Author: barbarageiger

They’re not rules. They’re structural considerations

There’s a lot of signal-to-noise ratio when it comes to what the pros say about story structure and what the amateur hears them say. Allow this system to remain unchallenged long enough and MFAs start teaching the noise and not the structure.

Show don’t tell for example is the prime directive of writing, but it’s just the title of the directive. Show don’t tell *means* show the reader what they need to understand about the world, character and plot developments.

In contrast, telling is a quick tool to finesse moving quickly from something that doesn’t matter to something that does. There could be times in any work when telling will be the most effective, most meaningful moment in the book but that comes well after the reader knows the world, the character and the plot. “The King is dead.” has a lot more resonance in Chapter 31 than it would in Chapter 1 when the reader is still thinking “Who he?”

So yes. There are no rules. But no, there are no shortcuts either. Structural functions of storytelling all maximize the chances that when your reader needs to care about what happens next, they will. That has absolutely no guarantee of happening because a character is just moving through a fictional world. The character has to move through the world and that movement has to matter to the reader.

And yet, go to any current critique circle and there’s a very good chance what’s being taught is “It’s okay to tell if you tell very well.”

In my MFA, there wasn’t a falsehood I believed as a writer who still needed to learn how to control the narrative in my fiction that wasn’t confirmed by the program. I, too, believed conflict was, at best optional when I couldn’t manipulate events to get in the way of my character getting what they wanted. If it didn’t naturally occur in the first draft, it somehow was never, ever needed. I believed this no matter how many times I was told that if I learned to manipulate the conflict, I’d always have a much stronger story for it.

There will always be fantastic work that is the exception to any rule. But just naming the exception is not teaching the author how to break that rule successfully themselves. For that learning to happen, one would have to break down *by the beat* how the exception pulled off the rule-breaking. Then, the learner would have to understand how that one exception manipulated the story structure to overcome the lack of it. How they’d learn to bend the same structure is up to them with that knowledge.

World War Z is a brilliant example of a told story through a pseudo-epistolary structure. The quick cuts back and forth between human beings forced to live through a global event through the lens of their country’s different responses to the zom-demic is brilliantly done. Epistolary novels suffer from the emotionally distancing fact that if the character is writing about the events, they survived them. World War Z establishes a world where surviving could have been the worst of all evils.

Does that mean every epistolary novel can overcome the challenges of the emotional distance between the events, the protagonist and the reader? Hell no. World War Z should be treated as the bar that needs to be beaten not the key that unlocks a lock.

Beware of anyone who tells you that if **brilliant example** can do it, you can, too. If they can’t teach you how to do it yourself, they’re not teaching you anything.

Setup Pays Off

Last night, I sat down and wrote a small scene. In it, the character needed a beat that said not only he knew where the character was being locked up, he knew who the character was with so the first character definitely had insider’s knowledge.

And I didn’t know who he was with at the time. I actually put ______ as a placeholder because I’d have to think about who would be significant in the story to be there that I’d already established, because, at 85k, Thou Shalt Not Introduce a New Character Who Only Matters for just this Story Alone. If I could think of anyone by Monday’s writing, I could delete the line as much as it would pain me.

I don’t outline. I can’t. If I outline a story from start to finish, I’ve already told it and I’m bored when I sit down to write it. But I take a sack of setup and spread it think and heavy over the beginning and just see what grows in it that I can harvest later. I don’t need to know why something is significant and I don’t know when I write something that doesn’t feel significant at the time that it’s going to be a load-bearing wall in the second half. I just write a character trying to solve their problems as the events they live through make matters worse.

All I need to start a story is a character with an interesting voice and a problem. Everything else that happens in the story, the character and I figure out together and then I go back and edit what happened is a clear path from the beginning while also making sure the characters at the start of the book are the characters at the end of the book minus all the character growth they’ve suffered through.

I write to snooker myself in the part of the day I’m not physically typing. I don’t know what’s in the bag the character finds. I don’t know why the two characters who didn’t know each other exchanged significant glances. I don’t even know what the antagonistic force wants in the story until I’m usually a third of the way through it at least.

I write to find out what happens. It’s a blast, even if each time I do it, I wonder if this is the time I’ll have to go back and delete there being a bag at all. But then all I need to do is brush my teeth and I know, obviously, it’s a sterilization unit with a sample from X in it. What else could it be?

