Author of the forthcoming novel, The Only Living Man With A Hole In His Head, inspired by the true story of Phineas Gage.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Legacy of Phineas Gage

Things are getting finalized for the December 13th (lucky 13!) release of “The Only Living Man With the Hole in His Head”. Final edits, artwork and press release material will be completed this week. I am very excited about getting Phineas's story out there into the world. I have also been busy running my main bu8siness, Rent-A-Grandma, a domestic services agency that specializes in hiring out mature women for nannying, house care, pet care, elder care, etc. The business has been receiving quite a bit of media attention from newspapers, magazines (including an upcoming article on us in the October issue of Entreprenuer Magazine), radio and television (including an appearance on a national ABC network show – I am bound to a confidentiality agreement, so can't say which). This firestorm of publicity all started with a press release, which I'll next discuss in an upcoming blog.

Many people have asked about Phineas Gage's legacy on science, so I wanted to share a little bit about how his injury led to our better understanding of how the brain works. What follows is a quick summary:

The Gage case has become a classic case in neurology with a majority of introductory
psychology textbooks mentioning the case. Phineas Gage became the most famous patient in the history ofneuroscience because his case was the first to show a link between brain injury and personality change. In 1994, two neurobiologists, Hanna and Antonio Damasio, used computer graphics and neural imaging techniques to plot the trajectory of the tamping iron as it shot through Phineas's brain. The results were published in Science, in 1994. They discovered that most of the damage was done to the ventromedial region of the frontal lobes on both sides. The part of the frontal lobes responsible for speech and motor functions was apparently spared, so they concluded that the changes in social behavior observed in Phineas Gage were likely due to this lesion, because the researchers had noticed the same sort of change in other patients with similar lesions, causing a defect in rational decision making and the processing of emotion. “Gage's story was the historical beginnings of the study of the biological basis of behavior,” said Antonio Damasio.  

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Five Favorite Books on Writing

There are some worthwhile books out there on writing. I am often asked which ones are my favorites, if any. Such books usually fall into two catagories – the craft of writing and the business of writing. Few seem to combine both topics. The most important thing about writing and becoming a writer is to actually write. And then write some more. It's a muscle that needs to be exercised repeatedly. There are, however, a few books I would recommend that can provide helpful information to any writer, new or experienced.

Here is a list of my five favorite books on writing:

The Devils' Guide to Hollywood – Joe Eszterhas. Both a novelist and highly paid screenwriter, this outspoken Hungarian penner of movies (Flashdance, Basic Instinct, FIST, Showgirls, etc.) doesn't mince any words. Great behind the scenes tidbits and writing advice. The epilogue, detailing the Hollywood rollercoaster ride of a script he wrote called “Sacred Cows”, about the president of our good ole US of A getting caught...well, let's just say, getting too up close and personal with a certain farm animal, is alone well worth the price of admission.

On Writing – Stephen King. What needs to be said? The master. While this contains much autobiographical information, including his struggles with alcohol and drug abuse, the writing advice it contains is precious. Honest, insightful and practical advice on everything from word choice to editing to creating back story. He also provides examples of his own bad writing.

Hollywood Animal – Joe Eszterhas. This book concentrates on – at nearly 800 pages! - the experiences of his early years as a novelist and journalist, but the bulk details his years as a Hollywood screenwriter from an insider's perspective. Hilarious stories about the studio system, agents, star egos, etc. For example, when he wrote FIST, Sylvester Stallone was trying to take credit as “co-writer”. However, when the film bombed, Stallone then tried to distance himself from the story. A thick book, but a quick read.

Save The Cat! - Blake Snyder. This author, who passed away last year, breaks down scriptwriting to a formula. His beat sheet explains when certain events should happen (set-up, catalyst, debate, midpoint, dark night of the soul, etc.) and on what pages. He provides examples of movies that successfully used this formula. His produced scripts include Blank Check and Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot – not exactly classics – and he gets down on Momento for not following “the formula” and makes notw of it's low box office take, but Christopher Nolan has done rather well for himself. Overall, however, an interesting book with good pints and great advice on what to avoid in a script.

The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters – Karl Iglesias. Very helpful book that details, from the mouths of successful writers, advice on getting an agent, creating a writing environment, perseverance, writer's block, networking, etc. Though it's focused on screenwriting, much of the advice is applicable to fiction writing.

Until next time, in the words of John Steinbeck, “Writers are a little below the clowns and a little above the trained seals.”

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Paying Attention to the World Around Us

As writers, it is crucial to observe our environments. Think about it – if you were writing a drama that took place in a prison, how best to learn the “lingo”? Daily survival tactics? What life is really like in the big house? You can either commit a crime and get sent to prison (not recommended), or interview current and former inmates and study written accounts of prison life. The important thing is to get first hand knowledge for authenticity. Even if your work might take place in an alternative universe, it would still be helpful to know details about actual prison life. You never know what might come in handy. This involves observing – digesting – any and all relevent information you can find.

Listening to the way people talk is also a great way to develop an ear for dialogue. I have been fortunate to travel around the country and just overhearing the way different people from age 2-100 speak - their vocabularies, slangs, rhythms of speech – has been an invaluable tool. I have used actual lines of speech in various stories and scripts that I have overheard or via people-watching. “Real” life stuff I never would have had at my disposal otherwise. In airports, restaurants, on city streets or in a rural “one-horse” town, it doesn't matter. Everywhere you go is an opportunity to take notes – mental or actual – to use as a reference. And, one thing I've learned, when you least expect it, you'll recall one of those characters or the way someone dressed or what he/she said, and it will fit it well with a project you are writing.

Many writers at the beginning of their careers don't do enough observing or listening to the world around them. Remember – as writers, we are constantly filtering our environments though us on a daily basis, whether we are conscious of it or not. Observe and Listen. You'll be a better writer for it.