Learning How to Write Fiction: The Storytelling Project

On this blog, I usually have a “learning project” going on where I apply the more abstract success concepts that I write and teach.

For my latest experiment, I’m trying to become a published fiction writer in less than 1 year, with no connections and no experience.

I’m a decent non-fiction writer (else I wouldn’t be able to blog full-time), but fiction is a completely different monster.

Even if you aren’t interested in writing fiction, I encourage you to look through the post. The main concepts can be applied to learn any discipline.

For starters, here’s a rough like at what I do when learning a new skill:

  • Build a mental model. I want to understand (generally) how the discipline works as a whole. What are the moving parts? How to they work together?
  • Build a bullshit filter. In any discipline, there are many ways to be successful, but the failures all tend to make the same few mistakes. I want to train myself to detect these mistakes.
  • Do a 80/20 analysis. Not all parts in a machine are of equal importance. What are the most important parts that make it run?
  • Set an end goal. Tie theory to practice by setting a tangle “end goal.” How can I take a discipline like “writing fiction” or “learning to sing” and associate it with tangible outcomes (publish a novel, achieve a score of X in karaoke, etc.)?
  • Design a process. Reverse engineer from the end goal to get mid- and short-term goals. Then, build a daily practice.
  • Execute and reflect. Reflect periodically on your process and/or goals. Make tweaks if necessary.

I’ve used this basic framework in language learning, programming, martial arts, and all sorts of other areas.

I’m currently ~2 weeks into the Storytelling Project. What follows is look at how I applied the above principles to the discipline of storytelling.

Build a Mental Model: Understand Storytelling

The first thing I want to do when I learn something is to understand how it works.

I’ve always been a terrible storyteller. I’d try to tell my friends something that happened to be, but I’d see their bored faces and then give up halfway.

Yet now, two weeks into the project, I understand how stories work. I’m currently reviewing two drafts, and I have a few pages of story ideas. The idea of storytelling isn’t intimidating anymore.

Here’s what I did.

I went through 10-20 books highly recommended books on the subject of storytelling and writing fiction. As I read and took notes, I realized that, although all these writers had their own views on the craft of writing, there were a few key concepts that were universal.

Now, I can “see” these concepts show up in the stories I read.

The books that helped me the most:

Note: At this stage, it’s important to find sources you trust. For choosing books, I use the “skin-in-the-game” filter. I want to make sure the books I read are (1) written by real writers (not professors) and (2) that it comes highly recommended by good writers.

Build a Bullshit Filter: The Not-To-Do List

Ask 100 different writers to tell a story, and they’ll tell it in 100 different ways. But hand them a “bad” story—something that will never get published—and they’ll all point out the same reasons.

A lot of people start by looking at what to do when learning a skill, but I think it’s even more important to look at what not to do.

This lets me draw the “boundary lines” that I must not cross when learning. Everything else is fair game. This helps me feel like I’m not being restricted by a set of rigid rules.

What I’m using here:

Do a 80/20 Analysis

Again, there are probably an infinite number of ways you could approach becoming a writer, but not all of them are equal.

If I’d taken the “standard” path to full-time blogging, It would’ve taken me years, not months.

A lot of writers (with nothing published) on the internet will say: “Just read and write. Then, read and write some more.” This is terrible advice—only the luckiest of writers of that crowd will ever make it.

Since I’m only two weeks into this project, I’m still working on the 80/20, but here are two things I’ve picked up:

  • Focus on the essentials. Some things (plot, characters, setting) are essential to a good story. Other things (a particular structure, cliffhangers, etc.) are not. Focus on baking the cake, not on the icing.
  • Simple language works. Hemingway. I can spend a lot of time learning rarely-used vocabulary but, at the present moment, it seems like a lot of effort for little return.

Set an End Goal

“Learn storytelling” is an abstract concept.

To make sure I don’t cheat myself, I wanted to connect this abstract concept to something tangible—a black and white goal where I know 100% if I’ve failed or succeeded.

After some thinking, this is what I came up with:

  • End goal: Publish a professional short story in a magazine in 2017.