The difference between good pedagogy, bad pedagogy, and no pedagogy at all

My methodology behind my writing is I do not write a scene unless I know why that scene is going to be awesome, which is why I love tower defence games. From the ramping to the utter bloodshed of an overpowered setup, it’s a perfect Skinner Box for me to throw my whole attention on one thing so my subconscious can bubble away at a plot problem I have without any aware part of my brain trying to meddle in the process. My goal is 2000 words a day so that needs more plot thinking time than the actual typing.

The game I play goes into the hundreds of rounds with the right strategy. I barely made it to 200 if every break cracked my way. So I decided I was going to learn how to play using a method that wasn’t my preferred way of just putting one of every tower on the board and power it up as fast as possible.

A good pedagogy — that is, the way learning takes place is to learn the knowledge and skills necessary to balance killing all the balloons first while still making as many bananas as possible in the early game. Killing all the balloons is the primary focus of the game. Planting as many bananas as possible is the secondary goal considering the primary focus first.

A bad pedagogy would be learning the knowledge and the skills necessary to kill all the balloons and plant as many bananas as possible. Both are important, but the learner isn’t taught what the primary focus *is*. They can learn the knowledge and the skills necessary to kill all the balloons and plant as many bananas as possible, but unless they know that one is far more important than the other, they can still learn perfectly and still fail because the pedagogy did not support them for success.

And no pedagogy at all would be just doing what the people who know how to play the game from the foundational levels up would do and just hope for the same success.

Imagine my surprise when the UBC’s “pedagogy” was exactly the same as my first attempts at just repeating what I was seeing done in a video game. It took me three or four rounds to realize if I didn’t understand why I was doing what I was doing and that was the problem. I was following techniques, not actually learning how to do it myself. I’m sure the UBC thinks following instructions is the same as learning without needing to explain why each step matters and what exemplars look like.

MFAs: The limited good, the very bad and the terribly ugly

I posted this on reddit today, but thought it should go here, too. I just graduated with my MFA from a good Canadian university and I feel I have to warn writers who think that the academic creative writing path is how to improve. I could talk on this for days, but I’d like to sum up the three main points:

The good: If you’re already a writer who can write work that sells reliably and an MFA is between you and a teaching gig, an MFA makes sense. Or, if your writing is already pitch-perfect, the UBC program is fine for you. They definitely know the techniques necessary for nicer finished prose.

If you’re still getting more form rejections though, be very wary of any MFA program that is not willing to teach you the craft necessary to improve. The UBC made no attempt and had no desire to let anything but exceptional work that broke the rule the author tried to and couldn’t as their teaching method.

It’s fine to know exceptions exist. But if they’re going to be the only lesson taught in an MFA program, it’s not enough to teach a student how to follow the steps as to what the author had to do to make Humphrey Humperdinck a character the reader could at least attempt to empathize with in the contemporary and modern context of his character. That’s just learning how someone else did it. If exceptions are being taught as the lesson, the structure of what an empathetic character does to a plot so that the author can fill in the gaps not being empathetic will cause in their own unempathetic characters. To break a rule like “the protagonist should be empathetic so the reader will care about the character enough to read on just to find out what happens to them” something else in the prose needs to keep the reader reading if the character doesn’t make them care whether they get hit by a bus.

But to tell a learner writing the typical story of an unpleasant POC character with no stakes in what is happening to do unpleasant things and yet makes no effort to avoid the unpleasant end they’ve made for themselves is a story that either needs multiple revisions so that the reader still gets the same emotional payout as a story that has a character willing to try to change their fate whether they succeed or fail.

Breaking a structural function in fiction creates a deficit in the story that following the rule would have provided. That is so much harder to do than just using the structure as intended. Conflict is the easiest way to show a character who needs to grow. They want a thing but they can’t get the thing until they grow as a character. It’s a built-in layup.

Showing character growth without the character needing to act against anything standing in their way is even harder. Spontaneous character development without a cause or a cost is next to meaningless.

Writing a story in which no character growth is even attempted is the hardest of the three. If the events of the story doesn’t matter to the character, it had better be a rip-roaring ride from the start to make up for the lack of character development. Even characters in well estblished serials need some growth of character or even die hard fans get bored.

