Typical Contest Entry Flaws
by Kathy Carmichael
I judge a lot of writing contests, for both published and unpublished books. Interestingly, I see many common areas of concern and thought it might be helpful to those entering contests to think about these items beforehand. They might be pretty basic, but you wouldn’t believe how often I encounter them.
- POV (Point of View). I don’t know why this is such a problem area, but many new novelists attempt to write their first books in omniscient viewpoint. Handled well, omniscient can be effective. But sometimes (frequently) it’s not the right choice for a particular book or a particular type of book.Generally speaking (I mean this very generally, so don’t let it discourage you if your book has to be written in omniscient—look at Harry Potter!), the majority of commercial fiction is written in either third person or first person. Often it’s multiple third or even a mix of first and third. There’s a reason for this. Your reader is reading to vicariously experience emotion. Omniscient tends to be a very distancing viewpoint, whereas first and third pull the reader more deeply into the character’s thoughts and feelings.Have you ever watched the beginning of a movie that starts with a broad view and then gradually narrows and focuses on one particular character (often the protagonist of the movie)? Omniscient can be used that way as well—starting broad and then narrowing the scope until you reach your viewpoint character and then switching to first or third person.
- Dialogue. In novels dialogue equals action. If you have too much narration, then the reader considers the book slow and more difficult to read. If you have too much dialogue, your book might read more like a stage play. Most books hit somewhere within the spectrum of too much and too little. The majority of commercial fiction usually has no more than three pages of narrative between passages of dialogue—and you shouldn’t cheat by sticking in a sentence or two of dialogue, then going back to three more pages of narrative 😉
- Balance between Narrative/Dialogue/Action. While you don’t want to make everything totally equal, you do want to achieve a natural balance (for your voice) between these three areas. Story pacing is dependent upon it. While there are tricks to affect pacing, the most important method to determine your book’s pacing is through your balance of narrative (in the head of the characters), dialogue (when your characters are conversing with each other), and physical action (think of this as stage movements—do they cross the room or their arms, that kind of thing).Oftentimes, when someone says that your pacing is off, it’s because the story is written in clumps—clumps of narrative, clumps of dialogue, clumps of action. Instead, you’ll want to blend some of each into your scenes. Don’t wait until your dialogue clump is over to have your character react to what was said. Instead, your character will react internally (and sometimes physically) to whatever is being discussed. Make sure you don’t have talking heads.
- Characterization. Characters must be understandable. While the reader doesn’t have to necessarily like your characters, it helps, especially for your protagonists, if the reader can identify with him/her, at least to the point of understanding why they react as they do. Basically, your characters actions have to match what the reader would do himself or at least, the reader understands why your character reacts in a different manner.
- Narrating Instead of Showing. I’ve often run across otherwise well-written books in which the author (or his character) narrates the story events rather than showing them in real-time. Here’s an example:Narrating
Mary Sue’s pencil broke. Bother. She looked over at her best friend, Jean, and asked if she could borrow a pencil. Jean lent her one and they each went back to their crossword puzzles. Everyday they competed over who would finish first. Jean found a question she couldn’t solve, but Mary Sue was able to tell her the answer.
Mary Sue’s pencil broke. Bother. “Jean, do you have a pencil I can borrow? Mine bit the dust.”
“Sure,” said Jean, digging in her canvas bag without looking up. She pulled out a box of pencils, then selected one. “Here you go.”
“Thanks.” Mary Sue took the pencil and turned her attention back to the crossword puzzle. It might seem silly to other people, but the two of them had a morning ritual of competing over who would finish first. Jean had won for the last week and Mary Sue was determined to beat her today.
Jean nudged Mary Sue’s elbow. “Say, what’s a five letter word for someone who isn’t smart?”
“Idiot?” Okay. She knew it wasn’t the right word, but she had to win somehow, didn’t she? But yesterday Jean had given her an answer she’d needed, and it wouldn’t be nice not to do the same. Why did she have such a strong conscience? Mary Sue sighed. “Try dummy.”
- Presentation counts. Don’t just run spell check. There are many words that are correctly spelled, but it’s possible to use the wrong word. Run your grammar checker because it will catch many of these wrong words and other grammatical errors. But don’t rely only on it, either. Have a friend, relative or critique partner give a quick read with an eye to these sorts of common problems.
- Make sure there’s conflict on the page. Some writers mistakenly believe this means arguing. It doesn’t. Don’t make life too easy for your characters. Have things get in the way of their goals. In real life, people don’t always understand you and sometimes there are people who have character flaws that make dealing with them difficult. Life for your characters should be like that as well.
- Mood—and I don’t mean setting! Have you ever gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, or had a day when you just knew everything would go your way? Have you ever been stressed out or had a difficult time dealing with your child’s little league coach? Your characters, especially your protagonists, should come to the page with their own mood as well as their individual take on life.
Many of the issues listed above are pretty simple, but even seasoned veterans of the publishing world continue to make these sorts of mistakes. It’s human nature to be less than perfect. There are some days when my characters won’t reveal themselves to me and there are other days when I reuse the same word a zillion times. But like me, if you read with a careful eye, hopefully you’ll catch these common mistakes (or your critique partner will) before submitting it to a contest—or an editor!