Writing Advice and Inspiration from WD’s Popular Fiction Award Winners


Writer’s Digest would like to congratulate the winners of the 13th Annual Popular Fiction Awards. Each year, writers submit their very best short stories in one of six categories: crime, horror, romance, science fiction, thriller, and young adult. The winners of this year’s awards were chosen from over 875 entries and represent the very best in genre fiction. Please join us in congratulating our winners!

For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.

Below, discover helpful writing advice and inspiration from our esteemed winners:

What is your favorite line from your story?

“I gotta go, Ma. The neighbors are back, and I have their mail.” —Allison Keeton, “Nosey Neighbors”

“A man of many secrets, Nyllen was. But no better friend could be found among men.”—CaReese Rials, “The Poisoned Seed”

“Now I had the police thinking I was crazy, it had been suggested that I try not to be too nosey and the man asked if Frankie had a bite history.” —Diana Bredeson, “Not in My Neighborhood!”

“Arabelle!” His voice struck her heart like a clock striking midnight, its fury, passion, and terror setting a pendulum of darkest fate into motion… —Michelle Lindsey, “The Ghost of Arabelle Vale”

“It was beautiful, but I was empty.” —Julia Lemyre-Cossette, “Widow”

“Reaping Day had arrived.” —Matthew Goldstein, “Reaping Day”

“Stop right there, duck snot.” —Susan Tims, “Lunch at The Double H”

“Huey was a career criminal without the brains or ambition to be good at it.” —Eugene Bedell, “Easy Money”

“It was five o’clock in the evening and Simon Marbly sat hunched in an indigo wingback chair, wearing an expression of defeat.” —Irina Novac, “Simon Marbly”

“Senior year of high school is amazing because your life is beginning, but senior year of college is terrifying because your life is beginning.” —Jack Croughwell, “Love, Ben”

“The only thing I see is a madman with half-baked theories who just ended his career.” —David Woolston, “Dark Matters”

“The pirate inches toward us along the wall like a prison escapee, keeping as much distance between himself and the TV as he can.” —Darren French, “When I Was Your Age”

“It was never mistletoe or the soft contours of a newborn’s faces. Those things were reserved for fluffy, white clouds. Ice harbored cold images with jagged lines and sharp teeth. Stark contrast between lights and darks, the only hues, the intoxicating yellow-brown of decay.” —Jay Heathcote, “The Rocks”

Though giants were more interesting than chores, if [Day Dreamer] didn’t get her sowing done soon, she’d still be working when the moon dragged the shadows from the trees. —Barbara Layman, “Day Dreamer and the Sleeping Giants”

“New leaders replaced the old until there were no leaders left.” —John Bowie, “The Hole”

“She looked at his hand and crinkled her nose in distaste—it was smooth and soft, and smelled like he’d washed it too many times, trying to remove his sins.” —Jennifer Ridge, “Plant Food”

“It had taken her about 30 minutes to fully appear on the photo, but it had taken her much longer to disappear from the self she had always known down in that basement.” —Renee Roberson, “The Polaroid”

“How many more of these do you suppose I’ll see before I retire?” Doc asked Rogers.

“Depends on when you retire, Doc. If you retire today, none. If you retire tomorrow, very possibly more.” —Theresa Konwinski, “The Burial of John Doe”

Anthony Stanton smirked. “Rich people are never crazy, Jack—just eccentric. Remember that.” —Richard Arbib, “Mr. Bender’s Will”



What are the benefits and challenges of writing short stories or writing in your genre?

I like to write funny horror. I like to develop evil or insane characters who could live next-door to us and live seemingly rich and rewarding normal lives. The short story is a great way to do that. —Susan Tims, “Lunch at The Double H”

You get to tell a complete story without committing to a full novel. —CaReese Rials, “The Poisoned Seed”

I think the biggest challenge in writing romance is avoiding stereotypes or over doing it. Good literary romance is like real life romance: You should flirt your way in, not overwhelm the reader with clichés. —Julia Lemyre-Cossette, “Widow”

They are writing calisthenics—exercises that don’t take over my life like my novels, but that include all the elements of serious fiction. Moreover, I’ve come to believe that if you can’t write a compelling short story that holds a reader’s interest, your hopes to write a publishable novel are doomed. —Eugene Bedell, “Easy Money”

