the crucible of character change

Before I enrolled in my MFA, I recognized writing advice from the professional writer’s perspective failed the underpublished writer because the same pros that spent 40+ minutes discussing the importance of craft will dismiss the need to actually learn how to do any of it with “there are no rules” as a closing remark.

But that’s not the only problem. The average pro writer will discuss their craft as though discussing it with other professional writers and not the audience listening. I couldn’t find a better example of this than a writer I’ve heard speak several times. If he was only speaking to an audience of other professional writers, I wouldn’t be concerned with what he says.

He quoted Maass’ brilliant “tension on every page” in a recent post, but then stated it wasn’t “tension” that every page needed, it was “emotion.” And to other professional writers, that is a much better way of stating it. However, to the average underpublished writer, it doesn’t help.

There are three types of underpublished writers. Those who focus on the aesthetic nature of the prose wouldn’t know how to manipulate the story so that the character’s actions (or lack of action) cause an emotional response in the reader if it didn’t organically do so in the first draft. A structure-focused writer may be able to write a plot that can emotionally engage the reader, but their aesthetic choices and rough prose keep the reader focused on the trees and not the forest they’re walking through. The rare underpublished writers who can do both just need more butt-in-chair time.

But if any of the three believes “there are no rules” means “I don’t have to put my hours of deliberate practice in,” it won’t matter what any advice says to them. Writers who don’t believe they need to improve won’t be convinced by any advice that says deliberate improvement is a necessary part of learning any skillset.

Underpublished writers need to hear the part of the advice that professional writers assume other professional writers know. It’s not about putting “tension” or “emotion” on every page. That’s Wimbleton-level advice for top-ranked players. Maass says tension on every page is something only writers who have a traditionally published book need to learn how to do. The underpublished writer has to know how to control the ball each time, every time, before they learn how to win world-class championships.

Learning how to create enough conflict from enough sources so that the story creates moments of challenge that feel organic to the story every 250 words or so is extremely difficult to do. The writer has to be able to manipulate the plot, Point of View, escalating tension and conflict in relation to the character’s needs.

The vast majority of work I have read by talented, underpublished writers regardless of the genre of work focused almost exclusively on the exquisite detail of what the character sees, knows, and says. But those are all tools the author uses to tell the reader the story. All the skillsets tied up in showing the reader the world — a character’s goal, actions, motivations, concerns and the antagonistic forces acting against them are usually told to the reader in dialogue between the beautiful descriptions.

If creative writing instructors won’t teach the purpose of fiction is to test the metal of a character in circumstances outside of their comfort zone, then a “story” is only the way the author uses prose. Readers read for the crucible the story puts the character in to see what emerges. This can be “will they save their marriage” or “will they save the world.” The individual stakes of the story don’t matter. The ideal reader only cares about how the character reacts to something they are invested in.

But while the traditional genres of speculative fiction or mystery have the genre mechanics acting as an additional source of conflict, the literary genre only has the depth of humanity as a conflict source. It is starving for unconventional protagonists doing unconventional things with unconventional results.

But the lack of conventions does not an unconventional story make. A work without plot, conflict or tension has no appeal to the reader unless the meaningful lack of convention serves the story. Beautiful prose the author fails to shape into a beautiful story only impresses MFA instructors.

A far more valuable lesson from Maass that underpublished writers should focus on is knowing at the start of the story what that character in that moment in their life would never say, think or do. Then, the story focuses on creating the exact situations it would take for a character that would never blah to blah.

For example, if a character would never be disloyal to their leader, the story’s beginning sets up that loyalty so the reader knows the character would never betray who they follow. Most of the story must set up the events required for a turning point inside the character that makes their best course of action disloyal.

But whether they betray their leader when they need to is their crucible. The story is about who they became to even contemplate the need to do so.

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