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Smooth Sailing – Round 1 – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Let me start off by apologizing to my regular blog followers. I have been completely negligent of my blog the past few months due to some personal matters. But, my life is gradually returning to a new, steady rhythm and I hope to begin blogging again soon. Thanks for your patience!

For today, I’d like to share my most recent experience from the first round of this year’s NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC). As a quick reminder, the NYCM FFC is a writing contest where writers are given three prompts (genre, location, and object), and then 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story. It’s always crazy! But fun.

Round one kicked off last Friday night at 10 p.m. (MST) when I received my assignment:

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 10.34.05 PM

First impressions: 

Drama

A corporate conference room

A baby rattle

…Yeah.

No joke, I wanted to go to bed right then and there. Talk about BORING! I’m used to off the wall prompts (like an action adventure that has to take place in an underwater cave and incorporate a dumbbell). I was also a touch nervous because drama tends to mean literary, and I’m much more of a commercial writer. Ugh.

I allowed myself about 15 minutes to absorb the prompts and get over my “I don’t wanna” attitude. Then I hunkered down with my favorite brainstorm buddy and personal Simon Cowell (my mom) and contemplated what to write about.

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I instantly assumed many of my competitors would take the corporate conference room and baby rattle prompts and write a story about a custody battle. So, I wanted to stay as far away as possible from that sort of plot line. For a few minutes, I considered writing about a plane crash involving a woman who smuggled diamonds via baby rattles. But, even that wasn’t thrilling me.

Without knowing it, my eyes drifted to my nephew’s water bottle sitting next to my elbow. While gazing at its green space shuttles and yellow stars, a new idea struck me.

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Space! Astronauts! Exploration! I pitched the idea to my mom, and she instantly said, “Yes! I love it.” Suddenly, my prompts were no longer boring.

After another hour of contemplating and brainstorming (about characters, conflict, plot, etc.), I packed up my computer and went home to get some much needed sleep.

On Saturday, I spent most of the morning watching documentaries about outer space, debating various routes to take with my characters, and helping fellow competitors (and friends) brainstorm ideas for their own prompts/stories. Around noon, I realized I better start actually writing. The clock was ticking!

I whipped out an ugly first draft in about an hour. After a quick break, I whipped out a second draft. Then a third. By 6 p.m., I was ready to share it with my first and most critical reader: my mom. I went over to her house and let her read it.

Her response? “It’s so good!”

I was stunned! It’s pretty rare for my mom to like my first attempt during these challenges (i.e. during last year’s first round of FFC, she basically told me to trash my entire concept and start over).

Filled with giddy relief, I proceeded to revise and edit my story until I had a beta worthy draft. Before bed, I sent it out with the hope I’d have more critical feedback by the time I woke up on Sunday.

To my delight and utter disbelief, I awoke to more positive reviews. Everyone really liked my story. Like, really liked it. I was shocked. In 15 rounds of NYCM, I’ve never had a story receive such a positive reception during its infancy.

Feeling calmer than I’ve ever felt during FFC, I decided to set aside my story and focus on helping other writers for a few hours. I beta read, assisted those still struggling to find their groove, and offered general support.

Around 11 a.m., I shifted my focus back to my story. Although my betas liked it, it still had quite a few problems. So, I called my mom and asked her to come over to help me polish things up.

By 3 p.m., I had a final draft and was ready to submit. Yay! I triple checked my story for errors, loopholes, and weak spots, and then sent it off to NYCM.

All in all, it was an exhausting, yet smooth weekend. By far the smoothest I’ve ever experienced during any NYCM competition…Hmm, I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad sign. But, whatever. I’m going to go ahead and celebrate the fact I survived and came out with a story I’m proud of!

In the past, I shared my story publicly. However, I’ve begun sending my work to publishers, so I’m no longer posting them here for any and all to read. Sorry! If you are interested in reading it, please send me a message and I’ll provide you with the password. For now, here’s my title and synopsis:

“The Blue Divide”

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The countdown for Lorna to decide between her family and her dreams of deep space exploration has begun. Ten, nine, eight, seven…

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge 2016!

