in my mind (in my pre-frontal cortex, to be exact) and then try in turn to see implications for the responses and next moves from the player). The Grandmaster thinks X numbers of moves ahead because they have those series of moves stored in their memory as shapes – they may well have names for the different shapes.

Sometimes they are just a case of emphasis. Where the focus is when a task or challenge is undertaken, how a problem is framed.

Two examples, one from recent experience and one from recent reading, will help to explain what I mean.

Recently, I went on Kevin Meredith’s – aka LomokevHot Shots photography course. It felt like live-action version of his book, which is also excellent and also called Hot Shots. An interesting experience, at once laid back and – in retrospect – intense, Hot Shots was two days of taking and talking about photography. This felt like, and was, an indulgence – but learning was happening thick and fast. It sometimes just takes a little while to realise what you have taken from an adventure like this.

Afterwards, I understood that Kevin thinks about taking a photograph differently to the way I do (or have done up until now). When I see a beautiful sunset, or a collection of interesting objects, or group of people that would make a nice composition I think something such as “Wow – I’d love to capture that in a picture!”

Kevin didn’t talk about capturing; he talked about things making a nice image – not just the subject: the choice of camera, the settings and the film, the angle and background, the direction that light is coming from, the way it might be cropped and improved after it is developed or downloaded. In his mind, he is thinking about the outcome he wants and then the process to get there.

The physical process of seeing, deciding to take a photograph and then processing it is the same in my old method and Kevin’s, the difference is in where we put the emphasis, the focus. How we frame the method, how we think and then act.

The other example of framing a process that I’ve been thinking about is more literal (and literary). It comes from Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (which I am reading slowly, as seems apt for the subject matter).

Francine makes the point that even more important than who is telling the story is who to whom the story is being told.

…I heard a writer say that what enabled him to write a novel from the point of view of a rather complicated middle-aged woman was by pretending that she was telling her story to a close male friend, and that he, the writer, was that friend.

This telling a story within a story is literally called “framing”, but it unblocks the writing process with a simple model, a question: who is the narrator talking to? Talking to a single person makes it easier than talking than imagined audience. All parts of questions about time and emphasis and pace aw resolved.

For me, writing framed stories not only answered all those troubling questions about the narrator’s audience, but also neatly integrated the answers into the narrative itself. I knew not only who was speaking, but who was being spoken to, where the speaker and the listener were, and when and why the event – that is, the telling of the story – was occurring.

The framing of a process, the question of where to put the emphasis, what the right question to be asked is, is something to uncover examples. It is also worth asking yourself, of the things you do well – what is the question you ask? Where do you put the emphasis. Those are likely to be the insights to compare and pass on to colleagues and people you are coaching or teaching a skill.

Why I finish books

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Living with ebooks, as I have been since I bought my first iPad a few years back, has changed my reading. It’s also given me more ways of understanding how I read and how I want to read.

Let’s get the nostalgia out of the way first. I miss paper books. I still read paper books, occasionally, but usually for specific, diminishing reasons. The first reason is that I can’t get a Kindle version of a book, or I already own the paper version. Both of these reasons are diminishing: the former because more and more books, even ones that were out of print are becoming available electronically; the latter is less of an issue as time passes because, due to the convenience of ebooks for note-taking, portability etc., I will sometimes buy ebook versions of the paper ones I own – if I’m using them for reference on a project, for instance, or in a couple of cases of fiction, because I love them so much and I want to have them with me when I’m travelling or just not at home.

At least that’s the case for non-fiction – sometimes, I love to read on paper. I think of it as hi-fidelity reading though – it’s a luxury, a treat – about time and place as much of the medium.

I’ve always read several books at the same time. Different books for different reasons and different times of day – some for projects, some for things I’m studying, some instructional, some fiction. With ebooks this habit has continued but with the number of books expanding even further. I’ll read some in bursts and then put them aside for a few days, weeks or months, and then pick them up again.

The other habit that has continued from reading paper books to ebooks – and been similarly exaggerated in the transition – is not finishing them.

Business or popular science books that lose their hold on my attention halfway through, get left behind, put on the virtual shelf.

I used to feel bad about not finishing books, but this was some kind of a vestigial puritan instinct, something about not letting things go to waste, finishing what you’ve started. Really, it’s a healthy habit – not all books deserve to be finished, not all need to be finished. There are other things you could be doing.

Rather than asking myself “why don’t I finish books?”, as if I had some kind of reading disorder, or lacked moral fibre, it is much more interesting to ask: “why do I finish books?” and then to wonder what that tells me about good writing.

Not finishing books is mostly a non-fiction phenomenon. Fiction books pull me through to the end with plot, with their beginnings, middles and ends. Non-fiction books rarely pull that trick off and very often fail to cohere past the first third.

A good many non-fiction books would benefit from being either shorter or serialised – Kindle singles hold some promise in this area, thought I’m not sure how well that format is doing. Not every non-fiction work needs to be 60,000 words plus (the minimum length for most paperbacks). A great example of an author showing restraint is Paul Adams’s Grouped, which is exactly the right length for what he has to say about social networks – about 45,000 words/170 pages.

To hold our attention and to be useful, books should be useful in every chapter – I’m not sure that this is the case. I think they get padded – stretched to fit the format. Chunking things up in to 10,000 word segments would suit readers and save authors a lot of time too.

Whether new lengths and formats catch on for ebooks is something I’m watching closely. Especially as I definitely have another book in me right now – I just need to decide how it should come out, as it were.

Hi-fidelity reading

The paperback book I am reading right now is The Big Sleep and Other Novels, by Raymond Chandler.  It’s a lovely Penguin Classics imprint, thick and light and good to hold.

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I bought it a month ago in paper version because I want to read it slowly, closely (as Francine Prose recommends). I first read Chandler when I was thirteen and fell in love – deeply – with his style. Coming back to it now is thrilling, especially taking time to read it word by word, feeling the shape of the sentences and paragraphs, letting the bright, colourful imagery hang in my mind for a few moments.

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Chandler writes in high definition. It’s prose that you want to play out on the best possible system: a relaxed mind, a calm room, off an analogue page that has texture, where the text has been imprinted.

I’m a reader and sometimes a writer, much more than I am a muso or a musician. So a paper page, read in a softly lit bedroom or attic study, with a warm drink next to me and near silence in the house – that’s the equivalent of an audiophile putting a vinyl disc onto a high-end turntable, connected to some valve-driven amp and played out through some speakers that cost as much as your car.