December 14, 2012

A weird way to celebrate Christmas

Last week, I described the long trip "Mighty Fortress" took to publication, and I promised to explain how I came to write two drastically different Christmas stories.

"The Feast of Stevens" is a science fiction Christmas comedy about turkeys on a space station. "Mighty Fortress" is about the persecution of Jews in Austria in the 1930s. Yet both have a common origin.

Years ago, the editors at Orlando Business Journal developed a contest for the staff called "Twisted Christmas." The idea was to write a Christmas story that was, in some way, not what one usually sees in Christmas stories. The stories were distributed, without names on them, to anyone on staff who cared to participate in the judging.

I was overconfident, figuring I had studied fiction most of my life and the others were deeply steeped in boring old journalism. But year after year, I lost to my editorial colleagues, always to stories that were macabre or gory. So I mistakenly tried to write that way. I put way too much pressure on myself for a contest that had no prize at all other than an announcement at the company Christmas party.

An earlier version of "Mighty Fortress," called "Ein Feste Burg," came in second or third one year. I honestly don't remember which and can't find it written down anywhere. It's dark, being set in Nazi Austria, but still lost to something more macabre.

Realizing I would never produce my best work by writing to what I thought judges liked, and that I was never going to write horror, I decided to go totally the other direction and write a comedy. The year I wrote "The Feast of Stevens" was the year I finally, finally, won that stinkin' contest.

I got a little vindication when "Ein Feste Burg" won First Place at the 2007 Royal Palm Literary Awards in the Best Short Story Unpublished category. And more still when "The Feast of Stevens" was published by The Cynic Online Magazine and subsequently won an Honorable Mention in the 2010 Royal Palm Literary Awards in the “short story, published” category.

When Cynic took "The Feast of Stevens" offline, I published it on Smashwords. And this year, unable to find a home for my award-winning historical, I published "Mighty Fortress."

After "The Feast of Stevens," I wrote one other Twisted Christmas story that won by default because I was the only one who entered the contest that year. A hollow victory, indeed. We stopped holding the contest after that. I haven't written any short stories since. I prefer to concentrate on my novel-writing, and on writing what comes naturally and what I love rather than trying to meet the expectations of judges.

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