About a year ago, I made a decision to focus on writing novels (my real writing love) and the occasional piece of flash fiction for my blog when the Muse overtook me. The one exception is the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge.
This writing competition works in a particularly unusual (and thus exciting) way. You see… No, I’ll let them explain.
There are 3 rounds of competition. In the 1st Round (February 7-15, 2014), writers are placed randomly in heats and are assigned a genre, subject, and character assignment. Writers have 8 days to write an original story no longer than 2,500 words. The judges choose a top 5 in each heat to advance to the 2nd Round (March 27-30, 2014) where writers receive new assignments, only this time they have just 3 days to write a 2,000 word (maximum) short story. Judges choose finalists from the 2nd Round to advance to the 3rd and final round of the competition where writers are challenged to write a 1,500 word(maximum) story in just 24 hours (May 2-3, 2014).
I had a great time with the challenge last year (although I didn’t make it past the first round), and participated again this year. So for those of you who are curious about what my writing process looks like, I thought I’d share my experience of writing a 2500 story in 8 days.
Note: I do not suggest, recommend, or in any way endorse the following as a sane or reasonable method of artistic creation.
The genre/subject/character assignments were released on Friday night at midnight EST. Which means that over here in FutureLand I got the email at 3:00 Saturday afternoon. My assignment looked something like this:
Subject: A Funeral
Character: A Gambler
I emailed, messaged, texted, and otherwise contacted everyone who knew I was taking part in the challenge, and then… Well, then I went about my normal life. Time to let my subconscious spend some time working on the story details.
What interesting thing could happen at a funeral? Thinking… Thinking… Thinking… A heist!
Someone has to steal something from inside the coffin at a funeral!
My mind went into overdrive. A heist! I love heists! But what would be so important, so crucial that someone — a gambler, in fact — would go to great (and non-violent) lengths to steal from inside a coffin at a funeral?
And the answer was obvious.
I would write about a gambler stealing the Luck of a Gambler from inside his coffin in the middle of his funeral.
Well. After all that thinking, I was exhausted. So I went and spent a day with a friend, watched The Newsroom, drank wine, and snacked on cheese and chocolate and other extravagances.
After a busy Monday, I sat down to start writing and… nothing. I got nothing. So I did some brainstorming, ate some more chocolate, and wished I wasn’t quite so tired.
By this evening, I knew I really had to pull out all stops and get the story written if I was going to have any chance of actually submitting it on time. It was due back by 3:00pm Sunday (Technically day 9 or an 8 day challenge… Gotta love time zones.) and I hadn’t even started yet.
Plus, when I ran into my writer-friend this morning, she was all jazzed because she’d already finished the draft of her entry.
So I sat down to write and…. I managed 300 words. And realised I was setting the story in a Wild West-inspired fantasy world. Time to do some research.
A crazy-busy day was topped off by the receipt of emails delivering bad news. I couldn’t even get my head into my life, let alone my story.
Thursday. The deadline was fast approaching, and I had a grand total of 300 words written. But I was still thinking — still letting my subconscious do its thing — so I wasn’t worried. The shape of the story was starting to reveal itself to me, and the character (who still didn’t have a name) was telling me her life story.
I wrote another 400 words, bringing my grand total up to 700. And in those 400 words, a whole new theme presented itself. I threw out all the plans I’d made for the ending, and turned the protagonist into someone a little less despicable, and a lot more likeable. And then I went to sleep.
Despite all the promises I’d made to myself that I wasn’t going to leave it until the night before the story was due to start writing it, here I was. The night before the story was due. With only 700 words written out of approximately 2500, and no energy to write. So I drank two cups of coffee, sat down on my bed, and…. fell asleep.
I woke up in the middle of the night and set my alarm for 4am, so I’d have a couple of hours of writing time before the boys woke up. And then I slept through my alarm and woke up at 7:00.
I’m not going to lie. Expletives may have been used.
I had six hours to write, edit, and submit a 2500 word story. And all I had was 700 words and an idea of the shape of the story.
I considered whether it was time to panic yet, and voted ‘no’. But I did get down to work. By 11:00am, I was 2000 words into the story, and had just got to the funeral scene. Plus, I had to pack up to take my son to dance class.
I decided that now was a good time to panic.
So I fretted while I got the boys ready to go out, and I worried while I drove 45 minutes to the dance studio, and I stressed while I kissed him goodbye. And then I jumped back in the car, and zoomed off to a nearby park so I could keep writing.
At 1:45pm, I finished the first draft. It had 3515 words. So, that’s 1000 words more than the maximum length.
I kept panicking.
Not least because it was time to pack up and drive back to the dance studio to pick up the boy. Which is what I did. Because, writing challenge or no writing challenge, being a Mum doesn’t stop.
When I arrived at the dance studio, a friend (whose daughter also dances) met me with the question: “Did you finish?”
“No,” I said. “I still have to–“
She interrupted. “How about I take your boys to my place so you can get it finished and submitted? You can catch us up.”
So that’s how I found myself sitting in a cafe at 2:15pm, with 45 minutes to cut 1000 words from my story, read the formatting instructions, and get it submitted.
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard the phrase “kill your darlings”. It’s the suggestion that any piece of prose you’re too precious about should be removed. Well, in this case, I can assure you that over the next 35 minutes, I not only killed my darlings, I killed their darlings, as well as their flatmates and their pets.
I cut 1000 words from my story — most of them from the first 2000 — and made it shorter and sharper and, most importantly, valid for the competition.
I had just less than 10 minutes to get it formatted and submitted.
And that’s when my internet stopped working.
Gotcha. Not really.
No, what really happened was that I was so freaked out that I only had … checking clock … eight minutes left, that I kept clicking the wrong links, and couldn’t find the page that detailed the required font or size or format or… well, anything.
I found it, adjusted my file, and realised two things. (1) I had three minutes left until the cut-off, and (2) I needed to include a two-sentence synopsis.
Two-sentence synopsis coming right up. Boom! No time to think about how good it is. Barely time to type the words. And then…
And then a helpful waitress appeared at my table and said, “Is your coffee okay?”
“Yeah. Thanks,” I managed. And that was no easy feat, because I was trying to find the darn submit button, and had less than two minutes left.
“Oh, good,” she says. “And would you like some water?”
“No,” I snapped. And then felt immediately guilty that I wasn’t being nice to her when she’d done nothing wrong except approach me when I only had…
I hit the submit button. My story whirred away into neverwhere.
And then I realised I’d sent the wrong file. I sent the .docx instead of the .doc.
So I sent it again. I’m 99% sure the second time was past the cut-off. And then I waited… And waited…. Worried that I’d missed out… Worried that I’d submitted too late…
Yesterday, I got an email from them.
Dear Jo Eberhardt,
This e-mail is to let you know that we have received your Short Story Challenge 2014 1st Round submission titled“Luck of the Gambler”. You will be judged in Heat31 – Fantasy / A funeral / A gambler. Judging will now take place and we will announce the results by 11:59PM EDT on Monday, March 24th, 2014 via e-mail and through our facebook and twitter pages.
And that, my friends, is how to write a story in 8 days.
Well, assuming you like heart palpitations, adrenaline rushes, and living life on the edge, anyway.
Do you leave your writing to the last minute, or get it done well in advance?