The Accidental Fall – 3rd Round – NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge

I present to you–reluctantly–my 3rd round entry for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2015. I’ll admit, this isn’t my finest piece of work, but I’m proud to have finished a story within 24-hours. I’m also proud to have completed all three rounds of the SSC. Each challenged me in different ways and taught me how to be a better writer.

Congrats to everyone who participated in this year’s SSC! And congrats to those who survived the third round. It wasn’t easy, so you deserve a giant pat on the back. (If you’d like to read about my experience with the final round, click here!)

Reminder, I had 24-hours to write a 1,500 word story based on these prompts:

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Thanks in advance for reading, and thanks for any feedback you might have!

“The Accidental Fall”

By Jenna Willett

Brief Synopsis: How could two happy accidents lead to one so tragic? That is a question Beth Haynes must answer.


“We’ll be back in ten minutes.”

“Hold on.” Beth knotted a pink balloon and tossed it into the air. “I’ll get my purse and go with you.”

“No, stay put.” Jacob picked up their daughter. “Miss Maggie can keep me company, can’t you?” He nuzzled her neck.

Maggie shied away. “Can Lady Lulu come with us?”

“I’m afraid Lady Lulu had a little accident, sweetie.” Beth smirked at the raggedy doll in the kitchen sink. Its pink dress was soaked from taking a dive in the toilet earlier.

“Will she be okay?”

“After a bath she will be.” Jacob kissed Maggie’s cheek and looked at Beth. “So, vanilla? Chocolate? Both?”

“Both.” Beth began blowing up another balloon. “And get some candles. I forgot those too.” As the front door slammed shut, she called, “Love you!”

She wasn’t sure if they’d heard her.

#

“Are you okay?”

Beth’s eyes jerked up from the rushing river. An old man stood on the footbridge a few feet behind her. She forced herself to nod. “I’m fine.”

He tilted his graying head to the side and dropped his concerned gaze to the doll clutched in her hand. “Are you sure?”

She nodded. “I’m fine.”

The old man looked unconvinced. Beth didn’t care. She turned away and stared down at the frothy rapids. She couldn’t remember how she’d gotten there. She couldn’t even remember grabbing Lady Lulu from its box in the garage, or putting on Jacob’s wool coat and leaving the house. All she could remember was seeing the date on her phone when she’d woken up: May 14th.

Beth’s legs weakened, and she leaned against the bridge’s rusted railing.

Seven years ago today, she’d met Jacob when he’d accidentally walked in on her in a Starbuck’s bathroom. She’d called him a jerk. He’d asked her out. Three months later, they were married. He’d vowed to always knock first.

Five years ago today, she’d given birth to their “oopsie” baby, Miss Maggie. Jacob had forgotten to buy condoms at the store. Beth had convinced him they didn’t need one…Oops.

One year ago today, she’d forgotten to buy ice cream for Maggie’s 4th birthday party. Jacob had taken Maggie with him to the store to buy some. They hadn’t come back.

They were never coming back.

Her therapist, family, and friends had convinced her of this, and she’d thought she’d accepted it. But…she hadn’t. How? How could two happy accidents lead to one so tragic? How could fate be so cruel as to give her so much and then take it all away?

A ragged sob erupted from her throat and, without pausing to think, she tucked Lady Lulu into the crook of her arm and climbed over the bridge’s railing.

“Whoa, wait!” The old man shuffled over to her.

“Please, don’t,” she whispered. “I’m doing this. You can’t stop me.”

His response came slow and gentle. “The fall won’t kill you, if that’s what you’re hoping for. The bridge isn’t tall enough.”

Beth glanced down. Even in the early morning sun, the water looked as black as night. A chill tiptoed down her spine.

“You’ll drown or freeze to death,” the old man warned. “And you don’t want that. You don’t want this. And—And neither would your husband or kid.”

Beth cringed. Of course he would know who she was. Everyone in town did. She was the poor woman who’d lost everything she’d cherished in a matter of ten seconds. She should’ve left Eagle after the accident—left Colorado completely—and moved back to Chicago to live with her parents. But she couldn’t do it. Moving away would’ve meant leaving Jacob and Maggie behind, and she couldn’t leave them. Not then, not now, not ever.

A tear trickled down Beth’s cheek.

