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Let’s Get TUFF and Rodeo!

You can expect spills and thrills at the Rodeo. At last, we launch, late due to multiple technical difficulties following an extraordinarily long day at the Minneapolis VA Polytrauma Center. In the end, a Rough Writer drove all the way from Nebraska to feed me tonight after a day of unintentional fasting. I feasted on kale and sweet potato curry with bok choy and cauliflower rice with C. Jai Ferry (of TwitterFlash and grit lit fame).

Forgive the lateness of this post and the lack of video. My recorder died, and I can not figure out an elegant solution to videotaping on my laptop while also reading the winning entries. And I know that’s what you are all chomping at the bit to learn. I just figured out wi-fi connection at the Fisher House where I’m staying.

First, let me say this was the hardest contest I’ve ever had the privilege to judge. No one turned up with weak entries. The writers who all submitted entries to the free-writes stretched their writing abilities, pushed into the prompt and took risks on the page.

Right after the final free-write, my judges and I began the process of selection. First, we focused on entries that created a memorable impression. Next, we looked at writers who short-listed more than one entry and stories we all selected as judges. We had three clear winners and an agonizing time to decide who took the final two spots.

I want all the writers who submitted to know that each one of you drafted with creativity and skill to convey a story in 297 words. Even if you were not selected, your writing will be posted in a collection on November 1. I hope you will play along.

Finally, at last, the wait is over — please meet the TUFF Fab 5 who are about to embark upon the TUFFest Ride:


Soon as we got to Nannie’s I hurried to the kitchen to pour a cup of her sweet, cheek-sucking Kool-Aid. I gulped it down and wiped my mouth with my sleeve. Then I set outside to spy on Grandpa.

Grandpa never left his car, an old Dodge that sat under the pine trees out back. Sometimes he’d sleep there, with his head lolled back in the seat, his mouth opened, snoring loud enough to wake Mrs. Wilmer’s dachshunds. But most days he just listened to the radio, sipping on Coors Banquet, banging his fist on the steering wheel depending whether he was listening to a ballgame.

I was tossing my football around when he called out my dad’s name. I dropped the ball and looked around when he honked, “Now come on, Douglas,” he said, “We’ve got a long drive home and no time to waste.”

He waved me over, to that old Dodge that hadn’t moved in my lifetime. The hood didn’t shut, and the tires were flattened to a fold. Still, I plodded over and opened the door, breathing in a gust of spring pollen, summer mold, fall leaves and a sprig of winter pine.

“Shut the door, Douglas. Hurry.”

I reached over and yanked it shut, cans scattering under my feet.

“There we go,” Grandpa said, hands on the wheel. “Gosh, Dougie, I didn’t think you were going to make it home,” he said, taking me in. A chill over my bones, him calling me that. All I knew about my dad sat in a dusty flag-folded triangle on the shelf above my dresser. But Grandpa, even with that map in his head a few roads short of an intersection, I liked him saying it. Besides, the seat was comfortable.

“Yeah, let’s go home.”



The tree is always there, taunting us, imposing itself on who we are.

We are the weak link in their chain.

I am the weakest.

I am often left alone.

“He’ll be fine,” he says, as I hear the door close, the slam, the silence, the crunch, feet falling on cracking snow.

I lift the window, look down. Iced air snaps in, smashes my eyes, freezes my face.

I glimpse the shape of them going to the car.

She hesitates. I wonder. Maybe this time.

“Its not right.”

He scoffs, “Christ, Jennie, he’s almost of an age.”

Of an age?

I am almost of an age.

“You say,” she says.

“Fuckin’ right. Where do you think backbone comes from? From you? From your kind?”

She touches the car door handle.

He stomps to the driver’s side.

“GET IN! It’s bloody cold.”

Her gloved hand lingers.

“JESUS! He’ll be fine. It didn’t do me any harm. Ever.”

She opens the car door, gets in, closes it.

The motor grinds. It won’t catch. Another grind. Then it catches, engine firing, exhaust swirling in the winter night.

They drive away.

I stare until they vanish.

His memories come in angry waves.

“Your Grandfather. Tough as steel. ‘The best ones are found as high as you can go,’ he’d say, demand I climb as high as I could to get the best Braeburn. I gave it my all, even when a broken branch shredded my skin.”

He flashes me the underside of his left wrist. I bear witness to the scar he wears like a medal. “See. A little blood. A little souvenir. That’s what life’s all about.”

I have no scars from climbing.

No medals for what I am.

I close the window, crawl into bed.

This is it, then.



The sun was just starting to rise as I drove east along Interstate 80 as the black dawn gave way to shades of gray and purple that marked the beginning of a beautiful Midwest sunrise.

