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Monster Mash – Round 2 – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

This past weekend marked my 11th round of the NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC). To be honest, I wasn’t all that enthusiastic to compete. I’m currently immersed in the latest draft of my novel, and shifting gears pained me. It pained me even more when I received my score for the first round of this year’s contest.

Two points!

Okay, okay. That’s not horrible considering I’ve never attempted to write pure comedy, and comedy is one of the most subjective genres out there.

Low score aside, I still had fun this weekend. Well, mostly…

As a quick reminder, NYCM FFC is a writing contest where writers from all over the world are given three prompts (genre, location, and object), and then 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story. All competitors get to compete in two of the four rounds. This past weekend was the second round, which kicked off at 10 p.m. (MST) Friday when prompts were released.

First impressions of my group’s prompts:

Genre: Fantasy

Location: Waterfront esplanade

Object: Animal horn

When I saw my prompts, I went through a myriad of emotions all at once: horror, amusement, irritation, confusion. I mean, seriously, what the heck is an esplanade? I had to google it before I could do anything else. (FYI, an esplanade is “a long, open, level area, usually next to a river or large body of water, where people may walk.”)

Once I had my location prompt figured out, I turned to the main matter at hand: brainstorming a plot.

Per usual, I talked things out with my favorite writing critic: my mom. For the first time ever, we didn’t banter back and forth on how to approach the prompts. I already knew the general direction I wanted to take.

Goblins!

Yeah, yeah fantasy lovers. I know Gollum isn’t a goblin. However, I decided a long time ago that if I ever received fantasy in this contest, I’d write about a Gollum-goblin-like character. So, I did!

Next, I had to figure out the “animal horn” prompt. Obviously, my first thought was, “Unicorn!” I’m sure it was everyone else’s too, so I stayed far away from that and brainstormed other possibilities. As I did, my seven-year-old nephew curled up next to me with his tablet and watched one of his favorite videos: “Giant God Warrior” (a Japanese short fantasy monster action film). I stared at the creepy creature on screen, studied its horned back, and voila! I had an idea!

Well, sort of.

I packed up my computer and went home. By this point, it was approaching 1 a.m. and I’d been up since 4 a.m. So…yeah. The second I got home, I collapsed in bed and stayed there much longer than I usually do during these contests.

Once I found the motivation to get up on Saturday and start writing, my internet crashed. GAHHH! That threw me for a loop since I needed to do some much needed research on goblins.

[Cue twiddling thumbs, cleaning house, texting friends…]

An hour later, the internet returned, along with my focus. I sat down and spent the rest of the day hammering out a first draft. Mid-afternoon, my mom showed up to read what I’d come up with and help me chop over 600 words (doh!).

My favorite part of the contest occurred when my mom and I tried to think of names for my characters and the fantastical world they lived in: Letchmo. Catastrafo. Fodhopper. Evilgore. Mcnasty!

After we pulled ourselves together (and found a few serious names), my mom left and I sent a draft off to my beta readers. On Sunday morning, I awoke to their feedback. To my surprise, they liked it–much more than I thought they would.

Hallelujah!

I fixed the big problems, chopped the remaining 200 words I needed to chop in order to meet the word count limit, and submitted my story.

Was fantasy my favorite genre? No. Did I like the story I came up with? Yes. It’s not my favorite NYCM entry, but I’m proud to present it to the judges, my competitors, and, maybe someday, a publisher.

For those interested, here’s my title and synopsis:

“Zili”

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Zili, a gentle goblin, wishes to walk in the light as a man. A horned creature grants his wish . . . and more.

If you’d like to read my entire entry, let me know and I’ll send you the password.

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge 2017!

