How To Make the Most of a Writing Contest

Snow-draped treesOkay writer, raise your hand if this has ever happened to you.  (It’s okay.  Nobody’s lookin’.):

You’re cruising the internet, local bookstore or writer’s group and come across an announcement for a writing contest.  It may be fiction or non.  Short story, humor, poetry.  Whatever.  You’re intrigued.  You check out the guidelines.  Polish your best material to a solar sheen, submit, and cross your fingers.

The results are announced.  You didn’t win.  Your work of genius not only didn’t win, it didn’t place or show.  The runners-up and honorable mention categories didn’t thaw your tree, either.

When Your Dog Could’ve Done Better

Disheartening, isn’t it?  Especially when the piece that snagged “winner” laurels is as dull as a spoon. As dry as the Atacama in August.  As imaginative as last week’s headlines.

Your dog could’ve done better.

A twinge – or maybe a truckload – of professional envy tugs at your sleeve.  You shake your head and mutter, “If that is a ‘winning entry’, then I’m the tooth fairy.”  Doubt and disappointment grapple with disbelief and discouragement.  You know your work is good.  But you just can’t break into the winner’s circle of a writing contest.

Maybe…

Maybe you need to read the contest rules more closely next time, making sure your submission is a good fit?  A review of past winners can be instructive, too, letting you know what judges (who are these people?) are looking for and why? Maybe you ought to hike into the nearest Himalayan hillside and become a hermit?

Been there, done that.  I’ve won writing contests – usually the type that specialize in smart-alecky – and haven’t even made the first cut in others. So, what’s a writer to do when your best crashes and burns?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t take it personally.  This may be the most obvious, but it’s also the hardest.  Rejection hurts.  Especially when you’ve worked hard to win, maybe for weeks or months, and the trophy goes to some barely literate peasant who’s been at the craft for twenty whole minutes.  Realize that losing may be the result of factors beyond your control: bribery, cronyism, nepotism, lack of name recognition, judicial vapidity, blindness, a shortage of tea in China…
  • Resist the temptation to pillory the judges.  This may be easier said than done. But realize that not all of these folks are residents of Mars or sport red tails and pitchforks.  They may have misjudged your abilities, but blasting back only makes you look small, petty, and amateurish.  It’s also a sure-fire way to get yourself banned from future contests.  Don’t go there.
  • Share your disappointment with a sympathetic ear, like a literary friend, colleague or relative.  I’m not suggesting spending the next twelve years wallowing in a pity party.  But rejection hurts.  Be honest about it with someone you can trust.  Get it out of your system.  Then make plans to move on.
  • When you have your legs back under you, ask a seasoned writer with a successful track record for some honest feedback.  Most will be gracious (notice I said most).  We all have blind spots.  Some honest feedback and tips could open your eyes and improve your chances next time.

Was Going to Say…

Snowy road, sunThis is the part where I’m supposed to say, “Try again.”  I was going to say that. Maybe hum a few bars of “the sun will come out tomorrow, but your bottom dollar….”  But if you’ve gathered your courage, worked hard, polished and submitted your very best to a contest with less than stellar results, the Pollyanna thing rings a bit hollow, doesn’t it?

Not to mention trite.

So rather than sugarcoat disappointment, I’m going to tell you the truth: Writing contests aren’t for everyone.  Only you can decide whether or not they’re for you.  Whether or not you want to risk it.  Whether your confidence as a writer can withstand repeated losses.  If losing a contest or two or three or more is going to make you fade and fold as a writer, you may want to forego that route.  If your confidence in your skills is enough to brush off the disappointment and keep plugging, have at it.  Just choose wisely.

Not the Sum Total

Also, realize that winning or losing writing contests shouldn’t be considered the sole, sum total of your writing abilities.  Contest results may be little more than a contrived compilation of ignorance or lack of imagination.  Sometimes both.  It’s easy to think that contest winners are somehow better writers.  Have achieved a stamp of approval you’re still longing for.  Or that you stink as a writer.  Maybe you have some learning and growing to do, but don’t let that loss rip the wind out of your sails forever.

