NYC MIDNIGHT: Congratulations on winning the 5th Annual Short Story Challenge! This was our largest field to date, with over 650 writers. Was this your first NYC Midnight competition and how was your experience? What were your goals and how did it feel to be chosen as the overall winner?
Jeffrey: Yes, this was my first experience with NYC Midnight. I stumbled on the competition by accident. I found the idea of deadlines and assigned prompts intriguing. To be honest, I decided to enter to give myself a little nudge. I hadnít written anything new in a few months and thought the competition would force me to get the creative cogs grinding again. I also donít traditionally write fiction so I was excited to reacquaint myself with that form of storytelling. My goal for the competition was simply to receive the kick in the pants and go with it. I was stunned to find I made it through the first heat. When I learned the genre for the final round would be horror, I was excited because Iím a fan of horror and felt like I could create something worthwhile. When I finally submitted ďThe PresentationĒ I was confident it would be a runner-up, but had no aspirations of winning the competition overall. Needless to say, I was stunned.
NYC MIDNIGHT: In the first round, you had 8 days to create a 2,500 word Action/Adventure story about a supply route. What was the most difficult part of the assignment? What genres do you most prefer writing and why?
Jeffrey: The most difficult part of writing in the Action/Adventure genre was getting my head around the genre itself. To me, action and adventure are devices used in other genres, not a genre unto itself. When you look at Action/Adventure as a genre in literature and film, youíre typically left with a pretty flimsy narrative that doesnít exist for any other reason but to thrill on a very superficial level. My greatest challenge was to add an element to an Action/Adventure tale that would lend some depth to the story. I decided to accomplish that by creating three-dimensional characters and by twisting the conclusion.
NYC MIDNIGHT: In the finals, you had just 24 hours to create a 2,500 word Horror story about a prodigy. What was your approach for creating a story in 24 hours? Did you gain anything from the experience of writing on such a tight deadline?
Jeffrey: I was quite excited to receive this prompt. Iím a fan of horror and have both studied and taught the genre in film. Before I even settled on an idea, I knew I wanted to be subtle. Too much of todayís horror is an over-the-top gore fest. I was convinced that most of the other writers would default to that mode. A way to distinguish my story would be to present a more gothic tale that had a slow- building, unsettling horror.
The narrative of ďThe PresentationĒ was all in place in my head before I even sat down to write. To get it done in 24 hours really became an issue of clearing the calendar for the day, leaning forward, and writing, writing, writing. I typically produce a draft and walk away from it for a time to allow myself the opportunity to ruminate. With only 24 hours, I was happy to have time to have a couple hours to revise and hone it down below the word count. Being on such a tight deadline forced me to economize the language and really cut back on any purple prose. Such a tight deadline also forced me to edit by instinct instead of toiling over what passages should be cut. If a word or line had any scent of the extraneous about it, it was gone. That was a valuable exercise.
NYC MIDNIGHT: How did you get started as a writer? Where are you now in your writing career and what are your goals?
Jeffrey: My writing started as storytelling. I had a mentor when I was younger who would tell the most harrowing stories around the campfire. He was so articulate and descriptive that the tales he spun stick with me to this day. In time, I started to make up stories and tell them around other campfires or in darkened summer camp cabins.
I tinkered with writing in college, but never got into the craft until I started teaching high school English. I started to spend a lot of time teaching kids how to write and eventually got to the point where I decided to see if I could walk the walk. I took a couple of evening writing courses and eventually joined a local writing group. Since then, Iíve been fortunate enough to publish a dozen stories in a variety of regional publications. I toyed with the idea of writing as a career, but I love teaching too much. Iím also not the kind of compromising writer who is wholeheartedly willing to change style, voice, and sometimes content to make my writing marketable on a scale where it would pay the bills.
My hope is to cultivate a relationship with publications that dig my stuff and continue to write for them. I also have longer, book-length projects completed and in the works and have flirted a time or two with publishers and agents.
NYC MIDNIGHT: What is your general approach for writing a story, from idea to final draft, and what have you found to be the best cure for writerís block?
Jeffrey: I donít have a lot of trouble coming up with story ideas. Sometimes they pop into my head at the most random of times and I have to scribble them down on scraps of paper to save them. When I start to write a first draft I think itís important to just write. I donít bother thinking about grammar, narrative arc, or toiling with fact checking. All that is secondary to simply getting the story out.
Once the first draft is out, I typically do two or three revisions on my own. After that, itís important for me to bring in other readers. On my own, I can tweak my writing for days. Bringing an essay or story to a workshop setting might be daunting to some writers, but I find it gives the criticism focus and lets me dial in on whatís needed to produce a polished final draft.
My cure for writerís block is to simply walk away from a half-formed or stalled story. I find if I give myself time to think about a piece without having the pager staring me in the face it helps to alleviate some of the anxiety of immediacy. Another great way to get things moving is enter a competition like NYC Midnight where there are deadlines in place. Nothing lights a fire more than a deadline. Iíve gone so far as creating deadlines for myself by promising to show incomplete work to a fellow writer in a couple days.
NYC MIDNIGHT: What authors have influenced your writing? What are some of your favorite stories or novels?
Jeffrey: Thereís such a difference when you read as a writer. I find myself reading a variety of authors and focusing in on specific skills or traits. Each one has a different lesson to teach. For instance, I find Mark Twain and Edward Abbey to be a source of inspiration when I want to read voices that are fearless and uncompromising. John Steinbeck was a master at sculpting characters, especially with dialogue. Edgar Allan Poe was a fantastic architect of mood. I read Craig Childs if I want to study how a contemporary writer wrestles with establishing a sense of place. If I find my writing to be overdone, I turn to Cormac McCarthy to receive a brutal lesson in brevity and economic writing.
If I had to pull one book from the shelf that combines a lot of these qualities and personifies superb storytelling, Iíd reach for Norman Macleanís A River Runs Through It. Itís so well crafted that I live the story each time I read it havenít finish it once without shedding a tear.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Do you have any ongoing or upcoming projects you would like to discuss?
Jeffrey: Iím in the process of revising a book-length narrative titled Canyons and Divides that recounts a backpacking trip I took in Colorado and Utah when I was a teenager. The trip turned out to be a real crucible of sex, drugs, and rock climbing. It was a genuine watershed moment in my life and I believe itís an important tale to recount. I published a stand-alone chapter and have received a lot of powerful feedback on the overall narrative. My hope is to see it in print or published online some day in the near future.
Thereís a sample chapter on my web site: http://www.jeffosgood.com/html/canyonsdivides.html
NYC MIDNIGHT: What advice do you have for aspiring writers looking to improve their storytelling?
Jeffrey: Some of the best advice I received from a published writer was to find writing that resonates with you and emulate it. On the surface, it sounds like a call to plagiarize. But in the process, and over time, good writers start to form their own voice and style.
NYC MIDNIGHT: Will you be back to defend your title in 2012?
Jeffrey: I had a lot of fun the last time around. If I can block out the time needed, I will absolutely participate.
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