Don’t Do This At Home: The Four Biggest Mistakes in Contest Entries

Contests drive me crazy. People I don’t know are going to be judging my books and my friends’ books, and I have no control over any of it. That’s death for a writer; after all, we make up worlds for a living so we can control everything. The only thing I can do is cross my fingers, hope for the best, and remind myself that all contests are crap shoots.

Well, not the only thing. It turns out there are several things we can do as contest entrants to avoid annoying the judges. I asked friends of mine who judge contests what they look for and what they hate to find and came up with four common contest entry mistakes, mistakes I’m pretty sure are also editors’ least faves.

1. Bad Breath in Manuscripts: Sloppy Mechanics

First on everybody’s list were the easiest mistakes to fix: typos, misspellings, bad grammar and punctuation. Any writer who doesn’t know the basics of grammar and punctuation should learn them yesterday. They’re the building blocks of writing, and abusing them can turn off a reader, judge, or editor faster than anything. As Lynn Kerstan put it, “These entrants seem to be saying. ‘I can’t be bothered. It’s only punctuation and grammar. What matters is the story.’ They expect judges and agents and editors to hack their way through weeds and thorns on the slight possibility that diamonds lie beneath.” Think of it this way: if your blind date showed up at the door in a pizza-stained shirt with garlic breath and oregano in his teeth, your first thought would probably not be, “I’m sure he has a wonderful personality.” Misspellings are particularly heinous since virtually every word processing program has a spell checker. In the same vein is the problem of sloppy manuscript presentation. As Jo Beverly put it, “Don’t send an entry in business style. Don’t cram as many lines as possible onto a page, or use a tight font to try to get more work into the ten pages allowed. This says, ‘I don’t think my beginning is good enough. I need you to read further.’” It also makes it hard to read which means a lot of readers won’t.

The Fix:

Run a spell check on the finished manuscript. Read it backwards to catch anything the spell check might have missed. Read it out loud to catch more errors. Use standard manuscript form and don’t try to fudge it to get extra words in. Make the manuscript as perfect as possible. As Lynn says, “it makes no sense to me that an author who has invested so much work and time and love in her material, not to mention a chunk of money to enter a contest, just falls apart in the endgame. Felony carelessness.”

2. Apathy at First Sight: Dull Openings

Your mother was right: You only get one chance to make a first impression. Your story has to grab the reader from the first sentence, bond her to your heroine, pull her into the action, and make her worry and wonder and anticipate. And no, you don’t have time to set things up first. You can only tell the reader what she wants to know, not what you want her to know, nothing for her to learn now because she’s going to need it later. Why? Because if it’s not story that’s happening right now, she’s going to skim over it to get to the story. And trust me, you do not want any reader, let alone a judge or an editor, skimming the first pages of your story.

More specifically, Maggie Shayne condemns “the eternally popular opening with the heroine either alone thinking about, or with a friend talking about, her entire life history in order to set up her present situation, motivation, and conflict.”

Susan Wiggs adds:

“too many characters on stage at once time (like walking into a party filled with people you’ve never met…not fun)

“starting too early in the character’s life (chapter one–I was born…) rather than starting at the place where the conflict starts

“flashbacks to tell me about chapter one–I was born… or about something that happened in her rotten childhood

“the mirror trick–POV character describing her cornflower blue eyes, too-wide mouth, too-slender waist, naming all her brothers and sisters, touring her home and giving her bio while sewing or packing or saddling a horse. This description usually follows the false-hook opening line: ‘I’ll never marry that man, Father, and you can’t make me!’ or in a contemporary, something like ‘That’s it. I’m leaving and I’m not coming back.’

“a prologue showing hero and heroine as childhood best friends or rivals or whatever

“a prologue showing a murder/rape/drug deal/whatever-in-progress that leaves you hanging because chapter 1 shows the harried heroine arriving late to work and then… you know the drill.”

I’d add to that, any prologue, since a prologue is by definition the stuff that comes before the story starts.

