I don’t enter a lot of writing contests because I want to explore my own creative ideas, not write to someone else’s prompt. But when I’m feeling stuck, arbitrary prompts can get some ideas and motivation flowing. So when I found the NYC Midnight Microfiction Challenge, I signed up last fall. I liked that the time provided to write was short (24 hours) and the expected output was short too (250 words). I also appreciated that all contestants got feedback from the judges on their stories. That made the entry fee worthwhile to me.
Here’s how it works. You are assigned a random genre, a random action that has to take place in the story, and a word that must appear in the story. You have 24 hours to write and submit a story that adheres to those guidelines and is a maximum of 250 words. If you’re not a writer, you may not understand how difficult it is to write a very short story. A mere 250 words is hardly enough to create a character, build a world, infuse tension, and proceed through a climax and resolution. When I write stories like this, they always start a few hundred words over the limit. Then I have to refine, refine, refine, to get it down to the essentials while still being interesting and complete. It’s a great challenge. It may seem contradictory, but more restrictions actually make your output more creative.
In the first round of this contest, the top 20 percent to move on, roughly 800 people out of 4,000 entrants this year. In the next round, they select the top 10 percent to move on. I made it to the second round but not the third. I never plan to do anything with these pieces; this was just a fun activity for me and the genres I ended up with are way out of my wheelhouse. But at least I didn’t get RomCom or SciFi! So, since the contest is on to round three without me, here are my stories for your reading pleasure.
Action: boiling water
What Lives in the Forest
On the nineteenth day after the creature lunged from the cave and she bolted off trail into the wilderness, Mara awoke too late. The dense foliage obscured the setting sun. She sat up, but dizziness sent her back to the ground.
As she lay in the leaves, a branch snapped. She swiveled her head right, scanning the indistinguishable greens and browns. She rolled onto her side, then scrambled onto all fours. Snap.
She half-crawled toward the stream, stuffing kindling into her backpack as she went. She submerged her special camping mug. The mug had been a prize for competing in a fifty-kilometer trail race through these same woods last summer. She’d finished in under five hours, but now, without the murky contact lenses she’d had to discard, she couldn’t move fifty feet in five minutes.
Crunching leaves joined the rhythm of cracking boughs. Mara’s heartbeat played percussion.
When she had ignited the kindling and nascent flames licked the base of the water-filled mug, Mara inched away, feeling around for more fuel.
No branch was too small. The fire had to burn all night to keep the creature distant.
Gray dusk gave way to black shadows, stripping Mara of her last sliver of blurry sight. Her hearing, however, was attuned to forest. In front of her, the creature growled. Next to her, its jaw clicked. And when it was on top of her, the gurgle of intestines being sucked from her body cavity drowned out the sound of gently boiling water.
Genre: ghost story
Action: setting off a fire alarm
One day in late October, Lila couldn’t get out of bed. Sprite, her elderly malamute, lay next to her, his atrophied body not creasing the duvet.
On the second day, the calls began—from her boss, her best friend, her mother. She answered none of them. A chill overtook the apartment, and cuddling Sprite provided no relief.
Over the weekend, the strident siren of a smoke detector pierced the stillness. Sprite continued sleeping until Lila nudged him awake. They walked down the hallway, the dog indifferent to the flashing lights and noise.
Outside, Lila embraced her four-legged companion and buried her face in his loose tufts of fur. When the high-pitched beeping stopped, she looked around. Several neighbors were staring at her, wide eyed.
After the firemen cleared the building, the pair shuffled back in.
Lila opened her apartment as a neighbor walked by. The man froze, then pulled his shirt over his nose and hurried away.
An hour later, a pounding rattled her door.
“Maintenance,” a voice called from the other side. “Open up, please.”
Sprite followed Lila to the entryway, his nails silent on the wood. She recognized the worker through the peephole and let him in.
“I heard a rumor that…” he began, but after his gaze moved down to her floor, he stumbled backward and held up his hands.
“He’s friendly,” Lila said, turning to grab Sprite’s collar. Her hand passed through the vanishing apparition and landed on the bloated corpse of her best friend.