Category: contests

What would you agree to for a writer’s residency?

Image of Denver Platform and Amtrak  Train

Denver Platform View, copyright Kathleen Crislip

There is a lot of chatter around the Amtrak Residency Program for writers. Free long-distance train ride with a sleeper car equipped with a bed, a desk and outlets. Countryside views unattainable from any other type of trip. Inspiration.

Writers flooded Amtrak with applications—8,500 in just the first week. Twitter is ablaze with the hashtag, #AmtrakResidency. This tells me that for many this opportunity is worth the cost. By cost, I don’t mean an application fee because there is none. The cost is giving up all rights to application materials, which includes a writing sample of up to 10 pages.

In legal-speak, the Official Terms of the program include provision 6, “Grant of Rights,” as quoted below.

In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties. . . . Applicant grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy the name, image, and/or likeness of Applicant and the names of any such persons identified in the Application for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing. For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information – e.g., name or e-mail address – of Applicant.)

Critics have come out against the program for this reason. Dan Zak calls it a sham in his Washington Post article. Mr. Zak points out the media coup this is for Amtrak, now getting crazy publicity for their long-distance trips, which are reportedly operating in the red by millions. Ben Cosman, writing for The Wire, shares parts of an email from Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s Social Media Director, written to The Wire, clarifying Amtrak’s intentions: Read more »

Smart, Sexy, and Fully Clothed: It’s a Crime (Drama) Spree

Crime Couples Banner 2

Not too long ago, I graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. That makes me an expert in two things: Cost-effective liquor and every crime drama that TV Guide has deemed “smart and sexy.” Don’t believe me? I thought you might be the Scully type. That’s why I emptied this bottle of Cruzan® and whipped up a little quiz for you.

Match each scenario with the show in which it would most likely appear. You can choose the same answer more than once, but…do you think that’s wise? Be the first to answer all six correctly in the comments section, and I’ll reward you with a token of my appreciation. Just a small something to express how nice it is to finally find a worthy adversary. Mua ha ha ha–

[Note: For the sake of page space, “Female Protagonist” will appear as “FP,” and “Male Protagonist” as “MP.”]


Question 1. The scene: The MP is a cocky rebel with boyish good looks and eyes haunted by memories of a traumatic loss. He smells of sandalwood, even under intense stress, and wears tailored suits whether he’s out jogging, pumping gas, or checking the mail. Read more »

The Uniqueness of a Character’s Voice

bad-day-for-pretty-240hVery early in my writing life, I shared a story with some local writers during an event at the library where I lived in California. My prose told of an adventure involving pirates, pick-pocketing urchins, and buxom wenches. The writers read my tale and after a long moment of silence, one of them politely stated that she had problems distinguishing between my characters.

I had worked hard to create a unique quirk for each of them. My hero often cursed and my heroine had a certain way of flipping her hair. When I asked for clarification, the writer said, in a crisp English accent, “They all have a bit of a potty mouth, you see, at times a little too much.” She pointed to a page where she’d circled each swear word. Two males and one female were speaking. None of them uttered a sentence that didn’t contain the word “fuck.” If I hadn’t included a dialogue tag here and there, it would have read as one long manic rant. It still kind of did.

I revised and proudly showed up for a second evening of sharing at the library. Now, only the hero’s sidekick dropped the f-bomb. The hero instead used “shit,” while the heroine preferred milder profanities such as “crap.” The writer’s facial twitches made me snatch the pages out of her hand. Before leaving, I checked out a few books on the craft of writing.

As writers, we know that it’s not only what our characters say that is important, but also how they say it. The challenge is to make sure that each character has a unique way of speaking, moving, and thinking—and then stay consistent through the story

I new favorite author I recently started reading is Sophie Littlefield. I love her books because she is a master of close third person point of view. My favorite books of hers are a series of crime novels rich with humor and quirky characters. Told entirely from the main character’s POV, her sarcastic witty voice colors the story in ways that make it impossible not to laugh out loud. Read more »

Making It through November

November is my least favorite month. Cold and grey with shorter and shorter days, it seems to hang on forever before we get to Thanksgiving. But here in Spokane, there is one more good thing about this month. The weekend before turkey day, The Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour comes to town. We’re extra lucky, because the festival screens for three days and so we usually get a chance to see all of the movies that made it on to the tour.

Yesterday, I went to the Bing Crosby Theater for opening night. It was my third time at the festival and every year there are more people than last year. This year is the first where all three nights were sold out.

Most of the movies have some sort of outdoor theme, but the focus of each film are vastly different and as diverse as the filmmakers who come from all over the world to participate and compete in the festival. Last night, I watched a kayaker almost getting killed in New Zealand, a 92 or maybe 96-year-old (he can’t remember) talk about his life as an outdoor guide in southern Colorado, wildlife biologists discussing the impact of wildlife highway over and under passes around Banff,  the most famous ultimate marathoner finishing five races on five continents, a small town in New Zealand lamenting the impact of global warming on outdoor curling,  two young English blokes climbing Century Crack—the hardest off width in the world—and thereby pissing off a bunch of American climbers, and several more great films.

