The Texas Hold 'Em Structure
I went a small bit of viral over the weekend because of a Twitter post I made for modeling a novel on the game of Texas Hold 'Em. (Rules here: www.texasholdemonline.com/texas-holdem-rules/). Now, I've been prone to saying in the past that I think you can write using any structure, whether that's a structure found in literature or an actual physical structure, like a gas station (narrator POV stays rooted in time and place; characters come and go and have conflict with each other; time of day/customer rush determines where the climax is). By the way, I just made that one up, so if you decide to write a short story, novella, or even a novel based on this structure, do let me know how it works out. Is this a true narrative structure? Not really. Can I map one-to-one each gas pump in the station, the roof overhead, and the convenience store with each part of the story? I cannot. It's more of a gas station in spirit.
Anyway, I started thinking about Hold 'Em because one of my writer chats was talking about structure and 3-acts/Save the Cat, and someone suggested looking at kishoutenketsu, a Japanese 4-act structure (4-acts are also widespread among the other East Asian countries). And on the fly, I suggested writing a story according to the beats of a Texas Hold 'Em game.
This wasn't completely random: I want to steer non-Asians away from kishoutenketsu. Selfishly, or maybe not so selfishly because I know how easily theft occurs in the West, I want Asian authors to use that structure first. I want them to write stories that follow the beats they know so well. The surprise third-act antagonist, new arrival, or out-of-nowhere situation? Kishoutenketsu. So while thinking about Hold 'Em might have been random, wanting to show off already-extant examples of 4-act dramas in the West was not.
(I also enjoy exploring 2-act structures because I love musical theater and opera, and both are by necessity split in half because of intermission, unless there are two intermissions like in Parsifal or Der Rosenkavalier. The mid-point break and subsequent big change in status quo are among my favorite things. See also: the time skip between Naruto and Naruto Shippuden. Anyway, that's a different blog post.)
I started playing Hold 'Em in university, where one of my best friends would invite everyone to his house for poker nights and we'd all throw in twenty bucks, get ridiculously, wildly drunk, and try to outbluff each other on hands we all knew were utter shit (except that one time there was a four of a kind, and boy was I glad I had folded the second I saw my hand). I love the dramatic tension of a Hold 'Em game even through the haze of Southern Comfort (100 proof) and lukewarm Coke. Who at the table is the biggest bluffer? Who at the table plays cautiously and therefore is less likely to bluff? Who at the table is the agent of chaos? Who's the one trying to count cards? And who's the one addicted to pushing all in because their BAC is too high?
In case you missed the thread, here it is. And here's the Thread Reader App unroll.
The four-act structure of Hold 'Em allows for a lot of flexibility as far as character decision and writer herding skills are involved. As long as you hit each of the acts, things should go fine. There's conflict and drama built in because of that reversal of fortune and the consequences of character actions coming back to bite them in the ass. This structure would work very well for mysteries, thrillers, action-adventure, and heists especially. It's a structure designed to crank up tension nonstop until the very end. Think films like Ocean's 11, Inception, The Italian Job, which are all three-act films, if I remember correctly, but in a novel form can be made into four. In fact, you might need four just so you can get all the characters in. Introducing characters in a movie, with makeup and hair and costume design and set design and all that, is much easier than in a book. All that description!
I'm curious to see how well this structure works, so if you ever write a novel using this structure, please think of little ol' me and tell me about what you did. I'd love to see how well it maps to what you're planning.
PS: Once Bitter Medicine is released, I'll do an act breakdown. It's not a three-act but a two-act, and once I made that realization, the editing process came together.
A Li'l Sus
Much has been written about impostor (also imposter, but Merriam-Webster's first entry is impostor) syndrome and how creatives suffer from it. If this is a delicate topic for you, I suggest skipping this blogpost and coming back later because I have been tasked with writing about my impostor syndrome and, I'm not gonna lie, it gets gnarly in here.
It's been well documented that creatives get impostor syndrome, which is, in short, the idea that one does not belong in the peer group and has only gotten there by mistake. Neil Gaiman has written about it. There are probably a dozen Medium pieces on it right now. Most people talk about what they do to combat it. More on that later.
This is not going to be one those pieces.
My therapist has asked me to write about how impostor syndrome makes me feel when I'm experiencing it. First, if you're a writer, it's a pretty good idea to get a therapist. I don't know what it is about writing that hurts us so, but none of my other creative pursuits are a dagger to the heart the way writing is. I've shed tears over music; I've had impostor syndrome in music too. I mean, try playing in master classes. What are you doing up there? Who the hell knows. (I used to play in a band with an Indigo Girl and her daughter is in my son's class at school, and the only reasons I did not run screaming from that situation are that the other parents in the band were totally cool with it, and I had never really listened to the Indigo Girls. If she ever needs a session musician, you bet I will jump at the chance no matter how much I might fuck it up.)
I've had impostor syndrome in photography, especially when I've gotten praise for a photo that still, after years, does not match the vision I have for it in my brain. Funnily enough, I have not had impostor syndrome in babywearing, probably because I helped write the modern pedagogical method book (figuratively speaking) on it. At any rate, impostor syndrome for music and photography and editing can be acute, and instead of seeing the face of God, you definitely glimpse the face of despair, but I've gotten over it. I am who I am. Whatever. Most of the time.
Writing, though—here, I see the face of the devil.
There is something about the long labor of writing, the devotion required to sustain it, the way we return, over and over, to the tar pit of negative feelings and inadequacy, that makes it the worst for me. Full stop. I mentioned I've shed tears over music. I've cried because I've had streaks of bad lessons and months where nothing I did was correct. I've cried because I've practiced so much and still my body has not internalized what it's needed to, or because I've practiced so much on what my teacher told me to do one week, only to have her reverse course completely the next week, and now I've gone several steps backward in her eyes. I've cried over music and how it sounds and how that reflects on me, but my impostor syndrome in music has not made me question my ear or my artistic gut on what to do.
When I cry over writing, I'm really crying over myself.
I'm aware that impostor syndrome is about lies masquerading as truths. Or, as my friend Erin says, feelings masquerading as facts. Success in writing is no aegis against impostor syndrome. Would that I could cut off the head of Medusa, mount it on my shield, and brandish it against my impostor syndrome (or my Bad Brain) any time it shows up, turning it to stone. My impostor syndrome also has levels to it. At its best, it makes me think I can't hang with other more-famous writers, but if there's anything I can do, it's bullshit, so fake it till you make it, as they say.
At its worst, when it arrives, I feel like the drag of a concrete block against another concrete block, a slow abrading, a hollow growl. I feel like two extra-coarse pieces of sandpaper pushed and scraped against the other, the grit of them specially designed to remove every layer of varnish I've put on my failings. One part of me understands that I have a responsibility to this profession now, that I can't claim I'm not a writer because um? I have this book deal? and what am I doing this second if not writing this blogpost and using figurative language? And the other part of me is extremely afraid of wanting anything, afraid of claiming the title and prioritizing this work, because that's what real writers do and I'm not a real writer. I know that jinxes exist and if I speak my wants aloud, they're vulnerable, scraps of fluttering, gossamer hope that fall easily to predators. Best not to look at them directly or acknowledge them or let them out. You cannot have something taken away if you never have it.
When impostor syndrome collides with my wants, it causes dissonance of such magnificent, disgusting proportions that I spiral into the Bad Brain Place for days, accompanied by depression and anxiety. It upends any trust I have in myself. It turns everyone into a betrayer. It'd be one thing if it were confined just to me, but my impostor syndrome has splash damage. The friendly fire toggle is on. I want to be comforted, but I don't want someone to feel burdened with comfort; if I get validating words, I turn right around and invalidate them so I can keep validating my feelings; I throw a fishing line out and reel in praise that I use to make myself feel worse. It's unfair to everyone around me that I get, in video game terms, an emotional manipulation debuff that has an area of effect. I become an objectively nasty person, devoted to the holy task of ruining myself.
So I do my best to keep things quiet, knowing that this is a me problem and not an anyone else problem. I've learned through repeated touchings of the stove that if I take an invitation to speak more openly about how I feel, I'll be met with hostility or dismissiveness. Eventually it goes away, but impostor syndrome cycles back, so if people don't get a chance to take a whack at it, it'll be right back like one of those shows on cable, all thirteen seasons of it, syndicated forever.
There is, as far as I know, no cure for what ails me, no magic bullet, no panacea. I have tried to quit writing and failed at doing that. I have tried to keep my work private, but creativity is, as I have read in a recent newsletter, not done alone. (Additionally, if I share, I'm afraid I won't be able to stop. Is there anything worse than monopolizing someone's time?) I have tried thinking about my accomplishments. A horrible idea; if there's anything I hate, it's being told I have done something special, useful, fresh, "insightful," "dazzling," or any other empty book blurb language that exists, because I am none of those things and have done none of those things. I have tried not comparing myself to others, but I cannot fucking lie to me: I'm an Aries sun with an Aries moon, a wood Rat, a life path 1, an only child, a self-starter who gets what she wants by grace or grit. I'm highly competitive and if I'm not succeeding at the field I've chosen, why even bother?
The only thing that helps, if you can even call it help, is burying my head in work and kicking the can down the road, hoping that Future Me might be able to deal with this horseshit better than Present Me.
I wish there were some way of capping off this blogpost other than resorting to an Anderson Cooper–style "We'll have to leave it there." No pithy ending exists, not when I'm currently in the thick of it. Sometimes, in literature, especially Russian literature, a character's polar wants cause a break or a catastrophic event to happen, and that's what's going on in me right now: a catastrophe in triplicate, a desire to smash myself to pieces so I don't have to feel this anymore. I have writing to do, but more importantly, I have editing to do, a day job to do, a family to take care of, and no time to indulge myself in the selfish, frivolous, soul-devouring agony of writing even if I've considered quitting everything and letting my husband take on the financial burden of rent for the studio and writing full-time. I considered shaving my head and running away to the circus too, when I was sixteen. Guess what I haven't done.
Mia is a musician, teacher, writer, editor, and occasional photographer whose formal education is in music, psychology, and pedagogy. She enjoys reading a lot, thinking while on long drives, finding songs for each moment, and snoozing with her cat.