The Forgotten Last Scale and Rubrics

Before I graduated, I invented a new story rubric that operates like a radiating spiderweb. It’s not a tool for the instructor, however, it’s a self-evaluation tool the learner can use to evaluate their own use of whatever core foundational structures of story they want to isolate and improve on.

Those are my important eight aspects of fiction, but it’s entirely customizable. For example, I can lump internal and external conflict in the same zone, but I probably divide that section in half to isolate internal and external conflict for learners who can’t use them interchangeably. The goal isn’t for the instructor to get the learner’s prose from 2 – 10. It’s to get the learner to learn how to get from a 4 to a 6 on their own.

I think my My Forgotten Last Scale breaks down what is the last thing the reader remembers about a piece works the same way.

The average story is forgotten.

A good story is a story where the reader remembers the premise until they forget it.

A very good story has one aspect to it — a scene, a character, or even a phrase — that the reader will remember for a long time.

An excellent story is a work where the reader could forget the premise, characters or a single event that occurred and yet never forget how they felt when they read it.

Again, the goal isn’t for the instructor to get the learner from unmemorable work to excellent. We can only guide the learner to how to learn how to get to the next step. Learning, like tension, is a process that occurs inside the learner. It’s not a passive activity.

And it’s not helped by the belief that the learner just needs to be discovered rather than learn their craft. That comes preinstalled in most writers even before they start their first book. The belief is one of the biggest mental blocks that keep the underpublished author underpublished.

The answer to “how do I play in the NHL?” is “start when you are born male and turn four.” The answer to “how do I produce the work that can move the reader?” is “start now.”

a hand vs a scene — a post on writing!

A hand is a bag of tendons and flesh with sticks in it that makes it do things. You could describe what a hand looks like, what it does, or how it does it. To encompass what a hand is, all three aspects of what it is needs to be described to capture the “handness” of a hand.

A scene works the same way. It is what it describes, what it does for the story, and how it does it. What it describes is the actions of the moment. For so much underpublished work, writers can get trapped in thinking what a scene describes is what a scene *is* but that’s just describing the hand. A scene, as the smallest unit of story, has to do something for the story, and it has to have the structure to do it with.

There’s not much I can say about describing the actions of the scene. This isn’t a problem for the majority of underpublished writers because it’s usually the aspect of writing they can do the best. They are very good at describing what the character sees, says and does.

To be able to capture what the character sees, says and does is an accomplishment that can take years to develop. Point-of-view filtering the description through the opinion of the character at the moment creates microtension at the sentence level. Being able to produce a well-written scene is an important milestone of a writer’s creative path.

Once the author is able to capture what the character does, says and sees in a scene, the next step is to look at the structure and the function of the story as a piece of the whole story. Hands have infinite functions. So do scenes. But while hands sometimes have no function at all, a scene doesn’t have that luxury.

Outliners and pre-scene planners should have a function in mind for each scene. “This scene establishes X is terrified of not being able to see” or “this scene establishes X and Y like each other, but don’t trust each other”. True pantsers who can’t even have that much constraint on what they’re going to write will have to spend more time in the rewrite stage looking at the structure and function of the individual scenes once the work is finished.

But it’s the how the scenes accomplish what they need to accomplish that I think needs the most attention drawn to it. How the author reveals the information is one of the most important functions of a scene. What does the character see, hear or do to change one aspect of the story?

Of all the tools the writer has to establish something to the reader, “dialogue” should be kept in the back of the box. While there’s nothing wrong with revealing information through dialogue, stories in which everything happens through dialogue do not tend to use any other tool to reveal information.

All that can happen in a dialogue-revealed scene is the character learns something they didn’t know before. While learning something new through dialogue can be very impactful if that knowledge is earned through the character’s previous actions, only using dialogue to reveal the information to that point can steal its thunder.

By at least the rewriting process, evaluating scenes at the description, form and function levels keeps the story from being lost to the muddle in the middle.

