The judges have spoken. Four finalists have emerged at the top of So You Think You Can Write, the Times Colonist's third annual public writing competition. The contest called on amateur scribes to submit a piece of short writing using six specific words. Our panel plucked a mixed group from a pool of more than 150 applicants to continue.
Today, we introduce you to a marketing professional, two retirees and one young teen who will spend the next month vying for the top title and prize: a trip for two to the Galiano Literary Festival. Each week, for the next four weeks, they'll complete a writing assignment that stretches their creative bounds. Our judges - local author Matthew Hooton, Times Colonist editor-in-chief Dave Obee and Victoria's poet laureate Janet Rogers - will give those submissions a secret score.
We'll reveal the top submission each Sunday, as well as the final champion, determined by accumulated points.
Disagree with the judges? You can have your say by voting online - the Readers' Choice winner walks away with a net-book computer.
Occupation: Interim director of marketing at UVic
Favourite authors: David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas)
Writing background: Avid reader since childhood, but a few specific books inspired him to begin writing as a hobby about five years ago. "The one that really got me going, 'This is something I want to try,' is called The Book Thief [by Markus Zusak]. ... Most of my favourite novels, a common thread throughout them is that they're not just typical beginning-middle-end, single-narrative-type stories. The thing that got me about The Book Thief is that it's actually narrated by the character of Death."
How often he writes: "It kind of comes in spurts, which, if you ask any writer, is terrible. ... At this stage of my life it's not something I do every day. I'll go through phases, maybe a month at a time, where I will write every single day. And then I might go through a phase where I don't write anything for a month."
Where he writes: Always at home, but in no particular nook or cranny.
Preferred type or style of writing: Mostly reads novels, but has no genre preference. "I like things that are really focused on storytelling and unique ways of storytelling." Mostly writes short stories. "I don't have quite enough experience to attempt anything longer than that. But I would like to one day, absolutely."On the inspiration for his submission: "It's kind of about noticing something you're not looking for. ... As a hobbyist photographer, that's definitely happened to me before. I have this idea in my head about what I want to shoot and I set it up. And as you look through the lens, either it doesn't work, or you just notice something completely different that would make a way more interesting photograph."
Fun fact: He gets his best story ideas when travelling. "For some reason, something about getting out of your usual routine - I find is inspiring for ideas."
HIS SUBMISSION: THE BACKGROUND For eight seconds I'm somewhere else while looking through the lens of my camera trying to frame my shot. A heavily charred toy ferry. Someone has left it on top of a newspaper, which itself rests on top of a public garbage can. I adjust my focus, trying to get just the ferry, paper and lid in frame, when I notice in the top left corner of the background a little girl, eyes locked on what is presumably her mother. I feel my hand coast to the zoom and then adjust the focus. She stands facing me. Four, maybe five, wearing a pink slicker, darn the cloudless sky. On her head is a tilley hat with an outline of a seal and Vancouver Island written beneath it.Her face, angled up to meet her mother's, fixes itself with a grin, one of those grins where all of her teeth are visible, including the gaps where there aren't any. I haven't taken the photo, yet the girl is completely still, her smile a frozen light. She looks nothing like Abby, except she looks everything like Abby because of that smile. It's a bridge to half my life ago, but it comes back stronger than a lost childhood smell, clearer than a forgotten song. Just like Abby's always did, her smile calls my own out.I'm seeing these eight seconds through a lens. Fingerprints can obscure names, dust can cloud faces. If you're lucky though some things remain very much in focus.
Born: Oakland, California
Family: Two sons, two grandchildren, one granddog
Occupation: Retired teacher
Favourite authors: Charles Dickens, Mark Twain. "Stephen King is one of my absolute favourites. I love what he's able to do with scaring people and I love that little bit of mystery or magic or something that makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable in writing."
Writing background: "I've been pretty well writing since I was a kid - not published or anything - but I've always used writing as an outlet and a fun thing to do. I belong to a wonderful, supportive writers group here on the Island. We're named after an Australian hangover cure: Barocca."
How often she writes: "I do a lot of writing in my head, before I even put it on paper, so I can't really tell you. I probably should do it every day - that's what Stephen King says - but I'm not that self-disciplined."
Where she writes: "I do a lot of it while I'm walking, so maybe along Dallas Road walkways. I also used to be a pencil-and-paper person, but I do write more on the computer now."
Preferred type or style of writing: "I like the flash fiction or the postcard stories the best. They seem to work well for me."
On the inspiration for her submission: "When I was growing up in Oakland, California, it was a real treat to get to play outside after dark. So the actual events that I described in the story, like seeing the spider that was the size of an all-day sucker, was actually true. And the woman who came out and screamed at us from the boarding house was also true. The rest I sort of embellished, except for the very end where the brother whistles me home."Fun fact: Lived in New Brunswick for 27 years.
