How (not?) to write a story in 24 hours
Getting through a 24-hour short story contest
In this week’s Story Cauldron, I ruminate on what it’s like to write a short story in a day for a contest—and then I share the story that I recently wrote under such constraints. I hope you enjoy it!
Who doesn’t like tight deadlines when writing fiction? I have a tendency to enter contests with ridiculous turnaround times. Like the time I entered the three-day novel writing contest (which you can read about in my previous post), I seem to gravitate towards the absurd.
This time around, it was the quarterly 24-hour short story contest sponsored by Writers’ Weekly.
For this contest, you get an email Saturday at noon CST with your prompt and maximum word length, and you have to come up with a story and submit it by noon Sunday.
For this contest, we had the following prompt, with a maximum word count of 900 words:
All the townsfolk said she'd not survive out here
alone. Yet, here she was, working the soil for the
second Spring. After a frigid winter, she could
finally dig her fingers into the warming Earth.
She patiently sifted clumps, making way for the
tiny roots her carrots would put down as they
sought ancient nutrients left there by their
One clump did not feel like dirt at all. Puzzled,
she grabbed hold of it, pulled, and...
There was a long list of instructions, but the main one that we all took to heart was the following:
“Your story must touch on this topic in some way to qualify.”
At noon I read the prompt. My first thought was “Huh, not really what I was expecting.” After all, it’s a weird prompt if you want to do something original—at least at first glance, it’s very prescriptive.
Still, I knew I’d come up with something unusual. As I ate lunch and watched a bit of TV, I let the prompt rumble around in my brain. Soon I had at least a half-dozen different story ideas. My favorite idea involved a guy who was treasure hunting in a river when a hand reached out from below and dragged him down. When he was pulled out of the river, barely alive, and went to the hospital, the doctor said something about welcoming him to the brethren, and suffocated him. Or something. All I knew was that it would be a horror story, something unusual for me. I didn’t spend a lot of time developing it, though, because one of my writer friends pointed out something waaaaay down in the email about themes to avoid:
3. Vampires, aliens and other scary creatures. We always see
LOTS of those.
Right, so the quasi-zombie concept was out.
I kept trying to come up with ideas all evening. Everything felt flat and uninspiring. (And to be honest, I knew my zombie story wasn’t all that brilliant either).
The hours ticked by. No story. And by dinner time, that was about all I was doing—not working on my novel, or my Substacks, or anything else. And yet nothing came to me.
Finally, it was after 1:00 am and I was stuck. I knew I had to finish before I went to bed because there was no way I would get up early enough to finish in the morning. So just started writing the best idea I had. Around 5:00 am or so I finally completed a story that was nothing like I had planned. I wasn’t sure if it was any good or not, but as we say, a finished story is always better than an unfinished one.
Recently I’ve become obsessed with treasure hunters on YouTube and Facebook. Magnet fishing, scuba diving treasure hunters, you name it. I managed to capitalize on my favorite time-waster and created an amalgam of all of the guys I watch on these videos (and oddly, other than the mudlarkers on the Thames, they are all men… why is that?). I created a composite character and put him out in a creek looking for old bottles.
And the rest, as they say, is history. You can read the final story below.
Turning Mud into Gold
“Hey guys, Jimmy from Mudfisher here. Winter’s over and the water’s running deep. Let’s see what we can find here in Calamity Creek.”
As his camera recorded every step, Jimmy climbed down the embankment alone. He sloshed through the water until he reached an area where branches got snagged on the rocks.
“Whoa, check it out, guys!” He pulled out something made of red plastic. “Awesome. First find of the day is this really cool fishing lure!” Commenters hassled him because his enthusiasm always exceeded the find, but Jimmy sought magic in the mundane. He held the grimy lure up to the camera. “It’s a wiggler. A keeper for sure!”
A few steps further, he exclaimed, “a bottle cap! Sweet! What’s it gonna be from?” He held the crimped end up to the camera. Then he flipped it over. “Dude, grape soda—my favorite!”
