Birthday wisdom through the years

It’s my birthday today, and I’m officially in the second half of life.

At age 11, I decided I was going to write. So I did. It was the only thing that got me through my public education. As long as I could quietly write at my desk and listen to what the teachers had to say, I coasted through school effortlessly. I was going to be a published author by the age of 25.

A few weeks before my 25th birthday, I sold my first short story. We’d gone to the Bog People exhibit at the Glenbow and walking through the exhibits, I figured out why POV was so important and why it needed to work.

At 32, I realized that while I could (very) occasionally write really great short stories, my writing skills weren’t nearly good enough to control the pace a novel needed to tell a constructed story that feels organic, start to finish. What read as organic came to me as a complete picture. What I had to create out of nothing felt stiff and unnatural. Realizing it would take at least fifteen years to get what didn’t come naturally to read as though it did, I got started.

At 33, I sold my first novel using my new method of concentrating just on tension and conflict. Until the age of 39, I was writing 3-4 books a year, practicing front loading a story full of a character with a weird and wonderful and figuring out the plot as I went.

From 39-42, I didn’t write a single word. I also couldn’t get the idea of getting my MFA out of my mind. It was a yearning I felt every time the world was silent for more than a minute.

At 42, I realized I wanted to start writing again. I couldn’t concentrate on my screen after three years of using it as a dopamine drip, so I put it down and wrote a book longhand. Then, when the internet was still was too much draw that Word couldn’t hold my attention, I wrote a second book on my tablet.

But I could write a third book on my computer. Writing had become the thing I wanted to do the most if I had nothing else to do.

Just after my 44th birthday, just after writing four books back to back to back, I got accepted in the UBC MFA program for creative writing. I was over the moon.

The joy didn’t last. By the first month of class, I was worried.

By my 46th birthday, I was absolutely sure that the program had a terrible pedagogy. After the Chair got off scott free for their harassment and their multiple actions that fit the literal definition of what the UBC’s policies defined as “actions harmful to a respectful environment” I started Kakotopia and found my voice and my world.

By my 47th birthday, the Chair had confirmed her program didn’t have a bad pedagogy, it had no pedagogy at all.

And now, by my 48th birthday, the first Kakotopia trilogy is complete and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, hands down. We’re waiting for the Ombudspeople to actually tell the UBC they have to follow *all* their policies, not just the ones their employees didn’t break, but it’s receeding further and further in my rear view mirror.

But dealing with the ignorance of people who think policy is a suggestion or they could “downgrade” academic freedom to freedom of expression gave me the oppressive power structure of Kakotopia. It came from having an entire institution try to silence me.

But it’s been an amazing ride. I’ve always chosen the path of most resistance. I started questioning the path of least resistance almost as soon as I started speaking. I wouldn’t have stepped off the path of most resistance if I could have.

the importance of value in writing

I wrote book three first because that felt like the beginning of the story. But the next step of their process was to defeat capitalism itself and for that to work, he needed to start in a historic context.

So, earlier generational stories were needing building to this generational battle. But I’d started writing book five, unknowingly and working backwards from that point took hours and hours and hours of staring into the void, fitting each little piece together.

It was like following a magical string. I know what each generation of people have to accomplish in order to set out what they need to achieve to make the plot work. I’ll figure out how the big picture gets done in the day-to-day decision of writing out how ??? becomes the goal of the next 5000 words becomes the actual thing the characters have to do to accomplish the tasks to accomplish the goal.

But it takes a lot of wrong choices or absolute silence to come up to the actions the ??? needs to accomplish X which needs to ultimately leads to the events of the big picture. I never see more than a few thousand words ahead but I’ll always trust the ??? will become plot when it needs to.

I think it lets me jump off a lot more cliffs. I don’t need to know how the character solves this new complication. That’s future!Barb’s problem. And figuring out how that solution can be made even more meaningful is a future2Barb’s concern. Most of the time when I’m out of plot and set up the next plot snooker, I wish them luck. Who knows how this me would solve it.

