Meet Max and Teona!
What a fun conversation. I was so excited to go behind the scenes of this rapidly growing writing community contest phenomenon. Read on and be fascinated and inspired!
An Introduction from Teona
Once upon a time, Max was a software engineer for a large defence company and unhappy in the lack of creativity he was able to exercise in his job. As an amateur screenwriter himself, he had come across writing contests before but knew there was room for the framework to improve. His wife Teona, was coming to the end of her maternity leave and so Max, with the long term goal of making this his full time job, took over as full-time parent by day and used the very little time in between kiddo naps and nights to mould the contest. With iteration after iteration, integrating suggestions from his brother, the writing battle community, and a lot of long nights full of doubt, he has finally gotten to a place where the contest works remarkably well. Battle season nights can now be spent enjoying wine, reviewing feedback and chatting with Teona instead of sweating over the keyboard to ensure the forums that he built from scratch are ready for the next day (yes that really did happen). Now we are in year three, just wrapped up battle number 9 and Teona has been officially “hired.” We are so excited to watch the community grow and thrilled to hear people enjoy the tournament as much on the writers’ side as we do behind the scenes.
A huge thank you goes out to our community and supporters like Darci who make this dream work for us! 🙂
What a great intro! I had to add it here in addition to my announcement page. I can’t thank you both enough for visiting with me today and chatting about Writing Battle. I was intrigued as soon as I saw a post on Instagram, and so glad I signed up for my first battle. After participating in the Autumn Short Story Contest, I was hooked.
I’ve been noodling over how I might describe the highlights and why I enjoy the contests, but there are a lot of reasons. So, I’ll sprinkle my comments throughout our discussion and hopefully capture it all that way.
I know for me, I can get bogged down in the serious work of writing, so I’ll start off by saying, these contests are just plain fun, a great way to remind me to enjoy the writing process.
In your introduction, there are a number of pursuits mentioned, software engineering, screenplay writing, starting up a business, time for parenting, which led to Writing Battle. Can you each share more about your backgrounds and how they shaped the fantastic platform and resulting community?
Max: My background is a bit all over the place. I was super into film and music as a teenager/early twenties, and ended up joining the Navy. I went from that into Computer Science, but always had it in the back of my mind that I would start writing screenplays again. After participating in NYC Midnight and enjoying the peer critique on their forums, I thought – hey, maybe this could work as a writing platform. A writing tournament where it is entirely peer-powered. The thing with programming is that when you are coding all day long at work, the last thing you want to do is code in the evenings. For me anyway! So it was crucial that I dove head first into Writing Battle. Teona going back to work after mat leave facilitated that – where I could look after our then 1 and 3 year old during the day and code Writing Battle at night.
Teona: We were actually just chatting about this yesterday– I think like many other people during the pandemic, we were in search of something. I had just given birth to our second child and as we said in the intro, Max was very unhappy working in his defence gig which was only amplified by working from home. On my side, and I think (hope?) many parents can also identify with this, I got this overwhelming sense of loss of my own identity to the new one in parenthood; I was happy to go back to work as an EEG Technologist to regain some of that “me-ness” and in turn Max was able to continue developing the WB platform. Obviously both of us could work outside the home, but we always agreed that if we were to have children, we wanted someone at home with them (plus childcare costs in Canada are outrageous, especially having two).
Other things we did/tried during the pandemic:
Sell our house; join a cohousing community in construction; write and film a pilot concept with friends for a children’s show; serve as a script supervisor on a few short film sets; talk seriously and explore the idea of moving to other provinces, states, countries; start marriage counselling to better support each others’ search for that ever elusive “something.”
Max is the dreamer. I am the voice of reason (read: stick-in-the-mud). We are constantly trying to bring balance to each other which we are really starting to find in our own exploration of what Writing Battle is 🙂 The biggest thing we have enjoyed about WB is that we truly feel part of a really positive community, which I think at the end of the day is what we have always been looking for.
Teona rants a bit if you can’t already tell 😛
Darci. Haha. Ranting (aka elaborating) is what this creator’s life chat is all about. To hear all the exploration that led you separately and together to what participants can now enjoy in the writing community is truly phenomenal. Thank you for sharing that! I was curious if NYC Midnight influenced some of the ideas behind WB. I’ve enjoyed a few of those competitions, too, though I got a little lost in the giant forums. I must say, Writing Battle does a great job giving its participants a community forum scaled to a fun and manageable size. It’s an amazing design.