‘See Spot Run’

I’ve seen clever, beautifully crafted Hemingway-esque entries thrown under the bus because they were four words over the word limit.  Meanwhile, the “winner” was akin to See Spot.  See Spot run.  See Spot run fast, but came in under the magic number.  What does that tell you?

Sometimes there’s just no accounting for taste.  Or the lack of it.

So again, if writing contests aren’t getting you where you want to be, let ’em go.  Take a break.  Plug into other venues.  Maybe polish that entry and submit it to a magazine, an ezine, or a non-profit that fits.  Offer it as a guest post to another blogger.

Keep writing, practicing, polishing and perfecting.  You’ve got something to say.  A story to share.  Keep at it and your audience will find you – with or without that blue ribbon.

Have you entered a writing contest and were disappointed in the results?  How did you respond?

And So It Barks…

If you’ve been reading along for any length of time – say, 20 minutes or so – you probably know I’ve always felt that the world should be divided into two main camps: Dog Lovers and Other. (If you’re a feline fan, sorry. Naw. Not really.) You may also know that I wrote a book about our good dog, Eve, who passed away around Christmas 2013. And that our house has been dog-less ever since.

In the finale of my recent blog post Christmas, Eve, I told you I’d have an update for you on the dog front. Well. Here she is:

Her name is Kimber.  About six months old. Isn’t she a beauty?

Kimber was quite the li’l nipper when she joined us in late August. She’s calmed down quite a bit since then. But she’s a puppy and excitable. If you come visit, I can pretty much guarantee she’ll think the sun rises and sets on you. And greet you accordingly. (I’d bring treats ‘fize you.)

Part Golden Retriever. Part Lab. Part Border Collie. All heart. Way smarter than me. I’m thinking of re-naming her. How does “Einstein” sound? Also in the running: “Cicero.” Or “Typhoon.”

wp-image-2116531908jpg.jpegIn the past few months since Kimber came to us via the local dog rescue outfit, she’s learned “Sit,” “Stay,” “Come,” and “Down.” How to navigate 13 steps by herself. Let herself out. Open doors. Walk on a leash. NOT to eat Dad’s slippers. How to play football (sort of). Lie down while I write (most of the time. Nobody’s perfect.) And jitterbug.

Told you she’s way smarter than me.

I’ve called her “Eve” more than once. Call it a “Freudian slip.” They don’t even look alike. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to have a dog in the house.  After getting Kimber, however, I can’t imagine having a dog-less house again.

I may even have to write about it. Again. 🙂

Best wishes for a happy, healthy 2017 to your and yours, dear readers!

What are your writing goals for the new year?

Forever, Eve

Forever, Eve

A Dog’s Story

Christmas, EVE

J and E

A half full bag of Purina One dog chow sits in a corner of my kitchen. I should pass it on.

But I can’t.

Friends and family say, “Our dog is expecting puppies soon. You can have the pick of the litter.”

But I can’t.

Selecting a Christmas ham the other day, I thought about which tidbits I’d tidy to the dog dish, saving them for Evie.

And then I remembered.

A boon companion of fourteen-plus years, Eve passed away on December 19. The Eve-less days that followed gimped along with the alacrity of crippled snails on crutches.  Emotions rose and fell like the tide. The traditional merriment suggested by the calendar mingled with bereavement, stirring up a cocktail both sweet and tart, like strawberry-rhubarb pie. I didn’t know which flavor to bite in to. And finally chose neither.

“I’ve decided,” I said to husband Chris three days before Christmas. “I want to scatter Eve’s ashes at the Mountain.”

Sam and Josiah, eve and blankets

Chris didn’t ask which one. In Washington State, there’s only one.

The Mountain

Our yellow Lab knew Mount Rainier well. Even though she wasn’t allowed on the trails or in any building, Eve loved camping trips to the Mountain. In fact, Evie didn’t seem to care where she was – as long as she was with us.

The first time we took her camping at Ohanapecosh on the southeast hip of Mount Rainier National Park, Eve was uber-miffed about being left outside the tent for the night. As in, “What’s the deal with this, family? How come you’re in there and I’m out here?!”  After making her consternation clear, Eve wound up inside, where she promptly plopped onto my feet and drifted into a contented sleep.

