As I’ve said in my last couple posts, this is my second year participating in the NYCFlashFiction challenge. I’ve written a couple posts on why I enjoy the contest. After the first round, I think it’s important to note exactly how this contest has shaped and matured both my writing and my process.
1. The Deadline is Brutal
There is a quote out there, attributed to many (who knows who actually said it first)…
“Writing is the art of staring at a blank page until droplets of blood form on your forehead.”
With NYCFlashFiction, you have 48 hours to write 1000 words. Maybe in a genre you’ve never read, let alone written. Maybe in a setting you’ve not envisioned, even in your wildest dreams. And how the hell are you going to work in the item that just doesn’t fit… and MAKE it fit… naturally, effortlessly? A whole, contiguous story, based on a prompt you’d never imagine, in just two short days.
You have to just start writing.
There is no “staring at a blank page.”
There is no waiting for the inspiration train to make that long loop on the track of that void that is your doubtful mind, perchance bringing the spoils of all-dreams-past to the forefront.
You don’t have time to dawdle while waiting for the “ah-hah” to jump in and save your hide.
And so, you sit down, you block out the noise, and you write. Sometimes you throw away what you wrote, and start over. But you go…. until it’s time to stop. You write a complete story, end to end, as fast as humanly possible. Because you have to have time to edit.
2. Learning New Ways to Edit
Technically speaking, 48 hours isn’t long enough to complete a full edit. There is a reason why writing shops (magazines, newspapers, etc.) have both writers and editors. A writer cannot objectively edit her own work until she emotionally detaches from it. I find, for me, that cool-down period is about two weeks. For others, it’s several days, and for some, it can take a month, or a year, or more.
No one in their right mind edits in the first 48 hours. Even on a piece as short as 1000 words.
But in this case… guess what? You have no choice. It forces the you, as the writer, so far out of your comfort zone that you learn all sorts of tricks.
First and foremost, I learned that beta readers are crucial for this contest. Fortunately, there are many contest participants willing to swap beta reads during the contest weekends.
But I don’t stop at one, or even two… I try to get my NYC stories into the hands of as many people as possible who will objectively tell me their thoughts and impressions. I beg for them to rip it to shreds. I employ readers, writers, people who enjoy the genre, people who don’t read the genre… anyone and everyone who will still answer their phone when I call during NYCFlash weekends. *ahem*
And then I listen. I make notes. I force myself to emotionally detach from the story to make it what it needs to be… not just what my brain wants it to be.
Once I have what I feel is a solid draft (usually after 10 edits in the first 24 hours), I play games with the grammar. I read it backwards, sentence by sentence, so that everything is out of context. (Soooo many grammar nits plucked that way!) I read it out loud, to myself, to my husband, to the cats, to the kids, to the walls. Again and again. Where do I stumble? What do I find awkward? Is anything out of place, unnatural or cumbersome?
Hack. Slash. Dice. Puree. Chop.
And start all over… more betas. More reading backward. Out loud again. Nothing is sacred. Not one damned thing.
3. You Have to Pace Yourself
While it might seem like 48 hours is a sprint, it’s really a marathon. I learned to step away. I put the phone down, log off the computer and take breaks. I walk away, even if it’s just for an hour… because fresh eyes catch issues faster than tired ones.
An hour of swimming helps me re-envision that clunky, first sentence that still isn’t quite right.
Watching my kids’ ice skating practices gives me enough of a breather to resuscitate that dead section in the middle.
Watching a movie with the family injects joy into the final lines of prose.
Yes, I do spend most of the contest weekends working on my entry piece. But I also make sure that it’s not a break-neck pace. I don’t forgo sleep. I eat healthy. I get enough water. Face time with my family exists.
I carry this with me into the rest of my writing, and life… there is such thing as “too much for too long.” Sometimes, slowing down the pace, balancing life and steadying myself produces better results, faster, than if I just kept pushing through.
4. Ready or Not, You’re Done!
At some point, you read your writing out loud and you say, “Yes. This is it. This is exactly how it will be for submission.” Or maybe you say, “Well, this is as good as it’s gonna get.”
Either way, you ship it.
“Finishing” is a fearful concept for a lot of writers. There’s a “what if” factor that goes hand-in-hand with the choose-your-own-adventure brain of a writer. We just can’t help it. We “what if” the holy fuck out of… everything.
With NYCFlash, your “what ifs” are pointless at 11:59 PM Eastern on Sunday.
It’s shipped, and all you can do is wait. NYC teaches us to finish, be done and move on. Another challenge will come down on us soon enough, and the previous round is history.