lawyers, public institutions, and acting without liberty to do so

To me, institutional harassment is any harassment that requires a structured power difference to make what was done or said harassing. It does not matter if some random person off the street threatened an associate professor’s auxiliary funding source for no reason.

Here’s how every lawyer but one thought the problem was: I was institutionally harassed.

And here’s what they believe the solution is: I pay $60-80,000 in legal bills and take a chance.

In a public sector with an external compliance system that understands it exists to oversee a multi-billion dollar industry, the lawyer’s “process” skips multiple steps. Here’s what should have happened in a system that had been run by competent officers who understand policies don’t exist as decorative elements:

Step 1: I complain my Director violated academic freedom.
Step 2: The institution does not tolerate an academic freedom violation.

If the Director responsible for explaining policy to students didn’t understand that academic freedom was the institution’s primary function, I could appeal their decision. Above the director are the Provost, VP of Students, the institution’s Ombuds Office, the Office of University Counsel and the Senate in the decision’s appeal process:

Step 1.1: I complain to the Provost.
Step 1.2: The Provost reminds the Director of Equity that academic freedom is the institution’s purpose and must be respected.
Step 2: The institution does not tolerate an academic freedom violation.

But say the Provost has a terrible case of not knowing asses from elbows. So I contact the OUC.

Step 1.3: I tell the OUC that the institution was refusing to grant me an appeal.
Step 1.4 The OUC reminds the Director of Equity that all decisions based on academic discipline must be given an appeal. This OUC would remember what happened the last time officers’ lack of action violated academic freedom.
Step 2: The institution does not tolerate an academic freedom violation.

The institution must have provided the complainant with an advisor to assist with the complaint process, but the Ombuds Office is the institution’s fairness advocate. I contact them when the OUC holds (not illegal = no problem) as legally sound.

Step 1.5: I explain to the Ombuds Office how impossible it has been to even have a complaint taken at the institution.
Step 1.6 The Ombuds Office has a meltdown that the fairness triangle has been completely ignored.
Step 2: The institution does not tolerate an academic freedom violation.

But say the Ombuds Office believes the fairness triangle doesn’t matter if a senior officer tells them to ignore it. The VP of Students was a useless bump on the road, but they were still listed in the appeal process.

Step 1.7: Contact the VP of Students.
Step 1.8: Have them…care?
Step 2: The institution does not tolerate an academic freedom violation.

And finally, we come to the Senate.

Step 1.9: Have the Senate serve its legal obligation to students on matters of Academic discipline.
Step 2.0: The institution does not tolerate an academic freedom violation.

That is not one institutional officer committing improper conduct. That is an entire institution refusing to hold itself accountable despite an officer’s responsible duty to their public office to intervene.

But it sure seems like institutional misfeasance caused a training void. A training void is an institution’s worst-case policy scenario. Each officer is responsible for differentiated duties. If a controlled policy says it will do X and no officer has been trained to do X, it is the institution’s error for not seeing the void in its training.

The Director of Investigations was the Designated Recipient for all Discrimination and Harassment complaints as per the Retaliation Policy:

EDIT: As a reminder, the BoG did not give the OUC permission to change the definition of harassment from “for no bona fide reason” to “see: discrimination.” The Director of Investigations has been the Designated Recipient for non-sexual harassment for no bona fide reason since the Retaliation Policy charged them with that obligation.

But the Investigations Office’s overview makes no mention of investigating non-sexual harassment complaints:

This is the insidious nature of policy errors. The OUC wanted a standalone discrimination policy. Had he divided the Discrimination and Harassment Policy properly, an unintended consequences check would have ensured that the Retaliation Policy was updated to state that the Director of Investigations was the Designated Recipient for the Discrimination Policy and the new Harassment Policy.

An unintended consequences check is intended to scrutinize any change to a controlled policy to see how it impacts other policies, government expectations, liabilities, or risks to the institution’s reputation.

But an officer doesn’t have to have career interests in ensuring a complaint is never heard. In public institutions, the impact of an officer’s decision on the vulnerable victim matters more than intent. Whether a deciding officer has a personal stake in the outcome or they don’t want to add more work to their plate, a lack of action has the same outcome for the victim.

This institution — in particular — was obligated to train its employees to understand that a lack of action in defending academic freedom violates it.

