Four Tips for an Extraordinary Hackathon Story


Owl Canyon Press is back with their third Hackathon, a writing challenge that is a little different from your average short story contest. To participate, take Owl Canyon’s 1st and 20th paragraphs and craft the other 48 paragraphs for a 50-paragraph story. Read the full guidelines here.

Submittable got in touch with the winners of the Hackathon #2 for some advice and inspiration. Meet Rita Sommers-Flanagan, Virginia Brackett, and Donald Ryan:

Rita Sommers-Flanagan’s story “Random and Small Redemptions” won first place in the Owl Canyon Hackathon #2 last fall. Rita has published academic books and articles, poems, essays, a novel, and one short story that happened to win the Owl Canyon Hackathon! She is a clinical psychologist, gardener, jogger, parent, grandparent, and an activist, furious with the drift of the world right now. She is determined to make her words count and her actions as meaningful and positive as possible.

Virginia Brackett’s story “The Final Word” took second place last year. Virginia has published 15 books and dozens of articles and stories for children and adults, and her electronic books include Angela and the Gray Mare and Girl Murders. Her memoir focusing on her father’s death in the Korean Conflict and its effect on her family, In the Company of Patriots, will be published by Sunbury Press in September 2019.

Donald Ryan (who goes by Ryan) won third place with “Galop.” He’s a librarian in the GA Pines. He has had words appear in Cleaver, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Soft Cartel, Short Edition’s international story dispensers, and elsewhere. He is also working on an Emily Dickinson inspired experiment at

Here are their words of wisdom for future Hackathon challengers.


Let the prompt inspire you, but don’t let it decide everything.

Because Owl Canyon provides the 1st and 20th paragraphs of your 50-paragraph story, you’ll have to include and write around some provided images and details. But the past winners say this shouldn’t deter you from making your story totally your own. Rita says, “Do not let the prompts or paragraphs provided be your focal point. Push back on them. Write away from them and then come back. Swing wild and high, outside and low. Just don’t do what it seems like you are expected to do.

It may take some revision to connect your creation with the provided prompts. As Virginia notes, there are certain details in those paragraphs that you can’t alter. “Two months of concentrated attention were focused on this story,” Virginia says. “I did re-read the two paragraphs many times, in order to be certain that my details remained consistent with those in the paragraphs, which absolutely cannot be changed.”

About the first paragraph Owl Canyon provided, Rita says, “It centered the story—but it didn’t define the story. I tried consciously to not let the images override or dictate a story, but rather, I let my mind go where the images took me.”

Ryan let the image of a wall included in the first paragraph become a symbol in his story: “I made sure it made multiple appearances in the kid’s life. No matter the changes to it or the city around, its structure, the brick and mortar at the core, remained intact.”

To best engage the Hackathon challenge, borrow the structure and inspiration of the prompt, but let your imagination run with it to do the rest.


Start your draft early and keep an eye on the deadline.

You can read the 1st and 20th paragraphs for Hackathon #3 right here, and it might be a good idea to start your story today. Virginia says, “I began drafting the same week that I read the competition guidelines. I knew the challenge would be difficult, but completely engaging, so I wanted to be quite generous with the time I allowed myself.”

Ryan had a different experience of the deadline: “I was a little late to the party. By the time I came across these paragraphs the deadline was basically around the corner, so I thought [expletive] it: let’s sprint.

Whether you get started right away or push the story right up to the deadline, how do you know when you’re ready to submit? Virginia says, “I was ready when my characters had done everything they could do on the page for that moment in time—enough to interest readers and, hopefully, leave readers to imagine what would happen to them later in their lives off the page.”

In Ryan’s case, there was less flexibility around the submission timeline; he submitted when he did because he had no other choice. “The deadline was set and by that time the story was what it was,” he says. Whether you leave yourself time for reflection and revision or whether you participate in an all out sprint, be careful not to let that deadline, September 30, sneak up on you!


Absorb inspiration from beyond the page. 

Tom Strelich, judge of the first Hackathon, emphasizes that the Owl Canyon Hackathon takes some of its inspiration from genres other than literary fiction. The Hackathon invites writers to defy classification while putting characters in a particular setting with a unique tone to tell a story, regardless of genre.

Ryan’s writing process was inspired by music, and some of it lingered in his story. “Around this time I came across Charles Mingus, and man, I dug him quick. I liked the whole ordered chaos of his music,” he says. “But music had a way of taking over this story. Which worked for me outside the work. My research (because, confession: I’ve never even touched a cello) led me to all sorts of new songs and artists and fun facts. But ain’t that life? When random pieces start to sort of fit, you just gotta figure out the why or how logic along the way.


Go all in.

The Owl Canyon Hackathon invites ingenuity, creativity, and boundary-pushing. Virginia says it’s important to remember your craft basics, too. “Do not be afraid to change courses, something you can do given enough time,” she says. “Absolutely don’t forget the basics—comply with writing conventions. That compliance often sets a skillful story apart from a good story.

However you engage the prompt, you’ll come out of the Hackathon with a brand new 50-paragraph story, and there’s a chance that story could be a winner, selected for the anthology and public reading. For Ryan, that reading was the opportunity of a lifetime: “If you’re lucky, you’ll be offered the trip to Colorado. Take it. It’s breathtaking out there. And you’ll get to meet Mr. Gene Hayworth, one of the most generous and genuine lovers of literature to bless this world. So do me a solid when you shake his hand: tell him I said hi.”


Submit your story via Owl Canyon’s Submittable page. Happy writing!


This announcement was sponsored by Submittable partner Owl Canyon Press. Interested in more creative calls and opportunities? Sign up for the Submishmash Weekly Newsletter or our genre-specific creative opportunity emails.

Photo by Craig Sybert on Unsplash.

Anna Zumbahlen

Anna Zumbahlen lives in Missoula, where she works behind the scenes at Submittable, teaches poetry in the schools, and edits Carve, a quarterly literary magazine.