writing stuff

fiction as the character’s liminal space

A liminal space is a time or space required to make a transition. The video points out better than I could that they exist as physical spaces, such as hallways and staircases, linear like a gap year between high school and college, or not physically possible but exists anyway, like the backroom scene in the Truman show or the door to John Malkovich’s brain.

But fiction itself is the length of time in a character’s life the story encapsulates. Whether it is a moment captured in flashfic, a significant experience caught in short work or the entire movement of the change shown in a much longer work, the work captures what happens from the moment their reality alters in some way. What the character does about the new reality is the conventional story.

The unconventional story of a character who does not (or cannot) change any element of their world, problem or self requires an unconventional writer using unconventional tools. And “conventional” in this case means “using the conventions of the foundational structure of genre fiction” which has always included literary work.

Any culture with a storytelling tradition has its own conventions and artists that do unconventional things with them. It’s how art has always evolved.

I still think about one of the works we read in class. It had no conflict or tension at all. It was about a character who had been given the process of asking for help when they needed to learn how to ask for support as a concept first. The outcome of the protagonist depended entirely on who the reader imagined was reading it. The ending of the work continued beyond the liminal space on the page, depending on what the reader imagined the imaginary reader would have done after reading the work beyond the liminal space captured.

It was absolutely stunning as a work of fiction.

But thinking of fiction as a finite amount of “time” the reader spends with the protagonist on their journey answers the age-old “how long should my work be” question. Fiction is as long as it takes to show the reader everything they need to know so that when the character is on their precipice of change — whether the work is a drabble, flash fic, short story or novel — at least the reader understands the consequences of leaping or staying where they are.

The ideal work creates events that test the character’s belief in who they really are. This allows the reader to understand the cost of changing or staying the same better than the character could at that moment. Stick around any writing forum eventually, and a newbie will ask, “how do I write a ______ character?”

The answer is simple but takes years to do. The ______ character has to be shown to be _______ in a moment of their life where being _______ is easy. Then, the story begins and being _______ becomes more complex as (plot progresses). If the character chooses to be _______ despite the cost, the character is shown to be a _______ character.

If the character realizes that they can be _______ in their everyday life but it costs too much to be _______ in times of __________, they’ve shown to the reader that they were a ________ character when it was easy to be so.

If the character continues to believe they’re a ____________ character despite their proven actions, the reader is left to question whether not being ___________ in a difficult moment was justified or hypocrisy.

This is a particular type of story’s recipe, not its formula. This one is a smaller recipe that’s just part of a much more complex desired outcome, like a roux. A formula limits the answer from an infinite number line — and all the irrational concepts that don’t have a place on it — to a finite set of “correct” solutions. Following the ratios and directions required for a desired cake texture still creates infinite versions of what that particular cake might look and taste like. “A fluffy cake” is a specific type of cake in baking and science-fantasy is a sub-subgenre of fiction.

Using the conventions of storytelling doesn’t make creating a meaningful work of fiction any easier. They are the tools the artist uses to show the interactions necessary so that the reader’s understanding of the situation may separate from what the character sees, knows, or learns.

“There are no rules” is the best example of what happens when writing jargon is taught as plain English. The fact exceptional work doesn’t require the use of conventional story structure doesn’t mean learning conventional story structures won’t help writers who want to produce exceptional work.

the crucible of character change

Before I enrolled in my MFA, I recognized writing advice from the professional writer’s perspective failed the underpublished writer because the same pros that spent 40+ minutes discussing the importance of craft will dismiss the need to actually learn how to do any of it with “there are no rules” as a closing remark.

But that’s not the only problem. The average pro writer will discuss their craft as though discussing it with other professional writers and not the audience listening. I couldn’t find a better example of this than a writer I’ve heard speak several times. If he was only speaking to an audience of other professional writers, I wouldn’t be concerned with what he says.

He quoted Maass’ brilliant “tension on every page” in a recent post, but then stated it wasn’t “tension” that every page needed, it was “emotion.” And to other professional writers, that is a much better way of stating it. However, to the average underpublished writer, it doesn’t help.