And so Mount Rainier was a natural choice for our final goodbye to Eve.

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Cramming a last-minute trip to the Mountain into Christmas Eve meant a long, glacial, and exhausting day. But I couldn’t stand the thought of waiting until spring. Chris agreed, which is how we wound up heading to Mount Rainier the morning of December 24.

Seclusion on the Southwest Flank

The car was quiet as we churned out the miles to Ashford and a secluded glen near the Mountain’s southwest flank. Because it requires a steady uphill climb and good land navigation skills to find, the quiet meadow sees few visitors. We discovered it on a previous hike and were dazzled by its September beauty, bursting with blueberries and late wildflowers, hemmed by a laughing creek and soaring evergreens.

The three of us – me, Chris and youngest son Josiah (14) – stopped, parked, and took our time, breath exhaling in frosty plumes as we wordlessly crunched over virgin snow to a corner of the meadow. The Mountain towered overhead in ermine mantle and white-satin snow skirts. An achingly blue sky hung out wood smoke in rungs.

Chris retrieved the urn of Eve’s ashes from his back pack and handed it to me. Clumsy in thick winter gloves, my fingers fumbled with the lid. Maybe it wasn’t just the gloves. I handed the urn back to Chris. He opened it and handed it back.

I knew the protocol. Last words. A final goodbye. Toss.

I couldn’t do it.

The three of us stood there, sniffling. None of us trusted our voices. After a few minutes Chris offered a brief prayer. We said nothing more, choosing to be alone with our separate thoughts of a gentle yellow Lab who came to us as a “cast off” but snuggled her way into our hearts as few have.

Standing in the snow in the winter shadow of the Mountain, we took turns scattering Eve’s ashes. Toes turned numb. Noses reddened. Cherry-cheeked winds scrubbed cyan skies.

Josiah and Eve

And we remembered.

“Good bye Evie” I finally whispered, holding a fine powder of ash in one gloved hand. “You were a good girl. We will never forget you.” I was the last to let her go, ashes floating on a galloping wind riding hard to Puget Sound.

We drove into the park, stopping at Evie’s favorite places. A water dog, Eve loved the Nisqually River. Ohanapecosh. Tipsoo Lake. Christine and Narada Falls. We stopped near Cougar Rock Campground to chain up. We camped there a few years back, the six of us and Eve. The campground is closed now, asleep under a thick quilt of snow.

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We made it to Paradise by early afternoon. The alpine aerie is usually smothered under thirty feet of snow – sometimes more – from October through May. Once thawed, Paradise hosts outrageous wildflower runs in July and August, when its world-famous meadows erupt in a glorious bouquet of Renoir pastels. If you’re quick, you can glimpse creamy white dollops of avalanche lilies, waxy-yellow petals of Suksdorf’s buttercup, clusters of fragrant Sitka Valerian, pink bistorts, red-spotted monkey flowers and purple lupine. These vast carpets of floral color brush an iridescent canvas, but their blossoms are as brief as they are dazzling.

Like life.

Afternoon faded and cotton-candy clouds fluttered over the Tatoosh Mountains like pennants over Yankee Stadium. Fog crept into valleys. Temperatures took a nose dive. We headed back to Longmire, the Nisqually entrance, and the three-hour return trip home. Just past Longmire, Josiah opted to remain in the car listening to Amy Grant croon about chestnuts and an open fire while Chris and I stopped at Tahoma Creek. We walked to the bridge and listened to the frigid waters rush to the Sound as a cirrus sunset draped the sky in peppermint, grape and tangerine.

