Dying to Win

J.K. Mason's short story about life, death and e-mail takes this year's top prize.
Publish date:

J.K. Mason tried being an editorial cartoonist, but he never felt like it was his calling. It was when he wrote longer fiction pieces that he became addicted.

"My writing really evolved out of cartooning," Mason says. "When I started writing stories, it hooked me, and I progressed on with it. I recognized that I was doing something right, so I started working harder."

Mason's short story "My Own Avatar" captured our attention and won this year's grand-prize award in the 73rd Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. The story examines life in the future when Internet users are able to do virtually anything while on the World Wide Web—even attend funeral services and receive e-mails from beyond.

Mason got the idea for "Avatar" while taking a class on the impact of style in writing—how characters have unique voices in a story. He started thinking of someone in his life who had such a distinctive personality, and his uncle sprang to mind because of his love for making people laugh. Mason wondered how his uncle's distinctive personality and voice would be remembered after his death.

"My short story went through a few title changes," Mason says, "but when I found the word 'avatar,' it fit this story so well. It's appropriate because it has to do with embodiments, representation and the idea of a person's voice and style being represented with all the technology that we have in the world."

Mason says that this story "just flowed," and he completed it in three days. But, he points out, he put a lot of time and effort into revision.

"I edit meticulously as I write," he says. "I can spend four hours on a sentence. But I always have an idea of where the story's going."

As a 47-year-old freelancer, Mason has been published in various magazines and journals, including Mississippi Review, The Blue Moon Review and The Barcelona Review. But he hasn't completely given up the cartooning life. In addition to writing fiction, he also writes for the cartoon strip "Rockford" (currently seeking syndication) and the more literary version of the strip called "Dog Satire," which appears in Whistling Shade magazine.

Mason says his writing style is heavily influenced by his work on the "Rockford" comic. Since he has three panels in which to write, he thinks of each panel as one act. He organizes his stories in a similar way, outlining each plot in various scenes before writing.

Besides his time spent on the cartoon strip—about 12 hours a week—Mason fills the rest of his days writing new material, heavily editing old works and searching for an agent. He's written two novels and has compiled two collections of short stories.

"I've written nonfiction, but fiction is mostly where I'm headed. Winning this contest is going to change my opportunities. I'm still actually reeling from the knowledge that I've won."


Mason's short story was chosen out of 17,584 manuscripts in 10 different categories. The top 10 winners are listed on the following pages.

As the grand-prize winner, Mason receives $2,500 and a trip to New York City with a WD editor to meet with four editors or agents about his work.

To read the first-prize winning manuscripts in each category, send a check or money order for $6 to 2004 WD Contest Booklet, 4700 E. Galbraith Road, Cincinnati OH 45236. For more winners or information about next year's contest, visit www.writersdigest.com/contests.


  1. Saji, Los Angeles, "The Bernie Mac Show: License to Kill"
  2. Alan Olifson, Los Angeles, "Frasier: The Plate"
  3. Sean Gaffney, Studio City, Calif., "Joan of Arcadia: Angel of Fire"
  4. Carlo V. DeCarlo Jr., Rutherford, N.J., "King of Queens: When the Floodgates Open"
  5. Carlo V. DeCarlo Jr., Rutherford, N.J., "Everybody Loves Raymond: Brutally Frank"
  6. Tina Pryor, Baldwin, N.Y., "Come Fly With Me"
  7. Jeffrey Walsh, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., "The Third Secret"
  8. Kristy Dark, Ojai, Calif., "The Long Count"
  9. Lori Weiss, Toluca, Calif., "Will & Grace: Ruffled Feathers"
  10. Carlo V. DeCarlo Jr. and Nina Maria Chianetta, Rutherford, N.J., "Back Home: The Return"

First-round judge Chad Gervich is the Manager of Talent & Development at Paramount Television, and has worked in TV development and production at NBC Studios, 20th Century Fox and CBS Productions. He's also a published author and produced playwright; his plays have appeared across the country, including at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and Chicago's Light Opera Works.

Final-round judge Warren Littlefield spent 10 years as president of NBC Entertainment, where he was responsible for the development of such shows as "Seinfeld," "Friends," "Will & Grace" and "ER." He currently heads the Littlefield Company, where he's produced "Do Over" (WB), "Keen Eddie" (FOX) and "Like Family" (WB).


