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Beth Cox Report: April 2013

Dear Loyal Readers, Authors, and Publishers,

It may have eaten a little into my work schedule, but Madison's thirteenth annual Odyssey Con was just plain fun, as an unabashed celebration of science fiction, fantasy, and popular culture. For me, the best part was a special opportunity to help judge the "Spontaneous Writing Contest", in which eight participants had one hour to craft a short story out of an assigned snippet of dialogue. Entries from OddCon 12's contest are available for perusal on Odyssey Con's website at

and the OddCon 13 short stories are due to be added in the near future. When they are, I especially recommend reading "Anarchy in the USSA" and "My Aunt Julie".

I also had the wonderful opportunity to be a panelist for one of OddCon's programs, named "How to Win a Writing Contest". My co-panelists were Miranda Raine, Richard S. Russell (a longtime friend of the Midwest Book Review, who personally persuaded me to become involved with OddCon 13), and F.J. Bergmann, whose poetry and blog can be found on

While I haven't personally won any writing contests since fifth grade, I do have the blessing and the curse of being one of the MBR members who sorts through an average of 2,300 monthly submissions, selecting which ones I'll write a review for. It's a blessing because the opportunity to browse through so many different books, experiencing adventures or learning about every subject imaginable, is a dream come true; it's a curse because I always feel a little sad that there's not enough hours in a day to review all the books that deserve it.

Because of what I do every day, I know a little bit about what makes a story or a book stand out from the crowd. F.J. Bergmann was the most seasoned of the panelists, having personally won multiple poetry contests. Here are a few highlights of what the four of us had to say to aspiring winners of writing contests:

1) RTFM ("Read the Freaking Manual")!

What do writing contest entries have in common with job applications, college applications, movie scripts sent to Hollywood, and books submitted to the MBR for review? In all these cases, entries that do not follow the submission guidelines are nearly always the first to be sidelined to the "Nope" pile! Following the contest's instructions in both letter and spirit is vital, especially when competition is stiff.

2) Beware of scams!

While it is not unheard of to charge a very modest contest entry fee, particularly in the case of poetry contests, there are innumerable con artists out there. In the modern age of the Internet, it's easier than ever to do a background check on the history and legitimacy of a writing contest and/or the people running it. Just say no to contests that charge exorbitant fees.

3) Take good care of yourself!

"Starving artist" cliches notwithstanding, it's hard to write well if you're malnourished by an unhealthy diet, fatigued from lack of sleep, or not getting enough exercise. There's nothing like being fully rested and refreshed to enliven one's imagination. This is especially important for writing contests that test spontaneous creativity.

4) Suspension of disbelief hangs by a thread - don't break it!

A truly engrossing work of fiction has the almost magical ability to make the reader believe that it's real, even though he or she knows otherwise. This phenomenon has been dubbed "suspension of disbelief", and it's enhanced by making realistic characters who act in a manner consistent with their personalities, and avoiding excessively bizarre contrivances. Judicious foreshadowing of "twist endings" can and will naturally result from this.

To aid the panel and its attendees, F.J. Bergmann had prepared handouts of the articles "How to Choose a Poetry Contest" and "How to Enter a Poetry Contest" from

with a wealth of more detailed tips, tricks, techniques, and information. Additional articles on Bergmann's site include "Write SF Poetry for Fame and Fortune" and "Publishing Your Book of Poetry". I'm naming Poem Factotum April's Link of the Month because of these and other extremely useful words of wisdom that every ambitious poet should read!

Poem Factotum itself is a paid poetry submission service, for people who are too busy to personally submit their work to magazines and journals (poetry & fiction critiques are also offered). All of Poem Factotum's paid services charge flat rates instead of hourly fees. I've added Poem Factotum to the "Book Publicity & Marketing" links section of the MBR website.

On to April's Review of the Month. This is a preview from the Audiobook Shelf of the May 2013 Library Bookwatch; the book is also available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle formats. It's an extraordinary true story about recognizing and bringing out hidden potential:

The Spark
Kristine Barnett, author
Kathe Mazur, narrator
Random House Audio Books
c/o The Random House Publishing Group
1745 Broadway, 5th floor
New York, NY 10019
9780449009628 $40.00

The Spark is an unabridged audiobook rendition of author Kristine Barnett's true-life story of raising her autistic son, as well as working with other autism spectrum children. Kristine's son Jacob is a unique and exceptional individual - hidden beneath his autism is a genius mind and a photographic memory. At age nine he began work on an astrophysics theory with the potential to earn a Nobel Prize, and at age twelve he became a paid researcher in quantum physics. But Jake's gifts were almost lost because the conventional means of educating "special needs" children were completely wrong for him. Boredom and frustration caused him to retreat within himself. Kristine realized that waiting was not an option - if she did not act quickly she'd lose Jake entirely to his inner world. Her inspiration was to defy the advice of professionals, and focus on what captured Jake's interest and what he could do, rather than force him to do things that bored him or went against his nature. Emphasizing strengths rather than weaknesses also proved useful in aiding other autistic or mentally retarded children. At the same time, Kristine had to contend with economic hardship (particularly when her husband lost his job during the Great Recession), health problems, and the needs of Jake's siblings. Captivating and inspirational, The Spark is highly recommended not only for public library audiobook collections, but also for parents, educators, and professionals who work with autistic or mentally disabled children. 9 CDs, 10 1/2 hours.

What can I say? Every so often a revolutionary book comes along. Jacob is an autistic boy who is literally "off the chart" in intelligence - in the league of Einstein - and there's no telling the enormity of contributions he may ultimately make to science, mathematics, and the sum of human knowledge. His gifts almost went untapped, and his mother's approach to teaching autistic or mentally retarded children could improve the quality of countless human lives.

This is particularly important to remember in the wake of the horrific Sandy Hook massacre, which was committed by a disturbed individual alleged to have Asperger's (a high-functioning form of autism). Too many people who know nothing else about Asperger's and autism are wrongly led to believe that these conditions cause violent crime, even though statistics and scientific research show no correlation whatsoever. CNN has a news story about this, and the need to educate the public about Asperger's and autism, on their website at

That's all for April's Beth Cox Report. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to scramble to review as many worthy books as I can before the end of the month!

Bethany Cox
Managing Editor
The Midwest Book Review

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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