only murders in the building : hogwarts

as stories about podcasters are to magical schools.

I just about died watching Steve Martin finally giving the audience what they wanted — Steve Martin being Steve Martin as only Mr. Steve Martin could possibly. I couldn’t breathe watching the elevator scene. Nine episodes of Steve Martin being restrained Steve Martin was worth every second of build-up at the first body flop.

Hogwarts cooled off the magic school genre for the longest time. It didn’t invent it, but for almost a decade, we watched it be perfected and then tainted forever, but let’s not get into our broken hearts about it. Any new magic school story had to do something different or better than Hogwarts. It became the Kleenex of magical schools before the CEO of it decided human rights could be measured out because of the way other people are made to feel about a subject matter.

I’ve read so much work from other writers where the story is: character has relationship with past famous murder that ranged from tenuous at best to the accused. And then they hunt down the real killer while their view count grows, despite it not being 2008 anymore.

I give OMitB a pass on this because they didn’t start blogging around a cold case. The bodies keep dropping in front of them. They don’t have immediate problem of what the podcaster is going to do once these characters solve the cold case yet.

People think that youtube success can come down to when you started. It’s the belief that if they were the only X youtuber talking about (blank) in 2008, they could be (famous youtuber) too. But Youtubers put in their ten thousand hours of meaningful practice that everyone is so quick to not-necessarily.

If, as it’s been suggested, the Beatles can tie their success to the hours and hours of playing in Dive Bars to their ability to write songs that can impact people on a philsophical level a decade later, then Youtubers that started in 2008 just didn’t let the fact they weren’t good at this thing they wanted to learn how to do stop them. Not one of them were thinking go pro or bust.

I watched Veritasium’s videos about his process probably with more interest than his science videos. He posted his first video about freezing water and critiqued it vs. what he knows now, but the fact he posted it at all led to the video of rewatching his old video being interesting.

He was focusing on the best way he knew how to present the information. He didn’t have to do so in a way that had to compare against everyone else’s best on constant display.

Today, would he have looked at the quality of what can be produced with even a dedicated one-person science channel and think that subject even needed to be discussed? So many writers want to know how to start writing their first book with an unsympathetic, unempathetic, unlikeable anti-hero and yet wonder why they got stuck on chapter two.

The first story I gave up on was the first story I wrote at age eleven. I realized it was too hard to tell an adventure story with a domesticated animal as a protagonist. I knew it could be done but I knew it couldn’t be done by me. I would look at that list of un- un- un- anti- and not know if what could be done in chapter two to move the reader to continue.

And yet the simple question of “how many likeable protagonists have you written?” is met with cold stony silence as though no one can fathom what that question has to do with anything. The assumption that everyone rolled their eyes at is: a likeable character is too easy.

Bets?

Because I laughed so hard when our On Spec Ben the Intern came back from his homework. He was shocked, shocked, I tell you, at how difficult it was to start the story with a scene that is designed to surprise the reader’s expectations.

I wasn’t laughing at him. I was laughing with him. Because man. When I realized, oh, here’s my problem: I tell when I want to show. If I want to show how the characters could understand that, all I need to do is

And then there was silence. If I’d known how to show that the protagonist just realized nope, no question. I have to do this. I would have written that instead. If the point at which he has to plan to kill his brother to save them all matters, I had to show the character doing all he can to do anything but that, first.

It was the first time since realizing that the ghost POV is the most difficult POV to tell a ghost story in that I realized, nope. I cannot do that yet. Because I couldn’t show that if I tried. And I had.

The secret to success isn’t cameras or critique groups or sponsorship deals. It’s doing the thing you do over and over again. Eventually, what you do with that knowledge will produce work that will make people want to engage with it.

And if that seems like too much work — and believe me, I’m exhausted — take meaningful instruction wherever it is. I get how it feels to know 100% of whatever piece of advice doesn’t need to be followed 100% of the time. But if you can’t figure out how it applies 70% of the time, keep asking questions until you do.

Most writers can’t write a story in which protagonists have no stakes in the outcome. And the writers who probably could probably know that the amount of work that would take to pull off wouldn’t be worth the payoff. And the writers who know automatically how they could naturally pull off a work without stakes, the letter J, and any reference to who is speaking shouldn’t assume the rest of humanity is so lucky.

