Writing Contests

I'm going to take a break from books this week to talk about writing competitions. I mentioned recently that I judged a novel contest, which was more taxing than the poetry and essay contests I've judged because I had to include feedback for the authors.

Submitting work to contests makes up an essential part of a writer's marketing strategy. An author's bio should include at least a couple of awards, especially if the author has not yet published very much. Not quite as uncertain as playing the lottery, contests hold out the hope of a possible win with all the associated recognition. In a contest you can be sure that your work is at least read, something agents and editors cannot promise. However, the fees can mount up quickly and, depending on the contest, can match you up with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of competitors.

The trick, then, is to choose your contests carefully, perhaps starting with smaller, lesser-known ones where you have fewer rivals. Weigh carefully the size of the fees, which vary, against the possibility and prestige value of winning. Look for contests where the judging is blind, so reputation is not a factor. Enter free contests; what have you got to lose? And accept that the wins will probably be slow in coming while you are learning your craft and infrequent after that.

Contests represented a critical element in my strategy for selling my memoir, Innocent. With no credentials as a nonfiction writer, I needed to show that unbiased judges thought the work good. I submitted excerpts to a number of essay contests and almost immediately won first prize in a small, regional competition (notably, though, not the region where I lived). Lest my head get too large, I also received a blistering critique; I'd paid an extra fee for this, assuming I wouldn't win and hoping for constructive criticism. The reviewer, obviously not one of the judges, said it was a hopelessly bad piece, and I needed to take an Introduction to Creative Writing class. What a great lesson for me! The same piece was worthy of first prize and hopelessly bad! I went on to win more contests, though certainly not every one I entered, and eventually sold the book to Apprentice House.

I heard this week that I won first prize in a free poetry contest. Sponsored by the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks in association with the CityLit Project, it was organized in honor of Ruth Garbis (nee Rochkind), a previous winner of a similar contest, by her daughter. The theme of the contest was “Baltimore – My City – My Home.”

I wrote this poem a while ago. I'd moved back to Baltimore, supposedly for just a year or two, and had just accepted that for a number of reasons I would be staying for the foreseeable future in this city that seemed poised between ruin and recovery. I had also been laid off from my job as an English teacher in the city's middle schools and had started—with some trepidation—a training program to become an electronics technician. The program was expensive, and I was unsure if it would lead to a good career for me. Troubled by an uncertain future, I headed down Falls Road, near the Trolley Car Museum.


Driving on a deserted road
forgotten when the highway came through,
lined with factories dropping bricks into the river,
a river that rushes around debris:
rocks and branches and bricks and boards.
Beyond, the railway embankment rises:
dark stones walling up the earth.

This is my city, my hometown, my home.
A dull grey city morning but the sun—
just up, still hidden by houses and hill,
up ahead just before you round the corner—
the sun hits the embankment's stones
and gleams there: bright enough to hurt or wake you.

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Whispers Under Ground, by Ben Aaronovitch

Lanita recommended this mystery set in London, so it seemed an appropriate read while London's Olympic triumph was on my mind. Part of the fun is that the chapters are named for the location where the chapter's action takes place: Tufnell Park, Ladbroke Grove, Russell Square, etc. The book as a whole takes the reader on a grand tour of London, avoiding for the most part the obvious tourist sites but including, as one might guess from the title, the underground and even the sewers.

Peter is a London police constable of West African heritage, Sierra Leone to be precise. However, his race doesn't affect the story and is barely mentioned again. What does set him apart is his assignment: he splits his time between the station and a unit based in a building called the Folly. Led by D.I. Nightingale, the unit's purpose is to investigate crimes that involve the paranormal. Brought in whenever a crime has a whiff of something odd, they are barely tolerated by the regular police. Peter and Nightingale are at the moment the only two members of the unit, the third, Lesley, being on sick leave. She wears a mask “Because my face fell off”, she says, referring apparently to a previous book in the series.

Just after 3 a.m. Peter is called in to help with the investigation into a body found on platform three of the Baker Street Underground station. Yes, that Baker Street. The description of the station, indeed, descriptions of all the locations call up the scene with a few well-chosen details (though I may not be the best judge having been to most of them; my memory needs little jogging).

Baker Street opened in 1863 but most of it is retrofitted cream tile, wood paneling, and wrought iron from the 1920s, itself overgrown with layers of cables, junction boxes, speakers, and CCTV cameras.