The institution did not have the liberty to go to the lengths it did to ensure that a final Decision Maker would never hear my complaint objectively. A good lawyer would want to know why that was.


conflicts of interest, legal maxims, and institutional malfeasance

I don’t know that a lawyer told the “equity” director that having a conflict of interest wasn’t against the law, but she told me it wasn’t.

Having a conflict of interest can vary between an officer not telling the institution that they have the appearance of personal stakes in an institutional decision to steering an entire institution off a cliff because lawyers didn’t understand that some conflicts of interest also violate legal maxims.

Conflicts of Interest are ethical canaries in the institutional mines. Any self-governing system requires all decisions to serve the institution’s best interests. The highest ethical standards are required for any public institutional officer because most conflicts of interest may never come to light if they aren’t voluntarily disclosed.

Any research institution that agrees to use the Triagencies’ money as research funding must agree with this expectation:

The Framework goes on to define a conflict of interest. The definition doesn’t state those are the related activities the agreement mentions, but any undeclared conflict of interest might use public funds for personal interests:

It seems the institution in question “mitigated” the provost’s conflict of interest by ensuring a member of the public with a conflict of interest doesn’t violate civil or criminal law. A senior administration officer who closed down an academic freedom violation complaint after confirming the program attacked academic freedom, however, had the differentiated responsibility to be the institution’s ad hoc academic freedom specialist.

The institution did not have an actual academic freedom specialist. That position would have had no dog in the race. Unfortunately, the position was not created despite being part of the last mitigation plan to ensure the university’s community was aware it had a positive obligation to defend academic freedom and that a lack of action regarding academic freedom violations was also an academic freedom violation.

The institution goes into even more detail as to what it defines a COI as:

The two senior officers appeared to have obvious career interests in never letting it be known that the provost had closed a complaint that named him a Person at Risk.

While just having a conflict of interest isn’t against the law, a Person at Risk closing down his own complaint seems to violate the legal maxim that no man can be a judge in his own case. Since I still haven’t picked up a law degree, I’m going to laypersonally assume if institutional malfeasance is knowingly acting to harm another person as a public official without the authority to do so, his actions were institutionally malfeasant.

The institution in question hired all its employees with the continued employment expectation that they understood the following:

One man’s ethical failings should not have brought down an entire institution. But the entire external compliance system collapsed as long as institutions believed they didn’t have to follow the legal maxim to always hear both sides in the pre-investigation stage.

In Kane v. the Bd of Governors of U.B.C., the only one side hearing happened after the tribunal ended. In my non-lawyer opinion, the same protections must be in place before any investigation begins. Procedural fairness is something a person in Canada has as a right granted to everyone in the country. It is not something a tribunal gets to decide to respect.


an invalid investigations policy and feels (mostly feels)

Creating and controlling policy is a highly complicated procedure because any new policy language cannot contravene an existing policy or legislative act.

The existing investigations policy does both.

Officers of public institutions are held to what they would have known had they read all the policies involved and substantiated as much of the complaint as possible. When I complained in 2020, I had done my homework. I stated that getting thrown out of class for asking a difficult — if necessary — professional critique question violated the retaliation policy, the scholarly integrity policy, the Discrimination (and Harassment) Policy, the academic freedom statement and the respectful environment statement.

If I had only stated that the Director hadn’t been fair, it would have been the institution’s accountability to find the policies my Director’s actions had violated:

Instead, my “equity” advisor “advised” me that since the Director hadn’t harassed me for protected characteristics, the institution would not do anything. As the director responsible for institutional equity, they had a duty to their office to know protected abilities had the same protections as protected characteristics.

Any person involved in policy adherence must know “protected” is a protected term. When I told my “equity” advisor that they couldn’t unprotect protected terms, they told me, “Well, we did,” and hung up. To quote the Dean of Graduate Studies, it was not the outcome I was hoping for.

I have my own reasons why I think my director should not instruct. They violated academic freedom. That should not be tolerated. But as an teacher, the lack of empathy they demonstrated to a student going through the worst week of their life worries me more. I would have gone my whole degree happy to have never learned their name.

Their actions were appalling. Their lack of supervision or consequences was more so.

