How schemas can help you develop better fictional characters.

Few novels can succeed without rich character development. How we identify, or fail to identify, with a story’s characters can determine whether or not we keep flipping the pages.

Writers have different techniques for developing characters. They can be based on persons close to the writer, celebrities, historical characters, or an amalgam of persons with whom the writer has either read about or shared contact.

Our characters’ personalities have a lot to do with how the story unfolds. Like us, they make choices, and those choices have consequences. Whether or not a reader finds a character “believable,” has a lot to do with whether their decisions make sense to us about what we know about them. This is where schemas become important.

The developmental psychiatrist Jean Piaget defined schemas as “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning.” (1) Wadsworth described schema as index cards for the brain. (2) Tompkins and McGee define schema as “a mental bundle of knowledge that holds everything we know about a topic.” (3) Therefore, schema are patterns of thought or behavior, based on collections of acquired knowledge, which influence how we attend to, interpret, or respond to new information. Schema are the lenses through which we experience the world. They allow us to quickly synthesize and respond to new information without complex thought. Once established, schema tend to remain fixed even when challenged with contradictory information. (4)

For example, let’s say you run into a dragon on your way to the store. You know it’s a dragon because under your schema index card for dragons you identify the characteristics of large flying reptiles. Based on books you’ve read, let’s say “The Hobbit,” you have other information filed about dragons, notably that they are dangerous, not to be trusted, and will likely eat you. Based on this schema you have for dragons, your first thought may be, “Oh crap I’m going to die,” and your action might be to run away. Now let’s say your only experience with dragons is the book Eragon. In this case, your schema about dragon behavior may be quite different. You still may be frightened because dragons are a little intimidating, but your first thought might be “Wow, that’s a dragon,” and your first action might be to smile and wave awkwardly. Based on this example can you see how schemas can result in prejudices?

Now think about the characters in your story. What are the seminal experiences that define them?  How do these past events influence their current interaction with others and their environment? Do the character’s words and actions match with what the reader knows about them? As you write, remember that schemas are like personalities: they are difficult to change. If you’re going to change a character’s schema, or make them act in a way contrary to an existing schema, there has to be a good reason for it; if approached intentionally and with care this could result in powerful character development.

  1. Piaget, J., & Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York, NY: International University Press.
  2. Wadsworth, B. J. (2004). Piaget’s theory of cognitive and affective development: Foundations of constructivism. Longman Publishing.
  3. Tompkins G.E. & McGee L.M. (1993) Teaching Reading With Literature Case Studies to Action Plans
  4. Nadkarni, S.; Narayanan, V. K. (2007). “Strategic schemas, strategic flexibility, and firm performance: The moderating role of industry clockspeed.” Strategic Management Journal28 (3): 243–270



Mentalization and how it can you make you a better writer.

In its simplest form, mentalization refers to our ability to perceive another’s way of thinking. Being able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes (as the saying goes), is often more difficult than it sounds. Our ability to understand the internal states of others through their thoughts and feelings can help us better form internal representations of our fictional characters’ minds.

According to psychiatrist Glen O Gabbard, M.D., mentalizing is often referred to as having a Theory of Mind. Having a Theory of Mind starts with understanding one’s own mind. As alluded to above, our thinking and behavior are representational. They are a product of our unique experiences, thoughts, and emotions.

The first step to becoming a better mentalizer is to accept that people think differently and that if we interpret other’s actions through our own “lens” of experience, we may misinterpret their motivations and intentions. This framework gives us the opportunity to see things from another person’s perspective.

Like people we meet, fictional characters also have internal representations of the world. As writers, the better we understand what guides our character’s actions and behaviors, the more believable they will become to our readers. One way to help you learn to mentalize with your characters is to base them on a person in your life. Think about how that person views the world, how they react to various stressors and circumstances, and then apply that to your character. As you become more adept at this process, writing from your character’s perspective will be as easy as changing your shoes. Whether or not your character has the capacity to mentalize is for you to decide :-).


