“Fiction: 1st Place ($300), “The Last Blessing of J. Guyman LeGrand” by Darrin Cozzens of Dobson, North Carolina
2nd Place ($200), “Anonymity” by Laura McCune-Poplin of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
3rd Place ($100), “The End of Happy Endings” by Courtney Miller Santo of Memphis, Tennessee
Honorable Mentions: “Fitness for Life” by Julie Turley of New York, New York; and “Our Students” by Ryan Shoemaker of Burbank, California”
Congratulations all! Now a few words about this years entries, followed by a few recommendations for next year’s contestants.
First, an admission. The final night of judging occurs in Utah and I, alas, was not there. This Texan was on vacation in Oklahoma that night. Because of that, I don’t have firsthand knowledge of how the final decisions played out. I can, however, tell you that I’m happy with the final choices. But the truth is, I’d have been happy with any of the finalists being offered publication.
Darin Cozzens’story, “The Last Blessing of J. Guyman LeGrand,” was the hands-down top-choice for the top-slot. At least, I’ve been told that the judges were unified on this count. Once again, Cozzens gives us a story of a rural Wyoming man, this time letting us see the ironies of life playing out against his patriarchal blessing. Or is it the other way around? The story is not only beautifully written, it is Mormon to its core. If you haven’t picked up Cozzen’s “Light of the New Day and Other Stories,” published through Zarahemla, please do. “The Last Blessing of J. Guyman LeGrand” is an extension of this fantastic collection, which won an honorable mention for short fiction from the Association for Mormon Letters last year.
I loved “Anonymity,” by Laura Poplin-McClune. A missionary tale set in France, “Anonymity” might lull a reader into thinking that it is simply another tale of missionaries seeking ways to do good around the holidays. But Poplin-McClune has crafted a multi-layered story that explores the motivations behind such desires and, at the same time, given us a delightful little love story, something literary fiction often skips.
Courtney Miller Santo’s story “The End of Happy Endings” follows a Mormon mom, a Primary leader, in her ill-fated quest to fellowship the Black family, who is, of course, a black family. Santo faces squarely the residuals of the Church’s past policies on race, providing a gripping tale of failed good intentions.
Ryan Shoemaker received an Honorable Mention for “Our Students,” a well-crafted story about an LDS high school teacher who aspires to be anything but, but feels stuck until an act of violence propels him forward.
Finally, “Fitness for Life” by Julie Turley won the judges over, earning an honorable mention, with its fresh voice and delightful humor. As you can probably guess by the title, it’s a BYU story, a story focused on finding love, among other things, but it stood out because of its unrelenting tongue-in-cheek, playful attitude about what being a BYU student in quest of love and/or perfection looks like. Which is pretty darn funny. From the outside anyway. Turley’s going to have to do a little work on her ending (says the fiction editor), but her voice was so unlike anything Irreantum usually receives, the judges felt compelled to award her an honorable mention. You’ll enjoy this read.
Now for the advice. Other judges might give you different advice and you should keep in mind that I may or may not be on the Irreantum staff during the next round of contest judging, but I’d like to share my thoughts as one who has seen the pool of entries and participated in the process for a few years now. Irreantum, of course, wants the strongest stories we can get, but we are also one of the few places left that is committed to helping new writer’s polish their craft. This means that writers are not only competing to be one of the best-crafted stories, but also to be one that resonates best with judges on an emotional level. Quite frankly and IMO, sometimes the judges pass up the better-crafted stories in favor of stories that surprise us or move us, even if the writing needs some work. Also, the better-crafted stories may be passed over if they lack a definite relevance to the Mormon culture. So having the “best” written story does not necessarily guarantee a top slot.
This year, in particular, we counted a strong number of pretty well-crafted stories in our finalist batch, but there were several which I was (and apparently other judges were) willing to put aside simply because the writer seemed to inject some Mormon aspect into the story much like a cook injects a beer baste into a Thanksgiving turkey. It just wasn’t natural and didn’t really give them that Mormon flavor we love. Sometimes we do select a story like this, but remember, one of Irreantum‘s goals is to promote literature about Mormons. The more deeply Mormon your story is, the more likely it is to win. Consider Jack Harrell’s “Calling and Election.” Now if you can craft a deeply Mormon story in such a way that it will resonate outside our culture, so much the better. Over the years, Darin Cozzens has performed well in Irreantum contests precisely because he writes characters from a predominantely Mormon world, dealing with Mormon issues, in a way that is accessible to non-Mormons. Again, read “Light of the New Day and Other Stories.” (But don’t think you have to or should write the rural Mormon experience. Give us something fresh, unless, of course, you happen to be from rural Mormondom.)
Watch your endings. Make sure you know the difference between ambiguity and vagueness. There is nothing more frustrating than reading through a story, loving it, only to come to a meaningless ending or a non-ending, a story that just stops. If you aspire to that open-ended literary ending, make sure there are multiple interpretational options for the reader to think about. Make sure you’ve written it to a solid end. I love this cartoon. If you can’t read the caption, the man holding the paper says, “I can’t seem to find the ‘surprise’ ending.” And the writer responds, “That’s the surprise.” And that is the feeling I had when reading over certain stories that moved along well, but then just stopped without really ending. Remember, the ambiguity comes through the reader’s interpretation of the story facts/actions. Absence of necessary facts makes it impossible for there to be ambiguity. (I think I feel a Discussion for Writer’s brewing in here.)
Anyway, future contest entrants, plan to evaluate and re-evaluate endings before submitting. The truth is, stories win because of strong endings. It is much easier for judges to forgive craft problems in the beginning of a story than at the end. If the end isn’t strong, little else matters.
In a nutshell, write fully Mormon stories that end with power and strength. Simple, right? To those of you who did not make the top ranks, re-evalutate your story. Revise it, and remember, the annual Brookie and D. K. Brown Fiction Contest is revving up. See https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/2011-fiction-contest/ for more information. Good luck!
In the coming day (or week), look for a Discussion for Writers about Ambiguity and also a special post to Women Writers of Mormon Literary Fiction. Be patient w. me as I spend a few days gathering my thoughts. And, as always, thank you for visiting!
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