I also wouldn’t let them instruct because they assumed they had the right to decide a student’s academic discipline without talking to them. They would not change their decision even if it was made in a closed, unfair, and untimely manner.

I had asked her instructors questions for my own curiosity. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have the freedom to do so at a university that valued academic freedom. I didn’t need to know this language existed to know the way I asked my questions followed this language in letter and spirit:

However, these freedoms cannot exist without an equally vigorous commitment to recognition of and respect for the freedoms of others, and concern for the well-being of every member of the university community. Excellence in scholarship, teaching and employment activities flows from active concern and respect for others, including their ability to participate meaningfully in the exchange of information, ideas, beliefs and opinions.

Therefore, freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry must be exercised responsibly, in ways that recognize and respect the dignity of others, having careful regard to the dynamics of different= relationships within the university environment, such as between professor and student, or supervisor and employee. A respectful environment is a climate in which the human dignity of each individual is valued, and the diverse perspectives, ideas and experiences of all members of the community are able to flourish.

I respected the hell out of my instructors. It was heartbreaking to learn it had only gone one way.

Denying me an appeal in my complaint against my director violated the legislative act. I was a vulnerable victim who hadn’t read the university act on top of the six policies I had. I didn’t know I had the legal right to appeal that decision. Institutions must be extra careful with vulnerable victims of institutional harassment.

The lawyer or lawyers involved in the “equity” director’s “team” must have known policies apply all the time, and no one has the academic freedom to violate them. Mandatory policy adherence as an expectation of continued employment is part of the substantive knowledge of their field.

A non-employee student without a union rep is more likely to believe the institution if it states the learner doesn’t have the right to appeal any decision that doesn’t also violate the law.

I just thought the “equity” advisor was as wrong about that as they were about everything else they had the bile to say to a regular member of their institution. Still, I decided to drop the academic freedom violation because I still had to get through my last year of class.

That is a decision no public university student should ever have to make. No student should ever be told they do not have a right to a respectful learning environment. A respectful learning environment is required for learning.

This was the expectation the institution had:

I might have repeated the policy didn’t say the provost could choose the investigations he investigated, but that’s because I assumed I was talking to competent officers. I would have said the whole sentence if I knew who I was dealing with:

Nothing important enough to control in an institutional policy is at the discretion of fallible humans.

But because of an incompetent officer, my institution caused, condoned and participated in the harassment of another person. Institutions understand people are people and people will people. A self-reported catastrophic error is a million times better than misfeasance caused by cutting corners that didn’t get caught internally.

The important part of the catastrophic error report was that the institution eventually caught it and has a plan to ensure it never happens again. Any misfeasance that escaped the Senate might have been caused by a single officer, but none of the other senior officers caught it as a duty to the institution.

the ex parte nature of an institution’s pre-investigation

Tomorrow is the second anniversary of trying to file a complaint against an institution. It’s the three-year, three-month anniversary of trying to file a retaliation complaint against an institution officer who violated academic freedom.

I believe procedural fairness is the required flipside of due process. One protects the Complainant, and the other protects the Person at Risk. Both are required to be respected in any public institution. The naked intention of the administration could not be made more clear than the juxtaposition between these two sequential paragraphs:

Even if the institution believed a non-employee student has the freedom to be heard at all, this edit allows the institution to only hear one side of the argument before deciding if it will grant the complainant their right to procedural fairness.

Ex parte is defined as:

The same edit that erroneously removed the student’s freedom to be heard eliminated all these protections without liberty to do so:

The right of a non-employee student to lodge a complaint against anyone, including the institution:

The right to an advisor to assist in the process:

The right to participate in the process:

The right to file a complaint without facing retaliation:

And the right to an appeal:

This language has an assumption that is another institutional error. The fact that the author of this paragraph could not conceive of a student needing to appeal an unfair decision would only matter if this was a statute, not a natural justice policy.

The limited philosophy of the author assumed no student would need to appeal an unjust decision. This is an obvious human-introduced error to the spirit of a policy meant to protect a member of the institution from institutional harassment.

edit: it also violates the internal mandate the institution’s senate has to ensure the student has an ability to have any decision regarding their academic life to be appealed to the senate if need be. And again, not disciplining an officer involves academic discipline. As a non-lawyer, I believe that violates a different section of the governing legislation.

