Sunday, 24 October 2010

Sticky, not stinky

The time has come for me to select the third semester module of my MA course. Do I continue with the novel, digging a little deeper? Try out short story writing? Or move on to something completely different, namely business and editorial writing? I know the chances of making money from novel writing are slim, so while I will continue with my novel for my project piece, I am tempted by the business and editorial module as an opportunity to earn while my novel does the rounds (on its way to becoming a best seller).

Words can do this too (
I logged on to the first lecture of the module to see what it was like, and I reckon I’ve struck gold – but not in the expected way. One of the first items mentioned is ‘stickyness’, the idea that some writing sticks in your head, while others fall on stony brain cells. This passage taken from the book Made to Stick demonstrates this graphically...

“A friend of a friend of ours is a frequent business traveller. Let's call him Dave. Dave was recently in Atlantic City for an important meeting with clients. Afterward, he had some time to kill before his flight, so he went to a local bar for a drink. He'd just finished one drink when an attractive woman approached and asked if she could buy him another. He was surprised but flattered. Sure, he said. The woman walked to the bar and brought back two more drinks — one for her and one for him. He thanked her and took a sip. And that was the last thing he remembered.

Rather, that was the last thing he remembered until he woke up, disoriented, lying in a hotel bathtub, his body submerged in ice. He looked around frantically, trying to figure out where he was and how he got there. Then he spotted the note: don't move. Call 911.

A cell phone rested on a small table beside the bathtub. He picked it up and called 911, his fingers numb and clumsy from the ice. The operator seemed oddly familiar with his situation. She said, "Sir, I want you to reach behind you, slowly and carefully. Is there a tube protruding from your lower back?"

Anxious, he felt around behind him. Sure enough, there was a tube. The operator said, "Sir, don't panic, but one of your kidneys has been harvested. There's a ring of organ thieves operating in this city, and they got to you. Paramedics are on their way. Don't move until they arrive."

You've just read one of the most successful urban legends of the past fifteen years. The first clue is the classic urban-legend opening: "A friend of a friend . . ." Have you ever noticed that our friends' friends have much more interesting lives than our friends themselves?

You've probably heard the Kidney Heist tale before. There are hundreds of versions in circulation, and all of them share a core of three elements: (1) the drugged drink, (2) the ice-filled bathtub, and (3) the kidney-theft punch line. One version features a married man who receives the drugged drink from a prostitute he has invited to his room in Las Vegas. It's a morality play with kidneys.

Imagine that you closed the book right now, took an hour long break, then called a friend and told the story, without rereading it. Chances are you could tell it almost perfectly. You might forget that the traveller was in Atlantic City for "an important meeting with clients" — who cares about that? But you'd remember all the important stuff.

The Kidney Heist is a story that sticks. We understand it, we remember it, and we can retell it later. And if we believe it's true, it might change our behaviour permanently — at least in terms of accepting drinks from attractive strangers.

Contrast the Kidney Heist story with this passage, drawn from a paper distributed by a non-profit organization. "Comprehensive community building naturally lends itself to a return-on-investment rationale that can be modelled, drawing on existing practice," it begins, going on to argue that "[a] factor constraining the flow of resources to CCIs is that funders must often resort to targeting or categorical requirements in grant making to ensure accountability."

Imagine that you closed the book right now and took an hour long break. In fact, don't even take a break; just call up a friend and retell that passage without rereading it. Good luck.”

Now, this may be an extreme contrast in styles, but I’ve tried to read novels that might as well have been written like the business passage for how readable they were. So, while the business and editorial module will be useful in its own right, I reckon it may well help inform me about the stickyness of my novel writing too. 

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