The NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge is on!
If you recall, this is a two-month challenge involving three rounds (if you’re lucky) where contestants write short stories from prompts provided by the contest. The top three from each heat of the first round go on to the second, and the same for the third and final round. I signed up back in January to participate, and as the deadline for the first set of prompts (midnight February 7) neared, I went from anticipation to panic. What prompts would I get? Would I actually be able to come up with something? What if I flop?
I didn’t wait up until midnight to get my prompts. I got a good night’s sleep then planned on checking email first thing on Saturday morning. However, a writer friend of mine, who is also participating, messaged me first thing in the morning, terrified about her prompts. Gulp. I looked.
Genre: Horror. Okay, not so bad. I’d been terrified of getting YA or Romance, neither of which I have much experience in nor enjoy.
Subject: Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). Again, not bad. There’s been a debate locally about such products and whether they should be labelled as such, so I knew there was fodder here for a decent horror story.
Character: A prisoner. Hmmm. More possibilities.
However, I didn’t sit down to write right away. I had to travel to Charlottesville, VA, for a meeting of the Board of Governors of the Virginia Writers Club; however, the prompts kept tickling at me the whole drive over. I was a little early in arriving, so I pulled out the notebook I go nowhere without and jotted down this opening paragraph:
“I always figured it went down like this: one of those impersonal government buildings–you know the kind, all concrete, no glass–a conference room, a table occupied by faceless bureaucrats, a couple of guys in lab coats, maybe with names like Krishnamurtichatterjee or Schwartzenschikelgruber. They sat around the table reading a thick report, maybe watched a PowerPoint or a Prezi. The guys were from USDA, FDA, maybe Justice or U.S. Marshals, Bureau of Prisons, or some such.”
Yeah, promising, but where to go from there?
All throughout the meeting, as I knew it would, the prompts kept “talking” to me, and I jotted more notes at breaks and at lunch. By the time I left for home, I had a fully formed idea.
A really grotesque, fully formed idea. Even then I let it stew most of the day on Sunday; then, I sat down and started to write. It was all going smoothly until I got a text telling me I was late for my three-year-old granddaughter’s cake and ice cream birthday party. Oops! I hit save, dashed to the car, and took care of family business. I had to remind myself not to scarf down cake and ice cream and dash home, that Mamo had to be there for the Emster.
I got home, sat right down again, and resumed the story. When I next looked at the clock, it was almost 2300, and I had written 2,498 words. (The story can’t exceed 2,500 words.) I read it over, noted the spots needing work, and got to the end. I liked it. It needed work, but I liked it.
For the first round we have eight days to upload the story, and I’m grateful for the time. I’m letting the draft sit for Monday and Tuesday; then, I’ll pick it up again on Wednesday, with a goal of having it ready to upload on Friday. Yes, I’m grateful because if I make it to Round 2 I only have five days. Should I make it to Round 3, I only have twenty-four hours to upload a story. And you can’t pre-write because you don’t know what the prompts will be.
It’s certainly a challenge–so, aptly named, NYC Midnight–but each story gets feedback, and that’s what most interests me. Two of my writer friends from Tinker Mountain are also participating, so we’re supporting each other by listening to each other vent on Facebook Messenger. It would be the coolest of cool if all three of us made it to Round 3.
I actually feel a bit odd not having a writing conference to go to this weekend. In fact, I don’t have another one until October, which will close out my year of writing conferences/workshops until January of next year, when it all starts all over again.
This week and this weekend will be consumed with my line edit of the rewrite of the draft of the novel whose excerpt went over very well in this past June’s Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. Several of my classmates from that workshop and the 2012 one have agreed to read the MS and provide feedback, so I hope to get that process started next week.
And I haven’t forgotten I need to do an in-depth post on last weekend’s “A Gathering of Writers” in North Carolina.
I am worried, though, that I’ve been so focused on editing/revising (which is important, don’t get me wrong) I’ve not been able to do much original stuff of length. I love flash, and I’m always inspired by the prompts from the two flash exercises I participate in weekly. Rather, I need to expand a little and go back to pieces that are longer–considerably–than 100 or so words. After all, NaNoWriMo is just two months away, so I need to get into the habit of at least 1,700 words–a day!
Today’s Friday Fictioneers photo I’m sure has inspired many different genres, but for some reason it led me to one of my favorite genres to read–the ghost story, i.e., the subtle ghost story. Don’t let the title, “Socratic Method,” put you off. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the line above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.
