There are no rules — the most dangerous rule.

In the same way that “not politically-correct” is unironically the politically-correct word that racists and bigots call themselves to hide what they’re not politically-correct about, there are no rules is the only ironclad rule a lot of writers follow.

And I can’t judge. I believed there are no rules so much, I believed for years that if a story didn’t break a rule, it couldn’t be great. And because I can’t think I’m right unless I’m absolutely sure I’m right, I set out to prove it. Over three years I wrote dozens of short stories, and sold six of them.

But then I looked at my theory, compared it to real world results, and realized…there may be something to these rules after all. But I used to play chess as a kid. I loved it. A big swoop across the board to snipe a plum piece from the depths of enemy territory where it probably felt safest the most was a great pleasure. But the older I got, the more I realized I was playing against people who would ask if I was using _______ opening when and I’d be like, I made the pawn go forward. And while I did, occasionally still get to sweep across the board like the angel of death, it became a less frequent and farther apart move. I realized if I wanted to still play chess and have a chance to win, I had to actually study how to play.

And I didn’t want to. So while I’ll still play a random game for the lulz, I know how to move the chess pieces, but I can’t say I know how to play the game beyond the basics. This is why I think “There are no rules” is so dangerous. There’s a difference between the writers who break the rules and the writers who know how to break them.

During my MFA, what bothers me the most is how “but I did that on purpose” was a conversation killer. Because, obviously, I never once thought that the writer didn’t know the rule they were breaking. I didn’t think they understood what it was there for and what it was doing, but that was never part of the conversation. These were simple things, like show the important stuff, character should want something, or stories should start on page one. In my advanced 5XX class, Writing 101 wasn’t understood. And every time I tried to explain why showing the reader what the character is more afraid of will have far more impact on the reader that telling them what the character is afraid of. But that the fact that it’s told between telling the reader what the character wants and telling the reader what they hope for, it has no thunder at all.

My greatest growth came after the realization that if I didn’t understand what the rule was doing, I couldn’t break it on purpose, and just understanding what the rule was doing on the intellectual basis wasn’t showing up in my work. If I wanted to understand the rules, I had to follow them.

But I’d just moved to Lethbridge and sold my first semi-pro book. The more I learned, the more I realized just how foundational the foundations of writing is. Which sounds ridiculous, but breaking away from groupthink is something cult deprogrammers have to do. There is no groupthink louder in writing than the myth that rules don’t exist. Which isn’t what the rules are saying, but functionally, if any rule can be broken, then rules can only be suggestions at best.

I’m fairly certain every student in my class thinks I’m a massive traditionalist who thinks the only good story is a good story that doesn’t break the rules, no matter how much effort I put into explaining what I said. I could break any rule I wanted now, if I wanted, but most of my stories follow them because you can still tell amazing stories through conventional means.

Learning how to get the most out of a story through conventional storytelling was a hard enough journey when every new step built on what I’d just understood. I couldn’t imagine trying to figure all of that out through the unconventional path I was on. Before, a story only worked if it came out working. Now, I know I can fix it.

Writing every day (and why it’s like Snooker)

I’m on day three of deliberately writing at least 1500 words every day, just to dip my toe in the waters of this “having a schedule” thing. It’s not out of a need to be more productive — my lackadaisical eh-I-writes-when-I-feels-like-it schedule certainly hasn’t been a hinderance to my overall output, but I’m not certain I have the best solution until I’ve tried them all, and I’m not happy unless I’m certain about things.

My writing style has evolved to wanting to know where the major explosions are in the story before I start but leaving how I herd the characters to be standing over them when the time comes is down to the daily writing. I learned to love Star Trek behind my dad’s knees as he lay on the couch. But if it wasn’t TOS, it was Snooker tournaments.

Snooker’s a great game. You hit balls into holes until you can’t hit any more balls, then you do your best to bugger your opponent’s next shot. That’s me writing on a schedule. I write until I can’t write any more, and then I set up the next scene so that I have to go away and do some thinking as to how I’m going to get the characters out of this one. Your writing can’t be predictable if you don’t have a clue how it’s going to work until it does.

