The email notification pinged softly on my phone as we crossed the North Carolina border.
“Your story ‘Shakti’ is one of the finalists….”
“That’s great,” said my Laddie when I read the message aloud.
I shrugged and turned back to the cornfields beyond the window, surrendering to the creative malaise that consumed me all that August. “We’ll see.”
I have a rather bleak history with short stories. The first (and last) short fiction prize I’d won was the Captain Planet writing contest at my local library when I was six. I’d stood at a podium beside the costumed 90s superhero and read aloud my first-place story about a “rude dude” who learns the value of environmental stewardship. All my short story submissions in the modern era had met with rejection.
Shakti, which I originally wrote in 2016, had been turned down by almost every noteworthy science fiction magazine in America. Each time I told myself I’d shelve it. But something about the story wouldn’t let me go. After each rejection, instead of consigning the piece to my rubbish writing folder, I revised and improved it. When I learned about the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s amateur writing contest just a day before the deadline, Shakti was honed and waiting. I submitted it mostly as an exercise in perseverance.
And this time it paid off. A follow-up email in mid-September informed me that Shakti had won first place, to be announced at the Washington Science Fiction Association’s 2018 Capclave convention.
“The award ceremony is way the hell in Rockville! At nine o’clock!” I whined.
“You don’t win things often enough to bail,” said my Laddie firmly. “We’re going.” My deeply introverted spouse’s willingness to suffer socialization on my behalf touched my cantankerous writer’s heart.
So last night found us not curled in bed with books, but standing at the back of a conference room in the Hilton hotel amid tables studded with wine glasses and paperbacks. Capclave attendees, a motley gaggle of fellow sci-fi writers, turned their attention to the podium as contest coordinator David Vaughan announced the amateur writing awards. Third place…second place…
“…and finally, an exciting far-future tale about planetary colonization and one woman’s three-hundred-year quest for revenge…”
Wow, that sounded amazing. Can I hire these people to write all my book blurbs?
“…our first-place winner, Shakti, by J.K. Ullrich!”
I threaded through the chairs to the front of the room and shook David’s hand. He waved at the microphone. “Say a few words!”
Uh-oh. I’m not good at a few words. I need a lot of words (which is probably why I hadn’t won a short fiction prize in almost twenty-five years). But as the former lead singer of a party band, I have no fear of microphones. I stepped behind the podium and smiled at the assembly.
“This is a particularly big honor for me, because short fiction is not my strength. Even with Shakti, I tried to condense an entire science fiction epic into a five-thousand-word short story.” Appreciative chuckles from the audience. “It was a challenge, so I’m gratified that it was so well-received. Thank you!”
Not exactly an Oscar-quality speech, but I must’ve sounded cogent enough for several writers and organizers involved in regional science fiction conventions to approach me afterward. I had no idea there were so many events in my own backyard! (That’s what happens when you’re an author with a day job; there’s barely time to work on your manuscripts, much less realize there’s life outside its margins.) I plan to get more involved, starting with next year’s Balticon, where I’ve been invited to read my winning entry and participate in the programs.
Like its conniving heroine, Shakti waited years for its chance. Its ultimate success, as an opportunity to connect with a vibrant community of local sci-fi lovers, was worth the wait.