Scientists and Writers. A Lesson from the Engineer Psychiatrist.

“I see you were an engineering consultant before medical school. Psychiatry seems like an odd choice for someone with your background. I would think you might be interested in a more technical medical discipline.”

The applicant shifted slightly in his seat and smiled. “You’re not the first person to ask me that. People don’t realize it, but engineering is less exact than you think. Sometimes things look great on paper, but when you try them out, they don’t work. It takes a lot of imagination.”

“It sounds like it,” I smiled, making a small note in the applicant’s file.

As a Chief Resident in a psychiatry training program, I interview many prospective medical school graduates for residency positions. Psychiatry being an eclectic field, I rarely meet an applicant who does not inspire me in some way.

After the applicant left my office, I thought about the writer and scientist Stephen Jay Gould who famously said, “Science is not a heartless pursuit of objective information. It is a creative human activity, its geniuses acting more as artists than as information processors.”

Writing is an essential component of a scientist’s daily life. In fact, most scientists spend more time writing than conducting experiments. To receive funding, they write grants. To justify their grants, they write research papers. This requires creative tact, as the scientist must translate their findings into something readily digestible for other scientists, and in many cases, non-scientists.

What the scientist and the writer share in common are curiosity and creativity. Most writers spend a significant amount of time doing research. This curiosity allows them to create realistic characters, settings, and plots.  In some cases, the writer’s curiosity can lead him to create ideas that will become realities. Think of visionary scientific writers like Isaac Asimov who predicted many of our modern technological advances.

Requoting the engineer psychiatrist, “Sometimes things look great on paper, but when you try them out, they don’t work. It takes a lot of imagination.” Out of context, this does sound a lot like creative writing, doesn’t it? I guess the writer and the scientist have a lot in common after all.








Writing and the Power of Positive Thinking

Contrary to Popular Culture, Positive Psychology is not about the “The Secret,” or the Law of Attraction.  Martin Seligman defined Positive Psychology as “The scientific study of optimal human functioning that aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive.” Of the scientific research done in this field, the work of Barbara Fredrickson stands out as particularly poignant in showing how positive emotions can facilitate creativity.

In her Broaden-and-Build Theory, Dr. Fredrickson hypothesizes that positive emotions have a way of expanding our thinking, moving our minds from automatic responses to more creative ways of thinking and acting. Some positive emotions that appear particularly important for creativity include joy, interest, contentment, pride, and love.

According to Dr. Fredrickson, joy broadens our creative and intellectual behavior through the urge to play and push the limits. Interest creates in us the urge to explore, assimilate new information and experiences, and expand the self. Contentment, on the other hand, broadens us by creating the urge to savor current life circumstances and integrate them into new views of self and of the world (very helpful in writing). Pride, as seen through the lens of personal achievement, broadens our urge to share with others and expand our vision of future achievements.  Taken together, or apart, these positive emotions help broaden habitual modes of thinking or acting (Fredrickson 2001).

One important observation of Fredrickson’s work is the reciprocal nature of positive emotions and thoughts. Each promotes the other. So, how might we increase our positive emotions and thoughts? Short answer: writing.

Dr. Robert Emmons has written extensively on the power of gratitude in improving contentment and joy. One way to improve gratitude is to journal daily on those things that are positive in our lives or which we are thankful for. This simple practice can have transformative effects and has been shown to improve health and wellness (Emmons & Stern, 2013).

Writing about life goals also seems to cultivate positive thoughts and emotions. In a study by Dr. Laura King, it was found that writing about life goals for four consecutive days was associated with feeling “less upset, more happy, and getting sick less often.” These effects continued to persist five months after the study was completed.

Journaling or reflective writing also appears to have myriad benefits. In studies performed by Dr. Pennebaker, writing freely about past traumas can improve physical and emotional wellness (Pennebaker, 2017). These results appear to be enduring and replicated by other researchers. It is important to note that Dr. King’s research on writing about life goals shows that the content of journaling does not necessarily have to be “traumatic” to elicit positive benefits.