But I don’t think I need to/want to/have to do all of that.

No one has to do anything they don’t want to do. Publishing today is so competitive that writers who do go through and make sure that every scene drives the story forward still get rejected. Writing isn’t one particular skill, it’s dozens of skills all smashed into one activity. Even the writers who do most of them very well still do not routinely publish.

Is your work good enough to not do X and still succeed? Maybe. But writers who figure out X will always have X in their writer’s toolbox to use each time they need to use X in a scene.

Plotting: the Anti-Family Feud Game

As much as I think of most writing advice as being more useful to the vast majority of writers than the vast majority of writers think the average piece of advice is useful for them, there’s some common chestnuts that just stick in my throat, spines and all.

One of them is “no one has read *your* take on (common trope) before.”

Having been an editor on On Spec for a while now, I’m telling you there’s a 95% chance we have read every take, uncommon or not, on most common tropes before. If a story based on a common trope is going to stand out from the rest of the stories in that slush pile, it has to be sinisterly good with the concept to exceed my expectations given how many takes I’ve seen on any given trope that reading period.

Great works playing with tropes happen. In fact, it probably happens every reading period that there’s an exceptional take on a familiar trope that still manages to exceed the expectations I have for my reader’s time and money. It got me thinking of how using common tropes and plotting a story, in general, is like the anti-Family Feud game show.

If a hundred authors are given the exact same premise, regardless of the genre, a lot of them are going to tell multiples of the same general series of events. It’s why writing for a themed anthology is so difficult. To write a plotline that is different than most of the submissions in a way that stands the story out from the crowd is far more difficult than just writing a good story that says something about being human.

So instead of saying no one has heard your take on common story tropes, we should be far more specific. “No one has heard an author’s very unusual take on a common story trope before” is far more accurate to the current market. Though even having an unusual take is far more difficult than it sounds. I remember hearing an agent writing their query letter on a salmon-shaped card. It had stated that the author bet that the agent had never received a query letter on a salmon before.

They hadn’t. But a tuna-shaped query letter had arrived the week before.

The benefits of writerly procrastination

The last two books I wrote, I wrote at a pace of 10,000 words a week and completed both books in twelve weeks total. It took me almost twenty years to be able to do so. I didn’t write every day, I didn’t write every week, but when I did, I wrote my 2000 words usually before noon. You still won’t find a person more against daily quotas for non-professional writers than me.

Ten years ago, I realized what the feeling of not wanting to write had nothing to do with not wanting to write. I always want to write if I’m excited about what is going to happen next. What I hated beyond everything else, was trying to write not being excited about what to write next.

My brain has two states. The “on” state idles at 9000 rpm. The “off” state exists to just absorb the experience. If I don’t want to write, it’s because I don’t want to write what happens next. So I open up a video game and play until what it is about the next scene I don’t want to write resolves itself in the back of my brain while the frontal cortex is distracted by the bright and shiny explosions.

I may have a dozen ideas. I may have none. But when the right solution occurs to me, the video game loses all its appeal. The act of typing words into a computer is a series of hundreds of choices. What words to use, what mood to set, what tone to build, what tension to squeeze or relax, what conflict to build or collapse. I need to know what has to happen so that I can make it happen the best way I can. To try to do both at the same time leaves no time to consider alternate outcomes or solutions and divides my attention away from what I know the reader is reading for.

Beauty may not be truth in people but it is in theories. It is very difficult to learn how to do something and how to do it the best way possible at the same time. Only abnormally talented, highly intelligent writers seem to be able to do it. Up until the computer age, this was never a concern. Peer review was by invitation only and only in very privileged places. It feels poetically ironic that writers who never felt safe in the modern (still mostly white, still very privileged) critique group had the best chance of not being impacted by the blight of there are no rules .: don’t even learn them mentality.

Because now we have a problem I’m calling asymmetrical skill acquisition where writers can spend 10-15 years practicing only the static aspects of craft while telling themselves they’re just breaking the rules by not practicing plot, pacing, theme or tension.

