Bias – for it or against it?

What effect do our biases have on our writing?  For that matter, how do you even know you have a bias?  That’s easy; we all have biases.  They come from having life experiences and drawing conclusions or emotional associations to those experiences, often with limited data.

For instance, I am only familiar with one person who wore a toothbrush mustache:  Hitler.  I think due to the enormous negative impact Hitler had on the world at large, men for the most part quit wearing that style mustache.  When I see a toothbrush mustache, I think of death camps and Nazi war crimes, no matter that the mustache was not responsible.  That is a bias.

Your biases and my biases are our opinions on a given subject, our slant, our views.  I may say I would never name a child of mine Hildegard because I knew a Hildegard in grade school who made my life a living hell.  That, my friend, is a bias.  Attorney bashing is a national pastime; it is also another bias.  What do people hope their children become besides doctors?  Yup, lawyers.  Social standing and prospective income notwithstanding, everybody needs one or the other eventually and hopes for a discount.  Is that a bias?  You bet.

Biases are a fact of life.  Our characters have them, but they should have their own, peculiar to them as individuals.  I’m not advocating that what we write be free of bias, but that we are aware everyone has them and we are judicious about them in our writing.

You can’t write without bias.  How flat would our characters be then?  We just need to be aware of the fact of and inescapability of bias as a facet of humanity.

Here are a couple of resources regarding bias in writing:

“Have Bias, Will Write” is an article by Scott Warner.  You can find it here.  He explores bias in such writings as the New York Times and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

There are no end of biases to choose from.  “Biases in Science Fiction” is an article by Steven Novella that you can find at the Neurologica blog here. This article explores the biases of science fiction writers concerning designs of ships for star travel and how they depict gravity and thrust.  It sites such works as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and 2001, A Space Odyssey.

Monday’s Kick-Ass Prompt of the Week (KAPOW)

The last blog post had to do with the power of persuasive words which came about when a car dealership referred me to its “Fulfillment Department” to procure an extended warranty on my car.

Today’s prompt is to write about a wish or wishes in a way that stirs up emotion in the reader 300 or fewer words.  It’s okay but not necessary to stick to one emotion.  The entire emotiverse is your oyster.  If there’s an emotion you feel you have trouble conveying, that’s the one to go for.  This is all about stretching your writing skills.

It’s my wish that you’ll share.  My next wish is that I’ll come up with something myself.  I never do these prompts ahead of time.  After I write the prompt, I write the piece.  Sometimes that may show, but “it’s an exercise, Jim, not a contest.”

 

LOVES ME, LOVES ME NOT

by Carol Gorden

Lifting her wet cheek from her folded arm, she came up to her elbows in the meadow behind the church and was face-to-face with a daisy.  She ripped it out by the root with a clenched fist, threw her head back, baring her throat and bowing her back, and screamed, the whisper of her veil unheard.  Blinking back tears she focused on the daisy, bent and forlorn in her fist, and pounded the ground with it.

“I wish I never met him!” she said to the pulverized daisy still in her fist.  She hauled herself to a sitting position cross-legged under clouds of white satin and lace white now sullied with grass stains and thought it appropriate.

“Why?”  Eyes closed she was very aware of him has he circled warily.  Opening eyes blackened by smeared mascara she saw him mirroring her pose nearly knee to knee.  She looked daggers at the daisy.

“I heard your friends.”  She drew a shuddering breath.  “They wondered how you could cheat on me so close to our wedding.”  She looked up at him.  “So do I.”

“They heard you leave and came and got me.”  He searched her face.  “You know my former friend, right?  The one getting married next weekend?  Your brother just replaced him as usher.  Good thing they’re about the same size.”  She stared at him, motionless.  “I told you I’d wait,” he said.  “I have.  I am.  As long as it takes.”

She stared at him for several heartbeats, then, “I am so, so sorry.”

He leaned forward and whispered a breath away from her lips, “Do I have to wait any longer?”

She clamored to her feet, careful of her dress, pulling him and the daisy back to the church with a breathless, “No!”

Monday’s Kick-Ass Prompt of the Week (KAPOW)

Last week’s blog post was about usage of parentheses, ellipses and dashes, and the pitfalls of overuse.  This week’s Kick-Ass Prompt of the Week is to write a piece incorporating all three punctuation marks in less than 100 words.  I don’t know about you but whenever I write with that kind of punctuation, it tends to be closer to the side of fluff or juvenile sass.  I’m going to work at avoiding that this time.  Still thinking about how.  For the purposes of this challenge you may use whatever form you like.

