Smooth Sailing – Round 1 – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 10.34.05 PM

First impressions: 

Drama

A corporate conference room

A baby rattle

…Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her response? “It’s so good!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Blue Divide”

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

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

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Then, and then, and then

There’s a word out there many writers love to use, including myself. We like to insert it into a sentence and then sit back and smile. Then, without realizing it, we like to use it again three sentences later. Then again, then again, then again.

Jen's Editing Tips

And then, after we’ve put the finishing touches on our work, we send it off to our beta readers to critique. Then, after waiting on pins and needles, we get their feedback and discover we’ve used and abused this most beloved word. So, we then grab a red pen and start crossing it out.

Cross, cross, cross!

With each deletion, our adoration for this word cools, colder then colder. Then, before we know it, we realize the word is nothing more than a crutch. A filler. A fluff word that acts like a catalyst for action and movement, but then turns out to be a hinderance in disguise. So, we then decide to avoid the word unless it’s absolutely necessary.

But then, and only then.

And Then

Like the word “as,” many writers tend to overuse the word “then.” Who can blame them? It’s a great word! Unfortunately, when we repeat it again and again, we risk a handful of problems:

Fluff, fluff, fluff

In a way, “then” is like “that.” At least 50% of the time, we don’t need it. It’s a fluff word we insert on instinct, not necessity. We also tend to add words around “then” to help us transition into the rest of a scene; fluff words that lead to over-explained actions, cluttered sentences, and stilted tones.

To show you what I mean, here’s an example from my action-adventure, “La Jolla.”

With “then”:

Cole pried himself free and then struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

But then, before he could reach his brother, the bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole cried out and then his knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him, but then missed.

Right then, Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails. “Cole!”

Then the tracks collapsed.

Then the train plummeted.

Without “then”: 

Cole pried himself free and struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

The bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole’s knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him and missed.

“Cole!” Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails.

The tracks collapsed.

The train plummeted.

Laundry List 

The more we use “then,” the more our stories resemble a laundry list of actions. Mr. Character did this, then this, then this, then this

After a while, our stories start to sound like a broken record. And we all know what happens when a reader gets bored or annoyed by a story’s repetitive rhythm…Yep! They stop reading.

Here’s another example to illustrate what I’m talking about.

With “then”:

And then gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and then smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and then even backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole then looked down.

Finn raised his arm and then strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—and then Finn lunged and grabbed Cole’s wrist. Right then, as he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and then catapulted him into the rear window face first.

And then, for a breathless moment, he stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Without “then”: 

Gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole looked down.

Finn strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and catapulted him into the rear window face first. He stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Spoon-Feed 

Then this happened, Ms. Reader. Then this. And then this–Are you following along, Ms. Reader? Am I being clear enough? Because then this happened. And then this…

Readers are smart. They do not need to be taken by the hand and guided from point A, to point B, to point C, etc. So, be brave and trust your audience’s intelligence by transitioning scenes in simpler, more creative ways than “then.”

Here’s one more example from “La Jolla” to show you what I’m talking about:

With “then”: 

Then Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. Then he sat up and blinked. All around him, a symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. Then he took a deep breath and struggled to his feet. Then he reached up and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down and then set him on the ground.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” Then he kneeled down and struck the damaged window with his elbow. Then again and again.

Nothing.

Then, out of nowhere, Cal Poly appeared. “Watch out!” She peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. Then Cole blinked. He thought about asking her how she’d found it, but then decided it didn’t matter. People packed the weirdest stuff. Then he took hold of Finn’s arm and shoved him back, out of the way.

And then Cal Poly dropped it.

Without “then”: 

Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. A symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. He struggled to his feet and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” He struck the damaged window with his elbow.

Nothing.

“Watch out!” Cal Poly peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. He didn’t ask her where or how she’d found it. People packed the weirdest stuff. He shoved Finn back.

She dropped it.