To those writers, to bring up the fundamental moving aspects of craft means going right back to the drawing board. I’ve had to do that multiple times in my life where I had to question everything I thought I knew. Seeing how much work something is going to take in order to learn new skills by rote is enormous. It pushes career goals back years, if not decades. It makes some people seriously consider whether they have that time and energy to invest. The illusion that no rules means no learning or prolonged practice is necessary to succeed is insulated against critical thinking on multiple levels.

As much as asymmetrical skill acquisition is a problem to the modern learner, so is having an asymmetrical drive. Writers cannot want to be published more than they want to learn how to use all aspects of their craft.

Tips for online panel moderation

I had to scroll past a half year of my Facebook posts to find where I posted this on When Words Collide and then I had to scroll past half a year of WWC Facebook posts to post it here. But at least it will be more easily found the third time.

1. Put the next question you’re going to ask into the private panellist chat. This gives the guests time to think about the answer so there is no lull between questions as the brain has to fire up again from the downtime. It’s a bit of social theatre as you ask the question “for the first time” and they answer “off the cuff”, but there are no surprises.

2. Call the guest by name, clearly and slowly, and then ask the question. This is really important — They’re sitting in a room alone without any energy from the group to sustain them. Writers are an easily distractable group.

3. Alternate between who speaks first so every guest can have the first, easy answer and not just always have to think of what hasn’t been said.

4. Use your time management well. In a 50 minute session, there are only 5 minutes for introductions, 25 minutes of discussion, 10 minutes of audience questions and 10 minutes for final thoughts and promotion. Use a 20, 10 and 5 minutes warning.

5. If you’re not familiar with the topic, have 5-7 quick questions that can draw out the last 5-7 minutes in case the conversation falters. You can ask your presenters what are questions on the topic that they would like to be asked.

Authorial intent vs Reader’s Expectations

When I first joined IFWA, there was a member I didn’t like. It wasn’t her inferiority complex about her gender she wore like a cowl or her creepy obsession with her brother. It wasn’t even that she eventually tried to sue Calgary Expo for expecting her to respect the terms of service like a plebe. I don’t remember much about the story that set my opinion of her, but it was about an unpleasant nun and an unpleasant priest in a spaceship arguing with each other.

She asked me what I thought. I told her that I didn’t think it cared much about what the reader was getting out of the story. She looked at me strangely and said she didn’t care what her reader thought. She wrote for herself, only.

Which is fine, obviously. Publication doesn’t have to be everyone’s goal in writing, but it still annoyed me to my core. I wanted to ask her what she was doing in a critique group if she had no intention of listening to a critique.

Writers taking time out of their lives to help other writers through the mountain ranges between most writers and their publishing goals is a sacrifice we all make because any writer in the group would do the same. Some writers just want an audience to share their work.

But it made me realize that the author’s intent is probably the most prominent mountain range most under-published writers have to get through on their own before they can accept all the help available.

Between believing that the author’s intent is sacrosanct and there are no rules, I think writers can spend decades writing and not significantly improve. They’re the perfect cover for the human brain to never think it needs to do more than what it’s doing to accomplish its goals, no matter how far they are from them.

I’ll never forget how many first chapters full of just dialogue and description I saw in my MFA, but it feels like more than half of all submissions were precisely that. I spent three years watching learners have every one of their confirmation biases confirmed. If their intention was to tell the readers everything through dialogue, the draft couldn’t be altered in any way. To do so was an attack on the author’s intent. It was the most harm I’ve ever seen done to students in my educational career.

So much of my issue with my program was how presuppositional it was. I argued with bishops, not educators. The dogma that the reader’s experience was second to the author’s first draft intent was just worshipping at the altar of Our Lady of Shooting Oneself in the Foot.

To even question that maybe, a reader’s experience and authorial intention do not have to be at odds with each other if the piece’s goal is to sell to a commercial market was blasphemy. Structural edits were heresy to a program that taught what the writer meant to do is immutable and could not be infected with the evils of craft.

