the impossibility of teaching through a confirmation bias

I spent two and a half years trying to find a “gentle” enough way to give craft-based advice before realizing it can’t be done. There was no amount of craft talk — no matter how insignificant and easy to change — that can penetrate the confirmation bias of a learner steeped in a culture that teaches them that first drafts are practically perfect in every way.

But the UBC methodology isn’t the Mary Poppins way. The good nanny herself understood that a spoonful of sugar may make the medicine go down. But even with the sugar, any Edwardian-style medicine wasn’t a pleasant experience sugared or non-.

No one likes to be told that there’s more work to be done on a work they’ve already finished. And structural edits can mean multiple rewrites between the story as it exists and the story as it could be. I’m an editor who is stuck in rewrites at the moment. I know how much work the edits I’m suggesting to myself will be. I don’t want to do it. But the better story is after having made the changes and I know if I don’t, the next writer who wants to engage the reader as much as they can who will take the extra time.

The only changes I don’t are the few where the proposed effort isn’t worth the payoff.

It rarely isn’t.

Structural edits maximize the chances of catching and holding the ideal reader’s attention in today’s world of constant distraction. But to the under-published writer, all that extra work is exactly what’s keeping the story from finding that reader.

As an editor reading slush, I can’t tell you how many “perfect” stories we reject. Stories that have a character with a problem in a world that’s usually extremely well built. There’s a clear conflict that the character interacts with one way or another and something is learned. With all those components in place, most still aren’t greater than the sum of its parts.

I reject stories that have moments that linger with me, and on my Forgotten Last Scale between forgotten immediately and will never forget, that means it’s a pretty good story. I reject them because for as good as the payoff was, it wasn’t worth 6000 words of my reader’s attention or pages in our magazine. That story in 4000 words would have been an instant buy.

To read stories in which nothing really happens to characters that don’t need to change in worlds that are beautifully transcribed camera-pans leaves me tired. There are enough engaging characters with a significant concern in a beautifully transcribed camera-pan world to not even consider stories that don’t at least try to hit all three factors of a good story told well.

A character who does not change should be an active choice in fiction, not the default setting.

But the writer will sputter about how it’s not necessarily true that all stories need things to happen and matter to the character. I have never confused a story that didn’t allow their character to change with a story that didn’t ask them to take their shoes off. Yet still, expecting commercial fiction to have meaningful tension in one form or another is a forbidden opinion to have in my MFA program.

You can’t get past a cognitive bias. It makes more sense to the UBC that despite the policies having a clear designated recipient for harassment-based claims in a policy that lays out its academic freedom expectations under its purpose, there is no possible way to report harassment for academic freedom-based claims.

Stories don’t need things to happen in them.

An officer of the institution can remove academic freedom from a student if it means not having to hear how academic freedom violations were built into his program.

No protagonist should change.

An officer of an institution can choose not to disclose his conflict of interest if he doesn’t want to.

Stories don’t need tension from any source.

The legal counsel can guide officers of the institution into “legal” (read: no one gets arrested) ways of hiding the hint of the massive conflict of interest.

Nice prose is all you need to obtain your commercial publishing goals.

No one has to follow the policies if their boss tells them they don’t.

There are no rules means no rules exist.

As above, so below.

UBC’s creative writing school and legal department seem to come from the same “if enough people believe it, it must be true and unquestionable” school of thought.

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