The July Short Story Challenge 2017 – 32 Short Stories in 31 Days

Yes, you read that correctly. I wrote a bonus story for this year’s July short story challenge, so there’s actually 32 stories to come out of the challenge this year.

But let’s backtrack a bit. In 2015, Dean Wesley Smith announced that he was planning to write a short story per day in July. It seemed to be an insane writing challenge, but nonetheless I decided to play along, at least for a week or so. So I wrote a story and then another and I kept it up throughout the entire month of July, as chronicled here. I found the experience incredibly rewarding and illuminating. What was more, in the end, I had 31 brand new short stories, most of which are published now.

Fast forward a year to 2016. July rolled around and Dean Wesley Smith announced that he was going to do another story per day challenge and that he was also aiming for 200 stories per year. The latter wasn’t doable for me, but the former definitely was, especially since I had done it before. So I decided to play along once again and write a short story every day in July. Dean Wesley Smith himself eventually dropped out, when he was assaulted by an idea for a novel (as novel ideas are want to do), but I kept it up, wrote 31 stories and blogged about my experiences here.

Doing something twice is almost a tradition. And so, when July 2017 approached, I found myself thinking about doing another July short story challenge, even though Dean Wesley Smith has switched to challenging himself to write four novels per month in one of his established series this July. He still does short story challenges on occasion, but in different months.

Still, since I had already designated July as my “story a day” month, I decided to just run with it and see where it takes me. And guess what? Here I am, 31 days and 32 stories later, exhausted (because let’s face it, writing a new story every day is exhausting) and very happy about the progress I made.

As in the last two years, the vast majority of the stories I wrote were some flavour of science fiction, fantasy and horror (my first love) as well as crime fiction (my second love). So let’s take a look at the genre/subgenre breakdown:

  • Post-apocalyptic science fiction: 6 stories
  • Space opera: 5 stories
  • Epic fantasy: 4 stories
  • Horror: 4 stories
  • Dystopian fiction: 3 stories
  • Alien invasion/aliens: 3 stories
  • Men’s adventure/pulp thriller: 2 stories
  • Crime fiction: 2 stories
  • Spy fiction: 1 story
  • Steampunk: 1 story
  • Time travel: 1 story

Once more, the subgenres do tend to blend into each other. For example, I wrote space operas or post-apocalyptic stories that were also alien invasion stories. Meanwhile, dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories do tend to run into each other. Pretty much all of the space operas I wrote have romantic elements. Once more, the horror stories all had an undercurrent of dark humour, since I still seem to be incapable of writing straight horror. The pulp and spy thrillers are also crime fiction. The Steampunk tale is also a spy thriller. One story is a crime thriller in a dystopian setting. Several of the stories feature plenty of action and adventure. Several are also romances.

The story lengths range from 650 words for the shortest to 5400 words for the longest. Three stories are flash fiction length, i.e. under 1000 words. Meanwhile, seven of the stories are longer than 3000 words, while the vast majority is in the 1000 to 3000 word range. Altogether, I wrote 73000 words in July 2017, i.e. almost one and a half NaNoWriMos.

Dean Wesley Smith always wrote a lot of stories in established worlds or series for his short story challenges. Meanwhile, I tend to write more standalone stories. In 2015, not a single story to come out of the challenge was in an established world or series. In 2016, five stories were part of established series. This year, four and a half stories are part of an established series. There is a new Hallowind Cove story, a new Silencer story as well as two new In Love and War stories, so fans of these series can look forward to new installments. The “and a half” story is an edge case, a crime story where Detective Inspector Helen Shepherd shows up at the end to arrest the criminal. It doesn’t fit into the Helen Shepherd Mysteries, because the Helen Shepherd Mysteries are narrated only from Helen’s POV, whereas this one is narrated from the criminal’s POV and Helen is only a supporting character.

There are also two potential series starters among the stories to come out of this year’s July short story challenge. One is the Steampunk story, whose two main characters, an airship captain and his aristocratic fiancée, clearly have other adventures in them. The other is an adventure story inspired by the cover of a 1950s men’s adventure magazine (found in this fabulous art book, which is a treasure trove of inspiration for me, both for the covers and the ridiculous headlines). The protagonist Todd Donnovan is an adventurer and freelance troubleshooter who is hired to locate and rescue a missing botanist and tangles with a drug lord and a pit full of venomous scorpions. The story was really fun to write and Todd could easily have further adventurers. Should I ever write another story about Todd, I’ll be calling the series Two-Fisted Todd.

