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Three mistakes underpublished writers make but don’t see as mistakes

Writers are usually divided into unpublished and published, but I’d like to introduce a third category — the underpublished writer. These writers have a handful of sales that prove they can write a good story but still have more rejections than most unpublished writers.

I find the underpublished writer is the most challenging writer to teach because they have evidence their approach can work. I sold six amazing stories before realizing my amazing stories emerged fully formed. Of the dozens of stories that didn’t emerge fully formed, I had no idea how to manipulate them at a structural level in a way that allowed me to explore a story’s full potential.

I’ve found these underpublished writers all tend to want to break only these three rules without considering what they do to the story experience as a whole:

  1. They tell everything significant to the plot. The worldbuilding that exists beyond description and the main conflict are built through dialogue, what the protagonist already knows and explains through exposition or it’s something researched or read. When conflict arises, it’s usually dealt with through more dialogue.
  2. They confuse the conflict in the premise with conflict in the prose. The premise is the problem the story revolves around. Conflict is an oppositional force, internal or external, that keeps a character from their goals. A premise can have conflict — an angry lab assistant stole all the cold-weather gear in the arctic substation and if they don’t check the technobabble before the oncoming snowstorm the prime minister’s plane will crash. If the characters trying to solve the problem aren’t met with oppositional forces equal or greater than their existing skills, the tension in the piece suffers for it. For stories where everything is told, it leads to work where the protagonist talks their way out of any problem they’ve had to the point of the climax and then talks their way out of that as well. Even if it can be done well, it’s still the most common plot in the slush
  3. They think tension is optional. Conflict is not needed to drive tension. It is just the easiest way to drive it if the purpose of the story is to create a meaningful reader’s experience. But if there is no conflict in the story and nothing else drives tension it has to be exceptional or it doesn’t work. In commercial work where the premise is the conflict and the characters mostly talk, however, the lack of tension keeps the reader from being invested in reading it.

But they also believe that if something is intentional, it can’t be changed. So if the underpublished writer chooses to break the rule, their artist’s voice will be silenced if they change anything in the second draft.

But writers are in a fierce competition. They have to compete with everything else their readers could be doing. In a free market, the author’s work is one of the infinite demands on a finite amount of spending money. Even if the story is free, it still has to compete with anything else their reader could be doing with their spare time. Even if their reader wants to read and has time, it competes with every book or magazine the reader already owns, has borrowed, or exists in the bookstore.

Each time the reader puts the story down, it can be added to the “I’ll finish this when I feel like it’ pile. If the reward of the story doesn’t keep feeding them hits of what they find rewarding, it will be replaced with a better dopamine drip.

At no point do editors care what the author’s intention was if what they produced can’t meet expectations. Not including any meaningful conflict is a choice. But if the story has no tension because it has no conflict, it can’t compare to what an experienced writer can create. They tried to make their conflict drive the tension that pushed the character to grow to explore a theme that resonated with the reader. It can’t even compare to stories that don’t do any of that but still provide a rip-roaring ride. And it won’t hold a candle to the occasional story that has no conflict at all, yet the tension still cracks because someone else — more difficult to isolate than conflict — is fueling it.

Ask any experienced writer at the journeyman level in their career. Great stories get rejected all the time if the editor wants to go in a different direction. They have the skillset to convert a good story with an interesting premise into a great story through multiple structural rewrites, and that’s not enough to routinely sell.

I argued with most of my MFA instructors at least once a semester, asking when students would learn how to improve their stories on a structural level. Only one instructor actually answered me. They said they didn’t have time for my advanced techniques in a class that had Advanced in the name. Every instructor I talked to had “researcher” in their job title. Not one of them was curious enough to find out if the fact they teach the only thing that matters is ‘nice prose’ has any real-world application.

Imagine my surprise when the provost defended their program by claiming it used ‘best industry practice’ and then stopped responding.

Learning by deliberately not learning how to use the structures that most effectively produce meaningful prose is like learning to fly by throwing oneself to the ground. That the odd classmate and instructors can miss doesn’t mean that it’s a skill that can be learned. Some writers can exclude entire structures from their prose and build a beautiful reader’s experience.

Underpublished writers have far more work that doesn’t move the reader than work that does. Still, they refuse to learn how to better guide their readers’ experience through the craft designed for that purpose. The only rule they’d follow off a cliff is there there is absolutely no reason that work needs structural improvement. AKA what ‘there are rules’ is actually taught as meaning from semi-professional critique groups to MFAs.

A small portion of writers just wrote until they could deliver an experience to the reader that draws their attention away from anything else they could be doing. And even though these authors go out of their way to share what it took for them to get where they are, underpublished writers will agree with everything they say about how important those pesky foundational structures are for the reader’s experience. But they will still dismiss the need to practice using any of them because there are no rules, after all. Stories based on dialogue and description don’t need any other structure than a throughline to what they’ve arrived at the location to discover.

