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

By | February 20, 2012

[Editor’s note: This post originally went up around this time last year, but here it is again for anyone who’s relatively new to the Alpha blog. Enjoy!]

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.”

96 thoughts on “From the Archives: How to write a (good) application story in the next week

  1. Noella

    I’m glad this came back up… I’ve been stuck in writer’s block for weeks 🙁 And my school doesn’t know the meaning of “no homework.”

    But I’ll write that application if it’s the last thing I do! Luckily, this year is a leap year, so I get an extra day XD

  2. Jenna

    Yay! It’s nice to have this post front and center instead of hunting through the archives for it!

    @Noella I totally know how you feel. Once again it’s down to the wire with my application story! Good luck with your writer’s block!

  3. Meghan

    Here we go again…the ‘write a good story in a week’ game…

    I failed last time.

    But not again!
    >.<

  4. Noella

    @Jenna @_@ I haven’t checked the recent comments so I didn’t see this until today… Thankyouthankyou. I’ve finished writing mine, just polishing it up and formatting it for submission. I’m going to submit it tonight.

    @Meghan You got this girl

  5. Noella

    I submitted my application! haha I’m so happy XD and relieved. Except now i’ll be anxious until april

  6. Jenna

    I’m jealous 😉 I’m ALMOST THERE…but almost there isn’t quite something I can submit. Do you know if the notification deadline is the same as last year??

  7. Noella

    haha I submitted mine last night! What do you mean by the notification deadline? If you mean April 15th, I’m pretty sure it’s the same.

  8. Jenna

    PHEW! My story is finally submitted! YAY!
    @Noella congratulations 😀 and thanks. Now if only we had a time machine…

  9. Noella

    @Jenna yay! haha yeah, well just occupy yourself with other thoughts till then 🙂 What is your story about?

  10. Jenna

    Haha thanks 😀 That’s totally what I’m trying to do (Im on vacation) but it’s not working very well. How about you?
    My story is about the afterlife…kind of (its called The Seven Dimensions Of Death). My protagonist, Keely commits suicide and wakes up dead. It’s kind of hard to explain lol.
    How about your application?

  11. Jenna

    Haha thanks 😀 That’s totally what I’m trying to do (Im on vacation) but it’s not working very well. How about you?
    My story is about the afterlife…kind of (its called The Seven Dimensions Of Death). My protagonist, Keely commits suicide and wakes up dead. It’s kind of hard to explain lol.
    How about your application?

  12. Jenna

    Huh. Don’t know why that posted twice….

  13. Noella

    haha that’s cool 🙂 I have school XD for a long time… my spring break isn’t until the second week of april (I think).

    My story is about the human counterpart of the changeling (well, you know if faeries take a human child they switch a fey child, the changeling, for it). So my story is about the human in the faerie world, although it is a little bit different than the typical story… haha. It is kinda hard to explain…

  14. Noella

    Well, it’s been a few days since the deadline… Haha it was kinda amusing to see the huge notice on the homepage.

    So, any thoughts on the whole process? I wonder how many people applied this year…
    I’m just glad I managed to do it again this year, despite alot of stress 🙂 I’m really happy with the way mine turned out.

  15. Jenna

    Thx. That sucks about your spring break…I just had mine, but no more vacations till June 🙁
    Whoa sounds awesome! Did you base it off any fairy lore or totally create your own?
    Haha yup.
    Yeah I bet it was a ton…last year I was totally freaking out about EVERYTHING to do with Alpha, but this year I’m pretty zen (I’m also exhausted which helps). How about you?
    And how long did it take you to write your story?
    I was working on one, realized I hated it and wrote a whole new one in three days…have you ever done that?

  16. Noella

    Well, I kinda started out with some similarities to lore but I think it turned out completely different in certain ways… I was trying to make the faerie structure different from contempary Urban fantasy (like Tithe by Holly Black), so alot of things turned out different. The idea of a changeling is still there (although its purpose in the story is kinda turned on its head) and a general malovolence of the fey…

    haha I’m a little more relaxed this year, but I’m still kinda obsessing over it. Although, there were a lot more new blog posts and comments to look at, while this year not so much.

    To actually write my story… probably around four days, and then I spent another day proofreading before I sent it in. I had to do a major editing to the first scene of the story, but then I just wrote from there.

    I usually edit my ideas before I ever write it down (as a story). I went through a lot of ideas before settling down to write this one. It’s funny, because this one was actually the idea that I had many months ago but wasn’t sure what to do with. I had some other cool ideas, but they weren’t fully formed enough or too long.

  17. Jenna

    Well that’s awesome!

    I know! I check the site a lot, hoping for more posts. Oh well.

    Haha sounds similar to my own writing process…waaaay more organized though!

    Isn’t it funny how that happens with ideas? You come up with them, you think about them, maybe write a sentence or two…and end up letting them smoulder in a Word document for awhile.

    Then. That burst of inspirational something-or-other strikes…usually at a distinctly bad time…or is that just me? ;D

  18. Noella

    haha yeah… One time after my writing class I ended up writing a 11,000 word story in about 8 hours, and the didn’t really write anything for the next couple of weeks…
    I check the site for blog posts and comments, and they are both scarce 😛

    Where do you get your inspiration? Mine can come from anywhere; for example, I had a couple of ideas come from working on my biology homework (based on some of the cool stuff that I was learning. I also have stuff going on in my head all the time, so I have different scenes that I’ve created in there. It’s so frustrating when I have a really good scene but no story to put it with!

  19. Jenna

    Haha yep. Definitely sounds familiar.

    My inspiration. Hmmm. My ideas come from some strange places…I got the idea for my application story seemingly out of nowhere…I was staring off into space, eating breakfast and all of a sudden I had an idea that I absolutely HAD to write down.
    But I always have multiple projects going at once, so my ideas tend to morph into and seperate out of each other really frequently. There are bits and pieces of a lot of my other stories in this one.

    So do you create your characters first and do the worldbuilding second? For me it’s usually a hodge-podge of both. And do you ever find yourself using different versions of characters in different stories until they find their “home” story?

  20. Noella

    Yeah, that just happens sometimes… at times I’ll have no idea where a story is going, but then what happens next just comes to me.

    Sometimes its both. All of the brainstorming that I did for Alpha before I wrote my story was mostly worldbuilding stuff, although one had the character dependent on the world… In my head, there are scenes and characters roaming around and mixing together, so sometimes that happens. For me though, it’s not so much characters jumping from story to story as much as stories being created for the different characters, and then those stories leave and the character stays…

    For you, how do you balance writing with school, etc? I mostly spend my time doing school school, and then writing when I can. (We don’t really do creative writing in my classes; although I can write during study hall sometimes, and I’m in the poetry slam club and that’s what we do)

  21. Jenna

    Haha cool 🙂

    I’m homeschooled, so balancing writing time with other stuff is less of a challange. My parents understand how much I love/need to write and so a lot of my school stuff has a base in creative writing, i.e. lots of essays and reports.

    Although since I have two dogs who need buckets upon buckets of attention and I take dance classes/have rehearsals five days a week, it’s sometimes hard to find time to write when I’m not completely exhausted. Or in the throes of writer’s block *shudder* 😉

    Speaking of which, what do you do when you find yourself in that icky place?

  22. Noella

    haha, lucky! I’m in the IB program, so I work like a war horse… and I have other stuff that I do.

    Usually, if I have writer’s block, I go do other stuff and don’t write for a while. While I was brainstorming for Alpha, I searched the internet for SF/F writing prompts, or I went to: http://www.seventhsanctum.com/
    hoping to be inspired. It’s cool, and it did inspire me once, but usually it doesn’t compute. Usually when I go to my writing class I find a thought to write out.