But home wasn’t home anymore. Home was a never-ending nightmare. She couldn’t handle the silence, the lingering scent of Jacob’s cologne, the empty bed, the useless tea set, the random discovery of a lost pink sock.

She hugged Lady Lulu to her chest. “Mr…?”

“Eli. My name’s Eli. I’m the head janitor at Brush Creek Element—”

“Would you tell my parents I’m sorry, Eli?”

His calloused hands rested on the rail next to her. They trembled ever so slightly. “Mrs. Haynes—Beth—you don’t want to—”

“And that I love them very much?”

“Your husband and daughter wouldn’t have wanted you to—”

“And I wish…” She closed her eyes. “I wish I could go back and change what happened. I wish I’d bought ice cream. I wish I’d kissed Jacob goodbye. I wish I’d hugged Maggie. I wish,” her voice cracked, “I wish I’d gotten in the car and died with them.”

“Don’t say that. You’re here for a reason.”

A bitter laugh slipped from her lips. If life had taught her anything, it was that there were no such things as reasons. Only accidents.

Eli touched her arm. “If you jump, you’ll—”

She let go of the bridge’s railing and jumped.

The janitor’s bellow for help faded as she plummeted toward the river. The icy air stung her cheeks, tore at Jacob’s coat, and stole her breath away. She clutched Lady Lulu closer as she struck the water.

Everything went black.

For a moment, she thought she had died from the fall. Then the powerful currents ripped Lady Lulu from her arms and panic brought her back to life. Beth made a mad grab for the doll. Her fingertips brushed against its arm at the same time she struck an underwater boulder. Agony exploded through her shoulder and a scream started in her gut and rose in her throat. She opened her mouth to release the bloodcurdling wail and water poured in. The taste of ice, fish, and dirt choked her, while the unforgiving currents tossed and kicked her to the surface.

She sputtered, gagged, and drew in a lifesaving breath. “I’m sorry!” she screamed. “I wish—” The river sucked her back under. She struggled to reach the surface again, but the weight of Jacob’s coat dragged her down, down, down…

She had to get it off—let it go—let him go if she wanted to live. Beth fumbled with the buttons, frantic and out of breath, suddenly certain Jacob and Maggie’s dying wish would’ve been for her to live. To fight.

She shimmied, shrugged, and wriggled out of the coat and popped straight to the surface. Along the way, a tree limb scraped against her cheek and another boulder cracked against her knee. She hardly felt the pain this time. She was so cold.

Eli had been right. She was going to drown or freeze to death. Or both.

“Swim!”

The sharp order came from her left, in the woods. Shivering and gasping, she searched the trees until she saw a cyclist screaming at her. “Swim towards me!” She blinked at him, baffled by his appearance.

Who—How—Who?

Her sluggish mind refused to connect the dots. Instead, it zeroed in on something pink floating by the shore. Beth couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be. Fate had proven itself too cruel to give her such a perfect beacon. And yet…She bared her teeth and swam toward it, her movements jerky and clumsy, but determined.

The stranger leaped from his bike and sprinted into the shallows up ahead. “Grab my hand!”

Beth ignored his command, her attention focused on the pink object. She had to reach it. It was safe. It was hope. It was home. It was all she had left of her baby girl.

“Come on, lady!” The stranger waded deeper into the currents, all the way up to his waist. “Grab my hand!” He reached for her as the river carried her closer and closer to him and Lady Lulu. The doll swirled around and around until it lost its fragile grip on the tree branch.

Beth cried out as it floated away.

“Grab my hand now or I can’t save you!”

The stranger’s words echoed through Beth’s dazed mind, piercing the sorrowful mist that threatened to consume her all over again.

She’d let go of Jacob. She had to let go of Maggie too. Because she now realized the moment she’d jumped, was the moment she’d finally touched down. She now understood life was full of both accidents and choices.

And this was her moment to choose.

“Lady!”

She pursed her lips, looked away from Maggie’s doll, and lunged for the stranger’s hand.


Round 1: The Ark 

(Assignment: 2,500 words, 8 days, horror, medical tourism, 50-year old woman) 

Round 2: The Darkness Whispers

(Assignment: 2,000 words, 3 days, ghost story, a statue, a waitress) Please note:  Since I’m planning to expand this story into a full novel, I have added a password to protect it. If you would like to access it, please send me a message and I will provide it to you.

