A Bloody Flash

I’ve been a NYC Midnight junkie the past two weeks.  This weekend was the first round of their fourth annual Flash Fiction Challenge.  Writers from around the world are divided into groups, and each group is assigned a genre, a location, and an object.  The writers then have 48 hours to write a story of 1000 words or less that incorporates those parameters.  I’ve participated the past two years, and I love the way it pushes me creatively during those adrenaline-fueled weekends.

For the first challenge this year, my group was assigned the genre of drama, the location of a blood drive, and the object duct tape.  I was kind of bummed about the genre of drama - I’ve had it a number of times over the course of various NYCM competitions and was hoping for something to push me out of my comfort zone.  Plus drama is so broad - almost every story is a drama in some way; and with my fondness for writing thrillers, suspense, and horror, I had to be careful not to cross too far over into one of the other genre categories.  This was especially tough this time given the location was a blood drive - the horror story practically writes itself!

I spent most of Saturday pacing around the house swilling coffee rejecting idea after idea.  Of the two that were my front runners, I worried one was too sci-fi and the other was too fantasy.  In their rules, NYCM states they encourage the creative use of the parameters, so I finally had the idea to push the meaning of “a blood drive.”  Instead of the typical setting of a mall or office building with chairs, nurses, juice, and cookies, I decided to interpret the phrase literally and have a bloody protagonist driving a car.  Once I settled on that, the details began to fall into place.  By 11:30 pm on Saturday night, I finished my first draft.  It was awful.  So terrible, I thought about starting over with one of my earlier ideas.

But after rereading it a few times, I figured out where it had gone off the rails and rewrote it.  I only kept the first paragraph, some of the plot points, and a few phrases I liked from the original.  I finished that draft around 5:00 am (oh, have I mentioned I’m a night owl?), and then immediately did another round of editing.  At 6:30 am I was still 227 words over the limit, but I decided sleeping on it was the wisest course of action. 

Once I woke up, I started the painful process of chopping and tightening and tweaking to make sure every word counted.  I also sent a draft to my brother, sister, and parents to read, since they are always my first readers.  They were all very enthusiastic, but they usually are, so they’re not the best barometers.  As the midnight deadline approached, I finally got the story whittled down to 994 words, and I was pretty happy with the story I submitted.  Here’s my title and synopsis:

A Long, Bloody Road - As time runs out for her son, Sarah’s not afraid to spill a little blood to save his life.

Have you participated in NYC Midnight’s flash fiction challenges before?  Which genres would you like to get?  Which genres would you dread?

More Micro-fiction

 Last week I participated in the first round of NYC Midnight’s micro-fiction challenge.  It’s a good thing we were allowed to submit three entries, because the reactions I got in various places really drove home how subjective this whole writing thing can be.  NYCM provides forums where you can post your stories for feedback, and there the overwhelming favorite was the one on domestic violence.  However, I also posted them on twitter, and the favorite was the poop joke – I even got retweeted by several people I didn’t know, which felt awesome.  But when it came time for the judges to pick the top 25 from each group to move on to the voting round, the only one of mine they selected was the one about the reluctant wedding:  Sick of being poor, Amy clasped the withered hand of her rich groom & choked out the words, “I do.” 

Even though I didn’t feel that was my strongest of the three, I was just happy one of mine was moving on to the next step.  So then NYCM had the public vote on their favorites.  The three with the most votes in each group (plus two picked by the judges) would move on to the final round.  I was surprised to find out last night that my wedding story had the second highest amount of votes in my group, so thank you to everyone who voted for me. 

That meant today was the finals, and all 100 writers who moved on were assigned the same word: oxygen.  Today was crazy busy with some high stress things happening, so I didn’t have time to angst and fret over my entries like I usually do.  Fortunately, three ideas came to me very quickly, and arrived pretty much already in bite-sized chunks, so I did not have to spend forever trying to whittle them down to less than 100 characters.  Considering the very small amount of time I had to work on them, I’m pretty happy with what I submitted.

1.  Amy told him sex without oxygen would be a rush. A belt one notch too tight makes her a millionaire.

2.  The greedy fire consumed the room’s oxygen making her husband’s death less painful than Sue planned.

3.  Despondent from being the 3rd wheel, Oxygen split from the Hydrogens, flinging the world into chaos.

After I wrote #1, I was trying to find a three-letter name (have to keep it short!), and I picked ‘Ami.’  Then my brain started itching thinking I’d already used it before.  So I looked up my first round stories and saw that I'd used ‘Amy’ in the wedding one that advanced me to the finals.  Then I realized this new one actually made a perfect sequel for the wedding one and changed the name to ‘Amy’ to match. 

