The write stuff: Meet the winners!

Writing takes discipline, to be sure– just ask the Hook's famed contest judge John Grisham, who spends hours every single day at the keyboard, and has more than two dozen best sellers to his name.

The three winners of this year's contest are further proof that putting in the time, day after day, year after year, can eventually pay off.  With at least one novel penned each–– though not published–– and dozens of short stories under their belts, these writers tackled topics from Civil War brutality to environmental threats to anguish of a family member dying young, and show that stories are all around us. We're glad these folks took the time to tell them.



First place: Charles "Mac" McRaven

Master stonemason, journalist, professor, author, minister. Most people stick to one general line of work for a lifetime, but Charles "Mac" McRaven's a true Renaissance man– and the 77-year-old's not done racking up accomplishments as he becomes the first person to take the top prize in the Hook's short story contest twice.

Back in 2007, McRaven penned the winning piece titled "First Stones," inspired by his experiences working among stonemasons. This time around, he says, it's the six women in his life– his wife, four daughters and daughter-in-law–– who inspired his story.

"I had become increasingly aware that women in our society are vulnerable,' notes McRaven, who explored that theme in this year's winner, "The Cliff," a harrowing tale about a woman living alone in the Civil War-era south when Union soldiers arrive.

"I'm a history buff, and have studied a lot about the Civil War period," he explains. "The idea of a woman alone, facing overpowering odds, when the whole idea of civilization goes out the window... it just sort of wrote itself."

That, he says, is a sign of a good idea.

"If the story doesn't come to you and clamor to get out, it's not worth writing," he says.

Short stories are far from McRaven's only genre. In fact, he's already a published author with five published nonfiction books on stone masonry and woodworking, and he's currently at work on his 12th and 13th novels, although none have been published– yet.

"My wife calls me an 'active historian,'" says McRaven. "I love to tell stories."



Second place: Carolyn O'Neal

Second place winner O'Neal found the inspiration for her story, "Saving Grace,"  last summer while reading an Esquire magazine article about the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. While the idea of exploiting oil sources in North America, rather than relying on the Middle East, had initially appealed to O'Neal, the article introduced her to environmental horrors she hadn't previously understood including the danger the tar sands pose to wildlife and the impact of the oil refineries on humans.

"The oil that comes out of the Middle East is relatively clean," she says. "The tar sands, they have to boil it down. You use a whole lot of fresh water. That means they're diverting massive amounts of fresh water from everybody else."

Her protagonist is a young First Nation girl whose life is affected by her family's involvement in the tar sand operations, and O'Neal– who has honed her writing at WriterHouse under the tutelage of one-time Hook contest judge and 2009 second place contest winner David Ronka– hopes the topic will pique interest in the complexity and dangers of oil extraction, no matter where it takes place.

"I think fiction can change the world," she says. "That's what I want to do– make people a little bit aware of what's going on."

O'Neal is also on a Saturday morning Book Fest panel on forming an effective writing group, in the Omni Hotel's Preston Room at 10am.


Third Place: Seth Kislek

The Xpress Lube in Waynesboro may not seem a likely place to find a prize-winning writer, but third-place winner Daniel Seth Kislek, who goes by Seth, says he's managed to juggle writing with helping run the family biz for years.

"Ideas just come to me," says Kislek, who believes the inspiration for his winning entry– "Starfire," a story about an older brother coping with his younger brother's terminal illness– was sparked by Van Gogh's famed "Starry Night." 

Writing regularly since he was in elementary school, the now 30-year-old Kislek has eight or nine short stories complete and has also finished a historical adventure novel titled Midnight Nocturne under the pen name Cameron Byrne, which he self-published through Lulu.

"I'm pretty much thinking about writing constantly," says Kislek, who majored in theater at VCU and credits an English professor for his continuing efforts at prose. "He really encouraged me to always keep writing and to not to let anyone affect my style," he says. 

With a day job that keeps him away from his computer, he says he manages to multi-task and keeps a notebook handy to jot down ideas.

"Even while I'm working here," he says, "my mind is in the world of these stories."

Stories by the second and third place winners will appear in an upcoming edition of the Hook.

1 comment

Thank you for this article and describing how the winners were inspired! It's nice to read about the history and hard work that underlies good writing. For more on Carolyn's writing group, and free resources for creating your own, visit