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writing takes more than grit today

When I worked in Korea, one of my gigs was working for Volvo. The joke was the senior administrators spoke Swedish and the workers all spoke Korean, so they were all equally disadvantaged in English. I never met the guy, but one engineer was a legend for all the wrong reasons. He was the smartest of any of them, in any room he was in but Volvo had decided that all workers must be bilingual to work for them.

The company did everything it could. They gave him private lessons until he choked on them and finally shipped him off to England for six months just so he could learn English in a fully immersive environment. It wasn’t as though the engineer didn’t try. Despite being a brilliant engineer, he just didn’t have the capacity to learn a second language through any of the methods that were tried, and he was let go.

Intelligence is a separate thing from the capacity to learn complex systems.

I noticed in my twenty-five years of moving in my writerly circles that only the brilliant people were consistently brilliant writers. Most of the writers I know are highly intelligent people. Writers draw from a population who have something to say and the willpower to keep trying to say it for years and Intelligence and divergent thinking are linked.

Creativity is a combination of natural talent, developed skills, and practiced, divergent thinking. When I was a public school teacher, I found that even on days where I managed to have time to write after all my obligations were finished, I had very little to say. I used to think my creative well that had run dry. It was just creative decision fatigue. Being creative in my teaching made it difficult to be creative in my writing.

Angela Ducksworth, in Grit, talks about what happens when kids entered a structured learning environment. They learn pretty quickly that their mistakes should create fear, shame, and embarrassment. Having learned that, the learner’s ability to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after making a mistake diminishes greatly. Every kindergartner can sing, dance, and draw. By high school, only those who deliberately practiced those activities think they can say they can.

If three words perfectly encapsulated my first public critique after years of non-deliberate practice, fear, shame and embarrassment would be them. I stopped writing to make my story 20% cooler at every decision and started to write so that I wouldn’t feel fear, shame or embarrassment again.

But again, going back to Grit, I didn’t have the ability yet to modify the length of shocks the critiques simulated. That would have required the craft necessary to hear what my critiquers were saying, take them in as genuine suggestions, and have the ability to make changes in the text to incorporate their suggestions.

And I couldn’t do that yet. It wasn’t until my perspective on critiques did a 900-degree turn that I realized I couldn’t even recognize my own errors yet. Someone said they only critiqued to get their stuff critiqued and I realized that wasn’t the benefit of critiques at all. The benefit came from reading work on par with mine, but with no emotional attachment to the world or characters. I went from only critiquing so that my stuff would be critiqued to getting my stuff critiqued so I could critique other people’s work.

I never turned down an opportunity to critique from that point on. I beta’ed enough unpublished novels over the years to see common patterns emerging, regardless of the genre, theme, or level of writing skill. Like a juvenile rat allowed to shorten its own suffering by pushing a button when the shocks came, I learned how to hear what was being said in the nature it was being said in. Once I knew how to fix the parts that still needed work, it didn’t sting as much.

It just took learning how to manipulate a complex system without any external verification that what I learned was correct but for evaluating the results the new method produced. To do so took a mindset I’d cultivated from childhood to always take into consideration I might be wrong about anything until I could prove I wasn’t.

It took having a horse that taught me that thousands of hours of prolonged, deliberate action could pay off, even if it took a very long run. It took realizing I could pay attention in class if I paid attention and wrote at the same time. It took realizing my intelligence had always allowed me to understand complex thoughts quickly, but that couldn’t help me if I wanted to learn a complex system, like learning a second language as an adult learner.

Because, unlike my poor Korean engineer example, within six months of living in an immersive environment, I became a chatterbox. The joy on people’s faces when I at least attempted to speak to them was all the extrinsic reward I needed.

But I still pretended I didn’t speak a word of it when every other woman in the office was out for some reason, and my boss’s boss’s boss and his boss were trying to figure out how to make tea. When they insisted I do it because I was the only woman in the office, I said very loudly in English that my translator would be back in an hour.

When she got back and they told her she had to teach me Japanese, she told them I already spoke it. The two elderly gentlemen who ran our town found it absolutely hilarious and brought me a cup of tea and sweets.

the illusion of false conflict

A scientific theory is a theory not yet disproven. It doesn’t mean it’s true, it means so far, it’s the best guess because no one can prove it isn’t. Conflict in storytelling is whatever interferes with what your character is trying to do.

