War of the Cupcakes

Below is my official entry into round 1 of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. In this contest, they give us a genre, a subject, and a character to write about. The challenge, usually, is that we must use these things in the story (to what degree appears to be subjective per whatever judge reads our work).

My Group: 51
Genre: Comedy
Subject: Artificial Intelligence
Character: An Executive Assistant

Synopsis of story: Many people died on January 29, 2015, and anyone who survived that horrible day called it The Dawn of the Pastries. They survived only to face a worse nightmare, one people would later come to know as the War of the Cupcakes.

War of the Cupcakes

If you had known me before the end of the human era, you wouldn’t guess I was only a quiet executive assistant. You wouldn’t guess that I set appointments, ordered coffee, or helped my boss harass employees about remembering to put covers on their TPS reports. You wouldn’t think any of that.

What you might think, on first glance, is that this girl was military. I have seventeen scars, three of which take residence on my face. I hadn’t smiled in five years. However, if I did show my grin, which only happened when I needed to keep the rattle of the mini-gun from shattering my teeth, then you’d see that there were four missing pearls from my mouth. My muscles aren’t large, but they’re well defined. I no longer set appointments because I set battles. I long ago ceased to order coffee, and ordered hits. I no longer bugged employees about unnecessary reports, but instead killed cupcakes.

My name is Alyssa James, and I was the leader of the human resistance. The people elected me to that position because of my unique knowledge of sweets. Long before the war, I had dreamed of owning a bakery, and had even won awards for my baked goods in local competitions. As a result, when the cupcakes showed up during a baking event, I responded with the precision of an assassin and dispatched them by using warm milk. Softened and rendered harmless, I conquered those sweet beasts. From then on, they needed someone to look to, and so I became the resistance leader. I was their hope. I was promise of a better future.

On October 15, 2021, five years after the pastry revolution, I had one last battle. A battle to end the war and bring humanity the future I had always promised.

As the sun kissed the western waters and set the horizon aflame with varying degrees of tangerine and periwinkle, soft clouds floated languidly in the sky alongside threads of smoke highlighted by the recent fires. The air, now thick with the stench of charred sugar and soured milk, grew heavier as we approached the concrete canal leading to the bunker in which the mother of all cakes resided. The system we all knew as Grub-Sugarwrath.

We were resilient, but unease befell us as we looked upon that entrance because we were only four strong. The rest of our ranks fought far enough away to keep the enemy occupied. I only had a small team to complete this mission, but it was the best damn team I could have asked for.

To my right was Christa Cameron, a tech engineer with the knowledge to take Grub’s artificial intelligence systems offline. She was the one who discovered that the nanotechnology inside the batter ran from a single central location. Therefore, it seemed best to bring her along.

Standing next to her was Adrien Voorhees, our demolition expert, and to my left, was our infantryman Jack “The Gnasher” Jordan. He got his nickname because he loved to eat the cakes he killed. Revenge does strange things to men, and while most people lost their taste for cake, Jack only grew hungrier as his rage rose like leavened bread.

I turned away from the dying light, and looked at my crew. They watched as if waiting for me to say something. I cleared my throat and gave them the best damn speech I could give, “So, uh, when I was a little girl, I used to stay after class and help the lunch ladies clean the cafeteria. One day, after cleaning the tables and sweeping, I grabbed the mop and wheeled the bucket to the center of the room. The lunch lady, a large busty woman who reminded me of Mrs. Butterworth, snatched the mop from my hand and stared down at me. You know what she said?”

Jack inspected the barrel of his weapon while slowly chewing his gum. The others stared intently waiting for me to say something meaningful. Maybe even brilliant.

“She told me, ‘You ain’t allowed to mop here.’ ”

“I said, ‘Why? I always help out.’ ”

“She said, and I shit you not, ‘You might slip, fall, an’ get die.’ ”

Jack was now looking up at me, one eyebrow tugged north. The other two didn’t make eye contact with me. I couldn’t blame them. I had no idea what any of that had to do with our mission. I may have been their leader, but I never claimed I was any good at giving speeches. This was especially true when I was under pressure from nervousness, which has never been kind to me.

“So, okay,” I said, and scratched the back of my head. “Just don’t do anything stupid, or you might get killed. This is our only chance.”

Nailed it, I thought, as they nodded in agreement.