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Remembering

Shivering in the deepening dusk, I remembered how Eve and I watched scores of Little League games together. I shivered in the bleachers until she apparently figured this out – and managed to maneuver her large self in front of me, using her thick fur coat as a wind break. I also remembered:

  • A gusty December morning in 2007, when Eve wasn’t herself. She seemed agitated, on edge. A few hours later the Storm of the Century hit, plunging us into three days without power and heat. Somehow she knew. And I learned to pay attention.
  • When son Nathan, then 14, returned from an eight-day hospital stay with a plate and seven screws in his leg, the result of a fractured femur. Eve was the first to greet him at the door. She never left his side during three long months of convalescence, crutches and rehab.
  • Eve-style fetch.  She’d plunk a “retrieving” stick down at my feet after half a dozen tosses, look up in her a matter-of-fact, clear-as-the-nose-on-my-face doggie way and say: “You want that thing? You go get it.”
  • How Eve  roamed the house when I was out of town for a few days. She reportedly checked every room over and over, looking for me. She bowled me over with joy when I returned home, tawny tail wagging in furious delight.
  • Tripping over Eve coming down ice-slicked stairs at the school. I nursed skinned hands and knees while she stood apologetically at my side, head cocked, tongue lolling, until I was able to hobble home, gripping her back for balance. …

And then I heard it. Probably from a passing vehicle. Or maybe I just imagined it: A dog bark. Just once. Then night swirled out of the sky, punctuated by the sigh of a Northwest wind.

“Christmas, Eve”

Christmas is a season when we give and receive tokens of love. Eve gave not tokens, but love itself. The Mountain gives reminders that winter doesn’t get the last word.

This season of bereavement will thaw.

Snow will retreat. Chinook winds will swim over Paradise meadows. Wildflowers will burst into Renoir bloom. Spring will come again to the Mountain, as it will to us. When it does, I will remember Eve’s last gift. It came not in physical form or tangible shape like those items found under trees on December 25th, but in the solitude of a snow-studded meadow, an achingly blue sky, soaring evergreens and the cool kindliness of memory.

Christmas, Eve. Indeed.*

Eve and snow, lick

***

Eve passed away on December 19, 2013. This post and its companion, Forever, Eve, were the highest rated posts of 2013. You can read more about our ‘best girl’ in my new book, Forever, Eve.

 

* Watch for an update on the dog front! Coming soon!

 

Forever, Eve

Our ‘best girl,’ Eve, passed away on December 19, 2013. This post and its follow-on, Christmas, EVE, were the two highest rated posts of the year. Both posts plus much more are in my new book: Forever, Eve.

***

“Animal lovers are a special breed of human, generous of spirit, full of empathy, perhaps a little prone to sentimentality and with hearts as big as a cloudless sky.”

– John Grogan, Marley & Me

With Evie

Her name was Eve. And she was more “human” than most people.

Our first dog and the only other female in the family, “Eve” seemed a natural when considering names for our purebred yellow Labrador retriever. She came into our lives at age three, a “cast off” from a church friend who worked long hours and had “no time” for a dog who “needed people to be happy.” Eve stayed for more than eleven years.

My four sons grew up with her. Romped through the woods together. Splashed in the river. Swam in the lake. Hiked the hills. Played cowboys and Indians. Robin Hood and his Merry Men (it seemed Eve was inevitably assigned the role of Friar Tuck, which somehow seems fitting). We took her just about everywhere: camping trips, Mount Rainier, picnics, reunions, baseball games. Forest, field and vale. “Hi Evie!” I chirped every morning. “How’s my best girl?” She returned the salutation with a cheerful tail thump.

Dog marsh II

Forever, Eve

The color of toasted marshmallows with the personality of Pooh Bear, Eve thought everyone was her best friend. She loved everyone equally and well. Eve brought out the best in and thought the best of everyone. She was loyal, loving and generous. Protective. An eternal optimist. She couldn’t wait till I arrived home and danced a canine jig every time I walked in the door. She would quietly pad into my study and plop herself down on the carpet next to my desk, keeping me company as I read and wrote and worked. Even when every other family member scattered to the four winds with work, school, sports or other pursuits, I was never alone. There was always Eve. Forever, Eve.

My good dog seemed to know whenever I was stressed, ill, upset, or otherwise out of it. She stuck to me like crazy glue, refusing to leave my side. Eve also stuck with me through moves and new neighborhoods, injuries, surgeries, job losses, birthdays, and graduations. Funerals, weddings, Christmas parties and kid illnesses. She was my faithful companion over hundreds of miles of trails and hikes, with an uncomplaining, “just-happy-to-be-here, thanks-for-bringing-me-Mom” attitude.

