Right before I moved to San Diego this summer, I heard about the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, a competition that pits authors from around the world against each other in one big flash fiction smackdown with some significant prizes up for grabs. I knew that my dedication to writing would wane moving from Arizona to California—as it tends to do during most large scale life changes—so I decided to sign up. I figured the challenge would force me to carve out time for my craft, even if I was surrounded by half-full cardboard boxes.
I was willing to make this commitment, because the challenge seemed really manageable. It would span four months, and I only needed to write one piece of flash fiction (1,000 words or less) a month. I could totally handle that.
Much like my experience with The Iron Writer, the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge works on a bracket system. You’re grouped with 30 or so other writers, you all receive the same challenge each round (three elements – a genre, a location, and an object), you’re assigned points from judges based upon your story, and if you do well enough in the ranks, you proceed to the next round. The first two rounds are open to everyone who signs up to compete; even if you receive 0 points in round one (only the top 15 stories earn points), you’re still in the running to catch up in round two. Round three is reserved for the top five point earners from each bracket; it’s the first elimination round. Writers are placed in new, larger writing groups, and the top five point earners from those new groups advance to round four, the final competition.
I got the results from the second round of competition this morning, and I was only two points shy of advancing to round three.
Instead of feeling disheartened by this, I’m pretty jazzed! In my opinion, I performed well, especially since this was my first time competing in this challenge. Sixth in my bracket? I’ll take it!
On top of that, I’ve received some really amazing feedback from the judges throughout this process—and I made a personal self-discovery: I always claim to be a horror/fantasy writer, but perhaps I have a future in romance.
In round one of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, I had to write a horror story and received 5 points from the judges (10th place in my bracket); in round two, I had to write a romantic comedy and received 14 points from the judges (2nd place in my bracket). Who knew I had it in me?! (Although maybe the first indication was publishing my short story “French Kiss” in Romance Magazine earlier this year?)
That’s why I love challenges like this one. They take you outside your comfort zone. They keep your craft fresh. And you never know, you just might learn a little something about yourself as an artist.
I’ve included the stories I wrote in the challenge below. Take a read and let me know which you prefer.
Should I start writing some romance?
Round One Entry:
Required elements: Horror genre, a crime scene, a straw
By Tiffany Michelle Brown
She watched the two men fumble with the body the way high school boys grapple with bra hooks—nervous and tepid at first and then with a strange, unneeded abandon. The men had approached the corpse with slow, careful steps and copious swearing; now, they crouched on their haunches and hovered over its head, breathing in death and trying to figure out what the hell had happened to their friend.
One of the uniforms tried to lift a dead wrist with a ballpoint pen. It flopped to the pavement like a beached fish.
“Leave it, Stevens.” It was the tall blond one with a square jaw and bowed legs. The thing in the bushes breathed in his scent—expensive bamboo linens, passionate lust, the orangey balm of self-confidence, a sprinkling of good luck clover. It took exceptional restraint for the thing to keep her fangs sheathed. She chewed and sucked on the straw between her lips, savoring the scarce, albeit satisfying remnants of her last meal. His happiness had been delicious.
“We should call this in, Briggs.” The other one. Baby-faced, a little overweight. He smelled like crisp divorce papers and hot plastic, a credit card swiped much too often, an endless line of zeroes. And could she detect a whiff of porn addiction?
“He was one of us. You want lab coats crawling all over him and then keeping their secrets because of bullshit department protocol?” Briggs asked.
Stevens shrugged his broad, soft shoulders.
The thing in the bushes shook her head in disappointment. What a waste. If only that meat were seasoned with vacations to Tahiti and financial stability and less self-loathing…
“If this were me on the sidewalk,” Briggs said, rising to his feet, “I’d want us to take a crack at figuring it out, not them.” He ran a hand through his hair and moved toward Alvarez’s shiny, black shoes.
“He’s awfully pale, like he’s been drained or something,” Stevens said.
All eight of the thing’s eyes widened and she could feel her hearts beating in her center, different, stunted, terrified rhythms. Perhaps she’d underestimated the chubby one.
“He’s dead, you idiot. Dead bodies go cold. No one stays rosy.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Look for something helpful.”