Meditation, specifically Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM), has also been shown to cultivate positive emotions and consequently creative thinking. In a well-designed randomized controlled trial developed by Dr. Fredrickson, participants who engaged in LKM for six weeks, demonstrated enhanced positive emotions in relation to controls. Other benefits of this practice included increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased depressive symptoms (Fredrickson et al., 2008). Follow this link for a daily practice of LKM. Here is an example of a guided LKM.

Fredrickson BL. The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions. Am Psychol . 2001 March; 56(3): 218–226.

Emmons RA, Stern R. Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic intervention. J Clin Psychol. 2013 Aug;69(8):846-55. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22020. Epub 2013 Jun 17.

King, LA. The Health Benefits of Writing about Life Goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2001; 27, 798-807.

Pennebaker, JW. Expressive Writing in Psychological Science. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2017 Sep 1:1745691617707315. doi: 10.1177/1745691617707315. [Epub ahead of print]

Fredrickson BL, Cohn MA, Coffey KA, et al. Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. J Pers Soc Psychol . 2008 November ; 95(5): 1045–1062.

Motivation follows Action: The Psychology of Starting.

“Doctor, I have a great idea for a writing project. I just can’t seem to start.”

Sound familiar?

Starting anything is difficult. Whether it’s a short story, a novel, or even a blog, motivation to start can be elusive. Many of us wait expectantly for motivation to tell us when to start. And there is the problem. Action does not follow motivation, motivation follows action.

According to psychologist Deborah A. Olson Ph.D., “Sometimes the best way to get started is simply to start, and wait for motivation to catch up with you.” So what are some tips for getting started?

  1. Make yourself an appointment. No, not with your psychiatrist, with yourself. 🙂 Giving yourself a time to write, regardless of what does or does not end up on the page is important.
  2. Make it a habit. Like any craft, consistency and practice will help you develop your voice and writing muscle.
  3. Postpone Perfection. Remember, the first draft, or even the second draft does not have to be perfect. What’s important is getting your ideas on the page.
  4. Give yourself a deadline. Notice I didn’t say make your deadline. Setting writing goals for the month, for the week, or even for the day, can help you stay motivated. I rarely meet all my writing goals, but setting them will create momentum and that’s what’s important.
  5. Develop healthy positive fantasies. Fantasies about future success can kindle our motivation to write, but as psychologist Jeremy Dean notes, positive fantasies also leave us unprepared for challenges along the way, which when faced could lead to a decrease in motivation.
  6. Focus on what matters most–writing. I notice when I feel anxious about writing, I will fill my time with busy work. Instead of trying to displace your anxiety, acknowledge it and just write. Remember, cleaning out your email inbox does not bring meaning to your life.

These tips helped me write and revise (multiple times) my first novel and find action and motivation for other writing projects. I hope you find them useful.


The Psychology of Creativity. Theta Brain Waves and Writing.

As a psychiatrist and a writer, I have a particular interest in the psychology and science of creativity. All writers experience “writer’s block” at one time or another. For the Ancients, creativity was believed to come from outside ourselves in the form of muses. We know today that all mental activity, including creativity, is a product of chemical and electrical changes in the brain. Creativity being unpredictable, it is not surprising that our ancestors attributed it to it an external origin. I like to think of creativity more like a geyser opened up from the depths of our sub-conscious. This geyser is the theta wave; and far from being an unpredictable muse, the theta wave can be harnessed and cultivated.

Some of you may have heard of brain waves. Brain waves are associated with different levels of wakefulness and sleep. Alpha (13hz – 8hz) is the brain wave associated with relaxed, daydreaming states of mind; it is the state right before sleep. Theta (8hz – 3hz) brain waves are associated with light sleep, dreaming, creativity, and access to long-term memory. When we put finger to keyboard and the story seems to write itself, we are naturally accessing alpha and theta brainwave states. Writing every day is one way to train our minds to do this. Another way is through meditation.