HER SUBMISSION: AFTER DARK The web was a delicately constructed bridge between fence and tree. In the centre was a black spider the size of an all-day-sucker.At first the raucous band of children was shocked into a moonlit silence until, as if on cue, they all began to scream at once.Newspaper in hand, the wicked witch of the boarding house began shrieking at them from her balcony. "Shut up! All of you brats, just shut up!"Children scrambled in all directions. Even the spider scurried to a safe island off the coast of its web.As if enchanted by a dark fairy, Missy was alone among bush-trolls and waving tree-fingers.Somehow her mother's voice was in her head. "Honey-bunch, you know there is nothing in the dark that wasn't there before," but she knew the trees were edging closer and she wasn't too sure where the spider was.Sinking to her knees on the mossy path, she began to crawl, because you couldn't be tripped by a troll if you were already on the ground. Nor did she want the dark fairy to seal her in a cave somewhere.Crunching gravel and the smell of cigarette smoke behind her. Do trolls smoke? A booming voice, a swear word; "What the heck are you doing down there?"Not a troll, but close. Her best friend's brother."What's going on?" he asked. "Well, the trees moved and the fairy came and I ...""Come on, I'll whistle you home"
Born: London, England
Age: "I was born in 19-mumble-mumble."
Family: Five children, two grandchildren
Occupation: Retired real estate broker
Favourite authors: John Le CarrÃ© (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), D.H. Lawrence (Lady Chatterley's Lover). "A lot of the classic writers. Over the years, I've continued to read. In fact, I've possibly read at the expense of writing."
Writing background: "I've always been interested in writing. I had little time when I was working to do it. Always wanted to. But there were just other things that I precluded the time from doing it. I guess it would be seven or eight years ago that I really started writing. I wrote memoirs, first of all, for my grandchildren, really. And then continued writing since then."
How often he writes: "Not on a daily basis, but damn close."
Where he writes: "I have what I call 'world headquarters,' which is my favourite chair in the front room. ... I'll often sit there and get out my laptop and just start writing. It's almost like a need."
Preferred style: I think I'm eclectic. I mean I'm not into science fiction or anything like that, but I like fiction, and of course I did non-fiction with the memoir. But I would say story-writing in general.On the inspiration for his submission: "I was in the service myself for a few years, so maybe it just came from there. Most of my time I served in Berlin. It was during the Cold War ... so I know how important it is when you're a serviceman to get letters from home."
HIS SUBMISSION: DEAR MOM Dear Mom,I'm writing this letter very slowly as I know you can't read fast. (ha ha)I got the newspaper you sent to me last week from the island. It takes quite a while to get to us here in Kabul.It's as I sit here off duty that I think of you and dad on the coast. It's a world away from here in Afghanistan. I sure hope the big guys back home know what they're doing. We had to take out a bridge last week to stop the bad guys from attacking the village.One of our guys got hurt and I guess he'll be sent home. We have this daily plane ferry to Germany and from there we have flights back home.I sure miss you guys, does the seal still show up for feeding each day at the dock?I hear that our tour will be over soon and I'll be coming home. I can tell you one thing, I'll never look at a grain of sand the same way again. When we get a wind storm over here the sand gets in everything - and I mean everything.Give my love to Sandy, I guess my little sister isn't so little any more, I want to meet that boyfriend you told me about to give my seal of approval.Love to all,Gerry
Family: Mom, Dad, little brother Brian
Occupation: Student at Colquitz Middle School
Favourite authors: Ellen Hopkins (Burned) and Sara Shepherd (The Pretty Little Liars series)
Writing background: First writing experience, aside from school assignments, was in her journal. This is her first public contest. She also enjoys sketching and animation, which she works into her writing. "I sort of piece them together sometimes. Say if I'm writing about scenery, then I would sort of draw it out."
How often she writes: On weekends and after school. Plus about one major writing assignment each month at school.Where she writes: Sometimes outside in the backyard, where she just picks a spot and lies down. But most often, at her desk in her bedroom: "It's just sort of like a man-cave to me or something like that. It's private."
Preferred type or style of writing: Doesn't have a strong preference for styles or forms, but enjoys writing poems. In terms of reading: "To be honest, I like romance and dramatic books."On the inspiration for her submission: She was browsing photos online. "I saw this image of a photograph, really of, this dark sea and the sky. That was my inspiration. ... There was this orange-y sunset and there were these like really rough waves, the water was really dark."
Fun fact: Her favourite subjects are math, science and language arts. "My teachers usually get us to write creative writing and stuff like that, so I really enjoy that in English class. And for science - I don't know, it just really interests me. And math, I'm just good at it, so I enjoy it."
HER SUBMISSION: SURREAL am walking on the CoastlineI Watching as the tide brings waste ashoreThe once glimmering, clear, oceanNow a dull blueI realize that natural beauty does not last longI search for my reflectionIn the bitter water that lies beneath meWondering if the vast sea can give me answersTo what I'm looking forThe tide ripples my reflectionUntil I see nothingI look ahead and find a small deserted islandLooking awkward in the middle of the oceanLike it doesn't belong thereLike it became swept up from the direction of the currentsAnd been placed there,With not much thoughtThe island reminds me of the confused person I amSearching, dreaming, but not reachingA piece of paper suddenly catches my eyeI dig it up out of the silky sand and out comes a newspaper articleThe headline reads"What Lies Beneath"As if those words are a seal of approval that nothing is what it seemsI can visualize the sea; wounded, hurt, just like meAs I look further in the horizon,I see a ferry ripping through the water like glassI notice the exhaust coming out of the pipesBefouling the sky, water, and everything around itI wonder where Mother Nature isWhen we needed her mostI look into the immense white clouds above meIf I could somehow attain that surreal worldBy crossing a bridgeIf only it were that simple
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