FICTION- Persistence pays: Contest winners all long-time writers

This year's short story contest saw a lot of first-time writers. How do we know? Several stopped by the Hook office to submit their entries and then stayed to talk about the thrill and agony of trying to tell a good story in a way that would catch the eye of this year's judge, celebrated writer John Grisham.

Over all, 127 stories– from seasoned veterans as well as the neophytes– arrived for the master to consider. As might be expected, topics ranged from sad love stories to exciting adventures to science fiction and fantasy.

In the end, though, it was gritty realism that prevailed. Of the three winning stories, two explore ambiguous relationships among complicated people, while the third is a look at hilarious backwoods shenanigans as some young boys exact revenge with an improvised explosive device of the spud variety.

This week we present first-place winner Charles McRaven's "First Stones." The two runners-up will appear later in the spring, in time to enliven readers' beach revels.

First Place profile: Charles McRaven's "First Stones"

Judge Grisham is nothing if not prescient. "The plot alone could carry a short novel," he wrote about McRaven's story. "The characters are rich enough for a long series of strange adventures." Grisham had no way of knowing that his assessment is correct: "First Stones" is a condensed version of two chapters of a novel.

"The book is about stonemasons, people I've worked with for years," says McRaven, himself a stonemason, carpenter, and blacksmith– as well, it seems, as a novelist. That book is one of three contemporary novels he has completed. But this is the first one so lauded by a multi-million-selling author: "There's not a word wasted in this compelling story about two misfits." 

McRaven is no stranger to fame. He has twice been featured in the Hook for his talents in stone and timberframing, and he already has four nonfiction books in print and another due out this summer. His fiction, however, has had a more difficult time seeing the light of day.

With three historical novels complete– two about the Revolutionary War and one about the Civil War– the former journalism professor and newspaper editor is busy looking for an agent.

"I tried to write stories in college," says McRaven, 71, who attended the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and then got his master's degree in journalism at the University of Mississippi.

Although life in the form of crafts and woodworking intervened, the Free Union resident is now turning his attention to getting his fiction into print. Winning the Hook's contest might be a first step. 

"I'm so pleased to have won," he says, expressing special excitement over the famous judge's encouraging words.

Charles McRaven

Second place profile: John Ruemmler's "20 Minutes' Clarity"

John Ruemmler is another familiar name to some Hook readers. The local writer, who works at Crutchfield Corporation, has entered almost all our previous contests, having been a runner-up in 2004 with his touching story, "A Day Without Weather." (He also won first-place in 1996, with "Carter," in the local fiction contest our editor ran at another paper.)

Ruemmler first submitted this year's winning story to last year's contest. "On a whim, I sent the same story in," he says, "and after not winning then, this year it was a nice surprise to hear such kind words from Mr. G., who knows something about writing."

He's referring to judge Grisham's comment, "I laughed with the first sentence and almost cried with the last." Grisham, whose novels, mostly legal thillers, have an uncanny way of eventually becoming Hollywood hits, also called the setting "so visual I can see it on the screen."

Such words are especially encouraging to Ruemmler since he's currently working on a movie to enter in the Virginia Governor's Screenwriting Award competition. Adam and Steve is the tentative title of a romantic comedy about two men who plan a ceremony to celebrate seven years together and the complications that ensue. It's no coincidence that his entry comes in a year when Virginia passed a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as "a union between one man and one woman," he says.

Ruemmler, an lllinois native who has lived in Charlottesville for 25  years, now considers the town home. "I'm an Illini by birth, a New Yorker by temperament, and a Virginian by God," he says. What does the 50-something father of two plan to do with his winnings? Probably blow the money on "liquor and smokes" he says, adding that the one thing he's not going to do is repeat the mistake he made with his first-prize winnings. 

"I decided to spend all that money on a full body wax," he jokes. "That's something I'll never do again."

John Ruemmler

Third place: Robert Walters' "The Potato Cannon War"

Runner-up Robert Walters probably fits a common stereotype of a short-story contest entrant: he's a 53-year-old high school English teacher who writes when he's not correcting the run-on sentences and misplaced participles in his students' essays.

"I did a whole lot of writing early in my career and took lots of courses," the Asheville, North Carolina resident says. "Then I stopped for 25 years to raise a family, coach cross-country and track, and pursue a teaching career." But that hiatus left 1,000 pages of novels and short stories marooned in a briefcase.

"In the last two years," Walters says, "I started writing obsessively, voluminously, on a novel. I've entered several contests, and been the highest finalist several times, but, alas, so far I'm always the bridesmaid...."

He wrote his winning story expressly for John Grisham. "I looked at my work and saw that I had nothing under [the contest limit of] 3,500 words, so I knocked that story out in two nights," he says. But it was still too long, making necessary the "eye-opening exercise of cutting over 1,000 of my precious words."

His efforts paid off. "I must confess," Grisham wrote of his third-place choice, "I have actually fired a potato cannon. So I was naturally drawn to this hilarious story."

Walters is pleased with Grisham's comments. They spur him on, he says, to "continue going to conferences, disciplining myself. It takes enormous discipline to stick with writing, but I'm ready to put myself under the gun."

We presume he doesn't mean a potato cannon!

Robert Walters