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 Editing Tips – Slow…Down

Most of us have big dreams of walking into a bookstore and seeing our beautiful, gorgeous, wonderful novel on a shelf. Or, better yet, seeing a complete stranger reading it in public…But, there’s something about this big dream we all need to understand.

Jen's Editing TipsIt.

Takes.

Forrrrrrever.

To.

Achieve.

Yes, I know most of you understand this. In fact, I’m sure many of you have experienced it. Writing a novel takes months, if not years. And getting it published can take even longer.

However, with the rise of self-publishing, as well as society’s increasing need for instant gratification, I fear some writers are losing patience with the process. Or, perhaps, some writers simply don’t understand it. That’s why today I’d like to share a simple, yet vital tip with you:

Slow.

Down!

I know that hurts to hear, but if you want to produce a strong, entertaining, and thoroughly developed story, then you need to stop rushing to the finish line. You need to sloooow down and remind yourself quality isn’t free. It costs time.

A.

Lot.

Of.

Time.

The more you rush through the process, the more issues you’ll face: Shallow plots. Flat characters. Contradictions. Cliches. Stiff dialogue. Redundancies…The list goes on and on. I’ve seen these issues in projects I’ve edited, and I’ve seen them in published books I’ve read. When a writer sprints through the process, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

So, to help you from making this major faux pas, I’d like to offer a general approach to writing a novel. Is this the only approach out there? No, of course not. But it’s definitely a tried and true method that ensures a story receives the proper amount of attention it deserves before it gets sent out into the world.

Step 1: Write First Draft 

This is my personal take on first drafts: They are 100% private and nobody should read them except you. Think of it like this: You’re the lone survivor of the apocalypse and you’re really bored, so you decide to strip down to your birthday suit and go dancing in the streets. Hey, why not? Nobody’s around to see or judge you.

If you approach your first draft with this mentality, I promise you won’t feel like there’s an invisible audience watching and judging you. You can charge into the unknown and write fearlessly.

Step 2: Take a Break…Or Not

Some writers will say you have to take a break after you finish your first draft. I say it’s up to you. If you’re burned out and exhausted, then yes, give yourself a much deserved hiatus from your story. A week, two weeks, a month…Then get back to work.

However, if you’re in a groove and can’t fathom stopping, then don’t. Take advantage of your creative high and leap into your second draft.

Step 3: The Real Work Begins

Draft one can be tough, but it’s nothing compared to what happens next:

Draft two.

I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s time to stop dancing and put your clothes back on. An unexpected group of survivors have arrived at the end of the street and they’re glancing your way. No, they’re not ready to walk over and introduce themselves yet, but they’re thinking about it.

So, you better boogie on home, roll up your sleeves, and start shaping your first draft into something presentable for other people’s eyes.

Step 4: Take a Break!

Perhaps you didn’t feel the need to take a break after you finished your first draft, but now you need to. You can’t  approach your third draft until you’ve put some distance between yourself and your beloved story.

If you’re really wild and crazy, you might consider sending your second draft to your first reader(s). I like to send mine to my mom. She’s trustworthy, honest, and objective. She’s also aware this is an early draft and I’m only looking for big picture-type feedback.

Or, if you’re doubting your story at this stage, you might consider sending the first chapter to an editor to critique. They can give you a knee-jerk reaction to your plot and characters, and help you decide if it’s worth pursuing. Many editors, including myself, offer such a service for a very affordable price (usually in the $25 range).

Of course, if you’re not ready for anyone to read your manuscript yet, that’s totally fine. Tuck it away and ignore it for a couple of weeks.

Step 5: Question Time

As you begin working on your third draft, ask yourself tough questions like:

“Has this story been told before?”

“Am I starting the story too early? Too late?”

“Are my characters interesting and likable? Or are they yawn-worthy, annoying caricatures audiences will reject after a couple of chapters?”

“Do I have too much backstory, especially in the early chapters? Am I prone to info dumps?”

By this stage, you better be showered and dressed, and your house better be clean, because the other survivors of the apocalypse have arrived at your front door. And they’re prepared to bombard you with questions. So, be as objective as possible. Hunt for all the flaws, loopholes, and cliches in your manuscript. Show no mercy!

