UBC as bad example

Birthday wisdom through the years

It’s my birthday today, and I’m officially in the second half of life.

At age 11, I decided I was going to write. So I did. It was the only thing that got me through my public education. As long as I could quietly write at my desk and listen to what the teachers had to say, I coasted through school effortlessly. I was going to be a published author by the age of 25.

A few weeks before my 25th birthday, I sold my first short story. We’d gone to the Bog People exhibit at the Glenbow and walking through the exhibits, I figured out why POV was so important and why it needed to work.

At 32, I realized that while I could (very) occasionally write really great short stories, my writing skills weren’t nearly good enough to control the pace a novel needed to tell a constructed story that feels organic, start to finish. What read as organic came to me as a complete picture. What I had to create out of nothing felt stiff and unnatural. Realizing it would take at least fifteen years to get what didn’t come naturally to read as though it did, I got started.

At 33, I sold my first novel using my new method of concentrating just on tension and conflict. Until the age of 39, I was writing 3-4 books a year, practicing front loading a story full of a character with a weird and wonderful and figuring out the plot as I went.

From 39-42, I didn’t write a single word. I also couldn’t get the idea of getting my MFA out of my mind. It was a yearning I felt every time the world was silent for more than a minute.

At 42, I realized I wanted to start writing again. I couldn’t concentrate on my screen after three years of using it as a dopamine drip, so I put it down and wrote a book longhand. Then, when the internet was still was too much draw that Word couldn’t hold my attention, I wrote a second book on my tablet.

But I could write a third book on my computer. Writing had become the thing I wanted to do the most if I had nothing else to do.

Just after my 44th birthday, just after writing four books back to back to back, I got accepted in the UBC MFA program for creative writing. I was over the moon.

The joy didn’t last. By the first month of class, I was worried.

By my 46th birthday, I was absolutely sure that the program had a terrible pedagogy. After the Chair got off scott free for their harassment and their multiple actions that fit the literal definition of what the UBC’s policies defined as “actions harmful to a respectful environment” I started Kakotopia and found my voice and my world.

By my 47th birthday, the Chair had confirmed her program didn’t have a bad pedagogy, it had no pedagogy at all.

And now, by my 48th birthday, the first Kakotopia trilogy is complete and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, hands down. We’re waiting for the Ombudspeople to actually tell the UBC they have to follow *all* their policies, not just the ones their employees didn’t break, but it’s receeding further and further in my rear view mirror.

But dealing with the ignorance of people who think policy is a suggestion or they could “downgrade” academic freedom to freedom of expression gave me the oppressive power structure of Kakotopia. It came from having an entire institution try to silence me.

But it’s been an amazing ride. I’ve always chosen the path of most resistance. I started questioning the path of least resistance almost as soon as I started speaking. I wouldn’t have stepped off the path of most resistance if I could have.

the importance of value in writing

I wrote book three first because that felt like the beginning of the story. But the next step of their process was to defeat capitalism itself and for that to work, he needed to start in a historic context.

So, earlier generational stories were needing building to this generational battle. But I’d started writing book five, unknowingly and working backwards from that point took hours and hours and hours of staring into the void, fitting each little piece together.

It was like following a magical string. I know what each generation of people have to accomplish in order to set out what they need to achieve to make the plot work. I’ll figure out how the big picture gets done in the day-to-day decision of writing out how ??? becomes the goal of the next 5000 words becomes the actual thing the characters have to do to accomplish the tasks to accomplish the goal.

But it takes a lot of wrong choices or absolute silence to come up to the actions the ??? needs to accomplish X which needs to ultimately leads to the events of the big picture. I never see more than a few thousand words ahead but I’ll always trust the ??? will become plot when it needs to.

I think it lets me jump off a lot more cliffs. I don’t need to know how the character solves this new complication. That’s future!Barb’s problem. And figuring out how that solution can be made even more meaningful is a future2Barb’s concern. Most of the time when I’m out of plot and set up the next plot snooker, I wish them luck. Who knows how this me would solve it.

And then, I stop writing. Sometimes all it takes is closing Word down. Sometimes I have to brush my teeth. And sometimes I play endless rounds of tower defence until even I get bored of the skinner box, and in those moments of boredom are a stand-off between me and my ADHD attention. Find me a plot that’s interesting enough to engage me or it’s monkeys exploding balloons forever.

And sure enough, once I really think on it hard enough in the moments my dopamine seeking attention is blasting balloons at a rate that is just a screen full of explosions, the solution comes to me. This character needs to do that to have that whole plotline ignite.

And then I close down the exploding balloon screen and write until I need to snooker myself again and the next path from X to Y goes from ??? to characters do XYZ.

The market that fills up the readership that truly captures something amazing in nothing really happening at all isn’t interested in stories in which nothing really happens at all. Tension held together with almost nothing happening is the finest example of craft. Not providing conflict to interfere with the character’s goals if they have goals at all in any kind of commercially aimed work is not the same thing.