Samwise Gamgee and meaningful character development

Someone was wrong on the internet, and Samwise Gamgee is the minimum bar readers expect if the character has no change at all. He’s the atypical hero — the hero who made it back home again and could just pick things up where things had been left off. His journey affected him, but it didn’t affect his happily ever after.

He hadn’t changed as a character. He was a good man and a loyal friend before he left and he was a good man and a loyal friend on his return.

Frodo is the hero who can’t go home again. Even if it hasn’t changed at all, he’s changed too much. He’s the war veteran who returns permanently changed by his experiences. Frodo didn’t have to travel to a new world but he had to leave his old world behind. He was the same body, but a different person inside.

Sam never needed to change fundamentally who he was. He adapted to the road by worrying about what he would have worried about back home. Sam, Merry and Pippins return home again, but Merry and Pippins weren’t given the same road to travel or so much to carry. It wasn’t Sam’s burden to carry the ring to the mountain, but he carries it and his friend on his back at the end.

The reason why Sam doesn’t have to change is that the person he was before taking a step on the journey was all the person he needed to be to swing Rosie around when he got back to her. Merry and Pippins didn’t change because they were really asked to. They were treated more as children than travelling companions by their companions, and acted even less responsibly when even a child would know what “no fires” meant.

His story is the opposite of the upper-middle-class kid who works hard and practices lots with excellent instruction until they get accepted into Julliard. Whether Frodo succeeded or the letter starts “We’re pleased–” is outside of both of their control and neither needed to do anything more than to continue to try to accomplish their goal as hard as they could.

But Sam personally or the Fellowship could have failed at any time. The easiest thing any of them could have done was give up. Tolkien establishes that the Shire would be affected last if Sauron wins. Sam could have gone back home and put his head in the sand the longest.

But even that would have been a significant moment of change for him. If the Julliard kid had abandoned their quest to get into the best school in the world, they haven’t even given up on their aspirations yet.

Character development is a necessary part of fiction unless the lack of character change is meaningful. Show the journey of a simple man pitted against the armies of Mordor and show he still can be happy to sit down at the same table every night for almost the rest of his life and that character never needed to change in the first place.

But it’s a pretty high bar.

the problem of teaching from the summit

“You’re almost there!”

Over my degree, I started to realize that the advice we gave writers tends not to be about what the writer is most likely struggling with. There is no point in Brandon Sanderson teaching how to make the setting a source of conflict when some of the audience can’t even give their setting a sense of place. Only writers who can already give their setting a sense of character over the sense of place it has can use setting to create deliberate meaningful conflict.

Otherwise, setting conflict is translated as need thing to survive –> get thing to survive. As critique-group-based instructors, we have no idea where on the mountain the learner really is or how they understood the advice when we stop talking about it.

In the above example, the instructor on the top is only talking to one group of writers, even though every other writer on the mountain is listening. The writer to the left of him is facing a sheer rock wall the instructor can’t see because their back is turned to it. A learner that is taught they are almost there — they just have to do something both new and impossible first — is less motivated than they were before the instructor spoke.

But the learner has no ability to judge the advice they heard as to whether or not it applies to them. If that learner keeps doing what they did to get to that point, it won’t help them. Even climbing a really steep hill isn’t the same as climbing a rockwall.

Some writers hear “you’re almost there” and will call where they are the summit. They understand writing engaging prose is ideal, but they are happy to write for an audience they assume exists who only want to engage with a commercial genre based on its description. But readers who enjoy description the most have their pick of existing beautifully written prose that is wrapped around emotionally engaging stories.

The writer doesn’t get to pick where they spawn in relation to the peak of their abilities. Some really do need to be told they’re almost there. Some need to walk five hundred miles to get to the mouth of the valley that the mountain looms over in the distance. Some have a different path up the mountain than the instructor took and some don’t need paths at all.

But every writer is different. Every writer needs to figure out how to climb the next section of their journey before most of them ever need advice meant for those already close to their summit. There is a point in professional mountain climbing where having a realistic policy on when to start eating travel companions is necessary. But if the instructor tells the entire mountain, “Only eat your friends when you’re starving,” some writers on the mountain could interpret that as not letting themselves feel peckish.