The wonderful Writing Battle homepage image (the graphics are another attraction) totally has me picturing you two battling at home with pens and paper, and the lightbulb switching on-Why not spread the fun and get a community involved in battling with us? (Thanks for letting me indulge in my imagination.) Have you, Max, designed other software for fun or for your own creativity before Writing Battle? Did you have earlier manifestations/dreams of a Writing Battle-like platform, or was it only a recent realization?
Max: Thank you haha and I never really saw ourselves in that image, but now that you mention it – I can definitely see it! Especially before marriage counselling (ha). The artist’s name is Nikita Mazurov, and does absolutely amazing art. As far as software for fun, no, not really – just for other companies. I was always interested in online games and board games that explored the social interactions between people like Balderdash. I’m going to sound like a huge dork, but I LOVE the tv show Survivor. I think it’s the coolest social experiment. That’s how I look at Writing Battle. It’s really just a month-long social game for writers.
Darci. Believe me getting to the end of the competition twice now has made me feel like a survivor! I can totally see that influence. All those are great elements and exactly the fun tidbits about the creative process I love sharing with our readers.
Besides your own creative mind and lifestyle changes, are there other people, communities, philosophies, entities who inspired you to go for this?
Teona: I’ll chime in here– I mentioned earlier about joining a cohousing community in the pandemic. I think that in the end, even though that lifestyle didn’t end up fully resonating with how we saw our future, there was something there that may have inspired what we saw WB becoming. Positivity, sharing and evolving ideas, supporting one another– these are all pillars of what that kind of environment is enriched with and we still wanted a part of that in our lives despite leaving the cohousing development. I think Max would agree that we joined the cohousing community in search of “our people” and then tried really hard to fit what we thought that meant instead of coming as we are. I think being our authentic selves and full transparency became incredibly important to us through that experience and we hope that WB showcases that.
There is also one person in particular that was an incredible support to Max throughout this experience and that was his brother Alex. Alex was there cheering on and pushing Max to continue in the deepest moments of discouragement. “Just keep going for a few more months… see what happens and reassess.” That on repeat was our focus. One more battle, one more goalpost with more information. Is this viable? Is this worth it? Can this passion project truly become a source of income? Even when that answer felt like a “no” Alex was there believing in WB, believing in his brother.
Darci. Fantastic. Thank you Alex for helping to keep Writing Battle going so we can all enjoy it! And I’m thrilled to hear it’s becoming viable for you as an income, Max and Teona. Here’s to continued success!
You mention the Writing Battle community feedback helping you improve the platform. What were your biggest hurdles in the beginning and your favorite suggestions?
Max: Special shoutout to Leila Poole from the forums and my brother, Alex, who I bounced ideas off of for the entire first year of Writing Battle. It started with 11 participants from the NYCM forum. Leila was one of the first to agree to participate and “got” what I was trying to do. My initial idea for the site was that it was to be Screenwriting-only, entirely free, and people would only pay if they wanted to redraw their prompts. As you can tell, we’ve had to pivot many times to make this contest work and the community feedback has been crucial. It’s hard to pick a favourite suggestion because honestly, the entire contest has been shaped by the community.
Darci: Ah. The ingredients for success and what a win win for the community and Writing Battle.
One aspect of Writing Battle that really stands out is the peer judging. When I first looked into signing up, my initial reaction was, Oh no. I’m not qualified to judge other writing, and wow that’s quite a commitment in order to participate. But after thinking about it, I could see the appeal, the potential to enjoy a variety of writing styles and learn from them, then benefit on the other side of the coin through the responses to my writing. I did experience a little of that with the NYC Midnight forum and now we know how that platform got the ideas rolling, but can you tell us more about the story behind the peer participation?
Max: The initial inspiration came from how valuable I found peer feedback for my own screenwriting, but there’s a bit more to the story – I also found that the judges for writing contests tended to all be cut from the same cloth. And I mean, why wouldn’t they be? It takes a certain type of person to apply to be a creative writing judge. To begin with, you have to think that you’re qualified! So they are typically literary academics that understand the craft of creative writing. There’s nothing wrong with that, and feedback from those folks has value, but they don’t represent the entire readership pool. Far from it. Like you say, it’s a bit intimidating to think about joining a writing competition where you are also a judge. However, if you can read, you can judge. You know what you like and what you don’t like. We believe authors should be striving to write stories that everyone wants to read. Not just academics.
Darci: I for one have benefitted from the feedback in a myriad ways, especially when there is a consistency in the tone or a specific element(s) of the story that gets pinpointed by a majority of the judges. If you can suck it up and take it to heart, you can’t help but grow by leaps and bounds as a writer. Highly recommend the experience!
