writing stuff

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.

“organic” vs “constructed” writing

If I didn’t know what I already knew, I might have let my MFA “teach” me that the only thing that matters is my organic process. The #1 thing the UBC taught was that the author’s intention for the first draft must — at all times — be preserved. To make “mechanical” structural changes to a first draft would ruin the organic flow of the work to the point where they couldn’t be allowed to even be suggested.

There are true organic writers, the one who creates a perfect first draft and just needs to polish the prose. They’re usually teaching the class. A student who can do the same thing — create an organic story that completes a moment in a character’s life in the first draft — is in the extreme minority.

But the bulk of writers sitting around critique tables don’t have the ability to tell a unique, organic story in the first draft before they even sit down at the table. Teaching all students as though they were already producing work like MFA instructors teaches them that they don’t need to acquire the skills their instructors had preinstalled.

The goal of the “critique” is to produce nicer prose while dynamic story-building skills are taught as unnecessary.

“Organic” to a reader means it “feels like” the book was written with one creative vision from the first page to the last.” They will never know how many thumbs have been in that pie to make it feel like it came out in one singular vision. Alpha readers, beta, critique partners, freelance editors and editors from the publisher could have all nudged what was to be what it could be.

A short story is a single motion in a character’s life and just needs to do one thing particularly well. It is hypothetically possible to say something meaningful in a first draft without it needing a significant rewrite. A novel, however, is a series of movement written over a series of months or years that has to work seamlessly together to engage the reader and draw them back to the story that needs to be read across several sittings.

Organic writing can feel like the muses are on your shoulder and the author is just transcribing the events playing out behind their eyes. Constructed writing, on the other hand, is the writing that takes place without the gift of the gods. Neil Gaiman talks about the difference between amateurs and professionals is who waits for inspiration. I think the amateur writes what they write and calls it good enough. The pro knows good enough isn’t good enough to build a meaningful reader’s experience.

But Gaiman also described inspiration as a butterfly that swoops down and sits on your shoulder every once and a while. He described writing a Study in Emerald this way during Torcon 3. But when the butterfly doesn’t visit, the only other tool the author has is the knowledge necessary to take a story that doesn’t have “it” written into the first draft and craft “it” in the final draft.

I lost ten thousand words last week. The scenes described were some of the most polished organic writing of the book. But they didn’t do nearly enough for the plot. I had to construct the replacement 10k over the past week. By 3k, I’d summed up everything the reader had to know in those 10k. By 4k, I’d leapfrogged the lost section. By the end of the new 10k, I’d progressed to the scene that’s the heartbeat of the story.

In the lost 10k, I was still about 5k away from it. I realized in 2005 that I had to learn how to write instead of hoping what I organically channeled did everything it was supposed to. What didn’t come organically was stilted if it wasn’t filled with shortcuts that told what I had no clue how to show the reader.

It took almost twenty years for what I constructed for plot reasons to feel more organic than what appeared fully formed. I needed to learn how to write what didn’t flow naturally but make it feel like it did. Writers today are insulated against ever learning the same thing if “organic” means the author’s 1st draft intentions and not the final draft the readers experience.

Conflict and character growth — the story in its essence

When you start in fanfic completely blind as I did all those years ago, a lot of terms catch you off guard. Some stories were stories and some were character studies and some were vignettes. I had to realize character studies and vignettes were parts of a story without a source of conflict in a study or without the conflict moving forward in a vignette.

I’ve met far more underpublished writers who will critique underpublished writers by pumping up their already amazing world-building skills. But if the protagonist remains unchanged and unchallenged, that critique assumes that the author will find an audience for work that doesn’t read for plot or character. (Or theme. Or emotional resonance.)

There’s only one commercial work known for its amazing scene work: Avatar. It’s a setting without a character or a plot the average audience has to care about. “Look at the beautiful scenery” only worked because it was rendered beautifully in 3D. If James Cameron squanders character or plot-driven narrative, he’ll bend the field in some way.

Most people are not James Cameron.

Literary work is not the absence of character or plot-driven story. It’s not just “nice prose” stacked up in chapters. Character growth in literary work is predominately internally motivated. Literary work must have beautiful language over emotional resonance that needs more than nice prose to create. Non-literary commercial work doesn’t even need nice prose to sell.

