Are Your Stories Antifragile?

That’s no typo in this post’s title. Antifragility is a thing, and today I’m discussing the concept as it applies to fictional stories.

In his book Antifragile, Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb asks if there is an antonym of the word “fragile.” If there were such an adjective, he’d say it describes things that become stronger when stressed.

He doesn’t mean words like ‘robust,’ ‘tough,’ or ‘resilient.’ Those words describe things that sustain shocks without damage. He wants to describe things that improve their resistance to stress by being stressed. Lacking a ready word, he coined the term ‘antifragile.’

Can a story be antifragile? To answer that, we should consider the things that impose stresses on stories. These include criticism in negative reviews and mocking satire.

What would it mean for a story to become stronger? If it meant that the story became more widely read, more popular, with increased sales, then an antifragile story would be one that suffers negative reviews or even satire and yet its sales increase.

Are there any such stories? If I recall correctly, Nassim Taleb offered the more popular plays of William Shakespeare as examples. For four centuries, those plays have endured bad reviews and been mocked, but they are performed far more often and in more languages and formats than they were in Shakespeare’s time.

From an author’s point of view, antifragility seems like a wonderful property for a story to have, especially the increasing sales part, right? If you wanted to write an antifragile story, and perhaps lacked the skill of Shakespeare, how would you go about it? Are there tangible attributes of such stories? Is there a checklist to follow?

I hate to disappoint you, but there’s no checklist. Further, the only authors who really understand what it takes to make a story antifragile…well, they’re dead. That’s because stories don’t really demonstrate that property to the greatest extent while the author is alive.

Still, being me, I’ll take a crack at it, because I like a challenge. Here is my proposed checklist for making your stories antifragile:

  1. Create complex and compelling characters. They need to seem real, with strong emotions and motivations, with goals to attain, with difficult inner problems to surmount, and with bedeviling decisions to make.
  2. Appeal to every reader. That may be impossible to achieve in a single story, but in your body of work you should include characters of many types, in diverse settings. Include rich and poor, young and old, introvert and extrovert, city and country, etc.
  3. Explore the eternal truths about the human condition. You know many of these eternal truths—we’re born, we grow up, we have parents, we learn to relate to others and even fall in love, we have disagreements and conflicts with others, we become curious about the nature of our world, we deteriorate with age, and we die. When I say to ‘explore’ these truths, I don’t mean to write a philosophy book. Write a fictional story that entertains, but causes readers to ponder those deeper truths after reading it.
  4. Execute your story with style, flair, and creativity. Yeah, right. Simply do that. This one is hard to implement, but I’ll suggest some thoughts. Look for ways to turn a phrase well. Create a new word that English lacks but needs. Write in a manner that stands out, such that readers could identify your unique voice from a couple of paragraphs chosen randomly from your stories.

Okay, it’s not really a checklist where you mark off each item in turn: done, done, done. It’s more of a guideline with concepts to aim for. Who knows if it’s even accurate? After all, I’m not dead yet (as I write this), so I can’t possibly know.

Still, it’s intriguing to think that one day, readers may consider your stories to be antifragile, and when scholars trace it back, they’ll discover you learned how to do it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Modernizing the Muses

What is the source of creativity? Why are some people creative, and others not as much? To those who aren’t, creative people can seem imbued with magical power, able to see beyond, and to make something out of nothing.

The ancient Greeks judged many such abilities to be god-given, and attributed creativity to the Muses. Later Greek mythology settled on their being nine of them, all goddesses, and all daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Each was an expert in some field or group of related fields. Though a muse might inspire a certain level of skill in a mortal, woe be unto the mortal who dared to challenge a muse herself.

I’ve blogged several times (notably here, here, and here) about muses, since I’m interested in creativity and enjoy the idea of somehow making that mysterious attribute more tangible and understandable. In my own uncreative moments, when stumped for a story idea, I wonder if I’d be more creative if I had a muse figurine. If I stared at such a figurine, would the muse herself inspire me?

Xanadu MusesGuilty pleasure confession: I liked the 1980 movie Xanadu, especially the scene where the nine muses emerge from a wall mural, to the tune of the wonderfully exuberant song “I’m Alive,” by the Electric Light Orchestra.

For today, I thought I’d ponder the various fields mastered by the ancient muses, and see how we would update that and assign modern creative fields to 21st Century muses.

Here are the classical muse job assignments:

Muse Name Domain
Calliope Epic poetry
Clio History
Euterpe Music, Song, and Elegiac Poetry
Erato Lyric poetry
Melpomene Tragedy
Polyhymnia Hymns
Terpsichore Dance
Thalia Comedy
Urania Astronomy

Today, I’m not sure we’d count History or Astronomy as being such creative endeavors as to be each worth having their own muse. Also, I doubt we’d split poetry three ways. Note that prose fiction (my preferred field) is nowhere on the list.

