Bill Bucko

Advice to Fiction Writers

59 posts in this topic

A Forum member recently asked me to comment on his story. Rather than do so, I'd prefer to make some very general remarks--not in response to that specific story, but to a wider problem many fiction writers are facing.

I hope you find them helpful.

=======================

Advice to Fiction Writers

DON'T write to illustrate some application of Objectivism.

Ever.

That's what non-fiction is for.

Instead, tell a STORY that expresses your deepest feelings about life--your sense of life.

You have a chance to re-create the universe in your own image. A fiction writer, Miss Rand once said, is the closest man comes to being God. Don't spoil your chance by creating a letter to the editor or an opinion piece, disguised as fiction.

Find what YOU LOVE, and make your writing a showcase of that love--not a rehash of your philosophy.

Good fiction doesn't even have to be philosophical. Look at O. Henry. Or classic adventure tales such as Anthony Hope's "The Prisoner of Zenda." Or modern masters such as Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, or Donald Hamilton. Or even "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

How much is possible?

Look at "The Scarlet Letter," "The Man Who Laughs," "The Master Builder," or "Cyrano de Bergerac."

No one else who's ever lived, could have written those stories. That's the kind of power you have. Or could have--if you choose to accept it. And devote a lifetime of grueling work to it. If your soul is large enough--if you make it large enough, by being a passionate valuer and independent thinker, from your earliest years--you can create something so deeply rooted in your own thoughts and values that no one else could ever duplicate it. Why settle for yet another story denouncing government regulators?

And the greatest novelist of all?

Ayn Rand wasn't trying to teach you. She was trying to create an ideal man--to PLEASE HERSELF. She started writing "not to save the world, but in order to create the kind of men and events I could like, respect, and admire."

After Michelangelo, many artists became "mannerists," unable to come up with something PERSONAL and ORIGINAL in the great master's shadow.

Please don't be like them.

If you choose to be a writer--the center of your artistic universe should always be your SELF.

Many of Ayn Rand's admirers have taught themselves how to craft a sentence, or a paragraph. Unfortunately, far fewer have learned the function of art: to concretize, not your political beliefs, but your metaphysical value judgments. Far fewer have internalized how deeply personal art has to be, in order to be worthwhile and enduring. Too many aspiring writers preach, rather than express their deepest vision of life.

But “Romantic art is the fuel and the spark plug of a man’s soul," Miss Rand said; "its task is to set a soul on fire and never let it go out.”

Literature is not a soapbox. It's a cathedral.

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Advice to Fiction Writers

DON'T write to illustrate some application of Objectivism.

Ever.

That's what non-fiction is for.

Instead, tell a STORY that expresses your deepest feelings about life--your sense of life.

Mr. Bucko, that was a great post, and is exactly what I went through after reading Atlas Shrugged for about a decade. (This is the kind of topic I love.)

Before discovering AS (and Objectivism) I was a writer of the fantastic, but without rudder or explicit premises. An idea would occur to me and (probably like Stephen King) without question I would simply follow a line and whack it out on my Royal typewriter. Upon discovering AS I made disastrous (and largely subconscious) decisions in my writing that, eventually, wrecked my ability to write. [None of the responsibly rests on Ayn Rand or Objectivism. In fact this happens in many art forms all the time, even in the "lite arts" like popular music, or "popular literature"]

Whatever I was writing before was certainly me if even an unexamined (to borrow from Socrates) me, and even if I would not be able to think about it in that way. But, thereafter, it was a push to, not be me, but to be someone else. My characters suddenly would have to have fancy sounding names, there could be no fantastic elements to it whether it be magic, far-flung science fiction, time travel - you name it. I absolutely had to have an abstract theme as my starting point (like a certain virtue, or the importance of having one's life as one's standard of value). They were imitations of a Gail Wynand, a Howard Roark, a businessman or a ballet dancer. Since this need to do so came from my rationalistic digestion of Objectivism in the first place, such starting points gave me no concrete basis in which to begin to plot a story. A crisis that was its own circle, indeed.

But, those are just the technicalities of the problem, to have this problem flies in the face of the act of artistic creation itself. My writing efforts shortly after AS were some of the worst writing I have ever done or read. They, in retrospect, are some of the most self-embarrassing things to my name.

