Since The Man from PigPerfect mysteriously turned up on her front porch, Janessa Chang-Showalter has had to shoot her dog, watch someone else shoot her hormone-crazed husband, and now she’s scared to death of the baby she’s being forced to deliver. She’s beginning to wonder if running off with Andrew to his Nebraska hometown was such a hot idea after all.
I love a good writing exercise. Timed exercises; photo prompts; ones that use structure, like 100 words or haikus — I like the way they get things flowing, and I love to see the way a gang of writers can take the same prompt and take it in a hundred different directions. So when a friend of mine told me about NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge, I was all in. There’s a time element (8 days, in Round One, to write a story from scratch), a word limit (2,500), and prompts relating to genre, subject, and character — a competition seemingly designed just for me! I figured as long as I didn’t get Horror for my genre, I had this on lock.
The night before the Round One assignments were revealed, I actively fretted: I hope I don’t get Horror as my genre for the Short Story Challenge. And the Universe, as is occasionally her wont, picked up on two key phrases — namely “Horror” and “the Short Story Challenge” — and lined ’em right up for me in the nick of time. By fretting about it, I had more or less asked for it, and I sure did get it.
And my initial response was There’s forty bucks I’ll never get back. Obviously I’d flush the entry fee, write nothing, and keep my fingers crossed for next year. But I was on a long Newark layover at the time — in suburban Jersey, mind you, not soaking up the sights of The City — and, for want of anything better to do, I thought on it for a minute. I mean, it is called a “Challenge;” the word’s right there in the name. If I’da gotten Goofy Gay Romance for my genre and Self-Sabotaging Flight Attendant for a character, I could have written a humdinger of a story, but I wouldn’t have been pushing a whole lot of creative boundaries. Might not the point of the exercise, I asked myself, be to take some risks? To write without the safety net of This Is Easy? Shouldn’t I — pardon my French — challenge myself?
From a posting I made about it on Facebook, I received three especially helpful pieces of advice from three friends: 1. Have fun with it. 2. You were just posting about watching the Facts of Life Reunion on YouTube, which scared me sure enough. And 3. It won’t kill you to fail. And I thought 1. Good idea!, 2. Don’t judge me!, and 3. You know, I bet she’s right. So I sat down with my empanadas from Raul and gave it a whirl.
I’ve never read Stephen King; I’ve never seen Friday the 13th; I’ve never spent the night in a haunted house — everything I know about the “Horror” genre I learned from Scooby Doo. My group got “A prisoner” as a character, and “GMOs” as a subject (hence the hormone-crazed husband, see Above), then I took a female lead (I was always Team Daphne; Fred was such a blowhard know-it-all), gave her a dog, put her in an old abandoned mental hospital with a bad guy in an overcoat, and let the rest write itself. I got to write this piece without attachment — what’s to fear about being judged at something I never thought I’d be any good at? I got to flex some unused muscles, explore some unfamiliar territory (setting, motivation, tone: all new to me), I even got to throw in a background character named Tootie. And I learned that if I spend two hundred words getting to know a character, she’ll hook me and I’ll have to tell her story, the best I can.
The deadline for Round One submissions is tonight; Round Two (three days to write 2,000 words — more prompts!) starts at the end of March, so I’ll find out in a few weeks if I made the cut. Like I said, I like the format of the contest; I’d love to be picked as one of the Top Five in my heat and move on. Is my story any good? My cousin Amanda says it is. She writes Horror, too, but she’s also my cousin, so… We’ll see. And if it’s not? If the scariest thing about my Horror Story turns out to be writing it? Challenge met.