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. 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.

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 – 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…

Resistance

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You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.

– Steve Pressfield in The War of Art

Resistance, according to Steve Pressfield, is the force inhibiting us from pursuing what our genius begs us to reach for. It’s a feeling we’re all familiar with: the sinking fear of failure, the nagging worry that others will judge us, or the greasy panic of not knowing if we’re good enough.

It’s easy to assume that the great minds of the present and past somehow avoided these feelings. That’s bullshit. For me, that’s one of the beauties of social media. I can see the writers and creators I most admire occasionally ooze with the same worries I have. The thing that sets them apart from the rest of us is their ability to overcome those feelings.

I’m in awe every night my wife gets home from an 8, 9, 10, 11-hour shift. She grabs a bite to eat, cracks open her laptop, and continues working. I asked her the other day how she continues to work after a full shift. Her eyes glazed over and her head tilted as she pondered my question. “It’s my routine. I can keep working as long as I don’t stop. It’s when I stop that it’s hard to get going again.” Her dedication to education and her career are so ingrained in her daily routines that she doesn’t even consider the alternative. That’s where genius lives.

As part of my MFA, I’m required to submit monthly writing packets of around 7,500 words. I was a wreck my first month. I’d somehow faked my way into an MFA full of real writers, and it was time to pony up. I wrung my hands, bounced my leg, and pulled at my beard worrying over how I could fake my way through 7,500 words that would end up in the hands of my mentor, a seasoned, published YA author. After a certain point, the pressure of the deadline overwhelmed the pressure of my own Resistance, and I started writing.

I told myself to stay after work each day and just get 50 words on the page, and that’s where I learned my secret. Fifty words is a piece of cake. EASY. That’s 32 words right there. I could do that. Here’s the trick: I never stopped at 50. Never. In fact, more days than not, I’d crank out between 600 and 1,000 words, which brings me to the quote at the top of this post.

Pressfield’s allegory about Hitler might feel hyperbolic, but the subtle truth of it is unavoidable. It’s so easy for us to fill our time with things other than our passions that we eventually obscure our goals with the monotony of our own routines. To break out of our habits, we need to introduce a new one, preferably with a low barrier of entry. Every painting starts with a stroke that, on its own, looks ugly.

The War of Art

 

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There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. — Steven Pressfield in The War of Art

For years I dreamed of writing the types of books I love reading – gritty stories of characters fighting impossible odds. My only problem was that I never put my ass in a chair and got started. It wasn’t until January 2017 when my mother passed away that I experienced the cliche epiphany everyone experiences at some point: life is too short to wait for our dreams to come true.

On the 10-hour drive home from my Mom’s funeral, my wife and I discussed the possibilities the future held. I could continue working jobs that didn’t offer me creative fulfillment or take action to start moving toward something bigger. We googled writing programs, and I found out Regis University offered a low-residency MFA program in Denver, CO. It sounded perfect. I could start moving toward my goal of becoming a writer, surround myself with lovely, creative people, and visit my sister in Denver every 6 months.

I’ll enter my third semester of the program in July, and I’m 175 pages into my first novel-length manuscript. Here’s to sitting down and getting started.