My MFA allowed me to hear a lot of students’ honest objections to craft talk without having the authority of an instructor that might have influenced their response. When I said to one of my classmates that their story needed conflict, they said they didn’t want to fill up their story with arguing.

And the general consensus of the class agreed. If I had been the instructor, I would have loved to have been able to dive down and figure out why they all thought that. It is one problem if a learner only understands conflict to mean interpersonal conflict between characters. It is another if they rely too heavily on dialogue to progress the plot so when they hear “conflict” they can only think of arguments.

Learners can get the right answer for the wrong reason or the wrong answer despite the correct thinking. It’s why assessments insist on the “show your work” part.

But then there’s a false conflict that the author inserts just to show how competent a fighter or killer the character is. It’s the story when a powerful protagonist gets their plot orders, but before they can leave the city/spaceport/place of ill-repute, ruffians attack.

And there is much fighting.

But if in a setting where the character gets set on by bands of ruffians as part of their job, then dispatching the army of ruffians that show up before the actual plot starts is just same old same old to the protagonist.

If the character is not worried they are going to lose, as a reader, I have no reason to be concerned that they might not. Fighting in visual media has the benefit of the talented fight choreographers who spent years making the moves visually appealing.

In prose, however, written from a Point of View of a character that isn’t worried about their own safety, a fight is no big thing. The fact that it could be done well doesn’t mean that most people could do it. If the protagonist views fighting as part of their job, it takes a lot of skill not to make it feel like they are just making copies.

Conflict isn’t what the character overcomes on their way to the next plot point. It is what stops them on their journey. A killer/fighter finding a purpose that makes not surviving the next fight untenable is conflict.

False conflict that has no ability to hinder the character might look like conflict but it isn’t.

recipes are not formulas

If there’s one word that will cause the average underpublished writer to wither as though salted, it’s formulaic. The idea of adding artificial structure to their work when they didn’t intend to use any is inconceivable.

A tiny percentage of the writers will be right for many reasons. Either the story is perfect as it is, unstructured as it is. It may be written for a non-colonial readership. A work may even defy any ability to identify what it is or how it pulled off. But proper facilitation is always required in any group setting. It is the facilitator’s job to turn any attempt to force structure into a work that doesn’t need it into a learning opportunity.

The argument that the workshop can’t help work not meant for the filthy commercial genres creates the assumption, however, that non-colonial stories can’t be improved on by meaningful instruction. It certainly implies that there is no room in filthy commercial work for stories that don’t use colonial storytelling structure to engage the reader.

Any story can be made more significant with a meaningful attempt to do so.

The problem is again, though, that everyone on the mountain is listening. “Some work doesn’t require foundational structures to improve it” is too often heard as “my YA Dystopian Novel doesn’t require foundational structures to work.”

Foundational structures are not formulaic. They’re the recipe ingredients. How a writer uses conflict and tension, meaningful character change or the lack thereof to create fiction their ideal reader wants to read has no limitations.

Learning to cook is hard. It’s time management, kitchen safety, ingredient handling and knowing how to apply heat and cold to things in the right order so that they taste good and are both nice to chew and least likely to kill us. A novice chef will struggle with a souffle/tension years after they already have the basic knowledge to serve up a nice meal regularly.

Using tension is hard enough. Trying to use tension without using conflict to drive it requires molecular gastronomy levels of difficulty and accuracy that takes practice to get it right even with very clear directions. Trying to use tension without conflict without understanding how to manipulate either is like trying to create a stable, room-temperature foam while blindfolded and handcuffed.

successful writers’ privileges invisible or otherwise

EXTREME CLOSE UP!!!!

In my illustration from the teaching from the summit post, only the instructor has the proper pickax and boots. But only a handful of learners on the mountain have access to the same privileges successful writers tend to have.

Obviously, race, gender, LBGT issues and class are issues that cannot be ignored. And ableism, of course, It’s a privilege still so invisible that I forgot it, despite being a chronic pain sufferer from an extremely well-spent youth getting thrown off of very fast-moving objects. Dopamine. You get it where you find it.

My non-neurotypical ADHD brain with its severe lack of executive function will tell you it was exhausting to not be able to do anything. I carried everything I couldn’t force myself to do like a litany in my head until sheer terror forced me to act.

The executive function lost to unhealed and unresolved trauma in a person’s life can be equally soul-scattering.

