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Entering Contests–A Judge’s Perspective

Monday, March 10, 2008

Before we move on to the new series HOOKING THE READER, I wanted to give some final thoughts on the subject of writing contests, this time from my perspective as a judge who has finaled in the past and is now no longer eligible to enter unpublished author contests. Some of this I’ve gotten into a little bit already, but there are a few things I want to discuss further.

Judging in the ACFW Genesis contest is something I highly anticipate every year. In the past several years, I’ve judged women’s fiction (was the category coordinator in 2004 as a matter of fact), contemporary romance, historical romance, young adult, and the tag-along assortment of leftovers when we didn’t have enough judges. I try to stick with the romance categories—they say, “Write what you know”; well I say, “Judge what you know.”

Even with as much as I look forward to judging the contest, it never fails that when my entries finally arrive, I dive in with gusto . . . and then by the second or third entry I’m so frustrated I’m nearly ready to give up! What frustrates me? Usually common mistakes, oversights, or flaws that could be easily addressed before the chapters were ever entered into the contest—and definitely need to be addressed before they’re submitted to editors or agents. Here are some of the most common:

1. Manuscript entered in the wrong category. This seems to be a more pervasive problem this year—or at least, I’m in communication with more judges who are seeing this issue. Fantasy novels entered into the historical category. Chick lit or women’s fiction novels entered into contemporary romance. Romance novels entered into general fiction or historical fiction. Young-adult stories entered into anything but YA. Not only is this frustrating for the judges, but this is a good way to get a manuscript rejected by an editor. In the CBA, genre guidelines are pretty clear-cut; and most houses’ submission guidelines clearly spell out what they’re expecting to see in the genres, which is how the contest coordinators wrote the genre descriptions for the contest. When you get ready to enter a contest and you aren’t certain which category to enter, ask a few people (preferably not friends, people who aren’t familiar with your story at all) to read your submission and ask them what genre they think it is. If it’s supposed to be a romance and they come back and tell you it’s a mystery, you either need to spend some time revising your entry so that the elements expected in the first few pages of a romance novel are evident, or you need to consider your book may actually not be a romance novel.

2. Grammatical errors—especially punctuation,.!?!; Ooh, this is a pet-peeve of mine. Yes, that mostly stems from my full-time job as a copy editor, where I’m required to know the punctuation rules backward and forward—and even then, I still miss commas or put in a period when I need a question mark or forget the closing parenthesis or quotation mark. But that’s one of the reasons I have crit partners: to catch all those little things I’ve overlooked.

    –Please, please, please have a couple of people who are well versed in punctuation rules read your entry before you submit it. One of the most frustrating things is inconsistency in the use of commas. Learn the rules.
    –While most of us punctuate our e-mails, IMs, and other electronic correspondence with a plethora of exclamation points, they are very rarely needed in fiction! Especially in narrative!! And more than one is never called for!!! If your character is yelling, show it through emotional and visceral responses!!!!
    –Sentences that start with He wondered if are declarative rather than interrogatory ninety-nine percent of the time (e.g., He wondered if he should buy the roses or lilies). I can’t tell you how many entries I’ve seen where the writer puts a question mark at the end of this. Of course, my comment (aside from changing the question mark to a period) is to flag wondered as a telling signpost word and suggest it be put into deeper POV (e.g., He debated between the roses and lilies; she loved both).

3. POV problems. While I’m not going to go into too much detail here (see Point of View under the Writing Series Index), I do need to point out that one sign of a novice writer is not having a good handle on POV. A POV character—whether first or third person (limited)—cannot see his or her own face to know it’s red, unless he or she is looking in a mirror. They cannot see that they look tired. While they can hear their voice, it’s more likely the person they’re with who’ll notice it sounds weak or strained or high-pitched. Really get inside your character’s head—give us the emotion behind what’s making the face red, the voice strained.

4. Showing vs. Telling. I’ve done a whole series on this subject. I spend more time judging trying to suggest easy ways for the entrants to learn what this really means than on most other craft-related issues.

5. Too much or not enough introspection. It seems that most of the manuscripts I’ve judged over the years have had one or the other problem (when I run across one that doesn’t have this problem, it’s one that usually ends up being a finalist). In the first two entries I judged this year, one was overwhelmed with narrative introspection, the other had almost none. What does that mean? Well, the first had page after page after page of the character’s thoughts and internal monologue. Not a lot of action, not a lot of interaction with other characters. Not a very dynamic opening to the story. The second had a lot of dialogue and stage direction, but very little indication of internal thought in the POV character. There is no quick-fix for this. It’s just something we learn over time through extensive critical reading and working with critique partners.

6. Too much italicized direct internal thought in third-person manuscripts. Either you’re writing in third person, or you’re writing in first person. Don’t go half-and-half. In deep third-person POV, editors are looking for the writer to be so inside of the character’s head that the narrative is the character’s stream-of-consciousness thoughts and feelings. Extensive use of italicized first-person internal dialogue is not only annoying to readers, it’s a sign that you’re not getting deep enough in your third-person POV narrative. (See this column by Zondervan editor Andy Meisenheimer as well as my take on when it can be useful for more on this subject.) Don’t just switch back and forth between third person/past tense and first person/present tense—better to italicize the first person thoughts or else receive a low score for constantly switching POV. Make all the first-person stuff third person narrative.

Fore more common mistakes, see Camy’s article today on Writer . . . Interrupted.

  1. Monday, March 10, 2008 12:49 pm

    Great thoughts, Kaye. I hope more people read your blog and save this post for next year 🙂


  2. Monday, March 10, 2008 1:41 pm

    Category indecision bothered me this year, but I asked a trusted editor friend who knows how the story ends, which of the two categories I was waffling over she thought the story best fit. She agreed with me it wasn’t a romance, but a [unnamed genre] with a strong romance thread.

    But your post sends me into a spiral of second guessing my entry. 🙂


  3. Monday, March 10, 2008 4:08 pm

    Ah the beauty of fantasy. Sort of.

    Once you admit it’s fantasy and throw in the magic/imaginary gardens, it can’t be any other category.

    I think…


  4. Monday, March 10, 2008 8:00 pm

    You’re the one I came to with my category indecision, and you’ve never steered me wrong before! I hope the writing that I presented is the best it can be at this point, and that my entry doesn’t make your list of pet peeves.

    I came to the conclusion today that I’m REALLY glad I probably won’t have the final say as to what historical genre The Epic really belongs in. In my head, I’ve created my very own genre for it but I don’t think the CBA is very fond of that…


  5. Monday, March 10, 2008 8:54 pm

    Wonderful post!


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