But I was also a writer who never stepped down from a challenge. If someone told me twenty years ago that it was impossible to write an effective story in which a fundamental structural rule was broken and yet nothing filled the void it created, I’d throw myself against that problem until I either had, yup, impossible confirmation or a SUCK ON THIS.

I was lucky. I’d only believed that there are no rules meant no rules existed for a period of about five years where I wrote the six best stories I’d ever written while breaking fundamental structures as I did. But I’d written a hundred stories that all tried to do the same thing and failed before deciding that maybe it was easier to write great stories on purpose instead of relying on me writing something great by chance.

But the ugly part of the MFA is that they’ve completely lost the plot when it comes to showing the reader what the reader needs to understand to fully engage with the world, plot and story. If a writer needs help with the prose they’ve chosen to tell the story itself, the MFA can help. But there’s been a fundamental disconnect between the modern writer and the purpose of the creative writing critique that universities haven’t even come close to addressing if they’re still using peer critique groups that allow “but Beowulf did it” to be the lesson taught and learned.

If the instructor and the students all agree that there are no rules means if any rule can be broken, then no story needs structure. If it teaches the learner that if what was told was meant to be told so it’s fine, they’ve done that writer a huge disservice. Any rule can be broken.

Show don’t tell isn’t a rule. It’s the prime directive. And like all prime directives, there are times you can break it, times you want to break it but know you shouldn’t and times you accidentally break it and don’t end up blowing up interplanetary relations, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still the prime directive.

Showing the reader what they need to know before they need to know it is the fundamental tool of storytelling. The beginning of the book needs to show the reader why they should invest their time and money into this character from the first scene. The middle beginning of the story needs to show the reader who this character is before their life turns to heck so that when their life turns to heck, the reader sees the growth themself. And at the end of the beginning, the reader should be fully invested in reading on, just to see what happens next. In media res beginnings need to do that all at the same time without sacrificing the flow of the piece for exposition to explain it.

If any writer thinks that’s an easy thing to do, they’re either already brilliant or a beginner. To do all that in which any part of the character’s dreams and fears, worries, interpersonal dynamics or the way they fit in this world is told to the reader rather than demonstrated through the character’s actions as they move through the story, it makes the engagement the reader needs to care harder not easier. Without showing the reader the story, they have no way of objectively understanding the world if every bit of information they learn from it is subjectively told through dialogue or exposition that one side of the issue got to summarize.

And man, if a writer can objectively show the reader something and then recontextualizes what actually happened with the information learned throughout the story? Shut up and take my money.

But telling the reader what they need to know in the beginning of the story through dialogue and exposition is never going to be as effective a scene as figuring out how to show the reader what they need to see through the character’s actions. And if your MFA program doesn’t understand that, it may be time to find a different MFA program.

And here’s the thing. I know stories can be told very well through exposition, dialogue and description without conflict, tension or any sort of pace at all. As an editor, I have my pick of the very best examples from some very well-published writers. Even get noticed from the pile of stories in which characters mostly act through the conversations they have is a feat.

To get noticed from the pile of stories about a character who wants something that matters to them and has to change something about themselves in a way that resonates with the reader so that they can forget everything about the story but still remember how the story made them feel is extremely easy. You just need to have all those elements in place, be it a story about trying to save a wedding or the world.

And you don’t learn how to write at that level by learning exceptions disprove the need for structure.

If you’re the writer who started producing work that effortlessly moved the reader without ever learning how an MFA program is for you. But it will be an MFA program designed to teach MFA instructors how to teach an MFA program. Some writers just know how to use theme and structure with prose and character and create something that matters intuitively. It is not a program designed to teach writers how to improve their weaknesses.

I just know at any point of my development of a writer, if I’d been told by someone I respected that the shortcuts worked because masterpieces of English literature could do the same thing, I would never have seen all the different ways I tried not to show the exciting parts I thought I was telling on purpose. We could argue about empathetic main characters or if characters truly need to change, but a story told through dialogue is never going to be as effective as a story told through the character’s actions trying to accomplish something that’s important to them in a way that the growth they show resonates with its ideal reader.

Even if it’s told through dialogue very well. Lots of writers can tell their story well. You’ve gone to school to learn how to do what you can’t do very well.

And never trust a program that can only teach by naming exceptions to the structural support they should be teaching you how to smash yourself.

