Paying Attention

When I’m interested in something, I focus–like miss obvious things going on around me kind of focus. This led me (in college, I think) to discover a nifty little trick.

The next time your in a mid-sized audience, say 15 to 100 people, for a speaker, try something. Pay attention. I mean close attention. Ignore your friends, watch the speaker, and try to anticipate what they’ll say next.

Assuming your friends aren’t trying the same thing, you’ll notice something after about 10 minutes. The speaker, unless blinded by stage lights or very, very professional, will be talking to you. They’ll spend 40-60% of their time looking directly at you. They’ll wait for you to nod slightly at important points or smile at jokes. They’ll drift slightly toward you if you’re off to one side. They won’t lose their topics, but they may lose the rest of their audience.

Works for almost anyone but professional storytellers, whose audience contact is part of how they tell the story. Works for professors, for introverts, for high corporate mucky mucks. I’ve even moderated a panel discussion at a convention from the audience this way. Their moderator wasn’t doing much, I asked a couple of questions and listened to the answers, et voila. Pretty soon everyone on the panel was waiting for me to look at them before they spoke. Very strange, but kind of cool.

One word of caution: listening this way in a one-on-one situation can have a very different outcome. You may end up with a new best friend who has to tell you all their troubles (because you’re so understanding), or someone may feel the need to tell you, nervously, that they’re just not interested. So be careful where you practice.

Paying Attention


Grand Theft Auto 4 has some problems, and I’m not talking about the ones that get lots of press. I mean it hangs consistently on some game systems. We have one. After trying five copies from a local big-box retailer and finally persuading them to find a way to work around their no-return policy on games, we decided to try a specialty game store to see whether we might have better luck with a different pressing of the disk.

We walked in, and it was just us and the young woman (yay!) behind the counter. Ben asked, “So, have people been returning GTA4?”

She said yes, and we sighed. He explained our situation and that we were hoping they’d be able to fix it. “Oh,” she said. “I hadn’t heard about that. They returned it because it was too violent.”


Blink, blink.


“Right. We’ll take a copy then. Thanks.” We managed not to laugh until we got out of the store.

What planet do you have to live on not to know what to expect from a GTA game? How do you maintain that level of ignorance and still be in a position to buy and play it?

That copy didn’t work either, by the way. So now we’re screaming for the patch.


What We Take for Granted

Working in the yard is a great way to meet the neighbors. People stop to find out what you’re planting or weeding or just to say how happy they are that you’ve done something prettier than grass everywhere. Usually it’s a quick “Hi. How’s it going? The yard looks great. How about this weather. Have a nice day.” conversation. But every once in a while, about one time in five, I get a reminder that I’m not living in the same world I grew up in.

The most memorable conversation last summer was with the four kids from a few doors down who were riding their bikes up and down the sidewalk on our block. The violets were in bloom, and they had never seen anything like them–this common weed that I encourage to grow wherever it wants. They wanted to pick some and to chase the butterflies. I explained what would happen to the flowers if they walked through them. I did pick them some violets, and I invited them to watch the butterflies from the walkway.

While they were hanging out, I took the opportunity to point out that if they stopped turning their bikes in the middle of the boulevard, the daylillies planted there would bloom later and attract more butterflies. For their part, the kids wanted to know whether I owned (in hushed tones) “a car?” They were very excited when I said I did. They wanted to see it, but that was when the youngest showed up again. At some point, probably when the conversation turned from butterflies to cars, he realized they were all talking to a stranger. He’d run home to get Mom’s authority to tell them they were doing something wrong, which ended the conversation. The kids went back to riding their bikes, but they did stay out of the daylillies. I think they’d moved by the time the boulevard bloomed.

This Saturday, I was picking up the trash that accumulates on a corner lot when I had a pretty typical yard/weather conversation. Only this time I could tell that the fellow had something else on his mind. Once all the pleasantries were out of the way, he said, “Excuse me, but what are the initials for?” I had no idea what he was talking about. He pointed behind me, and I looked. “Oh. That’s the company that made the windows. They’re new. Those come off.” Then he went happily on his way.

I picked up more trash and reminded myself that not everyone grows up somewhere where good windows are important and more people could really use them but are never going to get them. I felt particularly lucky, not to be able to afford the windows, but to live in a place where I can’t take them for granted.

