The “Importance” Of Originality In One Easy Lesson.

I just sold a story about Space Marine Midwives with Disabilities to a pro market magazine (announcement of which one when contract is signed).

This should teach us two things about “originality.”

  1. No idea is so completely bizarre that it should be cast aside as unworthy  of being published.
  2. Since the GENESIS of this story was actually a Call For Submissions (for an anthology that as far as I know, never even opened to submissions. Yeah, um, really should have gone on to that if you wanted this story, guys) that SPECIFIED “Space Marine Midwives,” there is no idea so completely bizarre AND original that no one has thought of it already.

In other words, “Originality” doesn’t matter a DAMN as long as it’s good writing and doesn’t FEEL like a retread.

The rest is up to you.

A Few MORE thoughts on Worldbuilding with Food, and Art

So, a few weeks ago, I posted some Thoughts on Worldbuilding. And in the natural course of things, another blogger linked to it here.

Now, while it’s always flattering to have people link to your blog, because it means that they found what you had to say worthwhile (or at least, worth screaming about), I fear that my colleague of teh Interwebz misunderstood the technique I was trying to highlight. Because he (or she) had this to say:

“Food is the easiest but only becomes a concern when the characters don’t have a steady reliable supply of it. Or if they are moving between multiple cultures. Art and music are best left for the slower parts of the story and again would only be noticed if the character is operating outside his usual culture.”

And the problem is that this is both right and wrong at the same time. It lacks imagination, and it lacks an understanding of the role of the storyteller.

Now, it’s correct to say that noticing food, art and music are best done in the “slower” parts of the story, but that in itself reveals a limited understanding of pacing. Certainly, you don’t want characters thinking of food, art and music during a gun battle or a chase. But a fast pace, or rising tension, do not have to encompass anything that is literally fast or athletically active. Consider, for example, the dinner-party scene in Frank Herbert’s Dune. The tension rises inexorably as the various factions present do verbal battle for supremacy, and through it all, the food lays out a vibrant background that illuminates the cultures of Arrakis and the Imperium. It has nothing to do with a lack of supply, and little to do with multiple cultures.

But there are always multiple cultures in the act of telling a story. At least, there are two: the real culture of the real reader, and the artificial culture of the work. And even in a contemporary novel of America, food and art and music can be used to signal what things are important to the characters. Is this a man who turns up his nose at scotch improperly oaked? Or a man who enjoys ketchup sandwiches? Does she listen to Rob Zombie, or Pink Floyd?  Or Vivaldi. Does he notice the Warhol print in Wal-mart and spend money on it? Or is he going to snort at that and smugly congratulate himself on his understanding of Pollock?

Now, in F/SF, you have a whole culture to map out. It’s a challenge when your characters are intimately familiar with that culture, and they’re certainly not going to say things like, “Welcome to our home, Bob and Linda! Do sit down and partake of these lovely snarf-burgers, the principal Arcturan delicacy!” But look at what S.M. Stirling does in his excellent book, the Peshawar Lancers. He has to set up an alternate 21st century in which the United States was destroyed, and most of Europe crippled, by a cometary impact. It’s over a century later, and the British Raj is the dominant power. How does he portray this in the opening scenes of the novel?

Well, for one, he has his principal heroine sit down in the lavishly appointed dining room of an airship. She notices all the dishes (because of course we notice what we are eating, whether we are in a different culture or not) and her mind wanders to the huge reproduction of a famous mural that dominates the dining room, portraying the Exodus from England as the government of Great Britain removes itself from the Thames, sailing to Delhi. She then thinks how monstrously inappropriate a scene that includes cannibalism is for a dining room and of the Kipling Cantos that inspired the artist to paint such a thing. And so, in a couple of pages, we are treated to a snapshot of the culture of the 21st-Century Raj combined with a good deal of backstory which the heroine has good reason to be thinking of. It flows with a brilliant ease and never feels artificial, and it all comes from a lady sitting down and dining alone inside her own culture.

A Few Thoughts On Worldbuilding

Most of us, as we begin writing, and begin selling, gradually start to get a handle on what our strengths are as a writer, and what we enjoy writing most of all. One of my strengths, I have been told, is the development of setting, or what is commonly referred to as worldbuilding. Worldbuilding often involves establishing history, politics, culture and geography of your F/SF world, but I’m going to talk about some techniques I rarely see used, here, which, if done right, can lend a whole layer of depth to the world not often enough explored.