And yet, it was taught as the same. It didn’t matter if the story didn’t have tension. It didn’t matter if it didn’t have conflict or character development while tackling a question that matters. When absolutely, it needs all those things to work together. Because to not do that is to tell a story that doesn’t need all that and still tells a great story in the actions of the character.

Not using the story-building skills of fiction doesn’t break any rules, it excludes vital aspects of fiction readers need to invest in the story. Stories that work without them stand alone as exemplars in the literary canon. They have never proven until the last ten years or so that foundational structures of fiction aren’t needed.

That a writer if the instructor’s calibre could take the premise on the table and rewrite it in a way in which nothing needs to happen and it still tell that meaningful tale is irrelevant to the lesson at hand unless they can break down, exactly, how the learner could do the same.

Baby birds are thrown out of the nest because their parents can fly and not all the babies make it. It is a terrible teaching method.

But the student doesn’t know they’re not doing that to begin with. I clued in early in this program that the unintentional outcome of this methodology was that it reinforced the idea that nice prose was all that mattered when it “teaches” that every story in which everything is told to the reader in dialogue is just as good as showing the reader what mattered.

There was no exception, not once. Sure, everyone knows, in the theoretical that “things need to happen in fiction” but not once in class did any student find an example of a story in which nothing happened to the character and it impacted the quality of the story. Not if it was young adult, not if it was genre fiction. Certainly not if it was speculative fiction.

Everyone was writing to the market in which the reader didn’t care if nothing actually happened. And any opinion that that market has its choice of brilliant work in which nothing happens and it still matters greatly was not permitted to be shared.

I played ball because I thought I just disagreed with the program’s pedagogy, not that it didn’t have any. That it didn’t have any that the chair could explain should have been treated as an educational scandal. No one can use this method and attribute their success to the methodology because the methodology has no way to work.

Because the only way it works is to write at a level where the only thing the story requires is the average level of polish an MFA instructor needs to put into their work. If a learner needs more work on a structural level than ‘just polish the prose and you’re good’ level, they’re hooped. Because they also learn all their work needs is a polish and they, too, will be good.

The UBC’s methodology only works if the only acceptable message shared is ‘only nice prose matters’ because that’s what most of the students believe is the only skill that matters. If an opinion was held otherwise, the lessons couldn’t be “gentle” which would break the provost’s “pedagogy” that he put in writing.

The most important thing the university needs from the student is their glowing evaluation. As long as it’s given in the glow of having spent tens of thousands of dollars and years of their labour they have a degree that says they’ve been right all along — none of that craft stuff matters — the system works perfectly.

If they ever face the reality that their university deliberately lied to them because the easiest methodology to teach is “just be able to produce what draws readers to fiction on your own. We can help you with the rest” they would be broken-hearted.

But their evaluation eternally glows.

That the only part the ombudspeople can care about after all that damage to learners is whether or not “Going Big Brother on the message” violates a student’s academic freedom or their right to a respectful environment is disgusting.

There’s no help at all for students being taught the lie that the only thing that matters in achieving their goals is just doing that thing that they are already good at. That’s not teaching. That’s cheerleading. The critique of the individual plays of the game comes later. The cheerleading is just for morale’s sake.

writing to the unexpected moments

Donald Maass’s advice on characterization in the first scene of the story is still some of the best writing advice I’d ever heard. He says the heroic character has to do something ordinary, the everyman character has to do something heroic and the wounded protagonist has to want to be better, even if they couldn’t if they tried at the start of the story.

But it wasn’t until I read a story that our On Spec’s intern wrote that I realized it’s not about what the character does, it’s about the reader’s expectation. A character doesn’t have to do anything specific but they should act in a way that is unexpected, given the situation they’re in.

Unexpected moments rap the reader’s attention and hold it long enough to find out why that unexpected thing happened. And if they’re turning the page so find out, you have them as long as the momentum continues.

Moving your character out of their comfort zone as soon as possible, to me, makes better sense than Maass’ descriptive advice. When the character isn’t comfortable, POV tightens, suspicions grow and the emotion negatively influences not only what the character notices but how they perceive it. When they are comfortable, the reader is too.

I had a thousand-word gap I needed to fill to meet the structure the story established. I knew what had to happen, but I couldn’t see how it happened for the life of me. I spent two days trying to put shapes in the spot to fill it up, and none of them worked. It wasn’t until I was brushing my teeth at the end of the second day that I could see what scenes needed to play out to make what needs to be learned fit the story.

Divergent thinking is so important for writers to practice as much as any other story or world-building skill. Coming up with ideas that suit the story, tone and existing story is something I probably spend three hours doing for every hour I spend writing. On the days I’m writing, there’s a 50% chance anything I say is going to plot related. My wife knows the characters of the work I’m writing as though they were co-workers of mine and I’m discussing their trials and foibles behind their backs.

