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The Craft of Fiction Writing

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Notes On My Art Of Fiction

By Jose Gainza

Literature is not merely entertainment, though it can be and should be entertaining. A story can inspire in the reader great emotion and it can transport him, in his imagination, to a realm not like the one in which he lives existentially. A story can inspire this emotion either through the action or the ideas presented by its text; in most cases. Though this emotional reaction occurs, this is not the primary purpose of literature.

The novel was born out of stage drama. Tragedy, for example, in Ancient Greece, allowed the spectator to purge sorrow, guilt, anger from his soul, as Aristotle says in his Poetics. Though Tragedy can accomplish this, this too is not the primary function of literature. It may seem petty to point out that literature uses words but the phenomenon of words and their nature holds the key to the true function of literature.

In the life of a man words are not just written on paper or spoken aloud. They are psychological entities that serve as tools of human consciousness in order for it to achieve cognition about experience in the world; ultimately to remain living and living long range. Some of us fail and some of us succeed. We do not all always succeed. Concepts, ideas, allow us to identify reality in the most genial way.

If living long-range via concepts is what life is all about then why do we need some writer’s words organized in the form of a story to inspire our imagination to see humans struggle for values in our consciousness, which is the same thing we are doing anyway existentially? Why do we need to “escape” into our own souls and dreams?

There’s an obvious difference between life-struggle in existence and in the imagination of consciousness: and that is time. The conquest of your beloved in real life can take years, decades even. While reading a story the reader will experience the conquest of one character’s beloved in the time it takes to read the story, from some hours to some days, to some weeks (though in story-time it may be years as well).

The human importance of literature is found in the experience of going through the story, either as the reader or the writer. To see human achievement in microcosm is the crux of the value of the story experience. You will admit of the thrill, for good or for bad, of seeing the characters of the story you are reading succeed or fail. Why this thrill? Because you know, at least subconsciously, that long-term value struggle is what your life and all human life is essentially about. The conclusion of a story will leave you with a sense of hope or a sense of doom. While you are still under the “spell” of the story, the conclusion of a story will confirm or deny whether success in life is possible to you. That is the underlying source of whatever emotion you are left feeling.

I must tell you at this point that the reader will never experience the same thrill in reading a competent story as the thrill of the writing of it experienced by its creator. To illustrate the point, imagine what you imagine (as a reader) in your consciousness and what the writer does. First of all, the former is not possible without the latter. Second, the writer sees a “movie” in his head, and has to choose the words, and organization of words that will best assist the (archetypical) reader in imagining the closest reproduction of that movie originally within the writer’s consciousness. In other words, the dream that the writer inspires in your consciousness will not be an exact replica of the original dream of the writer, symbolized by his story. But this is not something to lament; it is merely the nature of the reality of writing fiction. To the extent that it is possible with words on paper, the better writer will make you experience his same dream (movie) the closest he can to the best of his ability.

The Ancient Greek theatre was a lesson in imagination, or it was a mass celebration of the phenomenon of imagination. Previous to the theatre there was Homer, but his success as a story teller was only possible because he wrote about what his fans already had imagined in the form of the oral tales about their religion. Oral tales lack consistency and permanence. The original artist cannot be original in this way. The theatre allowed all the spectators to begin to see the exact same thing: the stage performance. Compared to their bare imaginations, with the theatre they did not have to imagine as much. The product of imagination, the dream, was provided primarily by the artist.

For the spectator, this is more restful. The spectator will still witness the spectacle of value-struggle that he needs as a human being but with not as much effort from his imagination, thanks to the stage performance; the spectacle no longer a dream of consciousness but a reality of existence and sense. Perhaps, and probably very much so, people’s imagination (the show inside their heads) is much better than the stage performance. I cannot say for certain. However, I do know that knowing the craft of drama, and the principles of drama, allow the artist (the story teller) to communicate his dream more effectively than most. He becomes a rare type of man to the public.

