Five Takeaways from the Book TED Talks – The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking


Founded by Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks in 1984, the TED conferences originally featured talks focused on Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Under the catchy tagline Ideas Worth Spreading, the range of these talks has since expanded to include other academic, scientific and cultural topics.

If you have ever watched any of these talks, you will have noticed that they are not the usual boring PowerPoint-based presentations we get in conferences of all kinds. Storytelling techniques – long a proven method for grasping and keeping listeners’ attention – prevail in most TED talks. Another obvious key to their success in the succinctness; speakers have 18 minutes to tell a compelling narrative.

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In his engrossing book, TED Talks – The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, published last year, Chris Anderson, who took over the conferences in the early 2000s, offers the reader a truckload of useful and practical suggestions on how to put together and deliver a memorable presentation. A must-read for everyone who needs to speak in public these days (and who doesn’t?)

To whet your appetite, we have selected five of the most stimulating presentation tips we found in the book. See below.

1.What is the takeaway?

As you organize your talk, decide on what is the point you are trying to make. There must be an overarching theme connecting all the elements of the story. This is called a throughline in movies, plays, and novels. As a planning exercise, make sure you specify a concrete objective in no more than 15 words. What is your goal? What do you want to accomplish? What do you want the audience to do, how do you want them to feel after you leave the stage?

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2. Get personal.

Speakers need to connect to the audience, break the ice and build trust. A talk is much more than mere words. You need to engage the audience on many levels. There are different ways to do that. Making eye contact with the audience, for example, is always effective. Showing some kind of vulnerability, such as admitting that you are nervous, may also work. Using humor at the beginning – through a personal anecdote, presenting funny visuals, or by playing with irony and sarcasm – may do the job. Don’t try to be funny if you are not comfortable with it, though.

3. Visuals.

We all know the staggering amount of technology available out there to help public speakers: slides showing graphs, photography, infographics, animations; video, audio, etc. Yet, it may come as a surprise that at least one third of the most viewed TED talks do not make use any of these tools. So maybe you should ask yourself: do I really need to use them? And how much of it is really necessary? Most people are extremely familiar with these so-called innovations by now anyway, so it’s hard to make an impact based only on them. Besides, visuals may distract the audience, taking their attention from you! Then again, great slides may add to the presentation, especially when they do not only repeat and highlight what is being said verbally. Ideally, visuals should reveal (show something that can not be easily described by words); explain (make concepts clearer: a picture is worth a thousand words!); and delight (give the talk aesthetic appeal).

4. To memorize or not to memorize.

Although most TED speakers have their presentations scripted out beforehand and memorize them, this approach does not work for everyone. There’s beauty and power in variety. You need to discover your own natural style. Possible options: you can write and memorize your talk; use in-the-moment language to talk about something you are familiar with (it helps to have a mental structure of the points to cover, though); or even read your piece! Whatever makes you more comfortable and confident. However, remember that preparation is essential for any format you choose.

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5. Traps to avoid.

There are some speaking styles TED organizers do not recommend. The sales pitch: trying to sell products or services directly through your talk may damage your reputation as a speaker. The main job of a speaker is to give not to take. So be careful. Find out if this is the kind of talk your audience is expecting. The ramble: to be under-prepared or not to have a set objective is insulting to the audience; the org bore: talks that focus on the greatness of an organization or on how amazing their staff is will probably bore the audience to death – they don’t work there after all. The inspirational performance: despite the fact that great TED talks deeply inspire and move the listeners, this effect cannot be manipulated through tricks and gimmicks. It needs to feel real. So avoid copying the so-called “inspirational” talks, where the speaker is full of self-praise and despicably phony.

For more tips, I strongly recommend you get the book now and make sure your next presentation is a hit.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

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How addicted are you to Internet-based technology?


How often do you look at your cell phone screen? How many times have you checked your email in the last hour? How many hours a day do you spend on computer games? When did you last post a photo on Instagram and how often do you keep counting your LIKES?

In his sobering book, Irresistible: The Rise of The Addictive Technology and The Business of Keeping Us Hooked, published in 2017,  Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business Adam Alter argues that compulsive behavior involving the use of new Internet-based technologies has become a widespread phenomenon in the contemporary world – and it’s growing. Studies indicate that a whopping 40% of the global population suffer from some kind of tech-stimulated behavioral addiction.

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Using dozens of fascinating stories and case studies to expose the traits and hidden mechanisms applied by social media, exercise apps, video streaming services, gambling and shopping sites, computer games, and all kinds of devices to hook customers, the author carefully examines the sources of addictive behaviors, their designers, and what makes them so alluring. At the same time, he tries to offer possible solutions to the problem, ways of minimizing its dangerous effects and how we can tap into the same compelling ideas and features for more beneficial ends.

