A good friend and regular reader, Anthony, sent me the link to a great anonymous blog a few weeks ago – Farnam Street.
Yesterday, they pointed to a brilliant set of rules on how to write a short story by Kurt Vonnegut:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
There is another video which is even more worth watching on the Shape of Stories:
It got me thinking about how we all love stories, the ups and downs of life, the drama unfolding, the game(s), the chase, the great ending!
Please share any insights or thoughts you have on this great subject below!
I had a meeting early yesterday morning at the Frontline Club in Paddington. As I was leaving, some NHS folk were outside the entrance to St Mary’s Hospital demonstrating and making a noise. I did not go up to them and chat – I just took a picture. The window in the top left corner is where Sir Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin. As I walked away, I wondered what Fleming would have thought of all the noise?
I headed off to have lunch with an old friend at a restaurant in Paternoster Square – just by St Paul’s. It was a good lunch – and surprisingly crowded (when I had been told that all the traders in Paternoster Square had nearly gone out of business). After lunch, I had a bit of time before my next appointment, so I decided to walk from St Paul’s down to Victoria.
I could only leave Paternoster Square by one exit – which was the one I came in on. Normally crowded with tourists and city folk, the square has been blockaded in by a squad of policemen and other less official-looking people who seem to be from the tented camp of the Occupy Movement.
I was surprised to see the tented camp still pitched around St Pauls. I wondered how long they will hang on out there (particularly now the weather is turning)? Still, give the Occupy St Paul’s encampment some credit, they were pretty well organised and all seemed quite peaceful.
As I walked down towards The Aldwich, the whole of Fleet Street had been blocked by police cars, police vans and trucks with large sandbags. It was a very strange atmosphere which I later realised was the end of the TUC march down the embankment.
A bit further on some folk were clearing barriers and a strange tent-like contraption came around the corner that posed for some TV cameras. The banner said “Occupy Everywhere” obscuring the sign for the Royal Courts of Justice. And it got me thinking.
With the world’s population recently increasing to over 7,000,000,000 people (or 7bn for short), in a strange way, we DO occupy everywhere already! That’s the problem! And we aren’t doing too well at organising ourselves to reduce the population size. And there are now so many people getting heated up about all the problems that the planet itself is heating up more than we anticipated a few years ago.
So what’s to be done? The politicians can’t seem to fix it. The international banks and muti-national companies can’t seem to fix it. The Occupy Movement doesn’t seem to be fixing it. Yet we continue with the old patterns of marching, demonstrating (for pensions that will never appear) – and thinking that someone else will fix it.
So whilst we surely do Occupy Everywhere already, we need better ways to occupy ourselves so we all feel a sense of purpose and usefulness – without having to rely on the consumer-centric values that have held the Western world together for the past 50 years.
Interesting times. Not sure anyone has the answer. But I am sure we will work it out somehow! After all, Fleming discovered Penicillin by going on holiday. The story goes that some tropical medicine folk were researching on the floor below and penicillin floated up to his labs whilst he was away. Strange things happen when you bring diverse ideas together and go on holiday. Can’t wait for the Christmas break!
We have all had it. That frustrating blankness that hits you when you want to write something. Those who know me, know that I have been trying to write a book on bees since 1986. I am not sure if this is worthy of an entry in the Guinness Book of Records – but this work of art has been a long time in the womb!
Coincidentally today, I had an extraordinarily energetic meeting brainstorming out a new marketing strategy for a company. We really got “in the flow”. At the end of the meeting I had to take 5 minutes out just to re-tune to normality. One of the people at the meeting started talking about left-brained and right-brained thinking – and pointed me to the work and theories of Gabriele Rico. Gabrielle has written a book that has sold over 500,000 copies called “Writing the Natural Way”.
On investigating the theories, I was struck by how similar they are to many of the methods I use in my work. I use Spider Diagrams or Mind Maps a lot to brainstorm-out ideas – and then clump or cluster them into patterns or blocks of ideas – before finally looking for a natural sequence or flow that works well for the problem set in question. I really liked Gabriele’s names for the two sides of the brain – “Sign Mind” and “Design Mind“. Sign mind (left hemisphere) thinks linearly, parts-specifically, logically, one step at a time, while the Design mind (right hemisphere) thinks in whole patterns, drawing on images, emotional webs, sensory patterns, as in a memory that suddenly flashes into consciousness as a complex whole. So similar to the attributes missing in the Organisational Caetextia article I wrote with Mark Richards last year.
