Here Be Dragons – Fantasy and Truth #photochallenge

This week’s photo challenge is to photograph a single subject from multiple angles. The subject I selected is a glass dragon sculpture that belongs to my daughter, who loves all things dragon-related. I had fun getting different views of this beautiful object, and also ruminating about dragons, fantasy, and truth, and how they apply in my writing and my reading. First, though, click the image to see the dragon from different angles. Continue reading

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What the Creepy Faucet Face Tells Us About Ourselves #photochallenge

FaucetFaceDo you see the creepy face here? With its malevolent slanting eyebrows and its ominous pursed mouth? I’ll bet you do. And that’s something called pareidolia: the tendency to see patterns, especially faces, where the stimulus is random or accidental.

This tendency is behind all kinds of things, from the imaginary face on Mars to the toasted-cheese Virgin Mary. As a cognitive scientist, I’ve been fascinated by pareidolia for years, and have a personal collection of over 200 images with accidental faces in them, including this faucet photo I took last weekend in a public restroom. Why do we see images so easily, and why are faces the most common? How does this tendency help and hinder us in our daily lives?

Humans are great pattern detectors. It’s one of the things we do best: we notice patterns in what we see, hear, feel, or experience in any way. You could say that our pattern detectors are cranked up to 11. We are especially good at spotting faces, starting from the first few days of life. As soon as babies get any control over their eyes, they seek out faces, and, according to this Stanford research, by the age of four months their brains are processing faces at nearly adult levels while they still have a hard time telling other basic shapes apart. It’s kind of like that Facebook photo process that outlines faces and asks you to tag them. It’s always scanning images for faces, just like we do, which can lead to some pretty hilarious examples of artificial pareidolia. There’s good evidence that there’s a specific part of the brain in the temporal lobe that’s specialized for recognizing faces, called the fusiform face area. So, yeah, when we say we’re wired to see faces, it’s really true.

How does this tendency help or hurt us? One theory is that it is an evolutionary advantage to note that the play of the light, the movement of the grasses, and the sounds in the dark are similar to what I noticed when a tiger took out my buddy last week, so let’s get out of here. If the similarity detector is cranked up too high I might think there’s a tiger when there isn’t one, but that’s the safe mistake to make, much better than not recognizing tiger signs when it’s really there. If we see archers and bears in the random arrangement of stars in the night sky, what harm does that do? It’s the same talent that allows us to see the nearly-invisible tracks that lead us to our prey. The problems happen when we become too invested in the reality of imaginary patterns. No, the Martians did not carve a mountain into the semblance of a human face, and no, the three people on my street who all had different forms of cancer doesn’t prove that there’s a serious environmental disaster here. Children get lots of (extremely valuable) vaccinations in their first few years, and sometimes they get sick. We see a pattern there, and people may cling to belief in that pattern even when it’s not real. (No, people, vaccinations do not cause autism.) It’s just a case of seeing a pattern that’s not there, a creepy face in a bathroom faucet. Pareidolia

I didn’t think this post had anything to do with writing, but of course it does. Readers will find any pattern that’s even hinted at (pareidolia!) and then feel cheated if the pattern isn’t fulfilled. The main character just paid for his latte with exact change? Hmmm, wonder what that’s about. Oh, look, he also had the right change for the parking meter. Maybe it’s a sign that he’s an overly-compulsive planner who made sure before he left the house he had exactly the change he would need. Or perhaps he has a magic purse that provides just the money he reaches for. The reader is now investing energy in tracking that pattern to fruition. This can be considered a corollary to the law of Chekhov’s gun; nothing should ever be inserted in fiction that isn’t needed. Unnecessary bits and pieces just spark patterns that leave readers frustrated when they don’t pan out.

Pareidolia. Love it. Respect it. Use it. Beware of it. Learn from it. And when you see a face in the clouds, just enjoy what it’s telling you about your amazing pattern-recognizing brain.

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Creepy.”

Plane Crashes and Writing: Six Sources of Common Ground #reblog

Re-blogSerendipity. I have decided to add a regular re-blog feature to this site, where I share some of my favorite messages from people who say things so much better than I do, and then today this splendid message came along. I’m hoping to have a re-blog post once a week, generally on Mondays. Check in for the weekly wisdom!