I’m really hoping you decide to submit your answer to the challenge; I’d really like to see what you come up with.  Send your submissions to caroljgorden@gmail.com and I’ll post them as soon as possible.  The current week’s submissions will be on the KAPOW Submissions page and when the next week’s challenge is posted, those from the week before will move to the sub-page for that month.

Ready?  Set.  Write!

 

HOWL

by C J Gorden

Trying to slow his breathing (and thereby his pounding heart) he started counting breaths – three in, four out, three in, four out …  He was fairly quivering with anticipation as he peered down the path through the crisp, heart-shaped green leaves of the foliage where he was hiding.  She had refused him, called him a player, a wolf.  Twit.  He could have changed for her, but not now.  He was about to give her what she expected.  Catching a glimpse of her red hoodie coming down the path, his heart pounded anew.  Awrrrrrrooooo …

Emote, I say!

Last week I explored writing with specificity, the flip side of vaguity.  Speaking of which, soon we’ll have to discuss neologisms and solecisms – but not this week.

Not only is it desirable for your writing to be definitive and precise, it must also evoke emotion in the reader.  Emotion is what makes your readers give a flying fig what happens to your characters.  When your words pour into the brains and hearts of readers, you want them to bite their nails, worry their bottom lips with their teeth, create Botox-resistant creases between their eyebrows and have to put the story down while they laugh, imagining themselves as the protag.

We can’t just tell them a character was happy, but show them how happy so they feel it too.  I feel a bit like a voyeur sometimes when I watch people read my stories.  It’s heady stuff to see physical signs they’re invested in the story.  If they laugh, “Awww,” or look worried, as long as there’s no pause in their reading, I’m ecstatic.  I’m like a junkie with a fix, a kid on Christmas morning, a dog with a new bone.  That’s what I’m talking about.

I have to work at this myself.  If I don’t, my writing tends to be sweet and boring.  One of my critiquers told me some of the dialogue in a short story was kinda Hallmark-y.  Nothing against Hallmark cards or the Hallmark Channel, but that isn’t what I was going for.  I took the same piece to a critique group.  After their critiques, I mentioned what the other critiquer had  said about my dialog being Hallmark-y, and they all nodded.  Uh-huh.  They had pointed out the same weakness in the dialog, they had just used different words.

So that particular short story is back on the drawing board.  While I decide exactly what I’m going to do with it, I need to work on writing and evoking emotions.  I know the only way to keep getting better is to practice.  Who knew when I blew off the advice of my grade-school piano teacher that I’d be spouting the very same thing myself?  Practice, practice, practice writing forever and ever, amen.  That last part was my addition, but now I am a believer.

Another layer in the business of conveying emotion is creating a situation where it has to happen.  Shake things up.  Create conflict.  At heart, I’m a peaceful let’s-all-get-along kind of person.  When I read, I want murder, mayhem and non-stop action.  Hoo-yah!  Go figure.  When I write, I need to work at creating situations where emotion is built-in and all I have to do is let it happen.  Let’s  say our protag is on her way to the store and she runs into her former best friend whom she hasn’t seen since they both left for different colleges many years ago.  That’s a big ho-hum.  Now say this is the ex-friend who was seen kissing our protag’s soul mate just before they both disappeared without a trace?  Can  you imagine that run-in sans emotion?  Not so much.  It would boil off the page.

All this makes me want to get at it.  You too?  So practice already.

The advisability of specificity

Writing is comprised of words that can elicit numberless responses.  Conveying boredom is good, creating it in the reader, not so good.  One thing to strive for is specificity.  In other words, don’t be vague.  Many years ago my job was to conduct surveys, everything from store questionnaires about coffee can labels to door-to-door questions about magazine ads.  What I learned from that job has been invaluable ever since.  I learned to recognize and not settle for vague words.  If the survey subject said something was “nice” I asked them in what way it was nice.  If they said something made them feel good, I asked in what way it made them feel good.

