In the Beginning . . . The Emerging Writer Contest

Well over a decade ago (let’s not discuss just how “well over”), I saw an advertisement for a writing contest, and pretty much on a whim, I entered it. That contest was the West Virginia Writers, Inc. Spring Competition, and I entered the Emerging Poets category with a poem that I wrote about my friend Diana “Hootie” Kirby, who’d recently passed from breast cancer. Hootie must have been whispering in the contest judge’s ear, because I won that year, receiving a nice-looking certificate, a blue ribbon, and a healthy check. More than those material things, however, the prize I cherish most from that contest was the boost to my self-esteem as a bourgeoning writer.

You can imagine my happiness now that I have been asked to judge the Emerging Prose Writer category in the 2015 West Virginia Writers, Inc. Spring Competition. It’s a surreal, full-circle sort of feeling to know that the packet of manuscripts I soon will receive will contain stories written by beginning writers—people at the same starting place and similar skill level at which I entered those many years ago. I will have the amazing privilege of encouraging a soon-to-be-author, just like so many encouraged me in my first creative years as a new writer. It will be a privilege to serve as contest judge, just as it was a privilege to win the prize that year.

Now, let me be clear: after winning, I did not receive calls from New York publishers who were dying to see my work, nor was I swamped with fans asking for my autograph. I wasn’t able to retire from my day job on my prize winnings, and in fact, it was a few more years before I won another contest and had my first story—in retrospect, a pretty bad one—published. Still, winning that first-place award set me on a path that has been nothing short of joyous. I went back to college to study English and literature. I earned an MFA in Creative Writing. I work as a ghostwriter and editor, and my work is now published in literary magazines I long thought of as inaccessible to and unattainable by me.

Yes, I have received plenty of rejections (I got another one just yesterday), and yes, I still work hard to improve at my craft. I humbly recognize that I have so much more to learn, and I look forward every day to acquiring new writing skills. But I will forever be grateful to West Virginia Writers, Inc. for holding their annual contest, and to the judge who blindly selected my poem as the winner. I can hardly wait to return the favor.

I encourage you to submit your stories and poems to the 2015 West Virginia Writers, Inc. Spring Competition. You don’t have to live in or hail from West Virginia to enter and win (see FAQ #37). All submissions are judged blindly (no identifying names or addresses on the work), so all work is reviewed fairly. Click here for more information and a contest form, and click here to check out the judges’ bios—including mine! Yay!

First Place Prize $250        Second Place Prize $125         Third Place Prize $75

I WISH YOU GOOD LUCK!

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Writers Reading

It’s a question writers often ask their friends: what are you reading? Often the answer will be a novel from the bestseller list; less often, classic literature or a short story collection; even less often (sadly), a book of poetry. When writers ask other writers the same question, common responses might be reversed, and answers likely include books on the craft of writing.

Writers aren’t snobs to bestselling genre fiction—some of us love nothing more than a lighthearted beach read or eerie horror story now and again. After all, it’s a writer who wrote that bestseller. Still, the books and novels you’ll find on an author’s bookshelf may differ from those on Great Aunt Martha’s shelf, or your cousin’s shelf, or even your best friend’s shelf.

Why is that?

Mostly it’s because, as writers, we understand the importance of reading the best stories, and by best, we don’t necessarily mean bestseller. We mean stories with characters we can’t forget, with plots that we’ll be thinking about a year from now, and with a narrative voice that rings in our ears forever. Writers also understand how crucial it is to study in perpetuity the craft of writing. We are students until the end of our days. While we’re always looking for the next, greatest writing book, we still return to ones we’ve read before, knowing we’ll learn something new—something we missed the first (or second) time around, when our writing skill was at a different level.

craft boooks

A large shelf in my office is filled with books on writing craft, and there are still more stacks of texts about writing in other areas of my home. Rarely does a week go by that I don’t read a chapter—or several—from one of these sources of inspiration, style, and skill.

Below are titles of a few texts I’ve found extremely helpful as a fiction writer and to which I often return. I hope you’ll share in the comments some of the books on craft that have helped you grow as a writer. Because, as you well relate, I’m always looking for the next great book on writing.

The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne

The Art and Craft of the Short Story by Rick DeMarinis

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter

From Where You Dream by Robert Olin Butler

Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern

On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing by Eudora Welty

Writing Fiction by Gotham Writer’s Workshop Faculty

Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway

Now share your favorites below!

 

Writing Time: How Much Do You Want It?

juggling books

You know those writers. Yes, those writers. The ones who teach five English courses each semester, post witty blogs three times a week, and Tweet at nine, noon, and five. They check their bank accounts daily, mail thank-you cards, and submit short stories and articles to the best mags each week. They prepare scrumptious family dinners each evening, and on the rare nights they order take-out, they have to look up the number. They’ve published two novels this year . . . and it’s only January.