Plus there was this:

Read more »

Wouldn’t It Be Cool If The Winner Of The Election Had To Eat The Loser?

I know this is a blog about arts and culture, but on the eve of our national election, it is hard not to talk about it. Before I begin (okay, very slightly after I’ve begun), I promise to eschew partisan ranting. Not only would that be a waste of all of our time (I’m not going to change anyone’s mind, and if at this point I am capable of changing your mind, there is probably something very wrong with you), but the internet is already jam packed full of angry people who so very badly want you to see things their way. I don’t want to be one of those people. I don’t want you to see things my way, it would only emphasize my cosmic insignificance, which is apparent enough when I think about voting.

Speaking of insignificance and voting, I voted for Jill Stein. She’s not going to win. She will be lucky to get half of 1% of the national vote. My vote, like yours, does not matter. Have you ever cast the deciding vote in a national election? A state election? A local election? Of course not. And you never will. Elections often feel pointless and tiring. Luckily in my state of Washington, this is officially acknowledged, so they make it as convenient as humanly possible by allowing people to vote by mail. I received my ballot in the mail about two weeks ago, and to prove the old saw that “nothing is ever as convenient as not doing anything at all,” I almost threw my ballot away. (Okay, that’s not an old saw, I just made that up). Why? Well, like I said, I’m not casting a deciding vote for anybody or anything on the ballot, and to vote with any sense of reverence for the process, I’d have to go to the trouble of reading the Voting Pamphlet the State of Washington conveniently sent to me in the mail at roughly the same time as my ballot. Who has time for that? Not me (but I did it anyway). After all the links I shared in the last two months on Facebook about the election, haven’t I already done my part? Read more »

Jorie Graham and the Covert Warning About Contests (But Can You Resist Them?)

Well, I’ve done it again.  I’ve entered another writing contest, which means my bank account is $20 lighter and that I’ll receive a subscription to a journal that I’ll read later and remark while turning the pages, “That’s it!  That’s the winning poem!”

Alas…  One of my M.F.A. colleagues (on staff at Willow Springs) says that if I review a batch of poems that have been submitted and I provide reasons for it not to be accepted (or pursued further by my fellow editors), that must mean that my own verse is better.

Well, I’m not sure that it “must,” but for the time being at least, I am struck with how we rationalize by non sequiturs ad infinitum (and how we lapse into latin).  Nothing follows nothing:  good, better, best…  And the grand prize goes to… Subjectivity!


Jorie Graham has loads of fascinating things to offer about the poetics we practice, the poems we write and the poems we judge (ie., compare and contrast with other poems).  In this regard, the Poetess-in-Charge at Harvard U. even has her own rule named after her own controversial evaluation of various works in the University of Georgia’s 1999 contest.   The rule essentially stipulates that a judge must recuse her or himself if the potentially award-winning poems are penned by the aforementioned judge’s students, or her future husband.

Read more »

More Thoughts on First Line Contests

Energized by my experience entering NPR’s 3 minute fiction contest a few weeks ago, I searched high and low (on the Internet) for another fiction contest.  I stumbled upon The First Line, a literary magazine which, as the name suggests, “contains short stories that stem from a common first line.”

The purpose of The First Line is to jump start the imagination–to help writers break through the block that is the blank page…. The First Line is an exercise in creativity for writers and a chance for readers to see how many different directions we can take when we start from the same place.

Sounded good.  The nearest deadline was May 1st.  The line: “Rachel’s first trip to England did not go as planned.”  Sounded like chick-lit women’s fiction to me, but I started to hear the voice of a sassy, sophomoric, caring, but immature girl named Rachel telling about her misadventures in England and got interested in seeing where it woud lead.  I started writing, and stealing borrowed my structure from DFW and Jennifer Egan, I used direct address and had Rachel speaking to her therapist.  The first draft was mostly about her brief time in England.  She got caught by Immigration for planning on working in England, got sent to a detention center over night, and then flown back to America.  She has a complicated relationship with her overbearing Jewish mother (Rachel does not identify as Jewish) and as the middle-child, resents her sisters, who have been achieving worldly success. Read more »

The Paranoid Side of American Poetry

The poetry world has a paranoid side. If you ask Anis Shivani or certain folks in the avant-garde crowd, American poetry is a shell game. It’s rigged. And in certain circles, it’s clear that there is an us, and there is a them.

For instance, after a recent controversy in poetry land, there was this comment:

The entire official world of poetry publishing is corrupt from the top down to the smallest little contest – and the NEA is a facilitator of that. It is a world of mutual back scratching MFA grads with middle names like “Lavender” who elevate the word “vanity” to heights never before seen. Geoffrey Gatza (yes, I published with BlazeVox and donate to them) is one of the handful of honest, innovative publishers who are trying to deal with the real issues facing real poets and their readers – hence the hatred heaped on him by the officials patrolling the boundaries of verse culture.

