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Learning techniques may not work for learners inside MFAs and out

My MFA is in talking about polishing techniques for stories that still mostly needed to figure out how conflict can be used internally and externally to create plot complications. I honestly thought the UBC just didn’t understand it wasn’t teaching anything.

Imagine my surprise when educational professionals honestly couldn’t tell the difference between a program that has set learning objectives and a program that was based purely on class participation. Looking back, the fact that 70% of the class mark came from the participation in it should have been a red flag.

We learned that if the author intended the first draft to be entirely made up of exposition, dialogue, and description, it ought to be. If the prose was nice, it was as good as a story as a rare work that showed a character attempting to change their fate in a work with thematic resonance that left the reader with a meaningful memory for having read it. Those two stories and those two writers were treated exactly the same.

Only one was written by someone who could use their craft to write a work with a character’s whose world felt lived in and whose choices mattered. The other was a story where the characters talked about their problems to other characters a lot.

It’s that first writer who can watch a Brandon Sanderson video about using setting to manipulate plot and character problems and think, “Okay. I see how that works.” They already knew how to create realistic settings in the most fantastical of places and they know how to manipulate character and plot. Figuring out how the two aspects can interplay is the only new thing learned.

The second writer, who can only record what the character sees, says and does, listens to the same video has one of two possibilities. If they’re lucky, they’ll nod along because of course, their writing does that already. When I read Writing the Breakout Novel, I genuinely thought I was doing everything Donald Maass talked about. Seven years later, I reread the book again and realized I didn’t know how to do any of it.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a powerful one. If that first writer honestly believes they’re already writing setting and character choices well, listening to Sanderson will only confirm their confirmation bias no matter how far their writing is from the Sanderson Ideal prose

It’s the writers that still struggle with the character’s actions to do what the author wants instead of what just happens on the page that are harmed the most when they’re told there’s an ideal way to write anything. They didn’t know how to manipulate choices but now they know that the setting should have an impact on what they already couldn’t do. Instead of giving them something to help them thread the needle better, the technique made the hole smaller and the thread thicker.

At best, techniques confirm the confirmation bias in the writer who still needs to learn. They think they’re already doing whatever is being shared because all they can do is filter the new information through the limited knowledge base. Techniques are refined knowledge, not shortcuts. Without knowing *how* to deliberately manipulate the text, learning how to manipulate plot, character and setting in a way that builds something bigger is even more difficult.

When the writer’s confirmation bias is confirmed, they write with confidence and that confidence occasionally pays off. A writer who is afraid of doing something wrong may never be able to accidentally do it right again.

Between MFAs not even trying to teach learners how to climb mountains if they weren’t already near-professional mountain climbers themselves and professional writers only sharing how to get up the last 5% of the peak, we’ve lost the ability to teach writing to learners who still need to learn.

There is no good answer to the question, “how do I write _____?” The only question writers who still need to learn the fundamentals should be asking is “How would I write _______?”

Aiming the story at the central theme in the rewrite using Robert J. Sawyer’s timeless thematic advice

I finished Kakotopia.prime yesterday. I started it in mid-October and finished it in mid-December and I couldn’t be happier with it. But I’m going to have to change a lot of it in the rewrite.

As soon as I finished it, I realized the central character didn’t solve the final issue with the growth that he’d learned over the course of the book. It’s an easy change to fix, but I’ll have to go back and change the outcome of one discussion that they had with another character that showed the growth prematurely. I may even try to swing a decision that goes south when he tries to make himself believe what he needs to believe by the end of the book in order to walk out of the room alive. The lingering doubt the first time has to make the situation worse.

Theme isn’t the moral of the story, it’s the compass. I learned that in an evening session I wasn’t even planning to go because it was a workday and I’d barely gotten finished in time. I don’t even think I ate dinner that night. The Sentry Box was only ten or so blocks from our apartment but they were ten blocks down one-way streets and some underpasses that only needed a Balrog to be scarier. But I was there that night for some reason and when Rob explained theme as the thing the character should to be against it that changed everything for me.

