Author: barbarageiger

There are no rules slide for When Words Collide Presentation

When Words Collide is starting in the next hour! Free tickets for the virtual event are still available.

I was so pleased to learn that Diane Walton will be joining me on the panel. I’m including the slides here if you would like to download them after our presentation on Sunday at 3 pm.

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)


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.

the Vin Diesel plot test and the anti-Vin Diesel problem

Any plot that asks a protagonist to do something they’re capable of and then go and does it is like a movie where Vin Diesel is asked to go do anything in his wheelhouse. The audience watches Vin Diesel Vin Diesel for ninety minutes and they feel like they got their Vin Diesel worth.

But safes had better be dragged through crowded city streets without striking a single bystander.

If, however, the plot is Vin Diesel goes out to fetch plot coupon from abusive ex-father’s history and spends the movie battling the ghost of him as he fights to retrieve the plot coupon, Vin Diesel has bigger problems. He’ll have to defeat the hold his dead father still has on him to accomplish his goals. Even if he doesn’t succeed, no one needs multiple cars to explode.

So the Vin Diesel test is to ask yourself what kind of plot do you need? If there is no meaningful character growth intended, the story has to still give the reader what they bought the book to read. Whatever your character is Vin Diesel at, they must be great at Vin Dieseling to stand out from all the other writers just trying to tell stories about Vin Diesel Vin Dieseling.

Conflict only comes when a character is faced with something they couldn’t or wouldn’t do. If the Vin Diesel character spent his life becoming Vin Diesel so he wouldn’t have to deal with his emotional trauma, it’s even more important to show the reader what the character most needs to change about themselves but wants to alter the least. If Vin Diesel could just Vin Diesel his way out of this problem, it would not create conflict in the story.

The anti-Vin Diesel problem is the problem your character can’t just Vin Diesel himself out of. A character that succeeds by Vin Dieseling harder needs the kind of problem that being Vin Diesel will actively make worse.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a story about a Vin Diesel that Vin Diesels, but the journey has to be better than the destination. When your character Vin Diesels at what they do best without something meaningful stopping them, their destination should be considered a foregone conclusion.

a character with a difficult problem vs one with conflict

A protagonist from an upper middle-class family wants to study at Julliard to be a (fill in the blank). But they have a problem — Julliard is very exclusive, expensive, and difficult. So the character works hard, practices from the early hours to late at night, and does as much work on the side that they can to help defer the costs.

But it’s not until the character does all of that diligently and doesn’t get accepted that the first hint of conflict enters the story.

Conflict is what keeps a character from what they want. In this case, whether or not the protag gets accepted is completely out of their control. It was difficult to dedicate their lives to a single goal, but nothing tried to stop them from accomplishing their goals.

The entire story could have been told in a montage where every shot would be “character works hard to achieve goals.”

Now, imagine another character, about to go into hypoglycemic shock because they gave themselves too much insulin that morning and didn’t eat enough to counteract it. If the character reaches into their pocket and pops a lifesaver in their mouth or runs into a store to buy a new pack, they’ve just solved a difficult problem.

But, say, they grabbed their spring coat that morning so their glucose pills and their wallet are still in their winter coat they decided not to take and the only candy in sight is held in the tiny, clenched fist of an — unsupervised for the purpose of the story — baby.

One does not steal candy from a baby. But one should also not collapse into a sweaty lump on the sidewalk on a spring morning in downtown Calgary. That character now has a conflict that they have to either be unconscious or the person who steals candy from a baby for no apparent reason because once they eat the sugar, they’re no longer at risk of passing out.

They’d look like a perfectly healthy human who had just stolen candy from a baby.

Plots to stories should be difficult but there is no conflict until the character is presented with a task that they cannot do or a mental block that won’t let them. It’s only when the character is unable to succeed with the tools they brought into the story with them that conflict can drive meaningful character development.

change the mindset, change the outcome

The one thing I have no recollection of is whether the conventional methodology as I’d been brought up in it had ever worked in a public critique group. All I remember in the years I was told that the foundational structures weren’t optional is how sorry I felt for the person trying to tell me such outdated nonsense.

