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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.