These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.
When the judges rate the writing challenge entries, the first criterion on their rating sheet is how well did the entry fit the topic?
Finding a way to write to the topic AND be original BUT not be so original as to be off-topic is one of the most difficult things that challenge enterers have to master. However, learning to write to a given topic is a valuable skill, especially for those who enter writing contests, or who will have to write on demand for an employer, a newsletter, or some such assignment.
Let’s say, for example, that the topic word was jump.
Some people already have in mind an entry that they want to write, and they write that entry regardless of the topic. Then, in an effort to be on topic, they make sure that at some point, one of the characters jumps. When I was a judge for the challenge, I gave entries like this a simple test: would this entry be essentially the same if the mention of the topic word was eliminated? If the answer was ‘yes,’ then I would give it a very low score for that criterion. It’s not enough to simply mention the topic word.
On the other hand, some people give the topic word considerable overkill. They use the word “jump” or a synonym of “jump” in every other line, or they write something that reads like a student’s report on jumping, or they write about several different times in their lives when they’ve jumped. None of those “overkill” responses to the topic would get a bad rating for the “on topic” criterion, but they are perhaps less creative and writerly than they could be, and might score poorly for the “creativity” criterion (which I’ll cover another time).
When I was writing for the challenge, I tried to write a story in which the prompt played a pivotal role—but I did not write about the prompt. I applied the same test to my writing that later I applied as a judge: could I write this entry without the challenge word? So for our hypothetical topic of “jump,” I might write a story in which a high school student with a bad reputation is kind to a special needs peer by “missing” some jumps in a checkers game, allowing the other child to win. The story is about compassion and shattering stereotypes, but “jump” is critical to its telling. The word “jump” might only be used once, but the story could not be told without it.
I urge you to think carefully about the topic, and not necessarily to write about it in the first way that comes to mind. I’ll write more about this when I write about the “creativity” criterion, but this might be important enough to say here and to repeat it later: look at the challenge topic from as many angles as you possibly can. For example, the word “jump” can mean:
1. to hop or leap
2. a move in checkers
3. a way to start up a dead car battery
4. to attack or to mug someone
5. to come to a sudden conclusion
In fact, one online dictionary has 45 different uses for “jump.” Whatever the topic is, do a little bit of research—at the very least, do some brainstorming about possible uses of the word or phrase.
If the challenge prompt is a phrase that is not familiar to you, definitely look up its meaning. Also come back here to the writing forums; often Deb Porter will start a thread that discusses the meaning of the challenge prompt.
Finally, although it you’re encouraged to research many possible meanings of a prompt, don’t try to sabotage the prompt. For example, simply naming a character “Jump” or setting your story in a town called "Jump" really isn’t on topic (unless you also make some aspect of “jump” pivotal to the story). I’ll admit doing some overly-clever sabotage when I was still fairly new to the challenge: the topic was “car trip” and I wrote about a person who tripped while carrying a toy car. Not really on topic at all. For many quarters, the topics have a recognizable theme weaving throughout the entire ten weeks, and the judges don’t appreciate nimble sidestepping of the theme (or an individual topic).
I’ll close with two examples of writing challenge entries for which I applied these tests: Was the topic for the week essential for the story, but not overused and not tossed in just for a mention? Secondarily, did I use the topic in a unique way? (And remember that I link to my own stories because I can find them; if you have an entry that you’d like to link to, please do!)
For the topic “yellow,” I wrote about the racial concept of “high yellow” in post-civil war America. It was a subtle use of the topic word, but absolutely essential to the story. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=33093
When the topic was “river,” I put a river in the story, with a significant role to play, but the story was about baptism and a budding romance. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=10935
1. Read one of the stories linked to above, and comment on its “on-topic-ness.” Do you think it could or should have been more on topic? Don’t be afraid to criticize; I can take it.
2. Link to one of your own entries, and either make a comment about its being on topic, or ask a question.
For those of you who are on Facebook, I’ve started a Facebook Writing Lessons page where I post this same material. I know that some of you are more comfortable with Facebook than with these message boards, and that notifications there are more timely. Feel free to “like” the Facebook page, and to refer friends to like it, too.
Jan, I've just taken a time-out from writing a piece for this week's topic. And I apologize for this comment being so off-topic, but curiosity is getting the best of me. When referring to the challenge, why isn't it "challenge" capitalized? I do intend to do the homework for this lesson after I (hopefully) submit my article.
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I write even when I think I can't, because I must.
I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!
"Let words bewitch you. Scrutinze them, mull them, savor them, and in combination, until you see their subtle differences and the ways they tint each other." Francis Flaherty
I suppose I should capitalize it. It's capitalized on its own home page, and elsewhere here on FaithWriters. It just doesn't seem to me to be a title--just a thing with an adjective describing it.
I'm the secretary of my small church, and I have a similar difference of opinion with my pastor, who tends to capitalize Worship Service. I put it in lower case, every time. He's never called me on it.