Attending a weekend writing conference is only a weekend writing conference for workers who work M-F. If they want to attend during the day on Friday, they need a job they can take off for their publishing dreams. Otherwise, it means requesting two of the busiest days that most businesses have and burning holidays.

Conferences mean having the physical ability to sit and listen to people talking without causing a fuss. It’s having reliable and trustworthy childcare or a spouse willing to tend to the household needs and children for a weekend while the writer is absorbing new information or networking. It means transport to and from the conference centre. Major cons are held in downtown locations of major cities that might have to be travelled to, first. It means having the energy after a full week of work to actively pay attention. It’s being able to afford the time off, if it’s unpaid, or not being stressed over how rent or groceries get paid.

I can only speak from the queer perspective, but it’s being in the middle of having a professional conversation with someone you respect and having their unexamined bias just pop out in front of you. I’ve been told — as the majority opinion by writers I’ve always respected before 2004-5ish — that queer characters should only be queer if it’s a queer story about being queer. But it eventually went from an opinion most straight writers had to opinions half of them did to an opinion only a writer who has never examined an opinion they’ve gripped with their closed mind would have. Everyone else hushes like they’ve just never heard such a thing.

It was amazingly adorable to watch. But I’ve heard worse opinions than that shared as common, accepted ones. Writing groups are not quite a safe place, but it looks like one.

There are far too many unexamined biases held by people in positions of power to assume it could be one soon.

Having the time to put 10,000 hours of dedicated practice into any skill on top of the hours needed to sleep, work, family and social relationships is an incredible privilege. Dedicated practice requires solid concentration. Having the time can’t help if the writer doesn’t have the mental energy to concentrate after a long day.

I’d been practicing Japanese by reading grammar books and copying down word lists for several months before I realized if I wanted to speak Japanese, I had to speak to Japanese people. I still remember the creeping horror of realizing I was going to have to make mistakes to learn from them.

Even the ability to learn a complex system from instruction — just by being told what to do — isn’t a skill found commonly found in adult learners. Some just need a little feedback at the right time. A lot of learners have to be taught — by an instructor who can verify what was learned — before they learn it. Some need the specific steps they would take to accomplish a goal spelled out.

And that doesn’t get into the competency required in the language skills to make thoughts into words into stories. Both literacy-wise and lingua francaly.

Successful writers are the writers who wrote until what they said affected the reader, to paraphrase Edmund Carpenter’s foreword to They Became What they Beheld. They had the ability, the energy, the time, the knowledge and the support to do so.

Not teaching learners the right tools for the job teaches that no tools are needed. Meaningful instruction requires a learner who is in attendance to learn how to do what they can already do better.

the benefits (or not) of writing books

Writing the Breakout Novel (the link is for the workbook) was the book that I needed to read three times over a decade to understand. I recommend people buy both, but the workbook is the workhorse. The book focuses on how other authors did it. The workbook asks the reader to consider how they could, which a far more valuable lesson to underpublished writers.

I read WtBN when it first came out. It specifically says in the beginning that the book is not for unpublished writers, but like most unpublished writers, I saw myself as a published writer not yet published until I published my first short story. It’s why “underpublished” needs to be a category of writers. The term includes unpublished writers as well as self-published and traditionally-published writers who have sold their work on a professional or semi-professional basis, but not in a way that starts to reflect the effort put into their work.

Thanks to the Dunning Kruger Effect, when I read WtBN, I was thrilled. I knew how to do everything the book talked about. Of course I didn’t, but my brain translated “that makes sense” to “this is easy.” It forgot all the work necessary to go from something that makes sense to something that is easy to do.

At this stage in my life, I was telling far more than I was showing the reader why things mattered and I had convinced myself those were equal choices. I wrote Misbegotten, Unforgiven, rewrote them both entirely, and cranked out dozens of short stories and more fanfic than any one writer ever needed to produce before I reread the book again in my early thirties.

I was starting to sell my short fiction if the short story emerged perfectly with a crystalized form or I didn’t even bother to send it out. My novels were still messes. When I reread the book cover to cover, I realized that I wasn’t actually doing any of it and I still had to learn how I could.

I didn’t read WtBN again until after I’d filled up a lot of my Gap with Angela Fiddler works. By the time I did a third read-through, I argued with the book. I wanted it to consider X, Y and Z when it said F. I felt quite superior for a few months before picking up a copy of the 21st Century Fiction and realized, of course, my arguments had been considered.