I learned it at a time in my writing career where I was starting to be able to show the reader what I wanted them to see and not just tell them all the cool things that had happened when the protag had just stepped out of the room/scene for a while. I’d been practicing showing the reader exactly what they needed to see for two years at that point but still hadn’t managed to write a story that was more than a character that did stuff. When I was breaking the rules, at least occasionally I’d managed to hit a story out of the park with raw talent and mute luck.

But even with that brilliant advice I’m sure a lot of writers could just write too, I still found it difficult to write to a theme I’d picked out for the story. I’m too much of a pantser to think that far ahead. But Steven King in On Writing talks about writing without a theme in mind only to pluck out what resonates from the text after the first draft is finished.

I use a combination of the two. Kakotopia’s central theme is not to serve power structures that don’t serve you when you have the freedom to resist no matter how deeply they’re disguised as cultural norms. It starts with a rigid code the character can’t break out of to being able to walk out of a room with his head held high where anyone with his history would have had to willingly die in on principle or have the decision he had to make break them.

But that theme only came to me after the work was over. I have to rewrite everything I do. My non-neurotypical brain thinks in perpetually run-on sentences and they scan as correct to me. With the fact I’m thinking two sentences ahead while typing the current one, words get missed. Verb tenses (much like House of Pain) jump around. But that’s just at the sentence level. My beginnings speed up in the rewrite. Things I only vaguely understood can be two-by-fourshadowed. I can echo past decisions in earlier ones so that when the right decision is made, it’s made on hard-earned knowledge. I can make everything that mattered in the first draft matter so much more in the second.

People ask me why I care so much about how bad my university as at teaching creative writing. It’s because they denied any graduate the ability to even think their prose may need to be rewritten because if their MFA tells them their work is perfect, they’re going to believe it (to borrow Taylor Swift’s Fifteen’s central premise.)

I gave up chess when it became less and less likely my Queen could sweep across the board like an avenging angel (or a weeping one) while I was playing against people who cheated by studied strategies. It took me ten years to learn how to make characters do the same thing and ten more to have that sweep matter on a thematic movement. There are a lot of sweeping attacks in this piece and I love each and every one of them.

And I look forward to tearing them apart and making them even sweepier.

They’re not rules. They’re structural considerations

There’s a lot of signal-to-noise ratio when it comes to what the pros say about story structure and what the amateur hears them say. Allow this system to remain unchallenged long enough and MFAs start teaching the noise and not the structure.

Show don’t tell for example is the prime directive of writing, but it’s just the title of the directive. Show don’t tell *means* show the reader what they need to understand about the world, character and plot developments.

In contrast, telling is a quick tool to finesse moving quickly from something that doesn’t matter to something that does. There could be times in any work when telling will be the most effective, most meaningful moment in the book but that comes well after the reader knows the world, the character and the plot. “The King is dead.” has a lot more resonance in Chapter 31 than it would in Chapter 1 when the reader is still thinking “Who he?”

So yes. There are no rules. But no, there are no shortcuts either. Structural functions of storytelling all maximize the chances that when your reader needs to care about what happens next, they will. That has absolutely no guarantee of happening because a character is just moving through a fictional world. The character has to move through the world and that movement has to matter to the reader.

And yet, go to any current critique circle and there’s a very good chance what’s being taught is “It’s okay to tell if you tell very well.”

In my MFA, there wasn’t a falsehood I believed as a writer who still needed to learn how to control the narrative in my fiction that wasn’t confirmed by the program. I, too, believed conflict was, at best optional when I couldn’t manipulate events to get in the way of my character getting what they wanted. If it didn’t naturally occur in the first draft, it somehow was never, ever needed. I believed this no matter how many times I was told that if I learned to manipulate the conflict, I’d always have a much stronger story for it.

There will always be fantastic work that is the exception to any rule. But just naming the exception is not teaching the author how to break that rule successfully themselves. For that learning to happen, one would have to break down *by the beat* how the exception pulled off the rule-breaking. Then, the learner would have to understand how that one exception manipulated the story structure to overcome the lack of it. How they’d learn to bend the same structure is up to them with that knowledge.

