Using the 15 Fiction-Writing Virtues

In a previous blog post, I explored how Benjamin Franklin, an early champion of self-help, might advise us on how to improve our writing. To recall, Ben identified weaknesses in his own character and flipped around those negative weaknesses into their corresponding, positive virtues, toward which he strived.

In that earlier post, I made a list of fifteen fiction-writing virtues, encouraged you to make a similar list, and then left you on your own. Today, I’m picking up where I left you stranded, and providing a structured approach for applying those virtues as you write.

benjamin-franklinBen Franklin took his list of thirteen virtues and focused on applying one per week. He kept a log of his success rate, noting when he succeeded and failed. That simple and easy method might not work for the fiction writing virtues, since the one you’ve selected might not apply to what you’re doing that week. Your virtue list, if it’s anything like mine, might be more event-based.

What you need is a mechanism for (1) remembering, (2) applying, (3) recording, and (4) reassessing your virtues:

  • Remembering means that the applicable event-based virtue will appear before you when that given event starts, so it’s a reminder to exercise that virtue.
  • Applying means that, in the moment of decision, you choose to act upon your virtue and do the virtuous thing.
  • Recording means that you’ll keep some sort of log or journal of your success and failure.
  • Reassessing means that once one or more of the initial virtues have become an ingrained habit, you strike it from the list, consider other weaknesses in your writing that require improvement, and add new virtues to work on.

From my earlier blog post, here again are the 15 fiction-writing virtues I came up with. Reminder—yours will likely be different.

15 Virtues

I had split the virtues into five Process virtues and ten Product virtues. Here are a couple of tables showing to which parts of the story-writing procedure each process virtue applies, and to which story elements each product virtue applies.

First draft Self-Edit Critique Submit Rejections
Process Virtues 1. Productivity X X X X X
2. Focus X
3. Humility X
4. Excellence X
5. Doggedness X

 

Character Plot Setting Theme Style
Product Virtues 6. Relevance X X
7. Appeal X X X
8. Engagement X X
9. Empathy X
10. Action X
11. Placement X
12. Meaning X
13. Style X
14. Communication X X
15. Skill X

Remembering. The best solution is to print the list of virtues and keep it near your computer or tablet when writing, and refer to it often. Over time you’ll remember to refer to the “Excellence” virtue before submitting a manuscript, for example.

Applying. This is the most difficult part. In any given writing situation, you must do your best to live up to the virtue that applies to that situation. You’ll likely fail at first, then get better with time, practice, and patience.

Recording. If you keep a log, journal, or writing diary, that is a good place to grade yourself each day on how well you achieved each virtue that applied that day. You may learn more from failures than successes, in recognizing the causes for the failures. In time, you will strive harder to achieve each virtue simply because you won’t want to record another failure in your logbook.

Reassessing. Your list of virtues should be dynamic. Whenever you believe you’ve got a virtuous habit down pat, you can delete it from the list. Whenever you find another weakness in your writing, you can add the corresponding virtue to the list. Perhaps you’ll find that a virtue is poorly phrased, or is vague, or doesn’t really address the root cause of the weakness; you can re-word it to be more precise.

If you faithfully apply a technique similar to this, and you find your writing improving, and you gain the success you always desired, don’t forget to send (1) a silent thank-you to the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, and (2) a favorable and grateful comment to this blog post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Connessione

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

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

What a Disaster!

Today I’m exploring the world of disaster fiction. There are many, many stories dealing with disasters, from local misadventures to world-wide calamities. I’ll discuss frequently occurring themes in disaster fiction, as well as the reasons people read it. That might help you decide if you want to write such a tale.

DisasterFirst, no disaster story is truly about the disaster. If you want to write about disasters, try non-fiction. As I’ve said before, fiction is about the human condition, so your disaster story is really about the characters, their attempts to cope with the disaster, and how they grow or change as a result.

I’ll make a distinction between disaster stories and post-apocalyptic stories. In the latter, the disaster has already occurred and people are trying to handle the aftermath. In the former, the disaster occurs during the story. I’ll discuss post-apocalyptic fiction in a future blog post.

Types

Though disaster stories are about people, we can still classify them by the type of disaster that occurs, and there are plenty to choose from. You might think all the best disasters have been taken already and the reading public won’t go for one more disaster novel. You’d be wrong; since the stories are about people, there are always infinitely more stories to write.

Disasters can be natural, as with floods or tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, other significant storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, extreme climate change, asteroid or comet collisions, etc.