Some of the best scenes in my work comes from completely snookering myself into a corner with rabid bees bearing down on the characters in a tree which has already been set on fire. That’s what I worry about when I say okay, right, a schedule. Let’s do that. I have the attention span of a gnat and the internet has been designed to monetize what little I have of it into other people’s pockets. If I want my attention span on the thing that’s going to improve my life instead, I have to engage it.

Getting stuck is not something I could blunt force myself out of. In all the years I tried to just carry on and hope things sort themselves out, I just plough the problem deeper into the story. Ignoring it doesn’t make the problem go away. If there’s a lull in the story as it occurs naturally, it’s simple to just make the worst possible thing happen and carry on; upping the stakes always works to make the characters deal with Problem(old) and Problem(new) at the same time.

If it isn’t a lull, though, and I’m well and truly snookered or even when I know exactly what has to happen but I still can’t write it, there’s always something wrong. A stubborn simple bridging scene that needs to be three paragraphs and a significant observation has become the cornerstone of a major plot movement more times than I can count, and all because, rather than forcing myself to just write the stupid scene and get one with more awesome parts, I sat with the reason why writing it didn’t interest me until I made it into something that did.

And it’s that part of my process I’m worried about writing. I have gotten better at desnookering myself between writing sessions even when I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next at the end of the last day, but it’s that second case, when I know what I want to write but don’t want to write that I worry I’m going to lose. I like having an attention span that I use like a canary. If I’m not engaged enough to write it, I can guarantee no one will ever want to write something I had to force myself to do.

But you can fix anything in the rewrite. Except for the K-6 curriculum the Alberta gov’t is trying to pass as facts. That needs a do-over. But for day three, I’m happy with the progress so far.

Selling the larger than life character

Watching Shadow and Bone on Netflix really made me think about POV (point of view) and how important it is if you’re trying to sell the reader your larger-than-life character. I have always loved these characters, the Kaz’s and the Eugenides‘, for us book nerds. The smart character who usually wears gloves or has a cane or is just on the other side of sickly, but nonetheless. They’re always on the right side of just getting caught, unless getting caught was part of the plan and now they’re on to stage two.

That character. I love that character. But darn, those characters are hard to write. I’m watching Kaz and all I see so far is a character extra from A Clock-work Orange. On the show, Kaz just leads the pack on their journey to collect all the plot coupons they need to unlock the MacGuffin, but in the book, he was so much more interesting than just the brilliant leader.

Cameras can’t show POV to the same degree that narration can. Kaz may be outshot in some of his plays, but you never get the feeling from the episodes I’ve watched (and we’re only halfway though) is that Kaz never feels outgunned.

I realize the one thing that all larger than life characters need that Kaz doesn’t have at all is a character who is smarter than them, thwarting their every move so that they have to be better to succeed. While writing Kakotopia, deliberately didn’t give Jaque one enemy stronger than he was, I gave him two. And in the end, he had to deal with four. Failure was always not only an option but the most likely one at that. As smart and clever as he was, the system was designed for him to make any attempt at changing it fail. I wrote the first third of the novel knowing Jaque and all the resources he could muster would not be enough to fix his problem going into the story.

If you want strong protagonists who need to get stronger to win, give them enemies who are more likely to succeed than they are.

Nothing is more boring than a brilliant character watching a thing they planned to the minutia go right. Because if they’re always right, being right one more time gets boring. Watching a brilliant character be even more brilliant as their ex-brilliant plan goes down in smoke because no matter what, there is always a stronger enemy? Sign me up.

Hercules’ greek name translates to the woman who tried to kill him’s glory. Batman would be nothing without Joker. We would not remember Hannibal’s name if he was not the one to fight. Remember the other take-away lesson from Giles to Buffy: Ten vampires are always harder to kill than one. Failure should always be the best option.

Learning on the hard setting

The past few months, I’ve been trying to teach myself brush lettering. If there’s one thing I’m not going to be good at are things that demand both precision and looseness, and using a brush to write with is the ultimate of that. The rules are simple — thin lines on the upstrokes, thick lines on the down stroke, but my upstrokes always look like the spidery line had had a few pints before getting caught driving home.

