Writing contests: alpha & omega

I think if you enter a writing contest it's because you not only want feedback from professionals in the biz, but also you want to win the contest. No, no, don't bother saying you didn't enter with hopes of winning. Everyone wants to win. It's human nature.

So why do so many of you ignore two very crucial elements of fiction writing, the beginning and the end?

When I first started writing, I studied books on the craft, listened to other authors, attended workshops, and read novels in the area in which I wanted to be published until my eyes crossed in tiredness. Repeatedly, two points were emphasized in all this.

1. You must hook the reader with a dynamite opening sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter. The goal is to make the reader move from the first sentence to the second to the end of the paragraph to the next page, etc.

2. You have to leave a hook at the end of each chapter in order to pull that reader to page one of the next chapter. You do this from chapter to chapter, dragging that reader along until the final two words, "The End," appear.

This is the same advice I've seen and heard from countless sources. If you don't know how to do this, there are books that tell you how to start a story, speakers who give talks on it. I've posted articles on this same subject on the Writing page of my web site. (I'll check and see if they're still there, they may have been removed to make space for newer articles.)

There are books and speakers who tell you how NOT to start a story i.e., dreams, flashbacks, exposition to tell us every facet of the character's personality, back story to succinctly explain why the character is going to do whatever he's going to do, weather, blocks of description as massive as a pillar in a freeway overpass - and just about as interesting. I've written articles about that also.

So I'm completely baffled as to why I receive entry after entry throughout the year with the main character dreaming or hallucinating or flashing back to when s/he was a child or describing page after page of scenery or explaining why she just can't get a man. (Worse is an opening scene where the heroine explains why she hasn't had sex in a year even though she has tumbling tresses of golden curls that reach to her waist, flashing aquamarine eyes, bouncy boobs without benefit of plastic surgery, and on and on - all told in the character's viewpoint. But that's another rant, uh, lesson, about characterization via viewpoint.)

I totally understand why an editor/agent says reading the first page - sometimes the first paragraph or even sometimes the first sentence - is all it takes to know whether to reject the submission or go to page two. Trust me on this. I've yet to read an entry that had a lousy first page to discover a gem in the rest of the manuscript.

The problem with a dream/flashback/hallucination opening is multi-layered. Usually the dream has no relevance to the story and no intrinsic interest. In other words, it's boring. Usually, it's just a sneaky way to get that backstory in that the writer thinks the reader absolutely must have in order to understand the story. In reality, the reader doesn't care. Yet. You must have reader identification with your character in order for the reader to care that Bob Sixpack is dreaming about snakes because his father terrorized him with a water moccasin when he was six-years-old.

Another problem with this kind of opening is that it STOPS the forward motion of the story. A novel is all about forward motion. It's like starting at the bottom of a mountain and slowly climbing that mountain with peaks and valleys (scenes and sequels; action and reaction), never stopping at a plateau, moving ever onward to the peak. Well, when you drop back into the past, there is no forward motion. So anything that takes you from present day, stopping forward motion, must be after the reader bonds with the character and is interested enough in what makes the character tick to follow the character into the past or into a dream or drug-induced hallucination or whatever.

Let me elaborate on a flashback beginning. These are entries where the writer thinks the reader absolutely must know everything that ever happened in the character's life. So they begin with a flashback of some crucial event that probably occurred when the character was a child. Often, the entire entry is composed of this kind of flashback, and we never meet the character as an adult. Presumably the story is to be told from the character's viewpoint as an adult not a child. So how are we to bond with a character not yet introduced until page 20-40? In this day of competing entertainment where new TV shows are canceled if they don't draw an audience with their third showing, we move on to something else.

Writers who do this have basically shot themselves in the foot already because how can you judge characterization, when you never really meet the character who will be starring in the story? This goes for contests or submissions to editors/agents.

Now, let's talk about the {shudder} description opening. It's midnight, and I'm in my lonely little office. I'm tired. DH is already asleep; I want to be also. Just one more entry, I tell myself. I pick up the partial and start to read.

