How (Not) To Write A Story in 8 Days

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.

Day 1:

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:

Genre: Fantasy
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.

Day 2:

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.

Luck.

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.

Day 3:

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.

Day 4:

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.

Day 5:

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.

Day 6:

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.

Day 7:

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.

Day 8:

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.

Day 9:

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.”

Best.

Friend.

Ever.

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…

One minute!

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?

30 Comments

Filed under Writing

30 responses to “How (Not) To Write A Story in 8 Days

  1. That’s a very exciting tale. Mine was full of a little less drama other than a few initial expletives at the prompt. Then most of Saturday was spent laughing at the ridiculous things my State and National governments do with their time. I’ve been reading a lot about people who had to cut large swaths of their story to get in under 2500. I guess this was a symptom of imitating Brian’s 40 minute stories, but that was a problem I was lucky not to have (came in at 2237). Good luck in your heat and hope to be competing with you in round 2 :)

    • I think I would have been rather expletive-happy if I’d got your prompt, too. You did a great job with it, though. I enjoyed your story.

      Here’s to surviving the next four weeks until we find out how we went! :)

    • Oh, and I always have to cut words. Always. My 1000 word flash fictions usually come in at closer to 2000 before I cut them back. It’s pretty much just part of my process these days.

  2. Reblogged this on [BTW] : Ben Trube, Writer and commented:
    Thankfully my experience with this contest was a little calmer, though I think we’ve all had writing projects like this.

  3. I definitely don’t do last second writes unless you count the blog. Good Luck with the contest!

  4. I like to get everything done in advance; however, I am also most productive if I can actually emotionally as well as intellectually perceive a deadline. So, much of my best writing has happened when I knew I had enough time but felt I didn’t have quite enough.

    I suspect this might be due to me no longer caring when my inner critic starts moaning because I have started to feel anything is better than nothing.

    • That’s a good place to be, isn’t it? If my inner critic had been moaning at me on Sunday morning, I doubt I would have made the deadline.

      I haven’t thought about it in terms of emotionally perceiving the deadline before, but I like it. It’s very true.

      • The downside is it is very difficult to achieve it for a novel: I need to write this in only three months can lack emotional immediacy; by the time the deadline is looming it might really be too late to write 50,000+ words.

        There are other ways to motivate novel writing, but I feel the brink of difficulty might be a major reason why I have more short stories than novels.

      • I find that if I set smaller targets, it works. “I need to be at 10K words by the end of the month.” or “I need to finish this chapter by tomorrow.” But even so, there’s a reason I was still working on my novel at 10:30pm on New Year’s Eve — because I’d set myself a target to finish it last year, even if it took me up to the last minute. :)

      • For me, saying I need X thousand words by a certain date is not emotive enough because I unconsciously know I could just try to write more next month.

        This is one of the reasons I am trying the Million Word Challenge: there is only the unnerving sensation that I am slightly behind. Hopefully an entire year of it will mean I become so used to writing thousands of words a day it will no longer matter whether or not I have an incentive to write.

  5. Nothing like finishing at the last minute, literally. I used to do that with my assignments in university. I always finished, but only in the last minute before class started.

  6. I have always loved the way your mind works. Exciting venture! Sending lots of good wishes your way. <3

  7. I took a look at my calender this morning and realized I have only six days to turn a mediocre story about a girl turning into ice into something so fantastical Weird Tales would even think of accepting it. I have another deadline for a story due in ten days before another magazine closes submissions and though I have research notes and a promising serial killer POV, I haven’t written a damned word. I could use the excuse that I’m so close to The Book’s ending, its tied up all my available synapses. But the half bottle of wine left over from last night keeps winking at me.

    Your story actually gives me heart that it can be done. Just lots of coffee and panic mode in my future. Reminds of me high school exams.

    So, from one adrenaline junkie to another- You did it! You wrote the words and killed the darlings (and their loved ones) in the nick of time. My hat is off to you. xox

    • Thanks, Tonia. :) When I hit that submit button, the adrenalin rush was like nothing else — ecstasy and apprehension and satisfaction and self-doubt… I didn’t stop shaking for an hour, and then I was on a high for the next two days. While I don’t recommend this process, the emotional rollercoaster at the end was pretty amazing.

      Well….You’ll be experiencing it soon enough. Good luck getting your stories done in time. And remember — coffee is your friend. :)

  8. I know that during this time, you were going through all kinds of new obstacles and hard news, but I so enjoyed reading this blog. The mad scramble made me chuckle, because I have procrastinated my way into many a corner. It is part of my MO now. As one procrastinator to another, we will have to talk about that….later ;-)

  9. Awesome! I have a deadline looming (a flash fiction piece in two days) that I have yet to start….. going to have to gun that one out tonight and tomorrow and hope for the best. *sweats*

  10. LOVE your premise…a gambler breaking into a coffin at a funeral to steal *luck*. Hope you make it to round 2. xxxs

  11. The next time you’re in some sort of short story contest, you should submit the blog post. I certainly enjoyed it more than a lot of short stories.

    “Do you leave your writing to the last minute, or get it done well in advance?”

    Neither. My mantra is the one I learned from Rooster Cogburn: “There is no clock on my business!” It gets done when it gets done.

  12. Pauline

    I have to agree with the above comment. Your blog is more interesting than a short story. Good on you for not giving in (not that I knew you would, and yes I expected you to be late) don’t change anything you do. You and your writing are awesome just hte way you are.

  13. Pingback: #WriterRecharge | winterbayne

  14. Sounds like an interesting story. I hope it does well!
    Can’t say that I either wait to the last minute or get my writing done early – that would imply the existence of actual deadlines – whether externally or internally imposed. Right now, I have neither, and will continue to have neither until I’m in a comfortable place with regards to my writing productivity.

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