Among the most interesting (and the scariest) points made in the book, we would highlight the following.

Behaviors can be as addictive as substance abuse.

The same areas of the brain are triggered by either. These neurons similarly get soaked in dopamine, a chemical that, when attached to receptors, produces intense feelings of pleasure. Perhaps the only difference would be that the intensity of the experience is far stronger when induced by drugs. As tolerance develops eventually, though, the same outcomes are seen; users keep trying to repeat the highs by consuming the substance in larger doses or by indulging in the same kind of behavior more often. They end up losing control of their lives; isolating themselves from family and friends; giving up on the real world; neglecting basic principles of hygiene; underperforming at work; compromising their financial stability; getting depressed. They ruin their lives.

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Never get high on your own supply.

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and the creative mind behind highly compelling devices such as the iPhone, would not allow his kids near an iPad. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired magazine, strictly controlled the use of electronic devices by his family members – never allowing the use of screens in the kids’ bedrooms, for example. Evan Williams, a founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium would get books for his sons, but never an iPad. It looks like, having seen the consequences of addiction to technology first hand, they were extra careful about it.

The ingredients of addictive behavior. 

The DNA of behavioral addiction carries one or more of these characteristics: “compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that slowly become more and more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections”.

Declining levels of empathy and attention span.

Significant plunges in levels of empathy and attention span among children and teenagers can be traced to the rise of Internet addiction. Girls can be meaner on social networks and boys won’t stop playing video games, relying on their online cohorts for emotional support. Sleep deprivation also seems to be on the increase, especially in the last decade, due to overuse of electronic devices at night, which tend to emit a bluish light that (as opposed to the reddish-yellow light from candles and wood fires) interferes with the production of melatonin, in turn impairing sleep.

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Dangerous computer games.

Popular games such as World of Warcraft and Flappy Bird are highly addictive and can foster destructive behavior; gamers will spend hours or even days playing compulsively, neglecting social life, work, school and even personal hygiene habits. Some game manufacturers have even decided to pull products from the market, possibly remorseful for the damage they have inflicted.

Obsessive goal-setting.

The metrification of everything we do and the need to constantly overcome obstacles that get progressively more challenging are very much part of the fabric of the internet and its many alluring apps and websites. We constantly crave more followers or friends on Facebook, more likes on Instagram; more calories burnt or more steps taken on our gym app… Even worse: we tend to compete not only with ourselves, but with others. This is an impossible game to win. This insatiable longing for society’s validation is not healthy.

How can we alleviate the problem?

Most readers will come to the conclusion that being aware of the problem is obviously the first step. Books like Irresistible certainly help in that respect. Setting boundaries for the use of Internet-based tech by kids and offering them attractive alternatives in the real world would certainly aid in the prevention of addiction.

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Innovative support programs and institutions, such as reSTART in Washington State, the first treatment center for game addicts, will need to become more widespread and respected. A strong concern, however, is that, unlike substance abuse, abstinence is not an option if you consider addiction to email, social media, smartphones or the general use of the internet, as they a part of the very fabric of today’s social and professional world.

Regulations imposing limits on companies, preventing them from fostering addiction by refining research, tests, and studies into alluring features to incorporate into their products are definitely required. Those traits must stop short of leading customers towards abusive behaviors.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

What makes historical novels great…


Historical novels are made-up stories written around real facts that took place in a significant time period.  One of the premises of this popular literary genre is that the author’s contemporary times and the period reflected in the plot must be separated from a distance of at least 25 (others will say 50) years. Good examples of effective historical fiction are the Booker Prize winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, which look back and offer a perspective on Henry VIII’s court in sixteenth century England.

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However, if you take a book like Tom Wolf’s The Bonfire of the Vanities – a very sophisticated and entertaining study of New York City during the 1980s  –  it cannot be considered historical fiction, since the novel was written around the same time as the period it depicts.  For the same reason, books like Jane EirePride and Prejudice or Great Expectations are not historical fiction either.  They were simply novels which were written in the past.

Historical novels may mix real facts, people and situations with fictional ones.

What are the prerequisites of great historical fiction?

  1. They are based on extensive and careful research. Although we can’t expect historical fiction authors to be historians, they will need to have an accurate sense of the period they are focusing on. To write a simple scene in one of these books, writers will have to know, for example, the kinds of clothes people wore; the objects they used; their language; the political and social context; how they celebrated their holidays; what parties they went to; what was their religion, and a lot more. Therefore, authors of historical novels must carry out a lot of research to be able to sound convincing about the times they are depicting.