The disaster could be an accident, such as a shipwreck, airplane crash, train wreck, industrial accident, etc. A car crash probably wouldn’t count, since the disaster really should involve a large number of people.

There are other disasters that aren’t natural, and aren’t really accidents either. Let’s call them calamities, and separate them into plausible and less-plausible scenarios. The plausible ones include pandemics, terrorist attacks, major wars, economic collapse, and loss of electricity.

The less-plausible calamities (my own risk assessment; yours might differ) include: alien invasion, uncontrolled release of technology (such as nanotechnology, robot uprising, creation of a black hole, creation of a super-disease or super-creature, etc.), zombie apocalypse, “return” of vampires or werewolves, and attacks by menacing (usually gigantic) animals.

Themes

You’ll find some common themes in disaster stories. Here’s a partial list.

• Despite how far humans have progressed, we need reminding we are small and weak creatures in a big, dangerous universe.
• As disaster looms, people will react differently, going through the Kübler-Ross ‘Five Stages of Grief’ at different rates.
• A large-scale disaster will collapse the normal societal structure, and other structures will form.
• A disaster brings together strangers who must form a team with a common purpose, such as survival.
• A main character must overcome a personal fear or other psychological flaw and rise to the situation.
• A former leader cannot cope with the disaster; a new and unlikely leader must take charge.
• Often the protagonist’s main goal is either survival (of a group) or rescue of others.
• There are good and bad human reactions to disasters, and the characters who react badly often (though not always) meet a bad end. For example, preparation is better than assuming an unchanging future; clear thinking is better than panic, teamwork is better than uncaring self-centeredness; natural leadership is better than using a chaotic situation to claim power; focusing on the goal is more productive than blaming or finding fault.

Purpose

Why do people read disaster stories? These are among the reasons:

• It’s a chance to “experience” the disaster in a safe way, without having to endure it for real.
• The stories can be taken as metaphors for how we can deal with the smaller-scale mishaps of daily life.
• The tales can be metaphors for some perceived societal defect, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
• The stories offer lessons in preparation as old as the ant & grasshopper fable.

Conclusion

51aDCvEwjvLI would classify only one of my stories as a true disaster tale. “The Finality” appeared in the anthology 2012 AD by Severed Press. In it, a scientist discovers that time itself is coming to an end, not just on Earth but throughout the universe, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But just maybe the Mayans were trying to tell us something about that.

May all your disasters be the written kind; that’s the hope of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

November 30, 2014Permalink

Fiction Elements by Genre

In earlier posts I’ve blogged about the various elements of fiction (Character, Plot, Setting, Theme, and Style). I’ve also blogged a bit about the various genres of fiction. Here I thought I’d explore how the various genres emphasize certain elements and de-emphasize others.

For the chart, I used the genres listed in the Wikipedia “List of Genres” entry. As the entry itself points out, people will never agree on this list. Even more contentious will be my rankings in the chart for how much each genre makes use of each fiction element.

Fiction elements vs GenreFor each genre, I assigned my own rough score for each fiction element. I’ve placed the genres in approximate order from the ones emphasizing character and plot more, to the ones emphasizing style and theme more.

Go ahead and quibble about the numbers I assigned. That’s fine. There’s considerable variation within a genre. Also, the percentages of the elements vary over time. If we took one hundred experts in literature and had them each do the rankings, then averaged them, the resulting chart would have more validity than what I’m presenting, which is based on my scoring alone.

But the larger point is that the different genres do focus on different elements of fiction. In my view, character is probably the primary element for all but a few genres. Theme is probably the least important, except for a limited number of genres.

Of what use is such a chart? First, please don’t draw an unintended conclusion. If you happen to know which elements of fiction are your fortes, and which you’re least skilled in, I wouldn’t advise you to choose a genre based on that.

Instead, look at the chart the opposite way. Find the genre in which you’d like to write, and work to strengthen your use of its primary fiction elements in your own work. You might even glance at the genres on either side of your favorite one and consider writing in those genres too.

I can’t seem to find online where anybody else has constructed a chart like mine. Perhaps the only one you’ll see is this one made by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 28, 2014Permalink

Life is But a Theme

Long-time readers of this blog have noted that I’ve explored four of the five components of fiction—character, plot, setting, and style. There’s been quite a clamoring for me to complete the set, and today I’ll do so by discussing theme.

You can think of the theme of a story as the central topic, the universal idea or message, the overall lesson or moral. I’ve said before that all stories are about the human condition and that’s because we choose human themes. Until we deal with other sentient entities, that’s all we really have.

