There’s Life After a Contest: Accept the Challenge and Write with Owl Canyon

10/24/2018

This spring, Owl Canyon Press held their first Hackathon: a writing challenge for short fiction of all genres. Owl Canyon provided the first and last paragraphs of a 50-paragraph story and issued a call for submissions. They received stories of all kinds, with a variety of tones, from emerging and established writers. From these submissions they selected three winning stories and twenty-three finalists, all of which were published in an anthology titled No Bars and a Dead Battery.

Now Owl Canyon is back for round two.

With a new opening paragraph and two choices for the 25th paragraph, the Hackathon #2 is a call for 50-paragraph stories that take the prompt and run with it, whatever genre suits the writer’s fancy.

The Hackathon #2 is open until December 1, 2018. Prizes include cash awards and publication in a short story anthology, as well as an invitation to read at Inkberry Books in Niwot, Colorado. Read on to see what Tom Strelich, judge of the first Hackathon, learned from the process of running a contest and what advice he’d offer to writers.

You’re a writer with experience submitting to contests. How has judging the Hackathon challenged or affirmed some of the assumptions you’ve had about submitting?

I’ve submitted to contests since I first started writing plays back in the late Pleistocene. There was no Submittable back then, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth—not even the internet. Submitting was very much a horse-drawn (or, at best, a steam-powered) process: write a cover letter, put it in a manila envelope with your manuscript, lick and stick a bunch of stamps, put it in the mailbox, and then… Wait, wait, and wait. The really hard part back then was finding out that there was even a contest at all—certainly not like now, when you can Google for contests, and fantastic outfits like Submittable let writers know there’s a contest out there waiting for them.

And judging (my first time ever) has confirmed my assumptions about contests, specifically:

  1. Everybody has an even chance and it doesn’t matter if you’re a noob writer or a grizzled veteran. I had no idea who the authors were or their backgrounds, and I didn’t much care really since it always comes down to the voice, the characters, and the story.
  2. There’s no downside to it for the writer. Win or lose, they’ve written, and each time a writer does that they get better at it. And in my case, with the original, informal, proto-hackathon (with no prize money by the way), I ended up spinning my short story into a novel that just won a Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Silver award for Science Fiction and a Readers’ Favorite Bronze Award for Literary Fiction, and is a National Indie Excellence Awards finalist for Contemporary Novel. So win or lose, there’s life after a contest, but the main thing is to accept the challenge and just write.

How are you thinking about things differently as a writer/submitter now that you know what it’s like on the other side of the submission process?

Actually my thinking is fairly consistent with what it was before I had the judging experience, in that a judge is just another reader, like any other reader, but with two key differences: they’ve got several hundred things to read (in my case short stories—sometimes mercifully short, and other times painfully not short enough) and they’ve generally got a deadline to get them all read. Regular readers usually don’t have either of those. Consequently, judges (if I may generalize for all judges) want one of two things: to fall in love with a story or to swipe left and reject it. In one case, the writer has given them a reason (love) to keep reading and the reader/judge can’t help themselves from reading on, and in the other case, it lets the reader/judge move on to the next story they have to read.

Part of the tribal knowledge I acquired as a playwright by participating in numerous casting calls with actors auditioning for parts in my plays was recognition of the accuracy of the “30-second rule,” which is this: at an audition, you’ll know (and it’s unmistakable) within the first 30 seconds of an audition if an actor is right for a part and worth a callback. When I judged the first Hackathon, I expanded the 30-second rule to the “6MR,” or the 6 Minute Rule. As I got close to the September deadline, with a lot of stories still to read, I allocated myself 6 minutes (or 10 stories per hour) to either fall in love with a short story (which I did many times), or swipe left (not as many times as you think, since a lot of the stories were great).

While this may sound harsh and mechanical, remember the two things cited above: judges are just regular readers, except that they have a lot of things to read and a deadline. And here’s what I learned from applying the 6MR: if the writer can’t capture the reader in the first six pages (it works out to about a minute per page), then they’re probably not going to capture the reader and make them fall in love. At best the reader/judge will skim ahead to see if anything captures them or otherwise gets them engaged again, and at worst the judge with just put “DNF” in the notes. (By the way, “notes” is a great feature in Submittable, and I used it for every short story I judged).

What should a writer know about structuring their story to best engage a judge who is reading many submissions?

Give the reader (or judge, in this case) a reason to keep reading. Hook them with your voice, or your characters, or your events, or your setting, or any combination of these, but you need to hook them and preferably in the first few pages if not in the first few paragraphs. Let the reader know that they’re in good hands. I can’t tell you how many times my Submittable notes say things like “page 7 and nothing has happened yet, DNF.”

And that’s kind of a trap for a writer—you’ve got a story in your head with rich characters and a great setting, so you spend the first five pages on exposition and character description (“Molly is a recent college grad with a pixie haircut and barbwire tattoo on her neck”… etc). Don’t do that. Don’t drop a great big pile of exposition on the reader first and then start the story. It’s a risky-at-best and clumsy-at-worst way to start a story, and it also depends on the reader remembering all the information that got dumped on them as they progress through the story. (And they might not remember any of it after reading ten short stories in a row at a single sitting.) Start the story first, and then give the reader only as much exposition or character development as they need to keep them turning the pages.

As a judge (or just an ordinary reader) I always looked for three things:

  1. VOICE, even though I’m not sure how to describe what that is, but I know it when I read it.
  2. CHARACTERS that are believable, individual, and not a type or a cliché.
  3. EVENTS that propel the story, impact the characters and force them to reveal themselves, and are at least believable/possible/plausible (however fantastical, mystical, dystopian your setting and story might be).

As a writer, how do you go about finding opportunities to submit?

Before the internet, all I had was the Writer’s Market and Dramatists Source Book, where you find a listing of contests, producers, publisher, agents, and retreats and such. Then you’d use snail mail or if you were really aggressive the phone to contact and enter (see the answer to the first question), and then set up a spreadsheet so you could keep track of who you’d submitted to, when, why, and status and such. Now you’ve not only got Google but also Submittable, which you can use to find contests and other publishing opportunities and also to keep all your submissions organized so you can track them without having to create and update a spreadsheet.

What’s special about the Hackathon is the way it encourages fiction writers working in all genres to participate. What’s the inspiration behind that?

I have a really eclectic iTunes playlist: dubstep, Norteño accordion, straight ahead jazz, bagpipes, classical, Gregorian chants, AME gospel organ, old Roy Rogers cowboy songs, even the soundtrack from the Wizard of Oz, and a bunch of other stuff that defies classification, and when I’ve got it on shuffle, it’s a really intoxicating mix of musical genres that are simultaneously gratifying and mystifying and, in a strange way, clarifying.

We wanted that same thing for the Hackathons—to open it up to all genres and put it on shuffle and see what happens. Because what’s cool about literary genres is what they all have in common: they always have characters, a setting, a story, and a tone. That’s what we were looking for in the Hackathon—stories that work regardless of genre.

This announcement was sponsored by Submittable partner Owl Canyon Press, one of the thousands of organizations using our software to host exciting opportunities. Interested in more creative calls? Sign up for our creative opportunities email.

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.