So it got me thinking – why don’t I actually use this very effective technique to help me write the book? And it made me realise that my my work and other activities at home are so time-consuming that the real issue wasn’t so much writers block, but time deficiency! Although I have already created the chapters, the themes, the plot, I just need to sit down and write. But I am not a natural writer. I prefer telling stories aloud. I prefer drawing pictures. Anything but writing. Gabrielle’s theory says I should be using my right brain (or Design Mind) first – and then start writing…
Actually, this problem is really why I started to blog. Because I thought: if I write regularly in small chunks about things that interest me, then I hope to overcome this writer’s block that I have. I set up another blog – http:/beelore.com – a few years ago. And it really does seem to work – this blogging thing. Little and often is better than being blocked and producing nothing at all.
Which means that I don’t currently plan to finish the book – because by the time I have done everything else, I actually don’t want to find the time to write the book.
I would rather work, play and blog; and go with the flow. For the moment – anyway. Than write a massive book. On bees. That probably few will read. And certainly not over 500,000! The rough numbers that read Gabriele’s book!
In fact I called beelore a “blook” – sort of cross of a book and a blog. So maybe I havn’t got writer’s block…..I have simply replaced it with a new age, Web 2.0 writer’s blook!
Last night I went to see the Clint Eastwood directed movie – Hereafter. I thoroughly enjoyed it as I had a near-death experience in the 1980s – and it sang true to many of the things that happened to me at the time – but which I have not really been able to articulate since.
The ironic thing was that I had attended a parents evening the night before and found that my son was struggling with his History and English essay writing. I took my son out to dinner before the film and explained to him that when I sit down to write something of any length, I always do it back-to-front. “Begin with the end in mind”. That sort of thing. I also use this very powerful tool in the work that I do. Some call it envisioning. I call it “Back-to-Front” Thinking. I then thread the important threads through the storyline to create drama, interest and tensions that get resolved at the end (which I have already written). I am no great writer – but I find this technique is so powerful, it has allowed me to express my ideas much better than any technique I was taught at school. I suppose in tech-speak it is like reverse engineering….but on original work and not copied from someone else.
Now when we got out of the film, the two pieces fitted so neatly together! The writer of the Hereafter movie, Peter Morgan, must have written the script back-to-front. How else could he have done it?
Like reading a good book, the film has three threads – a man with psychic powers, a woman writer-journalist who lives a near-death experience and a young boy who….well I don’t want to give too much away! The three threads dance through the film until they resolve each other’s tensions and stories at the end. What good movie or book doesn’t?
So back to Homework. I wondered why I was never taught this technique at school? I think of all the painful experiences where I had to sit down and write – without being told how it important it is to design before doing? I wonder why we don’t talk about the “how” of the structure to produce fine art – and make it much easier for young folk to succeed in what is really quite a simple technique.
Thinking of the UK government and the UK economy, I wonder if it is time for a bit of back-to-front thinking there too?
At the end of the week where Julian Assange was locked up and everyone has been commenting on the value (or threat) of Wikileaks, I thought I would reflect on what I see is going on here.
Assange is a deep thinker – perhaps even an Autistic Savant.
In researching the subject I came across a quote which summarises what Assange is trying to do with Wikileaks (from piece of writing (via) (via):
“To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.”
Julian Assange, “State and Terrorist Conspiracies”
It struck me that Julian Assange’s reasoning above was very similar to some of the ideas of another great thinker of our time – Chris Argyris.
I often use Argyris’ ideas (particularly single loop and double loop learning) in the work that I do – and I know that they have helped many others in creating effective change over the past fifty or so years.
For those who are interested, there is a good summary of Argyris’ work HERE.
