Monday, May 20, 2013

Winners decided!

The winners have been decided and will be contacted in the next couple of days. Check your emails!

We received a number of good stories and have at last chosen the winners for this year's contest. The official announcement will come out at the beginning of next week.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Winners Announcement coming soon!

With the semester ended and finals looming over our heads, the process of choosing the winners is underway! Look for the announcement soon. We received some good stories and are currently deciding among them.

Again, look for the announcement soon!


Monday, December 24, 2012

Twas the Night Before Christmas...

And all through the house, every pen was a-writing, even that of the mouse!

Apologies for the long intervals between posts here. With the semester done and Christmas coming in a matter of hours, I hope that all of us will get some rest in the next couple of weeks. I also hope that you are finishing your stories and getting ready to send them!

As a reminder, all mailed entries should be sent here:

ATTN: PHC Short Story Competition
Patrick Henry College
10 Patrick Henry Circle
Purcellville, VA 20132

There is also a $10 fee per entry, which can be mailed with the story submission or, if the story is emailed, the fee can be mailed separately to the above address.

In the way of editing, I strongly suggest that you read your story aloud, either to a family member or to yourself, to check for spelling errors, etc. This way is quite effective and will help you catch the tiny details.

With that said, I wish you all a Merry Christmas!


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Musings on the Grotesque

          What is the place of grotesque and even unnerving characters in fiction? Can we as writers, particularly Christian writers, include characters whose morals may be corrupt or whose outward appearance startles the reader? I venture to answer that yes, we can and at times even should engage in such a thing. In Hayao Miyasaki’s anime film Spirited Away, a young girl accidently stumbles into a world populated by spirits. Some of these spirits are inherently friendly; others wreak havoc and attempt to satisfy their malicious desires through various means. All of the characters in this film in some way exhibit grotesqueness, whether subtly as in the case of Haku, a young boy who can turn into a dragon at will; or not so subtly, as in the case of No-Face, a lonely white-masked spirit who tries to make friends in a very ineffectual way. One of the movie’s characteristics is the odd and the strange, yet all of these unusual characters are critical to the story, because they establish the story’s point and plot. Similarly, most fantasy novels—that is, novels either set in an imagined world or somehow connected to one—also bear an element of the grotesque. Tolkien’s infamous character Gollum, for instance, at times makes one cringe at how twisted he is. Yet Gollum (or Smeagol) dominates the story from the inside. The entire trilogy would not really exist without his character to forward its plot.
            As Christian writers, one of our models of storytelling should be Scripture itself. It cannot be denied that Scripture is rife with such characters. In Fiction Writing class a few weeks ago, we discussed the technique of taking biblical stories and writing their modern equivalents, using the story of Rahab and the spies for an example. Though Rahab was obviously not an ideal character in any sense, her faith and her action as a result of this faith was the entire point of the story. Countless other examples abound; every character in the Bible is strange in some way, often in more than one area of his life. The point is, God can use every type of David or Saul or Rahab to further His purposes.
            In a similar way, I think, we as Christians and especially as Christian writers have the ability to see man as his Creator sees him, and as such we are able to incorporate characters such as populate the pages of Scripture into our own stories. When Christ redeemed us, He redeemed us wholly, not simply our souls or our bodies, but all parts of us, including our imagination. This imagination enables us to see past imperfect or undesirable appearances to what the character is inside, how his character advances the story, and what the author intended for him. This ability, I think, encompasses both the tangible everyday world in which we live and the world of stories and novels.
            Now my point is not to say that every grotesque or strange character is redeemed, or that we should focus on such characters at the cost of dismissing others. Figures such as Gollum and No-Face have their place in literature, but there are occasions when we shouldn’t let them venture outside their boundaries. In other words, writers should know when to avoid depicting people or situations whose nature would disturb their readers beyond what is acceptable, or to cause them to stumble. Author Flannery O’Connor’s work often contains sickening levels of the grotesque, and as such needs to be read carefully, with the knowledge of how much one can take. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka also uses an extreme (perhaps even more than O’Connor’s work) of the grotesque to make its point. His story, I think, takes the grotesque too far. Something can be disturbing, or it can be disturbing beyond the limits of taste and morality. As Christian writers in particular we should be aware of the distinction and should approach such works from a perspective oriented toward Christ.
            What makes Flannery O’Connor’s stories so difficult is their portrayal of the distortion that can exist even in ordinary people and events. In reading the newspaper one experiences the same kind of horror at how close such things can be. Again, we have a great gift in our ability to write. I propose that a method of dealing with our fallen world is to write about it. In my Fiction Writing class with Dr. Aikman this method has suddenly bloomed and come alive to me. My most successful stories in this class have been based either on actual events I read in the newspaper or on conglomerations of characters and events garnered from my actual experience. One such story I based on an article telling of two young men who bound themselves to a pact that stated one would “pull the plug” on the other if his friend suffered a life-changing injury. One of them became a quadriplegic through being mugged one night; the other waited a number of years before killing this man and subsequently killing himself. Their story arrested me as soon as I saw it; I knew I had to write about it. Such a story is compelling because of its horror, which is why, I think, it demanded a story from me.
            You see my point, I hope. There are different levels of the grotesque; there are limitations to how we can and should employ it, certainly. Yet we shouldn't simply dismiss the grotesque without understanding how it can be used rightly in literature. G.K. Chesterton’s book Alarms and Discursions discusses the Gothic idea of art: even grotesque beasts such as gargoyles can glorify the Creator. Chesterton writes, “The medieval Christians summoned all things to worship their [god], dwarfs and pelicans, monkeys and madmen. The modern realists summon all these million creatures to worship their god; and then have no god for them to worship. Paganism was in art a pure beauty; that was the dawn. Christianity was a beauty created by controlling a million monsters of ugliness; and that in my belief was the zenith and the noon…Christianity, with its gargoyles and grotesques, really amounted to saying this: that a donkey could go before all the horses of the world when it was really going to the temple.”[1] As Christian writers, we have the authority to show this understanding in what we write. We can write about Haku and No-Face and Gollum to the glory of God.

