#FicFest: Mentoring in Perspective

I read a tweet earlier from a #FicFest mentor. She’s sad about all the people whose entry she can’t pick and feels like she’s crushing their dreams. I’m sure this feeling troubles most, if not all, of the contest judges/mentors, since they are themselves not that far removed from the query trenches, and (being imaginative sorts of writerly people) probably have lots of empathy for what we (the contestants) are currently feeling, and what the majority of us will feel when the results are announced. Anyway, it got me thinking about what it means to be a mentor, both in this contest and other places, like my classroom.

First: Being a positive role model in the position of official mentor is beneficial to everybody who sees you, not just the individual(s) you actually mentor. The more successful people we see helping out, the more hope we have, and the more the abilities and the attitude of the general group improve.

Second: Do the FicFest mentors crush the dreams of those they don’t pick? I suppose you could look at it that way, but it’s only a very small, very specific dream: that of winning FicFest.  The big dreams–writing a book, seeking publication, looking in the mirror and calling yourself an author–those will be just fine. Failing to advance to the agent round will be disappointing but will have no more effect on our overall careers than a low grade on an assignment has on my students’ overall journey toward their degree. Additionally, I’ve found that students (especially the good ones) frequently learn more from the wake-up call of a low grade. They step back and seriously assess their work to figure out what they did wrong and how to make it better. As mentors, it’s crucial that we remember failure can be helpful (although it doesn’t feel nearly as good to hand out).

Finally: You can’t help everybody, and mentors have a tendency to fixate on that. Sure, we’ve helped a handful, but what is that compared to the hundreds, nay, BILLIONS that we haven’t? There’s a bit from a historical novel I read in high school that’s always stuck with me. The heroine has a conversation with a doctor who has spent his entire career working for the poor. He says, “When I look at all the suffering surrounding me, I feel as though my life has been a waste. The few that I’ve helped are only a drop in the ocean.” And the heroine replies, “The people you’ve helped don’t feel like a drop in the ocean.” For the people we help–for the FicFest contestant who gets picked or the student who comes into the classroom thinking she can’t write and walks out knowing she can–it’s a game changer. As mentors, we can’t help everybody, but for those we do, the potential impact is limitless.


Tuesday Prompt: 16 Heads

Prompt: Begin your story with the line “Two heads may be better than one, but sixteen are entirely too many.”

“Two heads may be better than one, but sixteen are entirely too many, begging your pardon, Mrs. Pastor.”

Sally Pierce blinked in amazement at the shriveled man in front of her, then looked helplessly at her husband, the Rev. Rupert Pierce. “Dear, I …”

“I think what Simon means,” Rupert said, “Is that there were only supposed to be fifteen sets of bones in that grave. Is that right, Simon?”

The church’s ancient caretaker nodded. “Someone’s buried there, who oughtn’t to be.”

In Sally’s opinion, the church ought to have left well enough alone. The proposed new building was much larger, much grander, and would fill up the land currently occupied by an ancient churchyard, which had reposed there peacefully for a century. The bodies had to be moved, which meant that Sally’s window in the parsonage had, for the last several weeks, overlooked rows of open graves. It gave her the creeps.

“You’re sure?” Rupert was asking.

Simon was nodding again, making the withered skin beneath his throat waggle like a rooster’s wattle. “I counted them skulls. Haven’t bothered with the other bones, but there’s definitely sixteen heads.”

“Should we call the police?” Sally asked anxiously, episodes of Bones and Cold Case flashing through her mind.

“I don’t think so, my dear. These graves are so old that even if some kind of crime was committed, it can’t be of any interest to current law enforcement.”

Sally sighed. It was all very well being married to a minister, but Rupert was so unworldly, and so comfortable with the spiritual that he was completely unphased by mysterious bones. He had no conception of the restless dreams she’d been having, inspired by those open graves, especially the mass ones. She understood that it had been practical a hundred years earlier, when the ground froze so hard they had to stack the bodies in the undertaker’s shed and wait for spring to dig a grave. So much more practical to just dig the one grave then. Hardy pioneer folk didn’t have time to be silly about things like individual tombstones.

