Brow-raising, lip twitching and fingernail biting. Yeah.

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My characters’ eyebrows are very mobile. They raise, lower, arc, meet. One goes up, the other down. It’s an issue, one my CPs and beta readers take glee in excoriating me over.

I can’t help it! In real life I’m always paying attention to non-verbal communication, but there are only so many ways to describe non-verbal cues in a novel. I fully I admit it gets old, all the eyebrow raising, lip twitching and finger fiddling.

When it comes to “face-to-face” interaction, there is so much to be gained by paying close attention to non-verbal communication. I watched an episode of Vikings with my son not long ago, and there was a scene that was almost silent. There were a few words (none terribly memorable), but the non-verbal communication between the characters, and more importantly, toward the audience, was crystal clear. At least it was to me.

My son didn’t infer nearly as much as I did, which illustrates the dangers of depending on non-verbal cues. 1) Someone has to actually pay attention to non-verbal language, and then 2) they have to interpret it exactly how the writer/director/actor meant it. Which can be tricky.

Take, for example, a tense interview on a news magazine. The subject is sitting there unable to make solid eye contact with the interviewer. AHA! I say. Look at that liar! But what looks to me like nervous lying may be something else entirely. Maybe the subject’s eyes are darting about because the interviewer’s got something large and unsightly hanging around her nostril, and if the subject doesn’t look away, he knows he’ll only stare at that ONE spot. How would I, the viewer know? The answer, of course, is I can’t. I’m making assumptions, sometimes judgements.  The interpretation of non-verbal communication will always, always be subject to interpreter bias.

As a writer, this is important to keep in mind. Obviously, novel-writing (graphic novels excepted) is not a visual medium, but I, for one, do want readers to “see” my stories play out in their minds. With nothing for the eyes to interpret, though, non-verbal cues in writing have an added layer of obfuscation. Beyond interpreter bias, we are dependent on the reader to imagine what the writer describes.

Some cues lend themselves to visualizing better than others, which is why they tend to be the overused ones. Eyebrows go up, eyebrows go down. It’s relatively universal that when brows are lowered, it’s a negative. Scorn or anger, perhaps puzzlement. I’ve yet to see or read of lowered brows indicating joy or happiness. But let’s say I write, “His brows lowered, and the corner of his lip seemed to have developed a tic.” Is the character mad? Disgusted? About to start crying? It could be any of those things, and of course, context matters. But  sometimes the more you, the author, say, the less clear it gets.

The use of non-verbal communication in writing is very much tied to the “show, don’t tell” mantra. It’s also a word burner. A writer friend and I were conversing online and I sent an emoticon. This one: >;-| She called it “winky disdain,” which I thought was brilliant. Two words to describe it perfectly. But if I were to use this facial expression in my story, I’d probably blather on trying to be more specific: “…one eye squinted under lowered brows, her lips pressed flat…” TEN words. Here is the danger. I prefer the ten-word description, to maximize my chances that you, the reader, will see it the same way I do. In fact, if I use so many words, you damn well better see it the same way I do. Otherwise I’ve wasted 8 precious words. But I can’t guarantee it, can I? I could have used “winky disdain” and left it up to your interpretation, and many, many skillful writers do exactly this.

I’m a “visual” reader, so when I write, I do a lot of trying to manage what the reader “sees.” Thus my [over-]dependence on eyebrows. For now, my CPs and betas will have to keep admonishing me while I search for the happy medium, one that involves just the right balance of word-burning imagery and verbal efficiency.

“One of these days I hope I’ll figure it out,” she said, her lip wobbling.

May the Sun Shine Eternally Upon You, Maya Angelou

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Maya_Angelou_Disc2000I think it was an ABA meeting I attended with my husband. There is always a sort of convocation opening event. We were in a large auditorium and the guest speaker was Maya Angelou. It was one of the periods where she was quite out front and public, and so I’d been exposed to her quite a bit. I really looked forward to hearing her.

But the reality…well, I couldn’t have anticipated it, and I’ll never forget it. I’d never sat in such a large room and felt that the speaker was addressing me directly. Such was the power of her delivery, and of her words. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one to feel that way. She drew us into her circle from the first sentence, as if to say, “Here, let me tell you something,” and like curious children, we all bent forward.

She spoke of morality, of right and wrong, and the gargantuan effect one human can have upon another with only the smallest gesture. She shared her own hard-won wisdom with grace and humor—oh, her humor, her laugh—and the most astonishingly compelling voice. When she finished I was distraught. I didn’t want it to end.

I will always count the experience as one of the seminal moments of my life. One of those moments when your eyes are opened to things, people, places you would otherwise never, ever have seen. I’m forever grateful to have brushed against Ms. Angelou, even metaphorically, from my auditorium seat far away.

 

Photo attribution: By Rick Lewis, NPS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Heartbleeding Frustration

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This Heartbleed thing has my panties in a bunch. 

 

By Fwaaldijk [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Fwaaldijk [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

As a writer, I’m a fan of good communication, and I cannot for the life of me understand why I haven’t received the slightest notification from the companies I deal with who have been affected by Heartbleed. I’m talking to you in particular, Google. I have three gmail addresses: one accidental, one because Verizon made me do it, and one for my writerly things. But none of those addresses has contained a note from my provider.

Problem is, Google can ignore its users. It’s not like there’s going to be a mass exodus from Gmail. The number of Gmail addresses worldwide is huge. In June of 2012, Google announced Gmail had 425 million monthly active users. Google houses about 13 % of the world’s email addresses, and while that may not sound like a lot, when one company controls that much real estate in cyber-space, they’re pretty much an empire.  With one short and informative email, Google could notify more than 425 million users, “Hey, there’s this Heartbleed thing. Our secure servers have a hole. But DON’T DO ANYTHING YET. We have to fix the hole first, then we’ll let you know when it’s safe to change your password. We owe it to you for unwittingly being party to threatening your security.” They don’t even have to take any blame.

But emperors don’t do such things.

Instead we get…silence. Not even crickets. Just…nothing.

Google and all the others can tell themselves everyone’s heard about Heartbleed from their local nightly news, or on various websites that have been getting this story out—Thank you Mashable!—or around the water cooler at the office They can say Ah, we’d just be bothering our customers, or decide it’s up to the customers to inform themselves, or fret that they shouldn’t say anything until they have a solution in place.

I’ll tell you though, the ostrich approach to customer service rarely works, folks. Just ask Target. As a user, what the failure to communicate does is remind me that my interactions with the companies who claim to want me as a customer are one way streets. Google can put ads on the baby videos I post on YouTube, they can cruise my email contacts and spam me to expand my Google+ interactions, but tell me about a problem that affects my cyber-security? No, that won’t happen.

I suppose it’s good for me, then, this Heartbleed. Bumps me out of my naiveté. Makes me do some thinking about who I really want to be doing business with. It is my choice, after all.

But because Google houses so many of the world’s email addresses, and because it bills itself as forward thinking, I feel especially scornful toward their customer disservice. Still, they’re far from the only culprit. I haven’t heard from Facebook or Twitter either, nor a bank I use, nor Yahoo, Turbo Tax or you, WordPress.

An honest email saying “We’re aware of it, we’re assessing our vulnerability and we’ll keep you posted.” would go a long way toward maintaining customer loyalty. Google tells Mashable its customers don’t need to change passwords but better safe than sorry. Huh. Guess they couldn’t tell me themselves.

If you can search my contact list, you know where I am, Google. Drop me a note some day, would ya? I’d love to hear from you.