There are three types of underpublished writers. Those who focus on the aesthetic nature of the prose wouldn’t know how to manipulate the story so that the character’s actions (or lack of action) cause an emotional response in the reader if it didn’t organically do so in the first draft. A structure-focused writer may be able to write a plot that can emotionally engage the reader, but their aesthetic choices and rough prose keep the reader focused on the trees and not the forest they’re walking through. The rare underpublished writers who can do both just need more butt-in-chair time.

But if any of the three believes “there are no rules” means “I don’t have to put my hours of deliberate practice in,” it won’t matter what any advice says to them. Writers who don’t believe they need to improve won’t be convinced by any advice that says deliberate improvement is a necessary part of learning any skillset.

Underpublished writers need to hear the part of the advice that professional writers assume other professional writers know. It’s not about putting “tension” or “emotion” on every page. That’s Wimbleton-level advice for top-ranked players. Maass says tension on every page is something only writers who have a traditionally published book need to learn how to do. The underpublished writer has to know how to control the ball each time, every time, before they learn how to win world-class championships.

Learning how to create enough conflict from enough sources so that the story creates moments of challenge that feel organic to the story every 250 words or so is extremely difficult to do. The writer has to be able to manipulate the plot, Point of View, escalating tension and conflict in relation to the character’s needs.

The vast majority of work I have read by talented, underpublished writers regardless of the genre of work focused almost exclusively on the exquisite detail of what the character sees, knows, and says. But those are all tools the author uses to tell the reader the story. All the skillsets tied up in showing the reader the world — a character’s goal, actions, motivations, concerns and the antagonistic forces acting against them are usually told to the reader in dialogue between the beautiful descriptions.

If creative writing instructors won’t teach the purpose of fiction is to test the metal of a character in circumstances outside of their comfort zone, then a “story” is only the way the author uses prose. Readers read for the crucible the story puts the character in to see what emerges. This can be “will they save their marriage” or “will they save the world.” The individual stakes of the story don’t matter. The ideal reader only cares about how the character reacts to something they are invested in.

But while the traditional genres of speculative fiction or mystery have the genre mechanics acting as an additional source of conflict, the literary genre only has the depth of humanity as a conflict source. It is starving for unconventional protagonists doing unconventional things with unconventional results.

But the lack of conventions does not an unconventional story make. A work without plot, conflict or tension has no appeal to the reader unless the meaningful lack of convention serves the story. Beautiful prose the author fails to shape into a beautiful story only impresses MFA instructors.

A far more valuable lesson from Maass that underpublished writers should focus on is knowing at the start of the story what that character in that moment in their life would never say, think or do. Then, the story focuses on creating the exact situations it would take for a character that would never blah to blah.

For example, if a character would never be disloyal to their leader, the story’s beginning sets up that loyalty so the reader knows the character would never betray who they follow. Most of the story must set up the events required for a turning point inside the character that makes their best course of action disloyal.

But whether they betray their leader when they need to is their crucible. The story is about who they became to even contemplate the need to do so.

hubris — the missing component of the unlikeable protagonist

this post contains up to season 5 Rick and Morty spoilers.

I was listening to a video about the Moscow murders in November 2022. It sounds like the cops quickly knew exactly who they were looking for. The super-genius Ph.D. student had been pulled over in August in his white Elantra and gave the cops his cellphone number. One of the first things investigators would have done was check the area for traffic or parking citations.

It was how they caught Son of Sam. The criminology doctorate student had forgotten criminology was a field of study.

I’ve dealt with intelligent people making the most ridiculous mistakes in a high concentration of late. The worst thing a person can assume is that they cannot be mistaken. Cognitive dissonance is a very well-documented effect but the physical sensations don’t come with a: hey, your brain can’t handle thinking about what was just said so we’re going to make you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut and throat at the same time, just because this person is challenging you.

It’s why Dr. Expert hung up the phone, upset that I had asked them for their working definition of their field of study. If we’d met waiting for an elevator, they could have stated it in a sentence or two. It wasn’t the request that made Dr. Expert so angry they could only sputter as they slammed the phone down. It was their brain realizing before Dr. Expert could that if they just rattled their definition off, it would prove my point.

