edited by Rosalind Maki and Deborah de Bakker
Coming from humble beginnings in 1997, The Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop has grown over the years to become the largest literary organization in the region––definitely cause to celebrate. Twenty Years on Snowshoes is a fitting celebration, a collection of winning entries from the short fiction and memoir categories from its annual writing contest throughout the life of the organization, and there’s some great writing on display within these pages. Though each piece is a literal winner, however, there’s a wide range in subjects and styles throughout the book, and it’s interesting to me to explore commonalities and differences across literature that was all successful in the contest format, but that I enjoyed at different levels and for different reasons from piece to piece. (I honestly think that such an exercise would be helpful to anyone entering a future NOWW writing contest, and so I highly encourage reading the collection thoughtfully if you ever plan to.)
To begin to understand the makings of great fiction and non-fiction, one first needs to see beyond the subject matter to writing elements that influence the reader’s perception of the subject. I find it hard to imagine a compelling story without a clean, strong plot––though I acknowledge that, in rare cases, a talented writer can keep you on the edge of your seat with a story in which not much happens––but also consider how the story gets propped up or dragged down in the way the author handles characterization, pacing, and description. The contest format imposes constraints on the freedom an author has to tell a story, mainly through the word limit, and my favourite stories in Twenty Years on Snowshoes come from authors who understand this, consciously or not, and either embrace it or push these boundaries successfully. The first way this comes about with clarity is that there appears to be an upper limit to the number of characters you have time to fully flesh out; if you include too many characters, it can hurt their personalities or their perceived realism, and, consequently, the story as a whole. The other main constraint that presents itself is in the complexity of plot: An author trying to do too much with the story with so little space to work with puts the plot, the pacing, and the readers’ emotional response in peril.
With the fiction, specifically, a sizeable number of winning entries included in Twenty Years on Snowshoes interestingly share in the way vastly different stories are presented: a mature concept experienced through a naive, often child, narrator or protagonist––concepts such as mourning, addictions, divorce, and closet lesbianism. The question then presents itself: Why does this technique seem to so consistently work in the context of the winning entries? I think that, by framing the story this way, the author can influence the pacing by presenting bits of information through the point of view of someone who doesn’t understand the significance of what they see or experience. This allows the reader to slowly piece things together, injecting mystery and suspense into the narrative, with the added benefit of coming about without cheating the reader. From the reader’s perspective, it feels like a narrator honestly telling us what little she learns or understands, rather than being perceived as an author creating a kind of false suspense just by refusing to reveal details. The big divergence amongst stories that employ this technique comes in the way the author treats this naive individual. My favourites in the collection go beyond the narrator as a casual observer, having them change as a result of the plot that they at least partially begin to understand by the end. In most stories using this style, the tragedy and drama happens almost out of frame, due to this lack of understanding from the character we follow. By clearly influencing and changing them as we progress, this adds another tragic element up close: a loss of innocence.
But don’t come out of this review thinking that the only good that comes from picking up Twenty Years on Snowshoes is getting a better understanding of writing in order to improve your own, it just happens to be what struck me firmly as I read. If you’re reading for enjoyment, the collection has a great mix of heavy and lighthearted work, of fantastical and grounded pieces, of simple stories and more complicated tales, and, as such, I highly suspect there’s at least something included for everyone.