So, how do we prevent ourselves from overusing “then”? Well, here are a few strategies I have found helpful:

  1. Read your story out loud. You’ll be amazed how many repetitive words and phrases you hear when you do this.
  2. Ask someone to read your story to you. That way you can close your eyes and listen to it without being distracted by how it looks on screen/paper.
  3. Use the “Find” option and search for “then.” Remove as many as you can.
  4. Replace “then” with a ridiculous word like “hiccup.” See if you need to keep it. Chances are, you don’t.

So, there you go! I hope you’re able to take this editing tip and apply it to your work. Heaven knows I have to every time I sit down to write.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

For more tips, visit my Jen’s Editing Tips page!

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 Photo credits: giphy

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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Waiting Shadows – Semi Finals – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Here is my entry for the semi-finals of the NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction Challenge. I’ll admit, I wasn’t happy to be assigned ghost story, but I ended up having fun with it. It’s always a hoot to write something creepy around Halloween. (If you care to read about my experience writing this piece, click here.)

As a reminder, I had 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story based on these prompts:

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 12.20.23 PM

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

“Waiting Shadows”

By Jenna Willett

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.


The blizzard rattled the cabin. Howling gusts and darting ice slammed into the windowpanes and snuck through cracks in the walls and roof.

Emma rocked back and forth. The dusty floorboards beneath her wooden chair groaned in time with the raging storm. A burning candle bled wax on a table next to her, and cast a faint glow on the withered walls. She stared at the flame’s dancing silhouettes and took comfort in their lively company. She hugged a homespun blanket around her delicate shoulders and focused her gaze across the room, through the window at the dense forest. She prayed for the towering pine trees to stop swaying and bending. To release her from their icy prison.

“He’ll come back.” She shivered and rocked back and forth, back and forth. “He’ll come back.” At any moment, her husband, Jesse, would arrive, sweep her into his arms, and admit she had been right. Hunting during a snowstorm was foolhardy.

A thud outside startled her.

Emma tilted forward and mouthed a silent prayer. It had to be him. Please, let it be him.

The rotting deck squeaked. Emma’s rocking slowed and the blanket slipped. A shadow passed the window. She sat up taller. Please, please.

The shadow paused. Her eyes widened. Her heart swelled…then wilted. Too tall. Too big. Not Jesse. Not Jesse.

The hairs on the back of her neck rose. She glanced down at her lap, at the only remaining weapon she had: a keyhole saw. The rusted teeth on the knife-like tool caught the glow of the candlelight.

A ragged bellow quivered through the tempestuous wind.

Emma looked up. The shadow returned. Puffs of steam fogged the window and a guttural growl echoed through the panes. She leaned over and extinguished the candle’s flame. If the intruder couldn’t see her, it would go away. It had to go away. Wisps of candle smoke coiled and vanished into the dank air. Something sharp scratched the window.

Emma stifled a gasp and wrapped her fingers around the saw’s slim, wooden handle.

The shadow crept away. Its footsteps crunched through the snow until they halted at the front door. She held her breath, closed her eyes, and prayed for the intruder to leave.

The doorknob rattled.

Emma’s eyes flashed open.

Fingernails scrabbled against the wood, and moans drifted through the gap beneath the door. A dry sob erupted from her throat and she shrank into her rocking chair. Where was Jesse? Why hadn’t he come home? Cold and hunger tortured her day and night. He must know that.

Something slammed into the door. Emma winced and straightened. The door shook in its frame, again and again. Thump after thump until—

The wooden barrier burst open and a man staggered inside. “Fucking storm.” He brushed snow off of his massive shoulders and stomped ice from his boots.

A hiss slithered from Emma’s throat.

The man’s head snapped up. He squinted into the cabin’s darkness. “Hello?” His eyes roamed past her and halted on the thin stream of smoke wafting from the candle’s blackened wick. “Someone there?”

Emma glared at the intruder, at his ruddy cheeks and bulging gut. Nothing like Jesse. Her beloved, sweet Jesse.

She squeezed the saw and slid from her chair. The frigid wind blowing through the open doorway flattened her threadbare gown against her skeletal body and lifted her gray, wispy hair. She crouched low, her joints creaking and cracking like the trees in the forest, and willed the man’s attention back to her. Willed him to see her. To feel her desperation and fury.

