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So You're Ready to Be a Contest Finalist

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

by M.J. Marshall

You’ve written your lovely opening pages and you can’t figure out how you can possibly make them any prettier because you’ve read all the books and blogs and threads and they’re good. Really good. Even your mom said so.


Maybe they are.


But they can almost always be better.


And it’s awesome when you have a stable of critique partners willing to drop everything in their busy lives to help you polish for a contest. But when you don’t? If you’re like me, you need to emotionally remove yourself and methodically get down to the micro-level edits.


First things first, you need a good hook and a great voice.

Each of those deserves its own blog post (ahem, Jeni), but the following elements are the building blocks of those two necessities.


My suggestion is to go through each of the issues below and do a Ctrl+F/Find & Replace wherever possible throughout your manuscript.


Tedious? Absolutely.


Will it make your work 10000X stronger? Undoubtedly.


Have you ever gotten the feedback that you need to “deepen your POV”? (See also “need more emotional investment” or “too much telling rather than showing.”) They all point to some of the same issues. Your writing very well might be filtered through your writer’s POV, and it is one of those things you can’t unsee once it’s been pointed out to you.


1. Cull your filter words: (heard, saw, felt, smelled) and instead show the MC react using this Publishing Crawl piece and this Chuck Palahniuk essay. Because I am something of a cynic, every time someone insists to me that they need all the words to tell their story, I wonder how many I could cut by going through this list. Especially when they have a sprawling word count that is far from the genre guidelines. Go on, try it.


Filler words are the soda pop of writing. No nutritional value, and it'll probably rot your teeth. I may have made that last part up.

2. Filler words (actually, of course, in excess of) have no nutritional value: Check out this smart blogger piece to cut 'calories.'


3. Does your dialogue ping-pong back and forth with he said, she said, they said (or *cringe* an overload of: he mumbled, she murmured, he screeched, they lustily whispered)? I’m not sure I can tell you how boring that can get. Especially when we can’t see the characters and their body cues, their emotional responses, their underlying tones which can tell an entirely different story than the one being transcribed. Ta da! Use action tags to show the conversation in all its deep and tonal glory.


4. Do you ever hear that you’ve left behind an info dump? No need to be humiliated, just fix it.

Yeah, I know, it sounds easy, but it actually is.

No one needs to know everything at the beginning of the story. We need to see it unfold as it becomes important, and using other tools (like action beats!) you can manage to weave in backstory effortlessly. For example: you have a married character anxiously waiting for someone to show up? They can twist their wedding ring while staring at the door. Boom. You just handed your reader a bunch of information without taking sentences away from the action to tell us this (likely important, albeit boring) stuff. Panko crumbs for the modern reader: https://jamigold.com/2016/03/how-to-weave-story-elements-and-avoid-info-dumps/


We need to be in your MC's slippers. Even if their slippers are old sneaks.

5. How about the ever vague and frustrating “I just didn’t connect with your MC?” Sigh. There’re some really good reasons that your darlings aren’t as sociable as you think they are. Most likely, we can’t interpret the reasons behind their actions. Which, at the most basic level, means: Can we understand what is propelling your MC forward? We need to see them to connect to their world. I personally have never been on the run from a person-eating donkey, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize heart-thumping escape. It’s also never crossed my mind to go to medical school, but I empathize with someone waiting to hear if they got in or not. We need to be in your MC’s slippers.


6. They must be actively working toward a goal, and not just reacting to outside stimuli.(this is in italics because you should read it twice to be sure you get it)


Are these steps enough to ensure you’re the one screaming with happiness when the finalists are announced? Not necessarily, but I do promise you’ll be a thousand steps closer.


Contest aficionado MJ Marshall (@astarte525) is repped by Jennifer Grimaldi from Chalberg Sussman. She writes historical fiction and has finalled in RevPit, Nightmare on Query Street, Query Kombat, and many RWA contests including winning the over-all grand prize in the 2018 Toronto Catherine. She also writes queer historical romance as Ella Stainton (@astarte73).


Photo credits:

Trophy: QuinceMedia on Pixabay

Soda Cans: AlexAntropov86 on Pixabay.

Sneakers: SplitShire on Pixabay.

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