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  1. The focus is on storytelling. Authors need to keep in mind they’re not writing a history manual, though. The research only helps to build the context where a story will be developed. The most important part of their job is the creation of an exciting plot; the development of well-rounded characters (which may or may not be real); their ability to infuse the text with the right atmosphere; their craft to play with language; to promote what all great literature does: a discussion or reflection on what makes human beings tick when put in certain situations.

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  1. Authors use creative ways of exploiting historical gaps. It takes leaps of imagination to write historical novels. Successful writers of the genre will have to fill in historical gaps (like what people say in private, their feelings, their motives, etc.) with interesting information. Part of this information will be inferred and some of it will be invented.

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  1. The story is preceded by an Author’s Note. The reader shouldn’t be deceived. The author’s note will explain what in their story is based on facts and what is purely fiction. Writers will clarify what poetic licenses were taken in the book.  Also they should make explicit what is the scope of the historical information applied.

 

  1. Authors take the opportunity to discuss contemporary issues. Historical fiction can be used as a powerful way to discuss current issues. Although they narrate specific events that happened in past as context, the best historical novels offer an interesting angle on contemporary or timeless themes, such as the position of women and other minorities in society; the fairness of the social and political system; interpretations regarding the role and nature of human beings; the importance of religion and mythology, etc.

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Historical novels – especially the ones that abide by the principles we listed above –  are becoming  even more popular these days.

What are your favorite historical fiction novels? Please use the comments section below to let us know.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

Impressionism – A Cautionary Tale


Impressionism is one of the most popular movements of Western Art. It took place between 1870 and 1880, mainly in France, and suffered a lot of resistance at the beginning, since critics, art dealers and the public in general were more used to the academic and “serious” kinds of paintings that would hang from the walls of the official Salón, a very popular government-sponsored art exhibition that took place every year in France.

The typical paintings you would see at the Salón would feature religious, historic or mythological subjects. They would follow the guidelines of realistic art set by the Renaissance and followed by most masters for almost 500 years. The paintings looked subdued in the use of color, valued good draftsmanship and had strict rules of perspective. In addition to that, they were perfectly finished and varnished.

The impressionists started to systematically deconstruct these rules.

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Coquelicots (Poppies At Argenteuil) by Monet, Claude, 1873.

The artists

Monet is considered the quintessential Impressionist painter. The one who practically set the rules and followed them to the very end of his long and productive career. Other famous impressionists were Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Morisot, and Pissarro. They had been heavily influenced by pre-impressionists, like Manet and Courbet, whose art was already moving away from the standards of classic realism.

The technique

Today you will hardly come across someone who does not like Impressionism. The main reason is that Impressionist paintings are usually uplifting, colorful and full of light. They are cheerful works that make most people feel good. Composed of short, broken, brush strokes, in unmixed bright colors, Impressionist art works conveyed how reality appears to us under different light conditions. They avoid rigid contours or lines, drawing was secondary to the use of color. Shadows were never black, but painted in darker hues of colors, which varied throughout the day and in accordance to the season of the year. For more traditional eyes, the paintings can sometimes look rather unfinished.

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Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Renoir, Pierre-Auguste, 1881.

The origin of the name

In a 1874 exhibition, Monet presented a painting called Impression: Sunrise (see image below). All it showed was a couple of solitary boats on the sea in Le Havre under a red sun reflected on the water. It was painted in quick, diffused, brush strokes. The art critic Louis Leroy, from the magazine Charivari, was not happy with what he saw. He fiercely mocked the artists that painted like Monet and used the very title of the painting to criticize their style, claiming they were mere impressionists. His paintings, Leroy said, looked more like sketches than finished works of art. Despite the derogatory use of the word, Monet and his friends boldly appropriated the name and started to use it officially to define their revolutionary new style. Impressionism had been born.

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Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) by Monet, Claude, 1872.

Where the paintings were made

Usually impressionists would paint en plein air, meaning the outdoors. This is where they could best capture the effects of the changing light on trees, flowers, people and water. Some of them would sometimes finish their work indoors, but hardliners, such as Monet, would work outside every day, under different weather conditions, completing their works there.

 The subject matter

Impressionists would do landscapes, seascapes , portraits and still life paintings. But they hardly included anything outstanding. Their themes were scenes and items of everyday reality: moments of contemporary Parisian life, flowers, boats, expanses of water, sunsets…The simpler, the better. Their point was to study and convey how color worked under light. You need to step back from an impressionistic painting at a museum to fully appreciate what it’s all about as a whole. The closer you get, the more the image gets fragmented into singular dabs and brush strokes without specific forms or meaning.