Should I write a third one where Amy gets caught to make it a trilogy?  What micro-stories can you come up with for ‘oxygen’?

WriteOnCon Returns

Are you guys participating in WriteOnCon this week?  If you’re a writer, and especially if you write for the under 18 crowd, you should check out the information-y awesomeness over there immediately.  This is the second year for WriteOnCon, which is an online writer’s conference for kidlit writers taking place August 16-18. 

While there are live events like Q&A sessions, the best part is that all of the content remains available throughout the year.  So if this is a busy week for you, you can wait until your schedule is less hectic to visit and absorb the mind-blowing amount of information.  In fact, I found it pretty overwhelming last year, so popped back in over the ensuing months to reread some of the posts that really resonated with me.

Another fantastic aspect is the forums where you can meet and interact with fellow writers.  They also have a number of critique forums available – you can post your query, first 250 words, or first five pages and fellow participants will offer feedback.  An exciting component they’ve added this year is Ninja Agents, which are agents who anonymously drop in (they are color coded) and offer feedback on what you’ve posted.  I posted my query, 250 words, and five pages last night, and within an hour, one Ninja Agent had provided feedback on my first 250 words and another Ninja Agent had commented on my first five pages.  They both said my writing had a great voice (yay!!) and asked a few questions that have me questioning if I’ve started my story in the right place.  While I have a lot to think about now, it’s invaluable to have a chance to improve my beginning before I start querying.

The most amazing part about all of this is that the conference is FREE!!  They do have a place set up for donations, and I encourage anyone who gets something out of the conference to donate a little if they can.  I thought this was a fantastic event last year, and I definitely can’t wait to see what they have in store for us this year.

Did you attend WriteOnCon last year?  Are you participating this year?  Are you putting anything up on the forums to be critiqued? 

Keeping It Short and Sweet

NYC Midnight is a group that runs all types of contests throughout the year where they challenge participants to be creative in a short amount of time, whether it’s writing screenplays, short stories, micro stories, or even making movies.  Depending on the contest, participants are assigned a genre and other parameters, and then have a time limit for producing their work of art. 

One of my favorite contests for the past several years has been the Tweet Me a Story challenge.  We are assigned a word and have only a few hours to create complete stories in 140 characters that incorporate the exact word.  Apparently NYCM decided that wasn’t enough of a challenge, so this time we have to create stories only 100 characters long.  Yikes!

Today was the first round of the micro-fiction contest, and I was assigned the word ‘words.’  I wasn’t very inspired, because first of all, it sounds weird to say, “My word is ‘words.’”  But also because ‘words’ is not one of those words (see what I mean?) that has more than one meaning, so there’s not much to play with in terms of using one of the more obscure definitions. 

We are allowed to submit three entries, and I had six ideas I played around with and tweaked at all day.  When the midnight deadline rolled around for me to submit, these are the three I turned in:

1.  Sick of being poor, Amy clasped the withered hand of her rich groom & choked out the words, “I do.”

2.  As her husband aimed his gun, Tanya smiled - her daring words had finally freed her from his fists.

3.  Sam told him to sit, but the dog confused his words; now the priceless rug is peppered with turds.

Have you ever participated in any of NYCM’s contests?  Have you written micro-fiction before?  What micro-fiction can you come up with for the word ‘words’? (never stops being weird)

 

Fare Thee Well

I received an email today that made me a little sad – Chris Baty is stepping down as the Executive Director of The Office of Letters and Light (OLL).  Chris started National Novel Writing Month with a few of his friends back in 1999, and since then it has grown into an international phenomenon.  OLL is the non-profit group created to organize NaNo, Script Frenzy, and other writing adventures. 

National Novel Writing MonthAlthough I’ve never met or even corresponded with Chris, he’s been a huge part of my writing journey.  I like to think I’d have eventually gotten my act together to write my first novel, but I can’t be sure about that.  For years I’d been saying I wanted to write a novel, but it wasn’t until I heard about NaNo that I actually did it.  In the month leading up to it, I read his book No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, which really felt like a pep talk from a friend telling me I could do it and coaching me on how to keep the fear from paralyzing me. 

How amazing it must feel to Chris to have started this movement that helps people achieve their dreams and try new and scary things.  I know NaNo has a lot of detractors saying people are just spewing out crap, and I myself get frustrated by the participants who don’t realize the importance of rewriting and editing these NaNo drafts before sending them out, but I will always be grateful to Chris and this insane event he started.  Not only did it set me firmly on my path of serious writing, it also introduced me to a new format - screenplays

Chris’s email said he is stepping down in order to focus on being a full-time writer.  Having made that same decision about my own job a while back, I totally understand how difficult and yet exciting that was for him.  And although I will miss his pep talk emails and the energy he provided even via cyberspace, I wish him the best of luck, flowing words, and much happiness!