In general, I shy away from stories involving the paranormal. However, 99.9% of the story is standard police procedural, and some of it quite funny (Aaronovitch has written some Doctor Who episodes), so I had no trouble whizzing through to the satisfying end while lazing in the hammock. What sets this book apart for me, though, is that it is the first book I've read on my Nook.

As an engineer I'm not afraid of new technology, but as a lover of books I've resisted moving to an ebook reader. I finally succumbed because I needed a way to proof digital versions of my own books. For quite a few years now, I've listened to books on tape/CD in the car and occasionally while walking. I learned early on that not all books were appropriate for listening. Thrillers made me drive too fast during the exciting bits, while dense fiction or nonfiction tended to lose me when I had to pay more attention to the road and couldn't easily flip back a few pages to catch up. On the other hand, some books that I would not have had the patience to read in my precious spare time were good enough for livening up my commute.

Reading this book on the Nook turned out to be fine. I missed the heft of a book in my hands and the physical page turning, but enjoyed being able to increase the size of the text and also holding the lightweight device up without getting tired. I love physical books too much to give them up—the smell of the paper, the sight of an old favorite on the shelf—but I can see the appeal of ebooks. Still, I want to continue to support bookstores, the brick and mortar kind where you can browse the shelves and chat with the staff. Nearly all of the books that make my Best of the Year lists I read because they were recommended by the staff at The Ivy Bookshop, my local indie. Long live The Ivy! There will be a place for ebooks in my reading future, especially when traveling, but for me they will never replace the real thing.

Reveries of the Solitary Walker, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This book was not at all what I expected. Enticed by the title, I thought I would find someone who, like me, has discovered no more creative an activity than a solitary walk. The repetitive physical motion and changing scenery never fail to help me find a solution to a thorny problem or work out an idea for the next scene or essay. Walking through woods is always delightful, but once I've burrowed down into whatever I'm trying to untangle, it doesn't matter where I am, and city sidewalks work just as well as shaded paths.

Instead, I found a man in the last few years of his life who feels beset and betrayed, who rails against the unjust attacks that have ruined his life. He claims to have made peace with his awful “destiny” by withdrawing from the world and determining, without any outside influence, his own opinions and positions on these issues, which he documented in his Dialogues. “It is only when I am alone that I am my own master, at all other times I am the plaything of all who surround me.” However, his continued complaints about the conspiracies against him give the lie to his claims of peace.

Although I've not actually read his work since university, I've always taken Rousseau as a kindred spirit and sometime guide. His ideas parlayed in The Social Contract make up the foundation of my understanding of what it means to be a citizen (something that seems to be lost in these greedy, me-first days). His central theme of “the tug-of-war between solitude and society” (per Peter France's Introduction) has been mine too, not necessarily in my writings but certainly in my life. I wanted to like this book. I wanted to greet a fellow traveller and walk with him for a bit.

Unfortunately I found him a bit of a bore, though I continued to read with an open mind because of what he had meant to me in the past. In this book, rather than defending himself as he did in the Dialogues, he wants to follow Montaigne's model and use each of the ten walks, which do not always include an actual walk, to examine some idea. I was rewarded for my patience with some interesting discussions and—best of all—an insight that has long eluded me.

For example, in the fourth walk, he looks at honesty. Having always thought of himself as an honest man, he pulls apart lies and falsehoods, looks at consequences and intent, and comes to a startling conclusion. In the seventh walk, he examines his new-found interest in botany, which is far removed from that of most people who only care about the medicinal qualities of plants, demonstrating an “attitude which always brings everything back to our material interest, causing us to seek in all things either profits or remedies”.

But it is in the sixth walk that I found insight into a problem which has long bothered me. People can be incredibly generous, sending money and toys to a child trapped in a mine or, moved by an internet video of a man helping his elderly arthritic dog swim, send special dog food, medicines, and even funds for expensive laser treatments. Yet these same people turn a cold shoulder to those less fortunate than themselves, demanding cutbacks in welfare, drug treatment, and other forms of assistance. They laugh and applaud at the idea of people dying for lack of health care. I put this contradiction down to a lack of imagination. It is easy to be moved by a sentimental story about one person, but harder to consider and sympathise with the various twists of fate, bad decisions, and illnesses that can result in a group of people needing temporary or, more rarely, permanent assistance.

