Extended Q&A with WD's Short Short Story Competition Winner

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“The Vows” by Kelly Dowling is the grand-prize winning story in the 16th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Fiction Competition. It bested more than 6,700 entries to win $3,000 and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City, among other prizes. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the July/August 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here for a complete list of winners from this year’s awards. You can read “The Vows” here. To read the top 25 stories from the competition, please check out the 16th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition Collection.

Dowling is a 25-year-old freelance copyeditor and high school English tutor. She recently launched her first novel, Rogue Elegance, and is currently at work on a young adult dystopian novel.

What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing a successful short story? I think the biggest benefit of writing a short story is the ability to dive feet first into the heart of a character or a conflict. Since you have a limited amount of time and space to say what you want to say, every word counts. It really gives you the chance to sharpen the piece into something concise and meaningful.

The challenge of writing a short story is brevity. As a storyteller, I like words, and I like a lot of them! Keeping things short and sweet has always been my Achilles heel.

Describe your writing process for this story. My writing process for this story involved a lot of tea and a lot of drafting in my faithful moleskin. The unnamed male narrator is sort of my personal Frankenstein’s monster, if you will. He is made up of experiences and anecdotes I’ve gathered from love-struck male peers during my time living on a college campus. I’m usually a fan of writing historical fantasy and science fiction, so for this piece I really tried to stick to the “write what you know” mantra.

Describe “The Vows.” “The Vows” follows the train of thought of a nervous male narrator as he practices a speech before a big day, meaning to deliver the address to the love of his life.

How long have you been writing? I’ve been writing stories since I learned my ABC’s. I lost my hearing to Meningitis when I was a little girl, and, as a result, I spent a great deal of my childhood in total silence. While other kids were making friends, I was dreaming up imaginary worlds and figuring out how to put them on paper.

What started out as a way to play has since turned into a lifelong passion. I’ve recently received my master’s in English and Creative Writing, and I’d love to one day have the opportunity to pour myself completely into my writing.

Who has inspired you as a writer? Oh, this is a tough question to narrow down. So many people have been an inspiration to me. First and foremost I’d have to say my Dad, who spent endless hours reading the Harry Potter series aloud to me when I first received my Cochlear Implant. He gave me his hereditary love of stories, and has always encouraged me to put my wild imagination down on paper.

Which genres do you write in? Do you generally just stick to short stories or flash fiction? I write YA fiction, and am currently working on a dystopian teen novel. When I write short stories, they generally act as more of a writing exercise or a personal passion project. I do occasionally dabble in flash fiction for fun; especially if I find a good prompt floating around on social media sites like Wordpress or Tumblr. It’s a fantastic way to challenge and develop writing skills, as well as a great way to network with like-minded writers.

Describe your typical writing routine. My writing routine includes tea, and a lot of it. (Depending on the time of day, that tea may or may not come with a dash of whiskey) I work in my home office, usually choosing to handwrite everything in my moleskin notebook before typing it out. Call me old fashioned, but the allure of Facebook browsing is just too strong when I’m working on my laptop. Writing things by hand helps keeps me focused on really developing the story without any unwelcome notifications, emails, and Candy Crush invitations getting in the way.

How would you describe your writing style? I suppose I’d describe my writing style as descriptive. I’m a sucker for sensory details, and I can probably spend upwards of three pages describing a dewdrop on a flower petal if given the opportunity. Not that anyone wants me to do that.

What are the keys to a successful short story? The key to a successful short story is to dive feet first into the heart of the conflict. I can’t claim responsibility for this bit of advice, since a graduate professor gave it to me when I was feeling particularly challenged by an assignment. Still, it’s worked for me, and it definitely helps me gain my focus when pinning down the meat of the story.

What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life? I can’t live without my moleskin notebooks. I bring them with me everywhere, just in case I have a thought while in line at Starbucks or while walking through the freezer aisle in the grocery store.

Where do you get ideas for your writing? I try to soak up my ideas from everything around me. I try and pay attention to the news, to conversations I overhear at the train station, and to random life experiences that I have. I think human emotion plays such a vital part of storytelling, and as such I often find myself recording snippets of dialogue or emotional reactions that I experience or witness.

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities? I think that my strength as a writer is in my ability to paint an image through my writing. Being profoundly deaf leaves me with a lot of time to observe sight, smell, touch, and taste, which in turn allows me to incorporate vivid sensory details into my writing. Growing up, I spent a great deal of time trying to imagine all the different ways to describe a single feeling or detail (I’ll be honest, much of this time occurred during math classes). I think this helped me to develop a wide arsenal of storytelling tools.

What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas? In terms of writing short stories, I’ve always struggled with coming up with a solid beginning, middle and end that fit cohesively and tell a non-ambiguous story. Anyone who knows me knows that just as I can talk forever, I can write forever. I’m a girl with a lot to say! Writing flash fiction and challenging myself to make every word and every sentence count has been a great way to strengthen my storytelling abilities.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given? Write drunk, edit sober. A college teacher told me that, quite seriously, although he wasn’t exactly promoting underage alcohol use. What he meant by that, simply, was to get it all out on paper first. Even if your writing seems sloppy or cringe-worthy, the important thing is that your thoughts are out there. You can go back and edit it later.

What’s your proudest moment as a writer? My proudest moment as a writer has been seeing Rogue Elegance, my first novel and long time passion project, bound and published and sitting on a shelf at a little independent bookstore in Boston. That was pretty cool.

What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work? My goals as a writer are to find an agent and successfully publish my newest manuscript. I’d love to keep writing as long as I still have a story to tell.

Any final thoughts or advice? My final bit of advice is that everything has a story. You can write about a rickety old kitchen stool if you had a mind to, as long as you’re passionate about what you’re putting down on paper. That being said, my advice is to keep looking for the story, and keep writing.

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