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Sand Heaps by Sisley, Alfred, 1875.

Impressionism is at the very beginning of what we call Modern Art. Those painters influenced strongly all the art movements that followed them, such as fauvism, cubism and surrealism. Impressionist paintings sell for millions of dollars today. It’s hard to believe that they were once discriminated against and frowned upon. Monet lived in poverty for great party of his life until he was recognized as a great innovator.

There’s perhaps a cautionary tale there. The value and importance of contemporary art is almost never acknowledged at its inception. So, perhaps we should hold our judgment when confronted with some new form of Art and try to understand what it really means and learn to identify the possible seeds of radical transformation we are witnessing.

How do you feel about Impressionism? Do you have any favorite painters or works in the movement? Please, let us know.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

 

10 Interesting Facts about Clarice Lispector: One of the Greatest Brazilian Writers of All Time


Writing in Portuguese makes it difficult for many Brazilian authors to gain worldwide recognition. Besides, a large portion of our literature focuses on issues such as the investigation of Brazilian identity, as well as explorations of local values and culture, which makes it, perhaps, less relevant for readers from other countries.

Things seem to be changing, however.  Acclaimed Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar, for example, was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize for A Cup of Rage,published in Brazil in 1978.

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Clarice Lispector has always been an exception: a Brazilian writer known around the world. One of the reasons for this is that the plots and characters of her novels are far from traditional; Lispector’s characters tend to embark on nuanced interior journeys, exploring incredibly complex worlds. Nothing much happens in terms of action or the development of typical character arcs. Her books throw a unique light on different aspects of the human nature. If the stream of consciousness she often uses can make her prose somewhat hermetic and more challenging to read, it also allows her stories to travel internationally more easily.

However, even those who enjoy her work may not know the following facts about the famous author:

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1. Clarice Lispector was said to look like Marlene Dietrich and write like Virginia Woolf. Her Eastern European looks were indeed striking and uncommon in Brazil. Her family had migrated to Brazil after the First World War, fleeing the pogroms against Jews in the region.

2. Her mother was raped in Ukraine during one of those pogroms and consequently contracted syphilis, which led to her untimely death a couple of decades later. It looks like Clarice was conceived as a possible attempt to cure the disease (a common superstition in those days claimed that giving birth to a child could cure the infection). Of course, this did not have the intended effect, and Clarice carried the burden of guilt for not having been able to save her mother for the rest of her life. Motherhood, or the lack thereof, is a recurring theme in her stories.

3. She was brought up in Recife, a city in the northeast of Brazil, where she went to one of the best public schools in the region, Ginásio Pernambucano. She was 14 when her family finally moved to Rio.

4. Clarice Lispector spent much of her life living in different countries and cities, as the wife of diplomat Maury Gurgel Valente. She lived in Naples, Bern, and Washington, among other places. Her natural intelligence, beauty, and cultivated manners, together with the experience of living in different parts of the world, made her of one of the most sophisticated women of her time.

5. Clarice had two sons: Pedro and Paulo. Pedro was so precocious that he learned the maid’s local dialect in Switzerland in a couple of days, frightening his parents. However, this was an early indicator of mental problems, and later on, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

6. Clarice was not a very political person, although she was aware of and hurt by the injustices and inequalities she observed in her adopted country. During the beginning of the hardest of the dictatorship years in Brazil, in the late 60s, she took part in demonstrations and spoke out against the military coup.

7. Close friends claim that Clarice was a lonely and difficult woman, especially after she left her husband in the late 50s and decided to live with her sons in Rio. She was addicted to sleeping pills, but when she couldn’t sleep she would call her friends to discuss her personal problems at all times of day or night.

8. Clarice survived a fire started when she fell asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand. At this time she lived in an apartment in Leme, a stretch of beach close to the fashionable Copacabana of the 1960s. The third-degree burns left her badly scarred for life, especially her right hand – which she used for writing!

9. Clarice had a totally modern and original way of writing. Themes related to motherhood, as well as reflections on how she missed her own mother, figured largely in her work. Her ideas were heavily influenced by the philosopher Spinoza and the language she used made her an extraordinarily creative and original writer.

10. She wrote nine books, a play, a number of short stories, and some children’s literature. She was also a journalist and had columns in important Brazilian newspapers, where she usually wrote crônicas (a typically Brazilian genre, in which authors narrate facts about simple daily experiences in interesting and original ways) or dispensed advice for women readers, under her own name or pen names. She died of ovarian cancer in 1977 at age 57.

