Capture Your Imagination
Tips to Writing Fiction
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic is a special request asking for fiction authors to share tips and tricks of their creative writing process for those who have spent more time in nonfiction and technical writing. To many, the art of fictional narrative seems just too far out of reach. Yet I’ve found that good fiction wasn’t so much different from writing these essays. In fact, so many topics we’ve covered here are baked into my fiction.
Introrecently took to Substack Notes asking for insights into writing fiction. As an educator he was looking for: “how to write a short story, how to design a compelling character, how to do plot, settings, etc. You know, the kind of thing many of you fiction writers here at Substack are incredibly good at.” So I decided to take him up on the challenge.
But before we go further, I do highly recommend you join Substack Notes as it’s a fantastic way to see the behind-the-scenes of the authoring community and build relationships, as I have with Alejandro, with amazing people in an environment that is nothing like the other social platforms.
The Foundation of Writing
There’s something else Alejandro said in that same post that I’d like to address first.
Now, I know creative writing is not the same as technical writing, and of course it's very different how you approach learning —or teaching— writing than, say, computer science.
The thing is, I don’t think this is true at all and I think what gets people stuck on writing fiction is the idea that it’s so uniquely different. I’d like to baseline this with the concept of Critical Thinking. We’ve explored this as a trifecta of:
Knowledge Management: Part one of thinking, is the gathering of the proper information and context for the situation.
Logical Construction: The ability to form, uniform, and reform knowledge into logical constructions is part two of thinking.
Critique: Once you’ve got the right knowledge formed logically, you can critique the result on its utility or applicability.
Without going too deep it should follow that this is the basis on which we write technical essays and nonfiction in general. The right knowledge, logically formed, and then evaluated. It’s how Polymathic Being keeps providing those counterintuitive insights through intentional reframing of what often appear to be common topics. In fact, it’s also the foundation of how computer scientists like Alejandro code software. The right algorithms, formed and unformed in modular and composable systems and tested.
This construct creates the essential foundation for all writing from technical to science fiction and fantasy. With this common foundation established, we can start to look at the methods by which fiction emerges.
Writing Fiction with Facts
To those who’ve read my debut novel Paradox, you’ll see that a great many of the topics that are woven in, that create the backbone of the plot, were first explored here on Polymathic Being.
For example, Can AI Be Creative? and The Layers of AI are worked into Chapter 3. Eliminating Bias in AI/ML became a lecture Kira attends in Grad School in Chapter 4. What’s in a Brain is blended across a couple of chapters. The Enemy’s Gate is Down is woven throughout as the characters struggle to conceptualize the world they face and solve wicked problems.
Interestingly AI Computes; Humans Think was written because of what I learned in the book. The Biggest Threat from AI is Us! is a reflection of how I was able to trigger the catastrophe that marks the culminating challenge of the book.
Good fiction needs to be rooted in solid facts. I like to say Paradox is where Science Fiction meets Science Fact. I also found it much easier to write because I’d already written technical essays on these topics for you here and that significantly reduced any interruptions when I got into a flow of writing. If you’re wondering if you’ve been reading essays recently that will be worked into Book 2: Integration, you’d be right!
There’s no ‘right’ way for plot development. Some people follow a J.R.R. Tolkien obsession with world-building where he has more notes than pages in his books. He invented entire languages that can be spoken and written, and there’s almost no detail left undefined.
A word of caution on this route as a classic example of a world-building gone too far is with Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. He kept building a world in ways that did not advance the plot. Jordan died before completing the series, requiring Brandon Sanderson to step in and wrap up a thousand loose threads. It’s a good story but there’s too much there.
Others, like myself, take a less detailed world-building approach. I crafted an outline to work on the general plot. I knew where I was starting and how I wanted it to conclude, and I knew the non-fiction topics I wanted to weave in. The rest relied on one exceptionally valuable adage I heard but can no longer find the source of:
“Good writing should surprise the author”
While the overall plot arc of Paradox remained largely the same, I was constantly surprised by not only the twists and turns that emerged but also the complex relationships of who was causing the twists and turns. I feel like having a well-formed but loosely coupled plot allowed me to explore numerous potentials along the way which made the story better.
Character development is very similar to plot development. Some people create very rich and deep characters that are fully detailed. I think it depends on the genre, to be honest. Romance novels are notorious for high-fidelity characters, but they have few of them and the entire point is a deep emotional connection.
I took a more minimalist approach in Paradox where my two main characters, Kira and Noah, have a developed backstory. The rest do not. I chose not to because it did not advance the plot. In fact, no character exists that does not advance the plot. This was actually one of the more challenging aspects of writing as there are just so many cool things you can imagine and describe that you can get lost in your own mind.
I also took a minimalist approach to character descriptions, choosing instead to rely on the reader’s own profiles and stereotypes to create an image. Often, important characters are known only by their name and position and then their role. For example, Dr. Ethan Odhiambo is a conflicted character who changes sides and is instrumental in helping Kira succeed in the end. So what does this character look like? I’m curious what’s already in your brain.
The key here for any educator helping people learn to write is to also teach them to learn how to leverage and engage the imagination of the readers. The use of words that illicit powerful profiles will do more character development in their minds than you can do with all the words in the world.
A Note on Dialog
The pace and tempo of dialog are often where the budding author gets tangled. Phrases like “He said, She said, He asked, She answered” as indicators of the dialog become frustrating and repetitive very quickly. Instead, first try to reduce the number of speakers so you don’t have to keep reminding people which character is talking and let the dialog flow back and forth comfortably.
Second, turn the tag into an action. Instead of “Kira said” have “Kira pulled her hair behind her ear.” Similarly, you can do things like “Noah looked up sharply, confusion crossing his brow” and “Hector thought for a moment before replying.” Anywhere you might have words like “said” just change into an action that moves the plot and enriches imagination.
Another axiom that’s critical to remember in authoring or anywhere else is one that I crafted a few years ago while leading a team of young engineers:
“The fastest way to fail is to think you can or should do it yourself.”
When I wrote Paradox I spent five years rolling these ideas around in my head and talking to my wife, my cousin, and dozens of other people as I wrangled with the concepts. As mentioned earlier, I also wrote many of these topics into non-fiction and got feedback from all of you here on Polymathic Being to help refine them.
I also studied the writing of authors that I enjoyed. I looked at how Orson Scott Card created his world and I actually borrowed narrative constructs from a Web Serial I’m reading titled The Wandering Inn. I found what I liked and I worked to learn how it was done and then wove it into my own writing.
Lastly, I’d be remiss to not discuss the role of AI, specifically through the advanced Large Language Models that were helpful in both scene and character development. Back in August, we covered the use of AI as a coauthor and its strengths and weaknesses.
Suffice it to say that AI is actually a terrible writer and it wasn’t my voice or style so I can confidently state that Paradox is all my own words. But it was exceptionally useful in helping brainstorm character names, scene settings, and some technical concepts. It helped keep me in a flow state while writing so I wasn’t constantly having to research, write notes, or disrupt the writing. It also helped with editing through tools like Grammarly which significantly reduced the rework as we went to publish.
Writing requires the ability to critically think, needs to be built on a strong grasp of facts, a constant reminder that good writing should surprise the author, and that you can harness the imagination of your readers to world-build better in their own minds than you can on paper.
Fiction is just the art of storytelling applied to this foundation. There are certainly other nuances that we can explore more such as the focus on emotional connection (and manipulation) but for those looking to take the first steps, this is how I did it.
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Further Reading from Authors I really appreciate
I highly recommend the following Substacks for their great content and complementary explorations of topics that Polymathic Being shares.