Basically, Argyris outlines two two models – Model I (Single Loop Learning Organisation) and Model II (Double Loop Learning Organisation) to highlight the potential for organisational learning:
The governing Values of Model I (Single Loop Learning) are:
Achieve the purpose as the actor (or boss) defines it
Win, do not lose
Suppress negative feelings
Primary Strategies are:
Control environment and task unilaterally
Protect self and others unilaterally
Usually operationalised by:
Unillustrated attributions and evaluations e.g.. “You seem unmotivated”
Advocating courses of action which discourage inquiry e.g.. “Lets not talk about the past, that’s over.”
Treating ones’ own views as obviously correct
Making covert attributions and evaluations
Face-saving moves such as leaving potentially embarrassing facts unstated
Low freedom of choice
Reduced production of valid information
Little public testing of ideas
Most of the larger organisations that I consult with exhibit many, if not most of these Model I characteristics and I am sure that most governments around the world are not that much different. It is not unsurprising, therefore, that the current concerns over the latest Wikileaks are clouded in language that is imprecise and have overtones of Julian Assange being a “traitor” as well as the actions of Wikileaks being seen to be threatening to existing command and control establishments.
Aristotle had a similar set of ideas in his ethics.
He differentiated between technical thinking and practical thinking and the similarities with Argyris and Schön are striking…
“The former (technical thinking) involves following routines and some sort of preset plan – and is both less risky for the individual and the organization, and affords greater control.
The latter (practical thinking) is more creative and reflexive, and involves consideration notions of the good. Reflection here is more fundamental: the basic assumptions behind ideas or policies are confronted… hypotheses are publicly tested… processes are disconfirmable not self-seeking….”
So, in one sense, the Wikileaks drama is acting-out an age-old problem: How can we rise above the inadequacies of what Aristotle called “technical thinking“ within an organisational system and encourage more “practical (or ethical) thinking”. This is what Argyris called the attributes of Model I organisations and what Assange calls “the aspect(s) of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove”.
Aristotle’s view was that the development of “practical wisdom” cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules. We must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion.
Interesting. Try and explain those ideas to someone with autism…
So enough of the analysis. What makes an effective learning organisation?
Argyris cites the following attributes for a Model II organisation:
The governing values of Model II (Double Loop Learning) include:
Free and informed choice
Participation in design and implementation of action
Attribution and evaluation illustrated with relatively directly observable data
Surfacing conflicting view
Encouraging public testing of evaluations
Consequences should include:
Minimally defensive relationships
High freedom of choice
Increased likelihood of double-loop learning
Which brings us back to Julian Assange and Wikileaks. It is clear, for me, that Assange’s has developed a reasoned approach to changing the attributes of what might be called Big Government and Big Business. The main question for me, is, could he be more effective? Has he created his own Model I organisation to effect the changes he outlines he wants to achieve? Or is Wikileaks a new model II organisation for journalism that uses the internet to help change the belief system of the organisations that information is leaked about?
Argyris & Schön (Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley) say that change only comes through a collaboration between the change agent or interventionist and the Model 1 organisation. They suggests moving through six phases of work:
Mapping the problem as clients see it.This includes the factors and relationships that define the problem, and the relationship with the living systems of the organisation.
The internalization of the map by clients. Through inquiry and confrontation the interventionists work with clients to develop a map for which clients can accept responsibility. However, it also needs to be comprehensive.
Test the model. This involves looking at what ‘testable predictions’ can be derived from the map – and looking to practice and history to see if the predictions stand up. If they do not, the map has to be modified.
Invent solutions to the problem and simulate them to explore their possible impact.
Produce the intervention.
Study the impact.This allows for the correction of errors as well as generating knowledge for future designs. If things work well under the conditions specified by the model, then the map is not disconfirmed.
Given that most of the work that I do is, in one way or another, trying to deliver effective (and collaborative) change, I wonder whether the latest developments in the Wikileaks drama will become the most effective way to use modern internet technology to bring about the changes so vitally needed in this world to challenge the corruption, waste and continuation of so many Model I organisations…..
…….or whether there is another, better, more effective internet-based Type II model which creates a collaboration between the change agents and the Model I organisations to make the change happen more quickly and effectively….
I suppose only time (and more thinking and action) will tell……