For the last several years, meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, has been the rave in psychiatry. Studies have shown that meditation changes our minds physically and psychologically. One way it does this is by modifying our brain waves.

Simply sitting and focusing on one’s breath is a useful way to reduce Beta Waves (30hz – 13hz), which are associated with planning and active thinking (not conducive with creativity), and entering an alpha state. You may notice that it’s harder to write in the middle of the day or when you just worked on a task like doing your taxes. That’s because our beta waves are very active.

The bridge to creativity is through the alpha state and the longer you are able to maintain this state, the more likely creative theta waves will surface. Writing early in the morning when alpha waves predominate may help breath new life into a writing project. In fact, writing after any activity that produces a state of relaxation may help. However, if you are feeling particularly uninspired about a writing project, and your normal relaxation techniques are not cutting it, I recommend trying a guided meditation like the one below to help you relax into a theta state.

It is true that you don’t need to meditate to be a good writer, but I think it’s safe to say that meditation can help make you a better, more efficient writer.





The Great Cut: Time for a Copy Editor?

The process of revising is tedious but rewarding. When I finished cutting 50,000+ words from my novel, I felt relieved; the novel felt sharper and faster. By dawn’s daylight, my writer’s high ended, and I resolved myself to begin revising again from page 1.

After the second time through my novel, I began to experience a writer’s delusion known as It’s Perfect. Feeling slightly satisfied in my own musings, I began work on other writing projects and deciding whether to open up my checkbook.

If you have reached this point, let me help you with that decision.

Writing a novel is a labor of love. Many good writers never get the opportunity to see their work in print. Still, we spend hours and hours, writing, revising, crafting and sweating over our work. Why? Becuase that is what writers do. Our characters are like our children and who wouldn’t provide for their offspring?

Carrying this analogy forward, choosing a copy editor is like choosing a good school. Not every one is the same. The key is to match your book to the write editor (pun intended). Here are a few tips on choosing the right copy editor.

Tip 1: Do your research. There are a lot of people offering editing services out there. Make sure the person or firm you are choosing is legitimate. Do they have reviews? Will they allow you to contact references? Were they recommended to you by another writer or blogger with a good reputation? Doing your research can really help pay off in this area.

Tip 2: Match the book to the editor. Not everyone may agree with this point, but I think it’s important to have an editor that knows your genre. Some genres like fantasy or sci-fi could be confusing to an editor who mostly edits mysteries. Most editors will list the books they have worked on. This is a good way to see if your editor has experience editing work in your genre.

Tip 3: Pay the extra money. The scenario goes something like this. Editor 1 is about half the price of Editor 2, but Editor 2 has better references, offers sample edits, has worked on books in your genre, and is by all accounts a top rate human being. Bottom line: Don’t send your child to school in a Ford Pinto unless it’s absolutely necessary. It may cost you more money in the long run.






The Great Cut: Writing Advice from a World War II Veteran

I am blessed to have a writer in my family who happens to be a World War II veteran. My grandfather, Rudy Mancini, is 93 years old and still writing strong. Over the years, Rudy has published in multiple magazines and newspapers, receiving awards for both his poetry and memoir, including several wartime stories.

Today, at the end of our weekly phone call, I asked my grandfather what advice he would give a developing writer like myself. He laid out six points he believed were essential to his success.