It is extremely frustrating that part of the cause of the error was that a politician did not know who legislated one of their governing acts and failed to find out when required.

Given that a negligent investigation can be a tortious act, the lack of policy regarding an institution choosing not to investigate a complaint is an institutional error, not a loophole. Its language violates the institution’s values, which include accountability.

As a non-lawyer, it seems that Kane v. Bd of Governors of U.B.C. states that it did not matter if the president at the time had given a fair accounting of the facts when Kane wasn’t there. The concern was that the president could not have been impartial.

Time after time in my complaint, ex parte communication — be it the respondent being asked to explain the complaint to their governing authority or the respondent’s correspondence being taken as sworn testimony — decided that no investigation was required for the external compliance institutions.

The institution even formalized its “right” to decide who is telling the truth before an investigation has started:

Any decision based on ex parte communication at any investigation stage should invalidate it.

unchallenged character traits are only character ideals

I don’t write using three acts. Most of my work follows a football game where the second half reaps what the first half sows. I like to think of the sections as the beginning of the beginning, the end of the beginning, the beginning of the end and the end of the end.

I believe most work can be divided into thirds as well. Along with setting up the world and the problem, the first third should show the reader who the character thinks they are and who they are in practice. Given the new situation, the second third should show the reader the difficulty in being who they are.

Some characters will need to change who they are to succeed. If the character is to stay the same, the cost of remaining unchanged must be shown, too. To me, the two-thirds mark of a novel is where the end of the end begins. Who the character is and what they have been asked to do should come together to form a course of action that will bring the story to a meaningful ending.

Spend any time in a public forum with underpublished writers, and the “How do I write a _____ character?” will come up. The answer is simple and takes a long time to do. To write an empathetic character, you write a world and a problem in which being empathetic will eventually become the most difficult thing the protagonist can be. Their ultimate decision to remain empathetic or abandon it must be shaped by what the character has experienced.

33,000 words may seem like a lot of space, but that has to establish the world, the stakes, the main conflict and source of tension, and who the character is. Character development is one of the greatest tools a writer has in their toolbox, but it can’t start until who the character is has been established.

I couldn’t count how many novels I’ve read where all that was told through dialogue over two or three chapters. But there are at least three levels of character. What a character tells others they are is usually their most idealized, untested truth. It is almost impossible to have an organic conversation where characters discuss who they really are alone.

Even internal monologues have to go through a narrator who may not have ever had that quality of themselves tested. The prison system is filled with everyday people who thought themselves good people but still served their interests at someone else’s expense.

A character could tell another character that they are empathetic. That doesn’t mean it’s true.

A character could be empathetic in public. But could show the character wants to be seen as empathetic.

A character acting empathetically when there is nothing to gain is getting closer.

But let’s say the character’s village has decided that one of its villagers must be shunned for reasons. If the character doesn’t agree with the reasons and provides comfort, they stand up for what they believe in. But if the character agrees with the reasons for the shunning and still is seen to provide comfort, they are empathic despite the social cost.

In a conventional novel, the first third sets up the complications that will test the character in the middle third. The last third determines how the complications have changed the character — even if it just makes them more resolute.

A work of fiction should explore who a character says they are, who they think they are, and who they demonstrate themselves to be through their experiences. Believing that dialogue can be used set up in the first few chapters what takes a third of a novel to establish, however, is a shortcut that almost always leads nowhere.

writing jargon: quoting, understanding, and teaching it

I believe the English definitions of jargonistic writing terms mentioned in a past post is how “there are no rules” went from exceptional work can violate any rule it likes to conventional work doesn’t need conventions.

The analogy I use to explain it is a young child with only one piece of paper who wants to make a perfect card for their parent and/or guardian. A folded paper can never be unfolded again, so the child must learn how to know when they fold the paper, it will make the ideal width fold instead of the elongated height fold for maximum image and text card shape.

So the child learns first that they can pre-bend the paper to ensure that the card will be card-shaped and not too long and narrow shaped. Then this hypothetical child starts to call the long-and-narrow card less than ideal shape a hot dog bun fold, while the card shape is more of a hamburger bun.

