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Thursday, February 13, 2020

What Advice Is There OTHER Than Write Every Day? (F.A.Q.)


[Note: Everything in brackets will disappear in a few days.

This is the final entry in our 2020 F.A.Q. update. Many have been the folks sick of hearing that they need to write every day (or worse that they need to have BEEN writing). Isn't there some OTHER advice there we can talk to? Yes, that advice does exist.

It is also going to have to be two days worth of posts. Tonight is my late night. Tomorrow I work 10 hours as favor to the daytime nanny, and while I was trying to spend this afternoon writing a post for tomorrow, I got a LOT of edit marks on this one that were more than just missing commas. I really wanted to get it RIGHT since it's going to be in the F.A.Q., so I used up my "tomorrow's-post" time doing big changes. Saturday I pick up the keys and sign the lease on the new place, so I can't just make up for on the weekend either. This'll just have to count as mailbox AND "hefty" post––which honestly it kind of is.]


TL;DR: There's a LOT of advice that isn't "write every day" even about how frequently one OUGHT TO be writing, and you certainly should write only as much as you derive meaning and satisfaction from, but the reason you're likely to hear this one a lot is because people who are unhappy with their lack of writing career constantly ask working professionals how they "made it," like there's a trick to doing something professionally. Read a lot, write as much as you can, trust the process (particularly including peer review), be deliberate with your writing (and reading), and check in with some folks who've gone before you so that you're not spinning your wheels quite so much.

Longer answer:

The devil's due:

Even as an explicit question about advice that is NOT write every day, it is worth taking a moment to explain why this is such common, such good, and such conventional-wisdom-esque advice among working writers. Basically, I can't give you all the "other" advice without a massive, thirty-foot-tall disclaimer with flaming letters that the best damn thing you could possibly do if you want to be a novelist or some kind of working creative writer is to set aside as much time a day as you possibly can at the same TIME every day and sit down and write.

1) Because it works. There are few skills at which one can improve so quickly and predictably as writing, and there are really NO paths to prose improvement that do not involve consistent work. Creativity is like a muscle. With the exception of some folks with neurological limitations, if you set aside the same time each day to do something creative, you WILL get better at it in an entirely predictable way––starting to have ideas about 10-15 minutes before your "session" begins. You can kind of "aim" it and it sort of obeys your command, but it's not entirely under your control. (This is why I sometimes call it The Force. "You mean, it controls your actions?" "Partially. But it also obeys your command.")

I could wallpaper a room with all the testimonials I have gotten since I started blogging that writing every day turns out to work amazingly well, that people found their muse, finished their shit, and were able to write consistently when they sat down. (Though, admittedly, if I kept it in 12-point font, it would have to be a very small room.)

2) Because it's metonymy. Look, if you don't tell the writers' cabal of my transgression, I'll let you in on a little secret. You don't have to write EVERY day. "Write every day" is just an easier slogan than "Write five or six times a week unless you're sick, but it's really good to do a little something on those off days if you can, and....." Well, you get the idea.

Most of the writers with careers that people envy write every day, but you can make a living doing six days a week. Maybe even five (though by conventional successful-writer wisdom, that's REALLY pushing it). You can spend a couple of days a week writing for a couple of hours instead of five or six. (This is what I do. I have weekends.) You can take a couple of hours writing three really long emails and call it a day. You can be distracted by the news, write six hefty Facebook posts, and then give up on doing something on your novel or blog. (It was still writing even if you were distracted.) What you're going for is the practice; it doesn't have to be a five-hour session on your work in progress. But also you don't want to lose that mental connection you have between ideas and the words that bring them to life, and like anything we practice at constantly where we are using a skill to turn our ideas into an expression other people can experience (say, like a musical instrument), you'll get rusty faster than you think. That's quite a mouthful; "Write every day" is easier to remember.

3) Because no one ever asks working writers how to be contented hobbyists. What working creative writers get asked is how the questioner can also be a working creative writer. Our success gets "probed" by people wondering about agents or publishing nepotism or our social media marketing strategies like there is a secret. Yes, there are influences that are unearned advantages of birth and cannot be controlled like being white, raised middle class or higher, having formally educated parents, being cishet, being male, and being from an anglophone nation (the last really only because of the sheer amount of publishing that comes out of New York). There are a few things that are like "force multipliers" like having social media outreach, nepotistic connections in publishing, or some entirely-unrelated-to-writing fame, but no one ever EVER got there without working outrageously hard and probably pretty close to daily.

Writers actually have a very "Do as thou wilt!" approach to other people's writing. You do you. You decide your own level of involvement. If you don't want to write every day....don't. I'm very clear that creative writing is not a path to riches or fame for 99.999% of those who love it. At best it is a long and arduous path to a very modest but fulfilling living where you will be tempted by the kinds of writing that pay better money (like technical writing, ghost writing, and even content writing). You can ARGUE with the fact that we writers have consistently noticed that every one of us who's crested the more-than-a-cell-phone-bill plateau or "made it" in some sense that the world considers meaningful tends to write daily or almost so, but it's not going to make it UN-true. Our advice is descriptive and empirical––we're not, like, holding back on folks until they haze themselves with daily writing. (And those that do treat this advice in this way are probably being ableist.) The fact is, most writers who make a tidy living (and particularly the ones that make a splooshy one) are the folks who are out there fiddling with their schedules, trying to find and justify MORE time writing, not less. But hey, you know, maybe getting mad might work THIS time.
The more you think of your brain as akin to a musical instrument, taking your ideas and emotions and converting them into a form others can appreciate, the more quickly you will realize that it is a skill that will atrophy with disuse, that you need lots of practice to be proficient, more to be "good," that being a hobbyist is okay if it makes you happy, but that being exceptional or "making it" will take constant training like most folks wouldn't believe. 
OTHER ADVICE 

Remember, this isn't advice that's exclusive to people who can't write every day. It's just the other Very Important Advice™ that will create working writers. So if you can get to the page every day and ALSO do these things, you will advance even faster.

Write as much as you can: Okay, you can't, won't, or don't want to write every day. Fine. Do it as much as you can. Come close. You don't get better at anything by NOT doing it. If you want to get better at writing, write MORE. Write five days. Write six. Write as much as possible on the weekends but at least a fat paragraph during your lunch break three days a week during lunch. Whatever, just get as close as possible.

Read (or keep reading): A lot of writers stop reading. Like they kind of figure they read all the books they'll ever need early in their life and now it's time to just do the writing part. Don't do that. Trying to only write is like trying to only breathe OUT.

Occasionally read things you wouldn't normally: Tough books. Nonfiction. Western canon lit (if that's not your normal jam). A Pushcart anthology. A genre you don't usually dig. Once in a while take a stroll on a new path and see some new sights. You might learn a few things and get some WONDERFUL ideas.

Think about writing: Let me be honest with you. I hate this advice. Even though I have to grudgingly give it a half nod. I hate this advice because it has fueled so many fucking "Why don't I have a book deal yet?" entitled a-holes who tell you in that supercilious way that they don't NEED to write every day because they THINK about writing. (For some reason, I always imagine them taking a drag of a cigarette right between those two clauses.) And every last one of them was exactly the sort who was turning in that same retooled vignette in their capstone classes that they showed up with and workshopped on their first class of the program. This is just way too many pretentious wankers' "out" when it comes to applying their ass to the chair and doing some goddamn work. And I just fucking HATE that it might be tempting sincere and dedicated writers into losing a valuable habit. So if you can't write, think about writing. If you have a choice, though, pick the actual writing.

Also, this is not "I had a passing thought about my writing earlier today, so now I'm good." You want to actually spend 10-15 minutes considering word choices and elements of craft. Consider a character arc. Think about how exactly your setting could subtly reinforce your theme. Think about how to have emotional and personal stakes in your climax instead of just external ones.

Figure out EXACTLY why you like writing that you like: One of the reasons literature majors and creative writing majors spend about 90% of their time in the exact same classes is because the "close reading" of literature and the "how did the author make me feel this way" of creative writing are basically the same skill set––you get down into the guts of the sentence structure and specific word choice and see what made that meaning happen.