I should note that this sort of problem is probably more acute with writers influenced by Ayn Rand than any other. AS or TF are not some "groovy" books that one thinks are neat, but life-changing experiences down to one's foundations. So I do not fault, too greatly, anyone, including myself, for inadvertently taking that course.

It was a couple of years ago that I had an epiphany of sorts. I had spent the weekend after getting a big screen TV watching all the Star Wars films, and then my wife got me into the Harry Potter series. When I got, what was then, to the end of the series, I said to my wife: "These are the kind of concretes that I most enjoy on a personal level; since I was seven, I've relished tales of the fantastic." She said: "You should write them then." That is reason enough.

Frankly, Objectivism doesn't exist for me (in an explicit way) when I am thinking about writing anymore. Not that I am to be the next Thomas Mann, but my goal is to satisfy my own self in crafting a story. That is the only standard.

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If you understand your values and virtues explicitly but first hand, then use it. If you haven't lived your values or know what it takes to live them, and where they can take you, then re-creating those values in a story will be difficult.

But certainly don't disregard ethics. It will only help if it is real and genuine to you.

You can certainly start off with an abstract theme. I will one day write a novel for the theme, "the role of philosophy in a man's education.' I need to spend many years thinking about the intellectual side of the issue. Because I start with this theme doesn't mean that my novel will be dull. It can only help me to know my explicit theme twenty years before the story is finally written.

The way I see a writing career, a writing career of a man who is philosophically minded, is that his life revolves around his ethical themes, and one theme takes him to another ... his writing will only reflect that process of life.

For the story about education I just mentioned, it is not the theme that excites me, but the characters I already envision, and the situation I already know they will be in. I already know the last scene, or at least the nature of the last scene, so that I'm almost impatient.

But there are other stories before that. My concern is love and sex right now in fiction. But I would also like to understand the business world more and explicity write short stories about businessmen. I have to grow intellectually before I can write top notch stories about them. And my tribute would be original and sincere.

A doorway into that process right now is to study the mobster as a foil to the businessman, and by that process expose the essential and naked beauty of the businessman.

You will have great difficulty creating and drawing your characters without having access to the power of the science of ethics. It can only help. You have two basic choices in drawing characters: copying what you've seen (including autobiography) or by archetypes according to a moral code.

Maybe this question will help: My hero; what is his code of ethics, does he follow it, what moral value does he represent most--and what is his sense of life--do they clash?

I don't advise you to go out and write stories by saying, " I want to depict my sense of life". If you can identify your sense of life, then you already have the power of conscious ethics.

And why settle for non-ethical stories. O. Henry couldn't write those stories because of his inadequacy. If you know more about life than O. Henry, then don't settle for the first few layers of a man. O. Henry is an interesting specimen. He was a natural and very knowledgeable and erudite. But why never did he write a novel? It's a pity. If you want writing to be a dominant activity of your life, and you know it will, don't settle for short stories; you know too much for it.

Jose Gainza.

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But certainly don't disregard ethics. It will only help if it is real and genuine to you.

Jose Gainza.

I'm not sure if your post was directed at me, or if it was a general "you".

If the former, I can only say that you may have misunderstood what I wrote. I simply meant that I no longer try to approach writing as an exercise in presenting Objectivism. Even the published writers influenced by Objectivism read like this is exactly what they are trying to do. Mr. Cline is the one exception that comes to mind.

I write for my own pleasure - hell or high water if it flies in the face of Objectivism, or what anyone else thinks Objectivism requires in a story. At the time of writing (even of brainstorming) I cannot care about that. That is a separate issue. Maybe I'll reveal something about myself that underlines a misunderstanding of a principle, or I have a bad premise that bubbled up in character construction. I can chew that later, as a completely separate activity.

I would rather read a hundred times a great story championing the rise and victory of Christianity, namely, Quo Vadis, than almost all of the Objectivist inspired stories I have read.

I write to tell the stories that I want to create, with the concretes I want to use, with what I think, as honestly as possible.

I could not begin to even think of writing a story without regard to ethics, but I cut off all strings beforehand. I won't even touch a piece of Ayn Rand's writing anywhere around the time of writing or planning a work. I won't touch any other author either for the same reason. I'm on break right now because I don't want any taint from finishing the Potter series.

