Back to: Karl checking in | Forward to: Test Entry

Where do you get...?

During Charlie's globe-trotting, interruptions to his supply of liquid helium cause difficulties in maintaining the optimum operating temperature (4K) of the superconducting neurons in his prodigious precuneus. (This is not rude.) So here I am, Not Charlie, humbly filling in.

Faithful readers know there are two FAQs that one really shouldn't ask. There's “I've an idea, will you write the book for me and we'll split the money?”, which generates a reflexive two-monosyllable reply in any writer's mind (modulated by varying degrees of politeness as subsequently uttered).

But “Where do you get your ideas from?” elicits a different reaction: a widening of the writer's eyes as they affect disdain, a shakiness in their laughter as they attempt to dismiss the words; for there are places where We Dare Not Look (lest Cthulu suck out our brains).

Among the list of possible topics that Charlie suggested was world-building - which, like writing in general, is a cognitive process. As I talk about weird physics or visualizing the minutiae of daily life in an imagined culture, behind it all is a series of subjective experiences: vivid scenes - call them visual hallucinations - plus images representing the abstract concepts that make it hard SF.

So let's begin with the subjective aspect.

The more challenging an intellectual field, it seems to me, the less we care to think about process. For example, how does a theoretical physicist work? The late great Richard Feynman (who had little time for psychology) revealed something of his internal experience. So did Michio Kaku, writing in New Scientist some years back.

So let's try thinking of a situation in a Feynman/Kakuesque way. Imagine we're mulling over the motion of electrons. Here goes...

First, imagine a wire, and in it, flowing electrons. Pop that image up in your mind's eye (more like your subjective, internal cinema/movie theatre). If there's no motion in the picture yet, add it now.

Now, in your mind, push the movie away from you as you let it shift out of focus, growing blurred. Let it continue to hang in the background.

In front of it, pop up an image of this equation: I = dQ/dt. (Current = the rate of flow of charge.)

Sharpen the image of the equation (with the background movie unaltered), then assign a colour to the I, a different colour to the = sign, yet another colour to the Q, and a fourth colour to the d /dt.

Now make the equation glow strongly as it hangs there... and finally, contemplate the situation.

That seems to approximate their internal process of getting started. If they were here with us (rather tougher in Feynman's case) we could ask for their feedback, and tune the example more closely. Which generates a question...

When have you ever read a physics textbook that told you to do this?

If you think of this as a cognitive strategy, here's how to evaluate it. Try it on for size. It will not work for everybody. Many physicists are musical; perhaps they prefer more auditory strategies. Others might benefit from the above exercise, but alter it in whatever ways suit them best.

This differing balance among the senses accounts in part, I believe, for our taste (such a sensual word) in books. Composer Hans Zimmer apparently once asked his girlfriend: “What music plays in your head first thing?” When she said, “Huh?” he elaborated: “You know, the soundtrack that's inside your mind as soon as you wake up?”

We're all different, yet similar enough to communicate, with varying degrees of accuracy.

So for any unpublished writers: if my visual examples seem alien to you, then open your mind to the possibility that you might write like Isaac Asimov, Elmore Leonard or perhaps Stephen King. Panic ye not...

So here's a beginning to one of my books. I was driving along a deserted country road at an early hour, and up in the sky, to the left, I “saw” a blurred, ornate stone sphere, and on it (zooming in) a tiny figure climbing the exterior, heading for the apex.

For many writers, this is how it happens: flashes of scenes. (And the moral of the story is, never accept a lift from a writer who's looking distracted.) Early in the process, we just allow these things to pop into our awareness (from the subconscious void where we dare not look, because of Cthulu lurking).

When I say “many writers”, I mean a significant proportion of those I talk to at conventions and elsewhere, Charlie included. I'm trying to generalize this to other people's subjective experience.

There's also, for some of us, the necessity for an abstract idea (however that's represented in the mind) to pull the images together. (The notion of tension between ideas, an imagined somatic sensation, seems appropriate.) In this book, I was thinking of the arrow of time and the transactional interpretation of quantum physics, and feeling certain that somehow I could have oracles who could literally see the future.

(In fact I needed a third bit of weird physics, but that came later.)

It came to me that the stone sphere was a terraformer - and that first scene was atypical - and that the population lived below ground, that the society was centuries old and literally stratified, that portions at least were ruled by aristocrats... and so on, in a rush of heady “facts” about the world.

And that really is the beginning of building a world or a universe or a book.

Writing a first draft is an ongoing process of lucid dreaming (while your fingers record the experience), and it feels as if you're an observer (who can shift viewpoints and move in and out of the characters) recording the experience sent up to you from the deep by your Muse (or Cthulu).

There are strategies to help move things on, like asking: what happened next? And if you don't like the first answer, then: no, what really happened next?

Stephen King (in his book On Writing) says that writing feels like uncovering memories, something that resonates with Charlie and me. (And I must ask more writers about that.) Tentatively, I suggest that visualizing appropriately might be marginally easier if you direct your eyes somewhere up and to the left.

(Tangential remarks... This is a conjecture based on neurolinguistic programming's “accessing cues” whose significance is overrated, sometimes by NLPers, sometimes by commentators. I can access a visual memory, for example, no matter where I'm looking, thanks very much. However, when accessing cues do occur, they are obvious. My opinions regarding NLP approximately match those of Derren Brown, well-known hypnotist, mentalist, sceptic and friend of Richard Dawkins. His negativity is directed at the community rather than the psychological techniques. For example, I view “anchoring” as no more than operant conditioning, albeit a form requiring some physical skill.)

For now I'll add only that writing, like reading, is a trance state. While I've never written with an EEG or fMRI scanner attached to my head, it's surely close to trances induced during medical hypnosis, in which the changes in brain activity are obvious: the anterior cingulate (think of it as the source of the nagging, critical, error-correcting voice which does serve a useful, protective purpose) decides to chill out, while the precuneus in the superior parietal lobule (powerhouse of the imagination, hence Charlie's superconducting neurons) goes into startling, blazing overdrive.

While dropping into that state every day - as a matter of habit - is very, very cool.

Next post: less of the bonkers psych, more of the weird physics!

P.S. For the physics example, if you want to push it a bit further... The current in a wire is the same everywhere, no matter how it twists or changes diameter. Do you feel in your guts, intuitively, how this must be so? If not, do the mental exercise again, and pop up the Coulomb inverse-square-law equation as well, and let rip. Let us know how you get on...

P.P.S. Disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever been, an actual proper working physicist.

P.P.P.S. In case you missed it, while discussing cuts to science funding, David Cameron recently said, “By chance, I was talking to a particle physician last night.” (Physics World) Oh, well.

P.P.P.P.S. The precuneus was originally called the quadrate lobule of Foville, after its discoverer. Quadrate lobules of the world unite!


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by John Meaney published on July 20, 2011 2:31 PM.

Karl checking in was the previous entry in this blog.

Test Entry is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog



  • Gadget Patrol
  • Waffle