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And…Action! – 1st Round – NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge

So, as some of you might’ve already noticed from my post earlier this week, I participated in the first round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2015. I considered not writing about my experience since I already shared my story with you, but what the heck. I’ll go ahead and tell you all about it.

First, as a quick reminder, the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge is a writing contest where writers are given three prompts (genre, location, and object), and then 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story–AHH!

The whirlwind weekend kicked off last Friday night. At 10 p.m. (MST), I opened my email and looked at my assignment:

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 10.13.33 AMMy first thoughts when I saw these prompts?

Action Adventure:

An underwater cave:

A dumbbell:

Yeah, I literally laughed out loud when I saw “dumbbell” as the object I had to use in my story. I mean…really? Seriously? Ugh.

I decided to ignore that lovely problem for the time being, and started the challenge off like I always do: a brainstorm session with my mom (my go-to supporter/editor/counselor during these contests). For about an hour, we bounced ideas off of each other. All I could think about was sunken pirate ships and buried treasures…which had to mean my competitors were thinking about them too. So, I dug deeper and forced myself to think outside the box.

Finally, I came up with a concept I loved.

Once I began writing on Saturday morning, the words tumbled out of me with little effort. I wrote and wrote and wrote, eager to get a first draft done so I could share it with my mom and start to refine it.

Unfortunately, after about eight hours of work, I realized there was a big problem with my action-adventure: There was no action.

I decided to finish the first draft anyway and go over to my mom’s house so she could read it and give me feedback. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought? Maybe I just needed to make some slight adjustments to salvage it? Maybe there was still hope?

My mom finished reading and sat back in her chair. “Well, it’s fine. It’s…fine.”

I almost screamed. It wasn’t fine. It was an absolute disaster!

I forced myself to take a deep breath and troubleshoot the story’s main problem. “I know there isn’t enough action in it, but I don’t know how to add more while maintaining the characters and plot. I can’t just leap into things without explaining…” I trailed off as a horrible realization struck me:

This story wasn’t going to work.

I had to find a new idea.

I had to start over.

After I breathed through a bout of panic, I told my mom, “I think I need to scrap this and come up with something else.”

She agreed a little too enthusiastically. “Oh?” She shoved aside her laptop with my old story on it. “What are you thinking?”

“I don’t know.” I buried my face in my hands and closed my eyes. I felt so lost and frustrated. I had known action-adventure would be tough, but not this tough.

Suddenly, a train flashed through my mind.

I looked at my mom. “I think I want to write about a train crash.” 

“Er…”

“Inside an underwater cave.”

“Uh…Oookay.

Despite my mom’s uncertainty, I felt confident. The concept was so absurd, I knew it could work. I mean, most action films are absurd, right? So crashing a train in an underwater cave seemed totally feasible. Actually, it seemed awesome.

I went home, rolled up my sleeves, and got back to work.

By noon on Sunday, I had a decent first draft. I called my mom and she came over to help me edit it. As she read through the story for the first time, I felt sick to my stomach. If she didn’t like my train wreck concept, then the entire weekend would be, well, a train wreck.

Thankfully, she loved it.

Hallelujah!

I spent the rest of the day fine-tuning my plot and characters, chopping my word count down from 1,500 to 1,000, and figuring out how to use that ridiculous dumbbell prompt (if you want to know how I decided to use the dumbbell, you’ll have to read the story 😉 ). I also spent a good amount of time acting out the train crash to ensure I got the physics right…Yeah, I’m sure my mom wished she’d a camera to record that epic performance.

By late afternoon, I had a decent enough draft to send to my beta readers. Once I fixed the problems they pointed out, chopped out a few more words, and gave the story a title (“La JollaI submitted it.

Then I promptly collapsed from exhaustion.

