Meet First Place Flash Fiction Contest Winner, Courtney McDermott

Tuesday, June 05, 2018
Courtney McDermott is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame. Her debut collection of short stories, How They Spend Their Sundays (Whitepoint Press 2013) was nominated for both the PEN/Hemingway Award and The Story Prize. Her short fiction has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from Iowa, she currently lives in the greater Boston area. She works in the Film and Media Studies Program at Tufts University and teaches part-time in the online Master’s in English program at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow her on Twitter @courtmcdermott or find her on her website:

interview by Marcia Peterson

WOW: Congratulations on your first place win in our Winter 2018 Flash Fiction competition! What inspired you to enter the contest?

Courtney: Thank you! I am thrilled about this win, because I admire WOW's mission. I follow WOW on social media, so I am very familiar with your contests. What inspired me to enter the contest this time around was that I needed a break from writing my novel. When I get frustrated with my longer works, I resurrect my shorter works and submit them. Sometimes it’s worth resuscitating the pieces that we’ve laid to rest in our notebooks or on our hard drives, because there are new readers and new venues that might value them. This contest seemed like the perfect home for "Letting Go of Virginia Woolf." I had never given up on this story, but I did set it aside for a number of years. During one of these breaks from my novel, I saw the posting for WOW's contest and thought, I have a story that could work. I had been meaning to rewrite "Letting Go of Virginia Woolf," and this contest was the impetus to do so.

WOW: Can you tell us what encouraged the idea behind your story?

Courtney: The story began in a creative writing workshop with a prompt that was taken from a Virginia Woolf piece (hence the title). I wanted to tell a story about love and loss and all of the quirks that make you fall in love with someone. It was a rough sketch for a couple of years, and then I read “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel. I adore that story, and all of Hempel’s works. She packed so much vibrancy and complexity about a relationship into a few pages. Like my story, Hempel's story deals with the loss of a partner/friend, and she inspired me to look at the little details that make a relationship unique. The story was lingering around the 1000 word mark, and then I saw this contest and thought, “I can tell this story in 750 words.” It’s a better story because I pruned back the unnecessary bits, though it took me almost 13 years to get here!

WOW: What key elements do you think make a great piece of flash fiction?

Courtney: You can't include everything, so you need to recognize what is absolutely essential and then trim away the rest. The ability to be both beautiful yet economical with language is key, so rely on strong verbs versus adverbs and adjectives. Flash fiction should plunge us straight into the middle of the story; there isn't space for background information and lengthy histories. Keep the focus tight--fewer characters, limited settings, one central conflict. Flash fiction pieces should not rely on trick endings (e.g. it was only a dream, everyone dies), which often are easy ways of ending short pieces. These stories may not be able to explore an entire character's lifetime or fully resolve a conflict, but they can and should evoke an emotion.

WOW: Great tips! Are you working on any writing projects currently? What can we plan on seeing from you in the future?

Courtney: I am shopping around a novella about an unsuccessful mathematician suffering from PTSD that is written in 365 vignettes. It's a more experimental piece, so it hasn't found the right home yet. I am also finishing a novel about a small town in Iowa, where I am originally from. The story tackles Trump's America through the viewpoint of two sisters who are deeply affected by a tragedy of someone close to them. I am excited about the story, but now I just need to sit down and finish it!

WOW: Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Courtney. Before you go, do you have any tips for our readers who may be thinking about entering writing contests?

Courtney: Thank you for the opportunity to share a bit about my story! What I like about contests is the constraints that they provide. I like a deadline, and forced word count or theme. Sometimes, working within these constraints can push us to get creative and write better. If it wasn't for WOW's constraint of 750 words, I may never have edited "Letting Go of Virginia Woolf" from 1000 words to 750 words, the size that it really needs to be. Use contests as inspiration, but don't be discouraged if you don't win. Definitely edit your work before submitting and submit stories that you are confident in. Read submissions from past winners of the contest to get a sense for the type of stories that judges may be looking for. Though contests can be a great way of getting your work noticed by a larger audience, and the prizes that accompany them are always nice, don't limit your work to contests only. Submit to journals and magazines, too. Writers want to be published, and though contests are an excellent forum for attracting readers and attention, they aren't the only route.


For more information about our quarterly Flash Fiction and Creative Nonfiction Essay contests, visit our contest page here.


Angela Mackintosh said...

Awesome interview, ladies!

Courtney ~ Taking a break from a big project to write submit something short is such a good idea because it definitely keeps your writing energy pumping! I absolutely adored "Letting Go of Virginia Woolf." I'm so glad you're working on a novel, and you'll be excited to hear what literary agent Jen Chen Tran said to me in an email, "Courtney's piece in particular, stood out from the beginning--there was just something about her voice that was so spectacular! I wonder if she has an agent or is working on a book....hmm."

So when you finish your novel, definitely query her! :)

That's so interesting that your story was inspired from a workshop and by Amy Hempel's work. She's incredible. I'll have to read that piece. And 13 years! It proves we should never give up on a piece. Perhaps the time made it stronger.

Great tips on writing flash. It's something I completely struggle with and in fact, have never been able to write a story under 750 words. Even after running these contests for so many years!

Thanks so much for the fantastic interview, and I'll be following your work! :)

Courtney said...

Thank you, Angela! I have been in touch with Jen Chan Tran and I hope to send her my completed novel by the end of the summer. Thanks to WOW for this opportunity!

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