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writing to the unexpected moments

Donald Maass’s advice on characterization in the first scene of the story is still some of the best writing advice I’d ever heard. He says the heroic character has to do something ordinary, the everyman character has to do something heroic and the wounded protagonist has to want to be better, even if they couldn’t if they tried at the start of the story.

But it wasn’t until I read a story that our On Spec’s intern wrote that I realized it’s not about what the character does, it’s about the reader’s expectation. A character doesn’t have to do anything specific but they should act in a way that is unexpected, given the situation they’re in.

Unexpected moments rap the reader’s attention and hold it long enough to find out why that unexpected thing happened. And if they’re turning the page so find out, you have them as long as the momentum continues.

Moving your character out of their comfort zone as soon as possible, to me, makes better sense than Maass’ descriptive advice. When the character isn’t comfortable, POV tightens, suspicions grow and the emotion negatively influences not only what the character notices but how they perceive it. When they are comfortable, the reader is too.

I had a thousand-word gap I needed to fill to meet the structure the story established. I knew what had to happen, but I couldn’t see how it happened for the life of me. I spent two days trying to put shapes in the spot to fill it up, and none of them worked. It wasn’t until I was brushing my teeth at the end of the second day that I could see what scenes needed to play out to make what needs to be learned fit the story.

Divergent thinking is so important for writers to practice as much as any other story or world-building skill. Coming up with ideas that suit the story, tone and existing story is something I probably spend three hours doing for every hour I spend writing. On the days I’m writing, there’s a 50% chance anything I say is going to plot related. My wife knows the characters of the work I’m writing as though they were co-workers of mine and I’m discussing their trials and foibles behind their backs.

Outside of the slushpile, it is rare to find a story that has the ability to subvert the reader’s expectations and those stories are a rare find in a slushpile. My MFA took all the time in the world to help writers learn how to polish the prose they’d already written but they didn’t spend a moment trying to help it be what it could be.

I’ve always found the initial story to come to me in two parts. One part is the general concept. The second is how I can make that general concept unique. I’ve carried part ones of story ideas around for years before I found that second part that from the first page, moves the story in a different direction. Once I know that, stories tend to write themselves when I’m not staring at the wall trying to form ideas out of nothing.

Divergent thinking is a skill that needs to be practiced as much as polish and prose. It’s why I think originality is learned as much as any skill involved in writing and why writing boards are filled with newbie questions of how to write a sympathetic antagonist without ever having written a non-sympathetic antagonist. It’s asking how does a child run once they figure out this crawling business. There’s a whole other step to be learned.

But that’s writing. Writers who have yet to learn to crawl want to run. As the story-building skills increase, what they can capture inside of it grows as well. It does not matter how fifty people would have written a sympathetic antagonist. It only matters how the individual author will write theirs. The learning in skill acquisition is in the doing of the skill, not in the asking questions stage.

One lesson my MFA taught was that readers never need their expectations played with. If what happens is predictable or if nothing happens at all, it’s fine. It’s a death knell for stories in markets where the supply of great stories exceeds the demand.

the university act means students need consumers’ rights

If my program didn’t crush the academic freedom of students who might want to have the opinion that craft is actually important enough to use and practice using, the UBC would have every right to market it to students.

They can boast about their craft-based discussions on the website without small print required to say that there is no discussion on actual craft because it’s not allowed. They’re allowed to have “rigorously craft-based focus” in their mission statement. And they would be allowed to teach a program in which the only opinion allowed to be safely voiced in class without risk of retaliation is: No craft is ever needed, necessary or required.

But they had to crush their first pillar as an academic institution to do it. But then the University of British Columbia had to remove the right to academic freedom from a student to silence them about their lack of academic freedom.

If I’d known that the actual pedagogical approach was “No craft, no critique, just praise!” or that the institute thought any part of that last paragraph is something they had the audacious right to do, I would have bounced as well.

As a student, I’m outraged that if I’d been sold a street-worthy scooter online that didn’t have an engine, I would have protection. But when I complained, the prominent Canadian company told me its engine was never meant to actually start and “street-worthy” means what the company said it does.

But paying for an education that doesn’t meet the federal guidelines academically or professionally is just tough luck for students. The UBC’s anti-pedagogy is academic freedom violation, pros somehow never edit, and policies are just for the students, but there is no recourse available.