The thing relaxed and continued to gnaw thoughtfully. The blood was gone from the straw, but the habitual motion of chewing would keep her calm.
“There’s, um…” Stevens started and then stopped, choking on nerves.
Briggs was examining the soles of the dead man’s loafers. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure. There’s something on Alvarez’s neck.”
Briggs stood and strode over to Stevens in three long steps, a graceful spider. The thing imagined the cop’s muscles rippling beneath his uniform, so taut and juicy. His fragrant blood made her swoon a little.
“What the fuck is that?” Briggs asked, peering down at the dead man’s neck.
“It looks like a puncture wound. Scabbed over,” Stevens offered.
“Perfect circle.” Briggs massaged his mustache with his fingertips. “Cigarette burn?”
The thing smiled—as much as it could smile in its current form. Briggs’ conjecture was so rational and cute.
“Any gang murders reported lately with a signature like this?” Stevens asked.
“Not that I know of. Could be something new. Slick if a tiny hole like that can kill someone.”
The thing sat up a little taller, preening. How stupid they’d feel if they knew their friend—Alvarez, was it?—was killed with something so pedestrian. Sharpened and reinforced with alkaline moonbeam, mind you, but really quite “normal.”
Stevens turned from the body, puttered a few steps, and lost his breakfast on the pavement.
“Jesus,” Briggs said. Then the disgust on his face melted into curiosity. “This cut—it’s picking up the light.” He leaned in closer. “Silver.”
Stevens crawled back to the body. “You’re right. It’s…shimmering.”
The thing’s gut tightened. She knew she should have been more careful. She should have checked for metallic residue at the entry point. But hunger made her lose control, made her sloppy.
It didn’t matter. Once the police department conducted an autopsy, they’d know the truth anyway. When they cut Alvarez open, they’d discover the thin sheet of silver directly below his skin, injected just moments after she’d sucked out his insides. The silver was the only thing maintaining the dead man’s shape. Without it, he’d be nothing more than a pile of wilted flesh. And that could be problematic. The FBI and CIA would be called in immediately if local precincts started finding skin suits littered about. The silver bought the thing more time.
“Alvarez, were you doing some crazy drugs with that redhead you left the bar with last night?” Briggs posed the question directly to the dead man’s face. “She had a great ass, but you should have gone home to Kimmy instead, buddy.”
Okay, enough now. The thing spit the straw to the ground and covered it with sod using a slow-moving tentacle. They won’t figure it out. Stop playing with your food.
The thing morphed into a puddle of liquid that resembled water. It dripped down the sidewalk, traveling a few blocks before ducking behind a tree in a residential neighborhood.
Moments later, a striking woman with long legs and hair the color of an Arizona sunset emerged from behind the bark, a cell phone in hand. She dialed three numbers and brought the device to her ear. She explained to the operator that her boyfriend had hit her, she was afraid, could they send an officer who was nearby? She glanced at the house behind her and gave the number. The woman thanked the operator in a shaky voice and hung up. She picked up a nearby rock, clocked herself in the face, and willed her fake skin to swell and discolor.
She leaned against the tree trunk, hunched and crooked, trying to look like a victim while she waited for the smell of bamboo, sex, bravado, and fortune to arrive.
Round Two Entry:
Required elements: Romantic comedy genre, an orchestra pit, a spider
Anything But Plain
By Tiffany Michelle Brown
Kate Saxon turned to her left to regard Lawrence Chilton’s very plain profile, then to her right to a man in his seventies who was snoozing and wondered whom she’d rather have as her date for the evening. She rather appreciated the older man’s daring—or perhaps it was narcolepsy. In either case, there was no pretense, no mask, no pretending to have a good time, none of the bullshit that accompanied the vile mating ritual that was the blind date.
To be fair, Lawrence wasn’t horrible company. He was simply expected company, which was worse in Kate’s book.
He’d showed up at her door at precisely 6 PM, freshly shaved, a bouquet of pink carnations underarm. He was her height, normal looking, and held every door open for her. He took her to a well-known Italian restaurant where they shared a bottle of Chianti and blew through the checklist of obligatory first date questions and answers over a fried artichoke appetizer—my job is very satisfying, I go to yoga about twice a week, my family lives an hour away, and my sister will get married in the fall. They’d both taken to studying the décor of the restaurant in mock appreciation by the time their entrees arrived.
