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Articles > Short Story Challenge 2008 > Genre Gods of the Short Story Challenge


Genre Gods of the Short Story Challenge

by Allison Campbell (San Francisco, CA)


            Sylvia Plath was probably right, ‘everything in life is writable.’ But her decree is centered on the usefulness of personal experience.  What I don’t think Plath had in mind is, genre and subject assigned, anyone can write about anything.  But that’s just what NYC Midnight forces participants to do.  The random draw, Fantasy, Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi, Comedy, Horror, Suspense all dealt out regardless of an authors personal tastes, was the biggest snag for many of the Northern California writers I interviewed.  At first glance, many questioned the personal ‘writability’ of their designated genre and subject.


This was true for author Catherine Parker, who I caught up with as she was cruising out of San Francisco to the wine country on NYC Midnight’s deadline-day.  With the work of the week getting figuratively and literally behind her, one of the first things we talked about was her genre, Fantasy.  Catherine explained that she found this genre more challenging than the competition’s 1-week time limit.  “I was thrown,” she said.  “I don’t write or read Fantasy.”  She even admitted a failed attempt at appreciating the Harry Potter series.  That’s what she was up against. 


            Another Northern California participant, Mysti Berry, might have been even more cut up by her genre and subject.  “I prayed to the writing gods before we got our assignments. I prayed, ‘Please, please, anything but science fiction!’”  Of course, that’s what she got.  The god of NYC Midnight’s genre and subject assignments must have no less a sense of humor than any other.  The Fantasy/Sci-Fi writer Erica Jolley-Meers, was given Mystery.  And in a lucky-twist of authorial fate, which I didn’t inform the other participants about, writer Zuzelin Martin Lynch received the genre Drama and the subject selling a house.  Both apropos for her current state.


            “When I received my assignment, I thought, ‘Oh my God. What a coincidence!’ I'm in the middle of trying to deal with the drama of selling my mother-in-law's house, so I grabbed a notebook and scribbled a very rough outline straight away. Let's just say that I had a lot of material.”


            For Zuzelin, who said her writing has always been cathartic, the assignment was befitting, but for most, some definite stretching, verging on tearing, of the imagination was required.  Catherine’s usual mode is realistic, literary fiction and to think outside her genre she had to jettison a lot of her first concepts.  “I thought the topic [the trunk of a car] didn’t match the genre [Fantasy].  My first idea was portal to another world?  But I thought, ‘everyone in the group will write about that.’”  She spent a week coming up with ideas and then threw them all out, called upon her background as a South African and dipped into some reading on the country’s homegrown fantasies.  This led her to develop a story where she could still work from a point of personal experience, the story’s located in South Africa, but could also incorporate fantasy.  It was a balancing act Catherine developed in order to work within her assigned genre but still, as she said, “keep one foot in reality.”


           Catherine’s progression was similar to many of the Northern California authors interviewed.  Initial alarm faded into acceptance, and after acceptance (and brainstorming, idea scrapping, cold walks, coffee and friendly readers) a story came.  Per par, the most trying part of the contest for Erica was her first read over the prompt, “I figured I'd just thrown $45 down a hole because I didn't know how to write mystery.”  But she did!  It seems the provocation of an assigned topic, though difficult to grabble with at first, once come to terms with made the writing process itself seem easier.  Panic was focused on the prompt and managed to relieve some stress about the writing process.


            Even Mysti, who became religious about the idea of a different genre, admitted, “Somehow, not being responsible for the initial choices (genre, concept) freed me up to just write as good a story as I could in a week.  I found a unique voice for the point of view character, a younger character than I'd ever written before, and touched on some concepts that are important to me. It was like writing heaven.” 


           Although not many participants described their process as heavenly, this attitude of taking what you’re dealt and doing your best was echoed by many authors who felt, limitations aside, the business of writing brought the same joy as when the subject and genre were their own choice.  Once the stories were developed the genres seemed to disappear.  Panic was forgotten and the challenge became, what NYC Midnight is to begin with, just about the writing.  “I really like the structure and incentive of a competition,” admitted genre-topic lucky Zuzelin.  “I also found comfort and excitement in knowing that there were 550 other writers working on their short stories just like me.”  But even with these validations, and her luck with the prompts, there’s always room for doubt.  And I couldn’t help laughing when I read Zuzelin’s remarks on the downside of her experience.  “The worst part was having secret fears that my story sucked and feeling my vision go blurry, but doesn't that happen to everyone?”


           Despite the anxiety, blurred vision, and genre dread, not one author felt daunted enough to not want a go at the second round.  “The Second Round will be the same, but without the week to stress about it,” said Catherine, who threw all first drafts aside and really wrote her story in one 24-hour burst. Mysti is ready, but hopes for something other than Science Fiction.  And Erica figures that with enough coffee and peanut butter toast she’ll be able to pull through. 


           “Of course,” she added, “I'll have a reserve of gloating joy if I make it past the first round!”


  Mysti Berry Zuzelin Martin Lynch    





This article is part of a series of articles on writers participating in the 2nd Annual Short Story Challenge.  In 2008, over 550 writers from around the world were challenged to write an original short story (2,500 words max.)  based on a genre and subject assignment.  Click here to view the 1st Round Assignments.  The winners advance to compete for thousands in cash and prizes by writing a short story in just 24 hours.



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