Eve and Josiah 2

“Lady With The Lab”

I’m told that I was known around town as the “Lady with the Lab.” I suppose it’s true. When my boon companion was younger and more spry, I rarely went anywhere without her – either by vehicle or on foot. Eve was my faithful companion on long morning walks and strolls on the beach until increasing age and arthritis caught up with her. No longer able to climb the stairs to son Nathan’s upstairs bedroom, her preferred sleeping quarters, Eve settled for a warm blanket and a cozy dog bed near a living room heating vent.

The last year of her life, Eve was unable to navigate the thirteen steep steps in and out of our house. So she trained my teenage sons. Seriously. She barked whenever she needed to go out or come up. And they carried her.

Dog marsh 1

Not Long

When Eve’s fourteen-plus years caught up with her, she deteriorated quickly. It was shocking how fast she faded. She refused food, including her favorite doggie treats. Stopped barking altogether. Could barely manage a feeble tail thump when I entered the room.

“She’s an old dog” the vet said, demonstrating a masterful grasp of the obvious. “She doesn’t have much longer.”

“Is she in pain?” I asked.

“No. She’ll probably just go to sleep and not wake up. Or I could put her down.”

I shook my head, unable to bear the thought of artificially hastening the imminent. Husband Chris didn’t argue. Eve was always “my” dog more than she was anyone else’s. It was my decision.

“As long as she’s not suffering,” I murmured, “I want her to die at home, surrounded by everything and everyone she loves. Not in some impersonal, sterile vet clinic.”

J and Eve

We kept her as comfortable as possible, often waking in the wee hours to tip-toe out to her dog bed and check on her. Relieved at the shallow but rhythmic rise and fall of her chest, I crawled back into bed or sat and talked to her, scratching her ears and rubbing her belly the way she loved.

“We All Do”

The morning of December 19 yawned chill and charcoal gray. Frost feathered rooftops. Lawns wore ice pajamas. I spent most of the morning coaxing liquids into Eve. Adjusting her blanket. Stroking her tawny blond coat. I knew it wouldn’t be long. “You are a good girl, Evie, and I love you. We all do.”

Domestic duties called and I retired to the kitchen. Less than an hour later, son Nathan (21) came into the kitchen with, “I think Eve is gone.” I dashed to the living room, hoping against hope for any sign of life. A pulse. Breath. Anything. There was nothing. She was limp but still warm. And completely, undeniably gone.

The kindest, gentlest soul I’ve ever known, Eve passed away peacefully in her sleep a few days before Christmas.

The season isn’t the same without her. Those who’ve never lost a pet can’t understand. Those who have need no explanation.

Josiah and Evie

Too Deep

I called Chris at work. “I need you to come home. Now.”  He did.

“She was always your dog,” Chris said as we gently lifted Eve’s lifeless body into our van for transport to the pet cemetery. “Good girl” I whispered upon arrival, stroking the noble golden head and back in a final goodbye. I removed Eve’s collar and tags and slipped them into my pocket. It was some time before I could bear to leave her.

Some losses are too deep for tears.

Silent Night

An anemic sun dumped dull rays out of a flannel-gray sky as we arrived home to an Eve-less house – for the first time in more than a decade. Thick as a chocolate milkshake, memories poured out of every corner. The house seemed eerily empty and unnaturally quiet without the welcoming bark of my ‘best girl,’ the jangle of her dog tags. The ears pricked at the sound of my voice. The warm amber eyes following my every move. Her black licorice nose gently butting me for attention.

Holy Night

A frosted moon necklaced the Olympic Mountains as I offered a quiet prayer of thanks for the truest friend I’ve ever known.  A few hours later, a thin white fleece of snow jacketed the foothills.

I still can’t stand to see or hear dog commercials. I avoid the pet care and dog food aisles. I woke more than once in the pre-dawn gloaming today, thinking I heard her voice. Sometimes I catch myself straining for a “good morning” bark, the flash of a tawny tail.

with Eve

Evie is gone. And so is a large chunk of my heart.