When the waitress took their plates, Kate rejoiced that the date was nearly over. She would let nice-enough-but-predictable Lawrence take her home where she could open another bottle of wine and do Tina Turner impressions in heels while listening to a 60s-era record on her vintage turntable. It was her post bad date ritual. It was also wonderful cardio.
But Kate’s plan was foiled. Lawrence excitedly pulled a white envelope from his tweed coat and announced he had two tickets for the 8 PM performance of King Lear at the Orpheum Theater downtown. Kate smiled a fake smile, said something about loving “the Bard,” and then took a sip of air from her far too empty wine glass.
Now, she sat in the front row of the theater, picking at a loose seam on her skirt, wishing she were in her seventies and, thus, allowed to fall asleep on a date without it being considered rude.
Of course, if she did fall asleep and snored like a trucker, perhaps Lawrence would find her repulsive and never call again. Kate thought seriously through the pros and cons of this option as the lights in the theater dimmed.
“This is going to be great,” Lawrence whispered.
Kate offered a tight-lipped, “Mm hmm,” and then slouched in her chair, ready to commence her boredom-induced slumber routine. If she was lucky, she’d drool.
About ten minutes into the show, Kate had her eyes closed when she felt a tickle on her left knuckle. She tensed. Oh God, he’s trying to hold my hand.
Kate’s eyes flicked open, and she looked down, ready to pull her hand discreetly into her lap. But Lawrence’s hand was nowhere to be found. Instead, a spider of damn near Amazonian size peered up at Kate like a puppy dog yearning for a cuddle.
Kate stood up and began to shriek, flicking both of her wrists spastically in an effort to buck the spider from her hand. But the spider held on valiantly like a cowboy at a rodeo, desperate for its six seconds of fame.
Kate was vaguely aware of running about, climbing something—and perhaps rolling around on the ground?—but her sense of location in the theater was a blur until the spider gave up, leapt from her hand, and disappeared through a crack in the stage into the orchestra pit below.
Kate looked up and was blinded by white light. As her eyes adjusted, she peered out into the audience of the theater, at the horrified patrons, at Lawrence, whose mouth hung open, at the old man she’d been seated next to only moments ago and who was now very much awake. She peered over her shoulder and found actors in Elizabethan garb staring at her as if she were in her underwear. Kate gazed down at her favorite peep-toe heels and realized she was on the apron of the stage, standing directly above the unused orchestra pit. And she was frozen to the spot, a mute snow woman in the middle of a theater in downtown Phoenix.
As Kate opened her mouth to try to form an apology, Lawrence stood up in the front row. Kate was sure he’d storm out—or worse, reprimand her in public.
But instead, he started to sing. “Don’t go breakin’ my heart…”
Kate stood there, dumbfounded, frowning at him.
Lawrence stepped forward, climbed the lip of the stage, and repeated the line, taking Kate’s hand in his, “Don’t go breakin’ my heart.” He gave her a nod.
Kate opened her mouth and delivered a truly shaky and off-pitch, “I couldn’t if I tried.”
Lawrence smiled. “Honey, if I get restless.”
Kate smiled. “Baby, you’re not that kind.”
Silence enveloped the theater.
“Now bow,” Lawrence instructed.
Kate bent at the waist and the theater erupted in laughter and applause. Kate straightened and grinned. Lawrence squeezed her hand and she turned to find him laughing and waving at the audience.
“What do you say we get out of here?” Lawrence asked over the trill of the audience.
Kate gave him a nod and he pulled her offstage into the wings. The stage manager gave them a strict talking to as he led them through a narrow hall past dressing rooms and out the stage door exit.
In the alley behind the theater, Kate leaned back against the brick of the building and dissolved into laughter. Lawrence leaned back next to her and joined in, their shared hilarity echoing off the façades about them and into the starry night.
As Kate’s giggles died down, she looked over at her date. Lawrence’s eyes sparkled in the lamplight, and Kate admitted inwardly that she’d been wrong. Lawrence’s profile was anything but plain.