And if an instructor isn’t there to verify the knowledge understood by the learner against the knowledge assumed to have been taught to check to see if the learner learned the right lesson, misunderstandings can be both painful and permanent.

some of the worst writing advice: Quotas

I always remember the great writing advice I’ve received and I mention them as often as I can. James Alan Gardner (by way of Susan Forest) described Point-Of-View (POV) as “there is no description, there is only POV.” It made me realize there was nothing *but* POV. Everything the character sees, says or does has been done through the operation system of the protagonist’s personality and their emotional state at the time.

But I’ve heard some really bad advice too. Despite On Writing being called a Memoir of Craft and the first half of the book being dedicated to the use of craft and its importance, the only piece of advice I usually hear being quoted from it is the writing quota King gives himself. He does all his writing before noon and he writes every day.

If there’s one piece of advice that can do the most amount of damage to underpublished writers, it is writing two thousand words a day is the ideal. It’s the ideal of writers who can produce 2300 words worth of plot into those 2000 words day in, day out, day in. The advice is like asking the average engineer a question. They will answer it, but it won’t be the solution. That many words a day times five days a week produces a 100k in approximately twelve weeks, allowing for two full weeks off in the process.

But if the writer doesn’t know how to plot as fast as they can type, though, those 100k could have the plot that a novella-length work would tell the best version of it.

From the slushpile on, that work will be competing with professionals who took their time to do it the best way they could before sending the work on submission. How long a novel took to write is only a question writers who sell novels to a large enough audience are asked.

Without the plot necessary to carry a 100k novel, all of that effort and dedication the writer invests most often creates a 30/70 novel. These are novels that have 30% progression and 70% what I’m now calling lateral story movement. I used to call it filler, but that was the wrong word. Work that describes what a character does without having what they are doing impacting the plot is a lateral movement to its progression. All work requires progression or the meaningful lack of it.

And there’s still nothing wrong with a 30/70 first draft novel if the author is committed to making it a 70/30 novel in the second draft and a 80/20 split in the final. Every first draft is perfect. Every second draft is worth the effort to improve it.

Do quotas work for some writers even when they’re starting out?

Absolutely. No writing is bad writing as long as it isn’t stressful to the writer. Writing 2000 words for a specific purpose is difficult when it’s done daily. Writing 1000 words because you have to write 1000 words today is so much harder.

Do I think writers shouldn’t just put their butts in seats and bang words out?

John Green says first drafts are the purified clay to make the thing. Any way the first draft goes from a work-in-progress to a work-in-revision is fine. The only thing you can’t fix in a rewrite is not having anything to rewrite.

Writers — quota or not but especially quota writers — should be aware in the rewrite stage of how much of the story is filled with characters doing mundane tasks while discussing the story-building aspects of the tale. This is the kind of writing only ever asks the reader to picture characters talking and remember what they said because some of it might be important. The reader isn’t asked to witness something independent of the character’s understanding at the moment and attach their own significance to it.

Neil Gaiman says only amateur writers wait for inspiration, so checkmate.

Most underpublished writers are amateurs. A writer who waits to feel inspired at least knows what inspired writing feels like. The goal of a professional writer is to make their daily output feel inspired even it was carefully constructed.

But inspiration isn’t something that can only be hunted and gathered. A writer who learns how to capture lightning in a bottle can learn to automate the process. A writer who learned to write without feeling inspiration has a harder time trying to learn how to capture lightning in a bottle as DLC.

So what’s the solution?

First drafts get you to the final draft. How the writer writes that first draft is entirely up to them. Draftwork is an intentional, analytical process that requires even more creativity than writing the first draft.

For the average writer in general, no work should be one, done and polish unless it is truly inspired work. Moving to a more intentional mindset does not mean fully formed stories stop emerging from their author’s skull.

It just means all the rest of the stories the writer produces can still fool readers into believing they had emerged from the writer’s skull as a complete form, too.

It’s the I can’t believe it’s not inspired!” method of learning how to write.