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Bottoms Up – 1st Round – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Lat weekend I competed in my 5th Flash Fiction Challenge. Yep, I keep coming back year after year to punish myself with sleep deprivation, lots of hair pulling and crying, and heart palpitations…Okay, okay, it’s not that bad. Well, it used to be when I was still figuring out how to handle this mad-dash writing contest. But after 17-rounds, I think I’ve finally figured out my process. (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:

Genre: Comedy

Location: A bartending school

Object: Sandpaper

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

“Bottoms Up”

 By Jenna Willett

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A millennial needs a job to handle life’s necessities, like yoga, Netflix, and Starbucks. He decides to try bartending (#thestruggleisreal).


 

A flashing advertisement caught Jax’s eye as he skimmed through his Facebook feed:

CALLING ALL WANNABE BARTENDERS!

Intrigued, he clicked on the ad:

Looking for a career in bartending? Bottoms Up has an EXCELLENT opportunity!

Learn the tricks of the trade, gain real-life experience, and walk away with a job.

No experience necessary. Paid training. Good work ethic a MUST.

Where: Bottoms Up, 1932 Blake St., Denver, CO

When: Every Sunday until filled

Time: 9 a.m. – Noon

Belly up to the bar and chug down this opportunity. Chug, chug, chug!

Jax snickered at the cheesy ad, but bookmarked it anyway. In less than a week he’d be a college graduate with zero job prospects. His parents had offered to let him move home, but he wanted to make it on his own. He only needed help with his phone, car, groceries, rent, and utilities. He could handle the real necessities like yoga classes, Netflix, and Starbucks. He couldn’t go a day without a green tea frappuccino with hazelnut (grande, extra whipped cream).

Inspired to bartend, Jax pulled up his Twitter app.

Found a job! Go me! #workingman #showmethemoney

The next morning, Jax arrived at Bottoms Up at nine o’clock on the dot. Well, close enough to the dot. Juggling his frap, he stepped into a dim interior and smelled stale beer, perfume, and a trace of weed. Lipstick-smeared shot glasses and empty beer bottles lined a mahogany bar; and peanut shells, glitter, and other debris littered a checkered floor.

“You’re late.”

Jax swiveled around. An older woman with ice-blonde hair, Khaleesi red lipstick, and a tight-fitting tank top emerged from the gloom. Behind her trailed a thirty-something man with bubbly green eyes. Another trainee?

“Uh, yeah. Hey.” Jax sighed. “I’m here for the bartending school—job thingy.”

The woman crossed her arms. “The ad said nine.”

He blinked.

“It’s almost ten, pup.”

“Hmm.” Jax sipped his frap.

The woman rolled her eyes. “That’s strike one. When you hit three, you’re outta here.” She marched over to the bar.

The thirty-something man grinned at Jax, then pranced after her. A perky poodle happy to obey its master.

Jax, however, remained rooted to the spot, shocked by the woman’s biting disapproval. He’d only been an hour late. Big deal.

He pulled out his phone and tweeted:

Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed. #bitchboss #newjobsucks

“What’s your name, pup?”

“Jax.” He shuffled across the room, one eye on the messy floor, the other on his Twitter notifications. So many likes and retweets!

“I’m Bobby and your boss if you make it through training.”

Jax’s face fell. “The job’s not mine?” How could that be? He’d driven here. He’d walked through the door. He’d shown up! By tonight, he planned to be a bartender. By tomorrow, promoted to manager. By month’s end, part-owner. No, owner!

“As I’ve already explained to Rififi, you’ll need—”

“Rif-what?” Jax snorted.

C’est moi!” Poodle Man beamed. “Ri-fee-fee. C’est français. It means . . . er, how you say, trooblah?”

“Trouble?”

Oui!” He winked at Jax. The same coy wink Jax usually reserved for girls, though he refused to identify as a cisgendered straight male. He hated labels.

He smirked at his phone and tweeted:

Good news, co-worker LOVES me! #hottyalert #solit #singlelife

“Strike two.” Bobby grabbed a broom and thrust it at Jax. “Put that dang thing away, and start cleaning.”

“Cleaning?” Jax gaped at her. “I thought this was a bartending school?”

“It is. But if you wanna work here, pup, you’ve gotta start in the trenches.”