And, of course you can start constructing a novel with an abstract theme, but it is not the only way.

Finally, I think you unnecessarily denigrate the short story. It is not junior level writing, or merely practice. It is a form of literature in its own right. And very difficult to do correctly. Like a novel, it is a story, but it is short, that's all.

BTW: For anyone who may think I am "Rand bashing" here, cut it out. She is my all-time favorite author (and philosopher of course!) bar none. But, because of that, because I demand to be the GOD of my universe, and therefore can have no other gods in it, I have to keep her at arms length when it comes to writing. Like the gravity of a large planet, the pull is too great.

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I would rather read a hundred times a great story championing the rise and victory of Christianity, namely, Quo Vadis, than almost all of the Objectivist inspired stories I have read.

Ayn Rand herself loved Victor Hugo, but he was not an Objectivist. His political premises sucked, but in terms of sense of life and grandness of soul and writing ability, he was a superstar (anyone else read Bug Jargal, his first novel that he wrote at all of age 16?)

I think it's virtually certain that she would have preferred Hugo or O'Henry to those writers that you mention (so would I and practically everyone else.) If you're a supergenius such as Rand, maybe you can integrate an entire philosophic treatise seamlessly into a great novel, but 1) nobody is such a supergenius, and 2) it's already been done. Stories should be enjoyable. Not only that, it's taking too narrowly concrete view of the role of philosophy (which is not a view I am attributing to you) to think that a story should explicitly mention anything about Objectivism or remotely have it as its focus; arguably the best stories are written by men who are, however, demonstrating virtues that can be classified as Objectivist virtues. To superlatively construct a good story is demonstrating the virtues of honesty, integrity, and productiveness, and overall, rationality - but a superlatively constructed good story can be on a literally infinite spectrum of plots and themes, content-wise.

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I think it's immensely important, if one is going to take on the job of writing fiction, that one choose a subject matter that one is personally interested in. A lot of Objectivists I know are big sci fi fans, for example, but my first love in fiction has long been the detective or mystery story. I derive the greatest joy, when reading the Harry Potter books, or watching TV shows like Lost or 24, in slowly discovering what the mystery is and then being so engaged by the story that as the mystery is revealed my enjoyment increases. If those stories have philosophical points to make, that's just fine, but it's not why I enjoy the stories.

The main problem with "literary" fiction these days is there are no STORIES, only dreary episodic events. Detective/mystery fiction appears to me to be the only genre that still cares about story. It's not surprising the genre is so popular.

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A quick remark about short stories:

I think a writer should aim for long fiction, however length it takes to present his theme. Short stories are difficult. They are difficult because they are short. Too many short stories should have been longer. A short story may be enjoyable, but the enjoyment one finds does not mean that the story is adequate in length. You can't do much with a short story. There is just not enough room.

It is interesting that Poe found that the short story came into existence because in the industrial revolution people were too busy to sit down and read long novels, so the person who could be entertaining in short space, was needed, since art is always needed to fuel a society. The problem is more severe today, especially with the threat from television and movies.

But a writer should still aim to write a novel because in a longer space he can create a bigger universe and more giants.

Jose.

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I would rather read a hundred times a great story championing the rise and victory of Christianity, namely, Quo Vadis, than almost all of the Objectivist inspired stories I have read.

Ayn Rand herself loved Victor Hugo, but he was not an Objectivist. His political premises sucked, but in terms of sense of life and grandness of soul and writing ability, he was a superstar (anyone else read Bug Jargal, his first novel that he wrote at all of age 16?)

[...]

It was my first Hugo story, and it is superlative!!! Hugo's writing is genius!

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I think a writer should aim for long fiction, however length it takes to present his theme. Short stories are difficult. They are difficult because they are short. Too many short stories should have been longer. A short story may be enjoyable, but the enjoyment one finds does not mean that the story is adequate in length. You can't do much with a short story. There is just not enough room.

A science fiction writer once wrote (read it years ago, I don't recall who it was) that short stories are significantly more difficult than novels; it forces a writer to be economical with his words and ideas yet tell a complete story in a small space. Even more difficult is the "short short", like a page or two. Robert Heinlein was, with his amazing talent, one of those writers who could do all of it. (I note with a bit of pride that my first submission to Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine was a short-short written around age 12 that actually got a personal rejection notecard from George H. Scithers, then the editor. :D Most rejections are pre-printed form letters.)