Cars passed in intervals and my mind drifted mile after mile. I had been driving for 10 hours and decided I needed to stop, fill up and shake off the storm of my past as I drove straight towards its center.

I zipped my jacket up and wrapped my hands around my coffee as I leaned back on my car listening as the pump filled my tank with gasoline. As I had expected, the sunrise was beautiful and for the first time in a long time I let my heart feel a pain I had pushed down since I left Laramie in October 1998.

The controversy surrounding his death divided our town and the nation. When they found him he had been left to die in a field after being savagely beaten. Deciding I would defend him and in turn I would be defending myself, I was ready to have ‘the talk’ with my father.

I had anticipated anger, after all he was a religious conservative man but I hadn’t expected the explosion. His fist flew faster than my head or heart could react and with a broken nose I fell to the floor. That night I packed my things and headed west to California and never saw him again. That was the year life as I know it began.

I spent 20 years living a life of discovery, one I lived for two since Matt never got the chance to. I’ve forgiven my father and now as he lay dying, I make the long drive home. It’s time he knows it.



Jody sighed and pulled on her helmet, before heaving herself up onto the horse. Nina cantered up to her, her horse slowing down as he neared her.

“It was a good idea, this break, wasn’t it Jod? An early ride totally blows the cobwebs away. I feel so alive here!”

Smiling weakly at her friend, Jody nodded and gave her horse’s rein a little pull, setting her off on a slow gallop.

Being here had given her plenty of time to think, and she had. But it had been a constant bombardment of memories; pictures flashing through her mind, rather like scrolling through the photo album on her phone. And every image centred around one person.


The one person she was trying to forget.

Ben the bastard.

Ben the cheat.

Ben the di-

No. She had to stop this. She was meant to be forgetting him, not allowing his memories to become sharper with each day.

“Stop it.”

She looked up to her friend who had caught her up again. “What?”

“Stop thinking of him. I know what you’re doing. And it’s not healthy.” Nina’s blood boiled as she thought of the idiot who had broken her best friend’s heart. “And anyway, I brought you here to forget him! What you need is to find someone to help you forget. Have you seen some of the ranchers here?”

“Seriously Nina, I am not interested, not after all the shit with Ben. I’m afraid one little ranch romance isn’t going to help.”

“Oh, I know, but it wouldn’t hurt, eh… haven’t you noticed how that Jimmy keeps looking at you?”

Nina knew.

The only way this girl was going to get over Ben was by having a long, hard ride, and she wasn’t talking about a horse.



Once upon a time, summer sunrises warmed deep forest, from chill evergreen to clattering gold, edging our bedroom curtains with the nascent glow of unarticulated adventures. Ceaseless waves, having raked over agate and quartz all night, left hints in bits of driftwood and bobber, and precious white-scrubbed logs from distant islands and Superior storms. Bare feet scrambled over slick green rocks, gathering and grousing over ownership. Pale pirate’s legs wavered under thigh-deep water, ferrying those bones of raft-base to whatever part of the beach each had designated as “my spot.”

My Spot. My logs. My bobber. Ownership begins early, stains our pure blood with ambition. We soon forget that any pirate’s treasures claimed are gifts, not rights. Even Nature’s well is not bottomless.

Once upon a time, we visited the island’s one hardware store, padding from hot sands to cool dark, a single fan humming from a high corner in the converted boathouse. Its proprietor, wind-darkened skin folding like sail canvas around warm brown eyes and a mouth that found humor in our enthusiasm, stretched in dun and evergreen, beckoning us in. His hands were strong, each line traced by the grease from his last job. I breathed in heady inspiration from motor oil, decades of sawdust, and the tang of fertilizer. He led us to boxes of long nails and spikes, vital to our summer rafts.

I made my own raft. Tiny and wobbly, we were twin mermaids. In deeper water, the boys had their exclusive kingdom.

In this time, I roll back my chair and look out over the empty cityscape. My spreadsheets reflect in the office window, silent as the night office. My stilettos lay behind me, being shoeless my one compensation for success attained.

Papa’s bar was high. My memories wave me homeward.


Congratulations Pete, Ritu, Bill, Liz, and Kay! You will represent the Ranch in an exhibition write throughout the Rodeo. Each of you have won $25.

Each of you will progress through four TUFF tasks with technical twists that won’t be revealed until each Monday at Carrot Ranch.

Three of you will advance to compete for rank of First, Second and Third place. The overall first-place winner will receive an additional $25.

So, let’s talk TUFF. The Ultimate Flash Fiction is a process, a brain game, to reduce words to produce more. TUFF is about learning to go with gut instinct to draft and to then trust the creation to revision. When you free-write, you have to let go of your inner editor and write. When something feels uncomfortable, that’s a sign of writing deep. Drafting can feel vulnerable.