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Have you ever read any of the works of the brilliant writer? Share your opinions with us.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Makes Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn So Great?


Mark Twain’s watershed novel has been one of the most controversial and disputed pieces of literature ever since its publication in 1884. Describing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ernest Hemingway once said:

“American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Many, however, would vehemently disagree with that statement. While readers from one camp call it “the Great American Novel,” others – including writer Louisa May Alcott – condemn its supposed lack of artistry, the use of vulgar language, and even claim it’s racist. To this day, it’s frequently banned in a number of schools in the US on the grounds that it corrupts youth.

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In this post, we want to explore the motives of the supportive camp. After all, those who love this novel can’t get enough of it. Why? Here’s a brief summary followed by a list of the most appealing traits of the book.

Summary:

For those who are not familiar with this famous novel, it’s the sequel to the simpler and more child-friendly The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In the first book, the protagonist is Tom, who lives in the fictitious town of St. Petersburg (inspired by the real city of Hannibal, Missouri) on the Mississippi river in the 1830s.

Tom is an imaginative kid, who leads a regular life, goes to the local school and lives with his younger brother Sid and his cousin Mary under the vigilant and protective eyes of Aunt Polly, his dead mother’s sister. Although Tom and Huck (short for Huckleberry) are best friends, the latter, as the son of the abusive town’s drunk, lives a completely deregulated life, playing and roaming the streets of St. Petersburg in total freedom. He is obviously the envy of all the other kids in the region. At the end of the book, after taking part in a number of adventures throughout the narrative, Tom and Huck get rich, having discovered a great amount of money stolen and hidden in a cave by a gang of robbers. The well-to-do and religious Widow Douglas, one of the town’s luminaries, becomes then Huck’s guardian, with the job of “sivilizing” him.

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At the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we learn that 13-year-old Huck cannot stand the civilized life he’s living at Widow Douglas’s house. He finds the clothes uncomfortable, the table manners constrictive, and the school lessons boring. Moreover, he doesn’t understand or agree with all the religious moralism inflicted on him by the authoritarian widow’s sister, Miss Watson. At this point, he gets kidnapped by his father, who wants to get his hands on the kid’s money. Huck is forced to live with him in a shack across the river.

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Huck realizes he has no choice: he must either submit to living with his abusive father or go back to the horrors of the so-called civilized life under the righteous wing of Widow Douglas. So he decides to fake his own murder and run away. As he tries to escape, Huck bumps into Miss Watson’s black slave Jim, who is also running away, having heard that his mistress is planning to sell him. They get a raft and start floating down the Mississippi river on their way to freedom. Wherever that may be. The novel is the story of that journey.

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The Metaphors:

One of the most enchanting aspects of the novel is Twain’s powerful use of metaphors and symbols. The motif of man in close contact with water – be it sea or river – and its associated subconscious meanings is common in Western literature (take Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, and Life of Pi, for example). The monstrous big Mississippi River in Twain’s novel is also said to stand for a pagan God, both good and evil, leading and interfering with the minute lives that dare to float on its waters; the many storms in the novel seem to be prophetic, signalling approaching turmoil and difficulties. Life on the raft sums up the benefits and downsides of freedom (wild, unconfined and dangerous), in contrast to the oppressive civilized life Huck got to know for a while.

The Innovative Language: 

With The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for the first time North American literature breaks away from the limitations of formal and pompous language. The story is told by Huck in his own particular vernacular, which replicates oral language. Ungrammatical sentences and misspellings highlight the expressive force and energy of regional dialects. In the introduction to the novel, Mark Twain explains his linguistic choices:

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.”

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Humor:

Despite its deep themes (the distorted values of civilization, the hypocrisy of the official religion, inequality, and freedom), the novel pulses with satire. Among the hilarious passages, we’d pinpoint: the description of local superstitions (the bad luck that touching a rattlesnake’s skin can bring about, for example); Jim’s fear of spirits in the fog and of witches in the woods; Huck’s inability to pretend he’s a girl in an encounter with a newcomer to the town; Huck and Jim’s endless discussions about the French language, the wisdom of King Solomon, and the lifestyle of kings.

The Beauty of Descriptive Passages:

The book does not want for poetic strength, as it describes life on a raft, dawn on the river, or a big storm in progress:

“Pretty soon it darkened up and begun to thunder and lighten; so the birds was right about it. Directly it begun to rain, and it rained like all fury, too, and I never see the wind blow so. It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest—FST! it was as bright as glory and you’d have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about, away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before.”