From a publishing standpoint, short stories are generally published in magazines, which are limited in number and limited in space. There aren't really practical limits on the number of novels that can be published, so that's another factor.

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Even more difficult is the "short short", like a page or two.

Ever read Fredric Brown? If not, get From These Ashes, the complete collection of his short science fiction writing. He has numerous ones that are a half page and less.

I can't remember where I read his shortest, I can't seem to find it again, but I believe it was two sentences and it encapsulated in the smallest space the essence of his science fiction writing: it went something like this. "The last man on Earth sat on his couch. There was a knock on the door." Not very profound, but he always had that touch of the unexpected.

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You can't do much with a short story. There is just not enough room.

Unless you're O'Henry.

Or, in verse, a poet. My own---

Life

The foolish hand but air does hold;

The reckless, blood and scars;

The sure one pockets all the gold

And steers the man to the stars.

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Or, in verse, a poet. My own---

Life

The foolish hand but air does hold;

The reckless, blood and scars;

The sure one pockets all the gold

And steers the man to the stars.

It's not quite as poetic, but I've always liked this:

The meek shall inherit the Earth.

The rest of us shall go to the stars.

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The point is that a poem, even Brian Faulkner’s, or a short story, even O. Henry’s, cannot give the soul what a novel can, like those of Ayn Rand’s or Hugo, namely as full as possible of a confirmation or denial of the man’s metaphysical value-judgments.

A poem, or short story, is simply not an adequate model for a moral ideal, or even one single principle, or sub-principle, or sub-sub principle, of a moral ideal.

A writer should strive to express his metaphysical value-judgments, and since humans are involved, he will best do this, and you will find this in all levels of the aspects of a novel, with the aid of, and reference to, his code of ethics. If a writer is not in this state of mind consciously, then if we are at all moved, and can relate to his expressed value-judgments, then it is his sense of life that is responsible for it.

If a writer has been provided with the tools to be in control of his sense of life, then he should seek consciously to express his evaluation of the good. Ethics provides you with a wide gamut of options to tell a story. And it is my belief that only ethics allows you to be so rich.

A writer may reach the stage where he has to decide to give up telling his stories, because he has accepted that he is not good enough, not effective enough. But a writer has at least a couple of decades before he has to decide that.

The more important the abstract theme, the more people it could (should) reach. Even a young intellectual can succeed in expressing a moral theme. A young intellectual still knows what he knows, and that will be the limits of his ambition and triumph; yet that writing can still be effective. We should judge him according to how well he succeeds in portraying his morality in an interesting story. We should go into a story wanting this, unless at the outset are needs are otherwise. But when our needs change an we need intellectual profundity and high stakes, only a longer and serious work can adequately achieve that, and the more profound the more it affects within us.

Your soul is better off to have read Atlas Shrugged five times than The Gift of the Magi five times. Much much more.

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The way I see a writing career, a writing career of a man who is philosophically minded, is that his life revolves around his ethical themes, and one theme takes him to another ... his writing will only reflect that process of life.
You have missed the point. Life is not for revolving around ethical themes. Life is for living. Art is not "the selective recreation of reality, according to the artist's philosophy." It is "the selective recreation of reality, according to the artist's metaphysical value judgments."
The point is that a poem, even Brian Faulkner’s, or a short story, even O. Henry’s, cannot give the soul what a novel can ...
So what? Vitamins can't give the body what proteins can. They're both valuable, and needed.
... namely as full as possible of a confirmation or denial of the man’s metaphysical value-judgments.
Again, you seem to have missed the point. "Philosophy" does not equal "metaphysical value judgments."
And why settle for non-ethical stories. O. Henry couldn't write those stories because of his inadequacy ... But why never did he write a novel? It's a pity.
Because reality does not have a big stone tablet commanding: "Thou shalt not write non-ethical stories." (And non-ethical is not a good term; there's plenty happening, ethically, in O. Henry's stories.) O. Henry was not inadequate--at what he wanted to do. And why should he want the same thing as you--or anyone else? Art is deeply personal--as every good artist knows. It is NOT a pity that he didn't write a novel. He did what suited him personally, in temperament and imagination.

