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legal opinions cannot be over non-legal matters like policy

I first read Chapter three, section two of the Law Society of British Columbia’s Professional Code of conduct for reasons why Mark Crosbie should be disciplined for refusing to serve his institutional duties because an officer told him to ignore them. But it got so much worse.

The University of British Columbia University Counsel violated their professional code of conduct for offering a legal opinion on a non-legal matter. At best, they could have offered a non-legal opinion on institutional policies after stating they had no knowledge of policies or how they are mandated. If the UBC had wanted a professional opinion on policy and its adherence, the University Counsel could only refer the UBC to an expert on the subject, according to the Law Society of British Columbia’s Professional Code of Conduct.

The Law Society will have to decide if that fits under their negligence or gross incompetence definitions. But personally, I can’t imagine anything worse than working for an academic institution and not understanding the severity of advising the institution that they could ignore academic freedom if it makes an academic freedom violation complaint go away.

Had the UBC actually completed their required actions in 2015, the importance of defending academic freedom would have been taught to every new hire and promoted employee. If they had, I wouldn’t have been the only UBC Person on campus trying to argue that the UBC — as an institution — violating my academic freedom was a BFD.

So let’s start at the beginning. Follow along at home if you want:

3.1-1  In this section

“competent lawyer” means a lawyer who has and applies relevant knowledge, skills and attributes in a manner appropriate to each matter undertaken on behalf of a client and the nature and terms of the lawyer’s engagement, including:

(a)     knowing general legal principles and procedures and the substantive law and procedure for the areas of law in which the lawyer practises;

As institutional lawyers, the UBC University Counsel had a professional obligation to understand the nature and terms of their engagement. They knew or should have known that policy adherence is not optional within an institutional setting as UBC Persons. They should have all been signed off in their training documents that they understood they had to follow policy.

I know Andrew Szeri should probably have had to sign off annually that he neither served a conflict of interest in the past year prior or will commit a conflict of interest in the next. And yet, he asked a UBC Counsel to just do what he said and ignore his obligation to the institution he actually worked for. Where a University Counsel’s loyalties lie are made clear here:

When the client is an organization

3.2-3 Although a lawyer may receive instructions from an officer, employee, agent or representative, when a lawyer is employed or retained by an organization, including a corporation, the lawyer must act for the organization in exercising his or her duties and in providing professional services.

Institutional lawyers must know the procedures of their institution. They clearly state violating policies stands on equal footing with violating the law. They are both improper conduct, and that there is no difference between them whenever “improper conduct” is mentioned. No lawyer gets to define what words mean in a controlled document.

To any competent trainer, the idea that they even think they could are fighting words.

Nowhere in the professional code of conduct does it say UBC lawyers can choose which professional duties they can provide their organization. They must provide *all* of them, even the ones UBC Officers tell them to ignore. And they must do them to the expectation the professional code of conduct sets out here:

Competence

3.1-2  A lawyer must perform all legal services undertaken on a client’s behalf to the standard of a competent lawyer.

But a competent lawyer who is a member in good standing with their Law Society — not looking for a reason to get away with violating policy — should understand the difference between a legal matter they would have a professional opinion about and a non-legal matter they’d take their best shot at answering while looking for an expert to ask in case their opinion they must have identified as a non-legal was incorrect.

[5]  A lawyer should not undertake a matter without honestly feeling competent to handle it, or being able to become competent without undue delay, risk or expense to the client. The lawyer who proceeds on any other basis is not being honest with the client. This is an ethical consideration and is distinct from the standard of care that a tribunal would invoke for purposes of determining negligence.

[6]  A lawyer must recognize a task for which the lawyer lacks competence and the disservice that would be done to the client by undertaking that task. If consulted about such a task, the lawyer should:

(a)     decline to act;

I don’t have their training documents in front of me, but I would be willing to bet the shinest dime I have that no one at the University of British Columbia University Counsel was actually signed off on their ability to give policy advice as part of their duties to even have a professional, non-legal opinion about.

[7]  The lawyer should also recognize that competence for a particular task may require seeking advice from or collaborating with experts in scientific, accounting or other non-legal fields, and, when it is appropriate, the lawyer should not hesitate to seek the client’s instructions to consult experts.

I know UBC University Counsel knew policy was non-legal. I can’t tell you how many times I heard “not legally required” when asked the university to respect my rights and freedoms as a UBC Person. Still, I’m pretty sure the following two paragraphs were as ignored as much as most of this section of their code.

