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Last year's So You Think You Can Write winner likes working to deadline

UVic marketer Nick Clewley gets top marks from judges; Grade 8 student Fiona Luo wins Readers' Choice prize

It's been four weeks of tough competition for the finalists in the Times Colonist's third annual writing contest. But the votes are in and the scores have been tallied: Today we present our winners.

Nick Clewley, 30, is the top writer in So You Think You Can Write. The interim director of marketing at University of Victoria earned the highest cumulative score from our panel of judges.

"He has a great instinct for narrative," judge and author Matthew Hooton said of Clewley. "He understands how to tell a story, how to structure a story, how to release information and build tension."

The judges aren't the only ones with a say, however. Thirteen-year-old Fiona Luo is this year's Readers' Choice winner, determined through our online poll.

>>> Get more So You Think You Can Write

"It's overwhelming," Fiona said. "I just told my friends to read all the submissions and then they could vote; it was totally their choice."

She received 247 of the total 470 votes cast, or 53 per cent.

Clewley followed with 25 per cent, while retired teacher Frankie Blake and retired real estate broker Pat Parker each received 11 per cent.

All four were chosen from a pool of more than 150 applicants who responded to our open call for submissions.

"We have a lot of people in the city with a lot of ability," said judge Dave Obee, who is also editor-in-chief of the Times Colonist. Narrowing it down to the four finalists was not easy.

"You admire the work that people put into this kind of thing," he said. "And the ability they have."

Over the course of four weeks, the four finalists competed in a variety of forms, from poetry to short story to non-fiction. Each submission earned a secret score from each of the three judges.

For the first time, this year's judges read the submissions blindly - the submissions they received included no names, which were only revealed after assessment.

"I really wanted to be totally, totally objective," said Obee. "I didn't even look in the paper and see who'd won the previous week. That way I wouldn't be identifying someone's style."

Despite the tight deadlines, Hooton said he was surprised to find the writing was fresh and the ideas were original.

"It made my job a lot easier," he said.

While Parker won the first short-story challenge, Clewley won each of the next three.

"I don't know if he planned to be a professional writer or put a manuscript together, but I would really encourage that he do so," said judge and City of Victoria poet laureate Janet Rogers. "His work was just a delight to read - he's got the gift."

Clewley said the non-fiction assignment in Week 3 was the toughest. It asked the contestants to write about the grey middle that exists in a real-life conflict and Clewley's story highlighted the clash between smokers and non-smokers.

"Non-fiction is a different process," he said. "Poetry - granted I haven't done it since high school - it still comes from within, which is the same with short-story writing. Whereas for non-fiction, you have to rely so much on something external. It involves research and the gathering of facts and trying to piece that together with something internal."

For Luo, who is a Grade 8 student at Colquitz Middle School, the biggest challenge was balancing the contest with schoolwork.

Feedback from the judges was helpful for both.

"I think I improved my writing because of all the comments the judges gave me," Luo said.

As top writer, Clewley has won a trip to the Galiano Literary Festival, including two nights at the Galiano Oceanfront Inn and Spa, as well as ferry fare.

While he's excited to attend his first literary festival, it wasn't part of his motivation.

"Whether it's a class or a contest, I like working with a deadline and with some sort of frame," he said.

Given his success, he may challenge himself with more writing contests.

"Whether or not I did this contest, I was going to continue to write anyway," he said.

Luo takes home a new netbook from Mother Computers. She will probably use it for school, she said, where she got support from faculty and students. When she made it to the finals last month, her principal surprised her with an announcement.

"In the morning announcements, he started saying, 'And congrats to Fiona Luo for making it into the newspaper.' And he wished me luck," she said.

When she was selected from the general call, the judges were not aware of her age. It became more apparent through the weekly assignments, said Rogers, but the community who voted in the online poll each week supported her.

"For a youth, that writing is of a high calibre," she said. "So I'm very happy that she became the readers' choice, because we do need to encourage youth writers and make an equal place for her voice."

Obee said she was admitted to the contest on the strength of her first poem.

"And she did a darn good job of keeping up," he said. "She has a great career and future ahead of her."

Hooton said he hopes she continues to write.

"Her work progressed through the competition, which is something you don't really expect in such a short period of time. I noticed she was taking the judges' advice," he said.

Overall, Hooton was impressed with the quality of writing in the contest.

"It was really neat to see the type of work that people who aren't necessarily plugged into the industry, or writing community at large, are capable of producing in Victoria."

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