Meet John T. Biggs, the grand prize winner of the 80th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. John shares a little more about himself and his writing process, as well as “Boy Witch,” the short story that took home the gold in this year’s competition.
Tell us about yourself and your writing background.
I’m 63 years old—it hurts to put that in writing. I’m originally from Marion, Illinois, a small town near the southern tip of the state. My wife and I were married too young—ages 19 and 20—but it worked beautifully. In 1968 we moved to Chicago where I attended dental school. That’s the year of the Democratic convention riots. I graduated in 1972, not long after Woodstock. I didn’t attend either, but in a pinch, I can remember both in great detail. I’m classified as a Vietnam-era veteran because I was a U.S. Public Health dentist in Maine—what a sacrifice. I’ve spent most of the rest of my life in Oklahoma, where I’ve worked as a dental educator, a prison dentist, and in private practice as an endodontist.
I’ve always loved to read and write, but most of my professional life involved writing research articles. That’s a very bad way to learn the craft. It places a premium on lack of originality, hence all the footnotes, and insists on passive voice—don’t get excited, we’re all scientists here.
I really didn’t start writing fiction until 2001. My publications are pretty meager. Three stories in two issues of Red Dirt Anthology; a biannual publication of the regional library system; and one story accepted for publication in The Storyteller. I won a first place prize and two third places in Byline contests when that magazine was up and running; a couple of top 100 honors in Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition; a first, third and two honorable mentions at Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc. contests; and a number of honorable mentions at L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest. My story, “Soul Kisses,” recently won third place in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition.
Winning the grand prize this year in the Writers Digest Annual Writing Competition came as a total surprise. There are so many really good submissions. I know luck had to play an important role.
Describe your writing process for “Boy Witch.”
I wrote this story and a couple of others on a transatlantic cruise. That’s a technique I’d highly recommend. It is a background piece written to help me develop a character in a novel that was and is in progress.
Write a one-sentence summary of your story.
Sometimes a boy has to leave his wolf behind and get off the reservation.
How long have you been writing? How did you start? Do you write full time?
I’ve been writing fiction for about 10 years now. I write five days a week and think about it the rest of the time.
Describe your typical writing routine.
I feel most creative in the morning, so I do most of my writing then. I like to think out a story and take notes on how I think it’s going to go, but as often as not I’m surprised.
How would you describe your writing style?
I try to dash off something in stream of consciousness and then revise it. In short fiction, I like to read the entire piece, or at least most of it. Each time I add something to it so I can stay in the same voice and mood.
What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?
Solitary time. I have to be alone for hours at a time. Fortunately for me, I like it.
Where do you get ideas for your writing?
I steal them. I’ll read someone else’s work, or see a movie and think, It would have been so much better if it had gone this way …
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?
Point of view is really tough. It is so easy to jump around from character to character. Some authors can make that work, like Larry McMurtry, but most of us can’t pull it off. The concept of a character arc is extremely difficult, especially in a short story. It’s critical to show character development even though it’s tempting to serve your point-of-view character up as finished and perfect from the start.
Workshops have helped me a great deal with these problems and others. Bill Bernhardt has some excellent programs in Oklahoma. K.D. Wentworth participates in these, and I’d have to say her advice is always dead on.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Write every day.
What’s your proudest moment as a writer?
Is this a trick question? When I heard that I’d won the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition I almost fainted. It had an impact on me similar to the birth of my two children. Apart from that winning this prize is better than anything, and at 63, that covers a lot of territory.
What are your goals as a writer—for your career and your work?
I am going to think about that seriously once the world stops spinning. I am planning to submit a lot of stories over the next year or so. Hopefully my newly enriched bio will get them read. I’ll probably also re-immerse myself in some longer pieces.
Any final thoughts or advice?
Hook up with the writing community. I stay in touch with Carolyn Leonard’s Writers Reminder, a regional e-zine, and Bill Wetterman’s Facebook group. Most of us are introverts, but with e-mail, online hookups, and magazines like Writer’s Digest, you can be a connected loner.
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