And all students absolutely need protection if the entire institution decides to just not hold itself accountable for its wrongdoings if it just ignores the policies it has to hold itself accountable to.

organic flow, nice soup cans, and plot

If there’s one story I quoted more than any during my MFA degree, it was the Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. If you can get past the huge info-dump world-building section of the first chapter, it’s an amazing ride.

There is so much to love about the second and third books that the first book can feel a little like the Hobbit. But even as the most linear of the three, its first-person narrator is one of the greatest examples of hoodwinking the reader right out in the open.

It’s the kind of story that you immediately start rereading because you know the author’s contradicted the surprise ending at least once. Because it’s in a first-person POV yet still manages to keep something so monumental from the reader, it’s a masterclass of misdirection. On the second read, it’s clear the character never contradicts the ending once. You just misread what they said.

It’s brilliant. I can’t stress that enough. Run, don’t walk to read the series before the Disney+ show comes out.

The author took twenty-one years to tell a five-book series. Each book took years to write. You would never guess that from reading them. It’s one of those stories in which everything can change about what happened with a new piece of information she skillfully provides you. What happens is never what happens until you see what really happened.

If you believed in the myth of the perfect first draft, this series would be the series you’d be thinking of. It reads as though the story call came out in one continuous flow of actions that can’t be fully conceptualized until all the pieces have come together.

We never spent a day talking about plot in my program. Not to evaluate it or improve it. The plot of the work was assumed to be immutable despite the first draft work being written specifically for the class to be critiqued by their peers. Only prose-level discussion was ever warranted, whether the prose just needed a light buffing or it was a genre novel in which the character doesn’t have concerns for the first three chapters.

Building the feeling of a work that was written in one continual push is the hardest kind of writing to do. It requires true inspiration — which is hard to plan on having — or ad nauseam rewrites if necessary. It’s being willing to make the changes necessary until it feels pitch perfect and not settling for less than that.

Readers won’t settle. They don’t have to. I met the first person who could have taught at my MFA back in the early 2000s. He couldn’t be convinced that the fact Twilight exists means that all writing is marketing and quality will never matter again. The example he gave was about finding a million people who were willing to just buy the soup can without any soup in it would make him a millionaire.

He was a math teacher, not an economist. He knew nothing about the cost of acquisition. The time and money needed to find a million people willing to spend a dollar on nothing would far exceed any net profit of selling the empty soup cans.

The one thing I hear over and over in my MFA and out is “I don’t want to make my writing more engaging for the reader.” They want to appeal to the reader who isn’t reading to be engaged by the work.

There are a lot of people who need empty soup cans in their life for various reasons. There may be readers who love stories that don’t ask them to get involved in a character with a story they want to follow. Finding them is going to be prohibitively expensive in a huge market of people who would rather have the soup in the can and a character that matters than just a great setting/soup can.

The reader has near infinite choice of work they’ve already purchased within arms reach of where they usually sit or sleep. To entice them to buy something new and then read it over everything they already own is where the real need for an engaging story happens. Not just to entice the reader to buy it, but to entice them to start it and then entice them to keep reading to the end.

There is absolutely no marketing in a bookstore better than having a reader remember how much they got out of the last book by the same author. It’s why word-of-mouth is always better than the best SEO.

Building that experience isn’t easy if the ability to do so didn’t come preinstalled. Soup can guy is a charismatic speaker and his first book was critically acclaimed. His readers weren’t buying soup cans, they were buying complicated work of POV. He sold the idea to others that their work just needed to be soup cans and when Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey were selling millions of copies each, it wasn’t hard to imagine he was right if you were predisposed to believe your writing just needs marketing.

But those books are the definition of “bad writing” but they deeply engaged their ideal reader with hot, soupy goodness. Beautifully written work that doesn’t want to engage the reader to care is the nicely designed soup can. A market may exist, but good luck finding it.

Universities should not be able to sell the lie that work doesn’t need any foundational structure beyond description, exposition and dialogue to sell to any existing market. It’s a lie sold the program sells deliberately. If students are so gently treated that their knowledge is never challenged then why is the program in an academic institution?

The Federal Government promises me that masters are at the forefront of academia. Name one pedagogical approach that survived the 70s that had students assume that nothing needs to be learned and be told they’re right to assume so?

academic harassment and adhd

By the first twenty minutes of the first critique class I was already in trouble with my instructor for daring to suggest something from a child psychology level.

I was given a confidentiality strike. When I asked how was that possible, I was told asking my wife a question about libraries violated confidentiality. I hadn’t told my wife a single thing about the story. I’d asked her to look up types of literacy programs held in major Canadian cities.

