Once Upon a Time – Round 1 – NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge

Another round of an NYC Midnight (NYCM) writing contest has come and gone. This time, it was the first round of the Short Story Challenge, which meant I had eight days to write a 2,500 word story based on an assigned genre, character, and subject.

Before I received my assignment a week ago, I debated what genre I wanted. Horror? Suspense? Historical fiction? Then I debated which genre I did not want. Political satire? Romantic-comedy? Ghost story? Hmm…

7937_443481989177688_8265323423668362085_nSurprisingly, the only genre I had a strong opinion about was political satire (No! No, no, no…). So, as I opened my assignment, I felt rather calm and open minded.

Then I saw my prompts:

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 6.05.44 AM

My first impressions?

Fairy Tale: 

Leaving Home:

A Kidnapper: 

I had completely spaced fairy tale was a genre in the competition, and I had completely spaced it was one of the genres I feared most. The language, the structure, the tone, the fantastical elements…All of it freaked. Me. Out!

Thankfully, I had eight days to overcome my fears and figure out what was what. So, I went to bed and waited until the next day to start working.

On Saturday morning, I called my mom (my go-to “Simon Cowell”/cheerleader/editor during these contests) and brainstormed. Within an hour, I had a solid concept and started writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote until I had a first draft on Sunday afternoon.

I did not like it.

I finished the story, sat back, and thought, “This seems really boring and cliche.” I called my mom and voiced my concerns to her. She encouraged me to take a break and clear my head. So, I headed over to her house to watch the Broncos game with the rest of my family. (Go Broncos! Woot, woot!)

During the game, I brainstormed new ideas. I came up with one I really liked, but when I pitched it to my sister and her husband, they had lukewarm reactions. They thought it was fine, but they liked my original idea better.

I decided to ignore my gut instinct and listen to them.

I returned to my first draft, and for two days I tried to transform it into something I’d love. I set my story in a new location (the desert), changed my characters (from a husband and wife to two teenagers), and restructured my plot. But, none of it mattered. By Tuesday night, I felt the same way I had on Sunday.

I asked my mom to come over to read my latest draft. Maybe I was being too hard on myself? Maybe the story was actually wonderful and I was over-thinking it?

I wasn’t.

During my 14 rounds of NYCM, I’ve learned how to read my mom’s reactions. I know when she likes something, and I know when she doesn’t. She did not like this story. Of course, she didn’t tell me that. But, she did tell me, “Jenna, you have four more days. You don’t have to stick with this. Write something you’ll be proud of.”

So, after balking at the idea of throwing away four days worth of hard work, I crumpled the story up and pulled up a blank document.

My mom suggested we brainstorm new ideas, but I didn’t need to. I already knew what I wanted to write. I had come up with the concept back on Sunday, during the Broncos game. I didn’t care if my sister and her husband had rejected it. I knew it would work, and I knew it could turn into something I’d be proud of.

My mom agreed.

With her help, I outlined a basic plot that night (which of course dramatically changed due to my pantser ways), and then wrote my butt off Wednesday and Thursday. As I wrote and wrote, I knew I had made the right decision in switching gears. I was so, so, so much happier with my story.

By late Thursday night, I had a draft worthy of being sent to beta readers. Their feedback trickled in throughout Friday and I implemented many of their suggestions. I added, chopped, rewrote, revised, tweaked…I worked and worked until I finally had a draft ready to submit.

I woke up early Saturday to refine and edit one more time. Then I gave it a title, slapped together a synopsis, and submitted it.

And collapsed!

It was an absolutely exhausting week, full of stress, doubt, and fear. But, in the end, I wrote something I’m satisfied with. Now, will it get me into round two of the contest? I have no idea. I never know what the judges are looking for, especially with genres I have zero experience in. But, I’m proud of myself for tackling fairy tale and for trusting my gut and writing something I’m happy with.

I would like to give a special thanks to my mom. She always keeps me grounded during these contests, but she went beyond the call of duty on this one. (Thank you, Mom! You’re truly amazing.)

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for the first round of the NYCM Short Story Challenge!

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Jen’s How To: 5 Tips For Writing A Short Story

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 (NYCM) challenge and attempt to write something shorter. Much shorter. About ninety-nine thousand words shorter!

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the art of writing short stories. And, with the rapid approach of the next NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you.

5 Tips For Writing Short Stories

1. Choose One Main Event

Don’t confuse your readers! Keep things simple and choose one main event to base your story on (ex: a killer virus, a confrontation between two friends, a blind date gone wrong). If you do that, you’ll have an easier time identifying your story’s motives, characters, and ultimate goal (aka, “the big why”).

You’ll also make it much easier for your readers to follow along. They won’t get confused 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, keep it simple.

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!”

“Quiet! I can’t think straight with all this ruckus.” Charles picked up a knife and glared at everyone. “I think we should 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 aren’t enough words to gradually introduce a dozen characters and ensure the audience understands who they are, what their roles are, 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.

3. Avoid Time/Scene Hopping

This tends to be a hot debate amongst 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 look at an example. Below are two synopses based on 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. Then the next, then the next…Although it can work if done right, this skim-jump rhythm doesn’t tend to satisfy readers. It’s too broad and jarring.