Am I painting all MFAs with the UBC brush? No. I haven’t taken all MFAs, I’ve taken this one. But this one, I’m assured, is a perfectly good example of an MFA program. Which should worry any writer trying to learn how to publish in such a competitive field as commercial fiction. There are sweet lies and hard truths in this business, and the sweet lie everyone wants to believe is they have nothing left to learn.

But I wouldn’t have grown as a writer if I hadn’t sat down with myself and asked how it was that if I already knew so much about writing why are my stories only the odd hit in a whole lot of misses? Only when I considered that I might be wrong about how much I thought I knew did I realize how wrong I was about almost everything.

Creative writing is a weird world. Painters can get good enough or just be talented enough that they can break colour theory over their knee, but they don’t deny that the same amount of yellow and purple don’t look great together. My program couldn’t even take a stand that this Yet Another YA Dystopian Science Fiction Novel (YAYADSFN) actually needs things to happen that mattered to the character.

Writing to engage the reader vs. writing to impress them

In the same way that I’m not sure who told writers starting out that writing a conventional story is so simple there is really no need to practice the conventions that make them up, it confuses me who told writers starting out that the thing that impresses readers is impressive prose.

Impressive prose in an impressive story that takes a character on a journey to the end of the story that delivers a story that gives the reader an enriching experience for having spent the time in the world is impressive. If the only impressive thing about the story is the prose itself, however, I’ve always wondered what emotional experience the author hopes the reader will leave their story with. Even if the prose is impressive in isolation, being impressed by a story’s prose isn’t the same thing as being moved by it.

While I saw a lot of this “impressive” prose in stories that were aimed at pleasing writing instructors during my degree, I see it in genre work all the time, too. Stories full of characters pontificating at each other, descriptions that have some truly inspired lines but not a character with a problem that lives in the world it paints, and exposition that would have told an excellent story had those events been what the story followed instead of the follow-up the events caused.

It took me a lot of years not to hear what I shouldn’t do as a writer and not open a can of beer so someone could hold it. It took me a lot of years to realize that the amount of effort required to write a story that’s only dialogue but still delivers to the reader the engaging experience that would fill the void of a character trying to change their fate could be used elsewhere to tell better stories. I’d have to do multiple revisions to ensure the structure of a story told through dialogue is not repetitive to the reader.

And that was before I realized that even if I pull the story off perfectly, it still has to compete with all the other perfectly told stories by industry professionals. If I’d known that, I’d put the beer back in the fridge.

Only the very best of the wittiest banter can carry a story where the character isn’t presented with or requires any opportunity to change. If that still makes a writer want to find someone to hold their alcoholic beverage, I’d like for them to consider what good witty banter can do to a story with a character who has to overcome what’s holding them back from what they have to do.

The DNA of Conflict in Speculative Fiction

You’d think from the way I talk about the teaching of creative writing that I believe the solution to writers who have the skill to bend the rules teaching writers who don’t have the skill to bend the rules that they, too, have the skills to bend the rules that the solution would be, teach the rules better. The fact that some writers in that group are good enough to bend the rules (and become teachers too) doesn’t change the fact that the only learning involved in teaching learners that exceptions disprove the need for structure is that most learners learn they don’t even need to learn what isn’t needed in the first place.

But the solution is not to teach the rules better. I joined the writing community in a time where everyone taught the rules better, and I didn’t learn a darn thing until I was ready to hear I needed to learn them. Thanks to twenty years of intuitive instructors teaching concrete learners how to learn like they did, every writer thinks following “the rules” can’t possibly help their story, no matter how much just showing the reader what they need to understand will help the story unfold organically instead of just being linking sections of description, exposition and dialogue.

Is it possible to write great stories that are just description, exposition and dialogue? Of course. Is it easy? Of course not. Is it easier than just setting a character at a moment in their life where if they don’t change, they can’t grow? Of course not. Is it a highly competitive field filled with the very best writers who are very good at writing description, exposition and dialogue in a way that almost does as much work as a character wanting to change something they don’t like about themselves, their world or their path in life then sets out to do so?

Absolutely, yes.

There are so many different aspects in a character’s life that conflict can come from. Character versus themselves, a time limit, a deeply held belief, the environment, other characters and the speculative nature of the story itself are the asparagine, glutamine, histidine, lysine, proline, and threonine of speculative work. Yet I’ve read thousands of stories in my life in my MFA program and out that had a character who never has any doubt that they’ll succeed at the thing they’re doing succeeds at the thing they’re doing. If a character starts with a problem that they don’t have a doubt in their mind they can’t beat or even have a realistic chance of failing, where’s the conflict? If an unpleasant thing happens to an unpleasant protagonist, who feels the schadenfreude? If the character never had a chance to escape or change their fate, what other feeling is the reader supposed to have but a feeling of inevitability?

