I won the first Blogable Fiction Marathon in 2021, but that was just dumb luck: the jury and voting public happened to like my story best out of the five in the final. I also won at the Fiction Marathon, and I don’t suppose I was the only entrant to do so.
Guest Post from Marsha Adams
Here are seven simple (and contradictory) things I’ve learned that might help you win at the Fiction Marathon in 2022.
1) Understand the rules. No, not those rules.
The Fiction Marathon has its rules — and it is helpful to know what they are — but I’m not talking about Blogable’s rules; I’m talking about the rules of winning at something. The winner of any contest is the person who best achieves the purpose of that contest, and the purpose of the Fiction Marathon is to become a better writer while having fun. So lots of people probably won at the Marathon last year; I’m just one of them. You might write a story that wins the whole competition, but you could also go out in the first elimination round and still win at the Fiction Marathon because you learned something along the way, or your writing improved, or you simply enjoyed exploring and experimenting with your own talent. The competition is most rewarding when you only compete against yourself.
2) Fail in the first round. Build on that success.
I came ninth in the first round last year, and I think that’s my best first round result in one of Marie’s writing competitions. She usually asks for a single sentence in round one: in previous competitions that’s been as simple — and as difficult — as “a metaphor” or “an alliterative sentence”. Last year we were asked to write a pick-up line. All my sentences have been more or less equally bad, whatever the requirements.
My problem is I’m a storyteller, not a writer. I don’t have an elegant vocabulary, and I don’t craft exquisite phrases; I stitch plain words into simple sentences, but I try to weave those sentences into scintillating stories. I’m never likely to write an impressive stand-alone sentence. Knowing that, I look at the first round as a necessary hurdle and try not to worry about my result.
So I wrote a pick-up line I wasn’t happy with, but I submitted it anyway. Choosing to submit, rather than to judge myself as inadequate, was my success. By submitting something I gave myself a foundation on which to build in later rounds.
3) Trust your instincts. No, not that instinct.
I did better in the second round because we got to write a (tiny) story, and I’d already guessed what kind of story we’d be asked to write. Another of Marie’s favourite tasks is asking writers to incorporate someone else’s entry from a previous round, so it was no surprise to be asked to write a story where a character uses a pick-up line from round one.
There’s an obvious impulse to choose a line which got a lot of votes in the previous round, to borrow from its success. I try to ignore that impulse, because a line which worked alone might not work so well in a story, and its style might not suit the sort of stories I write.
Every time we’ve had this kind of task I’ve read through the previous entries aloud and tried to judge— instinctively — if one of them is a fragment of a larger story that I can tell. For me, story ideas usually start with a character and a conflict, so having to chose a pick-up line was perfect: a well-written snippet of dialogue can be both an insight into the character of the speaker and the seed from which conflict develops.
The line I chose didn’t perform particularly well in the first round, but did suggest a character and a tale to me. Perhaps it was written by another storyteller; I’m grateful to them because my story got more votes than my sentence.
4) Know your strengths, and play to them.
I enjoy writing dialogue, especially for characters I like and understand, but I find descriptions difficult. I would write stories entirely in dialogue if I could (and I have). In round three we were asked for a story which was at least 50% dialogue and which featured an argument.
I came third, because the task played to my strengths.
5) Know your weaknesses. Play to them, too.
I came first in round four, because the task didn’t play to my strengths.
The only requirement was to include the word ‘massage’. That single word didn’t inspire a unique character, or an obvious conflict, or any interesting dialogue. It did make me think that a massage story would need a lot of descriptive writing.
I let the task marinate in my subconscious for a while. Marie usually advises doing that, and she’s probably right, although I have had success in previous competitions with stories I submitted an hour after she’d sent out the assignment email. In this case, I put the prompt in the back of my mind waiting for characters to step forward and tell me what their conflict was. What I got was two stereotypes bound together by a trope, so I sent them away hoping I could come up with a twist which would make them more interesting to read about.
But I did have the bones of a story, so I started putting fleshy words on it. I’d got about halfway up the skeleton—appropriately, about as far as the pubic bone—when I realised I was screwed, because I was already over the word limit for this task.
I finished the story anyway. It was more than twice as long as it should be, so I began trimming some of the fat (like those descriptions I’m not good at). In the end I had to trim a lot of fat, and then some muscle, and even a few of the smaller bones — who needs a radius and an ulna, anyway?
The result was abrupt, staccato writing, unlike what I would have written if I hadn’t needed to cut out so much description. The revised style of writing forced a change in the format of the story, and the new format changed the mood, and the new mood changed the characters, and those new characters became the source of the twist I was hoping to find.
I’d accidentally written something that went beyond my usual range, and that readers enjoyed, by trying to do something I wasn’t good at, failing, and then building something functional out of the wreckage. I could only do that because I learned to look at my own writing in new ways. If anything sums up my experience of Marie’s writing competitions, why they’re worth entering, and how to win at them, it’s this.
My story won the round, which made me feel like I could win the whole competition.
6) Remember, winning doesn’t matter. But don’t forget that it does.
Flushed with the success of a story I wrote accidentally, I strode confidently into round five. The assignment was the opposite of round four’s single-word minimalism: “There’s a magic talisman that allows its keeper to read minds. It falls into the hands of a young barista.”
Short, simple prompts like ‘massage’ can be tricky, because they open up a huge space for potential story ideas to hide in. But more specific requirements — like mind-reading baristas — can close down that space to the point where I can’t see the story wood for the prompt trees. Basically, I’m not happy with any prompts, ever, and I shouldn’t enter writing competitions. But I had entered this one, so I wrote a story.
I was confident about my story, because I’d won in the previous round. I was doubly confident because the first draft this time was also too long, and I’d had to amputate one of its limbs… and that sort of surgery worked for me in round four, right?
It didn’t work in round five. I came third.
That result was enough to get me through to the next round, but it was also a useful reminder that I’m not ‘only as good as my last story’; I’m only as good as my next story, which will only be as good as I choose to make it. I don’t need to win, but if I’m going to write a great story I do need to try to win.
I’d got complacent because I won a round, and the Fiction Marathon gave me a handy wake-up call going into the final.
7) You can ignore the requirements, as long as you follow them precisely.
The final round asked for a story of time travel. I nearly gave up before I started: I don’t write science fiction, and I didn’t think it was even possible to write a time travel story that wouldn’t tie itself in wibbly-wobbly science knots or trip itself up with contradictions and paradoxes.
But then I remembered the Outlander series, which is both an historical romance and a story of time travel. It’s not a ‘time travel story’: it relies on time travel as a plot device, but it isn’t about time travel. It’s about characters, and how one woman’s life is affected by travelling in time.
So I ignored the requirement to write a science fiction time travel story. Instead, I found a character who intrigued me, made her travel in time with no scientific explanation needed or offered, put conflicts in her path, and watched her grow and change as she overcame them. Along the way I happened to write what was actually asked for: a story of time travel.
That story won the Fiction Marathon.
More importantly, I won at the Fiction Marathon.