Author: barbarageiger

the benefit of professional speculative groups

This last weekend was When Words Collide, which reminds me of the 1998 con where I met my aunt for the first time. After knowing her my whole life, of course. I had been up all night on a Greyhound bus, going from a two-week summer camp hosted by one of my very best uni friends and I was up there teaching Japanese and the next morning I was let out at Downtown Calgary, where I walked into my first speculative Con.

And realized I was just a lost swan because I had found my writer people who got my weirdness and encouraged it in every way. But even more, I regained an aunt I didn’t know I had. My aunt had always been Ann the Aunt, who sometimes showed up for Christmas and summers but we weren’t exceptionally close.

But I saw this short little, red-headed lady and despite not seeing Ann for more than a decade I caught her attention and told her she might be my mom’s sister.

She assured me she was.

And I found my family inside my community. I was home. Writing groups attract professional writers because writing is a pay-it-forward economy. I can’t thank all the people who told me I was wrong when I was the know-it-all kid. I can’t thank them for all the time they spent trying to explain why I was wrong.

Rob Sawyer has always been a friend of IFWA, and he’s always been a friend to me. Not every writer can turn to Rob and ask if a major change has to be made in the history of the events that have already happened to make the current story better, should the change should always be made? It seems like an obvious question but the idea of it still hurt somehow. He told me he’d had trouble changing what was for what could be, too.

But the first time my entire writing group had given me nothing but the same piece of advice, I could turn to Rob and ask him what he thought. The more I learned how to make the mystery of the plot more a part of the plot itself, the more I was starting to be told I needed to tell more information so the reader would understand more.

And I could not be more sure the opposite was true. I was open to the idea I hadn’t learned how to keep the suspense of what the reveal will be yet, but the writing I wanted to do was in the opposite direction.

I wanted to hold even more back, so the reader would keep reading. So I asked Rob again, when do you know you haven’t explained enough. If he said the end of the book, and I believed him. But the more I wanted to talk about how writing can work as a deliberate act, the more I kept hearing people teaching if you meant to do it it’s fine.

I think I started this blog as the person I could talk to about writing at the level I wanted to discuss it at. Within a few years of starting this blog, ‘there are no rules’ had completed its hostile takeover across critique tables everywhere.

As early as 2014, the idea that conflict might be something important to have in works of commercial fiction was decried as an outdated, non-workable pedagogical approach. But even still, the social benefits of a good writing group outweigh the cons just for the community you have at the ready.

some of the worst writing advice: Quotas

I always remember the great writing advice I’ve received and I mention them as often as I can. James Alan Gardner (by way of Susan Forest) described Point-Of-View (POV) as “there is no description, there is only POV.” It made me realize there was nothing *but* POV. Everything the character sees, says or does has been done through the operation system of the protagonist’s personality and their emotional state at the time.

But I’ve heard some really bad advice too. Despite On Writing being called a Memoir of Craft and the first half of the book being dedicated to the use of craft and its importance, the only piece of advice I usually hear being quoted from it is the writing quota King gives himself. He does all his writing before noon and he writes every day.

If there’s one piece of advice that can do the most amount of damage to underpublished writers, it is writing two thousand words a day is the ideal. It’s the ideal of writers who can produce 2300 words worth of plot into those 2000 words day in, day out, day in. The advice is like asking the average engineer a question. They will answer it, but it won’t be the solution. That many words a day times five days a week produces a 100k in approximately twelve weeks, allowing for two full weeks off in the process.

But if the writer doesn’t know how to plot as fast as they can type, though, those 100k could have the plot that a novella-length work would tell the best version of it.

From the slushpile on, that work will be competing with professionals who took their time to do it the best way they could before sending the work on submission. How long a novel took to write is only a question writers who sell novels to a large enough audience are asked.

Without the plot necessary to carry a 100k novel, all of that effort and dedication the writer invests most often creates a 30/70 novel. These are novels that have 30% progression and 70% what I’m now calling lateral story movement. I used to call it filler, but that was the wrong word. Work that describes what a character does without having what they are doing impacting the plot is a lateral movement to its progression. All work requires progression or the meaningful lack of it.

And there’s still nothing wrong with a 30/70 first draft novel if the author is committed to making it a 70/30 novel in the second draft and a 80/20 split in the final. Every first draft is perfect. Every second draft is worth the effort to improve it.

Do quotas work for some writers even when they’re starting out?

Absolutely. No writing is bad writing as long as it isn’t stressful to the writer. Writing 2000 words for a specific purpose is difficult when it’s done daily. Writing 1000 words because you have to write 1000 words today is so much harder.