Do you think it will be the same without Chris?  How have the programs he started impacted your writing?

A Perfect Ending

I watched the series finale of Friday Night Lights last night, and I’m still feeling the loss of such an amazing television show.  It was such a perfectly FNL ending: plenty of hope for the future, but not everything wrapped up in a falsely perfect bow.  Through five seasons, the writing, directing, acting, cinematography, and editing came together seamlessly to create a something that felt more real than any show I’ve ever watched.  I often felt uncomfortable while watching because I felt like some creeper peering through the windows at these people’s lives.

I think part of the reason it felt so real to me is that I grew up in Summerville, SC, where Green Wave football was more important than just about anything.  I don’t know if Coach John McKissick is the molder of men that Eric Taylor was, but I do know that McKissick is the all-time winningest high school football coach ever.  I spent many Friday nights under those bright lights screaming my head off for our team (that is when I wasn’t awkwardly trying to be cool). 

But it wasn’t just familiarity that made these characters so authentic.  A magical combination of acting and writing truly made them feel like friends.  I laughed with them, worried for them, and I cried for them, oh man, how I cried for them, both at their joy and at their pain.  It actually got to be kind of ridiculous, since I apparently developed a Pavlovian response to the FNL theme song – it would start playing and my eyes would start watering.

As a writer and filmmaker, I know I will pull out my DVDs again and again to enjoy and appreciate what the FNL team did, as well as study how they did it so I can learn to create characters that feel so incredibly real. 

Were you a fan of Friday Night Lights?  Can you suggest other shows with characters who feel so authentic?  For the writers - did you pick up any techniques to improve the characters in your writing? 

Sticking with Netflix

I got my price hike email yesterday from Netflix, and like most people venting on the interwebs, I was outraged.  While an increase in prices over the years is expected, this was a huge jump, and the tone of the email was a tad condescending.  Honestly, I think the whole thing would have gone over better if the email had used more conciliatory wording (a reminder that words have power!). 

But now that I’ve had a chance to cool down and think about it, I won’t be one of the people jumping ship when the prices go up.  Even with a 60% increase, I’m still getting a lot of bang for my buck. 

When the streaming option first came out, it was a bonus I never used.  None of the “big” movies were on there, so what did I care?  Then one night I was bored and between DVD deliveries, so I wandered into the streaming catalogue and found something that caught my eye.  It was a small independent film I’d never heard of, and it was fantastic!  But since I knew nothing about it, I never would have “wasted” a DVD rental on it, which makes me sad to think about.  I’m now hooked on streaming and watch more movies that way than I do DVDs.  Sure there are plenty of stinkers out there, but I’m discovering all kinds of treasures I never would have seen otherwise. 

I need both features of my Netflix account.  The DVD deliveries keep me up-to-date on the Hollywood blockbusters, so I can participate in pop culture conversations.  And the streaming side helps me find those hidden gems that inspire me as a writer and a filmmaker.  To me, that’s definitely worth an extra six bucks a month.  Just don't push your luck again anytime soon, Netflix!

What did you think about the Netflix price increase?  Are you going to keep your plan or look for an alternative?  Or should we all quit watching movies and go read a book?

Read-n-Feed: Extraordinary

** mild spoilers ahead **

The first book in my Read-n-Feed endeavor is the YA Fantasy Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin.  Here’s the jacket copy:

Phoebe finds herself drawn to Mallory, the strange and secretive new girl at school.  Soon the two become as close as sisters . . . until Mallory's magnetic older brother, Ryland, appears.  Ryland has an immediate, exciting hold on Phoebe – but a dangerous hold, for she begins to question her feelings about her best friend and, worse, about herself.

Soon she'll discover the shocking, fantastical truth about Ryland and Mallory, and about an age-old debt they expect Phoebe to pay.  Will she be strong enough to Extraordinaryresist? Will she be special enough to save herself?

Writing for young adults is tricky: we are supposed to have our characters grow and change so they can reach their goals, but at the same time we have avoid any whiff of teaching the reader a lesson, since teens have super sensitive BS meters.  In Extraordinary, Nancy sidesteps this issue by actually focusing on the lesson, but in a way that integrates so well into the plot it doesn’t feel preachy. 