ThemeHere’s another way to think about theme. It’s easy to identify the characters, plot, and setting of a story. Think of those as the ‘real life’ parts of the story, the parts you can visualize with ease. Now imagine key parts of that ‘real life’ getting mapped to a different plane, a place of Platonic ideals. Imagine lines connecting specifics in the story to generalizations in the other plane, concrete items linked to a realm of abstract concepts.

For example, an old woman in a story is linked to the idea of Age itself. A young man going through his first experience of adulthood is linked to the idea of Coming of Age. The growing love between two characters maps to the idea of Falling in Love. You get the idea.

There needn’t be only one theme in a story, and often you can identify more than one. Also, it isn’t necessary for the writer to spell out what the story’s themes are; in fact it’s much better to allow readers to infer them.

Let’s identify some themes in famous literature. Take 1984 by George Orwell. It includes themes such as ever-increasing government control, the loss of individual freedom, and the dangers of advanced technology.

Consider Love Story by Erich Segal. Some of its themes include the idea of opposites being attracted to each other, the sacrifices made for love, the rebellion of a child against his parents, and the notion of love conquering all adversities.

One of my favorites, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, also contains themes. These include the dangers of advanced technology, aiding the oppressed against oppressors, and the notion that revenge can drive you insane.

Is it possible to write a story without a theme? I’m not sure. Even if the writer has no particular theme in mind, readers and critics can likely discover themes the author didn’t intend, but are nevertheless present.

For a beginning writer who’s overwhelmed by the amount of writing stuff to remember, I suggest concentrating on character, plot, and setting (in that order of importance) without focusing on theme or style as much. Chances are a well-written story will have one or more themes, even if the writer doesn’t consciously strive toward one.

As always, post a comment if you agree, disagree, remain confused, or are just thankful that all five components of fiction have finally been addressed by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Donkey and Elephant Stories

donkey elephantIs it wise for a fiction writer to inject personal political beliefs into his or her stories?  Or is the question moot; is all fiction in some sense political?  Let us roam with elephants and donkeys.

Arguably, both politics and good fiction are about ideas.  The ideas explored by politics surround questions like:  How shall people be governed?  What is the role of government?  What is the nature of power? Can we arrange governing systems for maximum benefit to all?

Fiction also deals with ideas, though these are not limited to political ideas.  Often they boil down to basic questions of philosophy:  What is beauty?  What is truth?  What is justice?  What happens after death?

But my real question is whether writers should make their political leanings obvious in their stories.  Some authors certainly do.  L. Neil Smith is very libertarian.  Robert Heinlein, too, leaned libertarian.   Isaac Asimov leaned to the liberal side, though not blatantly so.  Ayn Rand was passionate about her political philosophy, which she felt was new and different enough to have its own name—Objectivism.

In my view, there are dangers in making your political views obvious in your fiction.  For one thing, you can turn off at least half of your potential audience.  Those who disagree with your political stance won’t read more than one of your books.

If your intent is to persuade, consider this.  Have you ever heard anyone say something like this after a political argument: “Thank you.  I’ve come around to your side, based on the strength of your logic.  I see now that I’ve been voting the wrong way my whole life.  Thanks again, for helping me see the light.”  Almost nobody changes his party affiliations that easily.

Another danger in overt political fiction is predictability, and therefore dullness.  When the good guys believe as the writer does, and the bad guys are of the other political party, the reader knows who will win.  The reader can feel like she’s being preached to.  Clever and rare is the writer who can represent the opposite side in a fair and convincing way.

NightOfJanuary16thIt’s my view that Ayn Rand achieved this in her stage play “Night of January 16th.” The play occurs, for the most part, in a courtroom.  Near the end, the judge dismisses the jury to their room to render a decision. At that point it’s announced to the audience that they are the jury and will be allowed to vote guilty or not guilty.  (Either that or twelve audience members are selected at the start to play the jury.)  A vote of not guilty represents a tilt toward Objectivism, and a vote of guilty means the opposite.  There are two endings to the play, and the actors perform the one voted on by the “jury.”  I understand that, in all the plays performances since it premiered in 1935, the ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ outcomes occur about equally often.

My recommendation, if you’re set on writing overt political fiction, is to (1) do so in a subtle, metaphorical way without preaching to your readers, (2) poke fun at or lambaste all politicians equally, focusing on the separation between politicians and the rest of us, or (3) be as even-handed as possible, with bad guys and good guys on both sides.

What are your thoughts?  No, not about the last election—I mean about the prudence of putting politics in your fiction!  Leave a nonpartisan comment and let me know.  Steering well clear of donkeys and elephants, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

February 3, 2013Permalink