[7.1]  When a lawyer considers whether to provide legal services under a limited scope retainer the lawyer must carefully assess in each case whether, under the circumstances, it is possible to render those services in a competent manner. An agreement for such services does not exempt a lawyer from the duty to provide competent representation. The lawyer should consider the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation. The lawyer should ensure that the client is fully informed of the nature of the arrangement and clearly understands the scope and limitation of the services.

So did Mark Crosbie and Co sign their name to a legal opinion over a non-legal matter without making it clear it was over a non-legal matter? Did they make it clear they knew almost nothing about the topic they were opining?

Dr. Ono put his and his institution’s reputation on the opinion that policies and academic freedom can be ignored, regardless of how it was — or wasn’t —  labelled. I’m just including this section on competency expected from lawyers because it amuses me just so much:

[13]  The lawyer should refrain from conduct that may interfere with or compromise the lawyer’s capacity or motivation to provide competent legal services to the client and be aware of any factor or circumstance that may have that effect.

Ever since the University Counsel had already formed the opinion that UBC Officers may commit some forms of improper conduct, they put blinders on themselves. Instead of looking for what serves the University of British Columbia’s interest, they went looking for reasons not to hear complaints about how lawyers do not have the authority to redefine terms listed in a controlled document or that academic freedom cannot be violated just because it’s not mentioned in the law.

The UBC’s University Counsel’s violation of both their professional code of conduct and the UBC’s definition of improper conduct has led to the UBC Officers violating a student’s rights and freedoms.

[14]  A lawyer who is incompetent does the client a disservice, brings discredit to the profession and may bring the administration of justice into disrepute. In addition to damaging the lawyer’s own reputation and practice, incompetence may also injure the lawyer’s partners and associates.

Presented without comment.

[15]  Incompetence, negligence and mistakes – This rule does not require a standard of perfection. An error or omission, even though it might be actionable for damages in negligence or contract, will not necessarily constitute a failure to maintain the standard of professional competence described by the rule. However, evidence of gross neglect in a particular matter or a pattern of neglect or mistakes in different matters may be evidence of such a failure, regardless of tort liability. While damages may be awarded for negligence, incompetence can give rise to the additional sanction of disciplinary action.

What about a “comedy of errors” level of incompetence? How about: “at no point, could tell ass from elbow” level of foolery?

the university counsel does not run the university: Part II

At the Blood Services, we were audited all the time. We had a quarterly internal audit and biannual external audits from HeathCanada as per regulations and the Federal Food and Drug Administration because we shipped our platelets across state lines to be processed.

So a lot of my time was filled with preparing for an audit, dealing with an audit, or closing the internal and external errors that were caught in an audit. My first external error came from HealthCanada. The amount of time the donor spent bleeding could not exceed fifteen minutes.

We had this huge analogue clock that the donors could see while they were donating. HealthCanada (correctly) realized that reading a clock takes a level of literacy that we can’t assume all donors had, so we were required to switch clocks from analogue to digital so that anyone who donated blood would know when fifteen minutes are up.

So despite this being an error that we didn’t catch internally, the solution was to swap out the clock, change the documents and training procedures as needed, and then show HealthCanada the document with the official sign-offs to show the changes being made.

If we caught the potential mistake, it was internal. If HealthCanada or the FDA caught it, it was an external. Obviously, catching an error that could have lead to a mistake impacting the real world is the ideal. If the error that the institution makes leads to a mistake being made in the real world that impacted something, however, that would be a live error.

A live error is an error that didn’t get caught by the institution or its external auditors that was allowed to cause an actual mistake to happen that could have been avoided given proper adherence to documentation. A centre in Ontario, for example, had to throw out months of donations because a nurse asked the questions using different phrases than the ones that had been mandated.

This wasn’t caught internally or externally as an error before it impacted members of the public. There is nothing worse in an institutional setting than a live error. Because the Centre hadn’t trained its Persons properly, all the work and effort involved in donating and processing the blood for Canadians who needed it was thrown out because if one mistake was made, any mistake could have been and the centre had to do a hard restart.

The UBC, on the other hand, turned over all its policy binders to its University Counsel and asked “which ones are the ones that we have to legally care about, so we know we can ignore the rest of them entirely.”

And the lawyers committed their first live error by not saying, “Woah, dude. This is a policy matter. We’re hammers trained to deal with legal nails. You need a UBC Person trained to deal with a bunch of loose screws.”