For much of this, I’d like to point out that I’m indebted to S.M. Stirling, whose works abound with such things. If you can only read one of his fabulous alternate histories, I suggest The Peshawar Lancers.

Food: Is anything more fundamental to culture than sharing a meal? That’s where deals get done, where people fall in love, where poisonings occur. And yet how often meals are skipped over, or if they are portrayed, are done so in minimal terms, with people eating bland dishes of no significance. The food of a culture tells you what are luxuries, and what are staples. What flavors are favored, and which are disliked.

Art: Religion often plays a part of a fully developed world, and yet how rare is it to see the religious art of a world fully developed, despite the fact that in our own world, religion has inspired a huge percentage of the high arts. Art communicates a great deal of the culture’s values, and can be used to tell its story. Stirling does a wonderful job with this when a protagonist of his, on the dirigible ride to Delhi, contemplates a reproduction of a famous painting that draws on Kipling’s Exodus Cantos while eating a meal in the dining cabin, using food and art simultaneously to draw the protagonist’s mind to her own history.

Music: This is perhaps the hardest of these three to portray, since it’s difficult to convey instrumental sound on the written page. But naming instruments can give you an idea of what is popular and what is not, and writing lyrics can give a feel for whether this is a culture that values arias or ballads or folk verse or chant.

Thus concludes our microlesson today on worldbuilding.

Notes To The Author As A Young Man: How You Can Write A Novel In Three And A Half Months, And Still Have A Life (Part 2)

A continuation of yesterday’s post.

Write Every Day (L): I cannot overstate the importance of writing on your novel every day. It builds a momentum up that is easy to sustain, much like running down a shallow grade. Gravity helps you. But if you stop, you have to overcome your inertia again and it’s a lot harder.

Don’t Give Up When You Fail To Write Every Day (L): You will fail to write every day. At some point, something is going to come up that will (more accurately, “that you will allow to”) keep you from writing. There will be something with the kids, or your wife, or your job, where you will come home and say “I just can’t.”
And the worst thing in the world you can do is throw up your hands and say, “Well, I failed. I guess I don’t have what it takes” and pitch a fit about it. Get back to work the next day and go on. Make up for the lost day if you can. If you can’t, oh well, you lost a day. Keep going.

Do Not Agonize Over Shit You Will Fix Anyway In The Revision (L): This may be the most important piece of advice that I implemented, having learned it from Steven Barnes. And I resisted it for a long time. My reasoning was, “If I know what to fix now, I should fix it. I’m going to have to fix it anyway, and this way I won’t have to revise as much.”
Well, as I have said to my own students before, “That is very compelling and sensible reasoning, which is nevertheless wrong.” Okay, but why is it wrong?
It’s wrong for four main reasons:
1) The process of going back and revising kills your momentum. Part of what encourages you to keep going is seeing how much you’ve done. It’s a reward that your animal brain really gets off on. So the faster you go, the faster you go. If you kill that momentum, you slow down HARD. And unlike the tortoise, slow and steady really does not win this race, because…
2) What you’re really doing is replacing errors that you can see with ones you can’t. They’re going to creep in there anyway, and they’ll be harder to see when you DO go back and reread the manuscript. I always thought that it made more sense to fix the errors NOW than to go back later because if I didn’t, I’d be building later chapters on earlier crap, and it would all have to be fixed. There’s some truth to this* but what I didn’t realize is that it cuts both ways.  You can also come up with a solution near the end of the book that fixes things you screwed up earlier, only because you “fixed” it earlier, that new solution doesn’t work and you have to go back and fix your fix. Which is now HARDER because…
3) When you go back and revise, you will, if you’re any good, produce tighter, neater prose. That’s a good thing. But having to revise that is harder, because its so well done. So essentially, you end up throwing out TWO drafts and writing two more to replace finished prose with finished prose, rather than throwing out ONE draft and writing two more.
4) Finally, going back and revising isn’t fun, so you try to avoid it, and this means you have to fight the urge to agonize over everything. What is this character’s name? What is the name of this gadget? What is the name of this country? How exactly does the gadget work. I need to research to see if that’s plausible. And you’re stuck in a mire of Getting Everything Right The First Time. Right now my manuscript is filled with people named [NAME], and notes like [LET’S GO BACK AND MAKE JEREMY’S PARENTS HAVE A RUN-IN WITH HIS MOM] or [I’D KIND OF LIKE JAEL TO DO SOME SORT OF THEATRICAL TRICK HERE TO DEMONSTRATE FALLING IN LOW GRAVITY, BUT I DON’T WANT TO WORK OUT THE MATH RIGHT NOW.]