    How did you find out about Alpha?

  23. Jenna

    Whoa! Lol I like that metaphor… 🙂

    Cool. I’ll check it out.

    I found out about Alpha through Tamora Pierce’s website…not terribly exciting I know.

    How about you?

  24. Noella

    Well, it’s sort of a strange story… so Noella liked to write SF/F, so she went to the bookstore and got a book about fantasy/sf writing by Orson Scott Card… and it mentioned Clarion, a big daddy writing workshop, so Noella went to that website, and in the links it had a link to Alpha 🙂

    So, it’s been about a week since the deadline. Any thoughts? (I’m not sure what to do now…)

  25. Jenna

    Cool 🙂 I love that you wrote that in third person…its hilarious.

    Do you think you’d ever want to attend Clarion?

    I know how you feel…umm not really. You applied last year, right? And how about you?

  26. Noella

    lol.
    Well, it sounds really cool, but I don’t know if I’d be able to do it due to time or money contraints. Also, it seems very stressfull… I’m sure it would help me become a better writer, but I also work well in a more open environment. I’m sure really sure how to explain this, but… I don’t want my writing to evolve in a certain way where it gets molded too much by the standards of the workshop? I don’t want to get controlled/overpowered by the criticism/structure of the workshop.
    Of course, I think that it would all be great, but I also want my writing to be *me, and not what others think that *me should be.
    That’s just one of my concerns of going to a workshop that long and intense.

  27. Jenna

    Well that’s totally reasonable. I think it’s cool that you know what you want your writing identity to be.

    When you mention a more open environment, does that include deadlines? For me it can be tricky, getting projects finished without them, but I stress like crazy when I actually have one. What are your thoughts?

  28. Noella

    The way I see it, deadlines are unavoidable, especially if you want to get into professional writing. They defintely cause stress, but to me they are just a vehicle to get things done. If you want to publish something, you have to turn it in by the right time x).

    Do you like writing short stories or longer pieces more?

  29. Jenna

    Well…I have a ton of novel and novella plotlines and mostly-finished first drafts but I’m far better about writing short stories and vignettes. I love writing both equally although short stories can be a bit more difficult.

    How about yourself?

  30. Noella

    haha well I prefer writing stories of larger scopes but I’ve never really written any… I’ve written more short stories and I think they have a certain mystery to them that I enjoy. The feeling about finishing a story isn’t half bad either.

    What do you get out of writing?

  31. Jenna

    Cool 🙂

    Hmm..what do I get out of writing?
    I’ve always been a daydreamer, with oodles of stories and make-believe people running amok inside my head (I was totally the kid who saw fairies in the stars, ghosts and once, convinced my sister there was a gigantic bear in the bushes of our very suburban neighborhood). For me, stories are as much a part of me as any vital organ or limb. If I didn’t write, I think my brain would explode and I would die.

    How about you? What do you get out of it?

  32. Noella

    I suppose I’m kind of like you. I think I discovered that I could create an entire world within my mind when I was very young; maybe second grade. Then I retreated into it. I’ve always had a story. My stuffed animals have a whole ongoing story to go with them.
    What I get out of writing is telling the story, and I like putting the words together. Sometimes I think I’ll make up words or maybe use a word differently that its intended while trying to communicate ideas that regular words aren’t sufficent to convey.

    haha, I’m trying to keep this conversation going…

    Why do you want to go to Alpha? 🙂

  33. Jenna

    Oh my goodness! My stuffed animals have a story too!!

    Hahahaha yeah I am too.

    So I want to go to Alpha because I’d love to learn more about my craft…and who wouldn’t want to go spend ten days with a whole bunch of SF/F/H afficionados?

    How about you?

    And how old were you when you actually *wrote* your first story?

  34. Noella

    haha 🙂

    I really want to have a chance to improve as a writer, and meet people who like writing as much as I do… and genre people.