The skill of learning to pace a novel is far more useful than writing for quotas. Knowing what needs to happen next in the story is far more motivating than aiming to write a specific number of words, though both may produce 2000 words a day.

Lawrence Block says in “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” a chapter is as long as it takes for something to change overall, but this book was published in 1994. I think in 2022, the expectation should be every scene must change something or the lack of change must be meaningful. If written to that expectation, there’s no room for lateral movement.

writing engaging fiction is inherently (attention) capitalistic

If the writer thinks of the reader’s time as their more valuable resource, getting the reader to purchase the book is less than half the battle. A reader regrets investing their time more than they will complain about the cost of yet another unfinished book added to their book horde.

But true competition for the work doesn’t exist until the book makes it to the reader’s home. A friend of mine points out that great work only creates a bigger market for all work in the same subgenre. Once inside the home, however, it doesn’t matter if the book is purchased or borrowed. Library books have the benefit of needing to be read immediately but a returned, unfinished story is out of sight, mind and house.

It’s important to always remember that the reader has finite hours in their life in general. Remove the working, sleeping, family and social obligations and meat suit needs, and the average reader has very few hours they can do as they please as an adult. The author’s work doesn’t just compete with every book the reader is reading, intends to read, or would like to read again; they’re competing against anything else the reader could be doing with all their other hobbies and entertainment.

Most readers do not begrudge the author the money they spent on books they started but didn’t finish. But they will go across multiple review platforms to let any other future reader know the story wasn’t worth their time. So while it’s important to remember that publishing is an industry, which means publishing is financially capitalistic, it feeds a market that is hungry for engaging work that grips its reader.

The author should only concern themselves with learning how to do that better. Publishing is the aftereffect of creating work that respects the reader’s investment.

well-written lateral story movement vs storytelling

There are two levels of writing learners need to master when they’re telling a deliberate, meaningful prose. What the characters are doing on the page and how what the characters are doing on the page builds the linear progression of the story are two different levels of storytelling.

The events of the story should drive the tension and the reader forward. Every time the reader puts the book down and comes back to it, they make an active choice to invest their attention capital in finishing more of the work.

This is why the reader doesn’t have time to invest their attention in stories full of well-written lateral movement. On the surface of this kind of prose, things continue to happen to the character but none of it progresses the need for more character development. Think of the example of the young person trying to get into Julliard where they only have conflict once they are not accepted.

All that practicing and working, once it establishes that the character is willing to work hard to accomplish their goals are lateral movement to the established story. They can practice harder and work harder, but unless something stops them from doing either, the story (and the character) can’t progress until the rejection.

Which — at that point — is just one of two established binary options. And a character working hard and getting in is practically no story at all. Even very good writers would struggle with saying something unique that can engage its ideal reader with those story bones.

We talk about the ideal reader a lot, but we never talk about the ideal reader’s ideal story. The ideal story is the perfect work without tension, character development, conflict, or all three and more and still creates a meaningful experience that leaves the reader with lasting, positive impressions of their time invested.

The ideal reader has shelves of existing internationally award-winning authors that avoided foundational structure work entirely and still move nations to tears. But a lot of those authors have only managed to capture lightning in a bottle once.

A story without tension because the author began the story without the intention of creating a source of conflict on the character’s path is not the same thing as a work where the lack of tension engages the reader.

I cannot tell you how many times in the past decade I have been told the lack of conflict or tension was intentional. This was always said in tones that ranged from “frosty” to “I’m just so sorry you can’t understand my authorial intention.”

Their intention to not use conflict to create tension to create meaningful change in the protagonist is obvious in a work.

But no matter how I phrase “the lack of tension and conflict does not serve the story in any meaningful way while their absence detracts from the work enormously. If the intention was to build an engaging reader’s experience, this draft of that effort did not accomplish that goal” could not be heard.

Exceptions do not prove structures are not necessary to tell a meaningful story.

A single indication that telling was just as good as showing would not have stunted my growth as an artist forever. But multiple assurances of it would have convinced me the method could still work much longer than it did. I’d probably still have realized, eventually, that a method that only produces meaningful work randomly from most writers isn’t a good method to practice.