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 POV

When you write a story under 2,500 words, one of the best ways to cut down on confusion and 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.

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? Or, perhaps, a groom trying to off his bride? 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 someone else did, too.

Well, 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!

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

Don’t forget, the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016 kicks off this weekend. You still have time sign up, so go check it out!

Related Articles

Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016

The Differences Between The NYC Midnight FFC and SSC

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The Differences Between The NYC Midnight FFC and SSC

I often have people ask me what the difference is between the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC) and Short Story Challenge (SSC). At the heart of it, there is no difference. In both FFC and SSC, you have a limited amount of time and words to write a story based on assigned prompts.

However, there are a few major differences you should know about.

NUMBER OF LIVES

SSC: Each round is sudden death.

In a nutshell: You bomb, you’re out.

FFC: You’re guaranteed two rounds.

If you bomb round one, then you can try and redeem yourself in round two.

 WORD COUNT AND DEADLINE

SSC: Varies.

Each round has a different deadline and word count:

R1 = 2,500 words, 8 days

R2 = 2,000 words, 3 days

R3 = 1,500 words, 24-hours

FFC: Consistent.

Each round has the same deadline and word count: 1,000 words, 48-hours

PROMPTS

SSC: Genre, Character, Subject

Examples:

Mystery, Tour Guide, Debt

Suspense, Chef, Wedding

Ghost Story, Waitress, Statue

FFC: Genre, Location, Object

Examples:

Rom-com, Swamp, RV

Horror, Crowded Beach, Fanny Pack

Political Satire, Airport Security Checkpoint, Map

ADVANCING

In both SSC and FFC, you are placed in a group of 25-40 writers. Your group is then given a set of unique prompts and must compete against each other to determine who advances. How you advance depends on the challenge:

SSC: Top five stories from each group advance to the next round.

Yep! It’s as simple as that. If the judges like your story better than the 20-35 others in your group, then you’re moving on. If not, sorry. Better luck next time.

FFC: Complicated…but not.

Okay, let’s see if I can explain this without over complicating it (because it’s not complicated, it just seems like it).

The top 15 writers in each group get points during round one and round two (and, yes, you stay in the same group for both rounds). 1 point = 15th place, 15 points = 1st place. If you place below 15th, you get zero points. After round two, you combine your total points. The top five in each group advance.

Example: During FFC 2014, I received 4 points for my round one story, and 8 points for my round two. That gave me 12 points total. Since the top five in my group totaled between 18 and 27 points, I didn’t advance.

Actually, earning points at all is awesome, so I was proud of my scores. 🙂 And even when I haven’t scored points, I still got a lot out of the experience.

However, some writers don’t share my attitude. In every FFC, I’ve seen people quit after round one because they received zero points. Don’t do this! Just because your chances of advancing diminish, you could still advance. I’ve seen people bomb round one and rock round two, and vice versa. So, don’t give up. Fight for it!

Plus, you paid for this contest, so why would you bail early? Get your money’s worth and write a second story and get it critiqued by the judges.

Plus, plus, you should enter FFC and SSC with more than winning in mind. Whether it’s to learn, meet other writers, think of a new plot for a novel, or something else, you should have multiple reasons for participating. That way if you don’t do well with the judges, you’ll still have something positive to take away from the experience.

Once you compete in both FFC and SSC, you’ll likely discover you have a preference for one or the other. Some writers like FFC more than SSC, and some writers like SSC more than FFC.

Personally, I’m a bigger fan of SSC. I’m not sure if it’s because of the extra time and larger word counts, or if it’s the added pressure of sudden death. Whatever it is, I tend to do better in SSC than FFC. But I know plenty of others who prefer FFC over SSC.

I guess you’ll have to enter to find out which one you prefer.

Or, who knows? Maybe you’ll love both equally? Both are equally worthy and provide excellent opportunities to writers.

So, go sign up for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016! If you’re not sold on it, click here to see why I think you should. You have until December 17th 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 21st.

Hope to see you all on the NYC Midnight forum!

To learn more about the NYCM Short Story Challenge 2016, click here!

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A Crawl to the Finish Line – The Final Round of NYCM SSC

Well, it was a slow and painful crawl to the finish line, but I did it. I survived the third and final round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge (SSC).

As some of you read last week, I was not excited about participating in this last leg of the writing contest. Honored, yes, but not excited. I knew it was going to be difficult, stressful, and downright miserable.

And it was.

Once again, the 24-hour deadline kicked my butt. By the time I submitted my story on Saturday night, I was in tears. I was so tired! And so, so, so relieved I’d survived the hellish day.

I ended up spending most of Sunday staring into space, moving around like a zombie, and reacting to things at a snail’s pace. Even my four-year old nephew asked me, “Are you okay?”–HA! I told him I was; just very, very sleepy.

The torture all began at 10 p.m. (MST) on Friday. I did my best to prepare for it, but even with my battle plan and giant bag of Peanut M&M’s, I felt ill-equipped, reluctant, and terrified.