The spectators’ subconscious artistry, his dreams and his day dreams, may be very competent and exciting. But they are subconscious and not as frequent. There is a very real need for a story teller. Observe: today we spend billions of dollars on the movie industry. In Ancient times people would gather at a special place just to see the show; nowhere near the vividness and realism of today’s movies or our stage plays. With the novel we begin to have the mastery of the dramatist combined with the ease and luxury of staying in bed (if we want to). Though more effort is demanded of our imagination, our effort becomes easy to exert when guided by the excellence of the literary artist. And with movies the charm of the theatre is brought to our bedrooms (if we want), and at our convenience. Do you see the beauty in this luxury!

The theatre, the novel, and the movie all serve the same human need: they show us human value struggle. Between the novel, the play, and the movie, the latter two are more passive, while the novel is more active; this is from the perspective of the viewer/consumer. They are all literary art, their method being the telling of a story. A novel organizes its paragraphs in such a way as to inspire an accurate replica within the consumer’s imagination (consciousness). (Usually once achieved the first time in a focused state, the reader will see the same vision every time he returns to that scene). The consumer’s senses are pulled inside (if you like) to sense the dream inspired by the words of the creator. The more effort and focus from the consumer, the more real and permanent the dream becomes.

The producers of plays and movies bring the attention of man’s senses back outwards to their more natural and leisurely state. The level of realism of a play on the stage will still require effort from man’s rational faculty to assist the senses to suspend their disbelief. Yet when the actor runs across the stage and falls at the feet of his beloved, it is easier to comprehend than to read the words: Francisco swiftly crossed the room to fall on his knees before her, pleading for forgiveness … With the movies human consciousness witnesses precise, almost metaphysical realism. The motion picture of a movie becomes an incredible substitute for reality, the natural object of our consciousness. The consumer becomes the most real first hand witness of the lover falling on his knees.

Implicit in all human action is philosophy. The aspect of philosophy which is most commonly observable in human action is morality or ethics. A code of morality is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions, the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life (Ayn Rand). Men do have conscious moral values and will consciously act according to their beliefs. A man with conscious moral principles can act against them. The scenes in which he does act against them, is an instance of him acting on an implicit moral code, one that is in conflict with his conscious one. The Christian priest is a well-known example of a man with conscious moral motivation. Imagine the scene of this priest, who a few scenes earlier preached about celibacy and the impurity of sex, fall in love at first sight and feeling sexual hunger. Now imagine that same priest a couple of scenes later allow that woman to seduce him. Or imagine him allowing himself to be seduced, not by his beloved but by some woman he cannot love, the pope’s courtesan, or a leper. All these actions represent implicit moral beliefs different to the ones that he originally preached.

As long as a writer is able to depict human action in a believable form via inspiration, he does not have to be conscious of his morals or of philosophy. The implicit moral implications of the actions he re-creates are what will keep the consumer interested, thus the reader does not have to be conscious of his morality either; because he is human, he will at least feel the implications.

Relevant is the field of knowledge with which the writer views the “human condition”. The impact on the reader will differ whether the writer is a philosopher, a religionist, a psychologist, a sociologist, or an anthropologist. We hope that the writer is a philosopher, or at least a psychologist. Without this level of understanding, the writer is to that extent limited in terms of his originality and variety. There is an inherent richness with philosophy when applied to characterization. Philosophy is the mover of history. The different character types are only mastered with the knowledge of an historian of philosophy who possesses a philosophic intellect. Knowledge of psychology as well will allow you to apply the moral type you choose to depict to the specific character you want to draw. At this point of my writing career it is hard to imagine a writer writing from any other resource.

I know that you do not have to be an expert in the career field of the character you choose. You do need to know enough about it to make the character and the background believable. You need to be an independent learner. You do have to study the field enough for your imagination to integrate it into your story. But this is not difficult. Most men can learn one career. Many too can learn a few in a life time. If you know philosophy, if you have a good epistemology, you can learn any subject and any business.