For example “wonderful,” “lovely” and “depression” are vague words.  They convey states of mind, but not in a way that elicits a picture or an emotion.  They’re descriptive, but not evocative.  Whenever I asked someone to be more specific they invariably replied with a phrase or a simile.  “It wasn’t just wonderful, it made me forget where I was and unable to keep the smile off my face.  It made my body thrum and my mind sing.”  “It wasn’t just lovely it made a jewel-toned sunrise over the desert pale by comparison.  Her face was so lovely she made my knees weak and left me tongue-tied.”  “The middle of a newly formed glassy-sided depression the size of a football field made me feel like I was standing in a cereal bowl waiting to drown in Paul Bunyan’s Breakfast of Champions and milk.  This in turn created in me a depression that felt like the lights had been dimmed and I was standing on the lip of a bottomless chasm that was sucking me over the edge.”

Another way to evoke a response is by involving the senses.  So it smelled bad.  Did it make you wrinkle your nose and clap your hand over it? (touch) Was it acrid like burned hair? (smell)  Did it stick to the back of your tongue like rotting swamp grass? (taste)  Did it remind you of the hiss you heard the last time you smelled it? (hearing) Was it so strong you could almost see the fumes hanging in the air like misty tendrils of death? (sight)

I recently read Hush by Cherry Adair.  One of her descriptive phrases (of which she has plenty) made me laugh out loud – in the literal way, not the LOL way:  “Acadia’s gaze skittered away like spit on a griddle.”  That description brought several senses popping into my head.  I loved it!

What are some examples of specificity from your writing or from something you’ve read?

The next level

Just when I thought I had a handle on this writing thing, I attended a writing critique group where the other attendees were at an advanced level.  I had submitted the first part of a short story thinking it was pretty much ready to go, but wanting other opinions.

Everybody seemed to like it and some were intrigued with the concept.  Many mentioned they liked the tone, the dialog and interactions, and the story as a whole was fun.  So far so good.  Then they got down to it.  I took notes, writing down problems as they were mentioned.  When others mentioned the same problem I started with hash marks to indicate how many had a problem with the same thing.  They were as follows:

  • A cooking sequence was too long and too detailed.  It’s a romance, Jim, not a cooking show.  (My words.)  ||||
  • My protagonist capitulated too easily when she had the means and opportunity to put up more of a fight.  ||||
  • Protag is too passive, reacting to what happens to her instead of being proactive.  ||||
  • Her career is mentioned as being traditionally male dominated but exactly what she does is not explained adequately.  Inquiring minds wanted to know.  |||
  • The logistical whys and wherefores of the secondary character’s initial appearance in the MC’s vicinity do not compute.  What the heck was he doing there?  |||
  • There are point-of-view problems.  Those delineated by changes of scene are okay, but when head swapping happens within a paragraph, that’s a problem.  |||
  • There was plenty of opportunity to set up more conflict between the MC and the secondary early on in the story that could have taken care of some of the problems leading to a reader’s suspension of disbelief.  |||

Color me surprised!  Not only that, I was excited!  It all made sense, and I couldn’t wait to get home and work on it.  Of course I could have told them all, “You’re not the boss of me” and mutter about how nobody appreciates my writing.  Didn’t even enter my head, just had to put it out there.

Many friends and relatives have read my stories, and the feedback has been valuable (and often fed my greedy ego) but none of them are professional writers or in any way connected with the writing industry.  The level I need to reach in my writing is one that will leap the hurdles of professional slush readers for publishing houses and agents and cross the finish line with them still avidly reading.  Alas most writing submitted to said readers falls out of the race when they bash through any one of those hurdles instead of leaping over them.

I’ve poured over my notes from that meeting, the hard copies with notes given to me by some of those who critiqued, and later the emails I’ve received with attachments of the same from those who didn’t print.  I printed my critiques for the stories I critiqued, but may go with emailing them later for a couple of reasons.  One would be the price of paper and ink.  The other is the size of the font in doing a critique in Microsoft Word.  It’s really teeny-tiny when printed, and I haven’t figured out how to make it bigger.  On the screen you can always make the whole page bigger.

The upshot of the whole experience is that I’m faced with taking my writing to the next level.  Some of the things that were mentioned, I hadn’t even thought to examine.  Now I will.  The first time I went over all the critique notes, I felt positively manic.  I haven’t been so excited in a while, and I’m looking forward to climbing firmly onto the next level and then finding another.

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