And then, I stop writing. Sometimes all it takes is closing Word down. Sometimes I have to brush my teeth. And sometimes I play endless rounds of tower defence until even I get bored of the skinner box, and in those moments of boredom are a stand-off between me and my ADHD attention. Find me a plot that’s interesting enough to engage me or it’s monkeys exploding balloons forever.

And sure enough, once I really think on it hard enough in the moments my dopamine seeking attention is blasting balloons at a rate that is just a screen full of explosions, the solution comes to me. This character needs to do that to have that whole plotline ignite.

And then I close down the exploding balloon screen and write until I need to snooker myself again and the next path from X to Y goes from ??? to characters do XYZ.

The market that fills up the readership that truly captures something amazing in nothing really happening at all isn’t interested in stories in which nothing really happens at all. Tension held together with almost nothing happening is the finest example of craft. Not providing conflict to interfere with the character’s goals if they have goals at all in any kind of commercially aimed work is not the same thing.

And yet, it was taught as the same. It didn’t matter if the story didn’t have tension. It didn’t matter if it didn’t have conflict or character development while tackling a question that matters. When absolutely, it needs all those things to work together. Because to not do that is to tell a story that doesn’t need all that and still tells a great story in the actions of the character.

Not using the story-building skills of fiction doesn’t break any rules, it excludes vital aspects of fiction readers need to invest in the story. Stories that work without them stand alone as exemplars in the literary canon. They have never proven until the last ten years or so that foundational structures of fiction aren’t needed.

That a writer if the instructor’s calibre could take the premise on the table and rewrite it in a way in which nothing needs to happen and it still tell that meaningful tale is irrelevant to the lesson at hand unless they can break down, exactly, how the learner could do the same.

Baby birds are thrown out of the nest because their parents can fly and not all the babies make it. It is a terrible teaching method.

But the student doesn’t know they’re not doing that to begin with. I clued in early in this program that the unintentional outcome of this methodology was that it reinforced the idea that nice prose was all that mattered when it “teaches” that every story in which everything is told to the reader in dialogue is just as good as showing the reader what mattered.

There was no exception, not once. Sure, everyone knows, in the theoretical that “things need to happen in fiction” but not once in class did any student find an example of a story in which nothing happened to the character and it impacted the quality of the story. Not if it was young adult, not if it was genre fiction. Certainly not if it was speculative fiction.

Everyone was writing to the market in which the reader didn’t care if nothing actually happened. And any opinion that that market has its choice of brilliant work in which nothing happens and it still matters greatly was not permitted to be shared.

I played ball because I thought I just disagreed with the program’s pedagogy, not that it didn’t have any. That it didn’t have any that the chair could explain should have been treated as an educational scandal. No one can use this method and attribute their success to the methodology because the methodology has no way to work.

Because the only way it works is to write at a level where the only thing the story requires is the average level of polish an MFA instructor needs to put into their work. If a learner needs more work on a structural level than ‘just polish the prose and you’re good’ level, they’re hooped. Because they also learn all their work needs is a polish and they, too, will be good.

The UBC’s methodology only works if the only acceptable message shared is ‘only nice prose matters’ because that’s what most of the students believe is the only skill that matters. If an opinion was held otherwise, the lessons couldn’t be “gentle” which would break the provost’s “pedagogy” that he put in writing.

The most important thing the university needs from the student is their glowing evaluation. As long as it’s given in the glow of having spent tens of thousands of dollars and years of their labour they have a degree that says they’ve been right all along — none of that craft stuff matters — the system works perfectly.

If they ever face the reality that their university deliberately lied to them because the easiest methodology to teach is “just be able to produce what draws readers to fiction on your own. We can help you with the rest” they would be broken-hearted.

But their evaluation eternally glows.

That the only part the ombudspeople can care about after all that damage to learners is whether or not “Going Big Brother on the message” violates a student’s academic freedom or their right to a respectful environment is disgusting.