Hearing so many writers writing commercial fiction for commercial genres explaining that they don’t want to give the reader what the reader would want out of the story brought me right back to nuns and priests in space. But I wish I could have asked them why they’re paying tens of thousands of dollars to willingly learn absolutely nothing because while the bishops in the class were certainly better versed in the dogma than they were, my classmates were all lifelong converts.

It almost feels like an MLM, to be honest. The few writers talented enough to earn pink Cadalliacs/publishing experience teach the ocean of writers who want their own pink Cadalliacs to do the same actions they did to succeed. But it wasn’t the actions that led to their success; it was their cutthroat nature/innate writing ability. You can’t teach either of those things.

They have to be learned. But instructors who have always had enough innate writing ability to publish can’t teach what they don’t know how to do themselves. Putting their intention over the reader’s experience worked for them, and they didn’t have to learn their craft, so that methodology must work for all writers is what we call a “fallacy” in education.

Best gluten-free monster cookie recipe

You wouldn’t know they’re gluten-free from the crunchy exteriors and warm soft centres just off the cooling rack. When they are cool, they’re crisp and firm. I think the trick to these is beating the butter and peanut butter until it’s a pale beige and really beating the sugar and eggs until it’s fluffy.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

1 cup peanut butter

1/2 cup butter

2 cups brown sugar

2 eggs

1 1/2 cup whole oats

1 cup almond flour (not meal — might be too greasy)

1 tbs vanilla (we used clear vanilla for the birthday cake taste)

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 cup mix-ins x 3 (We used m&ms, tiny chocolate chips, and caramel and sea salt chips. Think outside the box. Potato chips would be good.)

Cream the butter and peanut butter until light beige.

Add the brown sugar and cream until fluffy

Add one egg at a time until they’ve completely disappeared

Stir the baking soda and salt into the oats and almond meal.

Add everything but the mix-ins and stir to combine.

Add the mix-ins and give it one more mix.

Monster cookies have to be monster, so use a heaping soup spoon to mound up six cookies per tray.

Bake 15-20 minutes until tops no longer feel wet.

Let cool 3-5 minutes on tray and move them to the cooling rack.

Three mistakes underpublished writers make but don’t see as mistakes

Writers are usually divided into unpublished and published, but I’d like to introduce a third category — the underpublished writer. These writers have a handful of sales that prove they can write a good story but still have more rejections than most unpublished writers.

I find the underpublished writer is the most challenging writer to teach because they have evidence their approach can work. I sold six amazing stories before realizing my amazing stories emerged fully formed. Of the dozens of stories that didn’t emerge fully formed, I had no idea how to manipulate them at a structural level in a way that allowed me to explore a story’s full potential.

I’ve found these underpublished writers all tend to want to break only these three rules without considering what they do to the story experience as a whole:

  1. They tell everything significant to the plot. The worldbuilding that exists beyond description and the main conflict are built through dialogue, what the protagonist already knows and explains through exposition or it’s something researched or read. When conflict arises, it’s usually dealt with through more dialogue.
  2. They confuse the conflict in the premise with conflict in the prose. The premise is the problem the story revolves around. Conflict is an oppositional force, internal or external, that keeps a character from their goals. A premise can have conflict — an angry lab assistant stole all the cold-weather gear in the arctic substation and if they don’t check the technobabble before the oncoming snowstorm the prime minister’s plane will crash. If the characters trying to solve the problem aren’t met with oppositional forces equal or greater than their existing skills, the tension in the piece suffers for it. For stories where everything is told, it leads to work where the protagonist talks their way out of any problem they’ve had to the point of the climax and then talks their way out of that as well. Even if it can be done well, it’s still the most common plot in the slush
  3. They think tension is optional. Conflict is not needed to drive tension. It is just the easiest way to drive it if the purpose of the story is to create a meaningful reader’s experience. But if there is no conflict in the story and nothing else drives tension it has to be exceptional or it doesn’t work. In commercial work where the premise is the conflict and the characters mostly talk, however, the lack of tension keeps the reader from being invested in reading it.