For a casual reader, it's fine to just read something and sigh wistfully. (Such beauty. Much prose. Wow!) Who amongst us hasn't pressed Victorian literature to their chest in desperate wanting? Well, actually I haven't but whatevawhoodles. However, to read "as a writer" means to pause when a passage takes your breath away,  take a moment to look at exactly what moved you, and THEN ASK HOW? How is it doing what it's doing? Is it the language? If so, which specific words? Is it the sound it makes in your head? Is it the imagery? Is it the sentence construction? Or maybe the way long and short sentences weave together? Consciously notice what is going on. Unlock its secrets. Let that author teach you their tricks. Be the ready student, and the master that is that writer will reach across space and maybe even time and give you your very own private writing tutoring session. Read consciously.

Practice outside your comfort zone, but also practice writing that plays to your strengths: I love writing dialogue, and really hate trying to write about FEELINGS. So I often pause when I read good descriptions of feelings (above) and pay attention to that. I try to emulate it in prompts or when I'm writing on some draft.

However, when I'm writing for publication (especially a stretch goal publication and not a "safe" publication), I TEND to focus more on dialogue because I want to go where I'm strong. Consider some of the writing you do like practicing for a sport. If you suck at speed but are super good at endurance, you definitely want practice sessions to include speed drills so you work on that weakness and get better. However, in a competition with your crosstown rivals, you'll want to play to your endurance as much as you can and avoid situations requiring raw speed.

Start wherever (beginning or maybe not): Perhaps the weirdest thing about starting writers is they know but still refuse to accept that they're absolutely NOT going sit down and write their magnum opus book from beginning to end and then just go "clean up the grammar."

They know it, but they still don't....GROK it. They still insist on a contiguous experience and have the hardest time making cuts. It's okay to sit down and write the ONE scene you keep thinking about, even if it's near the end or even if it's just floating around and you're not sure when it will fit in. Just get it out. Perhaps it's future fodder, but maybe it's just practice. But the likelihood is as you start to get THAT scene out, that fucking loop in your head will stop, and suddenly you'll be thinking of ANOTHER scene. By the time you have finished writing scene 4, scene 13, and scene 22, you've probably thought of scene 7, 3, and 12. Then you can work backwards, sideways, upside down, or whatever timey wimey way you want.

Writing is a recursive thought process because it is literally impossible for you to write faster than you think. You will have ideas as you write, and some of them will be really good.

Routine!: Try to develop a daily routine in as much as that is possible for you, even if (or perhaps especially if) that routine involves a lot of rest and relaxation. It might be counterintuitive at first, but the more sort of...BORING your outside life is, the more your creative life tends to flourish. That doesn't mean you can't go on a vacation or something (though maybe you still try to wake up and do a half an hour every morning except for the day you're actually GOING to Disneyland). It means you embrace as much routine as you can. If you can come to the page at the same time every day, it's going to turn your creativity up to eleven. That's just the way our brains work. There are options for those who simply don't have the life that fosters routine, but getting as close as possible to one is the better choice.

Treat yourself well: We treat our brains like they're these psychic entities that live on other planes of existence that can only be reached by astral projection from the psi-vortexes within our skulls but our brains are right there with us not getting enough sleep, hurting from stress, and feeling kind of overloaded after that triple cheeseburger with greasy fries and a shake. Exercise a little (if you can). Eat decently (if you can). Drink enough water. Take your meds (if you can). Your brain is an organ. It's pretty awesome, but it has never NOT been a part of your body.

Trust the process––no, REALLY: This one might be the hardest for starting writers. Half the reason they sit frozen at their opening sentence is because somewhere inside they don't actually believe that they'll end up changing everything. They want to nail it on the first attempt.

You're going to have to write many drafts. You're going to need peer review. You're going need to change some stuff.  You're not the chosen one who won't need to rewrite your book and make huge changes. You're not the special snowflake who won't get some harsh feedback. You're not the messiah of writing who won't have to practice for years. The process is long, messy, and sometimes really painful but the less you trust it, ironically, the more it gets longer, messier, and even MORE painful.

Do peer review: A special shout out to the part of the process people tend to trust the least. It's gonna sting. You won't like it at first. You're brilliant and why can't they see that? Seriously, they didn't notice that thing you did? Who are these clowns anyway? But you have to get you some, and even more importantly you have to GIVE you some. In the getting, you will see all the things you think you're doing well that you're not. You'll learn what you need to work on. In the giving, you'll learn more about how to make your own writing deliberate and conscious and the most common mistakes to be wary of in your own writing.

