My approach to the Iron Writer Challenge

This week I’m participating in The Iron Writer challenge, (I’m in challenge 102) a writing competition where you write a 500 word story using four elements that are provided to you – examples:

  • An empty ATM
  • A talking tree
  • Toilet bowl cleaner
  • A meteor


  • A Zombie Apocalypse
  • A 1936 Chevy Corvette
  • A Coyote
  • A Snow Plow

Once written, you submit your story and it competes against 4 others using those same elements for the prize. (The prize is esteem from your fellow writers and a chance to enter a tournament.)

The four elements can end up being setting, POV, actions, background details, or character elements. They can throw a monkey wrench into story ideas, set everyone up to write very similar stories or just cause a story to sound disjointed if it’s awkward to fit one of the elements in.

So of course I have to try to control the uncontrollable.

I decided I’d like to tell stories inside a framework that might allow elements to be swapped in without altering the overall storyline – flexible, but consistent so I could do more than one challenge set in the same universe. Also I can think up some story pieces ahead of time, like character and plot, so I’m not scrambling to do that in the four days I’m allotted when elements are assigned.

The framework I came up with is a ghost story about two lovers – she’s alive, and he’s dead. But they weren’t lovers before he died – she met him as a ghost, and the two fall in love with each other. Because he is dead, he can do all sorts of non-corporeal things – jump through planes of existence & back and forth in time, which I hope can account for some of the assigned elements. Because she’s alive, lots of action can take place around her real existence apart from him, and the conflict that creates with her maintaining a relationship with him. And of course, why is he haunting her? Is he haunting her, or is there some other reason why he’s here? Maybe he’s in purgatory and has to perform some action to move on, but because he’s fallen in love with her, he doesn’t want to move along. Maybe she’s there to help him get through something in purgatory that he has to accomplish, and she has to discover what that is. There are possibilities for moods that are funny (like the movie Topper) or sweet and wistful (the musical film Once) or mournful (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard), forboding (A Good Man is Hard to Find) or just really frightening (The Others).

Haunted House by AreYoU
Haunted House by AreYoU

Partway through sketching out what this framework might look like, I was listening to old music in my library and came across “Moonlight Shadow” the 1983 song by Mike Oldfield, sung by Maggie Reilly. The lyrics of the song tell the story of two lovers separated, and he is shot and killed. She is unable to “push through” to get to him. Lots of the description – moonlight shadow, “The trees that whisper in the evening” “vision forming” “silvery night” “The night was heavy and the air was alive” suggest something going on that is mystical and hard to see – maybe a vision she might see of what is going on in purgatory, where he is, but she can’t form a picture of what’s really happening, or how to reach out to him.

That imagery is lush and sets a wistful sort of mood, and could fit with the framework that I was pulling together for my story. So I’m using that song as inspiration.

Yes, I will write fan fiction ghost stories based on an obscure 1983 pop song.

The danger is if I seem like I’m throwing away elements casually or just really trying to wrench them into a format that they don’t go with. If the elements really just didn’t work together with this theme, I could pants it and write something else instead. But I have some basics in place if the elements fit together.

So these were the elements I was given –

  • An event that changes a character’s personality.
  • A measuring tape
  • Tetherball
  • Haggis

I decided after a bit of tinkering that I could try to make those work in my pre-conceived framework, and I put my 500 words together and submitted my story today. When the challenge gets posted to the Iron Writer website in the next few days, I’ll link to it and ask that you read and vote for whatever story you think is best (which I hope is mine.)

Interesting read: Charts and Diagrams Drawn by Famous Authors

Flavorwire: Charts and Diagrams Drawn by Famous Authors
I have a stash of these types of images in my writing reference folder, but Flavorwire links to some I haven’t seen yet. Diving down into the individual [via] links to the original articles on each chart is a must – Without it I wouldn’t have landed on this cool page page of Faulkner’s maps of Yoknapatawpha County.

Mapping Yoknapatawpha

Pretty much everyone includes this chart of JK Rowling’s characters and stories, but I haven’t posted it on any of my own writing yet, so here you go:

J K Rowling's Chart

This Vonnegut video they include is nice, too:

Gen Con Writer’s Symposium 2013, Saturday in Review

WKS1345346 (Fiction Fundamentals Part 3: Putting on the Polish on Sat at 08:00 AM – 3 hours)
Lawrence Connolly, William Horner III
“In-depth workshop: learn how to make your story sing through application of effective revision and editing techniques.”

I was really sorry to miss this workshop because the other two these guys did on Thursday and Friday were so useful. I was feeling pretty under the weather Saturday morning, so I didn’t make it to this one. I’m hoping to get the handouts for this one from Horner on the internet, because the others were pretty great and I’ve already tacked them up to my bulletin board and started reviewing my outlines for two projects.

SEM1345284 (Exploring Genres: Urban Fantasy on Sat at 11:00 AM)
Richard Byers, Jennifer Brozek, Lucy Snyder, Larry Correia
“We teach you the tips and tricks you’ll need to write amazing urban fantasy stories.”

The urban fantasy genre is pretty popular right now, and in addition to that one popular storyline about sparkly vampires, there are a decent number of women writing in the genre — most of them writing stuff that’s not quite as silly as the sparkly vampires. Such a cool idea; supernatural in the city, in a landscape we recognize and understand. Lots of superhero comics are pretty much urban fantasy genres; interesting to see it take shape in novel form. Lots of the discussion surrounded setting; do you take a real city and transform it, copy and rename it, shift it’s landscape around? All of those are interesting strategies for world building in this genre.

SEM1345353 (Writer’s Craft: Dialogue, it is not just people talking! on Sat at 12:00 PM)
Maxwell Alexander Drake
“In-depth seminar: join author Maxwell Alexander Drake as he gives you some insights on how to craft dialogue.”

Drake is a pretty entertaining lecturer and although I knew most of what he covered in this seminar, I went to see him present again. I’m encouraged that my dialogue is already pretty damned solid and doesn’t hit any of the “don’ts” on the list.

WKS1345350 (Writer’s Craft: Schrödinger’s Plot on Sat at 01:00 PM)
Brad Beaulieu
“In-depth seminar: master plotting techniques, from basic structural concepts to plotting to breaking writer’s block.”

I took four different seminars on plot, and got something good from all of them, which is pretty cool. Brad’s turned around the idea that there’s not one potential answer but many about the direction your story could go.

SEM1345301 (Writer’s Craft: Screenwriting for Novelists on Sat at 02:00 PM)
Lou Anders
“Learn how novelists can apply Hollywood screenwriting techniques to enhance character, plot & theme.”

Lou really needed more time, because he had to move really quickly through his material. Fascinating stuff; he took a number of popular movies and made you identify the protagonist, antagonist and relationship characters, and it was a nice exercise in critical thinking about character motivation and how conflicting motivations drive the plot. I realized that in my own work I probably have too many characters and have pretty murky motivations for them that need to be more clearly defined in my head so that I can be more clear about what I’m writing and what I’m holding back on as my stories unfold.

learn the rules