The instructor was adamant I read the code of conduct and expectations. I did so, three times. I then had to ask what part of my behaviour had violated it.

Eventually, I was told that they preferred their critiques “more supportive” but never gave me more feedback than that. It would have been convenient at this point to have dropped out and gotten back all of my money. But in reading the code of conduct, I also read the mission statement to see if I was in the right place. It promised me a program that would be “rigorously craft-based.”

Oppositional Defiance Disorder is an ADHD child under unreasonable parenting skills. If ADHD meds are given before the age of six, the ODD goes away. If the medication isn’t given until age 8, the ADHD symptoms go away but the ODD Is now a learned behaviour to parents in which nothing is fair.

To an ADHD brain, nothing hurts more than unfairness. And at the UBC, nothing has ever been fair. Despite language assuring me that

“… the MFA focuses on the work created by students as the primary text. Through intensive peer critique and craft discussion, faculty and students work together with the same goal: literary excellence.”

(Under overview)

I was harangued by my instructors to constantly be less of something I eventually couldn’t be less of. The Respectful Environment Statement that the Chair was allowed to break multiple times in multiple different ways says over-supervision is an action harmful to a respectful environment. The UBC had it down to an art form. Just when I found a level of craft that seemed to work for everyone for months, I’d be hit with emails telling me to do even less of that.

No part of dealing with UBC was equitable. Policies meant to ensure fair treatment were tossed. My academic freedom was crushed. Harassment was ignored. The provost — with his conflict of interest — was allowed to use institutional resources to cater to his needs of making his problem go away. Just the act of being heard was denied.

And yet, I never doubted the next person I spoke to would make a rational decision based on the policies until they informed me, nope, they were going to go with the abuse of power. The unfairness felt like it burned.

But I had to go through it so the next student wouldn’t and ADHD gives us hyperfocus. I trusted someone in the appeals process was either going to do their job or I’d have it in writing that the entire UBC chose to fail from a policy perspective.

on being the “average” writer

I suppose I was lucky in that I was never the average writer. For the first ten years of my time in the writing community, I was a below-average writer. My strengths lay in plot and story, not prose.

Sometimes what I wrote touched the face of god and sometimes it was about a character that did things. But even at the level of the character that did things my writing was sometimes almost unreadable.

I can blame an ADHD brain that hated revision with a thousand endless passions. Going over what had already been written felt like going over a cheese grater. With my tongue. And then eating salt and vinegar kettle chips dipped in hot sauce and hellfire.

But when it all came together, some stories just worked. Where as most didn’t work “on the interesting character who at least does engaging stuff, even if it doesn’t change them” level. When my stories worked on that level, they told a rip-roaring adventure. When they told a rip adventure, a roaring adventure or just a plain old ordinary adventure it just didn’t tell itself well enough.

The novel that made me realize I still had a lot to learn had been through multiple critiques at that point. I thought I’d ironed all the problems out. But seeing it again for the first time, I saw how many shortcuts I was taking by telling the reader everything I didn’t know how to show yet. Most importantly I saw how the story I saw happening and the story I managed to capture weren’t the same story at all.

If I had seen the average quality of work from the average writer — a clearly written story — I might not have ever come to my conclusion. It’s easy to see bad writing. It’s more difficult to see story weaknesses in polished prose.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about finding the right school by finding a school where a student would be in the top half of the class because that has more of a significant advantage in life than graduating from an Ivy League school.

I think the opposite effect happens to writers who are better than most of the writers in their writing group, not even thinking about how many critique groups there are across every town or city that has one. Being a big fish in a small pond has its advantages. But ponds are a small body of water and there are thousands of them. The slush pile is full of work from writers who swim in much bigger lakes and rivers plus all those other big pond fish.

But it doesn’t matter if a learner is in the bottom half of the class at Harvard. We compare ourselves to what’s around us and not to the greater population. Universities mark on a curve to make marks more relative to the general knowledge of the population it’s trying to grade. It means getting 38% on a test could be an A+ effort if everyone else did poorer, but an 84% is only a B- if everyone did very well.

Writers are marked on the same curve, only we call it a slush pile. The average story in it is about a character that does stuff and a lot of that stuff is talking. An engaging story about a character who tries to solve their own problems is rarer. A meaningful story about an engaging character whose journey is as rich as the destination is a rare and precious find.

The novel I brought to Boston with me, to my mind, was a prime example of a meaningful, engaging story and no one could convince me otherwise. On the way to Calgary again, what was great about the story was hampered too much by its flaws.

