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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Top 2015 Posts – Can You Write a Story in 150 Words

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:

Can You Write A Story In 150 Words

#9_1Writing 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.

*gulp*

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!

“Crumb Layer”

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.

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.


To learn more about the contest and Ad Hoc Fiction, click here.

Top 10 2015 Posts

10. Are You a Positive or Negative Writer

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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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NaNoWriMo Tips – Don’t Compare Yourself To Other Writers

A couple of days ago, I officially “won” NaNoWriMo.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 4.11.48 PMAfter I did a happy dance, I went online and skimmed through posts and Tweets about NaNoWriMo. As I did, a sense of unease overcame me. So many writers were acting discouraged and defeated because their word counts weren’t as high as others. It made me wonder:

Do early winners kill the motivation of other writers?

I decided to ask a handful of writing buddies this question. Some declared early winners inspire them because it proves NaNo can be done. Others admitted early winners make them feel overwhelmed, panicked, and even resentful.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it myself: during the last NaNo I signed up for, early winners irritated me more than they inspired me. While they declared themselves finished, I continued digging myself out of the 10K word hole I’d  fallen into…It wasn’t a fun or happy time.

So, today I thought I’d offer some encouragement to anyone out there who might be feeling overwhelmed, panicked, and/or resentful by early NaNo winners (or anyone with a higher word count). First off, let me assure you, writing 50K words in less than two weeks isn’t normal! It’s crazy.

Second, a variety of factors play into how fast people finish NaNo. To finish in ten days or less, I discovered you need to:

  1. Have ample time. Life is calm, work is slow, sleep is futile, etc. Writers who finish NaNo early tend to have plenty of time on their hands. Personally, my life was abnormally peaceful the past ten days. The only thing that prevented me from writing all day, every day was my job, and even that happened to be calm and stress-free.
  2. Be extremely focused. I made NaNoWriMo my main priority the past two weeks. I passed on invitations to events, turned down requests from family and friends, and resisted blogging and working on other non-essential projects. If it didn’t have to do with my manuscript, I ignored it. (Hermit, party of one!)
  3. Act like a competitive overachiever. Early NaNo winners can deny it all they want, but the majority of us are competitive overachievers. That doesn’t mean we’re trying to beat other writers. Not at all! It means we’re trying to beat ourselves. We have to match or do better than we did the day before. It’s a natural compulsion we can’t control.
  4. Experience creative energy overload. All writers experience creative highs and lows. Sometimes the words have to be ripped out of us, and sometimes they tumble out faster than we can type. During NaNo, some of us get lucky and experience a high. We get in an amazing groove and can’t stop writing even when our eyes hurt and our fingers cramp. It’s a blessing, and it’s a blessing that needs to be embraced before it disappears.
  5. Word vomit. A lot. I’m usually a sucker for revising as I write, but this time during NaNo, I refused–absolutely refused–to revise anything. I word vomited all over my pages and didn’t care about the giant mess I made. If I had a new idea or discovered a plot hole, I jotted it down in my notebook and kept going. I never went back to fix things. Never.

unnamedAnd if I didn’t like the direction I was taking my story, I added a few spaces between my paragraphs, wrote “SWITCHING GEARS” , and carried on as though I’d made the change. Nothing stopped me from writing, writing, writing.

Bottom line: It takes a magical combination of luck and hard work to finish NaNoWriMo early. Time, inspiration, and determination play key factors in propelling some to the 50K mark in the blink of an eye.

But, that’s them.

And you are you!

You can’t look at another writer’s stats and then question your own. You can’t! I learned that during my first NaNo when I kept comparing myself to those who finished early. Their amazing success didn’t inspire me. It hurt me and it made my journey harder.

So, if you’re like me and get dragged down rather than lifted up by early winners, here’s my advice:

Tell yourself everyone handles NaNoWriMo differently, and a million factors influence how fast people reach the finish line. Some writers are able to sprint, others must jog, and others are forced to walk. The truth is, the pace doesn’t matter. What matters is you achieve your goal. If that goal takes two weeks, one month, or an entire year, then so be it.

Just keep writing!

Take it one day at a time. Don’t think about how far you still have to go, or how much work you will need to do in the future. Think about today. Today is all that matters in the land of writing.

Keep up the good work, everyone. You can do this!

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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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Ghosts and Chaos – Semi-Finals – NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge

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:
Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 12.20.23 PMMy first impressions?

Ghost Story:

A forest:

A saw:

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:

“Waiting Shadows”
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!

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NaNoWriMo Tips – Time is of the Essence

The countdown is officially on. NaNoWriMo is less than a week away.

Okay, perhaps the idea of writing 50,000 words in one month doesn’t freak you out. But, for many of us (including those who’ve “won” NaNo) the endeavor is terrifying. That’s a lot–a lot–of work in a small–a small–amount of time. And, no matter how prepared you feel, I can promise you one thing:

You won’t succeed if you don’t manage your time.

It only takes a few missed days during NaNoWriMo to fall behind schedule. And it only takes a few more missed days to make catching up near impossible. So, managing your time and keeping your focus is vital. Today, I’d like to share some of my personal tips on how to do this.

Not only have these methods helped me win NaNoWriMo, but they’ve also helped me whip out revised manuscripts for agents within three weeks, and submit stories for contests with deadlines as short as 24-hours. I’ll admit, most of these strategies aren’t fun or pretty, but if you want to meet a tight deadline, then I’d recommend giving one or all of them a shot.

