Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Chasm between Intentions and Execution

We all intend to write the best we possibly can. In fact, we probably intend a lot of things with our stories.

Maybe we want to create the most nuanced yet relatable of characters or an innovative twist on x plot or a unique structure/voice/premise that will blow readers away. And yet once we finally finish our masterpiece we realize what we actually have is a two-dimensional protagonist, a plot that closely resembles two other books that came out this year alone, and a structure/voice/premise that leaves readers scratching their heads at best.

How did our stories fall so short of our intentions?

Skill Level

Sure we all want to be that author who writes the Great American Novel right out the gate. It’s normal to want to succeed so fantastically at something you work hard at. But what’s more realistic is that you tinker with a few story ideas, even write out some of them, and realize you have so much to learn. In this case, your skills as a writer are keeping you from writing the way you intend to.

Maybe you are still mastering ways to incorporate description without derailing story action. Maybe you are still trying to figure out how to go deeper into your character so they feel like real people. Maybe you have all these grand ideas for plot points, but you struggle to make them come about in a natural way in your story. If you keep writing, keep practicing, keep honing your craft, you’ll gradually see the gulf between your intentions and your writing ability narrow.

Competing Story Elements

This one is harder to generalize since it really depends on the individual story. However, maybe the reason your story falls short of your intentions is because some other aspect of your story got in the way. Perhaps this competing element distracted you from what you were trying to accomplish or perhaps it simply made it impossible.

If your story is derailed from what you intended, you must decide if that is a problem or not. Maybe you had the good fortune that your story actually improved. If not, you must ferret out where things started to go haywire and work your way back out. This is not easy work. But it is a useful process to go through, even if you don’t succeed.


I’m a firm believer that some stories simply need more time to develop. I know that can be a discouraging thing to hear when you want that book deal/agent/career now now now. But some stories simply take longer to create and shape, so that they fulfill your intentions in writing it in the first place.

If you have a story that has disappointed you in how it has turned out, set it aside for a little while. Time away can show you flaws you couldn’t see before. It could also be you rushed into writing the story without thinking it through adequately enough before putting pen to paper. Story ideas need time to gel, coalesce, mature before they’re ready to be written. Knowing whether or not your story falls into this category comes with time and experience.


Along these lines, I’ve included part three (four in total) of Ira Glass’s talk On Storytelling, which is totally worth watching if you haven’t seen it already.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Writing in First Person - Revisited

A long long time ago, I said I’d start writing solely in first person as my New Year’s resolution for 2011:
Based on feedback and my own instincts, I know character voice and reader empathy are weak points in my other stories. I’m just not going deep enough. And for a long time, I wasn’t sure what more I could do besides revising and reworking until the words blurred into nothingness. I made progress, yes, but it’s an arduous time-consuming process.

But now I think I know how to tackle this issue: by writing in the first person, even when I know I’ll revert back into 3rd person at some later stage of the project. By stripping away the artifice of she’s and he’s and making it all about me me me, I hope I’ll be able to strengthen my own engagement with my characters and up the emotional intensity and interest for my readers. (From First Person Works For Me)
Recently I received this comment from Motormind on that post:

And thought it was as good a time as any to revisit this and talk about this shift in my writing.

Yes, the writing in first person has worked quite well for me. I’m also writing a lot more… So it’s difficult to say whether experience hasn’t also had a hand in my improvements. But it’s also telling that the short stories I’ve sold so far, and have written since, have all been in first person.

I’m better able to get into my characters’ heads and get at the emotional content of the story that much faster thanks to writing in first person.

As to the second part of Motormind’s question about circling back to third person, I have a confession: I haven’t yet. Stories I’ve written in first person have stayed in first person. And the novel I’ve started since the original post is also in first person (and will stay that way).