The rest of us? Well, we struggle.

It’s sometimes difficult to carve out time to write. Fortunately, it’s not impossible. If it were impossible, the libraries would be empty, and Kindle would bite the dust. I believe that, first, we have to stop thinking about finding time to write, and begin making time to write. There is something, however minor, that you can cut from your daily to-do list and replace it with writing time. You can delegate dog-walking one afternoon a week to a relative or the kid next door. You can forgo Seinfeld or Friends reruns every evening to spend thirty minutes putting pen to paper. You can close your Facebook page, and open a Word document, instead. You can toss vegetables, chicken or beef, and a can of soup or broth in the CrockPot before work, so you can write for an hour, instead of preparing dinner tonight.

In other words, time is available. You have the same twenty-four hours as every other successful writer. And rare is the bestselling author who quit their day job, hired a nanny, a chauffeur, and a housekeeper in order to start a writing career. Sure, a few may relish those luxuries now, but they started at a humbler place, and chances are good that at least one started where you are right now.

Stop. Making. Excuses.

Even good excuses. If you want this, you will make it happen. You will make time to read great novels and study books on writing craft, even if that time comes while you’re sitting in the bank drive-thru or on the sidelines during little-league practice. You will make time to write. You won’t wait for an angel to sing, for the sky to open up and beam down a ray of sunshine onto your laptop. You will make time.

Now is good. Right now.

Write now.

Throwback Thursday

You may be thinking that it’s difficult to throw back on a brand new blog site, but there are ways to pass or rush around just about any obstacle. I’m going to tackle it today (another football metaphor—did you catch it?) by posting a list of throwback novels or story collections that had a direct and positive impact on my writing. I call them throwbacks, not only because I read them some time ago, but because each was published over ten years ago. I’m leaving out the classics—it goes without saying that most any writer or reader has been shaped in some way by Hawthorne, Austen, Poe, and Hemingway—focusing instead on works by contemporary authors, a few of whom you may not have read.

Some of these novels influenced my use of language or dialect, some taught me how to develop characters or add tension, some inspired me to prioritize study of the craft, while still others simply left me breathlessly wondering how on earth did they do that? All of these fulfilled the ultimate goal of any work of fiction; they entertained me.

If you’re a writer or an avid reader who loves a great story, I hope you’ll crack the spines of a few of these fabulous fictions. And while you’re browsing the list below, perhaps you’ll recall titles of a few works of fiction that inspired or influenced you in some way, as well. If so, please share them the comment section below, so we can add them to our “to read” lists in 2015.

Here’s to a great novel and a cup of hot tea to warm your spirit on this cold winter’s day!

 

Storming Heaven: A Novel, by Denise Giardina – I credit this novel (and author) for helping me realize it’s okay to tell my own story, my “Where I’m From”, in a voice and dialect that sound natural and authentic to my upbringing. (It’s okay to write y’all, y’all.)

Open Secrets: Stories, by Alice Munro – These intriguing, multi-layered stories hide as much as they reveal, and I love reading them again and again, each time uncovering some new truth, gaining a new perspective on the world in which I live and write.

A Drink Before the War, by Dennis LeHane – This first in a series of six private-eye novels taught me that genre fiction and literary fiction don’t have to be separate entities, as there’s some damn fine writing here. It’s the first time I’ve ever read straight through an entire series of novels, one after the other, in less than a week. Captivating and harrowing!

Burning Bright, by Ron Rash – It’s no secret among my bookish friends that I’m a huge fan of Ron Rash’s writing. It’s—wow—it’s just, WOW! (Okay, okay, I’m breathing normally again.) Though I’d read everything Rash had written up to that point, when I read this collection of amazing stories, something clicked in my head, and I began writing at a deeper, more intuitive level. I can honestly say that my MFA creative thesis would not have been the same without the heady influence of these stories.

Waiting, by Ha Jin – I’ll never again try on a pair of too-tight shoes without remembering the compelling characters in this story. With amazing narrative structure, the right touch of humor, fascinating cultural details, and poignant allegories, this is one love story you’ll never forget.

The Complete Stories, by Flannery O’Connor – Yes, yes, I know I said that I wasn’t talking about the classics, but O’Connor’s collection transcends description like classic and canonical—though it’s certainly that! Her stories are as relevant today as they were when she penned them half a century ago. I turn to them often, particularly when I need inspiration to write, when I’m struggling to make every word purposeful, or when I simply want to enjoy an entertaining read.

 

This list could potential go on for several more pages, as every novel I read perhaps holds some sort of lesson for me as a writer. These I’ve mentioned, however, are a few that gave me courage and confidence and motivation to pick up a pen and write.

Now it’s your turn. What works of fiction have influenced you?

Reading on a cold day

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