When writers revise, it’s not always obvious how to go about it. TUFF is a quick revision tool that writers can apply to scenes, chapters, and even entire novels. It’s a way to get at the heart of what your story of book is about. I even use TUFF to coach entrepreneurs to craft the story of their business vision. You can use TUFF to create variously sized synopses.

TUFF begins with a free-write. The first revision is 99 words, the second 59 words, and the third is 9. By the time you go through the constraint process, the story or idea sharpens. That allows you to go write the clearly envisioned story. The process will surprise you! Writers who take the TUFF challenge feel the shift.

However, because this is the TUFFest Ride, the judges and I will be reviewing each week’s entries and deciding how best to test the writers’ skills with an additional technical challenge.

All writers are welcome to play along from the safety of home. You can post your challenges in the comments. Due to the volume of words that the extra challenges produce, I won’t be posting any challenge entries. We will enjoy and discuss them right here in the comments.

Except for the Fab Five. Pete, Ritu, Bill, Liz, and Kay will email their weekly entry to Their full entries will be posted on November 1 (please refrain from sharing your entries on your own blogs until the judging is final on November 1).


We begin the TUFFest Ride with a free-write. You have five days to draft 297 words to the prompt: mudslide. Your technical challenge is to include at least three of the five senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, sound). This is the story you will revise and rewrite as a final entry throughout TUFF.


Remember: competitors email entries and challengers post in the comments.

Deadline: October 6 at 11:59 p.m.


  1. Congratulations to the winners! I wish the best of luck in the TUFFest ride!

  2. Norah says:

    Congratulations to the Fab Five. Pete, Ritu, Bill, Liz, and Kay. What fabulous entries. They are definitely worthy of the prize and now the writers have a TUFF challenge ahead. Not many prizes lead to an even greater challenge.
    Congratulations to everyone who entered. What a tough job it must have been for the judges. I think this next challenge will be tougher still. I look forward to reading the finished stories but am pleased I am not a judge (fairy tales will be enough for me to judge).
    Best wishes, everyone! Write well!

  3. Norah says:

    Reblogged this on Norah Colvin and commented:
    Finalists for the TUFFest Ride have been chosen. Are you included?

  4. syncwithdeep says:

    Congratulations to the famous five and wishing you all the best in the tuff contest

  5. denmaniacs4 says:

    I hope to live up to the honour (honor).

  6. calmkate says:

    Congrats to the winners, what worthy excellent pieces … makes me realise how far I have to go to improve my fiction 🙂

  7. What fabulous entries, Charli. Congratulations to everyone.

  8. Liz H says:

    Wow…I am gobsmacked, honored, and delighted to address the next challenge.
    Thanks for the opportunity, Charli, and for all 5 of us, the odds are ever in our favor cuz we get to play more! 😀 <3

  9. floridaborne says:

    Good luck to all.

    My condolences to #6, whoever s/he might be. 🙂

  10. Ritu says:

    Oh wow! I can’t believe I got chosen! Thank you 💜
    I’d better get thinking!!!!
    Congratulations to all my other competing compadres! 😍
    May the best rider reach the end, and may we all hang on to our bucking broncos as long as possible!

  11. Annecdotist says:

    Congratulations to all and thanks for the chance to read such great stories. Looking forward to watching the process evolve, and joining in from the sidelines.

  12. TanGental says:

    Super selection judges!

  13. […] did not get into rodeo […]

  14. Fantastic and so impressed by the wonderful stories… congratulations to all the winners.

  15. susansleggs says:

    Congratulations to the winners. It will be fun to tag along on my pony. Thank you to Charli, Norah and C. Jai for dealing with the technical difficulties.

  16. Congratulations Winners. Write on!

  17. […] one is in keeping with the rodeo theme. Go to Carrot Ranch for more on the rodeo and to read the winning TUFF stories. Join in the weekly […]

  18. Darlene says:

    Some fabulous flash fiction here! Loved them all.

  19. Jules says:

    All the best to the Fab Five and all those who wrote, ‘Write On!’

    Excellent reads. Makes me understand why I like to write poetry 😉

    There is a poetry too in longer stories. And I’ll keep practicing 🙂

    Nope I’m not that quick. But Mudslides is an interesting topic…

  20. floatinggold says:

    CongratZ to all!
    I noticed that writing about driving/ a car seems to have increased your odds of winning.
    The first entry by Pete is my personal favorite.
    Curious to see what happens next.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Thanks, Goldie! Ha! I think that might have been a fluke of my brain in panic mode last night. We had 118 stories and narrowed our combined selections down to about 30-something. We didn’t always agree on the same stories but we definitely agreed on the same pool of writers. Last night, I wanted to show a cross-section of the prompts so I didn’t necessarily grab the winning story of each writer because they had multiple entries. But all the stories of the winners exhibit their ability to master the difficult challenge of going with your gut in a draft. All the stories entered were excellent. My judges were blown away by the quality.

