Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Wordcraft – Stuff I learned while getting knocked silly

It’s official. I’m a WRiTE CLUB 2015 dropout, eliminated in my second bout at this year’s writing contest run by DL Hammons. Bruising as the combat has been and continues to be, ringside chatter about the one on one contests between writers shielded by anonymous pen names has been more instructive than most of the writing critique groups I’ve attended. Instruction I’m happy to share, now that my wounds have started to heal.

First, maybe you want to know what WRiTE CLUB is. It’s a contest Hammons started five years ago: 40 contestants (whittled down from a slush pile), each writer pitted randomly against another, until the 40 become 20, then 10, then, well, you get the picture. Maybe because it’s not the kind of thing my classier literary friends go in for, or maybe because I don’t always check my emails as frequently as I should, I escaped hearing about it until this spring, almost at the April 30 deadline for submissions. Maybe you, too, read about it for the first time in my April 28 post at this site, “Get a head start on summer writing contests.” (I mention this because, you know, some of those contests are still open. And because what you read here may help you there.)

Writers were allowed to anonymously submit up to three pieces, in any genre, of no more than 500 words each. No charge. I sent a couple of pieces in, from stuff I’d been working on already. Waited for the April 30 deadline to pass, and heard nothing. I haunted Hammons’ site, which was informative but didn’t even tell me whether I, or rather my anonymous alter ego, was still in the running, until. . . while skimming the stories as usual, I saw something that seemed familiar. Hey, I’d made it out of the slush pile of 170 entries to become one of the 40 contenders. And then, surprisingly, I won that first bout.

Another couple of weeks of nail biting followed while my opponent to be made her (or his) way through the first bout and we were paired for the first round of eliminations. At which point, after a week of voting, she (or he) pulled ahead by three votes. I’d voted for this person in the first round, before we were matched against each other. So in a way, I could be glad I’d shown such good taste while bewailing the rotten luck that pitted me against a writer with what has to be one of the all-time greatest main characters: a conjoined twin.

So what have I learned from all this, other than to check emails more promptly? And why tell it now, when you probably won’t remember all the way to next year’s WRiTE CLUB? Because 500 words is about two pages worth of writing, about as much as an agent would probably read before deciding whether to represent you. More than anyone picking up your book in a store, or skimming a sample online would read before making a decision to buy. So here goes:

First: don’t try to do too much. It’s only 500 words! There’s no room, in WRiTE CLUB or anywhere else for a story that relies on hopes of prior reader knowledge of anything.

Next: go for the now. Beautifully written back story is still back story. Readers who voted for any contender did so because the story touched them, at that moment, not a theoretical 1,000 words later.

And then: little things matter. Readers quibbled over some of my too-short sentences, as well as over my opponent’s too-long ones. Readers also disliked not knowing what’s going on,  not knowing who’s talking, not knowing what the setting is. Even the tiniest flaws in logic jumped out, and this was for pieces that had already made it out of the slush pile.

Finally, keep fighting, I mean, writing. WRiTE CLUB slush reader (and 2013 champion) Tex Thompson has noted that just being one of the 40 chosen out of more than four times that many submissions is an honor. It’s also an honor to those who tried but didn’t make the cut, because what you do takes guts.

Need more tips? Check out Tex's conversation with last year's winner, Dan KoboldtAnd remember that reading and voting for WRiTE CLUB 2015 continue through late July, when the champion is announced at this year’s DFW Writers Conference. May the best writer win!


  1. Hey, way to go! Way to do it! It takes so much courage to put yourself out there - and even more to turn a defeat into a future victory. Big congrats on making it into the ring and back out with enthusiasm intact - you are doing ALL of the right things!

    1. Thanks, Tex. Hope I didn't give away my pen name -- it may be used again some day!