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

Last year, I took part in the “July short story challenge”, which was inspired by Dean Wesley Smith who challenged himself to write a short story per day in July 2015.

I played along and ended up with 31 short stories in various genres, most of which are now published, either as standalones or in collections. I also blogged about the challenge here.

This year, Dean Wesley Smith announced another July short story challenge in the context of an additional challenge of writing 200 short stories in a year.

Now it was pretty obvious to me that writing 200 short stories in a year just wouldn’t be possible for me at this point. I think fifty stories in a year is the maximum I can manage/have managed, which basically adds up to Ray Bradbury’s “write a short story per week” challenge.

However, I know I can write a short story per day for a whole month, since I did it last year. And since I enjoyed last year’s July short story challenge a whole lot and found it incredibly inspirational, I wanted to give it another try.

There was just one problem. Last July, I had something of a lull in work and therefore enough time to do the challenge. This year, however, I had a huge translation job, which extended through the first week of July, as well as several smaller ones. And while one of my German classes for refugees finished in late June, the second was set to run through the summer holidays, even though it ultimately didn’t (turns out that refugees also like relaxing during the summer holidays, who’d have guessed?). So in short, it looked as if I would have a lot less time for the short story challenge in July 2016 than in July 2015.

Nonetheless, I decided to give it a go and see how many stories I would get done. So I wrote a short story on July 1. And then another the next day, and so on.

After ten days, Dean Wesley Smith, the initiator/inspiration behind the July short story challenge, realised that his brain wanted to write novels instead and stopped. Which is actually more or less what always stopped me from officially doing NaNoWriMo, namely that my brain inveitably wanted to work on something else rather than the NaNo novel. And indeed, this is why I like the July Short Story Challenge, because a short story a day is a much smaller investment than working only on one novel for a whole months. Plus, I get bored easily, so I like the idea of writing something different every day.

And so, in spite of translation work and classes, at least for the first half of the month, as well as two day trips, I wrote a short story every day in July. So at the end of the months, I had 31 new short stories altogether, which feels pretty damn amazing.

Like last year, the range of genres, subgenres and styles is pretty broad, with the majority being some flavour of speculative fiction. One thing I noticed this year is that I found myself experimenting with genres I don’t normally write such as western and horror. And indeed, the ability to experiment is one of the things I love about this challenge in particular and about writing short fiction in general.

So here is the genre/subgenre breakdown for the 2016 July short story challenge:

  • Post-apocalyptic science fiction: 5 stories
  • Horror/dark fantasy: 4 stories
  • Space opera: 3 stories
  • Steampunk: 3 stories
  • Urban fantasy: 3 stories
  • Crime fiction: 3 stories
  • Dystopian science fiction: 2 stories
  • Alien invasion: 2 stories
  • Straight western: 2 stories
  • Weird western: 1 story
  • Pulp thriller: 1 story
  • Other science fiction: 1 story
  • Epic fantasy: 1 story

I should note that a lot of the time, the different subgenres bled into each other. Hence, two of the three Steampunk stories were Steampunk westerns, the two alien invasion stories were also horror and one was post-apocalytic as well, a lot of the horror stories were also dark comedies (somehow, I have problems writing straight horror – whenever I try it turns into parody horror) and urban fantasy and horror bled into each other as well.

The 2016 stories also turned out longer than the ones I wrote for last year’s challenge. Last year, I wrote a lot of flash fiction stories and only a handful that were longer than 2000 words. The longest of last year’s stories was 3300 words long.

Meanwhile, the shortest story I wrote for this year’s challenge was 750 words long, the longest was 7600 words long, i.e. just crossing the threshold into novelette territory. Only two stories were flash fiction, i.e. under 1000 words, whereas seven were longer than 3000 words. All in all, I wrote a little over 70000 words in July 2016, which is well above the NaNoWriMo limit of 50000. And since I tend to be what writers call a putter-inner, i.e. my stories always tend to get longer in subsequent drafts, I suspect that quite a few of the stories from the 2016 July short story challenge will turn out to be pretty substantial, once published.

Okay, so let’s talk about story ideas. Writing 31 short stories in 31 days certainly requires generating a lot of ideas. Coincidentally, it’s also an excellent exercise for those who have problems coming up with story ideas.

Like last year, the approach that worked best for me was using images, usually SFF art, as writing prompts. Altogether, 18 stories for this challenge were inspired in some way by SFF imagery plus one story that was inspired by a sculpture (more on that later). io9’s concept art writing prompts yielded several ideas as did imagery found on Pinterest and deviantart. In one case, a story was inspired by checking out the work of the 2016 best fan artist Hugo nominees, since the Hugo voter packet was somewhat incomplete in that regard.