Instead, they decided that not having any training in policy wasn’t enough reason to not give their legal opinion of the necessity of policy adherence. Mark Crosbie truly thought that his limited knowledge of complicated policies well outside his legal expertise trumps someone with their own level of expert knowledge on the subject. This is a perfect example of a live error.

And good luck to him when he tries to explain why he decided the UBC doesn’t have to follow its own policies to people who aren’t UBC Persons looking for a way to “legally” ignore them.

When I wasn’t working around audits and their schedules, I was listening to my staff that had a hundred years of collective experience I didn’t have. Whenever they came across a situation where a mistake could have been made even with the policies in place, I worked with them to create new procedures and training so that the almost-mistake could never happen again if someone with less experience than my staff came across the same situation and didn’t know what to do.

To any competent trainer, the fact that a live error could have happened is an instant code red situation. The UBC “training department” has a lot to answer for if they weren’t trained enough to know no lawyer has the authority to tell them policies don’t matter if the UBC decides it doesn’t want to follow them.

How badly did the ubc university counsel fuck up? Let’s count the ways! PART I

Despite what the Crosbie-Cronies “think”, no policy gives the UBC University Counsel permission to decide which definition of improper conduct “counts” and which definitions don’t. Once the UBC Policies define improper conduct as violating the law OR violating policies OR advising others to violate policy, any time it mentions “improper conduct” again, all three definitions are included.

No lawyer can provide a “get out of (policy) jail free” card for their officers to ignore policy if they wanna that any ombudsperson will respect. There is such a thing as exemptions and emergency exemptions, of course, but those are filed through a competent training department.

The UBC is obligated to act should a UBC Person commit improper conduct. Policies are written in plain language and in the present tense because of what the policies say will happen will happen or else.

There’s a reason why policies are not legally enforceable. UBC Persons are responsible for their own actions at the UBC. If a member of a policy-mandated institution commits improper conduct and the institution does not act on it, the institution is held at fault. Institutions cannot be arrested.

They can only pay restitution.

So, say, a university student tries to file a harassment complaint against their director for getting thrown out of class for asking a question on a dark aspect of a work that felt out of place in the work in question. Any professionally-minded critique group that cared about publication would have asked the same question, but I’d been an insomniac for five days at that point due to a medical condition and had forgotten I wasn’t in a professionally-minded critique group.

It was so bad that a current UBC director said to me that what I had said wasn’t bad, but that I had reacted “too poorly” for getting thrown out of class for no reason. “Reacted too poorly” meant “insisting the director at the time follow their policies by actually hearing both sides of the story instead of just kicking a student out of class near-instantly despite UBC’s academic freedom protecting the act of freely commenting.”

So when I finally got a good night’s sleep, I reported her ass. But because the Crosbie-Cronies got there first and had advised the Director that the only policy they have to care about is the bottom half of the discrimination code that talks about protected characteristics, my complaint wasn’t even heard. The Respectful Environment Statment, the Scholarly Integrity Policy and the Retailation Policy meant nothing because, as the Director of Equity and Inclusion told me, those policies weren’t legally enforceable.

What the Crosbie-Cronies meant was that the Director of my program was not going to get arrested for her actions. I was aware of that. I was using the Respectful Environment Statement definition for personal harassment. But because a judge would not convict someone based on that policy, no student was legally obligated to have a respectful environment.

So it could be removed. Without proper policy training, the University Counsel wasn’t aware that “protected” is a protected term on controlled documents and could not be removed. Even if the only institution that was to protect that protected activity was the University of British Columbia, the University of British Columbia had a policy-mandated obligation to protect it.

But the Crosbie-Cronies believed they could unprotect academic freedom without asking the board of governors’ permission to unprotect academic freedom. That would have taken a risk assessment of the threat against the academic institution’s reputation if they’d gone the only route to change what a controlled document says. Instead, they believed their law degree gave them the right to decide which policies or parts of policies mattered and which (they believed) could be ignored and have absolutely no institutional consequences.

Then they assisted a UBC Person in getting away with having declared his intention to serve his conflict of interest instead of the institution’s. They should have reported UBC Person’s ask for a “legal” way to violate a student’s freedom to criticize the program as per their own professional code of conduct.

But instead, here’s how my tuition dollars were wasted: Mark Crosbie-Cronies used their very expensive work-hours to look into whether criminal or civil law said an academic institution could remove academic freedom from a student.