I continued, “All right. Let’s get this done.”

The approach to the door was quiet. I suspected it was too quiet, but not in the way that heroes in movies suddenly get a bad feeling when things are too silent. First, I’m no hero. I’m a regular woman who did what needed to be done. Second, the distant thunder of explosions from the battle boomed and we could hear the shouts as our valiant brothers and sisters fought hard to protect their loved ones from the cupcakes. To say it was loud would be an understatement. It was actually quiet in the way that there was no movement. No sentries keeping watch. Nothing.

Jack and I stood watch over the area as Christa worked her techno-magic on the door. A moment later, a metal clank signaled that she’d succeeded, and we cautiously entered the tunnel.

As Jack readied his gun, a modified flamethrower that projected boiling-hot milk, he said, “I got a bad feeling about this.”

He wasn’t alone. I don’t think any of us felt safe, and now that we were in the master’s den, it seemed we were tempting fate to lead us to everlasting sleep.

The tunnel was deep and dark, so we couldn’t see anything at great length. The width spanned twenty, maybe thirty, feet. The ground was wet and slippery, and the air had a musty, sweet malodor tainting it. The walls appeared to have some sort of crystal layer forming on them, which I guessed was sugar. In areas where the cupcakes nested and duplicated, it was typical to see those types of formations on surfaces.

As we traversed that murky tunnel, Adrian said, “Tell me again how all this is supposed to work? I don’t really get how this is gonna end the war.”

He had a pleasant velvety voice that was easy to listen to, and even harder to ignore. I said, “Christa?”

“It’s just a theory, but…”

Adrian said, “Whoa, wait. We’re here on a theory?”

I said, “Yeah, a damn good one. Now shut it and let her finish.”

Christa took a deep breath. “Okay, so, you all know how the first batch of cupcakes were made right? Hostess was trying some new nanotechnology that was supposed to collect data from people and help them build the best treat the world had ever tasted, but instead it brought the pastries to life. What I hope to do is hack the main computer that controls all the nanotechnology and shut the cupcakes down for good.”

Adrian said, “I’ll admit, that does sound like a pretty good plan.”

“You bet it does,” I said. “Okay, guys, we’re here.”

Illuminating the door with my flashlight, the writing indicated we’d reached Hostess’s secret laboratory they cleverly named after their acclaimed Twinkie.

This was the location where it all started. Standing before it, I felt the sudden weight of the mission crushing me. If we died there, if we failed, then humanity would likely never get another chance. Our mission was secret, and therefore, no one knew about it. We made no effort to document anything, either. If there was one thing we learned in our time of war, it was that you could never trust people to resist the temptation of baked goods. A person’s own folly can lead to ruin, and we didn’t want to take any chances. Not with so much on the line.

I said, “Ready?”

Jack said, “Yep, let’s get this over with.”

I turned the door handle just as an access gate behind us exploded open. We whipped around, and watched as cupcakes poured into the tunnel. They rolled over each other, bouncing and tumbling. The sound they made was distinct as if produced by babbling babies with their tongues hanging out. Indeed, if you looked at them long enough, you’d see a mouth-like hole stretched across the corrugated wrapper, and a small, flat, and maroon piece of toffee flopping around that opening as if they in fact had a working tongue.

Their initial lack of sound surprised me. It was as if they quieted to hide their approach, which was unusual given their often-careless, robotic behavior.

Jack started spraying the cupcakes with hot milk. Some dissolved, but even more replaced them. We had expected resistance, but we didn’t expect so much. It was as if they knew we were coming.

I said, “We gotta run for it!”

Christa kicked some of them away from her and growled through clenched teeth, “Where?”

“Deeper,” I said, “our best bet is to find our way to Grub-Sugarwrath’s central system and barricade ourselves in.”

Adrien said, “Doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

I watched a thousand more cupcakes flood into the tunnel. “Only choice we’ve got.”

Adrien was the first through the door, ever the gentleman. Christa followed close behind, and I told Jack to head on through. He refused, arguing that since he was the only one with a milk gun, he had a duty to hold them off until everyone was safe. I couldn’t argue with him, so I fled through the door. A moment later, the babbling cupcakes were too much, and overpowered him. As their pink acid-like icing smeared across and melted his tormented face, I took one last sorrowful look and slammed the door.