But I’d be years behind my growth because I would have known — and wanted — to believe otherwise.

knowing what your story is about

It’s the When Words Collide weekend, and hopefully the last one that is going to be online. I’m presenting Sunday at three to discuss “There are no rules, twenty years on. Are we still sure we’re right?”

Ten years ago this weekend, I sat down with Adrienne Kerr to pitch the latest version at the time of my novel, Misbegotten. It was a rewrite of the book that made me realize I still needed to learn how to write. I had spent the past six of the seven years since then publishing with over a dozen novels to my name. The novel was supposed to be my triumphant return to mainstream publishing.

I had my elevator pitch and everything, but Adrienne started by asking me what the book was about.

My mind went blank.

Today I can answer that question — it’s an epic fantasy in which each character has to face their breaking point between love, duty, and an inevitable fate. When the gods wake and drive false kings mad, Lien joins the band of loved ones struggling to keep their King safe and sane as the madness of other false kings consumes their world.

But in 2012, all I could think of was the story was about a guy who did things. I could explain to Adrienne what the characters did until the cows came home. But I couldn’t explain why they were doing it.

I always thought that in 2006, I’d done a course-correct and now I’m here, but I forgot the second, probably more important course correct in 2012. Adrienne did her best trying to jockey the answer from a tiring horse on the final stretch, but I knew that while I had a vague idea that testing different relationship bonds to see when each one would break when the fall off the cliff became inevitable, they weren’t developed and the book wasn’t written to explore those bonds. It would need another extensive (yet to be done) rewrite to explore those breaking bonds.

Instead, I applied what I learned to my smut. I wrote Red Lettering in the fall of 2013. I saw the MLR submission request on a Thursday for a deadline on Monday. I’d never written a novella in three days, edited it over an evening and sold it the Monday, but I did it. I started the book not knowing what was going to happen, but I wrote to the theme for the first time deliberately.

Every scene had a purpose that established something the reader needed to understand themselves to grok the next bit. The mood of the piece wrote itself. I’d just lost my cat of seventeen years to cancer that summer. I don’t believe in literal soul-bonding with animals, but if there was, we had it. I wanted to paint that grief into the work. The character of Ren wasn’t born, he burst on the page fully armed, dressing fabulously and dead to begin with. The story was about his lover emerging beyond the grief of loving a larger-than-life, if deeply flawed person.

Would I have put it through another tight edit? Absolutely. Did it perfectly capture what it was I was trying to put down on the page? Also absolutely. Its sequel — a drag queen version of the Christmas Carol, was even more of a delight to write despite the bleak moments.

When I joined IFWA in 2005, I believed to the core of me that theme is just an elaborate Aesop’s Fable moral. Now, I recognize it as the compass of the story. It all started by examining the question of beyond what your characters accomplish on the page, what is the story about?

pre-planning, rewriting, and moving into different reader piles

Did you know the plural for crisis is crises? I did not.

It takes about a month to go from one project to another for me. Day 2, I am convinced I am never writing again. Around day 15, an inkling drops by for a visit. It could be a character, a plot, a world, or an image of a scene with high emotional consequences.

But then, I wait at least two more weeks to start. I think about what the shape of the story will look like. It’s like planning a road trip by only deciding on what major places you want to visit. How I get there, with what, and on what roads are all decisions that I make the day I’m writing that particular scene.

So I don’t do much with pre-planning beyond developing the biggest complications I’m writing to. Everything is completely elastic and anything can be lost to the arrangement no matter how vividly the idea for the important scene seemed. What matters most in the story is a plot that can demonstrate who the characters are, who they need to become to succeed, and what that success will cost them.

In an old Vlogbrother’s video, John Green breaks down what a first draft is. I wish I could find it, but it’s more than a decade old at this point. He said that the first draft is the clay you gather from the riverbed and then purify so that the clay on the work surface can be used to make the ashtray second draft.

My first draft clay isn’t even purified. I completely rewrite about 80% of the text from draft 1 to draft 1.5. Draft 1.5 to 2 writes half of what I’d already rewritten. If I’d been able to bring a third draft of the work to class, the polishing techniques we learned in my MFA would have been fine. But it assumes the author can make the structural changes necessary to get from draft 1 to draft 3 on their own.