The clear challenge for me is letting the thing fly out the window in hopes that it doesn’t come back too beat up and bloody. —David Woolston, “Dark Matters”

Short stories are quick, fun blasts, the punk rock of the literary world. They may only take thirty-or-so minutes to read, but they can be powerful little ditties that stay with you for a long time. —Darren French, “When I Was Your Age”

For a thriller with a simple, clever, plot twist, the short story is a great fit. There’s not always enough meat on the bone for a full-fledged novel, but it’s still a story worth telling. —Jay Heathcote, “The Rocks”

I love children’s picture books so the short form is perfect for crafting stories in that genre. For kids learning to read, it’s another example of why every word counts. —Barbara Layman, “Day Dreamer and the Sleeping Giants”

I think horror leaves open the full breadth of human emotion. Horror inherently creates feelings in the audience that they avoid in their daily lives. If other genres draw too heavily from those emotions, they turn into horror. Horror has the benefit of the full emotional palette.           I don’t think horror has to be outright scary—it is much more interesting to me to read something that is alarming in how it makes me think, like a thought experiment. —John Bowie, “The Hole”

The biggest challenge is to find the right place to end it. Open endings are fine—they can work out really well sometimes, if your goal is to forever leave people in suspense—but the story still has to feel complete. —Jennifer Ridge, “Plant Food”

Finding the time to write is the most difficult part. —Richard Arbib, “Mr. Bender’s Will”

Don’t take too much time to set up scenes. You only have a little space to get to the point. No long sentences or long paragraphs. And it has to be free from typos. Nothing takes a reader out of the story faster than typos. In short, a good editor is the key. —Susan Tims, “Lunch at The Double H”

It took me a long time to realize I didn’t need paragraphs of exposition to get my ideas across. If my protagonist meets a pulsating blob that communicates via telepathy, I merely show it and don’t sweat the details. That’s part of what makes short fiction so fun to write and read. You don’t have room to explain everything, so in many cases, the author relies on the reader’s imagination. —Darren French, “When I Was Your Age”


Where do you get your ideas?

Twists on real life. I’m always wondering “what if this happened instead.” Everything I read or hear, I imagine it happening just slightly differently, or a person having a different reaction or a secret.— Allison Keeton, “Nosey Neighbors”

Many of my ideas have come from my travels. I find that being in a place that is unfamiliar really triggers my imagination. It’s probably because it makes it seem full of possibilities. —Julia Lemyre-Cossette, “Widow”

The primary source [for my ideas] is dreams. I used to sleep with a paper and pen beside my bed (now a cellphone) so that when I woke up I could record any interesting ideas that occurred in the dream. I would write the essence of an idea rather than a plot, just something to get my gears going. Of course, most of these were duds that seemed interesting only at the time. However, every once in a while, I get truly inspired by some fantastical element in my dream. —Matthew Goldstein, “Reaping Day”

Ideas are never a problem for me. My good imagination took the place of a memory, of which I have none. My memory is so bad, people around me forget things. —Eugene Bedell, “Easy Money”

Almost never from articles that say “21 Prompts That Will Unclog Your Writer’s Block” or whatever they’re titled, I stopped reading them. —Jack Croughwell, “Love, Ben”

Primarily from long drives. I typically do not listen to the music or the radio if I’ve got a long-haul drive. Instead, I’ll kind of meditate on stories as the miles pass. I find it stimulating. Often after the rides, I talk with my dogs about the ideas. They are excellent listeners. —John Bowie, “The Hole”


What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

If you’re going to be a writer, you have to write. You can’t talk about writing. You can’t wish to write. While thinking about your work in the shower is part of the writing process, you won’t have anything to think about if you haven’t sat down and put something on the page. Anything on the page. [Also,] if you’re not willing to edit and take feedback, walk away from the game. — Allison Keeton, “Nosey Neighbors”

If you really want it, don’t give up! —Diana Bredeson, “Not in My Neighborhood!”