Whoever said revising is the hardest part of writing, give him or her a cigar. The odd thing is, I don’t know why that 1) surprises me and/or 2) annoys me. After all, I’ve been writing/revising something for close to forty years. Not a single one of my government reports or magazine articles made it to print without multiple revisions. I suppose in that case because the revisions were engendered by third parties rather than being self-induced, I just accepted it and moved on to the next one.
Every writer–no, don’t deny this because it’s every writer–grumbles when it comes to polishing that rough draft. Some people erroneously decide that first cut is good enough and rush to Smashwords or Kindle Direct Publishing and bestow on us a rough draft full of plot holes, inconsistencies, typos, grammatical goofs, putrid punctuation, and sloppy style. They are usually the first ones to wail that self-publishers get no respect. Well, duh, accept some responsibility for that. And I’ve self-published three collections of genre short stories. I agonized over every word, used the services of a proofreader, and some typos still got past us. I felt as if I’d betrayed the reader in that case. The advantage of direct publishing, though, is that I can upload a corrected version and only lose maybe one day of availability.
When my workshop instructor at Tinker Mountain praised my novel excerpt, he made a point of declaring how polished it was–and then suggested some line edits, ones that were necessary. He didn’t ask me for a copy of the entire MS as is. He told me to go home and revise it then get back in touch. I didn’t and don’t resent that feedback. This is a person whose opinion I respect, and he’s right. It’s a decent rough draft, which needs a lot of work to be a final product.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from grumbling as I go about Revision Round One.
What, you ask, you’re going to revise it more than once? Yes. I have a lot to digest about it: the instructor’s critique but my fellow workshoppers’ critiques as well. As I reviewed their comments, I saw they, with their fresh-eyed attention to the MS, made some good points which I have to factor into a revision. That means at least two revisions, perhaps more because I always hand off a “finished” MS to someone who will look at it from an editor’s perspective.
Why am I grumbling, then? Well, this novel is very different from what I usually write, which are historical thrillers. This novel is a combination of literary fiction and historical fiction (because it has a present-day and a past timeline interwoven), with a strand of mystery added, and the revision is taking me away from my characters, Mai and Alexei, who are like friends. Go on, admit it. Your characters become larger than life to you, too; otherwise, you’d write them with one dimension.
In this novel I’m also exploring a subject I never thought I’d address–race relations, historically and in the present day, and that’s by no means easy. Not that I’m tiptoeing around anything. I’m working very hard to be honest, and it’s difficult. My usual characters are just as bleeding-heart liberal as I am, so to be inside the head of a woman from the 1940’s to whom white supremacy is a given is very, very challenging. I’m trying not to make her a caricature and to show her as a human being, but that’s a trial as well. It’s too easy to just make her evil and not explain why she is the way she is.
However, doing something different from what you usually write expands you as a writer. It opens you to other possibilities, makes you look at your writing differently and more critically. A few years ago, I would have told you I could never have written a story of fewer than 500 words, much less 100 words, but I do it, twice, every week. I never disdained literary fiction–I read a lot of it–but I never thought I’d write a novel-length literary fiction work. But I have, and I’m very proud of it. Better yet, I’m excited about it, and I’ll be even more excited about it when it comes through the other side of the revision process.
Where revising your work is concerned, resistance is futile. You’ll be a better writer through revision.
Today, I could have played a major April Fools joke on the rest of you by “announcing” that I’d just been offered a six-figure advance and a multiple-book contract from one of the “Big Six.” I could have, but I won’t because it’s likely the joke would be on me. So, no advance, no book contract; just constant editing and revising and hoping.
I get frustrated at times with the lack of new material I’m producing. I retired to have more time to write, and I have written more and more constantly than before I retired; but it seems at times that I do more re-writing than writing.
No difference, you say. Writing is writing. True, but I miss the mad rush of researching and drafting that comes with a whole new project. Granted, I participate in National Novel Writing Month every November, which means I have created five, original manuscripts in five years.
The first one was a semi-autobiographical piece, which, after re-reading it, I realized was 200+ pages of self-indulgent whining. It has, however, been a good source of short stories.
The second one I have edited, revised, and re-written to the point where it’s as ready as it will ever be for pitching to possible agents.
For the third one, I took a risk and killed off one of my characters, a bold move that turned out fairly well. It also helped me face the loss of my long-term relationship and address the emotions that involved; however, the character wasn’t ready to die and told me so. The good news is, I’m meshing this manuscript with another one I developed shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. So, all is not lost.
