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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Scoring Well in Contests

by Ann Lethbridge

I love to read new and talented aspiring writers. The only way for me as a writer to do this is to judge contests. When I judge a manuscript or a synopsis, it is always with the hope I can give a perfect score. I want to give every manuscript the chance to go before an agent or editor. I start each new story with a hopeful heart.

For those of you entering contests, here are some of the things that make me give full marks to an entry.

1. The story starts things happening, (call to action) usually right where everything goes wrong for the main character(s). And in a romance, usually very close to where the hero and heroine first meet. The best stories begin with a rush to the bottom of a very steep hill, that keep me wanting to know what happens next.
  • Carriage rides/car rides/plane rides with people thinking or talking about their past, are not action, it is a back-story dump.
  • Explaining a world in a paranormal is not action.
2. From the moment I enter the story, I know exactly which character's point of view I am in, what they are thinking, feeling, seeing and doing. The writer is moving me through the character's world as if I am that character. How can I resist marking ten out of ten.

  • telling me a character is feisty, isn't nearly as effective as showing her rap an encroaching male over the head with her umbrella.
  • a male pov describing a room in detail isn't nearly as effective as having him note mentally that it is all fussy lace, and feminine, and instantly feel as if any chair he sits on will collapse beneath him.
3. The main characters are likeable, or at least one of them. I need to be rooting for someone at the start of the story. If they do something or say something with which I can empathize right away, it shows their state of mind and that they are worthy of my reading time and a good mark.

4. Surprise me. I love to be surprised. A woman dressing as highwayman and riding out at night isn't new. But what if she dresses as the ghost highwayman? Or hires a highwayman to help her? Or... give it a new twist and keep me hooked to a high score.

5. If things are bad at the beginning, and things just get worse, you will get top marks from me. A couple needs to earn their happy ending.

6. If you've kept your characters on stage at any one time to a minimum, the fewer the better, I will be thrilled. I can see your characters deserve full points in all categories, because I know them better than I know anyone else on stage.

  • A cast of more than five people in the opening pages is going to confuse me. It can be either the hero and heroine, or perhaps one of them with one other person, even the villain, but the more people you introduce at the beginning the less engaged the reader is with your lead characters. Get rid of anyone in a scene who is not going to be important to the story, now or later. Make them do double duty wherever you can.
7. Worthy villains make chills run down my spine. Make them appear normal, give them hopes and dreams which are not necessarily evil, although they can be, but definitely have them on the wrong side of the angels. Let them have a pet they love. Or a woman they help. They will become all the more real. And will frighten a high mark out of me.

8. Making me believe a characters motivations, will get you top marks from me. If a beleaguered wealthy rake of a bachelor agrees to take on a ward, or visit girl on behalf of an aged aunt, make me believe that man has a good reason to agree instead of refusing as he has always refused in the past.

9. If you make me want to know what happens to the characters when my three chapters are done, I will want to give you a perfect score. Keep me guessing. Small hints about their past, little clues when it fits with the action, that there is more, much more, to this person or persons that I must know. Make the story stay with me. This is probably where that intangible voice thing comes in and sweeps me into awarding that perfect score.

10. If your grammar and spelling is nigh on perfect, it is a wonderful relief to me. I will give you full marks every time. Nigh on perfect means you are allowed a couple of typos, the odd slip in grammar--who isn't? I make them all the time. I never ever mark down on mechanics unless you really need help. Make sure you know what the words you use mean. Malapropisms can let you down.

As you can see, I really really want to give you a perfect score. And while there is so much to writing I could go on for hundreds of points and in a lot more detail, I hope thinking about these will help you achieve close to a perfect score on your next manuscript.

Good luck. Next time I will talk about the perfect synopsis, if you would find it helpful. Let me know.

Ann's book
Wicked Rake, Defiant Mistress,
Harlequin Historicals, ISBN 978-0373295920
Will be in stores on May 1
Ann has three other stories out with HMB in 2010
and her alter ego Michele Ann Young's story Remember
will appear in the Mammoth Book of Regencies in August.


Susan Macatee said...

Great post, Ann! I have gotten a few perfect scores when I was entering unpubbed contests, but I'd always get a second judge who hated everything about my story. Can't win them all, I guess.

But you make great points that we can all use when crafting our stories, not only to win contests, but to win over the editors who'll ultimately buy our stories, because they're looking for the same things.

Donna Goode said...

This is a great post, Ann! It's very helpful to those of us who enter manuscripts in contests. Thanks for your great positive feedback...before the fact!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

WOW this is a fantastic help to me. Thanks for the great ideas. My one complaint is when a judge assumes the facts are incorrect when they aren't. One experience is when a judge from New York told me we don't have deer in California and marked me down for it. At the time six deer were laying in the snow under the trees in my yard. That can be frustrating because it is not something one can prepare or improve on. :)

Sally said...

I would be interested in reading about the perfect synaposis in your next post.

Kathryn Albright said...

Very informative post, Ann. Contests are how I started honing my skills--after my critique partner read my manuscript, then I started wanting more diverse opinions on it and sent it to different contests. I did the same thing with the few synopsis contests too. The feedback was so helpful. Then the GH happened.

I did have a judge that, like Paisley said, told me certain facts were impossible. I had a scene where my hero drew a lobster out of San Diego harbor. The judge said the water there was too cold for lobster according to her marine biologist daughter. However--I actually did fish two lobsters out of the harbor (in a crate) and took them home and boiled them for supper, so I know it is possible. It is something, as a judge, I now am very careful about commenting on.

Thanks for another one of your great posts!

Ann Lethbridge said...

Hi Ladies, thanks for your comments.
Susan I agree, since liking a book is subjective it is sometimes hard to get a consistent message. I entered lots of contests before I was published, and I took only what worked for me, or things where more than one judge agreed.

Donna I am glad you found it helpful.

Paisley, I make it a rule for me as a judge not to mark down on research, unless it is an area where I am an expert -- and even then I might only mention what I see as an error and move on since I am primarily judging the writing. Personally I like to believe the writer did her homework, but I do mention if something makes me stop and wonder, which is something a writer doesn't want a reader to do. Stop.

I have to admit, though that if it is something I know really well, I might end up putting in lots of references and links so the person can go check it out. Can't resist the urge to share I guess.

Great to see you all here today.

Ann Lethbridge said...

Oh, Happy Earth Day. Did you turn out the lights. We did. Have been sitting in the dark for an hour.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post about your contest judging, great points,