Write 15 minutes a day, because if you write once a week for 2 hours at a time, it will take you twice as long to get back into your groove, your entire process is slowed down and it can make your writing seem choppy. 15 minutes is a short time in a day and can be squeezed in almost every day. But it can be enough to decide what your character will do next or to rework that one scene that wasn’t quite right. It can also be enough to brainstorm and get a new story going. —Julia Lemyre-Cossette, “Widow”

[A] life-changing piece of writing advice one of my writer friends gave me has been to write “outside of myself.” —Irina Novac, “Simon Marbly”

The best writing advice I’ve ever received comes from my buddy Bob, who said, in response to all the writing advice, “You need to take away what works for you.” —Jack Croughwell, “Love, Ben”

You can’t edit it if you don’t write it. I’ve heard this advice time and time again from many sources, so I think it’s starting to stick. —David Woolston, “Dark Matters”

My wife once told me that every character in a story should have something they want, some motivation, even if the reader never finds out what that motivation is throughout the course of the story. From that line of thinking, a fully-fleshed character can emerge because now they have dreams and aspirations. —Darren French, “When I Was Your Age”

An art teacher once advised, “Draw what you see, not what you think should be there.” I think of stories the same way. Don’t drown it in color and fluffy description if that’s not what the story’s about. —Barbara Layman, “Day Dreamer and the Sleeping Giants”

If the conflict can be solved with a simple conversation between two people, it’s not strong enough. This may not be as accurate for short stories, but I’ve read a lot of novels where the entire premise is based on characters misunderstanding each other. It’s so frustrating as a reader when I know the solution and the characters persist in ignorance. —Jennifer Ridge, “Plant Food”

An editor at a conference told me not to force a style just because I thought it was trendy, and once I quit doing that, the story flowed much more smoothly. —Renee Roberson, “The Polaroid”

What advice do you have for other who are writing short stories?

If you don’t enjoy writing, maybe it’s not for you. If you do enjoy writing but don’t know if your work is good, join a writers group. Find one that uses encouragement and gentle criticism. Once you feel more confident, find a larger audience. But, clothe yourself in thick skin. Not everyone is kind. —Susan Tims, “Lunch at The Double H”

Read as much as you can and write every day. It seems trite but I believe there is wisdom in those words. At one time I used to spend all my time reading books about writing and I wasn’t producing anything. It’s only when I started writing every day that I had material that I could then edit (or send to a contest!). —CaReese Rials, “The Poisoned Seed”

Write as if technology doesn’t exist. Write timelessly. (Unless, of course, technology and time are the premise of the story.) —Irina Novac, “Simon Marbly”

It’s best, no matter how short the story is, to have something actually happen between the beginning and the end. —David Woolston, “Dark Matters”

Edit other people’s writing. You’ll learn to edit your own writing, and also learn to let yourself be edited. —John Bowie, “The Hole”

Have as many people read your work as possible before you publish it. My very first self-published novel was only read by a friend and a proofreader, and I look back on that book with slight embarrassment. It’s not necessarily that the story is bad, but that it could have been so much better if I’d only had someone to point out the plot holes and potential for more at the time. —Jennifer Ridge, “Plant Food”


What can you not live without in your writing life?

Feedback! —Susan Tims, “Lunch at The Double H”

Music is essential. It helps me focus and minimizes distractions. Surprising fact: my Janet Jackson playlist is my secret weapon. I do my best writing when I’m listening to her music. —CaReese Rials, “The Poisoned Seed”

The support, honesty and encouragement of my family and friends. Being outside would be a close second, it helps me relax and come up with ideas. —Diana Bredeson, “Not in My Neighborhood!”

Three things: prayer, a quiet room, and lots of coffee. —Michelle Lindsey, “The Ghost of Arabelle Vale”

As long as I have a mechanical pencil, or a decent pen, and a notebook, I can pretty much write anywhere. Once I have my first draft completed or near competition, I do depend on my laptop for the revision process. —Irina Novac, “Simon Marbly”

Books! Read, read, read. That’s the key, I think. Plus, it’s fun!

Silence. All I need is absolute silence and something to record the ideas that come pouring out. —Jay Heathcote, “The Rocks”

Cut and paste! Revisions are a nightmare without it. —Theresa Konwinski, “The Burial of John Doe”

I should say coffee but I’m actually going to go with The Investigation Discovery Channel, ha ha! I get so many ideas for stories and plot twists from the shows I see on there, and People Magazine Investigates and Vanity Fair Confidential are two of my favorites. —Renee Roberson, “The Polaroid”


 

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