Academic freedom is only a freedom that institutions that need academic freedom require. There’s no actual law on the books that mention it. And the Crosbie-Croniess seized on that fact and wrote AS AN OFFICIAL LEGAL OPINION if:

A) no law says they can’t remove academic freedom
B) The University of British Columbia only has to follow the law
THEREFORE:
C) The University of British Columbia can remove academic freedom.

I took a Logic 10X class in my first year of my undergraduate. I know that if any of the premises of a conclusion is incorrect, then the conclusion is incorrect. Only the University of British Columbia University Counsel believes that the University of British Columbia only has to follow the law.

Everyone else, from a minister to a Law Society, all assumed that when the University of British Columbia told them that the student had no case, they assumed the University of British Columbia had followed its policies to the letter.

It’s why they thought they could dismiss me out of hand. They assumed the University of British Columbia’s University Counsel knew that the University of British Columbia Persons could not commit improper conduct.

But the UBC had the Crosbie-Cronies, who assumed that if improper conduct wasn’t against the law outside of the institution, it couldn’t be improper conduct inside of an institution either. In part two, I’ll break down the difference between internal errors, external errors and live errors.

The good news is that UBC has not committed any internal errors!

The bad news is that internal errors are the least bad kind.

ubc’s blighted thinking and institutional culture

I never was the smartest person in the group because our group didn’t have just one smartest person in one subject matter. My sister, unfortunately, wasn’t so lucky. We all did bone-headed things, of course, we were teenagers in a small northern town who had slightly more sense than most kids our age. But I did the kind of bone-headed things that we all just learned a valuable lesson from and vowed never to speak of such things again.

My little sister kept getting into trouble because no one smarter than she was could help her filter the bad ideas from the good ideas that just needed a few changes to avoid detection.

My poor ADHD brain couldn’t have possibly survived a lifetime of doing science stuff. I follow instructions by skimming over step 1, 2 and 7 and then start the project with what I gleened. It’s a great mindset for a learner who prefers to figure out things on their own.

It’s a terrible mindset for scientists.

People will think that a curious mindset is what most scientists need to succeed in their careers. But to me, that’s believing women think a sense of humour is more important than a partner who sees them as a person first. The most important mindset a scientist needs to have is a humble one.

A sense of curiosity cannot help a scientist do science if they cannot entertain the possibility that they are wrong. Their human brain is programmed to ignore what proves a person might not be correct about something as a defence mechanism. It took a student in school to identify the viscosity of air in the last century because Sir Isaac Newton got it wrong and every other scientist before them erred on the side that some dead guy was probably more correct over what their equipment said. Cognitive dissonance can convince anyone that they cannot be wrong about anything they identify deeply with.

And the more intellectually intelligent a person is, the less likely they’ve been completely wrong about anything they believed in deeply. The very idea they might be can be literally unthinkable.

But as Dr. Martha Piper says in her acceptance of findings, it is one of the UBC’s most important functions to interrogate the status quo. Unless you’re the UBC just a few years later, of course. And then your most important function is to — as an institution — keep any evidence off the official record that the UBC’s status quo was ever even asked a soft-ball question about itself.

In fact, the University of British Columbia University Counsel told the Law Society of British that a student had interpersonal conflict with all of their instructors, and that is why their valid complaint that a UBC Lawyer violated their Professional Code of Conduct should be dismissed. The university counsel did not report the abuse of authority that a UBC Person asking how to violate the policy should have been understood to be as per their professional code of conduct as a lawyer in BC. Andrew J. Szeri’s supervisor could only be Dr. Santa Ono.

Instead, the University counsel committed improper conduct by violating UBC Policies by advising another UBC Officer how to commit improper conduct. And since the University Counsel also told the UBC that UBC Officers are allowed to commit improper conduct as long as they don’t actually break the law, the UBC did nothing to stop them.

But now the UBC has a lawyer’s note saying “it’s fine to ignore policy.” So ignore policy they did. They used their own incompetence to decide not to hear two separate academic freedom violation complaints, which is in itself, a third academic freedom violation.

But only the UBC tells the UBC they can’t tolerate academic freedom violations. So the UBC could violate academic freedom to offer a program designed to create the very best student evaluations possible by never telling a single learner they were incorrect about anything. Anyone who suggests craft might actually be important was silenced until even the slightest hint of that opinion stopped being voiced at all.

