1. You are a writer, and now you find yourself on the other side of things: judging a fiction contest. What advice would you give to the authors submitting their manuscripts? Any pearls of wisdom, or philosophical approaches to contests you can share?
Contests are great. I got my publishing start by winning a contest–The Bakeless Prize for Fiction. I like the anonymity of contest submissions (maybe because I never liked to write cover letters and try to sell myself). Contests cost money, yes, but they’re worth it. And if you don’t win one year, submit again! The outcome really does depend on who’s reading. I must have entered the Bakeless two or three times with basically the same manuscript before the judge picked Crackpots as the winner. I also received some invaluable advice from a contest judge (Judith Kitchen) about why I didn’t win the AWP contest one year. She said that my story collection needed “more connective tissue.” I had no idea what she meant, and it took me years to “get it.” That’s when I turned my manuscript into a collection of linked stories/novel-in-stories. Judith Kitchen was absolutely right; it was too fragmented.
My friend Kathy Anderson entered many book contests over the year and was a runner-up many times. Her amazing story collection, Bull and Other Stories, just came out this month. It was the winner of the 2015 Autumn House Fiction Prize. She kept working on it, adding to it, making it better . . . and entering contests. It takes work and patience. But so does finding an agent or editor. Book prize contests let you jump ahead right to the publisher. You do pass GO. You do collect $200. The end result is worth the investment, and the entry fees make the prizes possible.
2. Who are a few of your favorite authors? What draws you to their work?
My very most favorite author is Alice Munro. I know that any time I begin one of her stories, I will be swept away. There is never a wrong word in an Alice Munro story. I’m also a fan of Raymond Carver, Jean Thompson, Alistair MacLeod, Kent Haruf, Ron Rash, Chekhov, so many others . . .
3. Authors submit story collections and novels to us. What do you think are the most important components in each? What often draws you into a collection? A novel?
What draws me into any novel or story–really, any writing–is the narrative voice, the language, the cadence, the imagery, the words on the page. It’s no so much what happens but how the author tells the story.
4. You’ll end up with three to five finalist manuscripts. They will all be fabulous. What will it come down to for you when you choose a winner?
It’s really tough to be a judge. One manuscript may excel in some aspect but fall short in another. I’ve found when judging writing contests that it’s often hard to even compare the finalists because they’re so different, all worthy. The winning manuscript has to be one where everything works together, where there’s balance and profluence, an interesting structure and good manipulation of time, a strong voice, characters that step right off the page, believable dialogue, a rich sense of place, nothing overwritten or coincidental, no authorial intrusions, no preaching, no bows!!! –a compelling story that stays with me long after I’ve read the last line–something worth writing about, something with feeling. A story I’ll never forget. And a little humor (as comic relief) never hurts!
5. First-place prize includes a book contract. How do you feel about being someone’s fairy godmother?
It’s a big responsibility. There will be sleepless nights, I’m sure. But I’m honored to be this year’s judge, and I’m looking forward to reading the final manuscripts. I’ll dust off my wand and wings.