Why wasn’t he Jesse? She needed Jesse.

The man’s gaze jerked from the candle to Emma. “Shit!” He jumped and grabbed his chest. “You scared me.” A cracked laugh trembled from his lips.

Emma bared her blackened teeth and dug her yellowed fingernails into the saw’s handle.

The man’s grin faded. “Uh…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I was, uh, hiking and–I didn’t know anyone was–The cabin looked empty from–” He stepped sideways and tripped. “What the…?” He looked down and recoiled. “Holy fuck!” He stumbled away from a pile of bloodied clothes, shriveled flesh, and broken bones.

His horrified expression fueled her rage. He didn’t know how long she’d been waiting, suffering, hoping.

“I–I’m sorry.” His chest rose and fell, faster and faster. “I shouldn’t have–I won’t tell anyone–I’ll go.” He spun around and lunged for the open door.

Emma shrieked and, in a single, fluid motion, launched herself across the room. She slammed the door and pressed her wraith-like hands against its rotten wood.

The man whimpered.

She cackled, swiveled around, and drifted up to the ceiling. Higher and higher. She hovered above him, her shabby gown fluttering and her bony hands caressing the saw.

He backed away. “No, don’t! Please. Just–Shit, wait.” He raised a hand. “Wait. Wait!”

Emma howled and swooped downwards. She landed in front of him and drove the keyhole saw into his gaping mouth. The rusted teeth sliced through the side of his cheek and sunk into the back of his throat. Blood spurted and gushed from the wound and pooled onto the floor. She grinned and shoved the saw deeper and deeper until its vicious point burst through the back of his skull.

The man stiffened and collapsed on top of the other intruders who had given her hope. Yet again. Hope Jesse had come home. Hope she’d been saved from the forest’s frozen grip. From starving to death. From dying alone.

Emma glided to her rocking chair, relit the candle, and scooped up the blanket. She sat down and hugged the moldy fabric to her. The candle’s reassuring glow glinted off the bloody saw in her lap. She sighed and stared through the foggy window. The blizzard raged on and on, howling through the cold, cruel forest.

“He’ll come back.” She rocked back and forth, back and forth. “He’ll come back.”


Round 1: La Jolla

(Assignment: Action/adventure, underwater cave, a dumbbell)

Round 2: Kleine Mäuse

(Assignment: Historical fiction, a secret laboratory, a mouse)

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

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

Well, everyone, I participated (and survived) yet another round of an NYC Midnight (NYCM) writing contest. If you’d like a behind-the-scenes look at what I went through to produce the story below, click here. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy my first round entry, La Jolla. 

As a reminder, I had 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story based on these prompts:

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 10.13.33 AM

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

“La Jolla” 

By Jenna Willett

Brief Synopsis: A catastrophic disaster strikes during a train tour through La Jolla Cove. Cole must save himself and his brother from the deep blue.


“Welcome to Windansea’s Nature Tours, sponsored by Scripps Institute of Oceanography. My name’s Cole and I’m pleased you’ve joined us on California’s newest and most unique attraction.” He flashed his kilowatt smile at the tourists. One of them, a woman sporting a hot pink fanny pack, snapped a photo of him.

It wasn’t the first time.

Cole gestured to the foggy landscape swaying past their single-car, electric powered train. Palm trees on one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other. “Thanks to Scripps Institute’s eco-friendly, state-of-the-art rail system—all constructed upon suspended bridges and stone outcroppings—we now have a way to experience the seven underwater caves of La Jolla. And thanks to the low tides today, we’ll be able to enter…”

As he regurgitated the memorized spiel, Cole glanced at the back row. His nine-year old brother, Finn, smirked at him and mimed taking a photo. Cole squeezed his fists. He regretted agreeing to babysit.

Ignoring his brother’s ongoing mockery of the other passengers—an old man blowing his nose; yet another middle-aged woman snapping a photo—he continued with his rehearsed speech. “La Jolla Cove is best known for its kayaking and snorkeling…” A cute blonde in a Cal Poly t-shirt caught his eye. He stumbled over his words and grinned at her. Finn made a gagging noise.