    I’m not sure… I remember that we had to write a story in like, second grade, and I wrote this complicated thing… (well, it seemed complicated to me cause I divided it into parts and chapters, but each of those were like a page long at the most). I remember starting to write a story in 6th grade but not finishing it… The one I remember most clearly is in 8th grade, I think. I really started writing when I was in 9th grade; I wrote a little thing for a contest that got published and I wrote a lot of poetry. The first long thing that I wrote was in 10th grade.

    What about you?

  35. Meghan

    Hey guys! Hope you don’t mind me popping in, but I’d love to join in on the convo. I can’t take the lack of action going on (or, well, not going on) on this site lol.

    (awkwardly inserts self into conversation)

    I think I wrote my first short story in fourth grade…my teacher gave us a writing assignment that entailed cramming as many adjectives into four or five paragraphs as we could…I went nuts and wrote something about a girl walking in the woods at night and stuff…well, it was cool back then.
    My teacher read it and started joking about me being a famous author one day…the idea stuck, and here I am, trying to make it happen 🙂

    What’s your favorite POV to write in?

  36. Noella

    Speaking of 4th grade, I distinctly remember writing a story for the fall about squirrels… and then a few days (i don’t quite remember) my teacher started to the class about them… I think she thought they were bad or something, because she said that one was great because of the plot and characters.

    Needless to say, that story was mine. I remember more now, I wrote a couple of crazy stories in grade school. If I learned something new, I would try to include it into a story. I remember writing a story about Ragnorok after getting a children’s book about mythology… I think I confused my 5th grade teacher, lol. She asked me if by “Loki” I meant “Luke.” I said no.

    For me, I write more easily in 1st person because it just comes to me that way, but I write in third person a lot too because it’s easier to be mysterious and include the perspectives of multiple characters.

  37. Meghan

    I’ve always written in third person, and first is a challenge for me…I think I got too used to being distant and vague. That’s what I need to work on with my writing…it makes me angry lol

  38. Noella

    You gotta get into the characters’ brains! lol. Feel how they feel…

  39. Jenna

    Haha cool 🙂

    Congratulations for getting published!

    Hmm…the first story I ever actually wrote down was when I was seven or so. Then I started writing a ton of other things…mostly unfinished or poetry until I was probably ten and I wrote a page-long story about a girl audtioning for a ballet in Gotham City. After that I just kind of kept going and here I am today!

    Do you ever include poetry in your SF/F/H writing?

  40. Noella

    haha thanks! I actually had two other things published by that same contest, another little essay and then a poem.

    Well, I had an idea for writing a long poem as my alpha application, but I asked the staff if it would work and it go nixed. Alot of my poetry has SF/F/H elements in it, though.

    Have you ever tried writing those six word stories?

  41. Noella

    It’s exactly what it sounds like; a story that is only six words long. The original one is by Ernest Hemingway:

    For sale: Baby shoes, never used.

  42. Jenna

    Hahaha mini stories!
    I’ve written stuff kinda like that 🙂
    What’s the longest thing you both have ever written?

  43. Noella

    Meghan: short, but it implies so much…

    Jenna: uh, I think it’s 11,000 words for a single story…

  44. Meghan

    umm…the longest story I’ve ever written and finished (I use that word lightly) would be my application story this year, actually- 5,600 words.
    I’ve written longer things, but not finished, and I don’t think it would count as a ‘story’ exactly…

  45. Jenna

    haha cool.

    @Noella that’s a lot…!

    @Meghan awesome 🙂 what was your application about?

  46. Noella

    Yes, I suppose it is… So there is about one month until notifications….
    …………………………………….
    Uh, biting my fingernails here.

  47. Meghan

    It was about a young woman’s choice about becoming a healer…it involved a lot of inner conflict and such. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very happy with the way it turned out. But that’s what happens when you wait until the last minute, I guess lol. x/

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