World War Z is a brilliant example of a told story through a pseudo-epistolary structure. The quick cuts back and forth between human beings forced to live through a global event through the lens of their country’s different responses to the zom-demic is brilliantly done. Epistolary novels suffer from the emotionally distancing fact that if the character is writing about the events, they survived them. World War Z establishes a world where surviving could have been the worst of all evils.

Does that mean every epistolary novel can overcome the challenges of the emotional distance between the events, the protagonist and the reader? Hell no. World War Z should be treated as the bar that needs to be beaten not the key that unlocks a lock.

Beware of anyone who tells you that if **brilliant example** can do it, you can, too. If they can’t teach you how to do it yourself, they’re not teaching you anything.

Setup Pays Off

Last night, I sat down and wrote a small scene. In it, the character needed a beat that said not only he knew where the character was being locked up, he knew who the character was with so the first character definitely had insider’s knowledge.

And I didn’t know who he was with at the time. I actually put ______ as a placeholder because I’d have to think about who would be significant in the story to be there that I’d already established, because, at 85k, Thou Shalt Not Introduce a New Character Who Only Matters for just this Story Alone. If I could think of anyone by Monday’s writing, I could delete the line as much as it would pain me.

I don’t outline. I can’t. If I outline a story from start to finish, I’ve already told it and I’m bored when I sit down to write it. But I take a sack of setup and spread it think and heavy over the beginning and just see what grows in it that I can harvest later. I don’t need to know why something is significant and I don’t know when I write something that doesn’t feel significant at the time that it’s going to be a load-bearing wall in the second half. I just write a character trying to solve their problems as the events they live through make matters worse.

All I need to start a story is a character with an interesting voice and a problem. Everything else that happens in the story, the character and I figure out together and then I go back and edit what happened is a clear path from the beginning while also making sure the characters at the start of the book are the characters at the end of the book minus all the character growth they’ve suffered through.

I write to snooker myself in the part of the day I’m not physically typing. I don’t know what’s in the bag the character finds. I don’t know why the two characters who didn’t know each other exchanged significant glances. I don’t even know what the antagonistic force wants in the story until I’m usually a third of the way through it at least.

I write to find out what happens. It’s a blast, even if each time I do it, I wonder if this is the time I’ll have to go back and delete there being a bag at all. But then all I need to do is brush my teeth and I know, obviously, it’s a sterilization unit with a sample from X in it. What else could it be?

Writing to engage the reader vs. writing to impress them

In the same way that I’m not sure who told writers starting out that writing a conventional story is so simple there is really no need to practice the conventions that make them up, it confuses me who told writers starting out that the thing that impresses readers is impressive prose.

Impressive prose in an impressive story that takes a character on a journey to the end of the story that delivers a story that gives the reader an enriching experience for having spent the time in the world is impressive. If the only impressive thing about the story is the prose itself, however, I’ve always wondered what emotional experience the author hopes the reader will leave their story with. Even if the prose is impressive in isolation, being impressed by a story’s prose isn’t the same thing as being moved by it.

While I saw a lot of this “impressive” prose in stories that were aimed at pleasing writing instructors during my degree, I see it in genre work all the time, too. Stories full of characters pontificating at each other, descriptions that have some truly inspired lines but not a character with a problem that lives in the world it paints, and exposition that would have told an excellent story had those events been what the story followed instead of the follow-up the events caused.

It took me a lot of years not to hear what I shouldn’t do as a writer and not open a can of beer so someone could hold it. It took me a lot of years to realize that the amount of effort required to write a story that’s only dialogue but still delivers to the reader the engaging experience that would fill the void of a character trying to change their fate could be used elsewhere to tell better stories. I’d have to do multiple revisions to ensure the structure of a story told through dialogue is not repetitive to the reader.

And that was before I realized that even if I pull the story off perfectly, it still has to compete with all the other perfectly told stories by industry professionals. If I’d known that, I’d put the beer back in the fridge.

Only the very best of the wittiest banter can carry a story where the character isn’t presented with or requires any opportunity to change. If that still makes a writer want to find someone to hold their alcoholic beverage, I’d like for them to consider what good witty banter can do to a story with a character who has to overcome what’s holding them back from what they have to do.

