Three mistakes underpublished writers make but don’t see as mistakes

Writers are usually divided into unpublished and published, but I’d like to introduce a third category — the underpublished writer. These writers have a handful of sales that prove they can write a good story but still have more rejections than most unpublished writers.

I find the underpublished writer is the most challenging writer to teach because they have evidence their approach can work. I sold six amazing stories before realizing my amazing stories emerged fully formed. Of the dozens of stories that didn’t emerge fully formed, I had no idea how to manipulate them at a structural level in a way that allowed me to explore a story’s full potential.

I’ve found these underpublished writers all tend to want to break only these three rules without considering what they do to the story experience as a whole:

  1. They tell everything significant to the plot. The worldbuilding that exists beyond description and the main conflict are built through dialogue, what the protagonist already knows and explains through exposition or it’s something researched or read. When conflict arises, it’s usually dealt with through more dialogue.
  2. They confuse the conflict in the premise with conflict in the prose. The premise is the problem the story revolves around. Conflict is an oppositional force, internal or external, that keeps a character from their goals. A premise can have conflict — an angry lab assistant stole all the cold-weather gear in the arctic substation and if they don’t check the technobabble before the oncoming snowstorm the prime minister’s plane will crash. If the characters trying to solve the problem aren’t met with oppositional forces equal or greater than their existing skills, the tension in the piece suffers for it. For stories where everything is told, it leads to work where the protagonist talks their way out of any problem they’ve had to the point of the climax and then talks their way out of that as well. Even if it can be done well, it’s still the most common plot in the slush
  3. They think tension is optional. Conflict is not needed to drive tension. It is just the easiest way to drive it if the purpose of the story is to create a meaningful reader’s experience. But if there is no conflict in the story and nothing else drives tension it has to be exceptional or it doesn’t work. In commercial work where the premise is the conflict and the characters mostly talk, however, the lack of tension keeps the reader from being invested in reading it.

But they also believe that if something is intentional, it can’t be changed. So if the underpublished writer chooses to break the rule, their artist’s voice will be silenced if they change anything in the second draft.

But writers are in a fierce competition. They have to compete with everything else their readers could be doing. In a free market, the author’s work is one of the infinite demands on a finite amount of spending money. Even if the story is free, it still has to compete with anything else their reader could be doing with their spare time. Even if their reader wants to read and has time, it competes with every book or magazine the reader already owns, has borrowed, or exists in the bookstore.

Each time the reader puts the story down, it can be added to the “I’ll finish this when I feel like it’ pile. If the reward of the story doesn’t keep feeding them hits of what they find rewarding, it will be replaced with a better dopamine drip.

At no point do editors care what the author’s intention was if what they produced can’t meet expectations. Not including any meaningful conflict is a choice. But if the story has no tension because it has no conflict, it can’t compare to what an experienced writer can create. They tried to make their conflict drive the tension that pushed the character to grow to explore a theme that resonated with the reader. It can’t even compare to stories that don’t do any of that but still provide a rip-roaring ride. And it won’t hold a candle to the occasional story that has no conflict at all, yet the tension still cracks because someone else — more difficult to isolate than conflict — is fueling it.

Ask any experienced writer at the journeyman level in their career. Great stories get rejected all the time if the editor wants to go in a different direction. They have the skillset to convert a good story with an interesting premise into a great story through multiple structural rewrites, and that’s not enough to routinely sell.

I argued with most of my MFA instructors at least once a semester, asking when students would learn how to improve their stories on a structural level. Only one instructor actually answered me. They said they didn’t have time for my advanced techniques in a class that had Advanced in the name. Every instructor I talked to had “researcher” in their job title. Not one of them was curious enough to find out if the fact they teach the only thing that matters is ‘nice prose’ has any real-world application.

Imagine my surprise when the provost defended their program by claiming it used ‘best industry practice’ and then stopped responding.

Learning by deliberately not learning how to use the structures that most effectively produce meaningful prose is like learning to fly by throwing oneself to the ground. That the odd classmate and instructors can miss doesn’t mean that it’s a skill that can be learned. Some writers can exclude entire structures from their prose and build a beautiful reader’s experience.

Underpublished writers have far more work that doesn’t move the reader than work that does. Still, they refuse to learn how to better guide their readers’ experience through the craft designed for that purpose. The only rule they’d follow off a cliff is there there is absolutely no reason that work needs structural improvement. AKA what ‘there are rules’ is actually taught as meaning from semi-professional critique groups to MFAs.

A small portion of writers just wrote until they could deliver an experience to the reader that draws their attention away from anything else they could be doing. And even though these authors go out of their way to share what it took for them to get where they are, underpublished writers will agree with everything they say about how important those pesky foundational structures are for the reader’s experience. But they will still dismiss the need to practice using any of them because there are no rules, after all. Stories based on dialogue and description don’t need any other structure than a throughline to what they’ve arrived at the location to discover.

That story structure isn’t incorrect, but it is the most commonly used one. To stand out from the crowd of stories that already do it well requires even more of a far more unique or interesting take on the structure than a story about a character who just needs to solve their problem while they can impact each other.

Throwing yourself against the ground and missing is the most complex way to learn how to fly. Ultralight aircraft, like writing, don’t require a license to fly, but they need a lot of training to understand how to keep it in the air when the pilot wants it to be. If writers want to fly, they have to decide if they keep throwing themselves to the ground is more manageable than learning what all those buttons and levers do in an aircraft meant to keep the story from crashing the reader’s experience.

It is not easy, and it can take years to produce work that can compare favourably to the average slushpile out there. But to paraphrase the Princess Bride — Learning to write is difficult. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something. That time it would have taken learners to learn how all aspects of craft can work together will pass whether it is spent learning how to use all the tools in a writers’ toolbox or not.

So if a writer is not already flying at a level they define as successful, I ask them to check to see if there isn’t an Ira Glass’s Gap between them and those writers the current methodology works for. Education is more than informing learners that if Steinbeck doesn’t need meaningful character development, no story does. But that’s what creative writing instruction has become because it works for the tiny percentage who don’t need to be taught.

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