It's another illustration of two things: the English language has very few absolutes, and I am frequently wrong.
I'll mention a couple things about topic, both from a judges point of view and as someone who still enters the challenge regularly.
The last topic, when it was animal idioms, not only did I not take the literal meaning of the topic, I tried to not even mention the idiom at all. I think that may have backfired on me a couple of times, because I may have been the only one that saw the connection to the topic. However, one in which I thought it backfired on me I ended up placing 4th overall. Go figure.
I'm going to venture into creativity just a bit, and I hope Jan doesn't mind. When you read the topic, remember that this is a Christian writing website. And I don't say that to indicate that I have read inappropriate entries. Quite the opposite, actually. I was judging for the topic "red" a few years ago. Now, what are most Christians going to think of when they see the word "red"? If you said "The blood of Jesus" Ding, ding ding! There were SO MANY entries about the blood of Jesus that week. Does this mean that you can't come up with a creative entry while still talking about the blood of Jesus? No, of course not. But don't think that it's going to be creative if you just use that on a basic level. I remember being so excited when I was reading the entries for "red" when I finally came across a funny entry that had nothing to do with the blood of Jesus. Just because this is a Christian writing web site, don't think every entry has to be Christian in nature. It just can't be anti-Christian or go against Christian morals in a way that makes it seem okay or good. Trust me, the judges appreciate the entries that are not overtly Christian in nature just as much, and sometimes more, just because it's not the "obvious" connection.
I'm going to try to find a couple of examples from my own writing, if I can. One where I did too much with the topic and one where I maybe wasn't on topic so much.
Here's one where I was one topic SO much that I was actually off topic. The topic was "Illustrate the meaning of “Don’t Try to Walk before You Can Crawl” (without using the actual phrase or literal example)." and I mentioned the phrase, even though I didn't quote the actual phrase. I thought I was on topic, but I found out I actually didn't get ANY points for topic. WHOOPS!
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=20833
Here's one that just... bad all around. I tried so hard to have the ending be a surprise that in the end, not only did I over stress the topic, but by the end I lost any impact it had, and made my MC seem like some sort of callus and uncaring monster.... and maybe he was, I guess, but I made him TOO much that way, to the point where it wasn't even believable. And once again, I'm taking this beyond just "topic." lol The topic for this one, by the way, was "work."
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=10036
And finally, here's one where I tried so hard to be creative that topic was a stretch, per one of the comments, and I agree. And it's a recent one. So even those of us in masters struggle with "topic" at times.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=47287
Isaiah 40:30-31 (NIV)
Allison, thanks for stopping by, and for leaving those links. I appreciate your being willing to set out some examples of "less than perfect" for us.
As far as your examples for creativity--that's definitely the sort of thing that I'll cover in a few weeks, when I write about that criterion. All that I'll say now is...yes, yes, yes.
I'm interested in your thoughts, as a person who has been a judge, about being on topic. In the lesson, I mentioned a question I ask myself about each entry (would it be substantially unchanged without the topic?). What method did you use, on weeks that you were judging, to determine "on topic-ness"?
When I judged, I tried very hard to find the connection to a topic. If I were reading the article and didn't know what the topic was, but would still come up with the topic as the main point of the article, it would have gotten a "perfect" from me. If it definitely fit topic, but the topic wouldn't stand out to someone who didn't know the topic, it would have gotten a "near perfect" from me. If I struggled to find the connection, and then finally thought, in my over analytical mind that can analyze anything to the point of no return, "Oh, okay. I see how this kind of connects" even if it was in a very obscure, round about way, I would have given it a "middle of the road" score. If, however, the author just tagged something on to the end, or had one sentence that just mentioned the topic, it would have gotten a very low score.
Isaiah 40:30-31 (NIV)
Thanks, Allison! Your process is somewhat different from mine, but I'm thinking that we may well have ended up giving similar scores for the "on topic" criterion.
I meant to add this question to the "homework," so I'll pose it here:
What types of topics do you prefer: single words, phrases, abstract or concrete, obviously connected to a theme, random...
Is there anything else you'd like to say about the topics in the writing challenge?
First about writing topics . . . I prefer general to specific and those that call for description or imagination or play on words.
I'm still not positive about whether the topic is to be the theme or a springboard to anything you want to write that relates strongly to it. Jan, your piece on the river is a favorite of mine because of its humor and the clever way the plot twists around. Though the river is prominent, it's not the theme.
Recently I entered a challenge that placed 24th, and I wondered why it was so far down the line when there weren't a great number more than that who entered. I admit: I liked it, even though the meter was a little off in places. After studying your lesson, now I know one reason why it did not make a splash with the judges. I'll put it here as an example for how not to use repetition of the topic.
Plain Old Me
While some exotic birds are dressed in colors of the rainbow,
A pink’s the only feature of the web-footed flamingo.