The fourth one is one that I really enjoyed writing. It’s the closest thing to a sci-fi novel I’ve ever written–a story about a dire future after the Tea Party takes over the government. Dark and political, it was a rough draft I was very proud of, and, in fact, the first 5,000 words I submitted for critique in last year’s Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. The reception it received was awesome. (It helps that the workshop instructor, Pinckney Benedict, is a fan of dystopian fiction.) Then, I re-read Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale, for a book club and went, “Oops.” It had been two decades almost since I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, but apparently I channeled Atwood when I wrote my manuscript. (Channeling Atwood could be a good thing.) However, since it got such good feedback, it’s definitely something to work on.
The fifth one, last year, was a completely different work for me, a straight-up literary fiction novel that intersects an event in a small town during World War II with an event in the same town in present day. The protagonist is a successful romance writer married to a not-so-successful novelist, and all is just lovely until they find the bones of a baby in the wall of a room they’re renovating. I always put a NaNoWriMo draft aside for six months before I start revising, so next month is when I’ll pull it out and start polishing it.
So, what am I whining about? Well, after an amazing amount of creativity in the late 1990s and early 2000s wherein I dashed out six novel-length manuscripts featuring my two favorite spies, Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin, as they work for the fictional United Nations Intelligence Directorate, I haven’t produced a new novel featuring them since 2002. Yes, I’ve been revising and re-writing all those original manuscripts, but I’ve missed creating a new adventure for them. I have been writing short stories featuring them (Spy Flash, published in December 2012), but aside from that, Mai and Alexei walked away from a mission in 2001; and we’ve heard nothing from them since.
You’ve written all you can about them, you might say. No, I feel they have a lot of adventures in them, and I’ve made notes about those adventures. Merely, focusing on improving my craft and establishing a bit of a name for myself as a flash fiction writer has become my immediate focus.
That’s why I need that multiple-book contract, publishers. I’ve always been well-motivated by deadlines, so take a chance. Tell me you want three books, four, or five, and I’ll get right on them.
Don’t forget, this is National Poetry Month. Take a break from fantasy or cozy mysteries and read a poet you’ve never read before.
After a great lunch–I discovered during Tinker Mountain last year, Hollins has a wonderful cafeteria–we settled in for the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference afternoon sessions. First up, we could choose from “Experiences and Options in Self-Publishing,” by Michael Abraham; “The Diverse Ways Writers Manipulate Time on the Page,” by Jim Minick; “Structuring Song,” by Greg Trafidlo (who bills himself as a “troubadour”–how cool is that?); and “Writing Dark Fantasy and Horror for Young Adults,” by Tiffany Trent.
I went to Jim Minick’s workshop. He and I were at Tinker Mountain together, and he had been a guest reader at SWAG last year. His wonderful memoir, The Blueberry Years, was a delight to read, and he now teaches at Radford. His workshop got us to look at ways we convey time in our writing, on the macro and micro levels, but he emphasized that we have to keep the reader’s perception of time in mind. The reader experiences our writing in real-time as he or she reads it, but we control the pace. How we break a work into chapters or scenes (macro level), the sentence length and type of punctuation we use (micro level) all determine the pace for the reader. This is all unconscious on the reader’s part but very conscious on the writer’s part. We speed up or slow down using dialogue or the choice of specific verbs. “You are gods,” Minick told us. “Every word choice, sentence length, etc., creates a world.” Minick also suggested a time-honored way to check how you’ve used time–read your work aloud. A great workshop, and it would certainly be great luck to be one of his students.
The mid-afternoon sessions were “Understand Your Publishing Options Before Your Manuscript is Finished,” by Teri Leidich; “Visual Images as the Source of Stories,” by Carrie Brown; and “Telling Stories,” by Dan Casey.
I went to Casey’s workshop because he is a journalist and editor of a local paper in Roanoke, and journalists, not to mention those from an Irish background, are the best story tellers. Casey’s method of workshopping is to demonstrate by action–he told story after story, and in so doing taught us about chronology and setting, how to inject humor and suspense, and showing not telling. The latter is particularly interesting in the telling of the story, but he managed to do it. He reminded me of the times I spent with my Irish grandmother listening to her spin tales; she’d tell the same ones over and over, but with each telling she showed me something different. Casey bore that out when he emphasized that when we revise and edit, we are telling the story over and over until it’s the right one.