In his waders, Jimmy worked his way down the creek, taking a break on a boulder. “Isn’t it gorgeous out here today?” He panned the camera to the trees, the early wildflowers, and a small spring cascading over rocks into the creek.
“How’s it going, Jimbo?” Hovering over him was Derek from Mud into Gold. His channel had millions of subscribers, while Jimmy struggled to break 10K. Today Derek was wearing a sleek wetsuit, and as he stood there, he pulled off his goggles. “Getting an early start today?”
Jimmy squinted. “It’s great, super-duper.” He was always running into Derek but chalked it up to the fact that the YouTuber lived just a few blocks away. ‘How’s it going for you?”
“Eh, it’s slow.” Derek dropped his powerful magnet into the water and pulled up a tangle of wire. He glanced at it, made a face, and chucked it downstream. “Just two guns and an Apple Watch so far.”
“Whoa, dude, really? That’s amazing!” Jimmy reached into the pouch at his waist. “Check out all the bottlecaps I found,” he exclaimed. “Grape, orange, and all their beer brethren!”
“Wow,” Derek snickered. “Catch you later, Jimbo. Good luck with all them bottlecaps.”
Right where Derek had been standing, Jimmy spied an old Coca-Cola bottle filled with sediment. “Holy cow, you guys, how’d he miss this?” He dumped out the water. “If it’s old, it could be worth big bucks!”
Then he spied something sparkling in the sun. Carefully, he reached out and dug his fingers into the warm mud. “Whoa, what the heck?” He excavated a purple bottle and rinsed it in the river. “This is so cool, and look, it’s still sealed. I wonder what’s inside?”
After the day of digging in the mud, Jimmy was cold, wet, and sunburned. He was pulling off his waders when a middle-aged Black woman approached him at his truck.
“Whatcha been doing out there?” she asked.
“Just a little treasure hunting.” He opened up his backpack to show off a small trove of bottles.
She leaned over to look inside. “Are they worth anything?”
“Heck yeah, some are, if they’re intact. But most of them are broken. But I also found this.” He pulled out the small bottle. “Isn’t it amazing?”
The woman’s expression changed immediately. “Oh honey, you need to put that back. That’s a spell bottle.”
He held it up, and the sunlight cast lavender shadows on the sidewalk. “What’s that?”
“Trouble.” She wagged a finger at him. “You don’t want to be messing with that kind of luck.”
“Huh? It’s just an old bottle.”
She waved her hand dismissively as she headed back to the park. “You take that back, you hear me?”
Derek circled around his truck. He had pulled down his wetsuit hood, and his ruffled hair made him look like a movie star. “What’s up with her?”
“She said this was bad luck.” Jimmy held up the bottle.
Derek whistled as he unzipped his wetsuit. “Nice. Give you fifty bucks for it.”
“No way, dude. It’s not for sale.”
“Oh please,” Derek said, rolling his eyes. “What are you going to do with it?”
“Dunno, maybe take it to the next Treasure Traders.”
“They’ll laugh at you, Jimbo. Come on, give it here.”
“Sorry dude.” Jimmy opened up the passenger side of his truck and set the backpack on the floor. “Maybe next time.”
“How’d it go today?” Helen asked from halfway down the basement stairs.
Jimmy was washing out the bottles in the utility sink. “It was awesome! I found a ton of bottles.”
“I see that,” his wife said. “Hurry up and take a shower and we’ll get beer and pizza.”
“Oh heck yeah! You know I’m always down for some brewskis.”
He wiped the purple bottle dry and brought it upstairs, placing it in the front window where the sun would shine through the glass.
A week later Jimmy’s newest video went viral.
“Hey guys, Jimmy from Mudfisher here,” he began, just like always. “I have a big surprise for you. Check out what I caught this week!”
He played doorbell camera footage. In it, someone looked inside a house and then picked the door lock.
Then it shifted to inside footage of a hooded man grabbing the purple bottle.
“The best part is next.” He rolled more footage, this time showing the intruder’s hood falling away.
“And that’s how we turn mud into gold,” Jimmy laughed. “Thanks for the collab, Derek!”
Thanks as always for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this combo of writing process and final result. Let me know what you think in the comments below!