About a year ago, I came across a group called NYC Midnight that run a slate of online writing competitions.
I’m usually pretty suspicious of these sorts of things, and to be honest I’m not someone who regularly enters competitions. But after poking about their website, I thought, why not? I’ll try it once, and if it sucks, I’ll just go back to being my non-comp entering self, quietly grumbling alone in the corner.
I forwarded the details to a writing buddy of mine, Margaret, and we decided we’d both enter. We’d be each other’s support group, she not a terribly competitive soul either. And you know what?
It was FANTASTIC.
For those of you unaware of NYC Midnight, they run four writing competitions each year, which they call ‘Challenges’; two for short stories and two for short screenplays. The comps are run completely online, making them very accessible wherever you happen to be in the world. As you’d imagine, most of the entrants are from the U.S. but a fair chunk hail from the U.K. and Australia too, as well as pretty much everywhere else.
What makes their competitions interesting is they provide three specific writing prompts entrants must adhere to (usually a genre, a character and either a location or subject), strict time frames in which writers must submit their work, and strict page counts (for short screenplays) or word counts (for short stories). It means that, in such a subjective medium, writers are judged on as level a playing field as one can feasibly get.
To illustrate, here’s an example – in one of the Screenplay rounds I entered earlier this year, all the writers in my group, in that round, each had to submit an original short Romance script of 12 pages or less, that included a hairdresser and an auction, within 8 days of being given those parameters.
I have entered a number of NYC Midnight’s Challenges, both in prose fiction and in screenplay, and will continue to do so in the near future. Here’s my three reasons why:
1. Their Combination of Tight Timeframes and Specified Writing Prompts
NYC Midnight’s timeframes for writing and submitting entries is short. And no, you can’t pre-prepare. Entrants are divvied up into groups for each round, and then as noted above, each group is assigned three specific writing prompts that everyone must use in their individual piece. For example, the 25 people in Group 7 may get Horror, a janitor and a banana, while the 30 people in Group 15 get Comedy, a dentist and a food processor. As soon as NYC Midnight sends out everyone’s group number and their corresponding prompts, the clock starts ticking. It varies depending on the specific comp, but timeframes are anywhere between 48 hours and 8 days, and comes down to 24 hours for some of those lucky enough to get through to a final round (round winners are decided on a points system).
So what does this mean exactly? It means that for a very specific amount of time, on a very specific date, you will need to write a whole, complete short story or script with absolutely no prior knowledge of what you will be writing. You will need to be focussed and you will need to be fast. You may well have to write in a genre you have no prior interest in at all – so you will need to get interested quickly!
This method of competition is a godsend to procrastinators like me. It’s a fantastic way to build up a body of work with minimal effort, and you will often generate stories that will surprise you as you are pushed into unfamiliar genres or pushed by time into narratives you would not normally explore. Most of us have been given prompts for our writing, but I certainly haven’t experienced the speed at which NYC Midnight makes you churn them out. I’ve found myself writing in genres I’d previously never considered, and I’ve actually been forced to FINISH the work I start.
The scripts and stories I’ve written in this competition may not be perfect, but all are completed drafts that have the potential to be refined or expanded. And surprisingly, I want to do exactly that with quite a few of them. The competition has helped me come up with a slew of brand new stories, characters and ideas in a relatively short time frame, and has inspired me to keep writing.
2. Their Regularity
With four Challenges each year, two of which require entrants to participate in at least two rounds, if you were to enter all four Challenges in a year, you’ll have at least three new short stories and three new short screenplays to your name. Which is pretty significant considering the actual time you spend writing. You can’t be a writer without doing a fair chunk of writing on a regular basis, and actively taking part in competitions like this is a great way of keeping your writing muscles strong and supple. Personally, I also find these Challenges a wonderful way to also keep myself motivated and positive about my writing, due in large part to this regularity of competition.
3. Their Feedback
I know a lot of people cringe at entry fees for competitions. I totally understand. They can be excessive, prohibitive and it’s often hard to understand where the money is going. Also, I have to admit that NYC Midnight’s fees are fairly steep (around $50 U.S.), particularly as I’m an Aussie and our dollar is awful at the moment, so the cost for me is way more in Australian dollars.
BUT, I am willing to fork over the cash for two main reasons. The first is that running a writing competition is no doubt a time-consuming, organisational nightmare. Someone is putting it together and I am happy to contribute to the wages that pay people for their time and effort making the whole thing work. Unless a competition is some sort of marketing exercise by a larger, wealthy entity (which I don’t believe NYC Midnight is – please correct me if I’m wrong), then I am very willing to throw some cash towards those making the event a reality. They deserve to be paid for their service.
The second reason that I am happy to pay the entry fee is the feedback you receive to every written piece you submit. Sent in the form of a short email summary of aspects the judges both liked and what they felt needed work, I have consistently found the feedback on my entries to be useful and practical. It is not intensive or very long, but it usually raises pertinent points that are valuable when looking to revise your piece.
The feedback is also a fascinating insight into the process of judging a competition like this – each set of judges are reading numerous pieces, all in the same genre with the same core elements. What they have to say about your specific piece may help you understand how your work is seen in comparison to other work, and may point to how everyone else has tackled the challenge. It’s often rare and difficult as an emerging writer to access third party feedback, so this is a valuable aspect of the NYC Midnight experience in my opnion.
These three elements of the NYC Midnight competitions all add up to give me:
- Regular, focussed writing practice;
- A growing body of work;
- Direct, objective feedback to help me refine or expand that work should I wish to;
- A growing understanding and appreciation of what makes a strong and whole story;
- A sense of achievement; and
- A boost to my confidence as a writer.
- And before you ask, this is not a sponsored post or a paid advertorial of any kind. I am a genuine, unaffiliated entrant to their comps and as such, a total fan based on my personal experience.
I wanted to share that experience with you in case their comps sound like the kind of thing your writing needs too – a swift and stealthy kick up the bottom to help you be a more productive and focussed writer.
Have you entered the NYC Midnight writing competitions? What was your experience?