It’s why Dr. House, ultimately, failed as a protagonist despite being a well-written empathetic/unlikeable character. Unlikeable characters don’t care if the average reader likes them. The reader has gotten to the end of the book based only on their empathy for the journey the character has travelled. If it is the character’s hubris that keeps the reader from wanting to like them, it has to spur a change in them in any direction.

To leave the character exactly as they were, unaffected by what they had just gone through means the journey itself had to be memorable when the series was ultimately a case-of-the-week show. A character experiencing change is the most significant moment in any creative writing work. The quality of the character’s path to the end of the story has to make up for its lack of catharsis.

A movie (not directed by James Cameron) runs 90-140 minutes. A character who gets to the end of their story and isn’t changed by it isn’t impossible with great storytelling.

An episode of a TV show has a run time of about 40 minutes. In any given timeslot, a character’s lack of change is meaningless. But the length of an entire television series can rival the reading time of a blockbuster fantasy series. Dr. House had remained almost unchanged over the series duration.

Readers invest several hours to decades to finish a book or a series. If the hubris of the unlikeable character fails to impact the character in any significant way, the reader is reading a book about an unlikeable character doing unlikeable things and those actions cost them nothing.

They can’t do anything about the assholes who get away with bullshit IRL, but they can stop reading about fictionalized versions of them. Donald Maass said it best when he said a wounded protagonist has to give the reader some glimpse in the first scene that they want to be whole even if they couldn’t start on that path yet. His example starts with the drinking-buddy calling for a ride to rehab. I think the beginning of their story begins the first night they considered picking up the phone.

But for hubristically-centred unlikeable protagonists who aren’t wounded by it, their story begins the moment their hubris starts to bring about their downfall. How they escape it or surrender to it is the story. It’s why Rick from Rick and Morty will never be Rick from Rick and Morty again. Rick is only Rick when he is an asshole to his diehard fans. But by season six, Rick knows he can’t be an asshole around the people he likes. And Jerry…most of the time. But to the vocal fanbase, if Rick can’t be Asshole!Rick all the time, he’s not Rick at all.

I trust Harmon’s storytelling skills. In an earlier season, Rick surrendering himself to the cost of being the most brilliant man in all the universes to keep his family safe was the most haunting scene of the show. The image of him sitting alone on the toilet at the end of season 5 was Rick coming to terms with the cost of his assholery outside his immediate family.

four types of characters in storytelling

A character’s likeablity is if the work’s ideal reader is supposed to root for the character’s success because they want to see the character succeed.

A character’s empathy depends on the ideal reader being able to understand where the character is coming from or why they act the way they do. An empathetic character will try to change their fate for the better depending on how they define the term. The desire to improve their lot in life will keep the ideal reader reading, even if the work makes liking the protagonist difficult.

A likeable character has an ideal reader who wants to see them succeed and can understand the reason why they act the way they do. While they are the “easiest” character to write of the four, setting a likeable character down a path where something in their life, personality or world needs to meaningfully change if they were to achieve their goal is not an easy story to write. It, too, is just easier to write because the reader will continue to read because they care about the character’s journey.

This is the character that is easiest to have them do something unforgivable within the story’s circumstances. A character who kills the person who killed their dog is understandable. If the protagonist waited a year to plot the death of the dog killer’s family, however, the ideal reader’s empathy for the character can snap.

An empathetic character does not need the reader to like them or hope for their success. But the ideal reader of this work will continue to read on despite not liking the character because the reader understands where they are coming from. The character’s struggle to improve their lot does a lot of the heavy lifting that liking the character enough to follow their story does.

But there is less room for this character to do something unforgivable. All the reader is reading for is at least understanding why the character is the way they are. If the unforgivable act breaks that, nothing keeps them reading to discover what happens. The empathy meter has to be dialled in so the character can act unforgivably but not in the way its ideal reader would give up on the character for it. It’s a tricky balancing act but when done correctly, it creates memorable work.

A sympathetic character is a character the reader is meant to like but makes no effort to change their fate. We feel _____ for them when they experience ______ things, but without a desire to change their fate, the reader has nothing to understand about them. Meaningful work with protagonists who are only what they are is the most difficult.

