The TUFFest Ride: Winners

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

November 2, 2018

After one of the most challenging rounds of judging 118 entries from 36 writers over five 24-hour free-writes with five different prompts, three judges selected five writers to take the TUFFest Ride.

TUFF stands for The Ultimate Flash Fiction. As a literary form, it requires a writer to master spontaneous drafting, reduction, and expansion for a single story. As a writing tool, it guides a writer through revision to get to the heart of a story or the point of an idea. The TUFFest Ride is a writing contest that invites a small group of writers to exhibit their skills to master the process publicly.

The first task of TUFF is to free-write. That means to draft a story from scratch. It’s a demonstration of creative instinct, pushing into the unknown to retrieve a possible story. To help spark an idea, writers followed the lead of a prompt: mudslide.

The second task of TUFF is to explore. The 99-word format is long enough to write a concise and compelling story or scene, and yet short enough to write several to explore different options, including point of view. POV is the voice of narration, which is not always the voice of the protagonist. Sometimes, in third person, an author can craft multiple POV characters. Writing a flash fiction from a different POV can lead to a more profound sense of the story or draw out a hidden nugget.

The Third task of TUFF is to focus the central idea. 59 words are the heart of a story, the synopsis of a novel, or the pitch to an idea. It has enough of the elements to be complete. Its purpose is to teach the critical rule of revision — know what each story, scene or chapter is about. The writer keeps the essential elements in this task, including any new insights from exploring with 99 words.

The fourth task of TUFF is to punch the reader. These 9 words are the hook or can be the opening sentence (or sequence). All the emotion from the heart of the story is packed into this last reduction. The purpose is to hook the reader to read more emotionally. Mastering the hook gives a writer an edge and teaches the writer to come out fighting for the reader’s attention. Punch ‘em in the gut with this line.

Each task of TUFF is pure writing. Revision is about writing, not editing. The purpose of the TUFF process is to show how a writer revises through drafting, reduction, and rewriting. Editing happens after you revise. How often have you heard or read, “turn off your inner critic” when you write? That’s because writing and editing are two different processes. It’s much easier to edit and to teach writers to edit — after all, editing comes with clear rules and tasks. That’s why TUFF has tasks to guide writers to continue to write without the inner critic and yet still getting at the heart and emotion and power of a story, scene or chapter.

If the writer has allowed writing (creativity) to lead the process, TUFF will produce valuable insights to inform the rewrite better. The rewrite is the second draft, but after having explored the potential of the first draft through creative means. TUFF is relatively easy to learn, although many writers may struggle because it asks you to set aside editing and trust the writing process. Creative writing can’t be taught explicitly in the way spelling and grammar can be. You have to experience it, do it, and do it regularly. This is why Carrot Ranch uses 99-word flash fiction challenges weekly. The challenges repeat the creative exploration task, and the writer who regularly plays along actually learns to trust their gut instincts (go where the prompt leads) better.

The fifth and final task of TUFF is to rewrite the original free-write (first draft). The writer uses all the insights gained through the creative distillation of the story through previous TUFF tasks. The writer is now better informed of the original story. And yet the second draft still allows for creative process; it remains open to crafting. Even the final task of TUFF is pure writing. If it isn’t, editing can stifle your inner writer. Set the editor aside and take the TUFFest Ride to the page. The second draft gives you more words — 495 to be exact. This equates to five 99-word increments.

Once you have revised through TUFF, then you have material to edit. Editing shapes the course of your story (it’s arrangement into a beginning middle and end, or into scenes that form a chapter, or into chapters that form a book). Editing the course is building the bones. Next, editing fleshes out clarity. It takes a critical eye to readability, rhythm, and flow. Clarity asks if this is the best word, the right sentence, the exact scene. Once fleshed out, editing polishes the skin or applies the make-up. Now editing can grimly march through the sentences slashing comma splices and questioning grammar. Final editing cares about correctness. These tasks take place after writing, not before and not during.

Stay TUFF and write on. The journey to mastery never ends until the master is no more.

In September, 118 entries qualified to take the TUFFest Ride in 2018. Laura Smyth and Cynthia Drake assisted with judging, highlighting the best stories from each of the five Free-Write contests. The judges further selected the best stories from among the top entries. Several writers stood out among their multiple entries, and the judges chose five writers to take the TUFFest Ride. Each of these writers took the full ride from 297 to 9 words. Three continued to the second draft and had 24 hours t complete it. Because they went through the TUFF process, the idea is that the second draft would flow more quickly.

Because 118 entries plus the full TUFFest Ride of the Fab Five nets over 60,000 words, we will only publish the complete work of the Fab Five which you can read at The TUFFest Ride.

