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.

19389796-7f37-4854-addd-e76189e4b0f0

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.

IMG_20160722_235130

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!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Photo Credits: giphy

 

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!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

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

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Photo credits: giphy

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

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Photo credits: 1

 

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.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

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!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Kleine Mause – 2nd Round – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Yet another round of an NYC Midnight (NYCM) writing contest has come and gone. As always, it was crazy, challenging, and exhausting. This round, however, was more exhausting than ever. I took on a difficult–really difficult–subject matter that made me a blubbering mess most of the weekend. (If you care to, you may read about my full experience here).

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

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 11.26.43 AM

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

“Kleine Mäuse”

By Jenna Willett

Brief Synopsis: On the night of April 20th, 1945, a French prisoner and the twenty children he cares for at Neuengamme concentration camp are transported to a nearby school. There, they must face Dr. Heissmeyer’s final atrocity.


Every night, René dreamed of the sweet scent of roses. Every morning, he tucked that dream into his pocket to protect himself from the horrors of Neuengamme concentration camp.

“René!” A finger poked his shoulder. “Wake up.”

The roses wilted.

René’s eyes snapped open. A Dutch prisoner, also assigned to care for Barrack 11’s twenty children, loomed over him. “Oui?” René sat up.

“We must wake and dress the children.” The Dutchman shot a wary look at the SS guards standing by the doors. “We’re moving.”

“Moving? Where?” René’s stomach twisted. If they moved, they might not be saved. Rumor had it Allied forces were close.

“To Theresienstadt.”

Merde!” Theresienstadt was five hundred miles away.

Schnell, schnell!” A guard kicked René’s foot. “Move.”

René and three other caretakers gathered the children. Some were strong enough to walk on their own, but many had to be carried. Dr. Heissmeyer’s experimental tuberculosis injections had left them hollow shells.

René pursed his lips. Not even children could escape the Nazi’s grip. Heissmeyer himself called them his kleine Mäuse.

Little mice.

Once on the trucks, they rumbled out of Neuengamme camp. A melodic voice tickled René’s ears.

“Did you dream of roses, Monsieur René?”

He smiled at the girl next to him. “Oui.”

Other children turned to listen, eagerness shining from their emaciated faces.

“What color were they?” Jacqueline’s sunken eyes glittered in the night.

“Pink.”

“What did they smell like?”

The children leaned towards René, as if the scent of roses wafted off of him. “What do you think they smelled like?”

Jacqueline closed her eyes and inhaled. “Home.”

“No, candy.” A dimpled boy clapped.

“Strawberries!” A freckled girl giggled.

“Heaven.” The sickest of the children, Georges, leaned his head back and sighed.

René tore his gaze away and looked outside. The city of Hamburg lay dark and silent, long quieted by the air raids.

Without warning, the truck turned and passed a bullet-ridden sign: Bullenhuser Damm School. They ground to a stop in front of a towering building with shattered windows and scorched bricks.

Terror zipped up René’s spine.

Their destination wasn’t Theresienstadt. It was another of Dr. Heissmeyer’s secret laboratories…Or worse.

“Off!” An SS guard commanded.

René and the caretakers herded the children into the school. With each step, his heart thumped harder. Behind him, one of Heissmeyer’s assistants appeared. He muttered something about sedatives. “We don’t have enough. We’ll have to use morphine.”

René broke into a cold sweat. The urge to shout at the children to run and hide took hold of him. But, he didn’t. He couldn’t. Silence and obedience meant survival.

The guards led them to a basement with two rooms. René and the caretakers went left, the children right. “Remember the roses, mes petites.” He met Jacqueline’s gaze across the hall. She smiled and waved at him, oblivious to the stench of danger poisoning the air.

The doors slammed shut.

René turned to the other caretakers. “Merde.” Clearly, they and the children were Heissmeyer’s laboratory, and they had to be destroyed before the liberators arrived.

René stared at the coat hooks jutting from the walls. After several excruciating minutes, the door opened. Heissmeyer swept in with his assistant and guards. One of them carried a child.

“Georges!” René gaped at the unconscious boy.

Ja, those will do.” Heissmeyer motioned to the hooks. A guard secured a rope around one of them.

René blinked. “What are you–?”

A guard slipped the noose around Georges’ neck.

Arrêtez!” René lurched forward.

A guard knocked him back.

Non! They’re children! Innocent—”

Heissmeyer spun around. His upper lip curled. “They’re Jews. And there’s no difference in principal between Jews and laboratory animals, ja?”

Kleine Mäuse.

The guard released Georges and laughed. “Look! He’s like a picture hanging on a wall.” Georges’ bare toes twitched and his skeletal shoulders jerked. Urine trickled down his legs, and his face flushed purple-blue.

Bâtards!” René lunged again. So did the other caretakers. But the guards were bigger and healthier. They knocked the four men back and aimed guns at them. René stared, stunned by their cruelty. How could they kill children? How could they make them watch?

Tears blurred René’s vision.

A guard removed Georges limp body from the hook and dropped it on the ground like a sack of flour.

The door opened again.

Jacqueline. Unconscious.

Non!” René charged the guards. “Non, non, non!” A baton smashed into his temple. He staggered backwards. By the time his vision cleared, Jacqueline swung from the hook.

Dead.

Non…” René sank to the ground.

