Advice for Perfecting Your Contest Entry

One fun thing about working at a publishing company are the connections I have with what goes on “behind the scenes,” including writing contests. Since I know many writers follow this blog, I decided to interview three judges who have experience evaluating first chapters, synopses, and other entries. Their comments are kept anonymous (to keep their mystique of course…and so if you happened to enter a contest where they were judges, you wouldn’t worry that all of their comments here were talking about your entry). I hope you learn a lot from them!

Amy: What’s a common mistake (or a few) you saw in the manuscripts you judged?

Judge One: The most common problem I saw was when writers would tell me what was going on with their character instead of showing me. One example of this would be an author telling me how a character felt about a significant event in his/her life instead of showing me how he/she reacted to said event (e.g. a wife narrates her angst over an argument with her husband instead of showing me the argument itself). Another common example would be an author trying to fit too much backstory in the first couple pages of a novel. I fall into this trap too, so I get it—it’s hard to find the balance between confusing your readers and keeping them in suspense. But too often, authors would tell me everything that had happened to a character to bring him to this point in the story (lost his job, became an alcoholic, wife divorced him) instead of leaving me with a little mystery and letting me find out those things one by one while I read.

Judge Two: Some entries did a lot of telling instead of showing—outright stating characters’ emotions or motivations instead of showing what they looked like. But other entries made the more subtle mistake of showing and telling. They did a great job of using dialogue, body language, and vivid verbs so I understood what was happening…and then tacked on a totally unnecessary explanation of it in case I missed all of that. As a reader, I feel cheated, like the author didn’t trust me. It’s also a waste of words, because it says the same thing twice. Other mistakes that are a bit more obvious include a slow start to the story with lots of backstory or info-dumps, unrealistic dialogue, and too-perfect characters, all of which brand a manuscript as a beginner.

Judge Three: Because I was only able to see the very first part of the book, a strong beginning was crucial, as it was all I had to focus on. Several of the submissions could have had much snappier starts. I would also advise entrants to be very careful about their synopsis and not skipping necessary details or assuming knowledge. Several times I came away confused on things like timeline and certain plot points

Amy: When an entry caught your attention in a good way, what were some characteristics of that entry that made it stand out?

Judge One: Last month I watched the women’s gymnastics at the Olympics, and one thing the announcers keep saying over and over is that these young women have to do the hardest things in the world and make them look easy. The entries that caught my attention did the same thing—they worked in historic details without losing the story’s momentum, dropped in the occasional foreign word to provide a sense of place, or added an accent to a character’s speech without making it cheesy. The plot, dialogue, and character development were all there too, but these authors had gone the extra mile and made the world of their imagination into a world I could picture visiting. They had paid attention to the details without letting the details overwhelm the point of the story.

Judge Two: One huge thing is that in the best entries, a scene accomplished more than one thing. For example, it didn’t just give information…it also advanced the plot, showcased the personalities of the main characters, and foreshadowed something still to come. Or it didn’t just raise the stakes of the suspense, it also hinted at the hero’s backstory, introduced a minor character, and reinforced the spiritual theme. These are just a few examples of what a scene can accomplish. If you read a chapter in your manuscript and realize that if it disappeared, you wouldn’t be missing much, or it could be easily replaced with any generic obstacle, it’s not doing enough work.

Judge Three: It’s hard to quantify, but simply the fact that I wanted to keep reading and was bummed I wasn’t given the whole manuscript. The other aspect is that I didn’t notice the writing, I just became so engrossed in the story and really bought into the character’s voice and perspective. Heavy use of adjectives or stilted dialogue can make you notice the words over the story and pull you completely out of it.

Amy: If you could give one piece of advice to someone editing a contest submission, what would it be?

Judge One: Get someone to edit your submission for you first. (Seriously. I know this is mentioned in every piece of writing advice ever, but it was clear that the better entries I read had already benefited from detailed and constructive editing—and that the not-so-great ones still needed more help than I could give in a simple scoring sheet.) Ideally, you’ll have three or four editors, or better yet, a whole critique group of them. And these can’t be friends or family members who will love your writing no matter what. You want your first readers to be people a little bit distanced from your work so that they’ll be honest with you, and you also want them to have enough writing experience to be able to kindly point out potential trouble areas. After you get this first hurdle out of the way, go ahead and bring in those friends and family members for another go-around. They’ll be able to give you a reader’s point-of-view, warning you of any confusing sections and telling you where the action could be sped up a bit. Plus, they’ll give your confidence a great boost!

Judge Two: Read your entry out loud. Not only will you catch small mistakes like typos or missing words, but you’ll also notice when you’re using the same sentence pattern over and over to the point of monotony. And nothing points out a bit of cliché or boring dialogue like hearing your characters say it out loud in your own voice.

Judge Three: Make sure you get someone to read and edit the entry who knows nothing about the story. This will help you eliminate any missed details or loopholes that someone familiar with it will naturally fill in. Good writing won’t overcome a confusing story.

Readers, what would make you lose patience with a book if you encountered it in the first few chapters? Writers, tell us about a mistake you made early on in your writing career that now makes you cringe.

Inside the Writing Process: Critique Partners

I’ve written a few posts that deal with the behind-the-scenes of what goes on at Bethany House, but I know many of you are also interested in a sneak peek at the actual writing process. For that, I have to turn to my authors, and this month we have something extra-special: two critique partners with novels releasing the same month! I asked Roseanna White and Dina Sleiman to share a bit of their revising process with us.

That's Roseanna on the left, Dina on the right. Thanks so much for joining us, ladies!

That’s Roseanna on the left, Dina on the right. Thanks so much for joining us, ladies!

Amy: What does being a critique partner involve? How do you and Dina manage the process?

Roseanna: Critiquing is the process of giving advice on your partner’s work—sometimes feedback on the overall concept, brainstorming, what works and doesn’t, lines that are confusing, and so on. Our critiquing has varied over the years based on what we need at a given time. Recently, we’ve sent each other complete manuscripts; we then read and provide comments in the document, replying via email. Dina and I don’t critique every book for each other, but we’ve done quite a few together over the years.

Amy: When did you and Roseanna become critique partners, and how did that happen?

Dina: I didn’t get involved in writers’ circles until 2009, and I quickly discovered that many writers had these wonderful people in their lives called critique partners. For a while I kind of sat back and checked out a number of women in my European historical writers group. Roseanna was one of the writers who I admired and thought might be a good fit for me. Then in early 2010 we were both working on projects with Muslim characters, and we decided to try critiquing for each other. As I suspected, it was an awesome arrangement! And since Roseanna was a little further ahead in her writing journey than me, I learned so much just by studying how she did things.

Amy: Why would you say having a critique partner or group is valuable?

Roseanna: Oh my—sometimes we just need that step-removed perspective! Often we know something’s off in our story but can’t quite identify what. Other times we think it’s right on, but we want to make sure…and there’s usually something that doesn’t strike readers quite the way we hoped. Plus when you add in another writer’s take on everything from craft to plot to fine points of history, they always catch things you’ve missed or that you just didn’t know.

Dina: Critique partners catch so many problems that a writer just doesn’t have the perspective to see. For example, often a writer knows some pertinent information, but they don’t remember to put it down on the page or they don’t describe it in a way that is clear to the reader. I now have a variety of critiquers that have different fortes. Some are good at big picture elements, some are good at scene development, and some focus on details. And of course now I have my wonderful Bethany House editors as well.

CritiqueBooks

And their September releases, The Lost Heiress and Chivalrous.

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