What We Take for Granted

Want to See a Migraine?

Warning: these visual illusions won’t be comfortable. They may, in fact, have the potential to cause seizures if you’re so prone.

The page says simply, “This page may feel you sick.” (It’s Japanese.) It didn’t. In several places, I didn’t even register the anomalous motion that was supposed to occur. Then it hit me. I could see it, but I was discounting it. The scintillating effect the author talks about is what I see when I have a migraine, only I’m looking at a normal computer screen (or the sidewalk, or the wall, or the inside of my eyelids). I’d just forgotten that most people don’t see that at least once a week.

Welcome to my world.

Via Greg Laden, only at his old site.

Want to See a Migraine?

Breaking Rules, Part II

I’m bad with rules. Really bad. I get too close to a rule and I itch to reach out and break it. If something can’t be said, I can barely think of anything else to say. If it mustn’t be done, I have to sit on my hands to keep from doing it. The only way to cope is to give myself permission to smash the rule to bits. Once the rule is no longer “in force,” I can look at it rationally and decide whether I want to accept the consequences of breaking it.

Since everyone and their sister seems full of “rules” about writing, and since these are frequently presented in such concrete language as to invoke the worst of my contrarian nature, I’ve spent some time looking at the consequences of breaking the rules about writing.

My conclusion? Break any rule you want. Break two, or six. If.

Now, it’s one hell of an if, having mostly to do with what a writer is doing in the bits where they’re not breaking rules. There are, of course, also consequences.

Writing rules, at least the less arbitrary, more agreed-upon ones, are a codification of the contract between writer and reader as it has evolved through the ages. They’re a way of making sure the reader gets enough reward for the work they put into reading. So most of the rules are about not making your reader do too much work to reach the reward. Cut the flab, use simpler words wherever they’ll do, don’t switch POVs, watch your verb tenses, vary sentence length, keep characters sympathetic and their names distinctive, don’t lose sight of your conflict, don’t radically change tone–all designed to make the read easier.

There’s just one problem. If you read in any significant quantity, chances are that you’ve found a book that follows all the rules. It may well have bored you to tears. Why? Because it didn’t surprise you in any way.

On the other hand, that book with the antihero, the one with the delightful off-topic rambles or the intricate descriptions that put you fully in the scene, the one with the odd sentence structure that made you pay attention to every word, even that one that really had no plot–those were magic. Why?

Because the writer had enough control to know which rules they were breaking and how to follow the rules they were observing. That contract is all about work and rewards. Breaking a rule makes more work for the reader. The more rules a writer breaks, the more they must nail everything else. They must provide more reward. Apt language can sustain a book through a number of diversions, and great insight can pull readers through nearly any number of POV changes.

As I mentioned before, there are consequences, even beyond having to be better at everything else. For every rule, there is some percentage of a writer’s potential audience who cannot abide seeing the rule broken. Sometimes it’s the happy ending; sometimes the sympathetic character. No matter how good the rest of the book, a writer will lose these people by breaking their pet rule. It’s just going to happen.

But knowing that and knowing the extra work or skill it requires, if you want to break a cardinal rule of writing, go right ahead. I’m certainly not in any position to complain.

Breaking Rules, Part II

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

So I’m on this client team at work, one of several. I have my own tiny little fiefdom, a project I run pretty much independently. I took it over because someone had to, and it turned out my experience was a good fit. Everything runs smoothly. The client, who wasn’t happy with how the project was going before I took over, is happy with me. So far, so good.

Then we hit a few weeks ago. That was when I discovered that the client is not as thrilled with other parts of their experience with us. Suddenly, “They’re always so happy with you and your work,” which I’ve heard before and didn’t think much of, has context. It has weight. Suddenly too many people know who I am. All the tiny little decisions I make every day have echoes I wasn’t hearing before.

Now people want to meet me. Tomorrow, in fact. I’ll walk into the room with a real smile on my face and be very happy to see everyone, but that will be surface. Underneath will be the constant little whisper of “I didn’t sign up for this. I agreed that a bunch of stuff needed to get done and I could do it, but I don’t remember promising anything like this.”

And I haven’t a clue what I’ll wear. Yeesh.

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong