How to Win (at) the Fiction Marathon

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.

won fiction marathon

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.

Header Image by moritz320 from Pixabay

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13 thoughts on “How to Win (at) the Fiction Marathon

  1. Some fab tips here – I think that not getting flustered in the early rounds is so important – and to be honest I am just glad you got to write this “winners” post because it means my hat is still on the hatstand. Well it would be if I had one, it actually hangs off a light fitting in the bedroom!

    1. Thanks! I understand — I think — why Marie sets the first rounds that she does, but I still remember my (awful) metaphor from the first round of the first SM and how it felt to get honest feedback on it. It was a baptism of fire (or icy cold water, in that case). I’m glad I stuck with it though, and I’ll be happy if I persuade even one other writer not to quit at that point.

  2. WOW, Marsha, there are invaluable tips in this post! One of the main reasons I started these competitions is because I wanted the writers to win at them, to learn something about their own writing along the way. You have described so well exactly why the fiction marathon works. Thank you for that!
    ~ Marie xox

    1. Thank you! I tried to describe why I enter your competitions as much as why I won this one.

  3. Marsha – really- just dumb luck that you won? I don’t think so. Your writing is excellent, and your dialogue (both internal and external) is always on point. Thanks for joining in with the competition and for crafting this post which gives such great feedback and very valid tips.

    1. Thank you, but there’s always luck involved. Even if I do write an excellent story, so did four other people, and mine might not have been a story which appealed to jury or voters. I can’t say my story was objectively better than the others, but I can say that (luckily) people liked mine more.
      I could scroll up and check whether I already said this in the article, but I won’t because I’m lazy: I think we should write stories which we enjoy, and hope that other people enjoy them too. I write better when I’m writing a story I want to read than when I’m trying to write for other people.

  4. What a great post, thank you for sharing Marsha.

    BFM 2021 has been my only effort in a writing competition. (So far?) I like that you struggled with certain rounds too, your writing always reads effortlessly. As if you’ve conjured up magic on the page. So to read your difficulties in some way mirrored my own is great.

    1. Thank you! I know personally I find it too tempting to compare my work-in-progress to someone else’s end product and conclude that I’ll never be able to do what they did. Sometimes I’m right, but every time I polish a draft I learn a little more, and I understand how much polishing went into that end product.

  5. This is so wonderful. And it shows why you were such a deserving winner, Marsha!
    Elk x

  6. Really, really awesome advise. This should be required reading for anyone who enters the next marathon. I love your voice, the humor, and the application to your own writing as examples. I especially loved #5, the description of how this surprise story emerged from the wreckage. I, personally, love your writing. It has a certain flair…even if you feel your language is “plain.” And I agree, you are a master of story…pulling sentences together to create something that twists and turns and erupts. Prompts can be very hard. Especially those early, super short ones.

    1. Thank you! I think I find the short prompts tricky because I can’t put multiple twists into a single sentence, as the judge said to Chubby Checker.

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