The DNA of Conflict in Speculative Fiction

You’d think from the way I talk about the teaching of creative writing that I believe the solution to writers who have the skill to bend the rules teaching writers who don’t have the skill to bend the rules that they, too, have the skills to bend the rules that the solution would be, teach the rules better. The fact that some writers in that group are good enough to bend the rules (and become teachers too) doesn’t change the fact that the only learning involved in teaching learners that exceptions disprove the need for structure is that most learners learn they don’t even need to learn what isn’t needed in the first place.

But the solution is not to teach the rules better. I joined the writing community in a time where everyone taught the rules better, and I didn’t learn a darn thing until I was ready to hear I needed to learn them. Thanks to twenty years of intuitive instructors teaching concrete learners how to learn like they did, every writer thinks following “the rules” can’t possibly help their story, no matter how much just showing the reader what they need to understand will help the story unfold organically instead of just being linking sections of description, exposition and dialogue.

Is it possible to write great stories that are just description, exposition and dialogue? Of course. Is it easy? Of course not. Is it easier than just setting a character at a moment in their life where if they don’t change, they can’t grow? Of course not. Is it a highly competitive field filled with the very best writers who are very good at writing description, exposition and dialogue in a way that almost does as much work as a character wanting to change something they don’t like about themselves, their world or their path in life then sets out to do so?

Absolutely, yes.

There are so many different aspects in a character’s life that conflict can come from. Character versus themselves, a time limit, a deeply held belief, the environment, other characters and the speculative nature of the story itself are the asparagine, glutamine, histidine, lysine, proline, and threonine of speculative work. Yet I’ve read thousands of stories in my life in my MFA program and out that had a character who never has any doubt that they’ll succeed at the thing they’re doing succeeds at the thing they’re doing. If a character starts with a problem that they don’t have a doubt in their mind they can’t beat or even have a realistic chance of failing, where’s the conflict? If an unpleasant thing happens to an unpleasant protagonist, who feels the schadenfreude? If the character never had a chance to escape or change their fate, what other feeling is the reader supposed to have but a feeling of inevitability?

All those stories can be done well. But they have to be done extremely well to even compete with the already large group of writers who can all tell a story on rails very well. And all to fill the absence created in a story that doesn’t have a character the reader can invest their time in to see if their best efforts are good enough to overcome the challenge they’re facing where failure feels like a real option. If there’s no doubt they will succeed or fail from the start of the story, where does the tension come from?

The rules of writing are dead. It’s time we start respecting the ingredients of a good story enough to learn how to use them effectively each time, every time. I get that there’s a feeling in the writing community that thinks conventional stories are easy and that true art exists in the unconventional. And again, I’m not arguing the concept.

But a learner can learn how to write a conventional story. They have to teach themselves how to write an unconventional one. A child has to teach themselves to self-ambulate before can try to learn how to fly and there’s nothing easy about learning to self-propel your body through space for the first time in all the different ground-based gaits. Not even trying to learn the foundations of the crawl, walk and run before trying to throw oneself onto the ground and missing seems like the absolute worst way of trying to learn how to do anything.

So forget the rules. Learn the ingredients. And conflict is the egg of the story. It provides the easiest form of structure but there are ways to work around their lack. I can teach you how to cook the best French souffle possible and even if it doesn’t work, you’ll still have yummy cheesy eggs. If you want to learn how to bake an eggless souffle, though, you start by studying the techniques while you practice the steps multiple times or be willing to fail until your end result is an eggless souffle.

Changeling is back in print!

If there’s a book I can point to and say, this one, this is where things all started to hit in the story where I wanted them to instead of where they randomly alighted in my prose, it would be Changeling. The story came to me in a single scene that unfolded in a bus crossing a mountain pass in the middle of a snowstorm and ended up with Kevin and Matt and Sam.

Kevin and Matt’s story really swept me up into it. Matt had so many broken pieces in him that he managed to rebuild the shape of but not the strength of its original part and Kevin could not fix him unless Matt is ready to start fixing himself.