Other inspirations were text writing prompts and headlines such as the tag line of a vintage western paperback and the very silly German title of an Italian western (the German versions of Italian westerns often have supremely silly and melodramatic titles which have nothing whatsoever to do with the original title, e.g. “Once Upon a Time in the West” is known as “Play me the song of death” in German and that’s not even the silliest one by far).

Other inspirations, finally, were just random things that caught my eye and fired up my imagination: The Pokemon Go craze inspired a story, as did this article about Muffler Men (Here is another article about the phenomenon with lots of photos). Yet another story was inspired by finding a handwritten tense little scene that was almost all dialogue (and ended on a cliffhanger, probably because I ran out of time) that I wrote for a university creative writing workshop more than ten years ago. Yet another story was inspired by this sculpture of a giant disembodied arm in front of the entrance to the Bremerhaven maritime museum.

Like last year, I also noticed that certain themes began to emerge during the challenge. For example, I wrote a lot of post-apocalyptic stories for this challenge, which I suspect were at least partly inspired by a generally grim world political situation with seemingly another spree killing or terrorist attack every other day. The many horror stories I wrote for this challenge are also due to this, I suspect.

Three of the post-apocalyptic stories I wrote for this challenge were set in a flooded post-climate change world. For variety, I also had a frozen post-climate change world as well as a killer virus/zombie story. I also found myself writing a lot of stories with maritime settings, eight altogether. Now maritime settings and stories are nothing new for me, since I grew up close to the German North Sea coast, born into a family of sailors, sea captains and naval engineers (we even have a priest who worked at a seaman’s mission) and work as a translator for the nautical and shipbuilding industries among other things, so I have a certain affinity for maritime themes and settings, as my published works show. However, the sheer amount of maritime stories I wrote for this challenge, anything from flooded worlds to sea monsters, was still a surprise.

Talking of settings for which I have an affinity, I also wrote three monster stories set in the Louisiana bayous. Now I spent a memorable and very important year as a kid in Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf coast with frequent trips to New Orleans, so I have a lasting affinity for the Gulf coast, its people, food and culture. There was nothing that specifically reminded me of those experiences and indeed all three stories in question were inspired by SFF art. However, what I suspect happened is that my mind looked at imagery of creatures in swamps and immediately connected it to my memories of the US Gulf coast (Germany does have swamps and moors, but they don’t look like that) and resulted in a spate of Southern horror stories.

Come to think of it, the Muffler Men story was also at least in part inspired by my time spent in the US Deep South as a kid, because I looked at those images and thought, “Hey, I remember those. They were cool.” Coincidentally, my Mom claims no to have any memories of seeing Muffler Men in the US at all, though my Dad does. “I guess I just didn’t pay attention to advertising figurines”, she said to me. “Well”, I said, “you weren’t five. Cause trust me, those figurines are extremely memorable and cool, when you’re five.” Coincidentally, a lot of my memories of that year in the US South involve weird roadside attractions, which are extremely cool, if you’re very young. Besides, while Germany might have a lot of amazing sights, fibreglass figures and Bible gardens assembled from pottery shards are not among them. Coincidentally, the fact that my parents were a) determined to see as much as possible and b) rather clueless with regard to US history and culture also meant that I visited a whole lot of rather creepy plantation houses, Confederate forts, Jefferson Davis memorials and the like. Interestingly, I both recognised that the place was racist as fuck, probably better than my parents did, and yet saw absolutely no conflict about plantation houses and Jefferson Davis memorials presented as tourist attractions.

Talking of the Muffler Men story, that one was part of another theme that appeared during the challenge, namely a theme of stories about monsters that aren’t very monstrous and humans that are. There are at least five stories which fall into that theme and often involve humans involving non-human beings (Pokemon, Muffler Men, zombies) for profit and personal gain. Again, I suspect that this is something inspired by a generally grim world-political situation.

Another theme that appeared during the challenge was westerns. All in all, I wrote two straight westerns, two steampunk westerns and one weird western, which surprised me a lot, because westerns are normally a genre I have problems with, particularly the Hollywood westerns of the 1930 through 1960s, which were pretty much ubiquitous on TV during my childhood and tended to infuriate me a lot with their blatant racism and sexism. Meanwhile, there also were westerns I enjoyed, e.g. Karl May’s Winnetou novels and their film adaptations, Italian western movies, B-movie serials and pulp Romanhefte. Eventually, I sat down to list all the elements of westerns I enjoyed and those I hated to see if I could make the genre work for me. Outlaw Love was one result of that. Nonetheless, the western was never a go-to genre for me, which is why I am surprised that I wrote five westerns (with or without added speculative elements) for this challenge. The first western showed up early in the challenge, inspired by the really silly German title of an Italian western, which I suppose primed my mind to come up with more ideas along the same lines.