  1. Schon M. Zwakman, Cottage Grove, Minn., "Corporate Chameleon"
  2. Jim Fant, Dallas, "The Swoss-Hosses Are Surfacing"
  3. Tina L. Jens, Chicago, "Zombie Love"
  4. Brian Bellmont, Savage, Minn., "Little Monsters"
  5. Alberto Cantu, Edinburg, Texas, "The Ugly Face on the Penny"
  6. Gayle Gillespie, Columbia, Md., "The History (and Experience) of the Cataclysm"
  7. James Patterson, Washington, D.C., "Working Relationships"
  8. Katherine L. Rogers, North Potomac, Md., "Gift for a Friend"
  9. Edward Santos, Jersey City, N.J., "God Smack"
  10. Lisa Cobb Sabatini, Exeter, Pa., "Quirky Neighbors, Macabre Friends"

First-round judge Laurie Henry's work has appeared in Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The Missouri Review, The Antioch Review and Poetry Northwest. A chapbook of her poems was published by Silverfish Review Press, and her two books about writing, The Fiction Dictionary and The Novelist's Notebook, were published by Story Press.

Final-round judge Charles Kaine is the editor/publisher for Last Knight Publishing, which he founded in 2002. Kaine has worked as an English teacher, a quality control manager for a commercial book printer, a copy editor and a freelance writer. He still contributes regularly to several housing and health magazines and instructs a number of seminars focusing on writing techniques and the realities of the publishing business in the 21st century.


  1. David Sharp, Portland, Ore., "Dam Nation"
  2. Amy Wideman, Chicago, "Wake Up and Go"
  3. Laura D'Angelo, Baldwin, N.Y., "Nursing Lacula"
  4. Linda Hagen Miller, Spokane, Wash., "Working Assets"
  5. Jennifer Lacey, Clermont, Fla., "What You Need to Know About Ovarian Cancer-It Could Save Your Life"
  6. Norma Libman, Placitas, N.M., "The Secret Stories of Women's Lives"
  7. Lori Ann Curley, Madison, Wis., "De-Junk Your Home; De-Junk Your Life"
  8. Barbara Anton, Sarasota, Fla., "Shopping for Gold on a Cayuco"
  9. Patricia R. Meierdiercks, Corvallis, Ore., "Lifting the Veil of Depression in Later Life"
  10. Alexandra Smith, Los Angeles, "Deadly Assimilation"

First-round judge Wendy Hart Beckman has won 10 awards for writing and desktop publishing. She's published more than 250 articles and written two books, Artists and Writers of the Harlem Renaissance and National Parks in Crisis (both Enslow).

Final-round judge Jenny Wohlfarth has published more than 350 feature articles in a wide variety of consumer and trade magazines, ranging in subject matter from travel and regional interests to animals, art/design and business. She's worked as a staff writer/editor at five award-winning national magazines and now teaches magazine journalism at the University of Cincinnati.


  1. Michael Thal, Sherman Oaks, Cali f., "The Lip Reader"
  2. Brenda A. Morris, Palmyra, Va., "Fred's Gift"
  3. As told to Gina Bridgeman, Scottsdale, Ariz., "In God's Hands"
  4. James Crosby, Lumberport, W.Va., "The Lazy Christian"
  5. Robert Chute, London, Ontario, "Walking Miracle: The Anne Belohorec Story"
  6. Shirley Phillips, Nashua, N.H., "Dance Lessons"
  7. Monica Liming-Hu, Hillsborough, N.J., "River's Edge"
  8. Richard Thayer, Thomasville, N.C., "For the Love of Erin"
  9. Rose Peffer, Largo, Fla., "Every Castle Has its Dungeons"
  10. Paul J. Brinks, Grand Rapids, Mich., "Compassion"

First-round judge G. Miki Hayden's latest novel is New Pacific (Silver Lake Publishing). She recently won the 2004 best short story Edgar and is an instructor for WritersOnlineWorkshops.com.

Final-round judge Jerry B. Jenkins is the author of more than 150 books, including the Left Behind series, the last six of which have debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. He owns Jenkins Entertainment, a filmmaking company in Los Angeles, and the Christian Writers Guild, which teaches writing.


  1. Katherine Edgren, Dexter, Mich., "On Hearing the Last Movement of Beethoven's 9th on the Radio in the Carwash"
  2. Carol Wills, Durham, N.C., "Telling the Bees"
  3. Bart Marshall, Raleigh, N.C., "Pickled Eggs"
  4. Carolyn P. Boyd, The Woodlands, Texas, "Hearsay"
  5. Jane P. Morgan, Shippensburg, Pa., "Palette for Fantin-Latour"
  6. Christine Barbour, Woodhaven, N.Y., "The Shoemaker's Glue"
  7. Bonnie Nelson, Forks, Wash., "Heiau Above Waimea Bay"
  8. Elouise J. Mitchell, Bartow, Fla., "Colored"
  9. Janet Paszkowski, Alpharetta, Ga., "Break Away"
  10. Ruth Kibler Peck, Dayton, Ohio, "To Monet at Giverny"

First-round judge Miriam Sagan's most recent books are Searching for a Mustard Seed: One Young Widow's Unconventional Story (Quality Words in Print), which won the 2004 Independent Publisher's Award for memoir, and Rag Trade, a collection of poetry from La Alameda Press.

