Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Tips from a Contest Judge

I've been doing a little bit of contest judging recently and have come to realize a few things that I may have already known, but just didn't know I knew them. But even though they seem obvious, they are a good thing to keep in mind--especially if you are having trouble getting agents or editors to ask for more pages.

Start with tension--any navel gazing introspection or flowery setting descriptions or back story dumps needz to go.

You NEED a premise and that premise NEEDS to be fairly self-evident (that does not mean blatantly told, it means self-evident) from the get go--not by the end of chapter 3.

I think the majority of the entries I've judged have had this down, but the ones that don't leave me with a totally lost feeling. As a judge I don't get a blurb to set the premise up, and some of these contests don't require a synopsis. But really, your opening pages should not rely on a back cover blurb or synopsis. Don't presume that an agent or editor will be reviewing your blurb again before reading requested pages--they won't be, they'll be diving right in.

Another thing that stands out for me is voice. Voice is not about dialog or (gasp) dialect. In fact whenever you hear voice, you should immediately think personality. How a character views the world should match how they tell us about that world. A shy person will see things differently than an outgoing one. Catch phrases and the like are fine for a character if they match their personality. But don't rely on them. The bigger point about voice is--if you are going to alternate 1st POV you better have two or more characters with very different personalities. Otherwise you end up with everyone sounding the same and if you have any voice at all it will start to make the reader think of the author and not the characters. Bad.

So quick recap:

Start with Tension
Premise is self-evident.
Characters speak. Author types.

Remember those things and you'll do well!


keri mikulski :) said...

Great advice, Brooke. I teach a novel writing class tonight and this is great stuff to share with the students. While reading this, I thought to myself, how many times have I read a book and referred to the back cover? Too many times to count. :)

Barrie said...

Every time I judge a contest, I learn at least one thing. Probably way more than one. :)

TJBrown said...

It's frustrating for new writer's to hear that bit about voice, because voice is so hard to define and not always easy to develop, but you are dead on with your advice.

Jim D said...

Well put. I'm actually at a point in a novel requiring alternate 1st and wondering if I can pull it off. Actually spent the train commute home thinking about how different the characters needed to be. Good news is, I've probably got a good year of work on 2 other novel re-writes to hone my skills for the challenge.
Jim D

Anonymous said...

I think I learned more about writing from judging contests than anything else. :)

Brooke Taylor said...

Keri--so true, I always check out the back covers and too many times it is the promise of cool things to come that keeps me reading long after I would've put a book down. Sometimes it is worth it, but not all books live up to their back covers!

Barrie & Rinda--Yes! I learn so much from critting and judging. It is so much easier when it isn't your own, LOL.

Teri--I know voice is tricky! But the more you can surrender over to the character the easier it will be.

Jim D--Welcome! And yep--I spent several motnhs deciding on the POV for my WIP. I decided on limited 3rd, alternating as needed and trying to go as deep as possible so as not to lose the benefits of a 1st pov. Time will tell if I've chosen wisely.