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The Distinction between Exciting and Compelling February 1, 2022

There's a stereotype of the young writer who's afraid to write about conflict. Creative Writing teachers tell anecdotes about that one student in their college class who could have written very well, but her stories were static portraits of happy families. Writers publish countless articles reminding newbies they must put their characters in maximum pain, as if they're sick and tired of seeing stories about people living pleasant lives in which nothing bad ever happens.

But if you spend any time around new writers, virtual or otherwise, you'll see the opposite: everyone wants to write about misery. That one student in Creative Writing 101 might write about happy families, but the other twenty-nine want to write about outrageously unhappy ones. Every story posted online for feedback is "my dark take on such-and-such trope." Every piece read at a writer's group meeting or awarded in a short story contest is about troubled girls trapped by an abusive pimp, or twisted brides who poison their grooms and cuddle with their corpses, or people facing the end of the world who decide to smother their children and hang themselves.

People seem to believe dark automatically equals deep. "Hear me out," they Tweet. "Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon...but with death mages!" Because Sailor Moon, being a generally uplifting and sparkly show for young girls, is dumb. But if the girls wore black and killed people, it would become meaningful!

Dark stories can be deep—see anything written by Shirley Jackson—but they're not inherently deeper than joyful stories. I've read books with horrifying revelations and despair on every page, and they were still boring and pointless. Anna Karenina is an enduring classic, but that doesn't mean "And then she threw herself under a train" is an easy shortcut to writing an interesting story.

Why do writers assume dark stories are deep, complex, and compelling, even when they're not?

Literary tradition praises violence and cynicism.

My high school reading lists were filled with books by angry dead guys:

  • The Great Gatsby
  • Brave New World
  • Animal Farm
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Lord of the Flies
  • And so on and so forth.

Each of these books has its own merits worth teaching, but combined with very little variety mixed in, they taught me that the criteria for good literature is simple:

  1. It's about sex.
  2. It's about death.
  3. It's about people being unhappy and mean in the gaps between sex and death.

Anything else, as we know, is trite "women's fiction." One English Lit teacher in my school dared to assign Pride and Prejudice to her seniors, and oh, the scandal. Such a waste of time, the students complained. Not a single main character gets shot in the head, so like, what's even the point?

Writing advice revolves around "what sells."

As soon as people decided to turn fiction into a business, the definition of a good story became "a story that makes money." Charles Dickens became a Literary Great by ending his serial installments with tantalizing cliffhangers. In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), a big conflict between Jo and her future husband is her decision to write juicy pirate tales for money, instead of the sentimental stories she wants to tell in her own voice. In 1906, a translator of Natsume Soseki's satire I Am a Cat complained in the forward:

"Love-stories are all right. But when they are produced in such an enormous mass as at present, they become a nuisance...Their constructions, which are nearly of a piece, are stale and dull. Their charm, if it may be called so, invariably consists in scandalous incidents and offensive dialogues. These are the productions which, catching the attention of wide circles of youthful readers, have long remained the master of the literary field."

Today every rejection letter from a literary agent is some version of, "Unfortunately, the story didn't grab me." What does it mean to grab a publishing professional? To be frank, it means every book written today is supposed to be clickbait. It's supposed to promise anger, fear, lust, shocking twists and violent drama so wickedly tantalizing, no book lover can resist clicking "Add to Cart."

Death is exciting.

Most of the titles promoted by stores and public libraries are high-octane thrillers about murderous psychopaths of some variety. The few low-octane novels with pastel illustrations of blueberry pies in New England beach houses are also about murderous psychopaths, but with recipes.

Anxiety and anger are stimulating emotions, and audiences love to get excited. Adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding action has been a reliable staple of fiction since the ancient days gods warred with lightning bolts and Oedipus Rex married his mother and stabbed his eyes out.

However, "exciting" is not the same thing as "compelling." Two-hour movies stuffed full of life-threatening action scenes can be uninteresting, as shown by the many articles and Reddit threads on the subject, "What went wrong with The Matrix sequels?"

A compelling story is one that "evokes interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way." In practice, it's a story that:

  1. Makes the reader care about the characters and their fates.
  2. Creates knowledge gaps the reader wants to keep reading to fill.