So that’s how I did it. Obviously ALL these techniques may not work for YOU, the reader (especially the outlining), but this is the advice I wish I could have read and understood twenty years ago. I hope it helps.

By the way, if you’re interested in more from Steven Barnes, who knows a LOT more about all this than I do, you can find the Lifewriting group here.

*There are some cases where you really want to go back and revise right then, but they’re really on the order of making a huge change to your basics. Like, “I want this character to be a 78 year old man rather than a 16 year old girl,” or “I think we should set this on Enceladus rather than on the Titanic.” Anything less than THAT, leave for revision.

Notes To The Author As A Young Man: How You Can Write A Novel In Three And A Half Months, And Still Have A Life.

There are many things I wish I could go back and tell my younger self about life, love, writing, and many more things. I’m going to start with this one, in the hope it may be useful to my readers. Just a year ago, I would have said that writing a novel this quickly would have been impossible for anyone but a professional, probably-childless, full-time writer. Here are the lessons I learned that made this possible. I would like to especially credit Steven Barnes and his Lifewriting philosophy for teaching me many of these things. There’s a lot more over on his Facebook group dedicated to this, some of which I have not yet put into practice, but it’s well worth checking out. I’ll designate the points I learned from him with an (L).

1) Have A Clearly Defined Motivation (L): In this case, my motivation was two-fold: 1) I had a contract promising me payment, and 2) I had another novel I really wanted to get to revising in June because a publisher asked me to. So I had to be done with this by May. Now, if I had read this a year ago, my reaction would have been something like,  Oh, all you have to do is get publishers to hand you contracts for shit you haven’t even written yet, or respond favorably to something you have? Well THAT sounds easy! Thanks for nothing, asshole!
And I would have been wrong to think that. Because what I would have been missing is that the motivation always comes from YOU. Yes, it’s AWESOME to have external motivation. But if I had decided, no bones about it, “I’m gonna self-publish this baby by the end of August” I could still have accomplished this. That decision is ENTIRELY in your control.

2) Control Your Word Count: This novel had a soft limit from the publisher of 55,000 words, and a hard limit of 60,000. This meant that I had to make absolutely sure that it didn’t balloon into an epic. At 53,000 words, it is the shortest novel I have ever written, the next shortest being about 120,000 words. Word Count MATTERS. If this had been a typical-length novel for me, I doubt it would have been finished in under six months. I can’t type that fast. Yet. So how do we control our word count? We…

3) Outline: Before I started this project, I created a thorough (about 3000 word) outline of the story, including four character sketches of the family at the center of the book. On completion of this outline, I was reasonably satisfied that I would not exceed word count. I could not allow myself any real subplots. Focus had to stay tight on the major plot from beginning to end. This meant that I could look back at the outline so that I never had the dreaded “What was going to come next” moment. Also, it was a great way to squelch rabbit trails that would inflate the word count.

4) Double Outline: Before beginning each chapter, I read the outline to make sure it would make sense, and then made further notes, including who would say what in what order. This outline would have looked like gibberish to anyone who wasn’t me. But it ensured that while I was actually writing, I got to focus on how the prose sounded, because I had already decided what to say, when.

5) Control Your Time (L): While I was writing the novel, some other things I normally do had to be put on the back burner. Short story writing, responses to calls for submissions, marketing, and, notably THIS BLOG all suffered. In fact, it’s the reason you haven’t been reading much here for the past two weeks, and the reason that this is NOT a William Shakespeare’s Dune post. Working on it. It even means that blog posts have to be shorter. This, one, for example, has now taken all the time that I can give it, so I’m going to leave part two of it for tomorrow.

We Now Commence The Reading Of The Rules!

In response to my post on how to break the rules of writing, a reader asked for my top ten rules of writing. Those are difficult to quantify, and I puzzled over how to do it, but I came to two conclusions: firstly, that anyone who needs these rules really needs them, and they need them to be basic, and secondly, that no one including me should take them too seriously, so here, in no particular order are the Basic Rules Of Science-fiction and Fantasy Writing.


No, sorry, that’s just in honor of Monty Python Status Day. In all seriousness, write any sort of characters you want, within the bounds of reason. My primary rule is that my heroes have to be the kinds  of people I like. Otherwise, I can’t stand to be around them long enough to tell their story. The only caution is that if it gets really odd, people are going to ask questions. So if you really want, say, all your characters to be Japanese and your story is set in Oliver Cromwell’s England, you do need some reason for that.