There’s no help at all for students being taught the lie that the only thing that matters in achieving their goals is just doing that thing that they are already good at. That’s not teaching. That’s cheerleading. The critique of the individual plays of the game comes later. The cheerleading is just for morale’s sake.

writing to the unexpected moments

Donald Maass’s advice on characterization in the first scene of the story is still some of the best writing advice I’d ever heard. He says the heroic character has to do something ordinary, the everyman character has to do something heroic and the wounded protagonist has to want to be better, even if they couldn’t if they tried at the start of the story.

But it wasn’t until I read a story that our On Spec’s intern wrote that I realized it’s not about what the character does, it’s about the reader’s expectation. A character doesn’t have to do anything specific but they should act in a way that is unexpected, given the situation they’re in.

Unexpected moments rap the reader’s attention and hold it long enough to find out why that unexpected thing happened. And if they’re turning the page so find out, you have them as long as the momentum continues.

Moving your character out of their comfort zone as soon as possible, to me, makes better sense than Maass’ descriptive advice. When the character isn’t comfortable, POV tightens, suspicions grow and the emotion negatively influences not only what the character notices but how they perceive it. When they are comfortable, the reader is too.

I had a thousand-word gap I needed to fill to meet the structure the story established. I knew what had to happen, but I couldn’t see how it happened for the life of me. I spent two days trying to put shapes in the spot to fill it up, and none of them worked. It wasn’t until I was brushing my teeth at the end of the second day that I could see what scenes needed to play out to make what needs to be learned fit the story.

Divergent thinking is so important for writers to practice as much as any other story or world-building skill. Coming up with ideas that suit the story, tone and existing story is something I probably spend three hours doing for every hour I spend writing. On the days I’m writing, there’s a 50% chance anything I say is going to plot related. My wife knows the characters of the work I’m writing as though they were co-workers of mine and I’m discussing their trials and foibles behind their backs.

Outside of the slushpile, it is rare to find a story that has the ability to subvert the reader’s expectations and those stories are a rare find in a slushpile. My MFA took all the time in the world to help writers learn how to polish the prose they’d already written but they didn’t spend a moment trying to help it be what it could be.

I’ve always found the initial story to come to me in two parts. One part is the general concept. The second is how I can make that general concept unique. I’ve carried part ones of story ideas around for years before I found that second part that from the first page, moves the story in a different direction. Once I know that, stories tend to write themselves when I’m not staring at the wall trying to form ideas out of nothing.

Divergent thinking is a skill that needs to be practiced as much as polish and prose. It’s why I think originality is learned as much as any skill involved in writing and why writing boards are filled with newbie questions of how to write a sympathetic antagonist without ever having written a non-sympathetic antagonist. It’s asking how does a child run once they figure out this crawling business. There’s a whole other step to be learned.

But that’s writing. Writers who have yet to learn to crawl want to run. As the story-building skills increase, what they can capture inside of it grows as well. It does not matter how fifty people would have written a sympathetic antagonist. It only matters how the individual author will write theirs. The learning in skill acquisition is in the doing of the skill, not in the asking questions stage.

One lesson my MFA taught was that readers never need their expectations played with. If what happens is predictable or if nothing happens at all, it’s fine. It’s a death knell for stories in markets where the supply of great stories exceeds the demand.

the university act means students need consumers’ rights

If my program didn’t crush the academic freedom of students who might want to have the opinion that craft is actually important enough to use and practice using, the UBC would have every right to market it to students.

They can boast about their craft-based discussions on the website without small print required to say that there is no discussion on actual craft because it’s not allowed. They’re allowed to have “rigorously craft-based focus” in their mission statement. And they would be allowed to teach a program in which the only opinion allowed to be safely voiced in class without risk of retaliation is: No craft is ever needed, necessary or required.

But they had to crush their first pillar as an academic institution to do it. But then the University of British Columbia had to remove the right to academic freedom from a student to silence them about their lack of academic freedom.

