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The Results Are In: See Who Won SNHU’s 5th Annual Fall Fiction Contest

The upper left corner of an old fashioned typewriter with a blank sheet of paper loaded and clipped in place.

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) received more than 500 short story submissions to its 5th annual Fall Fiction Contest. While there were many strong contenders this year, only five could be recognized. 

First, an initial review board considered each story to identify 50 semi-finalists. Angelina Oberdan, a judge and adjunct faculty at SNHU, said an engaging first few paragraphs was critical to make the cut. Additionally, she read quite a few well-written stories that spent too much time in the conclusion. “The narrative should be complete, but it doesn’t need to be tied with a bow,” Oberdan said. 

With criteria such as originality, thought process, character arc and grammatical correctness in mind, the semi-finalist judges identified the top stories. Their scores ended up being so close; it was up to the public to pick a winner.

The public voted, and the results are in:

The top three will receive $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 scholarships, respectively, for SNHU’s online or on campus degree programs. 

All five finalists had their stories published in The Penmen Review and will also receive a writing-themed prize package including copies of “Save the Cat! Writes A Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need” by Jessica Brody and “2019: The Best American Short Stories.”

First Place Goes to Full-Time Writer, Dad

Ben Jackson noticed there aren’t too many older protagonists in fiction, let alone love stories about older couples. As his grandparents approached 90, he decided to address this gap in a writing workshop class at SNHU. 

Ben Jackson and the text Ben Jackson“It’s not often we see stories of men grieving a natural death of a spouse, and I wanted to see if I could create a moment to live in that space,” Jackson said. 

In a review by Courtney McDermott, a semi-finalist judge and adjunct faculty at SNHU, it’s clear that Jackson created an authentic story. “Ben Jackson evokes nostalgia and Americana to write this bittersweet love story,” she said. “Any baseball fan – and especially any Red Sox fan – will appreciate his love for the sport and the memories it creates.”

Jackson recently returned to SNHU to finish his Creative Writing degree after taking five years off to focus on his daughter, Emma, and her health. 

Now that Jackson’s reached a point where he can make a living doing what he loves most – writing, he returned to school to help him advance. He has found the critiques his instructors and classmates offer to be the most valuable, and going to school online allows him to work full-time while also serving as Emma’s caretaker. 

“SNHU fits into my life and is making (me) a better writer,” he said. 

Supported by Family, 19-Year-Old Places Second

E.M. Francisco and her father love all things horror, but often find the characters of the genre improbable. Taking matters into her own hands, “The Thing in My Closet” emerged from her frustrations. 

E.M. Francisco and the text E.M. Francisco“I wanted to tell a horror story with a main character that sort of encapsulated everything we wanted a horror protagonist to do,” Francisco said. “... Humans are pretty adaptive creatures, and it only makes sense that, eventually, after repeated exposures, a person would grow used to the freaky comings and goings.”

Calling her story “fun, spooky and endearing,” Christopher Sullivan, a semi-finalist judge and adjunct faculty at SNHU, appreciated this perspective. “Francisco’s protagonist is believable, the setting is eerie, and the dramatic action is palpable,” he said. 

Though Francisco was surprised to learn her story took home second in the Fall Fiction Contest, her parents had been confident she’d place. After all, this isn’t the first time she’s achieved something big. She began college when she was just 16-years-old, having graduated from high school early.

“As an early high school graduate who wasn't ready to leave home, this online BA (in Creative Writing & English) program was everything I needed and more,” she said. Not only could Francisco complete the degree she wanted from home, but she could do so without any student debt. 

Now, at 19-years-old, she’s one of the youngest writers to place in the Fall Fiction Contest. With her eyes set on becoming a manuscript editor for a publishing house, she’s also considering a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing. 

MFA Student Places Third with ‘Otherworldly’ Story

Destiny Rinder said she was ecstatic when she learned her story, “The Houses on the Sea,” placed third in the Fall Fiction Contest. Though she’s been writing since she was in elementary school, she only recently became serious about her passion. 

Destiny Rinder and the text Destiny Rinder.The story behind “The Houses on the Sea” came to Rinder from a picture prompt. “Once I thought of the concept, it took me a couple of tries to find the best characters for the story,” she said. Settling on a 6-year-old’s account of the day her mother disappeared, “The Houses on the Sea” is her first published short story. 

McDermott particularly liked the mystery it offered. “I was drawn to the otherworldly nature of "The Houses on the Sea" and Rinder's ability to craft a seaside setting,” she said. “Part of the appeal of the story is in not knowing if the houses truly exist or not.”

With a year to go until Rinder earns her MFA in Creative Writing at SNHU, she is thinking about how she can use the different elements of her classes to become a novelist and filmmaker. This term, she’s learning about the publishing ecosystem and how to write query letters. 

From Imposter Syndrome to Taking Fourth Place

Clover Autrey has been writing for a long time. She’s experimented with different types of writing and honed her skills, yet she continues to struggle with imposter syndrome. “Sometimes, I feel like what I've written is truly worthwhile, but more often than not, I feel like I'm going to be called out as an amateur or fraud,” she said. 

