One of the things I love about writing is entering competitions. There’s something about a contest that tickles me pink, sets my jello, and makes my socks roll up and down. Somewhere inside me dwells a coupon-clipping, sweepstakes-entering, percolated-coffee guzzling, curlers-in-her-hair housewife who cannot resist the chance to WIN BIG PRIZES.


 Besides, for an emerging writer like me — and I have learned the term “emerging” is the polite way of saying “newbie” — entering contests can be a great way to start broiling my professional chops. And I honestly find the process fun: researching the competitions, checking out the guidelines, choosing which of my pieces might be a good fit or writing something specifically for that competition. I feel a rush as I complete my submission, polish up my cover letter, and hit “send.”


images-2Yes, my work will be judged. The odds are that it won’t win. But that’s another advantage to the process: it strengthens my I-can-take-the-rejection-no-problem muscle, vital to any working writer. I figure every rejection, including every contest entry that gets a “thank you but nah” response is another notch in my belt, another step toward a big yes.

And hey, you can’t win if you don’t enter, right? I know, I know, that kind of thinking is responsible for mega jackpots in Powerball and we all know our chances of getting hit by lightening while being trapped inside an elevator with George Clooney are way better than winning Powerball.

But a writing competition is not a lottery; at least, the credible ones aren’t. If you follow the submission guidelines carefully, your work will actually be read and evaluated by someone. A built-in win, in my opinion. In a very few cases, you may even get a critique, or at least an opinion, of your piece. Also huge for us emerging types, or, really, any writer.

Having said that, it’s important to exercise good judgment. There are competitions and competitions, you see. Some are legit and some are scams, and writer beware. Some contests charge entry or “reading” fees, anywhere from $5 to $50, and while there are perfectly legitimate and highly-regarded contests that do so (Glimmer Train, one of the most respected and prestigious competitions out there, comes to mind) it’s best to be wary. Do your research before you fork over your work or your money.

How, you ask? Thankfully, there are some very helpful websites and organizations that can point you to legitimate competitions, although the ultimate responsibility always rests with you. I’ve listed three below as a for-instance.

Writer’s Digest Competions — Every writer’s go-to resource, Writer’s Digest sponsors a number of annual contests, with very attractive prizes that can include cash, publication, and even attendance at their annual conference if you really hit the jackpot with a grand prize. Entries do require a fee, but they’re reasonable and sometimes will even come with a bonus such as free attendance in one of their Writer’s Digest University webinars.

wd-popfiction-icon-Copy-Copy1-113x113And this is where I get to brag: my short story Stuffy won First Prize in the Young Adult category of the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards in December, 2015. I can’t tell you what a boost that’s been to my confidence and what a fabulous antidote it’s proven to be for what I like to call “submission reluctance.”

Poets & Writers — P&W, another mainstay for writers both pro and aspiring, offers an excellently vetted month-by-month calendar of competitions from publishers, literary journals, and magazines. A lot of the contests tend to focus on literary fiction and, of course, poetry rather than genre fiction. A great place to start researching.

Cathy’s Comps and Calls — A wonderfully useful listing of competitions and calls for submission, all of which can be entered for free online. Whoever Cathy is, she is my new BFF. I think she’s in the UK, and many of the listed opportunities are UK or Europe-based but even so they’re usually open to us Yanks. She posts opportunities in three categories: competitions, submission with deadlines, and submissions without deadlines. And she cautions us to research carefully, as her info may not be up to date. It’s a great resource, and I’ve found lots of submission opportunities by checking out her site.

In fact, that’s how I discovered the Binnacle Short-Short Story Competition. The Binnacle is the literary journal from the University of Maine at Machias, and to the best of my understanding its general submissions are usually only open to students, faculty and alum. This contest, however, is open to all. The challenge is to submit a story of 150 words or less.

A hundred and fifty words? That’s crazy! I couldn’t resist the dare. So I offer you my entry, Toro, which clocks in at 146 words including the title, below:



The bull paused, its sides heaving, blood streaming from its nose. Its head bobbed; the barbed banderillas had shredded its neck muscles.

The crowd hushed. The matador readied his long sword.

The mantilla-draped woman sitting ringside lifted her hand. The matador’s peripheral vision caught the strange gesture: a blessing? He stepped forward, flourishing the scarlet muleta.

The bull charged. The sword flashed, the woman wove her spell, and things changed.

The matador stumbled on all fours, neck and shoulders throbbing, breathing labored. He staggered toward the poised figure. With agonizing effort, he raised his massive head enough to glimpse the suit of lights, to recognize the face as his own.

Except for the eyes. In their liquid depths he saw the bull regarding him as it raised the sword.

The kill was clean. The woman lifted her mantilla, smiling as the crowd roared its approval.

# # #

Win or lose, writing that piece was a great exercise in concision and distilling a story down to its essentials — both challenges for me. So, bon chance to me, and to you too!

   Jan M. Flynn



27107d_9b6f70f5dd2f407e9192ba64917f528cAlthough I planned my own Wine Country destination wedding: our front yard, I do hold a smidgen of destination wedding experience. I’ve attended two weddings in Mexico. The first was held in a crumbling monastery tricked out to resemble a wedding fairyland with an inch deep path of white roses leading to the altar arranged and tented atop a ruin with forested green mountains as a backdrop.

At the second, held at Mexico’s largest rancho, which historically extended from central Mexico east and west to both coasts, guests arrived by helicopter (a president, perhaps?) to dine, drink and dance all night in the courtyard after Mariachi 2000, played a private concert following the ceremony. What I remember best at both was the free-flowing tequila—until the tequila donkey ran dry, that is. The rumor in town the next day claimed Valle de Bravo to have run dry after father of the bride grabbed the donkey and made a midnight tequila ride.

I don’t remember what other disasters occurred, but I’m certain no one died, (even if a few guests did snore under tables) everyone had a grand time and Chris’s and Alejandra’s wedding planners went home with excellent recommendations and cell phone numbers of prospective clients.

Templo de San Francisco, San Miguel de Allende

That’s how it should have been for San Francisco based wedding planner, Kelsey McKenna who has created a perfect wedding for Nicole Abernathy and Vince Moreno in the two hundred year old chapel in the Mexican colonial town of San Miguel Allende. But as Father Villareal pronounces the couple “husband and wife” bridesmaid Dana, collapses into a floral arrangement at the altar, stealing the couple’s thunder—truly a wedding faux pas.

Kelsey handles the disaster with grace and professionalism as she ushers the crowd toward the tequila donkey, but soon discovers that Dana hasn’t passed-out from too much fun at the bachelorette party. She’s dead. Kelsey has a responsibility to her client to deal with the problem, but the difficult mother of the bride, Mrs. Abernathy, insists she cover it up so Nicole and Vince’s big day isn’t ruined: she paid for a wedding after all, not a funeral. That is, until Mexican police arrest Nicole’s sister, Zoe, and “mom-zilla” declares the situation falls under the “dreadful, unforeseen situations,” clause of Kelsey’s contract. With help from her friend, wedding photographer Brody Marx, she reluctantly takes on the police’s job of finding the killer, sifting through a line-up of potential suspects—Dana has treated everyone in the wedding party poorly, including trying to trick her ex-boyfriend, attending with his new date, into marrying her

Dana’s room has been tossed, and police claim Dana was poisoned and Zoe is guilty. Brody hacks Dana’s records found wrapped as a wedding gift and finds financial information pointing to new suspects. She’s threatened, convincing her of Zoe’s innocence, and with the help of her old boyfriend, now a resident of San Miguel, she goes on a fact-finding mission back to the states. All she wants is to get back to San Francisco and her work, but problem–solving is Kelsey’s forte and she can’t leave Zoe in a Mexican jail with the killer running free. Or face the career-destroying wrath of Mrs. Abernathy if she fails.


Funny, smart and on trend, Marla Cooper’s debut novel, Terror in Taffeta, is a winner. Cooper’s quirky characters, twisting plot and delightful, competent wedding planner-turned-sleuth would be enough fun for any cozy mystery reader. But this novel is a precisely crafted example of the genre, oozing humor, realistic finger-snapping dialog, an intricate and believable plot, and a sharp heroine we instantly like and trust. It may be the wedding from hell, but Kelsey McKenna demonstrates true professionalism and determination. If your attendant keeled over at the altar would your planner have stuck around to solve the murder? Kelsey proves herself to be empathetic and brimming with integrity. She’s a quick thinker and no quitter. Besides, she knows how to throw a great party.


I love Cooper’s fresh, modern prose, her well-balanced action and that she surprised me at the end with motives and a murderer I never saw coming. Jerrilyn Farmer, author of the Madeline Bean series says it all, “Like a perfect margarita, Marla Cooper has blended up a tart and delicious Mexican-set bridal mystery for her wacky and charming cozy debut, Terror in Taffeta.”

Terror in Taffeta may not be the first writing from Cooper. She says she “was astonished when she realized people could actually get paid to write things. So she switched her major from business to advertising—much to the relief of her accounting professor—and began her career as an advertising copywriter. After moving to San Francisco, she became a freelancer so she could take advantage of perks like working in her pajamas.” She’s written everything from advertising copy to travel guides; in fact, she found her inspiration for Terror in Taffeta while ghostwriting another book on destination weddings. And this first novel proves Cooper is one to watch—and I bet we haven’t seen the last of Kelsey McKenna. I don’t know what the next destination will be, but I’m sure Cooper will treat us to another roller-coaster ride through clues and suspects served up with elegantly catered red-herrings and tequila shots. (I’m still thinking about that tequila donkey.)


But don’t take my word for it; Janet Cantrell, bestselling author of the Fat Cat Mystery series has the best advice: “Drop your plans and read this new series starring Kelsey McKenna, witty and resourceful wedding planner extraordinaire. This wedding planner will win you over!”

Marla Cooper

Congratulations—it's publishing day!

March 22, 2016





Do you know hundreds of writing contests are held every year? Some contests award cash prizes, some publication of your entry and many promote winners through ceremonies, media and social media. And all come with opportunities for winners to network with judges and other writers.

The pros of entering contests:

Confidence:  Winning gives you confidence; winning money makes your day!

Contacts:   Making the short-list puts your work in front of influencers: editors, publishers, and important authors. Glimmer Train publishes the long and short lists from its monthly contests.

Discipline:   Learning to meet deadlines is a plus in the publishing world. Also taking time away from your novel while you research and enter contests gives you fresh eyes for revision when you get back.

Prestige:  If you win a prestigious contest it goes a long way to helping you get noticed in your query letter.

Publication: Having your entry published in a magazine, anthology, blog website or book may be a benefit for finalists and winners.

The Cons of entering contests:

Fees: If your contest isn’t prestigious, the risk may cost too much. The good news, most entry fees are low.

Exclusivity:   Often while the work is being judged, you can’t submit it anywhere else.

No prestige:   Little known contests may pay a small prize but won’t offer you a leg up in your career.

Rejection: Just because your piece didn’t place doesn’t make you a loser! It might have been short-listed and not announced. Believe that the work will eventually win or publish. It’s a numbers game.



I’m all for entering contests. If you’re just starting out writing, shifting to a new genre, or kicking-up a stalled writing career, contests can be a real boon. They’re a place to test the waters of your work. If you do your homework and become familiar with the editorial slants of the contest sponsors and judges, you’ll learn about new journals, new books, new poets, etc., which may benefit you in the future. Think of this strategy as your long game. You’ll never know when you’ll have a win unless you try it.


In a 2015 Poets and Writers article on contests, staff writers interviewed nine popular judges including Dinty W. Moore and the Glimmer Train team: Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda Swanson-Davies asking what they look for in entries and what advice they had for entrants.

What Judges look for:       

  • Stories that are absorbing—that make the reader want to read them straight through.

  • Work that shines—work that’s had the throat clearing          edited out, as well as the flabby over-inflated sentences—especially in the hook.

  •  A distinctive voice.

  •  Work that catches the reader up into John Gardner’s waking dream.

  •  Original work, not emulations of other writers.

  •  Poetry that doesn’t include cliches, clumsy metaphors or shallow emotional or intellectual engagement.

  • Work that demonstrates the mission of the specific sponsoring press.

  • Work that is error free.

  • Heightened, textural language.

  • Works that are unusual in ambition and execution—fresh


If you plan to enter contests heed the judges’ advice:

 Write good work.

  • Submit only your best, well-edited work.

  • Research your contests. Who is sponsoring and what do they look for? Read several issues of the publications before submitting. You can increase your odds by making sure you know what a magazine or press might take.

  • Get to know the judges for the same reasons. What did they write? While judges' taste isn’t predictable, you can use the contest to get your work in front of writers you admire and possibly start a longer kind of dialog.

  • Read the work of the prior year winners.

  • Submit work that is written in a typescript easy on the eyes.

  • It isn’t always just about winning—other benefits might surface such as making important connections.

  • Don’t aim too high: work your way up as your writing improves. Literary careers are built in increments.


My advice:

You’re not going to win if you don’t enter.        

Look for contests where judges critique your entry. Learn from your mistakes.

What have you got to lose?




Once upon a time in the rarely talked about Frosty sector of Fantasyland, a tale is told about a magenta-haired girl named Wren. Wren lived with her parents in an Igloo where they had to put down stakes for back-door reasons. The maid was slender and so innocent she would blush when she would hear her name being called.

One morning while picking frozen Apricots (which would be squashed to sell for desserts) she was distressed to see her Igloo home begin to soften. Her Father, a thief whose only talent was looting and plundering, would be no help in this or any other crises. Wren's distraught Mother looked out of the scullery window, lips pursed in anger, as her house warmed into a puddle.


Fear was now at its zenith when, like a bolt of lightening, an incredible memory of great significance came to her. She recalled a hidden bag of magic seeds purloined some time ago and given to her by, you guessed it, her husband as his gift for Valentine's Day and to celebrate the day their child was born. She felt it came to her just at the right time and anyway funny stuff happens in Fantasyland.

Could it be that her shifty mate's love gift would be their salvation?

Now unearthed from under the floorboards, the small leather pouch yielded a  papyrus that read; "WARNING PLANT ONLY ONE OKRA POD AT A TIME" In smaller yet and nearly unreadable lettering at the very bottom of the page it read: "Enchanted Farmers Inc. Herby release any and all responsibility for the undisciplined growth of these contents," and in even smaller print was, "Shuck at your own risk."

The pod grew, all the igloos disappeared, and magenta-haired Wren, her mother, and the now celebrated ex-pilferer continue to live  quite contentedly in their ever expanding house in the little known and rarely talked about Frosty sector of Fantasyland.