It's contest season in the Christian writing world, which means it's also judgment season. I've competed and placed in contests over the past few years, but I've also had the responsibility of judging. This means I've not only had my work torn to shreds by judges, but I've been on the opposite side of the judging score sheet. It's a humbling experience, both submitting your work to the universe and reading the work of other people. Here are some tips, as a former judge, for you to consider before hitting "send" on your latest contest entry.
1. Beware of Prologues : You're welcome to submit a prologue, as long as the contest rules permit it. However, beware. Sometimes they throw off the rhythm of a contest entry. Let's use the prologue from Child 44 as an example. This is an amazing thriller about a former MGB agent investigating several killings. It starts with a prologue, where we are shown a little boy, starving, chasing a cat through the frozen woods. I won't give away any spoilers, but after reading the prologue and the first chapter, which jumps into the plot of trying to solve a mystery, I wasn't sure how they related to one another. I had an vague idea, but nothing solid. It kept me reading, and eventually I discovered the connection, but if I were only to read those first two chunks of the book, I'd be confused.
That's how it works with a contest. A judge reads the prologue, knowing it will eventually make sense, but then we jump into the first chapter, which typically doesn't immediately explain what we just read. So when it comes time to judge, and we have to assess the rhythm and plot, we're left at a disadvantage. We know, at some point, the story will come complete circle so the prologue makes perfect sense, but because most contests only allow the first 30 pages, we aren't given enough information to know if the writer has presented the makings of a solid plot.
Let me put it one more way. When you sit down to read a book, you can usually tell if you're going to like it or not by the third chapter. You have an idea of the characters, the rhythm, the plot, the conflict, but if you're only given 30 pages to make that impression, and 15 are spent on a prologue that the writer won't explain in chapter one, you won't have as solid of an idea as to whether the book is worth reading.
Which brings me to #2...
2. Be smart with the word limit. If you're given 30 pages, but your chapter ends on page 25, you need to decide if it's a good idea to submit five more pages, or stop at the completed scene of the first chapter. A lot of contests recommend you end at a reasonable point, like the end of a scene. It's better to complete a thought and not hit the 30 pages then to stop abruptly in the middle of a scene.
3. Avoid cliches and "fake" writing. It's easy to spot someone who is trying to impress a judge with fancy words. And cliches are a big no-no. So just be careful to stay true to yourself and keep your writing fresh.
4. Have someone else read your entry before you submit. A lot of people who submit to contests are newbies. Some may not be part of a critique group, but it's important to seek out writing peers and allow them to read your work. Tips from experienced writers are valuable when learning how to write. Open your mind to their words of wisdom and allow them to be honest.
5. Please avoid exclamation marks unless absolutely necessary. This goes under the grammar section of a judging score sheet. In the same spirit, avoid passive verbs and please only use one form of POV. If you're writing in deep 3rd POV, try your best to write the entire story like this. Jumping POV is another minus on the score sheet.
6. Be prepared for the soul crushing review. I've been entering contests for years, and I've come to expect one soul crushing review per competition entry. In the last contest I entered, three judges looked over my work. I received two high scores, and one failing score. Two judges loved my work and one ripped me apart. It's been that way since the first contest I entered, and many of my writing peers experience the same thing. There always seems to be one judge who, for whatever reason, prefers harshness over constructive criticism. Technically, judges should be reviewing your work from a technical and objective standpoint unless specifically asked, "do you find the hero sympathetic?" or "if you were an agent, would you request this book?". Questions like that are subjective, but in terms of grammar, POV, even plot construction, judges are asked to refer to guidelines rather than person taste. It doesn't always happen. That's fine. Just be prepared and know that one person's opinion doesn't represent the masses.
7. Take the time to get to know your main character. Then, introduce him to us. By the end of the first chapter, and certainly by the end of the contest submission, the judge should know the following about your character: basics demographics (age, build, physical features), deepest want from life, deepest fear from the past preventing him from achieving his want. If it's a romance, the hero and heroine must meet by the end of the first chapter. This is an absolute rule.
8. End on a high note. If you're entering a short story contest, or flash fiction, end strong. Twists are good, but the end of a story must have a resolution and any questions you've woven into the plot must be answered.
9. Titles are more important than you may think. If the judge finishes your submission and can't figure out the purpose of the title, this can be an issue. It plays into the subjective questions on the score sheet. For a novel, you have a little more wiggle room, but a short story title should easily and clearly relate to the story. It's the first impression the judge gets, and I have to admit, when presented with my contest entries, I usually start judging the one with the most interesting title first.
10. Try to be unique. It's hard, especially in genre fiction, but anything out of the ordinary and presented well will probably beat a more typical tale.
Contests can be great learning experiences, whether you're judging or submitting. If you're willing to put in the time and entrance fee, they may be a good option for you. Others prefer to avoid the contest world, and that works as well. It's a personal decision. Just take your time on your submission and have fun.