To read more stories, visit the Jen’s Pen Page.

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Save Me! I’m Advancing to Round 3 – NYC Midnight SSC 2015

Last night, I found out my ghost story, “The Darkness Whispers” placed 5th in its group. Which means I’m advancing to the third and final round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge this weekend.

Yeah, to be completely honest, I’m not sure how I feel about advancing. Don’t get me wrong. I’m honored and grateful to get the chance to compete in the final round. And I’m so proud of myself for making it to the top 40 (the competition started out with over 1,400 writers).

But, still…Ugh.

I went through round three last year, and it was one of the most difficult experiences of my life! Seriously, last year when I found out I made it to the final round, I looked like this:

OMG

This year, I looked like this:

Okay, let me explain why I’m dreading this round so much, especially for those who might not know how the NYC Midnight SSC works.

There are three rounds in the competition, and each one is sudden death. So, if you don’t place in the top five of your group (there are approximately 30 writers/group), then you’re cut–eeks! As you progress through the competition, the guidelines for each round change:

Round 1: Competitors are given eight days and 2,500 words to write a story based off an assigned set of prompts (ex: horror, medical tourism, a 50-year old woman). That’s doable! Not easy, of course, but I definitely have enough time to think of a decent plot, develop it, and then revise and edit it until I’m–generally–satisfied with the final product.

Round 2: This time, competitors only have three days and 2,000 words. Although this is a lot tougher than round one, it’s still doable. I just have to rev up the creative engines faster, quicken my pace, and be willing to submit a story I needed a little more time to edit.

Round 3: In this final round, competitors only get one day and 1,500 words to write a story. That’s it! And, as you’ve figured out by now, it’s terrible. To do everything–develop, create, rewrite, revise, edit, submit–in 24-hours is painful. Literally. Last year, I slept less than two hours during the round, nearly fainted because I forgot to eat (doh!), and experienced heart palpitations off and on.

I mean it. Round three is intense. No, it’s insane!

But, this is why it’s called the Short Story Challenge, right? It’s not meant to be easy. It’s suppose to push me to my limits and see what I can do under a lot of pressure. So, despite my anxieties and fears, I’ll battle my way through this weekend’s mayhem and write the best story I can!

To help me get through the final round, I’ve created a basic “battle plan”. If I follow these steps, I should be able to make it to the finish line…(ahem, should):

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1. Brainstorm! The biggest benefit of round three is we get to choose our own genre. That means I can think of a few concepts before I receive my assignment, and then mold it to whatever my other two assigned prompts are (character and subject). I actually have one specific idea I’d like to pursue, so hopefully I can make it work!

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2. Sleep! As difficult as it is to sleep during the 24-hour deadline, I have to. My brain doesn’t function properly if I don’t get enough rest. So, I need to go to bed at some point during the process, even if it’s only for a couple of hours.

garfield-birthday-cake3. EAT! As I mentioned earlier, I forgot to eat during last year’s round three. I was so focused and so drawn into my story, I didn’t even think about it. By the time I did, over 12-hours had passed and when I stood up, I nearly collapsed…Yeah, super smart! To prevent such a moronic mistake again, I’ll be setting an alarm on my phone to remind myself to get up and eat something every few hours.

reader-clipart-Person_Reading_Book_clip_art_hight4. Use beta readers! As difficult as it is, I need to try and send my story out to beta readers on Saturday to get their valuable input. This means I’ll need to quicken my pace even more so I’m able to send them a decent draft as early as possible. Otherwise, I won’t have time to fix whatever problems they find.

zcXedjMbi5. Breathe! I need to remember to take frequent breaks throughout the day. Even if it’s only five minutes at a time, I need to stand up, walk away from my computer, and breathe. Relax. Clear my head. Regain my center!…I know this will be the most difficult part of my battle plan to execute. I stink at taking breaks!

Hopefully if I follow this general plan of attack, I’ll be able survive round three!

And if I don’t and I completely fall apart, well…I’ll still be proud of myself. These challenges are not easy (even when there’s more time and words to use), and the competition is fierce. I can’t tell you how many amazing stories I read in the first two rounds that didn’t make the cut. So, no matter what happens this weekend, and no matter how rough things might get, I’ll be proud of myself for making it this far and giving the final round a shot!

