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Meet the judges

All working writers, they have expertise in a range of genres, from poetry to fiction and creative non-fiction
The Times Colonist Writing Contest judges are, left to right, poet laureate Janet Rogers, author Matthew Hooton and editor-in-chief Dave Obee.

Vancouver Island’s  secret scribes have come out of the woodwork again to answer the call of So You Think You Can Write — a public writing contest for amateur wordsmiths.

We received about 160 submissions in response to the open call, which asked unpublished writers to use six specific words in a 250-word piece. Short stories ruled the day, but the Times Colonist also received memoirs, poetry and even a submission in the form of a letter.

Soon, four finalists will compete in weekly writing assignments for a chance to win a trip for two to the Galiano Literary Festival. They’ll be asked to stretch their skills and step out of their comfort zones — and their work will be publicly critiqued by a panel of three writing professionals, whom you’ll meet today.

Those judges will award points to each of the finalists’ weekly submissions, but the tally will be kept secret until the end of the contest.

It isn’t a read-only contest though. The public has its say by picking the Readers’ Choice Winner, who takes home a netbook computer, by voting online each week. Interested in challenging yourself? Readers are encouraged to follow along with the contest at home — why not complete the assignments and share them with friends? Consider it a public workshop.


Today we introduce you to our judges - Janet Rogers, Matthew Hooton and Dave Obee. They are all awardwinning writers who bring expertise in a range of genres and experience in teaching and mentoring writers.

They recently sat down with reporter Amy Smart. (Interviews have been condensed and edited.)


Janet Rogers is a Mohawk/Tuscarora writer, who shifted to poetry after working as a visual artist. As Victoria's current poet laureate, she champions arts in the city by participating in civic functions and public poetry events, as well as initiating her own projects.

Rogers also hosts Native Waves Radio on CFUV 101.9FM, Tribal Clefs on CBC Radio and has published three poetry collections: Unearthed (2011), Red Erotic (2010) and Splitting Heart (2007).

Title: Poet laureate Style of choice: Poetry Favourite books and authors: Khalil Gibran, Richard Van Camp (Lesser Blessed)

When did you start writing?

I didn't seriously start writing until two years after I moved to Coast Salish land here. I really think there was something in the trees, the forest, the ocean and the land here that spoke to me and I was very much inspired to write rather than paint. I can't explain what it is - it was something wonderfully, magically mysterious that made me switch.

And when I did switch, I noticed the writing went further in a shorter amount of time than the visual work ever did, so I just paid attention to that. And I just love stringing those words together. I love making things that are pretty to the ear. There's a lot of rhythm in my work - rhyme and rhythm and beat and sound.

What was your first experience with public writing?

I came up through the James Bay Inn reading series. That was a wonderful training ground. I enjoyed finding that community of writers and just enjoying that safe, supportive environment, as a brand-new writer. It was there that I did my first spoken-word pieces - that was exciting for me.

In a place that's supportive like that, there's really very little at stake, so that was encouraging.

Why do you write?

When I first put a piece down, it's always in long form and I use pen and paper. And then I'm just so inspired. Being here on this land and travelling to other different lands, it's just so inspiring. I wouldn't be living up to my responsibility as an artist if I didn't listen to those voices and exercise that inspiration that builds inside me. That's why I write.

Where do you write? When I'm on the road, I write on the road. What I've discovered recently is that when I'm travelling, especially when I'm driving or flying, I'm able to use my voice recorder on my cellphone to capture those phrases that are coming through. Then, when I reach the destination, I revisit those audio recordings and jot them down. And, boom, I have a piece of writing.

What will you be looking for in the competition?

I'm looking for unconventional writing. I'm looking for someone who's willing to take bold chances in their writing. I'm looking for a fresh voice. I'm looking for something that's exciting. It doesn't have to be outrageous. Exciting writing can be something that really impacts us on an emotional level, on a spiritual level, and/or is food for thought.

Something that makes us go, "Hmm."


Matthew Hooton is a local author and sessional instructor at the University of Victoria, where he also studied creative writing as an undergraduate. His debut novel, Deloume Road, won the inaugural Greene & Heaton Prize for best novel to emerge from the master of arts in creative writing program at England's Bath Spa University, in a unanimous decision. He has written for CBC, Monday magazine, Geist and Reader's Digest.