An unlikeable character isn’t meant to be liked by its ideal reader and doesn’t ask its reader to understand where the character is coming from. It is far easier to create a meaningful unlikeable character in a visual medium where the viewer isn’t asked to empathize with the train of thought that allowed them to make horrific choices and carry through with them.

If an unlikeable character attempts to change who they are, they are an empathetic protagonist even if they fail. An unlikeable character does not try to change who they are.

The problem with “there are no rules” is that it teaches characters have no need to change anything about their life, world, or personality. If a character doesn’t attempt to change anything, the work doesn’t ask the reader to judge those actions based on where the character was coming from.

breaking a rule vs. getting away with it

I used to watch this Youtuber who got white-collar criminals ready for their prison sentence. He’s honest about why he went to jail — the Feds could prove he didn’t not know about a person who was criming. And they knew he didn’t not know because in one email sent X years ago, he’d used the criming guy’s promised rate of return sarcastically.

The Feds had criming guy’s emails.

As long as Youtuber didn’t officially know what criming guy was doing, he had no legal jeopardy. But if he’d written down that he knew and the Feds could prove it, the Feds had him locked in as one of their 98% success rate. But Youtuber had sworn up and down to Feds he had no idea what was going on with criming guy. He had assumed he hadn’t made a single mistake. In doing so, he committed the crime of lying to the Feds.

Breaking the rule is easy. Justifying breaking the rule is even easier if they person doing the breaking gains something out of it. It’s the “attempt to get away with it without paying the consequences” that is the story.

I would never sit down to write a story without conflict. Even a character changing their mind requires the internal conflict of a character discarding what they had known — true or not — and replacing it with what was learned. It isn’t an easy process to get past the discomfort of realizing something once held as truth might not be the whole truth or even part of it.

“Conflict is important enough to learn how to manipulate deliberately” is not a rule I think I could break. Conflict does multiple things in a story. It creates the events necessary for a character to be tested when humans must be as eusocial as bees are for our species’ survival.

You could argue Tolkien’s Silmarillion or the Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them are successful books without conflict or tension. But they are supplementary work for novels in existence and their audience is anyone who loved the books enough to seek out supplementary work.

I used to keep a copy of the Silmarillion beside my bedside table in high school. Nothing put me to sleep faster than opening the book and reading a random passage. The lack of conflict made my brain so bored that falling asleep was the more exciting option. But I know Tolkien fans IRL who can Colbert it.

Prisons are full of people who are survivors of intergenerational trauma. But it also has a population of people who thought they could get away with it and didn’t realize that multiple systems are designed to catch unethical behaviour. There are catches and traps most people would never think to look for even if they can’t see how they could get caught from their office view. Unethical conduct can be caught in a lack of ethical conduct in a controlled environment.

It’s how the Feds have a 98% success rate. There’s always evidence in the system of a crime being committed, those who crime must crime flawlessly, and lying about not committing crime is still crime.

Understanding how to use conflict to manipulate the tension of a piece is difficult enough. The writer has to understand — implicitly or explicitly — how the elements of the story work to create the meaning in the meaningful challenges on the character’s path. To do the same thing — to create meaning on the character’s path without the character being challenged is as tricky as criming flawlessly.

But this is the problem with the loss of assumed knowledge. Once upon a time, writers knew conflict was significant enough to learn how to manipulate meaningfully. That got shortened to conflict is important because the rest was assumed. Then along came “there are no rules” when “conflict is important” is assumed as a given.

And suddenly what is assumed in “conflict is important” becomes “but not enough to have to learn how to use deliberately.” And to assume otherwise becomes intolerable to imply. Because the first rule is that there are none.

The second rule is “given A, conflict is important is a rule.”

Writing a story with tension but no conflict requires a flawless first draft or endless rounds of editing until perfection is created. A character’s lack of change and their lack of need for change must both be meaningful. That is a character a writer either knows how to write or is willing to learn how to write on the fly.

And once that author figures out how to do that by themselves, all it would require is its prose polished.

writing takes more than grit today

When I worked in Korea, one of my gigs was working for Volvo. The joke was the senior administrators spoke Swedish and the workers all spoke Korean, so they were all equally disadvantaged in English. I never met the guy, but one engineer was a legend for all the wrong reasons. He was the smartest of any of them, in any room he was in but Volvo had decided that all workers must be bilingual to work for them.

