How to write a (good) application story in the next week

Some of you, no doubt, are very diligent human beings who don’t know the meaning of the word “procrastinate.” You plan your weekend activities by Monday night, you eat your dinner for breakfast, and you finished your Alpha application story six weeks ago.

If that’s you, then this blog post may hold little value for you. But let’s say that you’re like, well, me. You’re a procrastinator. Perhaps you have written only a few paragraphs of your application story. Perhaps you haven’t started writing at all.

If so, then let’s face it: you’re behind the curve. But all is not lost! You still have a week until the application deadline (March 1), and many great stories — heck, even some pretty decent novels — have been written in less time than that. Still, you’ll need to pay close attention to the clock. Now is not the moment to attempt a wildly experimental rhyming epic written entirely in ancient Greek. Now is the time to play to your strengths: to write the story you know how to write, and to write it well.

Some advice from a serial procrastinator:

Aim short, but not too short. Alpha application stories can be anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000 words long — a very wide range. The short end of that spectrum is just barely longer than a short-short; the long end is just barely shorter than a novelette. Clearly, it would be far easier to write 2,000 words than 6,000 words over the next week.

That said, please don’t cheat yourself by writing so few words that you fail to tell a story at all. Having read Alpha applications for the last 10 years, I can tell you that, very often, 2,000-word application stories aren’t really stories. They’re vignettes, or they’re fragments, or they’re jokes. If you can tell a complete story in 2,000 words, then by all means, do it, but I’d rather see a 3,000 word story than a 2,000 word build-up to a bad punchline.

Lean on plot skeletons. “Plot skeletons” are very, very general outlines that are shared by literally thousands of stories. If you have a great idea but don’t yet know how to turn it into a full-fledged story, a plot skeleton can provide a useful starting point.

The most famous plot skeleton is probably the seven-point plot. This version is attributed to Algis Budrys:

(1) A character…
(2) in a context…
(3) has a problem.
(4) The character tries to solve the problem…
(5) but experiences an unexpected failure.
(6) The character tries again to solve the problem, using new knowledge or tools, and either fails or succeeds.
(7) Denouement — that is, a resolution or validation of the character’s actions.

Using the seven-point plot does not guarantee that your story will be brilliant or even readable, but it at least guarantees that you’ll tell a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Here’s another of my favorite plot skeletons: the three-scene story. In the first scene, establish your character’s life. In the second scene, show an incident that totally rocks your character’s world. In the third scene, show your character’s new equilibrium.

Outline. Yes, seriously! You might feel that, with only a week until the application deadline, you don’t have time to outline. But if you just start scribbling with no sense of your destination, you’re at risk of discovering, a day before your application is due, that your story just won’t work — that you’ve overlooked a plot hole or don’t know how to resolve a climactic fight.

So I’d urge you to outline your story before you begin writing. An outline doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t have to be formal. It doesn’t even have to be written down. Just make sure that you know, in your bones, how your story will unspool.

My favorite outlining method: use one index card for each scene in your story. Write three bullet points on each card, describing where the scene begins, what happens, and where the scene ends. I generally assume that my average scene will contain about a thousand words, so for an Alpha application piece, you’ll want to fill up between two and six cards. (I often outline a story half a dozen times or more, essentially “rewriting” the story again and again — and hopefully improving it each time — before I ever write a first draft.)

The perfect is the enemy of the good. It simply is not possible to write a perfect story in a week. It is very possible, however, to write a good story.

So don’t try to be perfect. Sure, hold yourself to high standards. If you write a scene and it’s flat-out bad, discard it. But if you write a perfectly serviceable scene that isn’t quite as good as you’d like, just keep going. Write another scene. Then another. When you’re done, use whatever time you have left to polish. You’ll do far better to submit a finished story, even if it’s only pretty good, than to submit a half-finished “masterpiece.”

Do what works for you. If one of the “rules” above struck you as misguided, foolish, or just not in keeping with your personal style, ignore it. If plot skeletons feel to you like plot straightjackets, don’t use them. If you simply can’t outline your story, don’t. Please consider this post, like every other bit of writing advice you’ll ever receive, to be a helpful hint, not a strict commandment. Just do what works for you, and keep doing it until you reach “the end.”