The team wanted to go back, but I couldn’t let them. We went to that place for a reason, and we all knew the dangers. We had hoped nothing would happen to us, that the mission would be as short and sweet as all the others we’d completed together, but nothing can ever be perfect or last forever. We were fools to think otherwise.

With Jack’s demise heavy on our hearts, we pressed on through the complex. We passed several doors and vents, but nothing attacked us. When we finally reached the giant room housing Grub-Sugarwrath, the artificial intelligence system, we realized we were far more unprepared than we originally thought.

According to the old blueprints we consulted before the mission, the computer was at the center of the room. However, as we looked into that place, we couldn’t know for sure anymore. Tall glassy walls rose from the floor and reached toward the ceiling. They appeared to be made of the same material as the crystals in the tunnel, but they had a pearlescent sheen.

As the familiar babbling sound rose outside the door, Adrien said, “What are we gonna do?”

We had intended to use Christa to hack the system and shut it down, but that was no longer an option. I chuffed, “Fuck it. Let’s blow the whole room. You got enough on you?”

Adrian said, “Enough to level the whole complex, but—”

I interrupted, “No, ‘buts’, man. Let’s end this. Set the charges around in a circle. Make sure the concussive force is directed toward the center of the room.”

“Got it,” he said, and started working.

“Christa, I need you to find us a way out of here,” I said, but she appeared to be lost in fear. “Christa?”

I crossed the room and grabbed her by the shoulders. She seemed to look right through me, and so I slapped her.

She rubbed her cheek. “Ugh, bitch.”

My face turned hot. “I just… I thought, you know…”

“You don’t just smack someone across the face. Ow, man, that really hurt.”

“Sorry, I just needed to you to find us a way out of here.”

“I know, jeez. Just, stay over there and let me figure it out. And keep your paws to yourself.”

“Sorry.”

She glowered at me, and then tapped away on her computer. After a short while, Adrian announced that he completed setting the bombs.

As the noise grew increasingly louder outside the door, Christa said, “Found a way out!”

I said, “You lead!”

Christa squeezed through a gap between the wall and the crystal structure, carefully stepping over one of the bombs. Adrian followed her, and I tried, but got stuck. It was a moment where I wished I hadn’t been a nervous eater. Strong as I was, defined in the muscles I might have been, skinny in the booty I was not.

Christa and Adrian snared my arms as the door crashed open. Babbling cupcakes rolled into the room, and I felt the small of my back tighten with fear. Oh, how I wished I had butter or oil to help squeeze me through that gap. Fortunately, I didn’t need either. They managed to pull me through just as dozens of cupcakes encroached on me. I wouldn’t be their buttercream snack that day.

Following Christa after that wasn’t so difficult. The hardest part was staying ahead of the cupcakes. They weren’t round but they were definitely fast, and they exploded from every orifice in the building through which they could fit.

Christa said, “Over there! Through that pipe.”

As I looked at the horde behind us I said, “Are you sure?”

She jumped into the pipe, slid down, and said, “No choice!”

We followed her. I feared we’d end up in a room full of hungry cupcakes; or worse, in the vats below that stored their acidic buttercream topping, but it dumped us out into the parking lot at the back of the building.

We ran hard and fast, moving far enough to be safe from the blast. We guessed the debris wouldn’t travel that far, but we wanted to play it safe. We turned toward the building, and Adrian offered me the trigger. I waved it away, knowing he’d enjoy it more than I ever could.

With a smile on his face, he blew the building. It was powerful, even a little beautiful. The dark sky lit for the first time with hope as the pastries that followed us through the pipe fell silent, unmoving, and dead. It was finally over. Our war with the cupcakes was won.

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The California Chainsaw Massacre: Prose Edition

I recently offered some suggestions to another writer about ways to cut prose to make word count. Some of us have no problem writing short stories, while some of us write epic-length pieces that pretty much crush the word requirement and then they’re left struggling to reach that dreaded word-count. So, here are a few tips to help you get down to that elusive number!

The first thing you need to do is be able to distance yourself from your prose. I think that’s probably the single hardest thing for any writer to do. Let’s face it, we love our stories, and we love even more how we’ve written it. The reason for this is that we might love that one passage, but we also have to look at it and decide if it is even necessary.