Outside of the slushpile, it is rare to find a story that has the ability to subvert the reader’s expectations and those stories are a rare find in a slushpile. My MFA took all the time in the world to help writers learn how to polish the prose they’d already written but they didn’t spend a moment trying to help it be what it could be.

I’ve always found the initial story to come to me in two parts. One part is the general concept. The second is how I can make that general concept unique. I’ve carried part ones of story ideas around for years before I found that second part that from the first page, moves the story in a different direction. Once I know that, stories tend to write themselves when I’m not staring at the wall trying to form ideas out of nothing.

Divergent thinking is a skill that needs to be practiced as much as polish and prose. It’s why I think originality is learned as much as any skill involved in writing and why writing boards are filled with newbie questions of how to write a sympathetic antagonist without ever having written a non-sympathetic antagonist. It’s asking how does a child run once they figure out this crawling business. There’s a whole other step to be learned.

But that’s writing. Writers who have yet to learn to crawl want to run. As the story-building skills increase, what they can capture inside of it grows as well. It does not matter how fifty people would have written a sympathetic antagonist. It only matters how the individual author will write theirs. The learning in skill acquisition is in the doing of the skill, not in the asking questions stage.

One lesson my MFA taught was that readers never need their expectations played with. If what happens is predictable or if nothing happens at all, it’s fine. It’s a death knell for stories in markets where the supply of great stories exceeds the demand.

organic flow, nice soup cans, and plot

If there’s one story I quoted more than any during my MFA degree, it was the Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner. If you can get past the huge info-dump world-building section of the first chapter, it’s an amazing ride.

There is so much to love about the second and third books that the first book can feel a little like the Hobbit. But even as the most linear of the three, its first-person narrator is one of the greatest examples of hoodwinking the reader right out in the open.

It’s the kind of story that you immediately start rereading because you know the author’s contradicted the surprise ending at least once. Because it’s in a first-person POV yet still manages to keep something so monumental from the reader, it’s a masterclass of misdirection. On the second read, it’s clear the character never contradicts the ending once. You just misread what they said.

It’s brilliant. I can’t stress that enough. Run, don’t walk to read the series before the Disney+ show comes out.

The author took twenty-one years to tell a five-book series. Each book took years to write. You would never guess that from reading them. It’s one of those stories in which everything can change about what happened with a new piece of information she skillfully provides you. What happens is never what happens until you see what really happened.

If you believed in the myth of the perfect first draft, this series would be the series you’d be thinking of. It reads as though the story call came out in one continuous flow of actions that can’t be fully conceptualized until all the pieces have come together.

We never spent a day talking about plot in my program. Not to evaluate it or improve it. The plot of the work was assumed to be immutable despite the first draft work being written specifically for the class to be critiqued by their peers. Only prose-level discussion was ever warranted, whether the prose just needed a light buffing or it was a genre novel in which the character doesn’t have concerns for the first three chapters.

Building the feeling of a work that was written in one continual push is the hardest kind of writing to do. It requires true inspiration — which is hard to plan on having — or ad nauseam rewrites if necessary. It’s being willing to make the changes necessary until it feels pitch perfect and not settling for less than that.

Readers won’t settle. They don’t have to. I met the first person who could have taught at my MFA back in the early 2000s. He couldn’t be convinced that the fact Twilight exists means that all writing is marketing and quality will never matter again. The example he gave was about finding a million people who were willing to just buy the soup can without any soup in it would make him a millionaire.

He was a math teacher, not an economist. He knew nothing about the cost of acquisition. The time and money needed to find a million people willing to spend a dollar on nothing would far exceed any net profit of selling the empty soup cans.

The one thing I hear over and over in my MFA and out is “I don’t want to make my writing more engaging for the reader.” They want to appeal to the reader who isn’t reading to be engaged by the work.

There are a lot of people who need empty soup cans in their life for various reasons. There may be readers who love stories that don’t ask them to get involved in a character with a story they want to follow. Finding them is going to be prohibitively expensive in a huge market of people who would rather have the soup in the can and a character that matters than just a great setting/soup can.

The reader has near infinite choice of work they’ve already purchased within arms reach of where they usually sit or sleep. To entice them to buy something new and then read it over everything they already own is where the real need for an engaging story happens. Not just to entice the reader to buy it, but to entice them to start it and then entice them to keep reading to the end.

There is absolutely no marketing in a bookstore better than having a reader remember how much they got out of the last book by the same author. It’s why word-of-mouth is always better than the best SEO.

Building that experience isn’t easy if the ability to do so didn’t come preinstalled. Soup can guy is a charismatic speaker and his first book was critically acclaimed. His readers weren’t buying soup cans, they were buying complicated work of POV. He sold the idea to others that their work just needed to be soup cans and when Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey were selling millions of copies each, it wasn’t hard to imagine he was right if you were predisposed to believe your writing just needs marketing.

But those books are the definition of “bad writing” but they deeply engaged their ideal reader with hot, soupy goodness. Beautifully written work that doesn’t want to engage the reader to care is the nicely designed soup can. A market may exist, but good luck finding it.

