Sunday, February 27, 2011

Brain Cravings

I'm thinking a lot about why people become interested in things, not just novels but also food, music, and games. Children who have autism tend to be come rigid in their interests, playing the same game or eating the same foods over and over again. As a teacher's assistant working with such children, I often struggle to get one kid to name the letters instead of lining them up by color, or to get another to recognize whole words instead of just repeating the names of letters. Hopefully these kids will someday enjoy reading whole stories.

And then I go home and write fiction for adults. I'm facing the same sort of problem. Some readers insist on the same story and type of story told repeatedly. I work at enticing readers into something new.

Here is what I think is happening. Brains are prediction machines, having evolved over time to analyze patterns and predict what will happen next. They are driven to find out what happens next. Brains which are good at predicting pass on the ability, producing babies with similar brains.

This prediction isn't conscious analysis, but an instinctive drive. Our brains crave patterns and prediction of patterns the same way we crave food, or sleep, or affection. If these patterns aren't available, we create them. Brains with neurological problems blocking their development go after whatever patterns are accessible. The results are often amazing. People missing huge parts of their brains can still adapt and function well. I stand in awe of the brain, particularly the brain of a child, and what it can do.

I believe that a baby playing with a rattle and an adult reading a novel are both engaged in pattern prediction and for the same reasons; brains crave a combination of expectation and surprise.

The baby shaking the rattle doesn't know exactly what will happen, but she has an idea of what will happen and the result delights her. As she goes through the sequence of muscle movement, visual effect, and sound, her brain adapts, rewiring itself to better-coordinated hearing, movement, and vision. It's fun and feels good because it's what the brain needs. When the child gets older, she loses interest in rattles or her interest in them changes. She might move on to exploring rhythm. At this time, her brain has already made the changes and no longer craves the simple pattern of rattle-shaking.

Young brains crave easily predicted patterns. Children are usually picky eaters, liking foods with simple textures and flavors. A baby may like basic rice-cereal but, as a toddler, moves on to various dry cereals or to plain pasta. Children are generally interested in basic flavors--sweet or salty--and like predictable shapes and textures. Good luck trying to convince a toddler that a broken cheese-flavored cracker tastes the same as a whole cheese-flavored cracker.

Children generally dislike complex textures such the texture of broccoli. The buds on broccoli make for texture which is difficult for a developing brain to decode. The texture doesn't make sense.

As a child I preferred my spaghetti sauce to be served separately from my noodles, "next to" not "on top of." The meat as it browned smelled delicious, but when the ingredients were put together, I couldn't taste either the meat or the noodles. Hash still tastes this way to me. I also pulled appart sandwiches, eating baloney separate from bread. I'd lick the frosting off cupcakes before eating the cake. These preparations simplify the flavors of food. Now we call this type of preparation food "deconstruction." Apparently it's the hot new trend in cooking, but children have done it since time immemorial.

As an adult I detest plain noodles. They're just too boring. I don't eat cake unless it's got something unusual-- fresh fruit, mocha filling--or I'm hungry and it's the only food available. I want something interesting on top of my noodles maybe some anchovies or some capers. Definitely some garlic. Maybe fresh garlic sautéed in olive oil until it just starts to caramelize. My brain already knows the taste of noodles. There is nothing else to be learned from eating bland pasta. It wants combinations of flavors and textures: bitter and sweet with smooth. Salty and sour with crunchy.

For the brain to make sense of sensations--hmm similar words--it has to encounter the same pattern repeatedly. The brain will seek to repeat the pattern until the activity becomes boring. How often it needs to encounter a pattern varies from individual to individual. A person who has autism needs to encounter the same pattern many more times than does a person with a typical brain. But whose brain is typical anyway?

I only read one Nancy Drew mystery before I became bored with it. Yet I'm still fascinated by Rudyard Kipling's Elephant's Child. The line "The great gray-green greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever-trees," still tastes good to my brain.

In writing novels I'm attempting to feed the brain a really tasty pattern. I've got to get the mix between expectation and surprise just right. If it's too unusual the story tastes like hash. If it's too predictable it's boring. The same mix won't work for every reader because of variation in individual brains.

Enjoyment of food and of novels isn't entirely alike. Food must feed both the body and the brain. If nothing else is available I'll eat plain noodles, eat them without complaining. But if a novel fails to fulfill the cravings of my brain, I will stop reading.