The door opened and shut, opened and shut. One-by-one, the morphine-drugged children swung from the hooks. Marek, Roman, Eleonora, Riwka…

With each death, René died too.

He stared up at the ceiling. Why God?

A white petal drifted past him. Then another and another. They covered the children’s bodies, like a downy blanket. Peace swept over René’s numb soul. No longer would the children be Heissmeyer’s kleine Mäuse.

They’d be free.

Two guards heaved René to his feet, and dragged him across the room to a wooden stool. Beneath it, roses burst through the floor, and green vines crawled up the walls to a pipe running along the ceiling. From it, a pink rose bloomed and beckoned him upwards.

René stepped onto the stool.

A vine swung down from the pipe and curled around his throat. He closed his eyes and inhaled the scent of home, candy, and strawberries.

Heaven.

The stool vanished.

The rose wilted.

#

A little girl placed a pink rose on the memorial outside the school at Bullenhuser Damm in Hamburg. Its petals fluttered in the spring air and emitted a delicate scent that swirled around the monuments marking the lost lives of twenty children and their four caretakers in 1945.

At her feet, the green leaves and vines rustled and shuddered. She frowned and looked down. A field mouse popped out and scurried away, into the rose garden.

To freedom.


Les Mis Lyrics

This story is based on a true event. If you’d care to learn more about the Children of Bullenhuser Damm, click here.

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

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

And…Action! – 1st Round – NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge

So, as some of you might’ve already noticed from my post earlier this week, I participated in the first round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2015. I considered not writing about my experience since I already shared my story with you, but what the heck. I’ll go ahead and tell you all about it.

First, as a quick reminder, the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge 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–AHH!

The whirlwind weekend kicked off last Friday night. At 10 p.m. (MST), I opened my email and looked at my assignment:

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 10.13.33 AMMy first thoughts when I saw these prompts?

Action Adventure:

An underwater cave:

A dumbbell:

Yeah, I literally laughed out loud when I saw “dumbbell” as the object I had to use in my story. I mean…really? Seriously? Ugh.

I decided to ignore that lovely problem for the time being, and started the challenge off like I always do: a brainstorm session with my mom (my go-to supporter/editor/counselor during these contests). For about an hour, we bounced ideas off of each other. All I could think about was sunken pirate ships and buried treasures…which had to mean my competitors were thinking about them too. So, I dug deeper and forced myself to think outside the box.

Finally, I came up with a concept I loved.

Once I began writing on Saturday morning, the words tumbled out of me with little effort. I wrote and wrote and wrote, eager to get a first draft done so I could share it with my mom and start to refine it.

Unfortunately, after about eight hours of work, I realized there was a big problem with my action-adventure: There was no action.

I decided to finish the first draft anyway and go over to my mom’s house so she could read it and give me feedback. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought? Maybe I just needed to make some slight adjustments to salvage it? Maybe there was still hope?

My mom finished reading and sat back in her chair. “Well, it’s fine. It’s…fine.”

I almost screamed. It wasn’t fine. It was an absolute disaster!

I forced myself to take a deep breath and troubleshoot the story’s main problem. “I know there isn’t enough action in it, but I don’t know how to add more while maintaining the characters and plot. I can’t just leap into things without explaining…” I trailed off as a horrible realization struck me:

This story wasn’t going to work.

I had to find a new idea.

I had to start over.

After I breathed through a bout of panic, I told my mom, “I think I need to scrap this and come up with something else.”

She agreed a little too enthusiastically. “Oh?” She shoved aside her laptop with my old story on it. “What are you thinking?”

“I don’t know.” I buried my face in my hands and closed my eyes. I felt so lost and frustrated. I had known action-adventure would be tough, but not this tough.

Suddenly, a train flashed through my mind.

I looked at my mom. “I think I want to write about a train crash.” 

“Er…”

“Inside an underwater cave.”

“Uh…Oookay.

Despite my mom’s uncertainty, I felt confident. The concept was so absurd, I knew it could work. I mean, most action films are absurd, right? So crashing a train in an underwater cave seemed totally feasible. Actually, it seemed awesome.

I went home, rolled up my sleeves, and got back to work.

By noon on Sunday, I had a decent first draft. I called my mom and she came over to help me edit it. As she read through the story for the first time, I felt sick to my stomach. If she didn’t like my train wreck concept, then the entire weekend would be, well, a train wreck.

Thankfully, she loved it.

Hallelujah!

I spent the rest of the day fine-tuning my plot and characters, chopping my word count down from 1,500 to 1,000, and figuring out how to use that ridiculous dumbbell prompt (if you want to know how I decided to use the dumbbell, you’ll have to read the story 😉 ). I also spent a good amount of time acting out the train crash to ensure I got the physics right…Yeah, I’m sure my mom wished she’d a camera to record that epic performance.

By late afternoon, I had a decent enough draft to send to my beta readers. Once I fixed the problems they pointed out, chopped out a few more words, and gave the story a title (“La JollaI submitted it.

Then I promptly collapsed from exhaustion.

It was, as always, a crazy 48-hours, but I ended up with a story I’m proud of. Yes, it’s ridiculous. Yes, there are some logical flaws in the plot. And, yes, the dumbbell is a bit, well, dumb. But whatever. I had fun writing it, and I hope people have fun reading it.

If you’d like to check out “La Jolla,” go ahead and click here!

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge 2015! It’s not an easy challenge, so everyone deserves a giant pat on the back.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 

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.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.