“The what?” He’d never—Why would he even—He was about to graduate college! Sure, it had taken him six years to complete a degree in University Studies, but so what? He deserved everything he wanted.

Jax’s phone dinged. A text from his mom:

How’s the new job? You’re a superstar!

He relaxed and took another sip of his frap.

“If you wanna stay, get to work.” Bobby vanished through a swinging door behind the bar.

Jax glared at his phone and tweeted.

New boss is such a hard-ass! #feelingannoyed #fuckher

Alors.” Rififi clapped. “Zee faster we clean, poop—”

“Pup?

“—zen zee faster we drink!”

Jax frowned. “You mean, the faster we get to learn how to make drinks?”

Oui, oui!” The Frenchman scooped up beer bottles. “We make zee drinks, zen we drink zee drinks. Many drinks. Oui, oui?” Another salacious wink.

“Uh, sure. Wee-wee.

The Frenchman giggled and began sweeping random objects off the floor: a high heel, a strip of sandpaper, a pair of swimming goggles, and a feather duster.

Tres intéressant!” Rififi flicked the feather duster at Jax’s nose. “Nudey, nudey.”

“Naughty, naughty?”

“Ah, oui, oui.”

Jax shook his head and reluctantly dragged the broom across the floor a few times. Too bored for words, he gave up and snapped a selfie holding a beer bottle.

Need a drink? I do! #workshardforthemoney #thestruggleisreal

He took a seat and admired all the likes. Five, ten, twenty . . .

“That’s strike three, pup.”

“Hmm?” Jax hardly glanced up.

“That means it’s time to go.”

“Why?” Twenty more likes. Awesome!

“Look,” Bobby sighed, “I don’t need another lazy, entitled, self-centered millen—”

“Lazy?” He looked up, dumbfounded. Hadn’t she seen him sweep? He should get a raise!

Rififi flounced past with the feather duster and a knotted trash bag.

“What about him?” Jax pointed at the buoyant Frenchman.

“He’s enjoying himself while he works. And he’s proving he wants to be a bartender. You, on the other hand…” Her eyes drifted to the front door.

Heat rushed to Jax’s cheeks. “This is bull! I can’t even—ugh! I don’t deserve this. It’s not fair!”

Bobby tilted her head.

“Screw it. I don’t need this.” He grabbed his green tea frappuccino with hazelnut and stomped to the door.

Au revoir, poop!” Rififi waved.

Jax slammed the door shut, and tweeted:

Fuck it! #iquit #whatevs

 

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Once Upon a Time – Round 1 – NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge

Another round of an NYC Midnight (NYCM) writing contest has come and gone. This time, it was the first round of the Short Story Challenge, which meant I had eight days to write a 2,500 word story based on an assigned genre, character, and subject.

Before I received my assignment a week ago, I debated what genre I wanted. Horror? Suspense? Historical fiction? Then I debated which genre I did not want. Political satire? Romantic-comedy? Ghost story? Hmm…

7937_443481989177688_8265323423668362085_nSurprisingly, the only genre I had a strong opinion about was political satire (No! No, no, no…). So, as I opened my assignment, I felt rather calm and open minded.

Then I saw my prompts:

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 6.05.44 AM

My first impressions?

Fairy Tale: 

Leaving Home:

A Kidnapper: 

I had completely spaced fairy tale was a genre in the competition, and I had completely spaced it was one of the genres I feared most. The language, the structure, the tone, the fantastical elements…All of it freaked. Me. Out!

Thankfully, I had eight days to overcome my fears and figure out what was what. So, I went to bed and waited until the next day to start working.

On Saturday morning, I called my mom (my go-to “Simon Cowell”/cheerleader/editor during these contests) and brainstormed. Within an hour, I had a solid concept and started writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote until I had a first draft on Sunday afternoon.

I did not like it.

I finished the story, sat back, and thought, “This seems really boring and cliche.” I called my mom and voiced my concerns to her. She encouraged me to take a break and clear my head. So, I headed over to her house to watch the Broncos game with the rest of my family. (Go Broncos! Woot, woot!)

During the game, I brainstormed new ideas. I came up with one I really liked, but when I pitched it to my sister and her husband, they had lukewarm reactions. They thought it was fine, but they liked my original idea better.

I decided to ignore my gut instinct and listen to them.

I returned to my first draft, and for two days I tried to transform it into something I’d love. I set my story in a new location (the desert), changed my characters (from a husband and wife to two teenagers), and restructured my plot. But, none of it mattered. By Tuesday night, I felt the same way I had on Sunday.

I asked my mom to come over to read my latest draft. Maybe I was being too hard on myself? Maybe the story was actually wonderful and I was over-thinking it?

I wasn’t.

During my 14 rounds of NYCM, I’ve learned how to read my mom’s reactions. I know when she likes something, and I know when she doesn’t. She did not like this story. Of course, she didn’t tell me that. But, she did tell me, “Jenna, you have four more days. You don’t have to stick with this. Write something you’ll be proud of.”

So, after balking at the idea of throwing away four days worth of hard work, I crumpled the story up and pulled up a blank document.

My mom suggested we brainstorm new ideas, but I didn’t need to. I already knew what I wanted to write. I had come up with the concept back on Sunday, during the Broncos game. I didn’t care if my sister and her husband had rejected it. I knew it would work, and I knew it could turn into something I’d be proud of.

My mom agreed.

With her help, I outlined a basic plot that night (which of course dramatically changed due to my pantser ways), and then wrote my butt off Wednesday and Thursday. As I wrote and wrote, I knew I had made the right decision in switching gears. I was so, so, so much happier with my story.

By late Thursday night, I had a draft worthy of being sent to beta readers. Their feedback trickled in throughout Friday and I implemented many of their suggestions. I added, chopped, rewrote, revised, tweaked…I worked and worked until I finally had a draft ready to submit.

I woke up early Saturday to refine and edit one more time. Then I gave it a title, slapped together a synopsis, and submitted it.

And collapsed!

It was an absolutely exhausting week, full of stress, doubt, and fear. But, in the end, I wrote something I’m satisfied with. Now, will it get me into round two of the contest? I have no idea. I never know what the judges are looking for, especially with genres I have zero experience in. But, I’m proud of myself for tackling fairy tale and for trusting my gut and writing something I’m happy with.

I would like to give a special thanks to my mom. She always keeps me grounded during these contests, but she went beyond the call of duty on this one. (Thank you, Mom! You’re truly amazing.)

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for the first round of the NYCM Short Story Challenge!

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Jen’s How To: 5 Tips For Writing A Short Story

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

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the art of writing short stories. And, with the rapid approach of the next NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you.

5 Tips For Writing Short Stories

1. Choose One Main Event

Don’t confuse your readers! Keep things simple and choose one main event to base your story on (ex: a killer virus, a confrontation between two friends, a blind date gone wrong). If you do that, you’ll have an easier time identifying your story’s motives, characters, and ultimate goal (aka, “the big why”).

You’ll also make it much easier for your readers to follow along. They won’t get confused as you jump from a grisly murder in an alleyway, to a deadly car chase, to an arrest at a gas station, to an epic prison break, to a fugitive on the run, to a hostage crisis at a bank, to a bomb explosion that kills everyone…

See? It’s too much for 2,500 words (or less). So, keep it simple.

2. The Fewer The Characters, The Better The Story

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

Maddie shrugged. “No idea. Pete?”

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

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

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

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

“Quiet! I can’t think straight with all this ruckus.” Charles picked up a knife and glared at everyone. “I think we should kill half the group so the rest of us don’t starve.”

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

That’s why I suggest you limit yourself to four named characters. Four. Beyond that, readers lose track of who’s who.

3. Avoid Time/Scene Hopping

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

Let’s look at an example. Below are two synopses based on my flash fiction horror, “Why?”.

