What Do Judges & Jurors Want? Part 3 of Writing for Contests and Anthologies

RamonaGravitarThe judges and jurors quoted below won’t be evaluating your criminal activities. They’ll be evaluating your mastery of the writing craft, your interpretation of theme, your narrative voice, your ability to hook a reader with a well-crafted opening, your skill at creating an emotional connection with a character.

To round out this short series, I contacted people who read submissions and select stories for inclusion in a couple of regional anthologies. Most of the folks below are also writers, so they understand the joy of acceptance and the disappointment in rejection.

I requested quotes on what, as a judge or juror, they’d look for when reading through submissions for a contest or anthology.

beach daysThe following judges are from the Rehoboth Beach Reads contest. For writing tips and more info on RBR, read yesterday’s post from Nancy Sakaduski.  Here’s what the RBR judges past and present have to say:

“When I’m judging a short story, I’m always happy to meet interesting characters and to listen to zippy dialogue.  It’s also nice to jump right into a story without having to sit through a lot of set-up.  Some great advice I once got is that if you’re going to tell a story to one of your friends, you don’t say, “Hey, I’ve got a great story for you, but first I’m going to tell you a bunch of background information so that you understand what’s happening.”  You just tell the story!  Sure, sometimes you have to start with a little exposition and explanation to get things going.  But then we should be off and running!” ~ Dennis Lawson

“The first thing I look for in a story is a strong voice in the narrator (memoir) or main character (fiction). I wish I could describe this voice, but the best I can say is I know it when I “hear” it.  I think writers should always read their work aloud to hear how their voice is coming across and to ask themselves, “would I follow this person anywhere?” ~ Sarah Barnett

“The number one thing I am looking for is a creative take on the theme.” ~ Alex Colevas, Browseabout Books

“When evaluating a short story I look first for the basics: a strong hook that draws me in and a smooth setup that leads to a satisfying payoff. A good story will make me care about at least one strong character. A GREAT story will show me some character development. Being a genre writer, I’m also drawn more to a story with a clear conflict that needs to be resolved.” ~ Austin Camacho

“One of the first things I look for when reading someone else’s work is how the author approaches his/her reader. As writers, we all have that story bubbling around inside of our heads and we know what that story is, but that does not mean that the reader is reading the same story that the writer is writing. My first advice to a writer is to be sure that s/he understands the creative writing techniques that are stored in his/her toolkit and that s/he uses them correctly, to ensure that the story from the writer is the same story to the reader.” ~ Judy Reveal, Just Creative Writing & Indexing Service

“With stories that have a primarily true basis for being — writers seem to succeed most often when they find a way into their story that is somehow intriguing and even perhaps a little quirky. That first sentence and first paragraph need to set up the essence of the tale and imply that something needs resolution that is, for the moment, up in the air….How a writer does this depends upon how acutely he/she understands language — all the ways it can be used to create a fully developed world in a few thousand words. And while point of view, pacing, story arc, thematic integrity, and more are all very important in creating that illusion, for me at least, the most important part is how language is shaped and molded. Words are everything, in other words (!), and especially so in a small-form work.” ~ Laurel Marshfield, Blue Horizons Communications, Editorial Consultation for Authors, and Blue Horizon White Pages

“As a reader and writer of short fiction, I find the first paragraph (and the last) critical in keeping the reader interest, and the story flowing. Economy of language, control of the story, use metaphor and character development consistent with the theme of the piece are important and so is that exhalation of satisfaction at the end….A short story should culminate, and feel inevitable, not because the author wishes it to be so, but because character choices take the reader to the end.” – Mary Pauer

“I look for a story with a unique voice and an authentic Rehoboth Beach connection.” ~ Rich Barnett

roguewavecovermediumThe following quotes are from editors at Level Best Books, an independent publishing cooperative which produces an anthology of Crime Stories by New England Writers annually in November.

 “We’re looking for what everyone is looking for–a distinctive voice, strong premise and a hook that grabs the reader from the beginning. And, maybe because our focus is crime fiction, we’re also looking for a surprise or a twist at the end. If we can see the ending coming from 5000 words away, chances are we won’t go with that story….We do no developmental editing and very little copy-editing. We don’t have time. We proofread like crazy and correct mistakes and typos that creep in during the production process, but that’s it. If you send us something, you better be prepared to see it that way on the page….Every year we reject dozens of stories that might be published in another year. “Not for us,” means just that. Don’t take it to mean we think your story is terrible.” – From Barbara Ross, co-editor/co-publisher at Level Best Books

“As the long-time judge of a mystery short story contest and now a co-editor of the anthology that publishes the winning story, I’m always looking for a fresh take on a familiar tale, a strong voice, and writing that either sends chills down my spine, or makes me smile and even laugh out loud, which is to say, I’m open to either light-hearted or noir stories. For the contest, longer is better (3000-5000 words), because we want a story with some substance and complexity rather than the “quick hit” of flash; for the anthology, on the other hand, we welcome shorter stories and flash in addition to longer ones, because we seek variety in length as well tone and subject matter. Although both the contest and the anthology call for crime stories, the crime does not have to be murder; it can be a trick someone plays on someone else, or a failed bank heist by a bunch of bumbling crooks.” – Leslie Wheeler, Chair, Al Blanchard Award Committee, and Co-Editor, Level Best Books

Submissions to the Al Blanchard Award Contest and to Level Best Books’ thirteenth anthology, Best New England Crime Stories 2016: Red Dawn, are open now with deadlines of April 30. 

Many thanks to these judges and jurors for sharing their thoughts, for promoting short fiction and regional authors, and for fighting the good fight for quality writing.

Why Enter a Short Story Contest? Guest Post by Nancy Sakaduski

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Today I am welcoming Nancy Sakaduski, owner of Cat & Mouse Press and creator of the Rehoboth Beach Reads Short Story Contest.

The RBR contest is in its third year and is currently open for submissions. This year’s theme is “beach days.” I had the pleasure of judging last year’s entries for Rehoboth Beach Reads, published in The Boardwalk. Although the beach and Rehoboth are tied into the stories, the contest is open to all writers, from anywhere.beach days

Below, Nancy shares her thoughts on why entering a contest helps you as a writer. She also shares what to do, and what not to do, when entering a competition or call for entries.

 Why enter a short story contest?

  • It forces you to read guidelines and write to a deadline and word count, which is good practice for becoming a the_beach_houseprofessional writer.
  • It gives you experience with editing, revising, and proofreading your work.
  • Writing a short story is less of an investment than writing a novel.
  • Short stories let you try new genres and test out characters, settings, concepts, and different points of view.
  • Contests are generally inexpensive to enter.
  • It’s a chance to have your writing evaluated objectively.
  • If you win, you may win cash, publication, or both.
  • Publication gives you credibility as a professional writer and adds to your bio for future projects.
  • Publication gives you experience with the editing and publishing process.
  • Winning a contest can get your writing noticed.
  • Publication gives you publicity opportunities and networking potential.
  • Additional publications help you build a fan base.
  • You maintain ownership (check the guidelines carefully to confirm) and can sell your work elsewhere, so you are not giving anything away.
  • The odds of winning a local contest like the Rehoboth Beach Reads Short Story Contest are actually pretty good. Unlike with national competitions (or with large publishers and literary publications), the pool of entries is small, so you have a much better chance of having your work accepted.
  • You will have a sense of accomplishment from successfully writing, polishing, and submitting your work.
  • Entering a contest is fun!

Contest Dos and Don’ts

 Do

  • Read the guidelines carefully and follow them. Guidelines are how publishers tell you what they want.BR2014-Boardwalkcover_0519_0
  • Look for an interesting way to connect with the theme and the location. Judges (and readers!) appreciate creativity and variety. Make your story stand out.
  • Try a genre (mystery, romance, humor).
  • Polish your writing. Edit to make the story nice and tight, not just to fit the word count.
  • Remember that this is a contest for beach reads. You can deal with a serious subject if you do it in an uplifting or inspirational way, but please save stories about suicide, sick children, tragic accidents, and other calamities for a different contest!

Don’t

  • Give your story the same title as the contest theme (or worse, no title at all). The title is an opportunity to spark interest in your story.
  • Take a story you wrote ten years ago and add “and then they went to Rehoboth.” Take the time to write something fresh that fits the theme.
  • Just write a series of scenes or remembrances. Tell a story. It’s right there in the name: short story.
  • Submit the story in a form that makes it difficult to read (odd fonts, colors, formatting) or difficult to manipulate (pdf, pasted into an email, mailed in printed form).

Above all: have fun!

Nancy Sakaduski owns Cat & Mouse Press and runs the Rehoboth Beach Reads Short Story Contest. The contest invites writers to submit stories of 500-3,500 words that have a connection to Rehoboth Beach (full details are available here: http://www.catandmousepress.com/contest-guidelines.html

Nancy is the author of 100+ articles and 21 books (many written for young people under the name “Nancy Day”). She has also published dozens of business and technical articles; co-authored the third edition of Scientific English: A Guide for Scientists and Other Professionals, published in 2011; and was the developmental editor for Global Energy Innovation: Why America Must Lead by (Nobel Peace Prize winner) Woodrow W. Clark II and Grant Cooke. Managing Volunteers: How to Maximize Your Most Valuable Resource was published by Praeger in March 2013.

More information on Cat & Mouse Press can be found here: www.catandmousepress.com

Amazon author page: www.amazon.com/author/nancysakaduski

3-Part Series on Writing for Contests and Anthologies

RamonaGravitarLast week, two new short story anthologies bearing my name as editor were released for publication. Those marked my sixth and seventh time working on an anthology based on a specific theme. In addition, as a writer, I’ve contributed stories to three other themed anthologies, plus I’ve gathered some fellowships and grants for my work in short stories. In the arena of short story anthologies and contests, I feel pretty comfortable.

I love the short story form with the heat of a thousand suns. To spread the love, this week, I am posting a three-part series on writing for contests and themed anthologies.

Today, I will share my “rules” for entering contests.

Tomorrow, Nancy Day Sakaduski of Cat & Mouse Press will share her own tips for writing short stories, as well as why entering a writing contest is a good idea. Cat & Mouse Press is the sponsor and publisher of the annual Rehoboth Beach Reads short story competition and anthology.

On Day 3, I’ll share some quotes from judges who have selected stories from short story competitions or anthology submissions.

Ramona’s Top Ten Rules for Entering Contests

1. Follow the stated contest rules.  An easy way to get disqualified is to break a rule, or send to the wrong email address. For snail mail, double check if the deadline is a date received or a postage date. If the reading is blind, make sure your name is not on the entry. Don’t make a mistake that will waste your time and effort and get your entry kicked without being read.

2. Make sure your entry is appropriate. In other words, don’t send a genre story to a literary magazine’s contest. Don’t send an adult novel to a contest for juvenile fiction. Don’t send a whodunit to a magical realism contest. Don’t send a poem to a prose contest….you get the picture?

3. Research past winners. Many contests will post links to past winners on their websites. Read those stories. Don’t try to imitate winning stories, but you can enhance your chances if you can get a feel for what the publication or sponsor likes.

4. Research the judge/s, if posted. Same as #3. Don’t try to write like the judge/s, but do see if you can figure out what kind of writing the judge/s like.