But they also believe that if something is intentional, it can’t be changed. So if the underpublished writer chooses to break the rule, their artist’s voice will be silenced if they change anything in the second draft.

But writers are in a fierce competition. They have to compete with everything else their readers could be doing. In a free market, the author’s work is one of the infinite demands on a finite amount of spending money. Even if the story is free, it still has to compete with anything else their reader could be doing with their spare time. Even if their reader wants to read and has time, it competes with every book or magazine the reader already owns, has borrowed, or exists in the bookstore.

Each time the reader puts the story down, it can be added to the “I’ll finish this when I feel like it’ pile. If the reward of the story doesn’t keep feeding them hits of what they find rewarding, it will be replaced with a better dopamine drip.

At no point do editors care what the author’s intention was if what they produced can’t meet expectations. Not including any meaningful conflict is a choice. But if the story has no tension because it has no conflict, it can’t compare to what an experienced writer can create. They tried to make their conflict drive the tension that pushed the character to grow to explore a theme that resonated with the reader. It can’t even compare to stories that don’t do any of that but still provide a rip-roaring ride. And it won’t hold a candle to the occasional story that has no conflict at all, yet the tension still cracks because someone else — more difficult to isolate than conflict — is fueling it.

Ask any experienced writer at the journeyman level in their career. Great stories get rejected all the time if the editor wants to go in a different direction. They have the skillset to convert a good story with an interesting premise into a great story through multiple structural rewrites, and that’s not enough to routinely sell.

I argued with most of my MFA instructors at least once a semester, asking when students would learn how to improve their stories on a structural level. Only one instructor actually answered me. They said they didn’t have time for my advanced techniques in a class that had Advanced in the name. Every instructor I talked to had “researcher” in their job title. Not one of them was curious enough to find out if the fact they teach the only thing that matters is ‘nice prose’ has any real-world application.

Imagine my surprise when the provost defended their program by claiming it used ‘best industry practice’ and then stopped responding.

Learning by deliberately not learning how to use the structures that most effectively produce meaningful prose is like learning to fly by throwing oneself to the ground. That the odd classmate and instructors can miss doesn’t mean that it’s a skill that can be learned. Some writers can exclude entire structures from their prose and build a beautiful reader’s experience.

Underpublished writers have far more work that doesn’t move the reader than work that does. Still, they refuse to learn how to better guide their readers’ experience through the craft designed for that purpose. The only rule they’d follow off a cliff is there there is absolutely no reason that work needs structural improvement. AKA what ‘there are rules’ is actually taught as meaning from semi-professional critique groups to MFAs.

A small portion of writers just wrote until they could deliver an experience to the reader that draws their attention away from anything else they could be doing. And even though these authors go out of their way to share what it took for them to get where they are, underpublished writers will agree with everything they say about how important those pesky foundational structures are for the reader’s experience. But they will still dismiss the need to practice using any of them because there are no rules, after all. Stories based on dialogue and description don’t need any other structure than a throughline to what they’ve arrived at the location to discover.

That story structure isn’t incorrect, but it is the most commonly used one. To stand out from the crowd of stories that already do it well requires even more of a far more unique or interesting take on the structure than a story about a character who just needs to solve their problem while they can impact each other.

Throwing yourself against the ground and missing is the most complex way to learn how to fly. Ultralight aircraft, like writing, don’t require a license to fly, but they need a lot of training to understand how to keep it in the air when the pilot wants it to be. If writers want to fly, they have to decide if they keep throwing themselves to the ground is more manageable than learning what all those buttons and levers do in an aircraft meant to keep the story from crashing the reader’s experience.

It is not easy, and it can take years to produce work that can compare favourably to the average slushpile out there. But to paraphrase the Princess Bride — Learning to write is difficult. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something. That time it would have taken learners to learn how all aspects of craft can work together will pass whether it is spent learning how to use all the tools in a writers’ toolbox or not.