Here’s my initial attempt to modernize the muses, taking into account the different and newer creative endeavors available today:

Muse Name

Domain

Alpha Literary arts (fiction, poetry)
Euphemia Performing arts (music, dance, choreography, theater, movies, singing, comedy)
Idola Visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, interior design)
Mágeira Gastronomy / chef
Polycassandra Multimedia artistic works (comics, video games)

My list has only five, not nine. But even ancient accounts weren’t clear about the number of muses.

I stuck with the idea of giving them Grecian names (or feminized versions of Greek words). Alpha is, of course, the first letter. Euphemia means to speak or declare. Idola means vision. Mágeira is intended to refer to chefs and cooking. Polycassandra is intended to mean manifold helper.

Perhaps in a future blog post I’ll re-examine this list. I might be able to split up their duties in a way to better even out their workload. After all, Idola and Euphemia would be very busy, compared to Mágeira.

What do you think? Have I left out any creative fields of endeavor worthy of inclusion? Is there a better way to organize the assignments? In the task of modernizing the muses, it’s time for you to get creative and to out-do—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Don’t Refuse Your Muse

Is your brain in a rut? If so, you’re not alone. Today I’ll examine this tendency and suggest what you can do about it.

For all its desirable features, the human brain suffers from a love of the familiar and a fear of the unknown. This served as a good survival trait for our ancestors in their world, but it’s no advantage for a writer today.

Dont refuse museThis hard-wired preference probably prevents many people from becoming writers in the first place, since that can be a scary unknown. Even for those of you who’ve chosen to writers, this unfortunate brain feature keeps you using the same vocabulary words, writing about the same topics in the same genres, writing stories with the same themes and using very similar characters. It thwarts your creative urge, putting you at war with your muse.

As I’ve said before, your muse gets bored with the familiar and seeks the new and fresh. She grabs your arm and pulls you away from the safe and the known, beckoning you to explore the untrodden path. Her brain is wired in a different way.

Perhaps you disagree, thinking you don’t suffer from the malady I’ve described. You deny being a creature of habit who rushes to the familiar and avoids the unknown. Fine. Here’s your test. Tonight, before going to bed, hide your toothbrush. Let’s see how Mr. or Ms. Creativity handles things the next morning. Good luck!

For a great illustration of the problem, I encourage you to read “The Calf Path” by Sam Walter Foss. This poem paints an amusing metaphor of how our brains work.

Advertising Director Gina Sclafani wrote about dealing with the phenomenon. I find it interesting how she thought at first the task would be easy, since she prided herself on being open-minded. Then she well describes the difficulty, the inner resistance, to any steps outside the mind’s comfort zone. In the end, she’s glad she did, because the rewards are great, but she warns it is a journey pitting one part of your mind against a powerful counteracting part.

Here’s a three-step method you could try as a writer to push yourself out of your comfort zone. I’ll illustrate it with story genres, but it could also work with characters, themes, settings, style, or any aspect of story-writing in which you’re stuck.

1. Make a list of story genres you’d never consider writing about. Include the ones you find stupid, abhorrent, unseemly, etc. It’s no big deal, right? After all, you’re never going to write in any of these genres.

2. Spend five to ten minutes thinking through each genre on your list. Think about each one as follows: “I’ll never write in this genre, of course, but if I were to do so, here’s the story I’d write…”   You needn’t write down any of these ideas, just think through them.

3. Now let some time pass. A few days, weeks, or even months. This allows your muse to do her thing. You might well find she’s yanking on your arm and leading you down an unfamiliar path toward writing in one of those unwanted genres.

A similar thing happened to me. I knew I’d never write in the horror genre. Then I noticed a publisher seeking stories for an anthology to be called Dead Bait. I dismissed it, but my muse didn’t. She worked on the idea for a story she made me write called “Blood in the River.” I’m still not a horror story writer, but it felt good to get out of the comfort zone.

One final thought. At one point in their lives, each of history’s greatest contributors (think of da Vinci, Shakespeare, Bach, Edison, Einstein, etc.) had to leave a comfort zone in order to develop his or her eventual talents. Imagine the loss to mankind if one of them hadn’t taken that step? What if you could become a popular, successful, or timeless writer if only you stretch your mind in a direction it doesn’t want to go?

You’ll have to excuse me. This calf-path I’m walking along is nice, but some woman wearing a chiton is tugging at my sleeve. “What’s that? Where? But that’s off the path and looks terrifying to—

                                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe”

10 Reasons You Really Are Good Enough to Write Fiction

Perhaps you have a story inside you, but you feel too scared or intimidated or inadequate to believe you could ever write fiction.  Here are some ways to banish those feelings.