As a writer, I have a dilemma. Should I limit my writing to simple easily understandable patterns, the equivalent of plain noodles, or should I write patterns which take more sophistication to understand? The blockbuster model of publishing says write plain noodles, make the story understandable to nearly everyone. But that leaves an entire range of readers starving. Simplistic writing isn't adequate to their needs. It's not adequate for my needs as a writer.

I believe if I trying to write plain noodles I should do it with pride, but when I'm driven to write pasta with puttanesca sauce I shouldn't forego the anchovies and capers.

There are those who insist that fiction must follow similar restrictive and arbitrary rules, similar to saying spaghetti can only have marinara sauce. These rules are basically codified personal taste, similar to an autistic toddler announcing that broccoli is yucky and throwing it across the room. Many adults also dislike broccoli, but it's not the fault of the farmer who raised the broccoli, the cook who prepared it, or even of Mother Nature who packed it with vitamins, nutrition, fiber, color, and all that. Broccoli isn't inherently yucky. It's a matter of personal taste, meaning it’s a matter if neurological development.

What can I say to them when they gag on my offering? Yes, people do gag when they expect one flavor and get another. This doesn't indicate that, for example, puttanesca sauce is poorly made. It merely has been tasted by a diner has never encountered red spaghetti sauce other than marinara, and that diner's brain isn't yet ready for that pattern of sensation.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

I Live to Write

Yesterday, I finished the breakfast dishes and looked around the office. Yes, my office and my kitchen are all in the same room. That’s fodder for another blog. Anyhow, everything was caught up. Wha??? What does that mean? Caught up?

I had time and I didn’t know what to do next. I found myself immobilized by an abundance of time. That ethereal substance we all have so little of, ‘I don’t have time’, ‘time just got away from me’, ‘If I only had more time’. I had a list of projects and still didn’t know what to do next.

Eons ago when I worked at a real job I punched a clock and I wished for a wife. Someone to do the little time consuming errands so I could have time. Time, I didn’t know what the heck I’d do with time but even sleep would have been a luxury. I organized, manipulated, listed in order of importance, I thought ahead, planned ahead, economized and utilized my time efficiently. I could get more done in one lunch hour than some do in a week.

Then I quit working ‘out’ and began to work from home. I planned to do a little bookkeeping for my husbands business. Primarily, I had the fantasy that I could take off my watch and write my novels. I’d stay in my pajamas, coffee in hand, answer my e-mail and write my books. We all know those stories some of us even know those writers. Life was good. I took off my watch. But, priorities get skewed.

The pajamas and the coffee haven’t changed but the business did. I’m answering the phone with bed-head, happy that the customer doesn’t know I haven’t brushed my teeth yet. The real juggling act has become filtering out the time it takes to do the job and still being able to do the work that I love.

When someone says they like working at home I purse my lips and wonder, ‘do I’? I still have a job, but I get to do it in my pajamas. I’m at home but my fantasy hasn’t turned out like I planned.

At a recent writer’s conference we were advised to rethink the phrase, “I can’t, I have to work.”
When someone says that, the conversation is over. When we say, “I can’t, I have to write,” the whining, wheedling and justifications begin.

Our task is to filter the job from the work. I live to write, my job simply takes time. My struggle is to separate again the time for writing and the time for the job. What tricks do you use to filter your writing from your job?


Friday, February 11, 2011

Going Wild in Alaska

I've been living in Alaska for almost four years, but GO WILD is the first book I've set there. I think I was too nervous to offer my take on Alaska to my new friends! (Of course, I love the place, but it has its quirks.)

I also didn't feel qualified until I'd lived here a few winters. Alaskans call newcomers "cheechakos," which probably means something like "I give her six months before she runs screaming." Oldtime Alaskas are called "sourdoughs." I'm not sure how long you have to be here until you've earned that title. And I'm not sure I want it. Sour? Doughy? Not the sexiest term I can think of.

But now that I'm in the vague zone between cheechako and sourdough, I finally feel brave enough to set a story in Alaska. This state has much inspiration to offer, and as an erotic romance author I put my own twist on. To enjoy life in Alaska, you have to find some way to get through the winters. So I put my naughty imagination to work and asked the question, what if a (completely fictional) town held a midwinter festival during which all normal rules of proper behavior were suspended and only one rule applied--"Anything goes, nothing counts." Kind of like going to Vegas without the slot machines.

