Together, you and I have arrived at the end of this seven-part series of posts. We’ve been working our way through the principles in Michael J. Gelb’s wonderful book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. For each principle, we’ve been exploring how it relates to fiction writing.

The last principle is Connessione: a recognition and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena—systems thinking.

ConnessioneLeonardo had a fascination with the connections between things. He’d study how a tossed stone caused expanding circular ripples in water. He wrote, “The earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird resting upon it.” His notebooks were a disorganized, chaotic stream of consciousness, as if his mind would flit from one thing to a seemingly unrelated thought. In a strange echoing of what we might consider Eastern philosophy, he wrote: Everything comes from everything, and everything is made out of everything, and everything returns into everything.”

In what ways should a writer of fiction embrace the principle of Connessione? Here are some that occur to me:

  • When you’re thinking of plot ideas for stories to write, look for separate ideas from the world around you and connect them. To pick just three examples of this, consider how Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series combines the ideas of TV reality shows and war; how Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein combines Tarzan, Jesus, and Mars; how Herman Melville’s Moby Dick combines whaling and obsession.
  • Think of the interconnections between characters within your stories. For characters A and B there are (at least) four connections: how A feels about B internally, how A behaves toward B externally, and the same internal feelings and external behavior of B toward A. Now imagine three, four, five, or more major characters and convey, in your story, the rich web of interconnectedness between them all. This alone will be the subject of a future blog post.
  • Your stories have an internal, systemic structure. They are a connection of related parts. The chapters (or sections) are themselves composed of scenes, and build on each other to form the integrated whole of the story.
  • The story element of theme is a connection between concrete things in a story to abstract ideas in real life. Similarly, the techniques of metaphor and simile are connections in the form of comparisons—relating something you’re describing in your story to something familiar or understandable to the reader.

See? If you write fiction, you must embrace the notion of Connessione to some extent. In fact, it helps to practice all seven principles— Curiosità, Dimonstrazione, Sensazione, Sfumato, Arte/Scienza, Corporalita, and Connessione. Perhaps you’ll not become as well remembered or universally admired as da Vinci, but you can think like him, and write fiction as he would have. That’s the aim of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

October 11, 2015Permalink


Next in this series of blog posts is a strange one: Sfumato. I’m blogging about how each of the seven principles in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, by Michael J. Gelb, relates to fiction writing. Today I grapple with the fourth principle, Sfumato, a word that means “going up in smoke.”

Gelb’s definition of Sfumato is “a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.” Although most people prefer knowledge, predictability, and clarity, Gelb contends that Leonardo did not shy away from the gray areas, the question marks, the mysterious, and the absurd.

SfumatoDa Vinci painted beautiful things, but also made many drawings of ‘grotesques’ or ugly human faces. His most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, contains mystery after mystery, including the anonymity of its model. Gelb notes that we discern human mood from the corners of the eyes and mouth, but in the Mona Lisa, Leonardo obscured these areas in shadow, deliberately leaving them vague so we are left to wonder whether she smiles or not.

Is Sfumato important for a fiction writer? First, let’s define each of its three aspects:

  • Ambiguity: something that can be understood in more than one way, allowing for more than one interpretation.
  • Paradox: a statement or proposition that, despite apparently sound reasoning, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, illogical, or self-contradictory.
  • Uncertainty: A state of having limited knowledge where it is difficult to choose between two or more alternatives.

Writers make use of ambiguity through symbolism, where one thing may represent something else. Metaphors and similes prove useful to ways to compare the unfamiliar to the familiar, but also leave the story open to interpretation. Often the greatest works of literature contain enough ambiguity to allow generations of critics to argue over meanings.

As for paradox, a writer may employ it for humorous effect, as in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” where a young man thinks he can end his apprenticeship with a band of pirates when he is twenty-one years old, but since he was born on February 29, he’s really only a bit over four. Even when a writer uses paradox in a serious way, it can heighten reader enjoyment by giving the reader something to puzzle over and think about.

Uncertainty is at the center of fiction writing, and comes into play in three levels—the character, the reader, and the writer. Fiction must have conflict, and often it can be an internal conflict for the main character. To heighten the drama of the conflict, it’s necessary to force the character to make a difficult decision. The protagonist’s uncertainty is what makes readers keep on reading.

You must create uncertainty in the mind of the reader as well. If the reader knows what’s coming next, there’s no point in continuing with the story.