And because there are no protections for students like there are for consumers, the UBC can call that “leading edge pedagogy” on their website. But they also don’t think students have a right to question their status quo. They can’t explain how that ‘leading-edge pedagogy’ could possibly work and they don’t think they have to be able to.

But pedagogy is the study of learning. It is literally the science stuff we must always assume we could be wrong about. But the UBC now has an unwritten policy in place to make sure that the next complaint will never see the light of day either.

Dr. Santa Ono is not the “welcome change” any university campus should want. But this is the program he offered:

One day, when the young adult and children’s instructor had for the millionth time come down on the side of “In a market as competitive as YA fiction, authors totally don’t need to use ‘conflict’ or ‘tension’ if the authorial intent is to show what the character is looking at or talking about for entire chapters.”

I messaged the instructor privately and I asked her when, exactly, their students were going to learn how to use conflict or tension if they were being taught in the program as not even necessary. This “instructor” said — in writing — that she didn’t have time to teach my “advanced” techniques in her class. Not all my classmates were as “talented” as I was.

My brain exploded. Conflict and its impact on tension isn’t an advanced technique. It’s Writing 101 and we were in a 50X class. We spent our weekly allotment of time discussing how nice this particular section of description and dialogue was or could be while discussing personal stories it reminded us of and techniques to polish what was done well better.

Angela Ducksworth’s Grit talks about plateauing at a certain level of competence. But this was the opposite of that. This was instruction meant to assist the plateaued learner in one single aspect of the skillset necessary for the act of writing itself. It would be like Olympic scientists assisting long jumpers only on how to stick the landing better while ignoring every other aspect of skillset necessary to complete a long jump successfully from nutrition, to practice, to the takeoff a moment before.

Focusing on what the underpublished can already do well ignores the plethora of skills they still need to acquire.

But most importantly to this story, I was no more talented than my average classmate when I first started to write. But my classmates were in a program that actively taught them they don’t need to learn how to use the skillsets I had to learn deliberately.

But because my instructor saw my acquired skill as “talent” she didn’t need to do her job of assisting learners in their intentions for their work. Which in a masters level program in Canada, must be assumed to be publication at the pedagogical level.

Dr. Santa Ono does science shit. The idea that he could have been wrong should always have been part of his thinking. Andrew Szeri was an engineer. On the basis of all engineers passing at least some of their classes based on the bell curve alone, he should have automatically assumed he could have been wrong.

But at the UBC, everyone knows that if civil or criminal law doesn’t mention academic freedom, the UBC can do whatever the fuck they want to it. Their UBC University Counsel says so and the law is meant to be an academic institution’s highest (and only) authority.

how the ubc discussion should have happened: Puppet Theatre returns

ACT ONE:

(CW: PUPPET gore, obvs)

UBC: Hey, Any Competent Trainer, can we violate policies?
ACT: What? Like for real?
UBC: Yeah for real. Can we?
ACT: No.
UBC: Why not?
ACT: Because it’s against policy to violate policies.
UBC: Yeah, but if we did it anyway?
ACT: There is no anyway. There is no violating policies. Violating polices is improper conduct, and UBC Persons cannot commit improper conduct.
UBC: But —
ACT: Do you understand you cannot commit improper conduct, sir?
UBC: I sure do!
(UBC exits stage left. A lightning bolt flashes, foreshadowing the only window on set. ACT watches him go, but they are not convinced. They reach for the PUPPET POLICY ON POLICY Binder. It’s very fluffy.)

ACT TWO

UBC: Hey! You were totally wrong, ACT! I asked this lawyer guy–
ACT: –You can’t ask an institutional lawyer how do you violate institutional policies!
UBC: — Well I did! And the lawyer said —
ACT: — An institutional lawyer can’t advise a UBC Person how to violate institutional policies!
UBC: He said we could totally violate policies if we want. They’re not *legally protected!*
(ACT grabs a notebook called: So you did an institutional error and hits the Puppet Union Rep Button that CREW brings out for them. The large red button does not want to take this call.)
UBC: (Still thinking they can get ahead of this.) Wait! We just don’t want to hear this student’s criticism of their program —

(A non-copyrightable Academic Freedom flying mammal signal starts flashing across the theatre.)

ACT: You’re attacking a student’s academic freedom?!?!
UBC: Yes?
(ACT bite their tongue to not ask any more questions until a union rep is found, but they can’t pretend they didn’t hear that. UBC walks backwards until they exit stage left.)