11127771_366454080213813_5284361540707845078_nSomehow, I was able to quiet the butterflies and sleep for about an hour before the round kicked off. Then I was up and looking at my final assignment:

Screen Shot 2015-04-27 at 1.38.00 PMThis was probably the brightest moment of the 24-hour period. I really liked the prompts. Not only were they interesting, but they easily fit the basic concept I’d thought of beforehand. So, after a quick happy dance, I went to work.

Around 2 a.m. I smacked into a wall and went to bed. Well, tried. It’s hard to sleep when you can hear the clock ticking down, down, down…

By 5 a.m. I was up and writing again.

Now, you’d think since I’d been thinking about my story’s general plot for a few weeks that I would’ve been able to whip something up really fast…But, nope! In a nutshell, words were not my friend on Saturday. Each one had to be ripped out of me, and once on paper they looked battered and bruised.

Panic set in around 11 a.m.

By this point, I should’ve had at least an ugly first draft. But all I had was a handful of ugly paragraphs.

Thankfully my mom arrived at noon to offer her support and help me edit…Well, that had been our plan, but I laughed (somewhat hysterically) when she walked through the front door because I didn’t have anything to edit! She quickly calmed me down with a simple, “Well, let’s just read what you’ve got and go from there, okay?”

So, we did…for the next four hours.

I’d write a couple of paragraphs, send the updated version to my mom, read it out loud, debate about it, edit, and then repeat the process–over and over and over. It was awful! More than anything, I wanted to slam my laptop shut, throw my hands up in defeat, and go to bed.

Even my mom began to lose her cool around 4 p.m. Instead of calmly telling me everything would be okay, she started snapping:

I’m pretty sure she wanted slap me a few times, especially since I kept growling at her to stop eating my M&M’s…No, it wasn’t because I was being possessive (okay, maybe I was a little 😉 ), but because I’d never realized how loud M&M’s were! The crunch, crunch, crunch kept shattering my precious focus. (Sorry for being such a pill, Mom.)

At last, around 5 p.m., I completed a first draft. With great reluctance, I sent it to my beta readers, fully aware their reactions would be something like this:

Honestly, in any other situation, I would never have sent this version to them. More likely, I would’ve thrown it out and started over. I always do that with my first drafts. They’re not meant to be seen. They’re meant to help me figure out the right story, characters, angles, twists and turns, etc. But that stupid clock was ticking. I had no choice.

So, I swallowed my pride–and mortification–and sent it to them. Within an hour, their feedback trickled in. It wasn’t horrible, but I could tell they were disappointed.

Shocker!

Unfortunately, I only had a few hours left before the deadline, so I couldn’t do anything but take their advice and try to make my blah story as non-blah as possible.

Around 9 p.m., just under the 24-hour mark, I finished my “final” draft, whipped up a title and synopsis, and submitted everything.

Then I collapsed and cried.

I didn’t know which I felt more: exhausted or disappointed. I know I did my best in the amount of time I had, but I wanted to do better. This was a story I’d had high hopes for and it fell apart on me…Perhaps someday, when I’m not racing against the clock, I’ll return to it and write it the right way.

Despite my disappointment, I am proud of myself. Writing a story in 24-hours isn’t easy, especially for someone who usually takes 24-hours just to think about a story. Furthermore, even if my story takes last place, I still finished in the top 40 (out of 1,440), and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s something to celebrate!

As usual, I’ll post my story here for review once I get the thumbs up from NYC Midnight. I don’t really want to, but I’ve come this far, so I may as well. For now, here is my title and synopsis:

The Accidental Fall

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

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

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Music Monday – Thank You – Alanis Morissette

Welcome to Music Monday! As many of you know, music contributes a great deal to my writing process. Whether it’s a song’s lyrics, beat, rhythm, or tone, I find myself constantly inspired by it.

writing-to-musicBack in March, after I finished the second round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I began brainstorming possible ideas for the third and final round–just in case I miraculously advanced and had to write a story in 24-hours (*faints*).

I ended up listening to a lot of music in hopes something would trigger an idea. Finally, after many songs, one did: “Thank You” by Alanis Morissette.

Alanis_Morissette_-_Supposed_Former_Infatuation_JunkieTo be honest, I almost skipped over this song because I’ve never felt inspired by it. But then I stopped and really listened to it and–voila! An idea for round three came to me. And I ended up using that idea this past weekend when I did advance in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge–ahhhh!

The number one thing I love about “Thank You” is its lyrics. They’re so powerful! I can’t even point out my favorite line. Each moves me in its own way, and each helped me develop my plot, understand my protagonist, and draw out the kind of emotions I needed for my story–well, as good as I could draw them out in a 24-hour period.

I also took comfort in this song’s message of gratitude, forgiveness, and letting go. It helped me figure out the message of my story and what I wanted readers to take away from it.

hqdefaultSo, if you’re looking for a song with powerful lyrics and a moving message, then listen to Alanis Morissette’s “Thank You”.

What song(s) are you in love with right now? Which one(s) offer you inspiration? Let me know! I’m always searching for songs that motivate my writing.

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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):

11949896971812381266light_bulb_karl_bartel_01.svg.med

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!

f7d599f8c404ff9c920547c92fb30917

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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