The July Short Story Challenge 2018 – 31 Short Stories in 31 Days

You may have noticed that there was very little blogging in July apart from links to stuff posted elsewhere. This is because for the fourth year running, I did the July short story challenge, where the objective is to write a complete short story every day during the month of July.

But first of all, I have a few promos to announce. Kobo is currently running a 3 for 9, i.e. 3 books for 9 dollars, promotion in the US and Canada. There are lots of great books to choose from, including several of mine. The good folks at Magic Book Deals are also running several 99 cent promotions this August. There is one for romance, one for science fiction and fantasy and one for mysteries and thrillers. Lots of e-books in different subgenres, including some of mine, all for 99 cents all August long.

With the commercial break out of the way, let’s get back to the July short story challenge. The background is that in July 2015, Dean Wesley Smith announced that he was planning to write a brand new short story every day during the month of July. The original post seems to be gone now, but the Wayback Machine has a copy here. At the time, several people announced that they would play along, so I decided to give it a try as well. And then I did it again the following year. And the next. If you want to read my post-mortems of the previous July short story challenges, here are the posts for 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Since I’d already done the July short story challenge three years in a row and usually enjoyed the experience a whole lot, I was aiming for a repeat this year. Plus, unlike previous years my workload was relatively light with classes mostly on hiatus and fairly little translation work. A complicating factor was that my Dad was in hospital for a scheduled operation for the first two weeks of the month and at home and unable to drive (and cranky) for the rest of the month, which meant a lot of extra errands. But a much more notable complicating factor was the extremely hot weather, which sapped my energy, especially we’ve been having pretty much non-stop heat here since early April. But still, somehow I managed to write a short story every day during the very hot July of 2018.

As in previous years, the overwhelming majority of stories I wrote were some flavour of speculative fiction with crime fiction and romance getting a look in as well. So let’s take a look at the genre/subgenre breakdown:

  • Apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction: 5 stories
  • Sword and sorcery: 5 stories
  • Space opera: 4 stories
  • Dystopian fiction: 4 stories
  • Alien invasion: 2 stories
  • Mystery/crime fiction: 2 stories
  • Horror: 2 stories
  • Humorous fantasy: 2 stories
  • Urban fantasy: 1 story
  • Historical romance: 1 story
  • Men’s adventure: 1 story
  • Steampunk: 1 story
  • Other science fiction: 1 story

As in previous years, the genres/subgenres tended to blend into each other. And so, two of the dystopian stories as well as both alien invasion stories and one of the space operas are also crime stories. About half of the stories have romance subplots of some kind. The sword and sorcery stories also have horror elements (well, that’s kind of baked into the genre). One of the horror stories is also funny, since I’m still not very good at writing straight horror and will probably never be.

Let’s take a look at the length breakdown: The shortest story I wrote was 816 words long, i.e. flash fiction length, the longest was 7630 words long, i.e. just into novelette territory. This year, I only wrote one flash fiction story (i.e. under 1000 words). 23 stories were longer than 2000 words, 11 longer than 3000 words. Altogether, I wrote a little over 86000 words this July, which coincidentally is the highest wordcount I ever got during a July short story challenge.

When Dean Wesley Smith did his July short story challenge back in 2015, he found that most of the stories he wrote were part of established worlds or series. Interestingly, my experience at the time was the opposite and I wrote only standalones. Though in subsequent July short story challenges, the number of stories in established or new series slowly went up. So I wrote five series stories in 2016 and seven in 2017 (though two of those only became series subsequently). This year then, a whopping fifteen stories, i.e. almost half of the stories produced during the challenge, were part of a series. And so I wrote a new Hallowind Cove story, a new The Day the Saucers Came… story, a new Two-Fisted Todd story, a Helen Shepherd Mysteries spin-off story starring Detective Constable Kevin Walker (the story is mostly a wild chase and since usually Helen lets DC Walker do the running anyway, he might as well be the POV character this time around), two more stories in the setting of The Shantytown Robin Hoods, which is a series now I guess (tentatively called the Shantytown series), and four In Love and War stories, though two of those are companion pieces, which will be published in a single volume, while one is a companion piece to Bullet Holes focussing on the Pietro Garibaldi character from Freedom’s Horizon and the third is a brand-new story that happens just before Freedom’s Horizon. And yes, I tend to write series out of order, but then I have excellent company there in Lois McMaster Bujold, Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard and many other fine writers.

Stories in established series are good for something like the July short story challenge, because the world and the characters already exist. So I don’t have to bother with worldbuilding or developing characters, I only have to come up with a plot. Besides, stories with established characters are quicker to write for me, because I already know who these people are, how they talk, how they will react in a given situation, etc… On the downside, established characters also tend bring their own baggage, which makes the stories longer and more complex. And so it’s no surprise that several of the series stories I wrote during the challenge are part of series that are linked via their setting (the quirky seaside town of Hallowind Cove, the 1950s B-movie style alien invasion of The Day the Saucers Came…, the dystopian future of Shantytown) rather than their characters, though many of the stories in those worlds/settings share characters. And the Helen Shepherd Mysteries and the Two-Fisted Todd Adventures are so designed that the characters can be plugged into a variety of mystery or respectively adventure plots. Of the four In Love and War stories, three are character pieces which are fairly low on plot, while the one that has more plot is also the one that turned into a novelette.

Finally, I also came up with a brand-new series during this July short story challenge. For towards the end of the challenge, I found myself writing a sword and sorcery story about a brawny warrior fighting monsters. By the end of the story, my protagonist Thurvok (originally called Thurok, but apparently there is a videogame and comic character with a very similar name) had also acquired travelling companion. The following day, I came up with a story idea and suddenly realised that my sword and sorcery duo would be the ideal protagonists for this story. Then, two days later I was playing around with an idea for a historical tale that I’d had on the backburner for a while, basically a burghers of Calais scenario, only with young women instead of older men. It was a solid idea, except that the conclusion relied on a pretty horrible warlord suddenly deciding not to be a completely horrible person, which is not all that realistic, even though it is supposedly what happened in the case of the burghers of Calais, if we want to believe the legend. But once I combined this story idea with my sword and sorcery adventurers (who had by now become a trio), I suddenly had a version of this story that worked. Because now, the horrible warlord turns out to be even worse than expected (and promptly gets his comeuppance via getting killed by a zombie) and a situation that was difficult to impossible to solve by physical force gets resolved via an extra dose of magic. On the following days, I came up with ideas for two more sword and sorcery tales featuring the same cast of characters, who had by now become a quartet, since two of the damsels saved from distress decided to stick around. They both turned out to be very useful, too. One is a sorceress and actually the biggest gun of the team. The other is a non-combatant, but has a head for business and makes sure that our heroes don’t drink away all the treasures they’ve pilfered. So now I have a five part sword and sorcery series. Coincidentally, I wrote those stories during the hottest week of the year, where my brain was not capable to produce anything other than characters bantering, having adventures, saving damsels in distress and slaying monsters. Still, I really like those characters and by now, I’m also getting hints of their backstories. And indeed one character’s backstory actually made it into one of the stories.

So let’s talk about inspiration. Because the key to the July short story challenge is coming up with new story ideas every single day. And if you need to quickly develop story ideas, you sometimes need a bit of help. During the past challenges, the most fruitful way of generating story ideas was to look at inspirational images, usually SFF concept art. Now I have an entire folder of SFF concept art labelled “Inspiration” on my hard drive and whenever I needed an idea, I scrolled through that folder and went with whatever sparked an idea. All in all, seventeen of the stories I wrote during this challenge were at least partly inspired by images. Other sources of inspiration were: Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges, an article about shortwave radio number stations, a hilarious typo, someone’s humorous tweet, a particularly lurid headline in a vintage men’s adventure magazine (these are a great source of inspiration, because the headlines are so over the top), playing Pokémon Go and realising how ridiculous the whole thing must seem to someone who’s never played it, a scene in a random TV crime drama where an assassin is interrupted by a phone call, coming across a Scandinavian crime drama on TV and wondering what it would be like, if the typical protagonist of such a drama met aliens, a dish with a colourful history that I made for lunch one day, etc… Once I drew a tarot card for inspiration – and promptly incorporated the image on the card into the story rather than its meaning. A lot of the stories also drew inspiration from several sources, such as the historical tale turned sword and sorcery adventure.

As always, certain themes began to emerge during the challenge. Sword and sorcery is an obvious one, especially since it’s not normally a subgenre I write in. As for where it came from, I’m not sure. The inspiration for the first Thurvok story was an image of a brawny man (who was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, i.e. not exactly sword and sorcery garb) fighting monsters in a desert setting. However, I could easily have written a contemporary fantasy story rather than a sword and sorcery tale based on that image. Another possible reason for me turning to writing sword and sorcery is that I turned to reading it during this time. For like every year, I did part of my Hugo and Retro Hugo reading in July. And one of the stories nominated for the Retro Hugos is “The Sunken Land”, a Fafhrd and Grey Mouser adventure by Fritz Leiber. Now I know I must have read “The Sunken Land” before, but remembered very little about it, so I pulled my Fafhrd and Grey Mouser collection from the shelf to reread it and enjoyed myself so much that I promptly went on to reread some of the other tales, because they’re short, fun and not too taxing, i.e. ideal for extremely hot days. However, I didn’t even pick up the Leiber collection until I had already written the first two sword and sorcery stories.