Do I think writers shouldn’t just put their butts in seats and bang words out?

John Green says first drafts are the purified clay to make the thing. Any way the first draft goes from a work-in-progress to a work-in-revision is fine. The only thing you can’t fix in a rewrite is not having anything to rewrite.

Writers — quota or not but especially quota writers — should be aware in the rewrite stage of how much of the story is filled with characters doing mundane tasks while discussing the story-building aspects of the tale. This is the kind of writing only ever asks the reader to picture characters talking and remember what they said because some of it might be important. The reader isn’t asked to witness something independent of the character’s understanding at the moment and attach their own significance to it.

Neil Gaiman says only amateur writers wait for inspiration, so checkmate.

Most underpublished writers are amateurs. A writer who waits to feel inspired at least knows what inspired writing feels like. The goal of a professional writer is to make their daily output feel inspired even it was carefully constructed.

But inspiration isn’t something that can only be hunted and gathered. A writer who learns how to capture lightning in a bottle can learn to automate the process. A writer who learned to write without feeling inspiration has a harder time trying to learn how to capture lightning in a bottle as DLC.

So what’s the solution?

First drafts get you to the final draft. How the writer writes that first draft is entirely up to them. Draftwork is an intentional, analytical process that requires even more creativity than writing the first draft.

For the average writer in general, no work should be one, done and polish unless it is truly inspired work. Moving to a more intentional mindset does not mean fully formed stories stop emerging from their author’s skull.

It just means all the rest of the stories the writer produces can still fool readers into believing they had emerged from the writer’s skull as a complete form, too.

It’s the I can’t believe it’s not inspired!” method of learning how to write.

The skill of learning to pace a novel is far more useful than writing for quotas. Knowing what needs to happen next in the story is far more motivating than aiming to write a specific number of words, though both may produce 2000 words a day.

Lawrence Block says in “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” a chapter is as long as it takes for something to change overall, but this book was published in 1994. I think in 2022, the expectation should be every scene must change something or the lack of change must be meaningful. If written to that expectation, there’s no room for lateral movement.

well-written lateral story movement vs storytelling

There are two levels of writing learners need to master when they’re telling a deliberate, meaningful prose. What the characters are doing on the page and how what the characters are doing on the page builds the linear progression of the story are two different levels of storytelling.

The events of the story should drive the tension and the reader forward. Every time the reader puts the book down and comes back to it, they make an active choice to invest their attention capital in finishing more of the work.

This is why the reader doesn’t have time to invest their attention in stories full of well-written lateral movement. On the surface of this kind of prose, things continue to happen to the character but none of it progresses the need for more character development. Think of the example of the young person trying to get into Julliard where they only have conflict once they are not accepted.

All that practicing and working, once it establishes that the character is willing to work hard to accomplish their goals are lateral movement to the established story. They can practice harder and work harder, but unless something stops them from doing either, the story (and the character) can’t progress until the rejection.

Which — at that point — is just one of two established binary options. And a character working hard and getting in is practically no story at all. Even very good writers would struggle with saying something unique that can engage its ideal reader with those story bones.

We talk about the ideal reader a lot, but we never talk about the ideal reader’s ideal story. The ideal story is the perfect work without tension, character development, conflict, or all three and more and still creates a meaningful experience that leaves the reader with lasting, positive impressions of their time invested.

The ideal reader has shelves of existing internationally award-winning authors that avoided foundational structure work entirely and still move nations to tears. But a lot of those authors have only managed to capture lightning in a bottle once.

A story without tension because the author began the story without the intention of creating a source of conflict on the character’s path is not the same thing as a work where the lack of tension engages the reader.

I cannot tell you how many times in the past decade I have been told the lack of conflict or tension was intentional. This was always said in tones that ranged from “frosty” to “I’m just so sorry you can’t understand my authorial intention.”

Their intention to not use conflict to create tension to create meaningful change in the protagonist is obvious in a work.

But no matter how I phrase “the lack of tension and conflict does not serve the story in any meaningful way while their absence detracts from the work enormously. If the intention was to build an engaging reader’s experience, this draft of that effort did not accomplish that goal” could not be heard.

Exceptions do not prove structures are not necessary to tell a meaningful story.

A single indication that telling was just as good as showing would not have stunted my growth as an artist forever. But multiple assurances of it would have convinced me the method could still work much longer than it did. I’d probably still have realized, eventually, that a method that only produces meaningful work randomly from most writers isn’t a good method to practice.

But I’d be years behind my growth because I would have known — and wanted — to believe otherwise.

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.