The average writer who can’t recognize structural weaknesses in other people’s work stops their own learning process. If a learner can’t see how a story they didn’t write can be made more engaging, they won’t consider any work should be made so. Their own work especially.

“organic” vs “constructed” writing

If I didn’t know what I already knew, I might have let my MFA “teach” me that the only thing that matters is my organic process. The #1 thing the UBC taught was that the author’s intention for the first draft must — at all times — be preserved. To make “mechanical” structural changes to a first draft would ruin the organic flow of the work to the point where they couldn’t be allowed to even be suggested.

There are true organic writers, the one who creates a perfect first draft and just needs to polish the prose. They’re usually teaching the class. A student who can do the same thing — create an organic story that completes a moment in a character’s life in the first draft — is in the extreme minority.

But the bulk of writers sitting around critique tables don’t have the ability to tell a unique, organic story in the first draft before they even sit down at the table. Teaching all students as though they were already producing work like MFA instructors teaches them that they don’t need to acquire the skills their instructors had preinstalled.

The goal of the “critique” is to produce nicer prose while dynamic story-building skills are taught as unnecessary.

“Organic” to a reader means it “feels like” the book was written with one creative vision from the first page to the last.” They will never know how many thumbs have been in that pie to make it feel like it came out in one singular vision. Alpha readers, beta, critique partners, freelance editors and editors from the publisher could have all nudged what was to be what it could be.

A short story is a single motion in a character’s life and just needs to do one thing particularly well. It is hypothetically possible to say something meaningful in a first draft without it needing a significant rewrite. A novel, however, is a series of movement written over a series of months or years that has to work seamlessly together to engage the reader and draw them back to the story that needs to be read across several sittings.

Organic writing can feel like the muses are on your shoulder and the author is just transcribing the events playing out behind their eyes. Constructed writing, on the other hand, is the writing that takes place without the gift of the gods. Neil Gaiman talks about the difference between amateurs and professionals is who waits for inspiration. I think the amateur writes what they write and calls it good enough. The pro knows good enough isn’t good enough to build a meaningful reader’s experience.

But Gaiman also described inspiration as a butterfly that swoops down and sits on your shoulder every once and a while. He described writing a Study in Emerald this way during Torcon 3. But when the butterfly doesn’t visit, the only other tool the author has is the knowledge necessary to take a story that doesn’t have “it” written into the first draft and craft “it” in the final draft.

I lost ten thousand words last week. The scenes described were some of the most polished organic writing of the book. But they didn’t do nearly enough for the plot. I had to construct the replacement 10k over the past week. By 3k, I’d summed up everything the reader had to know in those 10k. By 4k, I’d leapfrogged the lost section. By the end of the new 10k, I’d progressed to the scene that’s the heartbeat of the story.

In the lost 10k, I was still about 5k away from it. I realized in 2005 that I had to learn how to write instead of hoping what I organically channeled did everything it was supposed to. What didn’t come organically was stilted if it wasn’t filled with shortcuts that told what I had no clue how to show the reader.

It took almost twenty years for what I constructed for plot reasons to feel more organic than what appeared fully formed. I needed to learn how to write what didn’t flow naturally but make it feel like it did. Writers today are insulated against ever learning the same thing if “organic” means the author’s 1st draft intentions and not the final draft the readers experience.

Conflict and character growth — the story in its essence

When you start in fanfic completely blind as I did all those years ago, a lot of terms catch you off guard. Some stories were stories and some were character studies and some were vignettes. I had to realize character studies and vignettes were parts of a story without a source of conflict in a study or without the conflict moving forward in a vignette.

I’ve met far more underpublished writers who will critique underpublished writers by pumping up their already amazing world-building skills. But if the protagonist remains unchanged and unchallenged, that critique assumes that the author will find an audience for work that doesn’t read for plot or character. (Or theme. Or emotional resonance.)

There’s only one commercial work known for its amazing scene work: Avatar. It’s a setting without a character or a plot the average audience has to care about. “Look at the beautiful scenery” only worked because it was rendered beautifully in 3D. If James Cameron squanders character or plot-driven narrative, he’ll bend the field in some way.

Most people are not James Cameron.

Literary work is not the absence of character or plot-driven story. It’s not just “nice prose” stacked up in chapters. Character growth in literary work is predominately internally motivated. Literary work must have beautiful language over emotional resonance that needs more than nice prose to create. Non-literary commercial work doesn’t even need nice prose to sell.