But it made chills slide down Sally’s spine every time she thought about it.

The next day, Sally was in the backyard of the parsonage, fighting with the weeds that threatened her puny crop of vegetables. She was just cursing herself for having accidentally pulled up yet another young carrot, when a creaky, distinctly spooky voice said, “I reckon I can tell you where that extra skull come from.”

Sally gasped and ran her hand into the point of her trowel. Shaking away the pain, she stood up and regarded the wrinkled face peering at her over the fence. She knew Mrs. Billings by sight, but they’d never actually spoken. The elderly woman always sat at the back of the church, and in the four Sundays so far that Sally had spent as the minister’s new bride, she’d never managed to catch the elderly woman before she slipped out.

Sally wasn’t at all sure she wanted to talk about bones, but a minister’s wife has certain duties. “Won’t you come in?” she asked, glad enough for an excuse to pull off her sweaty gardening gloves and enter the shady house.

Mrs. Billings hesitated, then nodded her head with its fluffy nest of white hair. “Reckon I can spare a few minutes. Don’t get much chance to chat at church. My shows start just as soon as the service ends.”

Sally blinked. A lot of people rushed home from church to watch television, but few admitted it to the preacher’s wife.

Inside the cool kitchen, Sally poured them both glasses of lemonade while Mrs. Billings cast a critical eye around. Sally could only be grateful she’d transferred the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher.

“Now, about those bones,” Mrs. Billings said. “You wouldn’t have a cookie? I’ve got to keep up my blood sugar.” When she had a chocolate chip one in hand, she continued, “I never thought I’d tell this story to another living soul. I give it to my daughter, but she passed on before me, and there weren’t none of us Billingses left. But I reckon a minister’s wife is almost as good as family.”

“If it’s a family secret …” Sally began, wanting to assure the woman that she, Sally, had no curiosity in the matter.

But Mrs. Billings ignored her. “It was all on account of Laura May’s wedding to Jake Billings, you see.”


Laura May Johnson was as pretty as a wildflower and as spunky as a wild prairie pony. There were plenty of men around the small frontier town who came courting, but she would look at none of them—except for Jake Billings. He was a rancher who owned the biggest spread in the county, and an top of that he was handsome enough in his suit to set every female heart in church fluttering on a Sunday morning. When he came to call, Laura May said yes before Jake was rightly sure he’d proposed.

Well, the wedding preparations went on like a house afire, and it was all set for an early spring wedding. Laura May had made up her mind that while June was traditional, she wouldn’t wait an extra month to become Mrs. Jake Billings. May first suited her just fine. “May Day for Laura May,” she said.

It would all have gone without a hitch, if not for Laura May’s Uncle Max. He was the sort of relative who descended on a family insisting that he would only be there a week, and he’d stay a year. Or two. On top of that, he was the most cantankerous, self-absorbed old sinner you’d ever have the misfortune to meet. He liked nobody and nobody liked him.

On the eve of her wedding, Laura May was finishing up the stitching on her wedding dress. Tiny embroidered vines and leaves it had all the way around the hem, and she did every stitch herself. She had just tied the last knot when her sister Fran came into the room with a face white as the dress.

Clutching her heart as if she were about to faint, Fran gasped, “Laura, I’ve just been up to take Uncle Max his supper, and Laura May, oh Laura May!”

“What is it?” snapped Laura. She had a lot on her mind and was in no mood for Fran’s dramatics.

“Laura May, Uncle Max is dead!” [30 minutes]

Laura May was that upset that she closed her scissors on the fabric instead of the thread she meant to snip and made a slit right in her beautiful gown. She threw it down on the bed and ran up, hoping that Fran was wrong and maybe Max was just having a fainting spell, but it was all too true. There he sat in the room he demanded to have all to himself, staring at the fire, dead as a doornail.

Laura May grabbed Fran and shook her. “Now see here, Fran, who else have you told?”

“No one, no one,” Fran gasped. “I … oh it’s awful!”

