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Online Exclusive: Q&A With Dan J. Fiore

Dan J. Fiore, the grand prize winner of WD’s 2013 Annual Competition, always felt unsure of his writing and his own skill. A natural born writer who decided the 8-to-5 office life wasn’t for him, Dan took a chance on becoming a freelancer, which he still does now. He also decided to enter our Annual Competition on a whim, previously never letting his writing see the light of day. We’re glad he did, and decided to dig a little deeper into the ins and outs of Dan’s writing life.

Describe your writing process for “Masks.”

Writing “Masks” was actually a lot different than any other story I’ve written before. I’m typically more of a “macro-first” writer. I get an idea for a story and think it over awhile, figuring out the general, broad-stroke details before sitting down and digging in. I like knowing, even vaguely, where I’m going. With “Masks,” it was different. Everything started with a single sentence. From there, I just went [one] word at a time, following the characters and figuring things out as I went. That first draft was a linear and much longer story. It took a lot of drafts of rewrites and moving things around to get everything, especially the structure, right.

Why do you write?

There are so many reasons. Mostly, it’s the only thing that’s ever made much sense to me. It’s my way of dealing with the baffling world around me. Writing lets me try and make some sense of what I see, hear and feel. I’m not a huge talker. I tend to sit back and observe, spending a lot of time in my head trying to understand the people around me and how they act—why they do what they do. By writing, I’m able to take all these thoughts and feelings and put some order to them on the page. And hopefully the mess that I make in the process somehow connects with someone else out there when they read it.

Plus, it’s the only thing I’ve ever consistently wanted to do. I guess that’s a fairly standard and cliché answer, but it’s true. I’ve never stopped being completely and utterly amazed and excited by good stories. I’ve never stopped feeling that need to tell good stories of my own. Someday, when they inevitably need to open me up to unclog some bacon-stuffed valve in my chest, I’m pretty sure they’ll find written on my heart, in big black letters, the word writer.

Who and what has inspired you as a writer?

I could probably rattle off a pretty long list of authors, screenwriters and songwriters that have inspired me over the years, but a) it would be entirely too long and b) I’d still manage to forget most of the really important names.

A more accurate answer would be the people around me. I’ve been ridiculously blessed with a very supportive family and circle of friends both of which are also packed with some very talented and creative people who never cease to inspire and encourage me.

What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?

One thing? That’s tough. I probably use index cards more than any other “writing tool.” That’s how I do all my outlining. My office is packed with piles of index cards. I don’t know how I’d stay at all organized without them.

Also, coffee. My God, I can’t imagine writing without caffeine. I can’t imagine doing most things, besides sleeping, without caffeine.

But really, the most important “one thing” is every single person around me. Despite what people seem to think, this writing thing is most certainly not a solo mission. I don’t know what I’d be doing with my life if it weren’t for: my family, whose unquestioning support for me over the years has been, at times, almost absurd; my friends, who are the funniest, most interesting, honest, loyal and ball-busting individuals someone could have the good fortune to be surrounded by; my girlfriend, who never gets too upset when I tell her I can’t do something or go somewhere because I have a word quota to meet; and my dog, who knows that, every once in a while, I just need to take a break to go in the backyard and play. Yes, I guess this technically means I think of my dog as a person.

Where do you get ideas for your writing?

There never seems to be just one place. If there’s a shop on some corner somewhere I’m missing out on, please let me know. The truth is, [my ideas] come from all over the place. Sometimes it’s a conversation I overhear. Sometimes it’s a story I read in the paper. Sometimes it’s a sentence that pops in my head and just won’t go away until I type it out and see where it leads. These ideas certainly never come at the most convenient times either. Just about every important story idea I’ve ever come up with had to be emailed to myself or quickly plugged into the notes app on my phone before I lose it to my abysmal short-term memory. I generally do the most brainstorming when I’m not paying attention to something I should be—meetings, parties, cutting the grass, running, driving, etc.

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?

I don’t know. And, honestly, I hope I never really find out. ... I only want to know what needs work. Maybe I’m afraid that if I knew what my strength was, I’d lean on that too much. It’d be too much of a distraction, too, I think. If I do something well at this point, chances are I do it well as an automatic instinct more than any conscious effort. I just want that strength, whatever it is, to keep going strong while I improve everything else around it.

What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?

I need to let the characters have control of the story. I sometimes get too focused on the story’s shape or structure, locking into a certain plot point I have planned down the road, that I ignore where the characters want to go. I need to work on letting them drive the story. I think I did that in “Masks” pretty well and need to keep improving on that.

What’s your proudest moment as a writer?

Unquestionably, when I found out I won this competition. Those first few days after the call were spent under a pretty heavy pile of emotions, but buried in there somewhere was definitely a great big ball of pride.

What are your goals as a writer?

I still have so incredibly much to learn, it seems ridiculous to think of long-term goals at this point. I’m only 28 years old and, hopefully, I’ll be doing this for the rest of my life. For now, I just really want to keep improving. I want to get more stories out there and keep getting better with each one, learning as much as I possibly can along the way. I also have a couple drafts of a novel that I need to really dig into and work on. Hopefully, someday, that’ll see the light of day or at least get my writing to a point where I’m ready to write a publishable novel.

To see the full story on Dan, be sure to check out the November/December 2013 Issue of Writer's Digest, and read his grand prize winning manuscript, "Masks." And congratulations to our 101 winners!

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