When Mr. Maass did a workshop based on the book in Bragg Creek, I was quite hurt that he was just telling learners things that had taken me years to figure out the hard way. I felt like I’d climbed to the top of a mountain, only to look over and see an escalator that went all the way to the top.

But according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, Knowing something is true is only the second step of learning anything. Learning how to use it is only one step up from that. Knowing how to use what you’ve learned to create something new is a level above that, and understanding how to evaluate your use of the new knowledge is the pinnacle of knowledge itself.

All Maass gave the students was a roadmap of what they should be learning over the next decade. It wasn’t an escalator, it was an instruction manual for the tools of the job. No matter how great the lesson was taught, the student still needs to learn how to apply the information to their process themselves.

This is why writing books can be dangerous to the underpublished writer. Had I read WtBN once and thrown it into the closet, I might not have realized that knowing something and knowing how to use something were two different aspects of learning, even for me.

And I wasn’t even an exceptional writer. But it took realizing that I wasn’t to understand I could yet still be.

Anders Ericsson and meaningful instruction

Factors to consider with a learner’s resistance to change. From here

My mother and I saw eye-to-eye on practically nothing. She was a version of me who always had twenty-five more years of experience than I did. I was the version of her who was anti-authoritarian before I was verbal.

But she told me it was twenty years to overnight success. Ira Glass talks about taking the longest of all his creative friends to figure out how saying something signficant works. I probably have him beat. I probably put in over ten thousand hours of practice before I realized the method I had been practicing couldn’t possibly work for a writer with my talent.

The writer I was in my early thirties didn’t just have a lack of developed skills. As a learner, I had a lack of ability to see how learning those skills could have helped me if I wanted them to. When I first got Copper, Youtube was a generation away. The books in the library talked about training a horse that could be ridden or breaking a horse that couldn’t.

There was no information on training a horse that could be ridden but didn’t want to be. I didn’t automatically go with “just keep asking him politely to move forward once he’s tired himself out.” I only tried making him do what I wanted once. But the fuel it added to the existing fire showed me the difference between Copper not wanting to do something and Copper when he was furious.

But letting him exhaust himself and then asking him nicely to move forward if he felt like it sometimes — not always, but sometimes — got him moving in the direction I asked him to. When we first started together, it usually just triggered another tantrum until he got tired of that one, too.

And then one day, he never refused to leave the paddock — even alone — again. It took over a year, but he did it.

I’ve never balked at a challenge. But even I considered just how much work it would take to get where I knew I wanted to be. But to accept I needed to invest that time and energy into my work, I had to put aside my absolutely rock-solid belief I’d had since being a teenager that I just needed to be discovered.

It seemed devastating to be standing on the precipice of realization that everything I could do well wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t that I will always need a line editor. It was that I couldn’t create characters whose journeys were worth being line edited yet.

Anders Ericsson, one of the co-creators of the ten thousand-hour rule talks about how “I have made it a hobby to investigate the stories of such prodigies, and I can report with confidence that I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.”

Ten thousand hours is 3-4 hours of practice every day across ten years. But Ericsson specifically says it requires “deliberate practice.” I had written at least a book a year between the ages of eleven and thirty-two. Some years, I managed to write two books in the same calendar year. But none of that was deliberate practice. Until I was twenty-four, I wrote as a genuine hobby. After twenty-four, I wrote with the assumption that there were no rules.

I didn’t start writing with the deliberate intention of learning how to write bigger, more emotionally engaging stories until 2005. I started to see the disconnect between professionals sharing what they really did to succeed vs. what writers heard was the secret to their success.

I keep going back to On Writing, but it’s a perfect example of this. When most writers only talk about King’s quota, they speak as though it is the reason for his success. The true secret to King’s success is when the nail couldn’t hold his rejection slips anymore, he went and got a bigger spike to hold even more of them in the future.

Without meaningful instruction, meaningful practice can’t happen. Writing is a complex system that has multiple moving parts, all of which must work together to produce something larger in the reader than the sum of its parts.

Instructor-taught learners still have to learn through almost as much practice as the self-taught learner went through in their trials and errors. No theoretical knowledge — however it is obtained — becomes a muscle memory that can be used without hours and hours and hours of applied practice.