But I had two pens. The easy one, that behaved like a brush, but was just flexible rubber and the other had long, individual brush hair. The first was so much easier to make it look good, but I have cats and they skittered it somewhere so I had to keep practicing with the long brush if I was to figure it out at all.

It was frustrating, going from something that sometimes looked like it was almost there to using a brush that made the letters look awful no matter how careful I thought I was being, but with the brush, there was no fudging it like the flexible rubber pen. Day after day I spent really concentrating on lifting the pen at the right spot or upstrokes that wavered less and less until they stopped wavering at all.

And then I found the pen that was so easy to use. After all that time with the difficult pen, using the brush that made it look easy with the techniques I learned having to do it the hard way was easy-peasy from the first time I put it down on paper again.

In my education degree, we had a tennis instructor come talk to us about teaching. He asked if you were teaching someone who had never played tennis before, if you would raise the net or lower it, and we all said lower it, obviously. Make it as easy as possible. He said no, you raise it. It makes using the skill easier, not harder.

And because I can’t go thirty seconds without thinking how anything applied to writing, it made me think of all the writers who told me that they understood the rule that they broke inefficiently was broken inefficiently on purpose. I wonder if they took the time to write enough stories where the character shows the reader their backstory enough times, how much clearer they would be able to see that the shortcut they gave the reader didn’t take them to the same place that the long way around would have.

I don’t need to know how your characters got from the end of the street fight to the tavern. You can tell me they arrived an hour later and I believe you. I’ll even follow you if up that point, you’ve shown all the important bits and the group comes in, talking about the manticore they had to slaughter to gain entry to the bar. Sure. Every book has a few opportunities to tell the reader something important. But if the rest of the story is told to that point, it’s just more telling. Pacing matters. You would think it didn’t for all the times I’ve been told the story is just fine if the rest of the critique group likes it. Show me you know how to show the moving parts of the story, I’ll think the manticore thing was hilarious instead of another missed opportunity to show the interesting bits on paper.

I absolutely agree that there are no rules. But if the story tells more of a story than it lives and the sum is less than its parts, there are lots and lots and lots of guidelines that has to be shown in the writing and not at the critique circle.

But anyway, I’m glad I found my pen. I’ve been wanting to learn how to write “happy birthday” on cards and have it look like sober spiders for a while now.

The cost of (public) failure in writing

I had a math teacher who only knew how to explain math to the students who already understood math. I decided watching her teach that the only math teachers who should be allowed to teach math must be the students who had to learn how to make sense of things that just came naturally to most math teachers.

I know, as a writer, I’ve had to figure out a lot of the moving parts of story. I mean, yes, POV is important, but how do you do POV? What individual choices can you make to shift the camera from recording what the characters do and say to reliving for the reader how the character thinks and feels isn’t a matter of sentence structure. I could get the student to slow down, to think of not just what happens but to imagine how that would feel to them and get them practicing scenes where every action has a reaction for the character. We could practice emotional reactions. Physical reactions. We could practice describing scenery, not just by what it looks like or how it makes the character feel, but how it does both of those while the character moves through the setting, picking out the important details that a character who is mostly focused on the task at hand would notice.

And I could do all that, because that’s how I figured it out. It was frustrating, taking the time to filter every thought through, “Right, but how would that *feel*?” until encorporating how it would would feel became second nature. But ask me, “Right, how do you write dialogue that matters?” I don’t really know.

If there’s one tool that I’ve always had in my toolbox, it was the ability to make meaningful dialogue feel like situationally appropriate conversation between two characters who didn’t know their dialogue was being recorded for posterity. Good dialogue is hard to do and nothing sinks a piece faster than dialogue that doesn’t feel like natural for me.

There’s advice I could give — brevity is really the soul of wit, end the conversation as naturally as possible after the point’s been made as possible. Never us a page to say what can be said in a look, etc, but I couldn’t walk them through the process step by step. Eventually, all my advice comes back to “Just write natural dialogue”.

The learning is in the doing, which means being willing to make mistakes. But when almost every story writers write today is for some form of immediate publication, I wonder where the freedom to practice and make mistakes comes in. I wonder what the true cost of failure is when every failure is also a public and commercial failure, too.