The final workshops of the day were “The Craft of the Art,” by Amanda Cockrell, who is also a professor in Hollins’ writing program; “Developing Ideas That Publishers Will Buy,” by Roland Lazenby; and “Selling Your Young Adult Novel 101,” by Angie Smibert.
“The Craft of the Art” workshop was a condensation of a semester-long course Cockrell gives at Hollins, and frankly it would be worth auditing, if that were possible. Through a series of interactive, workshop exercises Cockrell emphasized that the typical aspects of a story (POV, setting, characters, etc.) comprise a toolbox we should draw from and that we should use the right tool at the right point in the story.
Cockrell had us spend five minutes writing down our earliest memory as a way to delve into our own subconscious. Several participants read theirs aloud, and I was surprised at how much detail I could recall about my earliest memory when I got quiet and thought about it.
The next exercise was to write the letters of the alphabet in a vertical column then write a vignette about something that starts with that letter. Again, a few people read their vignettes, but Cockrell made us promise to finish the exercise on our own or use it as a way to overcome writer’s block. “You may be surprised,” she said, “to find you’ll end up working bits of this exercise into a story you’re writing. Everything we write comes from somewhere in us, of our knowledge of other humans.” Cockrell noted that the things most people read aloud came from their childhood or teenaged years. “We draw from childhood,” she said, “because it’s new and from our adolescence because it’s tense.”
The final exercise Cockrell offered was to have us draw a picture of the childhood bedroom we spent the most time in, and that was quite the challenge to recall. As the minutes went on, though, I found I recalled more and more detail, including the spot where I started writing stories at my desk and in, first, spiral notebooks then on a manual typewriter. Great fun and very instructive.
The final session of the day was a panel on the future of blogging. Unfortunately, I opted out of that because yet another snow-maggeddon loomed, and I wanted to get home without driving in the dark in a snowstorm.
Overall, my first experience with the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference was a very positive one. There was a lot of depth and breadth in the workshops, and in many cases it was difficult to choose which one to attend. The presenters were all excellent, and I took away useful advice and plenty of writing tips. I think this will become a regular conference for me, and I’d recommend it whether you’re in Virginia or not.
I was so overwhelmed by the AWP Conference last year (just me and 9,999 other writers), I decided I needed a warm-up to get ready for AWP Boston in March. And at least it’s something close to home.
Hollins University, site of Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, hosts the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference this coming weekend: a meet and greet and some speechifying on Friday evening, then a jam-packed Saturday of workshops. And, oh, those workshops. They make you want to defy the laws of physics and be in two–in some cases four–places at the same time.
From book promotion to pitches to writing humor and/or cookbooks to marketing and memoirs to self-publishing to craft to blogging, there is something for everyone. It’ll be a long, but invigorating day.
I’m looking forward to attending workshops by writers I’ve not met as well as one by Jim Minick, who is a Tinker Mountain classmate and previous presenter at my local writing group, SWAG Writers. I look forward to all the pointers and advice I know will be forthcoming from all the presenters.
And just so February won’t feel left out, that same SWAG Writers is sponsoring a playwriting workshop on February 23. The location is yet to be determined, so stay tuned for the details. If you find yourself in the Shenandoah Valley that weekend, consider giving it a try. I’ve taken a “writing for movies” workshop before, but I’m eager to stretch my boundaries a little–or a lot.
March will be a two-fer: AWP then the Virginia Festival of the Book. In May I’m attending my first writing retreat, and I’ll write more about that later. June will be a return to Tinker Mountain, so right now I have April open. Suggestions, anyone?
I’ll report on each workshop after it happens, and I hope to see some of my writer friends at each.
For those of you who’ve wondered, Tinker Mountain is a mountain next door to Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, and is the location of the writers workshop I’ve been attending all this week. Today’s the day my story gets critiqued, but more on that later today.
Being involved in this workshop is certainly inspiring, and one thing I’ve learned is the economy of words. Another way Friday Fictioneers connect with a writer–and I’ve said this before–you learn how to cut and pare until you’re down to the essentials.
Obviously, this week I’m done with the sweet, cutesy stuff and am back to the dark side of things. About time. And I hope you find the title, “The Atheist’s Wish,” just a tad intriguing.
For other offerings (Read my story, and you’ll see that’s a pun.), go to Madison Woods’ blog and have a read or several.