Universities should not be able to sell the lie that work doesn’t need any foundational structure beyond description, exposition and dialogue to sell to any existing market. It’s a lie sold the program sells deliberately. If students are so gently treated that their knowledge is never challenged then why is the program in an academic institution?

The Federal Government promises me that masters are at the forefront of academia. Name one pedagogical approach that survived the 70s that had students assume that nothing needs to be learned and be told they’re right to assume so?

on being the “average” writer

I suppose I was lucky in that I was never the average writer. For the first ten years of my time in the writing community, I was a below-average writer. My strengths lay in plot and story, not prose.

Sometimes what I wrote touched the face of god and sometimes it was about a character that did things. But even at the level of the character that did things my writing was sometimes almost unreadable.

I can blame an ADHD brain that hated revision with a thousand endless passions. Going over what had already been written felt like going over a cheese grater. With my tongue. And then eating salt and vinegar kettle chips dipped in hot sauce and hellfire.

But when it all came together, some stories just worked. Where as most didn’t work “on the interesting character who at least does engaging stuff, even if it doesn’t change them” level. When my stories worked on that level, they told a rip-roaring adventure. When they told a rip adventure, a roaring adventure or just a plain old ordinary adventure it just didn’t tell itself well enough.

The novel that made me realize I still had a lot to learn had been through multiple critiques at that point. I thought I’d ironed all the problems out. But seeing it again for the first time, I saw how many shortcuts I was taking by telling the reader everything I didn’t know how to show yet. Most importantly I saw how the story I saw happening and the story I managed to capture weren’t the same story at all.

If I had seen the average quality of work from the average writer — a clearly written story — I might not have ever come to my conclusion. It’s easy to see bad writing. It’s more difficult to see story weaknesses in polished prose.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about finding the right school by finding a school where a student would be in the top half of the class because that has more of a significant advantage in life than graduating from an Ivy League school.

I think the opposite effect happens to writers who are better than most of the writers in their writing group, not even thinking about how many critique groups there are across every town or city that has one. Being a big fish in a small pond has its advantages. But ponds are a small body of water and there are thousands of them. The slush pile is full of work from writers who swim in much bigger lakes and rivers plus all those other big pond fish.

But it doesn’t matter if a learner is in the bottom half of the class at Harvard. We compare ourselves to what’s around us and not to the greater population. Universities mark on a curve to make marks more relative to the general knowledge of the population it’s trying to grade. It means getting 38% on a test could be an A+ effort if everyone else did poorer, but an 84% is only a B- if everyone did very well.

Writers are marked on the same curve, only we call it a slush pile. The average story in it is about a character that does stuff and a lot of that stuff is talking. An engaging story about a character who tries to solve their own problems is rarer. A meaningful story about an engaging character whose journey is as rich as the destination is a rare and precious find.

The novel I brought to Boston with me, to my mind, was a prime example of a meaningful, engaging story and no one could convince me otherwise. On the way to Calgary again, what was great about the story was hampered too much by its flaws.

The average writer who can’t recognize structural weaknesses in other people’s work stops their own learning process. If a learner can’t see how a story they didn’t write can be made more engaging, they won’t consider any work should be made so. Their own work especially.

the dunning kruger effect, the illusion of control, and writers

I always thought taking money from writers was a particularly easy confidence game. Selling people what they want to buy is an easy, legitimate strategy, but the Dunning Kruger Effect takes a particular toll on writers. It leaves us vulnerable to less than ethical individuals.

Vanity presses sopped up tens of thousands of dollars with each of their emerald and sapphire package that promised the writer everything but the kitchen sink. It delivered boxes and boxes of unsellable books. “Publishers” like Commonweath Publishing in Edmonton and PublishAmerica in the States “bought” books from authors for pennies and held up their rights for years.

At least Commonweath went under quickly. PublishAmerica is now “American Star Books” and it’s been in business for more than two decades despite its less than sterling reputation.

The desire for the mind to fool itself is a wonder to behold. One of the forums I used to lurk on had an entire subforum dedicated to the American vanity publisher. Reading post after post of writers who either didn’t know to look for or had willingly ignored all the red flags and warnings about the “publisher” they were going to sign up was heartbreaking.

Some people would look at the number of personal stories all telling the same story and think there must be more than one sucker born every minute. But that would be a cruel assessment. Just knowing about the Dunning Kruger Effect doesn’t negate its effects. When asked to evaluate their own work, subjects aren’t likely to change their evaluation of their work even after learning that people tend to overvalue what they’ve done. The “average” person might be “fooled” by the effect, but the average person can’t think of themselves as an average person.

The biggest criticism of the effect is that people tend to think there are people susceptible to the Dunning Kruger Effect and people who are not, and every single person believes that they are not.