I asked multiple instructors when their grads were going to learn the story-building skills that were being taught as unnecessary. Silence. It is up to the student to understand UBC is wrong about craft to even see the need to improve structurally.

more on story-building and writing skills

Until I was able to hear it, I never heard a critique that suggested making anything more than cosmetic changes to be of value. We “teach” creative writing, even in my day, by giving learners the name of the concept they need to understand and we wonder why writers reject foundational structures as a “rule”.

No critiquer ever told me that the reader needs to see the events play out for them to feel as much as possible. There is a point in which significant details can be told to them and it matters, but only once the world and story are both established. The emotional reaction the reader has to hearing the king is dead depends entirely on how well they knew the king or how much the King’s sudden death will impact the character.

It was such a major change for me. For almost a decade of my growth, I just realized other people were right when they said in all their various ways, the people and the events of the story matter more than even great world-building.

I’m including exposition, backstory and events that were conveyed through dialogue as much as description and info-dumping as world-building skills. In speculative work, this includes the speculative elements that must be as important to the story as pacing or conflict.

The story-building skills build up the events and character of the story. They include conflict, internal and external, tension, character development, theme, and point of view all building the story of the characters in the world.

These skills all have to work together. POV has to be on point when describing conflict the character can’t overcome unless something about the character, world or plot changes. External conflict guides the plot. Internal conflict guides the thematic question, the character development has to feel earned over the events of the story.

There’s a third category that has to do with writing skills. This is where all the imagery and foreshadowing go, but it also includes things like pacing. Writers like Dan Brown master this section.

Great work needs a combination of all three in various amounts. But a work that has a fantastic world and fast pace must do both exceptionally.

worldbuilding vs storybuilding skills

I used “static” to describe the foundational structures that build the world and the time the characters live in but I think “worldbuilding skills” works better. Static describes language that doesn’t need to interact with another aspect of craft the way conflict fuels character development which develops tension.

But worldbuilding skills include more than description. It also includes exposition and backstory, and telling. Exposition is what a character knows at the start of the story. Backstory tells us what has happened. Telling is needed when what has happened hasn’t happened in the “now” of the story. They all build the world, not the current events in it.

Storybuilding skills are the skills that craft the plot, theme and characters of the story. POV is allowing the character’s personality and emotional state impact how they see the world where description only describes objectively what the characer is “looking” at, how ever that is defined in the story.

Storybuilding is the engine that drives the story forward. It’s a character with a problem who acts on the solution to an outcome yet to be determined. It needs conflicts that drive character development one way or the other and a source of tension that is escalated and hopefully by the character’s actions. The pacing serves the story and a thematic resonance are all needed to make a fictional story memorable to a flesh and blood reader who has limited time and money to enjoy what they want to spend it doing.

External conflict guides the plot. Internal conflict guides the theme. The external conflict should cause the internal conflict to change in some fashion or stay in the same state meaningfully. A story doesn’t need to do all of it but the less growth in one section, the more the other two need to do to be on par with a story that can do all three well.

The biggest barrier to structural critique has always been the author not wanting or willing to consider changing anything but surface edits. It feels to me like the goal of critique has become to share finished work, not improve it.

Learning to world-build isn’t easy to do but learning the story-building skills is harder. Even work with huge universes focus on the stories of the characters that live in them. Without a story that matters to the reader, there is only nice description.

the dunning kruger effect, the illusion of control, and writers

I always thought taking money from writers was a particularly easy confidence game. Selling people what they want to buy is an easy, legitimate strategy, but the Dunning Kruger Effect takes a particular toll on writers. It leaves us vulnerable to less than ethical individuals.

Vanity presses sopped up tens of thousands of dollars with each of their emerald and sapphire package that promised the writer everything but the kitchen sink. It delivered boxes and boxes of unsellable books. “Publishers” like Commonweath Publishing in Edmonton and PublishAmerica in the States “bought” books from authors for pennies and held up their rights for years.

At least Commonweath went under quickly. PublishAmerica is now “American Star Books” and it’s been in business for more than two decades despite its less than sterling reputation.

The desire for the mind to fool itself is a wonder to behold. One of the forums I used to lurk on had an entire subforum dedicated to the American vanity publisher. Reading post after post of writers who either didn’t know to look for or had willingly ignored all the red flags and warnings about the “publisher” they were going to sign up was heartbreaking.

