You may have noticed that blogging was light this past month, because I was doing the July Short Story Challenge again for the fifth consecutive year.
What is the July Short Story Challenge, you ask? Well, 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 and 2018.
One thing I did differently in 2019 was that I also kept a running tally of stories written with title, wordcount, genre and a brief synopsis right here on this blog. You can find it here.
So let’s take a look at the genre/subgenre breakdown:
- Mystery and crime fiction: 7 stories
- Sword and sorcery: 5 stories
- Space opera: 3 stories
- General science fiction: 3 stories
- Post-apocalyptic fiction: 3 stories
- Epic fantasy: 3 stories
- Alien invasion/First contact: 2 stories
- Urban fantasy: 2 stories
- Horror: 2 stories
- Science fantasy: 1 story
Compared to previous years, there is a lot more mystery and crime fiction this year. There is a reason for this, which will explained later. The remaining 24 stories are all some flavour of speculative fiction. There is no explicit romance story this year – I had an idea for a historical romance story, but shelved it, because the story would have been too long. However, at least nine stories prominently feature romantic relationships. A lot of stories also mix genre, e.g. two space operas, one sword and sorcery story and both urban fantasies also have crime and mystery subplots. The sword and sorcery stories have strong horror elements. One of the horror stories is also a historical story set in the Spanish occupied Netherlands in the 16th century.
A brief aside about 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 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 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 length breakdown. The shortest story was 705 words long, the longest 6260 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 two flash fiction pieces of less than 1000 words. Seventeen stories were more than 2000 words long, nine more than 3000 words, five more than 4000 words. All in all, I wrote approximately 78000 words of new fiction last months, which is less than last year, but higher than 2015, 2016 and 2017.
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) and fifteen series stories in 2018. This year, I got fourteen and a half series stories.
And so I wrote five Thurvok stories, two In Love and War stories and a Helen Shepherd Mysteries story featuring DC Kevin Walker and scene of the crime officer Charlotte Wong (not sure whether I’ll publish this and two other Helen-less Helen Shepherd stories as a spin-off are part of the main series).
I also wrote six 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 wrote the first Culinary Assassin story in my notebook in a restaurant and it started out as a descriptive piece about the restaurant and the food. When I got home, I looked at the piece I’d written and thought, “Hey, this is good. But it doesn’t have a plot. So what if the narrator was there to kill someone after dinner?” Then this spring, I found myself alone with my notebook in a restaurant again and started describing the place. Then I remembered the little story I’d written a couple of months before about the assassin who kills someone in a restaurant and thought, “What if that assassin does it again? And what other restaurants can they visit?”
The half series story is intended for Raygun Romances, a new anthology series of Planet Stories/Startling Stories type pulpy science fiction. I’ll probably pass them off as the work of Richard Blakemore, hardworking pulp writer by day and the masked vigilante known only as the Silencer by night, because using Richard’s byline is a good way to separate my retro pulp stories from my other stories. The initial plan was for the Raygun Romances to be largely self-contained adventures, but the one I wrote was clearly the sequal to an adventure that had started elsewhere, so I (and Richard) will have to write that story, too. And so it’s half a series story in two different. First of all, there actually isn’t a series yet and secondly, the story in question is part of a sub-series in itself.
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. 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.
And indeed, the series for which I wrote stories during the July Short Story Challenge are all the sort of series which lend themselves to shorter standalone adventures. The Helen Shepherd Mysteries are all standalone cases with the characters and their changing relationships the only connecting thread. They also follow a certain formula, so it’s easy to insert the characters into a new story. Though the case in this July’s stor was rather low-key, so I gave it to DC Kevin Walker and Charlotte Wong to solve during their weekend off. The In Love and War series does have quite a bit of action, but also lends itself to quieter character pieces. The two In Love and War stories I wrote for this year’s July Short Story Challenge fall into the latter category, i.e. they’re closer to The Taste of Home (which also was a July Short Story Challenge story) than to e.g. Hunter and Hunted.
The Culinary Assassin stories are a special case, because the Culinary Assassin is a character with neither baggage nor backstory. We neither know the protagonist’s name nor gender, all we know is their profession and that they are something of a foodie. And indeed, they started out as experiments in writing description (which is not exactly my strong point) and follow a certain formula (though two of the stories I wrote during the challenge twist the formula a little). The assassin arrives, describes the restaurant, describes the food, describes the target (all thoroughly unpleasant people), does the job and leaves. That also makes them short and quick to write. And indeed I found that on days when I was tired and stressed out and low on ideas (and there were quite a few of those thanks to the heatwave and pre-WorldCon stress) and still had to write my story for the day, I often thought, “Okay, why not write another Culinary Assassin? Where can we eat today?”
As for Thurvok, which is after all a series that was born during the July Short Story Challenge, for some reason this series lends itself extremely well to stories which are written very quickly. I have my quartet of adventurers, so all I need is a treasure for them to seek, a monster to fight or a mystery to solve, then I turn them lose and let them do their thing. In general, it seems as if there is something about the sword and sorcery genre, which is after all a child of the pulps, which lends itself to stories written quickly and in rapid succession. Robert E. Howard reportedly felt possessed by Conan and spent several weeks writing nothing but Conan stories in rapid succession. During the more difficult times of his career, Fritz Leiber still kept on writing Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, dozens of them over the course of almost fifty years. Michael Moorcock’s infamous weekend novels were often Elric or Corum stories, i.e. sword and sorcery.
So let’s take a look at ideas and inspiration. After four July Short Story Challenges, I know which methods of idea generation work for me and can plan accordingly. Using images as writing prompts usually works well for me and by now I have a whole folder on my harddrive which contains inspirational images – basically my own catalogue of concept art writing prompts. Random stuff found on Twitter – a joke, a meme, an editor’s “I’d like to see more stories about X” comment – were another unexpected source of inspiration. Other source include food I’ve eaten/cooked, crocheting hyperbolic shrubs for the Raksura Colony Tree project and the backcover blurb of a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child (this one) which I picked up at a bookstore, but did not buy. As always, 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.
Every year, certain tropes and themes appear during the July Short Story Challenge that occur in several of the stories, especially since the stories also build upon each other on occasion. Food is a big one and not only the six Culinary Assassin stories feature extensive descriptions of food, but also several other stories as well. But then I like writing about food. Such old standbys as “stories told in bars and taverns” also show up again, though there are fewer post-apocalyptic stories this year. There are three stories which feature robots, written on three consecutive days as well as three stories featuring dinosaurs (written in the space of four days), which I suspect were inspired by Camestros Felapton’s Dinography project. There are also two dragon stories and a whole lot of monsters in general. As a matter of fact, monsters of some kind (dinosaurs, dragons, zombies, Lovecraftian horrors) feature in twelve stories. Another mini theme that show up in three stories is the subversion of epic fantasy clichés. Finally, I also wrote two very different prison break stories, but then I have something of a weakness for prison and particularly prison break stories (but I don’t care for Orange Is the New Black – go figure), so it’s not unusual that these tropes show up during the July Short Story Challenge.
Once again, I’ve found that the July Short Story Challenge offers a wide range of settings and characters. Settings range from various fantasy lands and the Spanish occupied Netherlands in the 16th century via suburban and rural America, a cave in contemporary Belgium, a sausage stand in Berlin, a pancake shop in Rotterdam and Paris Charles de Gaulle airport 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 one alien. 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.
So will I do another July Short Story Challenge next year? Well, time and health permitting, why not? After all, the past five challenges have resulted in a lot of wonderful stories and even series that might otherwise have never been written.