Read this blog: No, I'm not kidding. That's why I'm here. I write a blog about writing––maybe you've noticed. Given that this is literally what I do for a living, and I make enough to not die, I can't recommend me enough. Poke around. Put your feet up. Try the roasted vegetable polenta I just made for lunch. There's LOTS of advice here: writing prompts, craft advice, many many questions for the mailbox. You can't avoid hard work by reading a blog, but sometimes I can point out a pitfall or a shortcut and save you some time and frustration.

Okay, fine, or a blog LIKE this one. Or really any deliberate writing advice. The point is that you probably don't want to just write while sequestered away. You'll make the same mistakes over and over again, and while you will get better, your learning curve will leave a lot to be desired. You want to practice (as much as you can) but also try to make your progress deliberate. A self-taught writing expert isn't quite the anomaly that a self-taught concert pianist might be, but both probably could have saved themselves hundreds of hours of practice back at the beginning if they'd had someone show them a better way to do something basic.


For the would-be working writer or the ambitious hobbyist who dreams of one day "making it," there is no advice BETTER than "write every day," but there is a bit of advice OTHER than "write every day." I hope this helps. While it is likely to be a lot slower if not combined with the daily part, it may even get you where you want to go.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Best Classic Science Fiction Book (or series) Nominations Needed

What is the best science-fiction book (or series) written before 1975?  

We're still grinding through the giants (S/F, Fantasy) since the sheer number of nominations last time around meant I needed to separate them by time frame. Yes, I know I have a long day ahead when I finally compile the results. My tightening budget means I can't farm some of this busy work out, and I'm back on the hook for it. Alas. That weekend is gonna suuuuuuuuuuuck. But I'm moving the next couple of weekends, so I'm going to have to keep doing jazz hands for now.

In the meantime, we need nominations. (Be sure to leave them on the blog and not as a comment on the social media where you saw this cross posted.)

We have two "slots" left in our more-comprehensive sci/fi and fantasy polls.  (This one and contemporary fantasy). Then we'll mix it up with some other genres.


The Rules


  1. There is a new category of nomination. It is NOT a nomination for the poll. It is an UNDERSUNG HERO nomination. Basically it is for books you think are great, tragically overlooked, NEED to be read by everyone yesterday, but maybe not necessarily the besty bestest best. I will be listing these books along with the poll results. However, if you nominate a book for our poll it will not be considered for the undersung hero list and if you shout out something for an undersung hero, it will not be counted as a nomination for the poll. (Someone else can nominate it.) Think about if you want to give a book few seem to know about a shout out or if you're tossing your fave into The Hunger Games.
  2. As always, I leave the niggling over the definition of genres to your best judgement because I'd rather be inclusive. If you want to nominate Sarah Canary (and I'd be with you on that one), you have to show your work that it's not fantasy if you want to convince others to second the nomination, nevermind to do well in the poll.
  3. Your book must be copyrighted 1975 or earlier. If it is a series, the ENTIRE SERIES must have been written before 1975.  Of course you can nominate the earliest novel in a series if you are trying to work around the rules, but not the series itself unless it's entirely published before '75. No small number of shout outs to Discworld have included only the books from the appropriate time frame. Why should we stop now? There will be other polls for newer books.
  4. You get to mention two (2) books (or series). That's it. Two. You can do ONE nomination for the poll and ONE UNDERSUNG HERO.  Or you can do TWO nominations. Or you can do TWO undersung heroes. But two is the total. If you nominate three or more I will NOT take any nominations beyond the second that you suggest. I'm sorry that I'm a stickler on this, but I compile these polls myself and it's a pain when people drop a megalodon list every decent book they can remember of in the genre. It is up to you how to divy your TWO choices. TWO.
  5. Did I mention two?
  6. You may (and absolutely should) second AS MANY nominations of others as you wish. THEY WILL NOT GET ONTO THE POLL WITHOUT SECONDS. You can agree with or cheer on the undersung heroes, but they won't "transform" into nominations unless someone else nominates that same book as "best" (and then they get a second). Also stop back in and see if anyone has put up something you want to see go onto the poll. 
  7. Put your nominations HERE. I will take nominations only as comments and only on this post. (No comments on FB posts or G+ will be considered nominations.) If you can't comment for some reason because of Blogger, send me an email (chris.brecheen@gmail.com) stating exactly that and what your nomination is, and I will personally put your comment up. I am not likely to see a comment on social media even if it says you were unable to leave a comment here. 
  8. You are nominating WRITTEN genre fiction, not their movie portrayals. If you thought Blade Runner was a spectacular movie, that's great but thought the Alan E. Nourse book was not that great except for as inspiration source material.
  9. This is probably well known by vets of this blog by now, but there will be no more endless elimination rounds. I will take somewhere between 8-20 best performing titles and at MOST run a single semifinal round. By "performing" I mean the "seconds" to the nominations. So second the titles you want even if they already have one. (Yes, I guess that would make them "thirds," "fourths," etc...) The competition on this poll might be fierce. You may have to get your friends involved. Buy them a pizza. Make it real. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