The child created their own mnemonic they attached their own meaning that they will never forget because creating the mnemonic was the last stage in the process, not the first. So, let’s say that calling one fold hot dog and the other hamburger takes off in the creative space of card-making. When the concept is first introduced, anyone who struggled with remembering the way the paper should be folded to ensure the text of the card wouldn’t read like an e.e. cummings poem greatly appreciated a much easier way to remember which direction to fold the paper.

If the instructor of the method demonstrates what a hamburger fold *is*, the mnemonic works. If the instructor only tells the class to “make a hamburger fold,” a hamburger fold will become a scrunched-up piece of paper because “a hamburger” can technically be made in any shape.

The instructor must compare what was learned against what was taught to evaluate their pedagogical approach. If anything is an ideal card shape, then the reason for the fold — to produce a card that provides the most room to write a meaningful message — gets lost.

But let’s say that the easiest way to make an ideal card shape is a metaphor for the concept that a reader must understand the importance of the events before they can attach a meaning to them independent of the character’s understanding. Let’s say a writer came to the critique group and told their fellow writers why they should show the reader the significance of an event and not rely on telling them why something was important through dialogue or exposition. That gets shortened to “show, don’t tell.”

As long as every writer in the critique group understands that if the reader is told of the significance instead of being shown them, the reader is only asked to remember the significance, “show, don’t tell” is common sense. No author can create dramatic irony when the reader only knows what the character does.

“Show, don’t tell” is writing jargon that means a story that shows the readers the world, problem, and character has more emotional resonance than a story that tells the reader about the world, problem, or character. There may be a time in the work when telling the reader something can have enormous emotional significance if the story, but that doesn’t happen until the reader understands the world’s context.

Familiarity breeds contempt across all things. “Show, don’t tell” is the single most important piece of writing advice learners must understand before they can start to see the loss of potential reader engagement as characters keep arriving so late that they must be told what just happened.

A layperson only has to understand the basic concept of skillsets if they want to. A learner must acquire the skillsets a professional will require in the field. A professional must use the skillsets as a profession, and an expert assists the learner in honing the skillsets they have and acquiring the skillsets they don’t.

A professional may not have the expertise required to state their process simply enough for a non-professional to understand correctly because they don’t share the same knowledge base. If a professional states, “Conflict is important,” they assume the listener hears …enough to learn how to use it effectively so the author can focus on making that conflict resonate with the reader.

The average underpublished writer will hear, “Conflict is important,” and assume they know enough about writing to think they also heard an unspoken but not enough to learn how to use it to engage readers because there are no rules at the end of it. When professionals end their talk on craft with “Of course, there are no rules,” the unspoken misunderstanding is said aloud by a professional in a position of authority.

The survivorship bias in creative writing pedagogy is strong. If 1000 writers use “there are no rules” as a methodology, and only 1% of them succeed, at least one of those 10 writers will become an instructor teaching their “very successful” method because it worked for them.

It goes unnoticed that their success has far more to do with the opportunities they’ve been given to hone their raw talent and creative intelligence. The invisible — and not so invisible — privileges of a successful writer can be anything from a supportive spouse — emotionally or financially — to being abnormally tenacious to having the advantage of an education that allows for a job that still provides them with the time and energy to pursue a passion as a career while still financially supporting the family. Which partner is the primary caregiver matters when it comes to writing as a career.

A student in one of my classes asked a question to the instructor responsible for teaching writers to become professionals in one of the most demanding and competitive genres of fiction. They wanted to know how they could have escalated the tension better in their submitted work.

“Escalating tension” is writing jargon. I’m not saying this instructor didn’t know how to escalate tension in her work, but she had no clue how to explain it to a learner. You might think I’m speculating, but she told me that when she asked me to explain it for her.

So I did. Escalating tension is the idea that the work starts with tension beyond the character’s grasp. Just as they seem to somewhat have a handle on it, a new source of tension adds more complications.

But that doesn’t explain why or how it’s done or what changes the learner has to make in their work to escalate their tension. It doesn’t state the most accessible source of tension is conflict. All writers have been cultured among our jargon, so it appears to be the plain English definition. But these words define specific terms for the professionals who use them.

My institution instructed learners to understand that “conflict” only means “characters arguing or fighting” because that’s what that term means to a general population. To professional writers, “conflict” is jargon that means anything that prevents your character from progressing closer to their objective in the story. Interpersonal conflict between characters is only one form of conflict.

