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.

FINAL RANKING

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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