Drumroll Please

Mondays (and Wednesdays for the month of February because I am moving) are not normally posting days, but I owe everyone the post that was supposed to go up on Friday. I finally got around to compiling all the 2019 greatest hits. It took less time than I thought (I always dread it more than it deserves––it's like doing the cat box that way). Still it takes a couple of hours at least, and even though it took me seven years to learn the lesson, it's one of the many admin things like newsletters that I should take a day off from the regular posting schedule to take care of. Let that be a lesson to all of you about going professional. You might think it's just going to be even MORE rainbow unicorn love, but actually there ends up being a lot of stuff you have to do that ISN'T writing.

So here are 2019's Greatest Hits by Month

And here is the Greatest Hits Menu updated with 2019's results.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Metapost

Today's post (besides this little thing) will go up on Monday. Not that I'm procrastinating, but the work that needs to be done is all "behind the scenes" and admin crap. It's going to require about three hours and change of collating data down inside the guts of Blogger's analytics, me with a pen and paper matching up five figure numbers that are only different by one digit until my eyes cross, and finally hours of cutting and pasting the end results into their proper format.

See, there is ONE more thing I need to do to wrap up the 2019 year, and that is dig through ALL the best articles by month, REMOVE the 10 best articles of the year, and then figure out what the NEW three best articles are for each month. I hate this part and I always procrastinate. One year it was March before I finally got it taken care of. I could probably farm it out to a computer program, but it would have to be able to "skip" appeals posts and polls, and sometimes I have to decide whether something that was really a throw away post ("I'm sick. See you tomorrow.") but somehow did really well is worth immortalizing in the Greatest Hits menu.

But this year, with February barely getting started, I'm practically early.

If you're watching VERY closely, you might notice some menus getting updated in real time, but on Monday I'll make a very simple post with some links pointing out where all the updated shit landed.

However, as long as I've got you here, let me also mention that I'm going to need an extra day off each week through February. Probably easiest to just declare now that it will be Wednesday.  That means a maybe post (or possibly NWAW) on Monday. Something admin/short/meta/etc on Tuesday. Then a mailbox on Thurs, and something heavy on Fri.

I'm moving. (And I'm moving into my own place!!!! *SQUEEEEEEEEE*)

All the "YES!!!!!" 
The extra days are for packing, moving, hooking up utilities in the new place, and stuff like that. Fortunately, being a writer, I don't need to take off the EXACT days that I'm doing whatever the thing is, unless I'm up against a deadline like a baryon sweep. (I'm doing rather well on that front since the new schedule kicked in.) 

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! (Mailbox)


[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one or two of them every week or so. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Let me know if a question is urgent because the queue turn over is getting up around months right now.] 

Hey Chris,

I’m writing the climactic battle at the end of my WIP. My crit group says I have to kill a good guy to underscore the danger of the climactic battle. As a note: my WIP is set in Latin America and all of the characters are Latine. I’m a white US citizen.  

Problem is, of the 10 good guys in the battle, three are walk-on characters and the others are significant, named characters, most of whom I need for the sequel. At this point it only makes sense for one of three characters to be killed.