ACT THREE:

Error reports overflow ACT’s desk. As the lights dim, a silent CREW brings another box of error reports and dumps them over their head. ACT has their arms over their head, silently sobbing until the stage is dark.

A PUPPET RAVEN flies across the stage and taps on the unlit window, stage left. Another flash of lighting shows the RAVEN and the skinned corpse of Puppet UBC dangling from its beak. It coughs once and crows in victory.

breaking up with a literary “horror” author (or why a great premise is never enough)

There’s a Canadian writer that I have just given up on. I first discovered this author while travelling for my work and his novel was okay, I guess, for when you wanted to read but not be too invested in the plot. It was great for being in places where I still have to keep my wits about me, like in airports or hotel lobbies. It was so forgettable, though, I had to rebuy the book twice. But I purchased both of them from used book stores after the original. The story was so forgettable that I both couldn’t reward the author with more sales that benefited them and I forgot about the physical copy of it almost anywhere I put it down.

But man, it had potential. And I truly wanted to see if that potential ever rewarded the reader for sticking around. But it never happened. The end of the story was just the resolution of the premise with dithering and dickering between those two events. It could have been an excellent novel but for the protagonist giving so little fucks about anything. Through long stretches, I could barely muster enough interest to keep going.

But it was really an excellent premise.

Then his second book came along and I read that, too. It was about a really cool premise that the protagonists didn’t really care about, and the ending of the book was the resolution of that premise. As had his first book. And his third. I was starting to recognize a horrible pattern emerging.

When I gave the last book of his over to my wife to tell her to dispose of it, it was because the character — in a novel with a really cool premise — had just gone on for chapters about how much he doesn’t really care if he lives or dies.

And at that point, neither could I.

This is why the Forgotten Last Scale of mine is so important. A book that has a memorable premise, by my scale, is a “good” book. But stack too many good books on top of each other and the reader (eventually) won’t be fooled again. They’ll remember the disappointment of the premise never really converting to anything meaningful more than they will remember the cool premise after a certain point.

Had the author’s works had a truly memorable moment in those good premises, I would be remembering that, instead. I’d probably have given the author at least two more books to see if they had learned how to convert a memorable moment into a memorable story.

It’s not just creative writing that’s the problem

Could not have said it better myself

The problem with teaching underpublished writers is that most do not see themselves as underpublished writers. Most see themselves as experienced writers who just lack the experience. But I remember when I first started teaching English as a Second Language when I saw first hand the difference between what a student can understand in class and what they can produce independent of all the aides and support that classroom environment provides.

One of the best classes I ever took in my Bachelor of Education was a test construction class. It was offered out of the Ed Pysch department. It delved into the psychology of testing to make sure that what the teacher was testing for is what the learner can demonstrate they understand beyond memorization.

It gave me a greater appreciation for the assessment I had to complete before being signed off to give policy advice. The questions were pulled from the average questions a trainer would be asked to clarify, but it didn’t ask for the answer. It asked for the binder, page and paragraph the answer could be found on.

Any numeric answer a novice trainer could have put down might have been misremembered as the answer the next time the question was asked. But anything in an SOP must be considered to be transitory no matter how established the procedure was. The answer to the same question in a real life setting is what the policy says on the day the question was asked.

There are three different kinds of rules that get lumped under the umbrella where “there are no rules” means “don’t bother learning them.”

The first are the non-writing rules. These are the rules that can be absorbed, adapted or ignored depending on the writer’s style of writing. They are about when to write, why to write, how often to write, where to set up, etc. They are too dependent on the survivorship bias to be of any value. What X writer did to get to their level of success is what worked for X writer alone. Each writer should experiment with what works best for them and then do it until they find something that works even better.

The second are the story-building and world-building foundational structures. These are elements of story like plot, pacing and tension that are difficult to break or even bend in either direction, but with a combination of talent, skill, luck and feedback and rewriting, they can be broken and tell a more meaningful story for it.

The third is what I’m going to call the ideals of engaging writing. The protagonist should want something isn’t a foundational structure and it isn’t required for a great story to shine. However, the character who doesn’t want anything has no stakes in the story. What keeps the character pushing is what keeps the reader reading. A protagonist who can quit their journey at any moment without personal consequences has no reason to keep going once the going gets tough.

This is where I’m putting show, don’t tell. I didn’t actually comment on stories needing conflict or tension after my first few classes after it had become obvious that the more revision I suggested a work might need, the more likely I was to get another “Dear Barb, Please be less craft-focused” email. Not having any opposing force to the protagonist’s actions would be most editors’ #1 reason to reject legible work intended to a commercial audience, but it usually takes a rewrite to add it.