Humans are interested in what we don't fully understand. As babies, we'll stare tirelessly at dangling mobiles and Mom & Dad appearing magically from behind blankets singing, "Peekaboo!" As adults, we're still fascinated by songs with novel patterns we haven't heard before, and by artwork that depicts the world in ways we haven't seen before. We stare open-mouthed at car accidents and obsess over cold murder cases, because they don't make sense to us.

When things don't make sense, we feel dissatisfied, and we want to investigate until we understand. Like when we hear the unpleasant sound of a dissonant, unstable note or chord, we feel something isn't right. Our ears perk anxiously until the music resolves to a nice-sounding chord, and then we're relieved that the world is in order again.

Every story, regardless of genre, is a kind of mystery. What happened? Who's fault was it? How did they resolve the problem? These questions in the reader's mind create what John Gardner termed, "profluence"—a sense that the story is going somewhere, and we'll be rewarded if we keep moving forward.

A lot of death, high stakes, and constant excitement doesn't always create mystery or peak curiosity.

The "rules" of modern fiction prioritize excitement.

Every contemporary creative writer has been told the following dozens of times from teachers, craft books, and AuthorTubers:

  • Every story conflict must be about a kind of death (physical, professional, or personal).
  • In every scene, the stakes must rise higher and the main character's situation must get worse.
  • Every chapter must end on a cliffhanger to keep readers turning the pages.

The folks teaching these rules cite Dean Koontz thrillers and Stephen King horror novels to make the case that every book in every adult genre must do the same thing to be compelling: manufacture danger, then crank up the danger more and more, until the clever protagonist wriggles out of danger at the very last moment.

These "rules" are reductive. They teach us how to write exciting fiction, but not necessarily compelling fiction. There's some logic behind each rule, but as written they can mislead writers into believing "death & despair = compelling story."

"Every story conflict must be about a kind of death" => Compelling stories are about challenges with rewards and consequences.

In mysteries, the challenge for the protagonist is to identify the culprit who disrupted the peace, and to restore order by removing the threat from the community. In romances, the challenge for the lovers is to overcome personal foibles and external obstacles to secure their happiness as a new family unit. In coming-of-age stories, the challenge is for the sheltered youth to carve out their new place in the hostile adult world.

These challenges don't dictate tone, and they certainly don't need to be about "a kind of death" unless you stretch the definition of "death" to extremes to justify your theory. The stakes—a.k.a. potential negative consequence of failure—will always be a potential loss, but not necessarily of the main character's whole life or future. They might simply fail to marry a sexy misunderstood duke, or launch their dream career in fashion design, or win the state hockey championship against all odds. That's hardly "death," and it doesn't need to be for a compelling story.

"The stakes must rise higher and the main character's situation must get worse" => Throughout the story, the main character's situation must continuously evolve.

In high school physics, I was astonished to learn that the word "accelerate" doesn't mean "to go faster" as it's used colloquially, but "to change in velocity over time." Slowing down is also accelerating.

We're taught by The Rules that the only acceptable direction for a novel to go is "faster" and "higher." But what's really important to maintain a reader's interest is continuous change: an ever-shifting situation, new unexpected information and surprising consequences, a power-balance see-saw between the heroes and the antagonists.

Simply making the main character's situation worse, and worse, and worse, isn't necessarily compelling. Personally, I'm uninterested in most of the books published today that constantly threaten imminent disaster. Wow, the sleuth is falsely accused of murder? And she has to find the real killer before he strikes again? And she figured out who he is, but suddenly he's at the door with a gun, and there's no possible way she can get out of this scene alive? *Yawn* you don't say.

"Every chapter must end on a cliffhanger" => Each scene should promise interesting events in future scenes.

Cliffhangers are usually explained as endings that leave the audience in suspense, either by leaving the characters in a precarious situation or by introducing a shocking revelation or catastrophe.

From watching the drama W, I learned Korean writers think of "cliffhangers" in a different way: an episode of a show or comic should end on a change in the main character's emotional state. I like this definition because it opens up many possibilities for keeping audiences engaged, beyond "And then something really bad happened!"

A compelling end to a scene is simply a promise to the reader that this story is going somewhere interesting. The promise can take many forms. For example...