Final-round judge Keith Flynn is the author of three collections of poems. His poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies around the world, most recently in Colorado Review, Shenandoah, CrazyHorse, Rattle, Poetry Wales, Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry, New Millennium Writings and The Comstock Review. His latest album, a spoken-word and music compilation, is titled "Nervous Splendor" (Animal Records). Flynn is also the founder and managing editor of the Asheville Poetry Review.


  1. Richard Martin Hirsch, Pacific Palisades, Calif., "Proclivities"
  2. Doug Baldwin, Portland, Ore., "Wrestling With Charlotte"
  3. Bernadine Cockey, McCall, Idaho, "Night Among the Hunters"
  4. Marcia R. Rudin, New York City, "Unaccompanied Minors"
  5. Christopher Stetson Boal, Brooklyn, N.Y., "Order"
  6. Robert Lynn, Asbury, Iowa, "Listen to Your Heart"
  7. Amy Dominy, Phoenix, "The Dreamcatcher"
  8. Steven A. Shapiro, Red Bank, N.J., "When the Cherry Blossoms Bloom"
  9. Josefin O'Brien, Los Angeles, "Nervous Energy"
  10. Carol Wookey and Julie Lemoine, Cleardale, Alberta, "Echo of the Steppes"

First-round judge Aury Wallington writes for the UPN show "Veronica Mars." She authored the novelizations of "The O.C." for Scholastic and is currently writing an hour-long drama pilot called "Pure Sunshine" for Sony. Her writing credits include HBO's "Sex and the City." Her one-woman show, "Virgin of the Vieux-Carre" had a sold-out run at the Double Helix theater off-Broadway in fall 2003.

Final-round judge Kate Moira Ryan's adaptation of Dorothy Allison's novel Cavedweller was produced at New York Theatre Workshop and is being published by Dramatists Play Service this fall. Her play Chasing Nabokov's Butterflies will be part of the Mark Taper New Works Festival, and her play OTMA will premiere in Russia next spring.


  1. Melissa Cannon, Nashville, "The Mimic at 3 a.m."
  2. Suellen Wedmore, Rockport, Mass., "At the Agawam Diner"
  3. Timothy Juhl, Dunedin, Fla., "Timoteo in Brazil"
  4. Louise Murphy, Berkeley, Calif., "Twenty Four Hour News"
  5. Yvonne Nunn, Hermleigh, Texas, "The Woodpecker Sings Too"
  6. Sara Singer, Seattle, Wash., "Ella's Garden"
  7. Peggy C. Hall, S. Miami, Fla., "Bridgework"
  8. Anna Amatuzio, New York City, "Release"
  9. Robert Daseler, Davis, Calif., "The Visitor"
  10. N. Colwell Snell, Salt Lake City, "Leaves of Autumn"

First-round judge Michael Bugeja is a Writer's Digest advisory board member, as well as the director designate at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. He's also the author of Living Ethics: Developing Values in Mass Communication and Guide to Writing Magazine Nonfiction (both Allyn & Bacon).

Final-round judge Neal Bowers is the author of eight books, including Out of the South (Louisiana State Univ. Press), which recently won the Society of Midland Author's award for the best collection of poems published in 2002. He's a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Iowa State University and has completed a new poetry collection and a new novel.


  1. Michelle Hoffman, Fountain Hills, Ariz., "Braver Than Wolves"
  2. Wanda Rangsikul, Charlotte, N.C., "Little Girl Me"
  3. Becky Browder, Jacksonville, Ala., "Watermelons"
  4. Cynthia Lane, Bradenton Beach, Fla., "The Homegoing Celebration"
  5. Dina Karam, Annandale, Va., "Vital Signs"
  6. Ricky J. Fico, N. Las Vegas, Nev., "Birthday"
  7. Caleb Abetti, White River Jct, Vt., "It's Not That Cold Is It?"
  8. Judith Coburn, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., "A Shaft of Light"
  9. Ellen Bain Smith, Richmond, Va., "Roses"
  10. Trish Reeb, Canton, Mich., "Solitary Confinement"

First-round judge Michele Weldon, an author and lecturer at Northwestern University, owns and operates Michele Weldon's Writing to Save Your Life Workshops. She writes regularly for the Chicago Tribune and West Suburban Living.