The July short story challenge relies on quickly coming up with characters and story ideas. Using an established world or series is ideal for this, because the world and the characters have already been built. I know how the world works, I know how the characters react, how they talk, how they think. All I need to do is jump back in. Coincidentally, this is also why Helen Shepherd shows up in an otherwise unrelated crime story, because I needed a police officer and Helen was ideal for the part. However, the fact that I already know the world and the characters can also be a disadvantage during a challenge like this. Because established characters also have history and their share of baggage. Two-Fisted Todd Donnovan has no established supporting cast and nowhere to go after his adventure, but the Silencer will go home to Constance, kitten Edgar and baby Kenny, the newest addition to the household (introduced in St. Nicholas of Hell’s Kitchen). Anjali and Mikhail from In Love and War will banter about Anjali’s love for soap operas and be reminded of their respective lost families in a way that brand-new characters probably wouldn’t. Hallowind Cove is a bit of the exception here, since it’s more of a shared world type series than a character focussed series, which is probably why I’ve found myself writing new Hallowind Cove stories during the July short story challenge two years in a row.

As in the previous two years, I found that the stories I wrote tend to cluster around certain themes: As in 2016, there is a cluster of post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories (I foresee volume 2 of After The End – Stories of Life After the Apocalypse in the medium near future). I suspect it’s because we’re living in dark times and they haven’t exactly become better since last year. Another mini-theme – probably related – was subverted horror, i.e. stories which put a twist on such horror tropes as summoning a demon or the entire hordes of hell, changelings and monsters stealing babies and mysterious, shadowy stalkers outside the window. There’s also a related theme of epic fantasy clichés subverted.

A third mini-theme was aliens. I’ve recently noticed that though I write a lot of science fiction, I rarely write aliens. The In Love and War universe is entirely human and while the Shattered Empire universe does have sentient aliens, we only meet them in a single story. The alien saucermen in The Day the Saucers Came are never seen and the focus is entirely on the human characters. Indeed the point of the entire series is that various more or less mundane dramas are interrupted by a 1950s B-movie style alien invasion. And while there are aliens in several of the stories in Bug-Eyed Monsters and the Women Who Love Them and Operation Rubber Ducky, none of them are remotely serious.

I’m not sure why I write so rarely about aliens. I suspect it’s partly because the depiction of aliens in SF is so often a cliché. The evil insectoid/reptilian aliens the manly space marines can shoot without any remorse, for they’re evil because they’re evil. Humans with latex masks and bumps on the forehead. Aliens which only exist as an allegory for some aspect of human nature. I find most of these approaches boring. Not that there aren’t excellent depictions of aliens – from the very human to the very alien – in contemporary SF. But for some reason, that’s not what I write. My subconscious pounced on this realisation and started producing story ideas about aliens. So I wrote three not entirely serious stories about aliens on Earth (since I apparently still have problems taking aliens seriously) – a thwarted invader, an ordinary alien just trying to make a living and a trio of aliens just looking for a good time.

I also noticed that about 99 percent of the space opera and military science fiction categories at Amazon consists of stories about humanity locked in a mortal struggle with evil aliens (who are of course either insectoid or reptilian or – if we’re going to be really original – a Cthulhu knock-off) and only Captain Manly McMannerson and his ragtag crew of misfits and outcasts can save humanity. A lot of the time, the blurbs read like something that might have appeared in Astounding Stories or Amazing Stories in the 1930s to 1950s. My reaction to such novels is usually “been there, read that and besides, Heinlein did it better”, but apparently there is a huge and hungry audience for such stories, since they are inexplicably popular. So I wondered if I could write a very traditional humans vs. evil aliens story and did. Don’t let it be said that I can’t write to market at least once.

So let’s talk about inspiration: Where on Earth do you get inspiration for 32 stories, one for every single day? As in previous years, I used writing prompts (Chuck Wendig’s are always good), random generators (particularly name generators are a godsend, because you’ll have to come up with a lot of names for 32 stories) and images – mainly SFF concept art, but also vintage magazine covers – to spark story ideas. By now I have a whole folder on my harddrive which contains inspirational images – basically my own catalogue of concept art writing prompts. Other sources for inspiration were a call for submissions for a themed anthology, a Pet Shop Boys song I heard on the radio, 1980s cartoons that were basically glorified toy commercials, an article about dead and deserted shopping malls in the US, a news report about a new system to prevent the theft of cargo from truckbeds, a trailer for a (pretty crappy by the looks of it) horror film, the abominably bad Latin used during a satanic ritual in an episode of a TV crime drama, a short mystery where I found the killer (the least likely person, of course) a lot more interesting than the investigation. In one case, googling a research question for one story, namely whether there it’s actually legal to shoot looters after a massive disaster (it’s not, though there have been cases where law enforcement personnel was given carte blanche, with predictably terrible results) led me to the story of a man who bragged that he had shot more than thirty alleged looters after Hurricane Katrina (thankfully, it seems he was lying or at least massively exaggerating) and who amazingly was not arrested as a serial killer. This made me actively angry, so I wrote a post-apocalyptic story where a shooter of looters gets his comeuppance.

Especially towards the end of the challenge, different sparks of inspiration also combined into new ideas. A piece of concept art of an armed man walking down a moss-overgrown escalator combined with a news article about dying shopping malls in the US led to a post-apocalyptic tale about a scavenger exploring a shopping mall after the apocalypse. A call for submissions for a themed anthology and a piece of concept art sparked a story idea, while two different pieces of concept art combined to spark a story. Every day, we are surrounded by dozens of potential story ideas. One of aspect of the July short story challenge is that it forces you to grab those sparks of inspiration and run with them.

Coincidentally, one of the best aspects of the July short story challenge is that it gives you room to just experiment. Want to try out a new genre, a new POV, a new kind of protagonist or a new technique? No problem, it’s just a short story and you’ll write another tomorrow. During the July short story challenge, I wrote two second person stories (and I almost never write second person POV), a confessional “tell-all” type story and an epistolary story among others. I also experimented with genres I rarely write such as horror and men’s adventure. What is more, I don’t particularly like writing blow by blow action scenes (I much prefer dialogue), but nonetheless I found myself writing street fights and shoot outs, an ambush at a mountain pass, fights against aliens, scorpions and crocodiles and much more.

Another positive aspect of the July short story challenge was that I learned a lot of new stuff. During the course of the challenge, I found myself researching the nuclear blast shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leprosy, Antarctic research stations, scorpions, crocodiles, dairy farms in Upstate New York, 1930s trucks, demon summing rituals and much more.

Once more, I found myself writing a huge range of very diverse characters with very different backgrounds, ranging from a 10-year-old boy in post-apocalyptic Kenya via a Swedish scientist in the Antarctic, a teenaged sniper in the far future and a scriptwriter for toy tie-in cartoons in the 1980s to an old lady in the Bavarian Alps. Nine stories have female POV characters, seven stories have POV characters of colour, five have non-human POV characters (two aliens, a robot, a demon and a dragon respectively), one story has a gay POV character. Even a story set in the Bavarian Alps, a setting that’s about as white and German as you can get, features a gay man and a Pakistani immigrant as supporting characters. So really, there is no excuse for defaulting to straight white Anglo-American men as main characters for such a challenge.

For the third year in a row, I’ve found the July short story challenge an incredibly rewarding experience. Will I do it again next year? Probably, if I find the time.

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17 Responses to The July Short Story Challenge 2017 – 32 Short Stories in 31 Days

  1. Erin says:

    Thanks for the thorough write-up of your July challenge! I’ve participated in a May story-a-day challenge over on the Forward Motion for Writers website in the past, although I usually set my bar at 10 or 20 stories for the month — and am lucky to get 10.

    Congratulations on your 32!

    • Cora says:

      Thanks, Erin. These story a day challenges can be really liberating and every single story, whether you write on per day or not, is a story you didn’t have before.

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  3. Congratulations on completing your challenge. I felt pretty good about my story-a-week-for-a-year challenge I finished last year, but now I’m humbled.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks, Jim, and congrats on finishing your story a week challenge.

      My 2016 output actually was around 50 stories, i.e. approx. one story per week, only distributed between an intense burst in July and a slower pace the rest of the year. In 2017, I suspect it will be lower, because I had a couple of life issues which negatively impacted my writing speed early in the year.

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