Monday, October 11, 2010

Confessions of a Contest Judge

It’s that time of year when contest fever hits and everyone’s trying to decide whether to commit to entering the big one – the Golden Heart (or the Rita for published authors.) Here in NZ I’ve just missed the deadline for RWNZ’s big single title contest. Actually, I’m saving my pennies for the Clendon (if they run it again, fingers crossed) because of all the contests I’ve entered, it’s given me the most useful feedback.

I also pitch in and judge, and after a couple of years of doing this, I’ve noticed the same patterns cropping up again and again. First, no matter how many manuscripts get sent to me, only one or two out of every batch are worth passing on. The rest aren’t necessarily bad. They’re just simply mediocre.

So what makes mediocre?

Here are the things that, if they don’t throw me, at least slow me down:

1) Too big a cast in chapter one. I’m not against novels with lots of characters, but they need to be introduced gradually so I can get to know them. And they need to be different enough from each other so that I can keep them straight in my head. While there isn’t anything wrong with having a few supporting characters, such as the maid and the groom, unless they’re important to driving the action in the first couple of scenes, you don’t need to name them yet.

2) Same old situation, no new twist. The year I judged contemporaries, three out of the twelve manuscripts I was sent had something to do with a celebrity wanting privacy, and two had to do with an obnoxious alpha male wanting to score on a bet. Ho hum.

3) Mr. Rochester. While Charlotte Bronte may have made literary history with her rude-mannered recluse, quite frankly I could never see what Jane saw in him. By now I’ve seen so many “Mr. Rochesters” that I think his type has become a cliché. If a man’s got a problem that makes him reluctant to form a relationship, at least give him enough charm that the reader wishes he would form one.

4) Back-story dump. Nothing slows a beginning (or a middle, or an end) down faster than heaps of back-story that isn’t absolutely CRUCIAL to understanding what is going on at that moment in the plot. Please, don’t take me back to the protagonist’s childhood (or other memories for that matter.) Just give me a hint of what happened, as little as possible in fact, because that will leave me hungry for more, and it’s hungry for more that keeps a reader turning pages late into the night.

5) Ditto historical detail. This especially goes for battles and politics. Pare it down to the bare essentials.

6) Dialog that repeats what the characters already know. (i.e., “As you know, John, our father’s will stipulates that blah, blah, blah”.) If they already know it, why would they be talking about it?

7) Motivation isn’t strong enough. It’s not enough to say a character wants something. You’ve got to show her wanting it so badly she can taste it.

8) Over-explaining. This is akin to telling us she didn’t touch the hot stove because she didn’t want to burn her hand. Readers are intelligent. They can figure it out.

9) Over-writing. Going into minute detail describing an action that’s not crucial to the plot slows the pace as effectively as a back-story dump. Editor Jennifer Enderlin of St. Martins Press says this is a sign of a first draft. Readers don’t need to know that she picked up the rope, uncoiled it and threw it. Cut to the chase and use a strong verb instead. “He heaved the line to the drowning man.”

10) Stories that start in the wrong place. Having started The Deadly Peace in seven different places before I finally settled on an opening scene, I know it’s really a challenge to find the right place to begin. The right place is the inciting incident that throws the protagonist into the middle of a problem he/she has to solve. Too many stories start too far back, with a lot of stuff that should just be back-story. I’ve heard one editor say, “Cur the first three chapters and start there.”


  1. Great reminders Vicky. I just finished judging 3 contemporaries and nothing stood out for me except for one which started in the villain's pov and he was disgustingly evil. disturbing. That's not the way I want to have something
    'stand out'!

    I wish I could say that as a judge, I don't do these no-no's my self! ha!

  2. Good reminders, Vicky, but I'm reading a novel now, second in a series that breaks all the rules, head-hops, wastes time on plot deviations that add nothing to the story and more. A major publisher published it, and I can't help thinking "where was an editor?" It rambles on and on...and I even found a major historical inaccuracy. (again, no editor?)
    Why am I still reading it you might ask? Good question.

  3. Yeah, I'm reading one of those (a historical) now, between all the other stuff I'm reading. A critique group would tear it to pieces. So why do I go on reading it? Interested in the topic.

    Sometimes I think editors get greedy. And they do their authors no favour. My husband bought one by one of our favourite authors that totally let us down. It looks like perhaps an early work. But from now on we'll be very cautious in buying books by this author.

  4. Some great points that are useful for me to use in self-editing as I go through for the second, three, and fourth draft.

    I always find your blog interesting and helpful.

    Keep up the good work.

    A J Hawke

  5. Okay, the email for this got buried, but I really wanted to read this. My one big fear is still that I've started in the wrong place, but 3/4 of my readers tell me it works better where it is. So I'm still slogging away and praying for an agent who gets it. ;)