Sunday, February 7, 2021


A couple months ago I leaned about a writing contest open to anybody over the age of 10. I read over the rules, looking up the organization that's doing the organizin', then copied the link and sent it to my niece.

“Do you want to enter a contest together?”

“Mayyyybeeee,” she said, suspicious of anything that looked so much like homework. “Let me think about it.”

The kid is barely old enough to qualify, but she's a voracious reader and writes well above grade level. I figured she'd be a shoo in, but I didn't want to put her under pressure. Nothing ruins the fun of writing like adults who turn it into a chore. A few days later, though, she agreed we should do it. After that we were off to the races.

The contest is broken out into three divisions – Middle School, High School, and Adult – but all three get the same rules. Stories have to be between 500 and 1,000 words; they all have to use the same first sentence; and they all have to use the same last sentence.

Those requirements proved irresistible. They sparked our imaginations. Even my mom, who was hearing about the contest from both me and my niece, started pitching us her own ideas. At the end of one phone call, after she ran through yet another entire original plotline, I told her that maybe she ought to enter.

“Oh, no,” Mom said, “I'm not creative.”

I decided not to pressure her, either. I didn't need the extra competition.

I made the last edits on my story this week, ruthlessly paring it down to get myself down below the 1,000 words. I put it aside, came back the next day. Put it aside, came back again. Finally I submitted the story.

Later I asked my niece, how's her story going? We're not sharing manuscripts with each other until we've both submitted. She's afraid I might steal her ideas.

“Good,” my niece said, “but it might get too long. I'm already at 300 words.”

“Well, that's okay, you've got a little more room,” I said, trying to be reassuring. “How much have you still got to write?”

“They still have to fight the basilisk,” she said. “And the dragon and the electric eels and the monster I invented. There's also a volcano.”

“Ah,” I said. “Maybe you are cutting it a little too close.”

“What's your story about?” my niece asked. I gave her the pitch, my tale about a young mouse who's off to seek his fortune in Australia. I figured she'd love it—kids love adventuring mice. But when I stopped talking there was silence on the other end of the line.

“What?” I asked. “Not exciting enough?”

“It sounds pretty good,” she said diplomatically, “but maybe you should have him fight monsters.”

Good writing advice, maybe, but by then it was too late. You live and you learn, I suppose. Our hopes will have to rest upon her.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...