Huck’s charisma: 

The protagonist is a very likable character: good-hearted, loyal and sensitive. Most readers can identify with his rebellion against the constraints of civilization and the moral dilemma he goes through as he’s helping set Jim free. After all, the events narrated in the story take place long before the American Civil War and the official abolition, in a time when the act of helping to free a slave was illegal and against the established social and moral order. This is how Twain verbalizes the main point of the story:

“A book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat”.

However one feels towards The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after reading it, rest assured that it is very unlikely they will remain INDIFFERENT to the experience.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

Writing Powerful Comic Book Characters


In his extraordinarily insightful and funny book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, author Scott McCloud states that comics is (yes, the verb is used in the singular!) a 3000-year-old sequential art form. More precisely, he defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” In modern times, however, the medium has mostly been used to combine pictures and words in the telling of stories.

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Since we are in the realm of storytelling, we must necessarily allude to the seminal works of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey) to advise writers on how to go about creating strong characters. Given the limited space of this blog post, we will not be covering the visual aspects of comics here.

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Comics – sometimes called graphic novels, when not serialized but released as a standalone volume – is a medium, not a genre. As a writer, you must therefore stick to the set conventions (again, beyond the scope of this post) of the style of the work you are producing: be it romance, satire, horror, sci-fi, fantasy or superhero story. The guidelines for character creation that follow apply to all of those genres.

The Characters

Writers who populate their stories with archetypes resonate a lot more deeply with their audiences. Archetypes – as defined by the famous psychologist Carl Jung – are characters or energies that represent mental functions common to all human beings. They are part of what is known as the collective unconscious and are projections of the different parts that together constitute a complete person, though they tend to appear as individual characters in a story. Let’s illustrate our analysis of the main archetypes used in graphic novels with examples from Marvel’s popularSpider-Man: Season One.

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The Hero

The hero is the story’s protagonist. It is through his/her eyes that the audience experiences the story. It’s therefore essential to create engaging characters that the reader can identify with. An effective way to do that is to make the character well-rounded. Popular heroes tend to balance noble qualities with major flaws. It’s essential to avoid passivity in heroes. They are more appealing when they proactively conduct their journey.

In Spider Man, this is, of course, the part of Peter Parker.

The Herald

The herald is the character, institution, or event that announces the upcoming adventure; he/she anticipates the need for the hero to leave his normal world (or the stable situation he finds himself in) and go on a mission. The herald is the bearer of disturbing news. Wrongs must be righted and only the hero can take on this responsibility.

The article on the Vulture’s sightings in New York, featured in the Daily Bugle, sets off the action in Spider-Man: Season One.

The Mentor

In Joseph Campbell’s words, a mentor is usually represented by the wise old man or woman. But, of course, any character, of any age, can perform this function in the story. The mentor helps the hero out, by example or advice. He plays the hero’s role model.

Uncle Ben plays the mentor in Spider-Man.

The Shadow

Here we have the enemy. The hero’s arch nemesis. The personification of the hero’s worst fears. It’s said that the shadow may also reflect what heroes don’t like about themselves, their dark side.

In Spider-Man: Season One, this function is obviously performed by The Vulture.

Threshold Guardians

Threshold guardians are gatekeepers who are always testing the hero on their progress towards their goal. They guard the doors that will allow the hero to enter a more evolved phase. They might be confronted head-on or have their energies tapped into by the hero. Sometimes they happen to turn into allies.

Flash Thomson, one of Peter Parker’s bullying schoolmates, is undeniably a gatekeeper in Spider-Man: Season One. The editor-in-chief of the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, is another formidable threshold guardian.

The Trickster

These characters challenge the status quo; they provide comic relief (which is necessary to break the otherwise unbearable tension of a suspenseful story). Tricksters put things into perspective.

Peter Parker himself can be thought of as a trickster hero in Spider Man.

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It’s important not to forget that the archetypes listed above perform key dramatic functions in any story. Therefore, two or more of these masks can be worn by the same character at different points in the narrative.

This is all we have time for today. Good luck with the creation of powerful characters in your graphic novel. Let us know if the advice above is useful to you.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

The Six Pillars of Horror


What makes a great horror story? Of course, many people will argue that the answer is self-evident. There’s not much to analyze; you just sense it. The reader feels their heart pounding fast; a cold sweat dampening their hands; a shiver down their spine. Suddenly, they’re afraid to turn the page, their ears prick up at the faintest noises around them.