Hell might be other people, but it’s also arguing with past versions of yourself who could be no more convinced than you could have been at their stage that craft of writing is essential to the creation of art.

It’s a complicated system of skillsets that need to work together to make sure that the conflict drives the character development the best way it can to cause your character to succeed or fail at their task in a way that engages the ideal reader.

The joke about knowing art when you see it is an oversimplification of the ability art has to move the viewer of it. Not all art is intended for all audiences so there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” art. There is only art that moves its ideal viewer and work that doesn’t succeed in its attempt to do so.

Underpublished writers fall into the trap of confusing a method that is successful because it works reliably for the average learner with a program that is successful because the outlier can make it work reliably. Any writer can tell a deeply moving story. Only writers who understand how to use craft can do so deliberately.

I had to realize I needed to learn craft to make my work do what I wanted it to. It meant seeing a bigger story than the one I could create with my raw talent and limited skills. Underpublished writers are not unpublished writers. They have had success in the past selling the best of their work. I’m a die-hard skeptic, but I have to live with the knowledge that a tarot card reading made me realize I still needed to learn how to write and a Starbucks coffee cup changed the tragetory of my writing.

But just as I’d really established myself as an ebook author whose writing made enough to have some serious fun with it, I went to Starbucks and read a coffee cup. That was in 2015. The cup’s quote on the side of it warned against the trap of being successful at the wrong things. I realized if I wanted to be mainstream author, I would have to give up writing what was easy and learn how to use stakes and theme to create bigger work that would engage the mainstream, jaded speculative reader I wanted.

A reader may not have physical piles of books lying around but the books they have possession of metaphorically divide into a “to be read” pile, the “currently reading” pile, and the “will buy next thing from author because the experience I got out of the first book was worth it” pile. The ideal is for any author’s work to start on “to be read” and finish on “will buy next book from author”.

But there are a lot more metaphorical piles readers have that authors never want to see their work on. Books on the “to be finished…eventually” pile rarely get off it. Authors on the “have given up on” pile need an expensive second chance to try to engage that reader again.

somen: the unsung Japanese noodle

It’s somen season, the best summertime-only Japanese noodle in the market. It only needs to be boiled for a couple of minutes so it’s not going to heat up the kitchen. Traditionally, it’s served with a dipping sauce. I’m clumsy, so I usually eat it dressed in a bowl instead.

summer somen bowl:

3 green onions, whites and greens chopped separately
1/2 tbs of good-tasting oil. Lard would be ideal here.

2 bundles of somen noodles

1/2 tbs soy sauce
1/2 tbs black vinegar
1 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp Worchestershire sauce
1 tsp sambal oelek (wasabi could be subbed)

toppings

It could be just the tops of the green onions. I julienned a baby cucumber. Anything hard and crunchy chopped into matchsticks would be great. A hard-boiled egg would be great and so would kimchi. Any meat should taste good cold, as it’s a cold dish.

Chop onions. Separate green from white and light green sections.

Fry just the white and light green parts in oil until it starts to brown. It takes some of the raw onion bite out and makes the onion sweet. Remove from heat once golden brown.

Bring a pot of water to boil.

Cook noodles according to package directions but test at the minimal time listed. Soggy somen noodles are not a good thing. If the pot is about to boil over, add a splash of cold water.

Mix sauce.

When noodles have just a slight bite to them but don’t feel chalky, drain under cold water while rubbing the noodles like it’s laundry day and all you have is a washboard. This gets off the surface starch to give the sauce more ability to coat the noodles. Shake off as much water from the noodles as possible.

Mix everything together in a bowl, including the browned onion bits. This makes a good meal portion for a hungry adult. Three bundles would be enough for a very hungry adult with a large appetite. With hard-boiled eggs, it’s a surprisingly good meal to cook when turning on the stove the least matters more than what exactly is being cooked on it.

The original method is using tsume sauce, which is a slightly fishy, slightly smokey soy sauce. It’s served with grated daikon, wasabi and ice cubes and the noodles are dipped into the sauce and slurped. It’s delicious as well, but wearing dark clothing while eating it is an absolute must.