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions (NuVision Publications, 2008), 9.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

On Consistency

Ali O'Leary, our guest blogger for this post, is a senior literature major at Patrick Henry College. Ali greatly loves writing, particularly novels, as you will read in her post; and she hopes to be published one day. In the meantime, besides writing, she enjoys drawing, superheroes, and coffee, not necessarily in that order.

Greetings, fellow writers! You are about to embark – or maybe have even already embarked – upon the great adventure of writing a story. Be it a short story or the beginning of a novel, you are in for a wonderful journey.
I myself have just come back from my own journey. The month of November has come and gone, which, if you are familiar with a fairly well-known writing challenge, is the end of National Novel Writing month (more commonly known as “NaNoWriMo”). The goal of this challenge is to write 50,000 words (technically novel-length) in a month. I have always enjoyed writing novels, but I struggle at times to be consistent with writing every day. But with this challenge, you are kind of forced to write a little every day or you risk falling dreadfully behind.
So I buckled down and I wrote every day.
At first, I thought Oh, this is easy. I totally got this. The Lord is always quick to nip that thought in the bud. I did well right up until I hit week three in November. My novel was coming to an end and I still had 20,000 more words to write.
What am I going to do?! I wailed. I am going to have to turn out a lot of fluff if I am ever going to meet my word count.
Therein, I discovered another problem of mine. I do not like to write my stories fast unless I know exactly where they are going. Otherwise, they end up being messy mixtures of fluff, some good writing, and dozens of rabbit trails that cut off abruptly in the middle of their journey. I always like to take my time, work out some intricate details, maybe add an unexpected plot twist, and then sit down and write a few hundred words or so.
But NaNoWriMo does not work that why. While my inner editor died a slow and painful death, I churned out 20,000 more words, most of which will probably be deleted when I go back through and edit my story.
“What is the point?” you may ask.
You may have heard that the only way to become a better writer is to write more. I am afraid for those of you who are hoping for a different way that this method really is the only way to get better. Like anything worth learning, you have to practice to become more accomplished. While I have always enjoyed writing, this past month of writing every day taught me something new – consistency.
For someone who is aspiring to be a published author one day, I have always struggled to write consistently. I would write for a couple days in a row, go a week or two without writing , come back and try to figure out where I left off, start writing again, get stuck for months, and then get a burst of inspiration and rush to the end. Hence, why it took me nearly five years to finish one novel. I have been slowly narrowing that gap down to about two years now, but still, I would like to be more consistent. NaNoWriMo taught me that you can’t rely on those fuzzy feelings of “inspiration” to get writing – you just have to do the hard work of sitting down every day and write whether you feel like it or not.
That lesson is what I would like to pass on to all of you. Maybe you are not planning on becoming an author one day, maybe you just like to write as a hobby, but you want to get better. Try writing every day – it does not even have to be a fictional story. It could be a blog post, a poem, a few lines in a journal, but write! You will be surprised at how much you improve over time.
May God bless you all wherever your writing journey takes you!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thoughts on Autumn and the Contest Themes

As Autumn sweeps in and turns the trees into flaming colors, a number of things come to mind. Food, for example: cider and pumpkin pie and gingerbread and hot cocoa and heaps of other yumminess. :) But did you ever stop to think about the fact that the trees are really dying? It's not a morbid thought, it's simply the truth. Great beauty, as we see at this time of year, can arise from death. Yes, death can bring sadness, but it also brings transformation, and transformation brings hope.