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

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

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

Rather than diving into the little girl’s head and experiencing the tragedy through her eyes, we skim over it and jump to the next phase in her life. Then the next, then the next…Although it can work if done right, this skim-jump rhythm doesn’t tend to satisfy readers. It’s too broad and jarring.

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

4. Single POV

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

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

5. Think Outside the Box

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

Are you thinking?

Got it?

Okay, was it a chef poisoning food at a wedding? Or, perhaps, a groom trying to off his bride? Well, guess what? Over half the people in my group wrote stories like that (and I almost did before deciding to take things in a different direction). So, before you start writing (especially if you’re in a competition like NYCM), ask yourself, “Will others think of this idea?” If so, you might want to discard it and keep brainstorming.

My personal policy? Throw out the first idea. If I thought of it, then someone else did, too.

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

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

Don’t forget, the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016 kicks off this weekend. You still have time sign up, so go check it out!

Related Articles

Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016

The Differences Between The NYC Midnight FFC and SSC

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

To end the year, I’ve decided to spotlight my top 10 favorite blog posts from 2015. Each of these made a special impact on me and readers, so I hope you enjoy them (again or for the first time). Today, I present to you my 9th favorite post from the past year:

Can You Write A Story In 150 Words

#9_1Writing stories under 1,500 words is tough. Writing stories under 150 words is insane! That’s why I liked this post. It offered a tough, but terrific challenge to writers (including myself). It also offered a lot of fun.

So, check out the details below and, if you haven’t already, consider entering one of Ad Hoc Fiction’s free contests!


A few weeks ago, my online writer’s group introduced me to a weekly flash fiction contest hosted by Ad Hoc Fiction. Basically, writers are given a prompt word (ex: feather, bark, note) and must incorporate it into a 150-worded story…Yep! That’s it. Just 150 words to address all the vital components of a story and satisfy readers.

*gulp*

Once the deadline passes, the submissions are posted on Ad Hoc’s website and the public votes for a winner. It’s free (yes, FREE), it’s fun, and it’s a great way to challenge yourself. So give it a shot! Whether you want to learn, warm up, or win, you’re sure to have a blast with Ad Hoc Fiction.

Below is a story I submitted a few weeks ago. The prompt word I had to include was “plaster.” Enjoy!

“Crumb Layer”

by Jenna Willett

When I was little, my mom would let me help her frost cakes. “Remember, Annie,” she’d say, “the first layer is the crumb layer. You frost, wait, frost again, and—voila! See?” She’d point at a finished cake. No crumbs, no blemishes. The decorating method worked beautifully.

It still does.

I hum to myself as I spread a second layer of white goo over the crumbly surface. I dip, swirl, smear, and wipe my metal spatula down and up, left to right. Over and over. I work carefully, but quickly. I have to. Even with the heater on, the house is cold and the cold makes things set faster.

I give one final swipe and stand back to study my handiwork.

I smile.

The plastered wall looks great. With a layer of paint, it’ll look perfect.

Nobody will ever suspect I hid a dead body behind it.


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

Top 10 2015 Posts

10. Are You a Positive or Negative Writer

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Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016

It’s that time of the year again! Time to convince you to sign up for an NYC Midnight writing challenge.

I know many people don’t want to take the time or spend the money on entering writing contests. I was in the same boat up until I entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2013. Then, whoa! My entire attitude changed.

Before I began entering NYC Midnight (NYCM) writing challenges, I assumed my writing skills were at their best…Wrong! In just a handful of NYCM Flash Fiction and Short Story Challenges, my abilities grew exponentially. I’m actually embarrassed by what I considered to be my “best.” I won’t even let people look at my old work.