And that was the inspiration for GO WILD, out now from Ellora's Cave. It's super-extra-steamy, but I have a good excuse. Winters are long and hard here in Alaska!! Here's the blurb:

Lars loves Katia. Katia loves Lars. Lars wants to marry Katia. Can he convince his free-spirited lover that marriage will be as fun as her sexually adventurous single days?

Never before has Katia been tempted to give up her carefree ways. She’s deeply in love with Lars, but she doesn’t know if he can handle her wild side—or wilder needs. But Lars is a hard man to resist. The former Olympic champion won’t give up, not when he knows just how to please her.

The people of Wild, Alaska, know the best way to survive winter is to let off a little steam. When his buddies hit town for Wild Nights, a notorious winter festival with one rule—“anything goes, nothing counts”—Lars has the perfect opportunity to prove he’s the man for Katia.

Lucky for Katia, “proof” includes four rugged Alaska men and one wildly erotic night.

Reader Advisory: Features an extended ménage (M/F/M/M/M) and references to bondage experimentation and sexual escapades of all types. Woohoo!
If you'd like to read an excerpt, here's the link. Enjoy the rest of the winter!

Juniper Bell

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


As a serious writer, you probably have a writing plan…but do you have a technology plan? You should. For those who aren’t sure where to start, I’ll share my own set-up with comments that might help you make decisions regarding what’s right for you.

• Microsoft Security Essentials stands up in comparison with the popular Norton and McAfee. The biggest difference is that it’s free! Keep in mind that if you install two different antivirus programs, it’s NOT double the protection. They will conflict and compete with each other and slow your computer down significantly. No matter what program you use, remember they aren’t full proof. You still need to be smart and take care where you click. This is why you need a backup plan in case you need to wipe and restore your system and files.

BACKUP PLAN: External hard drive and Reputable off-site storage

• Windows 7 allows a system image onto an external drive with one click. An external drive has limitations as a back-up of course. It could get lost, stolen, wiped, destroyed, etc.

• For $55/yr, you can store your system image on a backup site. I use Carbonite but there are plenty of great products out there. You want a program that will backup both your applications (like Word, Liquid Story Binder) and files (your documents/pictures/videos).

• This is great if you want to share documents with others. I have several collaboration projects and give folder access to specific people. The most recent document (as well as previous versions) will always be available in the “cloud.”

• Microsoft Skydrive – Get 25 GB for free

• Dropbox is good too, but only offers 2 GB for free. If you refer enough friends you can get up to 8 GB free. The only reason I have Dropbox, is because it’s used by several friends.

• Windows Live Writer (free) is a huge timesaver for blogging. You can use it offline, organize partially written blogs, schedule them to post, etc. When you’re done, one click will post them to any site you designate – your website, Facebook, MySpace, etc.

• For Twitter and smaller posts, I just changed to HootSuite (free) and love it. First it’s web-based so you don’t need to download anything. That also allows you to access it from anywhere. Additionally, HootSuite lets you post to multiple accounts and schedule tweets.

VoIP – Voice Over IP (phone over the internet)

• Skype & Skype Recorder (free) – for chatting to anyone around the world (with voice only or with video), making audio podcasts and to record research interviews. You may want to grab a $10 headset with built in microphone to keep your hands free to type.

• I’ve only tried it once, but in two hours I used Windows Movie Maker to make my first trailer for Write at Sea.

• After a backup plan, if you only decide to do one other thing from this list, I recommend a password management tool. It’s ridiculous how much time it will save you from looking up user names/passwords. There are many out there, but I love using LastPass. Oh, Oh…I know I need to wrap this up but LastPass just bought a Xmarks, which saves your bookmarks for when you write/research on different computers. It’s such a great concept.

Oprah has her favorite things, and I guess these are mine! Did you notice almost all of them are free? Please don’t think that free means less quality. For the one thing that isn’t free, an off-site backup, that’s one item you can’t afford not to buy.

Please comment to share your favorite gadget or if you use/try any of these tools, I’d love to hear what you think.

All the best,
Twitter: FollowJulia & CrazyCrimes