Story-a-Week: What I’ve Learned So Far (Pt. 3)

For writers, there’s nothing more frustrating than dumping buckets of energy and love into a story, typing the last sentence, then hearing that fear-mongering gremlin in your brain whispering two dreaded words: “something’s wrong.” It’s worse when you can’t figure out what exactly that little bastard is talking about.

It’s as useful as that beret-wearing writer in your workshop that scrunches up their face like they’re swallowing a mouthful of bile before pointing to your story and saying “it just didn’t quite work for me.” Thanks, Gustave, you think. That really narrows it down.

To solidify this issue, I’ve spent the past five months digging into what makes some short stories click. What at first felt amorphous and slippery is now…less amorphous but still somewhat slippery.

The five months started as a manic dash to write a short story a week, but that soon evolved into a much more plodding, purposeful look at what was making some of my stories fizzle while others felt, as Goldilocks might put it, just right.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d created a working template for outlining short story ideas. That outline evolved over the last six weeks as I attempted to use it, failed, figured out what went wrong, then fixed it. Here it is in all its glory. Behold!

It’s like Mad Libs but useful!

So what was the biggest takeaway? The thing that produced the “just-right-ness” I was looking for? The balance between external and internal goals.

You’ll notice in my outline that I have the blanks for the internal goals highlighted, and that’s because it was the element in my stories that kept gumming up the works. It would either be lacking entirely or would be too underdeveloped to offer the reader that OH GOD, YES catharsis we all want when we finish a story.

“Don’t you have an MFA, Matt?” you ask. “Isn’t that, like, one of the first things covered in Creative Writing 101?”

Well, yeah. But here’s the thing. It is so easy to get lost in the world of a story when you’re writing it. Consider this brief, incomplete list of what you’re juggling when writing a first draft: world-building, characterization, dialogue, conflict, and pacing.

That’s a lot of chainsaws to juggle. If you’re not careful, you’ll get so caught up trying to keep both hands attached to your arms that some integral elements will get left out. Then you’ll be left scratching your head (with a bloody stump), wondering where it all went wrong. And that’s exactly where I found myself time and again in stories that felt off. My internal conflicts were lacking or vastly overshadowed by external conflicts.

Like I mentioned in my last post, the genesis of most new stories for me is an intriguing concept. 99% of the time, that concept is directly related to the external forces in a story, and I get so excited about developing that aspect that I generally forget to examine its internal impacts on the characters I’ve written. Not good.

K.M. Weiland, on her terrific website Helping Writers Become Authors, has an entire post on making internal conflicts work. Check it out here. Her post offers fantastic advice on fleshing out your internal conflicts so they have more resonance and depth. The last thing you want is for your characters to come off sounding like an emo kid scribbling break-up lyrics into their bullet journal. Well, maybe you do want that, and I’m not here to judge if that’s your thing.

The part of this topic that is still slippery for me is finding a balance between external and internal conflicts. Each story is different and requires a slightly different ratio of the two. Read any of last year’s Hugo Award winners, and you’ll see how widely the ratio can vary. Although their ratios may be different, I would argue their stories all contain the essential elements from the outline above: external and internal conflicts, complications, and some sort of realization (or lack thereof).

I tend to require a lot of structure when I write. Thus, the outline. It’s a roadmap I can use to check that I’m at least driving down the right highway and not getting distracted by advertisements for THE WORLD’S LARGEST HAIRBALL. Seriously, I’d swerve across three lanes to make that exit.

The outline is by no means a rigid structure, but I wanted to share it in case you’re struggling to figure out what’s missing in your story. Feel free to bend, break, or rearrange the outline. I hope it gives you the tools to flick that nasty fear-mongering goblin off your shoulder and get your story juuuuuust-right.

Story-a-Week: What I’ve Learned So Far (Pt. 2)

In my last post, I talked about how my friend and I decided to take on the story-a-week challenge to improve our writing and stay consistent post-MFA. The main takeaway was that I needed to slow down and focus on revision. Without revision, I found myself falling into the same writing traps over and over.

Since then, I’ve identified a handful of those common mistakes and have started working on methods to overcome them. In this post, I’ll focus on the first major mistake I found myself making.