1)  A black, female walk-on character

2) A black, male significant character

3) A significant Latina character

I don’t want to kill either of the black characters because I don’t want to use a black person as the sacrificial death. It makes me uncomfortable as a writer. If there was a situation in which a lot of good guys died, I’d be okay with it, but just one? No.

I don’t want to kill the black woman because she is a walk-on and it wouldn’t be emotionally significant to my readers. I don’t want to kill the black man because I want him in the sequel. I don’t want to kill the Latina because she had this huge arc regarding healing from trauma and this is the first time she’s been seen as anything other than ‘trauma-chick,’ and to kill her now would send a message I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.

So here are my questions.

1) Is killing a character the best way to underscore the danger in the climactic battle? Is there anything else that I could do instead?

2) Am I overthinking this?

Sign me,

Uncomfortable with my own writing

My reply:

Hi, Uncomfortable.

You're right. That's a lot to unpack. But I don't make an average of roughly minimum wage for nothing!

*finger guns*


First of all, I don't think you're overthinking it. I wish more writers took a moment and considered what they were doing with this degree of care. I think this is exactly what writers should be thinking about. How do our stories contribute, in whatever small way, to the zeitgeist of cultural perceptions and to a gestalt of bad representation. Writers have a tremendous amount of power when it comes to reinforcing or questioning storytelling conventions, tropes, and representation; these things, in turn, shape cultural perceptions and have a very powerful impact on how we treat folks.

Not a racist who walks this Earth does not justify their behavior with STORIES. Not a single misogynist. Not a single transphobe. Not a single bigot. It might be stories their parents told them. It might be lies repeated so often they accepted them as truth. It might be narratives they never unpacked that come from poor representation in media. But it's stories all the way down, and that is part of the reason fiction can be so fucking powerful. (It's also the reason bigots somehow all magically know precisely when to start complaining about "everything being so PC" when something has really good representation of oft-marginalized groups. They know EXACTLY how dangerous good representation is to their world view.)  And if we're not taking that charge seriously and letting our stories perpetuate tropes with an unexamined nonchalance, we are upholding the status quo with a LOT of power.

So I kind of agree that you don't have a good sacrificial lamb of the three characters you mentioned. Particularly, you probably want to be very careful about anyone who just showed up. Don't forget that killing characters JUST to raise the stakes has kind of a dubious literary precedent, especially if they aren't very well developed characters. (And especially especially if they are women or BIPOC.)

You might have to have no character deaths if you need all your characters in place for your sequel. And that's okay. If you want to sit with your reasons for needing the other seven characters to live, that might be worth a good think or three. Are these your darlings? Do you need to be killing them? Wanting them from a significant literary point of view might be different than just having you picture a handful of cool moments they have coming up. (The latter you can almost certainly figure out how to give to another character.) The most tragic and heart-wrenching deaths in fiction are the ones that happen to characters who are A) ABSOLUTELY on a character arc (in other words, not "walk-on" characters) and B) who never get a chance to finish that arc. The cliche of this is of course the person who finally decides which person in a love triangle they want to be with right before a toilet falls from orbit onto their head, or someone who realizes the error of their ways and goes for redemption but gets shot by a kitten trebuchet moments later. So it might actually be BETTER for the tragical tragidiferousness of it all if one of your other seven characters bought the farm.

All that said....the ass I'm really going to kick today is the crit group's. Okay, I know you like them, so I won't ACTUALLY kick their ass, but I think they're giving you advice that is more mainstream Hollywould-quickfix wisdom than actually good literary writing advice.

Death in fiction can be emotionally wrought or a casual throw-away sentence. It can rip you apart or barely make you blink. But outside of a murder plot point, if a writer has to kill someone to properly reflect the emotional stakes of what is happening, then they have already failed. You shouldn't need a body count to underscore that your climactic battle is srs bzns.

Will your reader feel that your characters were never in any real danger? Sure.....if you never put them in any real danger. But that's also going to be true if you basically fridge exactly one character but never put the other nine in any real danger. How your readers will receive that will be to think that the character died to emotionally manipulate them. And they will be right.