However, to acknowledge those daring writers who completed the challenge alongside the Fab Five, we offer you this Badge of Honor to proudly display:

Thank you to our marvelous judges, Cynthia Drake and Laura Smyth! Their guidance and thoughtfulness throughout the contest have made it a pleasure. We all found the writing of our Fab Five to be delicious and have our winner announcements. We met in Laura’s office and giggled our way through a video, showing why we call ourselves the Squirrel Sisters. Laura was relieved when she realized the recording was not live because I could edit it.

I laughed! I told her I didn’t know how.

And, apparently, I don’t know how to record, either. Afterward, when I shut down my laptop, I failed to save our recording. This year, technology officially wins over my best efforts to record. I can tell you we discussed how the process pushed each writer into their story. We talked about each writer, their strengths, willingness to be vulnerable and our preferences as readers and judges.

Judging is not easy, especially in a creative contest. In the end, we focused on writer strengths, use of the process, and the elements that compel a reader.

Cynthia stated, that as a dancer she resonated with Pete Fanning’s story. It’s one she could feel as dance steps. Laura pointed to the surprise she felt when she read Kay’s second draft because the writer journeyed with the character from young woman to deathbed (Cynthia and I teased Laura about being a poet who always goes straight for death in her writing). We all loved the lyricism of Bill’s writing and appreciated how he explored far and wide, yet maintained his strongest original elements.

It was not easy, and we squirreled away on many topics, deciding that we all appreciated TUFF as a process. Cynthia has used TUFF to process her goals to restore her damaged home after a mudslide (the theme of all these stories). Laura has had me in her Finlandia classroom to teach the process to her Composition 101 students. And I’m taking to TUFF for NaNoWriMo 2018.

Here is our final ranking with massive appreciation to all the writes and those who hung in the saddle.


Honorable Mention: Liz Husebye Hartmann
Honorable Mention: Ritu Bhathal
Third Place: Pete Fanning
Second Place: Kay Kingsley
First Place: Bill Engleson

Congratulation to the five of you! We were blown away by your writing and the tenacity to push through difficult tasks and find the strengths throughout the ride. This contest called you to endure, and you did.

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  1. Annette Rochelle Aben

    Wow, talent at it’s best! Congratulations, everyone

    • Charli Mills

      Tenaciously talented writers! 🙂

  2. syncwithdeep

    Congrats to the TUFF guys.. U made it through. Looking forward to read your brilliant entries.

    • Charli Mills

      I like that Deepa — TUFF guys! Everyone who entered should take a pat on the back.

      • syncwithdeep


  3. loristory

    Wow, I love all of the finalists’ stories and appreciate this window into their creative minds. I completed the challenge (thanks for the badge) and was thrilled that one of the readers of my final version said she felt for the narrator; another said “Ooh I feel this on a deep level and I would love to kick the pile of mud in the face.” I couldn’t have gotten those reactions without TUFF teaching me the way.

    • Charli Mills

      Congratulations on completing the TUFFest Ride, Lori! I’m glad you got to experience positive results from the process.

  4. calmkate

    well deserved wins and thanks Judges for your deliberations and to the many who participated … I enjoyed the ride, safer from the side 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      It’s a TUFF ride, in public or private! Thanks for riding along, Kate.

      • calmkate

        thanks for creating such a diverse event to stretch us all, enjoyed it, had a ball!

      • Charli Mills

        I’m glad you enjoyed it, Kate! I sure did!

  5. denmaniacs4

    A month ago, almost simultaneously with the beginning of this final phase of the Tuffest ride, a small community in northern BC, Old Fort, began to suffer the perils of a slow moving landslide. A week later…this news report…”An entire community in northern B.C. may be empty for months due to a landslide that has been creeping closer since last weekend.

    Old Fort, home to about 150 people and located about 10 kilometres south of Fort St. John, was evacuated Sunday due to “significant risk to public safety,” the Peace River Regional District said.

    About 60 homes now stand vacant, and at a community meeting Monday, officials gave an unwelcome timeline. Some residents may not be able to return until next summer.”

    In a world fraught with human movement, refugees at every turn, a few horrible humans at the tiller, nature giving us her best and, frequently, her worst, I am not unaware of the responsibility of writers to reflect the world, to improve the human condition, to seek understanding and clarity. Having said that, and trying not to sound too full of myself, this engrossing exercise took me on a awkward and somewhat unexpected personal journey. I am afraid I may not have brought any meaningful enlightenment to mankind. That said, thank you Charli, Cynthia and Laura for the selection and to all the writers who played apart, keep writing. This old fellow certainly will.

