Tuesday, March 1, 2011

3 Common Mistakes I Found While Judging a Writing Contest

I was honored when asked to return as a judge to a regional writing contest this year. After judging for several years, I've noticed a trend in things that I've found with contest entries. And let me start off by saying that it's WAY easier to judge than to write. Just because I observed these things in the writing of others doesn't mean that I'm not guilty of doing them myself. As anyone in a critique group knows, it's easy to be objective about a book...when it's someone else's book!

Here are the 3 most common mistakes I found:

1) Starting the story in the wrong place. In the contest entries I reviewed, the writer often started out by showing the MC (main character) in their ordinary world before getting to what made the story unique. The result was, well, ordinary. This isn't the place for the character to sit and reflect on their life, or to start a normal day. Cut this part out and get to the unusual part. If you don't hook the reader in the first paragraph, you probably won't, and you definitely won't hook them by describing how the MC brushes their teeth. (NOTE: None of the contest entries began with a character brushing their teeth--or any other body parts. Any examples are fabricated entirely by moi.)

2) Telling instead of showing. This is something that every single writer out there has struggled with at one time or another. If you haven't, please leave a comment below and let us know your secret.
Telling: Jack was so angry that he threw his glass of orange juice at me, then emphatically stormed out the door which slammed loudly behind him.
Showing: Jack's hand tightened around his glass of orange juice. I ducked as the glass shattered against the wall. "There's your daily dose of Vitamin C," he said as he walked out the door. (Not perfect but you get the idea)

3) Over-writing. Adding multiple modifiers to your sentence does not make it stronger. In fact, excess adjectives and adverbs take away from the impact of what you're trying to convey. Remember Stephen King's quote, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." It's a case where less is more. (TIP: use the FIND function in Word to search for -ly words. This catches a ton of adverbs)
Over-writing: The scorching, sizzling sun blazed brilliantly overhead, causing a cascade of sweat to drip down my already overheated body.
Simplified version: It's flippin' hot out.

Do any of these ring a bell with you? Any other common errors you've noticed in your own first drafts?


  1. Nice post. The starting point is really important. I totally agree. With my second novel, I tried the 'A-ha' and action to start. Got great responses but it was still lacking something--deep connection with the mc. So I've rewritten it. She's in the kitchen readying to leave for something where that action eventually happens. I started her off in a setting that is familiar but which shows her...who she is before the 'A-ha' happens. I think there has to be balance between something different and far out there, and the mundane.

  2. Geez, Kristi. What did Jack ever do to you. Lol!

    Great post!

  3. Great info. It's hard for me to find out where to start, how to start, how much to tell...yup, thank heavens for revisions.

  4. It's interesting how novel beginnings prompt different people to give different advice. I've heard advice about starting in the heat of the action, as well as advice to start with the character in their ordinary life, where something is about to happen. I like Salarsen's comment about achieving a balance. Beginnings are tricky!

  5. Great post! I tend to have trouble starting my drafts in the right place, but I'm getting a little better at it--at least I hope! :)

  6. As you said, we've all been there at some point or another...though I seem to overcompensate by starting my stories too late.

  7. One book that comes to mind when I think about a great beginning is NIGHTSHADE by Andrea Cremer. There are others, I'm sure, if I sit back and think, but this one is stuck in my head because I remember reading it and taking notice of how she opened the story.

    The opening scene is Calla as a wolf. She's fighting off a bear to save a human boy, which goes against everything in Calla's world.
    It is an exciting beginning that immediately sucks the reader into the story, but also allows us time to get to know Calla before the major events of the story. It's a disturbance, a catalyst, but it's not so major that we are thrown in the middle of some crazy action sequence where we aren't given time to get to know the MC and to care about her.
    After that scene, Calla goes on about her daily life hoping to never see the human boy again. she goes to school and guess who is there! Ahh!!!! We've already gotten a glimpse into Calla's world. We started out with this exciting scene, then had a moment to relax and get to know her and a little about her world. And then it's disrupted again.

    Every story is different, but I agree with Kristi; I don't care about her morning routine, how she wakes up and slaps the alarm clock and drags herself to the shower. Unless The smacking of the alarm clock triggers some shift in the universe and when she steps into her shower, it's a black hole.

    (I watch a lot of Fringe)

  8. Ooh! Another great opening is SLICE OF CHERRY by Dia Reeves. The opening scene is a prowler standing over the bed of one of the MC's. In this first chapter you get an EXCELLENT look at these two girls and their world. One of them wants to quietly sneak up behind the prowler and the other wants to just go and stab him to death. It's gripping, to say the least.

  9. Lacey--lol. I also loved the beginning Nightshade. It put us in the middle of action, but also gave us a sense of the MC.

    Salarsen and others point out this balancing act, which is tricky. You're correct that if you start w/ a high action scene, but no sense of the MC, then we aren't invested enough about the MC to care what's happening. It can also be confusing to start w/ too much action. So yeah, it's a tricky balancing act...which is why beginnings are so hard.

  10. Love the part about the starting point. It's right that too often we linger in something so usual and ordinary that our reader lose all interest before the good part even begins. Nice post!

  11. As a frequent contest judge, I see all these. Another thing I see too often is the stuff that's NOT on the page. Opportunities for involving the sense need to be glommed onto.

    And, of course I make all of them myself. I'm in the midst of moving from draft 1 to draft 2, and have been culling like mad.

    I don't worry about starting too soon -- I need that for me. But I definitely go back and find the 'real' page one before thinking of submitting.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  12. Terry--great point. Invoking the senses is so important in terms of creating a "real" world for the reader. I think my blog Sister, Valerie, did an entire post on that here. :)

  13. LOL... I love it! It's flippin hot out.

    Great reminders! These single-handedly scream "amateur!"

  14. Really great post Kristi! So many good points to think about. And I love your example with the orange juice!

  15. Thanks, Valerie. I was craving orange juice for some reason when I wrote the post. :)

  16. Great examples, and good points, all! You said it right, however--it is MUCH easier to be objective about someone else's work! That's what CPs are for, I guess. :)

  17. Carol--you're so right. I don't know what I'd do without my amazing CP's.


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