Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge (part 1)

I've signed up to the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. It's a writing competition that runs all the way until December (well, it does if you're lucky enough to get through all the rounds to the final!)

There are so many people doing this competition! I'm in group number 48. The group contains 35 writers, and there are 60 groups, so that's 2100 writers altogether! Yikes. Scary odds. But hey, even if I don't get anywhere, it'll be nice to get a few stories out of it.

How does it work? Well, you get assigned a genre, a location, and an object... then have to produce up to 1,000 words of quality flash fic in just one weekend. The story has to be written according to the given genre, and must take place at the given location. The object, luckily, only needs to be mentioned in the story rather than play an important part... which is good because some of the objects are kinda random! (Imagine trying to write a 1,000-word story set in a casino that somehow features a toothbrush.)

So you only get 48 hours to write a story! The problem with such a short deadline is that you pretty much have to write and shape the story on Saturday, in order to leave time to sleep on it before some hard-core editing and polishing on the Sunday.

Assignment examples:
  • Genre: Thriller, Location: A blood bank, Object: A poker chip.
  • Genre: Romantic Comedy, Location: A jewellery shop, Object: A slice of lemon.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction, Location: A castle, Object: A thimble.

That third example above is actually the assignment I was given. So I had to write a historical fiction story set in a castle, and I needed to mention a thimble at some point. My mind immediately went blank. Thanks, Brain.

It took me ages to come up with an idea - nearly the whole of the Saturday! - but I got there in the end by finding what I think is a method that will work for next time. Here's what I did:

Mark's dodgy method for writing fast flash fiction for the NYC competition:
  1. Eliminate the object. The object only needs to be mentioned, so forget about it for now (especially if your object is something like a thimble, which sounds incredibly dull and makes my mind go completely blank!)
  2. Read about your genre. They have a page of genre definitions on their site which is pretty darn useful because it basically tells you exactly how to write your story.
  3. Brainstorm the genre and the location to find the story. In a way, I think I was lucky here. If you write an oldie-worldy sort of story set in a castle then it should sound at least vaguely historical. (And, seeing as there are only 48 hours of playtime, you have to look for shortcuts!)
  4. Write the story. Here's where you do the usual thing for first drafts. Freewrite the tale as fast as possible! Splurge, splurge, splurge! Don't let that pen (or those typing fingers) stop moving! Aim for more than 1,000 words, so you have plenty to trim and tighten.
  5. Add the object. If you haven't managed to mention the object in your story then find a place to cram it in. Although when you were splurging, the object was in the back of your mind so maybe you'll be lucky and find your brain's magically found a place for it already.
  6. Check the genre and location. The idea here is to double check that the story you've just splurged into the page hasn't gone off in a weird direction. Does it actually match the brief? For example, here I'm writing historical fiction and therefore a dragon is probably not a good character (because the judges would say, "No, that's fantasy - disqualified!")  
  7. Research. (This is an extra step just for historical fiction.) Check all your details! Yes, I know, normally for historical fiction you'd do all the research first but there's simply no time for such shenanigans if you only have 48 hours. Writers love to procrastinate, and research is the perfect procrastination tool (because it feels like you're doing something constructive right up until 5 minutes before the deadline, whereupon you suddenly panic because you've not even written the title yet). So write the story first - get the essence of it down - and then fix the inaccuracies.
  8. Polish. Trim, trim, trim! Make those words pop!
  9. Submit. Don't leave it until the last minute because, well... come here... bit closer... *whispers* don't tell my laptop I said this, but computers love to try and screw you over when you're pushed for time.

So I have a method, but the big problem, as always, is finding a good story. The tight deadline results in a massive amount of pressure. Each passing hour really does count! And it's scary to settle on an idea because of course you never really find out if a story is good or not until you finish the thing and read it after a break.

I had an idea but Brain was silent and refused to help. I gave up and went out to have a swim, feeling that I'd failed already! Luckily, Brain was kind enough to write the first and last lines for me while I was in the water... and after that I just needed to splurge out the middle bit!

So the story's submitted and apparently the judges will provide feedback. And, hopefully, some points! The scoring system is a bit complicated but basically you write two stories in Round 1. And the total score for BOTH stories needs to be ranked in the top 5 (out of the 35 in your group) for you to progress to Round 2.

The next bit of the competition happens in September. The July story and the September story are counted together as the entry for Round 1. If those two stories together get me ranked in the top 5 (of the 35 in my group) then I go on to Round 2 in November.

I think the timing is the scariest bit of this competition... it's spread throughout the year and, on the competition weekends, I have to be completely sure of a good internet connection and lots of peace and quiet to think. I'm currently moving around a lot so 2016 may not have been the best year to participate! :-/

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