Mistake 1: Valuing Concept Over Story

I enjoy writing in a variety of genres, but there’s a special place in my heart for science fiction and fantasy. As such, story seeds often come in the form of a speculative or fantastical idea. My internal monologue often screams, “It would be so cool if…,” and I find myself flying through the wormhole of an idea, lost in the imaginative wonder of it all. I whip up a vanilla, snooze-inducing character, shoehorn them into that scenario, and find myself with a really cool setting, scenario, or conflict, and 5,000 disposable words dedicated to the rest of the story (i.e. the stuff that really matters).

This probably seems obvious to those of you that aren’t as slow on the writing uptake as I am, but everything I’ve said thus far brings me to the second lesson I learned in this story-a-week process: the most important part of a story is the characters that inhabit it. It doesn’t matter if you create a world where scientists develop a laser that accidentally transports alien life to Earth (remember Howard the Duck?) or one where orcs, fairies, and elves live side-by-side with humans (cough…Bright…cough). If readers don’t care about the characters, your story won’t have an impact.

The most important part of a story is the characters that inhabit it.

“That’s great, Matt, but how do I focus on character?”

Thanks for asking. That exact wondering kept bringing me back to four of the dusty, age-old questions found in most craft books.

Questions to help you avoid the concept trap:

  1. What does my character want?
  2. What is preventing them from getting it?
  3. What will they sacrifice in order to get it?
  4. How will they be different after they get it (or don’t get it)?

Using these questions, I made a generic fill-in-the-blank outline to use when brainstorming story ideas, AND IT WORKED. Sort of. More on that in my next post, where I’ll share that outline as well the handful of other questions and reminders I should have included to ensure I’m combining the best of both worlds: concept and character.

Story-a-Week: What I’ve Learned So Far (Pt. 1)

I’m three months into my efforts to write a short story a week, and I’ve begun to notice trends I thought might be worth sharing. I’m going to make this a mini-series here on my blog as a way to process what I’ve learned so far and to keep these ideas in bite-size chunks that might be meaningful for someone attempting something similar and for myself as a method of reflection.

Lesson 1: A story a week is…a lot.

At first, the story-a-week challenge felt great. I was producing lots of new work and getting a feel for the essential elements needed to craft a moderately successful story. However, the rapid-fire timeline didn’t offer much of a chance to reflect on what I’d written, and it certainly didn’t allow much time for editing.

This isn’t a critique of the idea, but I noticed I wasn’t developing in ways I expected. I’d hoped writing a fresh story each week would help me improve, but I was making the same mistakes time and again.

Sure, writing a fresh story a week increases your odds of getting published because you’re submitting more work. The flip-side is that you don’t have time to really dig into what is working and, more importantly, what’s failing in your stories. The process encourages you to move on and make things better in your next story.

As a compromise, I slowed down to a story-every-couple-of-weeks to allow time to trade with a reading partner and edit what I’d written. This quickly helped me identify mistakes I was frequently making.

At first I felt frustrated because I wasn’t producing as much new work. A little self-forgiveness later, and I realized that I hadn’t failed. I’d re-adjusted my methods to better reach my goals.

What I learned was this: writing a story a week will make you improve. If you do something more frequently, it gets easier. Simple as that. It will also help you recognize traps you fall into as a writer.

Unfortunately, it won’t afford you the chance to get your hands dirty learning how to repair the errors you consistently make. It’s imperative you work through the challenge of fixing the mistakes you’ve already made. In doing so, you develop a pattern of skills that help you mend mistakes precisely and efficiently.

First drafts suck. It’s rare to produce something great during your first go at it, so learning how to correct mistakes is hugely important.

In next week’s post, I’ll jump into one of the mistakes I keep encountering and how I’m working to overcome it.

52 Weeks, 52 Stories

Landing Your First Publication, Mandy Wallace

With my MFA behind me, I’m setting my sights on earning a more recent publishing credit than 2006. Over the course of my graduate program, I wrote and submitted several short stories, but each received multiple rejections.

Instead of lamenting, I wanted to take a proactive approach, which led me to Mandy Wallace’s book Landing Your First Publication: The Writing Prompts + Publication Strategy for Writers Who Refuse to Rely on Luck.

The book is predicated on Ray Bradbury’s advice to write a new short story a week with the faith that at least one of them will be good enough to catch an editor’s eye. My friend Melody and I took on the challenge.

Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.

Ray Bradbury

It’s my hope that writing 52 stories will not only help me find publication but help me work out some of the kinks in my writing method. It’s one thing to learn what makes a good story, it’s a whole other beast to put that knowledge to use.

We started August 12, so I’m three stories in. So far, I’ve written two science-fiction pieces and one fantasy for a total of about 8,500 words.

Already the process has been beneficial. Each week, I’ve had to push each story to completion in spite of the fear that they’d turn out awful. Guess what? I’m really happy so far with two of the three. It’s yet another reminder that fear of failure has little basis in reality. Perseverance is a skill in itself.

In the past, I’d have written maybe one story in three weeks and polished it into oblivion before submitting it. In that same time, I’ve already written three and sent out my first two.

Writing and submitting fresh material is cathartic because I know I’m taking action to achieve my goal of getting published. I’m excited to see what happens during the remaining 49 weeks. Wish me luck!

A cover for my book

Sightless cover designed by Kateri Kramer (

As part of graduation from Regis University’s Mile-High MFA, students are gifted a framed copy of a book cover designed by MFA graduate Kateri Kramer. Prior to graduation, Kateri e-mailed me asking for details about my YA fantasy Sightless: a plot synopsis, colors I associate with the story, and any other significant imagery.

I was absolutely blown away by what Kateri produced and wanted to share it here. It’s truly astonishing to me how much of Sightless she was able to capture in the cover. It’s perfect.

I graduated!

I spent the past two weeks in Denver completing my final residency at Regis University’s Mile-High MFA. Over the last two years in the program, I’ve worked hard to write, revise, and edit my young adult novel-in-progress Sightless, and I’m so proud to say that I’m officially a graduate.

The picture above is from my thesis defense, where the lovely people in the image (From left: Dr. Marty McGovern, Mario Acevedo, and Denise Vega) asked me questions about my writing process, the development of Sightless, and the challenges I encountered along the way. It was so fun to talk about my book with industry professionals who understood my goals and process so thoroughly (Denise and Mario were my semester writing mentors through the program).

It feels strange to finally take off my “student” cap and search for the next hat to don, but I’m excited by the opportunities ahead of me. There’s a lot of debate online about whether an MFA is worth it, and I won’t get into that here, but I will say I’m confident I’m a MUCH better writer now than when I started. If nothing else, earning an MFA helped me build a thicker skin, learn to love revision, and recognize that it’s perfectly acceptable to label myself a writer.

That self-acceptance was worth every penny.

Stein on Writing – Using Markers to Characterize

Chapter 5 of Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing describes a method of quickly giving depth to your characters using what he calls “markers.” These markers are visible descriptions and actions that help your reader gauge your characters’ places in society. Stein cites critic Lionel Trilling’s observation that class differences are at the heart of strong fiction.

I don’t agree that this is always the case, but Stein’s method of using markers to efficiently breathe life into characters seems like something worth trying.

Stein’s class markers include:

  • how people talk, eat, and dress
  • the jobs they hold
  • their expectations in different settings

Stein argues that cultural and class differences elevate the tension in your stories because they’re something we admonish but can’t seem to escape. We like to think we’re above noticing class differences, but the sense of “otherness” we notice in those around us or feel ourselves carries a distinct emotional baggage.

Here’s my attempt at using some of these markers:

Stephen swiped a hand over the front of his blue button-down in a weak attempt to smooth its wrinkles. He hadn’t worn the shirt in years, but Megan asked him to wear something nice, and it was the closest thing he had.

It had taken him nearly the whole semester to work up the courage to approach her in their o-chem class, and he wanted to make a good impression.

He pulled the front of the shirt to his nose and winced. It reeked of the cigarettes his dad smoked inside.

He reached for the doorbell and noticed black grime ringing each fingernail from the motor oil he’d scrubbed off at the end of his shift. He’d had to work late replacing the head gasket on his boss’s daughter’s Dodge Neon. It didn’t leave much time for a thorough scrub-down before heading over to Megan’s friend’s house for what she described as “just some drinks with friends.”

He could still bail. He hadn’t rung the bell yet.

He shook his head, reminding himself how much he’d been dreaming of a date with Megan. He pressed the button and heard the doorbell go off–a brief piano melody instead of the usual ding.

Fingernails. When have I worried about my fucking fingernails?

“I’ve got it,” a male voice called out on the other side of the door before it swung open.

A tall blonde pulled open the door, his cologne washing over Stephen. It smelled like leather and old money. “You must be Steve.” He jutted out a hand.

Steve? Stephen thought. Pump your brakes, Superman.

He forced a smile.

“That’s me,” Stephen said, shaking the guy’s hand.

“Michael,” the guy said, squeezing Stephen’s hand a little too tightly. He had a firm grip, but so did Stephen–a fringe benefit of twisting wrenches for a living.

Stephen squeezed until he felt his callouses scrape against Michael’s smooth palm. Michael didn’t seem to notice, or at least his broad, perfect smile didn’t offer any indication he’d taken the handshake as anything other than a usual pleasantry.

Michael turned to lead Stephen inside.

“Megan!” he called. “Looks like your handsome date has arrived!”

The Fire in Fiction – Giving Characters Voice

I’m going to do things a little different for today’s entry. First, I’m skipping comments for chapter 4 (“The World of the Novel”) of The Fire in Fiction. The advice was solid, but I didn’t find it particularly inspiring. Second, I thought these entries could benefit from more structure. Instead of simply analyzing Maass’s chapters, I’m going to use this as a place to brainstorm ideas for my own work or practice writing exercises. I’d love it if you joined me. The more comments these posts receive, the more inspiration there’ll be to go around.

Today I want to look at chapter 5 of The Fire in Fiction, “A Singular Voice.” In this chapter, Maass discusses the amorphous beast known as authorial voice. Maass suggests narrative voice is partly derived from our characters’ distinct qualities (or quirks), perspectives, and reflections (in addition to diction, syntax, POV, etc.).

The books that come to mind when I think of strong authorial voices all have distinct, well-defined characters with clear opinions and outlooks on life. Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell is a great example.

So I’m on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some fuckhead tries to mug me!

Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell

Already from the first line, we see the protagonist has a unique perspective and speaks in a blunt, conversational tone. The whole book feels this way, and it never gets exhausting. If anything, the narrative voice made me feel more drawn to the main character. The voice is strong, and it makes the entire book more compelling.

This brings me to a problem in my current novel manuscript. My characters are all suffering from a pretty serious case of vanilla-itis. Sure, my protagonist has desires and faces challenges, but it’s rare for his voice to come through. He doesn’t express his opinion enough, and that’s not good. To remedy this, I wanted to create a short list of real-life quirks I’ve witnessed over the course of my thirty-five years. Sure, most of them won’t apply to my story’s 15-year-old protagonist, but I’m trying to get the juice flowin’.

  • My uncle knew a guy in the Navy that hated seeing people spit on the deck so much that he’d have them spit into his hand. He’d slurp it up.
  • I knew a kid that developed a fear of walking through doors. He’d pause to collect himself before crossing every threshold.
  • The sound of country music playing in the evening used to terrify me. I suffered awful nightmares for a few months as a kid, and I associated the bad dreams with my Mom listening to Country Music Television before bed.
  • My wife hates the combination of fruit and bread.
  • I’ve been to the beach and pool several times with one of my best friends. He’s never taken his shirt off.
  • My sister used to fold her blankets and sheets in her sleep.
  • I worked with a teacher who was deathly afraid of cotton balls.
  • That same teacher stole another teacher’s yogurt every day for a week straight. When confronted about it, he denied it.
  • The couches at my childhood best friend’s house growing up were covered in plastic.
  • I used to believe (and still sort of do) that turning a full circle in the shower would bring me bad luck.

The items in this list certainly don’t define each of these people, but it gives us an honest, if strange, glimpse into their psyche. What a cool way to add depth to a character and make your novel stand out.

What are some quirks you’ve witnessed in real life? What are some you’ve given your characters? Leave a reply below, and let’s see how many strange and interesting things we can collect and share.

The Fire in Fiction – The “Easy” Stuff

Why is it that some of the easiest-sounding writing advice is the easiest to forget when you’re at the keyboard?