All those stories can be done well. But they have to be done extremely well to even compete with the already large group of writers who can all tell a story on rails very well. And all to fill the absence created in a story that doesn’t have a character the reader can invest their time in to see if their best efforts are good enough to overcome the challenge they’re facing where failure feels like a real option. If there’s no doubt they will succeed or fail from the start of the story, where does the tension come from?

The rules of writing are dead. It’s time we start respecting the ingredients of a good story enough to learn how to use them effectively each time, every time. I get that there’s a feeling in the writing community that thinks conventional stories are easy and that true art exists in the unconventional. And again, I’m not arguing the concept.

But a learner can learn how to write a conventional story. They have to teach themselves how to write an unconventional one. A child has to teach themselves to self-ambulate before can try to learn how to fly and there’s nothing easy about learning to self-propel your body through space for the first time in all the different ground-based gaits. Not even trying to learn the foundations of the crawl, walk and run before trying to throw oneself onto the ground and missing seems like the absolute worst way of trying to learn how to do anything.

So forget the rules. Learn the ingredients. And conflict is the egg of the story. It provides the easiest form of structure but there are ways to work around their lack. I can teach you how to cook the best French souffle possible and even if it doesn’t work, you’ll still have yummy cheesy eggs. If you want to learn how to bake an eggless souffle, though, you start by studying the techniques while you practice the steps multiple times or be willing to fail until your end result is an eggless souffle.

Changeling is back in print!

If there’s a book I can point to and say, this one, this is where things all started to hit in the story where I wanted them to instead of where they randomly alighted in my prose, it would be Changeling. The story came to me in a single scene that unfolded in a bus crossing a mountain pass in the middle of a snowstorm and ended up with Kevin and Matt and Sam.

Kevin and Matt’s story really swept me up into it. Matt had so many broken pieces in him that he managed to rebuild the shape of but not the strength of its original part and Kevin could not fix him unless Matt is ready to start fixing himself.

He’s a character who needs to stop running to heal but his hounds are always right on his heels. If there’s a story I’ve written that takes a character from where they were to where they are that I can be proud of, this is it.

And I’ve got two Christmas novellas coming back out in the next few weeks, too, Black Shades and Old Traditions. Stay tuned!

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Read an excerpt

Show don’t tell. (Or compete in a very busy field of writers who can all tell really well.)

I’ve heard a lot of protests from inexperienced writers about how non-essential the rules were if you meant to break them in the first place. In over half of them, I was the one protesting. Yet, looking back, the only rule that most inexperienced writers will die on a hill for is not needing to show the reader what the reader needs to see play out for them to understand who the character is at a more complex level than who they understand themselves to be, even if they think they’re being honest with themselves.

To remember just how important it is to show the reader what matters so they’re a witness in the character’s growth as it happens and not a passive observer following what the character learns through dialogue, libraries and their analogues and the intuitive knowledge the character had before the start of the story. We use a shorthand squiggle that all writers know as “show don’t tell”.

In all the years I’ve spent my own money learning how to write by attending writing conferences and the occasional workshop, I’ve never heard a professional writer tell me “show don’t tell, unless you tell it really well, in which case, telling is fine.” I only heard the last section when I was a very inexperienced writer but I heard it loud and clear. I was shocked to find out that my MFA program teaches the excuse I gave myself not to learn how to show as a valid critique to writers still starting out.

Showing the reader what’s happening as it’s happening is the easiest way of telling a story. Telling a story instead of showing it is much more difficult to do and it involves a lot more finesse than just telling the reader what’s happening instead of showing them it.

Okay, says the skeptic. But I’ve spent *years* practicing how *I* tell. The techniques I use to tell my readers what they need to know are fantastic. I want to tell this writer just how many good stories I’ve read in the slush that through hook or by crook, needed to be told through telling. Many, many, many writers have practiced telling stories so well they’re almost as good as a story that is shown by a less experienced writer. I can have my pick of well-told stories about conversations the character has had.

