writing stuff

The Forgotten Last Scale and Rubrics

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

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

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

The average story is forgotten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

a hand vs a scene — a post on writing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, my next book is coming out next month

Loose Id usually books out about 18 months on their schedule, but my stuff always seems to plug up holes in their catalogue due to missed deadlines. So while I sold Rabbit, the sequel to Changeling in August, the edits weren’t really going to start until the fall.

It’s not that I haven’t been writing over the past couple years, it’s that I haven’t been finishing. My style has been doing a lot of rapid change over the past three years so that every time I finish something, instead of editing it I started to rewrite it. I have about five semi-finished books and countless more stories that are 30-70k in that I started until the flash of a well-turned story heel caught my attention and had me following it.

But I’m going to be continuing the Middlehill series, finishing the Tempest trilogy, hopefully getting the vampire series TNG’ed and then I have Shark Punching that just needs a few more tweaks. Plus I’ve been getting pretty regular editing jobs this whole time on top of my English as a Second Language instructor and all the painting I’ve been doing. I’m really busy these days, but in a good way.

Making a Post Answering a Reddit Writing Question #1: How do I write more?

I’ve been getting tired of writing Reddit responses of late. I type what I want to type in the little box, think about how users will respond, then delete it. I should be responding here. So buckle up, this is MaPAaRWQ #1: How do I write more.

The question was how the original poster can increase their stamina. They could only write for 1000-1500 words and then hit the wall. But it’s the wrong question. He’s already doing what I think is the ideal writing session, but then if you want to be prolific, have multiple sessions.

A scene is the smallest unit of story. In that one setting, they should be thinking about writing a single short story in which something changes in the plot. There could be longer scenes or shorter scenes of course, but the length of the scene should be a deliberate choice and not just where the author stopped writing.

One of the biggest problems I see in the books I critique (and to be honest, most of my problems are my biggest problems. I have a lot of biggest problems, but regardless…) is the climax of the scene arrives but instead of quitting there and going to the next scene, the author continues, filling the following pages with details about matters that are not important. Dining and sleeping and parts of the story in which nothing happens but instead of writing a few sentences bridging the time between the last scene and the new scene, the scene goes on and on.

I found when I sat down for four hours, I wrote a 4000-word scene with one high climatic moment. When I sat down for three or four sessions on a good writing day, I managed 3-4 scenes, all with their own climatic moments. There are times when that long heavy scene works for the story, but if it’s stuffed with bits that just doesn’t matter, it slows the entire pace to a crawl. Scrivener is great for this. When you get to the point you’re trying to make in the notes, you stop the scene and move on.

After the 45 minutes of writing, it’s best to get up, stretch, and do some puttering around as you think of the ramifications of how what just went down will affect the rest of the story. No matter how sure I am of what exactly I’m going to write when I’m really in the zone the story goes 10% further than I planned. And that new, spontaneous bit may change everything. It may make a throwaway line in chapter three the most important line in the book. If you don’t give the bit in your brain that puts two and two together and gets a llama time to ruminate on what just happened, the story has to work extra hard to get that spark that will keep you going in the rewrites and will grab the reader by the throat in its finished state.

Besides, getting up and stretching is something you should be doing anyways. Like everything else, there’s an app for that.


More Middle Muddle (aka What’s this? A writing post?)

You would think this was a cooking channel for how little writing I’ve been doing, but I actually finished a major rewrite to a book that I’m sending off to Loose Id and I have writerly thoughts again.

In one of my subreddits I like, middles were discussed. It’s impossible to talk about everything, but I think he missed a major point. Middles fail not because the character isn’t allowed to fail, though that is a common beginner’s mistake. I think in all the books I’ve critiqued, middles fail far more often because the character arrives into the world with the plot having already happened, and all that changes from the beginning to the end is their completed knowledge of the problem.

This leads to the walking and talking plot, where all the characters do is walk (fly, swim, drive) from point to point, talking to people who have just survived the thing they’re chasing, and then go off in that direction. There may be a couple scenes where the character lands in the thick of it and some scenes where the antagonist shows up and stops them, temporarily from getting the info, but for the most part it’s walking and talking.

And if you ask the writer, they’ll tell you the book is about what the character’s talk about not what actually is happening on the page. And for some writers, that can really work. Illegal Alien by Robert J. Sawyer is predominately about two “people” talking (until the car chase scene). But what Rob can pull off in the middle of his stellar career is at a completely different plane than what most people starting out can pull off. It doesn’t prove it can be done, it sets the bar as to what has to happen for someone else to do the same.

Show don’t tell is one of those rules that writers somehow know or understand early on. Shifting what is being told from the author’s voice to dialogue doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that the information is being told to the reader. Thinking about the story as the first half establishing the plot as the characters hard-win or have an impact on every bit of knowledge that they would have just been told and the second half as tying up all the loose strings of the first half.

In debate, there’s a point at which you are not allowed to introduce any new information. I think book endings are basically the same thing. I say basically because the end is where you introduce the strings that will tie the sequel together to the first book, but for the most part, everything in the second half of the story should be introduced, no matter how fleetingly, in the first half. The reader shouldn’t have to depend on the author to tell them how bad the consequences are going to be. By the time the character and the reader get to the second half things-fall-apart, at least the reader should know why everything is terrible.

Middles are usually the worst part to any book, but they don’t have to be. Your character should be introduced to the plot at a point in which they think that they can change the outcome. If the entire plot is out of the story in the first chapter, a sane character will look at the enormous problem and think this is the job for gods and kings. The plot could be just as huge, but by the time the reader realizes that, they should be at a position where they can’t quit, even if they want to. Any rule can be broken, but it is hard enough to show a story as it is happening on the page in an engaging fashion. Trying to tell a story that has already happened and the only change the character has is how much they know about it is multiple times harder.

I used to be a firm believer that what happened in the story has happened and is immutable. Even if the book isn’t written yet, I can’t change the story as it occurred. And that’s utter nonsense. Timelines can be condensed. Deadlines can be given. Anything that is important to the story should happen on the page. And if you look at the middle with that in mind, getting everything that has to happen in within the 100k deadline is far more work than just filling up the pages between the pre-planned beginning and end.

How to pants a novel part two: the pantsing part

So, you have your two ideas. The high concept, and the aspect of the story that is going to make the first reader sit up from her usual slush reader slump and actually start caring about what’s going on the page. You don’t need to know the exact beginning until you get to the end and rewrite it, but as far as you know the story as it is, you start at the Carmichael startling point.

Leslie Carmichael was a writer friend, lost to cancer, and an amazing person, if you pardoned the dreadful puns. But calling the beginning of the story the startling point was brilliant. It’s the moment before your character’s path changes dramatically and your character who was going about on their daily life suddenly can do something much bigger. When I get to this point, I usually have no frelling idea as to what the “thing” is, but I lay the pipework in the story for there to be the thing in the story that is worth your character pushing on so that they will continue with the problem longer than anyone who is just being paid, or coerced or just going along for the lulz would pull up their stakes and go home.

And for that you need a reason as to why this character is the one who is called. They have to want something more than anything else. In the beginning of the book, what the character thinks they want doesn’t have to be what they will want at the end, and actually it’s better if it isn’t. There are going to be barriers to the character getting that thing (and at least one of them has to be internal) and the first half of the novel is your character finding out what the problem and the need is.

The worst thing you can do is have the big problem happen before the book even begins and have your character as a clean up crew going along and sweeping up what has already happened. I know it can feel like it’s impossible to change the timeline in your story even before you write a word. What happens just seems to need to have happened. But if the most important thing happened before the book you want to write is going on, you’ve probably got the wrong startling point.

In media res is like Odysseus’s sirens, seductive but will kill your momentum, and you have to strap yourself to the mast to avoid it when you’re pantsing.  The forward motion of your plot is what pushes the story forward. If you start in the middle you have to tell what’s happened before, and you can kiss away any of the tension or momentum you’ve built up. It can be done, but if you take that moment that makes or breaks the character that most people start their book with and plant it at the end of chapter three when your character and your reader get to the moment where everything falls apart but this time the audience is up to speed as to what is at stake, what’s happening, why it’s happening, what’s going to happen if everything goes wrong, who are these people, and why should they be cared about will all have been answered if instead of starting with the ah, shit explosion, the book starts with the first warning tremor.

Done right, it sets up the rest of the story for success. Now that everything has gone wrong (but in a way the main character can feel as though they can make it right) it’s just a dance of successes and failures to the two thirds point, where everything goes wrong in a way the character doesn’t feel it can be made right. That’s about it for today. Writing is all about controlling disasters no matter what your genre in a way that airplanes descending down to the runway is just a controlled fall.


My recipe for pantsing novels part 1

How to set out to pants a novel for a newbie pantser came up as a forum question I frequent. I would have answered there, but it felt like more of a blog post-length problem. I do a lot of reality checks with first draft/first novel wannabe self-published authors, I don’t want to link my username with this blog.