After a one page synopsis, most of it taken up by a description of, let's say, the magnificent Grand Tetons, and the first couple of pages of the manuscript where the heroine is introduced, then more description of you guessed it. My eyes have long since glazed over.

I flip through the rest of the pages. More description. Several pages of flashbacks about why she's going to do what she plans to do. No action. Just her thinking about doing something. By page 10, there's been one line of dialogue and that was a fake line: her saying something out loud to herself. I keep flipping. Now she's describing the scenery of the place she plans to travel to. More memories of her lousy marriage/childhood/love life/college experience - pick one. I drop it to my desk and go to bed.

I do go back and wade through every page, trying to explain why this just doesn't work, but it's tedious. That's when I decide that I'm just not going to judge so many contests next year.

Exposition beginnings don't work either. I don't want someone telling me Molly Trueheart's life story. I can read that in a newspaper. I want to peek into the corners of Molly's life. I want to know what can't be told in a newspaper story about Molly Trueheart. What's her essence? Who is she really? Will she be revealed as warm and loving or as a cold, heartless woman? Show me the way she flinches when her husband pulls her into his arms. Don't tell me she doesn't love her husband.

Show, don't tell. I'm sure you've heard that phrase before. There's some really good books written about that subject. Get one and read and study it until the lightbulb over your head illuminates.

Endings. Oh, boy. Nearly every contest I judge asks in some shape, form, or fashion (sorry, been reading too many cliches in entries, I guess), whether there is an ending that makes you want to read on. I wince every time I see that question. I can just imagine how the writer will be crushed if I honestly write, "No!" Sometimes you're so tired by the time you wade through an entry that you know would never have been written if the writer had not possessed a computer (** see P. S. Rant below), you want to say, "Not no, but hell no!" But that's cruel.

All of us writers are sensitive whether we admit to it or not. The difference in those published and those still unpublished is that we pubbed writers have learned how to hide it better otherwise we'd be going around weeping all the time. So when I reach that question, I try to be gentle. I mention something that's good in the entry, and I always try to say something encouraging and wish them good luck.

I've written about this too. I look at an ending as a cliffhanger. Each chapter ending should be a cliffhanger, ending in a way that the reader absolutely cannot put the manuscript/book down but must turn the page. I seldom see this in contest entries. Often, it's because there is a page limit to contests so the scene just stops at the end of whatever page is the max that can be submitted. But, people! This is a contest. You want to win so why not tailor your entry to end the scene at that max page number and end it with a hook big enough to land a great white?

You see, there's always a judging element about the hook ending. If you don't tailor your entry so there's a hook, then you get graded low on this element. That's just common sense. I can't tell you how many entries there are that end at the end of the line on the last page in mid sentence! If the final judge of the contest is an editor and the highest scoring entries go to the editor, you've possibly just shot yourself in the foot because you lose points for no hook.

The bottom line is that you pay money to enter these contests. Don't shoot yourself repeatedly in the feet or your manuscript won't be able to stand up before that final judge - the editor/agent.

**P. S. The Rant
I think if we were still pecking away on IBM Selectrics that the numbers of aspiring writers would be far less. Computers make it easy to put together a manuscript. So easy in fact that every Tom, Dick, and Jane who owns a computer thinks they can write a novel.

Upon learning I am an author, I've had a hair stylist, dog groomer, bank clerk, three doctors, a water plant worker, and a lawyer tell me they were also working on a novel in their spare time at night when there wasn't anything good on TV. After all, these people have a computer, they know how to read and write, and they're pretty sure they can write just like Janelle Taylor (hair stylist); Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, Tess Gerritsen (doctors); or John Grisham (lawyer).

Trust me, it takes way more than that to write a novel. Even more to write one worth submitting, and even more to write one that actually gets accepted. So if you don't have a burning desire to plug away at learning the craft and at persisting long after a sane person would have given up, find something else to do with your time.

Life is too short to engage in something for the wrong reasons.

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