This made me think of something from Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals:

The notion of resentment is central to the book. In it, he makes a distinction between “slave morality” and “noble morality.” He writes:

…Slave morality from the start says “No” to what is “outside,” “other,” to “a not itself.” … In order to arise, slave morality always requires first an opposing world, a world outside itself.

Or as the philosophy department at Lander University puts it,

For Nietzsche, vanity is the hallmark of the meek and powerless…Vanity is a consequence of inferiority.

So when certain crowds get riled up, you see comments like this:

Two of the best considerations on this matter…were published last fall by…one of the central figures on the Buffalo poetry scene.

There’s a profound sense of self-importance—and yes, vanity—in that statement. It almost sounds like a perverse version of John Winthrop’s famous “city on a hill,” as if Buffalo were a beacon, preventing wayward poets from entering perdition.

Needless to say, the very notion of a “scene” speaks to a dichotomous, us. vs. them approach; “scenes” are defined entirely by them, by the Hegelian “Other” (which Nietzsche was damn familiar with).

And does Buffalo’s “scene” merit that much importance to begin with? While I admire a number of Buffalo poets and presses, I have to say that Buffalo’s crowning achievement is its hot sauce. (Frank, of Frank’s hot sauce fame, is surely what Hegel would call a world-historical individual.)

That’s the thing: I’m far less interested in a scene—I’m far more interested in good writing wherever I can find it. Needless to say, there are numerous great poets scattered across the country, and many of them aren’t any part of a “scene.” Case in point: One of my favorite poets works at car service on the West Coast.

Moreover, the folks in favor of a “scene” always seem to attack the opposition, as Nietzsche puts it, “in effigy.” In other words, it’s one big straw man argument. Even though that’s a logical fallacy, it doesn’t mean it’s not convincing; folks use fallacies for a reason: they work.

Read more »

Three Minute Fiction

Pivoting off Mr. Leunig’s not-so-recent-at-this-point post, I decided to try my hand at NPR’s three-minute fiction contest.  The stories have to be under 600 words, and this round, must begin with the line: “She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.”

Perhaps overly influenced by Mr. Ligon, I’m not a big fan of quick fiction.  They seem to rely to heavily on some cute turn or twist toward the end, and being so short, so much is often lacking when it comes to characters development and plot. But perhaps overly influenced by Mr. Leunig, I thought the contest would make for good practice.

As I pondered story possibilities, I couldn’t avoid thinking how little I liked the first sentence chosen by Luis Alberto Urrea, the judge of the contest. (She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door) Let’s free associate.  Wordy.  Melodramatic.  Lifetime movie.  I checked out the website and found an explanation:

“The key being, of course, that ‘finally,'” Urrea tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. “There can be an infinity in what’s going on with that ‘finally.'”

“I’m a book person, and honestly, I wanted the sense of life change that comes from a good reading experience,” he says. “I can’t wait to see where people go with it.”

Urrea says his editors at Little, Brown and Co. inspired his challenge. “My editor is often telling me, ‘You know what? Stop clearing your throat. Stop clearing your throat, don’t hesitate — get in the story,'” he says.

I see what his editors are getting at. That line is throat-clearing. Whatever comes next, that could be the heart of the story, or it could be more throat-clearing. Either way, I couldn’t help feeling any good story produced from that line would be better off without that first line.

As Mr. Frey can attest, good writing prompts are few and far between.  So I don’t mean to be too hard on Mr. Urrea, who has won many awards for writing, as if I had to come up with an opening line for a short story contest I’m not sure I could do any better.  My favorite writing prompts don’t use a starting line, but rather some kind of free-association, low-pressure, brainstorming with a group, which often leads to an idea for a narrative.

It turns out I’m not the only person who had qualms with this opening line.  Kani Martin’s story “Action Verbs,” is a meta-narrative of a writer attempting to improve the quality of that line. Read more »

How Do You Know?

This guy is probably on his way to the party


If you live in California and write poetry you should submit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s poetry contest.
What does an aquarium have to do with poetry? Everything. If you write about jellyfish.
The aquarium’s new jellyfish exhibit is opening and your jelly-inspired poems could be the ticket to a special party with the exhibit. I’m really hoping the jellies wear party hats.

I love jellyfish and have put them in more than one of my poems. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is where I first fell for these creatures.
But I recently had to analyze why I love them. I’d mentioned my affection for jellyfish to someone in an email and they wrote back, “Not possible.  Nooooobody likes jellyfish.”  And like the time someone told me James McAvoy was overrated, I felt defensive. I immediately wanted to tell them they were wrong, but then I had to ask myself: why do I like jellyfish? I had no idea. Read more »

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