Contest Judge Tells All

Be sure to visit Writers In The Storm next week! Not only will we be publishing our 100th post, we’ll also be kicking off our Going To The Chapel Contest, just in time for “wedding season.” Speaking of contests…here’s a winning blog from Charlotte Carter.

Throughout the year, I judge quite a few entries in unpublished writing contests. I’m thrilled when I find a really well written entry. I’ve been known – at least once – to give a perfect score. I’ve even referred one entrant to my agent.

But I dread finding mistakes that drive the score down. Hoping to help others learn what NOT to do, here are eight examples.

One author wrote wonderful, creative, original metaphors. They were great! Except there were too many, sometimes three on a page. I got a bad case of metaphor-itis and had to lower the score.

Actions cannot happen simultaneously. Try to picture what this character is doing: She stood and carried the baby as she followed the doctor down the hall. You cannot stand and carry and follow all at once. These actions should be in sequence. Standing, she lifted the baby into her arms and followed the doctor.

One author had clearly been told to use the 5 senses. Excellent idea. But not all in one paragraph and then totally forgotten throughout the rest of the manuscript. Weave the 5 senses into every scene so the reader shares the same experiences as the characters.

Dialogue is good. Dialogue by itself is not enough to tell an emotional story. It’s talking heads.

Read your entry carefully, slowly, aloud, or have someone else do it for you. Silly mistakes and typos can cost you points.

Commas are your friends. Or rather, properly used commas make your sentences understandable. Leave them out and the reader, or judge, has to continually backtrack. Commas used willy-nilly are just as confusing. Don’t guess. Get someone to help you.

You do not fool a judge by not starting a new page for a new chapter. We know you’re trying to squeeze every word into the limited number of pages that you are allowed. It doesn’t help.

Your synopsis, no matter how short, has to include the ending. Don’t make the judge — or an editor — guess how the story is going to come out.

What are some of your contest pet peeves? What has your own experience been with contests?

Books that leave you smiling
from Love Inspired
Big Sky Reunion, available now
Big Sky Family, 11/2011
www.CharlotteCarter.com

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10 Responses to Contest Judge Tells All

  1. Marsha R. West says:

    Great post. Succinct and usable. I need to stick it above my computer before entering a contest again and give particular attention given to the point about dialogue. LOL My CPs are constantly getting me about that one. I think I’ve gotten the emotion in there with the way the words are strong together. I can hear it in my head. Thanks. Marsha

  2. Mary George says:

    I appreciate the points you brought out. I’ve only entered one contest in the two years of formal writing. The feedback was so vague it was of no help. Fortunately through many workshops, and creating a writing library I now know exactly what went wrong.
    Great Post.
    Mary G.

    • Hi Mary, You’re right that you don’t always get helpful comments back from judges. (Regretfully, that’s true with the Golden Heart contest; you just get a number.) Sometimes the lack of helpfulness is who you happen to get as judges; sometimes it’s because the contest doesn’t provide a score sheet that encourages feedback. In any case, good for you for keeping at it and attending lots of workshops and reading craft books. Don’t give up entirely on contests. As you improve you’ll want a chance to get you material in front of an editor by being a finalist in a contest. Good luck! Char……

  3. I think the worst mistake I’ve seen in a contest manuscript was the author changing the name of her protagonist halfway through. The heroine’s name could have been found and changed with a simple Find and Replace on Word.
    A beta reader would have caught it, too.

    • Hi Kelly, I certainly understand a surprise name change is distracting to the reader. In fact, I had a Silhouette Romance years ago. The editor called when it was almost time for the book’s release. She needed me to change the character’s name as there was another book that month with ‘Luke’ as a hero. Changing names isn’t all that easy–it has to fit with the existing last name, can’t duplicate or be too close to the name of other characters in the book. So three days later I called the editor with the change too Logan. When I received my copies, the back cover indicate the book was about Logan. Inside, however, the hero was still Luke. To my surprise, no reader apparently caught that weird situation. LOL
      Char………

  4. Marsha, I had trouble communicating emotion and struggled with that until I took a Margie Lawson class “Empowering Emotion.” The big thing I learned was to include the character’s visceral reaction, the clinch of his gut, the shiver down her spine, and even ways to enhance that emotion with sentence fragments (Yes!), repetitive words and powerful rhythms. The class was worth every penney. Good luck with your writing! Char…….

  5. Perry Gamsby says:

    I have found writing contests to be an excellent way to throw away however much the entry fee is. I note that the serious contests, such as the one run by Penguin, don’t charge an entry fee. I do think many contests are another income stream for those selling how to write books and courses. I would try it myself sometime although I don’t charge writers to be published on my web site and I just can’t bring myself to change that policy. I guess it is the struggling and doomed to obscurity writer in me.

    • Perry, I’m sure you are aware that Penquin is a profit-making corporation, or at least they would like to make a profit. My experience is with Romance Writers of America and the chapter contests across the country. The organization and judging is all volunteer. Yes, the chapters hope to raise some money via the contest fees. We also hope to help those who are unpublished improve their craft. Fortunately, no one is required to enter any RWA contest. Char…..

      • Perry Gamsby says:

        Fair comment Charlotte, however I do still hold that many of the contests (and there are many) are more about making money than discovering new writing talent or encouraging new writers. I do both via my web site and also the ‘Become A Published Author’ course I run at two local community colleges. The end result is the work of each student is published in a book and online. Of course, one could point the bone right back at me as I do charge for the instruction as part of my own income generating activities. I just like to think I don’t pretend otherwise. I did find your site and genre interesting BTW.

  6. ksbrooks says:

    Charlotte, I enjoyed your blog. I’ve judged many times for novel-writing contests and have seen much of the same. The other issues I’ve encountered are writers using foreign languages as dialogue – then providing the translation in parentheses; inconsistent spelling of character names; synopses so disorganized I got vertigo from them; use of the same word three times in a sentence; and more, of course.

    These errors/issues actually inspired me to start my own writing advice blog – and I listed the top 10 manuscript errors I encountered in this “installment” – http://authorksbrooks.blogspot.com/2010/03/most-common-manuscript-mistakes.html.

    Thanks for posting your blog. I hope writers who would like to improve will take your suggestions to heart.

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