Filled with creepy, comedic, twisted and clever tales, the Short Short Story Contest, run by Mr. Newman, has been a unique, fun annual Lovett tradition for the past 17 years. Each year continues to be a one of a kind experience for not only the winners, but the contestants, judges, and student body alike.
This year, junior Ashley Marshall took first, senior Mackenzie Boden took second, and there was a three-way tie for third between senior Towner Schunk, senior Hunter Fankhauser, and sophomore George Izard.
When I interviewed two of the winners of Lovett’s Short Short Story Contest, I found it interesting how both of them didn’t plan on it. It just happened. “I had written a short story for a project in American Studies, and I thought it would be fun to submit it in the contest. I love writing, and I just wanted to see what could happen,” said one of the senior winners, Ashley Marshall.
Similarly, George Izard, a sophomore, explains how the story came to be as an accidental by-product of his outline for his end of the year project in English. He explains how he “waited until the very last minute to start writing [the outline].” The first topic he was going to use was about being stuck between two moments in time, and since he was really into this idea, he changed his whole project to be just about time. However, at the end of his outline, he decided to make his conclusion sort of abstract. That’s where the writing of this story comes in. He recalled a memory from a bit ago where he was lying in his bed and recalled this vivid memory from his childhood and this memory began to feel so real that he “thought it was real life.” So, he started writing his conclusion, and later remembered the contest was in session. “I never considered entering until the day before, by a complete accident,” he says.
Ashley also dishes on the inspiration for her story, about a girl who sees numbers above people’s heads, yet doesn’t know what they mean. The majority of people have a zero, and she’s only seen a couple of ones and twos before, and at the end of the story, she figures out what the numbers mean (read her story to find out!). She got this unique idea from Pinterest. It turns out she has an entire Pinterest board of ideas for short stories, and one of the prompts vaguely outlined the idea. “I thought it would be fun to build on it and make it my own,” she says.
Unlike George, for whom this was his first time entering, Ashley had entered before but didn’t make it this far. Perhaps this is almost a game of practice as much as a game of skill.
For Ashley, one of the hardest aspects of the contest was the word count; one of the aspects that makes this contest so unique is the limit of 500 words. “It was impossible!” she says. ”The requirement for my project was 1200 words, so I had to cut what seemed like the entire thing!” Sometimes the shortest stories take the longest time to write. Ashley adds how because of the short length requirement, “It took me about three days to get the story to a place I liked.”
One challenge she faced was having confidence in herself and in her writing. “This is the first time I have let other people read my writing and them actually knowing it was me who wrote it,” she says. “It was stressful putting my work in front of the entire school and people whose opinions I really valued and let my work be judged.”
For George, one of the hardest things for him was making his story make sense. “It was pretty tricky, and I’ll never know if I did it, because I can't look into other people's minds and see if they experienced it the same way I did,” he says.
For any aspiring writers, both George and Ashley shared some thoughts on their processes. Ashley says that her writing process normally consists of writing for a couple of hours then taking a break and coming back to it. George adds onto that and explains how his writing process starts with an outline that he writes on paper, not online. He explains how when you write online, there is always that temptation to copy and paste. However he feels strongly that “you shouldn’t start with words. You should start with an idea and then turn that into words.”
Even with the struggles of the writing process, both do it because it’s something they love and enjoy. “I love it so much!” says Ashley. “I can express myself freely, and there’s no requirements or structure I have to follow. It’s just so freeing. I write a lot of monologues and short stories outside of school. I love a good murder mystery or thriller with a cliffhanger,” she says with a smile. “It sounds cheesy, but when I write, the only limit is my imagination. I think school is so structured and we don’t have a creative license to do anything we want. Writing lets me put my ideas on paper without a specific structure that I have to follow.”
George thinks that the idea that people have an innate “talent” in something is kind of a hoax. “I think what they really have is an innate desire,” he says. “I’m lucky to enjoy writing. I'm not naturally good at it, I just naturally enjoy it.”
And George observed that “It can never be perfect,” which is one of his favorite things when it comes to writing. “The issue with most things like reading a book or playing a video game, is that you do it until you've reached 100 percent and then you're done. But with writing you can never fully satisfy that hunger. That's why it's addicting. With writing I can never be perfect so I can keep doing it forever.”
