One of the great things about working in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program is the chance to meet our students—aspiring and established writers from all walks of life who share the same passion for words and stories. It’s even more inspiring when we’re able to meet those students and honor the words that they’ve written.

We had the chance to do just that at a recent awards luncheon celebrating the three winners of our annual fiction-writing competition, the James Kirkwood Literary Prize. This year’s winners were Janet Hilliard-Osborn (1st place), J. Ryan Stradal (2nd place) and Rae Cline (3rd place).


The James Kirkwood Literary Prize is named after the late Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning author James Kirkwood, who received his big break in one of our classes when his novel writing instructor, the late Robert Kirsch, identified his talent and helped him launch his career. The prize was established in Kirkwood’s memory by his friends to recognize Writers’ Program fiction writing students for their literary potential and achievements.

Once a year, instructors of intermediate and advanced level fiction-writing courses are invited to nominate up to two students for the award. Students enrolled in the Master Class in Novel Writing are automatically entered. The nominees submit their short stories or novel excerpts, which are then put through a rigorous and anonymous judging process by Writers’ Program instructors.


This year’s first-round judges included instructors Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Adam Cushman, Rachel Kann, and Sonja Livingston, who had the tough job of narrowing down the submissions to only six semi-finalists. The semi-finalists were then whittled down to the top three finalists by instructors Gayle Brandeis and Charles Wyatt. Finally, Andrew Morse, the benefactor of the award, determined the first, second, and third place winners. Mr. Morse traveled all the way from New York to UCLA in order to recognize the top three finalists, who were chosen from a competitive pool of twenty-five nominees, at a luncheon in their honor.

Gayle said of the semi-finalists, “All six of the stories were very well written. It was hard to choose just three–we had some real sadness about having to, as Charles called it, ‘kill some of the kittens.’ The three we chose were ultimately the ones that had the most lasting impact upon us, but all of the writers are very promising.” Mr. Morse mentioned the importance of both the award and luncheon. “Writers operate on their own,” he said, speaking of the solitary life of a writer. “The occasion to come together and honor the achievements of a few standouts like this is something I look forward to each year.”


Online student Janet Hilliard-Osborn took first place with her short story, “Easter, 1954.” In this story, a mother, father and their three children take a road trip from Iowa to California. When they stop along the way in a small desert town, we learn more about their dysfunctions and the intricacies of family.

“It’s a very moving story… the details were so good,” said Mr. Morse of her work. “It was a difficult story to read because it was just so accurate and heartbreaking. It’s just a beautiful and incredibly well-done story.”

Janet’s story was nominated by her online instructor David Borofka, whose advanced-level course, The Art of the Short Story, was Janet’s first formal writing workshop.

“I couldn’t be happier for Janet,” David said. “Her work possesses an intelligence and sophistication that will stand her in good stead as she continues to write and move her work into the wider world. She is absolutely unafraid to take on historical eras and experiences not her own. She does her research, but then she manages to imagine those other times, other places, other sensibilities with the confidence of a cat burglar. Second, she is acutely aware of the way in which culture and community discriminate explicitly and implicitly based on class and gender and education, and as a result, her characters are often left to discover the inherent unfairness of life, the ways in which some are favored while others are not. In ‘Easter Sunday, 1954’ we watch as awareness of this fact of life grows in Lorraine, our twelve-year-old viewpoint character, even as she tries desperately to cling to her innocence and pretend otherwise.”

Second place was awarded to onsite student J. Ryan Stradal for “Nerd and Whore are Friends,” which was nominated by instructor Lou Mathews who said he felt very honored to work with J. Ryan’s already accomplished story.

Mr. Morse said of the story, about a Minnesotan teenage boy who attends the funeral of a popular bully kid from high school, “I thought it was terrific. It has elements of Holden Caulfield.”

Lou said, “J. Ryan began ‘Nerd and Whore are Friends’ as a homework assignment in an Intermediate Workshop. I knew immediately he was on his way to a great story, but it was a slow, laborious process, through that class session and an advanced workshop of answering the questions and obligations he had raised in his first draft. I don’t think I’ve ever had a student work harder to polish a piece.”

Onsite student Rae Cline won third place for her story “French Exit,” about a woman’s relationship with her mother who is dying of cancer. Instructor Rachel Kann said, “By the end, I was literally weeping,” while final-round judge Charles Wyatt called it “sophisticated.”

Rae was also nominated by instructor Lou Mathews who said, “Rae’s story, now titled ‘French Exit,’ was written well before she showed up in my advanced workshop. Can’t remember the original title but I do remember that it was around 35 manuscript pages; it’s now less than 20. Most of the rewriting she had to do was a matter of cutting, condensing, refocusing, pulling hair, picking it apart on a sentence-by-sentence level. Intense amount of work on Rae’s part, and intensely rewarding. My part was easy, I got to read, mostly with pleasure, and insist that [J. Ryan and Rae] put themselves in service to their stories and honor the worlds they created.”


It’s no doubt that writing competitions are an excellent opportunity to get your work noticed. Some of this year’s judges shared their best advice for students entering their work into competitions:

Before submitting, be sure your work has been critiqued by others (or at least one other person) to insure that the content is the best possible, and that the manuscript is free of grammatical and spelling errors. –Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

Send your best work and keep writing. –Charles Wyatt

I encourage everybody who has the ability to write to keep putting one foot in front of the other and never give up. Eventually you will have your day. –Andrew Morse


I had the opportunity to ask the winners a few questions about their work and their experiences as students in the program. To read an interview with each winner as well as an excerpt of their winning entries, click here:


· 1st place, “Easter 1954” – Janet Hilliard-Osborn (nominating instructor David Borofka)

· 2nd place, “Nerd and Whore are Friends” – J. Ryan Stradal (nominating instructor Lou Mathews)

· 3rd place, “French Exit” – Rae Cline (nominating instructor Lou Mathews)


Mae Respicio is the Program Representative in Creative Writing (Onsite) and Screenwriting (Online). Write to her at

Pin It on Pinterest