How to Write an Award-Winning Short Story

My short story, Victory Party, won First Place in the City Paper Fiction Issue. Since then, a number of friends have asked me about the story. Where did the idea for Victory Party come from? How did I write it? Why did I write it?

Here are answers to Frequently Asked Questions. It’s the story of a story – how Victory Party got made.

Idea

The deadline for the City Paper contest was not long after the Presidential Election. It was a natural subject. According to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition, the vast majority of short story submissions dealt in some way with the election.

I was surprised, like most people, by the depth of Trump’s support. This election was Hillary’s to win – all the polls agreed. But, clearly, there was a secret class of Trump supporter, people in the shadows, who kept their opinions to themselves.

Who were they? What motivated them? Exit the DC bubble and it’s not hard to find folks suffering from hard times. As I wrote in Victory Party, these were people who:

voted for the man, out of desperation, a mad hope that someone could change their cursed little town and their cursed little lives.

But what would it be like to be a Trump supporter in Washington, where 96% of people voted for Clinton?

Conducting research with The Emperor's Clothes at McClellan's Retreat
Conducting research with The Emperor’s Clothes at McClellan’s Retreat

Setting

There are a lot of bars in my fiction. Write what you know! It’s the default setting for a Joe Flood story. I find bars to be interesting places that bring all manner of people together. Having talked to a few bartenders, I’m also fascinated by the business of bars, how a couple dollars worth of booze gets magically transformed into an $18 drink.

DC has seen a rise in this “cocktail culture” over the past few years, as the loveable dives of my youth give away to exclusive speakeasies. I decided a ridiculously hipster bar would make a good locale for my story, the better to illustrate the contrast between elite DC and the real world.

I had two sources of inspiration for my setting: Bar Charley and McClellan’s Retreat. I wandered into Bar Charley on election night. It’s a cozy, brick-lined basement much like my bar in Victory Party. And, like in my story, there was a palpable sense of tension there on election night, an expectation of victory tinged by a fear of the unfathomable.

My other inspiration, McClellan’s Retreat, I just love. Quiet, dark and with no TVs, this Dupont Circle craft cocktail bar is a great place to meet friends for an intimate chat.

Characters

I mock the people of DC in books like Murder on U Street. I think newcomers to the city are naive and clueless. A shiny veneer has been placed over a Washington that still houses the poor and disaffected, a city where anything not locked down gets stolen.

In Victory Party, my bar patrons are sloppy and careless, blithely handing over their credit cards to questionable individuals and willing to get in any car that looks like an Uber.

It’s also a city of winners and losers, in which incumbents capture whole economies and take the benefits for themselves. Homeowners vs Renters. Baby Boomers vs Gen X. Feds vs Contractors.

I illustrated this dichtomy with two characters: Randy and Michael. Randy is an ex-con with $27 in the bank. Michael owns a bar which serves watered-down drinks – and no one notices. Their view of America is shaped by the opportunities available to them. Crime tempts Randy while Michael is effortlessly rich.

Plot

Short story submissions to the City Paper contest had to be less than 1000 words. That’s short. This blog post is longer than that.

The word limit forced me to focus on the most essential elements of my story. All I wanted to show was the moment that Trump won, the shock in DC, and one person who was happy about it. Victory Party sketches out its characters and themes and then delivers us to that epiphany.

Writing & Editing

When I write, I like caffeine and background noise, preferring to work in coffee shops. I wrote the first draft of my story the week before Thanksgiving. The first draft was 1300 words. It was called “Her” and was largely about the reaction of Hillary’s supporters to the loss.

After writing the first draft, I let the story sit for a day and then began cutting, to get the tale below 1000 words. Inspired by the excellent new Hemingway bio, Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, I chopped anything resembling exposition, i.e., explaining the characters rather than showing them do stuff. Show, not tell. 

I focused on Randy and his outsider’s view of the speakeasy, letting out just enough exposition for the reader to understand why he would resent a bar full of wealthy, naive Democrats. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” Mary Kay Zverloff said in her introduction to my story, a comment which made me happier than anything else. She even used Victory Party in her writing class as an example of how to do exposition.

After getting my story below 1000 words, I picked at it for days, like a turkey carcass, deleting and rewriting bits and pieces of it.

The ending was a struggle. How much happiness would Randy reveal? I rewrote the last paragraph several times. In the end, I opted for my main character having a quiet moment of victory, one that he knows won’t last.

I also changed the title, from Her to the ironic Victory Party.

What’s Next

me-reading-at-kramerbooks
Joe Flood reading at Kramerbooks. Photo by Kramerbooks.

To celebrate the Fiction Issue, the City Paper had a party at Kramerbooks, where I read my story before a packed audience. I’ve been going to Kramers for decades – this was a thrill.

If you liked Victory Party, you’ll love my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the real city beyond the monuments. Read this book if you want a wry look at the DC art scene.

