What I Learned From Judging a Writing Contest

The night was dark. Remind me never to include the preceding sentence in a story.

As part of the summer reading program at the library where I work, I recently had the privilege of judging a flash fiction contest. When I say privilege, I mean it, absolutely. I admire anyone who works up the nerve to put her writing out there.  I experienced a little thrill of discovery from getting to see all of the entries. I read some great pieces. And I learned some lessons I hope to remember in my own writing.

My advice for contest entries, based on my limited judging experience:

First, stay away from the obvious. Since the summer reading theme centered around night-time, one of our contest rules stated that the word “night” must be used in the opening line. I saw the same thing over and over. “The night was dark.” Okay. “The night was dark.” Nights generally are. “It was a dark night.” Okay, I get it. When I read an opening line about a protagonist who never allowed a hint of night to show itself in her house, it caught my attention. The story immediately stood out from the preceding few.

Second, pay attention to the rules. As I mentioned above, we required the word “night” in the opening line. One writer didn’t include the word anywhere in the submission. It didn’t matter how good the story was, it didn’t qualify for the contest. It was flash fiction. We gave our writers 250 words to tell a story, and many of them fit an entire arc into this small framework. If you’re given a word limit, stick to it. The 1,000-word masterpiece of yours won’t fly in a 250-word limit flash fiction contest. No matter how good it is, it’s not so good that the judges will suspend the rules and declare it the winner. In my case, I wanted to devote my limited time to paying close attention to the writers who followed our guidelines. I didn’t even read the 1,000-word story, because I felt it would waste time I didn’t have.

Third, and closely related to following guidelines, pay attention to genre. We received one proselytizing religious essay. It would have been appropriate for an essay contest, but not a fiction one. We received two poems. I wasn’t averse to narrative verse,  but for me to consider it as a possible winner in a fiction contest, it needed the narrative part.

Fourth, proofread. Especially in short works, errors announce themselves. (I know I’ll see mistakes in the this blog post ten seconds after I click “publish.” As I said, I’m trying to learn here, too.) On my first read-through of the entries, I eliminated a couple of pieces I liked story-wise because they were full of typos and grammatical errors.

Fifth, don’t take it personally. I’ve heard this again and again, but it hit home when I was the one evaluating the work of others. I was collaborating with a co-worker on the judging, and as we discussed the merits of different pieces, we didn’t always agree. Both of us also stayed open to the ideas of the other, and I was able to see some of her points. We eventually settled on a winner we both felt deserved an award. But I can now verify that a different judge will see things differently. Just because you didn’t win one contest doesn’t mean you won’t do well in another. Heck, I was so happy to see how many people were making the effort to write and taking the risk of sharing their creative work, I wanted to give awards to everyone. But we only had a limited number to give out. Some good stories didn’t win, and I hope their authors keep trying. This leads to…

Sixth, “honorable mention” means something. It’s not a participation ribbon. I gained a whole new insight into how honorable mentions are awarded. After my co-judge and I agreed on the first-place winner, each one of us had grown attached to a story from the stack that we couldn’t stand to let go unmentioned, because they were so good. The contest was close and we agonized over a winner. So we each named one honorable mention.

To sum up, I’d have to say you can improve your odds in a writing contest considerably by paying attention to some basic principles. Out of a stack of a few dozen entries, I was able to narrow it down to ten or so finalists pretty quickly. Those ten finalists made sure they followed the guidelines, proofread their work, and included the elements of a story. These simple things put them ahead of most of the field.

Is There Blood?

Is there blood? No? Then why are you opening my office door?

Is something on fire? No? Then why are you opening my office door?

Does someone need CPR? No? Then why are you opening my office door?

Are the police here asking to question me? If they are, tell them I’m not home and let me get back to my writing.

I have had my home office for nearly three years now. It’s the place where I’m supposed to be able to retreat to focus on my writing. Yet, no matter how often I repeat it, my family can’t seem to understand the following statement: “If the door is closed, this means I’m writing and you shouldn’t interrupt me unless there’s an emergency.”

Their ideas of emergency and mine don’t overlap much. To me, an emergency means someone needs immediate first aid. Needing a band-aid doesn’t qualify. Needing driven to the hospital does. Fire – that’s an emergency. My husband informing me he bought the wrong brake light for our van? Not so much. My daughter wanting to know if we have any hot cocoa mix? Nope. Not. An. Emergency.

