Anatomy of a Winner

If you’re an independent publisher, right about now you’re being bombarded with reminders that we’re coming up on the deadline for submitting your nominations to the committees that select prizes, or nominations that closed earlier are announcing finalists. Independent Best American Poetry. Sundress Best of the Net. Bettering American Poetry. CLMP’s Firecracker Award. Pushcart Prize.

Being notified that your work has been put forward for a prize can be an incredible boost to a writer’s ego, and having a prize winner among the authors you’ve published can be a boon to a journal’s credibility.

So what does it take to get your name on that list?

Plot: Having a novel plot line can help. According to the Book of Ecclesiastes, “…there is nothing new under the sun.” And if that was true when the Bible was being written, your chances of coming up with a 100% brand-new plot line, thousands of years and trillions of published words later, are pretty slim. But there are ways of exploring plot that haven’t yet been done to death.

Character: What’s your main character’s favorite pizza topping? Do they put their footwear on sock-sock-shoe-shoe, or sock-shoe-sock-shoe? If I read your story, do I feel that the characters have just that second popped into being on the page, or do I get the sense that the characters have a history and a future that extend outward from both ends of the story? It’s enormously difficult to distinguish yourself from the pack unless your characters have done it first.

Language: Some language sings. Zora Neale Hurston, Michael Ondaatje, Anaïs Nin. Some language has surgical precision. Mervyn Peake, Ernest Hemingway. Some language evokes place. Flannery O’Connor. William Faulkner.

At heart, though, none of these things is enough. It’s possible to create something that’s technically competent, and yet lacks soul and spirit. The pieces that resonate – the ones that make the largest impact – are the ones where you meet people that you love or hate, and experience the things that change them through language that makes you believe you were there. Life isn’t always grammatical. It doesn’t follow an established narrative arc. And none of us is likable all the time. Make me believe that there’s a “you” behind the story I’m reading (whether that “you” is the author or the narrator) and I will love it.


lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press. She may have an MFA, but finds “MFA style” the most boring writing she’s ever read in her life.