Note: To keep myself honest, I’ve defined “professional” as an article sold for at least $0.10 per word. This is the equivalent of $500 for a short story of 5000 words or $100 for one of 1000 words.

I chose 2017 because, looking at some case studies from other writers, it took new writers anything from 10-40 stories written before they started getting published. With ~40 weeks left in the year at the time I started this project, it felt just about right.

As for why I chose short stories and not a novel, it’s simple: a novel takes longer to write.

Design a Process

Okay, so I’ve set my end goal.

What are things that I must do in order to achieve my goal?

  • Write a short story each week and submit it.
  • Learn how to write fiction well, so someone will actually publish my work.

Again, writing can be divided into skills that can be taught (aka “craft”) and the skills that cannot be taught. When learning, it’s important that I hit on both of these.

Here are the three activities I’m currently using to do this:

  • Study the craft. Use active reading of instructional texts to learn the part of writing that can be taught.
  • Critique bad writing. Read writing from amateurs and take notes on why it is bad. This includes (1) noticing poor technical skills and (2) noticing how the writing does or does not affect my emotions.
  • Absorb good writing. Read stories that respected writers generally consider good.

My hope is that, by keeping a healthy diet of both good and bad writing, I’ll develop a natural sense of what makes a story good or bad.

My Daily Writing Schedule

With all of the above in mind, here’s what my daily writing schedule looks like.

  • Write for 60 minutes.
  • Critique at least one short story.
  • Read at least one good short story.
  • If I have time, study the craft of writing.

You’ll notice that the time requirements here are a lot less intense than some of my other projects, as I’m also writing full-time for the blog.

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I hope that gives an idea of what the learning process looks like! I’ll be checking in periodically to post progress and updates to the method.

Cheers.

Sense Journaling: A Powerful Creative Writing Technique

Fiction and non-fiction are both writing, but mastery in one does not equal mastery in the other. Non-fiction tends to be analytical and rational. Fiction, though, goes much closer to our core.

Fiction is about senses.

This is one reason why creative writing is so hard to learn. We spend most of the time in our analytical minds. To write good fiction, we need to unlearn. We need to train ourselves to see the world past memes and cliches and surface patterns.

That’s where creative writing exercises can be useful.

What follows is an exercise I found in From Where You Dream, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler.

Most journaling is counterproductive. Most journals are repositories of great swatches of abstraction and generalization and self-analysis and interpretation and all that bad stuff. Don’t do that. But here’s a certain kind of journal that might be useful to you:

At the end of the day or the beginning of the next day, return to some event of the day that evoked an emotion in you. Record that event in the journal. But do this only—only—moment to moment through the senses. Absolutely never name an emotion; never start explaining or analyzing or interpreting an emotion. Record only through these five ways I mentioned that we feel emotions—signals inside the body, signals outside the body, flashes of the past, flashes of the future, sensual selectivity—which are therefore the best ways to express emotions. Such a journal entry will read like a passage in a novel, like the most intense moment-to-moment scene in a novel.

Here it is again:

  • Record some emotional event using only moment to moment senses
  • Do NOT name emotions (“I was scared”)
  • Do NOT analyze or interpret (“It was a strange feeling”)

Use only the five ways we feel emotions to do the writing.

The five ways are:

  • Signals in the body. Temperature, heartbeat, lungs, muscles, nerves, etc.
  • Signals outside the body. Gestures, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.
  • Flashes of the past. Not analyses but what Butler calls “bursts of waking dream.”
  • Flashes of the future. More dream bursts, but as premonitions of what might happen. Again, not analytical.
  • Sensual selectivity. What we sense from the world around us, filtered by the emotions. (The same thing can look very different to two people.)

Try doing this consecutively for a few weeks. Butler says you should start slipping into a meditative “dreamspace” where you can write directly from experience and not from your analytical mind.

For more excellent writing advice from a real, working writer, check out Butler’s entire book here.

Recommended Reading From Readers

Last week, I asked readers to send me their favorite “big idea” books that changed how they see the world.

 

The list is below.