Clover Autrey and the text Clover Autrey.So, when Autrey discovered her story was a finalist in the Fall Fiction Contest, she felt validated as a writer. 

While writing “Forgotten Promise,” she wanted to focus on creating emotion. “I find for me that pulling out emotion in short pieces with limited time to develop characters is not an easy thing to do,” she said. 

Based on judge feedback, it’s apparent her attempt was successful. Noting Autrey’s combination of visuals and details, Sullivan found the story to be gripping. “It has an almost cinematic feel to it,” he said. 

In just a few months, Autrey will complete her online Bachelor's in English Language & Literature. “Without SNHU's online program in this degree, I would not have had the courage to return to college,” she said. While working full-time as an administrative assistant, completing coursework on her schedule was her only option. Now, her sight is on teaching high school English. 

History Student’s First Story Earns Her Fifth Place

When Dotty Weaver walks her dog along the beach near her house, she discovers many unusual items in the dunes. One morning, she found an empty purse that left her crafting a story about its owner. 

Dotty Weaver and the text Dotty Weaver.Following a dog owner happening upon a crime scene, “The Dunes of Dawn” was the first short story Weaver ever wrote. Having just completed a creative writing elective for her History degree program, she decided to enter the Fall Fiction Contest. 

“I was surprised and delighted to be selected as a finalist in the contest,” Weaver said. “It was a wonderful thrill to see my work alongside other wonderful works of fiction.”

The judges enjoyed the pacing of her mystery, and the suspense and satisfaction it brings in such a short amount of time.

While Weaver’s primary goal is to teach U.S. history at a collegiate level, her early writing success is also inspiring her to write historical fiction.

Semi-Finalist Panel

Courtney McDermott holds a BA from Mount Holyoke College and an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. Her debut collection of short stories, “How They Spend Their Sundays,” was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award and The Story Prize. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous journals, and she has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. McDermott has been teaching at SNHU since 2014, and she lives in Greater Boston with her husband and son.

Marcella Prokop lives on a hemp farm and hard cider orchard in Minnesota with her husband, son and two dogs. She teaches creative writing online for SNHU and literature at Augustana University in South Dakota, writing poetry and nonfiction when she has time. Her work has been published online or in print in journals, including Ploughshares, Pank, the Brooklyn Review and the Coal Hill Review, among others.

Christopher Sullivan, MFA, has worked as an adjunct instructor at SNHU since 2011 and has served as a member of The Penmen Review editorial board since 2012. Sullivan teaches numerous creative writing, screenwriting and English composition courses at SNHU, and he encourages his students to be fearless (and keep an open mind) as they study and sharpen their respective craft. In his spare time, Sullivan enjoys writing, reading and spending time with his beautiful family. He is also an avid Boston sports fan.

Emily Winters is a novelist and essayist from the Midwest. She studied creative writing and English at SNHU and has an MFA in Fiction from the university's Mountainview Low-Residency MFA program. Her writing has appeared in various magazines and online publications such as Assignment Magazine Online, The Everygirl and Business New Hampshire Magazine. In her spare time, Winters teaches creative writing and dance, travels incessantly, hikes at high altitudes (not in the Midwest) and mediates playtime between her rambunctious puppy and tired old cat. She lives in the Ann Arbor area with her husband.

Initial Review Panel

Joe Cote is a content writer on SNHU’s marketing team after spending more than a decade as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Hampshire. He earned a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication. A one-time poetry major, Cote remains an avid reader of all things fantasy. 

Crystal Curry is the author of two prizewinning poetry books, "But I Have Realized It" and "Our Chrome Arms of Gymnasium." She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in Creative Writing and an Ed.M. in Human Resource Development. Curry has been an adjunct professor of creative writing and English at SNHU since 2012. She lives in the Bronx, New York, with her family.

Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has been published widely both online and in print, appearing alongside Graham Masterton, Joe R. Lansdale, Elizabeth Massie, Ramsey Campbell, Kealan Patrick Burke, Steve Rasnic Tem and Clive Barker. She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction with a concentration in Horror Fiction, is currently working toward her Ph.D. in Creative Writing, and teaches online at SNHU. Loring lives with her husband in Philadelphia, where they are owned by a turtle and two basset hounds.

Angelina Oberdan is a writer and instructor, hailing from Charlotte, North Carolina. She received an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) and an MA in English from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Oberdan's work has appeared in many journals, including Cold Mountain Review, Louisiana Literature, Mobius, Italian Americana, Southern Indiana Review and Yemassee, among others. She co-edited a collection of essays by and about Daniela Gioseffi, "Pioneering Italian American Culture: Escaping La Vita Della Cucina," published by Bordighera Press. When Oberdan isn’t writing or teaching, she’s hiking with her three dogs.

Cyndle Plaisted Rials lives in Maine between the mountains and the ocean. In addition to teaching creative writing courses at SNHU, she operates a small business designing and creating fiber art and accessories. Plaisted Rials earned her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her poems have appeared in such places as Hunger Mountain, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Be Wilder: A Word Portland Anthology, among others. She is currently at work on her first novel.

Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.