Chapter 2 of The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass discusses the importance of secondary characters and the fact that so many of them are bland. I know I’ve got them in my novel manuscript and the short stories I’m presently revising.

Maass suggests so many of these flat supporting characters exist because writers fear they will outshine the protagonist, but that’s just not true. Think of the Harry Potter novels. How many secondary characters can you name that are memorable, quirky, and feel essential in some way? Hint: a lot. At no point in those novels do they lessen Harry’s significance. The same is true in other fantasy novels I adore: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. In fact, strong secondary characters enhance the protagonist’s story by providing a surface on which the main character’s decisions resonate.

Maass suggests making secondary characters stand out by detailing the effects they have on the protagonist, making them exceptional or quirky in some significant way, and, in the case of antagonists, making them human and giving them agency. These are some things I’m definitely planning on carrying into revisions on my novel manuscript.

Chapter 3 looks at making scenes shine. Here’s what Maass suggests:

  1. Identify moments in your scenes where something changes for your protagonist. Make it clear by the end of the scene how that change affects the character’s situation and their understanding of who they are.
  2. Make the stakes for your protagonist clear at the outset of each scene. By the end of the scene, readers should see how your character drew nearer or farther from their goal.
  3. Look for flab that can be cut from your dialogue. Dialogue, Maass argues, is one of the most succinct ways to raise stakes and move a story along.
  4. Heighten the impact of significant plot events by highlighting the effect the event has on more than just your protagonist. Look at how the event shapes your secondary characters or the world itself.

A lot of this advice seems straight-forward, but it’s easy to forget when you’re juggling plot and still figuring out where the story is headed. Keeping these things in mind might help you avoid more time-consuming edits down the line. I wish I had read them sooner…

The Fire in Fiction – Protagonists

The Fire in Fiction - Cover

As part of my MFA, I’m required to read a certain amount of books each semester. It’s one of my favorite parts of the program since there’s a lot of freedom in book choice, and I’ve been able to pursue mentor texts that I believe will inform my own work in a positive way.

I’m in my last semester of the program, which means it’s time for editing my manuscript. To support my edits, I chose two books this semester by Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction and The Emotional Craft of Fiction. I just finished the latter (which I’ll save for another post), and I’m diving in now to The Fire in Fiction. I thought I’d use this blog space to reflect on what I consider significant points Maass brings up in hopes that anyone who reads this might take away something on their own. To be clear, I don’t take any credit for Maass’s ideas. Think of this as meditations on Maass’s sage advice.

Chapter one of The Fire in Fiction discusses ways to make your protagonist as strong as they can be. Maass’s advice is deceptively simple:

  1. Make your main character likable but not perfect.
  2. Make them heroic but flawed.
  3. Reveal their greatness through their impact on others.

Simple, right? Wrong.

Every story I can think of that I found compelling had a main character, no matter how despicable, that I found myself cheering on. I wanted them to succeed because goodness could be found in the core of their character. The opposite is true for stories that left me shrugging my shoulders or shaking my head in disgust. I suspect that’s why so many horror movies fail to impress audiences. The characters in bad horror movies are meat for the grinder. We want to see them killed off because they’re obnoxious, stupid, or worse–flat. Readers want to like the characters they’re following, and it’s an author’s job to provide the characteristics that offer that experience.

Maass explains his point succinctly when he says authors should write characters readers would want to spend long stretches of time with. We don’t want to be stuck in a room with people that are bland or annoying. We want to spend time with people that inspire us.

I think this is why it’s so common for authors’ antagonists to feel like the most interesting character in a story. They’re motivated and flawed. They’re imperfect but driven. Doesn’t that describe us all? As my former mentor Mario Acevedo would say, “Every villain sees themself as the hero of the story.”

It’s difficult to maintain this balancing act with protagonists. It forces you to walk a very narrow tightrope. Too perfect and we lose interest or belief. Too flawed and there’s no desire to see them succeed.

I found Maass’s description of the third point a little more ambiguous, but here’s what I took from it: make your character’s actions reverberate outward so they affect the world around them. Heroes don’t operate in a vacuum. What ripples do their actions create? How do those ripples inspire others or strike fear in them?