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

Your Writing Voice

Writers VoiceWe call it laryngitis when you lose your voice, but what if you never found it in the first place? To be clear, I’m not writing about a medical condition of the larynx, but rather about your writing voice.

Definition

What is a writing voice? I liken it to your vocal voice in that it is distinctively yours, an individual indicator like your fingerprints, your retina patterns, and your signature. It’s a marker that can be used to identify you.

In other words, a few paragraphs could be taken at random from your published stories, and a reader might be able to recognize that you’re the author.

Is your writing that identifiable? Is it unique? If not, how can you get to that point?

Two Elements

Before we arrive at a way to answer those questions, I’ll cover what I believe to be the two elements of a writer’s voice.

The first is the subject, the topic about which you commonly write. This can take the form of a genre or themeSomeday when you have compiled a full body of work and your name comes up, if people say, “That’s the author who writes about ______,” it’s that ‘______’ that forms part of your voice.

The other element has to do with style. It’s not just the subjects you write about, it’s how you do it. The Wikipedia article on Writer’s Voice suggests that this element; a combination of character development, dialogue, diction, punctuation, and syntax; is all there is to a writing voice. I’m not willing to discount the subject/topic element, though.

Discovery

How do you find your voice? This marvelous blog post by author Todd Henry provides a great way to help you find your voice by answering ten questions. These questions help you reach your inner passions and hopes. In this way you’ll touch the deep emotions and motivations inside.

Why does that method work, for discovering your voice? Certainly the answers will help you determine the subject half of your voice. The answers will suggest topics you should write about or genres to write in. Only by tapping in to your central core of strong enthusiasms will you be able to sustain the discipline to complete what you start to write. If you work at it, those deep hopes and passions will become evident in your writing.

What about the style element? How are you supposed to discover that? I’m not sure answering Todd Henry’s ten questions will answer that. I believe your writing style is a matter of imitation early on, then leading to experimentation, and finally perfecting.

No Guarantee

Let me set some expectations about this process of finding your writing voice. In the end, you’ll have a unique voice, one recognizable as you. That doesn’t mean anyone else wants to hear it. This isn’t a recipe for fame or financial success in writing.

I’ll write a blog post sometime laying out the sure-fire, step-by-step formula for how to become famous and rich by writing.

Sure. Keep checking back for that one.

What’s the point, you’re asking, of this voice discovery process? Why go through it? I’d answer that all the authors who are famous, or rich, or whose writing is considered classic, all of them have a distinctive writing voice.

I think finding your voice is necessary, but not sufficient, for success. You might discover your writing voice only to learn it’s not marketable. If high sales numbers are what you’re after, experiment more. Try slight alterations of voice until you hit the combination of subject and style that sells.

Best of luck to you in finding your writing voice. Still searching for mine, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

October 19, 2014Permalink