What is a Didactic Story?

Benita hates talking to her aunt Chloe, if you could even call what they do talking. Mostly Benita listens. Aunt Chloe has stories — stories about her life — story about her childhood, stories about her marriage, stories about her children, sometimes about work she did, sometimes about people she knew, other times about a trip she took. Always, she ends with this phrase: “And that’s why we [fill in the blank] and you should too.” 

Benita waits for that finishing remark so she can nod and agree. It always comes, all she had to do was wait. And when it does, it punches her in the gut. It doesn’t allow her to enjoy the story, because in the end, she knows that Aunt Chloe isn’t telling a fun story, she’s lecturing. 

You could say that Aunt Chloe’s stories are didactic. 

But is that not good? Why is it bad to tell didactic stories? Shouldn’t you want your listeners to leave with some wisdom like a nice souvenir that they can take with them into the future? Telling didactic stories seem like giving your audience the most bang for their buck — the best use of their time. 

There was a time long ago when didactic stories were popular. Religious sermons, ancient texts, stories that teach ethics such as Aesop’s Fables, are examples of didactic stories that have favourable reputations, because they taught people how to be civil as they learned to live with each other. 

From the stories of Christ to Siddhartha, people have relied on didactic stories to learn how to confront the obstacles of life and participate in a society of many. 

The word didactic itself comes from Ancient Greece, which means “relating to teaching, education, and wisdom.” Ancient Greece, of course, being a key time and place for great philosophical teachers and thinkers, all telling didactic stories to get their ideas across. The importance for the general public to receive moral guidance couldn’t be more important back then when communication and entertainment were not as easily accessible as it is today. 

Yet, Aunt Chloe had a story — one that she thought was worth telling — should she not share her story the way she felt it should be told? What was Benita’s problem? She should be appreciative of a free lesson from someone of experience. Not that Aunt Chloe was Christ or Siddhartha, but she certainly had a point of view. 

Every storyteller has a perspective and it’s from there that they decide which stories are worth telling and which aren’t. Obviously they would want to tell a story that gives their audience the most value. 

But Value is an interesting word, often used to market something that is of quality but is cheaply sold. 

What didactic stories are — are simple answers. Without understanding the complexities of an audience member’s life, it aims to give directions and solutions as though every problem or pursuit can be resolved by obediently following what the story has to offer. Didactic stories make blunt assumptions, just like what Aunt Chloe does when she sees Benita. She assumes that she has the answers for her, even though Benita wasn’t asking. 

Didactic stories come across as preachy, or belittling, or having a hidden agenda. Didactic stories are not open ended. They have a very clear conclusion. Instead of allowing the audience to interpret what the story teaches, a didactic one outright tells them what to know. It is in that rushed method of communicating that the important lessons in the story are actually lost. Didactic stories end up being less effective in encouraging a certain behaviour as compared to telling a truly meaningful story with rich characters and an interesting plot. 

So, what can we do? How do we avoid telling stories like Aunt Chloe? 

First, understand that having a story with a message is not a bad thing. Every story should have a core theme worth sharing, however, one should avoid telling a story with the solitary goal of convincing the audience of an idea or a way of life. 

A good theme doesn’t make a good story. And a good story doesn’t need to do any convincing. By taking the audience through an emotional journey via the senses of the characters, we can actually get them invested in the exploration of the theme. The audience will come to the conclusion on their own or have a thought that opposes the meaning of the story. Either way, the audience is empowered to form their own opinions, even when it’s the storyteller that reaches the ending. And the ending certainly should not be how Aunt Chloe ends it, “And that’s why we [fill in the black], and you should too.” 

Secondly, didactic stories often lack the complexity and characteristics of real life events, and that’s why fairytales — which lessons of morals can come across as didactic — are often catered towards children as opposed to adults, who understand that a little girl being eaten by a wolf or pigs getting their houses blown down is just the beginning of the problem and not the end. Didactic stories, in order to keep their lessons clear, leave out the messiness that is reality. And what happens then is something that is more cliche than convincing. 

Lastly, to avoid telling didactic stories, we must understand that great stories don’t have easy answers. Great stories aren’t recipes or instruction manuals. Great stories are a mirror that forces us to confront the feelings inside ourselves. Great stories ask us what we think about this or that, but never telling us whether it’s right or wrong, for there are no right answers. Every audience member should be able to bring their own history, their own experiences, their own principles and values, and use those as the instruments to come up with their own conclusion

Therefore, a story that avoids being labelled as didactic allows for wondering and contemplation. 