The company did everything it could. They gave him private lessons until he choked on them and finally shipped him off to England for six months just so he could learn English in a fully immersive environment. It wasn’t as though the engineer didn’t try. Despite being a brilliant engineer, he just didn’t have the capacity to learn a second language through any of the methods that were tried, and he was let go.

Intelligence is a separate thing from the capacity to learn complex systems.

I noticed in my twenty-five years of moving in my writerly circles that only the brilliant people were consistently brilliant writers. Most of the writers I know are highly intelligent people. Writers draw from a population who have something to say and the willpower to keep trying to say it for years and Intelligence and divergent thinking are linked.

Creativity is a combination of natural talent, developed skills, and practiced, divergent thinking. When I was a public school teacher, I found that even on days where I managed to have time to write after all my obligations were finished, I had very little to say. I used to think my creative well that had run dry. It was just creative decision fatigue. Being creative in my teaching made it difficult to be creative in my writing.

Angela Ducksworth, in Grit, talks about what happens when kids entered a structured learning environment. They learn pretty quickly that their mistakes should create fear, shame, and embarrassment. Having learned that, the learner’s ability to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after making a mistake diminishes greatly. Every kindergartner can sing, dance, and draw. By high school, only those who deliberately practiced those activities think they can say they can.

If three words perfectly encapsulated my first public critique after years of non-deliberate practice, fear, shame and embarrassment would be them. I stopped writing to make my story 20% cooler at every decision and started to write so that I wouldn’t feel fear, shame or embarrassment again.

But again, going back to Grit, I didn’t have the ability yet to modify the length of shocks the critiques simulated. That would have required the craft necessary to hear what my critiquers were saying, take them in as genuine suggestions, and have the ability to make changes in the text to incorporate their suggestions.

And I couldn’t do that yet. It wasn’t until my perspective on critiques did a 900-degree turn that I realized I couldn’t even recognize my own errors yet. Someone said they only critiqued to get their stuff critiqued and I realized that wasn’t the benefit of critiques at all. The benefit came from reading work on par with mine, but with no emotional attachment to the world or characters. I went from only critiquing so that my stuff would be critiqued to getting my stuff critiqued so I could critique other people’s work.

I never turned down an opportunity to critique from that point on. I beta’ed enough unpublished novels over the years to see common patterns emerging, regardless of the genre, theme, or level of writing skill. Like a juvenile rat allowed to shorten its own suffering by pushing a button when the shocks came, I learned how to hear what was being said in the nature it was being said in. Once I knew how to fix the parts that still needed work, it didn’t sting as much.

It just took learning how to manipulate a complex system without any external verification that what I learned was correct but for evaluating the results the new method produced. To do so took a mindset I’d cultivated from childhood to always take into consideration I might be wrong about anything until I could prove I wasn’t.

It took having a horse that taught me that thousands of hours of prolonged, deliberate action could pay off, even if it took a very long run. It took realizing I could pay attention in class if I paid attention and wrote at the same time. It took realizing my intelligence had always allowed me to understand complex thoughts quickly, but that couldn’t help me if I wanted to learn a complex system, like learning a second language as an adult learner.

Because, unlike my poor Korean engineer example, within six months of living in an immersive environment, I became a chatterbox. The joy on people’s faces when I at least attempted to speak to them was all the extrinsic reward I needed.

But I still pretended I didn’t speak a word of it when every other woman in the office was out for some reason, and my boss’s boss’s boss and his boss were trying to figure out how to make tea. When they insisted I do it because I was the only woman in the office, I said very loudly in English that my translator would be back in an hour.

When she got back and they told her she had to teach me Japanese, she told them I already spoke it. The two elderly gentlemen who ran our town found it absolutely hilarious and brought me a cup of tea and sweets.

recipes are not formulas

If there’s one word that will cause the average underpublished writer to wither as though salted, it’s formulaic. The idea of adding artificial structure to their work when they didn’t intend to use any is inconceivable.