What is far less common are stories shown through characters living through the build-up of tension in a situation that matters, surviving climax the best way they can and live through the consequences of their choices moves me, whether the character’s efforts to change their fate were successful or not. A character talking to other characters about something that only impacts them tangentially would have to be an exquisite story to even come close to the same emotional payout.

It took six years of being told “show this” to hear “it’s important you show this because your character and your reader need to experience this important event together so the reader can understand the world/character/problem at a greater level than just as a past event that happened.”

I just heard “here is a rule” and I broke the rules on purpose. I didn’t know “a character should have a name” is a rule and “show your story, don’t just tell the important parts of it” is how you write. I thought I was being transgressive when I told the events of the big fight through finding a half-dead survivor luckily found before the ravens took their still shiny eyes on the battlefield. Showing a big battle where the character would have to be in it and survive it was too daunting. Showing anything I didn’t automatically know how to show it was.

There is a time in your story where the exhausted general/best man drags himself into the war room/bridal suite and tells the table that the king/groom is dead and it will crack like thunder across the page. But if most of the information conveyed in the story is conveyed through dialogue, what’s told will have no added meaning at all.

And we in the audience of those conference would lean back after we were assured that there are no rules because everything they said before assuring us sounded really hard. The way we avoided not showing the complex scenes that remain with the reader long after the book was put down was fine. The pros just said so.

I sold six stories in the years between hearing that there were no rules and realizing the rules were the scaffolding needed to tell bigger stories than I could imagine without them. I wrote dozens and dozens in the same time frame that tried equally important rule-breaking in which none of them are even worth remembering at this point. If I was told that threading a needle is hard but threading a needle on the wing of plane is harder, I’d rent be renting a plane to practice. Even if I didn’t need a threaded needle. When I heard a character needed to be empathetic, I developed a taste for beer so someone could hold mine.

But…I never could write an unempathetic main character that worked. I tried and tried but it became clear that if a reader is supposed to care about a character enough to want to read on to find out what happens, the level of story necessary to make a reader want to continue reading even after they do the **unjustifiably** unthinkable was outside of my ability no matter how much I wanted an unempathetic main character to work.

Any character can be driven to do the unthinkable. It takes a spectacular amount of talent to write a story in which the character drives themselves to that point, does the unthinkable, and still has the reader’s empathy for having done it. Visual media has a little more leeway when it comes to characters like that because viewers are passive. Readers have to be in the mind of a person who not only conceives of what can’t be justified, but does it. It’s a different level of emotional investment if those actions are done by the protagonist.

Even remembering Nicolas’ Cage’s acting at the end of 8mm chills me to the bone. I can’t remember if he beat the bad guy to death with his bare hands or if he used something like a rock. I will never forget how he kept beating the man long after the rage died out. His character was driven from an everyman to a man who kept killing when the rage was gone because of the consequences of his actions. He might have won, he’ll have to live with who he became to do so for the rest of his life.

In a work of fiction, shooting the man who shot your dog can work. The reader should understand how a character would feel doing so, even if it’s not what they would have done. But shooting the dog-murderer after time has passed and the character had space to move on from it? Empathy gets more questionable. If the character rounds up the family of the man that shot their dog and sets the church he locked them in on fire and while cutting his eyelids off so he’d be forced to see it burn? Nope. Ten steps too far. Poe has walled up that story years ago.

It wasn’t the first rule I understood because I’d tried to break it and couldn’t. At the age of 11, I realized it was too difficult for me to try to write a story about a wild horse because what they always wanted to do was always so obvious and giving them human consciousness didn’t feel real enough for me. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying 11-year old me couldn’t do it so she moved on to telling ghost stories in which the ghost was the main character — only to learn her 12-year old self couldn’t write stories in which the protagonist couldn’t affect change in the “now” of the story and they weren’t a ghost in their time. Then she wrote about a talking white horse and a magic sword that foretold of the return of the king and was quite pleased she’d been so inventive.

Until she read Mercedes Lackey and Tolkein for the first time.

Show don’t tell is more fundamental than a character staying within the actions of what the reader could understand being done. Showing the reader the events of the story as perceived by a character is how we tell stories. If the author can’t show the character actively moving the character through the story through the choices they make, they can’t make those choices matter in ways that change the character in ways that echo the theme of the piece. Studying craft is how to learn how to better show the reader what they need to understand to be moved by the work.