And yes. Literary fiction — being a genre that is sold in a bookstore — is work meant for a commercial audience.

So when I couldn’t suggest to my classmates that commerical work needs conflict and tension or a meaningful lack of either, I focused on moments that were told that could be shown to the reader without changing the events or structure of the piece but still be more impactful to their reader. But even the instructor agreed after my first year that if the author meant to tell something significant to the plot, it was as good as showing it.

Which is talking to their past self as a learner, not the student in front of them. The student in front of them could not tell the piece of information as well as they could have shown it. If they had told the information effectively, I would have complimented them on their ability to do so.

Telling what needs to be shown isn’t breaking a rule. It’s not even taking a shortcut. It takes the same shortcut that most underpublished writers “choose” to take by revealing information through telling the reader it.

Most instructors have the skill and talent to approximate how they could have told something similar and then revise it in their rewrites until it is as effective. But they are not teaching their past self. They are teaching a learner who has just told the reader who the character is, what they want, what they need and what they are afraid of through dialogue that sprawled over two chapters of set-up. That the instructor could do the same in half a page and have it effectively build the world doesn’t mean that the work in question did so.

And yet, every conversation I had over whether an author should show the reader what is significiant went immediately to a not-necessarily debate as to whether rules could be broken at all.

If it needs to be said: Yes. Rules can be broken.

But what got skipped over to rush to discuss again why no rules ever need to followed was this: The work in question did not break them in a way that served the story.

If the instructor only allows the first conversation, they are teaching to a class full of imagined versions of themselves that could have chosen to break the rule because they knew how to follow it in the first place. In a classroom environment, if an underpublished writer has chosen to tell something important, they should demonstrate they know how to show it effectively first.

If revealing the piece of information with telling was more effective than showing it, the learner can always return back to the first-draft version.

some of the worst writing advice #2 — multiple POVs

I’ve already talked about the worst writing advice I know. But I’d like to talk about a close second, and that is attempting to write a multiple POV story without learning how to tell a story from a single character’s perspective first.

This is one of those pieces of advice that instructors really have to be careful where their learners are on their mountain. The ability to write a story in which one character goes on a significant journey that comes to an emotional payoff for the reader is difficult. The ability to create an intertwining story between multiple POVs in which each POV character has their own significant journey as well that can deliver an equally emotional payoff to the reader is even more difficult.

During my MFA, telling a learner that what the author was attempting to do in their work was difficult was akin to me telling the author that it was either impossible, something they shouldn’t attempt to tell, or both. In reality, I was encouraging them to continue by laying out common pitfalls of trying to tell bend that particular foundational structure.

Take the unlikeable protagonist, for example. The unlikeable protagonist first chapter has one duty, and that is to get the reader to empathize with the character despite not liking them. Dr. Gregory House is an asshole, but he’s an asshole who cares even if he doesn’t want to be. The show was constantly building and stealing from just how much the viewer had empathy for House’s plight and most of the later seasons, they couldn’t keep it balanced correctly to keep the a lot of viewers even wanting to watch.

The reader must at some point be given some reason as to why they should continue reading about a thoroughly unpleasant character with no demonstrated redeeming qualities. Donald Maass says it best when he says the wounded protagonist has to want to get better, even if making those choices to become better seems impossible at the beginning.

Even Canadian Literature throws the reader an occasional bone. (If you’re not Ann Marie MacDonald, that is.)

Pointing out the need to build a connection to the reader beyond the character’s unlikeableness isn’t telling the author they shouldn’t even try to do it. But that’s the danger in teaching there are no rules. No writer ever agreed with me that the reader needs a reason to at least want to follow this character on their journey. The writer intended to write what they wrote and not a single level deeper. To point out that there might be need for a deeper level to an unlikeable character was treated as an offensive suggestion both in class and in private communications with my instructors.

It was *beyond* frustrating to hear learners agree they didn’t have to learn how to write characters readers have a chance to care about. And yet it’s treated like common knowledge in and out of MFAs.

I remember each story that wrote an unlikeable character empathetically. They were beautifully written pieces about characters so locked in their trauma that their lack of ability to attempt to save themselves was one of the most significant aspects of the work.

So when I say that it is difficult to write as single meaningful journey in which a protagonist character is impacted by their experiences, it is not saying that trying to do so from two POVs is impossible.