And that is why we shouldn’t write didactic stories, and you shouldn’t either. 

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Writing Contests in 2021: Canada + International

Will 2021 be the year you write your best work?  

Whether you have a story you’re polishing up or 2021 is the year you’re clearing the table and starting anew, it’s good to give your writing projects some specific targets. Writing contests have always been a great motivator for me. It challenges me to put my best foot forward. It gives me a deadline.

Without much further ado, here are some prose contests in 2021.

(contest details are subject to change):  

The Jacob Zilber Prize for Short Fiction – PRISM

Prize: $1,500 grand prize

Deadline: January 15, 2021

Entry Fee:

  • Canadian: $35 CDN
  • USA: $40 USD
  • International: $45

Max Length: 4000 words

More details at PRISM international


 2021 Calibre Essay Prize

Grand Prize: $5,000 

Deadline: January 15, 2021

Entry Fee:

  • Online entry (current ABR subscriber) – $15
  • Online entry (full-time student) – $15
  • Online entry (standard/non subscriber) – $25*

Max Length: 5,000 words

More details at the Australian Book Review


CBC Literary Prizes – Nonfiction

Prize: $6,000

Deadline: February 28, 2021

Entry Fee: $25.00 (taxes included)

Length: 2,000 words

More details at CBC


The Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest – The New Quarterly

Prize: $1000

Deadline: March 28, 2021

Entry Fee: $40

Length: 2,000-5,000 words

More details at The New Quarterly


 Short Grain Contest

Prize: $1,000 and publication in Grain

Deadline: TBD (Usually in April)

Entry Fee: $40

Length: 2,500 words

More details at Grain Magazine


Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction – The Malahat Review

Prize: $CAN 1,000

Deadline: May 1, 2021

Entry Fee:

  • Canadian: $25 CDN
  • USA: $30 USD
  • International: $35

Max Length: 3,500 words

More details at The Malahat Review


The Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award

Prize: $1,000

Deadline: May 28, 2021

Entry Fee: $40 CAD

Length: 2,000-5,000 words

More details at The New Quarterly


Room Creative Non Fiction Contest

Prizes:

  • First: $1,000 + publication in Room
  • Second: $250 + publication in Room
  • Honourable mention: $50 publication on Room’s website

Open: June, 2021

Entry Fee:

  • Canadian: $35 CAD
  • USA: $42 USD

Length: TBD

Note: Open to women, trans, two-spirited, and genderqueer people.

More details at Room Magazine


Constance Rooke CNF Prize – The Malahat Review

Grand prize: $1,000

Deadline: August 1, 2021

Entry Fee:

  • Canadian: $35 CAD
  • USA: $40 USD
  • International: $45 USD

Length: 3,000 words

More details at The Malahat Review


CBC Short Story Prize 

Prize: $6000

Deadline: Oct 2021

Entry Fee: $25

Length: 2500 words

More details at CBC


The Breakwater Fiction Contest

Prize: $1000 and publication in our Winter issue

Deadline: December 1, 2021

Entry Fee: $10.00 USD

Length: 1,000-4,000 words

More details at Breakwater


Check back in soon for deadlines for:

SubTerrain Lush Triumphant Literary Awards (Usually in June)

Know of any other Canadian writing contest? Please share it in the comments.

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How an Imperfectionist Thinks | 10 Tips to Avoid Perfectionism

I’m not a perfectionist. If I was, this video wouldn’t exist, because I’d be too busy fussing over every cut or picking the perfect background music. Or fixing the light or writing this script or making sure my hair looks good. I’ve gotten very good at not worrying about those things over the years because this… is a YouTube video and blog post so it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. 

I’m not here to impress anyone, I’m only here to express myself. 

I know a lot of people suffer from being perfectionists. It can be paralyzing and it can stop you from taking your first steps in creating something. It’ll stop you from learning and trying. I get it. You’re afraid you’ll look stupid.

Well, as someone who’ve looked stupid many times in the past, I’m happy to share some of my advice. Yes, this is me giving advice on how to not be good at things. 

10 tips — let’s go! 

Embrace Mistakes

After you hit publish, you are bound to see mistakes. You are going to want to pull that piece down and delete it forever, but it’s often something inconsequential. It’s often things that your audience, unless you tell them, won’t even notice. Even if someone calls you out for it, embrace that, someone actually took the time to let you know (even though they might have been a jerk telling you). Say thanks for catching that. Or oh man, my bad! It’s going to happen. There are way too many things to deal with. But with my next tip, I can help you get more comfortable making mistakes.