That story structure isn’t incorrect, but it is the most commonly used one. To stand out from the crowd of stories that already do it well requires even more of a far more unique or interesting take on the structure than a story about a character who just needs to solve their problem while they can impact each other.

Throwing yourself against the ground and missing is the most complex way to learn how to fly. Ultralight aircraft, like writing, don’t require a license to fly, but they need a lot of training to understand how to keep it in the air when the pilot wants it to be. If writers want to fly, they have to decide if they keep throwing themselves to the ground is more manageable than learning what all those buttons and levers do in an aircraft meant to keep the story from crashing the reader’s experience.

It is not easy, and it can take years to produce work that can compare favourably to the average slushpile out there. But to paraphrase the Princess Bride — Learning to write is difficult. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something. That time it would have taken learners to learn how all aspects of craft can work together will pass whether it is spent learning how to use all the tools in a writers’ toolbox or not.

So if a writer is not already flying at a level they define as successful, I ask them to check to see if there isn’t an Ira Glass’s Gap between them and those writers the current methodology works for. Education is more than informing learners that if Steinbeck doesn’t need meaningful character development, no story does. But that’s what creative writing instruction has become because it works for the tiny percentage who don’t need to be taught.

Breaking a few rules and tension fires

The author’s intentions can be sacred in creative writing instruction even if the market for that creative writing could not care less about it. If there is one thing I hate hearing after giving a critique that’s been asked for, it is the author protesting they meant to break a few rules. If they meant to tell the reader everything after the fact, they don’t need to show or have conflict. But that ignores the tension fire that needs constant tending to burn that all stories need at the very least.

The tension fire in the story is what keeps the readers warm and that warmth keeps them reading. The hotter and more meaningful it burns, the more the ideal reader is the palm of the author. Not all tension burns on conflict, of course. But a story based on the character trying to avoid what happens if they do nothing grows its own fodder to burn as the understanding of the problem gets larger. The greater the conflict, the more tension it creates when the cost of failure also escalates. It’s certainly not easy to do this well. A conflict-driven reader acclimatizes quickly to the ambient level of tension. They always want to feel warmer.

Not that tension fires always burn conflict. But fueling that fire takes far more effort than just keeping what a character knows a step behind what’s happening. Anything can burn in a tension fire, but the reader wants to feel as rewarded as the genre reader for their time invested in reading. Some work doesn’t even need a tension fire at all. We call those stories “significant literary award-winning Literature (with the big L).”

“I broke the rule on purpose” is certainly true when writers of a commercial genre choose not to include aspects of story. It’s hard to accidentally leave conflict out of a work and still have the story give the reader what they need if not what they exactly wanted. Publishing is a buyer’s paradise. No paying market has to settle for less than a rewarding experience to their reader. Work without conflict must stand on its own against all the great stories that used all of the tools in their writer’s toolbox and all the great stories that use fewer tools to build more than that.

For so many years, the creative writing community has let the fact that the easiest way to tell emotionally engaging stories is to learn how to use all the tools in the toobox as a reason to not need to learn them.

Climbing a mountain in Japan is not an easy task even if there’s a clear-marked path and vending machines along it. It still takes effort to climb. Climbing a mountain in North America past the tree-line is more difficult, but still easier than climbing mountains that have death zones. Fourteen mountains on earth have death zones but even that has varying levels of difficulties. No step along that chain needs to be “easy” to be easier than something that is more difficult.

Writing a story in which conflict drives an engaging story for the reader is the writing equivalent Cho Oyu, the easiest mountain to climb over 8000m. Doing the same without conflict fueling tension is like climbing Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen.

When a writer “breaks a few rules” without compensating for that the lack of structure is arriving in base camp with less tools and less experience than all the seasoned mountain climbers have. Writing a story without conflict is like climbing a dangerous mountain without clamps. It can be done by the most experienced of climbers, but experienced climbers just trying to summit the mountain or tell a great story would go back and get such an important piece of equipment.

The one universal lesson objective I saw in my MFA was the absolute that only the author’s intentions matter. It was bad enough they taught conventional genres did not need anything to happen. They taught literary writers that literary fiction is just conventional fiction minus the conventions of fiction. Week after week over two different classes, the protagonist talked about who they were and their problems while other characters listened and explained things that the protagonist couldn’t. A small portion of the work was exquisite but the vast majority still needed to learn that showing the character doing more than talking develops better worlds, characters and problems.

Students will always think “breaking a few rules” is fine if they’re taught it is. Even if rules they break are “show what’s important to the reader to understand independent of the character” and “conflict is the easiest thing tension can burn.”

Or, as the rules we use to remind ourselves of those facts “Show, don’t tell” and “Stories need conflict.”