    • Charli Mills

      Bill, I think it’s undeniable that natural disasters are increasing and we seem to have money to fund militaries but not infrastructure and those few horrible humans might have to give up the tiller. In a strange way, our mudslides produced as much good as they did bad. Perhaps it’s the human condition to learn from experience and the benefit of literary art is to offer experience without the pain of reality.

      What the judges appreciated about your unfolding TUFF story is how it allowed us to insert our own sense of suffocation at various moments in our lives. That is a mastery of art to invite readers to bring their own suitcase to experience the story. Keep writing, indeed!

  6. explorereikiworld

    Congrats to the winners and all those who participated in this contest!!

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you, Ruchira!

  7. TanGental

    yes well done, and *tips the hat to Bill – splendid old chap

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for tipping the hat Bill’s way!

  8. Ritu

    Huge congrats to Bill, and thank you, Charli, Cynthia and Laura for even deeming me worthy of taking part!

    • Miriam Hurdle

      Congratulations, Ritu for getting the fourth prize!

      • Ritu

        Thank you Miriam ????

      • Miriam Hurdle

        You’re welcome, Ritu. <3

    • Charli Mills

      You earned your spurs, Ritu! Thank you for a fine ride! <3

      • Ritu


  9. Kay Kingsley, The Memory Cellar

    Great job, Bill and a huge congratulations!!! And great job to everyone else who participated, not only in TUFF but the other weekly October challenges as well. Charli and company, thanks again (and again) for all of your hard work and for giving all of us writers a place at the ranch to discover more about ourselves, our inner voice and to develop our writing.

    • Charli Mills

      This has been a big month of developing our writing! Thank you, Kay! <3

  10. Colleen Chesebro

    Congratulations, to all the winners! You stuck with it! WOO HOO! <3

    • Charli Mills

      Sticking with it is a win! Thanks, Collen! <3

  11. Erika Kind

    Congratulations to the winners and to everyone who enjoyed to participate!

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you, Erica!

      • Erika Kind


  12. Miriam Hurdle

    Congratulations to all the creative writers and winners!! Hooray!! <3

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you, Miriam!

      • Miriam Hurdle

        You’re welcome, Charli!

  13. Norah

    Congratulations Bill, Kay and Pete for TUFFing it out and scoring a place at the finish line. Congratulations to all the writers who rode alongside, hopefully, the learning was worth the journey. It was for me. Congratulations and thanks to Charli for stepping us through a process that can only benefit our writing.

    • Charli Mills

      It was good of the writers to let us follow along with their process and they all put in a strong effort that resulted in compelling stories. We all TUFFed it, Norah! Thank you for reblogging the announcement, too!

      • Norah

        I agree. The writers were very brave to share their process in the raw.

  14. Norah

    Reblogged this on Norah Colvin and commented:
    The winners of the TUFFest Ride at the Carrot Ranch are announced. Congratulations winners and congratulations to all riders (writers)!

  15. robbiesinspiration

    Congratulations to all the participants. I am sure this was a very worthwhile undertaking and the learning curve was huge.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Robbie!

  16. Hugh's Views and News

    Many congratulations to all the winners and to everyone that participated. Onwards and upwards to all of you. I wish you all continued success with your writing.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Hugh!

  17. Jennie

    Congratulations to all!

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Jennie

      • Jennie

        You’re welcome, Charli.

  18. Sarah Brentyn

    Congratulations to the winners and to all participants as I echo the comments of what a tough (or Tuff) contest this was. Hats off to you! 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, for hats off, Sarah!

  19. Sherri Matthews

    What a TUFF ride…and what a Rodeo! Huge congratulations to all the Fab Five, and to Bill for his win. Amazing challenge…well done, Charli and to your judges, for a massively hard task. Technology or not, you did it…all of you! So proud to be here, a part of it all at the Rodeo! 🙂 <3

  20. Pete

    Congrats to Bill and Kay! Such great stories, both deserving of winning. I never could quite get my mind around this prompt–or even name my characters–so I applaud your excellent takes. Bill’s story drew me in instantly and hit me with its voice throughout. Now, I’m looking forward to getting back to the weekly prompts!

    • Charli Mills

      Pete, one of our judges is a dancer and she said she loved how your writing captured what it is to dance as part of life. On a sidenote, I also have trouble naming my characters when I’m first developing a story. You did well. It was a TUFF process!

  21. susansleggs

    Congratulations to all. Sorry I didn’t ride along as planned, family health problems left my creativity floundering. I’ll look forward to next years ride.

    • Charli Mills

      That can be such a creativity zapper, Susan. I hope things are in the mend in your family and your creative spark returns. ?


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