With the current state of my life, I’m managing to spend about two to three hours per week here, so it’s not as if I’m checking out for days at a time.

Here’s what’s an emergency. My imminent trip to the hardware store to buy a lock.


My November Word Count

6,207. I said it in my previous post, and I think I’ll have to adopt it as my motto: “No sneering, NaNoWriMo participants. I’m a busy woman.”

I know many of you cranked out 50,000 words this past month. Yay for you! I mean that; it’s not sarcastic. Or bitter. Really. No, really, I mean it. I’m impressed. Maybe some year it’ll be me.

Knowing I would have next to no time in November (day job at which I worked extra hours in early November, one homeschooling kid, one public schooled kid who has auditory processing difficulties and thus requires a fair amount of parental involvement to keep track of what’s going on, providing driving lessons to the older child who has a permit but no license yet, taking one of the kids to physical therapy appointments, taking the other kid to orthodontic appointments, assisting with the running of a writers’ conference, oh and a fabulous week-long vacation in Florida, which required planning and packing for and unpacking from) there was no way I could do NaNo. I regret nothing, especially not the vacation.

Still, I tried to absorb inspiration from all the dedication wafting around in my writerly circles. I decided to make an effort to write every day, even if I only had ten minutes, and keep track of my word count.  This went okay until vacation, when I dropped the ball (or quill or something) and didn’t pick it back up for ten days.

I have written a bit of a novel. I also counted blog posts, both personal and work-related. Add in a couple of other miscellaneous forays into the brain-ink continuum and my 20 total days of writing resulted in 6,207 words. One of those days, I managed five minutes for a word count of 76.

Thing is, though, I can keep this up year-round, and accomplish a respectable amount, all things considered. For now, I accept my lot as a plodding SoMisWriYe (Solitary Miscellaneous Writing Year) tortoise amongst the crowd of NaNo hares.

Eventually, I might join the race. Or I might not.

And to  think, I could have spent that time at a desk, subsisting on coffee and toast crusts, hunched over a computer, frantically typing until my fingers bled. Awww…too bad for me.

My First Novel: a Love Story

When I say love story, I’m not talking about the plot. I’m speaking of the relationship between me and my book.

I finished writing the first draft of my first novel a two years ago. A couple of people read and offered me their thoughts. I have done a couple of revisions. I’ve sent it out a few places and been rejected.

Now, I’m meeting with a novel-writing group and having my manuscript read by more people, who are giving quite helpful feedback. Hearing their comments, I’ve come to see the strengths and weaknesses I display should have been predictable. I’ve spent countless hours of my life immersed in poetry. In more recent years, I’ve produced a number of short stories. My strengths in my first novel, according to my first and second responders, are in dialogue, description and character development. I have many individual wonderful scenes with great dialogue. But it’s obvious this is the first time I’ve plotted something this size. I need to work on the story arc.

I’m trying to decide whether to do another rewrite and work on getting this volume published or whether to let it be and move on. I already have a start on my second novel. I’m about 5,000 words in at the moment. (No sneering at me, please, NaNoWriMo people. I’m a busy woman.)

The other night, while I was pondering my options regarding my firstborn book, I had a happy epiphany. I possess a very healthy emotional relationship with this novel. Whether I do any more revisions, whether I ever publish it or not, I’m so happy to have written it. It’s a story I needed to tell and I’ve told it, if only to a handful of my closest fellow-writers and my spouse. I’m not staking my entire self-concept as a writer on getting it published. I’ve gained some publication credits with several poems and a small handful of short stories. I’ve even been paid some of those times. I learned a lot in the first-novel process and my second book is benefitting already.

See, I don’t have a co-dependent thing going. But I do have a deep, true, abiding love. I’m able to see my novel’s flaws and still care for it – warty story arc and all.  I love my characters. I love my sense of accomplishment in having finished an entire book. I love how much I learned. No matter what I do with my writing in the future, no matter how many books I finish, I will never forget you, first novel. You will always have a special place in my heart.