If I’d known that the actual pedagogical approach was “No craft, no critique, just praise!” or that the institute thought any part of that last paragraph is something they had the audacious right to do, I would have bounced as well.

As a student, I’m outraged that if I’d been sold a street-worthy scooter online that didn’t have an engine, I would have protection. But when I complained, the prominent Canadian company told me its engine was never meant to actually start and “street-worthy” means what the company said it does.

But paying for an education that doesn’t meet the federal guidelines academically or professionally is just tough luck for students. The UBC’s anti-pedagogy is academic freedom violation, pros somehow never edit, and policies are just for the students, but there is no recourse available.

And all students absolutely need protection if the entire institution decides to just not hold itself accountable for its wrongdoings if it just ignores the policies it has to hold itself accountable to.

organic flow, nice soup cans, and plot

If there’s one story I quoted more than any during my MFA degree, it was the Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. If you can get past the huge info-dump world-building section of the first chapter, it’s an amazing ride.

There is so much to love about the second and third books that the first book can feel a little like the Hobbit. But even as the most linear of the three, its first-person narrator is one of the greatest examples of hoodwinking the reader right out in the open.

It’s the kind of story that you immediately start rereading because you know the author’s contradicted the surprise ending at least once. Because it’s in a first-person POV yet still manages to keep something so monumental from the reader, it’s a masterclass of misdirection. On the second read, it’s clear the character never contradicts the ending once. You just misread what they said.

It’s brilliant. I can’t stress that enough. Run, don’t walk to read the series before the Disney+ show comes out.

The author took twenty-one years to tell a five-book series. Each book took years to write. You would never guess that from reading them. It’s one of those stories in which everything can change about what happened with a new piece of information she skillfully provides you. What happens is never what happens until you see what really happened.

If you believed in the myth of the perfect first draft, this series would be the series you’d be thinking of. It reads as though the story call came out in one continuous flow of actions that can’t be fully conceptualized until all the pieces have come together.

We never spent a day talking about plot in my program. Not to evaluate it or improve it. The plot of the work was assumed to be immutable despite the first draft work being written specifically for the class to be critiqued by their peers. Only prose-level discussion was ever warranted, whether the prose just needed a light buffing or it was a genre novel in which the character doesn’t have concerns for the first three chapters.

Building the feeling of a work that was written in one continual push is the hardest kind of writing to do. It requires true inspiration — which is hard to plan on having — or ad nauseam rewrites if necessary. It’s being willing to make the changes necessary until it feels pitch perfect and not settling for less than that.

Readers won’t settle. They don’t have to. I met the first person who could have taught at my MFA back in the early 2000s. He couldn’t be convinced that the fact Twilight exists means that all writing is marketing and quality will never matter again. The example he gave was about finding a million people who were willing to just buy the soup can without any soup in it would make him a millionaire.

He was a math teacher, not an economist. He knew nothing about the cost of acquisition. The time and money needed to find a million people willing to spend a dollar on nothing would far exceed any net profit of selling the empty soup cans.

The one thing I hear over and over in my MFA and out is “I don’t want to make my writing more engaging for the reader.” They want to appeal to the reader who isn’t reading to be engaged by the work.

There are a lot of people who need empty soup cans in their life for various reasons. There may be readers who love stories that don’t ask them to get involved in a character with a story they want to follow. Finding them is going to be prohibitively expensive in a huge market of people who would rather have the soup in the can and a character that matters than just a great setting/soup can.

The reader has near infinite choice of work they’ve already purchased within arms reach of where they usually sit or sleep. To entice them to buy something new and then read it over everything they already own is where the real need for an engaging story happens. Not just to entice the reader to buy it, but to entice them to start it and then entice them to keep reading to the end.

There is absolutely no marketing in a bookstore better than having a reader remember how much they got out of the last book by the same author. It’s why word-of-mouth is always better than the best SEO.