A tiny percentage of the writers will be right for many reasons. Either the story is perfect as it is, unstructured as it is. It may be written for a non-colonial readership. A work may even defy any ability to identify what it is or how it pulled off. But proper facilitation is always required in any group setting. It is the facilitator’s job to turn any attempt to force structure into a work that doesn’t need it into a learning opportunity.

The argument that the workshop can’t help work not meant for the filthy commercial genres creates the assumption, however, that non-colonial stories can’t be improved on by meaningful instruction. It certainly implies that there is no room in filthy commercial work for stories that don’t use colonial storytelling structure to engage the reader.

Any story can be made more significant with a meaningful attempt to do so.

The problem is again, though, that everyone on the mountain is listening. “Some work doesn’t require foundational structures to improve it” is too often heard as “my YA Dystopian Novel doesn’t require foundational structures to work.”

Foundational structures are not formulaic. They’re the recipe ingredients. How a writer uses conflict and tension, meaningful character change or the lack thereof to create fiction their ideal reader wants to read has no limitations.

Learning to cook is hard. It’s time management, kitchen safety, ingredient handling and knowing how to apply heat and cold to things in the right order so that they taste good and are both nice to chew and least likely to kill us. A novice chef will struggle with a souffle/tension years after they already have the basic knowledge to serve up a nice meal regularly.

Using tension is hard enough. Trying to use tension without using conflict to drive it requires molecular gastronomy levels of difficulty and accuracy that takes practice to get it right even with very clear directions. Trying to use tension without conflict without understanding how to manipulate either is like trying to create a stable, room-temperature foam while blindfolded and handcuffed.

successful writers’ privileges invisible or otherwise


In my illustration from the teaching from the summit post, only the instructor has the proper pickax and boots. But only a handful of learners on the mountain have access to the same privileges successful writers tend to have.

Obviously, race, gender, LBGT issues and class are issues that cannot be ignored. And ableism, of course, It’s a privilege still so invisible that I forgot it, despite being a chronic pain sufferer from an extremely well-spent youth getting thrown off of very fast-moving objects. Dopamine. You get it where you find it.

My non-neurotypical ADHD brain with its severe lack of executive function will tell you it was exhausting to not be able to do anything. I carried everything I couldn’t force myself to do like a litany in my head until sheer terror forced me to act.

The executive function lost to unhealed and unresolved trauma in a person’s life can be equally soul-scattering.

Attending a weekend writing conference is only a weekend writing conference for workers who work M-F. If they want to attend during the day on Friday, they need a job they can take off for their publishing dreams. Otherwise, it means requesting two of the busiest days that most businesses have and burning holidays.

Conferences mean having the physical ability to sit and listen to people talking without causing a fuss. It’s having reliable and trustworthy childcare or a spouse willing to tend to the household needs and children for a weekend while the writer is absorbing new information or networking. It means transport to and from the conference centre. Major cons are held in downtown locations of major cities that might have to be travelled to, first. It means having the energy after a full week of work to actively pay attention. It’s being able to afford the time off, if it’s unpaid, or not being stressed over how rent or groceries get paid.

I can only speak from the queer perspective, but it’s being in the middle of having a professional conversation with someone you respect and having their unexamined bias just pop out in front of you. I’ve been told — as the majority opinion by writers I’ve always respected before 2004-5ish — that queer characters should only be queer if it’s a queer story about being queer. But it eventually went from an opinion most straight writers had to opinions half of them did to an opinion only a writer who has never examined an opinion they’ve gripped with their closed mind would have. Everyone else hushes like they’ve just never heard such a thing.

It was amazingly adorable to watch. But I’ve heard worse opinions than that shared as common, accepted ones. Writing groups are not quite a safe place, but it looks like one.

There are far too many unexamined biases held by people in positions of power to assume it could be one soon.

Having the time to put 10,000 hours of dedicated practice into any skill on top of the hours needed to sleep, work, family and social relationships is an incredible privilege. Dedicated practice requires solid concentration. Having the time can’t help if the writer doesn’t have the mental energy to concentrate after a long day.

I’d been practicing Japanese by reading grammar books and copying down word lists for several months before I realized if I wanted to speak Japanese, I had to speak to Japanese people. I still remember the creeping horror of realizing I was going to have to make mistakes to learn from them.

