The tweet caught my eye: “@SilverEmpirePub accepting submissions for a short story contest.”
I was in a rut with my current work-in-progress, a historical mystery. I love mysteries and my shelves are crammed full with whodunits. But I was struggling with this story, the words weren’t making their way from my brain to my fingertips. I needed a change.
What did I know about short story contests? Not much.
I’d never thought to write a mystery short story because I haven’t really cared for the stories I’d read in mystery magazines. However, Silver Empire’s contest was for a story about stairs in the woods.
The submission guidelines were intriguing. They were accepting any genre, although they admitted that science fiction, fantasy, and horror were the most likely genres. I didn’t know much about writing in any of those genres, but I’m a big fan of Tolkien and King. So, I figured, why not?
I dashed off to Barnes and Noble and picked up the latest issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. As I read, new ideas for a story zipped through my brain like Ricochet Rabbit on Red Bull (yes, I revealed how old I am, and apologies for the unexpected alliteration). I couldn’t scribble fast enough to get all my ideas down on paper.
Five days later, I submitted the story to the contest, a murder mystery set in a fantasy place called D’waachen. These were five days when my fingers struggled to keep up with the stream of words. I skipped the gym and stopped binge-watching Breaking Bad. This was an exhilarating writing experience for me and, win or lose, I’m really glad I did it.
I learned a lot during those five days. Here are some of the lessons:
1. Writing in a different genre really cranked open the spigot of my creative juices.
Sure, I was in my comfort zone of dead bodies and bloody crime scenes. On the other hand, I was placing my dead body in a fantasy world that hadn’t existed in my mind until a few hours before. World building in F&SF is so much more encompassing than in mystery. But, instead of finding the challenge daunting, I could barely control the gush of ideas.
I had to think of geography and people and magic and monsters, and each characteristic of my new world prompted more ideas.
2. It’s easier to kill your darlings in a short story.
Working on my first novel, I’d written page after page of a subplot involving a minor character I adored because of her obsession with shoes. She was funny and charming and made me laugh out loud. I thought she was the best thing I’d ever written.
The only problem was that she really added nothing to the story.
I had to go through three beta reading cycles before I dared to cut her out. Delete, delete, delete. Thirty pages gone, thirty pages of my best stuff ever. It was painful.
In my short story, I didn’t have the luxury of thirty pages to indulge my creative ego. When it came time to excise the darlings, I found wiping out a hundred and fifty words so much easier than thirty pages.
3. The pressure of a deadline gave me the impetus to solve problems more efficiently.
There wasn’t enough time to linger over every sticking point. When I got to a spot where I couldn’t figure out what happened next, or how a character was going to respond to another, or how my magical staircase was supposed to look, I couldn’t just stop and stare at the screen. I had to come up with options, select the best one, and move on to the next sticking point.
This was a skill I’d never learned before in novel writing, and I hope to be able to apply it going forward.
4. When in doubt, interview your characters.
I’d just read K.M. Weiland’s blog post, 100+ Questions to Help You Interview Your Character, and I figured I’d try the technique with my short story protagonist. At first, it seemed like over kill — this was, after all, a short story — but after going through the process, I discovered some delicious tidbits about my hero. One particular characteristic, the fact that the protagonist choked under pressure, completely changed the end of the story. I wouldn’t have discovered that fact without the interview.
5. Writing for a contest was a lot of fun.
I got to experiment with new techniques and types of characters, something I wouldn’t have committed to with a novel-length project. There’s always some pleasure when finishing a project, and writing the short story gave me that satisfaction far sooner than with a longer piece. And, ultimately, it was so enjoyable to get into the heads of new characters and setting. I’ll be doing more short story contests.
A few short story contests to consider.
The Aeon Award. Due November 17.
Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers. Deadline October 31.
WritersWeekly.com’s 24-Hour Short Story Contest. Quarterly.