Smothering the urge to boot him off the train, Cole refocused on his captive audience. “As we enter the first cave and begin winding our way—”

The train’s lights flickered.

Off. On. Off.

A blanket of murky darkness descended and a distant rumble overtook the train’s gentle hum. It shivered along the tracks and quivered up the wheels. Everyone went quiet and still, even Finn.

“What’s happening?” Fanny Pack placed a hand against the vibrating window.

Cole couldn’t find the breath to gasp the single, horrific word.

Earthquake.

His gaze flew to Finn’s. His brother half stood, as if to run to him.

“Sit down and stay buckled!” Cole flung himself towards the back of the train. “Everyone hold on!”

The rumbling grew louder, the vibrations harder. A chilling screech tore through the train, followed by a metallic groan and cracking glass. The train sped over a bridge and lurched sideways. Cole staggered into the old man. He grabbed Cole’s arm. “We’re gonna die!”

Cole pried himself free and struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

The bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole’s knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him and missed.

“Cole!” Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails.

The tracks collapsed.

The train plummeted.

Gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

He looked down.

Finn strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and catapulted him into the rear window face first. He stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

“Shit.” He rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. A symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. He struggled to his feet and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” He struck the damaged window with his elbow.

Nothing.

“Watch out!” Cal Poly peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. He didn’t ask her where or how she’d found it. People packed the weirdest shit. He shoved Finn back.

She dropped it.

The dumbbell struck the center of the window and shattered it. Icy saltwater rushed in. Cal Poly wasted no time leaping from her seat and vanishing through the gaping hole. Cole grabbed Finn and urged him to follow her.

He balked. “Ar—Are there sharks?”

“No,” Cole lied. “We’ll be fine. Just swim as fast as you can.”

Finn nodded.

“We’ll go together on the count of three. Ready?” Cole held up a hand. “One, two, three.” They inhaled and went under. Keeping a firm grip on Finn, Cole launched them through the window, away from the wreck, and towards the surface. It seemed a million miles away.

With each stroke and kick, Cole’s lungs burned, his legs seized, and his arms weakened. Dark shapes floated around them. Passengers? Debris? Sharks? He refused to look. He didn’t want to know. He clawed his way towards the shimmering daylight streaming through the blue.

Finn went limp.

No!

Cole clenched his jaw and used his last bit of energy to propel them to the surface. Air bubbles billowed from his mouth and nose. Just a few more feet. One more kick, one more stroke. One more—

He burst through the surface and sucked in a sweet, sweet breath. Then another and another.

Finn remained limp.

“No!” Cole spun around in the water. Cal Poly clung to a nearby rock. “Help!” He struggled towards her. “Please—My brother—Help!”

She pushed off the rock and swam to him. Together they dragged Finn over to a rocky shore.

“He’s…not…breathing.” Cole collapsed next to Finn’s motionless body.

Cal Poly thrust her hands against Finn’s chest and began CPR. Cole watched, terrified by Finn’s blue lips and white face. He’d give anything—anything—to see him goofing off and mimicking passengers again.

Suddenly, Finn’s chest jerked, his shoulders heaved, and water shot from his mouth.

Cole closed his eyes and buried his face against his brother’s curly hair. “Oh, thank God.” He looked at Cal Poly. “Thank you.”

She nodded.

As Finn’s coughs and sputters quieted, and the few surviving passengers joined them on the shore, an alarm echoed through the cave’s opening.

“What’s that?” Finn sat up.

Cole couldn’t find the breath to tell him or Cal Poly.

Tsunami.


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

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Jen’s Editing Tips: The Power of White Space

Since I’m now a freelance editor, I’ve decided to start a new feature on my blog: Jen’s Editing Tips. This will give me a chance to share some of the common mistakes and missteps I come across in the work I edit, and hopefully help you avoid them.

Jen's Editing TipsTo kick things off, I’m going to discuss one of my biggest editing pet peeves: White space.