Pantsing a novel without an outline gets easier with practice, and any of the complications that you add that do not go anywhere will get caught in the rewrite (and there MUST be a rewrite with this method.) First tip: Do not release your first draft of a pantsed novel to anyone who doesn’t love you for you.

Imagine plot as an iceberg. If your main character is given a small enough tip of the iceberg and a blowtorch and told to go melt that thing down, the problem of your novel should seem doable to an intelligent main character. If you pull your whole plot problem out of the water and tell your main character to melt it with the tiny blowtorch, a smart character would realize that was waaaaay out of their pay grade and wisely leave it to the works of kings and gods.

What, your character is a king or a god? Well, that’s a problem. A king or a god has a lot more resources than the average character so the problem has to be so epic that even they would wish for a bigger king, or a bigger god will swoop down and fix it. If the problem is something money, men, or king/god-like powers can be thrown at it to fix it, you got yourself a (boring) short story there. Not a novel.

So, your character only needs to be interesting. They should have an interesting problem in an interesting world. Your first reader later on up the chain will have seen every version of every typical subgenre out there, so you want something in that first page that screams “this one is different”. But where do you get such a rare thing?

You wait for it. All plots come in two parts. The first one is the really cool what if a main character turns into a painted cat every second day and it accidentally eats a fairie. Now, everyone and their dog can come up with most plot ideas. They’re all reading the same books, watching the same TV shows, and live in the same society. Most ideas that you can think of will have enough books like it out there to make you never want to write again.

So what does a good pantser do? You wait with that half-idea. Write it down if you’re a lot older than you were and someone somehow drilled holes in your skull pan without you knowing and now suddenly all your ideas drain out of your head. Wait for the idea from that idea that only you can write. A twist that is not the exact opposite of what most people would write (the fairie family will come and wage war on the poor cat/main character) or the opposite of what most people will write, because you want to be smarter than the people who are a little smarter than most people. So the cat and the fairie can’t get along famously, either. You want what’s behind door #3.

So when you have that, you begin your pantsing novel. Unlike this blog post, which has gotten too long to continue. You knew from the beginning thanks to the title that this is going to be in two parts, but I just figured that out. See you tomorrow!


Barb, going off on rules again? You don’t say.

I’ve been getting into painting for a couple of months now. I got through school and while I loved both art and stories, I chose to pour all my energy into writing so as not to be a jack of all trades. I started taking an art therapy class and boom, there goes all my pocket money. Painting is expensive, yo.

But it also introduces you to a whole bunch of other masters in their field to learn from. I watched a video about perspectives in landscaping, and the painter said something to the effect of Rules are there to give you control over your environment, not to tell you what to do, and that’s exactly what the structural rules of writing are there for.

Not that I think young writers should try to break the rules, but I do feel as though trying to break the rules successfully without understanding what the rules are there for to begin with is kind of like trying to teach yourself to fly by throwing yourself at the ground and missing. At least with writing, there is an off chance that the story will work despite itself whereas gravity is a cruel mistress.

NaNoWriMo 2016

I didn’t think I was going to do NanoWriMo this year. I just started a new job teaching ESL to new Canadians, and I find that writing and teaching draw from the same well of creativity.

And then I was thinking last night about Halloween and how the doorbell ringing gets to me, and how much worse it would be if I worked in a grocery store and the beep of the check-out till set off the same reflex. Now I have 1,500 words about an ex-con working as a bag boy at a grocery store, and I think it might be a restart of a werewolf story that stalled out on me earlier this year.

Okay, so we’re doing this. (Bonus points to anyhow who caught the Hamilton reference. I like Burr. He’s Shakespearean in his tragedy.)

This is, I think, year eleven of Nano for me. Last year and the year before, I had assorted writing-related things to say. (But when don’t I?) Here are some handy links…

Good luck, everyone! Happy writing!

Fortune Favours The Bold — some guy Aristotle taught

I got into a discussion today about why characters have to be empathetic, if not likeable. And the guy I was talking to said he would rather try to break the rule than play it safe. It made me think of Alexander’s quote. I also spent some time talking about the Donner party and marvelling over how many times they were told to turn back. At each point they could have, half the party turned back and went the long route. Some looked at the first mountain range they had to cross, some of them were told by a rider who had just taken the pass and the guy who said the path existed told them twice, once in writing, once in person to go the long way. Each time, more people turned back until it was just a handful of families.

Every wagon that went the long way around that year made it to their destination but the Donner Party. If fortune favours the bold and the well educated, failure favours the foolhearty.