“You bet it’s awful,” Laura May answered, but she didn’t mean because she felt any sorrow over Uncle Max. In fact, she was so mad at the old man, she coulda spit on his corpse. It was on account of Jake Billings’s ma. Now that her son was the richest man in the county, Mrs. Billings had certain ideas of how she—and anyone entered her family—was going to behave. And she would never allow her son to be married when there’d just been a death in the bride’s family. She’d expect Laura to go into mourning for months. But Laura May was bound and determined to be a May Day bride.

“I’m not letting anything get in the way of this wedding,” she told Fran. “Look here, you know the thaw’s been softening the ground up good, and they’ve dug the spring grave over at the church yard.”

Fran nodded and shivered, because even the word “grave” made her nervous.

“And you know Billy Jones who helps the undertaker is sweet on you.”

Fran blushed.

“Well, you’re going to go tell Billy there will be one more corpse for him tonight.”

Fran turned pale. “Laura May, I couldn’t!”

“Oh yes, you could. Nobody will ever notice one more body after they’re all covered up, and nobody will miss Uncle Max, either.”

“But they’re bound to notice he’s gone. What will we tell them?”

“That he’s packed up and gone back east, like he’s always promising and never doing. Go on, tell Billy we’ll have the body there at midnight.”

Laura May bullied poor Fran until she gave in and went to find Billy. Meanwhile, Laura went back down to sew up the cut in her dress and scheme.

That night, after the rest of the house had gone to bed, she and Fran got Max’s body between them and started on their way to the churchyard. Fran didn’t want to touch the corpse, but Laura May promised her that she could be married out of Jake Billings’s two story ranch house, and make a grand entrance coming down the big front staircase, so Fran gave in.

It was a good half mile from the Johnson house to the graveyard. Luckily, there was a moon, but even so, they were tripping all over themselves, lugging that heavy man in the dark. Max liked a square meal, especially when it was at somebody else’s house.

Well, they were almost there when they heard hoofbeats galloping toward them. Fran shrieked and dropped her half of Uncle Max, but Laura May kept her head, even when the nighttime rider turned out to be the town’s new sheriff.

He swung down off his horse and shone his lantern in their faces. “You two ladies mind explaining just exactly what you’re doing out at this hour?”

And Laura May said, “We’re taking this corpse to be buried, Sheriff.”

Fran nearly fainted again, but fortunately she kept her mouth shut.

Now the sheriff was so new, that he didn’t know all the folks in town yet.

Laura May batted her eyelashes at him and kept talking. “Please, please, don’t you blame my brothers, sheriff. They’re just high spirited lads, and they thought it would be funny to steal one of the corpses out of the undertaker’s shed and set him up as a guest at my wedding tomorrow. Of course, it was awfully disrespectful, but I found out in time, and as long as we get him back, don’t you think you could just forget about it?”

The sheriff, in addition to being new was also young, and not impervious to Laura May’s eyelashes. Besides, he saw the wisdom in being on the good side of the bride of the richest man around.

“I reckon my memory’s not so good as it once was,” he said. “Let me help you ladies.” And so the sheriff himself took the body to the graveyard. Billy Jones buried him, and later that night Laura May took all Max’s things to the churchyard and got them buried too. She was married next day to Jake Billings, and all her folks said the best gift of all was Uncle Max finally taking himself back east.

Nobody’s known the truth of that night, except the brides of the Billings family—they’ve passed down the story, along with the wedding dress and its mended skirt, where Laura May sliced it with the scissors.


Mrs. Billings drained the last of her lemonade and stood. “I’ve got to get home. As the World Turns starts at one, and I hate to miss it.”

Sally saw her out and then sat down at her kitchen table. “Well,” she said out loud.

“What’s well?” Rupert asked, coming in from his study in search of lunch.

“I’ve decided not to be afraid of the bones in the graves anymore,” Sally told him.

“That’s fine,” he said cheerfully. “I’ve been inspired by it, myself. I’m going to preach on John the Baptist.” He made a sandwich and wandered back to his study.

