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…
Surprisingly, 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:
My first impressions?
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?
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.
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!
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?
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!
To end the year, I’ve decided to spotlight my top 10 favorite blog posts from 2015. Each of these made a special impact on me and readers, so I hope you enjoy them (again or for the first time). Today, I present to you my 9th favorite post from the past year:
Writing stories under 1,500 words is tough. Writing stories under 150 words is insane! That’s why I liked this post. It offered a tough, but terrific challenge to writers (including myself). It also offered a lot of fun.
So, check out the details below and, if you haven’t already, consider entering one of Ad Hoc Fiction’s free contests!
A few weeks ago, my online writer’s group introduced me to a weekly flash fiction contest hosted by Ad Hoc Fiction. Basically, writers are given a prompt word (ex: feather, bark, note) and must incorporate it into a 150-worded story.
Yep! That’s it. Just 150 words to address all the vital components of a story and satisfy readers.
Once the deadline passes, the submissions are posted on Ad Hoc’s website and the public votes for a winner. It’s free (yes, FREE), it’s fun, and it’s a great way to challenge yourself. So give it a shot! Whether you want to learn, warm up, or win, you’re sure to have a blast with Ad Hoc Fiction.
Below is a story I submitted a few weeks ago. The prompt word I had to include was “plaster.” Enjoy!
by Jenna Willett
When I was little, my mom would let me help her frost cakes. “Remember, Annie,” she’d say, “the first layer is the crumb layer. You frost, wait, frost again, and—voila! See?” She’d point at a finished cake. No crumbs, no blemishes. The decorating method worked beautifully.
It still does.
I hum to myself as I spread a second layer of white goo over the crumbly surface. I dip, swirl, smear, and wipe my metal spatula down and up, left to right. Over and over. I work carefully, but quickly. I have to. Even with the heater on, the house is cold and the cold makes things set faster.
I give one final swipe and stand back to study my handiwork.
The plastered wall looks great. With a layer of paint, it’ll look perfect.
Nobody will ever suspect I hid a dead body behind it.
To learn more about the contest and Ad Hoc Fiction, click here.
Top 10 2015 Posts
Photo credits: 1
It’s that time of the year again! Time to convince you to sign up for an NYC Midnight writing challenge.
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 NYC Midnight (NYCM) writing challenges, I assumed my writing skills were at their best…Wrong! In just a handful of NYCM Flash Fiction and Short Story Challenges, my abilities grew 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? Here are just a few things:
- How to 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 and burdensome for a reader. So, you need to make sure each one counts.
- Keep it simple! Chop, chop, chop. Do you really need that character? Do you really need to go into that background information? 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 writing 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. It’s safe, inviting, and supportive!
- 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 or 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.
One of my personal favorite things about the NYCM challenges is the discovery of new ideas. I have now participated in thirteen rounds, which means I’ve written thirteen stories I would never have written otherwise. And from those thirteen, I have bigger plans for at least eight of them. Three I’d like to polish up and send to publishers. One I’d like to adapt and expand into a screenplay. And, four I’d like to expand into novels. In fact, the manuscript I’m working on now is an expansion of my second round story from the last Short Story Challenge. So, if nothing else appeals to you, think of this as an amazing way to increase your idea inventory!
Anyway, with all of that said, registration has officially opened for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016. 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 stressful second will be worth it.
Of 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 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 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 Short Story Challenge 2016, click here!
Last week, I found out I advanced to the semi-finals of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2015. My first two stories, “La Jolla” and “Kleine Mäuse,” scored me enough points to land me in the top three of my group, as well as the top 240 of the entire competition (1,400 writers).
I was obviously thrilled and honored to advance in the contest, but I was stressed too. On top of being exhausted from work, life, and my novel, I was committed to attending a good friend’s baby shower out of town. It just wasn’t going to be a good weekend to compete in a 48-hour writing challenge.
Still, I had to give it a shot. So, I stayed up late on Friday to see my assignment. I really, really wanted comedy after last round’s intense story. But, instead, I got this:
My first impressions?
I literally groaned out loud when I saw my prompts. Despite its good timing with Halloween less than a week away, I did not want to write a ghost story. Ghost stories are hard, especially if you’re the kind of writer who strives to be as twisty-turny as possible. Plus, my novel has a ghostly element to it, so I had been hoping for something–anything–that would get me away from that genre.
No such luck.
But, I didn’t have the luxury of time to throw a hissy fit. The clock was ticking louder than ever. I only had Saturday and a handful of hours on Sunday to write, rewrite, revise, and edit my story. So, I had to go, go, go!
I jumped straight into a brainstorm session with my mom. Neither of us could come up with anything great. At one point, I even contemplated writing a funny ghost story since I had wanted to write a comedy. But, my love for horror won out, and I came up with a creepier idea.
Unbelievably, I was able to whip out a first draft on Saturday morning and send it to my mom to read and comment on. She gave me the thumbs up, as well as some suggestions to improve it. I wrote, revised, wrote, and revised the rest of the day. By six that night, I had a good enough draft for beta readers.
I was thrilled!
Well, okay, I wasn’t thrilled with my story. But I was thrilled I’d managed to stay on schedule. At the rate I was going, I’d have the majority of my work done before I left for the baby shower on Sunday.
At 7 a.m. the next morning, my mom showed up to help me implement my beta readers’ feedback and edit the you-know-what out of my story. By the time we left for the baby shower a few hours later, I had a draft worthy enough to submit.
But, I wasn’t ready to submit it, so I took my laptop with me in the car. I was too tired to touch my story on the two-hour drive to the baby shower, but on the way home later, I pulled it out to re-read it, tweak it here and there, and then work on a title and synopsis.
Within an hour, I finished everything and relaxed for the first time all weekend. I was basically done. All I had to do was get home, read it once more, and then submit it.
That’s when my flat tire alarm on my dashboard went off.
I completely freaked out! I was still forty-five minutes from home and in a sketchy part of Denver. I didn’t have the mental energy or time to breakdown and deal with a flat tire. The competition’s clock was still ticking! I couldn’t miss the deadline after everything I’d done.
Thankfully, after a whirlwind adventure of getting off the highway and pulling into a rundown hotel’s parking lot, I discovered I didn’t have a flat…Well, it didn’t look like I had a flat, despite what my gage said on my dashboard. All I could figure was the electronics system had gone haywire.
So, my mom and I drove home. Slowly. It was one of the longest drives of my life. Every bump, every sound, every shift made me tense and break into a cold sweat. I kept waiting for the tire to blow or the alarm on my dashboard to scream at me again…Nothing happened. We made it home just fine.
After a prayer of thanks, I hurried into the house, put the finishing touches on my story, and submitted it.
Then collapsed in relief.
Overall, the weekend ended up being a strange mix of peace and chaos, and I’m not sure what I think about the story I submitted. I’ll admit, it’s not my favorite, but I had fun with it. I can only hope readers will have fun with it too.
As usual, I’ll post my story later this week once we get the green light from NYCM. For now, here’s my title and synopsis:
Brief Synopsis: Emma stares outside at the raging blizzard and prays for her husband’s safe return from his hunting trip. Unfortunately, an unwanted guest shows up instead.
Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for the semi-finals of the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge!