2013 Writers’ Institute Contest Winners

First of all, I’d like to send out a huge “THANK YOU!” to all of our participants, staff, and instructors.  This was by the far the most fun I’ve had at Writers’ Institute and I hope that many of you feel the same way!  It was our first year in a new location and we also had our largest-ever amount of participants – by about 80 people!  I know there were a few bumps along the way, but you all hung in there with us and we were so grateful for your flexibility and enthusiasm!

Now – on to the fun stuff!

We always have a Page-or-Poem contest leading up to the conference and we were blown away by many of the entries.  You guys are good!  Several of you asked if we’d publish the judges’ comments and we aim to please.  Enjoy – and hope to see you next year at Writers’ Institute!

WI Contest 2013:  Mainstream Literary Fiction

Why did the judges choose the ones they did?

What tips can you take away by studying their pages?

An Acrobat for the Traveling Circus, by Joan Elliott Gray (Madison)

This begins with intrigue and a character in trouble, and great honesty and vigor. Those things compel us to read on to find out what happens. In addition, we have a sense of time and place, and nostalgia (which can bring emotional hooks). Finally, the character tells a very funny lie. Not only do we know she’s in trouble now, but we laugh. Humor sells. And this humor feels genuine. Brava, brava to this writer. She’s solidly in control of this material.

Page starting with “It’s so easy to visit someone in jail,” by Marta Walz (Geneva, IL)

The intrigue is immediate—jail. What’s more, the narrator makes a provocative statement:  It’s so easy to visit someone in jail. We had to read on. This writer also sets up good rhythms in her writing with the 1-2-3 beat of her second sentence and the dialogue that follows. Notice, too, how she “backloads” that first paragraph by ending on strong words:  “It’s just jail.” We readers are definitely being led by a writer in control of important attitude, plot, and theme. We feel that something important is going to be said about jails, prisons, and a sibling or two in them.

“A Rotten Farewell “ and “A Dark Sunset,” a tie from Greg Renz (Lake Mills, WI)

This is a writer who got “inside” his character’s heads and hearts. We feel we’re that woman on her Harley going to the funeral for her friend. The action, the dialogue, the ceremony for a fallen comrade feel real. What’s more, we have a great sense of place. In the other page (Dark Sunset), the dialogue is so incredibly real that we were sucked in; this author had us by the throat, as we say, and wouldn’t let go. There’s urgency here as well as tension. And the situation resonates with a very broad audience of readers who have dealt with the sad and impossible tasks of helping aging parents. There’s emotion here on the page.

Honorable Mentions:

Suzanne Alexander (Madison), Barbara Green (Lisle, IL), Janel Anderson (Lodi, WI)

These entries did a great job with certain elements. “The man on the stool” page gave us a great surprise that hooked us. “The Musician” put us solidly into Aaron’s life in Dalhart, Texas, and the level of detail drew us into the mystery of this boy. And the phrase, “1970 when Elvira started getting the phone calls from the man who killed her daughter,” speaks for itself—it’s one heck of a hook.

WI Contest 2013:  Genre Fiction

Why did the judges choose the ones they did?

What tips can you take away by studying their pages?

Page starting with “Wind soughing through the live oaks,” by Shannon Anderson (Waupaca, WI)

This page has the “complete package” of the Who, What, Where, When, Why & How that start solid books in their genre. Faith Gentry is also an interesting woman because she’s out shooting squirrels (for food, we assume, and so we wonder about her circumstances). This character also has “self-awareness—something talked about as essential to good characters in today’s bestselling fiction by literary agent Don Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel. And the action/plot moves swiftly along without losing us. There’s also mystery swirling on page one.

Page starting with “Matt Lanier stopped on the middle,” by Chris Norbury (Owatonna, MN)

Chris also put us inside a character really well, plus gave us a sense of place. In addition, we have extreme danger here, a life-or-death situation. It’s compelling. This author also uses many strong words that sound natural and not contrived:  “Icy inhale seared his throat,” “Frozen microdiamonds,” “ironic gallows laugh.” In addition, note the specific details galore in this; specific details used well always sell.

Page starting with “He had never felt more alive,” by Ryan Campbell (Madison)

Here’s a guy faking his death by sending a car over a cliff and into the water below. Hey, we have to read on! This is a hook. What kind of character does such a thing? We want to know! The action and detail are just right; this moves along with a good pace and no wasted words.

Honorable Mentions:

Page starting with “Heat radiating” by Matthew Ellis Wilson (Milwaukee), and page called “Midnight at the Diner” from Never Kid a Clown by Harry Urschel (Hager City, WI)

These two entries are solidly written “page turners.” There’s danger in the motel room of the one, and humorous mystery in the diner. Both have good details. There are no wasted words; the authors keep things moving forward without the interruption of backstory or too much thinking. Each character is nicely self-ware of their purpose and goal, too. They each know that “something is up” and they have to find out what’s going on. We readers are intrigued, too. We’re turning to the next page.

