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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Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016

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.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 9.45.29 AMOf 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!

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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:

Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 1.28.57 PM

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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Crazy with a Capital C – The 3rd and Final Round

Yep, that about sums up how I feel after the 3rd and final round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. The 24-hour deadline was as crazy and exhausting as I thought it’d be. However, I handled it much better than I thought I would. Creating a detailed battle plan prior to the contest’s kickoff on Friday night helped me maintain my focus, stay hopeful, and finish on time.

The first step of my battle plan was to think of a few ideas before receiving my assignment, just in case one of them could be molded to whatever prompts I received. Well, I got lucky. The concept I really wanted to go with fit the prompts:

20140504-CaptureIt-Picture“Open” genre meant I could pick whatever genre I wanted. And I knew without a doubt I’d be writing a suspense, horror, or drama (or mixture of all three). So, I got to work. I received the assignment at 10 PM MST, and by 1 AM, I had an ugly first draft. I forced myself to go to bed after that, but by 4 AM I was up again. I was so anxious! I grabbed a cup of coffee, gave myself a pep talk, and returned to work. And I didn’t stop for over 13 hours. I even forgot about that tiny, but important step in my plan to eat. Whoops. I remembered breakfast, but I spaced eating anything else until after 3 PM. That’s when I stood up to get some water and had a serious, “Oh crap, I’m gonna pass out” moment. LOL! Yeah, I’m an idiot. I snagged an apple and a lot of peanut butter, took a shaky breath, and returned to work. I had to. The clock was ticking!

Honestly, I couldn’t have made it through the agonizing day without my mom. She. Is. Awesome! She came over around noon and sat there with me to edit my story. We read it again and again and again, chopping and tweaking and fine-tuning until I had a solid draft to send to my beta readers. Somehow, I was right on schedule with my battle plan, and I sent it to them around 2 PM. Within an hour, feedback returned from all four of them. Overall, their critiques were positive! But, as expected, there were problems too. So I spent a couple of more hours revising.

A little after 5 PM, I hit my breaking point. I said, “That’s it! I’m done. I’m submitting it!”

I know I had until 10 PM to send my story in, but I was literally sick to my stomach from exhaustion. I just wanted the burden off my shoulders. So I hit the submit button and FINISHED!

*cue Rocky theme song*

So, as for the story itself: I’m happy with it, especially considering the 24-hour deadline and the strict 1,500 word count (by the way, my final draft came out to 1,483 words–woot!). Anyways, I came up with my idea from something my pastor said during a service a couple of years ago. Yes, years. I’ve been wanting to write a story based off his beautiful, yet tragic words for a long time. I finally found my chance.

I’ll admit, I was an emotional wreck for most of the day while writing. In fact, the first time I read my story out loud with my mom, I burst into tears. And I’m not a crier. My mom even asked, “Uh, are you okay?” I couldn’t speak, so I just nodded and motioned for her to keep reading. Well, then she burst into tears and we cried together. Doh! Yeah, we were a big blubbering mess. However, the more times we read it, the stronger we became…Nonetheless, no matter how hard we tried, one or both of us would lose it at the very end. For my mom, it was one specific line she couldn’t get over. For me, I was so darn tired, anything remotely emotional pushed me into Weepville.

I hope others, including the judges, feel the same emotion we did. If not, oh well. This is one of those stories that truly means something to me, so if others don’t care for it, it’s okay. I will still hold it near and dear to my heart.

So, that’s that! I survived the CRAZY 3rd round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. Even if I don’t place, it’s okay. I just feel so blessed I was able to participate in each round of the contest. And, seriously, I’m still overwhelmed I placed in the top 40 of the 1,000 writers who initially entered.

Once the contest gives me the green light to publicly share my story, I’ll post Into Paradise here. If you have a chance to stop by and read it, I’d love your feedback!