The third possible reason why my brain decided to write sword and sorcery lies in a completely different series of mine, namely the 1930s set pulpy adventures of the Silencer. Now I did not write a Silencer story for the July short story challenge this year, because my mind wouldn’t come up with a good idea. However, in Mean Streets and Dead Alleys, Richard picks up the latest issue of Weird Tales (this one) and is thrilled to find a Margaret Brundage cover as well as a new Conan and a new Jirel of Joiry story inside. He also muses that he’d like to try his hand at writing something like that someday. Ever since I wrote that scene I’ve had the idea in the back of my mind that Richard actually did write a series of sword and sorcery stories in the 1930s. I’ve also had the even crazier idea bubbling at the back of my mind that maybe I should write Richard Blakemore’s lost sword and sorcery series someday (because the Silencer stories you are reading are explicitly not the ones Richard Blakemore writes, though we do get snippets of Richard’s pulp writing). I guess all of these influences combined in the great stewpot of my subconsciousness to create the Thurvok stories. And yes, I’m actually considering publishing the Thurvok stories as pulp writer Richard Blakemore’s long lost sword and sorcery series written for Jake Levonsky’s Weird Tales competitor in the 1930s and listing myself as the editor and author of the introduction. Having characters who are writers is certainly an experience, especially if they want you to write their fiction for them.

The post-apocalyptic theme, which was already strong during previous years, re-emerged this year as well, probably because the world looks pretty grim right now and hasn’t gotten any better these past two years. I’ve also written about an apocalyptic scenario I have never tackled before, namely a super volcano eruption. This time around, the post-apocalyptic stories tended to be road trips and they tended to be set in desert settings. Come to think of it, two of the sword and sorcery stories have desert settings as well and all of them feature road trips. One of the two horror stories is a road trip as well. I suspect the intense heat is to blame for the proliferation of desert settings. Not sure where the road trips came from.

Another notable theme was food. Now food always plays a big role in my fiction, but during the challenge I wrote four stories that are centred on food (partly inspired by one of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges), plus several more where food is mentioned, but doesn’t play a central role. A related theme is stories told in bars or taverns. I have two stories where a tale told in a bar literally serves as a framing device and various others which have scenes of people telling stories in bars, taverns, restaurants or while sitting around a campfire and eating. Now once again, this isn’t exactly an uncommon theme for me, cause I have written plenty of bar and restaurant scenes and have even used the “tale told in a bar” framing device before in Old Mommark’s Tale.

Another theme that emerged during the 2018 July short story challenge was assassins. I wrote three otherwise completely different stories featuring assassins, eight if you count the five sword and sorcery stories, cause one of Thurvok’s companions is described as a thief, cutpurse and occasional assassin, though he doesn’t actually assassinate anybody in any of the stories and also insists that he doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore.

Once again, I’ve found that the July challenge stories offer a huge range of settings and characters. This time around, all POV characters are human, but I’ve still got men and women, gay and straight characters, characters of varying ages, races, ethnicities and backgrounds. Which proves that creating under pressure doesn’t meant that you have to default to straight white protagonists.

One thing that the July short story challenge proves time and again (apart from that it’s possible to write a short story in a day and that those stories can sometimes be damned good) is that everything that we read, watch or otherwise consume goes into the great stewpot of our subconscious, where it’s mixed and blended, until it arises in the form of story ideas.  The July short story challenge functions like a pressure cooker for your creativity and speeds up the stewing process. And sometimes, the result is magic.

Now not every story to come out of the Juy short story challenge can be a winner. Some stories are great and need only very little work, others need extensive rewrites to be brought into publishable form. Some stories aren’t really publishable at all, because they are either too tied to a specific moment in time (which has usually passed by the time you can get it into publishable form) or because they just don’t work. But with 31 stories even the occasional one that’s not publishable isn’t a great loss.

So will I do another July short story challenge next year? Well, time and health permitting, why not? After all, the past four challenges have resulted in a lot of wonderful stories and even series that might otherwise have never been written.

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