Chop Out Distractions

Duh, right?

But, as obvious as this one is, it’s the most important. It’s also the hardest. Although many distractions are unavoidable (working a full-time job, taking care of your family, paying bills, etc.), there are many you can avoid: Going to the movies. Playing games on the internet. Texting and IM’ing friends. Watching TV…You have to chop out these activities when you’re on a deadline. It stinks, but if want to reach the finish line, then you need to dedicate all of your free time to writing.

And on that note…

Accept Your Loner Status

We’ve all heard writing is a lonely job. Well, it is.

Even if you’re writing in a coffee shop, a library, or a park, you’re separated from the rest of the world. People can’t see what you see, or feel what you feel. It can be isolating and, well, a little depressing at times. Thankfully, on a regular writing schedule, you’re able to take frequent breaks to reconnect with humanity and remind yourself you live here, not in the fictitious other world you’ve created.

However, when you’re on a deadline, you don’t have the luxury of time to constantly re-root yourself in reality. You have to stay connected to that lonely other world for longer periods of time. You can’t hop on Facebook every thirty minutes, or text your bestie every hour. You have to live and breathe your story for as long as possible. Keep writing until you forget who and where you are. Keep seeing and feeling everything your characters see and feel. Keep going until you fear you might be losing your mind.

Then stop and take a break. Go eat dinner. Call a friend. IM a writing buddy. Reconnect with the real world.

…And then get back to work.

Commit One FULL Day EACH Week to Writing

4a8b505cd84f1d0bcd7db17f17b2a584Nearly everyone in my life knows Saturday is my writing day. AKA, “Don’t Talk to Jenna Day”. From sun up to sun down, I write. It’s intense and it’s not always fun, but it’s vital to my production output.

And I bet it would be vital to yours as well.

By dedicating a full day to writing each week, you’ll not only give yourself a major word count boost, but you’ll give yourself a major motivation boost. It won’t matter how tired or busy you get during the rest of the week, you’ll want to keep your story moving along. You’ll want to finish that last chapter, or start the next one, or rewrite an old one to match the new one you wrote on your writing day, or…The list goes on and on.

There’s No Crying in Writing

Okay, okay. There’s lots of crying in writing. And trust me, when you’re writing under deadline, you’ll probably cry even more.

But you know what? You gotta suck it up and push through the emotional breakdowns. Go grab a piece of chocolate, watch an episode of your favorite TV show, and listen to Journey’s, “Don’t Stop Believin'”. Then get back to work.

Go. Do. It. Now!

…That was my version of tough love. Did it help? No? Whatever. Go eat some more chocolate. GO!

Don’t Be Miss Congeniality

Confession: I have a horrible time saying no to people. Horrible! Whether it’s babysitting for a friend, making a hundred cupcakes for a birthday party, or proofing someone’s work, I always say yes. However, when I’m on a deadline, I have to stifle my Miss Congeniality urge and say no.

No, no, no!

And if you’re a “yes” person like me, then you need to do the same thing. It’s terrible, I know, but you have to be selfish when you’re trying to reach a deadline. You have to put yourself first. You have to!

To help ease your guilt, give your acquaintances, friends, and family members a heads up. Tell them you’re going to be crazy busy for the next month and you can’t help them a ton. If they know and respect you, they’ll leave you alone.

Even When You’re Not Chugging, Keep Chugging

Okay, fine. Maybe you can’t be a complete self-serving hermit during NaNoWriMo. You’ve got work, the gym, the kids, hundreds of errands, special events…

It’s okay!

If you can’t physically sit down to write, you can still keep chugging along. For example: Every day during my hour commute to and from work, I listen to a playlist I created for my WIP. As I listen to the inspiring songs I’ve collected, I strategize my next scene, or create a new character, or discover a plot hole. That way when I’m finally able to sit down and write, I’m ready to go.

Of course, carrying a small notepad with you is a smart idea. That way if you come up with an idea, you can jot it down so you won’t forget it. And if you don’t have a notebook, use your phone. Most have apps now that allow you to take notes.

Just Keep Swimming

Just keep swimming. Just keep working. Just keep writing!

Swim, swim, swim. Work, work, work. Write, write, write!

Don’t. Give. Up!

Writing on a deadline is like running a marathon. It’s exhausting, difficult, and seemingly endless. But it will come to an end. Trust me. All you have to do is remember to keep your eyes on the finish line, breathe, and focus. If you do, you’ll make it. And you’ll make it on time!

So, there you go! Those are my tips for managing your time during NaNoWriMo (or with whatever project you might be working on with a deadline). I hope one or all of them help you meet your goals.

Good luck, everyone! If you’d like to add me as a buddy on the NaNoWriMo site, my username is jenspenden!

What about you? What are some of your time management strategies?

Speaking of deadlines, since I’m participating in NaNo this year, I probably won’t be posting much during November. But, fear not! There are plenty of other informative blogs to take advantage of. I recommend these ones:

Lit World Interviews

Kristen Lamb’s Blog

Sacha Black 

Carly Watters, Literary Agent

Newshound to Novelist: This blog has recently announced it will soon start a new feature called “Author Advice.” Sounds cool!

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