But current creative writing pedagogy assumes any learner who can quote the terms professionals use also possesses the knowledge base required to come to the rational conclusion that they do not need to learn how to use the terms used so often by professionals that they’ve been reduced to jargon.

My instructors didn’t just fail to instruct their learners on how to produce work to professional standards.

They banned any discussion of professional standards.

I would have liked to have had this conversation privately. But it was easier to believe and required much less work to be convinced I hadn’t liked how the class was taught.

unconventional stories v. stories without conventions

When I went through my program, my instructors believed the words “not necessarily” were a complete sentence that didn’t need explaining. It did. The biggest pushback to “this story needs an obstacle in the character’s path they can act against” was “not all stories need to follow Western conventions.”

No storytelling culture in the world doesn’t have its own conventions. And no storytelling culture in the world doesn’t have storytellers who use their conventions to tell unconventional stories. And there is no storytelling culture in the world that — given enough time — doesn’t make unconventional storytelling eventually conventional.

But I wasn’t telling a Peruvian author writing Magic Realism their work wasn’t conventional enough. I was telling authors writing speculative YA dystopian novels that their work needed the character to interact with the dystopia. Instead, learners were taught that writing in the fading tail of a once super popular subgenre in the most competitive field in publishing today didn’t need conventional storytelling to do it.

I could hold the instructors accountable for teaching plot, conflict, tension, pacing, stakes, point-of-view, voice, and character development are so optional that it doesn’t matter if a conventional work meant for a conventional subgenre’s market didn’t use any of them. But that’s a mentality I see in the writing groups I attend. My instructors were only representatives of the culture they came from.

Unconventional work deliberately doesn’t use the tools of conventional storytelling — whichever culture the author writes from — and still produces a work that tells a remarkable story. Conventional storytelling — in any culture — is difficult. Unconventional storytelling — in any culture — is even more difficult.

Not using conventions in conventional work does not make it unconventional. It makes it conventionless. Not putting obstacles in the character’s path they must act against to accomplish their goals is a good choice if the work still grips the reader. That is the actual meaning behind “there are no rules.” Great work doesn’t have to follow the rules.

Writers do not write for other writers to appreciate how well-written their prose is.

Writers write for readers who want to engage with the work.

The ideal length of a novel for a first-time novelist is at or around 100k. It is cheaper to edit, print, store, and ship. The bookseller doesn’t have to waste shelf space on extra thick books. Exceptions are always made for exceptional work — but the production cost between a 100k novel and a 140k novel is not insignificant.

But even in a 100k novel, there is no word count to spare from the character that starts the work to the character that finishes it. The best thing a learner can do is examine their belief that well-written prose doesn’t have to serve the work. The modern understanding of “there are no rules” assures the writer that whatever they intend to write is fine.

But readers’ attention is fickle, and their lives are filled with distractions and the next shiny thing. A work that doesn’t pull the reader back to it gets put down. If it gets put down for a long enough time, it can get put in a pile full of books the reader may return to…eventually. Any book abandoned by the reader makes it less likely that they will purchase the next book by the same author.

The author shouldn’t try to please readers as a whole, but they should care deeply about their ideal reader’s experience. When the author writes to please the hypothetical reader who only appreciates well-written prose without a story they can engage with, they are competing with the average underpublished writer, all trying to sell to a market that does not commercially exist.

Tension: it (probably) doesn’t mean what you think it means

The problem with laypeople “teaching” beginners writing terminology is that they teach English definitions instead of the jargonistic terms. Tension does not mean the feeling the viewer gets when a non-last girl in a state of undress walks into a dark basement backwards when a killer is on the loose.

Tension is an escalate-able sensation the prose creates inside of an invested reader. That feeling of tension is why a reader picks the book up again after putting it down to find out what happens next. A work about a character forced into a loveless marriage because reasons has as much need for tension as a work about exploding space stations.

“Admire my well-written prose” is not something a reader has to pay for when they can admire the well-written prose of a work that uses its language to tell a story they are willing to invest their time into reading. That exceptional work — some remembered decades or centuries after the author’s death — can create a masterpiece that doesn’t use X doesn’t mean that the average work doesn’t need X to capture their reader’s attention.

Once upon a time, there were fewer things a person could invest their attention into. But then, a new market exploded onto the scene. Suddenly, the person with attention became the commodity sold, not the consumer. With the internet and social media, a reader’s attention became even more valuable to someone else as a product.

A reader doesn’t just have to like the subgenre the book is written in; they have to like the book enough to get a copy of it and then find the time to read it with all the other demands on their time a modern life creates. That dedicated time has to be found between working, family obligations, a social life, sleeping and endlessly browsing the internet. A reader has to be intrinsically motivated to invest that time for the reward of finishing the work.

I think writers believe they start somewhere on this line segment and progress to the right:

I don’t think that’s the case. “Bad writing” — work an ideal reader of the subgenre would not like — takes skill. “I didn’t like this” is still a reaction. I believe most writers start somewhere on this line —

“I didn’t like” is a better ideal reader reaction than “This work didn’t make me feel anything.”

Once upon a time, speculative writing conferences had an “It Came From the Slushpile” panel where editors would read the openings of rejected slush submissions to the cackling joy of the audience. It assured the audience at least their work wasn’t included — unless it was included and they realized everyone in that room was laughing at what they thought was work good enough to submit. See: Jim Theis and the Eye of Argon.

TL;DR: Theis was a teenager who attended a speculative writer’s conference and lost a copy of his unfinished manuscript. His name or age wasn’t included. The work became the stuff of legends where readers would attempt to read its opening chapters with a straight face. To say the work was very poorly written would be an understatement. However, the work’s execution was full of passion. The author’s only crime was having a grasp that fell short of his reach. I don’t think Theis ever went on to write anything after it because of the reaction to his first work.

I think panels like that did almost as much harm to the general audience as they did to a member of the general audience who could have potentially heard their work being mocked. If a general audience member believed that most stories in a slushpile are of that quality, their competent work must stand out.

But most work submitted to a slush pile is at least competent. There’s usually always a character. That character usually has a concern. At least some portion of the word count is spent demonstrating how the character acts to solve their concern, and there is a conclusion in which the character succeeds, fails, or dies. However, to grab the first reader’s attention, something about the character’s effort has to impact them. They may not have the authority to buy the work, but they send it to an editor with purchasing permission.

A work’s tension comes from multiple aspects to create a single feeling in the reader. The voice or point-of-view of the character makes the prose more than just described video scenery. It’s an author writing in a subgenre with one foot in familiarity and the other in the unknown.

It’s a plot concern that feels engaging from the start but has the potential to swell parallel to the character’s growth. It’s a character making meaningful choices that have actual consequences that can’t just be handwaved away. Creative writing is a series of words on a page that makes the ideal reader feel their time and energy consuming it was well-spent.

Tension doesn’t exist because the work puts its character in peril. Tension exists because the author created a world the reader feels invested enough to empathize with the character and their journey. Things get complicated if the work doesn’t ask the reader to at least empathize with the protagonist.

writing = (talent + creative intelligence)^learned knowledge^muscle memory

These will always be the wisest words the average writer needs to hear:

I’m not saying exceptional writing geniuses don’t emerge fully formed and explode onto the literary scene. I’m saying most writers don’t. But therein lies the rub. Most writers don’t see themselves on par with most writers when most writers are.

I don’t think the inability to see that is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The average writer has more talent and creative intelligence than the average person. But having more talent and creative intelligence than the average person still makes them the average writer.

This means if the average writer wants to become better than the average writer, they must put their effort into their vulnerabilities as a writer, not just practice their strengths. Or, as Anders Ericcson calls it, they must deliberately practice:

Writing advice is everywhere in the writing community. Writers who believe it might actually assist them in their intentions for their work are scarce. “There are no rules” assures the writer that just doing what they already do well will lead to success. But that ignores the exponential growth possible when a learner deliberately learns and practices new skills.

Art is craft + vision. If an artist can’t use the tools of their trade through muscle memory alone, they must concentrate on using them. It detracts from using their craft to form something meaningful out of nothing. A beautifully painted tree is a nice image of a tree. A beautifully painted tree that makes the reader feel something besides “that is a beautifully painted tree” is art.

But artists can’t paint a tree that evokes emotion without first learning how to paint a beautiful tree. They could even paint a hundred trees and pick out the one or two that evoke emotion that was not intended. Evocative work requires many monkeys banging away at keyboards or hours of deliberate practice.