So, what has writing flash fiction and short stories taught me? Here are just a few things:

  • How to write a complete story. To make a story truly shine, all facets of it must be fully developed and balanced equally. Plot, characters, scenery, etc. If you miss or skimp on one, it stands out to readers.
  • Characters count. Characters carry a large portion of a story’s weight. Developing them so they’re as 3D and likable as possible is a must. Also, too many of them tend to be confusing and burdensome for a reader. So, you need to make sure each one counts.
  • Keep it simple! Chop, chop, chop. Do you really need that character? Do you really need to go into that background information? With their limited word count, short stories force you to take a step back and consider what’s vital to a plot. If it’s not pushing it forward or making it deeper, chop it out!
  • Take the road less traveled. Go outside the box. Be creative! Ask yourself, “Is this different? Will it make me stand out?” Example: In round one of the Short Story Challenge 2014, I received these prompts: Suspense, wedding, chef. My first impulse? Write a story about a bride and groom who are trying to off each other, and in the end the bride poisons the groom with the help of the chef. I immediately tossed it out and forced myself to dig deeper and think beyond the obvious. And I’m glad I did. Most of my competitors wrote stories about poisoned food and vindictive brides and grooms. Mine, “Chasing Monsters,” was nothing of the sort. And because of that, I landed myself a 2nd place finish.

Those are just a few things I’ve learned while participating in these challenges. To list all of them would take a decade.

I will, however, point out some specific benefits of participating in an NYCM writing challenge. The main one is their private forum. NYCM offers competitors a location to interact and share stories with each other. And I love it! The forum helps you:

  • Overcome the fear of sharing your work. I’ve been sharing my stories for years and I still get butterflies whenever I let others read them. However, sharing our work is a must if we want to learn and take our writing to the next level. Plus, if you dream of being published like me, then sharing is a basic requirement. So, why not get used to it and learn how to manage those pesky butterflies?
  • Discover what you do well. Not only does positive feedback give you a nice ego boost, but it also helps you understand your strengths. And understanding your strengths helps you understand who you are as a writer.
  • Discover what you don’t do well. Yeah, I know. Who wants to hear what they’re bad at? Unfortunately, opening yourself up to constructive criticism is a necessary evil if you want to become the best writer you can be. Plus, if you’re planning to enter the Harsh Land of Publishing, then you will need to learn how to handle constructive criticism. And the forum is a great place for that. It’s safe, inviting, and supportive!
  • Learn by critiquing other stories. You wouldn’t believe how much you can learn by reading and critiquing other people’s work. When you (tactfully) explain to someone what you liked or didn’t like about their story, you will naturally apply those observations to your own work.
  • Meet other writers! While doing these challenges, I’ve gained a lot of amazing friends, writing pals, and trustworthy beta readers. So, believe me when I say, the forum is an excellent place to connect with other writers and find the moral and professional support you need to succeed.

One of my personal favorite things about the NYCM challenges is the discovery of new ideas. I have now participated in thirteen rounds, which means I’ve written thirteen stories I would never have written otherwise. And from those thirteen, I have bigger plans for at least eight of them. Three I’d like to polish up and send to publishers. One I’d like to adapt and expand into a screenplay. And, four I’d like to expand into novels. In fact, the manuscript I’m working on now is an expansion of my second round story from the last Short Story Challenge. So, if nothing else appeals to you, think of this as an amazing way to increase your idea inventory!

Anyway, with all of that said, registration has officially opened for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016. I strongly–strongly–encourage you to consider entering it. Yes, it costs some money, and yes, the actual challenge is, well, a challenge. But I promise if you go into it with the right attitude and participate on the forum, every penny and stressful second will be worth it.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 9.45.29 AMOf course, the NYCM writing challenges aren’t the only ones out there. If you aren’t ready to take the plunge, or aren’t in a position to spend the moola, then I still encourage you to look into a blog or website that hosts free weekly challenges. My favorite is Chuck Wendig’s, terribleminds.

 You have until December 17th to take advantage of the early entry fee. There’s also a Twitter discount, so be sure to use that to lower the cost even more. Final deadline is January 21st.

Hope to see you all on the forum!

For those of you who’d like to understand the differences between NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge and Short Story Challenge, click here!

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

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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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