One of the judges, Mrs. Martin, feels the same way. When asked about why she chose to judge, she explains how “[she] loves doing stuff like this.” She also judges the American Studies research papers.. She likes reading the stuff students are doing. “In the library I see some of the work that goes into these sorts of things but I don’ t get to see the final result, and I’ve enjoyed the Short Short Story Contest since Mr. Newman started it.” She thinks students are very creative. “”Some of the things that come out of the contest are really great so I just think it's fun!,” she says with a smile.
When asked about how the judging process works, she explains how “each judge gets a section of the submissions, just the stories and no names or grades.” She then explains how each judge reads and ranks their top 5 and gave those to Mr. Newman. “Mr. Newman then takes all the top 5s that have the most votes or a significant number of votes and then sends those back to us. Then we read those and ranked them 1-5 as well, and then he compiles the results and finds out who won.”
For her, judging those final round stories can be very tricky. At the beginning it's a lot more subjective. It's what story speaks to what judge. She always hopes her first round top picks make it to the final round. ”But then you have to think: “Just because I like this one is it really the best story.”’ For the final round, she says “you have to put aside some of the subjectiveness you put into the first round and look at it with a little more objectivity. But it’s hard because you’re rooting for the ones you put in there.”
Her favorite part of the contest is reading the stories and seeing how varied they are. “[This year there were really creepy ones, there were very clever ones, funny ones, and more,” she said. “I was pulled in so many different directions and it was very interesting and fun for me to see what you all come up with.”
She joked how one of her favorite stories that she picked was about a library and a librarian, so that was a given, but one of the other ones she picked, which she thinks ended up being one of the finalists, is one in which she thought the structure was good and most of all it was clever. “I like clever and twisted things,” she says. “Not in the creepy sense, but I like it when people go and put a new spin on things, such as the story by the second place winner senior Mackenzie Unstiched.” She loved how Mackenzie used flashbacks to show how the protagonist got her scar. She liked that one because it was a different way to express something. “I was putting the pieces together as I was reading it, and that I liked,” she says.
“In general, that’s what I was looking for, something that struck a chord with me. Especially for the first round.”
I also asked Ms. Martin if she had any advice for anyone who wants to enter the contest in the future. Her main piece of advice she would like all writers to take away is to be clever and clear, but “don’t try to use big, fancy words that you don’t normally use in your everyday life. I always like when people are writing like they’re speaking. As if you’re telling your friend the story you’re writing. Don’t try to impress us, just write what feels right!”
Because of the coronavirus, this year’s contest ended a bit differently. Mr. Newman explained how normally, towards the middle of March, “I get the winners backstage and project the stories on the screen during an assembly. They can then read their stories and it's a live experience for both them and the audience.”
This year, because of virtual school, the writers shared their stories via a youtube video that Mr. Newman sent out to the school. Mr. Newman felt like “the video was a pretty good substitute, as it was still giving the writers their due and giving the people who watched it the chance to put the face, the words, the sounds of their voices, and the performance all together.” He also likes how there is a Youtube record of the event. He gave a huge thanks to Mr. Silverman who helped him assemble the video.
Fortunately, the stories were submitted prior to quarantine and they also had the first round of judging prior to quarantine. Mr. Newman explains how for the final round, he just shared a google folder, so the faculty and student judges could read the stories that way.
As always, the judging was done individually, but Mr. Newman says that he has sometimes wondered if he should try getting all the judges in a room together to decide on the best stories. But he thinks it’s better that he doesn't. “Because the submitting of the stories is anonymous, the judging is too,” he says.
Ultimately, he loves giving students an opportunity to write fiction. And in the midst of Lovett students’ busy lives, he likes to keep it manageable. “I didn’t want this to be a thing where students have to write a 10,000 story,” he says. “Here, anybody, if they want to, can write 500 words.”
And he celebrates those who take a chance and submit a story. “Doing this makes you really vulnerable because only a few people will ultimately win,” he says. “For the rest, it has to be about the more private reward of having created something from nothing on the page.”