It took watching eleven of those old guard around a really hot table one really hot August in 2005 when I was so bored out of my gourd I had to pay attention to something else or I was going to have to break out a notebook and write while everyone else paid attention to the current critiquer arguing that foundational structures are still important while the current author was arguing that yeah, structures are important, but they meant to not include them.

There were twelve stories, each being critiqued by twelve writers who all made the exact same points after the second speaker spoke. Not one critique I heard was wrong. Except mine of course. When everyone told me I’d not broken the rules effectively, they just couldn’t understand I’d meant to break them on purpose. I was just so much better at breaking the rules than my peers were.

But we’d turned those stories in months ago. If it had been hot copy as I sent it off, minutes before the deadline, it was cold as ash now. If I’d just written it recently I would have probably agreed with my self-accessment on its misunderstood brilliance, but I’d written so much since that I could read my story as someone else’s cold copy.

And all twelve critiquers were 100% right, as they had been on every other story we’d critiqued. If we all agreed while sitting in a greenhouse for two days while listening to a gross of critiques when we all thought we were the only ones who had broken the rules and still told an effective story, we were all wrong.

Then the reality of that fact that none of us had broken the rules effectively was undeniable.

Every story I sold to that point had broken a significant structure of fiction in a way that served the story meaningfully. All six of them. The other tonne only broke the rules because I couldn’t have shown what I was trying to tell.

I had thought I was just being clever. But so did eleven other writers and a gross of critiques told us we all really should have really shown the reader what is significant so they can attach their own significance to it.

If only it could have possibly been explained that way.

But that’s the problem with axiomatic advice. Once upon a time, back when writers learned to write on their own and learned how to improve as a group, ‘show don’t tell’ was the shorthand they all used because everyone around that table understood that what is told to the reader only asks the reader to remember it.

But teach “show don’t tell” to enough generations of writers under the ideological belief that ‘there are no rules applies to me’ and the axiomatic meaning behind the phrase fades out of existence. Instructors will eventually teach that showing is entirely optional.

Victorian authors sitting in the private salon of some master were there to learn everything they could from anyone they could and they actively strove to improve their craft, or they wouldn’t have been invited to sit in the salon in the first place.

As the creative writing ideology was veering straight for, “we’re all outliers, so this methodology works for us all,” I got off the bus.

There are so many foundational structures that are vital to the creation of deliberate work that can move a reader to continually seek the work out until the story gives them a sense of resolution worth their time invested.

Yet I have read so much work over the past fifteen years by authors absolutely sure that they had nothing left to learn. And yet their work is the model of what a story is. It has the shape of a story and the words of a story. And the characters of a story and the setting of a story and the beautiful language of a story.

But the story itself is too weak to support the beautiful prose that asks nothing from the reader but for appreciation as beautiful prose when buyer’s market of work that has beautiful language and asks the reader to engage with the prose on a deeper level than appreciation exists.

Writing meaningful, deliberate prose: it’s a lot harder than it looks” is the “Buckley’s. It tastes awful, but it works” of pedagogical approaches, but it’s the only one that is honest to the average learner.

It works a lot better than hoping to be born with an outlier level of raw talent and innate learning ability, while still needing the opportunity to have an excellent education, the right guidance, the practice time to dedicate yourself to a task for hours a day over years, and a life that never throws you any more curveballs than you can handle.

Or be so driven that the need to write that life’s stumbling blocks can’t matter.

Because results may vary if none of those conditions are true. If writing deliberate prose is harder than it looks, the average learner can only succeed in producing it if they want a better reader’s experience.

Providing writers with the tools and craft necessary to evaluate their progress in producing more meaningful work for its ideal reader, even if that ideal reader is the author themselves requires a learner who desires proficiency in their craft.

The Forgotten Last Scale and Rubrics

Before I graduated, I invented a new story rubric that operates like a radiating spiderweb. It’s not a tool for the instructor, however, it’s a self-evaluation tool the learner can use to evaluate their own use of whatever core foundational structures of story they want to isolate and improve on.