Story engines and seed growth

When I sit down to write a book, I usually have no idea what it is going to ultimately be about. I’m a character driven reader and writer, so it doesn’t matter what happens as long it tests my character to the furthest of their abilities and they have to change to succeed. I use a few cheats for this. When an idea first occurs to me I don’t sit down and write it until I know a few things about the world.

I need to know the protagonist, and what they’re trying to do at the start of the story. I need to know what’s immediately stopping them. I don’t need to know how that immediate roadblock ultimately runs into the predominate roadblock, but I trust future writer me to figure that out.

These are the parts of the story I need for my engine that will get me to the point where I (and the character) suddenly understand why the character’s life has been going so downhill so fast. Once all three parts are engaged, what happens next is limited only by my imagination.

I need to know what I’m trying to say, thematically. I’ve gone from thinking theme is the new clothes that the Emperor is/isn’t wearing to understanding that knowing what I’m trying to say on a thematic level should influence every major decision and every outcome so it’s always echoing somewhere in the story. It needs the lightest of touches or it’s going to feel like 2x4shadowing, but whatever the reader has to realize about the theme is what the character finally understands in the moment of their ultimate crisis. Knowing what that is from the start aims the entire story at that point.

And I need to know what it is about the world that is going to be different. Urban fantasy is a good place to start, but what about the setting sets the world at a slight angle from everything that’s come before.

Once I have all those pieces, whatever my character does to solve the problem at hand gives way to an adventure where the protagonist and I figure things out together. Here’s where the train metaphor becomes a harvester of early ideas. The more interesting seeds I cast, the more bountiful the eventual payoff when all these random occurances suddenly make complete sense once I use the theme to connect them in the rewrite. I never know which interesting thing that’s happening in the now of the store becomes the fulcrum of the story, but until I know for sure, it could be any of them.

I love trying to plant as many seeds as possible in the beginning of my work that can be cultivated as the story progresses. The more interesting I can make the world, the more opportunities I give awesome ideas to grow.

It’s why I think the learning has to be in the doing of the skill, and not in the end product. It’s not enough to do that a couple times and have something that doesn’t meander off tangents off cliffs. I still rewrite my drafts at least three times before I think the first draft is really finished. The first edit is practically a rewrite even if structurally, the story doesn’t change. Any great idea is followed, no matter how much work is needed to make it fit.

You learn what you practice, because it’s in the repeated doing that repeatable skills are learned.

Why Neil Gaiman is right about what he’s wrong about.

Two quotes that get passed down from writer to writer from famous authors are about as commonsensical as thinking Earth is flat. One is Stephen King’s formal for the second draft, which I’ve ranted about in the past. The other is Neil Gaiman’s quote about how the pros write when the amateurs wait for inspiration. Because what he says is absolutely right. He’s just wrong if he’s using the quote to suggest amateurs should write like pros if they want to be pros.

Amateur writers need to know the feeling of inspired writing. They need to hold it in their hand and dissect it like Beatrix Potter sliced open rabbits to see how they moved. If the author must hold still until inspiration settles like a spider web across the fingertips, it’s not a bad thing.

We didn’t stay hunter-gathers as a population for long, and neither will those who hunt inspired moments. It’s only a matter of time before those touched by inspired writing learn how to harness it, farm it, and make it reproduce itself at a much more convenient time than just when it feels like showing up. It’s human nature to domesticate our resources.

Instead, I see amateurs doing what the pros are doing because the pros are doing it and not understanding any reasoning behind it. If King writes 1500 words a day, so too should every writer. And if every writer hadn’t cut down the trees and pulled up the roots, tilled the soil and irrigated it properly to be able to produce 1500 words of plot each day, what fills up those pages isn’t going to be story. Could it be rewritten from the ground up once it’s completed to cut out all that deadwood that got pulled up instead of fruitful crops? Yes. Will it be?

Rewriting is a whole separate skill to learn beyond just writing first drafts.

There are more differences between the pros and the non-pros than how much and when they write. Learning how to weave a story together in a way that delivers a rich reader’s experience is a skill that takes time to practice and get better at.

So Gaiman is right. Amateurs should wait for inspiration, but just so they can memorize the sensation of its heartbeat in the tips of the fingers. Having the skillset to recreate that sensation on command is the real difference between pros and amateurs.

