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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Photo credits: giphy

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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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.

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All Cried Out – 2nd Round – NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge

This past weekend marked the second round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2015. And it was…ouch!

In a nutshell, it was one of the hardest, most emotional writing experiences I’ve ever had.

Before I jump in, let me quickly remind you the The NYC Midnight (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. Yeah, it’s crazy.

As usual, the chaos began on Friday night when I opened my newest assignment:

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 11.26.43 AM

My first impressions?

Historical Fiction

A secret laboratory

A mouse

I hit a brick wall instantly. I did not like my prompts. Thankfully, I happened to be at my mom’s house and she gave me a quick, “You can’t change it, so get over it” speech. So, I did…well, sort of. While she began Googling secret laboratories in history, I curled up on the couch and tried to fish a random trivia fact out of my brain.

After a few minutes, I caught one. I looked at my mom and said, “What about the Manhattan Project? That was a secret laboratory, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.” She shrugged and returned to Googling.

Clearly, she wasn’t a fan of that idea. So, I curled up again and tossed my lure back into my mind’s pool of random facts.

I wandered away from the Manhattan Project and flipped through the other events of World War II. I don’t know why I felt drawn to that era. Personally, I’ve always been infatuated with the American Civil War and the Roaring 20’s.

After a few more minutes of deep contemplation, I recalled something I’d heard about…Problem was, I couldn’t remember if it was fact or fiction. So, I asked my mom. She wrinkled her nose and confirmed it had, indeed, happened. Then she went back to Googling.

Again.

Despite her lack of enthusiasm for the topic, I pulled out my phone and began my own Google search. Even though it frightened me, I wanted to see if I could find something to base my story on. I clicked on the first article that popped up and skimmed through dozens of photos. They were tough to look at, so I zipped past most of them.

Then this one caught my eye.
83806473_132718492978For a minute, I stared at the black and white Shirley Temple-lookalike. I wanted to know more about her, but I was terrified to find out. If she was connected to this topic, then her fate was likely a tragic one…But, I had to know. So, with great trepidation, I clicked on her photo.

Turned out her name was Jacqueline Morgenstern, and what happened to her…Well, it punched me in the gut and grabbed me by the heart.

After I shook off the urge to cry, I read the article to my mom. She set down her phone. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I’d found my story.

I decided not to do anymore research that night. I’d chosen a topic that would probably give me nightmares, so I didn’t want to start until the next morning. I thanked my mom for her help and went home to go to bed.

I woke up just a few hours later, too anxious to sleep. The contest’s clock was ticking, and I couldn’t write a single word until I did a ton of research.

And I did a ton of research. For over seven hours, I watched documentaries, read dozens of articles, and scrolled through countless pictures. I called my mom off and on to talk to her about what I’d found, and during each conversation, I broke down and cried.

After my fifth meltdown, my mom said, “Hey, maybe you should find a different topic? This one might be too dark.”

I almost agreed with her. I wanted to agree with her, but…I looked at Jacqueline Morgenstern’s picture and thought, “I stumbled upon her story for a reason. I’m supposed to write this. I need to write this.” So, I took a deep breath, wiped off my tears, and told my mom, “I have to keep going.”

She didn’t try and talk me out of it again.

By late afternoon, I finally began writing my story. Unfortunately, I had to stop within a couple of hours to go to a friend’s party…Yeah, I was awesome company at that get-together.

As you might suspect, I didn’t last long. I left the party early and returned home to finish an ugly first draft before bedtime.

The next morning, I woke up before the sun and went back to work. I felt calmer than I had on Saturday. The hardest parts of the weekend were over: Finding a story, researching the you-know-what out of it, and slapping together a first draft. Now it was time for the “fun” part: Molding my words and making them presentable to readers. Oh, and chopping my story down from 2K to 1K words. (Blast the word count limit!)

Around 8 a.m., I finished my second draft. About the same time, my mom–bless her soul–swept through the front door and declared she was ready to help me edit. I was shocked by her early arrival, but also grateful. I needed her moral support and critical eye to get me through the day.

For hours, we read my story out loud to each other, first focusing on the story and characters, and then on the word count. I had to cut over 700 of them to meet the 1K requirement.

The process was tough. Not only from a technical standpoint, but also from an emotional one. I don’t think my mom and I made it through a single draft without losing our composure and reaching for a tissue.

At last, around 6 p.m., swollen-eyed and hoarse, I submitted my story. Before I collapsed from exhaustion, I thanked my mom for cheering me on and holding me together. This was, by far, one of the hardest stories I’d ever written, and without her there, I don’t think I would’ve had the strength to finish it.

But, I did finish it. And I’m proud of myself for doing so. There are many events–dark, terrible events–in history that have been lost or forgotten, and we can’t let that happen. Even if they hurt and make us uncomfortable, we need to remember them to prevent them from ever happening again.

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:

“Kleine Mäuse”

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.

Update: If you’d like to read “Kleine Mäuse”, here you go!

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for the second round of the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge!

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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.

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 10.13.33 AM

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

“La Jolla” 

By Jenna Willett

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


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

It wasn’t the first time.

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

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

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

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

The train’s lights flickered.

Off. On. Off.

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

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

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

Earthquake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tracks collapsed.

The train plummeted.

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

“Grab my hand!”

He looked down.

