Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Someone Else Will Help the Victim--Right?

The police officer who called my daughter to tell her that she had saved a man's life a week ago by calling 9-1-1, asked her, "So what made you call? You were the only one who called, you know."

"The only one?" she asked, horrified, since she lives in one of many street-facing condominiums in her building, all of which would have had equal exposure to the sound of the attack outside their building. She couldn't imagine, she told him, that she was the only one who heard the screams and the snarling dog. Then she explained that though for a moment she considered that the sound could be someone filming a movie (she does live in LA, after all), she couldn't take the chance of NOT calling when she heard a man desperately calling for help over the terrifying growls. Even if the screams were from an actor, the worst that could happen by her calling would be that the police would have raced over for a false alarm. In fact, the worst that could happen--the man dying--did NOT happen because of her call.

She recalled, for the officer, a term she had learned in a psychology class,"diffusion of responsibility," which refers to the mentality that makes people react to another person's trouble with the attitude, "Someone probably already called, so I don't have to." It's the same attitude that makes people stand around while someone else gets bullied, all looking to each other to stand up for the victim, instead of doing so themselves. My daughter said she would never want to be one of those people who doesn't help. The officer with whom she was speaking was probably surprised to hear such a memorable reply from a 19-year-old.

I was surprised, too. I was surprised to relearn a term I had forgotten from my college psych class in such a hard-hitting, real-life application of jargon. I used to make fun of all the fancy terms for social and psychological behaviors, thinking that most people seemed more caught up in the jargon than in understanding the actual actions it described. I never considered that having a phrase to describe such shocking behavior would benefit the person unfortunate enough to see its practical application. The ability to name this problem somehow might make it a less painful realization, I think--perhaps because the fact that the problem has a name means that other active bystanders have shared the miserable disappointment of having no back-up from other bystanders. Misery needs company, right? What was memorable in theory--"diffusion of responsibility"--now is more memorable because she experienced it. And the memory is haunting.

Learning that her call had saved a man from bleeding to death after a dog attack, my daughter felt simultaneously proud and disgusted, she told me. Proud because she had responded rapidly to a fellow human's cry for help, and disgusted because NO ONE ELSE IN ANY OF THE STREET-FACING APARTMENTS had called. No one! She wondered, "What if I had been screaming out there? I could never count on these neighbors! There's no way that no one else heard him, if I heard him over my TV and had to turn down the volume to be sure I wasn't just hearing screams on 'Breaking Bad.'"

"Diffusion of responsibility" described in a textbook obviously had stayed in her memory. Showing it, here with her story, makes that term indelible and its lesson more hard-hitting: that NO ONE SHOULD STAND IDLY BY WHEN WITNESSING, OR OVERHEARING, WHAT MIGHT BE A FELLOW HUMAN'S WORST NIGHTMARE.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Writing Words that Stick

Memorable writing is like tape: it sticks with you and seals the gaps between the writer's and reader's minds.

In other words, we write and read to connect with others and establish new memories. If you want to improve the "memorability" of your own writing, start by thinking about images and scenes from books that have stayed with you long after you read them; find and reread some of those memorable words and take notes about what made them stick with you. Then apply what you've noted to a recent page of your own work. Based on your notes, can you see similarities in style that you have emulated, possibly even unconsciously? Do you see how you could enhance your work by incorporating some of your favorite elements from the works you've admired? If you find a passage in your own work that reminds you of a line (or lines) that resonated with you in another writer's work, use that comparison not only to maintain the kind of style that obviously appeals to you, but also to pitch your work to publishers and/or readers as "reminiscent of the style of author ___," which may aid in marketing your story.

For example, during and after reading The Irresistible Henry House, a captivating, witty novel by Lisa Grunwald, I kept thinking about how the style reminded me of John Irving's, and how one editor who read an early draft of my own as-yet-unpublished, humorous middle-grade novel referred to my Fergal McBean: One-Lad Bandt as "like John Irving for kids!" So I decided to compare the opening line of Grunwald's novel with my own opening line about Fergal McBean:

Grunwald's first line: "By the time Henry House was four months old, a copy of his picture was being carried in the pocketbooks of seven different women, each of whom called him her son."

My first line: "When Fergal McBean was born, just outside of Dublin, Ireland, his Ma first gaped, then gasped, and finally grasped the unique beauty of her child."

I immediately smiled to myself at the stylistic similarities in tone, which were entirely accidental, since I just read Henry House's story during the time in which I've been submitting the manuscript for Fergal's tale of fitting in as an outcast-turned-hero. Knowing how much I have enjoyed Grunwald's book, and knowing that my tastes have not changed much since childhood, gives me the idea to consider who, among my favorite MG and YA authors, has essentially the same kind of storytelling style as Grunwald and Irving. I have come up with the following list from my memorable favorites: Roald Dahl, E.B. White, "Lemony Snicket," Sherman Alexie, among others. What they all have in common with the adult books by Irving and Grunwald: a playful style that takes no character's life too seriously; flawed, yet endearing characters whose personalities and desires are revealed via their interactions with others, rather than just by a narrator; lively language, often containing wordplay; humorous juxtaposition of imagery and concepts; the comical downplaying of events (the opposite of hyperbole); and fast-paced, tightly written scenes. With a heightened sense of the stylistic attributes I admire now firmly in mind, I will be able to proceed with the sequel to Fergal's first book with more confidence. An enthusiastic agent to rep the series might help, too....

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

New Spice from Old Spice: Kudos to Hilarious Label Writers!

Not all writing jobs are glamorous. Writing for product labels isn't exactly something to Tweet about...or is it? The writers behind these hilarious Old Spice deodorant labels show all writers how to create memorable words no matter where they appear! I buy men's deodorant--yes, it's true--not just for the smell and effectiveness, but now for these labels!

How about those "stench monsters" and the "odor fighting protection you demand from a mountain"? This is ad writing at its most creative, don't you think?