Against the Grain: How the Val Lewton Challenge turned Titles into Published Stories

Back in 2006, Justin Howe and I brainstormed a writing experiment. We’d read that legendary horror director Val Lewton made some of his best work under pretty interesting studio conditions. He was allowed to make any kind of horror movie he wanted, but the studio would get to pick the titles and the movies could never be more than seventy minutes.

Within these constraints, Lewton made a lot of his best work. So, we wondered if a similar thing could be done with short stories. What if we gave a bunch of writers a title and a word limit, but let them fill in the rest of the blanks? We asked alumni of the Odyssey Writing Workshop if they were keen, got a lot of interested parties, and then started making lists of titles and word limits. Since Justin and I wanted to participate, we decided to give each other a title/word limit.

Amazingly, a lot of these stories not only got finished, they even sold!

Erin Hoffman (my amazing wife and author of Sword of Fire and Sea, which you should all go buy) sold her cyberpunk fable “Darkest Amber” to Electric Velocipede, currently being featured on the newly launched EV website!

Justin sold a wicked flash piece, “City of Beautiful Nonsense“, to Abyss and Apex.

And, after a long slog to publication, I sold “4×40 Killers,” one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever written, to M-Brane SF! (sadly, I can’t find the story on the site’s archive).

There were others, too, but I can’t find the specs (and Mike Deluca, that nefarious scoundrel, wrote a story towards his original title, then changed the title, and sold the story to SHROUD! Rapscallion!). Needless to say, it was a very successful experiment.  Even cooler? None of these stories would have been created without this challenge, so thanks to Val Lewton for showing us that great stuff can happen when you work against a constraint. Or, to paraphrase Bad Religion, great stuff happens when you maintain against the grain. 


About ridlerville

Jason S. Ridler is a historian, writer, and improv actor. He is the author of A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, BLOOD AND SAWDUST, the Spar Battersea thrillers and has published over sixty stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. He also writes the column FXXK WRITING! for Flash Fiction Online. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Richmond, CA. Visit him on Facebook at
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1 Response to Against the Grain: How the Val Lewton Challenge turned Titles into Published Stories

  1. Pingback: Five Authors/Five Questions: Titles :: Shimmer

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