WI Contest 2013:  Nonfiction Books or Articles

Why did the judges choose the ones they did?

What tips can you take away by studying their pages?

Dance While the Fire Burns: A Life on the Move, book by Deborah Ann Lucas (Leaf River, IL)

This page gives us a masterful view of a woman in the middle of putting out several “fires” in her life. Her brother is dying; she’s called home; she’s weary of traveling across the country with her animals; she wants peace in her life. The goal for this book is clear:  finding peace. This topic easily resonates with readers. Family duties always seem to call on us at the worst moments when we’re tired. But what do you do? We wanted to turn the page to see what this woman would do and what wisdom she might share from her experiences. This page is also well-written with excellent sentences, punctuation, pacing, and details of the setting.

Prologue, beginning with “This is a memoir,” by Larry Scheckel (Tomah, WI)

The bold honesty of this memoir captured our emotions. We appreciated how fast Larry honed in on what’s important for this memoir:  the farm. He leads us quickly into specific detail about the land and the house—almost personifying the house as he leads us through its attributes as if they’re limbs and arteries. Because of the reverent “voice” on the page and the level of detail, we could feel the importance of this place and we wanted to know more. He got us to “turn the page.”

“How to Love San Francisco: Travel Stories” by Johanna Schlereth (San Francisco)

This article or book sets up a fresh, somewhat frisky and unusual “take” on San Francisco. The author teases us with questions that ask us to look at our stereotypes. And she presents an answer about San Francisco not being what we think it is. It’s an “island nation,” not just a city. We liked this fresh voice, which is very hard to attain with travel articles about popular cities that have been written about so many times before. We wanted to turn the page to see what other nuggets the author brought forth.

Honorable Mention:

“Cheetah Wind Skating Queen Learns a Lesson,” by Anita Borgo (Crystal Lake, IL)

This is flat-out fun. Here’s a girl in her basement playing alone with her skates who does something slightly stupid (as we all did as kids) and she barely escapes serious injury. We also like the feeling that the girl knows she wants to fly on her skates as fast as a cheetah; the mere word “cheetah” is fun and caught our attention. The page is filled with action and we’re plunged “in scene” immediately—nicely done, Anita! We wanted to read on to find out what other trouble Cheetah Queen could get into.

WI Contest 2013: Poetry

Why did the judges choose the ones they did?

What tips can you take away by studying their pages?

Lessons Learned in the Garden, by Rose Bingham (Wisconsin Dells)

This poem is simple and clean. It begins “I am a breast cancer survivor,” and we quickly learn a gardener as well. There is a sense of honesty and vulnerability as our kneeling narrator realizes she is not alone amidst her plants. That with her, perhaps within her reach, is a caterpillar on a mission. With “patience, determination and perseverance” it stretches to reach its next goal, its next plateau, its next leaf, and when it makes it, we are grateful for the “lessons learned,” without an inch of self-indulgence.

Nothing Borrowed, by Kate Forest (Madison)

This is a poem about love, about the “gifts between us.” It is short and clever and resonates with a kind of playful sweetness, as it wraps up with “kisses speaking slowly.” Yet, the poem’s brevity is not without hints of larger implications, seeming to comment on the way most lovers become entwined with a sense of need from the other. In this case the lovers “owe each other nothing,” they are free, “yet share everything.” If only we could all claim such “simple generosity.”

My Green Horse, by Betsy Larsen (Oregon, WI)

This poem is quirky and fun and it clearly tells a story. A story about exercising an innocent and honest kind of faith while earning the trust of another sentient being, even while others scoff. It possesses a strong cadence, it does not strain to seek a rhyming measure, nor is it self-conscious or cocky as it delivers on it cathartic conclusion. That “No matter the color of the horse you tame…A green horse is a good horse all the same.”

Honorable Mention

Hidden Away, by Milissa Lee Bailey (Lake Geneva)

This poem is about the transformative process of self-awareness, discovery, and ultimately perhaps, acceptance. It has a universal appeal and uses an alternating rhyming scheme to good advantage while it addresses universal fears, those especially that can bring us to tears. The author by alluding to the depths of her own experience truly speaks to the way we all hide, and pushes the reader to consider what might be hidden within his or her own soul. It leaves us with our hope intact.

WI Contest 2013: Young Adult Literature (YA)

Why did the judges choose the ones they did?

What tips can you take away by studying their pages?