That’s part of the ‘fun’ of editing. I use ‘fun’ sarcastically there, because who really likes editing? Seriously, though, it’s not really fun to “kill your darlings” as Stephen King (was it him that said it?) likes to put it, but you have to do it. The good news is that once you learn how to detach from your prose and know how to take out what you don’t need, anything you write in the future will be that much stronger. So, it’s a win-win!

How do you go about removing what you don’t need? I don’t know. Don’t ask me. I can’t tell you. Only you and anyone that has read your story can tell you that. Here are some solid guidelines, though:

  • Does it further the plot?
  • Does it aid in plot development?
  • Is it necessary character development?

Remember, what’s totally awesome, random, and cool for you probably isn’t so exciting for the reader. Think about them first, and then think about the prose. Are you writing for them or for you? (Trick question)

Have you gone through and decided that you needed every paragraph and sentence and that if you cut any of it out it would be like cutting out your soul? Oh, man. Okay. Then we’re going to have to work extra hard with you.

The next thing you want to check is if you are using too many ‘extra’ words. What are extra words? Erm, those are extra words. Heh-heh-heh. No, seriously. The following is a list of extra words:

  • A
    • The dog ate a pie.
    • The dog ate pie.
  • An
    • It was an historic event!
    • The event was historic!
  • Others to remove: The, That, Which

You can remove these and other words without affecting your story. Again, doing this will make you a better writer in the end because it will force you to think of innovative ways of getting around it. The more you do it, the more you’ll do it while you’re writing, and your prose will usually come out much cleaner.

Condensing words is another effective way to reduce the word count. Sometimes you may have three or four words strung together in a needless description when a single word will do perfectly fine in its place. For example:

“Hi,” he said in a soft voice.

vs.

“Hi,” he whispered.

Another good way (and I’m terribly guilty of not following this advice) is to remove redundancies. There are times where we writers just get wordy. I don’t know if it’s because we just like the sound of our own inner (or outer voice), but we tend to add extra things to obvious actions. For example:

She knelt down and set the roses on the headstone.

She knelt and set the roses on the headstone.

The crimson blood poured down the wall.

The blood poured down the wall.

The fan blew air, which caused a stack of papers to fly off my desk.

The fan caused paper to fly off my desk.

Killing adjective and adverbs is another great way to slim down your fatty manuscript. While it’s true we really like those pretty entanglement of words, often times we don’t need them. For example:

He moved incredibly fast down the hallway!

He sprinted down the hallway.

She quickly turned around to see no one there.

She whipped around to see no one there.

Finally, I think one of the most effective ways is to use contractions! There’s no reason to split them apart unless your character or narrator can’t use them for some reason. Otherwise, it smoothens the sentence, and saves you all kinds of words. Most people read right over contraction, and a lot of the time, the reader will stumble on them if they aren’t because it feels so completely unnatural. Natural is what you’re going for (unless you’re not, of course)!

There you have it. Some simple ways to get your word count down. Are there other things you use to slim your prose? Let me and others know in the comments below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to holler at me!

On How to Survive @nycmidnight – Short Story Challenge Edition

Every year, hundreds of people come together to battle each other in a challenge of skill for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge (among other contests they host). The challenge isn’t easy (for some) because it forces fresh writers or writers who aren’t yet comfortable with the craft to write outside what they normally write.

If you’re not familiar with it, you can visit the official website, but I’ll give you a quick rundown for those that aren’t. Once you’ve paid your entrance fee (around $40-$55) and joined the contest, you wait until the challenge begins (usually January). When the first round (of three) begins, NYC breaks the writers up into several groups of about 30 per group, and gives each group a set of rules they must play by. Here’s an example from 2015:

Group 19:

  • Genre: Action / Adventure
  • Subject: An Invention
  • Character: A Flight Attendant

What this means is that each writer in group #19 (I was included in this group) must write a short story that adheres to these rules. The story must be action/adventure, the subject of the story must include an invention of some kind, and one of the characters in the story must be a flight attendant (or once was a flight attendant). It must be 2500 words or less, and stick to the formatting (or risk 10% penalty to your score, the other 90% is on style, how close you stuck to your subject, genre, etc).

