Writing: Obstacles and Stakes

The other day, I was asked to give notes on a short script that had an interesting premise and main character and cool settings, but felt lacking in dramatic dramatic tension. In my notes I talked about obstacles and stakes, which are elements that come up commonly enough with clients or students, that I thought I might do a mini-lesson here.

Here’s a simple four-step structure you might use for a short film:

  1. A character has a goal.
  2. The character makes a plan to achieve that goal.
  3. The character attempts to execute the plan.
  4. The character succeeds or fails in the plan = outcome / aftermath.

Here’s an example that matches that goal. (EXAMPLE 1)

  1. A cat wants the kitty-treats on top of the fridge.
  2. The cat plans to jump on the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  4. The cat eats the treats.

What would happen if we added some obstacles and stakes to this story?

OBSTACLES in writing are pretty much the same as obstacles in life — they are whatever gets in the way of our progress toward a goal. These can internal, like self-doubt or external as in this case: Let’s say that there’s a pile of dishes on the counter, waiting for their turn in the sink. There’s only a TINY area of counter where the cat can land without dislodging a dish…

STAKES are what a character stands to gain if she succeeds or lose if she fails. We already know what our kitty-cat gets if she reaches the top of the fridge — delicious cat treats, but we can make those treats a little more important. Let’s say the cat didn’t get any dinner, so she is legit HUNGRY. Maybe her owner was making an important romantic dinner for someone, got distracted and forgot to feed the cat. (Then she brought the dishes into the kitchen, and forgot again!)

So what happens if the cat FAILS? If the cat jumps and lands badly, she will dislodge a pile of dishes — they will come CRASHING to the floor, breaking the good china and ruining the romantic vibes happening in the next room. The cat’s owner will be pissed, and will throw the cat outside — still with no dinner! Oh — and it’s RAINING outside!

What does our story look like now? (EXAMPLE 2)

  1. The cat, locked in the kitchen, looks mournfully at her empty bowl. Her stomach growls. She looks at the treats on top of the fridge and licks her lips.
  2. The cat evaluates her route to the top of the fridge. There’s a pile of fragile dishes on the counter, but there’s also just enough space for a pair of kitty feet. The cat decides to go for it.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter and lands perfectly on the counter — but what she didn’t see was — it’s WET. As she makes her leap to the fridge, her paws SLIP! She madly claws for the top of the fridge but doesn’t make it and falls backwards. Now she’s in danger of smashing the dishes AND seriously injured! [We’re RAISING the stakes.] BUT at the last moment, she TWISTS and sinks her claws into the CURTAIN on the window. She climbs the curtain, and drops down to the top of the fridge!
  4. The cat happily digs her nose into the bag of treats.


I’m Shortlisted for a Chapbook Competition!

February 7, 2019

After a close-but-no-cigar a semi-finalist finish in the Black River Chapbook Competition last week (which was still lovely and encouraging). Today I received this letter from The Sonder Press.

Dear Barrington

Congratulations! Your chapbook, After The Storms: A Tryptych has been shortlisted for our 2018 competition. You will be notified by February 8th if your manuscript has won, and been selected for publication. Runners-up may also be selected for publication independent of the prize. We do ask that at this time, if your work is simultaneously submitted elsewhere, you withdraw it from any outstanding competitions/presses. Please let us know if you have any questions or concerns. We look forward to speaking again soon.

Fingers crossed for this! When I find out tomorrow I’ll update this post with the verdict!

In the meantime, you might want to check out Sonder Press / Review’s cool-looking website.

Update, February 9: They wrote to say they need a few more days to decide.

Update, February 15: I’ve waited a couple days to post so they could do their press release and site update — but here’s the verdict.

Dear Barrington Smith-Seetachitt,

After an extremely difficult deliberation, we regret to inform you that your chapbook After The Storms: A Triptych has not been selected for our 2018 prize. It has, however, been awarded an Honorable Mention as one of the top five manuscripts under consideration. Our official press release announcing the winner, runners-up, and honorable mentions will be released Thursday and our website will be updated accordingly. We were very impressed with your work and encourage you to submit again in the future, to both our press and review, we would love an opportunity to read your work again.

I’ll post a link to the winners when it goes up, with a congrats to them. I’m sure I’m in very good company!

Another “100 Rejections” Post


January 29, 2019.

I have a new short story that I feel like has got some legs, despite it receiving its third rejection today. It’s a story with a sci-fi twist so I’m trying sci-fi mags first, but have a feeling it’s not really sci-fi enough. The sci-fi doesn’t become apparent ’til near the end, whereas all the sample story excerpts on the magazine websites seem to start out with people floating around in space-pods. I have been gratified by how fast the genre magazines turn around though. I started submitting at the beginning of January, and although none of them accept simultaneous submissions, they have all responded within a week. By comparison, in the same batch of morning emails, I also got a rejection for a different story that I submitted to a literary journal back in August, which for overwhelmed, underpaid lit journals is about standard.

I’ve just decided, after seeing a few articles on the topic of “100 rejections per year” like this one and this one, that I, too, will aim for 100 rejections this year. I generally have in mind that rejections reflect attempts, and thus it’s good to collect a few, but 100 is a nice round number, and I will need to up my  game to achieve it. The end of January is almost upon us, and I am only four rejections in. I need an average of nine per month to hit 100. Because of the afore-mentioned long turn-around times, I am disadvantaged by my low submission numbers in the last half of last year, and for the same reason, anything I submit after summer of this year might not get rejected until next year!

I also need to change up the types of things I get rejected for. Last year, I invested a lot of time in submissions for screenwriting fellowships and labs. These often have high entry fees. I wish I could say it is the last vestiges of self-respect, but it’s probably just my extreme lack of funds that require me to take those out of the mix this year. No $100 Humanitas Prize entry for me. No $45-$65 dollar lab submissions or $45-$95 screenwriting contests. (I’m glad that my contributions over the last decade have helped all the worthy programs who sponsor these opportunities, and am sure my deficit will be covered by plenty of new aspirants.) A friend recently offered to show me how to look for article work — so that might be an option for rejection collection!

I also need to set some parameters. Like if I pitch a show and they pass… can that count? I think yes, because of the preparation involved, and the fact that I can write the company names and project names on my tracking chart. But things like requests for fee-waivers do not count–even though I can chart them and they still pack some dream-denying emotional punch, they are not actually rejecting my ideas or work or presentation of self.

2019. Bring. It. On.



I’m in the process of submitting a short story to various journals.  It occurs to me that this is an act that requires “submitting” in both senses of the word: 1) “Presenting ones work for consideration or judgement,” and 2) “yielding to or acceptance of a greater authority” (whether that greater authority is whomever has the power to judge, or the way things work, or the mysteriousness of the universe and its unknowable will).

My personal submissions process generally leads to some rabbit-holing. Each journal’s website encourages me to consider whether I am a fit by reading other work they have published. I generally try to do this, and I will also occasionally search for interviews with or works by the editor.

In this way, Dogwood (a journal) led me to an essay by Carole Ann Davis, which led me to this poem by Miklos Radnoti, a poet I had never heard of.

The quote from the essay by Carol Ann Davis that caught my eye:

Before getting to my desk this morning I read a beautiful poem by the Hungarian Miklós Radnóti, who died in a ditch while performing forced labor during World War II but whose notebook of poems was found upon his exhumation in the raincoat that covered his body, a poem that contains lines about the end of summer “bath[ing] in the sun,” and a “pain that wanders around / but you start again as if you had wings.” The notebook nestled in consolation next to his dead body for over a year before it was found.

The poem by Miklos Radnoti that I subsequently found (a different translation from the link above):

Letter to my wife

Soundless worlds are listening somewhere deep
In the earth; the silence roars in my ears and I keep
On crying for help but from Serbia stunned by war
No one can give me an answer and you are far
Away. The sound of your voice becomes entwined
With my dreams and, when I awake next day, I find
Your words in my heart; I listen and meanwhile the sound
Of tall, proud ferns, cool to the touch, murmurs all round.