The Instructor Wall in front of Ira Glass’s Gap

When I first heard Ira Glass’s quote around seeing the difference between what a writer wants to produce and what they’re able with their current skillset described my own journey as a writer perfectly. The quote is twelve years old now and I don’t think it reflects the current state of how even writers with good taste learn.

The books I wrote in my Gap years were quick, fun and snappy. The more I wrote, the better I was at capturing not just what I saw happen but what I could make happen on purpose. I played with stakes until I could make matter whether the world was ending or if it was a relationship falling apart. Eventually, I learned how to do both of those things in the same story.

I’d learned from writers who didn’t think there are no rules didn’t mean no structural foundation of writing had to be learned. Today, modern creative writers, like Buffy’s vampires who all inevitably develop mad fighting skills, claw out of the dirt innately understanding not just how the foundational structures of fiction work, but they would use them in their fiction. If they chose to break the rules without ever having successfully learned how to follow them, they were just that good to begin with.

But the average writers who emerge somehow knowing the foundational structures well to never need to learn them are the writers that tend also tend to be the average MFA instructors. They can write just well enough to write beautiful prose and not well enough to live off the proceeds.

The wall is built with bricks all assuring learners that because Cannery Row didn’t have a lot of conflict, this Yet Another YA Dystopian Novel doesn’t need to have any aspect of that dystopian directly impacting the character’s life for more than a moment or two where it is easily settled in the next paragraph. She doesn’t even need to have a goal bigger than choosing which one of the two and she won’t need any character development to make it.

Ignore the fact that this YAYADN must compete with all the other YAYADNs in today’s YA Dystopian novel market, which is its own dystopia.

Each brick suggests that if great works can do X, no story needs X. The smartest thing a person can do is change their mind but how can a learner even contemplate they may be wrong when their peers and instructors compare their writing to great literature? If the writer intended to tell the reader what the character by having it brought up in a casual conversation, it is how it ever shall be.

Brick by brick, row by row, the Instructor Wall built up so high that even writers with good taste can’t see the difference between a story that shows characters mostly talking about great matters and a story that shows the great matters happening.

It’s to the point where writers with good taste can’t recognize that craft is important and MFAs teach that no Gap exists. The pedagogy is based on the only thing that matters is the writer’s first intention to any given idea.

If work is meant for a commercial market, the sag that a lack of conflict, tension or pacing creates without creating something even more interesting with structure but excluding the difficult parts. Artistic choice or creative missed opportunity, it will have a void that other stories intended for their market the slush pile won’t have. How the exceptional work broke the foundational structure is what provided the meaningful experience. The fact it was broken is not the exceptionality.

MFAs teach the reader’s experience must be sacrificed to author’s intention. It took years for me to learn that if I can’t wow the reader, I don’t. The slushpile only cares for the reader’s experience.

How much time do your characters spend in a neutral state?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what showing actually means for an upcoming article and along comes the perfect story to illustrate why showing is so important. It brought focus to a problem I’d been seeing inside and outside of my MFA for years.

Most unpublished fiction I’ve read, even if devastation is raining down on the heads of the protagonists, explores the range of human emotion between mildly annoyed, mildly alarmed and mildly content. Characters can be momentarily frightened, but the oppositional force that fright was caused by is usually resolved quickly. The average emotion expressed if spread over the word count is one of observer neutrality.

Donald Maass talks about macrotension and microtension in his book, The Fire in Fiction. Macrotension exists on the plot level. Will the heiress survive her fall to where the common folk survive in this particular YA dystopian novel? The reader will need to read on to find out. (Spoiler alert, she’s only alone for two paragraphs before love interest #2 and/or the threat love interest #2 chases off arrive.)

But microtension exists in the apprehension of the point-of-view characters as their actions may look to solve their immediate concerns but makes their situation more complicated as more plot is revealed. When the predominant method of story building the writer uses relies on dialogue instead of the character’s actions, keeping that microtension at the sentence level is infinitely more difficult.

The character in the moment of the now in the story is usually in a safe or a safe-for-now moment if they have time to such deep discussions. While they can be talking about anything plot-related, the task they have at hand is usually mundane at least to the character’s opinion of it.

When conflict arises in stories built on discussions, they’re more like jump scares in that there’s a momentary flash of alarm as the plot point reveals itself but it resolves quickly or it is just an alarming visual and the calm, cool conversation can continue. The plot point adds to the macrotension of the piece, but the new problem isn’t reflected in the microtension of the characters’ ‘now’ moment.

I think the metallic age of science fiction has passed. We’re into the gooey, fleshy age of it. The characters who populate our world have to do more than just experience its wonders. They have to live in it as well. In speculative fiction, the speculative nature of the story and the fiction aspect of the story should be as bonded as NaCl.