How NOT to Win A Writing ContestI'm in the middle of judging my favorite writing contest. It's a harder contest than most to judge because the submissions are 55 pages, and the entries run the full gamut of skill, but I love doing it. Sometimes I even have that special thrill of finding a manuscript that lights a fire in me, causing me to root for it from then on. It's an even greater thrill when I see those stories eventually published.
Unfortunately, there are always some others that are a real struggle to read (yes, editors and agents, I do empathize with you). I know most of those authors are really new to the writing game, and I'm supposed to be judging them with the thought of helping them on the rocky, rutted road to published-author-hood, so I work especially hard to be fair, objective, and helpful.
Most brand new authors believe in their hearts their stories are going to sweep through the publishing world like a whirlwind. The contest judges are going to fall in love with their stories and send them on to the final judge with great accolades. Publishing fame is all but in their hands.
Then one day, there it is, the frayed cardboard envelope bent and mangled to fit in the mailbox. Eagerly, they rip open the package. And– Eager anticipation deflates like a popped balloon. Not only not a finalist, but with scores that scrape the floor. Anger and humiliation take over. The stupid judges didn't have a clue.
Okay, listen to me. I know where you're coming from. I've entered and won so many contests I've lost count. I've been there with the judges who obviously don't know what they're doing (and a few of them actually didn't). I've also judged more contests than I can count. And I know many new authors hurt their chances in ways that aren't necessary.
So how do they shoot themselves in the foot?
CRAMMING, a.k.a. FOOLING WITH FONTS. "Let's see, the contest calls for a maximum of 30 page first chapter, double spaced. But I really want the judges to get to the good part, and that means 57 pages. If I change it to Times New Roman, no, maybe Elisia, and make it 7.9 point, and squeeze the margins to .89 inch, I can make one chapter out of the first two... Join a few paragraphs together into one. Maybe change the line spacing to 1.87..."
Yes, we know about cramming. It hurts our eyes and makes us feel irritated at your writing, which seems to go on forever. And it hurts the quality of your writing. Why? If it takes 57 pages to get to the good part, then you have 56 pages that should be discarded. Chances are, it's all backstory that you need to put elsewhere, if you keep at all.
I'll bet this is the most telling mistake a beginning writer makes. Learn how to edit instead. Go find out what I mean by backstory and ruthlessly cut it out. Yes, I know you want to ease into your story. But your reader doesn't.
GETTING CLEVER. "I thought up this really clever opening sentence that'll knock their socks off. Somehow I'll make it fit the story."
I believe in strong, grabbing openings, to a point. But I've seen some that were kind of like vomit in my face. Yeah it got my attention. But the author would not like to know what I was thinking. Some others were really catchy, but then the author had to twist and tangle her story completely out of shape to accommodate her cleverness. Better not to be so clever and just tell the story. Always make your opener fit your story. Always.
ATTENTION-GETTERS: "I'll just print this on fuchsia paper in Simply Lovely Script. Rubber stamp some cute little mushrooms in the margins. That'll get their attention."
Yes, I noticed. But I'm here to read your manuscript, not the quality of your hand-drawn unicorns. Let your manuscript stand on its own merit. Anything else detracts and points to amateurism.
IGNORING/ NOT READING THE RULES. "They want a synopsis and I don't have one. I'll pretend I didn't notice." "If I single-space my synopsis, I can meet the page count maximum." "I didn't notice the contest called for three chapters. I sent my usual entry of one chapter."
Anyone can mis-read a rule. In our local chapter contest, we will call a contestant and ask her to correct an error if it's vital to the entry– say, the check is missing, no SASE, not enough postage, too many pages, missing page 15, etc. But often all the problems tend to occur in the same entries. Read the rules. We have our reasons for them. If you don't like them, we urge you to find a contest with rules you like.
POOR FORMATTING, UNPROFESSIONAL PRESENTATION. "It don't mater if my speling and grammer are bad. They'll know what I mean. That's what editors is for, ain't they?"
If you think this, you're forgetting that the people who are judging your story are in love with words and how they go together. You may not care, but they do, and they really hate seeing their beloved words mis-used. And editors are not put on the planet to correct your manuscript. They don't have time for that anymore.
Clean it up. Learn how to use punctuation. Use Spellcheck. If your grammar is really bad, go learn how to fix it. Indent your paragraphs. USE paragraphs. And don't insert an extra line between paragraphs. Good formatting, spelling, grammar, and punctuation do make a difference, just as all of the above done badly reflect on the quality of your story.
AND ONE THAT'S NOT IN THE RULES: LESS IS MORE. Remember back at the beginning when I advised you not to use formatting tricks to cram lots and lots of extra words into your submission? There's something else new writers often do to make their submissions fit. They cut off their submissions at the maximum number of pages, regardless of where that falls in their manuscripts. Right in the middle of a sentence.
If you do this, you are technically following the rules, but you're not really doing yourself a favor because you are leaving the reader hanging at an unproductive place. It's far better to cut the entry at the end of a chapter or scene, even if that means sending in fewer pages than the maximum. As readers, we feel far more satisfied with a resolved scene than an unresolved one, and we tend to feel better about your story.
And finally, I'll tell you all contest judging is subjective. ALL OF IT. Score sheets are only a feeble attempt to find some way of measuring the unmeasurable. There is no perfect way to judge your story because we are all different, with different tastes and ideas. Our creativity flows differently. If this were not so, then we could all write the same story and it wouldn't matter. Judges cannot know everything, cannot always be right. They can only give you their very subjective feelings. But they give you their best, in hopes they have given you something worthwhile. And frankly, nothing could be more valuable.
So go ahead, rant to your friends. Have a glass of wine. Treat yourself to an extra Dove Bar. Give yourself some good old-fashioned wallowing-in-your-misery time. Then swallow your pride and get back to work. Pay attention. Learn from the judges.
Because writing is the hardest job on the planet. You don't get to be famously published without completing your internship. But really, would you want it any other way?