Saturday, 5 March 2011

A Story Writing Challenge


My copies of Award Winning Tales have just arrived in the post this morning, and I'm very pleased to see that my story 'The Difference Between Cowboys and Clowns' has made it into print.  The story was a finalist in the NYCMidnight Short Story Challenge a couple of years ago, a competition I can't recommend highly enough. 

In the challenge, participants are divided into groups, and each group is given a writing genre and a topic which must feature in the story. In the initial round of the competition, participants are given one week in which to complete a story of 2500 words. That year, my genre was 'Romantic Comedy' and my subject 'Rainbow'. Goodness, I thought, as I received my instructions (by email at midnight, NYC time).

Having a severe disinclination towards 'romance' (it's a long story - don't ask), I was less than thrilled with the genre I'd been given. And as for rainbows (deep sigh), although I really do appreciate them, all I could think of in conjunction with 'romance' were girly images of Pegasus, multi-coloured gonks and numerous other highly embarrassing motifs from an earlier and less cynical point of my life. But I'd already paid my entry fee and, skinflint that I am, couldn't back out now. The best thing, I decided, was to put it all to the back of my mind and let my subconscious stew on it a while.

The first idea to emerge from the caldron was set in the in the late 1960s and involved a folk singer called 'Rainbow Sprinkles' who was secretly in love with John Lennon. Things start to go pear shaped, though, when she sees John naked on the 'Two Virgins' album cover. I could see the comedy; I could see the potential for romance. But that story idea quickly fizzled out.

Now, anyone who knows me well knows that 20 years of living in the UK has done little to temper my cowboy inclinations, and it wasn't long before images of the naked John Lennon (and Yoko) were usurped by Pegasus again, which (thankfully) was even more quickly transformed into something slightly less flighty (like the pun?). By the end of the day, I was frantically researching rodeo clowns and barrel racing on the internet - those girly images be damned! If I was going to have to write a romantic comedy, it would involve a bit of blood, brahma bull snot, and gore.

Knowing only a little about the romantic structure (boo, hiss), I turned back to the internet for help and discovered that 'the hero/ine's innermost fears and weaknesses must be exposed' and that s/he must 'exhibit emotional courage'. Hmm. That's okay, I told myself, I can do that. Perhaps it doesn't have to be as trite as I thought.

I quickly sketched out my characters: my heroine, Dakota Styrone - desperate to win the barrel racing championships; object of her affections, Lyle Crabtree - three-times winner of the All Around Cowboy of the Year title; Dakota's love rival, Jo-Jo Wheelan - last year's barrel racing champion; and Smithy, the shy rodeo clown ('we prefer to be called bullfighters these days').

The Nemesis (Jo-Jo - boo!), I learned, must try to stop our Hero (Dakota - yea!) from reaching both of her goals (the barrel-racing title and her love interest, Lyle Crabtree). I divided the story into three acts (ah, the Magic Three) and followed a structure loosely based on that laid out in Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. Then I got back to the serious business of barrel racing - learning about clover-leaf patterns, five-second penalties, and how to keep a horse running in a straight line into the third barrel by applying pressure with the right leg, as well as tips on bullriding and Stetson hats. Youtube, my friends, can be an invaluable resource.

It's a predictable story, of course (Rom-Coms usually are), so I won't bother telling you the ending (you can order a copy of the book, though, if you like), but it taught me a great deal about writing. It taught me to step outside my comfort zone and to take chances; it taught me to write about things I don't know (but only after learning about them, first); and it taught me that the best thing for 'writer's block' is to sit down and start pounding out the words. Mostly, though, it taught me that there's a story - and sometimes a decent story - in any scenerio you come up with.

As for the rainbow? That was the name of Dakota's horse.

'The Difference Between Cowboys and Clowns' was a Finalist in the 1st round of the 2009 NYC Short Story Challenge and Finalist in the 2009 Cowboy Up contest by Moonlight Mesa Associates.


















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