I also have another novel in the works – Drone City, a satire in which a drone crashes into the White House, leading to the end of the country as we know it. It’s a comedy. I’m editing the manuscript now and am looking for agent. Look for it later this year 🙂

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Interview with a Zombie

i'm socially conscious

The blogger “Zombie” of the blog Zombietime has been covering anti-war, anti-Bush and antinomian protests in San Francisco, the city that never met a liberal cause it didn’t like. While we may mock these silly displays of moral rectitude, Zombie has revealed, through pictures, the really dark and violent fantasies that these marchers would impose upon the rest of us. Their world is one in which sadistic murders would go free, suicide bombers are heroes and Israel would be wiped off the map.

PolicyByBlog has a really interesting interview with Zombie on how and why Z decided to document these rallies. An avowed liberal, Z thinks these protesters are, “actually, literally insane.” Are these people the mainstream or are they just freaks? They are apparently in the mainstream of the SF left.

Even if you hate politics, Zombie is a great example of the power of a citizen journalist. Guided by a zeal to show the full story of events, Z shows us the anti-war left in SF in all its unhinged madness. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

Zombie’s been an inspiration for me, too, as you can see of the photo above of a cheekily subversive protester which I snapped at anti-war rally in DC.

Yahoo in the Brand Universe

Yahoo is a tale of missed opportunity, a new media giant that acts like a dinosaur as their nimbler rival, Google, runs circles around them.  Yahoo could be so cool – they have Flickr, which is the very model of web 2.0 sites.  The difference, however, is that Google is about empowering users.  Yahoo is about big media telling consumers what they should watch.  We’re just a bunch of eyeballs to them.  Their latest attempt to get back in the game is documented in an article in Variety:

 … it’s focused now on a new strategy it calls “brand universe.” Rather than just searching for exclusive content, Yahoo has identified over 100 brands that are most relevant to its users. It plans to launch new sites that bring together all of the content relevant to each brand from across the Yahoo network, as well as whatever the netco can get from the big media firm behind it.

Apple is a brand that is very relevant to me.  I’ve been going a trusted set of Apple sites for years to feed my fanboy addiction.  What, exactly, is Yahoo going to bring to the table?  Sites like MacCentral, MacRumors, MacUser, etc…. have the space pretty much tied up.  What could I get from Yahoo that I couldn’t get from them?

Stock Photos: Seeing Double

You’re not crazy. You are seeing the same people over and over again in advertisements, according to this article in The Wall Street Journal. Why? Because it’s a lot easier to use stock photos of people than to go out and take pictures.

When I worked for AARP, we only had a couple of CDs worth of stock photos of active seniors. We used those people again and again on the web site. No women in walkers for us, no, these were tan couples striding to the tennis court, rackets in hand. Or lithe men hanging off steep cliff faces. Or independent grandmothers on the vacation of a lifetime. We used them so much that I felt like I knew them.

Imagine my surprise when I began recognizing them in other places, like ads for health insurance and annuities. And why not? We didn’t own them, after all. They were just stock.

my dad
not stock…. a real active senior, my Dad

The Trustworthy Web Site

You visit a new web site, whether it’s to find information, do some shopping or make a transaction. How do you know to trust it? According to a recent article by Human Factors International, web surfers evaluate sites primarily on two criteria:

  • Professional-looking appearance
  • Ease of use.

What that means is that the design and the photos look to be the product of a professional effort – it’s not some MySpace site. And that the site has been designed to make it easy to use – again, it’s not some MySpace site. Web credibility is also a function of relevant content. Basically, this means a web site designed toward user needs.

What’s interesting is that this web site evaluation process is done in seconds. Visitors get to your page, glance it, and then decide whether it’s a trustworthy web site.

Get Real: Have an Enemy

I’ve been enjoying Getting Real, the book by 37signals (creator of the very cool Basecamp).  The book, which is available online, is ostensibly about best practices in software development.  However, I think its lessons can be applied to other situations, like… life.  For example, they suggest having an enemy.  When building Basecamp, 37signals decided that their app would be the anti-Microsoft Project.  MS Project was the enemy.  MS Project would be the opposite of the beast that is Project.

Who’s your enemy?  How does having an enemy motivate you?  When starting a project, do you think to yourself, “I’ll show them!”

Flickr Camera Finder: Canon Rules

EOS Digital Rebel XT Usage This Year
Flickr camera use diagram
courtesy: Flickr
Flickr’s Camera Finder is fascinating on several levels. For one thing, it’s shocking the level of dominance Canon has among Flickr members. The Canon Digital Rebel XT (the camera I have) is by far the most popular camera among Flickrites, with the Nikon D70 a very, very distant second. Among point and shoots, the top 5 are all Canons, with the Canon Powershot SD400 the most popular model. But what’s also interesting is that you can click on the names of the camera models and see pictures from Flickr users. Useful to see what kind of pictures a camera can take, if you’re in the market to buy one.