JanO'HaraToday’s post is called Plane Crashes and Writing: Six Sources of Common Ground by Jan O’Hara, posting over on Writer Unboxed, It is a lovely essay on writing, marriage, hopes and dreams, canola plants, and radio-controlled airplanes. Yes, everything fits together like a Swiss watch. No matter where you are in your writer’s journey, there’s something there for you.

Just Getting Started: Learning From Some Early Works

GettingStartedWe all have to start somewhere, right?

I recently read three works that are first efforts, or first published works, by three different authors. All science fiction, because that’s me *grin*. The stories are:

  • Agent to the Stars (John Scalzi): a humorous story about aliens making first contact through a Hollywood agent. You know, as you do. Scalzi describes this as his “practice novel,” which he never expected to publish.
  • Golden Fleece (Robert J. Sawyer): a murder mystery aboard a spaceship aimed to explore a distant new world, told from the point of view of the ship’s artificial intelligence. This book won the Canadian Aurora Award for the best Science Fiction novel of 1991.
  • “A Restoration of Faith” (published in Side Jobs by Jim Butcher): the first story about Harry Dresden, a wizard in present-day Chicago who uses his abilities to fight supernatural evil. He wrote this story as part of a class in creative writing, but it wasn’t published until years later when pulling together several short stories about Dresden in Side Jobs, and Butcher agrees that it wasn’t really ready for publication.

First, let me acknowledge something right off the bat. These aren’t really first efforts. I know that at least two these authors had already been writing for a while, or at least learning about writing, in various ways. Scalzi had a previous career in journalism before turning to fiction. Butcher wrote a never-published high fantasy novel before blending his fantasy with noir. I admit to knowing nothing about Sawyer’s career before Golden Fleece, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a history of learning before launching this award-winning effort. It’s like the old saying: it takes years of hard work to become an overnight sensation. Slogging away in the trenches of my academic writing and my “trunk novel” that’s never going to see the light of day is just part of the cost of doing business. Have I reached the level of the kind of early work I’m writing about here? Only time and a bunch of readers will tell.

Second, I have to acknowledge something else: These works are flawed. There’s good reason why Scalzi and Butcher didn’t expect their stories to be published, and even Sawyer’s award-winning novel has its weak moments. Let me say right off the bat that I enjoyed reading all these works. I am not bad-mouthing them of putting them down to say that they had problems. I can only aspire to reach the level of such problems! But it helps me to be aware of them, so that I can learn from them. Here’s a short summary of what I might have pointed out, if I were the editors of these books.

  • Agent to the Stars. There’s one real rookie mistake here, which is to have character names that are too similar. Two really major characters are named Miranda and Amanda. Another pair of names is Curt and Carl. Readers deserve better ways of telling people apart. My other complaint about the story is that the plot is held together by the most gossamer of threads. Even granting the essential silliness, of aliens who hire Hollywood agents to give them a more marketable image when they introduce themselves to the world, there are too many places where my disbelief fell with a thud. Howling coincidences. Aliens with improbable abilities that are still just humans in funny suits. And then, at the end, (sorry, spoiler here): I’m expected to believe that the Oscar winner for Best Motion Picture was never announced?! Sorry. Not going to happen.
  • Golden Fleece. This story has another basic mistake, one all science fiction authors struggle with: back story. It’s not handled as gracefully as it could be. There’s a spot where a character tells the all-knowing AI running the ship something that is well known to both of them, literally using the deadly phrase, “As you well know,…” I also had trouble swallowing how many issues were buried in one character’s past. This character was a survivor of child sexual abuse, discovered only as an adult that he had been adopted, and that he was the product of incest. I don’t see any relevance of any of this to the present-day story. It didn’t feel to me that it enriched the character at all; it just felt like it cluttered the story. Chekhov’s gun, failing to fire.
  • “A Restoration of Faith.” Here is another name issue, but it’s not confusing names, it’s a name that’s really just a label. The story is about Harry reclaiming his faith in himself and his calling as a wizard, and he rescues a little girl named Faith. Get it? Then there’s the fact that her name is revealed with a flourish, to the reader and to the character, near the end of the story, thumping on the message yet again. Harry was hired to find this little girl, and we’re supposed to believe he didn’t know her name? Or her age (he describes her as being about 8 or 9)? Her speech is also much to precocious for her age. When she sees Harry’s big duster she says it’s like something from the set of El Dorado. He’s tall and craggy, so she asks if he’s supposed to be Ichabod Crane of the Marlboro Man. At the end, after her harrowing experience nearly being eaten by a troll, a cop asks her if she’s okay and she says she’s “a little hungry, and I could use something to clean up these scrapes. But other than that, I’m quite well.” She is apparently 8 going on 45.

