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Monday, February 23, 2009

Common contest entry problems

I'm doing my civic duty and judging some contest entries today. I had really high hopes for this one. In years past, I've read such good entries that I wanted to write the contest people, begging to read the rest of the manuscript.

This year, not so much.

As I read each entry, I realized that they all had the same problems in common. So I thought, for the writers who read my blog, I'd share the commonalities.

1. No Motivation. All of the entries were a variation on the theme: s/he vows to never love again. But s/he decides to take a chance on his/her worst enemy, they fall madly in love, and live happily ever after. Really? That's fabulous. As a fan of enemy to lover stories, I'm all over this like white on rice (more on that later). Here's the problem. The author never tells me WHY. To any of it. If you've ever been in a brainstorming hot seat with me, you'll know that I'm a four year old brainstormer... if you make an assertion about the character or story, I'm going to ask you why until you've gone so deep, it's going to take a whole book to get out. If you don't do that, the story isn't going to be very interesting. Why, why, why, why, why!!!

2. White on rice. Had to throw in that cliche in the last one. Why? Because I saw so many cliches, I wondered if the authors had any original thoughts of their own.

3. Captivating writing (or lack thereof). Most of the writing was so flat, I was bored and grumpy reading it. I hate reading something and wondering why I wasted minutes of my life I will never get back. That said, I read one story that even though I thought the synopsis was terrible and the storyline contrived, the writing was so captivating, I found myself wishing I could read on.

4. Typos. COME ON. Must I talk about this? I understand one or two. Sorta. But when you are talking about large numbers of typos in a manuscript, I get cranky. Have some pride in your craft. You have the most control over this one issue.

5. Characterization. I say this carefully, because I know it's not always my strong suit. In fact, I'm generally more forgiving of character flaws, since my hope is that the character will grow throughout the story. I am working really hard to learn how to craft likable characters. It is worth it to dig deep and give your readers something they can relate to in your characters.


One final comment is that I didn't feel any of the entries were targeted to a particular market. I felt like the writers woke up one day and said, "I think I'll write a book today." Which is great. I applaud that. But if you're entering a fairly prestigious contest, you should have your ducks in a row. Which means knowing your market/audience. One of them sounded like it wanted to be a Harlequin Presents. And yet, aside from the sex and overly alpha hero, I'd have thought the author was aiming for Steeple Hill. BIG difference.

It's so important when you're writing to read, read, read. Do you know what's out there? Currently? Half of the entries I read would have worked ten years ago. Not today. Who do you want to publish your book? Will your book fit? Or do you have a Presents/Steeple Hill mixup thing going on?

Some of you are gearing up to enter some contests right now. Do yourself a favor. Go find someone who has not read your book, who does not love you so much that they'll think whatever you write is wonderful, and have them read it. Ask them about the things mentioned above. Ask them about your weaknesses. If you know you do something poorly, tell them to look for it. My critters know that the #1 question I have for them is, "Do you like my characters?" I've gotten enough feedback over the years that I know I need to make double sure that base is covered.

And I really hope, that with the next contest I judge, I see some winners. There is nothing that excites me more than good writing.


Unknown said...
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Gina Conroy said...

Um, can I retract my entry now! Just kidding! I'm a why person also! And you know what's worse then reading contest entries with no motivation and ho hum writing...reading a published BOOK with the same.

Danica Favorite said...

Don't retract your entry. I'm sure it's fabulous!

I agree on the published book comments. Camy and I were just discussing this one that was TERRIBLE. Very painful to read when instead of giving us whys, the author gave us coincidences. NOOOOOOO!

Anonymous said...

I agree, these are common problems and it's frustrating to read manuscripts that have them. I bet you, though, that a lot of the writers who entered don't have a good critique system going yet, and entering a contest is their main venue to get crit. Just think of how much you're helping them out. Some writers just need a push in the right direction, and their work will get 1000% better.

It might make you feel better about the frustrating hours, anyway...

Danica Favorite said...

Julie, I bet you're right. It's just frustrating with this contest because there is no way to give feedback. Usually, when I judge, I send the entries back with lots and lots of comments, but this contest, folks just get a score and nothing else. Not a good one to enter if you want feedback. So hopefully, folks will be searching the 'net for contest entry advice and they'll find this helpful.

Jessica Nelson said...

What an awesome post Danica! LOL I'll bet my manuscript fits some of those things. Grrrr.
Characterization is something I have to be careful with, since I tend to create unlikeable characters (don't ask me why, I'd prefer not to psychoanalyze the cause of this, lol).
Anyways, I hear you on the typos thingy. Last contest I judged, half the entries had tons of typos, mispellings, things that could be easily fixed. Oh well.
Anyways, thanks for pointing out some of the stuff you see. Gotta watch out for those cliches too!

BK said...

One other thing I have seen consistently over the years in various writing contests is the inability of entrants to follow simple directions - usually with regard to formatting.

Yes, story trumps your inability to set 1" margins, etc, but it is a major pet peeve of mine. In the world of business (and writing is business too) people who can't follow directions cost any given industry in time and money. And because it happens so frequently in contests, I've become hardline about it.

Don't submit to a contest until you're ready to follow instructions.