  • The spunky Regency heroine learns she has a new neighbor with a mysterious past, and she's going to meet him at the colonel's ball tonight.
  • The underdog hockey team learns there's been a change of plans, and they're going to face the regional champions in the rink this Saturday.
  • The teen sleuth learns she'll find an important clue in the restricted special collections room of the library. She calls her eccentric acquaintance in the archives department and says, "Remember when you said you owed me one?"

A "cliffhanger" doesn't have to be negative or threatening. It can be a positive development that makes the characters happy, as long as it promises new challenges and dramatic situations ahead.

Tastes Differ

Different readers will have slightly different definitions of "compelling." The 5-star books I found unputdownable, like The Vanishing Half and The Dutch House, probably bore readers who want Oedipus-level drama. Thousands of YA readers were enthralled by the Divergent trilogy, while I put the first book down halfway through because I felt the heroine was just facing one life-threatening double dog dare after another with no real progress.

The competitive nature of commercial publishing teaches us to believe that the only taste readers have is for liquid opium. If they're not hooked within the first sentence and addicted by the end of the first page, it's "not compelling enough." But readers might not want to get high. They might be looking for a book that's like a warm cup of tea made by a friend who understands them, or a refreshing fruit smoothie that makes them feel energized and optimistic. Those books are harder to sell, but that doesn't mean they're not as "good" or we should give up on writing them.

Dealing with Rejection January 22, 2022

Writers seem to be more prone to depression than people in other occupations. We might just be more likely to talk about having depression, since talking to the world is our whole thing. Or the personality traits that make people effective writers also make them vulnerable to depression. We tend to be over-analytical perfectionists who critically deconstruct everything and everyone. We ruminate. We mine our most painful memories for dramatic material. We assume it's therapeutic to write about our traumas, but reliving them and obsessing over every detail is the exact opposite of moving on.

Even for people with stellar mental health, the process of publication in the 2020s will wear them down until they're exhausted and disillusioned. Breaking into the industry is incredibly hard. Literary agents can receive a hundred or more queries a month, but they sign only a few new clients a year. Statistically, that's a less than 0.5% chance of any one submission resulting in an offer of representation. The other 99.5% get rejected.

Rejection is demoralizing for everyone, regardless of profession. In one series of psychology experiments in the early 2000s, researchers put college students in groups for structured conversation, and then they asked participants to name the people they'd like to work with in pairs for further activities. Their answers were irrelevant; instead half of the participants were told that everyone in the group wanted to be their partner, and the other half were told nobody did.

The students who were told nobody wanted them were significantly more likely to agree with the statement, "Life is meaningless." They were more lethargic and expressed less emotion than the participants who thought they were accepted by the group. They also perceived time as moving more slowly, they unconsciously avoided looking at themselves in a mirror, and they were more likely to say they wanted to enjoy the present and not think about the future.1 I think anyone who's been socially isolated since March 2020 can relate.

Writers aren't told we're unwanted merely once, but countless times, year after year, in dozens of impersonal form letters. Depression is the natural result. If anyone says you're being oversensitive or illogical, because "it's just business" and you "need to grow a thicker skin," they're essentially telling you to stop being a human being.

Humans aren't built to live in isolation, even the introverts among us. We're built to form cooperative groups that work towards common goals. Repeated rejections from agents and editors aren't upsetting only because they feel like unfair personal slights. They feel like a denial of the purpose we've chosen for ourselves. "There's no place for you in our group," they seem to be saying. "You're worthless to us. All the hard work you've done was pointless because nobody likes you."

These feelings are natural, but we need to deal with them in healthy ways. Some deal with them in destructive ways, like those people on Twitter who respond to every #amquerying post with angry rants about lazy and mediocre agents. Don't be those people.

1) Find other goals and sources of meaning.

In her video "Breaking Down Book Advances," Alexa Donne explains why it's impossible for most writers to make a living solely through traditional publishing. If you get a $25K advance for one book, that works out to about $4K in annual earnings over three years. I've seen bestselling romance authors report eye-popping advances of $60K, which nets them a whopping $10.5K annually. To match my current day-job salary and pay my bills, I'd theoretically need to land 8 of those $60K deals every single year. And in reality, I'd be lucky to get one contract for $5K.