The Anxiety Dreams of Writers

Right now I have 21 pieces of work – 4 stories and 17 poems – out for consideration. I know responses tend not to come in the summertime, so I’m bracing myself for rejections piling up like autumn leaves in two to three months.  Last night, I dreamed they all came at once. Every single submission was rejected on the same day, but it was all in one form. Sort of like the common application for colleges, I suppose, except there weren’t even multiple copies. It was one sheet listing everything I’d sent out everywhere and next to each entry was a red rubber stamp with the word “REJECTED” in all caps.

I woke up and mused on the fact that my unconscious has not yet adapted to the reality of most rejections happening by email now.



Joplin Tornado Relief: Writers Can Help

“The Joplin (MO) Writers’ Guild, in coordination with the Missouri Writers’ Guild, is seeking fiction, non-fiction and poetry to be included in an anthology, Storm Country, to be published near the end of the summer. All proceeds from book sales will go to the purchase of books for school libraries damaged or destroyed by the May 22nd tornado. Midwest writers are encouraged to submit their original work June 1st through July 15th.”

See http://www.missouriwritersguild.org/ for guidelines.

Dear Maeve Binchy

Dear Maeve Binchy,

Upon reading the first couple of chapters of Minding Frankie, I feel compelled to stage a a dialogue intervention.

Americans do not “take posts.” We “get jobs.”

Also we do not “fancy” anyone. We might “like” someone, or “like like” someone, or one of us might be “in love with” someone, or be “hot for” someone. But we don’t send emails talking about “fancying” another person.

You’re great at the relationship between characters stuff, but  perhaps you should get some help for your American dialect problem.

That’s all for now.

That one passage in a novel


    I felt the starched walls
of a pink cotton penitentiary
closing in on me.


Novels are long and have plots and story arcs and subplots and things. But sometimes one single sentence or passage from a novel will stick with me for years.

Sometimes it’s because the language is poetic. In To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout Finch’s aunt comes to stay, she tries to turn Scout into a little lady. Scout explains her situation thus: “I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me.” As a lifelong tomboy, this sentence speaks to me loud and clear.

Other times I’ll remember a passage that made me think about the universe in a new way. At one point in my life, my favorite book was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I’ll never forget the nanny, Old Golly, proclaiming “There are as many ways to live as there are people in the world.”

A few years later I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that remains on my favorites list to this day. It not only shook up my thinking on gender, but also on political boundaries, when one of the characters asks a not-so-simple question:
“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?”

Finally, I have to admit I’m a sucker for scenes where a character quotes Shakespeare and pulls it off. I like this especially when it comes from an Average Joe type character, such Barnaby Gaitlin in Patchwork Planet by Ann Tyler. Barnaby goes through a bit of character development during the course of the story. Without giving spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read the book, there’s a scene where he recalls one poem he learned in school that he understood, a Shakespearean sonnet. He turns to another character, saying “Haply I think on thee.” You’d never predict the words coming from his mouth early in the book, but it so works by the time he says it.

Yeah, novels are long and there are big things in them: plots, story arcs and so on. But attention to detail is still important. Paying attention to getting the right words in the right order at the right place. It matters.

Poem of the Day, April 5

So far, I’m meeting my goal of writing a poem a day. Okay, I haven’t put any words down yet today, but they’re percolating. I’ll have them written before bed.

Here’s yesterday’s poem.  It’ll likely be rewritten a few times.


Geography by Disaster

Fukushima, Chernobyl
Geography learned by disaster
I look at an atlas
When people die
When buildings collapse
When leaders shoot their citizens
In the streets
When the fallout might land here

In tonight’s news I’d like to hear
About a place where today
Tulips bloomed
Fish swam in clean water
Families hiked
Women and men went to jobs
While children learned math
And have this continuation
Of life be amazement enough
To capture my attention


National Poetry Month

I’m happy to see another National Poetry Month roll around. I have been neglecting my writing, and especially my poetry for a while now. We’ve had an unusual amount of snow this year, resulting in many days out of school for my kids and lots of time spent on stuff like shoveling and sledding. I can’t say I regret the sledding, even if it was in lieu of writing. Also, I’ve been working more hours on my day job.

But now: National Poetry Month. Having an officially named month gives me a kick to do something. Ignoring those who say April is for Script Frenzy, my goal is a poem a day. I managed it last year. So far, I’m on track for this year, having written an actual sonnet today.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes about poetry:  “I was reading the dictionary.  I thought it was a poem about everything.” – Steven Wright