I still have novel projects on the back burner written in third person, and will probably write in third-person again (else I’d cut out a lot of stories I could write), but I haven’t felt the need to yet. I will say the times I’ve gone back to tinker with the third person stories, it’s been easier to identify areas where there’s too much narrative distance or find opportunities for going deeper. It’s all anecdotal right now, but I think writing in first person has helped me a lot, even when writing third.

Happy writing (regardless of which POV you use)!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Matter of Choice

Our characters are constantly making choices, from answering the call to action to something as innocuous as deciding what to eat for breakfast. It may not always seem that way from where we sit in the author’s chair, given the illusion of control we have over our stories, but our characters should be facing choices, even if we don’t always dwell on them.

Choices could be binary (between options A or B) or multiple (options A, B, C…X). They could be mutually exclusive (if A is chosen, B is no longer possible) or not (if A is chosen, B is still a possibility).

But I want to focus on the types of choices characters face, and the associated repercussions the decisions can have.

Explicit Choice, Explicit Stakes

This is when your character knows they have a choice to make and have acknowledged it (to themselves or others) in some way. They are also aware of the repercussions of their decision (stakes).

For example, your hero knows if he chooses to fight the bad guy, there’s a chance he could win and save the girl. If he doesn’t fight, the bad guy wins. Those are explicit outcomes.

Explicit Choice, Unknown or Vague Stakes

This is when your character knows they have a choice to make but they are uncertain as to what impact their choice will have on themselves and others.

Think of your traditional call to action. A young man or woman is told they need to undergo training to harness their latent powers/magic/intellect/abilities (think college or grad school for contemporary purposes). There’s an obvious choice here, to train or not, but the stakes here are less certain. Success is not a guarantee if they undergo training. Maybe there are other paths to success that don’t include training. These are vague outcomes.

Now, a call to action moment could certainly have explicit stakes (think “chosen one” tropes), but I personally feel there needs to be some uncertainties, some vagueness to the choice, for it to be dramatically satisfying.

Implicit Choice, Explicit Stakes

This is where your character is unaware/unconscious of the fact that there is a choice to be made. You’re probably thinking: How can that be? Well, let’s start with the fact that we make hundreds upon hundreds of choices everyday (think Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink). Small ones, ones we don’t even realize we’re making. Now think of the way you were raised, beliefs or traditions your parents or caregivers passed on to you that you never had reason to question. Yes, assumptions, ignorance, and to some extent notions of culture and privilege all come into play here. Now you can start to see how there may have been a choice to be made, but your character was unaware of making it or ignorant of other alternatives.

For example, your character grew up as an only child, and therefore is used to doing things autonomously and has what is perceived by others as selfish tendencies. Let’s say they monopolize a conversation at school (an implicit choice since they don’t have to compete for their parent’s attention at home, and that behavior unwittingly carries over into other settings) and in doing so, they cut off someone else who tries to speak, pissing that person off (explicit outcome).

Implicit Choice, Unknown or Vague Stakes

This is where a character is unaware or unconscious of the fact they have a choice to make, and the ramifications of that choice are not immediately apparent.

Let’s return to the college example. Maybe your character is descended from a long line of blue-collar workers. This means they’ve lived their whole life to the cycle of the nearby plant/mill/factory. Their parents worked there, their grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, etc. As soon as they turn 16, they start picking up weekend shifts or work there during the summer.

When it comes time to graduate high school, they just assume they’re going to work at the plant too (implicit choice), never considering the option they could go to college or join the military or spend a year working for Americore. The ramifications of this choice are unknown. Maybe this person will rise through the ranks and manage the plant one day. Maybe the plant will shut down, and it’s harder for the character to translate their skills into another trade or go back to school. Maybe they’re stuck on the ground floor for the rest of their life. These are all uncertain outcomes, based on a implicit choice.


For all of these different types of choices, there’s a lot you can play with. Your character’s deliberations leading up to a pivotal choice could be a dramatic, angst-ridden ride. The impact their choice has on other characters and the plot of your story could also be as big as you can make it, both positive and negative.