The biggest complaint from writers I hear is that people are writing outside their “comfort zone” apparently. I don’t often agree with this terminology since what they really mean is they never wrote that subject before and don’t know how to do it (for some reason). In my opinion, all writers should be able to write all subjects. You don’t hear a long jumper complaining when he has to do triple or short jumps? Do you? Well, I don’t really know if you would… I didn’t when I was in Track & Field because jumping is jumping—you can do it, you just need to master the different style. Similarly, writers can write anything, they just need to master it. Remember, just because one hasn’t mastered a subject doesn’t mean they can’t write something that passes for that subject.

Your head is the biggest obstacle to completing a story.

If any of you are familiar with my books or stories, you know that I typically write horror or suspense. So, I could have said that getting Action/Adventure as my genre was “out of my comfort zone” as people like to say, but really, writing is well within my comfort zone and I set out to tackle it with that exact attitude.

Read my winning entry here.

My advice to anyone that joins this challenge is to think of all of it within your means as a writer, and tackle it as the long jumper will tackle triple jumping. It’s all the same thing. Go that way, and you can’t go wrong.

The next two rules aren’t a problem once you get passed that ugly three-headed genre. Now, all you have to do is think up a subject that involves an invention with a character who is a flight attendant. Even if you’ve only just started writing, you should still be able to come up with something. It’s all about imagination and making it work for you. If you don’t have an imagination, then you have no business writing creatively. That said, I’ll bet all of you reading this have an imagination, and therefore, you have the means to spend 2.5 minutes dreaming up a solid idea involving an invention and a flight attendant.

These are my ideas for my group:

  • Action/Adventure: Set in a pyramid, Indiana Jones style (What can I say? I’m nostalgic like that heh-heh-heh)
  • An Invention: The story centers around a stolen artifact that the ancient Egyptians invented called the Sun of Ra, which was a power source similar to a battery (which has a real world counterpart without the fancy name)
  • A Flight Attendant: My main character was a flight attendant, one that wanted to see the world, but like her father, couldn’t stay away from a more adventurous lifestyle.

That’s it! The rest is just filling the blanks up to a maximum of 2500 words, which is probably the hardest part for some writers. Sometime later, I’ll go over ways you can trim your story so you can come in under 2500 words and fit more of the necessary stuff into it to ensure you have everything fleshed out properly (like plot stuff).

Remember, the biggest thing that gets in the way of you completing your story is your head. If you’ll notice, I took elements of action and adventure and incorporated it into my typical style: horror. You can do that, too, as long as the judges feel like you hit the mark on your given genre.

What else can you do? Well, here are some DOs and DON’Ts:

DO use the forums and get some input from beta readers. Listen to them, and let them help you. Generally, you’ll find a nice group of people willing to give you honest feedback. You don’t have to listen, but it’s worth it to at least get a feeling of how your judges may receive your story.

DON’T spend all day worrying about what the judges tell you about your story. If for some reason you don’t pas one of the rounds (or even if you do) and you receive negative feedback that you don’t agree with, that’s okay. They’re judges. They aren’t Gods. Take what you want from them. Just remember, all feedback, whether good and agreeable or bad and disagreeable, it’s all going to lead you to becoming a better writer. In addition, learning to take good criticism turns you into a better person. You win more than you lose.

DO make sure you also help others as a beta reader. If you would like help, it isn’t necessary to beta read for other people, but it’s courtesy. It’s like that whole scratching someone’s back thing… (before the 20th century and they banned touching).

DON’T get angry if a beta reader doesn’t like your story. Like Stephen King said: you can’t please all readers all the time. You can’t even please some of the readers some of the time. You can however please at least a few readers once in a while. (Or something like that, don’t quote me.)

DO go easy on yourself. Relax. Enjoy the contest. Even if you don’t win, it doesn’t matter. If you use the beta readers and be a part of the community with an open mind, you’re guaranteed to come out a better writer. Maybe a fraction better… maybe you’ll come out a whole new person. Either way, you’ll come out all right.

DON’T cheat. Be original. The judges are readers, too. If you write a derivative story that so obviously stole from someone else’s work, you’re going to have a bad time with them. (Of course, there are exceptions, but generally, don’t do it.)

DO your research. If you’re going to write historical fiction, then learn about your subject. If you’re going to write horror, then by God take an hour to learn what makes a horror story so scary. It can only make you better. Just remember, stick to trusted sources. There’s tons of good information on the interwebs, but there’s also just as much shit out there. Be wary. :)

That’s all folks! Have fun, and feel free to head on over to my Facebook page or Twitter to yell at my face if you have other ways of doing it!