So if a writer is not already flying at a level they define as successful, I ask them to check to see if there isn’t an Ira Glass’s Gap between them and those writers the current methodology works for. Education is more than informing learners that if Steinbeck doesn’t need meaningful character development, no story does. But that’s what creative writing instruction has become because it works for the tiny percentage who don’t need to be taught.

Breaking a few rules and tension fires

The author’s intentions can be sacred in creative writing instruction even if the market for that creative writing could not care less about it. If there is one thing I hate hearing after giving a critique that’s been asked for, it is the author protesting they meant to break a few rules. If they meant to tell the reader everything after the fact, they don’t need to show or have conflict. But that ignores the tension fire that needs constant tending to burn that all stories need at the very least.

The tension fire in the story is what keeps the readers warm and that warmth keeps them reading. The hotter and more meaningful it burns, the more the ideal reader is the palm of the author. Not all tension burns on conflict, of course. But a story based on the character trying to avoid what happens if they do nothing grows its own fodder to burn as the understanding of the problem gets larger. The greater the conflict, the more tension it creates when the cost of failure also escalates. It’s certainly not easy to do this well. A conflict-driven reader acclimatizes quickly to the ambient level of tension. They always want to feel warmer.

Not that tension fires always burn conflict. But fueling that fire takes far more effort than just keeping what a character knows a step behind what’s happening. Anything can burn in a tension fire, but the reader wants to feel as rewarded as the genre reader for their time invested in reading. Some work doesn’t even need a tension fire at all. We call those stories “significant literary award-winning Literature (with the big L).”

“I broke the rule on purpose” is certainly true when writers of a commercial genre choose not to include aspects of story. It’s hard to accidentally leave conflict out of a work and still have the story give the reader what they need if not what they exactly wanted. Publishing is a buyer’s paradise. No paying market has to settle for less than a rewarding experience to their reader. Work without conflict must stand on its own against all the great stories that used all of the tools in their writer’s toolbox and all the great stories that use fewer tools to build more than that.

For so many years, the creative writing community has let the fact that the easiest way to tell emotionally engaging stories is to learn how to use all the tools in the toobox as a reason to not need to learn them.

Climbing a mountain in Japan is not an easy task even if there’s a clear-marked path and vending machines along it. It still takes effort to climb. Climbing a mountain in North America past the tree-line is more difficult, but still easier than climbing mountains that have death zones. Fourteen mountains on earth have death zones but even that has varying levels of difficulties. No step along that chain needs to be “easy” to be easier than something that is more difficult.

Writing a story in which conflict drives an engaging story for the reader is the writing equivalent Cho Oyu, the easiest mountain to climb over 8000m. Doing the same without conflict fueling tension is like climbing Mt. Everest without supplemental oxygen.

When a writer “breaks a few rules” without compensating for that the lack of structure is arriving in base camp with less tools and less experience than all the seasoned mountain climbers have. Writing a story without conflict is like climbing a dangerous mountain without clamps. It can be done by the most experienced of climbers, but experienced climbers just trying to summit the mountain or tell a great story would go back and get such an important piece of equipment.

The one universal lesson objective I saw in my MFA was the absolute that only the author’s intentions matter. It was bad enough they taught conventional genres did not need anything to happen. They taught literary writers that literary fiction is just conventional fiction minus the conventions of fiction. Week after week over two different classes, the protagonist talked about who they were and their problems while other characters listened and explained things that the protagonist couldn’t. A small portion of the work was exquisite but the vast majority still needed to learn that showing the character doing more than talking develops better worlds, characters and problems.

Students will always think “breaking a few rules” is fine if they’re taught it is. Even if rules they break are “show what’s important to the reader to understand independent of the character” and “conflict is the easiest thing tension can burn.”

Or, as the rules we use to remind ourselves of those facts “Show, don’t tell” and “Stories need conflict.”