In general, I believe that everything we read, watch or experience goes into the big stewpot of the subconscious and that everything I or any other writer (disregarding the “write to market” types for a moment) writes arises from that stewpot, usually so transformed and blended that the influences can become unrecognisable even to ourselves. Creating under pressure – and writing a short story per day for a whole month creates a lot of pressure – speeds up that process to the point that whatever I read, watch or experience at the time influences the stories I write for the challenge to some degree.

Last year for example, I read both The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalastier and Galactic Suburbia by Lisa Yaszek, while doing the challenge, and promptly wrote a lot of stories playing with and subverting the tropes and gender dynamics of Golden Age science fiction (collected in Bug-Eyed Monsters and the Women Who Love Them). A couple of other stories were influenced by following the readings for the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize on TV. This year, I did my Hugo reading during the challenge period and promptly found some of my output influenced by that. A day trip to Bremerhaven also inspired at least two stories.

And since the stewpot of my subconscious was working overtime, a whole lot of stories turned into an unholy mash-up of influences. For example, one of my favourite stories I wrote for the challenge mashed up one of io9’s concept art writing prompts (not even an image I particularly liked, just one that stuck with me) with one of the works on the 2016 Hugo shortlist, which started out with a really cool idea and then did nothing with it, but went off on a completely different tangent. So I had a mash-up of two ideas, added the protagonists of a new series I’m working on and out came a pretty tense science fiction yarn.

Last year, not a single of the 31 stories I wrote for the July short story challenge was part of an established series or set in an established world, which was quite contrary to Dean Wesley Smith’s experience. This year, however, five stories were part of an established series or set in an established world. And so I wrote a new Silencer story and Hallowind Cove story (Hallowind Cove is the fog-shrouded seaside town that is a magnet for weird happenings, which features in The Revenant of Wrecker’s Dock). All right, so Hallowind Cove isn’t actually a series yet, since there is only one story so far, but I always intended to write more stories set in that town.

What is more, for a while now I have been working on In Love and War, a space opera/science fiction romance series about two elite soldiers from opposite sides of an intergalactic war, who fall in love. The first two books in the series are novel-length, which is why they’ve been taking me a while to get finished. However, I had always planned to give my central couple shorter one-off adventures, once they’d gotten together. During the challenge, a piece of concept art sparked an idea for such a one-off adventure, so I wrote it. Some time later, another piece of concept art sparked an idea for a prequel story featuring the central couple as teenagers, showing where they come from and what turned them into the people they later become, so I wrote that as well. Then, on the last day of the challenge, my brain mashed up a piece of concept art I’d seen at io9 and a cool idea from another story which that author didn’t really do anything with, while I was dozing in bed. “That would make a great In Love and War story”, it occurred to me, so I got up and wrote it pretty much straight through. So I now have three stories, coincidentally three of the longest I wrote for the challenge, in a new series. The In Love and War stories were also some of the most emotionally harrowing I wrote during the challenge, probably because I was a lot more invested in these characters and their lives than in the characters I created largely from scratch for the purpose of the challenge.

Talking of characters, like last year I found that the challenge stories resulted in a highly diverse range of characters of different ages, genders, sexual orientations, ethnic and economic backgrounds, etc… including several non-human protagonists. Particularly the In Love and War stories have characters of very different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In the three stories I wrote for the series, I have characters of Indian, Russian, Turkish, Serbian and Chinese origin. There’s a white guy of Anglo-American origin as well – a quasi-villain (it’s complicated). So even if you are creating under pressure, there really is no excuse to default to straight white Anglo-American men as your protagonists (though I have those, too, and they’re not all villains).

To sum it up, I think the greatest benefit of doing something like the July short story challenge is that it pressures you to come up with ideas on a short notice and write without overthinking everything. It’s the ultimate pressure cooker for your creativit and puts the stewpot of your subconsciousness into overdrive. What comes out is frequently strange and unexpected, but it can also be quite remarkable.

Should you do the July short story challenge or something like it? If you have the time, you should certainly give it a try.

Will I do it again sometime? Probably.

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