First, there are at least three levels of fiction-writing.  (1) These days you can write and publish something yourself without an editor, at near zero cost.  (2) You can get your writing accepted by a publisher, but not make enough money to live on.  (3) You can write fiction as your sole means of support.  I’ll limit myself to discussing level (2) today.

Never be a writerTrue, some people aren’t cut out to be writers at all.  My purpose today is to keep you from cutting yourself out of the running at the start.  Let’s look at ways you might think you’re not fit to be a writer:

  1. I just know I could never be a writer.  Where is your resistance to writing coming from?  Do you immediately think “I could never do that” when presented with other opportunities in life?  Maybe this isn’t about writing at all, but your general negativity toward trying new activities.  How many amazing human initiatives haven’t happened because somebody said, “I could never do that,” hmm?
  2. I don’t know anything about writing.  Don’t let this stop you.  That’s the part you can get help with, through critique groups, writing courses, books about writing, writing conferences, etc.
  3. I’d never write as well as [insert your favorite famous author’s name here].  Stop comparing yourself to the great authors.  You can’t know today how you’ll stack up against them one day.  So what if you’re not quite as good?  You can still get published and win over some readers.
  4. I’m unknown, and people only read books by known authors.  Think about it; all published authors started off unknown.  What if your favorite author had talked herself or himself out of writing?
  5. No editor will read my stories because I’m unpublished.  Not true.  Consider that latching on to a new, undiscovered top talent is every publisher’s dream.  All they need is one (you?) to make their career.
  6. Novels seem so hard to write.  No need to begin with a novel.  Try a novella, a short story, flash fiction.  Do blog posts for a while.
  7. My teacher told me I’d never be a writer.  Is one long-ago English or Language Arts teacher still in your head criticizing you?  Keep that teacher in your mind, but dedicate yourself to showing how wrong he or she was; sweet revenge will be yours one day.
  8. My story idea seems trite, or already used, etc.  At this point your idea is just a story concept; it might match hundreds of already-published stories.  Once you flesh it out and write it down, it becomes uniquely yours, different from all others, and possibly publishable.
  9. It takes too long to write a story.  True, writing takes time.  But, of all the skills and abilities you’ve developed in life, how many did you master in a day?  Let the strength of your story idea sustain you.  If it’s truly grabbed you, you’ll persevere until you write it all down.
  10. I couldn’t stand being rejected or getting a bad review.  That does stink, no denying it.  Any creative endeavor requires a thick skin.  Look at editor’s rejections as permissions to send your story elsewhere.  As for bad reviews, remember it’s far easier to be the critic.  At the worst, the reviewer may actually have a valid point you can use to improve your writing for the next story.

See?  You are good enough to at least try being a writer.  Shake off those negative emotions.  Let your imagination soar.  Allow yourself to try it out.  Someday, when you’re a famous author, be sure and give partial credit to—

                                                Poseidon’s Scribe

November 17, 2013Permalink

Inspiration, Bronzed

As a writer, where do you get your inspiration?  To what or whom do you appeal for the creativity you need?

I have a strange confession to make.  Every weekday, I happen to walk by a statue.  Rather than just glance at it, I make a silent wish that the spirit of the man represented will imbue me with the creativity and talent I need for whatever story I’m working on at the time.

Silly?  Perhaps.  But you have to admit there’s something about statues.  At the U.S. Naval Academy, there’s a statue representing the figurehead of the old USS Delaware, a chief of the Delaware tribe the midshipmen call “Tecumseh.”  The midshipman toss pennies at the statue as a wish for good luck in upcoming examinations.

statue_john_philip_sousaBut the statue I pass by twice daily is different.  It’s a representation of the American composer, the director of the Marine Corps Band, the ‘March King,’ John Philip Sousa.  The statue’s pedestal bears the only word necessary, “Sousa,” though in my ritual, I call it J.P.  The sculptor captured him in the act of directing, left hand pointing to a section of the band, right hand gripping the raised baton, head tilted as he enjoys the music.

How, you’re asking yourself, can a writer draw inspiration from a statue of a music composer?  For one thing, there are no statues of writers along the path I walk.  Secondly, composing music has much in common with writing.  Music, they say, is the language of the soul.  Both require creativity and both demand years for the talent to develop.

I’ve blogged before about the benefit of tangible symbols to use for motivation.  If you can come to see the symbol as urging you towards betterment, prodding you to sit in the chair and write, exhorting you to be as good at writing fiction as you can be, then it will always be there for you, a steady and unchanging inspiration.

Do you have a statue or other symbol you use for motivation?  Let me know.  Do you think the whole idea is crazy, that it’s the height of foolishness to assume a statue has the power to grant fiction-writing prowess if one only pleads to it?  Leave me a comment.  In the meantime, many thanks to J.P. for being a great inspiration to—

                                                           Poseidon’s Scribe