Some people would look at the number of personal stories all telling the same story and think there must be more than one sucker born every minute. But that would be a cruel assessment. Just knowing about the Dunning Kruger Effect doesn’t negate its effects. When asked to evaluate their own work, subjects aren’t likely to change their evaluation of their work even after learning that people tend to overvalue what they’ve done. The “average” person might be “fooled” by the effect, but the average person can’t think of themselves as an average person.

The biggest criticism of the effect is that people tend to think there are people susceptible to the Dunning Kruger Effect and people who are not, and every single person believes that they are not.

My classwork was a study in the illusion of control. As long as the class decided the highly competitive market only cares about the static foundational structures that describe what the character sees, says and knows, the program could teach to that ideal. Their methodology ignores all the other structures of fiction that create the dynamic elements of fiction that readers are moved by but the illusion of control is fuelled by magical thinking.

Publishamerica was so well known as a scam that warnings were plastered across the internet to the point where they had to change their name. They promised their authors an experience on par with being traditionally published and then were bombarded with high-pressure purchasing tactics that harnessed the power of FOMO by promising to send a copy of every book that sold a ridiculous amount of copies to Oprah Winfrey for her book club.

Did they? Why knows. Ms. Winfrey probably got tonnes of books submitted to her office on spec. But an author who submitted their life’s work to the first google search result may not understand what the requirements for the book club was and — more to the point — they want to believe their publisher isn’t lying to them.

Each letter by an author who was made older and wiser than before they gave their book away for a dollar. Every story was different but the level of betrayal was always the same.

For a Masters program to meet federal quality assurances, it must be at the forefront of academia and its profession. The University of British Columbia doesn’t have a pedagogical approach, which pisses on its academic requirements. It teaches students craft doesn’t even need to be learned, which pisses on writing as a profession.

But there are no red flags across the internet. Writers are told on the UBC website that they’ll be getting craft-based literary excellence in their instruction. The mission statement will promise them the program will be rigorously craft-based.

But the instruction they will get will be steeped in Dunning Kruger. Most students told their story through dialogue instead of showing the reader the world through the protagonist’s actions. It wasn’t seen as a mistake or it would have been a mistake for all of them.

Learning to show the reader the world takes practice.

The Chair, the Dean of Graduate Studies, a pedagogist, the Vice President of Academics, and the president didn’t see anything wrong with having a “pedagogy” that no one could explain on an academic level. it’s okay that their creative writing program was “taught” with a non-repeatable method the average learner couldn’t expect to learn from, having paid for their program.

It was fine because the evaluations told them students love giving up their long-term career goals for short-term ego buffing. As long excellent writers also take their program, they will continue to design their program to assume the learners will learn how to write meaningful work on their own. The UBC program only wants to teach polishing methods.

Instructors have a choice. They can teach what’s true or they can teach what has collectively been agreed as true. There’s a reason some Americans need to ban Critical Race Theory.

Creative writing instruction follows the exact same path. They can teach what’s true — most work needs revision and that revision is hard work— or they can teach what’s easy — writers should never sacrifice the structure of their first draft to craft a better reader’s experience.

The biggest lie most writers want to believe is we just need to be discovered. We already have the “telling great stories” down pat. But being discovered is an external process while learning how to write more meaningful stories that can be discovered is an internal one.

I remember how hot the humiliation had felt when I realized an agent out there was going to read the novel I’d just submitted and see it for the half-baked, unfinished work that it was. I had opened my manuscript to reassure myself that my novel was great after a seed of doubt had taken root that it wasn’t.

My novel wasn’t great at all. It would walk up to an amazing scene that — had I known how — would have shown the reader truly meaningful moments. Instead, I saw a clear pattern. If the scene had come to me like a filmed movie clip and all I had to do was transcribe what I “saw” the scene worked almost every time.

But the book only had moments of excellence. Most times, I’d walk up to that meaningful moment and then do everything I could to avoid the big moment itself. What I didn’t know how to show I told through dialogue. Complicated situations always had a simple solution that always avoided the complicated scene it would have taken to convey that moment honestly. I handwaved a lot of complications away.

Writers I respected told me 100s of times in 100s of different ways that significant moments almost always had to be shown to be felt. It took a tarot reading as a skeptic to finally hear it. I saw my manuscript only told what I couldn’t show yet.

Artistic vision is vital in crafting a better reader’s experience and yet the two concepts are taught as mutually exclusive. Any structural change to a first draft would make it worse is the worst thing an instructor can teach. But it was my program’s top secret pedagogy they hid from me until after all my coursework was done.