Infodumping conversations

Infodumping has a bad rap until you let Rob Sawyer defend its reputation, and then you start nodding along and agreeing with him. So when I’m talking about this kind of infodumping, it’s not the kind of infodump where you stop the story to handwave away the physics of interplanetary travel that we’re not capable of with all of today’s technology. As long as it’s engaging, it’s in play.

What I’m talking about isn’t so much the “As you know, Bob” conversations, but the “I know Bob, let me tell you about him, now that you need to know this” conversations. There are times you can get away with rehashing old information both characters already know. People IRL do this all the time. It can feel very natural to have two people about to break up their marriage rehash every sore wrong because they don’t want to take out the trash.

There’s probably even a great time in a work where Character A tells Character B precisely what they need to know and have it sing off the page. You may be able to get away with using this a couple of times in a novel-length piece. Where it starts to drag is where it becomes a primary method of telling your characters and readers what they need to know.

Even through dialogue, it’s still telling. And even if you show the characters talking, it is the least exciting method of conveying that bit of information? There’s a reason that the bad guy spilling their guts over their evil plan only feels satisfying if the protagonists had to work very hard for that information.

Knowledge in the story has to be earned for it to have weight and value. To talk about my method, I write my stories so that almost no new information comes out in the second half. Every part of the first half is in the first half because it sets up things in the second half. By the time the reader gets to where they have to know a plot point, they already know it, just before it’s needed.

It’s why I don’t have three acts. I have football games. The first half is a build-up, from the start of the beginning to the halfway point. All the stakes are in place before the spectacular halftime show that is the point of no return. It’s then a downhill race to get from the beginning of the end to the end of the end as I tie up all the loose strings I cut in the first half.

I worked a kitchen job for one summer over my undergrad, and it was enough that I tip 20% to the waitress no matter the quality of the food ever since. But I never forgot my boss saying, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” For writing, if your characters have time to lean, they have time to scream. I think characters that stand around and talk should be the exception, not the rule. If the reader needs to read a conversation, either the stakes have to matter so the reader is on the edge of their seat, or the characters should be doing something else that’s important to the plot while they’re having the conversation.

One hundred thousand words aren’t that much to tell an engaging work. To waste it on characters telling other characters what they need to know more than once or twice just feels wasteful. Considering a story is defined by how the character changes, using dialogue to show the characters what they need to know isn’t going to change them as much as having earned it.

Egg dropping and storytelling

Have you ever done that thing in school where you’re given an egg and told to make it survive a long fall by whatever means you could through whatever supplies you could find? That’s storytelling to me, but the egg isn’t the character; it’s the reader you’re trying to make feel something.

I never started to embrace reading other people’s work as the best way to learn until we were at a brunch and critique IFWA did. I can’t remember who was waiting at the hostess stand when we arrived, but I knew I didn’t know her name with 100% accuracy. I asked her, as a writerly conversation, if she was enjoying giving the critiques so far.

“Not really,” she said. It surprised me. I didn’t think anyone liked to critique, but we only did it to get our stuff critiqued. But that was saying the quiet parts out loud. As though reading my mind, she continued. “I only do it to get my stuff read.”

Which, I mean, so had I, ten seconds ago. But hearing my rationale from someone else’s mouth drove me to prove how wrong it was. “But it’s so useful,” I argued.

“How?” she asked. At this point, I’m mostly making up the conversation, but I promise it remains true to the spirit of the one we had.

I can’t remember if this was before or after realizing that as writers, we were all making identical mistakes but were able to justify it to ourselves that it worked despite the shortcuts taken to delivering the full emotional experience to the reader. I was years away from understanding that the rules aren’t the rules because some dead white guy said so, but because through the years of craft, the easiest ways to do things become set in stone. The easiest way to get your reader to respond to the piece emotionally is by having an empathetic main character. They should realize that who they are as a person at the beginning of the story has to change to be the character they need to challenge, if not overcome, the challenge they’re facing. Saving the world or a marriage, it doesn’t matter what the stakes are.