Writers should have a different primary career not just for financial stability, but for our sanity. We can control the books we write, but we can't control whether other people buy them. So if you believe your reason for living is to become a published author, and that doesn't happen, you're going to end up like Joe in Pixar's Soul: despairing, resentful, and missing out on the best parts of life because you're obsessed with fulfilling your "purpose."

2) Reframe rejections.

By "reframe rejections," I don't mean gloss over them with toxic positivity. I mean stop equating a "no" from an agent or editor with "nobody likes me and I'm useless," but instead think of it like a declined invitation for other reasons, with regrets.

To illustrate: an extended metaphor about gardening.

I started gardening in the first spring of the pandemic, and I quickly learned three things: it's surprisingly expensive, it takes a lot of advanced planning and patience, and I live in one of the worst places in this country to grow a garden.

Flowers don't pop up after three days of watering like in Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing. You need to budget for your purchases a season in advance. A rose from a reputable company is $60 with shipping. An order of tulip and daffodil bulbs for fall planting can easily top $100. Each little sprig of a perennial in a 4-inch container costs $10+ and might not live long.

I didn't realize how hostile the climate of Central Oregon is until I started trying to keep plants alive in it. It's like trying to garden in Death Valley. If it's not freezing, it's scorching hot. Hydrangeas fry up in days. Agastaches flourish in the summer sun but rot in the winter ground. I planted some expensive lilies in October 2020 and checked eagerly for sprouts in June, then July, then August...and they never came.

While I'd love to surround myself with jasmine and osmanthus and rhododendrons, I can't afford to waste my money and efforts on plants that can't survive in a south-facing front yard in the high desert. As a practical matter, I have to select the same drought- and frost-tolerant species as every other Central Oregonian: catmints and sages, cinquefoils and feather reed grasses, and fast-growing annuals like zinnias and sunflowers. My garden has a few stand-out stars I love—roses, phlox, and late-summer gladioluses—but most of it consists of not-too-bad plants whose best quality is that they probably won't die.

Agents and editors are like gardeners in Central Oregon. They're trying to fill their lists with beautiful stories in an absurdly hostile environment. They might think a manuscript is lovely and wish they could have it, but they're not confident it would survive, and they can't afford to invest months of work and care into little book seedlings that are just going to shrivel in the sun.

So like the yards in my neighborhood, the landscape of books is made up of tropes that are unoriginal but safe. Another serial killer in suburbia, another middle-aged mom who rediscovers her pluck after divorcing her cheating husband, another cocky handsome man and quirky voluptuous woman who hate each other but also want to bang. These are the books that get published, not really because they're better than every other story in the slush pile, but because they probably won't die.

Of course there's a big difference between me thumbing through the Breck's catalog and the publishing industry evaluating submissions. It's a botanical fact that a hydrangea, whose name means "water pitcher," will not survive in a low-water desert garden. When publishers decide a book won't survive, it's based largely on snap judgements, gut feelings, and fuzzy comparisons, not on science. Trying to predict the commercial viability of a novel from a new author with a release date two years down the line is like trying to guess whether a plant will thrive in an unknown location based solely on a sketch by the grower. The blooms look kind of like the ones on this other plant that did well? But maybe the shape of the leaves is more like that one plant that froze? And we're in zone 7 now, but next spring we might wake up in a totally different biome. Who knows!

Agents have to love a project to take it on, not because they think anything they don't personally enjoy is unworthy of publication, but because publishing is unpredictable and often unfair. The industry also depends on the labor of thousands of people who are passionate enough about books to tolerate being compensated more in personal fulfillment tokens than in livable wages.

If you cling to the belief that publishing is a meritocracy, and agents choose "the best books by the best authors," every rejection will feel like a judgement. I prefer to believe my books are beautiful lilies agents would love to grow, but the environment is just too harsh.

  1. Twenge, J. M., Catanese, K. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Social exclusion and the deconstructed state: time perception, meaninglessness, lethargy, lack of emotion, and self-awareness. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(3), 409.

Reading in Bad Faith January 15, 2022

Of the millions of pieces of fiction written over the past two hundred years, a big chunk of them are harmful in some way. They're racist or sexist; they teach young readers that cruelty is cool; or they portray rape, murder, and other crimes as fun and exciting.

