23 November 2013

From A to Z

by John M. Floyd

A Is for AlibiB Is for BurglarC Is for Corpse, and so on. Sound familiar? Sue Grafton was onto a good thing from the beginning, with those titles. I think she's worked her way down to W Is for Wasted, although I can't imagine where the series will go after the next three books. ($ is for $uspect@ Is for @ the End of Your Rope?)

Gimmicks in naming novels have worked for other authors, too: Evanovich's numbers, Patterson's nursery rhymes, Michener's place names, Sandford's "prey" series, Ludlum's three-word titles, MacDonald's colors, Grimes's English pub names. Sounds pretty smart to me. When your titles become a kind of signature, a flag that alerts readers right away that you have a new offering, that can't be a bad thing.

It was an alphabet gimmick that enticed me, several years ago, to do something that I almost never do: enter a contest.

As I have said before, I'm not fond of contests for writers. For one thing, the odds are terrible. You have a far better chance of publishing a story in a respectable market than of winning first place in a major contest. Second, they often charge entry fees, and I don't like paying fees of any kind to anyone, ever, to consider my work. Third, they usually take a long time to respond. I don't like to tie up otherwise marketable stories for an extended period. Fourth, they always require manuscripts that haven't been previously published. That's understandable, but I'd rather send my original stories to the bigger magazines and anthologies since they usually prefer first rights.

A is for Against my better judgment . . .

The point is, I saw a call for entries to a contest while on my Internet surfboard a few years ago, a writing contest for--get this--26-word stories. Why only twenty-six words? Well, the idea was that each word in the story had to begin with a different letter of the alphabet, in order. The first word had to start with A, the second word with B, and so on. There was only one exception: X could be used to indicate "ex" if you wanted it to, as in Xception.

I was hooked. Whether I liked contests didn't matter much, anymore; this sounded like fun. This was of course not a contest for "real" stories--you can't write a real story in 26 words--but I thought it was good practice for writing real stories. A great exercise in how to do the kind of thing that authors, especially short-story authors, must do. They have to choose and use exactly the right words, for the simple reason that there's not enough room to use the wrong ones.

Alphabet Souperman

After some searching, I dug up the notes that I took while working on that project, and if you have some headache pills and antacid nearby, I invite you to sample the possible contest entries I came up with. Please be aware that I myself am aware that my following six "stories" are not only bad--they're even worse than the one I finally decided to send in, which wasn't all that great either. But here are the results of my alphabetized brainstorming:

A baboon cage, discovered empty. Facility gurus hired investigator JoNell Kendrix. "Lost monkeys," Nell observed. "Probable quick reasons: smuggling, theft, utter villainy. Who, Xactly? You, zookeeper!"

Alakazam Books Corporation. Dear Editor: Findings gathered here include Jack Kerouac's lost manuscript. Numerous other publishers queried. Respectfully submitting this unique volume, waiting Xpectantly. Yvonne Zimmerman.

All Balkan country doctors exhibit frequent generosity, high intelligence, jovial kindness, likable manner. Numerous other physicians quite regularly seem to undertake video work--Xample: Yuri Zhivago.

Alphabetically blessed children don't ever feel glum. However, insecure jaded kids like me (named Oliver Prattlebloom) quite rarely say things. Unless: "Very well, Xavier," "Yes, Zachary."

Argentine bomber commander DeKarlo Evito felt gratitude. Huddled in jail, Karlo (listed Murderer Number One)--pardoned--quickly renounced sabotage, terrorism, undue violence: "When Xecuted, you're Zero."

A British conservationist detected evidence featuring green horses, indigo jackasses, khaki-like mules, nags often painted quirky red shades--therefore, unbiased veterinarians will Xamine yellow zebras.

And the Oscar goes to . . .

Again, those were the stories that I decided not to send in. (Feeling a little nauseated? Don't say I didn't warn you.) The masterpiece that I finally submitted was appropriately mystery/suspense-themed--I called it "Mission Ambushable":

Assassin Bob Carter deftly eased forward, gun hidden in jacket, keeping low, making not one peep. Quietly Robert said, to unaware victim: "Welcome. Xpected You." ZAP.

That one actually won second place in the contest. I was awarded a thirty-dollar gift certificate to Amazon, which I happily used within ten seconds of receiving it, in case they decided to change their minds. (By the way, the story that won first place was just as goofy as mine. Seriously.)

What did we learn today, Johnny?

All this taught me three things. (1) Never say never, on the subject of contests or anything else, (2) tasks that challenge the old noggin's ability to play with words are never a complete waste of time, and (3) nothing in the writing world--no matter how improbable--is impossible. Who says you can't write a 26-word story?

Have any of you ever entered a contest like this one, or tried an exercise like this? If so, did you find it interesting? Enjoyable? Profitable? What are your views on writing contests in general?

I haven't changed my views, by the way--I still think it's better to send your fiction manuscripts to paying publications. I justified my participation in the alphabet contest because a 26-word story, no matter how quirky, is not a marketable story.

As easy as ABC

With regard to yesterday's anniversary of an American tragedy, I couldn't resist rewriting one of my above contest entries:

American Broadcasting Company, Department Executives: Footage gathered here includes John Kennedy's last moments. No other producers quickly responded, so this unedited video will Xcite you. Zapruder.

