Friday, September 26, 2008


I’ve had the privilege of judging three contests recently. I’ve judged fantasy, mainstream romantic elements, and inspirational. It’s been a revelation to see how many great writers are out there, with work that’s in near publishable condition. What a wonderful reflection of Romance Writers of American, whose Chapters sponsor these contests, train judges and use both PRO and published authors.

I know we’ve all read articles on how to write for contests. I’m not about to reiterate all those points here. There are a few areas I found consistently strong, or weak, so I thought I’d point these out and hopefully, you can take some of my comments and consider them for your next contest entry.

1) Is there an opening line or paragraph that immediately hooks the reader into the story?

This had to be one of the weakest areas I found across the board. The opening lines were often clichéd, or didn’t set up the first paragraph. I’m not going to give examples, because someone might recognize their work! However, another major problem was not starting the story in the right place. I’m guilty of this myself. When you’ve written a couple of drafts, and changed things around many times, it’s important to have someone else “beta” read your final results – even if it’s just three chapters and a synopsis (especially the synopsis!), to find out where things don’t make sense, or notice you’ve dumped back story, or started with the wrong POV. Once you’ve finished your manuscript, or the contest entry, it’s important to go back and “hook” that reader with action, or a question from a character, or something related to the story question. This seems to be what editors/agents want – they all say they want to be “immediately drawn in to the story”.

2) Does the story hold your interest to the end of the book?

All the contests I judged had an unjudged synopsis, which was a great feature to allow fairer judging. If you don’t have a synopsis of the complete story, how can a judge tell whether the story will hold your interest? While we all shudder at writing a synopsis, doing one for a contest allows the judge to have a wider view of your entry and better elaborate on the scored areas. So, polish up those synopsis skills before you enter the next contest!

3) Does the setting support the story without intruding?

We’ve all read, “don’t describe the weather”. However, weather, storms, tornados, severe blizzards are all good plot devices when used judiciously. if you’re writing an historical, make sure you have your facts straight about the where and when. Nothing pulls you out of an entry faster if you read about a castle with crenulations, gargoyles, or what- have-you, when the story is set in Norman England. They usually built what would be considered “forts” with wooden stockades.

This doesn’t mean your setting should take over the story. Unless you’re writing a gothic, “support your story” by layering in setting to provide the reader with an accurate idea of place and time. Lengthy descriptions of rooms, cities, or countryside are going to slow down your pacing.

4) Are your characters appealing?

Here’s the most subjective area of judging, in my opinion. Every reader’s going to have his or her unconscious bias. This doesn’t mean you can’t write characters with depth, and show strong goals, motivation, and conflict. (GMC) The conflict should especially be up front and center at the beginning of your story. Whether you show the external conflict first, or the internal conflict, this can usually be drawn with a few sentences sprinkled throughout the first chapter. This makes your character appealing as it draws the reader towards identifying with the character.

5) Is there a good balance between narrative and dialogue, showing and telling?

Ah, the show vs. tell debate. Nothing slows your pacing down faster than “telling” your reader back-story, how a character does something, or giving us long passages of narrative. “Show” your character grinding out a cigarette beneath those killer stilettos. This conveys anger, frustration, sarcasm, or a character out for revenge as soon as she steps back in to that party. If you waste time telling us how she lit the cigarette, tasted it, flicked it on the ground, and then stepped on it, the emotional impact is lost.

6) Do sensory details (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) enhance each scene?

I found this to be another weak area, and it made me step back and re-read some of my own writing. We don’t need all five senses in a scene. Stick to two or three at the most. In every entry I judged, the main senses were sound and touch. Smell, taste, and sight were forgotten by most writers. How things smell, or how your heroine perceives a smell is a good way to show characterization. For example, I can’t stand the smell of lamb cooking, or the smell of parmesan cheese. They make me gag for some reason. A negative reaction from a character can tell you something about them. Or, a character might like the scent of ripe oranges because it reminds her of Christmas. The sight of blood might not matter to a hero; or he might feel that gag reflex no matter how he tries to harden himself to the sight of blood. My husband used to react with fear at the sight of needles. He’s used to them now because of his job in the military. However, it was a process, and a device like that can show character growth.

Contest season is ramping up for the winter and spring. I hope some of my comments are helpful to those of you who choose contests based on either writing feedback, or to final in a category where you want to get in front of a specific editor or agent. And, it’s time to enter the Golden Heart. Good luck and good writing!

1 comment:

Toni Anderson said...

Great advice, Laurie!!!

PS. How about I take you for that coffee next week???