Rule 2: No Accidental Time Traveling

It should go without saying that time-traveling is just fine, but for the gods’ sake pay attention to it, and don’t let it happen without a time machine or time spell. Stories told in past tense need to stay in past tense unless you have a well-thought out scheme for transitioning them, as I described in the above-linked post. And if your story flashbacks or flashforwards, you need to make sure that the sequence of events makes sense, and you don’t have a character traveling from Boston to SF by jumbo jet in two hours.

Rule 3: No Poofters Head-hopping

I hesitate to add this, because it’s more a recent convention than a rule. James Clavell wrote excellent if long novels in true 3rd-person omniscient POV, and head-hopped like no tomorrow. But if you want to sell fiction these days, you can’t do it. And if you come up with an explicit scheme to do it anyway, it needs to be balanced. Each POV character should get roughly equal time.

Rule 4: No One Is To Misuse The Jargon In Any Way At All… Because EVERYONE Is Watching

Nothing makes me want to throw a book against the wall faster than someone who obviously doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Please understand your skiffy terms and what most people mean by them. And yet, one rather well-known writer who shall remain nameless managed to create a whole series in which he apparently thought that Fusion Drive meant Faster-Than-Light travel. Don’t do this.

Rule 5: No Poofters Idiots

The reader has to be able to sympathize with your protagonist to some degree, even if you’re writing an anti-hero. We can sympathize with Macbeth, for gods’ sakes. We can sympathize with Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And that means that you can’t make him or her an idiot. Yes, we all do dumb things, nor should your character be immune to that tendency. You can even have your characters get themselves into a major conflict by being an idiot, see Bujold’s A Civil Campaign again for Miles doing exactly this, to hilarious effect. But then they have to be competent at getting themselves out. They can’t be impeded by “major challenges” that a non-idiot could solve in five minutes by simply calling someone up and asking a question.

Rule 6: There is NO…!

Rule 6.

Rule 7: No Poofters Pocket Anti-Tank Guns

You cannot introduce a major or plot-altering power, for either hero or villain, late in the story. The reader feels cheated if you do. You have to explicitly and early allow your reader to know that this power exists. J.K. Rowling was masterful at this. For example, Professor McGonagall teaches Harry and friends about the Animagus Transfiguration in their 3rd year, long before any of them would be able to attempt such a thing. Why? Because it establishes then what the rules are for it. They’re highly restrictive. So when it turns out that Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew are secret Animagi, we as the readers neither find it incredibly coincidental that they happen to have that power, nor that they are not suspected of it until now.

Rule 8: I Don’t Want To Catch Anyone Living On A Planet Of Idiots:

Aaaaand this was something J.K. Rowling was incredibly bad at. Just to take one observation not completely at random, Hagrid declaims early on that every evil wizard was in Slytherin house. And this appears to be pretty nearly true (although at that time, he should have remembered that Sirius Black the Gryffindor was an exception).
So why is there still a Slytherin House? They could pretty much solve the problem by disbanding the house, unless there is some, never-really explained mystical reason they can’t, and in lieu of that, watching the hell out of it. Or, you know the fact that Time-Turners would be invaluable for a lot of things besides doing double-lectures. Such as, you know, going back to see who was opening the Chamber Of Secrets or something.
And that’s the thing. Even in magic, you can’t just establish that you can do something by magic and then pretend you can’t.

Rule 9: No Poofters Coincidences.

Like the Pocket Anti-tank Guns, the problem with coincidence is that it feels incredibly contrived. Bizarre coincidence (like a comet hitting the Earth) can START a conflict, because it’s a given. But it would be extremely unworkable to SOLVE, say, an alien invasion by having a random meteor wipe out the invader’s beachhead.

Rule 10: No Distractions

And I’ve just spent all the time I can on this list. I have books to write. So do you. Go write them.



Protagonists: A Spotter’s Guide

Works of fiction are almost always centered around protagonists. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to tell who the protagonist is. It is possible to have multiple protagonists. One of my favorite novels, which provides a fascinating study of different kinds of protagonists, is A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold, which I highly recommend to everyone. Although to get full enjoyment out of it, you really should read The Warrior’s Apprentice, Brothers In Arms, Memory, and Komarr  first. Do it: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, and if you don’t like them, you have no soul.