These are the reactions that reading a great horror book bring about, but they only tell half the story. To get the full picture, we must identify what it is in the book that causes these feelings of anxiety, discomfort, fear, and excitement!

The most powerful horror books are sustained by the following pillars:

1.The Familiar Made Strange

It’s terrifying when something close to the reader or the character starts to look or act differently. The more familiar the setting, the greater the impact on the reader if it is twisted. This is what happens in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis; Gregor Samsa, the main character, wakes up one day in the comfort of his own bedroom to find out he’s become a disgusting insect-like monster. His family and coworkers will have to deal with it.

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2.Tapping into the Reader’s Darkest Fears

Mothers, for example, are terrified at the prospect of something going wrong with their children. How is that cute little baby going to turn out? What lurks in his future? That is the chilling scenario of We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Eva Khatchadourian is confronted with the terrible fact that her little son grew up to become a mass murderer.

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3. Verisimilitude 

This does not mean that the story needs to be realistic. It means that the universe created by the author follows precise and specified rules, which are maintained throughout the story. There is consistency in the internal laws of the novel. The demon that possesses the little girl in the shocking The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, for example, has limited powers. Although he claims to be the Devil himself, he cannot untie Regan from the bed or make her fly around at night.

4. A Sense of Claustrophobia

Confined spaces make the ideal setting for horror stories. The fact that you cannot leave a place enhances the feeling or powerlessness that a horror book must instill in the reader. In Peter Benchley’s Jaws, for example, three men battle a fierce shark in the middle of the ocean. All the space they have is a small boat, which starts to crumble to pieces as the predator attacks it. In Stephen King’s The Shining, the main character’s mental health starts to deteriorate. As he becomes progressively more unhinged and violent, his wife and little son cannot escape the isolated and weather-beaten hotel they are stranded in.

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5. A Sense of Paranoia 

The main character feels that all around are plotting his downfall. In Ira Levin’s horrific Rosemary’s Baby the pregnant mother doesn’t feel she can trust anyone. Everyone around seems to be in on a conspiracy to hurt her baby, including her doctor. In fact, those people are members of a coven of evil witches and all of them have the baby’s best interests in mind. The problem is the baby himself.

6. Violence

An element of horror books that never fails to cause extreme discomfort in readers, and, at the same time, makes this literary genre very attractive to so many, is the amount of physical of psychological violence depicted in horror stories. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, a classic of the yuppie era, is soaked in gore. Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs details an unbearably tense relationship between a young FBI agent, Clarice Starling, and her mentor in the solution of a crime, Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer kept in high-security prison.

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American Psycho (from the movie based on the novel)

What is your all-time favorite horror novel? Which of the traits above does it use to scare the living daylights out of its readers.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

Machado de Assis – o Bruxo do Cosme Velho – em 10 pensamentos expressos nas suas obras.


Machado de Assis é considerado por muitos o maior escritor brasileiro de todos os tempos. Conhecido como o Bruxo do Cosme Velho (o tradicional bairro carioca onde morava), Machado foi um dos fundadores da Academia Brasileira de Letras (1987).

 

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Machado de Assis

Autor de poemas, peças, romances e inúmeros contos, suas obras mais famosas incorporaram as características do movimento literário realista no final do século XIX e início do século XX. Destacam-se, sobretudo, os romances Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, Quincas Borba, Dom Casmurro, Esaú e Jacó, e Memorial de Aires. Machado morreu aos 69 anos, deixando um legado literário inestimável.

 

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Pão de Açúcar: o maior cartão-postal do Rio de Janeiro.

Irônico, perceptivo e sagaz, Machado revelou-se um profundo conhecedor da sociedade brasileira (especialmente a carioca) da sua época, e da alma humana de forma geral. Eis alguns dos seus pensamentos mais populares, expressos nos seus livros:

Tudo acaba, leitor; é um velho truísmo, a que se pode acrescentar que nem tudo o que dura dura muito tempo. Esta segunda parte não acha crentes fáceis; ao contrário, a ideia de que um castelo de vento dura mais que o mesmo vento de que é feito, dificilmente se despegará da cabeça, e é bom que seja assim, para que se não perca o costume daquelas construções quase eternas. (Dom Casmurro)

A imaginação foi a companheira de toda a minha existência, viva, rápida, inquieta, alguma vez tímida e amiga de empacar, as mais delas capaz de engolir campanhas e campanhas, correndo. (Dom Casmurro)

O destino não é só dramaturgo, é também o seu próprio contra-regra, isto é, designa a entrada dos personagens em cena, dá-lhes as cartas e outros objetos, e executa dentro os sinais correspondentes ao diálogo, uma trovoada, um carro, um tiro. (Dom Casmurro)