I was on a panel just at the start of my pivot with a writer who had just joined a writing group. I had just learned about the theory of mastery and its 10,000 hours. When I mentioned it, he said that he joined a critique group so that he wouldn’t have to put all those hours in.

I can’t remember if I told him or not, but I realized at that moment that trying to learn a skill without being dedicated to its learning doesn’t work for most learners. To absorb knowledge to create the ability to do something new as an adult learner is more of an active skill than teaching is.

And none of that meaningful practice can even start unless the writer sees through the dissonance their own brain throws up to keep them wrapped up in their identity of being a ‘no rules’ writer who just needs to be discovered without having to put the effort into learning how to write.

Unpublished writers could at least look at their lack of professional sales and think that maybe the system doesn’t work because it didn’t work for them. “There are no rules” could not be more of a perfect Skinner box for underpublished writers who are good enough to sell the work that emerged on the page in a near-perfect state.

The path of how it came to be that most writers view the rules of writing as anti-authoritarians view authority can be traced through critiques over the past twenty years. But the reality is, a lot of learners arrive in learning spaces today armed with the knowledge that any time spent wasted on learning skills is an hour taken away from their publishing goals.

The older I got, though, the more I realized I wasn’t actually anti-authoritarian. I discovered I’m actually an anarchist. Anarchists believe in respecting wisdom and knowledge, but not authority for authority’s sake. We need to convince learners that they’re not against the foundational structures of learning. They were learning in a methodology that didn’t know how to help them if they didn’t already know how to practice meaningfully.

lateral story movement = moving chess pieces around

I know stating emphatically that at least 80% of the work should progress the story will get a lot of pearls clutched to nervous dispositions. Fiction is this magical thing where every part of the journey and the destination create a gestalt that is larger than the sum of it. There is no room for anything that isn’t building to something bigger than what is currently happening to the characters.

But If tension is the breath of the piece, then the reader must be allowed to breathe out at some points. Even those moments can be used to escalate different sources of tension within the story. Writing speculative romance was extremely easy for this. Between the interpersonal narrative, the big bad of the book, and the continual power struggle that the world takes place in, something always went worse in one sphere of the character’s life even if something goes right in the other two.

Driving the tension is a lot like shifting up through the gears of a motorcycle or a manual car. The clutch is the relief of the tension, but the intention of using it isn’t to lower the rpm of the story. Writers should learn how to let off the tension to let it accelerate again.

To do so, however, they have to realize the difference between something they have learned themselves and something they have been taught. Something a learner has learned themselves is ironclad and true. If their method creates reproducible results they can trust, they know what they know.

But a learner who has been taught something has to practice it over and over again until they can use it to produce reproducible results as well. Until they’re able to use what they know, they only know the concept of it.

In every creative field, it doesn’t matter if the learner has learned colour theory themselves by realizing certain colours outside of their colour family can either look really good or really bad together or it was something they were taught. As long as the learner sees for themselves that each time, every time, some colour combinations draw the eye while others repel it, they can use it to create bigger things than colour swatches on paper.

Theoretical knowledge cannot produce reproducible results unless it is tested enough to be trusted by the user. But in creative writing, the average learner has been taught that to “know the rules before you break them” means: “be able to quote the title of the rule and foundational structures aren’t necessary, so don’t even bother learning how to use them.”

Every time an underpublished writer sells a work under this ideology, it convinces them even more that their methodology works. All the work that fails to move readers is unable to convince them otherwise.

Knowing how to use rules and knowing how to quote them are different, non-sequential steps in Bloom’s Taxonomy. But without teaching learners to even recognize errors in other people’s work, learners learn like clockwork there is nothing to learn. When “conflict is important” is taught as one of those breakable rules, writers will eventually agree that conflict is important but not enough to use.

It may sound harsh to say that every part of the work needs to move the story forward when art can exist without rules. But the point of a chess game isn’t to make the pieces move around the board through beautiful, legal chess moves. The goal of commercial fiction as a chess game is to capture the reader’s attention and leave them with a (positive) impression of your work that they will never forget, or at least forget last.

With that as the objective, each move has a purpose, tension, and cost. It is not how the knight moves that matters; it’s how it can challenge a bishop and a queen at the same time. The fact that the opponent can only save one is the drama of the move.

Moments of relaxation or release in work are not lateral movements to the progression. A character able to regroup and rest is far more awake, aware, and dangerous after surviving a great deal of tension while sleep-deprived. A lateral movement would be after a good night’s rest and a calm morning of doing nothing, the protagonists go have a relaxing day at the mall instead of realizing the sun has gone black and a face is emerging from it.

