The 2020 July Short Story Challenge Postmortem – 31 Stories in 31 Days

With everything that happened regarding Worldcon, the 2020 Hugo Awards and the Retro Hugos, I didn’t really get around to doing the usual postmortem post for this year’s July Short Story Challenge yet.

To recap, 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. 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, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

In 2019, I also started keeping a running tally of all stories written on this blog to keep myself accountable. And because I found it helpful, I did it again this year.

Regarding the day by day tally, none of these stories will appear in print as is. Almost all of them will probably gain a couple of hundred words or even a complete subplot during the second draft. Several titles will likely change and some stories might not see the light of day for a long time – because they are too short to stand alone and I don’t have anything similar enough to bundle them with or because they just don’t work. Cause not every story to come out of the July 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. Finally, some stories aren’t really publishable at all. But with 31 stories even the occasional story that’s not publishable isn’t a great loss.

So let’s take a look at the genre/subgenre breakdown:

  • Mystery and crime fiction: 5 stories
  • Sword and sorcery: 4 stories
  • Epic fantasy: 4 stories
  • Contemporary and urban fantasy: 3 stories
  • Space opera and military science fiction: 3 stories
  • Alien invasion and first contact: 3 stories
  • Post-apocalyptic fiction: 3 stories
  • General science fiction: 2 stories
  • Dystopian fiction: 1 story
  • Historical fantasy: 1 story
  • Historical fiction: 1 story
  • Horror: 1 story

That’s not all that different from the genre breakdown in previous years. As before, most of the stories are some flavour of speculative fiction, with some mystery and crime fiction and a little historical fiction sprinkled in. As before, a lot of stories are also genre hybrids. Three of the four sword and sorcery stories and the historical fiction story also have horror elements. Two sword and sorcery stories have crime fiction elements, as does one of the space operas and the dystopian story. A military science fiction story, a sword and sorcery story and an epic fantasy story of have romance subplots.

The July Short Story Challenge usually tends to generate quite a few post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t quite know why, though part of the reason is that when I use images for inspiration, I often find myself drawn to images of ruins or abandoned places. Nonetheless, I’m surprised that I did write three post-apocalyptic stories this year, because I’m not really in the mood for post-apocalyptic fiction.

So let’s take a look at the length breakdown. The shortest story was 358 words long, the longest 7467 words. This matches my experience from previous years that the stories resulting from this challenge range in length from flash fiction to the lower end of the novelette spectrum with the majority falling in the 2000 to 4000 word range. This year, I wrote four flash fiction pieces of less than a 1000 words and three more stories barely cleared the 1000 word mark, which is more very short stories than usual. Thirteen stories were more than 2000 words long, seven more than 3000 words, five stories were more than 4000 words long and two stories clocked in at more than 7000 words and thus came up to the lower edge of the novelette range. All in all, I wrote a little more than 73000 words of new fiction in July 2020, which is less than in 2018 and 2019, but more than in some of the previous years.

As for why my total wordcount is lower this year, Worldcon took up a lot of my time, especially since CoNZealand took place at the end of July rather than in mid to late August, so both Worldcon prep and Worldcon itself coincided with the July Short Story Challenge this year. And indeed, the stories get notably shorter in the last ten days of July during the runup to Worldcon. I was working on a longer story during this time, too, but I didn’t have time to finish it, though I eventually will.

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, seven in 2017 (though two of those only became series subsequently), fifteen series stories in 2018 and fourteen and a half series stories in 2019. This year, I wrote twelve series stories.

I wrote three new Thurvok stories, but then the Thurvok series was not only born during the July Short Story Challenge, most of the series also consists of stories written during the challenge. Furthermore, I wrote a Helen Shepherd Mystery, an The Day the Saucers Came story and two In Love and War stories, though one of them will probably serve as the opening scene of a longer story.

I also wrote four Culinary Assassin stories, which are intended for an upcoming collection of very short (under 2000 words) stories featuring an assassin who kills people in restaurants, after sampling the food. I have a bunch of these lying around and really need to collect them eventually.

The final story isn’t a series yet, though I’m planning to revisit the central character eventually. It’s another sword and sorcery story, but unconnected to the Thurvok series, because the plot won’t fit neither the characters nor the tone of the Thurvok stories. And so I came up with Kurval, an older and somewhat wiser character than Thurvok and his friends. I really enjoyed that story and will certainly revisit Kurval somewhere down the line.

Both series and standalone stories offer different advantages and challenges. The good thing about series stories is that that worldbuilding is already done. Furthermore, I know the characters and how they will react to a given situation, so it’s easy to plug them into a new story and just let them do their thing. On the downside, series characters also bring all sorts of baggage and backstory with them. As a result, the series stories are usually longer. And except for the three Culinary Assassin stories (which are a special case), the series stories are all among the longer stories I wrote for the challenge. Standalone stories, on the other hand, require developing the world, the characters, the plot, everything from scratch. On the plus side, the characters don’t have any baggage or backstory except what is required for the story.

I’ve already discussed the inspiration for the different stories in the day by day post. As before, my collection of inspirational images played a big role, because I find that visual prompts simply work well for me. All sorts of random flotsam and jetsam inspiration also went into the stories.  As I’ve said before, the best thing about the July Short Story Challenge is that for thirty-one days, every idea, no matter how offbeat or obscure is viable.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that every year, certain tropes and themes appear during the July Short Story Challenge that tend to occur in several of the stories, especially since the stories also build upon each other on occasion. This year, there are fewer repeated themes than in previous years, though there are some. For example, I wrote seven stories in which food plays an important role, but then food generally plays a big role in my fiction. There were three stories about very different alien invasion, one abortive and two successful. There were two very different story – one humourous and one straight horror – about summoning demons.

There also were several stories, all very short, which are basically vignettes describing some kind of fantastic place with little to no plot. Such pieces occasionally crop up during the July Short Story Challenge. I should probably collect them in a collection called An Atlas of Fantastic Places eventually. Either that or I’ll send Thurvok and friends to explore those places.

Another more abstract theme that emerged during the 2020 July Short Story Challenge is stories which deal with justice and mercy. This theme showed up in five very different stories in five different genres and settings ranging from the a pre-gunpowder fantasy world via the Thirty Years War via rural America in the 1950s to an unspecified dystopian near future and not quite so dystopian far future.

As before, I’ve found that the July Short Story Challenge results in a wide range of settings and characters. Settings range from various fantasy lands and Germany during the Thirty Years War via rural America in the 1950s and several contemporary settings to various dystopian and post-apocalyptic future and far off planets. POV characters include men and women, gay and straight characters, characters of varying ages, races, ethnicities and backgrounds and even an alien and a flamingo. 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 has proven time and again (apart from the fact 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 creativity and speeds up the stewing process. And sometimes, the result is magic. At other times, they’re just plain weird

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

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