  1. Start Slow:  “Big successes are built on smaller ones. Start slow, publish small and work your way up.” In my grandfather’s experience, succeeding on smaller writing projects helped him pave the way for larger ones. They also helped him grow his writing resume.
  2. Journal Daily: “10 minutes is all you need, but more is okay.” In my grandfather’s opinion, journaling defends against writer’s block. He notes that all works, even fantastic ones, are built upon ordinary scenes from daily life.  Reflecting on them brings a continuous source of inspiration.
  3. Read: “I always write better when I’m reading.” Being well-read in one’s genre is essential according to my grandfather. “You may not always like what you read, but maybe something about the prose catches your eye. Appropriate it. Take it to the bank.”
  4. Know Your Audience: “If you want to publish somewhere, know the audience, know the publication, get back issues and let them guide you.” My grandfather attributes some of his early rejections to lack of research prior to submission. In his experience, all publishing is a marriage between the writer and the publisher’s needs.
  5. Listen In: “Need inspiration? Go to a coffee shop or a public place and listen to people. They may become your next characters.” My grandfather said that journaling helped him avoid “writer’s block,” but when he needed that extra bit of inspiration, the best place to find it was away from the computer. In his words, “All writer’s are voyeurs.”
  6. Don’t Fear Rejection: “I’ve never met a writer whose career didn’t start with the words, “I regret to inform you…” Clean it up and resubmit.” My grandfather says some of his most popular stories were rejected multiple times prior to being picked up by nationally distributed magazines. When he got advice from editors, he always took it to heart and used it to guide future revisions.

Happy Veterans Day!


-Rudy Mancini early 1940s

The Great Cut & Beyond: Got Grit?

This is my fifteenth post on novel revision. Having reached my word count goal (118,000 words) for my first book, Black Scales, and being hard at work on my second novel, Child of Fire (currently at 69,500 words), I thought I would share some reflections on the importance of passion and perseverance in writing.

Recently, after submitting revisions for an academic paper, a co-author said to me, “You have a lot of grit.” I smiled, not sure if I was receiving a compliment. He proceeded to tell me about a book he’d read by psychologist Angela Duckworth on the subject of grit and how it was the buzz in some academic circles.

Feeling a little flattered, I set about to learn a little research about grit. On her website, Dr. Duckworth explains, “Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” She notes that individuals who are more gritty are often more self-controlled, and grittiness is one way to predict success.

Revising and preparing writing for publication takes a lot of grit. For anyone who has cut 50,000+ words from a novel, you know what I mean. Hurdles, pitfalls, and rejections are inevitable challenges all writers face. Therefore, the next time that a rejection roles in, or you get a negative review, resist the temptation to throw up your hands and remind yourself that motivation and self-control are essential to success, and are the cornerstone of grit.


The Great Cut & Beyond: Resisting the Urge to Self-Publish…yet.

This is my fifteenth post on novel revision. Having reached my word count goal (118,000 words) for my first book, Black Scales, and being hard at work on my second novel, Child of Fire (currently at 70,000 words), I thought I would share some reflections on self-publishing.

It’s hard to get traditionally published. Let’s say you’ve finished your book and you think it’s polished enough for prime time. You’ve heard of the benefits of getting an agent and decide that’s the best route for you. You learn about writing query letters and pitches and synopsis. Putting the necessary puzzle pieces together, you go online and compile a list of agents looking for material in your genre, and start querying. The first rejection roles in, then the second, and so on. You begin to question your approach. That’s typically when the thought to self-publish enters your head.

Many of us have heard of authors making their mark in self-publishing. Chris Paolini’s Eragon novel was self-published before it was picked up by Knopf. Not to mention the ‘Amazon Millionaires.’ But what’s the realistic outlook for a self-publish novel? Not so hot.

I read once that the average number of downloads for a self-published book is around 300. Yes, 300. The fact is self-publishing is easy, and whenever something is easy, it’s rarely a sure path to success. A self-publisher will rarely say ‘no’ to your work if you have enough money to pay the publishing fees. Even if your work is top-notch, there’s no certainty that it will be discovered amidst the legion of lesser works.

That’s not to say that self-publishing or e-publishing aren’t reputable avenues for publication, especially for those with an established online platform. Let’s say you have more twitter followers than can fit in a concert hall and as many people visit your blog each day as Starbuck’s. You may have a good shot of getting your self-published work noticed (hint: you probably will get noticed by a few agents too).

So, before you throw up your hands and self-publish that novel, ask yourself, is it ready for publication? Is my query letter, pitch and synopsis agent worthy? Is my online platform sufficient? Have I exhausted all reasonable options of traditional publication? If the answer is no to any of these questions, it’s probably worth resisting that urge to self-publish and put those fingers back on the keys.