Nancy O’Rourke, for the CNFC Blog
CNFC member and volunteer, Nancy O’Rourke, a former CNFC contest winner and jury reader, interviewed two jury readers from the 2022 contest, Allyson Latta and Becky Blake. The interview explores how potential contest writers can best prepare their submissions to improve their chances of winning.
BECKY BLAKE is a two-time winner of the CBC Literary Prize (for non-fiction in 2017 and short fiction in 2013). More recently, she was the 2021 winner of the CNFC/Humber Literary Review creative nonfiction contest. Her first novel, Proof I Was Here, was published by Wolsak & Wynn in 2019. Becky teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. She is currently working on a second novel and a memoir-in-essays. www.beckyblake.ca
ALLYSON LATTA is a former newspaper and magazine writer, editor of fiction and memoir, and writing instructor. She holds degrees in Criminology and Journalism, has written for newspapers and magazines, and edited best-selling and award-winning books by many of Canada’s most celebrated writers. She taught writing for Ryerson University and later the University of Toronto, as well as through several workshop series, and since 2010 she has organized and led more than 25 instructional writers retreats in Canada and abroad. Allyson now lives, writes, and often gets blissfully lost taking photographs in the Kawartha Lakes. You can find her online at www.allysonlatta.ca
NOR: We often hear about the importance of “voice” in creative writing. Could you explain what constitutes a strong voice?
BB: When I’m talking about work that has “a strong voice” I’m referring to a piece of writing in which the writer has made a decision about the tone and form of address they wish to use, and then really settled into that choice. For example, the narrator might be addressing me as a reader and using colloquial language. Or they might be using a tone and vocabulary that’s more formal or scholarly. Often, choosing the voice of a piece is intuitive for writers—the voice simply arrives along with the idea. When that’s the case, we just need to ensure that this intuitive voice is consistent throughout, unless there’s a specific reason for the tone to shift.
AL: Someone once said that in writing “Voice is everything,” and I agree. I’ve always loved Mimi Schwartz’s comparison of judging voice in creative nonfiction to meeting someone at a cocktail party. You either like the “I” from the start and want to get to know them better, or you move on to someone more interesting. Even a great story and beautiful writing can’t save a piece that isn’t told in an engaging and honest voice.
One challenge in creative nonfiction is that you will often have two voices: that of the you at the time of the experience, and that of the you who’s now looking back and reflecting on the meaning of that experience.
Creative nonfiction differs from fiction in that our writing voice should be similar to our speaking voice. I believe that to some degree, “voice” comes naturally to a writer, even an emerging one. When I teach writing, I can usually identify my students’ voices in their work after only an assignment or two. That said, we all have a range of influences on our writing, and ways we think we should sound on the page, so it takes practice to develop confidence in our unique voice and an ear for consistency in a written work. A great way to test-drive your story is to read it out loud to a trusted listener or even to yourself. You’ll likely “hear” where the voice doesn’t ring true.
NOR: We tell authors to present their best work, which should be polished and professional. What advice can you offer in this regard? What are some of the basics?
AL: Self-editing is a crucial skill. You can find worksheets online, but you should adapt these to your own needs. My advice is “Get to know what you don’t know.” Every writer finds some aspects of the process relatively easy, others agonizing. The trick is identifying what you find difficult and then remembering (tack a list above your writing space!) and taking time to go back and weed out these problems in your own work. Is spelling a hang-up for you? Punctuation around dialogue? Do you have “pet” words you inadvertently repeat? Are you prone to long, rambling sentences? Be aware of particular issues in your writing and know how to fix them.
BB: To polish a piece of work takes a great deal of time. Most pieces I’ve had success with went through many, many drafts. So, I recommend that you make sure to leave yourself enough time to write a draft, go away from it, and then come back with fresh eyes. Repeat this process until you find yourself only making minor tweaks on a word level. You might wish to print out your work and take it to a new location to become a more objective reader/editor. This can help you to spot any errors, repetitions, sentences that aren’t necessary, or ideas that are unclear. Switching the piece to a different font can also help you to see your work in a new way.
