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Well, it’s over, and we judges have had a blast. It looks like you people did too. In all, we received 38 entries. Only a couple failed on word count, a couple of others didn’t stick rigidly to dialogue, but most of you were very good and complied with the rules. Even managing to make something from what was a tricky picture prompt.
Yes, that is me, and that is a giant tortoise; my family spent a day behind the scenes at London Zoo, including feeding these magnificent reptiles. My daughter is responsible for capturing me having the brief catch up…
Before we get down to the business end a few general thoughts:
- In a fair few cases, there was still some ‘telling’. When you only have 99 words you really mustn’t. You have to leave a lot to the reader’s imagination, let them work it out. Sometimes the best entries are those we had to come back to, to find the hidden gems.
- I’m often guilty of penning a snippet, making a joke but to win these competitions you need depth. A story hinted at perhaps but something more than just those 99 words. A character we care about also gains a bonus tick.
- Use the title. These are free words. Clever titles, puns, and word plays are all very neat, and I love them, but if you use them to help the judges understand something about your story, you don’t need to then explain it in the story.
Ok, so let’s get down to cases. We liked a lot of what we read; we also disagreed (except the winner – that stood out). So this is how it goes. Each of us has chosen a story we liked, but the others felt they couldn’t push it higher into a place; these we have given a Honourable Mention.
From Judge: Chelsea Owen
Man to Man By Deborah Shaw-Wagner
“You seem like a wise old thing. May I ask a question?”
“Well, I don’t know from wise, but I’m old enough. Ask away.”
“It’s just you’re the first I’ve come across where I feel comfortable asking. You look like you’ve seen a thing or two.”
“Or three, sure.”
“Don’t tell anyone, but I’m having woman trouble. We don’t move through life at the same pace.”
“Can’t she slow down? Can’t you speed up? Compromise?”
“We’ve tried. Nothing works.”
“Then maybe it’s time to move on.”
“I live in a giant terrarium! How far am I going to get?”
Chelsea says: This piece had several interesting elements in it, including a tortoise asking advice of Geoff (the old and wise man) and Geoff then asking whether the tortoise might need to ‘speed up’ or ‘slow down’ regarding his ‘women trouble.’
I felt the take was clever, and appreciated the author’s following the parameters set up. If it would have had a definite story arc and less of just a conversation snippet, I think it could have bumped up to top three for sure.
From Judge Esther Chilton
Of Old Men, Teens, and Tortoises By Nidheesh Samant (The Dark Netizen)
“Do you see that old man there? The one talking to the turtle.”
“Yep, I see him. He’s looking like a retard.”
“Hahaha! These senile old farts, I tell you. I bet he believes that the tortoise over there understands what he is saying.”
“I guess it can’t be helped. Comes with old age.”
* * *
“You see that girl there, Mr. Tortoise? The one who’s looking here and talking to herself. I bet she’s making fun of me.”
“Teenagers, I tell you. They think everyone else is an idiot. I bet they also think tortoises don’t speak.”
Esther says: I chose this as my HM because I like the two different viewpoints. The first is the teenagers’ viewpoints and what they make of the man and tortoise. Having a teenager myself and being around them quite a bit, I could imagine teenage girls thinking along these very lines! Being critical, some of the dialogue could be made tighter and perhaps doesn’t reflect how teenagers speak these days. But the concept is excellent.
The second viewpoint is from the man and the tortoise. Just as the teenagers are mocking them, they replay the compliment. There is some slight confusion with the line ‘The one who’s looking here and talking to herself’, whereas in the photo, there are two teenage girls together, and as there is a clear conversation going on between them in the first half of the story, this line doesn’t quite gel.
But, overall, the idea is great; it’s a neat little story, which makes the reader smile. The two different viewpoints give it that something and they tie in together nicely.
From Judge Geoff Le Pard
A Shell of His Former Self By Bill Engleson
“That it would last longer?”
“It lasted as long as it did.”
“I suppose. But that’s not much of an answer.”
“Hmmm! Do you really have a question?”
“Of course. It seems like it has ended…far too soon.”
“It always does. But what did you expect? Advance notice?”
“Maybe. Why not?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because LIFE is all the notice you’re entitled to. By all accounts, you’ve had a good one.”
“And still have, right?”
“Time does flit.”
“You are so fucking cryptic.”
“I’ve been told that. Regardless. Better pack your bags.”
Geoff says: I enjoyed the premise of the Tortoise as a sort of grim reaper, preparing the man to meet his end. The philosophical conversation was great, about getting some notice of impending death and there still being time, like the tortoise is playing with the man but at the end letting him down not very gently with ‘Better pack your bags’. When we discussed it, we felt it lacked that something more, the suggestion of a bigger story here which the opening exchanges might have been used to incorporate. It meant, eventually, we didn’t feel the necessary warmth towards the characters to push this onto the podium. It made me laugh, though and that always leaves a nice glow.
Ok, so now the places. Drum roll….
(receives a digital copy of Apprenticed To My Mother, by Geoff Le Pard)
Seems terminal By Anne Goodwin
“I’ve seen some serious cases, but this.”
“Should’ve taken precautions.”
“They don’t all end up in this state?”
“Not the ones who exercise self-control.”
“But isn’t it addictive? No going back once you’ve hit that high.”
“No return to normal, admittedly. But lots draw the line at earwigging on conversations on the bus.”
“Wouldn’t you be curious, though? Wouldn’t you want to inhabit the mind of a tortoise? Or a former lawyer obsessed with words?”
“Sure, if it were reversible.”