And I'm sure you've encountered more than a few stories where a character's death put mortality on the table of a climactic scene, served the meta narrative almost perfectly, perhaps even gave the work a thematic catharsis, or even arguably performed a strange sort of reader interactive experience by bringing the audience viscerally along with the sudden realization that "the ride was over." And yet it STILL seemed sudden, unearned, emotionally manipulative and didn't really raise or lower the stakes of the storytelling that had been built around it at all.

And don't you just want to curse that author's sudden but.....
OH IT'S STILL TOO FUCKING SOON!

I recently rewatched one of my favorite childhood cartoons, X-Men. Each season they have some major overarching plot come to a massive resolution. (Crap, I think they were doing it before shows like Babylon 5 or Buffy were even on the air.) And....I want to make sure I'm clear about the following: The dialogue in this show is not that great. The fights are formulaic. The plots are simplified so that the kids watching can keep up. The animation is pretty meh even for a '90s cartoon. They ALWAYS use the same goddamn song for every episode's final fight. This is not tour de force cinema we're talking about here. Also....to get back to the topic, no one ever really dies. At least none of the main characters. (A couple kind of do, but they come back because that's how comics work.)

Yet even two decades later, these are some of the best climactic endings to story arcs I've seen. Because one thing they nail is that the stakes are clear. Emotionally, personally, and externally, all the stakes are well laid out.

In Lord of the Rings, after Boromir, not ONE member of the Fellowship dies. Not ONE. Gandalf "falls" but he gets better (*cough actually a LOT better cough*). In fact, very few named GOOD characters die at all. But did you ever have some inability to really imagine they were in danger at Helm's Deep, or Minas Tirith, or the Cirith Gorgor pass? (The only battle that was kind of low stakes was Isengard and that was probably because it was skimmed over in favor of basically saying "The Ents kicked ALL the goddamned ass." [In the books it is told by Merry and Pippin after the fact and they mention a single casualty, and in the movies it is only two minutes of Ents kicking the ever-loving PISS out of orcs that takes place after the movie's Helm's Deep climax, basically to be a part of the "hold onto hope" Sean Astin voice over montage.])

So let's put your characters in real danger, not just artificially inflated danger. Don't be nice to them. Fuck them up. Hit them where it hurts and make them face the things they're NOT good at handling. Make them deal with opponents who are definitely better than them, and they have to scrape by on their wits. Make them face their biggest fears. Jack their fucking shit UP, yo.

Plus, don't forget, death is just the final step in a series of increasingly dire "real" consequences to a character. If they are all badly wounded and maimed by the end, the danger will be plenty underscored. Rip limbs off. Tear eyes out. Break bones like woah. Plus you can pull some of the sneaky writer tricks if you want––like impale a character, have them slump over, and then move the narrative on to someone else. (But then later it turns out they are still alive, but might have to eat soup through a straw for the rest of their days.)  What about capturing one of them? How about hurting things they care about? Hit them where they live. What about blowing up the car that is the only thing Character Y still has of his brother? What about using their phobias against them? What if they've got it until the most powerful protagonist is deliberately PTSD triggered? How about if the most vain character gets their face peeled off? Any one of these characters might survive for your sequel, but part of them also died, and the danger was very clear. You're the writer. You can put these characters in SO much danger without actually killing them that your reader is screaming "LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!!!!" at the books. You could make death a sweet release and the LEAST of their concerns.

[Full disclaimer, I know a LITTLE bit about the story in question and the author may have even MORE options to jack up the characters since they might have some supernatural healing going on.]

You can use pacing to speed up and slow down the scene for effect. Mark Watney doesn't die in The Martian, but the moment Weir begins the multi-page description of the depressurization of his potato room, you KNOW exactly how much danger he's in.

You can also raise the stakes without offing someone just by making the stakes extremely clear. Is it very, very clear exactly what happens if they lose? How bad is it gonna get? (The answer doesn't have to be world devastation or the death of half of all life in the universe––actually that gets a little melodramatic. It can be as simple as "the girl we're trying to rescue will end up with her abusive father" or something.) How many times in a story have you thought "Why don't they just leave?" or "Why would these people care so much?" These are unclear stakes.  With clear enough stakes, there is NO reason you have to kill a single character to convey how important it is that the protagonist succeed.