Yet another cool thing about Tinker Mountain is the fact that while a bunch of us are here learning to be better writers, a whole bunch more are here learning to be better ceramicists. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of artists, as we found out last night at my dorm (Sandusky–yes, a little creepy) where the writers number only two. There might have been wine involved–I say might, in case, well, having wine on campus is a no-no.
But it was a great discussion of creative process–the ceramicists thought they were the only ones who worked alone and inside their heads. We were more alike than any of us thought.
Today’s craft seminar was “Looking at You–Notes on the Second Person, its Pleasures, Risks, and Surprises,” conducted by poet Thorpe Moeckel. A more laid-back presenter, Moeckel was just as engaging as Benedict and McKean, and his love of poetry was obvious in the selections we read to illustrate the premise of the lecture. Some I knew well, like “When You Are Old,” by W. B. Yeats, and “Letter to Simic from Boulder,” by Richard Hugo. Others were new gems for me to behold: “Visit” by A. R. Ammons, “Merengue,” by Mary Ruefle, and “Directions,” by Michael McFee.
I left the craft lecture wanting to delve more into poetry–and how to write it–and ready to experiment some more with second person.
Even though I know I’ve heard this before, somehow when Pinckey Benedict uses David Mamet to teach about what a scene should do, it sticks harder and longer. According to Mamet, a scene–whether for a television program, movie, novel, or story–should establish who wants what, what happens if the person doesn’t get what he/she wants, and why now. Once you’ve established that and written the scene, you have to ask yourself: Is it dramatic? Is it essential? Does it advance the plot? Then, you have to answer truthfully. If the scene isn’t dramatic or essential and it doesn’t advance the plot, out it goes.
Easy, right? Apparently not, because we were all slapping our foreheads and saying, “Duh!” (To see in detail what David Mamet has to say, Google “David Mamet Memo,” and you should get the memo he wrote to his staff of writers on the TV show, “The Unit.” Great stuff.) To get us in the habit of this, Benedict instructed us to try an experiment: stop writing anything expository for a while, make sure every sentence shows someone doing something, start with action, and once something has been accomplished, end it.
We had great fun in the workshop reading aloud a homework assignment. We had to write down a real dream then a fake dream. After we read both to the class, the others had to guess which was which–and justify why we voted that way. We’ve all come to know each other pretty well, but it was still difficult to decide which was the dream and which is real. Pinckney joked that this workshop might be the dream we all wake up from–if that’s so, let me sleep.
Homework for tomorrow: write an event that happened to you and one that didn’t; write a short bio where one thing is not true; and write the worst opening to a novel or story there ever was.
I haven’t looked forward to homework in a very long time.
When you see this week’s Friday Fictioneers’ inspiration photo, expect some creepy, “dark and stormy night” stories. It’s that kind of picture. I resisted the temptation, though, and opted for a little sci-fi. To read my story, click here. (If you don’t see the link on your computer, hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers tab above, and select “In Moonlight and Peace.”) To read other Friday Fictioneers’ stories, visit Madison Woods’ page and dig in. I know I’m looking forward to them all.
Enjoy my story, and, please, leave a comment. I love your comments. They heal an occasionally bruised writer’s ego. If you’re participating in Friday Fictioneers, leave the link to your story also, so I can read it. I definitely make the effort to read the stories of people who have read and commented on mine. Friday Fictioneers has become quite the writing community and with a global reach. In fact, go to Facebook and “Like” the Friday Fictioneers’ Facebook Page.
My story last week, Amontillado, has generated something completely unexpected: It has become the inspiration for a longer work, as yet untitled, about why that baby was inside the wall of an old house. I talked more about it in an earlier post this week, and I’m very excited about starting a new, novel-length work without NaNoWriMo being the impetus.
In other news, in about a month, I’m looking forward to the week-long Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. My workshop will be “Stretching Your Fiction,” and the instructor will be Pinckney Benedict, author of Miracle Boy and Other Stories. The description of this workshop was what led me to apply for it:
Writerly evolution most frequently takes place as a series of great evolutionary leaps: writers – often inspired by some profound challenge or undertaking – find themselves suddenly, swiftly, and significantly advanced in their art. This workshop, through challenging writing exercises, far-ranging discussion, and intense scrutiny of participants’ manuscripts, will endeavor to induce just such an evolutionary leap. Prepare to leave the class both exhausted and changed.
Scary, but I’m definitely looking forward to it. [Rubs hands together in anticipation]
Now, off to read some great Friday Fictioneers stories!