When I’ll see you again, I can no longer promise – you
Who once were as grave as the psalms, and as palpably true,
As lovely as light and shade and to whom I could find
My way back without eyes or ears – but now in my mind
You stray through a troubled land and from somewhere deep
Within it your flickering image is all I can keep
A hold of. Once you were real, but now you’re a dream,
I tumble back into memory’s depths till it seems

I’m a boy once more, wondering jealously whether
You love me and if, at the height of youth, you’ll ever
Become my wife – I begin to hope once more
And, tumbling back, my wakeful state is restored
And I know you are – my wife, my friend, yet how
Far off. Beyond three savage frontiers. Now
Autumn’s coming. Will it forget me here?
The vivid memory of our kisses still endures.

I believed in miracles once, but now they’ve fled
And squadrons of bombers slowly drone by overhead;
In the sky I saw with amazement the blue of your eyes;
But then it grew dark and the bombs in the aeroplane high
Above were longing to fall. All the same, I came through
And now I’m a prisoner. And though I’ve measured the true
Scale of my hopes, I’m certain I’ll reach my goal;
For you I’ve already travelled the length of the soul,

The roads that seek distant lands; if I must, I’ll contrive
To conjure myself over red-hot coals and survive
Among showers of flames – yet still I will return
To be with you one day; if I have to, I’ll learn
To be tough like the bark on a tree – and now I’m soothed
By the calm of men who, achieving power, move
Through endless trials – and the knowledge that I’ll pull through
Descends, like a wave, with the coolness of 2 x 2.

Camp Heidenau, in the hills above Zagubica, 1944. August-September.

Things like this, I guess, are the rewards of submitting oneself to the process.

Writing into the Void

The other day in yoga class I realized I was crying. Not sobbing or anything so undignified, just that very quiet and ladylike kind of crying where you’re going about your business and you suddenly realize “oh, there’s water leaking out of my eyes…” If you  happen to be in downward dog when this happens, it’s interesting because the tears drip over your forehead and into your hairline, which is technically “down” but which you are conditioned to think of as up, so it’s like gravity is reversed.

As I hung there, watching tears drizzle onto my yoga mat, I tried to determine the source of the overwhelming sadness I was feeling. My EQ is not the highest, and I’m prone to delayed emotional reactions, so when I feel something, I’m often unsure if it’s in response to something that just happened, or something that happened weeks or months or years ago (which as you can probably imagine my husband loves) and I have to sort through the possibilities.

This day was December 2, which is my dad’s birthday, but he’s dead, so I thought, “maybe I’m sad because it’s my dad’s birthday and my dad is dead.” But it didn’t ring true. My father has been dead for eight years and while I always think of him on his birthday, it’s more a tug of nostalgia than the deluge of defeatedness I was experiencing.

I then considered whether I might be sad because of cancer. This one time I had cancer, and the surgery took place during the first week of December. My cancer friends talk about being emotional around their “cancerversaries.” It makes sense that one’s body might remember and react to that major trauma.

But no, I could feel that it wasn’t exactly it.

And then I thought about my own upcoming birthday. About how each year I inexorably grow older and fatter and less flexible and how the possibility of reaching certain life goals grows more remote.

The tears were falling a little faster. Yep. I was getting to it now.

My overwhelming sadness, I concluded, was not about illness or deceased fathers, or starving children in Venezuela or anything noble. It was, in typical fashion, about me. My ego. My thwarted aspirations.

And the trigger was not in the distant past. It was couple things that had happened that very morning.

The first requires a little background: A few months ago I actually finished a short story, so I did a small round of submissions. Many lit journals these days charge a couple bucks for an online submission, which I’ve come to terms with. It’s about the same as postage would be, it allows them to print a hard copy for their readers and maintain their database.  I seldom pay to submit to competitions, but in this case I’d  run across an upcoming themed anthology whose topic was so perfect that I forked over the fifteen bucks.

My story was selected for the anthology,and I received a congratulatory email. For some publications it’s a point of pride to offer a token payment, but others, like this one, offer only contributors copies, which, okay, I understand, it’s about as hard to run small press as it is to be a writer. The publishers said they’d be contacting us to get our addresses for our contributors’ copies, and noted they would also offer their writers a certain number of copies at wholesale price – five bucks instead of ten.

A month or so later, I recieved an email saying the anthologies had been printed and providing a link to the “wholesale” sales page. The email didn’t mention the contributors’ copies, and did not ask for my address. I waited a week or two, then wrote and asked about the copies. After several days, I received a one-sentence reply saying, yes, they would be sending contributors copies. The email didn’t offer any details about when, nor did it request my address. After another week or so, I sent a friendly reply, along with my address to spur things along. I received no response.

For some reason, on this morning, I’d thought, “oh, what-the-fuck, I’ll spend a few bucks and order a copy, just to see how it turned out.”  But when I clicked on the link there was no sign of a “wholesale price.” I sighed and paid $10 just to have it over with. Then I thought to check Amazon, and saw it listed there for $8.

I felt pathetic and ridiculous.  I’d worked a hundred hours on the story, essentially paid to have someone read it and then paid for the product. Not only had I not asked for payment, I’d ended up paying them – on both ends!

Probably due to the decreased self-esteem of the moment, I then broke my absolutely-no-social-media-before-noon rule and opened Facebook.

Fucking Facebook.

A friend had posted the latest from the LA Weekly. Once our local champion of alternative topics and long-form journalism, LA Weekly had been purchased by some secret axis-of-evil group who immediately fired ALL of the editors and all but one staff writer. And now they’d posted this ad on Twitter:

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Yes, an ad for new “contributors” who want to write, photograph or film about their town for a lark—not money, because, look at the picture – no one is WORKING — they’re just goofing around with their phones and tablets. What fun! Anyone  with access to a touchscreen should “contribute” to a publication about Los Angeles that won’t even pay  someone to help them spell “Angeleno.”

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of sympathy for miners and factory workers and old school P.R. people—anyone who’s trained to do something that used to be worth something, and now isn’t. When what you have to offer is worth nothing, it can make you feel like you’re worth nothing.

That might make you angry.

Or it might just make you super-duper-spring-a-leak-in-your-yoga-class sad.

After yoga class, I headed to the library to return some overdue books. This library has an attached coffee shop that sells fudge, and, no surprise, I was in prime fudge-eating mode. Before the woman at counter pared off a slice, she reminded me that their fudge costs $5.99 for a quarter pound. I told her to go ahead and hit me.

Three dollars later, I held my eighth-of-a-pound in my palm and thought, “This piece of 9-volt battery-sized chocolate has greater monetary value than anything I have written in the last two years.”

All my life I have adored libraries and entered them with anticipation. But on this day the endless shelves of books seemed not wondrous, but needy and pathetic, Mystery after mystery, thriller after thriller, memoir after memoir, all begging for someone –anyone — to choose them and give them a pity read. For free.

I was overwhelmed by all the books — not just in this single library but in the world. Millions of books. A Mount Everest of books, landsliding over everything — once revered classics getting squashed under The Hunger Games and Eat, Pray, Love and twenty-seven volumes by Lee-fucking-Childs and every self-published book on Amazon.

Sometimes I beat myself up for not being a great-enough writer, a fast-enough writer, a writer so in tune with the frequency of the universe that my work floats above it all with an angels’ chorus behind it.

But on this day, despite my sadness — or maybe because of it — I was kinder to myself: My lack of value, I thought, is not my fault, it’s just a result of where I’ve randomly landed in the queue of existence. I exist in a moment where there are more books than there have ever been before, more screenplays, more web-series, more magazine articles, more think pieces, more poignant, personal, political or inane observations on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Tumblir/Snap Chat. I happen to be someone driven to write at a time in history when the people who want to read or listen are outnumbered by the people who want to be read and be heard. Everywhere, people are desperately throwing their bottled messages into an ocean of bottles. I am just one of them. My angst is not unique. It is the angst of the bottle-throwing masses.

You know that inspirational quote (I once saw it on someone’s Facebook page)“What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” 

A variant popped into my head: “What would you write if you knew it everything you wrote was destined for a fucking void?”

Maybe it was the fudge sugar hitting my bloodstream—but I felt something loosen inside me. You know how a bad situation can cross the line into being so-bad-it’s-hilarious?  I crossed the line. My writerly despair was hilarious. I was hilarious.

What would I write if the world was ending?
if all ink turned invisible after three hours?
if I was alone in an underground bunker and everyone outside it was a ravenous, illiterate zombie?

What would I write if climate change was real and none of it mattered?

Whatever the fuck I wanted.
The truth.