Meet Joy Givens, 1st Place Winner in Winter 2020 Flash Fiction Contest

Tuesday, June 09, 2020
Joy Givens is an educating, caffeinating writer of stories and the lucky mother of two tiny superheroes. By day, she runs a tutoring company, volunteers with several writing and advocacy organizations, sings in church, dreams up new recipes for her hungry loved ones, and occasionally conquers Laundry Mountain. By night, Joy writes “fresh, fierce, fantastic” fairy tales and other fiction for children and young adults... and occasionally stays up too late laughing with her husband. By morning, she’s usually quite tired but excited to do it all again. Joy’s most recent works include several pieces of award-winning short fiction, published in WOW! Women on Writing, the anthologies Beach Life and Beach Fun (Cat & Mouse Press, 2017; 2018), the anthology Five Minutes at Hotel Stormcove (Atthis Arts, 2019), and the forthcoming anthology Community of Magic Pens (Atthis Arts, 2020).

interview by Marcia Peterson

WOW: Congratulations on winning first place in our Winter 2020 Flash Fiction competition. What inspired you to enter the contest?

Joy: I have entered this flash fiction contest several times over the past few years and have been fortunate to have two previous stories selected for contest publication ("Million-Dollar Burrito" in Summer 2017 and "Smoke, Blood, Fog" in Fall 2018). I think WOW! gives writers terrific opportunities, and this contest is consistently so well run! In particular, I appreciate the option to receive a critique with a submission, for such a reasonable entry fee. I have applied the feedback I've received, and it's always been supportive and encouraging as well.

WOW: Thank you for the kind words about WOW! Can you tell us what encouraged the idea behind your story, "Burnt?"

Joy: As the judges of this contest may know from my previous submissions, I have a pretty strong affinity for retellings of fairy tales and folktales. "Smoke, Blood, Fog," for example, is a dark retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood." I had been kicking around a "Hansel and Gretel" retelling for a while, and once I settled on the placement of the story within the original tale, I was set. I knew I wanted to start right before the end of the original story. It's always bothered me that Hansel and Gretel, after escaping the evil witch's clutches, trot right on home and are happily reunited with their father/parents, when they were abandoned to die in the woods! If I were in Gretel's shoes, having experienced that depth of trauma, I wouldn't want to go home! Originally, I had it in my head that Gretel and Hansel would part ways, with Gretel burning the bridge after Hansel crossed it to go home, but when I actually got to that point in the narrative, I realized it felt stronger and much more hopeful to have the siblings band together to make their way in the world.

WOW: What do you enjoy about flash fiction writing versus the other kinds of writing that you do?

Joy: Flash fiction is an excellent exercise, first of all. I've found that writing flash fiction makes me a 
stronger writer in my longer works because writing flash forces me to narrow down my word choices and make every word do double duty. Practicing that skill in flash trains my ear to change the way I think about word choice overall. In "Burnt," for example, I noticed in my first draft that I had Gretel "looking at" her hands, both at the beginning and the end of the story. I swapped those verbs out for "inspected" and "studied," respectively; for one thing, eliminating the "at" saved me two words! :) But more importantly, "inspected" conveys that Gretel is considering her survivor's guilt in looking at her hands and what they've just done, and "studied" shows that she has reconsidered what those scars on her hands mean.

Flash fiction is also terrific fun for me! As a writer, I hesitate to throw my characters into pain and darkness; can't I just let them pick wildflowers in fields forever? Flash fiction has allowed me to explore darker themes and situations without committing myself to a depressing slog of hundreds of pages of suffering. I've been able to stretch as a storyteller through writing these self-contained stories, and I hope to someday have enough fairy tales for a collection!

WOW: We'd love to know more about your writing routines, especially since you're a busy mom with two kids. Could you tell us when and where you usually write? Do you have favorite tools or habits that get you going?

Joy: My answers to these questions would have looked dramatically different a few months ago. When I wasn't quarantine home schooling, I would write in the mornings, sometimes early (which for me means 6:30, not earlier!) and often while my kids were in school. My tutoring work schedule filled up most afternoons, and I would sometimes write more in the evenings. Since the COVID-19 pandemic took over our lives, my husband and I have been splitting home school duties, and I'm running a two-student kindergarten/preschool until about 1 pm. each day. My afternoons are usually eaten up in household tasks, responding to emails, and coordinating virtual events for several organizations that are dear to my heart. That leaves the post-bedtime window for writing, which is to say: I'm not getting as much done, and I'm probably not getting enough sleep. But I'm trying to be patient with myself and look at each page of writing as a page closer to my goals, rather than setting currently unattainable expectations.

In terms of tools and habits, one thing that has consistently helped me keep going, even when I'm exhausted or uninspired, is brilliant author Linda Sue Park's recommendation to set a timer for 12 minutes and write. 12 minutes is pretty much always doable, and I can always re-up the timer if I find my groove or sign off knowing I at least put a few words on the screen. These word sprints have pushed me through difficult chapters, tricky endings, and even outlines. I recommend trying them!

WOW: Great tip! Do you have any tips for writers who may be thinking about entering writing contests?

Joy: DO IT! And do it again! :) Seriously, your odds of winning any contest increase infinitely by entering it. Be your own advocate, and promote your own story like you'd champion your best friend's work. One thing I really want to let my fellow writers know in this interview is that I received feedback from a previous WOW! contest on "Burnt" and applied it to the piece before submitting to this iteration of the contest. Your work grows stronger as you continue to polish it and consider feedback. You don't have to (shouldn't) automatically make every suggested change; you'll end up with a franken-story. But consider the feedback you receive from trusted sources and how it suits your vision for the story you want to tell. And if you're entering a fantastic contest that offers critiques, like this one, take advantage of it and keep trying!


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


Myna said...

I love this story! Such a strong retelling. Bravo to the author!

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