It's true that the novel has a greater potential than the short story--in most respects. Just as a Romantic symphony has a greater potential than a pop song--in most respects. For a while I listened to Brahms and Rachmaninoff, and forgot about the pop songs I grew up with in the early 1960s. That was a mistake. When I delved again into the songs of Carole King, and Neil Sedaka, and the (early) Lennon and McCartney, I found--I'm not sure how to describe it in words--something like an immediacy and intensity of expression, that Brahms could never give me. I've learned to treasure both.

Your soul is better off to have read Atlas Shrugged five times than The Gift of the Magi five times. Much much more.
Atlas Shrugged is a far better work than "Gift of the Magi."

On the other hand, on any particular day your soul might be better off reading "The Last Leaf" or "By Courier" instead of Atlas Shrugged. That's why we don't read Atlas Shrugged to the exclusion of everything else that's ever been written!

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Whenever I start to attempt a piece of fiction, I struggle: Should I begin planning a novel? or start outlining a short story? As Jose has suggested in Post #7, there is little room to say or do much in a short story. And because of my awareness of that, I start to feel, when I begin a short story, as if I can't "breathe". But when I set out to attempt a novel--which, of course, I never complete--I feel, at the beginning, like I can breathe; but after awhile, I start asking myself: Do I really want to devote such a great deal of my time to this book?

My theory about this indecisiveness is that there is a mind-body split somewhere that I have to resolve. I want to tell stories that present ideas in action, yet at the same time I want to write about people in fresh and unique contexts, situations and settings. Right now, I'm not sure which way to go.

Intellectually, regarding short stories, I believe there should not be some constricting or confining feeling while writing them. I've read some excellent short stories--e.g. "To Build a Fire", by Jack London, "Arena", by Fredric Brown, "Good Copy", by Ayn Rand--that are self-contained, don't need any further "telling", and can say something profound about people. To me, a short story is like a Chopin etude; though I love certain symphonies and concertos by different composers, almost every etude I've ever heard by Chopin is a completely satisfying, through brief, experience; it is, in a way, like the "rush" mountain climbers get from a breath of rationed oxygen. A short story should be the same way.

I short story can be like a mini-Gone With the Wind, a mini-Les Miserables, a mini-I, the Jury, or a mini-Fountainhead.

I just don't know how to pull it off, yet.

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Intellectually, regarding short stories, I believe there should not be some constricting or confining feeling while writing them.

Given what you said, this might be going way out on a limb (sorry if it's completely wrong), but perhaps you're reluctant to finish the stories because you fear that they won't be good enough? If it's that, then explicitly recognizing it gives you a handle on addressing it. From a psychological standpoint, I think even a mediocre finished story is better than a half-written story with a great beginning that never gets finished. Eventually that leads to the great finished story.

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Something about metaphsyical value-judgments:

Aren't they answers to questions such as whether the universe is knowable or not--whether man's mind is efficacious to deal with it--whether man has free will--whethr man deserves to be happy and whether his success is possible?

Certainly these are philosophical questions. They do not exhaust all of philosophy but they are nothing else but philosophy. And so in a sense metaphysical value-judgments is philosophy.

Art expresses the former consciously or subconsciously. A student of Objectivism is in a good position to be in control of that expression. He can reach the point where, whether he lets his subconscious go on a stream of inspiration or giving carefully conscious expression, he can be expressing the same sense of life (a.k.a metaphysical value-judgments).

I love O. Henry. I love Brian Faulkner's poetry. I have conflicts myself. I guess my point to Bill Bucko's initial statements is that just because one finds oneself expressing Objectivism in dialogue or narrative, does not mean one is no succeeding in telling an exciting story. Whether that Objectivsm is supported by the action and the characterization, and warranted by it, is what is important.

I learned to appreciate stories that don't provide a support of Objectivism. One can do that only when one knows a little bit about the complexities of the aspects of a work of literature. One starts to appreciate the virtuosity of a writer and at the same time be swept by the story, so that one finds enjoyment in both aspects, and one has trouble choosing between the two modes.