How does uncertainty apply to the writer? I believe this has to do with the tone of the prose. A writer should have something to say, and have a level of confidence in the point she or he is trying to make. I didn’t say ‘certainty;’ I said ‘a level of confidence.’ If you believe you possess the ultimate truths of the universe, the universe will prove you wrong. No reader likes a know-it-all, so I urge authors to advance ideas for consideration, not in a manner that closes the door to criticism.

That’s Sfumato. Now, if you find yourself striding with confidence into areas of smoke, of fog, of murkiness and mystery; if you come to enjoy being ambiguously, paradoxically uncertain, you have no one to blame except Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb, and—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 20, 2015Permalink


We’ve come to the third principle in Michael J. Gelb’s remarkable book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. In recent blog posts, I’ve been relating each principle to fiction writers, encouraging you to think like Leonardo as you write.

SensazioneThe third principle is Sensazione, which Gelb defines as “the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.” Leonardo knew that we experience life through our five senses; therefore, only the person who could enhance his or her senses in perception and accuracy could experience life fully.

Da Vinci’s sight and hearing were superb, and he worked to improve all his senses. He regarded sight as the most important, following by hearing.

The exercises in the Sensazione chapter of Think Like Leonardo da Vinci are among the most fun in the book. For example, Gelb suggests you smell and taste things while blindfolded until you can identify each odor and taste, even those with only slight differences.

How does this relate to writing? The Point of View character in your story also experiences life through her or his senses, just as real people do. However, the only way you can convey these sensations to your reader is through words.

I’ve blogged about the senses before, and encouraged you to incorporate all five of them in your stories. To apply Sensazione in your writing, you must choose words that precisely convey the sensations experienced by your POV character.

I don’t necessarily mean you should pile on adjectives like beautiful, pungent, sonorous, delicious, and velvety—or adverb forms. Adjectives (and to a lesser extent, adverbs) can be useful if you’re selective and choose just the most apt one. Some adjectives, like “beautiful” and “delicious” are not distinct; they tell rather than show.

Another method is with metaphors and similes. If you can compare the sensation your character is experiencing with something to which the reader can relate, and make the comparison distinct and descriptive, that’s Sensazione.

As Leonardo knew, sight is the primary sense for humans, and so it will be for your characters most of the time. But if you appeal to the other senses, too, it can only enhance the reader’s enjoyment. Also, there are times when a character’s first sensation is through one of the other senses, such as when a sight line is blocked and the character hears or smells something before seeing it. Your character might be blind, or in darkness, and will have to rely on the other four senses.

If you work to cultivate your senses in your own life, by going through Gelb’s recommended exercises, you should also strive to become more adept at describing each feeling and sensation in words. As your skill improves, readers will be drawn into your stories and connect with your characters’ experiences.

Ah! I see, hear, and smell breakfast being prepared. I’ll have to end this post now, for soon I shall feel the fork in my hand, and a succulent repast will be tasted by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 13, 2015Permalink

15 Writing Virtues

Many people believe you aren’t just stuck with the way you are now, that you can better yourself by persistent act of will.  I’m one of them, but let me just focus on self-help as it applies to the writing of fiction.

Benjamin_Franklin_1767Benjamin Franklin was an early example of someone who developed a program of self-improvement.  His method was to list thirteen virtues along with a brief description, then he would set about to focus on one virtue per week.  Franklin actually kept a log of this, giving himself a black mark on days he fell short.  Presumably, by focusing on one virtue at a time, it did not mean he was abandoning the others during that week.

Examples of his virtues include:

1. Temperance.  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

4. Resolution.  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

In the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues, I’ll offer some virtues of writing fiction.  I’ve grouped them into ‘process’ virtues dealing with how you write, and ‘product’ virtues dealing with aspects of the manuscript itself.

The Poseidon’s Scribe 15 Virtues of Fiction Writing

Process Virtues

1.  ProductivityFill hours with writing, not researching or time-wasting activity.

2.  Focus.  Turn off your inner editor during the first draft.

3.  Humility.  Seek other trusted people to critique your work; be receptive.

4.  Excellence.  Only submit work you’re proud of.

5.  DoggednessBe persistent in submitting to markets; be unshaken by rejections.

Product Virtues.

6.  Relevance.  Ensure your work passes the ‘So What?’ test.

7.  AppealHook readers from the first paragraph.

8.  Engagement.  Put your characters in conflict with something or someone; make the story about conflict resolution.

9.  Empathy.  Create vivid, engaging characters.

10.  Action.  Weave logical, interesting plots with appropriate causes and effects.

11.  Placement.  Provide clear but unobtrusive descriptions of the story setting, without overshadowing character or plot.