When you register, there is an opt out of the judging for stated reasons. I’ve been curious. Do you get participants who select that option?
Max: No, very few people select the opt-out option. Last Battle, out of 725 people only 4 selected that option. It’s our way to help folks that may be too busy to read stories that month or perhaps have triggers that would make it too risky to read unvetted stories. All of the extra money goes to members of the community that have chosen to read more stories that Battle. Essentially, it’s a reading fee. But yeah – not very popular. People seem to love to read/judge other stories even if there is some risk involved with triggers.
Darci: You must really dig statistics like that. What a great way to know it’s working.
Now for the details because those are what infuse the Writing Battle platform with fun. I adore it when it’s time to draw my prompts! I love having options to redraw and going through the decision process to determine whether to keep my initial draw, or take a chance on another combination. The fun in this is reflected in the community comments when contestants share how they went outside of their comfort zone to write in a different genre for the first time. That’s happened to me each time (Cannibal Comedy and Lost World). When I read the results of their efforts, I’m blown away every time. Can you give us some behind the scenes on developing the tarot card idea?
Max: I was just always into poker as a kid and I love card games so that’s where the redrawing came from. Writing prompts seemed like a good fit to stick on a card. There’s no fun tarot card story really haha I just thought it would look cool 🙂 glad you like it!
Darci: Awesome! Your fun is our fun.
How do you come up with/decide on the genres?
Teona: A lot of that has been community feedback. We noticed we got the best reactions when we had the wildest genres – as long as they were from a spread of genre categories (plot-driven, spec, comedic, and more serious). Max and I have SO much fun sitting down, drinking wine, and throwing crazy genre ideas at each other. Some are solely to make the other person laugh like Cannibal Comedy. There have been some killer community forum suggestions for this last Battle that will heavily influence our upcoming competitions.
Darci. There’s that image again of you two at the table. Such a great icon. I’m going to have to find more time to read the forums. This is another great example of your creative energy influencing the writing community and bouncing back to you. I love it.
I noticed the prompts are repeated in the contests like they’ve been reshuffled for the new batch of genres. How do you come up with the prompts?
Max: They’re really just from lists that I’ve compiled from the internet, and it’s always amazing to read the stories that people come up with. In the very first battle, there was a prompt type called ‘Things’ and it consisted of every single noun in the English language (which I downloaded from some online dictionary). We’re talking tens of thousands of words that people could draw, but that just made people upset when they drew prompts like praseodymium and had no idea what to write. We pruned that list to around 600 words and called it ‘Objects’ instead of Things haha. There’s still work to do on expanding the other prompt types.
Darci: Oh that’s a great story. I’m looking up praseodymium… hmmm, a mineral from the periodic table. Might have to give it a go. Wait. I have tried that. My supernatural romance series features promethium used to make a weapon deadly to shifters because for some weird reason I wanted to incorporate rare earth minerals into my story. Love it!
I blogged a bit recently after my second contest about how Writing Battle works. I broke it down into stages, which is another fun element; the different ways we can be involved over the weeks as we move towards the final judging. But I admit, I had to describe the peer review (duelling) elimination rounds in general terms because the process is mind boggling. I’m still not sure if my story was eliminated in the second or third round. 😁
My confusion is probably due to my lack of a gaming background or some brainy, techy component I’m missing, but I would love for you to give our readers more on the concept in layman’s terms, so we might understand how it works.
Max: Haha I’m still trying to figure out how to describe it! I’ll do my best.
The first stage has the writer redrawing prompts and writing a story in a short amount of time.
After submission, the contest enters the second stage where each writer becomes an anonymous judge. They are given 10 stories total, but spread out over the course of 3 weeks – given two stories to judge at-a-time. They have to read each of the two stories, give a bit of feedback, then choose a “winner” of the two. That process is called a Duel. Those Duels help progress a massive best-of-five, single elimination tournament. The peer judging stops when the top two stories from each of the four genres have been determined and that brings us to the third stage.
There’s a bit of a fog-of-war until the third stage. No one knows who wrote what or how their story did. The third stage allows the writers to share their story in a semi-public forum called Debrief. Because the peer-judging is over, it’s now safe to reveal yourself (if you choose to do so). You read each other’s stories and comment on them, but this time not anonymously and not in a Duel. We then slowly lift the fog-of-war and reveal the tournament brackets over a week-long period while the industry judges (authors) pick the four winners from the final 8 that the peer-judging chose in the second stage.
Darci: Thank you!
Can you share the gist of the collective feedback you get from the community on participating in the Duels?