NOR: When it comes to spelling, grammar, and punctuation, what mistakes do you most commonly come across? How can authors avoid these mistakes?
AL: Few manuscripts are perfect, and the occasional typo or other small error that sneaks in isn’t going to be a deal-breaker for an otherwise compelling story submission. But if you want to impress an editor or agent, focus on making your manuscript error-free and consistent in terms of style and spelling. Lack of consistency looks careless: mixing Canadian and US spelling; spelling a word or a proper noun one way in one passage and another way later; using a mix of styles for punctuation marks, or for em-dashes.
As just mentioned, the best way to avoid mistakes is to get to know the ones you most often make and to self-edit with these in mind.
As for issues I often notice in editing, here are some pesky ones:
- Inconsistency of spelling, grammar, and punctuation within a manuscript.
- Incorrect or unclear word choice. (Here, your dictionary is your best friend.)
- Unintended shifts in verb tenses.
- Run-on sentences, which result in incorrect grammar and lack of clarity.
- Comma splices: using a comma rather than a period to separate what should be two sentences.
- Lack of variety in sentence structure.
- Misplaced or dangling modifiers.
- Too many sentences starting with “There is,” “There are,” and “It is.”
- Misuse of semicolons: It’s best not to use them if you aren’t sure how.
- Incorrect punctuation around dialogue: Some writers seem to find this punctuation difficult, but there are a limited number of possibilities. Post a list of examples above your workspace and refer to them as you write.
BB: Spelling mistakes should be a thing of the past. Run a spell-check on your document before submitting any piece of writing to a publication or contest. Grammar and punctuation are slightly more open to interpretation. The most common mistake I see is mis-punctuated dialogue. If you’re unsure of where the commas, periods, and question marks go, I recommend you look this up.
NOR: Year after year, we receive submissions from people who do not abide by the contest rules. Do you have any thoughts regarding work of a high quality that unfortunately gets disqualified?
BB: It’s always a shame when any work gets disqualified before it’s even read. To avoid this happening, make sure to comply with the word count. And if a contest states that a work should be anonymous, then I recommend you do a search on the document to make sure your name doesn’t appear anywhere. If it appears within the text (e.g. if someone says your name in a piece of dialogue), then make sure to delete it there too. I usually just use a single letter instead of my full name, if it appears in the text.
NOR: In my own work, I sometimes make a note at the top of the piece, stating I have changed my name to ensure anonymity.
AL: It’s a heartbreaker, and so unnecessary. For last year’s contest, I read half the total submissions, and the one story that was head and shoulders above the rest of my batch had to be disqualified because the writer didn’t abide by one of the guidelines.
Whether you write short- or long-form, it’s important to get used to reading and following publisher and agent submission requirements. Something as simple as including your work as an attachment rather than in the body of an email could lead to a rejection—before the editor has a chance to read even a single word of your sparkling prose. Whether or not the guidelines make sense to you, they’re there for a reason.
NOR: What is meant by “readability” and how important is this with regard to contest submissions?
BB: I think “readability” refers to the ease of reading a particular piece of writing. For contests, I don’t think it’s necessary for a submission to avoid difficult material or complex ideas. But I do suggest that you keep the jurors and judges in mind. They’ll be reading lots of work, so try to choose a piece that provides them with a memorable reading experience. I want to read work that begins in one place and then ends up somewhere different. Excerpts are okay, but if you are submitting only part of a longer piece, then I suggest you do some work to make sure that your submission still feels like a rewarding read and can stand alone. I also look for an opening that pulls me in and an ending that feels satisfying but not too tidy.