5. If the contest has a stated theme, write to the theme in a meaningful way. For instance, if a contest has a “water” theme, don’t simply set your action at a river bank. Try to incorporate the theme in the story as more than setting. Water has purifying powers, but water also erodes the earth. We can’t live without water, but we can drown in it. Also, don’t try to plug a theme into a story unless it truly fits. If you are entering a contest with a theme of “alienation,” don’t pull out a story you wrote about cancer and switch the words. Respect the contest enough to create something appropriate, or pass.

6. If the contest requires a paper entry, make your entry pretty. By pretty, I mean no coffee rings, crumpled edges, and such. But don’t make it too pretty, a la scented pink paper, unless it’s the Elle Wood Story Contest. (I made that up. There is not, to my knowledge, a Legally Blond Writing Contest.) Clean copy, white paper, readable font. ‘Nuf said.

7. Make sure your entry is polished. No typos. At all.

8. For a novel contest, send a beginning.  If you are not confident enough in the beginning of your novel to enter it into a contest, it’s probably not strong enough to engage a reader to buy it. A grant app or contest might ask for a “writing sample.” This does not mean samples of your writing, as in a page of this, a few pages of that. The judges want to see that you can sustain the narrative of your choice. Send the best beginning of your best work that is appropriate for the contest.

9. If there is a page or word count limit, send as close to the limit as you can. For example, if there’s a 10 page limit, 5 pages is too short; 8 or more is better; 10 is best. Try to stop in a logical place that either brings a scene to a close or leaves off at the precipice of something interesting. Likewise, for a short story contest with a word count limit, send a full story. Crop if necessary. If the contest is for 10 pages, don’t send 10 pages of a 12 page story.

10. Be brave! Try something new and different. Judges will be reading lots of stories. How can yours stand apart? One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received came via a contest judge. She liked my story (and I was awarded) but she said that it would have been an even better story if I had not ended it quite so neatly and cleanly. She said to think of what would happened to the characters if the problem I’d written had not been solved.  I thought about it and changed the ending–to a much better one. That judge, and the above mentioned veteran, are two people who’ve helped me to be brave about writing.

Those are my Ten Rules. I have posted on this topic before, with the posts listed below. I have also written an award-winning short story, written to theme. You can read “Trust” here.

How to Write a Themed Story

Ten Things to Check Before You Hit Send

Short Story Outtakes

And the Loser is…Me

40 Days of Book Praise – Reading List

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I chose books by and about women from my personal book shelf and wrote brief reviews with a plot summary, plus why it was a good reading choice for women.

Below is a full list of the 40 books I reviewed. Each includes a short description–a log line–to tell each title’s genre and capture what it is about.

40 Days of Book Praise – Reading List

Joan Blos’ A GATHERING OF DAYS is a middle grade epistolary novel chronicling the hardships and joys of fourteen-year-old Carrie and her farm family in 1850s New England.

Anne Carroll George’s THIS ONE AND MAGIC LIFE is a Southern novel about a family that gathers for a funeral where the deceased’s last wish uncovers a terrible secret.

Elinor Lipman’s THE DEARLY DEPARTED is a women’s novel about returning home, and how the sudden death of two parents allow two children to discover one another.

Karen Joy Fowler’s THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB is a novel about a group of women and one man who study six Austen novels and learn about themselves.

Peg Kehret’s SMALL STEPS: THE YEAR I GOT POLIO is a middle grade autobiography beginning in 1949, the year 10-year-old Peg was stricken with polio.

Geraldine Brooks’ YEAR OF WONDER is an historical novel about a small village that succumbs to plague, and the incredible choice made to keep the disease from spreading.

Ruth Rendell’s THE BRIMSTONE WEDDING is an English village tale of secrets and illicit love, from the voices of two women in different places in society.

May Sarton’s THE HOUSE BY THE SEA is a journal and memoir by the poet/novelist/essayist describing her move to a house on the coast of Maine.

Jaclyn Moriarty’s FEELING SORRY FOR CELIA is the first of several novels set in Sydney, Australia, about the intertwining of students from a raucous public school and a toney private one.