Assim, apanhados pela mãe, éramos dois e contrários, ela encobrindo com a palavra o que eu publicava pelo silêncio. (Dom Casmurro)

Prazos largos são fáceis de subscrever; a imaginação os faz infinitos. (Dom Casmurro)

Eu não sou propriamente um autor defunto, mas um defunto autor. (Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas)

Gosto dos epitáfios; eles são, entre a gente civilizada, uma expressão daquele pio e secreto egoísmo que induz o homem a arrancar à morte um farrapo ao menos da sombra que passou. (Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas)

Matamos o tempo, o tempo nos enterra. (Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas)

O maior pecado, depois do pecado, é a publicação do pecado. (Quincas Borba)

Deus, para a felicidade do homem, inventou a fé e o amor. O Diabo, invejoso, fez o homem confundir fé com religião e amor com casamento. (Esaú e Jacó)

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five of My Favorite Narrative Settings


Readers know the importance of compelling settings in novels – we hope writers do too. Some people would claim that character and plot are king. However, it’s not unusual for readers to first recall a certain region, a piece of geography, a neighborhood or city depicted in a novel when they think of it. While these settings may be the context for the whole story, sometimes, they are the backdrop against which only a number of important or climatic scenes develop.

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The Cliffs of Insanity – From The Princess Bride

Well-written settings create atmosphere; they may drive the plot, and even become as important as a main character. Often, readers are so enraptured by book settings (although the story will most certainly take place in a different time or era), they will wish to visit some of them. Yours truly, for example, is a stickler for visiting places depicted in books – or in their movie adaptations for that matter – when my travels take me anywhere near them.

In this post I’m sharing with the reader some of my favorite settings in novels. Please let me know how you feel about them. Also, if you wish, list and describe your favorite settings in the comments section below.

51Js6G5I9PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. The London Underground.

After seeing the London Tube through the eyes of the highly functioning – yet socially inadequate – autistic 15-year-old Christopher Boone, the charismatic narrator of this stunning novel, readers will agree the Underground is the perfect metaphor for the lair of imaginary or real monsters we all need to fight and overcome in the course of our lives. The Tube, with its vibrant atmosphere, train noises, buskers and the multitudes of daily travelers rushing down its corridors. can certainly be an overwhelming experience for someone like Chris, or readers who are not entirely comfortable with crowds and frenzy.


518A0CQ6VVLWuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.
Yorkshire.

This region of northern England, swept by winds and storms, as depicted by Emily Bronte, is the ultimate expression of a romantic and dramatic landscape: wild, visceral, and passionate. This remarkable setting, of course, matches the personalities of the novel’s unforgettable characters, Cathy and Heathcliff, who roam the region’s bleak moors – alive and dead! The historic county of Yorkshire is, by the way, the largest and one of the greenest in the UK. 

 

2666The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe. New York City.

Wall Street, Park Avenue and the Bronx are forever linked in many readers’ minds to the fate of naïve bond trader Sherman McCoy, one of the masters of the universe – in his own egocentric and distorted self-assessment. At a key plot point, Sherman misses the exit into Manhattan on his way back from Kennedy Airport, where he drove to pick up his mistress Maria. The journey ends up in a nightmare, when the couple gets involved in a hit-and-run accident, killing a black young man in the Bronx. Sherman, the superrich yuppie, becomes the perfect target: he will be used as a scapegoat and brought down by the petty political interests of the various ethnical and professional lobbying groups of 1980s New York.

9780544173767_p0_v2_s1200x630The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. The Cliffs of Insanity.

The first image that crosses my mind whenever I hear someone mention The Princess Bride are the Cliffs of Insanity (gosh, do I love this silly name!). Although this is a fictitious setting, the movie version – which was the first contact most of us had with this incredibly entertaining post-modern fairy tale – uses the real breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, in County Clare, Ireland, as the location. Facing the Atlantic, those rugged imposing cliffs are among Ireland’s most spectacular natural sights.

 

41hqc685dlL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Detroit, Michigan. USA.

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974”. This is one of the most intriguing opening lines in contemporary fiction. Middlesex is not only a powerful and moving journey into human sexuality, gender issues and identity, but also the three-generation saga of a Greek-American family, the Stephanides, migrating from a small village overlooking Mount Olympus all the way to Detroit, Muchigan – an improbable destination, where readers experience the story of the city from the Prohibition days, moving through its glorious days as the Motor City, and witnessing the race riots at the end of the 1960s – and beyond. An American epic.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette