Finally, it’s time to announce June's "Identity” writing community competition winners! We saw some incredibly unique perspectives and creative takes on the prompt and are happy to offer personalized illustrations to the winners (and future featured authors.). For our guest judge this time, we invited Stephanie Burnham, a writer we met at the AWP conference in March.
Stephanie loves amateur sleuth books and decided to write her own when she couldn’t find ones featuring women of color. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime and Guppy SinC and has participated in the AWP Writer to Writer mentorship program. Currenly, she’s working on her novel, The Cat That Played Chess.
We asked her to approach these pieces through a critical lens, so while she picked the following two pieces as her favorites, there still was room for improvement. We’ve included some of her feedback, which everyone can learn from and apply to his/her own writing.
"Middle Ground", by kati.m.chen
Summary: A narrator’s relationship to her cultural identity and her mother, through the years.
Kati lives in Austin, Texas, where she sweats profusely for ten months out of the year. She is training to become a distance runner (definition of "distance" subject to review). When she's not working or in class, you can probably find her wandering the aisles of the local HEB. She is a writer, sometimes. Find her on Instagram and Facebook.
Excerpt: "My first memory of making my mother angry starts with a mirror.
When I was a kid, I spent countless hours staring at my reflection, pinching and poking my face. Everyone told me they saw my mother’s features in my brows, my eyes, my long, slender fingers. I didn’t get it. Was my face mine, or was it hers?"
Some of Stephanie’s thoughts:
“Visceral reactions should build reader empathy; however, I had a difficult time with "I wanted to itch out of my skin." It reminded me of the expression "made my flesh crawl." I couldn't suspend disbelief that a child would be so disgusted at her parent calling her by her birth names. The author described her English and Chinese name as “too plain, too boring, too sweet.” These descriptions don’t make me think of the degree of disgust her visceral reaction gives.
The beginning of the second section made me want to read more. I liked reading how Katie was proud of her mother, but she didn’t like being overwhelmed with questions. I wondered what were the questions being asked. Why couldn’t Katie tell her mom her questioning was making her feel overwhelmed? This would have given more insight into Katie. I wanted to like the characters in the story, but I felt I didn’t know about their motivations. So, the tension between mother and daughter has been built. Now to build the characters too. Flesh them out more.”
"Caged Cats", by nervousgirlwrites
Summary: A teenage girl coming of age while living on an animal refuge. The piece is about evolving identity in adolescence, power dynamics within a family and about the sometimes confusing and painful space between childhood and adulthood.
Melissa lives in sunny Austin, Texas after fleeing from cold climates for good. She reads with every free moment, makes quilts and has a morning tea ritual that cannot be interrupted. Her writing support animal is a French bulldog named Augustus, Gus for short.
Excerpt: "I felt a sort of kinship in that sound, thirteen years old, trapped between adult and child, my hormones taking me to task. Desires raking across my skin incessant and hotly agonizing. My rage often outside of my control. My own youthful percolating would rise to a boil and I would hate everyone in my family, then love them again. Everything they said and did annoyed me. I would tease them and yell at them. Then I would cry to think how much I loved them, rising early to bake muffins for my sister before they woke up."
Stephanie: “You did several things well: introduced good conflict throughout, good character development, good descriptions of setting and atmosphere. Above all, good story development. Some things you could work on are: decreasing the length of your sentences. There were several sentences where you could have used less words and still conveyed the same meaning. I caught over twenty instances of words and sentences that could have either been omitted or reduced.
At the scene level, I would like to see visceral reactions from the characters. Some common visceral reactions to stressful actions, words or events include: stomach clenching, heart pounding, rapid and shallow breathing, pulse racing, adrenaline surging, legs weakening, throat tightening, mouth drying, face flushing, chest tightening, hear blood rushing, vision narrowing.
Congratulations to the two winners, and thank you all for participating.