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Whenever I start to attempt a piece of fiction, I struggle: Should I begin planning a novel? or start outlining a short story? As Jose has suggested in Post #7, there is little room to say or do much in a short story. And because of my awareness of that, I start to feel, when I begin a short story, as if I can't "breathe". But when I set out to attempt a novel--which, of course, I never complete--I feel, at the beginning, like I can breathe; but after awhile, I start asking myself: Do I really want to devote such a great deal of my time to this book?

My theory about this indecisiveness is that there is a mind-body split somewhere that I have to resolve. I want to tell stories that present ideas in action, yet at the same time I want to write about people in fresh and unique contexts, situations and settings. Right now, I'm not sure which way to go.

Intellectually, regarding short stories, I believe there should not be some constricting or confining feeling while writing them. I've read some excellent short stories--e.g. "To Build a Fire", by Jack London, "Arena", by Fredric Brown, "Good Copy", by Ayn Rand--that are self-contained, don't need any further "telling", and can say something profound about people. To me, a short story is like a Chopin etude; though I love certain symphonies and concertos by different composers, almost every etude I've ever heard by Chopin is a completely satisfying, through brief, experience; it is, in a way, like the "rush" mountain climbers get from a breath of rationed oxygen. A short story should be the same way.

I short story can be like a mini-Gone With the Wind, a mini-Les Miserables, a mini-I, the Jury, or a mini-Fountainhead.

I just don't know how to pull it off, yet.

Jim, it sounds like you really love short stories (I agree with what you say about Chopin's etudes, by the way). So, why not tell yourself that you're not even going to consider writing a novel right now? Give all your time, energy, love and attention to writing a story you would like to read, and when you are done one start another with the aim of making it better than the one before. Give up the struggle of novel? or short story? If you write ten short stories and just one is so good it makes you feel immensely proud, whether anyone knows it or not, you'll be able to look in the mirror and say, "Yes, I have written a damn good story!"

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If you understand your values and virtues explicitly but first hand, then use it. If you haven't lived your values or know what it takes to live them, and where they can take you, then re-creating those values in a story will be difficult.

But certainly don't disregard ethics. It will only help if it is real and genuine to you.

You can certainly start off with an abstract theme. I will one day write a novel for the theme, "the role of philosophy in a man's education.'

That would make an interesting subject for non-fiction, but that's not sufficient for fiction. For fiction you need a story. A story is about people seeking values and whether or not they get them. A theme isn't necessary, but a value quest always is.

I need to spend many years thinking about the intellectual side of the issue. Because I start with this theme doesn't mean that my novel will be dull. It can only help me to know my explicit theme twenty years before the story is finally written.

The way I see a writing career, a writing career of a man who is philosophically minded, is that his life revolves around his ethical themes, and one theme takes him to another ... his writing will only reflect that process of life.

But that is true of a non-fiction writer on ethics, history, other other subjects in the humanities.

For the story about education I just mentioned, it is not the theme that excites me, but the characters I already envision, and the situation I already know they will be in. I already know the last scene, or at least the nature of the last scene, so that I'm almost impatient.

But there are other stories before that. My concern is love and sex right now in fiction. But I would also like to understand the business world more and explicity write short stories about businessmen. I have to grow intellectually before I can write top notch stories about them. And my tribute would be original and sincere.

A doorway into that process right now is to study the mobster as a foil to the businessman, and by that process expose the essential and naked beauty of the businessman.

You will have great difficulty creating and drawing your characters without having access to the power of the science of ethics. It can only help. You have two basic choices in drawing characters: copying what you've seen (including autobiography) or by archetypes according to a moral code.

Maybe this question will help: My hero; what is his code of ethics, does he follow it, what moral value does he represent most--and what is his sense of life--do they clash?

Try asking, "What does my hero want? Why does he want it? What stands in the way of him getting it? Can he overcome these obstacles? How?" Questions like that will set you on the path of writing a story rather than an essay on ethics.

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But a writer should still aim to write a novel because in a longer space he can create a bigger universe and more giants.

If I were writing fiction (or even telling a real story, which I love to do) how much I have to say would determine the length of the piece. If I had a little to say, it would be a short story. My goal would always be to tell a good story even if it were a small one.