Step 6: Beta Readers

By now, you’ve worked through at least three drafts and you’ve hunted down the majority of your story’s problems. Now it’s time to hand it over to your beta readers.

Yes, you need beta readers. Sure, you may include friends and family members (I always send mine to at least a few), but you must include other writers, book nerds, or, if need be, editors. Send it to people who have the ability to be objective, honest, and helpful.

While your betas are reading your manuscript, take another break. Do not keep writing. Clear your head so when feedback starts rolling in, you’re able to absorb it without getting defensive or upset. Because, yes, your betas will find problems. And, yes, it will hurt. And, yes, you’ll survive (you made it through the apocalypse, remember?).

Step 7: Critique the Critiques

Once all of your betas have returned their feedback, it’s time to evaluate it and find out what the general consensus is.

If it’s positive, great! Do a happy dance (ahem, fully clothed), and then sit down and critique your betas’ notes. Take the time to absorb each one and determine which are useful and which are dismissive…Yes, you heard me. You don’t need to use all of the feedback you receive. Please, don’t use all of it. If you do, you’ll have an odd smorgasbord of opinions that’ll hinder your story, rather than help it.

If the overall feedback from your betas is on the negative side, then it’s time to make some tough decisions. I’ve been here, so trust me when I say, you’ll be okay. It’s better to find out now if your story isn’t working than hear it six months down the road from agents or others in the business. If you find yourself in this position, you need to consider:

  1. Doing a complete overhaul of the manuscript. This basically means ripping it up and going back to step one…I’ve personally done this more times than I can count.
  2. Shelving it and working on a new project. As unthinkable as this might seem, it can be the best decision to make. Setting aside a story gives you the space, time, and clarity you need to re-approach it in the future.
  3. Hiring an editor. If you’re not ready to start over or shelve your manuscript, then you might want to hire an editor…But, fair warning, development/content editors are a hefty investment.

Step 8: Revise and Refine

Now that your betas have given you the thumbs up, it’s time to sit down and revise–again. Take all the feedback you’ve received to seal your plot holes, adjust your sentence structures, deepen your characters, etc. Fix any and all problems and strive to make your manuscript the best it can be.

Once you’ve finished, you might want to send it back to your beta readers (either the same group as before or new ones). Find out if your updated version fixed things. If it didn’t, revise–again.

Step 9: Time to be Ruthless

This is when you look out your front window and see hundreds of survivors lining up and down the same road you once danced naked in. They’ve come to meet you…and judge you.

So, guess what? You better take the time to judge every sentence, every paragraph, and every aspect of your book before they do. Stop thinking of it as your precious baby and start thinking of it as a polished product. Be brutal. Be unapologetic. Cut what needs to be cut. Tighten what needs to be tightened. Analyze every character, every piece of dialogue, every chapter break, every twist and turn…EVERYTHING!

If you feel like you need to, hire a copy editor to help you polish things up (ex: sentence structures, grammar, word usage, pacing, etc.).

Once you’ve finished this draft, you should feel confident enough to open your front door and launch copies at those judgmental survivors intruding upon your turf.

Step 10: Release It 

Yep, you’ve made it! You’ve done everything you can to prepare your manuscript for the world. Whether that’s sending it to agents or getting it self-published, you should feel proud of yourself and proud of the story you’ve worked so hard on!

Now, I’m sure some of you went through those steps and thought, “No way. I’m not doing all of that.” That’s fine. Perhaps you have a different tried and true method? Like I said, mine isn’t the only one out there.

But, I know–I know–there are writers who are simply impatient and don’t want to bother with these time-consuming, yet vital steps. They want to jump from step one, to step four, to step ten in the blink of an eye.

You can’t expect to produce a quality story if you’re not taking the time to write it. It’s as simple as that.

At the very least, before you deem your manuscript worthy of being read by the entire world, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. “How many drafts have I written?”…If it’s less than three, STOP! You’re not ready.
  2. “Have my beta readers given their stamp of approval?”…If you don’t know what a beta reader is, STOP! You’re not ready. Or, if you replied, “My best friend read it and he/she loved it!”, STOP! You’re not ready.
  3. “Have I been as ruthless and objective with my final draft as possible?” If you shied away from that statement, STOP! You’re not ready.

Bottom line:

Slow.

Down!

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.

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