Good luck to all those who are also competing in round three of the NYC Midnight SSC! And thank you to everyone who sent me a congratulatory message. More than anything else, your encouraging words and positive vibes will be what get me through this weekend.

Round 1: The Ark 

(Assignment: 2,500 words, 8 days, horror, medical tourism, 50-year old woman) 

Round 2: The Darkness Whispers 

(Assignment: 2,000 words, 3 days, ghost story, a statue, a waitress) Please note:  Since I’m planning to expand this story into a full novel, I have added a password to protect it. If you would like to access it, please send me a message and I will provide it to you.

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Oh, The Horror – Round 1 – NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge

Well, everyone, I’ve survived yet another round of an NYC Midnight writing challenge…barely.

Let me rewind a little bit…

A few weeks before round one of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2015, I made a promise to myself: I wouldn’t start the competition until I finished the third draft of my novel. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. I had to finish it. I had to!

I didn’t.

Despite my best efforts, I still had two more chapters to write when the first round kicked off on January 16th.

Yeah, I was a little stressed.

Thankfully, the first round of the Short Story Challenge was eight days long, so I had the ability to sacrifice a day to get those last two chapters of my novel finished.

Which I did!

Okay, there was no time to celebrate the fact I’d finished the third draft of my novel. I’d lost one of my eight precious days with the Short Story Challenge and needed to dive right into it. So–after a mini “I don’t wanna!” meltdown–I put aside my fatigue and desire to do nothing, and pulled up my assignment:

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First thought? WOO-HOO! I’d been praying to get drama, suspense, or horror since those are the genres I’m most comfortable with. Plus, with my low motivation and energy levels, I needed a genre I’d be enthusiastic about. And horror was just the ticket.

Second thought? What the hell is “medical (or health) tourism”? Seriously, I’d never heard of such a thing. Thank God for Google. After a quick search, I figured out medical tourism is when someone visits another country for a health treatment (mainly because it’s cheaper, or because it’s a treatment they can’t get in their home country). I wasn’t thrilled with this prompt. Medical stuff freaks me out and I’m not all that inspired by it.

Third thought? “Oh crap! Hugh from Hugh’s Views & News is in my group!”

Let me explain: A couple of months ago, I encouraged my friend Hugh from the blog Hugh’s Views & News to enter the Short Story Challenge. I assured him we wouldn’t be put in the same group. I mean, come on!  There are 1,400 people in the competition, broken down into 48 groups of 30. What were the chances we’d end up pitted against each other? Huh?

After I screamed, “NOOO!, I laughed and emailed Hugh, because, really, it was hilarious. And also kind of cool. Even though it stinks to have to compete directly against a friend, it’s nice to know someone in your group. It gives you someone other than yourself to cheer for. (“Goooo Hugh!”)

So, anyway. Once I stopped shaking my head over that, and I figured out what the heck “medical tourism” was, and I drank a lot of coffee, I got to work.

Luckily, my story’s concept came to me almost instantly…Don’t worry, it wasn’t about a Frankenstein surgery gone wrong.

As fun as that idea might’ve been, I had a feeling a lot of my competitors would take that kind of approach, so I went in a different direction…Hopefully it’s a direction others didn’t think of. *fingers crossed*

On Sunday, I started and finished a butt ugly first draft and sent it to my favorite and most critical beta reader: my Mom. As expected, she didn’t love it and she had a lot of issues with it–just as I did. So, we had a long brainstorming session to iron out the kinks and come up with some much needed solutions.

After that, I felt better about the general plot and my two main characters. I sat back down at my computer and started over. And I worked allllll week long writing, rewriting, revising, editing, tweaking…

To be honest, it was a downright painful process. Even though I love horror and I liked my idea, I had smashed into a wall and fallen beyond my breaking point.

Having worked non-stop on my novel for over a month, my willpower was close to zero. And everything hurt: my head, my eyes, my wrists/forearms. Every time I sat down in front of my computer, I’d make it a few words and then want to quit and go to bed.

To make matters worse, I decided to take on a subject I wasn’t prepared to. And it’s a subject I have deep personal convictions about, so…yeah. I was in a constant battle between me and my characters. I had to figure out how to word things that would  satisfy all of us.