My classwork was a study in the illusion of control. As long as the class decided the highly competitive market only cares about the static foundational structures that describe what the character sees, says and knows, the program could teach to that ideal. Their methodology ignores all the other structures of fiction that create the dynamic elements of fiction that readers are moved by but the illusion of control is fuelled by magical thinking.

Publishamerica was so well known as a scam that warnings were plastered across the internet to the point where they had to change their name. They promised their authors an experience on par with being traditionally published and then were bombarded with high-pressure purchasing tactics that harnessed the power of FOMO by promising to send a copy of every book that sold a ridiculous amount of copies to Oprah Winfrey for her book club.

Did they? Why knows. Ms. Winfrey probably got tonnes of books submitted to her office on spec. But an author who submitted their life’s work to the first google search result may not understand what the requirements for the book club was and — more to the point — they want to believe their publisher isn’t lying to them.

Each letter by an author who was made older and wiser than before they gave their book away for a dollar. Every story was different but the level of betrayal was always the same.

For a Masters program to meet federal quality assurances, it must be at the forefront of academia and its profession. The University of British Columbia doesn’t have a pedagogical approach, which pisses on its academic requirements. It teaches students craft doesn’t even need to be learned, which pisses on writing as a profession.

But there are no red flags across the internet. Writers are told on the UBC website that they’ll be getting craft-based literary excellence in their instruction. The mission statement will promise them the program will be rigorously craft-based.

But the instruction they will get will be steeped in Dunning Kruger. Most students told their story through dialogue instead of showing the reader the world through the protagonist’s actions. It wasn’t seen as a mistake or it would have been a mistake for all of them.

Learning to show the reader the world takes practice.

The Chair, the Dean of Graduate Studies, a pedagogist, the Vice President of Academics, and the president didn’t see anything wrong with having a “pedagogy” that no one could explain on an academic level. it’s okay that their creative writing program was “taught” with a non-repeatable method the average learner couldn’t expect to learn from, having paid for their program.

It was fine because the evaluations told them students love giving up their long-term career goals for short-term ego buffing. As long excellent writers also take their program, they will continue to design their program to assume the learners will learn how to write meaningful work on their own. The UBC program only wants to teach polishing methods.

Instructors have a choice. They can teach what’s true or they can teach what has collectively been agreed as true. There’s a reason some Americans need to ban Critical Race Theory.

Creative writing instruction follows the exact same path. They can teach what’s true — most work needs revision and that revision is hard work— or they can teach what’s easy — writers should never sacrifice the structure of their first draft to craft a better reader’s experience.

The biggest lie most writers want to believe is we just need to be discovered. We already have the “telling great stories” down pat. But being discovered is an external process while learning how to write more meaningful stories that can be discovered is an internal one.

I remember how hot the humiliation had felt when I realized an agent out there was going to read the novel I’d just submitted and see it for the half-baked, unfinished work that it was. I had opened my manuscript to reassure myself that my novel was great after a seed of doubt had taken root that it wasn’t.

My novel wasn’t great at all. It would walk up to an amazing scene that — had I known how — would have shown the reader truly meaningful moments. Instead, I saw a clear pattern. If the scene had come to me like a filmed movie clip and all I had to do was transcribe what I “saw” the scene worked almost every time.

But the book only had moments of excellence. Most times, I’d walk up to that meaningful moment and then do everything I could to avoid the big moment itself. What I didn’t know how to show I told through dialogue. Complicated situations always had a simple solution that always avoided the complicated scene it would have taken to convey that moment honestly. I handwaved a lot of complications away.

Writers I respected told me 100s of times in 100s of different ways that significant moments almost always had to be shown to be felt. It took a tarot reading as a skeptic to finally hear it. I saw my manuscript only told what I couldn’t show yet.

Artistic vision is vital in crafting a better reader’s experience and yet the two concepts are taught as mutually exclusive. Any structural change to a first draft would make it worse is the worst thing an instructor can teach. But it was my program’s top secret pedagogy they hid from me until after all my coursework was done.

the delete key is the writer’s best friend

Writer’s block has many causes and just a few solutions but I never found any advice better than what Victoria Nelson says in On Writer’s Block, long since out of print.

First, she suggests making something unexpected happen so that the characters have a new problem to try to survive and then solve. But if that doesn’t work, she also suggests cutting back to the last place you felt passionate about the story and start over from that point.

I’ve only had to go back and cut a section out of my story that actually hurt once. It was 40k that I’d gone down the wrong plotline for. I realized about 20k into what had to be cut that I was just driving the problem I had at 3k deeper into the story but I thought I could pull it out of its nose dive.

I couldn’t. The problem was too fundamental. I’d killed a character to start off the series of events that would lead a character to choosing the dark side as the last real choice he had but no one really liked the dead character. He was important because of who he was, not how the rest of the characters felt about him.

The actions that followed would only make sense if the death was a personal loss, not something someone is sad a friend was going through. Which meant none of the 40k of plot worked because the motivation was all wrong.