Sally stood at the window and looked out over the disturbed churchyard. She saw ghosts rising from the graves, but they weren’t the ghouls she used to imagine. They were only a fat man nobody liked, and a beautiful girl bound and determined to be a May Day bride.

*Author’s note: This was inspired by L. M. Montgomery!


#FicFest: The New Gatekeepers

Today, I submitted my query letter and first chapter to the brand new FicFest contest. I’ve been hugely excited over this chance to both network with other writers and potentially skip the slush pile to get my work in front of some very attractive agents. I even won a free query critique as part of the leadup to the submission day! (See it HERE)

FicFest is the latest in a growing trend of online contests for writers who aspire to become agented and traditionally published. These contests are a fabulous resource for people like me, and they’re also interesting as a sign of the evolving publishing world.

The rules for FicFest (read them in their entirety HERE) are as follows:

  1. Submit your query, first chapter, and other MS vitals during a two-day window.
  2. Teams of volunteer writing mentors (people with considerable writing experience, often themselves agented or published) will peruse the entries, and each mentor will select one MS and writer to mentor for the next two months.
  3. After two months of mentor-guided revisions, the queries and sample chapters will be sent to a large panel of agents, who will request more material from writers who spark their interest.

Contests are the new gatekeepers. The fact is that because of changes in technology, leisure time, and cultural values, many, many people want to and actually do write books. Because of this surge in aspiring writers, traditional publishing is overwhelmed. And although it’s easy for writers like me to kvetch about getting a form letter rejection for an MS we’ve slaved over for years, the truth is that agents can’t do otherwise. They’re swamped. There are far fewer spots for agent clients than there are writers. And there are even fewer spot on publication lists.

Literary agents evolved because publishers needed gatekeepers–people to weed through the slush pile and find the best material before it ever reaches the editors’ desks. But now the agents need gatekeepers, too. That’s where contests come in.

What makes FicFest particularly interesting is that it’s shed most of the “contest” trappings that have characterized these events up til now. There’s no winner. There’s no prize. Instead, the gatekeeper function is at the fore, and the contest will identify and offer interested agents the 45 best manuscripts submitted. I believe that we’ll be seeing more and more of this–writers self-policing (so to speak) to aid agents in finding the work that is ready for publication, while offering some helpful feedback to those writers whose manuscripts still need work before they enter the professional arena.

What also makes FicFest interesting is the way it exemplifies the spirit of generosity that dominates the writing community. The competiton for agents and publishing contracts is incredibly fierce, and writers are putting years of work and cherished dreams on the line when they seek publication. It would be easy for the prevailing spirit to be one of cutthroat nastiness. Instead, those who succeed immediately reach back into the pool of struggling newbies and offer them a hand up. The organizers and mentors of FicFest are strictly volunteer. In most cases, they don’t have preexsiting relationships with the writers they will spend weeks mentoring. They do it because they believe in paying it forward.

And so, regardless of whether or not I get to advance to the agent round, participating in FicFest has been sheer delight.


Tuesday prompt – “Dialogue with an inanimate object”

Every Tuesday, I spend thirty minutes writing on a prompt. Two other writers do this with me, and we send each other our ficlets and comment on them. It’s a fun, low-pressure way to get in a little extra writing.

This week’s didn’t go as well as I would have liked, at least in terms of producing something that felt like a complete scene/story. I also forgot to include one of the required elements. But I think there are a couple of funny moments. And that opening line, well, it comes from personal experience …

Prompt: Write a story or scene that includes the following—white paint peeling; dialogue with an inanimate object


The ice cream said, “Go on, have a taste. You know I’m delicious.” The frost on the carton glistened suggestively.

I swallowed hard and averted my eyes. “I’m just here for the carrots,” I muttered, then bit my lip in consternation. I can’t stop the food from talking, but I usually try not to talk back. For one thing, responding encourages them. For another, if any of my coworkers overheard, it would let the cat out of the crazy bag and get me fired. Working as a prep chef at Fred’s All American Cuisine isn’t much of a job, but at the moment, there are no other prospects on my horizon.