And yet, I kept seeing stories taking shortcuts. The easiest way for the reader to feel engaged in the story is to have conflict and stakes. Something needs to oppose them from getting what they want or keeping what they have, and it has to matter why they want it. The easiest way for a reader to want to read to the end is to make the reader understand where the character is coming from, even if that isn’t the reader’s history. The easiest way to not blow that is to keep the character’s reactions to what the average reader would find on the outer rim of what that reader would do in the same situation. It is possible to write a story where the character’s reactions are beyond what a reader would empathize with. There are lots of modern classics that can do that. However, they set the bar to how good the exception has to be to still work despite the lack of empathy. An empathetic character needs to tell a good story. An unempathetic character needs to tell a great one.

This is why the whole contraption the egg sits in is the story, and the reader is the egg. Your account of it takes your reader through an event as though you’re about to throw your story off the roof of the gym. How that reader survives the trip, safe and secure or battered and broken, is up to the strength of the story. You may want your egg to survive. You may want it to shatter into a million pieces. But an egg that never falls doesn’t live through an experience.

The most important part of the story is how I feel when I finish it, but so many stories want to tell you what happens instead of how the character grows having experienced it. The easiest way to get the reader to care is to give them something worth being cared about, however your ideal reader defines it. It reminds me of the legend of the Golem. Without a song or prayer in its mouth, it’s just a lump a clay. A story without a reason to emotionally engage the reader to me is just as responsive.

Rejection, then and now.

When I was 25, I didn’t wear my heart on my sleeve, my sleeve was made of my heart. If I had to pinpoint the worst years of my life, it would be my early to mid-twenties. If I wasn’t writing, I’d have no idea what to do with (to quote Troy from community, “MY EMOTIONS! MY EMOTIONS.”)

So I wrote this book. I’d imagined was going to be the book that was going to complete my childhood dream of being published before 25. I’d just sold a couple short stories to some excellent semi pro-markets and I thought this was the next logical step.

And Boston had been magical. I’d listened to Neil Gaiman read, I had him and Sir Terry Pratchett sign a copy of Good Omens, one of my wife’s favourite books even though it took probably most of a day in line to get them both to sign it. The panels had been great — The Tor panel on what to expect as a first time author as in published author was probably the most I’d learned in a panel. When Anna and I decided to skip the last day to go to Salem, because Salem was only a train ride away, we both jumped at the chance to get away.

Salem was amazing. As cheezy and commercial as anything you could imagine, and extremely modern considering in the seventies, they’d knocked down the old jail that had kept the actual “witches” (read, good Christians who wouldn’t give up their faith or the lands though it cost them their lives) to build a power company building. The graveyard was epic. There was this old oak tree that had probably greeted the first townies as they arrived. It had this one jutting out branch that ran parallel to the earth almost as long as the tree was tall, and so strong and thick that Anna could run on it. The gravestones were written in a time before S and F were two different letters.

So of course we got our cards read, and the sum of mine said “Not yet.” Man, I was upset walking out of that room, but I have to say, I hated the submission process. I’d sent out a couple of queries prior to the convention, and had gotten form letters. My god, they stung. All I needed to hear was one “no” and that story was never opened again.

But I was extremely lucky. I’d submitted a book to Loose Id that I’d written as a birthday present to a friend and sent it in before going to Boston on a lark. After that, my books from MLR, Amber Quill and Less than Three were all invitations. As long as I didn’t have to worry about rejection, I was writing my heart out, pumping out four books a year.

Then it took three years to get my heart back. In that cavernous silence in which I didn’t write anything for the first time since age 11, I decided in a fit of wisdom to go back and get my MFA. I hadn’t written in three years, but really, it was the perfect time.

And then the words came back and I’m twenty years older than that broken kid on a flight back to Calgary. My heart’s back in my chest where it belongs. Rejection just means the inconvenience of having to find the next person who will be able to see what I put into Kakotopia.

There’s three ways to get published in this world. Be great, be lucky, or be incredibly stubborn and learn how to grow between being good and being great. I was never a great writer. I had some skills, but the weaknesses dragged the story down more than the strengths made them float.

I think there comes a point where rejections are just rejections and I move on. I’m not great. I’m not lucky. I’m skilled and stubborn and happy with my choices. When I started out, each one sure felt like the death of my dream. What a difference time makes.