It was, as always, a crazy 48-hours, but I ended up with a story I’m proud of. Yes, it’s ridiculous. Yes, there are some logical flaws in the plot. And, yes, the dumbbell is a bit, well, dumb. But whatever. I had fun writing it, and I hope people have fun reading it.

If you’d like to check out “La Jolla,” go ahead and click here!

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge 2015! It’s not an easy challenge, so everyone deserves a giant pat on the back.

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Protected: La Jolla – 1st Round – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

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Jen’s Top 5 Short Story Tips

Up until the fall of 2013, I’d only ever worked on novel length projects. Then I decided to sign up for an NYC Midnight challenge and attempt to write something shorter. Much shorter. About ninety-nine thousand words shorter!

I went into the competition feeling confident. I mean, how hard could writing a 1,000-word short story be compared to writing a novel?

Well, it turns out hard. Really hard. Who knew cramming and jamming all the vital elements of a story into such a small space would be such a tough job?

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the art of writing short stories. And with the rapid approach of the next NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you. Hopefully they’ll help you avoid making the same mistakes I made.

Jen’s Top Five Tips For Writing Short Stories

1: Choose One Main Event

Don’t muddle your plot or confuse your readers. Keep things simple and choose one main event to base your story on. Maybe it’s a killer virus, or a confrontation between two friends, or even a blind date gone wrong. Whatever it is, choose something specific and focus your entire story on it. If you do that, you’ll have an easier time identifying your story’s motives, characters, and ultimate goal (aka, “the big why”).

Plus, by narrowing your focus, your readers will have an easier time following your plot line. They won’t get confused, scattered, or detached as you jump from a grisly murder in an alleyway, to a deadly car chase, to an arrest at a gas station, to an epic prison break, to a fugitive on the run, to a hostage crisis at a bank, to a bomb explosion that kills everyone…See? It’s too much for 2,500 words (or less).

So, focus on one main event and you’ll stand a better chance of writing a clearer, sharper story that ensnares readers from start to finish.

2) The Fewer The Characters, The Better The Story

“I don’t know. What do you think, Maddie?” Sam asked.

Maddie shrugged. “No idea. Pete?”

“Why are you asking him?” yelled Sandra. “He doesn’t know anything!”

“Yes, he does.” Rachel rested her hand on Pete’s shoulder and shot Sue an uneasy glance.

Sue nodded. “We should listen to him. Or Alice. She’s done this before.”

“No way.” Timothy shook his head. “Pete and Alice are crazy. You’re all crazy! Right, Quinn?”

Quinn snorted. “I’m not doing anything those two nut jobs say–” 

“Quiet! I can’t think straight with all this ruckus.” Charles glared at the group. Nobody dared to challenge him. Nobody except his wife, Betty. 

She picked up her knife. “I say we kill half the group so the rest of us don’t starve.”

Did you keep up? No? Well, trust me, if you do this in a short story, your readers probably won’t either. There just aren’t enough words to gradually introduce a dozen characters and ensure the audience understands who they are, what their role is, and why they’re important to the plot.

That’s why I suggest you limit yourself to four named characters. Four. Beyond that, readers lose track of who’s who (“Hold up, I thought Pete was the leader of the group, not Charles? And wasn’t Sue his wife, not Betty?“). Plus, the more characters you use, the less impact your lead(s) have. They end up becoming just another face in the crowd.

So, do as Betty (the wife) suggested and kill off half the group. Don’t starve your main characters by wasting precious words on unnecessary ones.

3) Avoid Time/Scene Hopping

Let me start by saying this is a hot debate amongst many writers. Some believe time/scene hopping works in a short story, while others (like me) believe it should be avoided. Why? Because, in my opinion, the more you move a short story around (especially through time), the more you dilute it. Characters lose depth, motives get fuzzy, and conflicts lose their edge.

Let’s run through a quick example. I’ll use the plot from my flash fiction horror, “Why?”

Without time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her.