Those are my important eight aspects of fiction, but it’s entirely customizable. For example, I can lump internal and external conflict in the same zone, but I probably divide that section in half to isolate internal and external conflict for learners who can’t use them interchangeably. The goal isn’t for the instructor to get the learner’s prose from 2 – 10. It’s to get the learner to learn how to get from a 4 to a 6 on their own.

I think my My Forgotten Last Scale breaks down what is the last thing the reader remembers about a piece works the same way.

The average story is forgotten.

A good story is a story where the reader remembers the premise until they forget it.

A very good story has one aspect to it — a scene, a character, or even a phrase — that the reader will remember for a long time.

An excellent story is a work where the reader could forget the premise, characters or a single event that occurred and yet never forget how they felt when they read it.

Again, the goal isn’t for the instructor to get the learner from unmemorable work to excellent. We can only guide the learner to how to learn how to get to the next step. Learning, like tension, is a process that occurs inside the learner. It’s not a passive activity.

And it’s not helped by the belief that the learner just needs to be discovered rather than learn their craft. That comes preinstalled in most writers even before they start their first book. The belief is one of the biggest mental blocks that keep the underpublished author underpublished.

The answer to “how do I play in the NHL?” is “start when you are born male and turn four.” The answer to “how do I produce the work that can move the reader?” is “start now.”

a hand vs a scene — a post on writing!

A hand is a bag of tendons and flesh with sticks in it that makes it do things. You could describe what a hand looks like, what it does, or how it does it. To encompass what a hand is, all three aspects of what it is needs to be described to capture the “handness” of a hand.

A scene works the same way. It is what it describes, what it does for the story, and how it does it. What it describes is the actions of the moment. For so much underpublished work, writers can get trapped in thinking what a scene describes is what a scene *is* but that’s just describing the hand. A scene, as the smallest unit of story, has to do something for the story, and it has to have the structure to do it with.

There’s not much I can say about describing the actions of the scene. This isn’t a problem for the majority of underpublished writers because it’s usually the aspect of writing they can do the best. They are very good at describing what the character sees, says and does.

To be able to capture what the character sees, says and does is an accomplishment that can take years to develop. Point-of-view filtering the description through the opinion of the character at the moment creates microtension at the sentence level. Being able to produce a well-written scene is an important milestone of a writer’s creative path.

Once the author is able to capture what the character does, says and sees in a scene, the next step is to look at the structure and the function of the story as a piece of the whole story. Hands have infinite functions. So do scenes. But while hands sometimes have no function at all, a scene doesn’t have that luxury.

Outliners and pre-scene planners should have a function in mind for each scene. “This scene establishes X is terrified of not being able to see” or “this scene establishes X and Y like each other, but don’t trust each other”. True pantsers who can’t even have that much constraint on what they’re going to write will have to spend more time in the rewrite stage looking at the structure and function of the individual scenes once the work is finished.

But it’s the how the scenes accomplish what they need to accomplish that I think needs the most attention drawn to it. How the author reveals the information is one of the most important functions of a scene. What does the character see, hear or do to change one aspect of the story?

Of all the tools the writer has to establish something to the reader, “dialogue” should be kept in the back of the box. While there’s nothing wrong with revealing information through dialogue, stories in which everything happens through dialogue do not tend to use any other tool to reveal information.

All that can happen in a dialogue-revealed scene is the character learns something they didn’t know before. While learning something new through dialogue can be very impactful if that knowledge is earned through the character’s previous actions, only using dialogue to reveal the information to that point can steal its thunder.

By at least the rewriting process, evaluating scenes at the description, form and function levels keeps the story from being lost to the muddle in the middle.

But I don’t think I need to/want to/have to do all of that.

No one has to do anything they don’t want to do. Publishing today is so competitive that writers who do go through and make sure that every scene drives the story forward still get rejected. Writing isn’t one particular skill, it’s dozens of skills all smashed into one activity. Even the writers who do most of them very well still do not routinely publish.

Is your work good enough to not do X and still succeed? Maybe. But writers who figure out X will always have X in their writer’s toolbox to use each time they need to use X in a scene.