I don’t make motivational change in the text. Why a character is doing something changes everything about their actions and their POV, even if the old draft has them doing all the things they ought to be doing. Motivation shows itself in every sentence and grafting a new motivation onto old prose is far more work for me than trying to save the existing prose.

Back when Word was worse at saving corrupted files than it is now (or just eating them entirely) I had a lot of work just vanish. I did a lot of recreating work out of necessity. Each time, every time, even though the exact same things happened and the motivation didn’t need to change at all, the second version of the scene was infinitely better.

I used to write my first drafts blindly. I didn’t even know what happened at the end of the sentence before I started it most time. What major plot event came next was a your guess as good as mine thing. But when I had to rewrite it, I knew exactly what was happening next because I’d already written it.

It was such on obvious difference that when I switching to always knowing what happened next before starting for the day meant I could cruise through a 2000 word quota before noon. All I had to worry about at the time of writing is how do I make this next thing happening matter more.

And even with that as my goal of every scene in the writing the first draft, I still cut another almost 40k from the work in revision yesterday. It means I’ll have to write another 30k of hot copy before I can start any meaningful editing.

Cutting that 40k over a decade ago had felt like holding my work down on the sawbones’ table. Today, I was actually quite happy that the only thing that could be salvaged from the 3/4 mark to the epilogue was the epilogue. There wasn’t a scene in the cut bit I hadn’t enjoyed writing but the rewrite had meant I was telling a different story and what I’d written to support that idea wasn’t needed any more.

I always thought the foundational structures of fiction were the scaffolding that helped by build a taller, stronger, longer-lasting story. But they’re needed for a strong foundation. The scaffolding is actually the first draft.

It’s why critique groups have stopped working. People have stopped sitting down trying to learn how to build a better story, they want some quick tips as to what they can do in the immediate sense to sell this story in particular.

My worst exchange with an instructor was in my third year. I’d received yet another Dear Barb letter and I was trying to nail down with this instructor what, exactly, did they want from me. Summing up her vageuly worded email, I asked her point blank if she really only wanted me to discuss aspects of the story that were in the story.

She agreed that would be lovely. All summer long, I’d wanted to quit even though I had SSHRC funding waiting for me in September after losing my job to COVID. I had one course left and my puppet show I was super excited to experiment with as a medium.

My instructor had just told me the goal of the entire program was to make this two individual stories polished while changing as little about it as possible. She probably didn’t understand that was what she was saying when she said if the story doesn’t have conflict, don’t mention the lack of it, but that was what she was spelling out.

It was the same instructor who had been so shocked at my explanation to another student as to how to escalate tension. She’d never seen it explained so clearly before. She teaches in a genre that stories live and die by how it escalates tension, and didn’t know how to teach it herself.

I’d go back and change the gender to neutral but I only had one male instructor and we had a whole host of other issues that at least never touched on being too craft-focused.

My first pro-edit job was with a novel that I put through the ringer and the mangler three times. In the third complete rewrite, I advised the author that while the past 40k of the new version was a huge improvement to the past two rewrites, it still didn’t do enough for the story and I thought it should be cut.

He agreed. And the 30k he replaced it with were even better than the 60k of the third rewrite I didn’t ask him to cut. The book that went to market was non-hyperbolically speaking, a million times better for every part of those 3.4 total rewrites.

If I had said in class that a draft had some lovely writing in it but without stakes, conflict, or a sense of urgency, the draft still needed a rewrite to touch on something a reader could respond to, I’d probably have gotten thrown out of class again.

the myth of the perfect first draft great novels sell

I’m working on the rewrites of my novel right now, though you’d never guess it because of how many blog posts I’m shooting out. But I really can’t help it. I finish a scene in the rewrite and I want to talk about what it taught me. Both writing and metawriting excite me.

The first draft had a problem — only one character of the five felt like something larger than their character’s construction. He lived in the story. The other characters just filled their roles in it.

But to make the other protagonist and three very important secondary characters feel as organic as the original character, most of the plot of the first draft had to go. It was designed to show off one character’s strengths of five. As each character became more organic in the rewrite, their role in the story became more vital until it was no longer important what had happened in the first draft.

I have a scene where a character finds an elevator. At first, it’s just an elevator he wants to go back to see what it does, but with hindsight granted in the rewrite process and the skill I’ve developed over the years, I can go back and edit the changes needed to make the moment the doors open on the elevator one of the most significant moments in the book for multiple characters.

Back in the old days, there was a thing called a “midlist”. This “midlist” was the bar a first novelist had to meet or exceed for what they produced to have a pre-existing market. First novels didn’t need to hit every marker of a great story to be published, they just needed to show the author had a voice and promise.

This magical proving ground was where writers wrote enough to breakthrough on their own. Authors like George R. R. Martin had nearly a twenty-year gap between his first novel and a Song of Ice and Fire. It was a market where authors could sell exactly what just enough readers wanted to read to make a comfortable — if tight — living or have well-paying second job.

