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

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

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

a character with a difficult problem vs one with conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

change the mindset, change the outcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only it could have possibly been explained that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Forgotten Last Scale and Rubrics

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

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

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

The average story is forgotten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

a hand vs a scene — a post on writing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plotting: the Anti-Family Feud Game

As much as I think of most writing advice as being more useful to the vast majority of writers than the vast majority of writers think the average piece of advice is useful for them, there’s some common chestnuts that just stick in my throat, spines and all.

One of them is “no one has read *your* take on (common trope) before.”

Having been an editor on On Spec for a while now, I’m telling you there’s a 95% chance we have read every take, uncommon or not, on most common tropes before. If a story based on a common trope is going to stand out from the rest of the stories in that slush pile, it has to be sinisterly good with the concept to exceed my expectations given how many takes I’ve seen on any given trope that reading period.

Great works playing with tropes happen. In fact, it probably happens every reading period that there’s an exceptional take on a familiar trope that still manages to exceed the expectations I have for my reader’s time and money. It got me thinking of how using common tropes and plotting a story, in general, is like the anti-Family Feud game show.

If a hundred authors are given the exact same premise, regardless of the genre, a lot of them are going to tell multiples of the same general series of events. It’s why writing for a themed anthology is so difficult. To write a plotline that is different than most of the submissions in a way that stands the story out from the crowd is far more difficult than just writing a good story that says something about being human.

So instead of saying no one has heard your take on common story tropes, we should be far more specific. “No one has heard an author’s very unusual take on a common story trope before” is far more accurate to the current market. Though even having an unusual take is far more difficult than it sounds. I remember hearing an agent writing their query letter on a salmon-shaped card. It had stated that the author bet that the agent had never received a query letter on a salmon before.

They hadn’t. But a tuna-shaped query letter had arrived the week before.

The benefits of writerly procrastination

The last two books I wrote, I wrote at a pace of 10,000 words a week and completed both books in twelve weeks total. It took me almost twenty years to be able to do so. I didn’t write every day, I didn’t write every week, but when I did, I wrote my 2000 words usually before noon. You still won’t find a person more against daily quotas for non-professional writers than me.

Ten years ago, I realized what the feeling of not wanting to write had nothing to do with not wanting to write. I always want to write if I’m excited about what is going to happen next. What I hated beyond everything else, was trying to write not being excited about what to write next.

My brain has two states. The “on” state idles at 9000 rpm. The “off” state exists to just absorb the experience. If I don’t want to write, it’s because I don’t want to write what happens next. So I open up a video game and play until what it is about the next scene I don’t want to write resolves itself in the back of my brain while the frontal cortex is distracted by the bright and shiny explosions.

I may have a dozen ideas. I may have none. But when the right solution occurs to me, the video game loses all its appeal. The act of typing words into a computer is a series of hundreds of choices. What words to use, what mood to set, what tone to build, what tension to squeeze or relax, what conflict to build or collapse. I need to know what has to happen so that I can make it happen the best way I can. To try to do both at the same time leaves no time to consider alternate outcomes or solutions and divides my attention away from what I know the reader is reading for.

Beauty may not be truth in people but it is in theories. It is very difficult to learn how to do something and how to do it the best way possible at the same time. Only abnormally talented, highly intelligent writers seem to be able to do it. Up until the computer age, this was never a concern. Peer review was by invitation only and only in very privileged places. It feels poetically ironic that writers who never felt safe in the modern (still mostly white, still very privileged) critique group had the best chance of not being impacted by the blight of there are no rules .: don’t even learn them mentality.

Because now we have a problem I’m calling asymmetrical skill acquisition where writers can spend 10-15 years practicing only the static aspects of craft while telling themselves they’re just breaking the rules by not practicing plot, pacing, theme or tension.

To those writers, to bring up the fundamental moving aspects of craft means going right back to the drawing board. I’ve had to do that multiple times in my life where I had to question everything I thought I knew. Seeing how much work something is going to take in order to learn new skills by rote is enormous. It pushes career goals back years, if not decades. It makes some people seriously consider whether they have that time and energy to invest. The illusion that no rules means no learning or prolonged practice is necessary to succeed is insulated against critical thinking on multiple levels.

As much as asymmetrical skill acquisition is a problem to the modern learner, so is having an asymmetrical drive. Writers cannot want to be published more than they want to learn how to use all aspects of their craft.