Or rather, the lack of it.

white-space-journal-3As you probably assumed, white space refers to the empty areas on a page. You know, the lovely gaps between paragraphs. The simple, yet powerful tool writers use to present their stories to audiences.

Before I get into the exact reasons why white space is so important, let me show you an example. Below is my 150-word flash fiction piece, Crumb Layer.

Without white space:

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. I smile. 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.

With white space: 

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. I smile.

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.

See the difference? With just a few taps of the return key, I was able to strengthen my story without changing a single word of it. It read faster, cleaner, and easier. It also had more tension and landed a bigger punch at the very end.

So, now that you’ve seen what I’m talking about, let me list some specific benefits of using white space:

Reader-friendly

The majority of readers love to see white space on a page. It immediately welcomes them into a story, encourages them to keep reading, and tricks them into thinking they’re reading less (even though they’re not). To most readers, white space says, “Hey, I’m your buddy. I’m not gonna overwhelm you with long, dense paragraphs that make you want to quit before you’ve even begun.”

Trust me, your readers will be more enthusiastic and less intimidated if you insert white space into your work.

Pacing

White space is one of the best and easiest ways to control the pacing of your story. To speed things up, use more of it. To slow things down, use less of it. Simple, right?

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should use tons and tons of white space.

Just because you use more doesn’t mean people will zip through your story.

In fact, too much white space can be as detrimental as not enough.

Why?

Because, as you might see here, white space can become distracting.

Too much of it, and your story loses its cohesion and fluidity.

It also takes on a jagged feel.

And readers might get lost.

Or irritated.

Or both.

So don’t overdo it!

…Don’t.

Rhythm

Think about how a song would sound if it stayed in the same key from start to finish:

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. 

Not exactly thrilling, is it? Let’s mix things up by adding some variety.

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.

Bum-bum-bum. 

See? Even without changing the monotonous “lyrics,” the rhythm changed because I added white space. That’s how you should approach a story. You should remember it isn’t just words on paper. It’s a song and your audience listens closely. If they’re not grooving to the beat, then there’s a chance they’ll switch to another station (er, book).

Emphasis

One of my favorite things about white space is it ensures readers know something significant happened. Like, a new character was introduced or a plot twist was revealed. It also helps magnetize key moments in a scene. It ups the level of drama, hilarity, or, as seen in the example below, terror.

The smell of rot stung her nose, making her eyes water. Howls and groans she couldn’t comprehend echoed around her. They seemed to be coming from every direction.

Pete shoved Andy into Kate’s arms. “Run, dammit!”

She hugged Andy to her and bolted. The sky shrieked with inhuman sounds, and the ground trembled so violently, she feared she’d tumble.

The sky went white.

Blinding, icy, horrifying white.

If I hadn’t isolated those last two lines in my story “Inevitable,” they would’ve been diluted and lost amongst the other horrific events in the story. And they wouldn’t have amped up the tension and propelled readers to the very end.

Limits Confusion

In addition to emphasizing vital plot points and powerful moments in a story, white space helps cut down on confusion.

Think about it:

If you clump everything together–characters, plot twists, scene changes, time leaps–it’s likely your readers will miss something important. And once that happens, they’ll inevitably get confused. And confused readers tend to become bored readers. And bored readers will likely set your story aside to read one that doesn’t have them scratching their head.

Bottom line, no matter what your personal style is, white space is a key element in storytelling. Whether you enjoy using a lot or a little of it, it must be used to some capacity to ensure your story is presented in the clearest, most satisfying way to readers.

So, what do you think about this simple, yet strategic editing tool? Is it something you think about while writing? Or is it something you haven’t considered? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Jen’s Top 5 Short Story Tips

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

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

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

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

Jen’s Top Five Tips For Writing Short Stories

1: Choose One Main Event

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

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

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

2) The Fewer The Characters, The Better The Story

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

Maddie shrugged. “No idea. Pete?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Avoid Time/Scene Hopping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Think Outside the Box

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

Are you thinking?

Got it?

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

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

Annnnnnd

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

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

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

Related Articles

Why You Should Enter the Flash Fiction Challenge 2015

The Differences Between The NYC Midnight FFC and SSC

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