 

Philosophy

Psychology

Business
Other

Fiction

A big thank you to Guilherme, Brier, Drew, Derran, Veronika, Miriam, Eric, Kasim, Alex, Tom, Mike, Dave, Josh, Matthew, Paul, Austin, and Renier for sending in your submissions.

If you think a book should be added to this list, email me at charles {at} marketmeditations [dot] com.

Note: I’ve purposely left out books I feel uncomfortable listing. 

Note #2: If you click a link and buy a book, a small percentage of the purchase will go towards supporting my writing. This doesn’t cost you anything extra. Thanks 🙂

Mental Models: The Complete List

This is a list of mental models I find repeatedly useful.

According to billionaire investor Charlie Munger,

“80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.”

Before the list, a quick look at mental models and why they matter.

What is a Mental Model?

Put simply, a mental model is a tool to help us understand the world.

The world is too complex for our brains to deal with. Every second, we are bombarded with millions of bits of information in the form of sights, sounds, tastes and thoughts. We can’t process it all, so our brains simplify. Some of this happens automatically, some of it can be trained.

Humans aren’t perfect. When we simplify, we take shortcuts. These shortcuts lead to mistakes.

It isn’t hard to imagine how these mistakes can cause problems. You might blow your life savings on something you don’t understand. You might say something you don’t mean and ruin a relationship.

Mental models help calibrate us to reality. By assembling different ways of looking at the world, we are less likely to get stuck in a single form of biased thinking. By understanding the ways people make mistakes, we can use that knowledge to make fewer mistakes ourselves.

It’s no wonder Charlies Munger calls mental models the key to “elementary, worldly wisdom”.

How to Use This List

Just skimming through this list won’t do you much good.

To get the real benefit of mental models, they must become a part of you. That happens through practice—you must use these models on a daily or near-daily basis.

Use the points in this list as a jumping point for your own research.

Note: This list is, and always will be, a work in progress. If something is missing on incorrect, please contact me at: charles {at} marketmeditations {dot} com.

Mental Models from Mathematics

General Mathematics

  • Basic Algebra.
  • Extrapolation.

Elementary Probability & Statistics

Related Reading: How to Lie With Statistics, Fooled by Randomness.

  • Power laws. Winner-take-all effects. A few books will make up 80% of the sales in a year. A few people own 80% of the wealth in the world. (Related: Pareto principle, 80-20 rule, long tail)
  • Normal distribution. (Related: standard deviation)
  • Fat-tailed distributions. 
  • Correlation vs causation. Overweight people seem to eat more meat. Does that mean meat causes obesity?
  • Reversion to the mean. 
  • Outliers.
  • Bayes rule.

Accounting and Finance

  • Compound Interest.
  • Depreciation. 
  • Interest.

Mental Models From Hard Sciences

Models from physics, chemistry and engineering.

  • Autocatalysis. Munger: “If you get a certain kind of process going in chemistry, it speeds up on its own. So you get this marvelous boost in what you’re trying to do that runs on and on. Now, the laws of physics are such that it doesn’t run on forever. […] You accomplish A—and, all of a sudden, you’re getting A + B + C for a while.” (Related: momentum, inertia, critical mass )
  • Activation energy. The minimum amount of energy you need to start a reaction. Useful for thinking about startup costs in business, jumpstarting behavioral change, going viral on the internet, etc. (Related: MED, critical mass)
  • Half life. The time it takes for a value to reach half of it’s original.
  • Equilibrium.
  • Backup system. Insurance. Generators. 
  • Breakpoints.
  • Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
  • Feedback loops.

Mental Models From Biology and Physiology

  • Hormesis. Nothing is inherently bad or good. In small enough doses, something “toxic” is actually beneficial. Examples include exercise, vegetables, alcohol, radiation, etc. (Related: antifragility)
  • Supercompensation. Periods of stress followed by rest can accelerate growth. (Related: progressive overload, post-traumatic growth)
  • Homeostasis. (Related: set point)
  • Evolution. (Related: competition, creative destruction)
  • Atrophy. Use it or lose it. (Related: memory, generation effect, aging)
  • Acute vs chronic stressors.

Mental Models from Psychology

These are mental models for the psychology of individuals.

Charlie Munger:

“The psychology of misjudgment is a terribly important thing to learn. **There are about 20 little principles.** And they interact, so it gets slightly complicated. But the guts of it is unbelievably important.”

How the Mind Works

  • The elephant and the rider.

Influence

In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini has 6 main ways that our psychology is influenced.

  • Reciprocation.“You scratch my back, I scratch yours.” Tit for tat. If someone feels like you’ve done them a favor, they get the urge to pay you back.
  • Commitment and consistency. “That’s just not who I am.” People want to look like they are consistent in their actions and choices. They also like to see this in other people. (Related: confirmation bias, sunken cost fallacy, choice-supportive bias)
  • Social proof. Monkey see, monkey do. Keeping up with a Joneses. “But all my friends are doing it.” People will do what people around them are doing.
  • Liking. “But he told me he loved me.” It is easier to manipulate or convince somebody if they like you first.
  • Authority. “A Harvard PhD said it, so it must be true.” We may blindly follow authority figures without thinking for ourselves. (Examples: holocaust, Milgram experiment)
  • Scarcity.“On sale for the next 24 hours!” We value scarce things more. Examples: banned books, limited edition items, 24 hour sales, etc.

Other models:

  • Overconfidence effect. 93% of drivers think they are better than average. We believe we are better than we actually are.
  • Availability heuristic. “I am more likely to die from a terrorist attack than a car accident”  The more easily we imagine or remember something, the higher we will value its importance. This makes us biased to sensationalism and recent news. (Related: Illusion-of-truth effect)
  • Survivorship bias. “He made a lot of money, so he must be doing something right.” 
  • Sunken cost fallacy. “But baby, we’ve come so far already.”
  • Temporal discounting.
  • Anchoring
  • Bias blind spot.
  • Confirmation bias. “I spent all day on Google trying to prove my point.”
  • Fundamental attribution error.
  • Projection bias.
  • Representativeness.
  • Hindsight bias. “I knew it all along”

Logical Fallacies

  • Ad hominem. “John says one plus one equals three.” “Well, John is wrong because he’s an asshole.”
  • Ad ignorantiam. (Argument from ignorance) “Nobody can explain that light strange light in the sky! It MUST be a UFO!” The belief that something is true because there isn’t evidence proving it to be false.
  • Argument from authority. “Well, Professor X has a PhD, so he’s right and you’re wrong.”
  • Argument from final consequences. 
  • Argument from personal incredulity.
  • Begging the question. “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” The question makes an assumption. 
  • Circular reasoning.
  • Straw man.
  • Post-hoc ergo propter hoc. “I was sick. I took medicine and got better. Therefore, the medicine made me better.” “I was sick. I ate some jelly beans and got better. Therefore, the jellybeans made me better.” Just because A comes before B does not mean A caused B.

 

Mental Models From Philosophy

  • Precautionary Principle.
  • Paradigm shift.
  • Skin in the game.
  • Optionality.
  • The expert problem.
  • Logical positivism.

Mental Models From Management

Mental Models From Business

  • Blue ocean vs. red ocean.
  • Disruptive technologies.
  • Reverse engineering.
  • MVP.
  • Agile development.

Mental Models From Science

  • Falsifiability. Statements that can be proven false called “falsifiable”. Only these statements can be considered scientific. Note: This is the OPPOSITE of what we learn in school. (Related: Karl Popper, demarcation problem)

Mental Models From Economics

  • Opportunity cost.
  • Arbitrage.
  • Supply and demand.
  • Comparative advantage.
  • Zero sum.

Behavioral Economics

  • Groupthink.
  • Economies of scale.
  • Diseconomies of scale.

Dealing With Uncertainty

  • The Lucretius Problem

Mental Models From Complex Systems

  • The Minority Rule. “All it takes is a small number of intolerant virtuous people with skin in the game, in the form of courage, for society to function properly.” Examples include halal or organic food, Christianity, language, etc.
  • Emergence. Molecules are not alive but organisms are. In complex systems, bigger parts can take on traits that the smaller parts don’t have.
  • Spontaneous order. Nobody tells my local coffee shop how many donuts to stock in the morning. Complex systems to take on structure without top-down central planning. Examples: markets, cities, anarchy, etc.
  • Wisdom of the crowd. The collected judgments of a group can be more accurate than the judgment of an individual.
  • Second order effects.
  • Butterfly effect.

