Curiosità

Some time ago, I promised to write seven separate blog posts, one for each of the principles espoused in How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci, by Michael J. Gelb. I said I’d relate them to writing fiction. This is the first post in that series.

how-to-think-like-leonardo-da-vinci-160x197The first principle is Curiosità, which Gelb defines as “an insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for continuous learning.” He discusses Leonardo’s curiosity and provides worthwhile exercises for developing your own inquisitiveness. (I encourage you to buy his book and to work through the exercises.)

Fiction writers must have boatloads of curiosity. They must ponder things like:

  • CuriositaWhat is the meaning of life?
  • Why do people behave as they do?
  • What do readers want from books?
  • What is the meaning and origin of this or that interesting word?
  • How do I improve my writing?
  • What would happen I twisted this real-world situation around differently?
  • What would that setting be like?
  • How would my protagonist act in this situation?
  • etc…

On and on forever. Moreover, each answer sparks five more questions.

Curiosity is something you once had, then lost, and now must strive to regain. When you were four or five years old, you were intensely, ravenously curious. You barely had the language skills to form questions, but you asked hundreds of them. We all did, at that age. We especially liked questions starting with “why.”

Then older people and life experiences supplied answers. Some adults told you religion had your answers; some said science did; some said both. They gave you books to read, hoping to satisfy you.

Some answers discouraged further inquiry. Few answers satisfied you at first, but later you came to accept, to believe. You learned societal taboos and sensitive areas. You tamped down your curiosity and asked fewer questions.

Lately, you’ve grown accustomed to the Internet and search engines. If you have a question about something, you type it in. Out pops (what you believe is) the correct answer, courtesy of your magical answer machine.

Things have changed since Leonardo’s time, you say. These days we have instant answers to every question; we don’t really need to be curious. There’s no point in it.

When I hear that, my curious mind can only ask: Really? Why? How do you know?

I advise you, as a writer, to reclaim some of your childhood curiosity, for two reasons.

First, we do not yet live in an age with all questions answered. Every day, someone uncovers facts that overturn a thing that “everybody knows.” Take any single thing you can name, anything, and decide to become an expert in it. Explore it, study it, read source material, visit the sites. You’ll soon explode a myth or two about your chosen subject; you’ll shift a paradigm; you’ll find out that what everybody knows just ain’t so. Despite what it says on the Internet.

Far from having all questions answered, we still live in humanity’s infancy. We are ignorant—monumentally, staggeringly ignorant. Worse, we don’t know how much we don’t know, and we truly know a lot less than we think we know.

The other reason I advise you to reinvigorate your curiosity is that it is precisely the questions that authors are really exploring in fiction—the deeper, thematic ones—for which the answers remain most elusive. How do I live a good and worthwhile life? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of love?

If you aspire to write great fiction, think like Leonardo da Vinci. Embrace Curiosità. Ask questions. Many, many questions.

But there is no need to question the wisdom of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Writing Blurbs

Whether readers buy books online or in a bookstore, they look at the cover first and the blurb second. If the blurb doesn’t grab them, they move on. Don’t kill that sale with a bad blurb.

BlurbA blurb is defined as a short description of your book, written for promotional purposes and appearing on the back cover. That definition sucks all the life out of the word, though. Scratch out “written for promotional purposes” and substitute “written to seize the prospective reader’s attention and imbed an irresistible desire to possess the book and read every word.”

My primary publisher, Gypsy Shadow Publishing, asks for two blurbs for each book—a long one that’s less than 150 words, and a short one no longer than 25 words. Both of these are difficult for me to write, but the short blurb is the toughest.

What should be in a blurb?

  • Hint at the plot or main conflict.
  • Name and mention distinguishing trait of main character(s).
  • Describe the setting or ‘world.’ This is vital in science fiction and fantasy.
  • If available, include quotes about this book or your previous books.
  • If space available, include an author bio.

How do you write one?

  • Study other book blurbs in your genre. Learn the common words and language.
  • Write a summary of your book (if not done already), then shorten it down to its essence. What’s the book’s “elevator speech?”
  • Use image-laden words, those powerful words that speak to readers of the book’s genre.
  • Ensure the tone of the blurb matches that of the book.
  • Write several blurbs and combine the best features.
  • Set it aside for a few days, then read it again. If meh, rewrite.
  • Ask your critique group to comment on it. You are in a critique group, right?

Further Reading

You can find out even more about blurbs from Amy Wilkins, Marilynn Byerly, and the master of writer advice, Joanna Penn. I’ve shamelessly stolen from them in writing this post.

