For the past several weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of participating — with complete anonymity — in a unique writing contest. It’s called WRiTE CLUB, and it’s hosted by D.L. Hammons. The concept is simple: entrants were asked to submit a 500-word piece of fiction under a pen name. I’d learned about the contest from my agency-sister Tex Thompson back in May, just a few days before the submission deadline.
I had little experience with flash fiction. Even when writing short stories, I struggled with encapsulating a complete SF/F concept in just a few thousand words. But I’m a sucker for contests, and I had the seed of a new idea: a heist story in a fantasy setting, told from the con man’s point of view.
Tex won WRiTE CLUB 2013, and went on to become a published author this year. Her western fantasy novel One Night in Sixes just came out from Solaris Books. The sequel, Medicine for the Dead, is due out in March 2015. She also got to help judge the final entries. See what winning WRiTE CLUB can do?
In her post promoting this year’s contest, Tex suggested that would-be entrants study the submissions that did well last year. I’m glad I followed her advice, because it yielded two important strategies:
1. First-person Point of View
Many voters seemed to connect more easily to first person POV. It’s not required, of course, but it lets you build the MC’s character because the story is told in his voice. Plus, I love writing in first person, so I need only the smallest of excuses.
2. Creative Pen Name
WRiTE CLUB requires that all entrants submit their work under a pen name. I noticed that there were some humorous and memorable pen names in 2013, the best of which somehow matched the tone/content of the submission. Tex, for example, wrote western-inspired fantasy under the name “Muleshoe.” I came up with a name that I hoped would hint at the fantasy setting and reflect my main character’s jaded, slightly-mocking personality: Lord Codpiece.
Even if the humor or personality didn’t come through, I figured it would at least be memorable.
My First Submission
Writing a 500-word piece in SF/F was a real challenge. I knew I wanted to drop right into the action. The idea for an opening came to me, and I ran with it:
I was ten steps from the ballroom door, my pockets stuffed with stolen jewelry, when I stepped on someone’s foot.
“Watch yourself, you oaf!” a man spat.
I tried to ignore it, but he grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. That shook something loose from the stash hidden in my jacket; it fell into my right boot. Felt like one of the sapphire earrings.
“I called you an oaf,” he said.
The word count limit forced me to keep world-building to a minimum, so I focused on dialogue, tension, and setting up a twist ending. I sent off my submission and settled in to wait.
WRiTE CLUB Qualifying
This was the fourth year for WRiTE CLUB, and it saw 167 entries. A record number, which is something the entrants never want to hear. A panel of 11 judges narrowed the list down to 32. They wouldn’t all be announced at the start; in previous years, most of those who didn’t make the cut never came back to read entries or vote. Instead, the chosen 32 were randomly paired off in two bouts per week starting in June.
I figured that waiting for weeks and weeks to see if I’d made the top 20% was going to be pure agony. Imagine my delight when I went online for the very first bout and saw that I was in it! I was thrilled to get in, but had no idea what to expect. Who had entered this contest? Who had made the cut? There was a lot of mystery.
The Long Wait
Writing and getting published takes incredible patience. Most of us know that intellectually, but knowing doesn’t make the wait any easier. Thus, when I managed to win the first bout, it was a double-edged sword: I knew I’d see the next round, but that was over TWO MONTHS away.
In the meantime, I got to see my competition as preliminary rounds progressed. Reading them proved both enjoyable and intimidating; there was some real talent out there. The random pairing made for interesting results, too. You’d have fantasy paired with contemporary, or adult sci-fi with middle grade adventure. Often a round came down to subjectivity (another thing writers hate hearing about) of those who were casting votes.
The playoff round was more serious, because every participant already had a win under his or her belt, and many were hard-fought. It looked like I might win my first playoff round, which meant I’d need to have a second 500-word piece ready for playoff round two. Voters had responded well to my first piece, so I knew I’d be using the same character. It was tempting to simply continue the scene in the ballroom, but I ultimately had another flash of inspiration I liked better: the MC trying to smuggle himself out of the city during a manhunt.
The opening line got in my head and sort of stuck there:
Say what you will about smugglers, but they have a flair for creativity. I pondered this as I crouched in a hidden compartment, somewhere beneath the bilge of a leaking ship.
This piece was harder for me because I wanted to keep playing to the strengths of my first piece (dialogue and pace) but also build the world a little. A voter had remarked that my piece didn’t even seem like fantasy.
