I entered my first contest while I still lived abroad back in the dark ages when you still submitted paper entries. I’d finished a novel, but had no idea how if it was as brilliant as I thought it was. Trolling the Internet, I found a contest that offered not only cash prizes, but also a critique for an extra fee. I entered and paid for the critique, certain I would win and get heaps of praise for my work. When the day passed for finalists to be contacted and I had not received an email, I was crushed. Once the score sheets arrived, the judges’ reviews and comments deflated me even more. Had they not realized they were holding the next Pulitzer Prize winner in their hands?
After scraping my ego off the floor and reminding myself I’d entered because I needed the feedback, I re-read the comments accepting the possibility the judges might just know something. If nothing else, their comments reflected those of my future readership. Taking this perspective allowed me to see my writing through their eyes. If the judge didn’t understand a passage, or found a description boring, or some wording drew them from a story, a reader would as well.
With that attitude in mind, I found their remarks helpful in understanding what appeals to readers and what distracts them from the story, and used those lessons to strengthen my work. Even as my writing improved, I found there was always more to learn.
My first big break was a short story entered into the Southwest Writers’ annual contest. I snagged second place and the judge, an editor of a small literary magazine, published it. Even that entry returned with enough red marks on it to make a vampire drool.
Since then, I’ve entered so many contests, I’ve lost track. I’ve done well in some (finaling in the 2008 RWA Golden Heart) and not so well, but I consider there’s no better way to get a different perspective on your writing than a cold read from a stranger.
I have also judged a number and always try to provide the same kind of comments I found helpful. In general, here are things I’ve come across (and also learned myself) that make a stronger entry:
1) Proofread your entry—more than once. Nothing can pull a reader out of your story faster than poor grammar, punctuation, or spelling. My best suggestion here is to let the story “sit” for a few days and then read it out loud.
2) Start with action to immediately pull the reader into the story.
3) Avoid backstory in the first chapter. A lot of novice writers will provide their main character’s whole history. While the writer needs to know this, the reader only needs certain important bits of information and should be fed this in small bites, as required.
4) Make the main character’s goal (what they want to achieve by the end of the book) apparent in the first character.
5) Watch the use of exclamation points. More than one or two in a novel is enough. Overuse diminishes their effectiveness.
6) Focus on active, descriptive verbs. Instead of walking, have the character skip, slog, march, mince, etc. across the room.
7) Check for the use of “it.” “It took him two hours to finish the repairs,” is less active than “He finished the repairs in two hours.”
8) Watch for dialogue tags that are inappropriate. Try to “pout” a sentence. (e.g. “I’m not happy,” she pouted.) A writer can’t go wrong with “said,” “asked,” and “whispered.”
As I move to the next stage in my journey, with the debut of my novel Saving Hope, I know my experiences with contests will help me understand reviewers’ reactions to that story. You can’t please every judge or every reviewer, but a nugget of wisdom can usually be found in what they have to share.
What has been your experience with contests as either a writer or judge?
Liese Sherwood-Fabre grew up in Dallas, Texas and knew she was destined to write when she got an A+ in the second grade for her story about Dick, Jane, and Sally’s ruined picnic. After obtaining her PhD from Indiana University, she joined the federal government and had the opportunity to work and live internationally for more than fifteen years. After returning to the states, she seriously pursued her writing career and has had numerous pieces published. You can follow her upcoming releases and other events by joining her newsletter at www.liesesherwoodfabre.com, or visiting her Facebook, Twitter, or Bebo accounts. You can also contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In one of Siberia's formerly closed cities, Alexandra Pavlova, an unemployed microbiologist, struggles to save her daughter’s life. When she turns to Vladimir, her oldest friend, for help, she's drawn into Russia’s underworld. His business dealings with the Iranians come to the attention of Sergei Borisov, an FSB (formerly the KGB) agent. Alexandra finds herself joining forces with Sergei to stop the export of a deadly virus in a race to save both her daughter and the world.
"An alpha female heroine and a tantalizing premise that toys with the most basic of emotions --- a parent's drive to save their child. Nothing frilly or fancy, just good old-fashioned, gimmick-free storytelling. And what could be better than that."
--Steve Berry, New York Times’ bestselling author of the Cotton Malone series and The Romanov Prophecy.
“Liese Sherwood-Fabre has concocted an extremely well-written story that grabs you from the beginning and holds you relentlessly through all the twists and turns until the unexpected end.”
--Paula G. Paul, mystery writer and winner of the Willa award.
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