Autumn also signals the arrival of harvest. While harvest is not so significant to many of us in this century, we can still enjoy it by doing things like picking apples. (Not far from Patrick Henry, there's an apple orchard whose apples are fantastically good.) But harvest also has a spiritual component. I'm reminded of the lines from Aaron Keyes' popular hymn My Soul Finds Rest, which is based on Psalm 62: "Though riches come and riches go/Don't set your heart upon them/The fields of hope in which I sow/Are harvested in heaven." This theme, that of sowing on earth and reaping in heaven, can be traced through much of the New Testament, particularly the epistles of Paul. Consider these verses from 1 Corinthians 15: "So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." 

Thence (at least in part) come the themes for this year's contest. The second division theme, finding beauty in brokenness; or, life through death, stems both from Scripture and from the themes of T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland, the major component of which is imagery of the Resurrection and of death leading to new life. Though a somewhat disturbing image, the lines at the end of the first section point directly to this theme: "That corpse you planted last year in your garden/Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?/Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?" His use of the corpse metaphor continues throughout the poem. The first division theme, reaping the reward; or, the harvest, relate both to the current season and to Scripture. For inspiration on either of these themes, you might get a good concordance of the Bible and research reward, death, harvest, etc. The Bible, as the greatest book of all time, can be the source of much inspiration.

So happy writing, fellow ink-spillers! Look for more to come here as the contest progresses. (And if you happen to read this before the announcement is posted on the PHC website, be assured: the official guidelines will posted there.)


Introducing our 2012-2013 Contest Coordinator

Our minds have been working feverishly and our pens have been scribbling busily. We've consumed much coffee and tea in our efforts to bring together the themes for next year's contest. Rest assured, o writers: you are not forgotten!

Since it's the start of a new contest, it's also time to introduce you to our new contest coordinator, Hannah Walker. Hannah is a junior studying Literature at Patrick Henry College.

When did you start writing?

I've been interested in the concept of writing since I was around eight years old. Notice I said concept; I'm making a distinction here between actually writing and merely being fascinated by the idea of writing. When I was younger I kept notebooks full of bits of writing and ideas and writing "exercises" which I would give myself. Needless to say none of this was very productive, although it did make me write some every day. I think I have around fifteen or sixteen of these notebooks now. I also began several novels, the ideas of which were not very good at all, and none of which I finished. I also wrote stories for a creative writing class I took in private school; this also spurred me to write a number of short stories.

Then, I think when I was about seventeen or eighteen, I developed a strong interest in poetry. I read numerous books on writing poetry, researched all different sorts of forms, studied meter and rhyme, and entered online contests, quite I few of which I won. (These contests, I must admit, were on a poetry website which, now that I've gained more experience, I can see was not a particularly high-caliber place. Still, it was rather encouraging to have people read my work there.) When I began to take classes at PHC, I entered various poems in our literary journal Cuttlefish. As a sophomore, I also helped edit the Poetry section of this journal, and am now one of two official editors for the genre.

Since coming to Patrick Henry College my vision of writing has matured considerably. While I am certainly still growing as a writer I now have a clearer knowledge of what I write best, what I want to write in the future, and where God might be leading me through writing.

What are your favorite fiction books? Favorite books on writing?

Oh dear, favorite fiction books... well, I have a great love of children's fiction, which is also the genre in which I hope to write the most. One of my favorite authors is Edith Nesbit, who wrote Five Children and It, The Magic City, The Railway Children, and many others. Another of my favorite authors falls on the extreme opposite end from Nesbit: Gary Schmidt, who wrote The Wednesday Wars, Okay for Now, and Straw into Gold (which is one of my very favorite books in the world). C.S. Lewis is another of my literary heroes, as is J.R.R. Tolkien.

As far as books on writing, I actually have not read many, apart from books on poetry. It might seem odd, but I don't really recommend reading books on the craft of poetry until you've written a considerable amount. In general poetry won't be good unless it comes from your own observations, whether they're about a tremendous subject like death, or simply about the way a spiderweb looks covered in dew. Books that tell you how to write poetry can often force poetry from you, rather than coax it out gently. I do recommend, however, reading encyclopedias of poetic forms. I read many such books, and discovered many obscure forms of poetry which turned out to be wonderful to write. For writing in general I recommend Francine Prose' Reading like a Writer.

What's one piece of advice you would give young writers?

Hmmm. I would probably advise them to write what they love. When you write what you think others want to hear you will find yourself dissatisfied. When you write what you love your audience will be able to tell the difference. Recently I had an assignment to write a short story. At first, my inclination was to write what I thought the professor wanted to hear. In the end, I wrote what I loved, and it turned out far better than I expected, and also showed me where my skill lies. Also, do a lot of people-watching, and write down what you see. Notice how people walk, what their eyes are like, how they hold their hands. Besides finding many ideas for stories, you will also find them fascinating in themselves.

As I hand over the reins, I'm excited that you all have the chance to hear Hannah's insights as she takes leadership of A Call to Pens.

Keep writing!


Alicia Constant
2011-12 Call to Pens Contest Coordinator.