He’s a character who needs to stop running to heal but his hounds are always right on his heels. If there’s a story I’ve written that takes a character from where they were to where they are that I can be proud of, this is it.

And I’ve got two Christmas novellas coming back out in the next few weeks, too, Black Shades and Old Traditions. Stay tuned!

Buy from Amazon.caAmazon.comSmashwords

Read an excerpt

Show don’t tell. (Or compete in a very busy field of writers who can all tell really well.)

I’ve heard a lot of protests from inexperienced writers about how non-essential the rules were if you meant to break them in the first place. In over half of them, I was the one protesting. Yet, looking back, the only rule that most inexperienced writers will die on a hill for is not needing to show the reader what the reader needs to see play out for them to understand who the character is at a more complex level than who they understand themselves to be, even if they think they’re being honest with themselves.

To remember just how important it is to show the reader what matters so they’re a witness in the character’s growth as it happens and not a passive observer following what the character learns through dialogue, libraries and their analogues and the intuitive knowledge the character had before the start of the story. We use a shorthand squiggle that all writers know as “show don’t tell”.

In all the years I’ve spent my own money learning how to write by attending writing conferences and the occasional workshop, I’ve never heard a professional writer tell me “show don’t tell, unless you tell it really well, in which case, telling is fine.” I only heard the last section when I was a very inexperienced writer but I heard it loud and clear. I was shocked to find out that my MFA program teaches the excuse I gave myself not to learn how to show as a valid critique to writers still starting out.

Showing the reader what’s happening as it’s happening is the easiest way of telling a story. Telling a story instead of showing it is much more difficult to do and it involves a lot more finesse than just telling the reader what’s happening instead of showing them it.

Okay, says the skeptic. But I’ve spent *years* practicing how *I* tell. The techniques I use to tell my readers what they need to know are fantastic. I want to tell this writer just how many good stories I’ve read in the slush that through hook or by crook, needed to be told through telling. Many, many, many writers have practiced telling stories so well they’re almost as good as a story that is shown by a less experienced writer. I can have my pick of well-told stories about conversations the character has had.

What is far less common are stories shown through characters living through the build-up of tension in a situation that matters, surviving climax the best way they can and live through the consequences of their choices moves me, whether the character’s efforts to change their fate were successful or not. A character talking to other characters about something that only impacts them tangentially would have to be an exquisite story to even come close to the same emotional payout.

It took six years of being told “show this” to hear “it’s important you show this because your character and your reader need to experience this important event together so the reader can understand the world/character/problem at a greater level than just as a past event that happened.”

I just heard “here is a rule” and I broke the rules on purpose. I didn’t know “a character should have a name” is a rule and “show your story, don’t just tell the important parts of it” is how you write. I thought I was being transgressive when I told the events of the big fight through finding a half-dead survivor luckily found before the ravens took their still shiny eyes on the battlefield. Showing a big battle where the character would have to be in it and survive it was too daunting. Showing anything I didn’t automatically know how to show it was.

There is a time in your story where the exhausted general/best man drags himself into the war room/bridal suite and tells the table that the king/groom is dead and it will crack like thunder across the page. But if most of the information conveyed in the story is conveyed through dialogue, what’s told will have no added meaning at all.

And we in the audience of those conference would lean back after we were assured that there are no rules because everything they said before assuring us sounded really hard. The way we avoided not showing the complex scenes that remain with the reader long after the book was put down was fine. The pros just said so.

I sold six stories in the years between hearing that there were no rules and realizing the rules were the scaffolding needed to tell bigger stories than I could imagine without them. I wrote dozens and dozens in the same time frame that tried equally important rule-breaking in which none of them are even worth remembering at this point. If I was told that threading a needle is hard but threading a needle on the wing of plane is harder, I’d rent be renting a plane to practice. Even if I didn’t need a threaded needle. When I heard a character needed to be empathetic, I developed a taste for beer so someone could hold mine.

But…I never could write an unempathetic main character that worked. I tried and tried but it became clear that if a reader is supposed to care about a character enough to want to read on to find out what happens, the level of story necessary to make a reader want to continue reading even after they do the **unjustifiably** unthinkable was outside of my ability no matter how much I wanted an unempathetic main character to work.