Philosophy can be seen in any career. Business is itself an aspect of morality. Ethics does have something to say about it—for good or for bad: there’s Hank Rearden and Thomas Edison and then there’s Scrooge.

I said that literature provides for human life the example of seeing human value struggle concretized. This is one of the central issues of philosophy. Even religion has an appraisal of human long-range life.

The difference between a naturalist and a romanticist can be seen in the source of their creations. All writers are re-creating, imitating human life in their stories. This re-creation cannot take place without the writer calling upon his first hand experience in life. The subconscious does not forget. One’s conscious mind is that which thinks, feels, values in any given point in time. The subconscious is that which is not in focal awareness at any given point in time. So that if one is focused on this paragraph and this field of focus is what one is currently conscious of, then the subconscious is the paragraphs before it. The subconscious doesn’t forget: every perception, every thought, every emotion, perhaps every dream, is stored in one’s subconscious. The problem arises in accessing the material stored in there. If one has integrated an efficient and organized storage system, then retrieval will be easier, effortless, and quick to that extent.

If you can observe this to be true, then you can also easily observe that one’s imagination, one’s day dreams, and dreams, are produced from the material stored in one’s subconscious. I have a much easier time describing Toronto on paper than I do New York City because I have lived in it all my life. However, New York is easier to describe than Atlanta because New York is so famous that I’ve seen so much of it on television and in the movies. Atlanta I have nothing to say about. However, I know that I can do a competent job describing New York if I were to study it in books of all sorts. This is because human imagination is able to use my experience in a big city like Toronto, to imagine the New York I would have read about in books. But if you live in New York, and you have studied its geography, history, architecture, politics, and lived in it long enough, then you will have an extraordinary and rich source of data stored in your subconscious to produce a remarkable re-creation. So much for the idea that first hand human experience is the original source of imagination.

All writers begin the creative process at the same point by calling on their experience in life, but some end up going further than others. All considerate writers will get to the point of saying about life: this is the way people are today according to standard X, X standing for whatever field of science on human nature that the writer feels at home with. The writer can be a sociologist or a psychologist, among other things. He can also be a philosopher. To the extent that your field of science allows for change, i.e., improvement or degradation, is the extent that a writer can say about life: this is the way people could be according to standard X; I don’t have to write about how people are merely. Most people one has observed may be neurotics, but if one has knowledge of what psychological health is, then one has the material for writing about how men could be, and perhaps should be. And if one has a historical perspective of philosophy as a science then the variety of “could be`s” becomes a multiplicity, even having an impact on the multiplicity of potential psychologies. It is by philosophy that one will begin to develop philosophical absolutes, and definite convictions on ethics. One can then have a moral ideal as one’s could be.

This moral “could be” becomes a should be. In the moral realm a writer can re-create a variety of moral archetypes in his story. When he champions one moral archetype, when the events of the story leads to a theme that favors one moral code, a writer is proclaiming what he believes human character should be like, his code of moral values serving as the standard.

Character motivation can be evaluated on a few levels at least. A homely woman sits at her window every afternoon watching the activity of the street. Is her motivation unconscious, mainly a biological reaction to her satiety from lunch, so that she could digest her food, as a break, before she goes back to her household chores, which she does everyday, as she has done for several years now, as she will probably do for the next 20 to 30 years more? Does a beautiful man walk by everyday and is it her habit to watch him walk by in her timidity? Does she like the sounds of the city, has she evaluated city life intellectually, and does she do this as a sort of ritual of something quite profound and important?

There is no limit to the length of a novel. One does not know at the outset how many pages it will be made of. One may have a rough estimate but one will not know for sure until the last edit is complete. In this way a novel may seem organic and living: it will have as many parts as its nature requires, and as many pages as it needs. But the author is the creator of this literary creature, and ultimately he is in control of its final structure.