16 Comments

  1. Posted February 21, 2011 at 02:17 | Permalink

    I love the fact that this post exists. This would totally have been me if my application stories hadn’t both been drawn from class assignments.

  2. Catherine Krahe

    Posted February 21, 2011 at 11:56 | Permalink

    And, if you can write a good application story in a week, you are in better shape for Alpha itself. What we’ll need in July is a “How to Write a (good) Alpha Story in the Next Two Hours” post.

  3. Posted February 21, 2011 at 13:11 | Permalink

    This is exactly what I came to the site looking for today.

  4. Yumi

    Posted February 21, 2011 at 18:00 | Permalink

    I saw this post while I was online putting off finishing my application story. But I’m predicting that despite my best efforts, it’s going to end up around the 5,999-word range.

  5. Posted February 22, 2011 at 21:12 | Permalink

    I’m so glad this post is here! I’m still trying to finish my app story…and this makes it soo much easier. I’m determind to get to Alpha this year!

  6. Posted February 24, 2011 at 16:34 | Permalink

    Thanks for this post! I still need to finish my application story. Thankfully it was already partially written some time ago; I’m just attempting to finish it and revise it to a reasonable extent by the deadline. I might not get it in on time because I’m sick and busy with school, but I’m still going to try to get my application in by March 1.

  7. Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2011 at 03:02 | Permalink

    I’m a young writer considering applying to the alpha program, and I was wondering how competitive the application process is. About how many people usually apply for the 20 spots?

  8. Posted February 25, 2011 at 13:30 | Permalink

    Anonymous: I’m not involved in the judging process, so I’m not sure exactly how many applications there are from year to year. That being said… write the best story you can. No matter how many others apply, that’s really all you can do.

    If you’re at all interested in Alpha, you should definitely apply. For me, it was a great experience, and completely worth the time and effort it took to send in my application. :)

  9. Tina

    Posted February 26, 2011 at 17:36 | Permalink

    This would have be ridiculously useful when I was applying to Alpha. As it is, perhaps I ought to contribute to a ‘How to write your (dubiously good) Alpha Story in the next two hours’ post, since that seems to be what I do every year…

    @Anonymous: I’ll second Sarah and say that Alpha was a fantastic experience for me and you should really apply. Don’t worry about getting in, or think of it as a competition, just focus on doing what you can with your story and making it magnificent.

  10. Jenna

    Posted February 26, 2011 at 20:25 | Permalink

    I’m so happy this post is here! I’ve been referencing to it all week, and it has been invaluable, along with the rest of the blog. Just thought you all should know.
    Thanks everybody!
    Now I have to stop procrastinating and finish my application. Sigh.

  11. Noella

    Posted February 27, 2011 at 19:37 | Permalink

    This post motivated me to actually work on my application and to not just look at my pitiful notes and give up. Good to know that I am not the only one procrastinating. If I can just make it through this, everything will get better. Hopefully.

  12. Jenna

    Posted February 28, 2011 at 02:07 | Permalink

    Good Luck, Noella! I hope things work out for you!

  13. Noella

    Posted March 2, 2011 at 21:50 | Permalink

    Thanks, Jenna =) The application was submitted! With less than 24 hours to spare, and a resubmission because the page numbers mysteriously fell off the document the first time I submitted it.

  14. Jenna

    Posted March 2, 2011 at 21:58 | Permalink

    Cyber high five, Noella! Now we can just breathe a little, huh? Wish I had a time machine to make the 15th hurry up and get here!

  15. Noella

    Posted March 2, 2011 at 22:03 | Permalink

    I know right! I’m so excited! Not only would I find out faster, I would skip all that schoolwork I have to do between now and then… So much for writing more stories.
    But who cares about that! We have experiences the joys of creating works of art! =)

  16. Jenna

    Posted March 2, 2011 at 22:58 | Permalink

    Haha I agree with everything you just said! But I really doubt I’m gonna go more than two days without writing something! Already microsoft word is calling…

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