Final-round judge Rebecca Walker was named by Time magazine as one of 50 leaders of America under the age of 40. She's the author of the award-winning bestseller Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (Riverhead/Putnam) and the editor of two anthologies, What Makes a Man: 22 Writers Imagine the Future (Riverhead/Putnam) and To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (Anchor/Doubleday). Walker has written for many publications, including Vibe, Essence, Harper's Bazaar, Spin and Glamour, and her work is widely anthologized.


  1. Aoise Stratford, Ithaca, N.Y., "You Know What I Mean"
  2. Bari-Ann Kyle, Marietta, Ga., "One Bird, Two Stones"
  3. Bari-Ann Kyle, Marietta, Ga., "Wednesday in Africa"
  4. Martin Dodd, Salinas, Calif., "Dead Roses"
  5. Lynn Carney, Fayetteville, Ark., "Death Becomes Able Brumley"
  6. Laura Preble, La Mesa, Calif., "The Murder of Crows"
  7. Carol Manley, Springfield, Ill., "Cottonmouth"
  8. H.J. Yates, St-Hubert, Quebec, "By Woodrough's Field"
  9. Robin Baade, Tucson, Ariz., "There in the Stairwell"
  10. Amina Gautier, Philadelphia, Pa., "Cicero Waiting"

First-round judge Ian Morris is managing editor of TriQuarterly magazine and has lectured at Columbia College. His essays, stories and reviews have appeared in various national magazines. He's a book reviewer for the Star Herald newspaper and a rece nt winner of Chicago Public Radio's Stories on Stage contest.

Final-round judge Debbie Mayne is a published author of nine novels, four novellas, and more than 400 short stories and feature articles. She's a former managing editor of a national health magazine and copy editor for several book publishers.


  1. Kimberly Edwina Campbell, Stone Mountain, Ga., "The Old Coot and my Jaunt to Georgia"
  2. Lee Tobin McClain, Pittsburgh, Pa., "Camp Makeover"
  3. Deborah Melnik, Athens, Ga., "Running Fire"
  4. Aaron Reynolds, Fox River Grove, Ill., "Dino Night"
  5. Susan Perry, Oklahoma City, "What Did You See at the Baseball Game?"
  6. Kimberley T. Hernandez, Solvang, Calif., "Do Not Enter"
  7. Javie Curtin, Tiffin, Ohio, "Spookety Boo"
  8. Karen Brungardt, Tucson, Ariz., "Groupie Girls"
  9. Patch Rose, Truth or Consequences, N.M., "Pretty Puss, Platypus"
  10. Stephanie Soupios Rocker, Pleasantville, N.Y., "Teacups and Jeremy"

First-round judge Christopher P.N. Maselli is the author of more than 30 children's books including Zonderkidz' Laptop series and the Superkid Adventures series. He's also the author of an award-winning, international children's magazine and the founder of TruthPop.com.

Final-round judge Richard Peck's 30th book, A Year Down Yonder, won the 2001 John Newbery gold medal. His 2003 The River Between Us is this year's Scott O'Dell award winner in historical fiction (both Puffin Books). His new collection of short stories is Past Perfect, Present Tense, and he released his newest novel, The Teacher's Funeral, this past fall (both Dial Books).

Stephanie Dray: On Writing Women's Legacies

Stephanie Dray: On Writing Women's Legacies

Bestselling and award-winning author Stephanie Dray shares how she selects the historical figures that she features in her novels and how she came to see the whole of her character's legacies.

From Script

Taking Note of the Structure of WandaVision and Breaking in Outside of Hollywood (From Script)

In this week’s round-up from ScriptMag.com, learn about the storytelling techniques used in the nine-part Disney+ series "WandaVision," outlining tips for writing a horror script, and breaking in outside of Hollywood as a writer and filmmaker.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 10

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a get blank poem.

take two 3 mistakes writers make in act i

Take Two: 3 Mistakes Writers Make in Act I

Without a solid foundation, our stories flounder. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman shares insights into the three mistakes writers make when creating the first act.

David Jackson Ambrose: On Balancing Magic and Practicality

David Jackson Ambrose: On Balancing Magic and Practicality

Novelist David Jackson Ambrose discusses the initial themes he wanted to explore in his latest novel, A Blind Eye, what the editing process was like, and how his books always surprise him in the end.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Knowing When to Shelve a Project

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Knowing When to Shelve a Project

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not knowing when to shelve a project.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 9

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a persona poem (for an inanimate object).

4 Tips for Writing Engaging Frenemies

4 Tips for Writing Engaging Frenemies

No matter what genre you write, if you're planning to write characters as frenemies, you'll need to know how to do it well. Bestselling romance author Lorraine Heath shares her top tips.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Placing Blame

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Placing Blame

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, make a character place blame on someone.