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Today’s guest is speculative fiction writer Marina J. Lostetter! She’s the author of several short stories, including those in the Lifeboat collection, “A Debt Repaid,” and “Discard the Sun, for It Has Failed Us.” Noumenon, which was selected as one of the Best Books of 2017 by Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, was her first novel. In late 2018, it was followed by another science fiction adventure, Noumenon Infinity.

Noumenon Infinity by Marina J Lostetter Cover Noumenon by Marina J Lostetter Cover

Learning to Feel the Shape of Stories
By Marina J. Lostetter

When I first attempted to write fiction professionally, I was desperate for any and all information I could find on how to write effectively. I enjoyed telling stories and people had told me I was a good writer—but love of a thing doesn’t automatically mean you’re good at a thing.

I had so many questions that I was sure had concrete answers. How do you create strong characters? How do you convey a theme? What’s the quantifiable difference between a boring story and an immersive story? What are people actually looking for when they read? When do you know a story has ended? How do you know where to begin?

When I started to break a story down into all of its components, I realized a lot goes into them. I could identify the parts, but I didn’t know how to piece them all together. I mean, I could try. I knew stories had beginnings, middles, and ends. I’d been consuming stories all my life. I knew what a story was (or, I thought I did), and I was fairly sure I could write something that resembled a professionally-told tale, but I knew I needed advice on how to actually get all of those story parts to work together in a way other people could connect with.

How do you actually write a story? What’s the secret?

On my epic quest to discover “the way,” I found all sorts of books on publishing, joined forums, and tracked well-known authors on social media, looking for little straws of knowledge that I could pick up and spin into story gold.

I glommed on to the “rules of writing.” Things like: Don’t use too many adverbs. Don’t use flowery language. You must include three try-fail cycles. You must put the speculative element in the first two paragraphs. You must write every day.

Solid pointers.

One day I stumbled across a piece of advice that I thought was the most flippant and useless thing a professional could tell an aspirant (and I’m paraphrasing): “It doesn’t matter how you do it. Do whatever works for you.”

Well that’s just ridiculous, I thought. At that point I’d met plenty of other writers trying to break into the industry, some of who’d been going at it for ten years. I knew it did matter how you did it. There was a difference between the way I told a story and the way my favorite authors told stories. How did I know? Because they were published and I was not.

Spoiler alert: I was right. And I was wrong.

At that point I began looking to my cohort for advice—those writing short stories (one of those straws-o-knowledge I found said if you want to be a novelist you have to write short stories first) and trying to break in alongside me. Once in a while, someone would do it. They’d sell a short story to a professional paying market. They were in! So, how’d they do it?

Inevitably, this person would start to hand out all kinds of advice. They’d give a six-point breakdown of the main components in their story. They’d explain why the main character they’d created was so relatable. They’d talk about the uniqueness of their idea and the straightforwardness of their writing style, or the flowy-ness of their words, or lyrical-ity of their voice or some such.

Basically, they’d bullshit about it until the cows came home. Cuz here’s the truth—when you sell your first short story (and no, you don’t have to write short stories first if you want to be a novelist), you don’t know why that one worked and the one you submitted before that didn’t. But you think you do. You think you’ve cracked the code. You think you’ve found the magic bullet, the mystical formula, the thing that worked.

And you want everyone to know how you did it.

I myself fell into the trap of spewing advice on my process not long after my first couple of sales (no, you don’t have to write shorts first if you want to be a novelist, but here’s the catch: it did work for me). I gave advice as a novice partially because I was proud of what I’d done, and partially because I knew how desperately I’d looked for those straws of knowledge myself. Maybe I could provide a little bit of insight to someone just like me, I thought, and it would spark something that would help their storytelling improve.

At this point, I was still gobbling up whatever pointers I could get. But I also started noticing a trend. Generally speaking, the more someone had published and the longer they’d been in the industry, the more vague their advice became. There were fewer “Three Steps to Guarantee Relatable Characters” articles, and more “This is Kind of What I Noticed About the Types of Characters I Write” articles.

And the longer I stayed in the industry, the more stories I had published, the less sure I became that I’d cracked any kind of code. I was becoming better and better at breaking down any story I consumed into its basic parts and analyzing what worked and what didn’t. The more contradictory advice I integrated into my overall arsenal of understanding, the better I became at sensing the flow of stories, of feeling when all the parts were working in tandem. And eventually that carried over from my analysis of other’s work to my own. I became better at noticing when my stories were broken—when they didn’t feel right.

I started to think of stories as shapes. Kind of like your classic story-arc depiction, with a timeline showing where the climax is and the act-two low point and the denouement, etc. But the shapes in my mind’s eye are more specific, and don’t have any labels. I can feel what unique shape each story is supposed to take, and can feel when they’re bulging or sagging in the wrong place. Sometimes I can fix the shape, sometimes I can’t.

But one thing is for certain: there is no piece of advice I could have ever stumbled upon that would have effectively conveyed to me that the way to write professionally is by feeling a story’s shape. Because this is just what works for me.

But, ironically, I don’t think I ever would have come full circle, to realizing that the advice I thought was so flippant was actually the truest truth, if I hadn’t first climbed the mountain of conflicting Don’ts and You Musts, and if I hadn’t given advice myself while digging for the secret to my own success. I needed that direction as a new writer, and that space to analyze my own work. I never would have gotten to a point where I could feel my stories if I hadn’t tried to build them a hundred different ways. If I hadn’t tried to fit in the misshapen brick of advice labeled “eliminate all passive voice,” then I never would have honed in on when passive voice is most effective and when it’s fighting with the reader’s ability to be in the moment.

I couldn’t simply begin at the end: “Do whatever works for you.” No matter how good that advice is, no matter how important it is that a writer not get too caught up in what someone else thinks they have to do to write professionally, it is not a starting point.

So, my advice to the new writers out there is this: There is no one way. Do what works for you. And the only way you’re going to figure out what works for you is to try a hundred different ways, or a thousand different ways, or maybe just one or two ways. But what’s important is your willingness to learn, to take in all advice, good and bad, and apply it and discard it in turn until something clicks. Until you feel the story’s shape—or whatever it ends up being for you.


Marina J Lostetter Photo Marina J. Lostetter’s short fiction has appeared in venues such as Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Uncanny Magazine. Originally from Oregon, she now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex. Her most recent novel, Noumenon Infinity, is an epic space adventure starring an empathetic AI, alien mega structures, and generations upon generations of clones. Marina tweets as @MarinaLostetter and her website can be found at www.lostetter.net.