Lateral movements add nothing to the story because they aren’t written to. By learning draftwork, the writer can make lateral movements story progression and story progression more meaningful.

only murders in the building : hogwarts

as stories about podcasters are to magical schools.

I just about died watching Steve Martin finally giving the audience what they wanted — Steve Martin being Steve Martin as only Mr. Steve Martin could possibly. I couldn’t breathe watching the elevator scene. Nine episodes of Steve Martin being restrained Steve Martin was worth every second of build-up at the first body flop.

Hogwarts cooled off the magic school genre for the longest time. It didn’t invent it, but for almost a decade, we watched it be perfected and then tainted forever, but let’s not get into our broken hearts about it. Any new magic school story had to do something different or better than Hogwarts. It became the Kleenex of magical schools before the CEO of it decided human rights could be measured out because of the way other people are made to feel about a subject matter.

I’ve read so much work from other writers where the story is: character has relationship with past famous murder that ranged from tenuous at best to the accused. And then they hunt down the real killer while their view count grows, despite it not being 2008 anymore.

I give OMitB a pass on this because they didn’t start blogging around a cold case. The bodies keep dropping in front of them. They don’t have immediate problem of what the podcaster is going to do once these characters solve the cold case yet.

People think that youtube success can come down to when you started. It’s the belief that if they were the only X youtuber talking about (blank) in 2008, they could be (famous youtuber) too. But Youtubers put in their ten thousand hours of meaningful practice that everyone is so quick to not-necessarily.

If, as it’s been suggested, the Beatles can tie their success to the hours and hours of playing in Dive Bars to their ability to write songs that can impact people on a philsophical level a decade later, then Youtubers that started in 2008 just didn’t let the fact they weren’t good at this thing they wanted to learn how to do stop them. Not one of them were thinking go pro or bust.

I watched Veritasium’s videos about his process probably with more interest than his science videos. He posted his first video about freezing water and critiqued it vs. what he knows now, but the fact he posted it at all led to the video of rewatching his old video being interesting.

He was focusing on the best way he knew how to present the information. He didn’t have to do so in a way that had to compare against everyone else’s best on constant display.

Today, would he have looked at the quality of what can be produced with even a dedicated one-person science channel and think that subject even needed to be discussed? So many writers want to know how to start writing their first book with an unsympathetic, unempathetic, unlikeable anti-hero and yet wonder why they got stuck on chapter two.

The first story I gave up on was the first story I wrote at age eleven. I realized it was too hard to tell an adventure story with a domesticated animal as a protagonist. I knew it could be done but I knew it couldn’t be done by me. I would look at that list of un- un- un- anti- and not know if what could be done in chapter two to move the reader to continue.

And yet the simple question of “how many likeable protagonists have you written?” is met with cold stony silence as though no one can fathom what that question has to do with anything. The assumption that everyone rolled their eyes at is: a likeable character is too easy.

Bets?

Because I laughed so hard when our On Spec Ben the Intern came back from his homework. He was shocked, shocked, I tell you, at how difficult it was to start the story with a scene that is designed to surprise the reader’s expectations.

I wasn’t laughing at him. I was laughing with him. Because man. When I realized, oh, here’s my problem: I tell when I want to show. If I want to show how the characters could understand that, all I need to do is

And then there was silence. If I’d known how to show that the protagonist just realized nope, no question. I have to do this. I would have written that instead. If the point at which he has to plan to kill his brother to save them all matters, I had to show the character doing all he can to do anything but that, first.

It was the first time since realizing that the ghost POV is the most difficult POV to tell a ghost story in that I realized, nope. I cannot do that yet. Because I couldn’t show that if I tried. And I had.

The secret to success isn’t cameras or critique groups or sponsorship deals. It’s doing the thing you do over and over again. Eventually, what you do with that knowledge will produce work that will make people want to engage with it.

And if that seems like too much work — and believe me, I’m exhausted — take meaningful instruction wherever it is. I get how it feels to know 100% of whatever piece of advice doesn’t need to be followed 100% of the time. But if you can’t figure out how it applies 70% of the time, keep asking questions until you do.