Max: I think the initial reaction is something like – “Uhhh wait this sounds like work.” Haha, which is fair! It is a bit of extra work. But by the time the fifth Duel rolls around, I would say in general it becomes their favourite part about the contest. It’s also an unexpected educational tool. You read stories of varying quality and you get to decide for yourself what works and what doesn’t and then maybe even ask yourself why something connected with you. I’ve had a participant in his 80’s tell me it not only changed the way he writes, but even changed the way he reads. I found that fascinating.
Darci: That’s great, and I can relate to my fellow participant’s comments.
How do you find and involve the amazing professional judges?
Max: I just cold-email everyone until I get a response. We’re still trying to perfect that part of the contest.
Teona: I had the exact same question when Max told me the calibre of people he had agreeing to be the pro judges! Like how? You didn’t sell our firstborn right? Haha.
He insisted he just cold-emailed them on a whim, ensured me artists were supportive of other artists and that that’s what drove them to support our little cause.
Darci: Haha. So fun to hear from you both on that. And I didn’t expect the cold calling technique though I don’t know why because it’s simple and it works. I’ve employed the “it can’t hurt to ask if you want something” policy many times. That’s how I invited you both to chat with me. 😄
I’m going to put you on the spot here. Do you get to read any of the submissions after they are open to the community?
Teona: YES! And not just after, we read them all throughout the judging stages, keep an eye on our favourites, or on members like yourself who we have developed a relationship with through the community 🙂 We are also sifting through all the feedback during the battle to ensure people are adhering to the rules. Sometimes that requires us to read stories to make sure the judges are doing their part and being fair to their duels by truly reading and providing feedback that directly addresses the stories facing off. On at least two recent occasions, Max has looked over at me at my desk and I was in tears, and he asked “what happened?” and I simply respond “I just read an amazing story that may not have existed without WB and I am grateful to be a part of that” ❤
Darci: OMG. I love it! What a bonus to see what your competition inspires.
It seems to me that the numerous contest opportunities scheduled throughout the year are planned to perfection and run smoothly at this point in time. Any plans for enhancements or additional features?
Max: Always. I am currently rebuilding the website and all of the code from scratch. The new website should be released in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned!
Darci: Ooh. How exciting! Thank you for sharing that right here on my blog!
The aesthetics of the Writing Battle website are very appealing and inviting. It adds so much to the fun. Who does the artwork/design?
Max: Thank you! I mentioned the artist, Nikita Mazurov, who did the art for the landing page. Design has been the hardest part for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think I (perhaps poorly) was going for a neo-brutalist web design when I first created the site. It’s been fun to learn as I go. The new website is a lot more chill and maybe a little easier on the eyes if you’re on the site for longer periods of time.
I’d like to include one more question on a personal note. Do you both find time to write and create? Max, do you still get to write screenplays? If so, what are your works in progress and goals? What are your tips for balancing it all with life and family?
Max: No writing for me for the past year, unfortunately. I have a few ideas floating around that I still want to explore. I could definitely see myself in a couple of years getting back into it and feeling out screenwriting a bit more. As far as work/life balance, it’s pretty easy when you have a couple of preschoolers running around. They have the tendency to pull you from work to focus on them haha.
Teona: I would never identify myself as a writer. I am better at stream of consciousness writing as a means to organise my thoughts and I love playing with words in doing so but I have never really tried to write a story. Maybe someday 🙂
I don’t know that we are at all qualified to be giving tips about balance. HAHA. Some days are incredibly balanced and harmonious– this is usually following a rare full night’s sleep (our kids have always been terrible sleepers). For a more accurate picture of our “balance” it is kinda just roll with whatever seems to be working that day, hour, or moment, and reassess in the evening to try and make the next day better. Having young kids and an even younger business is no joke but we are having an absolute blast with it all, learning lots along the way and for us it truly comes down to good communication.
Thank you so much, Max and Teona, for visiting today! This has been a blast. You can follow Writing Battle on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to participate in this amazing writing community, but don’t forget to sign up for a battle!
Any parting words of advice to our readers who dream about writing, web design, and finding ways to pursue their creative passions?
Max: Thank you for the thoughtful questions. This has been a lot of fun! My only real advice would be to constantly re-evaluate and not to be afraid to pivot. I think it’s unrealistic to believe that you know what you have before creating your first prototype or draft. Get feedback and see how people use what you create. If it’s writing– then get honest critique and take it to heart. Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong and pivot towards what’s working for your consumers.
Teona: Max has taught me to reach further than what I believe or perceive to be the edge of possibility. WB is proof of that for me.