Building that experience isn’t easy if the ability to do so didn’t come preinstalled. Soup can guy is a charismatic speaker and his first book was critically acclaimed. His readers weren’t buying soup cans, they were buying complicated work of POV. He sold the idea to others that their work just needed to be soup cans and when Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey were selling millions of copies each, it wasn’t hard to imagine he was right if you were predisposed to believe your writing just needs marketing.

But those books are the definition of “bad writing” but they deeply engaged their ideal reader with hot, soupy goodness. Beautifully written work that doesn’t want to engage the reader to care is the nicely designed soup can. A market may exist, but good luck finding it.

Universities should not be able to sell the lie that work doesn’t need any foundational structure beyond description, exposition and dialogue to sell to any existing market. It’s a lie sold the program sells deliberately. If students are so gently treated that their knowledge is never challenged then why is the program in an academic institution?

The Federal Government promises me that masters are at the forefront of academia. Name one pedagogical approach that survived the 70s that had students assume that nothing needs to be learned and be told they’re right to assume so?

academic harassment and adhd

By the first twenty minutes of the first critique class I was already in trouble with my instructor for daring to suggest something from a child psychology level.

I was given a confidentiality strike. When I asked how was that possible, I was told asking my wife a question about libraries violated confidentiality. I hadn’t told my wife a single thing about the story. I’d asked her to look up types of literacy programs held in major Canadian cities.

The instructor was adamant I read the code of conduct and expectations. I did so, three times. I then had to ask what part of my behaviour had violated it.

Eventually, I was told that they preferred their critiques “more supportive” but never gave me more feedback than that. It would have been convenient at this point to have dropped out and gotten back all of my money. But in reading the code of conduct, I also read the mission statement to see if I was in the right place. It promised me a program that would be “rigorously craft-based.”

Oppositional Defiance Disorder is an ADHD child under unreasonable parenting skills. If ADHD meds are given before the age of six, the ODD goes away. If the medication isn’t given until age 8, the ADHD symptoms go away but the ODD Is now a learned behaviour to parents in which nothing is fair.

To an ADHD brain, nothing hurts more than unfairness. And at the UBC, nothing has ever been fair. Despite language assuring me that

“… the MFA focuses on the work created by students as the primary text. Through intensive peer critique and craft discussion, faculty and students work together with the same goal: literary excellence.”

(Under overview)

I was harangued by my instructors to constantly be less of something I eventually couldn’t be less of. The Respectful Environment Statement that the Chair was allowed to break multiple times in multiple different ways says over-supervision is an action harmful to a respectful environment. The UBC had it down to an art form. Just when I found a level of craft that seemed to work for everyone for months, I’d be hit with emails telling me to do even less of that.

No part of dealing with UBC was equitable. Policies meant to ensure fair treatment were tossed. My academic freedom was crushed. Harassment was ignored. The provost — with his conflict of interest — was allowed to use institutional resources to cater to his needs of making his problem go away. Just the act of being heard was denied.

And yet, I never doubted the next person I spoke to would make a rational decision based on the policies until they informed me, nope, they were going to go with the abuse of power. The unfairness felt like it burned.

But I had to go through it so the next student wouldn’t and ADHD gives us hyperfocus. I trusted someone in the appeals process was either going to do their job or I’d have it in writing that the entire UBC chose to fail from a policy perspective.

on being the “average” writer

I suppose I was lucky in that I was never the average writer. For the first ten years of my time in the writing community, I was a below-average writer. My strengths lay in plot and story, not prose.

Sometimes what I wrote touched the face of god and sometimes it was about a character that did things. But even at the level of the character that did things my writing was sometimes almost unreadable.

I can blame an ADHD brain that hated revision with a thousand endless passions. Going over what had already been written felt like going over a cheese grater. With my tongue. And then eating salt and vinegar kettle chips dipped in hot sauce and hellfire.

But when it all came together, some stories just worked. Where as most didn’t work “on the interesting character who at least does engaging stuff, even if it doesn’t change them” level. When my stories worked on that level, they told a rip-roaring adventure. When they told a rip adventure, a roaring adventure or just a plain old ordinary adventure it just didn’t tell itself well enough.