12.  Meaning.  Ensure your story’s theme explores eternal human truths.

13.  Style. Seek your own voice, then follow it.

14.  Communication.  Ensure your characters’ dialogue is appropriate and advances the plot.  (Mentioned here, here, and here.)

15.  Skill.  Salt your tales with symbolism and appropriate metaphors.

Your list would likely be different.  One way to go about it is to examine critiques of your fiction you receive from members of your critique group, from editors, etc.  Are there repeated criticisms?  Turn them around and express them as a positive affirmation or goal, not as a negative to avoid.  Those goals represent things to work on, and would be on your own list of virtues.

George Carlin fans would likely point out to me that there’s no such thing as self-help.  People who get their list of virtues from their critique group, or from this blog post, aren’t exactly engaged in self-help, since they got help from others.  Moreover, if beginning writers truly helped themselves get better, then they didn’t need help.  Witty gags aside, it can be a comfort to a struggling writer that there exist methods for improvement, but all I offer is a framework for starting; the writer must shoulder the burden of actually doing the work to improve her writing.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found my list useful, or if you’ve developed your own list, or even if you’ve embarked on a completely different method of improving your writing.  Let me know in your comments to this blog entry.  For now, back to improving his writing goes—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

Describing Your Characters’ Feelings

How are your characters feeling?  It’s important for your readers to know.  I’ve written an earlier post about conveying a character’s thoughts, and another one about facial expressions, but it’s time to tackle emotions.

For this blog post I’m going to regard ‘feelings,’ ’emotions,’ and ‘moods’ as being synonymous, even though neuroscientists draw distinctions between these terms.

Emotions are part of the human experience, and seem to result from how we’re hard-wired, what our individual background has been, and a recent external or internal stimulus.  Since we all have emotions in the real world, the characters in your fiction must have them too, to make them convincing.

Whether there are six basic emotions, as depicted by Dr. Paul Ekman…


…or eight as pictured by Dr. Robert Plutchik…

591px-Plutchik-wheel.svg…writers just need to know there are many emotions, and characters can feel them in combinations and in various intensities.

As a writer, it’s your job to convey these emotions to the reader with clarity and accuracy.  There shouldn’t be a doubt in the reader’s mind about what a character is feeling.

How do you do that?  Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Make sure the emotion is appropriate.  Remember, it’s based on a character’s background, but is also a response to a recent stimulus.
  • Show the emotion through the character’s actions:  speech (not only what is said, but word choice and tone of voice), facial expressions, hand motions, or body posture.
  • Show the emotion by describing the character’s thoughts or mental state.
  • Use metaphors and similes, but shun clichés.
  • In certain situations (fast action scenes, very short fiction, or if applicable to a minor character or sub-plot), just tell the character’s emotion.  This is not as effective as other methods and indicates amateurish writing  if used too often.

If you get stuck trying to portray a character’s emotion in words, one technique that might help is to recall a time when you had that feeling yourself.  See if you can draw on that memory and maybe even recreate the emotional state within yourself.  If you can conjure up within yourself the same emotion your character is feeling, you stand a good chance of finding words to describe it.

There are some helpful websites that list adjectives useful in describing emotions, notably this one and this one.  But I caution against an over-reliance on such adjectives.  It’s more effective to show emotions through a character’s actions or by describing what’s going on inside the character’s mind.

How did this blog post make you feel?  Are you now confident you can convey a character’s feelings in a more precise way?  I welcome comments from you on this topic; in fact few things in life bring greater joy and serenity to—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

December 30, 2012Permalink

What are All Stories About?

Many years ago I read somewhere that all stories, without exception, are about the human condition.  The writer stated made it sound like one of those obvious statements that require no explanation, as if any doubting reader must be stupid. It may seem obvious to you, too.  However, I stopped reading and thought about the statement in a critical manner.

First, any bold statement that all members of a class of things (stories) exhibit some property (are about the human condition) is subject to the simplest of tests for accuracy.  All the skeptic has to do is come up with a single counter-example—just one!—and that disproves the statement.

The statement can’t be true, I thought.  There are a few stories that have no human characters at all, and these stories are clearly about animals or extraterrestrial aliens, etc.  Surely these stories serve as counter-examples to disprove the statement.