However, Rousseau adds a more subtle shading. He recounts an anecdote about a young beggar that he saw on one of his regular walks to whom he enjoyed giving money. Over time, though, he found himself avoiding that walk because “these first acts of charity, which I had performed with an overflowing heart, gave rise to chains of continuing obligation which I had not foreseen and which it was now impossible to shake off . . . that first freely chosen act of charity was transformed into an indefinite right to anything else he might subsequently need . . . In this way my dearest pleasures were transmuted into burdensome obligations.” He also says later, “When I do not see the pleasure I cause, even if there is no doubt about it, I am robbed of half my enjoyment.”

These insights help me understand that the damage caused by the myth of the Welfare Queen, someone who spends her whole life profiting from the welfare system. In fact, nearly everyone is only briefly on welfare, even before Clinton's Welfare Reform Act. Rousseau's insights also help me understand the damage done by isolating the poor in ghettos and ignoring the everyday success stories of the vast majority who grasp the helping hand and move up and out. Of course, I am not speaking of long-term disability which is a different issue.

So I am glad I read this book. The other section I enjoyed was the fifth walk in which he describes a particularly happy time in his life, a few weeks on an island in the middle of the Lake of Bienne, and tries to discover exactly why he was so happy. He talks of how we spend our lives “either regretting something that is past or desiring something that is yet to come”. I will leave you with the next section, a justly famous one, that also captures what for me is the joy of a solitary walk:

But if there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed, with no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy, not with a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life, but with a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul.

The Rescuer's Path, by Paula Friedman

There are many paths to enlightenment, eight according to the Buddha, but surely a subset of the Path of Right Action is the Rescuer's Path. People who find themselves on this path, almost without choosing, feel compelled to help those in danger. Doing so requires a level of personal responsibility, a willingness to step forward and risk yourself rather than shrinking back into the protective cover of the crowd. Failure is always possible.

Sixteen-year-old Malca is still trying to figure out her place in the world when, riding in Rock Creek Park, exercising a horse from the stable where she works, she stumbles upon a badly wounded man, unconscious and sprawled in a stream. Even as she remembers her mother's warnings, she is off the horse and helping him, eventually, after he refuses to let her call the police or EMTs, pulling him out of the stream and dressing his bullet wounds with the first aid kit the stable requires her to carry. Though afraid of the man, and more so later when she learns the police are looking for a terrorist bomber who supposedly blew up an Army truck killing soldiers and a passerby—it is 1971 and anti-Vietnam War protests, violent and otherwise, are happening everywhere—she agrees to keep his secret and returns again and again with food, medicine, blankets, and clothes.

The front cover is unsettling, mixing as it does a photograph of a mountain lake surmounted by a rock wall and pines with a drawing, almost a cartoon, of a young man and woman, and the whole overlaid with wreaths of mist. Based on the cover (I never read the back cover description until after I've finished a book), my expectations for the story were all over the place. This state of mind turned out to be good preparation for this book which transcends genre. It's part love story and part coming-of-age story, historical fiction and philosophical examination. It could be classified as Young Adult or Adult fiction.

The first part of the book is told alternately from Malca's point of view and that of Gavin, a half-Syrian former activist who has been convicted of a previous nonviolent action. Since a stint in a mental institution he has been living rough in the park, trying to recapture the songs that once poured out and endlessly debating with himself the ethical implications of violent and nonviolent action, action intended to help others. He calls it the Count: is it right to kill one small girl to save hundreds of people? Is it right to kill two soldiers if it helps stop a war where thousands are being killed? Yet, as he is so aware, each person is a universe.

I remember these discussions from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Friedman captures the flavor of the time when so much was uncertain and the world seemed on the verge of change. She also brilliantly works the theme of nonviolence through her characters, their actions and relationships, without becoming polemical—a rare and difficult accomplishment. The characters, too, are deeply layered. Gavin's first-person narrative intrigued me, starting with near-incoherence through his recovery, his voice demonstrating what he is learning. One thing that drives Malca forward on her path in spite of her continuing fear is remembering that her mother and grandmother were saved from the Nazis by a friend who later for her generosity perished in the camps.

The second part of the book jumps forward thirty years and we learn how these events from the past have informed Malca's life, dipping back through the intervening decades. What changes and what doesn't change bring out the kind of questions that continue to fascinate me: how do we understand our past? What is the narrative we make of our lives? There are some events we keep circling back to, just as I did yesterday, on the anniversary of a terrible day, a day that changed everything about me and my life. Looking back, I think of the decisions, conscious and unconscious, that created my path. I, too, while working on the other seven, have concentrated on the Path of Right Action, not the Rescuer's Path but another variant. This book not only moved me but also made me think: a welcome combination.