I asked multiple instructors when their grads were going to learn the story-building skills that were being taught as unnecessary. Silence. It is up to the student to understand UBC is wrong about craft to even see the need to improve structurally.

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.

10,000 wordcount marker checks for story

I lost all last week’s work yesterday. It was, perhaps, the luckiest thing that could have happened. Unless I had gone through what I could remember happening in those 10k did and realized, ultimately, it wasn’t nearly enough to have been worth 10k of the word count. I probably would have had to write the last 20k again as I couldn’t have possibly fit all the story into the ending.

If it had been the 10k between 10k and 20k the pacing would have been fine but as the last 10k of the story it did nothing to escalate the pace. In fact, it slowed it down to show the character just how a pre-existing machine worked near harmoniously.

When really, it should have been 10k of escalating warfare. The reality that peace didn’t need to be brokered if no war was near breaking out wouldn’t have occurred to me if everything had gone smoothly.

Because I hammered away all day, every day on laptops that weren’t meant to be hammered on as they were much more fragile electronics. I once killed a laptop in four hours. I thought that was particularly impressive until I broke the record by three hours and thirty-six minutes.

There was no telling what draft of what version would be the last draft or version that survived. I was constantly screaming into pillows as even new laptopswould eat up weeks’ worth of work. And with each new forced rewritten draft, more happened in far less time and it mattered more to the character with that do over, but just the best bits mentality.

I had a brief discussion with a writer who thinks first drafts shouldn’t ever need radical changes. In fact, he called the craft-based decisions to escalate the conflict to escalate the tension unnecessary”mechanical changes.” If you could build a time machine and go back to pre-2004 and asked me why craft didn’t have to be learned, that’s exactly how I would have phrased it. Adding any structure to work that wasn’t organic to the first draft felt like I was betraying that first draft’s intention.

When organic to the reader is usually quite the opposite. To a reader, an organic story feels like it has a heartbeat where the story ends up greater than the sum of its parts because so much of the experience is felt through the reader. Twilight was a terribly written book. But readers enjoyed them. Any writer should be so lucky to capture the hearts of a reader as much as those books did.

I couldn’t be convinced that “mechanical changes” wouldn’t drive the reader further away from the intentions of the first draft. Not in a million years. I had to realize I was wrong myself before I realized a story without tension was a story without a heartbeat.

No matter what genre, literary fiction included, work without tension must be an exemplar of why tension is so important. Any work that can move a reader in which nothing at all matters or is at stake is a work of literary genius.

The 10k I lost had tension in it already. It didn’t have enough of it given its place in the book and all that still needed to happen. I wouldn’t have had the ability to see the engaged handbrake the 10k had on the whole time when the story’s pace should serve the story. It’s hard to lose work but it was a good reminder that almost any work rewritten is stronger for it.

I’m going to try my 10k trick for a while and see if it works to limit tangents in the first draft stage. It seems the equivalent of packaging clothes in vacuum sealed bags to maximize the clothes to space ratio. The less space that isn’t filled with clothes leaves more room for clothes in a finite space.* The less space in a novel filled with what can be cut leaves more room for story to linger with the reader.

*Unless your my wife, who weighs her clothes down with so many books on vacation that rearranging them into different suitcases to beat the weight restrictions is just a part of air travel.

opinions, rules, and degrees of learning

My MFA taught me one thing over three years — that things should happen in a story proved nothing ever needs to happen at all.

“‘Things should happen in a story’ is a rule and rules exist to be ignored,” is the new coke of modern creative writing “pedagogy”.

More accurately, the knowledge that only events a character can’t easily overcome for whatever reason are meaningful to that character was definitely the collective opinion most writers shared until about the middle of last decade. After about the middle of last decade, any advice like “things should happen in a story” became just like, a rule, man.

And if it’s just like a rule, man, it means it is not necessary. Most of the authors in my MFA program couldn’t be convinced meaningful events needed to happen in their story.

I keep going back to my example of the child who has one last piece of paper and absolutely doesn’t want to ruin the card they want to make for their parent by making a hard crease down the wrong length of it first.

A scientifically-minded, curious young child might not need to be taught to pre-fold the paper so as to not make a hard crease to know for certain what shape the paper will make when folded down hard. They may give themselves a mnemonic to not forget it — fat like a hamburger, not skinny like a hot dog for the card shape with the most writing room — until they’ve created enough muscle memory to not even need to think as to which direction makes the optimal card for writing the most.

