48 hours. Three prompts (genre, location, object). 1000 words.
This may sound like a nightmarish weekend of crumpled up story bits, copious amounts of chocolate, and a stream of writer’s tears. Or it may sound like an adrenaline filled rush of ideas, rapid typing fueled by caffeine, and a mad dash to hit the submit button before it disappears.
In reality, the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge is a mix of both.
In the Challenge, participants are sorted into groups (and there are 125 of them so lots of writers!). Each group is given three prompts (genre, location, object) to use in a story of 1000 words or less and to complete the story in 48 hours. Every group has different prompts, just to keep life interesting. Everyone participates in both Round 1 and Round 2, and in the same group each time. Judges assign a score to each story for each round and the scores are combined after Round 2. The top five writers in each group move on to Round 3.
For Round 3, those who move on are assigned to new groups. The top three scorers move on to Round 4. There’s a max of 75 writers for Round 4 and the top scorer there takes home the prize.
I started seeing advertisements on social media in June for the challenge. I clicked through a couple of times, but the entry fee was steep. Around fifty-bucks-steep. I normally don’t pay to submit my stories to publications or to contests. There are always exceptions though and sometimes the entry fee comes with benefits that seems to outweigh the cost. Still, I waffled back and forth on this one. $50 is $50. The prize amounts were good, but I wasn’t expecting to win so were there enough other benefits?
Two things pushed me forward. One was that a fellow member of the SinC-Guppy chapter posted about participating in the past and having a positive experience. The second was that Midwestern Gothic didn’t seem to be doing their flash fiction contest this summer. I had done theirs last year and loved the experience.
I decided to pay the entry fee and sign up. I LOVE a good challenge. There’s something about pushing myself beyond the comfort zone that I find energizing. It often sparks new ideas and new directions for me. While my fiction pen name doesn’t have many publications behind it, my ghostwriting self has plenty of experience over the years of trying the impossible—whether that’s a ridiculously tight deadline or trying to fit together topics that should not be in the same piece. It all keeps like interesting and I learn something each time. What can I say, I like the mental gymnastics of it all.
Round 1: What did I sign up for again?
I did not stay up until 11:59 pm on Friday night to get my prompts. Nor did I wake up early to get them. Perhaps I should have done one or the other, but I like my sleep. After getting up and taking care of the usual items (waiting until Mira decides that this will be the time she’ll come through the door, feeding foster kittens, etc.), I discovered that I had been placed in group 96 with the following prompts: comedy (genre), tree nursery (location), stick of dynamite (object).
Overall, this wasn’t too bad. I don’t write comedy, but I do tend to include a bit of humor in my writing. I was also thanking the powers that be that I did not end up with political satire or romance. My mind tends to think in crime and murder. I once tried to write a romance short story that somehow turned into a hostage situation. Don’t ask me how.
With ideas flowing about how to work comedy, tree nursery, and a stick of dynamite together, I headed off to the monthly Grand Rapids Region Writer’s Group meeting. I probably should have stayed home to write, but the invited speaker was Alex Kourvo, who I always learn something from when she visits (and I did this time too).
That meant that it was late afternoon before I sat down to start writing. I got about 700 words into the first draft before I realized that what I had was clearly not going to work. (Really, I knew it earlier but I kept hoping I could work it out). It was a little mystery at a tree farm that went south. The plot was ok, but it wasn’t a flash fiction story. So, I started draft #2, which involved a revenge plot between two neighbors. I finished 600-700 words Saturday night and then the other 300-400 on Sunday morning.
With a draft in hand, I started looking for critiques. Several people from the SinC-Guppy short story critique group jumped in. I also exchanged with two other writers in the challenge. Finally, I asked my friend, Esther, who is a phenomenal developmental editor, to have a look.
“You should add some squirrels.” I can’t remember Esther’s exact phrasing. She may have just said to stick some animals in the story. My brain heard squirrels. The other critiques had also noted that I could tighten by axing a character. Between the two things, I knew I’d be better off starting from almost-scratch again. I used a few lines of dialog and a couple of general plot ideas from draft #2, but #3 was almost a complete rewrite.
I finished draft #3 by 9 or 10 pm on Sunday night. Too late to send out for more critiques and I was mentally exhausted anyway. I did one more read through and hit the submit button.
With Round 2 approaching next weekend, I’ve been reflecting on Round 1 and what I could learn from it.
Be ready for exhaustion. I expected to be tired. I did not expect the bone weary fog that enveloped me for days. Perhaps it’s because I’m not twenty anymore or that I’m a slow writer who was forced to think and write quickly. Either way, I’m expecting it this time and making sure that my post-Round 2 schedule is light and easy.
Choose a title before 10 pm. I could not get a title to click for the story and by the time I finished, I was just tired. “Dynamite and Squirrels” was not my best use of a title. Descriptive, maybe, but not a very good title.
Start early. I don’t know if I’ll stay up for the prompts or wake up early, but I do know that I need to try to get some writing in before late afternoon on Saturday. I’m going to have a similar GRRWG meeting conflict so it’ll be a challenge.
Forget about making it perfect. 48 hours is not a lot of time to create a written flash fic masterpiece. There are probably people who can do it. I am not one of them. I’m sticking with my plan to aim for a solid story. I’ll probably have some plot holes and things I could fix, but that’s just the way it is.
Plan for multiple drafts. Given my wild pantsing self, I suspect that I’ll be doing drafts and not just revisions again. It’s less than ideal given the short time frame, but it often takes me a draft or two to really find the story.
Ha! That’s a bit of a tease, isn’t it?
Well, the scores for Round 1 are coming out this week so I don’t know yet. I’ll post them here either later this week or next week once I have them.
If you’re interested in reading my Round 1 entry, you can get it by signing up for my newsletter. (Hint: there’s a sign up on the home page at the bottom, if you missed the pop-up). I’ll be sending it out, along with the results, before I post them here. So, you’ll get to be first, read about squirrels, and give me the incentive to actually get the newsletter going! The story’ll be in all it’s unedited, 48-hour, chaotic beauty. It’s comedy, a tree nursery, and a stick of dynamite.
Oh, and squirrels. Don’t forget the squirrels.
My quest for flash fiction greatness fell flat. lol. I landed in the second half of my group, so I didn’t receive a score for challenge 1. Feedback from the judges was mixed. There were aspects they liked (characters, etc.), but they seemed to have questions and wanted more information about some of the plot points. All of which is a little problematic in a 1000 word flash story.
Overall, though, I’m still happy I gave it a go. Challenge 2 went much smoother so we’ll see if the result reflects that. It’s been fun to push the boundaries a bit and get out of my comfort zone. Maybe that Challenge 1 story will morph into a longer story with more information, or maybe it’ll stay in the drawer and I’ll just take the learning experience of writing fast and short on to other opportunities. Either way, still a win in my book.