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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Judging Writing Contests

© 2010 Madeline Smyth
 Judging contests is an eye opener, as I've said before. You can see the mistakes in another author's story, even when you can't see the mistakes in your own. A couple of weeks ago, I finished judging a batch of entries for the contemporary series category of a contest. Now, two weeks later, let's take a look at what has stuck in my mind about those entries:

Entry A: The heroine had no goal or internal conflict other than to get the hero to acknowledge their prior secret relationship and marry her. The hero's goal was to take the heroine from another man (who, of course, she wasn't seeing, but who the hero believed she was, even after she denied a relationship) and resume his affair with her. His internal conflict was that he didn't want to commit to the heroine for what turned out to be a rather silly reason, but then, he did a complete about face and decided to marry her. There was almost no external conflict, which left the hero and heroine going around and around on the same internal conflict until he suddenly decided to marry her. Yet, for all its shortcomings, the voice was fantastically right-on for a contemporary series.

Entry B: The formatting was extremely non-industry standard, which subtly irked me. The hero and heroine had very little in the way of goals or internal conflict. The story was plot-driven, not character-driven. The plot (which was filled with everything but the bathroom sink) danced the hero and heroine around like puppets on a stage. See more on this under Entry E below. The author switched POV with every line of dialogue, not only for the hero and heroine, but for every character in the story. I assumed that this was a newbie author's first attempt at writing, and that she/he had never entered anything into a writing contest before.

Entry C: The heroine had no goal and an overused internal conflict (which, by the way, the author didn't set up in the 55 page entry, but left for the judges to ferret out in the synopsis). The hero's goal was that he wanted the heroine, though his immediate declaration of love and other teenage antics, especially given that he'd never met her before, made him appear silly. The pacing was deadly slow with long passages of back-story, internal thought, and scene connector narrative.

Entry D: What a delight! The hook, clever heroine, strong hero, secondary characters, POV switches, action, dialogue, narrative, pacing, etc. were all right-on. The hero could've been a bit more alpha, and the last couple of scenes in the entry could've used some tightening, but overall, this story had great promise.

Entry E: The first line of dialogue didn't appear until half-way down page 6 after more than 5 pages of back-story narrative, slowing the pace to a crawl. The heroine and hero had a goal and internal conflict, but the external conflict overwhelmed the story. The story was primarily, although not exclusively, plot-driven, not character-driven. As with Entry B, the plot contained everything but the bathroom sink, and typical of these plot-driven stories, the author introduced shocking events (for example, criminal assaults, attempted rapes, etc.) to propel the story. By the way, the synopsis was a walloping 15 pages, which is, IMO, way too long for a contemporary series.

Having found these mistakes, I'd now like to repeat part of one of my former posts titled "Ten Most Common Writing Mistakes." Here it is:

Judging the writing of other aspiring authors is often a lesson in the most common writing mistakes and sometimes an encounter with the most effective writing techniques. If only we could all begin as proficient writers, but as with any profession, writing requires an apprenticeship. This apprenticeship, often painful and frustrating, but on occasion exciting and rewarding, can develop and refine an aspiring author's raw talent into a powerful writing force.

In the contests I've judged, I've come across ten common writing mistakes. Before saying anything more, let me tell you that I'm not too proud to admit I made many of these mistakes in my earliest writing endeavors. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, here is my list of aspiring authors' ten common writing mistakes:

1. Back-Story Dump.

2. Lengthy Narrative.

3. Use of Passive Voice.

4. Dialogue Tags Versus Beats.

5. Head Hopping.

6. Slow Pacing.

7. Told, Not Shown.

8. Inadequate Characterization.

9. Unrealistic Actions/Reactions.

10. Lack of Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts.

Now let's go back to the five entries in issue. IMO, the authors broke the following rules:

Entry A: Rules 7, 9, and 10

Entry B: Rules 5, 7, 8, and 10

Entry C: Rules 1, 2, 6, and 7

Entry D: No rules broken.

Entry E: Rules 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, and 10

Are you an aspiring author who hasn't finaled in a contest, but you don't know why you haven't finaled? If so, I strongly recommend that you become a contest judge. As I've said before, and I'll now say again, judging contests is an eye opener, but let me add for the first time why I think so—it puts you inside the head of an editor.

Happy Writing and Judging!

© 2010 Madeline Smyth. All Rights Reserved.


  1. I think I've made all those mistakes at one time or another, and yes, I can pick them out in the writng of others, but not my own.

  2. Kelly,


    I have read the first chapter of PLPD, which you've told me is one of your earliest attempts. Yes, you broke The Rules (those limiting rules that only aspiring authors have to follow), but you didn't make any of the Ten Most Common Writing Mistakes, as I said in my original post almost one year ago to the day. In fact, in that post, I gave PLPD the name "Near Perfection" for the first time. Here, take a look at the paragraph that followed the list of ten most common writing mistakes:

    "Recently, I came across near perfection in a contemporary single title contest entry. I can't explain what made it perfect. That is, I can't break it apart, and say, here are the three or thirteen or thirty factors that made it so. All I can say is that it was minus ten common writing mistakes ... and plus one indefinable something, which, for lack of a better term, I'll call 'hook, line, and sinker.' In other words, it was near perfection, plain and simple."


  3. 我只知道,假如我去愛人生,那人生一定也會回愛我........................................