The creator’s purpose, the creator’s theme, will determine the structure of the novel: form follows function. A good writer has a conscious theme, maybe not in the beginning stages of the writing process, but certainly towards the end of the novel’s completion. Either his theme will pull the action and style towards it; or it will be reached after the quest for it. In the latter case more effort will be involved by the author in the editing stages of the novel.

The theme of a novel is the essential or central message that the author intends to express by the action of the story, or the message he succeeds in expressing regardless of his conscious intention.

A theme can be philosophical. A story can express ideas such as: that existence has primacy over consciousness; what the true nature of logic is, and how it is genial to man; what the correct moral code is for men to follow; whether a certain nation is the best to have ever been established, and why; whether a certain type of poetry is more effective than another. Each of the above themes represents a topic within one of the five branches of philosophy, namely, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics, and Aesthetics (Art), respectively. And within those branches there is a multiplicity of topics, of leaves (if you like).

Philosophy is the source of any literary work of art, whether the author knows it or not. A man’s subconscious version of philosophy is the means by which he selects the various aspects of a novel. The only seeming escape from philosophy by a novel is to have the novel merely discuss a purely intellectual-scientific endeavor. Imagine a chronicle of the purely scientific thought processes of Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. Let’s not be concerned with his family affairs, his loves, his business affairs, his travels, his friendships. Let’s describe the step-by-step logical process that he went through. Let’s assume he had no stumbling blocks, that he never got stuck. Who would find this interesting? The only type of person would be the physics enthusiast who has struggled along this same path, that Newton has not struggled with. It is the enthusiast’s own struggle in contrast to Newton’s “breeze”, by which the enthusiast will marvel at Newton’s achievement. Remember, the social significance of Newton’s work cannot be discussed by the author in this context, for that would be politics. We are concerned merely with the orchestra within Newton’s mind.

Now let’s assume that Newton does encounter intellectual road blocks on his logical path to discovering his theory. This is more interesting. There is a sort of conflict here. How will Newton overcome his road blocks? First of all, that is unmistakably an epistemological issue. We’re back to philosophy again. But that will not be as interesting as bringing in the “personal” life of Newton into the picture. For what would be at stake if Newton fails? If he doesn’t solve the problem soon, he may lose his beloved, for she will grow impatient and desperate. Perhaps his reputation will be sullied. Perhaps his children will go hungry. Perhaps he will commit suicide, out of frustration, or carelessly by forgetting to eat and sleep.

A man cannot escape philosophy in real life. An author cannot escape it in his writing of a story.

Whatever theme you choose to write about, your story should seek to express. You do this primarily with Action. “Actions speak louder than words”. You can do this also with dialogue that explicitly expresses your theme. Or you can also do this by your narrative where the author speaks about his theme. Action is the most revealing, though. If in everyday life your actions imply your philosophy, then a novel can and should do the same with its characters.

A female top executive of one of the leading auto parts makers in the world decides to leave her job to run for the Prime Minister ship of Canada. Her intelligence and her experience in the business world have led her to believe that there is something terribly wrong with the world. As a very able woman, she thinks she can do something to fix things. So she gets into politics. Two motives come to me at the moment: either it is her opportunity to give back to society for being a billionaire, or it is the audacity and excitement of being able to solve complicated problems to create a better world for her and her loved ones to live in. She begins with one party and then soon changes parties. Her explicit and expressed motive was that the former party conflicted with her code of moral values. She is a woman of integrity. And then a couple of years later, she announces that she is leaving politics to go back to run her father’s business. Perhaps she has observed the political stage and is now disgusted. Perhaps she only entered politics to investigate about what future policies might be enacted to affect the livelihood of her business. Perhaps she thinks that she can do a better job in fixing the world by helping her global business to succeed. Perhaps, the story is one of a woman who was in a mid-life crisis uncertain of whether she really loves her business, or whether she merely got into it originally to follow in her father’s footsteps and her political “experiment” is her way of trying to decide the issue. Now she knows she loves her factory, and the daughter has returned home. The action in this scenario is straight out of the headlines.