Stories need a source of tension that does not necessarily have to come from obstacles on the character’s path or from in their head. But tension does not exist on the page. It is an emotion the reader feels external to the text.

Writers are not competing against other writers who create beautifully-written stories that focus on what the character does, says, or thinks. They are competing against the work that can use what a character does, says or thinks to create a world that needs this particular character to change at least one aspect of it, including the character themselves. Work that doesn’t require any change to the character, world or concern must be exceptional to be as engaging to its ideal reader as a story with a simple conflict.

That skill comes from deliberately practising the dynamic aspects of storytelling. And that doesn’t happen until the writer learns that the dynamic aspects of storytelling are absent from their work and that absence does not serve their intentions for it. Conflict, tension, plot and character development are the eggs, flour, sugar and leavening agent in baking. A skilled writer can work around not using them, but their absence will be obvious in work that needs them.

quickie: story revision, determinism and the link between the two

As a layperson’s working definition, determinism is the idea that individuals may think they have free choice but mostly they do not. Every decision a person can make is influenced by who the person is and what they understand to be true. The example I heard most recently was the idea of a person going to Disneyland. They may think they can ride the Tower of Terror, but their fear of heights makes going on the ride impossible, even if the choice to ride it appears to be theirs.

I feel revision notes on the average underpublished writers have the same flaw. The author would argue until they’re blue in the fact that they have chosen not to include conflict as a stylistic choice. A creative writing instructor should be able to write at a level where nothing seems to be happening but the tension continues to ratchet upwards. To them, leaving out conflict would be a conscious choice, though not one to be taken lightly.

The question is, did this student in this particular work accomplish their goals for the piece?

It is difficult to tell an engaging story with external and internal sources of conflict.

It is more challenging to tell an engaging story with only internal sources of conflict.

It is incredibly complicated to tell an engaging story with no source of external or internal conflict.

I trust a creative writing instructor should be able to tell a good story regardless of which story ingredients they use. They are not incorrect when they state that not all stories need sources of conflict. But any instructor must know to aim their advice to the story on the table.

Rather than stating it is technically possible for a writer with an exceptional skill level to create a meaningful story without external obstacles, they should focus on whether meaningful obstacles on the character’s path would help the story being reviewed. But that means understanding that while the instructor may leave out sources of conflict that force the protagonist to act, the learner most likely doesn’t know how to include them.

Hence, they’re taking the class or have joined a writing group.

The author may understand the importance of external obstacles at the theoretical level, but they must learn how to show the protagonist overcoming obstacles through character growth or devolution.

To return to the example set in Samwise Gamgee and meaningful character growth, Sam didn’t need to change who he was to bring Frodo home to the Shire. It was a feat of character development to show his steadfast resolution while being tested for someone else’s battle. But the kid trying to get into Julliard only knows how to work harder and hope they’ll be part of the 7% acceptance rate. Whether they are accepted or not is out of their hands. Their character isn’t tested beyond what the story’s premise establishes until external events make working harder more complex than has already been established.

That can be anything from their parents getting divorced to seeing a dancer with exceptional grace also applying. It could be their best friend who needs them as a friend for the first time. Whatever the conflict is, they need to overcome it and still attempt to enroll in the best school in the world.

Could a creative writing instructor write a story in which the only conflict is a young, talented ______er practicing _______ing to get into the best ______ institution in the world still be a meaningful story?

Of course.

Should underpublished writers attempt to write a story in which nothing challenges the protagonist to overcome but still engages the reader?


But the answer to the constructive criticism of this story doesn’t present the protagonist with any significant obstacles to overcome in a way that detracts from its whole isn’t a skilled author could tell that story and move the reader! It takes Piaget’s false knowledge in the hallway to believe that because they could tell that story, any writer would know how to.

The average writer an instructor instructs isn’t the author who could have added meaningful conflict to the story but chose not to. If there are students in the class who could, they could be teaching the program, too. The average learner is a learner who doesn’t understand that if they don’t know how to add conflict, they probably won’t agree any story needs it.

But that’s the thing with determinism. Only the very self-aware — or the well-educated — see any difference between a choice with two equally likely outcomes and the illusion of a choice when only one outcome can be achieved.