With this version, I’m able to dig in and write a detailed story about a little girl experiencing a terrible tragedy. Sights, smells, sounds, emotions, conversations–from start to finish, I’m able to convey this horrific event to the reader. Nothing has to be skimmed over or left out.

With time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her. Ten years later, she drops out of high school and runs away from her foster parents. Along the way, she meets a young man who convinces her to let go of her tragic past. Five years later, she marries him and they have a little girl. Ten years later, she agrees to visit a beach for the first time since she lost her family. Twenty years later, she smiles at her husband, children, and grandchildren, thankful she was able to rebuild the family she lost so long ago.

Rather than diving into the little girl’s head and experiencing the tragedy through her eyes, we skim over it and jump to the next phase in her life. And then we skim over that phase and jump to the next. And then the next, and then the next. Although it can work, most of the time this skim-jump rhythm isn’t satisfying to readers. They don’t want to be a spectator in a story. They want to be a participant in it. Whether it’s tragedy, comedy, or romance, they want to live in that fictional world, not see it from a bird’s eye view.

So, I say time hop if you must, but only do it once or twice. After that, your story starts to sound more like a summary of a much bigger project.

4) Single POVWhen you write a story under 2,500 words, one of the best ways to cut down on confusion (“Wait, who’s telling the story?”), and to strengthen your plot is to use a single POV. It doesn’t matter if you’re using first or third person; just decide who your protagonist is and then tell the story from their perspective. If they can’t see, feel, hear, or think it, then it doesn’t exist. Period.

If you take this approach, then I can guarantee you’ll have a sharper, clearer, and deeper story. Why? Because not only will you be able to explore your protagonist and their world more thoroughly, but your audience will be able to transport themselves into it easier (which means they’ll be able to relate more, feel more, and believe more.)

Personally, I like to think of POV like a camera. I set it up in my protagonist’s head and then push record. That way while I’m writing, I can continually ask myself, “Is this getting recorded?” If not, then I have to either chop it out or find a way to convey it from my protagonist’s viewpoint.

5) Think Outside the Box

Yes, I know. Duh! But you’d be surprised by how many stories I’ve read that have used obvious premises. For example, during the NYCM Short Story Challenge 2014, my group was assigned these prompts: Suspense, Chef, Wedding. What’s the first idea that comes to mind?

Are you thinking?

Got it?

Okay, was it a chef poisoning food at a wedding? Maybe a groom trying to off his bride? Or a bride being targeted by her jealous sister? Well, guess what? Over half the people in my group wrote stories like that (and I almost did before deciding to take things in a different direction).

So, before you start writing (especially if you’re in a competition like NYCM), ask yourself, “Will others think of this idea?” If so, you might want to discard it and keep brainstorming. My personal policy? Throw out the first idea. If I thought of it, then surely someone else did.

Annnnnnd

There you go! Those are my top five tips for writing short stories under 2,500 words. Of course, not everyone will agree with them, and I know many writers who’ve taken opposite approaches and succeeded. But, for me, these tips work, and I hope they work for you too!

So, how about you? What are some of your big tips for writing stories under 2,500 words? We all have our own methods of madness, so share, share, share!

Don’t forget, the early entry deadline for the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge 2015 is today (June 18th), and the final deadline is July 30th. I strongly encourage you to sign up! Even if you’re a novelist like me, short stories make for great practice. So, give it a try.

Related Articles

Why You Should Enter the Flash Fiction Challenge 2015

The Differences Between The NYC Midnight FFC and SSC

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Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2015

I know many people don’t want to take the time or spend the money on entering writing contests. I was in the same boat up until I entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2013. Then, whoa! My entire attitude changed.

Before I began entering the NYC Midnight (NYCM) writing challenges, I assumed my writing skills were at their best…Wrong! In just a handful of Flash Fiction and Short Story Challenges (FFC 2013, SSC 2014, FFC 2014, SSC 2015), my abilities have grown exponentially. I’m actually embarrassed by what I considered to be my “best”. I won’t even let people look at my old work.