Pam Conrad’s PRAIRIE SONGS is a middle grade novel set among the prairies of Nebraska and shares the wonder, heartbreak, and isolation of pioneer life.

Nancy Mitford’s THE PURSUIT OF LOVE and LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE are twin novels about the daughters in an eccentric English gentry country family and their quest to marry well.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s NO ORDINARY TIME is a sprawling historical overview of the home front during World War II as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt guide the country through war and peace.

Kaye Gibbons’ ELLEN FOSTER is a Southern novel about 11-year-old Ellen, who is shuttled around after the death of her mother until she finally chooses a family of her own.

Luanne Rice’s CRAZY IN LOVE is a contemporary novel about the foibles of love and family, told through three generations of sisters and daughters living in a small family compound on the Connecticut shore.

Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING is a memoir told in verse, sharing the author’s childhood experiences in South Carolina and Brooklyn and an adolescent’s view of moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

Debra Puglisi Sharp’s SHATTERED is the true story of a Delaware woman who survived abduction and assault to become a vocal advocate for victims of sexual violence.

Jane Smiley’s 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL is a study of how fiction works and a deconstruction of the novel form, plus critical essays by the author of 100 novels.

Margaret Atwood’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE is a modern speculative novel about a repressive, ultra-conservative republic where only a few women can bear children and so become concubines to the powerful men in charge.

Amy Hatvany’s BEST KEPT SECRET is a contemporary novel about a woman who starts with a few drinks to help her sleep, and ends up drinking so much, she loses her son.

Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING & SELECTED STORIES is a collection of the surprising short work by the Louisiana author, plus her classic novel about a woman’s quest for fulfillment beyond motherhood and marriage.

Kate Braestrup’s HERE IF YOU NEED ME is a memoir by the widow of a state police officer who becomes a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service’s search and rescue teams.

Alice LaPlante’s TURN OF MIND is a crime thriller narrated by a retired surgeon who can’t tell the police—because she doesn’t know—if she murdered her best friend.

Ann Rinaldi’s OR GIVE ME DEATH tells the story of Patrick Henry’s family and the bouts of madness suffered by his wife that ultimately made the family lock her away in the cellar.

Margaret Troy’s HELEN OF TROY is a sprawling retelling of the myth of Helen, a mortal woman blessed and cursed by the gods with a beauty so great, nations went to battle to possess her.

Rumer Godden’s AN EPISODE OF SPARROWS is set on a post-World War II London street and tells of the children who steal earth to plant a garden and the adults who try to stop them.

Susan Orlean’s THE ORCHID THIEF is a story about obsession set in the swamps of Florida and centered on people searching for the elusive Ghost Orchid.

Dodie Smith’s I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is a coming of age story about an intelligent and observant young woman and her eccentric family living in a tumbling down castle in England.

Joyce Carol Oates’ BLACK WATER is a short novel about a naïve young woman who went on a drive with her hero, The Senator, and ends up abandoned after their car plunged off a bridge into a pond.

Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE is a collection of stories set in a small coastal town in Maine and connected through Olive, a retired math teacher who is blunt, observant, and enigmatic.

Karen Cushman’s CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY is a middle grade novel told in diary form, about the bright and rebellious daughter of a country knight in England and her rocky path to finding a suitable and pleasing mate.

Daphne du Maurier’s THE REBECCA NOTEBOOKS AND OTHER MEMORIES is a multi-form collection by the prolific English author of short stories, memoir, poetry, and the original outline and opening of her famous gothic novel.

Lee Smith’s GUESTS ON EARTH is a fictional account of real events and inhabitants—including Zelda Fitzgerald–at a progressive mental institution eventually destroyed by fire in 1948.

Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s CRANFORD is collection of stories about ladies, life, and the unstoppable march of progress in a small English town, told through the eyes of an affectionate visitor.