Even the ability to learn a complex system from instruction — just by being told what to do — isn’t a skill found commonly found in adult learners. Some just need a little feedback at the right time. A lot of learners have to be taught — by an instructor who can verify what was learned — before they learn it. Some need the specific steps they would take to accomplish a goal spelled out.

And that doesn’t get into the competency required in the language skills to make thoughts into words into stories. Both literacy-wise and lingua francaly.

Successful writers are the writers who wrote until what they said affected the reader, to paraphrase Edmund Carpenter’s foreword to They Became What they Beheld. They had the ability, the energy, the time, the knowledge and the support to do so.

Not teaching learners the right tools for the job teaches that no tools are needed. Meaningful instruction requires a learner who is in attendance to learn how to do what they can already do better.

the benefits (or not) of writing books

Writing the Breakout Novel (the link is for the workbook) was the book that I needed to read three times over a decade to understand. I recommend people buy both, but the workbook is the workhorse. The book focuses on how other authors did it. The workbook asks the reader to consider how they could, which a far more valuable lesson to underpublished writers.

I read WtBN when it first came out. It specifically says in the beginning that the book is not for unpublished writers, but like most unpublished writers, I saw myself as a published writer not yet published until I published my first short story. It’s why “underpublished” needs to be a category of writers. The term includes unpublished writers as well as self-published and traditionally-published writers who have sold their work on a professional or semi-professional basis, but not in a way that starts to reflect the effort put into their work.

Thanks to the Dunning Kruger Effect, when I read WtBN, I was thrilled. I knew how to do everything the book talked about. Of course I didn’t, but my brain translated “that makes sense” to “this is easy.” It forgot all the work necessary to go from something that makes sense to something that is easy to do.

At this stage in my life, I was telling far more than I was showing the reader why things mattered and I had convinced myself those were equal choices. I wrote Misbegotten, Unforgiven, rewrote them both entirely, and cranked out dozens of short stories and more fanfic than any one writer ever needed to produce before I reread the book again in my early thirties.

I was starting to sell my short fiction if the short story emerged perfectly with a crystalized form or I didn’t even bother to send it out. My novels were still messes. When I reread the book cover to cover, I realized that I wasn’t actually doing any of it and I still had to learn how I could.

I didn’t read WtBN again until after I’d filled up a lot of my Gap with Angela Fiddler works. By the time I did a third read-through, I argued with the book. I wanted it to consider X, Y and Z when it said F. I felt quite superior for a few months before picking up a copy of the 21st Century Fiction and realized, of course, my arguments had been considered.

When Mr. Maass did a workshop based on the book in Bragg Creek, I was quite hurt that he was just telling learners things that had taken me years to figure out the hard way. I felt like I’d climbed to the top of a mountain, only to look over and see an escalator that went all the way to the top.

But according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, Knowing something is true is only the second step of learning anything. Learning how to use it is only one step up from that. Knowing how to use what you’ve learned to create something new is a level above that, and understanding how to evaluate your use of the new knowledge is the pinnacle of knowledge itself.

All Maass gave the students was a roadmap of what they should be learning over the next decade. It wasn’t an escalator, it was an instruction manual for the tools of the job. No matter how great the lesson was taught, the student still needs to learn how to apply the information to their process themselves.

This is why writing books can be dangerous to the underpublished writer. Had I read WtBN once and thrown it into the closet, I might not have realized that knowing something and knowing how to use something were two different aspects of learning, even for me.

And I wasn’t even an exceptional writer. But it took realizing that I wasn’t to understand I could yet still be.

Anders Ericsson and meaningful instruction

Factors to consider with a learner’s resistance to change. From here

My mother and I saw eye-to-eye on practically nothing. She was a version of me who always had twenty-five more years of experience than I did. I was the version of her who was anti-authoritarian before I was verbal.

But she told me it was twenty years to overnight success. Ira Glass talks about taking the longest of all his creative friends to figure out how saying something signficant works. I probably have him beat. I probably put in over ten thousand hours of practice before I realized the method I had been practicing couldn’t possibly work for a writer with my talent.