By Wednesday night, I had a decent enough draft to send back to my Mom. I also sent it to my sister since she–after helping with a few of the kinks I struggled with most–wanted to give some input.

My sister’s feedback: “I LOVED the last line. Loved, loved.” I almost cried when I read that because I had no idea how to end the story. I’d written that last line on a whim. But after her enthusiasm for it, I knew I’d keep it and use it as my guide while trudging through the end’s fuzzy murk. Yippee for clarity!

And then I read my Mom’s feedback: “It doesn’t feel urgent enough. And I think you should change this and this and this…” I did cry then…Okay, not really. But her critique pushed me to the brink of an epic meltdown.

But, once again, I gave myself a mental slap and went back to work. And by Friday morning I felt confident enough to send my story to three more beta readers (all writing pals this time). Each one gave me incredible feedback and helped me chop down my 2,700 worded story to the word count limit of 2,500.

I’ll admit, a couple of my betas made some suggestions that would’ve required rewriting large portions of the story, and I ignored them. Because I just didn’t care.

Yep! Talk about a horrible attitude. And I’ll likely pay for it when I start getting my feedback from other readers. Oh well. I just didn’t have any fuel left in the tank to deal with those big changes.

On Saturday, I edited my story once more and then submitted it.

And CRASHED!

I spent the rest of the weekend napping on the couch and watching episodes of “The Good Wife”. It was pure bliss.

Now, as you might imagine, I’m not all that confident with my story and I don’t know if it’ll be good enough to advance me to the second round in March. But, whatever! I’m just proud of myself for not giving up, fighting through my exhaustion, and submitting something.

As usual, I’ll be posting my story here once we get the thumbs up from NYC Midnight (which should be today or tomorrow). For now, here is my title and synopsis!

The Ark

Brief Synopsis: When Becca picks her mom up at JFK Airport, she discovers she was diagnosed and treated for cancer while overseas. Their train ride home is fraught with bickering, accusations, and death.

Dun, dun, dun…

Yeah, okay. I know my synopsis is vague. But I’m stickler for spoilers and I didn’t want to spoil anything with this one 🙂

Did you participate in the Short Story Challenge 2015? If so, how’d you do?

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Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Short Story 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 a year ago. Then I took the plunge and entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2013, and whoa! My entire attitude changed.

Before I began entering the NYC Midnight writing challenges, I assumed my writing skills were at their best…wrong! In just two Flash Fiction Challenges and one Short Story Challenge (FFC 2013, SSC 2014, FFC 2014), my abilities have grown exponentially. I’m actually kind of embarrassed by what I considered to be my “best”. I won’t even let my friends or colleagues look at my old work. Yuck…

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

  • Write a complete story. To make a story truly shine, all facets of it must be developed and balanced equally. Plot, characters, scenery, etc. If you miss or lax on one, it stands out to readers.
  • Characters count. Characters carry a large portion of a story’s weight. Making them as 3D and likable as possible is a must. Also, too many of them tend to be confusing/burdensome for a reader. So, make each one count, and make each one memorable.
  • Keep it simple! Chop, chop, chop. Do you really need that character? Do you really need to talk about that fact? 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, get rid of it.
  • 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 NYC Midnight Challenge. The main one is their private forum. NYC Midnight offers competitors a location to interact and share their stories with each other. And I love it! The forum helps you:

  • Overcome your fear of sharing your work with others.
  • Discover what you do well. Positive feedback is always nice to hear, right?
  • Learn to open yourself up to constructive criticism. If you’re planning to enter the Harsh Land of Publishing, you will need to know how to do this. Trust me.
  • Critique other stories. You wouldn’t believe how much you can learn about the art of storytelling by reading and critiquing other people’s work. When you (tactfully) explain to someone what you liked and did not like about their story, you will likely apply those observations to your own work (whether you realize it or not).
  • Meet other writers! While doing these challenges, I have gained a lot of friends and colleagues. I’ve also found a few trustworthy beta readers to help me with my future work.

So, with all of that said, registration has officially opened for the NYC Midnight Short Story 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 manuscript 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.

10734194_10152421763496776_3321341572966777122_nOf course, the NYC Midnight 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 December 11th 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 January 15th.

Hope to see you all on the forum!

To learn more about the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2015, click here!

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