The ‘moral of the story’ is that Phoebe must discover she is extraordinary just by being who she is.  That’s important for all teens to realize (adults too!), but it can seem like something cheesy your grandma tells you while pinching your cheeks.  Instead of trying to disguise this wisdom under layers of story, Nancy makes it the actual plot – I mean, even the title itself basically lays it out there for you.  But because Nancy creates a flawed character we can sympathize with, even while yelling at her in frustration, Phoebe’s journey feels natural rather than forced to teach us a lesson.

There is a scene were Phoebe explains to Ryland that because parents lavish their babies with love just because they are cute and little, even though all babies are cute and little, this convinces them of their own specialness, so even when life tries to teach them that they aren’t extraordinary, they can never completely believe it.  She says, “It’s probably why the human race survives.”  This really hit home with me: even many years removed from my teen insecurities, I can feel plain and ordinary.  And attempting to get published really intensifies those feelings – there are so many talented writers out there that I constantly question whether my writing is special enough to stand out.  But reading that scene made me realize that even if the world never thinks I’m special for my writing, my family and friends love reading my stories, and that’s something to be proud of and cherish.

So in my first session of learning something about writing from the books I read, the writing itself ends up not be the biggest lesson for me.  In admiring how daringly Nancy weaves the moral into her plot, I actually take the lesson to heart and believe that my writing can be extraordinary.  

If you’ve read Extraordinary, what did you think?  Have you read any books recently that gave you a boost you didn’t even know you needed?

Read-n-Feed

Books are yummy!I’ve always loved to read.  My nose was constantly stuck in a book, even when I was supposed to be doing other things (usually sleeping).  But when I started getting serious about writing, I pretty much stopped reading.  It’s not something I consciously decided, it just gradually happened.  I think part of it was that my mind was always in edit mode, which sucked the fun out of reading; so I gradually turned to other ways to enjoy stories (my beloved boob tube), where I could give that part of my brain a break.

The irony is I should now be reading more than ever.  That’s the one standard piece of advice most authors give to newbies: read a lot both within and outside of your genre.

So I’m resolving here and now to do better – I’m going to Read-n-Feed.  I’ll read more books to feed the monster in me always hungry for stories.  And I’ll think about what I’ve read to nourish the writing beast in me always hungry for more knowledge.  And to keep myself accountable, I’m going to report back here on the blog.  I’ll share what I’ve learned from reading a particular book that I can apply to my own writing.  It might be a new technique or a superb example that serves as a reminder of a tried-and-true rule or maybe even a ‘what not to do’ lesson.  Hopefully these “key takeaways” (forgive me, I spent ten years in corporate software development!) will strengthen my writing and be helpful to any other writers who stop by.

So how do other writers out there Read-n-Feed?  Do you analyze as you go?  Or are you able to turn off the writer side of your brain and just enjoy the ride?  If so, do you later think about what did and didn’t work?

A Dream Come True

If the eight-year-old version of me could see what I’m holding in my hands, she’d be cartwheeling around the house squealing at the top of her lungs.  Heck, the adult version of me is having a tough time keeping those impulses in check. 

Jocelyn holding the July 2011 Highlights with her storyToday seemed like any other day until I walked out to my mailbox and found a big white envelope with a return address from Highlights.  I had a hunch about what was inside, and my heart kicked into high gear.  I ripped open the envelope to find complimentary copies of the July 2011 issue, which just so happens to have a story written by me in its brightly colored pages.  Squeeee!!

I loved, loved, loved Highlights growing up – the fun stories, the cool crafts, the hidden pictures, the hijinks of Goofus and Gallant.  Even when I technically grew too old for it, my mom kept the subscription under the guise that it was for my younger brother and sister, even though they never really read it.  I was a sad, sad panda on the day my mom decided all her kids were too old for Highlights and cancelled the subscription.

Even though I wasn’t consciously thinking about becoming a writer at that point, a part of me must have poured over the pages knowing that’s where my destiny would lead me.  Two years ago I entered the 2009 Highlights Fiction Contest, and my story Seeking a Hidden Hive was picked as one of the winners.  My awesome prize was that I got to attend the fantastic Chautauqua Writers Workshop for free, but even more exciting for me was that my story was going to be published in Highlights

Highlights keeps so many stories on hand that it takes years after acceptance to be published, but since this is my first children’s publication, I’ve been anxiously awaiting this day.  Now it’s finally here, and it feels AMAZING!  The illustrator did a fabulous job on the drawings, bringing my characters to life.  I got a little choked up when I saw my name listed among the pages of the magazine that was such a huge part of my childhood.  I am so grateful to the editors at Highlights for picking my story and making one of my dreams come true. 

So what writing milestones have transformed you into your eight-year-old self squealing with excitement?