Then the entire market evaporated like it was of the Faefolk and dawn had arrived. First-time novelists didn’t have to create work that had to compete with the best of the midlist, it now had to compete with the best of the list.

I think a lot of unpublished authors are lured into thinking a novel that feels organic and whole was written as a single draft and not the work of layers and layers of rewrites in the hands of multiple professionals. It makes me think unkind thoughts to people who take their money and assure them a first draft and polish was all they need because it was all the instructors needed to do.

Back when the midlist was alive and well, you couldn’t spill a drop of coffee on an opened writing magazine without it landing on a shiny full-page colour ad that promised for the low, low price a couple tens of thousands of dollars, you too could have boxes of your own “published” book in your garage. The advent of cheap options to self-publish pretty much destroyed these not quite a scam, but still unpleasant traps.

Programs that take writers’ time and money in exchange for the promise that if they focus on nice prose they’ll succeed are in the same category as vanity publishing. That a small percentage of the class just needs to write and polish doesn’t undo the harm done to the vast majority who have yet to learn why structural edits are necessary in the first place. Instead, they have paid money and time to learn that rewriting isn’t even needed.

That it is much much cheaper to have boxes of self-published books in your garage is a non-climate controlled comfort.

Learning — and how critique-based “learning” can fail

I stopped saying “things should happen in fiction that matter to the protagonist” because fixing that would require a rewrite to make things actually happen between all the ‘character looks around at things.’ Rewriting was a forbidden topic in my Masters of Creative Writing program.

Capturing the reader’s attention with the foundational structures of story is very much like capturing the king in a chess game. Each piece on the board moves differently than all the others but with strategy, they can work together to produce a result that is worth the reader’s investment of spare time and spending money.

One of the best anime we saw over the past decade is March comes in like a Lion. It was the story of a young, professional shogi player who liked playing shogi with his dad, but didn’t really see himself as a pro player until his parents die and he goes to stay with his father’s friend who was a shogi master and playing the game, in the kid’s mind, was the way to his guardian’s affections.

The kid is good at it. Not amazeballs by any stretch, but good and he learns to get better over the course of the show. He doesn’t become the best shogi player in Japan and he’s not even playing in the last match, but his journey is the most significant one of the series on an emotional level.

I loved it because it shows what real talent looks like at a professional level. Professional players were constantly honing their skills or gently sliding down the ranks as they stopped wanting “it” so much.

Before I turned twenty-five and realized if I still had to learn how to write, I’d learned a lot about writing in the doing of it that would have been obvious to a writer with a few critique sessions in them. I had learned to write without any critique at all. It wasn’t until I was twenty-five that I realized my learning was full of more tunnels than cartoon Swiss Cheese.

Between the ages of 25 and 35, I learned almost nothing other than other people were right. They were right that it made a huge difference whether a scene was shown to the reader or whether what was important about the scene was just told to them through dialogue. It mattered that the conflict the character faced was big enough that without changing something about the plot or themselves, the character would probably fail if they tried to overcome it.

Theme was important. That was a massive blow. When I couldn’t control the theme any more than I could the weather, you couldn’t convince me a theme was even necessary for any work other than the highest of highbrow literary work. Even then, it was still mostly bunk. Imagine my horror when I realized theme is the story’s compass and heartbeat. Without one, the work is just a story about a character that does stuff.

Like a young chess player, I needed every bit of talent I’d been given to learn how to use the skill other people have acquired. I look at my body of work and see the development of skills I didn’t even think I needed. There is no foundational structure of story that should be looked at as optional or unnecessary if building a full experience worth the reader’s time is the desired end result.

Thirty years ago, only the new writers sitting down believed that ‘there are no rules’ meant no rules existed. Today, they’re being taught as they sit down that no rules exist.

And the pedagogist I spoke to will probably always wonder why I laughed when she told me that their program’s pedagogy was “peer review.” Thinking that a peer review critique group in which any opinion that’s not “this work is perfect” is rigorously stamped out makes as much sense as a UBC’s Provost thinking “gentle” was a pedagogy.

The Provost doesn’t believe his program has to meet federal quality assurance guidelines. The UBC doesn’t believe policies need to be followed if they’re not also against the law. The fact my MFA believes that writers don’t need to learn the craft is just on par with the experience.

Any creator at a professional level is either learning or coasting. The UBC wants writers to believe they can coast their way into writing at a professional level. It would be a funny joke if it didn’t waste a student’s tuition, time, and dreams.

Critique groups are very good at getting the members of the group up to the same level as the average writer in it quickly. But the lessons are limited only to what the group does well. If a writing group only excels at writing scenes in which the character spends most of their time looking around at the world they’re living in, that’s what they’re going to practice how to do over and over again.

The part of the story the commercial reader of fiction cares about is the moving parts that happen between all the characters looking around. And if your critique group (or MFA) has decided that the emotionally engaging parts of the story aren’t as important as perfect description, that’s exactly what’s going to be learned.