Examples

Here are three of the 25-word blurbs from my most recent books. These don’t contain all the elements noted above, but the 150-word, lengthier versions do:

  • Ripper’s Ring:” The ancient Ring of Gyges grants the power of invisibility to Jack the Ripper. A Scotland Yard detective tracks a killer who can’t be seen.
  • Time’s Deformèd Hand:” Time for zany mix-ups in a clock-obsessed village. Long-separated twins, giant automatons, and Shakespeare add to the madcap comedy. Read it before it’s too late!
  • The Cometeers:” A comet threatens Earth…in 1897! Of the six men launched by cannon to deflect it, one is a saboteur. It’s steampunk Armageddon!

With some practice and creativity, your blurbs should be even better than any written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Dumped in the Middle of the Road

You’re reading along down the story highway, racing through action scenes, taking the dialogue curves at a good clip, the wind of the story’s world in your hair. All of a sudden, a truck up ahead upends its load and a pile of text pours onto the pavement, right in your path.

You’ve been stalled by an infodump.

Infodump

You come to a stop to decide what to do. You could plow right through it at slow speed, but you hate that. You could drive around, avoiding it entirely, but some of that text might be necessary to understand the story. If you’re in an angry mood, you could forget the whole book and move on.

An Infodump is one of the Turkey City Lexicon terms. It refers to a passage of text used to explain things and give background information to the reader. It can be one paragraph, or go on for several pages. It’s most common in science fiction and fantasy, where the story’s world is unlike our own, and you need to immerse the reader in it.

From a writer’s perspective, it seems so necessary to convey that information. The reader needs to understand certain things so later events in the story make sense. Many of the great writers of the past used infodumps; Herman Melville spent whole chapters that way, and it hasn’t hurt his sales. Oh, perhaps the writer could think of clever ways to work the information into the story, but who has time for that?

Better make time, you Twenty-First Century Writer, because readers these days don’t want to slow down and plow through your dump.

Here are some techniques:

  1. Delete it. What does that info add to your story, anyway? Do readers really need to know it? Are you dumping that load to help reads understand, or to show off your research or add credibility? If you can delete it, do so. If you can delete most of it, do that, and use other techniques to convey the rest.
  1. Work it into dialogue. Readers speed through your characters’ dialogue pretty fast, so inserting some of your infodump into their speech is one way to avoid slowing readers down. Caution: there’s danger here. You must not swerve into the As You Know, Bob lane. Make sure the dialogue is realistic as well as explanatory.
  1. Work it into the action. By ‘action’ I don’t necessarily mean fight scenes or car chases, but any passages where characters are doing things, moving about, or actively interacting with their environment or each other. It’s characterized by action verbs. It can be interspersed with dialogue, and often serves as a ‘dialogue tag,’ letting the reader know which character is speaking.
  1. Make it entertaining. If you can turn those smelly tons of interfering text into pure, golden fun, readers will actually enjoy the interruption. By ‘entertaining,’ I don’t necessarily mean funny, but humor is a great way to accomplish this, if you can pull it off. This method calls for considerable creativity and skill.
  1. Make it short. As a last resort, keep the infodump, but reduce its length. Readers may forgive a short, explanatory passage here and there.

I struggle with infodumps in my fiction, but it’s important to eliminate them where possible. Dump trucks are fine in real life, but when they drop their load in the middle of your story’s road, it really ticks off your readers. Not good.

Doing my part to beautify the nation’s literary highways and byways, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Read Your Story Aloud — 10 Reasons Why

It’s vital to read your story aloud before submitting the manuscript for publication. You may consider that a waste of time, since you can Reading Aloudread the story silently to yourself more easily, and because silent reading is the way most readers will experience your work as well.

I contend you really should take the time for reading aloud, and for making that technique one of your final editing methods. For several of the reasons below, I’m indebted to Joanna Penn.

  • After reading your story silently several times, reading aloud will give you the different perspective of the spoken word, enabling a more thorough edit.
  • You’ll find it easier to spot story inconsistencies and plot continuity problems.
  • With this different style of reading, you’ll find the typos and punctuation errors you skipped over earlier.
  • You’ll hear more readily if your story’s dialogue is realistic or forced.
  • The need to breathe when speaking will aid you in identifying overlong sentences.
  • You’ll have an improved sense of whether you’re building tension effectively.
  • By timing your reading, you’ll know how long the audiobook or podcast version of your story will be.
  • You’ll find right away if you have any tongue-twisting phrases or words that sound jarring when juxtaposed.
  • By saying words aloud, you’ll likely have a better notion of which ones to emphasize by italicizing.
  • You’ll better hear the rhythms of the words and sentences, the cadences of your story, and might identify edits to make them flow better.

You might be thinking you’ll have a friend read your story to you, or get a software program to read the text aloud, while you just listen and let the words wash over you. I advise against that and recommend you read the story with your voice, letting the words tumble from your own lips. Both speaking and listening will give you a stronger mental connection with the story than mere listening would.

If you’re one of the few writers who doesn’t regularly employ this technique, I recommend you join the majority. It will improve the quality of your stories, and that guarantee is straight from the mouth of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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