The novel that made me realize I still had a lot to learn had been through multiple critiques at that point. I thought I’d ironed all the problems out. But seeing it again for the first time, I saw how many shortcuts I was taking by telling the reader everything I didn’t know how to show yet. Most importantly I saw how the story I saw happening and the story I managed to capture weren’t the same story at all.

If I had seen the average quality of work from the average writer — a clearly written story — I might not have ever come to my conclusion. It’s easy to see bad writing. It’s more difficult to see story weaknesses in polished prose.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about finding the right school by finding a school where a student would be in the top half of the class because that has more of a significant advantage in life than graduating from an Ivy League school.

I think the opposite effect happens to writers who are better than most of the writers in their writing group, not even thinking about how many critique groups there are across every town or city that has one. Being a big fish in a small pond has its advantages. But ponds are a small body of water and there are thousands of them. The slush pile is full of work from writers who swim in much bigger lakes and rivers plus all those other big pond fish.

But it doesn’t matter if a learner is in the bottom half of the class at Harvard. We compare ourselves to what’s around us and not to the greater population. Universities mark on a curve to make marks more relative to the general knowledge of the population it’s trying to grade. It means getting 38% on a test could be an A+ effort if everyone else did poorer, but an 84% is only a B- if everyone did very well.

Writers are marked on the same curve, only we call it a slush pile. The average story in it is about a character that does stuff and a lot of that stuff is talking. An engaging story about a character who tries to solve their own problems is rarer. A meaningful story about an engaging character whose journey is as rich as the destination is a rare and precious find.

The novel I brought to Boston with me, to my mind, was a prime example of a meaningful, engaging story and no one could convince me otherwise. On the way to Calgary again, what was great about the story was hampered too much by its flaws.

The average writer who can’t recognize structural weaknesses in other people’s work stops their own learning process. If a learner can’t see how a story they didn’t write can be made more engaging, they won’t consider any work should be made so. Their own work especially.

“organic” vs “constructed” writing

If I didn’t know what I already knew, I might have let my MFA “teach” me that the only thing that matters is my organic process. The #1 thing the UBC taught was that the author’s intention for the first draft must — at all times — be preserved. To make “mechanical” structural changes to a first draft would ruin the organic flow of the work to the point where they couldn’t be allowed to even be suggested.

There are true organic writers, the one who creates a perfect first draft and just needs to polish the prose. They’re usually teaching the class. A student who can do the same thing — create an organic story that completes a moment in a character’s life in the first draft — is in the extreme minority.

But the bulk of writers sitting around critique tables don’t have the ability to tell a unique, organic story in the first draft before they even sit down at the table. Teaching all students as though they were already producing work like MFA instructors teaches them that they don’t need to acquire the skills their instructors had preinstalled.

The goal of the “critique” is to produce nicer prose while dynamic story-building skills are taught as unnecessary.

“Organic” to a reader means it “feels like” the book was written with one creative vision from the first page to the last.” They will never know how many thumbs have been in that pie to make it feel like it came out in one singular vision. Alpha readers, beta, critique partners, freelance editors and editors from the publisher could have all nudged what was to be what it could be.

A short story is a single motion in a character’s life and just needs to do one thing particularly well. It is hypothetically possible to say something meaningful in a first draft without it needing a significant rewrite. A novel, however, is a series of movement written over a series of months or years that has to work seamlessly together to engage the reader and draw them back to the story that needs to be read across several sittings.

Organic writing can feel like the muses are on your shoulder and the author is just transcribing the events playing out behind their eyes. Constructed writing, on the other hand, is the writing that takes place without the gift of the gods. Neil Gaiman talks about the difference between amateurs and professionals is who waits for inspiration. I think the amateur writes what they write and calls it good enough. The pro knows good enough isn’t good enough to build a meaningful reader’s experience.