Today’s writers must learn for themselves that craft is important despite being taught that they are right to think that it has no value. But teaching that craft has no value appeals to the learner’s confirmation bias. Tomorrow’s post is going to show that’s exactly what the piece of furniture set out to achieve with their methodology.

what builds up must pay off and the underpublished writer

I decided a while ago to use “underpublished writers” as a term to include newbies, unpublished writers, and published writers who are able to write a large enough volume of work necessary to occasionally write a short story that deeply engages the reader from the first draft. They are all stuck in the mentality that assures them learning how to make structural changes is what is keeping their work from reliably telling meaningful stories.

There was another post on reddit today talking about mistakes “newbies” made with hundreds of replies in it. The biggest mistake underpublished writers make is assuming they can make mistakes instead of learning opportunities. To an editor, there is no mistaking the level of skill a writer has in the work they produce. It’s as obvious as the font they use or the language they chose to write in.

New writers can write stories that will knock it out of the park. They don’t even have to be perfect drafts. I’ve grabbed two stories from the slush so far that I saw the potential of from a mile away and they were both of the author’s first sales. One was a brilliant, if disgusting, story of an alien invasion that was told from an older woman’s perspective I thought was truly unique, and the other had a sense of place that was so alien and familiar I could work with the pacing issues.

The horror story was so awfully wonderful in the final version that I had to read it as detachedly as I could because it was making me feel faint to read the story itself in the final read-through.

Meanwhile, I rejected hundreds of stories because the only thing the work did extremely well was build their world.

There is no one mistake underpublished writer make that point them out as underpublished writers. They show it through their prose. Every shortcut the author takes to tell us what the author thinks the reader needs to remember is a missed opportunity to build up a reader’s experience that asks them to notice what exists outside of the character’s understanding.

Stories are made up of two parts. The build-up and the payoff. This exists on every level from the scene, to the theme, to the events of the story itself. What builds up must pay off. The build up must show the reader everything they need to know to understand the payoff of the story. But it has to engage to its ideal reader from the start to get them to the pay off so it matters.

Tanya Huff once compared her method of writing to a rollercoaster where the hard work is in the beginning. I think it’s a great metaphor where momentum building has to be not just a part of the ride but the very first part of it.

Fiction is not a waterslide where the reader has to do all the hard work on their own and the author doesn’t have to worry about getting the reader to the top of the staircase.

Can the reader read five flights of conversations in which they are told the five things they need to know for the sixth conversation to be the climax of the story from a plot and emotional that is worth all that word count? Sure. Is it the most engaging way to have the reader learn those five things they were told through exposition and dialogue? Heck no.

Did this one particular story do all those flights of conversations it took to the start of where the story gets good particularly better than the seven other stories I read in the same session whose authors all thought for sure their sixth conversation paid off as much as it needed to?

Probably not.

The same year I realized I still needed to learn how to structurally edit my work was the year I got an Honourable Mention in a Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology. If I wanted to just look at my results, I would have said my method of writing a dozen pieces of spaghetti so one of them could stick to an editor worked perfectly.

But the story that got the nod was the story that made me realize I didn’t know everything. (Ed: shocking, I know.) I’d gotten a critique for the work I disagreed with so viciously it was all I could do to thank the person for the time they put into telling me they knew nothing about how fiction worked as a concept. I had sat on the floor, read the critique one more time and threw it, dramatically, behind the futon.

I had always appreciated the big gesture. But it wasn’t until we were packing up to move to Lethbridge that I found the critique I had flung. I sat down to read it, partly to take a break, partly to remind myself of how brilliant I had been to have thrown it there in the place. Instead, I was dumbstruck at how dumbstruck I should have been.

The critique nailed everything that was wrong with the story. “Little Black Boxes” was from my era of “a good story follows the rules. A great story breaks them” mentality that had led to my .001 batting average that needed rounding up to the nearest significant digit. The story was told out of time because the protagonist had “started” the story previously blown up and the black box installed in the character replayed how the human had gotten through the alien’s mind-reading defence by hiding the memory of what they’d done out of order.

I’d put them in a particular order I thought needed to be told to tell the events. The critiquer had put them in an order that better told the story. He was right. I wasn’t. The changes were so profound that when I made them the story, the work sold to Apex within a few weeks.

To truly feel staggered is a sensation few people face more than a few times in their life. It staggered me to realize how much I had to learn to make what I couldn’t do automatically as automatic as what I’d always been able to do automatically. I loved dialogue and I loved finding a parallel door #3 to the binary options of the plot so that the reader wouldn’t see the next turn of events unless the very astute clued in or the rest of the audience needed hindsight to see it. Any other part of fiction I had to learn how it worked first before I could hope to reproduce it reliably in my work.

But of all the gifts a writer needs, the ability to be unexpected is the most important one for crafting the experienced reader’s experience.

Most underpublished writers either tell perfect, expected stories or deeply-flawed, unexpected ones. The writer who could always write a perfect story with unexpected prose is far more likely to be teaching the class than taking it.

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