More than once, I've been accused of maliciously inventing problems in beloved stories just to ruin them for everyone else. My most unpopular observations:

  • Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre is a predator who imprisons his disabled wife and then emotionally manipulates his teenage employee, who has no support system and nowhere else to go, into having sex with him.
  • The moral of The Lion King is that there's a divine order to society: special light-colored males are born to rule no matter how irresponsible and unqualified they are, and giving power to impoverished dark-colored outcasts would upset the "natural balance" so catastrophically that the heavens would close in protest and everything would die.

It's frustrating when people tell me I'm making up issues that are so evident in the source material, you'd have to will yourself blind to them. Seriously, look at these "bad guys" vs. "good guys."

Scar from The Lion King
Hyenas from The Lion King

Adult hyenas are beige-colored with brown spots or stripes (see Google Images). They're nowhere close to the dark wolf-gray of the trio in the animated movie and all the Lion King merchandise. Either the Disney animators tragically lost all of their reference photos, or they used their "artistic license" to signal to young audiences that these characters are devious and menacing. (In combination with the exaggerated Black vernacular and Latino accents, of course.)

That said, I've been seeing a trend in Goodreads reviews and social media threads: people are increasingly criticizing books for "problematic content" that isn't actually in the text. These one-star reviews and Twitter take-downs are excoriating authors not because of what they wrote, but because the critics imagine other people with poor reading comprehension will misunderstand what was written.

For example, I recently read a young adult thriller and thought it was very well done. When I went to Goodreads to give it 5 stars, I spotted popular reviews calling it toxic for supposedly (1) promoting slut-shaming and (2) perpetuating harmful stereotypes about people with depression. These assertions fell into two broad categories of Problem Projection.

"This book doesn't state emphatically enough that bad things are bad."

There was slut-shaming in this book, the detestable bullies, towards a sympathetic main character. The poor girl's ex-boyfriend waged a cruel campaign to isolate her from the rest of the school by telling everyone she slept around. A sneering queen bee scrawled "WHORE" on her locker and tripped her in PE to humiliate her to tears.

How could these scenes be perceived as promoting slut-shaming? Well, as one incensed reviewer argued, "The characters call it out sometimes, but not every time."

To these readers, it's not enough to show that slut-shaming is bad through a likeable heroine's suffering. It's not enough to write on-the-nose dialogue proclaiming that slut-shaming is bad three times in the same book. If the author doesn't categorically state that slut-shaming is bad every single time a mean girl is mean, these readers are convinced that people less enlightened than they are might think the moral of the story is that slut-shaming is okay.

"This book doesn't stop bigoted readers from being bigots."

The villain of this book was a maladjusted boy who became an incel after falling down the 4chan rabbit hole. He started an app to spread nasty gossip about the sexual indiscretions of his classmates. He cooked up a scheme to destroy the lives of two pretty girls who dared to ignore him, and two charismatic "chads" his crush had dated instead of him, by committing suicide and framing these four popular kids for his murder.

A Goodreads review with more than 700 likes railed about this plot: "Depression does not equal being a terrorist!" Other reviews echoed this sentiment. The author is so ignorant, this portrayal of teens with suicidal ideology is so damaging, we need to stop publishing books that trivialize and demonize mental illness.

The text of this book did not imply that depression is trivial, nor that all depressed people are terrorists. Other characters in the book also had depression and were not terrorists. Depression was just one element of the villain's character, and from the way it was framed and discussed in scenes, the author's intent was clearly to make the boy more sympathetic to readers, not less. The causes of his descent into antisocial behavior were shown to be his delicate wounded ego and the bad influence of incel culture, not his depression.

The only people who would come out of that book with the belief that all mental illnesses are psychopathy must have carried it in with them. So these reviewers' complaints weren't really that the book asserts all depressed kids are future criminals—because it doesn't—but that the author didn't proactively charge into battle with theoretical bigots who might read the book and project their preexisting worldviews onto the page.

