Summertime is writing contest season, and I’ve been doing a lot of judging lately. I know (because I’ve been one) how much time goes into preparing an entry, especially for a novel-length work whose entry requirements might include a multi-page synopsis as well as a polished first few chapters.
As a judge, however, I keep seeing the same problems. Thus, a few tips for contest entrants below, at least from one judge’s perspective.
I should add here that I know it’s hard to edit one’s own work, to get the distance needed to look at it objectively. (Ask my crit group, who saw me use the same word so often in a chapter last night they began chanting in unison whenever it appeared!) But that was a rough draft, and contest entries should not be.
Contest judges (like agents and editors) will put a lot of stock in first impressions:
* Have someone well-versed in grammar and punctuation read through your entry. This is such an easy step I have a hard time moving past it. We all miss the occasional typo or comma. But if you even suspect (and maybe even if you don’t) your grammar and punctuation skills aren’t up to par, find someone who can do a quick read-through. Trust me, it isn’t the sexiest part of writing, but it is important.
* Respect your characters in the words you choose. If you’re writing romance or women’s fiction, this is especially true for your female characters. Unless you’re writing humor or she’s doing it deliberately for effect, your heroine shouldn’t wriggle, giggle, gush, twitter (unless it involves a keyboard), hop, skip, or jump. These are kid words, and don’t for a sympathetic and strong heroine make.
* It’s said that God is in the details. So are contest wins. Be specific in descriptions. Don’t have your hero think “that’s the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever seen.” Tell us why he thinks she is so gorgeous. By showing us what about this woman sets his pants on fire, you’re telling us a lot about him without all that annoying…
* Backstory. If the sexual tension is building between hero and heroine, or the big fight scene is beginning, don’t stop to provide three paragraphs of narrative about the hero’s mom, or how he came to be in the job that led to this fight scene–not unless it’s absolutely necessary for me to know right at that point. Otherwise, it can wait.
* Watch for distracting dialog tags. Okay, I have to admit here I’m a “said” fan when dialogue tags are necessary, but I won’t take points away if the writer uses mumbled, answered, whispered, or any other verbal tag. If the dialogue tag draws attention to itself, however, it means I’m being drawn out of the story and focusing on the wrong thing (i.e., the writer). A couple I’ve seen recently that made me gnash teeth: managed and supplied. These are not dialogue tags. Really and truly, I supplied.
* Finally, don’t only respect your characters–know them. Suzy shouldn’t be shy and demure in chapter one and seducing Steve without abandon in chapter two, then shy and demure again in chapter three. Give your characters time to grow from Point A to Point B to Point C. They might have setbacks along the way, but be consistent.
Okay, kiddies, time for me to practice what I preach. My own revisions await!