The third acknowledgement is that these authors know how to tell a story. That’s what makes these works worth reading now, with all their flaws, and has launched them into successful careers. Readers can get past all the flaws listed above if they care about these people and what’s happening to them.

  • Scalzi’s journeyman agent is smart, caring, and resourceful. He talks tough to people who are rude and heartless, but he is kind to a neighbor’s old dog. You have to like him. By extension, you like the people around him who are working to make things better for people, even clueless people, even inhuman people. This makes you care about how he’s going to solve his problems and be victorious in the end.
  • Sawyer’s central character is harder to fall in love with, being an artificially intelligent computer network, but he is still driven to do what he does in service of the greater good. This story is more about the mystery. It’s not a whodunit, but a whydunit; we know from the first pages that the computer committed the murders, but the full reason is not revealed until the last pages. Here we are caring about the whole human race.
  • Butcher’s wizard is wisecracking and flustered, but intent on living up to his own standards of right and wrong. Even when the darling child is at her most obnoxious, he cares about her well-being, to the point of risking his life for her. Again, you have to like him and want him to succeed. It’s a bit of a cheat to hinge the story on an endangered child–who can root against her?–but he mitigates that with her hostile attitude. Butcher successfully shifts the emphasis of the story from the child’s immediate survival to her long-term welfare.

So that’s what I learned from these three early stories.

  1. Keep working, keep writing. It’s a curve you have to climb, not a cliff.
  2. Everyone makes mistakes. As we get more experience we make fewer of them. (And it’s always SO much easier to see them in someone else’s work than in your own.)
  3. Story is king. If you have characters people can care about dealing with problems people can worry about, readers will forgive any number of mistakes.

Thanks to these three authors, and to all the other countless authors whose works have furnished my mind and my writer’s heart. We learn from each other; I’m learning from you.

Zen and the Neurotic Fishing Dog: #DailyPost

MiaIn response to the Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Beneath Your Feet.”

I spent the weekend at a friend’s cabin on a lake in the Adirondacks. It was a wonderful place: quiet, beautiful, relaxing. I took this picture looking down into the lake at their dock, with Mia the dog perched on the edge, fishing. She spends a lot of time there watching the little fish swimming below the surface, and you can just see two of them on the left side of this picture, looking like pale blue lines. If a fish wanders too close to the surface, Mia lunges and once in a while actually manages to grab one. She doesn’t know what to do with it and it generally winds up back in the water, but then she just hunkers down on the edge of the dock to watch some more.

I started out to write this post as a general message about how lovely my time was on the lake with friends this weekend, and that this trip is why I wrote nothing on my current WIP over the last two days. I was going to note that this was the first time I’ve missed a day July 1, and how I’m anxious to get back to the novel. All that is true. But as I started working on it, I thought more and more about what I can learn from Mia. My friend tends to adopt dogs with special needs, and Mia is an anxious dog. She always has a stick or a ball that she clings to for security; when I took this picture her stick was tucked safely under her paws. Whenever anything startling happens, including her own lunge at the fish, she instantly grabs her security object to reassure herself. She loves to chase the stick or the ball if you throw it, but almost never gets the chance because she can’t bear to let you take it away, not even to play the game.

We all agree that Mia is a hot little basket of neuroses. Still, she can lie on the edge of the dock watching fish for hours. When she’s fishing, she’s totally, 100% fishing. Even if there are no fish there at that time, she doesn’t get impatient. She just watches and waits, confident that she will find a fish or she won’t, and either way it’s good. Until it’s time to go up to the cabin for supper, and that’s good, too.

I’ve decided to adopt Mia as my Zen master. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or anxious or compulsive, when I want to play but can’t let go of my anxieties long enough, I’m going to remember Mia on the dock. If neurotic Mia can live so completely in the moment, then so can I. Perhaps I’m frantic over meeting my word count; maybe I’m pressured by upcoming deadlines. In any case I’ll picture what I’m trying to accomplish as little blue fish darting through clear water, and I’ll set myself to wait for them in patience. Sooner or later the fish will appear. When they do I’ll be there. Ready to lunge.