Writing contests: elements judged
Halloween is over. Let's get back to business. That's contest business. I think some of you are as confused as the signs shown here. I hope I can clarify the situation and help you.
Writing contests break down the various fiction skills required to write a solid story into individual parts which will be used to judge the entry. You don't have to be a NASA astrophysicist to understand this fact. However, most people seem to be selective when it comes to reading the rules and subsequently submitting their baby.
Study the rules carefully because they tell you what areas will be judged. Better yet, if a sample copy of the score sheet is provided, study that until you know what elements are crucially important. Then ask someone else to read the sample score sheet and then read what you plan to enter and see how your manuscript compares. Be sure this reader is someone who has not read your selection before. Don't give it to your critique partner, because s/he will unconsciously be kinder than say, the retired school teacher next door.
I think every contest I've ever judged usually has these elements: characterization, conflict, plot, hook, dialogue, pace, setting, viewpoint, sexual tension or romance development, and manuscript preparation. There may be other elements, but these are the basics though they may be labeled something different in certain contests.
When you enter the contest, you probably know that these are some of the things you'll be judged on. So why do I see so many entries that totally ignore these elements? I won't even focus on the really hard things like characterization, conflict, plot, pacing, and viewpoint since those require a lot of work to develop properly.
I'm talking about the stuff that gets completely left out which means you're going to be rated very low. Most often I see hook, dialogue, setting, sexual tension, and manuscript preparation completely forgotten.
The Hook. I've already held forth about the beginnings that open with reams of description, backstory, flashback, or any of the other ways that are more or less boring. So I won't go into more detail here. Go back and read the blog on Writing Contests: alpha and omega. Suffice it to say that if you don't have a hook, you've lost this category.
Dialogue. Contest judges rate an entry on dialogue in a few ways. Two of these are (1) Is it good dialogue? (2) Is it balanced with narration and exposition? (3) Do the different characters sound different?
When you pick up an entry and there's NO dialogue, how can a judge honestly rate you with anything above, well, zero? Same with the balance. How can you expect anything but a low rating when out of perhaps 20 pages there's a grand total of 1 page of dialogue when you add it all up? Or 1 or 2 sentences? People, quit shooting yourselves in the foot with this category.
Each character should speak with his own voice based on his educational background, personality, etc. Yet most times, in contests, they all sound alike. Perhaps Aaron Sorkin wrote them? Why do I make this crack? To me, everyone on Sorkin's show West Wing sounds the same. This is why I couldn't get through one epidsode of West Wing despite that it was well written. All the people sounded the same. They talked at the same pace and in the same style. It drove me nuts.
Setting. Within the first few pages, a reader should know where and when the story is taking place. Where basically means geographical location, and when means the time of the year and whether it's day or night. Why is this important, other than being judged on producing a credible, concrete setting? Because the reader's brain is constantly producing mental pictures that illustrate the story being read.
One of the best movies I've ever seen that depicts this is The Big Picture starring Kevin Bacon and a host of stars in cameo roles. Kevin is a screenwriter. He tells the studio head what his story is about and the viewer sees the vision of it - two young, sensitive married couples in an old house. As the studio head starts to edit the story, saying, no, we really need it younger and sexier, the scene changes to screaming, laughing 20-somethings in bikinis being chased by hunky surfer dudes.
That's the way it is when a reader reads. The picture is formed in the mind. It's very jarring to have an entry that has a throwaway line about being a cop in a big city is a hard job, and I picture New York, only to discover at the end of the contest entry that the writer is talking about Topeka, Kansas. Now Topeka might also have eight million stories to tell, but am I willing to read them after being tricked like that? And the reader does feel duped.
So do yourself a favor and let the reader know where the story is taking place and what time of the year it is. Give us a picture we can replicate in our minds.
Sexual Tension. Oh, brother. This is a biggie in romance. Every contest asks you to rate this or the development of the romance or something similar. How can you rate something that isn't there? I wonder over and over why someone bothers entering a contest where their entry will be judged for this, and there's not a smidgen of romance or sexual tension. So how do you get rated for this when there is none? I'm sure I don't have to tell you that on a scale of 1-10, 1-5, 1-20, or 1 to a zillion that you get 1 if the judge is generous and gives you the benefit of the doubt that there will be a romance somewhere in the story since you labeled your entry a romance. You get a zero if the judge is honest.
Why enter something that has no tension or romance? Don't shoot yourself in the foot and say, "Well, that's how this is written." Professional writers learn to revise. Either revise it to show a meeting between the hero and the heroine where sparks fly or enter something else that does have this evident.
Another thing about sexual tension. Having immediate gratuitous sex by page three or before is NOT sexual tension or romance. A strange man slipping into a woman's bedroom and fondling her while she sleeps, then having sex with her when she awakens and finds an UNKNOWN man, naked and erect in her bed is NOT sexual tension or romance. That's every woman's nightmare, and it's usually called rape. If you think that's romance, you need to read more romance novels. Please don't submit any more of these in contests. I've seen it so many times that I'm no longer stunned by it.
Manuscript Preparation. This is a no-brainer. If you don't know when and where to use commas, then get someone else to proof your manuscript. If you can't spell, and trust me on this, hardly anyone seems able to in today's world, find someone who can. Manuscript preparation is covered in many books and articles. (There's probably one on my website. I'll check and pull it out of archives if not.) Everyone who enters a contest can score the highest on this, yet I rarely have an entry that does. It's as if most people think this doesn't matter. Yet it can easily cost you 5, 10, or 15 points depending on the scoring system.
If you slept through English in high school or your girl/boy friend did your composition work in college, it's not too late to learn now. Get a basic grammar book and go to work. If you are unwilling to master this required skill, then get someone who knows these things to proof your manuscripts.
I just want to say one other thing. Some of the contests produce entries that are all uniformly good. Year after year, I'm amazed at how good the writing is in a few of the contests so I enjoy reading these. Unfortunately, other contests seem to produce uniformly mediocre entries. I suspect the contest just hasn't "grown up" yet. I won't give names in either category. You know who you are.
So, you contest divas out there, choose your contests wisely, and be just as wise when selecting what you'll enter. And, for pity's sake, don't shoot yourself in the foot with dumb mistakes.