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Last August, I had the opportunity to judge a novel contest for a magazine’s annual book awards.
I won’t disclose which contest it was, but let me tell you— the experience taught me things I didn’t even consider about writing.
You can always learn a lot from others. Especially when it’s your job to judge them.
Some of these points may seem obvious, but take some time and think about them for a while. These things might be hiding in your story, and you just haven’t noticed it.
Hopefully, this post will help you as you enter your own stories in writing contests.
So without further ado, here are the top things I learned about writing by judging a novel contest.
Page One Prophecies
In the contest that I judged, I read several novels. One of those novels gave away the ending on page one.
Of course, the author didn’t mean to. The scene was a dramatic prophecy, with a whole bunch of clues about the destiny of the Chosen One.
Turns out, I’m smarter than they thought I’d be.
Sure enough, the Chosen One killed the villain in the end.
You should foreshadow, because that makes for a believable ending.
But maybe try not to put your foreshadowing on page one. Or just steer away from prophecies in the first chapter.
Judges want to know that you can spell, or at least that you can download a good spellcheck program.
Personally, I recommend Grammarly. It’s easy to install, and you can download the basic program for free, or you can upgrade to a premium account. The premium account offers a ton of extra features that will strengthen your writing, such as style and vocabulary suggestions.
And if all else fails, the built-in spellcheck on Microsoft Word works well too.
Most of the novels that I judged did pretty well in this category, but a couple of people messed up “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” And there were quite a few misused semicolons.
My judging scoresheet included a score for grammar and spelling. And this score was the deciding factor between my third place and honorable mention picks.
Spellling ad gramer r importent.
Meet the Parents
If your story has parental characters, this is a biggie.
More often than you think, authors introduce the parents by one name, and change it later in the story.
The best way to fix this is to introduce the parents as “Mom” and “Dad.” Then, only change that if another adult talks to them.
The twelve year old shouldn’t think of their mom as “Sandra Weston” (or whatever the mom’s full name is), and then call her “Mommy” for the rest of the book.
Keep the parents’ names consistent. The adults call him Dave, the kids call him Dad. Don’t mix the two.
It’s a simple fix. Trust me, it would take most writers less than five minutes. And when you fix this, you’ll be way ahead of the competition.
The Devil’s in the Details
Do your details give the right vibes?
It doesn’t do your story any good if you say, “the air smelled like strawberries,” when your character is in a moldy basement.
A lot of stories in these novel contests have details that are tacked on at the last second. These details don’t fit the story’s mood.
- What if the basement smells like rotting meat? What mood does that convey?
- Now, what if the basement is full of boxes and smells like your grandma’s old perfume? See how you can change the details to match the mood.
If you’d like to see more tips for writing short stories, check out This Post I wrote about How to Create the Perfect Short Story.
Let the Main Character Decide Something
Even if they decide what to eat for breakfast.
The stories that win contests are the ones where the characters decide things.
What Time Is It?
I remember playing a game in elementary school, called, “Mr. Wolf, what time is it?” And as a literary judge, I found myself asking that. A lot.
What time is it in your story world?
A lot of writers struggle with this. Including myself. This is something I’m still working on.
However, if you take the time to print off a blank calendar and write down when your story events take place, this will bring your story to the next level.
Also, what time of day does your scene take place?
One time while I was writing, I realized that my MC hadn’t slept in four chapters. That’s an unnaturally long day.
Judging a novel contest helped me see this in my own writing. And I hope that by pointing it out, I can help you spot this issue as well.
As a writer and aspiring literary agent, I enjoyed being able to judge a writing contest. I learned a lot of things about storytelling.
But in all seriousness—
If you make sure your story is good to go on all these points…
And if you follow the contest rules…
And if you submit your story on time…
… You have a good chance of getting a high score from the judges.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll post again next week. Now go submit that story!