Title: Author

Style of choice: Fiction and creative non-fiction

Favourite authors: Bruce Chatwin, Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck

When did you start writing?

I wrote as a kid. I used to just rip off stories that I really liked and write myself into them. I rewrote The Hobbit, with me as every good character - not super creative. But that's how I started. Then I did some fiction in high school, but I came to Victoria to study journalism and did that at UVic. I did a lot of editing and got work through that. And then eventually, I just started writing stories again and went back to where I began.

What was your first experience with public writing?

I think when I was six or seven, I published a story in a newspaper about Lego coming to life. I think there was some sort of competition through my elementary school and I won it. After that, the first major stuff I did were creative non-fiction articles for Reader's Digest and Monday magazine.

I write for an audience. So I'm not journaling, I'm not writing diary entries. It's stuff I want to share, it's my way of communicating with the world, for better or worse. So I guess I don't write privately.

Why do you write?

The simple answer is because I love it. And then there are all the sort of more complicated, partial answers like, because I feel compelled to do it, because it's the only work I've ever really enjoyed.

I also feel like it's the only work that's ever held my interest for a long period of time. Every time I come back to a blank page, I'm equally scared and excited. And that's just not true of any office job I've had.

Where do you write?

I always write at home. I'm a Monday-to-Friday, regular writer - I write every morning. I write in my tiny office at home or in the living room. And I write primarily by long-hand with a pencil, in a notebook, and then transcribe stuff either by typing it or by using voicetranscription software.

What will you be looking for in the competition?

I think what I care about most is a writer's voice, a writer who's able to communicate in a voice that's unique to them. I worry about things like mimicry. I want to see someone who has their own style. I want to see someone who's developing their own techniques and their own original metaphors, their own original storylines. That means taking risks. That means I'm looking for people to go ahead and take risks and to be out there with their language, to be out there with their style.


As editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist, Dave Obee oversees a team of more than 50 reporters, editors and photographers. He has written a dozen books, including 2011's The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia, which the Lieutenant Governor named among the top three pieces of historical writing in the province. His latest is Counting Canada: A Genealogical Guide to the Canadian Census. Obee teaches family history at Royal Roads University.

Title: Editor-in-chief, Times Colonist

Style of choice: Non-fiction

Favourite books: Jack Kerouac (The Dharma Bums), Jean Barman (The West Beyond the West), William F. Buckley's spy novels

When did you start writing?

I wanted to work in the media, I decided in Grade 5. I read a book about three kids who played at different professions all the time. The ones that I found really exciting were radio and newspapers. So I wanted to work in radio or at a newspaper. So now, when I hear that people haven't decided on their careers at 30, I think wow, I knew at 10.

What was your first experience with public writing?

In Grade 5, I started working on a class newspaper. In Grade 12, I was the co-editor of the high school newspaper. And then I started trying to get in fulltime, either in radio or newspapers. I started doing record reviews and submitting them to newspapers, just trying to get noticed.

The Kamloops Sentinel picked up my reviews. I was going out, buying records as soon as they came out, writing about them as fast as I could and firing them off to the paper. I think the first was Farther Along by The Byrds. It's tougher to write a review than a news story, because you're putting yourself out there in the public. I learned journalism sitting in the university library just reading - seeing how stories were put together.

Why do you write?

I love being first with the news, telling people things they didn't know already, getting my opinions out. I love having an influence on the city. You can't be a good journalist without actually loving the city you're in - if you don't love it, it means you don't care. I love informing entertaining, enlightening people, as best I can. I love the interaction, being where things are happening. I can afford to retire but I don't. Because I love my job.

Where do you write?

My favourite spot for writing is on airplanes.

When I went around the world last year, I wrote five columns on airplanes. I can do it more quickly because I'm more focused, there's no distractions.

What will you be looking for in the competition?

I want something that grabs me. I want something that surprises me. [The first assignment called for a 250-word submission that incorporated six particular words]. A lot of people used the words in a sort of predictable way. I want to be surprised. It's always a matter of, tell me something I don't know or I didn't realize. If I can predict all of this, why would I keep reading it? I really believe on a daily basis we have to give readers something they weren't expecting.