Though not a "no kill" example, one of the reasons that Star Wars always is listed in the top ten movie climaxes is because the stakes are so mountain-spring-lake crystal clear. The Death Star is going to destroy the rebellion, including two main characters who are on the planet, and (at the time-ew) Luke's love interest. Plus the Empire are a bunch of fart weasels and they will win, but honestly it's the "The Death Star has cleared the planet..." when they realize THEY'RE going to die (not that the rebellion is in trouble) that brings all that climactic energy home.

You can raise the EMOTIONAL stakes by investing personal stakes for the characters. Rather than just a fight scene with large-scale stakes, there is also something personal going on. It's not just about Spider-Man beating Doc Ock. It's about Peter Parker helping someone he knows isn't a bad person stop and think for long enough to find their own redemption.

You can nuance the consequences of the character's actions. Okay, I'm sure you have thought of X happens if they lose and Y happens if they win. But then, do they just line up and pound it out until everyone on one side is dead? That's basically NEVER the way things happen. What are other outcomes? What happens if the protagonists don't fight? (How might that be desperately appealing to some or all of them?) What happens if SOME of them don't fight?  What happens if Character X can't overcome her demons and face Character Y? What if one of the antagonists ties a "consequence" to their deaths? ("If you kill me, you'll never find out about your mom.")  What happens if one antagonist gets away or they all just LEAVE as soon as it's clear they might lose? Remember, most people aren't going to stick around if they hit a certain threshold of mortal danger without some kind of training or a reason like protecting their young––morale is a thing. If half of them get away, will they just start the whole nefarious plot over again from somewhere else? Do they know the location of a protagonist's family? What are the stakes to partial loss?

Or here's perhaps an even more interesting question: what about the consequences of their victory? Riding into the sunset is great if you're in a spaghetti western, but most of the time, if you are at the point where you're in a life-or-death fight with another group, "winning" is seldom going to be the end of it.

You can add a time limit. Obviously a bomb of some kind is the cliché but it doesn't have to be a bomb. It could be as simple as needing to wrap up the fight before reinforcements show up. Or before the next radio check in from the guy with the gun to the hostage's head. What happens if they win the fight but it takes too long? What happens if two knocked out characters are waking up at the same time and they both want to get to the gun in the middle of the room? You can raise the stakes basically by encouraging your reader to be thinking "Come on! Hurry the fuck UP!!!!!"

Let me remind you of a final battle scene you've probably come to know and love where no one dies. Now this is not a Disney movie (though a few of those might be good examples of how to raise stakes without death). Many MANY characters have died before this final climactic scene. What was at stake prior to this final, climactic moment was arguably more important. But in this scene you understand EXACTLY what's going to happen if the protagonist fails. Viscerally. All too clearly. And it becomes pins and needles the whole way through. THIS is the climax.

"Get away from her, you bitch."

Did you get chills? I got chills. And I'm writing the article.

Emotional stakes at maximum. No raise-the-stakes death needed. One character gets totally fucked the fuck up in the opening move (Queen takes Bishop *rimshot*  Pause for laffs.), but turns out to survive. The stakes were raised even higher than the everybody-dying-one-by-one earlier parts of the film because of the PERSONAL stakes established in the relationship between Ripley and Newt. Pacing is slowed down and sped up with MAMMOTHIAN artistic licence. (The Queen didn't say "If that door's going to fucking take ten full seconds to open and she's going to take another twenty to walk over here and drop her line, I'm just going to pop this kid with my tail a few times while I wait.") We know Ripley could probably get to the weapons cache and grab the two pulse rifles she would need to dual wield in order to win in about five seconds, but then she loses Newt who she has bonded with after the loss of her daughter. And even though they drove away from bomb-on-a-timer a scene earlier, this scene is also full of moments where delay will cost (getting to Newt on time, getting up the ladder fast enough).

Here's the rest of the scene if you need a refresher.

Ask yourself how emotionally invested the characters are in the outcome of your climax. If they are pretty much along for the ride, that's what it's going to feel like to your reader whether you kill no characters or nine. How much does achieving their goal matter to them? If they could take it or leave it, so could your reader.

You don't necessarily need a death to show your reader it's dangerous. What you need is clear, emotional stakes (not necessarily high, but very, very clear), and then actual danger.