I realized during my MFA that while we argued over breaking the rules practically every week, I can only remember a few times where the rule broken meant that I thought the character wasn’t empathetic enough for the reader to care what happens to them or if the character remained unchallenged and unchanged throughout the story.

The vast majority of arguing over the rules in my MFA and outside of it was over the simple fact that had author (including me) shown the reader what the characters talked about, thought about, or already knew going into the story, it would be a more engaging story for the change and the author arguing that they chose not to write a more engaging story on purpose.

It doesn’t matter that some writers can actually tell well enough that they don’t need to show what happens. What matters is that in a slush pile, I can tell you that most of the stories are going to be told through characters going places and talking to people. If you want your story to stand out, write a story about a character needing to change their fate because it matters to them. I can choose from the best of the best of all the perfectly polished stories told through characters learning what happened after it’s already happened. But a character who is in the thick of the changing events is a story I want to work with to make it the best story it can be.

Rejecting short stories written for MFA programs

It was bound to happen sooner or later, but I didn’t expect it to happen five days after graduating. I rejected a story for On Spec that I was previously familiar with. After disclosing the conflict in my notes, I made the suggestion the story should be rejected. The premise and low personal stakes were not worth the long word count.

It’s not worth it financially to the magazine or in page length to the reader for the payout the story is selling. When I’m thinking of my reader’s time they’re investing into the magazine, I want to make sure that not only the stories tell an engaging world, character and story but that they’re doing that with an engaging voice with something to say about what it is like to be human in a genre-specific setting. My ideal story is a story that feels longer than it is rather than a story that could have been shorter but isn’t.

My MFA could teach anyone how to improve the prose on finished drafts. And if that’s the only thing the work needs is a better polish, the MFA program was for that writer. If, however, they were trying to sell to commercial markets, they shouldn’t have believed any program that tried to teach them that nice prose is all a story needs or that structural edits are unnecessary.

I think back to the time between joining my first critique group and realizing that my critique group was right and I was wrong took six years of being told that yes, I was breaking the rules but no, I wasn’t doing it effectively to hear what I was actually being told.

I wasn’t being told that if I tried hard enough, the way I told what needed to be shown to the reader would be as good as if I’d learned how to show the reader what I took the shortcut to avoid showing them in the first place. But that’s what I heard when I was critiqued.

It is fundamental to any model of learning that the educator confirms what has been learned against what has been taught to test the student’s knowledge on what was taught so the wrong lesson can’t be learned. Any program based on instruction given in the critique phase has no way of verifying what has been told to the student hasn’t just confirmed more of their preconceived notions.

I know my critiquers must have been frustrated that I wasn’t able to understand how important it was to show the reader what matters to the story instead of always slipping it in via dialogue and info dumps. I was frustrated that all my critiquers didn’t see how much better I told what I didn’t effectively tell the last time.

If one of them had told me that they liked the way I told my readers something fundamental that needed to be shown to the reader so they have could really know who this character is before the plot actually gets started, I would have embraced it as my style. I wouldn’t have needed to hear it twice.

To find out an MFA teaches learners that if a famous writer who is remembered long after their more popular contemporaries are dead wrote a story that lacked a fundamental aspect of craft, any work that attempts the same finesse must have nailed it. The fact that masterpieces exist that break the fundamental theories of craft in no way proves that a learner’s first attempt in their first draft is equally successful.

I learned that list of books myself without ever stepping foot in a creative writing class and boy, did I have it memorized just as effectively. Poetic irony is really hard to come about in real life but graduating from a program in which you would have been the star pupil had you not spent twenty years trying to unlearn what not a single writer ever told me in the first place. But today, the same excuses I learned to not have to learn my craft are being taught in Master level programs to keep learners from ever needing to consider they may have to learn their craft to begin with.

Had I been their star pupil, I never would have taken a single step on the journey that started the day I realized I needed to learn how to use what I thought I already knew inside and out yet always seemed to take shortcuts to avoid anything that didn’t emerge on the page in a fully formed section. I learned more on that day than I learned in ten years sitting at a workshop table. If I had an MFA on my wall telling me second draft revision work wasn’t even needed because if you meant to break the rule, it was fine the way it was broken, I would have blamed my failure to publish 99% of my short work and none of my long work on the gatekeepers between me and my adoring audience “they” are keeping me from.

