I had a great post planned for today – all about Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), one of the most talented composers of the Victorian era, who chose to create popular works rather than prestigious ones. The intelligentsia of the nineteenth century were outraged, but he followed his muse (as Michaeline recommended yesterday) and his clever, witty comic operas are still giving pleasure to 21st-century audiences around the world, while his critics are long-forgotten.
I’ll probably still write that post at some point, but not today. I got distracted by a very interesting book: Why We Make Mistakes, by Joseph T. Hallinan. I bought it thanks to a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago in a Lake District pub with one of my in-laws. I was ‘splaining the unpublished author’s possible paths to publication and why it can be such an endurance event, borrowing liberally from Jeanne’s summary, when we got hung up on the subject of editors. I said that whether an author was traditionally published or self-published, a good editor is a necessity because no writer can possibly pick up for themselves every plot hole, continuity error, pet word or phrase over-use, or other blooper that if left uncorrected could distract a reader from an otherwise excellent book. My BIL wasn’t convinced, and said that surely any literate, intelligent writer willing to apply themselves to their manuscript should be able to resolve these problems without the aid of a third party.
I learned at McDaniel that I can clearly see in my friends’ writing what I can’t see in my own, no matter how hard I try, but I didn’t know why, so I went looking for some popular science and found Why We Make Mistakes. According to the blurb:
In Why We Make Mistakes, journalist Joseph T. Hallinan sets out to explore the captivating science of human error—how we think, see, remember, and forget, and how this sets us up for wholly irresistible mistakes.
In his quest to understand our imperfections, Hallinan delves into psychology, neuroscience, and economics, with forays into aviation, consumer behavior, geography, football, stock picking, and more. He discovers that some of the same qualities that make us efficient also make us error prone. We learn to move rapidly through the world, quickly recognizing patterns—but overlooking details. Which is why thirteen-year-old boys discover errors that NASA scientists miss—and why you can’t find the beer in your refrigerator.
I found some great information about the things I was curious about, like: we see what we expect to see. So when we’re combing a manuscript looking for the errors, a few needles in the haystack, our brains have a threshold amount of time they will look for something before giving up. When we’re searching for seldom-seen items, we tend to speed up and miss them, because we’re hard-wired to bail out early when our target is unlikely to be there.
I also found some stuff that took me completely by surprise and that could be incredibly helpful to me as a writer. Frex, there are novels on my Kindle that I’ve read but can’t remember a thing about. I’d love to figure out how to avoid falling in to the same trap, so imagine my excitement when I read a section entitled ‘Making Faces More Memorable.’
“Most people, when asked how it is they recognize someone, will almost invariably identify some physical feature…what do you look for? Many studies have sought to answer this question. The most consistent finding among them is that the single most important feature is…hair. Which is an interesting choice given that hair, of all our physical features, is the one most easily altered.”
Even more interestingly, though, researchers found that:
“when faces are judged not by their surface details but for deeper emotional traits – like honesty or likeability – the faces are subsequently better recognized than faces judged for physical features like hair or eyes. Why should traits be more memorable than features? Traits appear to require the brain to engage in a greater depth of processing; it takes more work to figure out whether someone has an honest face than it does to determine, say, whether he’s got curly hair. And that greater effort makes the face stick in the memory.”
That got me thinking: if I want to help my reader to visualize my characters, I can’t do better than to start by describing their hair, but if I want to make them memorable, I should start by having another character assess their features and make some emotional judgments. I’ve done that sometimes in the past and liked the effect without understanding why. I’ll be more aware of it in future.
I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the useful stuff in Why We Make Mistakes. If I find more golden nuggets (and I expect to!), I’ll share next Sunday.
What did you learn this week?