A Zombie Shuffling into View, or, How to Write a Winning Short Story in 50 Paragraphs


Owl Canyon Press wanted to try something different.

As a press for new voices in fiction and literature in translation, they had a backlist of traditional titles, but wanted to experiment with other ways to solicit creative work.

Around the same time, a group of writing friends challenged each other to write a story using the same opening and closing paragraph. Tom Strelich took the challenge and produced a short story. That story became the novel, Dog Logic, published by Owl Canyon Press in 2017.

From this idea–a first and last paragraph prompt–the 2018 Owl Canyon Press Short Story Hackathon was born.

The challenge? Write a 50 paragraph story using an opening and closing paragraph provided by the press. The prize: up to $1000 in cash, the chance to be included in a forthcoming Owl Canyon Press anthology, and an invitation to read at Inkberry Books in Niwot, CO.

For this year’s competition, submissions will be open through June 30. We recently spoke with Tom, the 2018 judge.

In a single sentence: why should people participate?

The Owl Canyon Press Short Story Hackathon is a win-win-win-win for a writer: 3 writers will win cash, 24 writers will get their short stories published, most writers will get feedback, and all writers will advance their craft and be better writers than they were before.

How did the informal writing challenge in 2016 that sparked the Hackathon come about?

Owl Canyon Press didn’t want to package recycled existing material, produce a kludgy mashup of short stories pulled out of various piano benches, or cook up a topic or theme since that’s been done. Instead they wanted to do something different by providing a first and last paragraph since that’s something a writer can actually work with, in contrast to a theme or a topic which generally either causes a writer to freeze up, or results in the writer hammering and otherwise contorting an existing short story (fresh from their piano bench) such that it conforms to the topic or theme. They wanted something more dynamic and fresh, that would get the writer’s creative juices flowing and get them to make something completely new from scratch.

Why 50 paragraphs?

As it was explained to me, the choice was mathematical. The publisher wanted writers to create new short stories based on an opening and closing paragraph, but they wanted to ensure that at least 95% of each resultant short story would be original material from the author. If a writer writes 48 paragraphs out of 50, with a minimum of 40 words each, they end up writing at least 96% of the final short story.  And that’s only if they write the minimum number of words per paragraph. Hackathon rocket science 101!

What do you see as the benefits of writing with constraints of this kind? Or prompts/constraints generally?

As a playwright coming from the theatre world, I’m kind of used to constraints (e.g., one set, small cast, 90 pages max, etc.), and believe constraints do good things for a writer. They motivate and ideally reward literary discipline and economy. They also define the landscape you’re writing in. A blank page can leave you… blank, since the entire creative universe, stretches out in every direction. An opening sentence that sets the tone or the mood or the setting and time of day? Now that’s giving the writer something to start with.

How were the first and last paragraph of the original challenge selected? Who wrote them?

Not exactly sure, but I think a friend of the publisher was a big Billy Wilder fan, and they were rhapsodizing about the dead money casket scene in Sunset Boulevardat a cocktail party. I believe it came from that (after a few more lemon drop martinis). You can find the first and last paragraph for this year’s contest on the submission page.

Owl Canyon Press Hackathon Short Story Contest

Why the rule about no dialogue in “quotes,” just narrative and action?

I think, at least for the initial Hackathon, the publisher felt that it was a creative constraint that would get the author to focus on narrative prose, something that is unique to written literature. I complained mightily about the limitation at first, but it actually worked out really well for me. I had to get out of my comfort zone—dialog is all a playwright has to work with really except for an occasional stage direction—and use some of the other arrows in my writer’s quiver.

What do you mean by all-genre in the guidelines? Isn’t this a fiction challenge?

Yes, it’s definitely a fiction challenge (I think a non-fiction short story would constitute a news article, though I suppose a fake-news short story would qualify as fiction). The publisher wanted the writing community to know the Hackathon was open to pretty much any fiction genre so that paragraph #2 could start with a UFO landing if it was SciFi, or a Unicorn trotting by if it was Fantasy, or a Zombie shuffling into view if it was Apocalyptic, or a shirtless marathon runner with washboard abs if it was a Romance.

What are you most looking forward to as a judge of this year’s Hackathon?

Just to see what kinds of worlds the writers create based on the opening paragraph: what kinds of characters emerge, what kinds of events overtake them, and how it all resolves with the closing paragraph.

Interested in submitting? Vist this year’s contest submission page to see the required paragraphs and guidelines. The deadline to submit is June 30, 2018. There is no fee to enter.
Note: The opinions expressed by interviewees of the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.

Tom Strelich is a playwright born into a family of professional wrestlers and raised in Bakersfield, California. His honors include a National Endowment for the Arts grant for playwrights, the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild Playwright Award, and commissions from South Coast Repertory and the Actors Theatre of Louisville. He has a screen credit for Out There (Showtime) and a novel, Dog Logic (Owl Canyon Press,2017).

Rachel Mindell

Rachel Mindell is a content creator and strategist for Submittable's Marketing and Product Teams. She also writes and teaches poetry. You can find Rachel's creative work here: rachelmindell.com