Any character can be driven to do the unthinkable. It takes a spectacular amount of talent to write a story in which the character drives themselves to that point, does the unthinkable, and still has the reader’s empathy for having done it. Visual media has a little more leeway when it comes to characters like that because viewers are passive. Readers have to be in the mind of a person who not only conceives of what can’t be justified, but does it. It’s a different level of emotional investment if those actions are done by the protagonist.

Even remembering Nicolas’ Cage’s acting at the end of 8mm chills me to the bone. I can’t remember if he beat the bad guy to death with his bare hands or if he used something like a rock. I will never forget how he kept beating the man long after the rage died out. His character was driven from an everyman to a man who kept killing when the rage was gone because of the consequences of his actions. He might have won, he’ll have to live with who he became to do so for the rest of his life.

In a work of fiction, shooting the man who shot your dog can work. The reader should understand how a character would feel doing so, even if it’s not what they would have done. But shooting the dog-murderer after time has passed and the character had space to move on from it? Empathy gets more questionable. If the character rounds up the family of the man that shot their dog and sets the church he locked them in on fire and while cutting his eyelids off so he’d be forced to see it burn? Nope. Ten steps too far. Poe has walled up that story years ago.

It wasn’t the first rule I understood because I’d tried to break it and couldn’t. At the age of 11, I realized it was too difficult for me to try to write a story about a wild horse because what they always wanted to do was always so obvious and giving them human consciousness didn’t feel real enough for me. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying 11-year old me couldn’t do it so she moved on to telling ghost stories in which the ghost was the main character — only to learn her 12-year old self couldn’t write stories in which the protagonist couldn’t affect change in the “now” of the story and they weren’t a ghost in their time. Then she wrote about a talking white horse and a magic sword that foretold of the return of the king and was quite pleased she’d been so inventive.

Until she read Mercedes Lackey and Tolkein for the first time.

Show don’t tell is more fundamental than a character staying within the actions of what the reader could understand being done. Showing the reader the events of the story as perceived by a character is how we tell stories. If the author can’t show the character actively moving the character through the story through the choices they make, they can’t make those choices matter in ways that change the character in ways that echo the theme of the piece. Studying craft is how to learn how to better show the reader what they need to understand to be moved by the work.

I realized during my MFA that while we argued over breaking the rules practically every week, I can only remember a few times where the rule broken meant that I thought the character wasn’t empathetic enough for the reader to care what happens to them or if the character remained unchallenged and unchanged throughout the story.

The vast majority of arguing over the rules in my MFA and outside of it was over the simple fact that had author (including me) shown the reader what the characters talked about, thought about, or already knew going into the story, it would be a more engaging story for the change and the author arguing that they chose not to write a more engaging story on purpose.

It doesn’t matter that some writers can actually tell well enough that they don’t need to show what happens. What matters is that in a slush pile, I can tell you that most of the stories are going to be told through characters going places and talking to people. If you want your story to stand out, write a story about a character needing to change their fate because it matters to them. I can choose from the best of the best of all the perfectly polished stories told through characters learning what happened after it’s already happened. But a character who is in the thick of the changing events is a story I want to work with to make it the best story it can be.

Genderqueers and those who love them — also benefits to writing in isolation

Surviving a bad childhood is hard enough. Letting go of it is even harder. Black Shades is a sweet and bittersweet retelling of A Christmas Carol. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon. It’s the second story of my Past and Present Tense series about a genderqueer, the ghost of one, and the man who loves them both. The first book in the series, Red Lettering, is a Halloween story with hints of a vanishing hitchhiker theme, and is available now.

My darling wife of twenty years spent some of her time reformating and making new covers so that my old Angela Fiddler stuff could see the light of day. I really think one of the big reasons why I was able to go from the writer I was to the writer I am is down to the fact that I’ve had two solid chunks of time in my life where the only person who read my stuff was me and (for the second chunk of time) an editor who had already bought the work.