The Fix:

Begin with your heroine in active trouble on the first page (start where the trouble starts), have her fight back and have the antagonist then counter her. Keep things active on the page. No sitting and thinking scenes, no flashbacks to explain why she’s sitting and thinking, no worrying about the trouble to come, nothing but the trouble she’s in now and what she’s actively doing about it.

3. I Hate You, I Hate You, I Love You: Contrived Conflict

One of the problems of the heroine as protagonist, hero as antagonist plot is that he can’t be horrible or why would she love him? This leads to wimpy conflicts like the ones Teresa Hill describes as “rudeness and minor misunderstandings. It’s so annoying, and the characters just come off seeming unhappy or spiteful or mean.” Others agreed, citing “‘Cute meet’ rudeness in place of conflict. Example: they meet in an airport fighting over the same unlabeled bag from the carousel. Instead of recognizing that both have a reason for grabbing it and finding a solution, like seeing whose key fits the lock, he assumes she’s a thief, she assumes he’s a bozo who doesn’t know what his bag looks like, and they each treat a stranger so rudely that I don’t want to spend a book with these people.” Add to that the TDTL Heroine (Too Dumb To Live) who picks a fight or goes out into the dark night to see what all the screaming is about, and you have the basics of contrived conflict.

The Fix:

Go back to basic conflict analysis. Who is your protagonist? What does she need above all things, must have to protect her sense of self? Who is the antagonist? What does he or she need above all things, must have to protect that sense of self? How do their needs cross each other, bring each other into direct conflict that they cannot resign from? How does each character’s move to achieve the goal make the other character’s life more difficult, goal more distant? Conflict is not people arguing on the page, conflict is people struggling with goals that are huge and vital to them, and by extension, to the reader who cares about the people. Conflict is inherent in your characters, not created by situation. And it’s the key to the success of your story.

4. My Critique Group Helped: Generic Writing

This isn’t just a problem for contest entries, this is a genre-wide problem: too many books that sound too much alike. Pam Baker describes this as “an entry via a critique group, so generic there is absolutely no author voice, usually no errors, but no grab-me energy, either.” It’s a complaint I’ve heard echoed by editors and, worst of all, readers, and it’s the fall-out from caring too much about being published or, ironically, winning contests. When we try to write like other successful writers, when we try to please everybody in our critique groups, when we piggyback on trends and classic storylines, we’re burying the stories we need to tell and telling them in somebody else’s voice. And they sound just like everybody else which is not going to win editors and influence judges since they’re looking for the stories that stand out, the winners.

The Fix:

Write the story you have to write, using the kind of words and phrases and inflections you use when you speak. Your voice is literally your voice, your story should sound like you talking on the page. If necessary, tell your story into a tape recorder and then transcribe the tape to recover your own sense of what you sound like. If you’re thinking you’re not educated enough or well-spoken enough or authoritarian enough to use your own voice, get over it. If you can’t believe in who you are and what you have to say, how can you believe in the story you have to tell?

By now you may be thinking, if it’s this much trouble, why bother? After all, it’s only a contest entry. Well, for one thing, contests are a good way to break into publication, so you should do anything you can to increase your chances. For another, the same things you need to do to perfect a contest entry, you need to do to perfect a real-world submission, so it’s good practice. And finally, a lot of the satisfaction of writing comes in making your story the best it can be. When you’re writing just for you, you can do anything, but that’s like writing free verse, a pastime Robert Frost compared to playing tennis without a net. At some point, just futzing around with the hero and heroine begins to lose its zing, and that’s when you push yourself harder and your writing evolves from something fun into something exasperatingly difficult and time-consuming and occasionally tedious (like reading a manuscript backwards) but also satisfying in a way you’d never dreamed of before. That’s when you look at a manuscript with typos, a retrospective first page, weak conflicts, and a flattened voice and think, “Felony carelessness.” That’s when you know you’re a pro.

Good luck!

Bio: Jenny Crusie made her first sale through a contest win. She ran a spell check before she sent it in.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. Oct 2001