It’s how learning works. Problem –> potential solution attempted–> reliable solution found becomes ingrained –> no more problem.

But when that child becomes a parent and their child wants to show them how much they love them, telling the kid to “make a hamburger” will make no sense to them unless that child is A) taught by the parent what “make a hamburger” actually means B) has gone through the same learning experience as the parent or C) Is smart enough to figure out what “make a hamburger” means on their own.

Because D) The child then folds the perfect card each time, every time after just being given the in context instruction alone never needed to be told to make a hamburger in the first place.

The adult in this situation has — for as long as they remembered — have always had the contextual knowledge that makes “make a hamburger” make total sense. Their child has a 99.999% chance of not being the child in D).

“A story needs things to happen in it” is the “make a hamburger” for writing. It was a common opinion, once. Stories that allow meaningful conflict to challenge their character’s flaws in a way that challenges them to change their state in a meaningful way create works the reader will remember long after they’ve forgotten what, exactly at the plot level made them change.

Instead of teaching “nice prose” as the ultimate goal of writing, taking the ideal reader on a journey should be. I do not care if popular books are “poorly written”. If anything, it shows how unimportant being well-written is. People read for their enjoyment in their spare time and literary-shaming tends to fall down very gendered lines.

My MFA sold the lie that authors could not care about the reader’s experience in the slightest to want to make a single structural change to their first draft and it would still find an audience in a commercial genre.

You can teach one or the other. Teaching both is a fabricated lie sold to the learner.

The literary market is a commercial genre. The reader’s experience still matters. What should have been treated as the bare minimum of story — having nice prose — is taught as the only thing work needed to have to accomplish commercial success even in the speculative market. To even suggest otherwise is heretical.

“Just fold your cards any way you like” works if children are given infinite pages of paper and all the time in the world to not just find all the possible ways to fold a paper but to find the way that folds the best given the need for the card.

“Fold it any way you like, once, and then take any suggestion on how to improve its form and function as a card to show your mom how much you love them as a direct insult” is also an opinion people can have.

It’s just not a very good ideology to have in a card-folding class. So it seems odd to me to cater a program’s “pedagogy” to serve the learners who just wanted to fold the paper the way they knew how to before they paid for a ‘learn how to make better cards’ degree.

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.

retconning the unexpected (aka “foreshadowing”)

I wanted to show a character being comfortable enough around another that they’d let themselves into the space and make themselves at home even without permission asked or granted. At this point in the character’s development, that is the most significant thing he could have done — assume he’d be welcomed unannounced.

And because you should never give your characters anything they want unless they’ve earned it, my poor little ADHD character was going to have to WAIT while someone he CARED ABOUT needed SLEEP even though he’s ON TIME for their departure. But then, I thought, well, why was this otherwise punctual character sleeping in in the first place? I had to go back and knit three different scenes to make that initial conflict of “he wants to leave but travel companion is asleep” significant.

And that scene I would have missed out on would have been a major plot reveal not even I saw coming. All because I needed the unexpected to make sense, plot-wise. It took almost an hour to make all the changes necessary.

People will take money from underpublished writers and tell them their first draft only needs polishing. It should be treated like a hazy outline until the work crafts the experience the author desires for their readers and then polished to the nth degree. Instead, the author’s desire to “break the rules” by excluding structures of fiction like conflict and tension comes at the cost of the reader’s ability to be emotionally invested in the plight of a character that they care enough to read about.

I asked Intern Ben when he gave us his first story what was the first moment on the page that something unexpected happened. He saw that there wasn’t one. The greatest thing you can give your reader is something that needs hindsight to be obvious.

Foreshadowing is just retconning the unexpected and its easiest to do with a finished first draft. Most of my foreshadowing work in my first draft looks done with a two-by-four until I know exactly what happens the first time around.

Adding foreshadow to give the unexpected just a tiny hint of familiarity is a breeze once the events have already been established. But the writer needs to learn to write for unexpected moments first. Events the reader expects should only be doled out as needed and doesn’t need any foreshadowing.

If it’s supper time, the characters should be hungry. If they’re not hungry, foreshadowing why they’re not hungry will give the reader a sense of unease before a single character needs to sit down and not eat.