It’s hard to describe the heart-hole left by the loss of a well-loved pet. But then, Eve wasn’t a pet. She was never “just a dog.” Compassionate, patient, loyal, and selfless to the end, Eve was a palomino sirocco on four legs. A member of the family.

All is Calm

Shortly before her death, I knelt next to her and told her the truth, Marley-esque style. “Eve,” I whispered, “You are a GREAT dog. You are The Best There Ever Was.”

John Grogan put it this way:

“A dog judges others not by their color or creed or class but by who they are inside. A dog doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his.”

All is…

I did and Eve did. Her heart was indeed “as big as a cloudless sky.”   Eve was more “human” than most people – and our lives are better and brighter  for having held her in our hearts. Forever.  She truly was The Best.

Good night, sweet girl.

Sleep in heav’nly peace.

Evie's stuff 1

Read Eve’s full story at Forever, Eve the book.

Stille Nacht – Just in Time for Christmas

Solitude can be hard to find in our rush-rush, hurry up, instant everything society. Grabbing a few quiet moments to refresh and recharge can be a challenge any time, but it’s particularly tough  during the holidays, huh?

If holiday merry-making has you ready to tear your hair out or your festive feathers are a bit ruffled, this is for you.

Slow down. Sit down with this old favorite for about five minutes. Give Manheim Steamroller’s Stille Nacht (Silent Night) a listen. You’ll be glad you did.

Know anyone else who could use a yuletide boost? Don’t forget to share!

WATCH: Soaring Rendition of Christmas Classic

There’s only one voice that does my #1 favorite Christmas carol justice: Andrea Bocelli. Aka: La Voce. Why? Cuz there’s nothing like hearing a world-class Italian tenor render O Holy Night like a world-class tenor. In the original French.

But, alas. Andrea has been dethroned by the Home Free vocal band. Watch their stunning a capella version of O Holy Night:

Now. Can someone please tell Mr. Black Hat to kindly lose his Stetson while inside a church?

Find out more about the country a capella quintet Home Free here.

What’s your favorite Christmas carol? Let us know with a comment.

Christmas ‘In the Corner’

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Candles in the window. Lights up on the tree. Sleigh bells. Mistletoe. Apple-cheeked kids rushing in from a snowy sled run. Hot chocolate and marshmallows. Carols and cantatas. Family. Friends. And…  loneliness so thick and heavy, it could crush a camel.

Yes, friends. The holidays aren’t full of fa-la-la-la-la-ing for everyone. In fact, this can be an especially tough time of year for some. Those facing a job loss or a cut in income. A divorce. An involuntary move. The frostiness of an unresolved conflict. Bad news from the doctor. Betrayal. Feeling utterly alone in the middle of a crowd. Too much money at the end of the month. Distance. One less place set at the table. One less gift under the tree.

If you’ve been there or are there, you know what I mean. And how difficult the holidays can be. Especially if you’re Alone. Or feel that way.

I hear you. It’s one reason I wrote Man in the Corner: A Holiday Story. About newly divorced Mae Taylor and her son Josiah. Their plans to start over solo are jostled when they move next door to Mr. Tom, a lonely widower and retired school teacher. Together, the unlikely trio finds a second chance at faith, hope and love with help from Gettysburg, cookbooks, an attic secret and two ‘Christmas ghosts.’

But I’m also doing something I rarely do here: recommending another author’s novel. With three thumbs up.

It’s called The Mistletoe Secret. By Richard Paul Evans, a perennial favorite. Without giving too much away, it’s a touching, moving story about two lonely people, Alex and Aria, who brave rejection and loss to find love. Exquisitely written as only Evans can, The Mistletoe Secret is vintage Richard Paul: Honest without being preachy. Hopeful without being sappy. Uplifting and fine. About 306 pages. I read it cover-to-cover in about five hours.

While we’re on the subject, I also want to offer a video to those who may be struggling this time of year. You’re not alone. Give this Mark Schultz piece a listen:

Grace. And Merry Christmas!