Finished? Good.

Now, we could cheat, looking at this book, and say “anyone whose point of view we see the action through is a protagonist,” but that’s no fun, and not always accurate. For example, we see through Quentyn Martell’s POV in the Song Of Ice And Fire series, but it’s hard to argue that he rises to the level of protagonist of anything but his own story, and by that definition, every character in any book, including, say, Greedo, is a protagonist. So that’s a useless definition. However in this case it does give us our five protagonists: Miles, Ekaterin, Mark, Kareen, and Ivan.

The two pairs of lovers, Miles/Ekaterin and Kareen/Mark can give us a wonderful lesson in how to give two protagonists the same, or nearly the same, goals. Bujold does a wonderful job setting this up so that the males of the pairs have essentially the same goal: win the fair damsel. The females of the pairs also have, really the same goal, which is, become a fully-capable person. Yet the flavors of the goals are highly individual: Kareen’s is a coming-of-age story. She is a child becoming an adult. Ekaterin’s is a story of recovery: she is an adult who was scarred by emotional abuse. Both struggle to escape emotional and financial dependence.
On the male side, Miles’s drive to succeed, usually a great asset, becomes his tragic flaw: his determination to win Ekaterin leads him to deceive her dishonorably, and begin a long road to redemption. Mark, on the other hand, must overcome his self-doubt in order to take any action toward helping Kareen, so he can solve his own problem.

(And I just realized that put this way, it sounds like I am describing the most boring piece of romantic, navel-gazing lit-fic in the world, rather than the sharp, funny, action-packed novel it really is. A later blog will explain how Bujold pulled this off.)

However, in the end, Bujold creates four living, breathing protagonists, each of whom have their own unique conflict that means the world to them, and each of them solves that conflict. That’s vitally important: not only does the protagonist HAVE his or her own conflict, s/he SOLVES it by making his/her OWN vital decision. BUT, each of the protagonists does have an important role to play in helping to solve the others’ problems. This creates the complex interplay that makes the book succeed so well.

But lastly, we have Ivan. Is he a protagonist, or not? At first glance, he is not. Unlike the pairs of lovers, Ivan is played purely for laughs. His romantic goals are pursued half-heartedly at best, and his pursuits fail as soon as he begins them. How then, is he a protagonist?

And the answer is this: Ivan’s goal is to help his ex-lover, Lord Dono (formerly Lady Donna) win his goal of being appointed Count Vorrutyer. A close examination of the text reveals that while Lord Dono is quite capable of running his District, he is utterly incapable of acquiring it through political maneuvering. And from inception to climax of that plot, Ivan is the key to turning Dono’s campaign from an utter failure to a triumphant victory. This gives us an important lesson: a protagonist’s goal need not be solely his own. It can be carried out in the name of another, provided that the protagonist achieves that goal in the pivotal moments.

How To Break The Rules

Like every other endeavor, creative or not, fiction has rules. And it has more rules than I could possibly list here, in all sorts if categories, from character (we have to care about your character) to plot (you have to have a climax) to basic writing mechanics (you have to have consistent sentence structure).

And every single one of these rules can be, and has been, successfully broken.

Now the problem with this is that a lot of beginning writers, frustrated with the rules they are accused of breaking, latch on to the above sentence and pick an example of great, rule-breaking fiction, let’s say, Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” and say, “See! It’s a great story told in mostly exposition with no characters. I can do whatever I want, WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” and then write awful dreck and start screaming and crying that Teh Eeevul Establishments (Patriarchy/Left Wing Gatekeepers/Cishet Scum) Does Nawt Rekunnize Muh GEENyus.

This is dumb. This is very dumb.  This is like my nine year-old son who keeps wanting to make movies based loosely off Star Wars and games based loosely off Minecraft only with all the tension taken out. Except he has an excuse: he’s nine. Actual writers have to be adults.

So, here is what I have learned about how breaking the rules really works. I’ll give an example from my own story, “Requiem With Interruptions,” which was my second published story, sold to a pro magazine. In it, I broke three rules:

1) Never have more than one viewpoint character in a story.
2) Never have more than one type of POV (point-of-view)  in a story.
3) Never switch tense in a story.

So, how did I break these rules and still have a saleable story? Well, let’s look at why these rules exist in the first place. The rules — most rules in fiction, in fact — exist so that you do not confuse the reader. Readers do not like being confused. They like being puzzled to a certain degree, but that is not the same thing. Leading the reader into a mystery while making them wonder what is going on is a purposefully-crafted technique. Confusion is just an accident. The challenge, therefore, was how to create the effect I wanted, which was to puzzle and intrigue the reader, without confusing them.