Without an MFA confirming my biases, it took me almost twenty years where I’d already written over a dozen (unpublished) novels and written dozens (and dozens) of very successful fanfic because I sold six stories in which breaking the rules worked out for it. I’d convinced myself that good stories followed the rules. Great stories broke them.

It took writing over a million more words from that point to learn how to use my craft without thinking so that I could concentrate all of my attention on how to use my craft to create bigger stories that mattered more.

It took me years to realize great stories either emerged fully formed or in a rewrite. But I couldn’t even mention the word “rewrite” in my program without receiving a firmly worded note asking me to please, do my best to be even less craft-focused in class.

When the truth is, most editors give even less feedback that the length of the story is not worth the payout.

Genderqueers and those who love them — also benefits to writing in isolation

Surviving a bad childhood is hard enough. Letting go of it is even harder. Black Shades is a sweet and bittersweet retelling of A Christmas Carol. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon. It’s the second story of my Past and Present Tense series about a genderqueer, the ghost of one, and the man who loves them both. The first book in the series, Red Lettering, is a Halloween story with hints of a vanishing hitchhiker theme, and is available now.

My darling wife of twenty years spent some of her time reformating and making new covers so that my old Angela Fiddler stuff could see the light of day. I really think one of the big reasons why I was able to go from the writer I was to the writer I am is down to the fact that I’ve had two solid chunks of time in my life where the only person who read my stuff was me and (for the second chunk of time) an editor who had already bought the work.

The first chunk of uninterrupted time came down to my age and dumb luck. I was from a small town that physically isolated me from the writing groups that only had the population to support themselves in larger centres. Not getting an internet connection until I was in university kept me from the online community, either. I didn’t even know where I could have joined a critique group until 1998 and I was already back from teaching in Japan.

So I just wrote constantly from the ages of 11 to 24. My sixth-grade year was the year I realized just how bored I was in class, so having two notebooks open — one for the notes I thought I’d need to write down to remember in class and a novel on the go in the other — got me through to earning my B.Ed.

My classwork


read like






and my stories were only slightly less cohesive but the one thing I taught myself to do was how reliably to get a character from the start of the story to the end of it by doing things and stuff. So when I got to the critique group, it took me four years to be able to hear the knowledge behind what I was being told and not just something the critiquer *clearly* didn’t understand I meant to do it that way.

So by the time I understood that there are no shortcuts in writing. That critique groups are great for teaching people to recognize issues and know how to solve them in the theoretical, there’s a huge gap of skills between knowing a character needed to be more empathetic if they wanted the reader to care what happens to them and knowing the steps needed to edit the prose so that the choices the character makes *shows* that they may not be the best character in the world, but at least they’re trying, eh?

My support-panther wife had gotten a job in Lethbridge and though I knew I was probably not going to get any training instructor gigs down here, I went with her because she needed to be a librarian in a public library and not one works who in a school or in a corporate office downtown. I just sold my first erotica novel before we moved so my time in Lethbridge was invaluable to again, just write.

Getting critiqued has always been a traumatic experience for me. I don’t blame the UBC for trying to minimize the experience for their learners, but the solution isn’t avoiding teaching any craft at all. But I heard every point I was told. Having the freedom from critique reminded me of the freedom I’d felt as a child where anything at all could happen in a story.

Even if all I could write back then were characters going to where the anything that could have happened already did and they learned of it just through dialogue. People who tell new writers that not everything needs to be shown either forget just how hard it was to learn how to show what was important as it happened, live, in front of the character who should be a part of the action.

It is true that not everything needs to be shown. I found after I show the reader everything about the world for the first 50k of the novel, when I tell them something through dialogue I know they’re imagining how I would have shown these characters doing the things they’re talking about because they know the characters and how they would have acted.

Using that same technique in the start of a story leaves that exact same moment in a well-shown world incredibly flat. It’s just telling the reader what an unknown to them character had done in the past. So yes. Bridging scenes can just tell the reader exactly what they need to know to move the characters from where they are to where they need to be.

But when we tell newbie writers that sometimes telling is just fine, what they hear is telling is just fine from the start. And MFA instructors now agree with the person trying to learn how to write that if they meant to break the rule on purpose, then the work is just fine even if it detracts from the author’s ability to show the reader why they should invest their time into learning what happens to this character in particular out of the thousands of possible things they could be doing with their free time and spending money.