AL: Readability, to me, means clarity. On the big-picture level, this refers to the overall organization that keeps your story on track and makes sure your readers stay with you from beginning to end. Is your structure clear? Your timeline? Your throughlines? Your theme? On a more detailed level, you achieve clarity through appropriate word choice, clear sentence structure, correct grammar, and appropriate use of tenses. Paragraph breaks—where you place them—make a surprisingly big difference too. Writing in an active voice and using strong verbs also makes your writing clearer, and gives it more energy too.
When revising, carefully read each sentence and paragraph to be sure that it means what you intend it to mean and won’t confuse the reader.
NOR: In your experience, to what extent are Canadian writers aware of “Fair Dealing” copyright law? How can writers reasonably and respectfully include the creative work of others in their own work?
AL: Based on the number of writers I’ve worked with who’ve included quoted material in their manuscripts, I’d say most aren’t aware. And I can’t blame them. It’s an acknowledged grey area in law, and most online explanations are confusing. But the solution is simple: “When in doubt, don’t quote.” Song lyrics are particularly tricky territory. If you have to make reference to a published work, it’s best to paraphrase. (Using the title of the work is fine too.)
The rules are different for educational work, criticism, and the like, and for anything in the public domain. Otherwise, you have to obtain permission, and that’s almost always the responsibility of the writer, is usually expensive, and can take months.
Think of it this way: When you enter a story in a contest, you’ll be judged for your originality—so why waste your limited word count quoting others?
NOR: What makes a piece of work stand out?
AL: There has to be a story, not just a situation. Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild, writes: “Nobody should read my book because I took an interesting hike and I loved my mom a lot and she died. That’s just a very small, insignificant story—insignificant to anyone but me. And so my job, as a writer, was to make it about other people…”
As readers, we don’t read just to hear what happened to you; we want to know why it matters so deeply to you that you’re driven to share it with us, and more than that, how the experience changed you. Dig deeper, in subsequent drafts, to find the emotional truth of the story, to create that all-important connection between you and your reader, between the personal and the universal.
Also important to creative nonfiction is an original and authentic narrator’s voice. If I’m drawn in by the voice, I’ll follow it wherever it wants to take me. And I want the unexpected: the story leading me somewhere I didn’t imagine it would go. I also look for original imagery and metaphors, ones that are so sharp and perfect that I “see” them right away and can’t forget them. I think every paragraph in a piece should contain at least one spark—something that stands out, whether it’s an idea, an image, an emotion, or a single beautiful or affecting sentence.
Strong openings and closings too are crucial. When I read for pleasure (as opposed to editing), unless a story piques my interest within the first few sentences, I may not read further. As for the ending, it has to hold up to the promise of the opening. I want to read endings that make me glad I stayed with the story. That make me feel something. They should contain a gift of sorts—an emotion, an image, a revelation—something the reader will take away and think about days, weeks, perhaps even years later.
BB: For me, a standout piece is that rare essay that is deeply considered, crafted with meticulous care, and that contains a spark of surprise as it unfolds. I also appreciate essays that move me (either emotionally or intellectually). Often these are essays that explore an idea or experience in search of greater insight or meaning. This meaning doesn’t necessarily have to be found, but I want to feel that there’s a journey happening: either a literal journey (e.g. the narrator moving through a life event) or a thought journey (e.g. the narrator investigating an idea from many angles).
NOR: Do you have anything else to add? Any final words of wisdom?
BB: Winning entries are strong pieces of writing that happen to match up with the taste of a particular set of contest jurors and judges. Luck is also a factor. So, the best you can do is send your most polished work, follow the contest rules, and don’t give up on a piece just because it doesn’t win the first time you submit it.
AL: I’m sure I’m preaching to the converted here, but literary contests like CNFC’s, are a wonderful opportunity for writers to hone their writing and editing skills; to spread their wings; to potentially gain a larger readership. And of course, making a longlist, shortlist, or winning the prize is gratifying! Writing for short-form contests or for literary journals can even help a writer clarify the focus of a longer work-in-progress. This is not to say crafting short stories is easier than writing a book; each form presents its own challenges. But being published sooner rather than (or as well as) later is never a bad thing.