Most writers can’t write a story in which protagonists have no stakes in the outcome. And the writers who probably could probably know that the amount of work that would take to pull off wouldn’t be worth the payoff. And the writers who know automatically how they could naturally pull off a work without stakes, the letter J, and any reference to who is speaking shouldn’t assume the rest of humanity is so lucky.

Waiting for all the story pieces

I’m working on a short story by doing anything but right now. I have the tone, the setting, the characters, and the problem. Five years ago, I would have thought i had all the pieces necessary to start writing the story.

But I’m still missing the story’s heartbeat. I don’t do outlines in my process. I’d rather be able to switch the entire second act because while I was brushing my teeth, two random pieces of existing prose fit together in a completely new and exciting way. I have no loyalty to what will happen or what has happened. Both are completely flexible to fit a more engaging story.

I haven’t found the thematic question yet. The plot is: character in terrible situation gets out of terrible situation through their own courage and their new associate. Those bones are as familiar as dirt. But the character starts willing to accept the terrible situation because no option that is better has appeared yet in their life.

The story will give them that better option. But what they have to change in their way of thinking to take it is still a vague notion. I need to stare at more walls and talk about writing stuff until it clicks. The one thing going for this story is the particular setting I’ve chosen and the non-human protagonist/world that exists in it. I could write it on the power of the unique voice and world alone.

But this market is a themed anthology. It means even the specific bones of my story might exist in another piece. Themed anthologies are a gamble any writer takes — a great story that didn’t gel with the table of contents might find another home but all the other stories rejected from the same theme are flooding the market, too.

It can be frustrating waiting for the final piece of what the story can say about being human even if the protagonist is not. I wouldn’t submit to a themed anthology unless I had that aspect nailed down in the story. Themed anthologies get more than enough very good stories that explore the theme of the call extremely well.

But the number of stories that can do that and still say something important are a very small minority in any slushpile. Of course, even if the work does that beautifully, there’s still a chance that it still won’t gel with the rest of the stories selected.

Themed anthologies are great practice for writing with one particular purpose. I think it’s one of the best examples of the immortal line from Masked Wolf’s Astronaut in Space: “Even if I don’t get paid for progression, I’ma get it.”

Even if the story doesn’t get accepted, the practice of writing to a theme is practicing meaningful storytelling at its finest.

Samwise Gamgee and meaningful character development

Someone was wrong on the internet, and Samwise Gamgee is the minimum bar readers expect if the character has no change at all. He’s the atypical hero — the hero who made it back home again and could just pick things up where things had been left off. His journey affected him, but it didn’t affect his happily ever after.

He hadn’t changed as a character. He was a good man and a loyal friend before he left and he was a good man and a loyal friend on his return.

Frodo is the hero who can’t go home again. Even if it hasn’t changed at all, he’s changed too much. He’s the war veteran who returns permanently changed by his experiences. Frodo didn’t have to travel to a new world but he had to leave his old world behind. He was the same body, but a different person inside.

Sam never needed to change fundamentally who he was. He adapted to the road by worrying about what he would have worried about back home. Sam, Merry and Pippins return home again, but Merry and Pippins weren’t given the same road to travel or so much to carry. It wasn’t Sam’s burden to carry the ring to the mountain, but he carries it and his friend on his back at the end.

The reason why Sam doesn’t have to change is that the person he was before taking a step on the journey was all the person he needed to be to swing Rosie around when he got back to her. Merry and Pippins didn’t change because they were really asked to. They were treated more as children than travelling companions by their companions, and acted even less responsibly when even a child would know what “no fires” meant.

His story is the opposite of the upper-middle-class kid who works hard and practices lots with excellent instruction until they get accepted into Julliard. Whether Frodo succeeded or the letter starts “We’re pleased–” is outside of both of their control and neither needed to do anything more than to continue to try to accomplish their goal as hard as they could.

But Sam personally or the Fellowship could have failed at any time. The easiest thing any of them could have done was give up. Tolkien establishes that the Shire would be affected last if Sauron wins. Sam could have gone back home and put his head in the sand the longest.

But even that would have been a significant moment of change for him. If the Julliard kid had abandoned their quest to get into the best school in the world, they haven’t even given up on their aspirations yet.

Character development is a necessary part of fiction unless the lack of character change is meaningful. Show the journey of a simple man pitted against the armies of Mordor and show he still can be happy to sit down at the same table every night for almost the rest of his life and that character never needed to change in the first place.

But it’s a pretty high bar.