I doubt the climax of her story has come yet. But if we get answers to some of the questions just posed, we will be able to predict what she probably or necessarily will do. When it happens, we will able to understand her journey by answering such questions. The point is that a man’s morality is a crucial psychological factor. His code of values is his motive power that pulls him forth into his destiny, and explains his decisions and actions. So the same goes in the universe of a fiction story.

A story writer should know his code of ethics, should know of the science of ethics, and should choose character decisions and actions that express his moral theme, ultimately. A story should have a plot. A plot is a logical sequence of events leading to the resolution of a climax (Ayn Rand). I hope that you choose ethical themes; they are the most fruitful. You will want your hero to succeed. You will want him to succeed by his moral code, thus his success confirms yours; gives primarily to you, the writer, fuel to live long range. You will not want the achievement to come easy. You will want him to struggle. For me as the writer this is the way to move forward, it is psychologically thrilling. It will have a similar impact on most fan-readers. The story will end too quickly otherwise; i.e., the writing process and the consumer’s entertainment.

You will want to establish the characters’ value purposes early because you need that for the comprehension of your climax. A good novel does not really begin to get exciting, relative to the last half of the book, until the first many chapters meant to establish the situation.

Imagine the difference between a dog walking to the shore, and then a man walking to the shore. Now imagine just the man walking there without obstacles. Unless the scenery is breathtaking it is not that interesting. Now add a sudden rain storm, or an earthquake, or a car accident. Now imagine a mugger or a rapist as the antagonist. Now imagine his beloved interfering, or an attractive woman who is not his beloved. Or imagine his enemy is his obstacle. Or imagine his best friend is his obstacle who is acting as his enemy unwittingly, or even out of betrayal. The geographical location of the end of a man’s journey is insignificant without human moral values that it symbolizes. And neither is the accomplishment of a task, such as repairing a shipwrecked ship.

So you want a hero who is motivated by his own moral values. This is what he wants to achieve in the story, in that fictional universe. The objects serve merely as background (realism or believability) and symbolism. You want the hero to have an antagonist with opposing values, either an enemy or a friend in a conflict of values. You want to set up the central conflict between the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (villain or friend). Then you want them to clash. You want to present the spectacle of this crash. And then you want to show whose values won out in the end. This is Romantic Novel writing.

Writing short stories is not the proper long term purpose of a writer. Short stories serve the following functions: literary training and incidental, though important artistic amusement (for example, something a writer writes as a break while he is in the process of writing something really grand)

A short story cannot fulfill the expression of a moral theme. It can only express aspects of it. You have to be much more selective in choosing the action. You’ll probably start with something too grand in your mind and have to break it down, cut it. This is the hard part of the writing and it takes place primarily in the mind. In this light a novel seems easier because you don’t have to do the cutting; the problem in the novel being its execution, the act of writing something so long, with so much detail, and very purposeful. A short story can be very beautiful, very poetic even. This will be accomplished by the style of it, because the action cannot do it alone; there’s not enough room for the action to live in. Though a short story may be very beautiful, it will never be as beautiful as a novel well done. If you want to portray the beauty of a man in a painting, you do not paint a portrait of his lips and nose merely, but rather of the entire face, even the throat and neck.

Jose Gainza, April 2007

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A story can inspire in the reader great emotion and it can transport him, in his imagination, to a realm not like the one in which he lives existentially.

It can even do that to a writer as well whilst writing his or her story. Case in point...me.

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It can even do that to a writer as well whilst writing his or her story. Case in point...me.

Yes, of course, that is the primary purpose and justification of creating art, for yourself. I do say this later on in the piece, did you read that.

And here's an example of a great experience, that a non-artist cannot experience: finish writing your great story, have your beloved read it and love it, and then celebrate in bed. kind of contraversial I suppose.

Jose.

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