But Gaiman also described inspiration as a butterfly that swoops down and sits on your shoulder every once and a while. He described writing a Study in Emerald this way during Torcon 3. But when the butterfly doesn’t visit, the only other tool the author has is the knowledge necessary to take a story that doesn’t have “it” written into the first draft and craft “it” in the final draft.

I lost ten thousand words last week. The scenes described were some of the most polished organic writing of the book. But they didn’t do nearly enough for the plot. I had to construct the replacement 10k over the past week. By 3k, I’d summed up everything the reader had to know in those 10k. By 4k, I’d leapfrogged the lost section. By the end of the new 10k, I’d progressed to the scene that’s the heartbeat of the story.

In the lost 10k, I was still about 5k away from it. I realized in 2005 that I had to learn how to write instead of hoping what I organically channeled did everything it was supposed to. What didn’t come organically was stilted if it wasn’t filled with shortcuts that told what I had no clue how to show the reader.

It took almost twenty years for what I constructed for plot reasons to feel more organic than what appeared fully formed. I needed to learn how to write what didn’t flow naturally but make it feel like it did. Writers today are insulated against ever learning the same thing if “organic” means the author’s 1st draft intentions and not the final draft the readers experience.

Conflict and character growth — the story in its essence

When you start in fanfic completely blind as I did all those years ago, a lot of terms catch you off guard. Some stories were stories and some were character studies and some were vignettes. I had to realize character studies and vignettes were parts of a story without a source of conflict in a study or without the conflict moving forward in a vignette.

I’ve met far more underpublished writers who will critique underpublished writers by pumping up their already amazing world-building skills. But if the protagonist remains unchanged and unchallenged, that critique assumes that the author will find an audience for work that doesn’t read for plot or character. (Or theme. Or emotional resonance.)

There’s only one commercial work known for its amazing scene work: Avatar. It’s a setting without a character or a plot the average audience has to care about. “Look at the beautiful scenery” only worked because it was rendered beautifully in 3D. If James Cameron squanders character or plot-driven narrative, he’ll bend the field in some way.

Most people are not James Cameron.

Literary work is not the absence of character or plot-driven story. It’s not just “nice prose” stacked up in chapters. Character growth in literary work is predominately internally motivated. Literary work must have beautiful language over emotional resonance that needs more than nice prose to create. Non-literary commercial work doesn’t even need nice prose to sell.

I asked multiple instructors when their grads were going to learn the story-building skills that were being taught as unnecessary. Silence. It is up to the student to understand UBC is wrong about craft to even see the need to improve structurally.

more on story-building and writing skills

Until I was able to hear it, I never heard a critique that suggested making anything more than cosmetic changes to be of value. We “teach” creative writing, even in my day, by giving learners the name of the concept they need to understand and we wonder why writers reject foundational structures as a “rule”.

No critiquer ever told me that the reader needs to see the events play out for them to feel as much as possible. There is a point in which significant details can be told to them and it matters, but only once the world and story are both established. The emotional reaction the reader has to hearing the king is dead depends entirely on how well they knew the king or how much the King’s sudden death will impact the character.

It was such a major change for me. For almost a decade of my growth, I just realized other people were right when they said in all their various ways, the people and the events of the story matter more than even great world-building.

I’m including exposition, backstory and events that were conveyed through dialogue as much as description and info-dumping as world-building skills. In speculative work, this includes the speculative elements that must be as important to the story as pacing or conflict.

The story-building skills build up the events and character of the story. They include conflict, internal and external, tension, character development, theme, and point of view all building the story of the characters in the world.

These skills all have to work together. POV has to be on point when describing conflict the character can’t overcome unless something about the character, world or plot changes. External conflict guides the plot. Internal conflict guides the thematic question, the character development has to feel earned over the events of the story.

There’s a third category that has to do with writing skills. This is where all the imagery and foreshadowing go, but it also includes things like pacing. Writers like Dan Brown master this section.

Great work needs a combination of all three in various amounts. But a work that has a fantastic world and fast pace must do both exceptionally.