I grabbed a massive bag of frozen, precut carrots out of the giant plastic bin against the back wall and scurried back out of the walk-in freezer. The carrots, at least, were silent. Frozen foods are until they’ve thawed, unless they’re meant to be eaten frozen, like the ice cream.

I bitterly recounted all the jobs I might have had instead of working in a place that surrounds me with food every day, all day: receptionist, janitor, copy machine repair person. But there just aren’t many opportunities in a town this small for a girl with no education past high school and no family connections to bump her to the front of the applicant line. Most people prefer to hire their relatives—I’m just lucky Fred’s niece decided to move to Atlanta and left him in the lurch.

Back at the range, I dumped the carrots into the enormous pot of boiling water and gritted my teeth. The screams started twenty seconds later.

I don’t remember for sure which vegetable first thought it would be funny to pretend they could feel themselves being scalded, but now they all do it. Vegetables are like sheep—if one of them manages to come up with an original idea, the rest of them seize it and stomp all the juice out of it until its as shriveled as a five-year-old raisin.

“Heeeey, goin’ my way, sexy?” A tall cart loaded with rolls wolf-whistled as I hurried past. The bread is always fresh.

Trying to get back to my carrots before they boiled to mush, I almost ran into Marlene, Fred’s daughter-in-law and waitress.

She grabbed my arm. “Belinda, can you please take out this next order? I’ve just got to sit down for a minute.” Marlene was seven months pregnant and having trouble getting her XXL uniform shirt to close over her belly.

I gestured toward to the industrial range. “I’ve got carrots cooking.”

“I’ll watch them.”

Unable to come up with a good excuse to tell the pregnant lady no, I reluctantly untied my apron and made sure my khaki uniform shirt was tucked into my black pants. I hate going into the dining room. When the food talks to me from inside other people’s mouths, I just want to retch. Really, it was getting so that I could hardly eat anymore.

I picked up the next order—a massive tray loaded down with a cheeseburger, cheesy fries, and Fred’s famous two-foot-chili-cheese-dog. Someone out there had a thing for cheese.

I actually don’t mind cheese as much as some of the food. Dairy, on the whole, is a mild-mannered food group.

And so I begin …

Every writer needs a blog.

I’ve been working on my writing for a long time. I started my first novel in high school (and let’s not count how many years it’s been since then), but I was telling stories a long time before that, usually in that delicious twenty minutes in bed before I fell asleep. I actually had an imaginary cupboard which contained all the right ingredients. I’d open it up, mix up a little of this plot and that character and drink it down to start my daydream (I’m still not sure whether this was inspired by Alice in Wonderland or my mom’s awesome baking skills).

I’ve always been a little bit daunted by social media. In spite of the insistent clamor of advice saying that today’s authors MUST have a web presence, I’ve been resistant. Partly this is because I’m introverted and the cacophony of online voices is deafening. Partly this is because I’m frustrated by the poverty of much online communication–the miscommunications and hurtful exchanges that so frequently are produced by too much brevity and anonymity. And partly, if I’m being honest, because I’ve got a big old grain of lazy in my core that I’ve got to constantly wage war against.

But at the end of this week, something amazing is going to happen. For the first time since I was six years old, I will no longer being going to school. For the first twenty-four years I was attending as a student (yes, I have a BA, an MA, and a PhD–I wanted the whole set). For the last two, I’ve been attending as a teacher. But on April 22, I will teach my last class.

You see, I happen to have been given the incredible, mind-blowing, just-like-a-fairy-tale blessing of marrying somebody who believes in dreams. He believes in them so much that he’s willing to shoulder the whole burden of supporting our family while I try to make this writing thing pay.

So it’s time to stop being daunted. It’s time to stop being overwhelmed and frustrated. It’s definitely time to stop being lazy.

I owe it to my husband, who is making this sacrifice for me.

I owe it to my daughter, so that she can grow up watching a woman dream big and work hard to make that dream happen.

And I owe it to myself, because no other work I’ve ever done has made me happier.