Katie Estill’s DAHLIA’S GONE is a country noir thriller about a seemingly innocuous promise to check in on a neighbor’s children, and the aftermath of a crime in a close community.

Ellen Gilchrist’s NORA JANE is a life in stories, focusing on the quirky and surprising title character who goes from a sketchy youth in New Orleans to living in a mansion on a San Francisco fault line.

Erika Robuck’s HEMINGWAY’S GIRL invents a fictional housemaid who is torn between desire for the famous writer and a World War 1 veteran working to build a railroad in 1935 Key West.

Gail Husch’s THE BUTTON FIELD blends fact and fiction to tell the story of Bertha Mellish, a real student at Mount Holyoke College who vanished from campus without a trace in 1897.

Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes” is one of her many poems that uses nature and man’s relation to it, in this case to see the end of life as encouragement to live with boldness.

George Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH is a classic study of provincial life and the travails of a young woman with intelligence, money, and a good name, but whose expectations of marriage are higher than the social norms of the time.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK is a young adult novel about Melinda Sordino, whose first year in high school is marked by ostracism, mockery, and shame, until she overcomes her fear to voice what drove her to silence.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 40

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good book.

Day 40, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

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Melinda Sordino is a freshman who begins her first year at Merryweather High School with a reputation—she’s the girl who ruined a popular summer party by calling the cops. Why Melinda called the police, why she won’t speak of what happened at the party, why she freezes up with she sees a senior named Andy Evans, are all hints, but no one is taking the hints. Students bully or ostracize her. Friends abandon her. Teachers don’t understand why a formerly good student is failing her classes. Her parents are impatient with her moodiness, her poor grades, her non-existent social life, her refusal to just plain talk to them. Where, everyone wonders, is the Melinda who was the normal teenager?

Melinda tells her story herself in Speak, in short diary entries that relay the struggle she endures each day at school and the comfort she does not receive in her disaffected home. Many of the entries relate the peculiarities of high school, and many are sharply amusing. Before the trauma of the summer, Melinda was a regular girl, and her memories of this—her desire to be that girl again—flavor her observations. But as much as she wants to go back, she can’t. It’s not that she doesn’t try. She befriends an awkward new girl. She works on art projects. She tries to bridge the divide between her overworked, distant parents. But nothing works, and her depression and isolation grow until her former best friend Rachel starts to date Andy Evans. Melinda is so terrified that what happened to her will happen to Rachel that she breaks her silence to reveal the unspeakable: at the party, Melinda was raped by Andy Evans.

Why is Speak a good read for women? Melinda is silenced by her own fear of Andy, by weakness, embarrassment, shame, and all the other hallmark emotions that further harm victims of sexual violence. The diary entries provide the reader with an entry into the private world of someone so blatantly crying for help, and it is frustrating to both Melinda and the person reading her story that no one person can find the key to open her up and make her talk. When she does speak, it takes an act of great courage, and the enormity of that step makes Melinda Sordino regain her personal power in a remarkable and timeless story.

A note as I end this series of reviews: Of all the books in all the world, Speak is the book I would recommend that all girls read—and young men as well. Laurie Halse Anderson created a powerful story about a single girl’s trauma and trial by society, but it speaks for women and girls everywhere who, for whatever reason, cannot find a voice. Because it deals with rape, Speak is regularly banned by schools and school boards, sadly proving that silencing victims of sexual violence remains a problem in real life as well as in fiction.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 39

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good book

Day 39, Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

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Middlemarch is a provincial town in the Midlands, in central England. The novel begins around 1830 in this fictional community of poor people, tradesmen, middle class, and gentry. Mary Ann Evans, under her pen name George Eliot, wanted to create an entire small world in the rising town of Middlemarch, and so she wove together a huge cast of characters, a lively landscape, and four distinct narrative storylines to create a classic work of literature. Long and challenging, Middlemarch the novel touches on assorted themes—marriage, political reform, education, idealism, religion, the status of women—and by doing so, allows a reader to see different perspectives through characters and roles in Middlemarch’s social structure.