When I was active on Twitter, one of the daily controversies sprouted up over a video of humorist David Sedaris reading one of his pieces. "David Sedaris Demands the Right to Fire Others in 'Citizen's Dismissal'," the captions blared. In the piece, Sedaris complains about a retail worker who didn't have any bags left for his purchases and didn't try to help him figure out how to carry them. "Well, they're yours," she said. "You bought them." Sedaris says if this woman were any good at her job, she would have come up with a taking off her own underwear and using it to wrap his new cups and saucers.

Whether you think the piece is funny or not, you couldn't possibly believe Sedaris's "citizen's dismissal" proposal was serious. His intent isn't even mildly ambiguous. He's making fun of people who couldn't care less about their jobs, but also of himself for his petulant and entitled thoughts about those people.

Netizens were determined to be enraged. "Yeah I know it's satire," they said, "but the fact is people won't watch the video and won't get that it's a joke. They'll just read the title and think it's a good idea. David Sedaris's words could have far-reaching negative impacts on the vulnerable workers in customer service."

In short, the only fault they could find with the content is that they expected other people to be too stupid to understand it. This alone made the piece "incredibly problematic."

The Problems with Projecting Problems onto Media

To a certain extent, we must be careful not to reinforce common prejudices in our work. For example, it wouldn't be a great idea to write about a surly private eye who cleans up the streets of L.A. by taking down gangs of drug-running, gold-chain wearing Mexicans who don't speak English.

However, every BIPOC writer has received unfair criticism that their work "reinforces damaging stereotypes" simply for featuring multifaceted characters from their own cultures. Overzealous critics believe anything less than a complete repudiation of every stereotypical trait is a problematic portrayal.

If a Chinese mother wants her child to get straight As and attend a prestigious college, that's Sinophobia.

If an African or West Asian father is abusive, the author is asserting that all non-white men are violent subhumans.

If a heroine is a talented engineer, but she doesn't enjoy it and is more interested in childcare, that book alone has managed to unravel feminism and set us back two hundred years.

In essence, these people believe writers are obligated to contort themselves around the prejudices of others. Because bigots believe all Chinese mothers are obsessed with grades, no Chinese mother can ever be portrayed as caring about her child's grades. Every BIPOC character must be a perfect saint. Nuance and cultural differences cannot exist. We must be very careful to specify what we believe is right and wrong in heroic speeches, or readers might not be able to tell.

When we first start sharing our work with the world, we quickly learn to accept that not everyone will like it. Everyone has different tastes, and that's fair. If I bring deviled eggs to a potluck, and people who don't like eggs don't eat them, I have no reason to be offended. (Plus, that's more eggs for me.)

What's harder to accept is that people will read our work in bad faith, and it's not fair. They go into books hunting for reasons to hate them. They read a small sample and leap to the worst possible assumptions about the characters and the author's ethics. Basically, this kind of reader approaches books the same way they react to posts on social media—eager to find weaknesses they can latch onto and twist to proclaim you're wrong, you're ignorant, you deserve to be fired from writing in a collective citizen's dismissal.

What Can We Do?


There's no point in trying to appease this kind of reader. If people are determined to complain about a piece of media, they will, even if there is nothing objectively wrong with it and the best they can do is, "Well, bad people who aren't me won't get it."

Even if you can appease one group of readers, you'll incite the wrath of others. Amazon made a show about fairies. Because the first few minutes of episode one showed the fairies being treated poorly by the ruling human class, an angry swarm stopped there and bombarded the page with one-stars.

Another SJW garbage show.

social justice agenda disguised as alleged entertainment can't they just make entertainment without shoving their agenda down our throats

If you believe that immigrants should come here legally, prepare to be vilified and called a racist every five minutes.

Like our other examples, this show never called anyone a racist. It just showed hateful and cowardly humans mistreating individuals from another race. If a person watches this and thinks the show is calling them a racist every five minutes, that's their conscience talking.

It's as futile to write for people like this who willfully misunderstand you as it is to engage in productive debate with conspiracy theorists. We also shouldn't try to write for the people out there with bad morals and no critical thinking skills who can't tell the difference between right and wrong or sincerity and satire. Every story has a moral, but we're not literary evangelists on a mission to reform the sinners.

Our intended audience should be essentially good people who read in good faith. Readers are our partners. A piece of writing on its own is a bunch of squiggles. The audience turns it into an experience. For a fulfilling experience, they must be willing participants with the same goals for reading a book as we have for writing it.