Misunderstanding Ayn Rand

This article was printed in our newspaper today by Michael Gerson: Ayn Rand’s adult-onset adolescence

The article touches on quite a few things, but I really wanted to comment on one thing, because it shows that Gerson might need to check his premises. He writes:

Rand developed this philosophy at the length of Tolstoy, with the intellectual pretensions of Hegel, but it can be summarized on a napkin. Reason is everything. Religion is a fraud. Selfishness is a virtue. Altruism is a crime against human excellence. Self-sacrifice is weakness. Weakness is contemptible.

First of all, anything can be summarized on a napkin, given that the reader understands the terms involved. But then we have to argue about semantics. What is “reason”? What is “selfishness”? What is “altruism”? What is “self-sacrifice”? I think most readers just take these terms at face value, which leads them to completely misinterpret Rand. For example, if you jump in front of a bullet to save a loved one, many would call that self-sacrifice. But if you love the person, then it’s not actually self-sacrifice, it’s an act of selfishness. Ayn Rand has nothing against you jumping in front of bullets or donating loads of money to charity, etc, if you’re doing it out of your own self-interest. And you can’t truly call yourself compassionate if you’re not doing it out of your own self-interest.

So, a little further down, Gerson writes:

If Objectivism seems familiar, it is because most people know it under another name: adolescence. Many of us experienced a few unfortunate years of invincible self-involvement, testing moral boundaries and prone to stormy egotism and hero worship. Usually one grows out of it, eventually discovering that the quality of our lives is tied to the benefit of others.

Yeah, see that last sentence? Read it again and think about it. You should see Gerson’s misunderstanding pretty easily. If the quality of your life is tied to the benefit of others, then helping them is a selfish endeavor. I guess Gerson agrees with Ayn Rand after all!

Another week of animating and plotting

Animation this week

It’s been kind of a meh week so far. My sleep cycle, which was already all out of whack, has become even more out of whack because I have to wake up at 7 AM to take care of some neighbor’s dogs. Which I don’t mind doing, it just messes up your sleep cycle if you’re going to bed at 3 or 4 AM. So then I have to take a nap later on, and/or get a headache, and/or then stay up even later, or lie in bed not able to sleep, etc… everything just gets messed up. So I haven’t really gotten that much animation work done yet. (I did do some, but it looks awful… I blame fatigue.) So I’m going to try going to bed really early tonight, but I fear I’ll just lie there not able to sleep… worth a try though… doing nothing is always worth a try, and fortunately I have Saturday off this week, so I’ll have that extra 9 hours or so to work on animation.

Book plotting progress

Fortunately book plotting (like blog post writing) I can do at work (when there’s time), so I did get a bit more book plotting done, and I figured out a theme.

I am a strong believer that good stories (at least long-form ones like novels and movies) should have themes, that is, they should say something beyond just the actions of the plot; the plot should mean something. It might be cliche, it might remain unresolved by the story’s end, it might be a bit ambiguous (like “the nature of dreams”), but it should be there. I think I’ve stated this somewhere before on this blog, but the only kind of long-form story that can get away with having no theme at all is the comedy, but even those tend to have little themes (though often cliche; really the comedy itself is the theme).

Ayn Rand, one of my favorite writers, defines what I mean by “theme” here the best: Theme (Literary) in the Ayn Rand Lexicon. Of course, this is by no means a way to objectively judge the art of literature, or a formula… I just agree with it and find it useful.

Anyway, back to the point: I have a theme in mind for The Designers. I’m not yet going to tell you what it is though, ha ha! It’s not a religious theme in and of itself, but it’s sort of philosophically related to religion, so I’m trying to explore different religious and non-religious resources on the matter. I don’t have the entire theme yet; I know I want it to be about X, but I’m not exactly sure what I want to say about X, or what each character will think about X.

So, I consider defining the theme part of plotting, and it’s helping me come up with a really fun ending. Bwa ha ha ha!

Erm… I guess that’s it…

Favorite books on writing

I recently finished a novelette of around 11,400 words.  (I’m using the SFWA‘s definition of a novelette: a story between 7,500 and 17,500 words.)  I think that’s the longest work I’ve ever written and actually finished.  The story is called Dreamgiver, and you might be able to guess what it’s about: a man has the power to give people dreams.  I’m sure it’s been done in fiction somewhere before, but hopefully my story still has some newnesss to it.  I could probably write many more stories from that same idea; I think it leads to a lot of possibilities.  I could probably write a series of novels based on that premise, if I could actually finish writing novels.  I’m not sure the name Dreamgiver is the best, but it’s straight-forward and to-the-point.  It sort of instantly tells you what the story is about.  That said, it does seem just a wee bit cheesy to me.  But then, my writing probably seems cheesy to some people, so I guess it will match.

Anyway, I’m going to send this story through Critters some time to get it critiqued, though I realize I won’t get many (if any) because of it’s length.  Right now my previous short story, No One Was Abendsen, is in line waiting to get critiqued.  I’ll be very interested to see how people react to that story as it was somewhat experimental for me.

I’ve got some other ideas for short stories floating around in my mind, so I’ll probably try my hand at another one before I get back to composing music.

Favorite books on writing

First, I’ll just tell you what the books are:

The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers and The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers by Ayn Rand

Characters & Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

And now I’ll blather about my reasoning:

I think reading books on writing is much easier than actually writing, so I think it can be dangerous for wannabe writers to constantly seek out books on the subject.  They can only be helpful if you actually spend some time writing.  No amount of reading can replace that.  That goes for the other arts as well.  You can’t learn how to compose music by reading music theory books.  You just have to do it.  I think sometimes there’s a fear of failing, so the wannabe artist spends more time reading about the subject than actually practicing it.

