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:
A corporate conference room
A baby rattle
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.
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.
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!
Photo Credits: giphy
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…
Surprisingly, 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:
My first impressions?
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?
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.
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!
Photo Credits: giphy
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.
Of 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!
Photo credits: giphy
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:
Thanks in advance for reading, and thanks for any feedback you might have!
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.
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:
My first impressions?
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:
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!
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:
My first thoughts when I saw these prompts?
An underwater cave:
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.”
“Inside an underwater cave.”
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.
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 Jolla“) I 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.
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:
Thanks in advance for reading, and thanks for any feedback you might have.
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.
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.
“Good, cause we gotta go.” He struck the damaged window with his elbow.
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
To read more stories, visit the Jen’s Pen Page.
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
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
Each round has the same deadline and word count: 1,000 words, 48-hours
SSC: Genre, Character, Subject
Mystery, Tour Guide, Debt
Suspense, Chef, Wedding
Ghost Story, Waitress, Statue
FFC: Genre, Location, Object
Rom-com, Swamp, RV
Horror, Crowded Beach, Fanny Pack
Political Satire, Airport Security Checkpoint, Map
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!
Yeah, to be completely honest, I’m not sure how I feel about advancing. Don’t get me wrong. I’m honored and grateful to get the chance to compete in the final round. And I’m so proud of myself for making it to the top 40 (the competition started out with over 1,400 writers).
I went through round three last year, and it was one of the most difficult experiences of my life! Seriously, last year when I found out I made it to the final round, I looked like this:
This year, I looked like this:
Okay, let me explain why I’m dreading this round so much, especially for those who might not know how the NYC Midnight SSC works.
There are three rounds in the competition, and each one is sudden death. So, if you don’t place in the top five of your group (there are approximately 30 writers/group), then you’re cut–eeks! As you progress through the competition, the guidelines for each round change:
Round 1: Competitors are given eight days and 2,500 words to write a story based off an assigned set of prompts (ex: horror, medical tourism, a 50-year old woman). That’s doable! Not easy, of course, but I definitely have enough time to think of a decent plot, develop it, and then revise and edit it until I’m–generally–satisfied with the final product.
Round 2: This time, competitors only have three days and 2,000 words. Although this is a lot tougher than round one, it’s still doable. I just have to rev up the creative engines faster, quicken my pace, and be willing to submit a story I needed a little more time to edit.
Round 3: In this final round, competitors only get one day and 1,500 words to write a story. That’s it! And, as you’ve figured out by now, it’s terrible. To do everything–develop, create, rewrite, revise, edit, submit–in 24-hours is painful. Literally. Last year, I slept less than two hours during the round, nearly fainted because I forgot to eat (doh!), and experienced heart palpitations off and on.
I mean it. Round three is intense. No, it’s insane!
But, this is why it’s called the Short Story Challenge, right? It’s not meant to be easy. It’s suppose to push me to my limits and see what I can do under a lot of pressure. So, despite my anxieties and fears, I’ll battle my way through this weekend’s mayhem and write the best story I can!
To help me get through the final round, I’ve created a basic “battle plan”. If I follow these steps, I should be able to make it to the finish line…(ahem, should):
1. Brainstorm! The biggest benefit of round three is we get to choose our own genre. That means I can think of a few concepts before I receive my assignment, and then mold it to whatever my other two assigned prompts are (character and subject). I actually have one specific idea I’d like to pursue, so hopefully I can make it work!
2. Sleep! As difficult as it is to sleep during the 24-hour deadline, I have to. My brain doesn’t function properly if I don’t get enough rest. So, I need to go to bed at some point during the process, even if it’s only for a couple of hours.
3. EAT! As I mentioned earlier, I forgot to eat during last year’s round three. I was so focused and so drawn into my story, I didn’t even think about it. By the time I did, over 12-hours had passed and when I stood up, I nearly collapsed…Yeah, super smart! To prevent such a moronic mistake again, I’ll be setting an alarm on my phone to remind myself to get up and eat something every few hours.
4. Use beta readers! As difficult as it is, I need to try and send my story out to beta readers on Saturday to get their valuable input. This means I’ll need to quicken my pace even more so I’m able to send them a decent draft as early as possible. Otherwise, I won’t have time to fix whatever problems they find.
5. Breathe! I need to remember to take frequent breaks throughout the day. Even if it’s only five minutes at a time, I need to stand up, walk away from my computer, and breathe. Relax. Clear my head. Regain my center!…I know this will be the most difficult part of my battle plan to execute. I stink at taking breaks!
Hopefully if I follow this general plan of attack, I’ll be able survive round three!
And if I don’t and I completely fall apart, well…I’ll still be proud of myself. These challenges are not easy (even when there’s more time and words to use), and the competition is fierce. I can’t tell you how many amazing stories I read in the first two rounds that didn’t make the cut. So, no matter what happens this weekend, and no matter how rough things might get, I’ll be proud of myself for making it this far and giving the final round a shot!
Good luck to all those who are also competing in round three of the NYC Midnight SSC! And thank you to everyone who sent me a congratulatory message. More than anything else, your encouraging words and positive vibes will be what get me through this weekend.
Round 1: The Ark
(Assignment: 2,500 words, 8 days, horror, medical tourism, 50-year old woman)
Round 2: The Darkness Whispers
(Assignment: 2,000 words, 3 days, ghost story, a statue, a waitress) Please note: Since I’m planning to expand this story into a full novel, I have added a password to protect it. If you would like to access it, please send me a message and I will provide it to you.