Quetzals of green and scarlet hues enthrall,
As well as striking tinting of the blue-throated macaw.
There are varied colored parrots, but their talking is incessant.
The peacock’s also brilliant with a tail that’s iridescent.
These birds are quite remarkable, as lovely as can be,
Yet, there’s not a one I like as much as the wren that sings to me.
I looked for an uncommon pet to keep my spirits bright.
The first I found was a kinkajou, but he stays up all night.
White lion pups are pretty, but they’re the costliest,
And they grow to be five hundred pounds at best.
The chimp is entertaining, but he’s strong as he can be,
And the squirrel monkey has more brains than me.
These pets might be exotic and the most unusual,
But a sweet and loyal dog suits me the best of all.
There are folks who ever seek to find a rare exotic dish,
But I can tell you now that’s not my wish.
I tried duck liver once, to my dismay;
I’ll have no reindeer pate that is in a can today,
Nor birds’ nest soup nor any kind of sushi.
Roasted beetles and fried ants would never suit me.
I’ll let it be those other folks to give strange foods a whirl
And be a simple meat-potatoes girl.
Although it might appear to some that I’m a bit contrary,
I don’t choose what's exotic--I enjoy the ordinary.
A merry heart doeth good like a medicine...
Facebook author page: Verna Cole Mitchell
Good to know. I hope others will share what types of topics they prefer, too.
I'd say that the 'springboard' analogy is a good one.
Verna, although this probably would have scored very high for being "on topic", I think you're right that you hammered the topic a bit hard. Your descriptions of the birds, kinkajous, and other exotic animals put this firmly in the "exotic" realm, and the word would not have to be used more than once (if that).
Thanks for sharing this example, Verna!
I read your "yellow" piece. To me, the "high yellow" connection was very on topic and I'm thinking that is all you needed to be on topic. The shawl and flowers could have been any color. With the dress, shawl, and flowers being yellow, the jaundiced eyes felt like just another yellow. But if you changed the color(s) of the flowers and shawl, then I would have read the jaundiced eyes as simply another layer of character detail. (Keep in mind, I'm reading this piece following your instructions. If I'd read it cold, I doubt these thoughts would have occurred to me). The dress, I would keep yellow, since it provides a great underlying connection to the bride and her "high yellowness".
To answer your other questions, I prefer random topics. And, is there anything else regarding the writing challenge I'd like to know? Why yes, yes there is. I would love to see a list of judge's pet peeves. I'm not sure if you have access to such insider information, so maybe just your pet peeves? (And here I am crossing my fingers that the phrase "pet peeves" is not one of them...)
And finally, here's a link to my challenge entry for "Smell." In this piece, I feel like I went overboard with the topic. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article-level3-previous.php?id=36322
I just wanted to pop in with some great advice you gave probably three or four years ago. You were doing a thread about being on topic and the homework was to write down the first five things that you thought of when you heard the word fire. Then take that piece of paper and throw it away because probably everyone else thought of those same five things. Hmm now that I'm thinking about it maybe that's more of your creativity lesson, though whenever I'm explaining to people about writing on topic, I give them your suggestion. It has made such a difference in my writing.
Here is one of my stories that was on topic but probably too out of the box to have scored higher. I really liked it, but understand why it might have gone a bit overboard. I'd love any feedback you might have on it.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=45343
Sometimes God calms the storm; Sometimes He lets the storm rage and calms His child
Awesome! It's been a while since I wrote that story, and I think I remember that my thought process was something like this: the judges might not have ever heard the phrase "high yellow" before, and just one mention of it might not be enough. But since I didn't want to go overkill with "yellow", I put synonyms for yellow in several other places, so if they missed THE reference, it'd be evident elsewhere. But in hindsight, I agree with you. It was too much, and I should have had the courage to stand behind my concept.
Hoo boy, open a can of worms much? Let me give this some thought, and maybe even some behind-the-scenes correspondence with a few people who I know have judged. This might make a good topic for a future lesson.
I wouldn't call this one overkill at ALL. It was highly original, and the smells in the piece mingled nicely with other sensory input. I love this story, and I was VERY surprised by it. I didn't know that you wrote anything like this. Totally delightful, because (among other things) it plays with the stereotypes in similar fairy tales. Loved it.
I was wondering where you were--nice to see you!
You're right (and I can't believe you remembered that little bit of advice)--that particular brainstorming activity is one that I plan to re-visit when I get to the "creativity" criterion.
As far as your story--I don't think there are any problems with its on-topic-ness at all. What a clever idea!
Ahh thanks. My shingles have been flaring horribly since before Christmas and it had been too much of an effort to do anything more than getting up for food and bathroom breaks. I have another outbreak coming so am trying to get as much work done as possible. I love that advice you gave and tell it to many newbies or those who are struggling with fresh topic ideas.
Sometimes God calms the storm; Sometimes He lets the storm rage and calms His child
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