7/18/2016

The Seven Heavenly Virtues of Fiction Writing


You hear about the Seven Deadly Sins everywhere, but it's rare to hear about their opposing virtues outside of a church. Heck, even there, it's rare. I went to Catholic church and Sunday school for the first sixteen years of my life, and I found out about the Seven Virtues from Wikipedia.

I won't try to sell you on these virtues as a lifestyle (though most of them are pretty hard to disagree with), but when it comes to writing, we're all guilty of at least one of the Seven Deadlies, at least some of the time, and that means it's good to know the opposing stances. The virtuous writer is likely a happy writer, whether she is successful or not.

The Seven Heavenly Virtues of Writing


Humility


The opposite of pride, humility takes many forms for a writer. First and foremost, humility means never assuming you know everything, or even "enough" (what's "enough" anyway?). Language and storytelling are always changing, so a writer should always be learning, period.

Humility also means submitting to the will of an editor or publisher. While a writer has every right to defend his work, he must acknowledge that there is wisdom in the experience of overseers. A soldier on the ground may think it's wise to ascend the hill in front of him, to attain the high ground. But the General knows that there's an enemy army on the other side, and mounting the hill will invite disaster. 

The editor and publisher have the bird's eye view. In a good writer-editor relationship, there will be times when the writer is right, and times when the editor is right. But it takes a humble writer to see that.

Another form of humility is placing one's own agenda--be it fame, literati recognition, or a soapbox message--second to the desires of the reader. Don't forget: people read to enjoy themselves. I've never read a book because the author deserved it. I only read things that I enjoy. I love an author who makes me think, even challenges my worldview, but if you can't make me enjoy the ride, I'm getting off.

Humility is about creating a path of least resistance for the reader. If you want to be read (and if you didn't, you wouldn't write), you need to make it easy, worthwhile, and enjoyable for the reader, or you simply won't have many readers. It won't matter how good your writing is.

Kindness


The opposite of envy, kindness is all about how you regard your fellow authors. Whether they are above or below you in skill and accomplishment, they deserve your respect.

I will admit, I struggle with this one. If you've read this blog for very long, you'll know. I make a lot of hot-headed statements about amateurs and hacks. They're mostly for comic effect, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit I occasionally believe what I'm saying.

Cultivating humility helps one be kind. We are all students of this mysterious craft, and we are all on different paths. There is no single trajectory from novice to bestseller. Heck, not everybody wants to be a bestseller. And some bestsellers got there by sheer dumb luck; Stephanie Meyer sold Twilight to the very first person she submitted it to. Meanwhile, Frank Herbert's Dune was rejected over twenty times, even though it had already enjoyed success as a magazine serial.

You can guess what readers will like, but you'll never know. Even the people in the crow's nest (editors and publishers) don't know. They just guess better. 

Fiction is a crazy, unpredictable game, and it pays to have good sportsmanship. That's what kindness is all about. Respect the people who aren't as far along as you. Help them if you can. And learn from the people ahead of you. Don't waste your life trying to be them, or hating them for being on top. When it comes down to it, we're all on the same team.

Charity


The greedy writer will write anything to gain fame or recognition. The charitable writer shares themselves with the reader.

Few people read a book because the author deserves it, but everyone who reads does want a piece of the author. Readers want a story first and foremost, but they want that story to come from a unique voice. They want the story to embody some kind of artistic vision, no matter how humble. To attain true fame and recognition, a story must feel genuine.

That's what charity is all about. The greedy writer writes so that she may take. The charitable writer writes because she has something to give.

Figure out what you have to give, then figure out who wants that thing, and give it to them. It's simple, really. If you look at the demand first, then try to become whatever fills it, the result will feel contrived and artificial. But if you find your audience based on what you want to write, then use the audience's desires to guide and hone your offering, it becomes a give and take. It's tough to strike the balance between writing for yourself and writing for the reader, but authors do it all the time. The key is charity; a willingness to give. Without that, you're just a beggar.

Temperance


Writing that indulges the author's poetic or descriptive whims is gluttonous. Temperance, then, is when you only give what is necessary, when it's necessary.

When you're in the trenches, up to your elbows in words, sometimes it's hard to know how much is too much. We're all guilty of a long-winded, tell-y description once in a while. But that's what makes editing so great. We aren't committed to the first words we choose.

Temperance, then, is your inner editor. No, not the negative one who says you're a hack. The other, reasonable one, who says "maybe you should tighten that up a little." It's perfectly fine, even advisable, to turn this voice off when you're writing a first draft. But once the draft is written, this voice should take charge and hone your writing down to its leanest, meanest self.

In this sense, temperance takes on another meaning. We temper metals by repeatedly heating, quenching, reheating and quenching again. This process removes the hardness and brittleness of a metal, and makes it tougher and more flexible. Your writing should be the same. Smooth over those rough spots. Rebuild brittle sentences so they don't shatter on first reading. You want your writing tough--assertive--but flexible enough that anyone can understand it. Tempered writing can withstand the test of time.

Chastity


That word is bound to bum a few people out, so let me be clear: chastity is NOT abstinence. Chastity is merely the avoidance of empty sex and violence.

In writing, this means only including graphic details when they really matter. There's no sense in showing a character getting their hand cut off unless that disability is going to change the way they behave. There's no reason to show two characters making love unless the act has consequences, good or bad. Either they fall in love, or they regret the encounter and that regret drives their choices from that point on.