    • Ritu says:

      Thanks Goldie! <3

  21. Lisa L. says:

    Congratulations, Fab Five! Good luck on your TUFFest ride!

  22. […] Carrot Ranch TUFF challenge piece Mudslide 297 words […]

  23. Jules says:

    I actually did do some editing…
    Here is my challenge piece:

  24. Pete says:

    Wow, honored to see my little story alongside such great company. Congrats to Ritu, Bill, Liz, and Kay

  25. Many congratulations to the five fabulous writers who were brave enough to take on this challenge. WOO HOO! <3

  26. […] via Let’s Get TUFF and Rodeo! […]

  27. Still pinching myself 😀 Congratulations to everyone for competing and especially a big congratulations to the other four writers selected. Your stories were wonderful!! Looking forward to what the next month holds for all of us. I wanted to also give a big thanks to Charli and company for all of their time spent organizing, reading and judging our pieces. As fun as it probably was to read the entries, it must have been one heck of a tough decision in the end.

  28. Fantastic picks for top five writers! Congrats and good luck to all of them as they start the TUFF rodeo writing. 🙂

  29. floatinggold says:

    It’s the competitor in me speaking – I was hoping to compare and contrast my entries with others. So I was looking for an obvious title prompt. Were these chosen as one for each prompt? Or are these winners potentially from the same week’s entry. I’m not sure. Could it be clarified?

    • Charli Mills says:

      On November 1, we’ll post all the stories and arrange each collection by prompt. You’ll be able to compare in that way. We selected the best entries per prompt and then compared all those stories for where the prompt led the writer and how it moved the reader. So in the end, it was the ability to draft a compelling piece irregardless of prompt.

  30. Jennie says:

    These are fabulous! Clearly each week will become tougher (tuffer) for the judges.

  31. Congratulations Charli…you got TUFF and didn’t let technology, or lack of it, hold you back! And congratulations to the Fab Five…fantastic entries. It starts now! 😀 <3

  32. […] September, which is gratifying after a lackluster August. I participated in the free writes for the TUFF rodeo but didn’t qualify for the final event; I send out best wishes to those who have gone on to […]

  33. […] Source: Let’s Get TUFF and Rodeo! « Carrot Ranch Literary Community […]

  34. loristory says:

    Hi! I’ve just written my 297-word mudslide challenge story. Do I copy and paste it here now? Thanks!

  35. Congratulations Pete, Bill, Kay, Ritu and Liz – you must feel over the moon!

    Thank you to Charli and the other judges for selecting such a fine set of stories.

    And a double thanks to Charli for weathering those technical glitches – how frustrating!

    I look forward to reading the winners’ responses to the prompts through October and the collection coming out in November.

    In the meantime, here is a link to my playing from the safety of my home story in response to this TUFFest write.

  36. […] following “flash fiction” is my response to Charli’s challenge at Carrot Ranch Literary Community.  The challenge was to write a 297-word story about a mudslide. I let my imagination run wild with […]

  37. loristory says:

    Fascinating how different minds take prompts to such different places! For the mudslide prompt, my mind took me here:

  38. […] Carrot Ranch Challenge, 297 words […]

  39. calmkate says:

    Here’s my entry … hoping it’s in time as the time differences confuse me easily 🙂

  40. […] a long drive home story in mind so just went with trippy, playing with images. To see the TUFF winners go to Carrot Ranch. Join in the weekly rodeo contests all this […]

  41. […] Carrot Ranch Challenge, 297 words […]

  42. […] Fiction Rodeo’s TUFF Contest prompt “cool water” posted on September 13th. To see the  winners  of that competition go to Carrot Ranch. Join in the weekly rodeo contests all this […]

  43. […] been following this blog, you’ll know that I’m involved in a writing challenge at Carrot Ranch Literary Community. Part I was to write a 257-word story about a mudslide. Part II was to edit it down to two 99-word […]

  44. […] Fiction Rodeo’s TUFF Contest prompt “papa’s bar” posted on September 7th. To see the  winners  of that competition, the Fab Five, go to Carrot Ranch. The Fab Five continue to duke it out […]

  45. […] TUFF Contest prompts, this one “scars from climbing” posted on September 1st. To see the  winners  of the TUFF competition go to Carrot Ranch. Catch up  on this month’s weekly rodeo […]

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