Tips for online panel moderation

I had to scroll past a half year of my Facebook posts to find where I posted this on When Words Collide and then I had to scroll past half a year of WWC Facebook posts to post it here. But at least it will be more easily found the third time.

1. Put the next question you’re going to ask into the private panellist chat. This gives the guests time to think about the answer so there is no lull between questions as the brain has to fire up again from the downtime. It’s a bit of social theatre as you ask the question “for the first time” and they answer “off the cuff”, but there are no surprises.

2. Call the guest by name, clearly and slowly, and then ask the question. This is really important — They’re sitting in a room alone without any energy from the group to sustain them. Writers are an easily distractable group.

3. Alternate between who speaks first so every guest can have the first, easy answer and not just always have to think of what hasn’t been said.

4. Use your time management well. In a 50 minute session, there are only 5 minutes for introductions, 25 minutes of discussion, 10 minutes of audience questions and 10 minutes for final thoughts and promotion. Use a 20, 10 and 5 minutes warning.

5. If you’re not familiar with the topic, have 5-7 quick questions that can draw out the last 5-7 minutes in case the conversation falters. You can ask your presenters what are questions on the topic that they would like to be asked.

Authorial intent vs Reader’s Expectations

When I first joined IFWA, there was a member I didn’t like. It wasn’t her inferiority complex about her gender she wore like a cowl or her creepy obsession with her brother. It wasn’t even that she eventually tried to sue Calgary Expo for expecting her to respect the terms of service like a plebe. I don’t remember much about the story that set my opinion of her, but it was about an unpleasant nun and an unpleasant priest in a spaceship arguing with each other.

She asked me what I thought. I told her that I didn’t think it cared much about what the reader was getting out of the story. She looked at me strangely and said she didn’t care what her reader thought. She wrote for herself, only.

Which is fine, obviously. Publication doesn’t have to be everyone’s goal in writing, but it still annoyed me to my core. I wanted to ask her what she was doing in a critique group if she had no intention of listening to a critique.

Writers taking time out of their lives to help other writers through the mountain ranges between most writers and their publishing goals is a sacrifice we all make because any writer in the group would do the same. Some writers just want an audience to share their work.

But it made me realize that the author’s intent is probably the most prominent mountain range most under-published writers have to get through on their own before they can accept all the help available.

Between believing that the author’s intent is sacrosanct and there are no rules, I think writers can spend decades writing and not significantly improve. They’re the perfect cover for the human brain to never think it needs to do more than what it’s doing to accomplish its goals, no matter how far they are from them.

I’ll never forget how many first chapters full of just dialogue and description I saw in my MFA, but it feels like more than half of all submissions were precisely that. I spent three years watching learners have every one of their confirmation biases confirmed. If their intention was to tell the readers everything through dialogue, the draft couldn’t be altered in any way. To do so was an attack on the author’s intent. It was the most harm I’ve ever seen done to students in my educational career.

So much of my issue with my program was how presuppositional it was. I argued with bishops, not educators. The dogma that the reader’s experience was second to the author’s first draft intent was just worshipping at the altar of Our Lady of Shooting Oneself in the Foot.

To even question that maybe, a reader’s experience and authorial intention do not have to be at odds with each other if the piece’s goal is to sell to a commercial market was blasphemy. Structural edits were heresy to a program that taught what the writer meant to do is immutable and could not be infected with the evils of craft.

Hearing so many writers writing commercial fiction for commercial genres explaining that they don’t want to give the reader what the reader would want out of the story brought me right back to nuns and priests in space. But I wish I could have asked them why they’re paying tens of thousands of dollars to willingly learn absolutely nothing because while the bishops in the class were certainly better versed in the dogma than they were, my classmates were all lifelong converts.

It almost feels like an MLM, to be honest. The few writers talented enough to earn pink Cadalliacs/publishing experience teach the ocean of writers who want their own pink Cadalliacs to do the same actions they did to succeed. But it wasn’t the actions that led to their success; it was their cutthroat nature/innate writing ability. You can’t teach either of those things.

They have to be learned. But instructors who have always had enough innate writing ability to publish can’t teach what they don’t know how to do themselves. Putting their intention over the reader’s experience worked for them, and they didn’t have to learn their craft, so that methodology must work for all writers is what we call a “fallacy” in education.