The writer I was in my early thirties didn’t just have a lack of developed skills. As a learner, I had a lack of ability to see how learning those skills could have helped me if I wanted them to. When I first got Copper, Youtube was a generation away. The books in the library talked about training a horse that could be ridden or breaking a horse that couldn’t.

There was no information on training a horse that could be ridden but didn’t want to be. I didn’t automatically go with “just keep asking him politely to move forward once he’s tired himself out.” I only tried making him do what I wanted once. But the fuel it added to the existing fire showed me the difference between Copper not wanting to do something and Copper when he was furious.

But letting him exhaust himself and then asking him nicely to move forward if he felt like it sometimes — not always, but sometimes — got him moving in the direction I asked him to. When we first started together, it usually just triggered another tantrum until he got tired of that one, too.

And then one day, he never refused to leave the paddock — even alone — again. It took over a year, but he did it.

I’ve never balked at a challenge. But even I considered just how much work it would take to get where I knew I wanted to be. But to accept I needed to invest that time and energy into my work, I had to put aside my absolutely rock-solid belief I’d had since being a teenager that I just needed to be discovered.

It seemed devastating to be standing on the precipice of realization that everything I could do well wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t that I will always need a line editor. It was that I couldn’t create characters whose journeys were worth being line edited yet.

Anders Ericsson, one of the co-creators of the ten thousand-hour rule talks about how “I have made it a hobby to investigate the stories of such prodigies, and I can report with confidence that I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.”

Ten thousand hours is 3-4 hours of practice every day across ten years. But Ericsson specifically says it requires “deliberate practice.” I had written at least a book a year between the ages of eleven and thirty-two. Some years, I managed to write two books in the same calendar year. But none of that was deliberate practice. Until I was twenty-four, I wrote as a genuine hobby. After twenty-four, I wrote with the assumption that there were no rules.

I didn’t start writing with the deliberate intention of learning how to write bigger, more emotionally engaging stories until 2005. I started to see the disconnect between professionals sharing what they really did to succeed vs. what writers heard was the secret to their success.

I keep going back to On Writing, but it’s a perfect example of this. When most writers only talk about King’s quota, they speak as though it is the reason for his success. The true secret to King’s success is when the nail couldn’t hold his rejection slips anymore, he went and got a bigger spike to hold even more of them in the future.

Without meaningful instruction, meaningful practice can’t happen. Writing is a complex system that has multiple moving parts, all of which must work together to produce something larger in the reader than the sum of its parts.

Instructor-taught learners still have to learn through almost as much practice as the self-taught learner went through in their trials and errors. No theoretical knowledge — however it is obtained — becomes a muscle memory that can be used without hours and hours and hours of applied practice.

I was on a panel just at the start of my pivot with a writer who had just joined a writing group. I had just learned about the theory of mastery and its 10,000 hours. When I mentioned it, he said that he joined a critique group so that he wouldn’t have to put all those hours in.

I can’t remember if I told him or not, but I realized at that moment that trying to learn a skill without being dedicated to its learning doesn’t work for most learners. To absorb knowledge to create the ability to do something new as an adult learner is more of an active skill than teaching is.

And none of that meaningful practice can even start unless the writer sees through the dissonance their own brain throws up to keep them wrapped up in their identity of being a ‘no rules’ writer who just needs to be discovered without having to put the effort into learning how to write.

Unpublished writers could at least look at their lack of professional sales and think that maybe the system doesn’t work because it didn’t work for them. “There are no rules” could not be more of a perfect Skinner box for underpublished writers who are good enough to sell the work that emerged on the page in a near-perfect state.

The path of how it came to be that most writers view the rules of writing as anti-authoritarians view authority can be traced through critiques over the past twenty years. But the reality is, a lot of learners arrive in learning spaces today armed with the knowledge that any time spent wasted on learning skills is an hour taken away from their publishing goals.

The older I got, though, the more I realized I wasn’t actually anti-authoritarian. I discovered I’m actually an anarchist. Anarchists believe in respecting wisdom and knowledge, but not authority for authority’s sake. We need to convince learners that they’re not against the foundational structures of learning. They were learning in a methodology that didn’t know how to help them if they didn’t already know how to practice meaningfully.