So first, I came up with my own rules, governing how the story would be presented:
1) There would be a 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person-limited POV.
2) 1st person and 3rd person would always be in past tense. 2nd person would always be in present tense.
3) The order these POVs would be presented in would be strictly cyclical: From 2nd to 1st to 3rd, and then repeating.

By doing this, I was presenting chaos in order. The reader never had to figure out where we were. The rhythm was clear. Which leads me to my first induction: The more you break some rules, the more strictly you must adhere to the other rules. I did not mess around with plot structure. I did not mess around with things like antiheroes. I did not (much) mess around with weird sentence structure. Every rule broken served a purpose. Which leads to my second induction: You break rules for clearly understood reasons.
Nonconformity for its own sake isn’t cool. At best, it’s showing off. At worst, it looks like the arrogance of ignorance, and Dunning-Kruger isn’t a famous author. And this leads to a corollary: The more you like breaking the rules, the better you have to know them.

Okay, I hope this helps anyone out there who is still on an earlier stage of writing than me. Go learn and break rules in good health.

Harry Potter And The Invisible Curriculum

It’s been a long day. Sick wife. Patreon Rewards due. Novel writing. Trying to land a more permanent day job. All (except the first one) good things, but tiring. So I’m just going to pen a short rant here:

It strikes me that the greatest feat of magic ever produced at Hogwarts was its ability to teach those kids things like grammar, composition, and basic math without ever having taught any classes in it. Harry Potter writes better than most of my juniors, and to my knowledge he was never assigned a single essay nor asked to read a single work of literature or piece of technical writing.

If I were a completely humorless scold obsessed with defending all aspects of my identity from the slightest hint of disrespect, I might scream at Rowling about this, as she obviously feels such instruction unnecessary, and I can only laugh bitterly at how wrong she is.

However, I can’t help thinking that there must be the potential for a whole treasure trove of secondary adventures at Hogwarts: Harry Potter and the Misplaced Modifier. Harry Potter and the Greatest Common Factor. Harry Potter and the Supporting Paragraphs. Harry Potter and the Law of Sines. Harry Potter and the Periodic Table. And of course, that page-turner, Harry Potter and the Five-Paragraph Theme of DOOM.

I may turn these into flash fiction for my Patreon supporters someday. Mention it in the comments if you’d support me in exchange for that.

How To Structural Fiction: A Workable Plot

I don’t know how many writers or would-be-writers I have here, but I’m going to pass on a very simple lesson that I learned from the late, great Algis Budrys at Writers Of The Future. Because while hardly any new writers need “an idea” as earlier discussed, many need to know what to do with that idea. So here is a plot structure that intrinsically works:
At least one protagonist.
At least one problem (and this is important) solvable by the protagonist!

Step 1: The protagonist encounters the problem. This is generally your hook. If this is a long-standing problem (like, say, the protagonist has a terminally-ill child and has had for years) then the problem must become immediate.

Step 2: The protagonist attempts to solve the problem using a reasonable amount of intelligence and the resources available.

Step 3: The protagonist fails. Ideally, the protagonist fails in a way that costs him something, or makes the situation worse, or reveals something to her about the nature of the problem.

Step 4: The protagonist attempts to solve the problem using what he has learned the first time to bring more resources to bear.

Step 5: She fails again, more severely or learning more.

Step 6: The crisis is now imminent. The character is out of some resource (this may include time) necessary to solve the problem. She throws everything valuable to her at solving the problem, knowing there will be no other chances.

Step 7: The character triumphs against great odds. Or, if the story is a tragedy, she may fail. Note that the character losing his life does not necessarily count as failure.

This formula gets you a functional story.

At this point, some objections may occur to you, such as:

That’s not the only way to write a story!

You are right. I never said it was.

Fiction is more than a formula!

Of course it is. And people are more than skeletons. Nevertheless, people work very BADLY without skeletons, or with incomplete or damaged skeletons.

Wouldn’t that make all stories the same?

Again, only in the sense that having practically the same skeleton as most other people means that YOU are qualitatively “the same” as all other people. In other words, not at all.

In any case, that concludes the brief lesson. For many of you, it won’t be necessary, but it was valuable to me when I read it, and in that spirit, I pass it on.