Funny story, I had the piece mostly written when we went out of town for the weekend. Then I got an e-mail saying the submission was due THAT NIGHT or else I’d be disqualified. I had to finish writing it, check the word count, and submit with my smartphone. It was a close thing.
The voting was back-and-forth in playoff round two, with many readers grabbed by the other piece, a first-person POV contemporary. I did manage to win, which meant I’d go to the third round (the final six) with the same piece.
The Lord and the Baron
Every match in playoff round 3 was a nail-biter. My own bout was a clash of royalty: Lord Codpiece versus The Baron. We were well-matched, too. My fantasy smuggler story was pitted against the Baron’s creepy, compelling space opera told from the POV of a spaceship. For the first several days, the Baron had more votes. I didn’t expect to win.
The tide turned a little bit near the end of the voting, but I barely came out ahead. The margin couldn’t have been more of a vote or two.
Revision and Semi-final
For the semi-final bout, the four remaining participants had the chance to revise their second piece based on voter feedback. The voters had been kind enough to tell me about a couple things that weren’t working, so I did my best to fix those. The hardest part was knowing that I’d face one of my favorite other competitors in WRiTE CLUB: Swick (contemporary YA), Cocktail Lion (middle grade), or petrichor (urban fantasy).
By this time, voting had dwindled. It was a simple fact that most of the people voting had been (or still were) entrants to WRiTE CLUB. In fact, one of them (Dannie Morin) was a co-mentor with me in Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars. Without intending to, I stumbled upon the realization that she was Swick.
Petrichor’s piece was about a girl with a living/magical dragon tattoo. It had lost to Swick’s piece in a heated battle in the previous round, but won the wild card slot (for most votes without winning). It was also one of my favorite entries in the whole contest. We had a close semi-final match, but my revised piece was enough to send me to the final.
The Final Duel
There was no flash of inspiration for the new 500-word piece I had to write for the final bout. A lot more rode on this round, too, because 11 publishing professionals (literary agents, editors, established authors, etc.) would pick the winner. However, I felt like I’d raised a question with the first piece, with the MC getting caught in his own web of lies. I’d made a promise of sorts to the readers. So I picked up where the first piece left off:
I never fight a duel unless there’s profit involved, but the palace guards brooked no argument. They escorted me right to the torchlit green outside her majesty’s ballroom.
You wouldn’t believe how many times I rewrote that opening. It lacked the cache and excitement of the other two openings I’d written, a fact even mentioned by the judges. I left it, though, because it set the scene in the way that I needed. My favorite part of the piece was the climactic point of the duel. I remember exactly where I was, driving home from work, when the idea came to me.
We scuffled again, locked blades. He threw a shoulder into me.
I stumbled back, clutching my chest. “You got me!”
He stopped his advance. “What?”
“You’ve drawn my blood, sir.”
“I did not!”
I laughed out loud when I got that idea, and it set up the ending perfectly. There was a lot more I wanted to do with the scene, but when I saw I could capture an entire story (beginning, middle, end) in one 500-word piece, I went for it.
Write Club Finals
My piece went up alongside that of the other finalist, MG writer Cocktail Lion. By then, I’d figured out that he was AJ Vanderhorst. I knew he could write because he’d been chosen for Pitch Wars — as an alternate — by one of the coveted MG mentors (Brooks Benjamin). Fittingly, A.J. wrote a strong piece for the final round. I liked it, as did many of the voters.
The contest could have gone either way. A few of the judges gave me the edge, though, and I won my first writing contest ever. Huzzah!
Thank You To…
This was a fantastic experience, and I’m grateful to numerous people who helped make it possible:
- DL Hammons and Kim Hammons (his patient wife), for the hard work of running such a contest.
- Tex Thompson, for telling me about it and providing some key intel.
- The 167 brave souls who entered their work for the harsh light of public scrutiny
- The 11 entry-panel judges and 11 final match judges who gave up their time for this.
- My worthy opponents: Little Darlin, Sapphire Eyes, Twilight Sparkle, The Baron, Petrichor, and Cocktail Lion.
- Everyone who voted, tweeted, shared, or otherwise participated in #WriteClub2014.
I’m fairly certain I don’t get to compete in this contest again, but I hope many of you will come out for the next one!
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