One Free Trick

Here’s an article by Arkady Martine at to which one of the commenters here drew my attention: One Free Trick: How to Use the Writing Skills You Have to Learn the Ones You Don’t

When I went to the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop back in the distant dim year of 2013, the inestimable Elizabeth Bear, along with various other people who are cleverer than me, explained to me about the tricks a writer gets for free in their box. The writing-skill cards you drew in your first poker hand.

The magic of this idea is that it is a promise: everyone gets something. Every writer, no matter how green, has at least one thing they’re good at to start off with. It could be character, or prose rhythm, or pacing … Your One Free Trick is the skill you can build on. The skill you can lean on, while you learn the rest of the craft of being a writer. …

Plenty more at the link. Martine says her”one free trick” was setting, from which arose a certain talent for theme.

Theme, really? Hard to imagine. I fairly often don’t notice themes in my own work until a reader points them out to me. (Then they can sometimes be blindingly obvious.)

I would say … I guess I would say that if I have a “free trick,” it’s also setting. Was this important scaffolding for developing novel-writing as a whole? Not sure. Maybe! It’s interesting to me that Arkady Martine considers this an intrinsic skill of hers and yet she came into novels out of short stories. He says:

Novels are, for those of you who were not aware, really damn hard to write. Especially if you were, like me, a person who had been merrily writing short stories with some success for a good while before taking the plunge into longform narrative. Novels are hard for a lot of reasons … but for me, the most difficult part of writing one was that there were so many words in it. (Hear me out.)

That’s funny! Not that she’s wrong, except that I think of setting as something more useful for novels than for short stories. You have room to stretch out and show the world in a novel. Not, possibly, as much as you might like. But way more than in a short story.

I wonder if you provided the following survey to authors:

You consider novels:

_____ Really damn hard to write.

_____ Not as hard as short stories.

Whether they would all check the first choice. That is, I don’t really wonder. Obviously Martine would check the first option, but plenty of authors find novels easier than short stories [raises hand.] I have to say, I would check this other choice if given:

______ Shockingly variable in terms of how hard they are to write.

Anyway! Setting, description, worldbuilding, that’s the part I think I got as a “free trick” (if anything). If I got two free cards, then my second one definitely wasn’t theme. Maybe a feel for the rhythm of language.

Here is how Martine says she used setting to build her novel:

I let myself pick things to put in this book that aren’t hard for me, that make good use of my strengths. There’s a ton of lush visual description in this book—buildings and clothing and peculiar food items, everything having enormous symbolic weight … because I love that stuff, and because I’m good at it. And then I turned those lush visuals into weight-bearing parts of the book—plot-bearing parts of the book. I’ve even used my One Free Trick skills to get unstuck on transitions or scenes I’d paused on for a while: I’d describe, in detail and with precision, one of those important symbolic visual setting elements, but I’d do it from my POV character’s impressions and understanding of what she was seeing. Eventually I would see why my protagonist would be looking so closely at that thing—and I’d be in the scene, deep in the character’s voice, and I’d have done some thematic work to keep the story moving along.

Now that is fascinating. Describing stuff from the protagonist’s pov, that’s basic and important. Using that to “discover” why the protagonist is looking closely at a thing and get into the scene — that’s fascinating. I don’t think I do that …

… but, since I am moderately stuck on my WIP, I’m wondering if maybe I might consider taking a stab at some similar process to get it moving …

… although really I expect I just need to outline the rest of the plot …

… and wow do I agree with Martine about this:

The people who got the instructions to the Plot Machine are very lucky …. My Plot Machine instructions were incomplete and mostly made of those guys from the IKEA instruction manuals, gesticulating happily at a pile of incomprehensible parts.

Plotting, yeah, that is definitely not my “one free skill” either.

Arkady Martine’s debut novel is A Memory Called Empire.

The cover, you probably won’t be astonished to learn, is very dark and monochromatic, sigh. The description, let me see:

Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in the center of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire only to discover that her predecessor, the previous ambassador from their small but fiercely independent mining Station, has died. But no one will admit that his death wasn’t an accident—or that Mahit might be next to die, during a time of political instability in the highest echelons of the imperial court.

Now, Mahit must discover who is behind the murder, rescue herself, and save her Station from Teixcalaan’s unceasing expansion—all while navigating an alien culture that is all too seductive, engaging in intrigues of her own, and hiding a deadly technological secret—one that might spell the end of her Station and her way of life—or rescue it from annihilation.

Sounds promising!

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6 thoughts on “One Free Trick”

  1. I saw that article. My first thought on his comments about the difficulties of novels, was ‘oh, you’re a natural short story writer.’ See Patricia Wrede on how she’s a natural novelist and her first tries at short stories (for years) were essentially 80k word plot summaries.

    I ‘m skeptical about the claim of getting theme, but that’s mostly because ‘theme’ is so nebulous anyway. but that getting into how or why the protagonist is looking at something can help the foundations. Or find things to play up that flesh out smaller elements, or be put to more use… like that chess set in Sayers, that the writer put in for a gift, then realized it was perfect for other use.

    That blurb is kinda meh, to me, but I’ve downloaded a sample to give it a fair shot.

  2. Yes, someone else pointed that out, changing pronouns now. I’m blaming LMB for this since Arkady in her Sharing Knife series is a guy. Next time I will google the person and check!

  3. Kathryn McConaughy

    I like this free trick hypothesis. If I had to pick my free trick, I’d say prose rhythm or lyricism. My prose sounds nice… now if only I could persuade my plots to behave.

  4. Lyric style is a good “trick” to have … though maybe I’m biased sense I think it’s one of mine too.

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