Make A lot

Once you start making a lot, then you stop being precious with each individual project. Mistakes that have happened five, ten projects back don’t matter anymore because your mindset is on to the next thing. You are going to make the next project better. When you have the mentality that you are going to make a lot, then being perfect doesn’t matter, but rather, consistency, practice, patience, and incremental improvement become the goals. 

Give Deadlines

If something is never due, then you will never feel any pressure to finish. You can keep working on it and working on it until the law of diminishing returns leaves any improvement so minuscule that it wouldn’t even be noticeable. Sometimes, you work a project so much that you end up making it worse. Give yourself a time limit, not a quality limit. There is an old adage known as Parkinson’s law which states that a task will expand to the timeframe given to complete. If something is due in a week, you’ll take a week to do it. If something is due in a month, you take the full month. The best way to make more is by shortening the deadlines.

Create Limitations

Much like giving yourself a deadline, creating limitations is actually a good way to avoid getting bogged down by your perfectionism. Whether it’s forcing yourself to write in a specific genre, having a maximum word count, or using a set structure like the hero’s journey, you establish some rules that you have to follow. Having complete freedom may sound great, but it is too nebulous for you to focus. You end up creating something too grand that keeps expanding and expanding, which is not good if you want to actually finish something. By setting limitations, you know the boundary in which your creativity can focus and flourish. 

Start Something New

If you feel the pain of imperfection, if you’ve been staring at your work and are not even sure how to fix it, then it’s time to start something new. Clear the table of what you’ve been doing and begin again. The longer we spend on a project the more invested we get in it and feel we need to do it justice. This type of thinking imprisons us. What we should do is put that project aside, recognize that we are not at the level to get it to the standard we want, and begin something new. I often tell myself,  “Okay, this new project I’m going to try to learn how to do this…” so that by the end, I’ll have the practice to go back and fix what I couldn’t in the previous project. 

Have a Clear Audience

Instead of creating something that I’d think everyone would enjoy — which is impossible — when I feel like my work isn’t perfect, I think about one specific person who I’m creating for. Once I have this person in mind, like for example with this video, I’m thinking of someone like you, who is perhaps curious to know why my projects are so not perfect and how I live with myself. Knowing you, I have a clearer understanding of why I’m doing this and I feel supported. Also, don’t be afraid to make things for yourself. Your audience can easily be yourself in the future. I want to make a video for myself a year from now. I want to write a book that I want to read. Making it for yourself is as worthwhile as making it for a million faceless fans. You probably won’t make money, but then again, you never know until you finish. 

Work on Multiple Projects At Once

I usually have multiple projects going at once because if I ever get stuck, tired, or angry at a specific project, I can just switch to another. This allows me to always be making something. Even though my attention is scattered, there is often progress happening on multiple fronts. Experts will tell you not to do this. And I’m no expert, however, it’s this diversifying method that has kept me from burning out. It’s also helped with my continuous improvement even though it’s not as exponential as focusing on one specific project at a time, in the end, I still have something to show for it, which to me, is worth a whole lot. 

Have a Learning Mindset

Much like advice number 5, it’s good to go into each project with the eagerness to learn, not the pressure of making it perfect. If you can approach a project as an opportunity to learn something specific then you can measure the success of the project not on the merits of the work but rather your experience and knowledge gained from it. Having that student approach is so humbling because then you can ask questions and discover as you go, as opposed to feeling like you need to land the perfect trick in front of a group of judges. You don’t need that type of pressure.  

Accept That You Might Lose it Forever

Create with the knowledge that tomorrow that project might disappear. Something could have happened to your hard drive and everything was erased or there were a fire and all your material burned to the ground. Know that what you are making is not going to last forever. It might not even survive the process in being finished. It’s a terrifying thought, but that’s why it’s so important to not be precious with your work and do it because of the enjoyment and not because you want to make something so astoundingly perfect that it can stand the test of time — because nothing can. 

You’re Not Perfect (neither is your audience)

We all have the idea of a perfect project in our minds. In there it is beautiful and complete and so very great. But we are not perfect and as soon as we attempt to transfer what’s in our brain into the external world, we are bound to muddy everything up. Languages, colours, and emotions appear and sound differently to different people. Even if you think it’s perfect, you cannot help how others are going to respond to it. Everyone has different preferences and tastes — and nobody is completely right or completely wrong. You are bound to make something some will love and you are bound to make something that someone will hate.

Those are my 10 thoughts on how I live with the fact that I’ll never create anything perfect, nor do I even try. I wish I have a little more attention to details sometimes and perhaps I could be a little bit more diligent with my work, but honestly, I feel like this approach has kept me content and consistent. But like I said, everyone should have their own process and as long as you are enjoying what you’re doing then it doesn’t matter if you want to make something perfect or not. None of this matters. 

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What is Crude Writing?

Frank works at a firm but he really wants to write the next great classic — and he has just the story. But why is he struggling to get his work published? 

True. He believes that once the first draft is written, he’s 80% done, perhaps a little bit of proofreading is needed, but the agency and publishing house will deal with that. After all, the idea is great! 

Alas, no responses. In a moment of (what he considered) weakness, he allows his coworker to read his work. “I like the story,” says his coworker, “but the writing, it’s a bit crude.” 

Crude!? How dare he criticize his work… his style… his self-expression. “Yes… there might be some typos,” says Frank returning to his desk, thinking: He wasn’t crude… He knew crude and his writing wasn’t crude. Crude was his friend Kyle.  

He recalls hanging with his old high school friends at an upscale restaurant where he frequents regularly. After a few drinks, one of her friends, Kyle, who had recently returned from Europe was boasting about all the adventures and sexual escapades he had. 

“Oh man! You should have seen the babes I was with. They were sexy, big tits, big ass, if you know what I mean…” Kyle made some grotesque gestures — Frank understood what he meant, there wasn’t a lot of subtlety to it, but they were at a nice restaurant and the way Kyle was speaking was making him uncomfortable. He looked around to see if the other patrons were watching. 

Kyle was crude! Frank knows that. How can his coworker use the same word to describe his writing?  

Well… like crude oil or crude sugar, you can say that Kyle’s behaviour, Frank’s writing, and (even my drawings here) are undeveloped — it’s raw, unrefined, unpolished. While it is in the natural state, it is lacking the completeness that a quality product should have. 

When we bring that understanding of the word “crude” and relate it to our writing, even though we’ve poured our heart and soul into a piece of work, without the revision necessary, it could indeed come across as crude. 

But Frank’s writing is not a lost cause. Crude is not completely negative. Crude writing can be strong in some sense. It doesn’t leave room for interpretations. It’s not poetic, sure, but it’s clear and blunt (often to a line of offensiveness). Nevertheless, crude writing gets the point across in a direct way. Crude writing is rarely misunderstood. It might be abrasive or rough, but the concept is there in its purest form. Crude writing is something Frank can work with. Crude writing is better than nothing written.

The problem is with Frank’s expectations. He wants to have his work published. He wants it to be regarded as a classic. He wants to have his work within a certain space. And it’s in that act of putting something where it doesn’t yet belong, like Kyle’s talk about lewd acts in an upscale restaurant, that makes Frank’s writing crude. When comparing his work against those who have spent months and years refining their stories — using the same guidelines to judge — it simply doesn’t meet the standard. 

There is certainly a place for crude writing — in fact — for many, it might be a style that works for their personality. There are people out there who would happily consume crude sugar, but most people would rather eat candy. 

If you want your writing to appeal to the largest number of readers, then embracing the fact that you write crudely might not be the best place to start. Readers look for books and articles, the same way shoppers buy groceries, and when shopping, you’d rarely find crude sugar and chocolate bars in the same aisle. The same goes with writing. 

Crude writing can happily live on a blog or a Facebook wall. Just like how Kyle’s sexual stories can live happily at a bar. Yet, it’s when we want to have our work and ourselves reach a certain level, like athletes or actors preparing for a competition or performance, we need to put in the work to polish and refine. 

Frank is proud of his work. It is a personal piece, pouring freshly out of him. Yet, he did not see the crudeness. He is inexperienced and the work is too close to him. He goes through it again, but doesn’t know what to fix or improve on. This is a frustrating place to be. 

Crudeness comes from lack of self awareness. It often needs not only someone to point it out, but someone with the patience to offer suggestions after they pointed it out. It’s having that direction to offer that makes someone a good editor for writing and life. It has to be a mutual progression. If Frank confronted Kyle in the restaurant and told him he was being crude, he would have reacted the same way Frank did after his coworker read his writing. Defensively. In order to overcome crudeness, one needs help from someone who has experience confronting and overcoming the process themselves. But most importantly, they need to want to be helped. 

Nobody can make you write a second draft, if you think the first one is perfect.

For more writing and editing resources, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.