I’m saying it’s even harder to do. It used to be common knowledge that the POV of the scene should usually be the character with the most to lose. In a single POV work, that’s obviously the protagonist in most situations. In a multiple POV work, that’s fanagling the events of the story in such away that the character with the most to lose in any given situation is almost always the POV character.

There will be scenes where witnessing events affecting another character can be extremely effective. But to have any impact at all, those have to happen only when it matters most that it does. Otherwise, it’s holding the protagonist (and the reader) at arm’s length from the cost of the scene.

But again, that’s the danger of teaching there are no rules as a valid pedagogy. That some writers could pull off having protagonists and narrators be two separate characters and yet the narrator still has an emotional connection with the events is extremely difficult. They are by their very nature observers to their own story by not being the protagonist.

They can only react to the events as they happen. When they do impact the storyline, it should matter.

But multiple POVs means balancing at least two different journeys in which the protagonists’ actions all impact the story. Balancing the dramatic tension between what the reader knows and what the current POV character understands is a very difficult when the writer doesn’t know how to manipulate tension in general.

A single POV needs the control panel of Riley when she was a child in Inside Out. Multiple — even if that means just two — POVs requires the control panel of the teenager-Riley to be. Instead of doing one story well, the writer has to balance to two stories equally well and do it well at the same time.

I read a post a while back about writing multiple POVs for beginner writers and it had the assumption going in that the writer would know how to tell a meaningful story through a single character’s journey. Because how a writer would then write that across multiple POVs assumes the writer has that knowledge to begin with.

And most underpublished writers do, in the hypothetical. It’s when they sit down and transcribe how those events occur in their work that the problem occurs. Rather than show the events that matter, the events that matter are discussed in passing while the characters complete mundane tasks for a large portion of the word count.

But it’s the smaller portion of the story where the characters act on the events of the world meaningfully that shows the writer’s promise as an artist. They just need to commit to practicing their storybuilding skillset deliberately so that most of their story moves the character to act, or not act meaningfully.

empty soup cans and markets that don’t exist

There was a writer I had a few run-ins with who was the personification of everything I thought was doing active harm to my community. He was a smart guy, a great writer, and is the only person I know who never once said anything of value to a group of underpublished writers. He sold the idea that marketing trumped the skills involved in writing.

I met him in the Twilight and the Fifty Shades of Grey years. That was all the evidence he needed to be absolutely sure that no book ever had to be enjoyable to the reader again. That Twilight sold a million-billion copies was proof that books didn’t have to be good.

His audience wanted to be told that their success had nothing to do with the quality of their writing and everything to do with how hard they worked selling the book after it was bound. They didn’t want to hear that as difficult as it is to take the reader on a meaningful journey, it is far easier to do so than marketing a book that was still mainly description, dialogue, and exposition.

The premise of the argument is flawed. Twilight didn’t sell a trillion copies and a movie franchise because it was marketable. People who read those books loved the way they felt when they read those books.

That was all it took.

Their readers loved the books enough to buy them as hardcovers at hardcover-pricing and go to first-run theatres to watch the movies over and over again. How those books made their readers feel had absolutely nothing to do with how the books were marketed.

But Dude-Guy couldn’t imagine so many women buying a book because they enjoyed reading it. To him, the only thing that made sense was that an evil marketing genius had hypnotized them to want to buy a shlocky teenage vampire romance novel in droves.

This is despite the fact that no mass-hypnosis has ever worked over a book series since. If Twilight’s success was “just marketing” it should have been easily repeatable. And yet, that appeal that crossed genre boundaries and age groups hasn’t really happened since 50 Shades milked the same storyline for hypothetically-kinky grownups.

His analogy was comparing a writer’s work to empty soup cans. If he could find a million people who would buy an empty soup can for a dollar, he would have a million dollars.

I asked him how much it would cost to find a million people who would be willing to trade a dollar from their pocket for a thing that has no value to them. He dismissed it as a non-issue but it is the only issue that matters. The cost of finding a million people out of the 1.5 billion English-speaking people on this planet who will buy something of no intrinsic or extrinsic value to them would make what profit could be made on the million dollars negligible.

Stories that do not attempt to engage the reader through their story-building mechanics are empty soup cans. It asks the reader to admire the prose as the work’s only ask. Readers will always value their spending money, but they will value their spare time even more. The only people who buy empty soup cans are those who know the empty soup can merchant personally.

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.