My final thought:

Alas, Boring Columns Do Eventually Finish.


  1. John, I'd be hard pressed to come up with one "story". I tried a couple of six word stories and if I recall you did too. The one that you wrote that I considered extremely clever was
    "Entering Bermuda Triangle. So far so..."

    I can't compete with that. Fun article.

  2. Thanks, Herschel--yes, I do remember that six-word story challenge. And yes, it is fun to try that kind of thing now and then.

    I'm well aware that not many of my writer friends share my dislike for contests. (Otherwise there wouldn't be so many contests.) But I honestly believe that our time and our submissions are better spent targeting magazines and anthologies.

  3. Thank you, Janice. This kind of exercise of course has little to do with writing well, or with real fiction writing--but I think all writers enjoy wordplay.

    By the way, I see you have yet another story coming up in the February AHMM--congratulations!

  4. Who says you can't detect a good writer in 26 words? I think your winner was appreciably better than the ones you didn't send. It told a real story. :) And the $30 you won is more than I've been paid for any one of my stories except for those in EQMM, my very first anthologized story (good old days!), and one reprint (don't know how they happened to have the money).

  5. Liz, you're too kind. As for payment, a short-story writer friend of mine said he tells people he makes in the "low double figures." When he's lucky . . .

  6. Good stuff, and your winner was definitely the best of your bunch. Back in the 1970s New York Magazine used to have a competition, which I have written about before, and one week it was to write a 26 word story about the city. As I recall many of them featured "John (King) LIndsay, Mayor..."

    A few years ago I attempted a 26 word essay. http://fifteeniguana.blogspot.com/2008/11/all-birds-can-dance.html I scribbled out several more beginning with the same four words but never posted them. Fortunately they are all forgotten now.

  7. Forgotten until now, maybe. I liked the essay! To me, the fun of writing something like that is trying to make sure you have exactly the right words in the right places. One advantage is that all of a sudden it makes writing longer pieces seem really easy.

    I have a book somewhere called 55 Fiction, made up entirely of 55-word stories. An interesting read.

  8. I've written "TwitterFic"--stories told in 140 characters or less--but none have ever seen the light of day.

    On the other hand, I once submitted a six-word "essay," where the call for submissions asked contributors to summarize their lives in exactly six words.


    Wrote lots. Sold lots. Earned little.

  9. Michael, good to hear from you. I'm not at all surprised to hear that you've taken part in challenges like these.

    I love your six-worder. It sums up my writing life as well.

  10. About 10 years ago I wrote a murder mystery where the first sentence started with A, the second with B, etc., through Z. The thing was actually published, although in one of the "for the love" ezines. Still, it was fun.

    I love those six-word stories. My best one was, "Am I boring you? Well, anyway -- "

  11. Love the last one!
    And let's not forget Robert Benchley's summation of a writer's life: "Paid per piece, per word, perhaps..."

  12. Liz, I hadn't heard of that particular take on the A to Z writing. I bet that WAS fun. Probably required some intense planning, on those sentences that began with X, Z, etc.

    Thanks, Eve. I had not heard Benchley's quote before. For me, that would've probably been a 9-worder, ending with ". . . perhaps not at all."

    Remember our recent discussion of novels that were written without using the letter "e," etc.? Those kinds of challenges are always interesting, but boy would they be hard to do well.

  13. John, very clever 26-word contest stories, especially with coming up with some of the names and references that just happened to fit in those particular slots.

    Haven't entered writing contests since my early writing years, and then it was usually a local club contest with low entry fees, nothing over ten dollars per entry to cover prizes and raise funds for the treasury.

  14. R.T., I can understand contests that serve as fundraisers for local clubs--I would almost consider that entry fee a donation to the cause. My problem (and this is my personal view) is with large or national contests. I just prefer to submit my stories to an editor at a market (usually print, sometimes online) rather than to a judge for a contest. And again, most of my local writer friends do not agree with me on this. Like you, I entered some contests years ago, and enjoyed them.

  15. Another clever series of titles was Harry Kemelman's books, starting with FRIDAY THE RABBI WENT HUNGRY. When he got passed THURSDAY he went on to ONE FINE DAY, SOMEDAY, and eventually THE DAY THE RABBI LEFT TOWN.

    There is at least one more important mystery writer, besides Grafton, whose novel titles appeared in alphabetical order, thought not covering every letter. (You have to ignore the word THE if it is the first word, just as libraries do.)

  16. Good point, Rob. I'd forgotten about the Rabbi novels.

    What's the name of the other author you mentioned, whose titles were in alphabetical order?

  17. John: Heh, heh. Wouldn't you like to know. But it is one of the biggies.

  18. Now you've done it. I'll be thinking about this all night.

  19. John:

    A brutal challenge, demanding erudite fantasizing. Good humor is justly key, letting many negligibly off point quips remain. Still, twaddle unfolds vigorously when Xeroxing your zeitgeist. :)

  20. Hey Craig --

    Well done!! I bet this DID require erudite fantasizing. Glad you didn't submit this to the contest, because it would've beaten my entry and unfolded my twaddle.

    Admit it, coming up with that was fun, wasn't it??

    Take care, old friend, and keep in touch!


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