At the heart of Middlemarch is the admirable and memorable Dorothea Brooke, a young woman blessed with wealth, intelligence, and a good family name. Though awarded many advantages by the luck of her birth, Dorothea has the heart of a philanthropist. She makes a match with an elderly clergyman, with the idealistic expectation that he will allow her to help in his scholarly work and become a helpmate as well as a mate in marriage. Dorothea’s hope that marriage will be a partnership is a mistaken one, and her marriage is a failure. She establishes a friendship with Will Ladislaw, a poor young cousin of her husband’s, and the relationship that grows between Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw is a great literary romance that examines desire, patience, respect, honor, and honorability.

The novel’s subtitle is “a study of provincial life.” Because of its massive size, Middlemarch was published in eight installments. Other important storylines include a young doctor and his new wife trying to fit into Middlemarch’s society; a foolish young man hopelessly in love with a steady young woman who rejects his proposals unless he matures; and a pious banker who wants to enter politics but has a shady past that threatens his plans.

Why is Middlemarch a good read for women? In modern terms, Dorothea’s emotional journey would be called a woman’s search for agency and control over her own life. Her poor choice in marriage could have broken her spirit; an affair with a younger relative could have ruined her reputation; giving up her desire to help others could have made her life meaningless. Though limited in power and not always secure in herself, Dorothea nevertheless is a literary woman to be admired. Against the norm of the time, she maintains hope that her thoughts are valuable and her plans are practical. Middlemarch is set in a particular place in our historical past, but Dorothea has Everywoman qualities that apply to girls and women of today who seek to mark their value and place in a sometimes unappreciative society.

40 Days of Book Praise, Day 38

RamonaGravitarFor 40 days, I am choosing a book from my personal book shelves. It will be a book that is insightful, intriguing, or illuminating about women. I will write why I think this book is a positive one and worth a read. This isn’t advertising for me or to promote any of my friends. It’s simply praise for good books.

Day 38, “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver

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April is National Poetry Month, and so today’s review is devoted to Mary Oliver.

Mary Oliver is a popular and prolific American poet whose work has earned her both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Like Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, Mary Oliver’s words observe the natural world and her ideas ponder man’s place in it. Oliver is a native of Ohio who relocated and has lived for many years in New England. As a teenager, she visited Edna St. Vincent Millay’s home,  now an artist colony in upstate New York, and later returned and befriended Millay’s sister. Whitman, Thoreau, Millay were all influences on Oliver as a young poet. Like those artists, a strong focus in her work is place. Her poems are infused with memories of her childhood years in Ohio, plus her adopted home in the East–particularly Provincetown. She’s considered by some as a regionalist, but her thoughts on home, nature, people, life, are universal. She writes of simple and deep emotions–walks in the woods that inspire enthusiastic joy, or words of solitary grief and loneliness. She shares soulful questions and sharp observations, and reading her poems is like a small visit to a touching emotional landscape set along rough pathways or calmer, peaceful forests.

“When Death Comes” combines nature and man in a topic that is somber and frightening, but also curious and hopeful. She compares death to a hungry bear, a pox, an iceberg, a cottage of darkness, but she also regards the end of life on earth with an eager and inquisitive eye. What will death be like? In pondering this question, she must think about life and how she wants to spend hers. She decides she wants to be able to say, “I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”   Ultimately, she wants to have lived in the community of the world, and not just passed through as a visitor.

Why is Mary Oliver’s poetry a good read for women? I viewed this poem with my own writer’s eye, but also as a human considering how I am living my own life. Do I have the lion’s courage Oliver mentions, to write, to share my work and expose myself, and leave this world as more than a visitor? Good writing–poetry or prose–leads to good questions like these. Exploring Mary Oliver’s poems is an exploration of place and nature, of people and their kindness and flaws, and so finally of the world around and of the human heart.