1st Place “Lily, what was your mother like?” by Natalie Karstedt (Lindenhurst, IL)

The writer plunges the reader into Lily’s world where she is struggling to answer the question of what her mother was like. The social worker with mixed motives whose questions “weren’t born of entirely innocent intent,” pulls us into Lily’s world, as well as her heart. We stand with her, right in the immediate action where her mother—“embalmed and broken” lies in the closed casket behind her. With her authentic teen VOICE Lily confesses that she has no one to turn to and “since Mom literally catapulted to eternal rest…his temper has taken a wild, dark turn.” Yet we sense in Lily, a feisty light, one that will lead us through a good story.

(2nd place tie) Dark Abbot, by Steve Roisum

“The end of my world walked toward me on four legs. I didn’t see him at first.” A fabulous and intriguing first line draws us into the world of Abbott Blankford, a teen mysterious toting around his dad’s toothbrush, and protecting it from the light. A teen waiting at the bus stop, secretly seeking safety in a world “festering with evil,” namely the upcoming Number Sixty-six bus, but before it arrives, the dog does. Fear grips both the protagonist and the reader in this odd and threatening encounter with a “white Labrador retriever with red, rheumy eyes,” and before the page has ended we want to know: what happens next?!

(2nd place tie) Jerusalem, by Barbara Britton (Brookfield, WI)

Strong writing and a deep sense of another place and time catapult us into Jerusalem, in the year 840BC. There we find seventeen year old Hannah and her father, the chief priest, waiting for a Holy man, the prophet from Israel, who will heal Hannah. Since birth Hannah has not been able to taste or smell, born with ears that are but a flap of skin, no slope, no lobe. “Her father said it was a punishment from God for an ancestors’ crime.” And Hanna, believing she is a disgrace, stands beside her father and brother, with the throngs of people, holding in her heart a humiliating need and a humble hope for healing, while she imagines what it will feel like when the prophet touches her.

(3rd place tie) “For the second time in my life, I am an orphan.” By Mary Lamphere (DeKalb, IL)

A powerful succinct first line opens the door to endless possibilities for an interesting story with a twist—not one time, but two times our primary protagonist has been abandoned. The emphasis on loss invites the reader into a kind of hidden promise not only of an intriguing story, but of a rich and varied backstory as well.  However, right now the door that the protagonist faces is first and foremost to the Chapel, amidst a late entering crowd. “I got here as soon as I could, but I was three states away when I found out. Three states, no car and no money away.” We have a sense that this story began long ago, but we get to experience it in the now, the ultimate objective of all good stories.

(3rd Place tie)Matt Reynolds was born on All Saints Day.By Colleen Fleshman (Madison)

Matt’s mother often called him “her little saint,” but when blowing out his sixteen birthday candles, he sees not wings, but orange eyes glowing over his mother’s shoulder. Wow. Spooky. Mysterious. Curious. We know right away that something is not right with this picture, and what’s even more bothersome, especially for Matt is that no one else sees the orange eyes. So Matt’s dad decides it must be some kind of “visual hallucination” which could provide “valuable scientific evidence.” And we, the reader, are launched into the very same mystery that Matt now explore: why does he see the orange eyes when no one else does, and what are they and why? This feels like a future page turner.

Honorable Mention:

The Epic Adventures of David Hudson and the Magical Wheelchair, by Art Rein

This action-packed opening scene has us on the edge of our seats as seventh grader, David Hudson and his friends Amanda and Jason, leap out of an airplane in the middle of blizzard, hoping to land with their parachutes on a snow obscured mountain, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains below them. The plane is droning, the wind is howling, and “David’s boots dangle in the wind like a couple of clubs,” as this writer has mastered the use of active characters and active verbs. The writing resounds with powerful action mirroring the excitement contained in the story itself.

Not A Hero, by Kim McCollum 

VOICE. VOICE. VOICE. Is what this story has, and this is a key ingredient to all young adult (YA) fiction. The author effectively plunks us down deep into the plot from the very start. And then we are moved quickly along with some typical teen guys out on a run discover a friend, Shelby Rettle’s body in the dirt. The mood immediately shifts from friendly jazzing, talk of superheroes, and future Halloween plans to dealing with the shock and horror of their joint discover, and the tender sentiment of Caleb, who takes off his t-shirt to cover her naked breasts. A great title, a serious drama and realistic dialogue, with believable characters who have a real problem on their hands.

Hoosier Country, by Kim McCollum

Basketball, girls’ basketball, and the protagonist’s teammate Mallory, takes a heavy hit. In fact, even after she stands for a few seconds, she crumples to her knees again, unable to hold herself up. After the ref and the coach coax her back to the sideline, sighs of relief fill the gym. But it isn’t there that the protagonist’s seems to begin, it’s when, she, last one out of the shower, turns back to find Mallory, sitting, sobbing, with “a bloody mass under her bent legs.” Yes, it was a fetus, and we the readers will be compelled to follow this plot to its conclusion, to find out what happens to Mallory, her team and most importantly to girl who will tell us this story.


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