Other Mental Models

  • Misinterpretation of p-values.
  • Misunderstanding of randomness.
  • Curse of knowledge.
  • Ludic fallacy.
  • Lucifer effect.
  • Porter’s five forces analysis.
  • Top down vs bottom up.

 

Why I’m Taking a 90% Pay Cut to Write Full-Time

Today, I’m really scared.

It’s January 1, 2017. Today, I made a big decision. For the next year of my life, I’m taking a 90% pay cut to make it as a full-time writer.

First, some background.

Three days ago, I got a message from Benjamin Hardy, one of the top writers on Medium and contributor to Time:

Screen Shot 2017-01-01 at 1.21.00 PM.png

I didn’t know what to think. After all, I’ve only been publishing for a few short months. Suddenly, one of the most successful guys in the business is telling me that I am going to blow up in 2017!

The very next day, I get an email from Chad Grills, editor of The Mission—one of the top 3 publications on Medium, with over 200,000 regular readers:

I saw my friend recommend your latest piece on Asimov… it’s epic!  If you’d ever like to submit your work, I’d be honored to help promote it.

That’s when it hit me—people like what I write.

Why I Write

Writing is a thankless activity.

Just over three months ago, this blog didn’t exist. Yet, since I started, my writing has gone on to reach millions of people.

The secret to my success? I worked my ass off. In these 3 months, I’ve invested over 700 hours into blogging and writing. As a freelancer, 700 hours would have earned me over $30,000 dollars. As a writer, I didn’t even make $300.

I’m happy to take this pay cut. I want to to take this pay cut.

Why?

Because I believe in the power of ideas.

The Power of An Idea

In my lifetime, I’ve had exactly three life-changing moments.

I don’t mean life-changing like a new home or a new job. I mean life-changing like the world flips upside down, dumps you on your face and then kicks you while you’re down for extra effect.

One of the three was when my girlfriend—the girl I was going to marry—left me for a one-way ticket to South Korea. I didn’t see it coming at all. That event made me re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about the world.

The other two moments weren’t events at all. They were ideas.

Those two ideas were the reason I decided to quit my 9-5 to become a freelancer. I wanted challenges. I wanted to suffer. I wanted to exist.

Now, two years later, those same ideas are the reason I’m quitting freelancing, taking a 90% pay cut, and becoming a full-time writer.

Without those ideas, I would be a completely different person today. I know exactly how a single idea can completely change someone’s life.

Now I want to share that with other people.

Help Make the Dream Happen

Writing doesn’t pay. That’s okay—I don’t care about money. Last year, I spent less than $15,000 and still managed to launch a blog and travel to 6 different countries.

I want to write because it’s the best way I know to help a lot of people.

With that said, I can’t run a blog on passion alone. It takes 250+ hours of my time and hundreds of dollars each month to keep the blog running. If I want to do this seriously, the blog has to be sustainable.

That’s where YOU come in.

Currently, I have 3 months of savings in the bank. In that time, the blog needs to become sustainable.

There are two ways this can happen:

  1. I drown the blog in ads and products that you don’t need to try and keep the blog afloat.
  2. Readers provide support and, in exchange, I have more time to produce valuable content that improves people’s lives.

I really, really, really don’t want to take the first option.

That’s why I’ve launched a campaign on Patreon. Patreon lets readers provide DIRECT support so I can spend less time trying to sell you stuff you don’t need and more time creating content that improves people’s lives.

A small investment of your time (in the form of a pledge) will let me reach thousands of extra people each month.

In exchange for your support, you’ll get access to unique bonuses such as patron-only content, postcards, books I’ve read and other esoteric goodies.

PLUS, you’ll get the gift of my eternal gratitude. Who can put a price on that?

You can become a patron here.

Thank you for reading,
Charles

 

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