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If a writer has been provided with the tools to be in control of his sense of life, then he should seek consciously to express his evaluation of the good. Ethics provides you with a wide gamut of options to tell a story.

I don't understand how someone can be "in control" of his sense of life. A sense of life is an emotion and, as such, is automatic. In fact, it is a profound automatic summing-up of a person's real, actual view of life, the world, and his place in it right now. It is not the view he will have tomorrow or the view he wants to have or believes he should have.

I have seen people try to write stories with a "correct" sense of life instead of what automatically flows out of their own souls and the sad results are labored, phony, unconvincing, and preachy.

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Something about metaphsyical value-judgments:

Aren't they answers to questions such as whether the universe is knowable or not--whether man's mind is efficacious to deal with it--whether man has free will--whethr man deserves to be happy and whether his success is possible?

Certainly these are philosophical questions. They do not exhaust all of philosophy but they are nothing else but philosophy. And so in a sense metaphysical value-judgments is philosophy.

I think the confusion here may be between psychology and philosophy. A metaphysical value-judgment is an emotion or, more precisely, an emotional sum. It may or may not be caused by explicit philosophy and, if a person is a professional intellectual, his sense of life may lead to an explicit philosophy, but, for the most part, a sense of life is a complex, automatic, personal, emotional attitude toward life.

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If you understand your values and virtues explicitly but first hand, then use it. If you haven't lived your values or know what it takes to live them, and where they can take you, then re-creating those values in a story will be difficult.

But certainly don't disregard ethics. It will only help if it is real and genuine to you.

You can certainly start off with an abstract theme. I will one day write a novel for the theme, "the role of philosophy in a man's education.'

That would make an interesting subject for non-fiction, but that's not sufficient for fiction. For fiction you need a story. A story is about people seeking values and whether or not they get them. A theme isn't necessary, but a value quest always is.

I need to spend many years thinking about the intellectual side of the issue. Because I start with this theme doesn't mean that my novel will be dull. It can only help me to know my explicit theme twenty years before the story is finally written.

The way I see a writing career, a writing career of a man who is philosophically minded, is that his life revolves around his ethical themes, and one theme takes him to another ... his writing will only reflect that process of life.

But that is true of a non-fiction writer on ethics, history, other other subjects in the humanities.

For the story about education I just mentioned, it is not the theme that excites me, but the characters I already envision, and the situation I already know they will be in. I already know the last scene, or at least the nature of the last scene, so that I'm almost impatient.

But there are other stories before that. My concern is love and sex right now in fiction. But I would also like to understand the business world more and explicity write short stories about businessmen. I have to grow intellectually before I can write top notch stories about them. And my tribute would be original and sincere.

A doorway into that process right now is to study the mobster as a foil to the businessman, and by that process expose the essential and naked beauty of the businessman.

You will have great difficulty creating and drawing your characters without having access to the power of the science of ethics. It can only help. You have two basic choices in drawing characters: copying what you've seen (including autobiography) or by archetypes according to a moral code.

Maybe this question will help: My hero; what is his code of ethics, does he follow it, what moral value does he represent most--and what is his sense of life--do they clash?

Try asking, "What does my hero want? Why does he want it? What stands in the way of him getting it? Can he overcome these obstacles? How?" Questions like that will set you on the path of writing a story rather than an essay on ethics.

1. I don't see how you can say that my theme is not appropriate for a story, without knowing my context. You assume that I don't know what Ayn Rand has to say about the craft of writing, it seems. Surely if the theme of Atlas is sufficient for a story, then surely that philosophy is important to a man's education is sufficient. I know what it takes to tell a good story. I know about conflict, etc. I know. Just to clarify, it's not about philosophy being important to one man's education but to all men's. Whether you agree or not doesn't matter, so long as I succeed in telling a STORY with that theme. And of course, there's nothing wrong with starting with a theme. You will always need a theme, or you will express a theme; it's better to have a conscious theme. It's not that difficult.

2. Yes, it is true of non-fiction and other sciences. So what? It can be true of fiction writing. It does not have to hamper the writing of fiction.

3. I'm very well aware of the question you pose and I use it very often. My question is relevant to those who choose to start with ethics. There's nothing wrong with it. And the other thing: Ethics is very important in building characters. Extremely.

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