But don’t forget about the quiet choices, the ones that add texture and nuance to your characters. Consider showing how your characters learn from the choices they make, and the differences in how a lesson learned from an implicit or explicit choices will affect them.

Happy writing!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Story Trailer for Souvenirs from Another Life

Big thanks to Justin Swapp, a fellow contributor to The Memory Eater anthology, who put together the trailer for my story as well as others in the anthology.

Go here to see more trailers for the anthology.

Wednesday we'll return to more craft and writerly goodness, I promise!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Interview with the Editor of The Memory Eater Anthology

Today, I’m pleased to bring you an interview with Matthew Hance, editor as well as contributor to The Memory Eater anthology.

The Memory Eater is an upcoming anthology consisting of 27 uniquely illustrated, mind-bending stories based on a device with the ability to locate and destroy any memory in the human mind. Embark on a journey through the emotional, to the humorous, to the bleak and to the beautiful. Find out where the Memory Eater originated and how it's used in the future. How removing pieces from one's past often creates an unavoidable puzzle. But most importantly, follow those who decide to gamble with their create one hole in order to fill another.

I met Matthew after he accepted my story “Souvenirs From Another Life” for the anthology, and was impressed with his orchestration of the project from start to finish. So I thought this interview would be a good opportunity to learn more about how the anthology came about, how it came together, and how you’ll be able to get a hold of it.

Let’s get started.

I understand the idea behind The Memory Eater was a short story you wrote. Please tell us a bit about the story and your decision to turn it into an anthology.

I wrote my Memory Eater story for the Writers of the Future contest, and in it, the main character is a customer service representative for a memory removal company. It’s funny to look back on now and see why I wrote it—because I was working as a customer service representative, and I was also shopping around another story of mine which followed a character who lost his entire memory.

Anyway, while writing my contest entry, the main character kept taking calls from people wanting to remove all these different things, and that’s when I realized the endless amount of possibilities with this device. My first thought was to turn the idea into a collection of short stories, and it only seemed fitting to invite others to join.

Being a part of several writing groups and a handful of anthologies as a contributor, I decided it would be fun to be on the other end of things—to put out the call for submissions. Plus I really believed the idea would bring something new and fresh to the market, and that with my background and current job, I could pull it all together.

One of the things I found interesting about The Memory Eater is that you didn’t want bios included with any of the submissions (putting the emphasis on story, not previous credits). Could you talk a little bit about why you chose to handle things this way?

I mainly wanted authors to focus on their stories. I believe my only stipulation was to send stories in the body of an email. For me, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been published a million times over—I’m not interested in assembling authors with big followings or connections. I’m about quality, and if your story is good, what else matters? Formatting can be changed, and there’s an abundance of fresh, undiscovered talent out there to be had.

What role has social media played in the development of this project, considering your robust twitter presence (@TheMemoryEater) and blog ( capturing this project’s milestones?

Social media is imperative, and it’s the reason this project is alive. Right from the beginning, I used message boards and forums to advertise the call for submissions. My most important role has always been to spread the word. If I went back and added up all the views my postings received, I bet it would be well over 40,000. On a budget of about zero, that free advertising was priceless. It was a ton of hard work, but it didn’t set me back.

The same holds true with Twitter. When I found out what Twitter was (about a month into the project), I felt like I hit the jackpot. I followed people who mentioned writing in their profiles and hoped my picture of the pink bird eating a man’s brain and short description of The Memory Eater was enough to get them to visit my blog. I believed the idea was interesting enough that the more people I reached, the more submissions I would eventually get. All I had to do was get the ball rolling, or boulder in this case.

What were some of the things that surprised you the most about the story selection process? Any suggestions for writers out there based on your experience with The Memory Eater’s slush pile?

The selection process was really tough, because it boils down to making decisions. It’s always hard with so many options to settle on just one, but I picked my favorites and then allowed the tone of those few to guide my decision-making on the rest.