So, what has writing flash fiction and short stories taught me? Well, I’ll tell you:

  • Write a complete story. To make a story truly shine, all facets of it must be fully developed and balanced equally. Plot, characters, scenery, etc. If you miss or skimp on one, it stands out to readers.
  • Characters count. Characters carry a large portion of a story’s weight. Developing them so they’re as 3D and likable as possible is a must. Also, too many of them tend to be confusing/burdensome for a reader. So, make sure each one counts.
  • Keep it simple! Chop, chop, chop. Do you really need that character? Do you really need to talk about that meaningless detail? With their limited word count, short stories force you to take a step back and consider what’s vital to a plot. If it’s not pushing it forward or making it deeper, chop it out.
  • Take the road less traveled. Go outside the box. Be creative! Ask yourself, “Is this different? Will it make me stand out?” Example: In round one of the Short Story Challenge 2014, I received these prompts: Suspense, wedding, chef. My first impulse? Write a story about a bride and groom who are trying to off each other, and in the end the bride poisons the groom with the help of the chef. I immediately tossed it out and forced myself to dig deeper and think beyond the obvious. And I’m glad I did. Most of my competitors wrote stories about poisoned food and vindictive brides and grooms. Mine, “Chasing Monsters,” was nothing of the sort. And because of that, I landed myself a 2nd place finish.

Those are just a few things I’ve learned while participating in these challenges. To list all of them would take a decade.

I will, however, point out some specific benefits of participating in an NYCM Challenge. The main one is their private forum. NYCM offers competitors a location to interact and share stories with each other. And I love it! The forum helps you:

  • Overcome the fear of sharing your work. I’ve been sharing my stories for years and I still get butterflies whenever I let others read them. However, sharing our work is a must if we want to learn and take our writing to the next level. Plus, if you dream of being published like me, then sharing is a basic requirement. So why not get used to it and learn how to manage those pesky butterflies?
  • Discover what you do well. Not only does positive feedback give you a nice ego boost, but it also helps you understand your strengths. And understanding your strengths helps you understand who you are as a writer.
  • Discover what you don’t do well. Yeah, I know. Who wants to hear what they’re bad at? Unfortunately, opening yourself up to constructive criticism is a necessary evil if you want to become the best writer you can be. Plus, if you’re planning to enter the Harsh Land of Publishing, then you will need to learn how to handle constructive criticism. And the forum is a great place for that.
  • Learn by critiquing other stories. You wouldn’t believe how much you can learn by reading and critiquing other people’s work. When you (tactfully) explain to someone what you liked/didn’t like about their story, you will naturally apply those observations to your own work.
  • Meet other writers! While doing these challenges, I’ve gained a lot of amazing friends, writing pals, and trustworthy beta readers. So, believe me when I say the forum is an excellent place to connect with other writers and find the moral and professional support you need to succeed.

Anyway, with all of that said, registration has officially opened for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2015. I strongly–strongly–encourage you to consider entering it. Yes, it costs some money, and yes, the actual challenge is, well, a challenge. But I promise if you go into it with the right attitude and participate on the forum, every penny and every stressful second will be worth it. Plus, the story you’re working on now (or in the future) will thank you for doing this. I know the one I’m working on is thanking me.

FFC2015_HomePageTransp06Of course, the NYCM writing challenges aren’t the only ones out there. If you aren’t ready to take the plunge, or aren’t in a position to spend the moola, then I still encourage you to look into a blog or website that hosts free weekly challenges. My favorite is Chuck Wendig’s, terribleminds.

 You have until June 18th to take advantage of the early entry fee. There’s also a Twitter discount, so be sure to use that to lower the cost even more. Final deadline is July 30th.

Hope to see you all on the forum!

For those of you who’d like to understand the differences between NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge and Short Story Challenge, click here!

To learn more about the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge 2015, click here!

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