On further reflection, I realized they aren’t counter-examples at all.  Even stories without any humans in them are about humans.  This is because the characters, however inhuman, are serving as metaphors referring to some aspect of the human experience.  Consider any story you’ve read that has no human characters in it, and you’ll see this is true of that story, too.

Okay, so all stories are about the human condition.  What exactly is that?  The human condition is the state in which essentially all humans find themselves—the common attributes of our existence, many of which are unique to humans.  These include the fact that:

  • We are born.   We also will die, and for most of us, the date of death is unknown.
  • We are conscious and self-aware, but we do not know what happens to our consciousness at death.  Because of that, we have a fear of death and seek to preserve ourselves, to delay or avoid death.
  • We are divided, as a species, into two genders which have similarities and differences.
  • We mature as we grow from a helpless infant stage through childhood to adulthood.
  • We are a social species, with complex and varied social structures, and a need to interact with each other.
  • We have developed methods to communicate with each other to some degree, but cannot know for certain what our fellow humans are thinking.
  • We are all born on a single planet, a planet with many fascinating features.
  • We are curious about our world and about ourselves; we seek to understand more.
  • We are able to fashion tools, to manipulate resources in ways we find useful, though we are not always successful in this.
  • We have fragile bodies that are easily damaged.
  • Our minds are limited and we make mistakes.

Obviously I could go on and on.  When you think about it, the shared human condition is quite a narrow one, and it’s easy to imagine that any of these attributes might have been different.  Although the condition is very constrained, it still allows for an infinite number of stories within those limits.  Story writers may assume their readers know and understand all of the attributes of the human condition without having to explain any of them.  Moreover, writers of stories can play at the edges of any of the boundaries, and even go beyond them.

So far, all writers are human and all readers are human.  In a sense, writers can’t help writing about the human condition.  It’s all we know, and it’s what readers want to read about.  Someday, many of the attributes of the human condition may no longer be true.  Someday we will likely encounter another sentient species and human authors can write about that species’ condition, and our interactions with them, perhaps even write stories for the other species’ readers.

Until then, all stories are about the human condition.  If you still doubt me, leave a comment for–

Poseidon’s Scribe

Metaphors Are Icing; Similes Are Like Spice

Looking back over some of my blog entries, I see I sometimes sound like quite the expert, a know-it-all who has decided to bestow some of his vast expertise on new writers.  I should make it clear my expertise is really not vast—it’s half vast.

On the subject of metaphors and similes, I have to say I’m not even a novice yet.  I have to force myself to use more of them in my stories.  So this blog entry is written as a set of reminders for me.  You’re welcome to read along if you like.

First of all, Steve, metaphors and similes are very much alike; they’re both methods of comparing one thing to another, it’s just that similes signal their presence with the words “like” or “as.”  Those words announce to the reader a comparison is coming.  Metaphors can sneak up on a reader such that he or she doesn’t realize the comparison has happened until after reading it.  Similes lack that stealth.

Remember, Steve, that readers, nearly all of them being human, possess brains naturally equipped to recognize patterns–the similarities between two things.  They store their memories in interesting places within the brain but always near other analogous things.  Consider the concept of “soft.”  Just thinking about soft conjures up images of feather beds, pillows, baby’s cheeks, puffy dandelions, etc.  All those images and more are stored within the brain, filed with the word “soft.”

So when you’re writing a story, Steve, and you want to describe how soft something is, you can compare it to something else filed under that heading.  Chances are readers will share the same mental picture you’ve conveyed, thus saving, as the saying goes, a thousand words.

It can work as well with concepts less concrete than “soft.”  A person can be described as being “as loving as…” or “as loyal as…” where you can compare these qualities to the standards in your mind filed under those headings.

Two common pitfalls to avoid, Steve, are clichés and mixed metaphors.  Clichés indicate the writer’s laziness, and often fail to convey the image intended due to overuse.  Mixed metaphors are at best jarring to the reader, and at worst, funny (and the reader’s not laughing with you), like the ones listed on this site.

There are some great writers you can learn from, Steve, about similes and metaphors.  There are sites out there like this one where you can read through some of the classic similes.  Be on the lookout for clever comparisons in all the books you read.  Take a moment to analyze each one and figure out why it works—why the author chose those words.  Poetry is often teeming with metaphors due to the compact nature of the medium and the need for each word to pull more of a load than is required in prose.

Steve, you’ve got to strive to use metaphors and similes more in your writing.  They help the reader picture your scenes and characters better.  Metaphors are icing; similes are like spice.  You must make better use of them if you wish to continue being known as–

Poseidon’s Scribe