The first chunk of uninterrupted time came down to my age and dumb luck. I was from a small town that physically isolated me from the writing groups that only had the population to support themselves in larger centres. Not getting an internet connection until I was in university kept me from the online community, either. I didn’t even know where I could have joined a critique group until 1998 and I was already back from teaching in Japan.

So I just wrote constantly from the ages of 11 to 24. My sixth-grade year was the year I realized just how bored I was in class, so having two notebooks open — one for the notes I thought I’d need to write down to remember in class and a novel on the go in the other — got me through to earning my B.Ed.

My classwork

notes

read like

an

e.e.

cum

mings

poem.

and my stories were only slightly less cohesive but the one thing I taught myself to do was how reliably to get a character from the start of the story to the end of it by doing things and stuff. So when I got to the critique group, it took me four years to be able to hear the knowledge behind what I was being told and not just something the critiquer *clearly* didn’t understand I meant to do it that way.

So by the time I understood that there are no shortcuts in writing. That critique groups are great for teaching people to recognize issues and know how to solve them in the theoretical, there’s a huge gap of skills between knowing a character needed to be more empathetic if they wanted the reader to care what happens to them and knowing the steps needed to edit the prose so that the choices the character makes *shows* that they may not be the best character in the world, but at least they’re trying, eh?

My support-panther wife had gotten a job in Lethbridge and though I knew I was probably not going to get any training instructor gigs down here, I went with her because she needed to be a librarian in a public library and not one works who in a school or in a corporate office downtown. I just sold my first erotica novel before we moved so my time in Lethbridge was invaluable to again, just write.

Getting critiqued has always been a traumatic experience for me. I don’t blame the UBC for trying to minimize the experience for their learners, but the solution isn’t avoiding teaching any craft at all. But I heard every point I was told. Having the freedom from critique reminded me of the freedom I’d felt as a child where anything at all could happen in a story.

Even if all I could write back then were characters going to where the anything that could have happened already did and they learned of it just through dialogue. People who tell new writers that not everything needs to be shown either forget just how hard it was to learn how to show what was important as it happened, live, in front of the character who should be a part of the action.

It is true that not everything needs to be shown. I found after I show the reader everything about the world for the first 50k of the novel, when I tell them something through dialogue I know they’re imagining how I would have shown these characters doing the things they’re talking about because they know the characters and how they would have acted.

Using that same technique in the start of a story leaves that exact same moment in a well-shown world incredibly flat. It’s just telling the reader what an unknown to them character had done in the past. So yes. Bridging scenes can just tell the reader exactly what they need to know to move the characters from where they are to where they need to be.

But when we tell newbie writers that sometimes telling is just fine, what they hear is telling is just fine from the start. And MFA instructors now agree with the person trying to learn how to write that if they meant to break the rule on purpose, then the work is just fine even if it detracts from the author’s ability to show the reader why they should invest their time into learning what happens to this character in particular out of the thousands of possible things they could be doing with their free time and spending money.

explaining things vs. aiming the story at finding out why

I read a lot of work from writers who live in fear of the reader not understanding what is happening, so they bog down the beginning of their work to explain everything before the action starts. It doesn’t trust the reader who is willing to read on and find out why things are happening the way things are.

And yet, in my writing today, I’d just given the protagonist an excellent reason to be even less trustful of a person they hardly trusted at all. Still, I felt the need to stop the plot and explain why the character especially does not like the antagonist.

And then I stopped, went back, and deleted that explanation. The character can learn it on the page as a sorry-you-didn’t-get-what-you-wanted-but-you-got-what-you-needed-instead moment that snatches victory from the upper esophageal sphincter of defeat.

I keep thinking how this is why

NO BACKSTORY FOR THE FIRST THIRTY PAGES — Donald Mass

is so important. If it’s backstory, the characters already know it, and you don’t need to tell the reader why the characters are the way they are while you’re still showing them who the character is now. But also, backstory is what is already known by the character, and it is almost always told through exposition. What the character doesn’t know, however, is what drives the story forward. The character must find out what they don’t know or pay the cost of their ignorance.

If the characters already know everything, then the only tension in the piece will they pull it off. And let’s be honest. They’re probably going to pull it off.