As a fellow writer, it was even tougher to send out rejection letters, especially for stories which almost made the cut.

One bit of advice I have for others is to not only be professional, but also be yourself. Even though I didn’t have bios in front of me, I could envision the authors through their emails and how they formatted their stories. So in a way, I was able to foreshadow what kind of narrative the stories were going to have before reading the actual stories. Even though I read every story, when you go higher up the chain and submit to bigger publishers, I have a feeling many are eliminated on the spot due to the volume they receive.

You’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of preparing The Memory Eater for publication. What were some of the things that surprised you about the editorial process?

How easy it was. Seriously. After I selected the stories, I printed them all off and read them on breaks while walking around the building. I bet people thought I was weird power-walking up and down the halls with a red pen bending a stack of papers in my hand. After two rounds of edits, I sent the changes over to the authors. After the fact, I felt like I went a bit overboard with the red markings, but everyone took it amazingly well. There were a few authors I worked with and met in the middle, but all in all, that was the editing process. It helped to have a system and to do it fast. I’m always about flow, so doing the edits all at once really helped the overall quality of the book.

What were some of the factors that led to your decision to create a Kickstarter fund for The Memory Eater anthology? What are the advantages of going this route?

One of the authors actually pointed me in the Kickstarter direction. He had been on several successful projects and really gave me all the information I needed to know about it.

I chose Kickstarter because of control. With the handful of publishers I was close to making a deal with (I actually had one contract in hand, ready to sign), I would have given up a lot of control, and the entire reason I started The Memory Eater was to output my vision of a quality book. At the end of the day, I simply couldn’t abandon that goal.

The main advantage of Kickstarter is those who will ultimately be purchasing the book are the judges. You cut out any middlemen guessing whether or not they can turn a profit on your blood, sweat and tears, and go directly to your audience. By going right for the audience, you don’t need to front the money needed for the project, because if it’s good enough, your audience will act as your middlemen.

What were some of the takeaways you’ve had from this process – from anthology idea to (nearly) finished product? And, are you going to do it again?

I will definitely do it again! I’m already thinking The Memory Eater 2. I also have a bunch of ideas floating around in this head of mine.

Even though this whole process has been more work than I ever imagined, I got to meet a ton of great people who share the same enthusiasm as I do. That alone is a success.

Takeaways… You truly get out what you put in. Anyone can self-publish a quality book—you just have to do your homework. Don’t settle. Realize that there are going to be times where you stop believing in yourself, but it will eventually pass, and you will come back stronger.

I’d like to thank you for having me by and asking me about my process. I’m really excited to share the finished book with everyone!

Thanks so much, Matthew!

To learn more about The Memory Eater anthology, please take a look at the blog or donate to preorder the anthology through the project’s Kickstarter page.

A story sampler, including excerpts from both Matthew's and my stories in the anthology, is also available here.

Also check out another interview with Matthew to learn more about him and his writing.

And fellow author DL Thurston has another great post about the anthology and the role Kickstarter plays in the new publishing landscape.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

My Story "Chicken Feet" Now Available

I'm pleased to announce that my story "Chicken Feet" is now available for your listening or reading pleasure through Wily Writers.

Wily Writers is a twice-monthly podcast series. Stories are speculative in nature, responding to monthly themes. I wrote "Chicken Feet" for their call for young adult post-apocalyptic tales back in October 2011. I actually wrote a story before this one, but realized I had a novel on my hands. I went back to the drawing board and wrote "Chicken Feet" and the other story has taken over is now my novel-length WIP.

Big thanks to Wily Writers editor Angel Leigh McCoy, guest editor Ripley Patton, and voice actor Leah Rivera for her audio performance of my story.

Wily Writers just started offering professional rates for stories in 2012. I've had a very positive experience working with them and would encourage you to take a look at the guidelines for their upcoming calls for the year.

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