“How do you know it’s not?”
“Go and talk to the tortoise. Betcha he answers to Geoff.”
Chelsea says: I believe we liked the unique approach to this prompt. It was two persons engaged in conversation, and was a story based on the picture but not specifically ABOUT the picture Geoff included. Also, it had a twist and a bit of humor.
A really nit-picky suggestion would be to clear up some continuity between the first part of their conversation and the last sentence. I get the idea they are talking about THE tortoise they can see, even standing over him. Then, one says to the other, “GO and talk to the tortoise” like they are not near him.
Esther Says: Again, this story hooks the reader right from the start. What’s serious and so tragic? Gradually, all becomes clear. It’s a witty, amusing story and uses the prompt in a great way, reversing the roles of who’s actually who in the photo. The last sentence is a belter, making the story finish on a high.
Being picky, the dialogue in the middle could be improved – the paragraph beginning ‘No return to normal…’ is slightly wordy.
Geoff says: It’s a piece that full of potential in what’s really going on and how the conversation is probably taking the man somewhere too far. There’s a lot of nicely judged humour and a great last line.
Roll those drums again, and we come to:
(receives a digital copy of Esther’s book of short stories, the Siege)
Untitled By Sarah Brentyn
“Mr. Le Pard?”
“He’s not here.”
“Isn’t that him?”
“Yes. It is.”
“Okay. Well I need to deliver—”
“He’s not here at the moment.”
“But he’s right there. You just said.”
“He’s probably at the park…maybe the zoo.”
“You must be new.”
“Well, yes. Today’s my first day. I’m Susan. I told him that earlier but he called me Shelley.”
“Ah, the zoo it is then. He’s off visiting his friend, Shelley, the tortoise. No telling when he’ll be back. Just leave the lunch tray, Susan. One of the nurses can bring his meds back later.”
Chelsea says: I think I mostly enjoyed the idea of Geoff being crazy and on medication. He IS speaking with a tortoise, for Pete’s sake. The dialogue was believable and did not leave me scratching my head as to who was speaking and what he/she intended with his phrases.
-With the exception of a bit of a muddy patch there in the “Isn’t that him? / Yes. It is. / Okay / Well I need to deliver— / He’s not here at the moment. / But he’s right there. You just said.” That was a tad confusing with Geoff later being revealed as being at the zoo visiting his friend.
Esther says: The story, which has been awarded second place intrigues right from the start. There’s confusion between our two conversationalists. This hooks the reader and makes them want to know what’s going on. The reality is a sad one, and it’s so poignant. The last line is very understated yet finishes the story powerfully.
Nonetheless, the writer does overexplain the ending, and so the last couple of paragraphs are a little clunky.
Geoff says: There’s so much warmth and poignancy here. It confuses, deliberately so at the start, and that echoes the man’s confusion. And the ending, the inherent sympathy of the carers allowing him his time ‘inside’ is delightfully done. So much we want to know about, about the time at the zoo, the other place he visits. As already foreshadowed by my fellow judges there were a couple of places where we felt the dialogue clunked a little at the end. But a great piece. (thought what’s with the lack of title…?)
And now, for the drums and the fireworks and the whizz-bangs and applause and jazz hands and all kinds of cacophony we have…
The winning entry
The biggest of stars
The flashista extraordinaire
(takes home a cool $25.00 and all the accolades)
No Title By Sarah Brentyn
“Mommy, that man’s kissing the tortoise.”
“He’s not kiss…oh, dear God. Zookeeper!”
“What seems to be the problem, Ma’am?”
“Ah, yes. Sad state of affairs, that is. And it’s a tortoise.”
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Not much I can do, you understand.”
“I do NOT understand.”
“Can’t just magically change the situation, now can I?”
“You must do something. The turtle—”
“Whatever! Stop giggling, Jenny.”
“Don’t worry, Ma’am. We’ve hired a witch to reverse the spell. Should be here next week. He’ll have his wife back then. Enjoy your day.”
Chelsea says: This story was one of my favorites from the start, in terms of humor, interesting dialogue, and incorporating more than one speaker. The words flowed rather well, which made for smooth reading. I was also able to picture the characters; I believe I may have started assigning each a tone and a certain lilt to his/her speech.
I have only highly critical suggestions of what could be improved (especially considering it won first place). First, a few bits in the ending phrase are confusing without the aid of the picture. Second, even more, distinct voices would help in piecing out who is speaking -though, as-is, that’s not difficult to figure out.
Esther says: Our winning story stands out as it interprets the prompt very well, the dialogue flows and is realistic, and it’s a complete story in itself. I also like the gradual build-up towards the climax, where all is revealed. It’s a light, fun story and leaves the reader with a warm glow.
If there’s any criticism, and it’s only very slight, perhaps there could be more ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ in the last paragraph.
Geoff says: On first read this won. Then I read it again and again and it won again. It has so much. Three people and you know exactly who is speaking – that takes real skill. There’s humour, there’s a twist, there’s a larger story as to how the man’s wife was turned into a tortoise and why, there’s a nice fantasy about it, there’s time for a little parental correction ‘stop giggling Jenny’ as well as the parent twice being corrected that we have a tortoise not a turtle and all in 99 words. If there’s anything to say to improve it, I think the last paragraph might benefit from reworking – given everything else here it feels almost like unnecessarily lengthy exposition… but I really am being picky.
So there you have it. The benefits of completely blind judging means our winner and our second placed entrant is one and the same: Sarah Brentyn.
Take a bow, smarty pants….
Read the full collection at Rodeo #1: Dialog.
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.