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

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

Finn nodded.

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

Nothing.

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

She dropped it.

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

He balked. “Ar—Are there sharks?”

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

Finn nodded.

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

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

Finn went limp.

No!

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

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

Finn remained limp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

“What’s that?” Finn sat up.

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

Tsunami.


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

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Jen’s Top 5 Short Story Tips

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

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

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

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

Jen’s Top Five Tips For Writing Short Stories

1: Choose One Main Event

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

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

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

2) The Fewer The Characters, The Better The Story

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

Maddie shrugged. “No idea. Pete?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Avoid Time/Scene Hopping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Think Outside the Box

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

Are you thinking?

Got it?

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

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

Annnnnnd

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

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

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

Related Articles

Why You Should Enter the Flash Fiction Challenge 2015

The Differences Between The NYC Midnight FFC and SSC

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The Differences Between The NYC Midnight FFC and SSC

I often have people ask me what the difference is between the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC) and Short Story Challenge (SSC). At the heart of it, there is no difference. In both FFC and SSC, you have a limited amount of time and words to write a story based on assigned prompts.

However, there are a few major differences you should know about.

NUMBER OF LIVES

SSC: Each round is sudden death.

In a nutshell: You bomb, you’re out.

FFC: You’re guaranteed two rounds.

If you bomb round one, then you can try and redeem yourself in round two.

 WORD COUNT AND DEADLINE

SSC: Varies.

Each round has a different deadline and word count:

R1 = 2,500 words, 8 days

R2 = 2,000 words, 3 days

R3 = 1,500 words, 24-hours

FFC: Consistent.

Each round has the same deadline and word count: 1,000 words, 48-hours

PROMPTS

SSC: Genre, Character, Subject

Examples:

Mystery, Tour Guide, Debt

Suspense, Chef, Wedding

Ghost Story, Waitress, Statue

FFC: Genre, Location, Object

Examples:

Rom-com, Swamp, RV

Horror, Crowded Beach, Fanny Pack

Political Satire, Airport Security Checkpoint, Map

ADVANCING

In both SSC and FFC, you are placed in a group of 25-40 writers. Your group is then given a set of unique prompts and must compete against each other to determine who advances. How you advance depends on the challenge:

SSC: Top five stories from each group advance to the next round.

Yep! It’s as simple as that. If the judges like your story better than the 20-35 others in your group, then you’re moving on. If not, sorry. Better luck next time.

FFC: Complicated…but not.

Okay, let’s see if I can explain this without over complicating it (because it’s not complicated, it just seems like it).

The top 15 writers in each group get points during round one and round two (and, yes, you stay in the same group for both rounds). 1 point = 15th place, 15 points = 1st place. If you place below 15th, you get zero points. After round two, you combine your total points. The top five in each group advance.

Example: During FFC 2014, I received 4 points for my round one story, and 8 points for my round two. That gave me 12 points total. Since the top five in my group totaled between 18 and 27 points, I didn’t advance.

Actually, earning points at all is awesome, so I was proud of my scores. 🙂 And even when I haven’t scored points, I still got a lot out of the experience.

However, some writers don’t share my attitude. In every FFC, I’ve seen people quit after round one because they received zero points. Don’t do this! Just because your chances of advancing diminish, you could still advance. I’ve seen people bomb round one and rock round two, and vice versa. So, don’t give up. Fight for it!

Plus, you paid for this contest, so why would you bail early? Get your money’s worth and write a second story and get it critiqued by the judges.

Plus, plus, you should enter FFC and SSC with more than winning in mind. Whether it’s to learn, meet other writers, think of a new plot for a novel, or something else, you should have multiple reasons for participating. That way if you don’t do well with the judges, you’ll still have something positive to take away from the experience.

Once you compete in both FFC and SSC, you’ll likely discover you have a preference for one or the other. Some writers like FFC more than SSC, and some writers like SSC more than FFC.

Personally, I’m a bigger fan of SSC. I’m not sure if it’s because of the extra time and larger word counts, or if it’s the added pressure of sudden death. Whatever it is, I tend to do better in SSC than FFC. But I know plenty of others who prefer FFC over SSC.

I guess you’ll have to enter to find out which one you prefer.

Or, who knows? Maybe you’ll love both equally? Both are equally worthy and provide excellent opportunities to writers.

So, go sign up for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016! If you’re not sold on it, click here to see why I think you should. 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 NYC Midnight forum!

To learn more about the NYCM Short Story Challenge 2016, click here!

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Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2015

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 the NYC Midnight (NYCM) writing challenges, I assumed my writing skills were at their best…Wrong! In just a handful of Flash Fiction and Short Story Challenges (FFC 2013, SSC 2014, FFC 2014, SSC 2015), my abilities have grown 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? Well, I’ll tell you:

  • 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/burdensome for a reader. So, make sure each one counts.
  • Keep it simple! Chop, chop, chop. Do you really need that character? Do you really need to talk about that meaningless detail? 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 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.
  • 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/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.

Anyway, with all of that said, registration has officially opened for the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2015. 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 every stressful second will be worth it. Plus, the story you’re working on now (or in the future) will thank you for doing this. I know the one I’m working on is thanking me.

FFC2015_HomePageTransp06Of 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 June 18th 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 July 30th.

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 Flash Fiction Challenge 2015, click here!

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