Chastity is not avoidance of sex, drugs, violence, and cursing. Chastity means taking something "impure" and making it pure by imbuing it with meaning. Sex between loving partners is wonderful. Meaningless sex between strangers leaves them feeling cold. It's the same way with writing. A steamy sex scene, or a gruesome fight can fire our passions if it means something. But if it's just there for show, it will turn us off.

Even when the sex and violence do matter, there's something to be said for restraint. After all, reading is about stimulating the imagination, and the imagination is always more satisfying than reality. Think about it: a horror movie is always less scary once you've gotten a good look at the monster. It's the unknown that scares and tantalizes us. A woman clasping a sheer cloth across her chest is sensual. A woman with her ankles behind her head is just pornographic, and frankly boring. You can't give everything away right away. In writing and in life, Chastity is the art of savoring the reveal.

Patience


The wrathful writer crafts a story as a means to an end. The story serves his message. The patient writer doesn't feel the need to cram anything down the reader's throat. The patient writer understands that people change gradually.

I'll admit that sometimes it's good to be shocked out of your complacency. Sometimes we need the horror of war to motivate us toward peace. But if we're to sustain that peace, we must gradually change our attitudes toward our enemies, or history will repeat itself.

Writing with a message works the same way. Maybe you want to convince the world to go vegan. You can't just show people a cow in front of a band saw and expect them to convert on the spot. If anything, it will only make them dislike you for exposing them to that cruel reality. As a writer (or a speaker, for that matter), you are just a messenger. The idea you want to convey is bigger and probably older than you. Chances are you don't even own this idea you're trying to sell. So unless you're peddling one of the few new ideas in the world, people aren't going to hear what you're selling. They already know all about it. All they're going to hear is how you're selling it.

People are stubborn. They only change when they decide to. People rarely change for others, and when they do, they screw it up as often as not. To enact change through storytelling, you have to make people want to change. and that means being subtle. They have to think it's their own idea. That means planting a seed, surreptitiously if you have to, and waiting for it to grow. And that takes patience.

There's another kind of patience that wise writers practice too, and that's waiting for success. Successful writers will tell you that it doesn't come overnight, or even at all. The writer who claws and scrambles after success like a dog scratching at his cage is just wearing himself out. He'll quit before the gatekeeper lets him through. But sit and wait patiently, and the gatekeeper can be kind. And the writer will be wiser and happier for it.

Diligence


Alright, maybe you shouldn't just sit and wait. Be patient, by all means, but use your time to improve your craft.

Again, sloth is probably the most common and deadly sin for writers. It keeps great books from being written, and good authors from getting better. Whatever you write, whatever your goals are, there's always a way to grow. Anyone who doesn't believe that is prideful, but that pride is probably masking sloth.

I believe one of the deepest flaws in our society is that we go through a period of education, and then at a certain point we're "done". But that's not really how the human mind works. Humans always need to be growing. The minute they stop, they start dying.

So if you're a well-educated writer, whether you have an MFA, or just a stack of dog-eared craft books and a full RSS feed, get over this idea that you're "done". There's always more to do.

Even if you've accepted that learning is a lifelong process, there may still be a lesson for you to learn about diligence. You may be the best writer you can be, but each piece you write must go through a similar process of forging to become the best piece it can be. Just because you're a hardworking author doesn't mean you crap gold. Even successful authors need to edit. Every word should be questioned.

Forget "good enough". "Good enough" is for losers. Make your writing as good as you can, no matter how much work it takes. You can't expect devotion from readers if you don't plan to repay them in kind (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!). People can tell when an artist is resting on his laurels.

Furthermore, diligence is about finding the writing habit. Figure out what your peak hours are in a given day, and try to use them for writing. Figure out what habits, settings, and motifs put you in a diligent state of mind. Writing is art, but it's also work. In fact, it's mostly work.

Get to it.

Bonus Virtue: Hope

Though it's not listed among the classical Heavenly Virtues, in my preliminary readings for this article, I encountered several mentions of the idea of hope.

Hope is a uniquely human phenomenon (as far as we know). Hope is a happiness that looks to the future. Animals, smart as they may be, are governed first by instinct. Instinct lives in the present. Instinct is either satisfied now, or it desires something now.

Humans, however, willingly sacrifice in the present to store up treasures in the future. Looking fondly to that future is what we call hope.

As a writer, you must always have hope that you will succeed. You must hope that you become the best writer you can be. You must hope that you will land a literary agent, or successfully market your self-published book. You must hope that readers see and hear what you're trying to show them.

And a good writer will instill hope in her readers. Sad endings and negative character arcs have artistic merit, but in the end, readers are unlikely to return to an author that makes them feel like shit. If you use a negative character arc to teach the reader a hard lesson, you should at least leave them feeling like they're better people for having learned it. If you make them feel like they're a shitty person living in a shitty world, they won't be lining up to buy your next book.

Maybe people deserve to feel shitty. Maybe you believe that. But even if they do, the don't want to, and that means they're not going to willingly subject themselves to something that makes them feel that way.

Is that the kind of writer you want to be? Someone who readers unwillingly subject themselves to? If that's you, you're probably not reading this.

Good books give us hope, even if it's bittersweet. Keep that as your goal, and you'll never stray too far from the virtuous path.

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Well? What did you think? Was I too harsh on the sins? Are the virtues naiive? Let me know in the comments!