The Washington Writers Publishing House recently announced the winners of its 2023 awards for poetry, fiction, and new this year, creative non-fiction. I participated in the review of the fiction manuscripts in this now second full year that the press has opened its submissions to writers is all of Maryland, and Virginia, not just residents of the Baltimore-DC metro area.
This was a good idea, expanding the contests’ geographical eligibility limits. Several fiction submissions came from writers in the far corners of both states, bringing forward a new variety of subject matter and new perspectives of what the region’s culture is, in places like Southern Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and Richmond. Even the “DMV” in its broadest expanse is a lot of things—it is Southern, working class, Appalachian, coastal, mountainous, urban, international, diverse, and not diverse. (A recent getaway through the Eastern Shore enroute to Ocean City revealed this to me again. I stopped in a Wal-Mart to buy some water, and the place was filled with only white faces; workers, shoppers, managers all. Felt odd and jarring).
The fiction submissions were good, as has been usual in recent years. A silent community of Mid-Atlantic writers are toiling away on very personal novels and short story collections. They are academics, young careerists, teachers, journalists, and a mix of local professionals aiming to put fresh spins on those traditional “DC stories” publishers like – CIA and military intrigue and such. The space that independent publishers can provide to these writers is vital and will be from which, I am confident, the next waves of innovative fiction will emerge, while the big house publishers continue to chase the next variation of the most recent award winners.
An observation about the submitted fiction manuscripts and ensuing editorial discussions: We are losing our patience as readers, while writers all seem to want to explore their inner James Joyce these days.
When the writing is good and thoughtful, the results can be engrossing. Good freeform exposition will always keep me engaged if I feel I’m in responsible hands and trust that I am being taken down a path with a payoff. But writers need to consider in their (our) revision processes how every sentence and every paragraph serve plot and character development. This seems like a basic notion, that probably gets examined in any creative writing 101 class (i.e., some variant of “show don’t tell” mixed with “kill your darlings”). Like a gregarious conversationalist, fiction writers can fall in love with their own voice. That’s where the prose—any kind— can go awry.
The “fix” for pantsers and rigid plotters alike is in the revision process. The work of revising is tough—as I go through that with my own work-in-progress, I am aiming to take a human centered design approach. Proceeding chapter by chapter, I am trying to “clarify” the reader’s pain points—i.e., those things that would make them confused, disengaged and put my work down for good—and ideate on the specific tactical ways to address those short comings. Which will mean in part, killing dull aimless dialogue and any exposition that grinds stories to a halt, no matter how colorful and elegant the writing. Hopefully this approach will work to improve pacing and flow, two areas in particular editors have flagged for me in their notes.
Regarding the wave of diary-like exposition we saw in the fiction manuscripts, one thought from the editorial team was that nostalgia, driven by the alone-time and reflection that the pandemic afforded, was in play. Writers weren’t out and about collecting observations about external lives, so we all went “internal” for a period of time and had a need to make sense of the world for some imagined future reader. Perhaps. We will see if next year’s “post-pandemic” manuscripts bring in more plot driven and action-oriented contemporary “external” stories.
Congrats to the 2023 winners. The manuscripts are all challenging and polished works. Also, kudos to the fiction finalist Jillian Danback-McGhan. One piece in her collection, Trou, was among the most moving and nuanced short stories I’ve read in a while. A young writer, she will be one to watch.
Things I would love to see or read in future submissions:
- Stories centering young Black men. Lawyers, athletes, doctors, and engineers, sure, but also bus drivers and grocery store workers. It’s like young Black men don’t exist in the world of fiction as nuanced and interesting characters.
- Thoughtful takes on the realities of today’s diverse and aging suburbs.
- Gen. Z reflections on the changing nature of work and relationship building in the social media and coming AI age.
- Stories set in the 80s to 2000s. Again, technologies changed so much about the world during that period—let’s right some good fiction about it! Also the lives of those Gulf War veterans deserve some examination.
- More playfulness with form, echoing all the ways we are producing and consuming digital media these days. A whole novel written like Tik-Tok videos? Hmm…