Similarly, beware of writing about writing.  I think writing about writing is also easier than actually writing.  There seem to be a lot more people wanting to talk about writing tips and hints and how-to’s and strategies than there are successful authors.  I don’t think that’s necessarily bad in and of itself, people can talk about whatever they want, and even unsuccessful authors can have some very helpful tips.  Just make sure you don’t forget what it’s all for: actually writing.  (On a side note, sometimes it seems like some writers who write about writing just sort of regurgitate advice they’ve heard before and don’t really understand why it exists.  For instance: “show, don’t tell!”  Make sure you filter any writing advice you hear through your own opinionated mind; you are allowed to disagree.  Never blindly follow advice, otherwise you can’t really follow it.)

That said, there are very few books on writing I’ve read all the way through.  Usually I find books on writing to be empty or boring or pointless or simply a collection of regurgitated advice.  I find advice like “make your main character interesting!” completely unhelpful.  Duh, I wanna make my character interesting.  If a writer doesn’t know that intuitively, full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order.  (On a boring a tangent, I hate when people suggest you need to know every tiny little thing about your character, like their eye color and height and shoe size and favorite ice-cream, as if you’re playing The Sims.  That’s great if it helps you, but to me it’s a complete waste of time.)

In my opinion, the best writing books are not actually books on “How To Write”, they are books on “What This Author Thinks About Writing”, and I think that’s the way it should be.  Writing is an art, not physics.  It is guided by people’s tastes and opinions, though some academic writing books might want you to believe otherwise.  Therefore, I think the best writing books for you are the ones written by the authors you already know you enjoy.  For some reason, I think that kind of helps you know where they’re coming from.  Because you already like their fiction, you’ll probably agree with most of the advice the writer gives and the opinions he or she has.

If the only writers you like are ones that have nothing to say about the process of writing, then you’re out of luck.  Too bad; I guess you can never be a writer.

Fortunately for me, that’s not the case.  Two of my favorite authors are Ayn Rand and Orson Scott Card, and they both have books on writing, so those are pretty much my favorite books on writing.

Ayn Rand’s Books on Writing

I can’t say I agree with all of Ayn Rand’s philosophies, but I’ve found her writing to be quite immersive.  In my opinion, she’s fantastic at describing characters’ motivations and attitudes.  Her stories also have very strong themes, which I think is lacking in some of the fiction I read.  So much fiction these days is purely about the action and has nothing to say beyond that.  It’s like the author saw an action movie and just wanted to regurgitate it with different characters.  Anyway, Ayn Rand talks all about themes and how they relate to plotting.

Rand also talks about creating believable characters and dialogue.  Usually I think some beginning writers (I’m obviously a beginning writer too) think those are the easiest things: creating believable characters and dialogue.  Personally I’ve found it difficult.  When you have two characters who have completely different world-views, you really have to get inside their heads for each line of dialogue.  Back and forth and back and forth you have to go between trying to trick yourself into believing things you don’t.  Tricky, in my opinion.  Well, some scenes aren’t, some scenes are pretty fun, especially if you’re writing humor.  Other times, it’s just plain hard.

Finally, Rand talks about style and writing descriptions.  If you’ve read her fiction, you might know she can be very verbose in her descriptions, and in my opinion, it works.  For her.  I think if you try to mimic her, you’ll just come off as being far too wordy.  So, in my opinion, what she has to say about style is very helpful.

Although The Art of Nonfiction is about writing nonfiction, I think a lot she says in that book still applies to writing fiction, so it’s a great companion to the other one.  I won’t blather much about this book, though, because I have a headache.  If you like The Art of Fiction, then The Art of Nonfiction is also worth a read.

Orson Scott Card’s Books on Writing

As I stated above, I find that characters can be quite tricky.  Fortunately, Orson Scott Card wrote an entire book on the subject: Characters and Viewpoint.  However, don’t let the title trick you into thinking this book is about a small subject in fiction.  Characters without stories and stories without characters are extremely hard to find; they’re very strongly linked.  Thus, in my opinion, learning about creating characters is learning how to create a compelling story.  So it’s not like you’d get this book and then say “Oh, now I need a book on plot!” . . . though Card doesn’t talk about it by itself, you’ll still find that it relates strongly to characters (character development, duh!).  That said, this book is part of a series called Elements of Fiction Writing, the other books by other authors.  I found this addition to the series to be the only one worth buying.

Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy lets him deal with the entire subject.  There is just a wee bit of overlap, and Characters and Viewpoint I thought was overall more helpful (for me), but this is still a very worthy mention.

The End

These books aren’t long; they’re all under 200 pages.  I’ve found them so useful that they are among some of the only books I reread every now and then.  They’re the most worth buying, in my opinion, or at least checking out from a library.

To restate what I said above, I think the best books on writing for you will be the ones by writers you enjoy.  I’ve taken a look at many books on writing, and they can certainly get empty and useless.  Above all, don’t blindly agree with what you read in books on writing.  Just because it’s published doesn’t mean you have to like it; you’re allowed to disagree.  There are no “rules” in art, only observations and opinions.  Think for yourself.  Then when you come across a book on writing you do agree with, it will be far more helpful.  Ayn Rand and Orson Scott Card do not agree on all subjects when it comes to writing, as is evident by these books.  So I get to determine who’s right and who’s wrong.  Neener neener.

So writeNow!