I recently judged another contest, so today seemed like a good day to post some reminders to everyone who enters contests or sends out submissions.

If you enter contests you are competing with experienced writers, many of whom know how to win. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by sending in an entry doomed to score low.

If you enter contests you will likely disagree with something the judge says or the way he/she says it. Fuss, curse, throw things, call a friend or critique partner and whine, or whatever, but don't stop reading the comments or notations. Note any comments on the backs of the pages, too. Don't allow negative or insensitive comments to keep you from reading the good stuff.

1. Get a copy of the score sheet and read it carefully. Make sure you have the elements on that score sheet covered in the number of pages allowed. Make sure the category would not be in question, that you have shown the judge the elements. Any reader should know if this book will meet reader expectations. Don't make me assume you will get to the paranormal or suspense part, etc.

As a reader I'll keep reading for more pages than the contest maximum, but I don't have that option as a judge. Even a one-page synopsis must tell me if I should expect a murder, a ghost, or that we're in another world, or whatever.

2. Characters are pesky and sometimes hide things from us when we want to make our readers love them. Look at the questions about characterization of the hero, or heroine, or villain, or protagonist, or antagonist. Note the development questions and make sure you give insight that lets me know those characters. If you haven't read about characterization, look at past issues of RWR (Romance Writer's Report) or grab back issues of Writer's Digest for articles. I won't attempt to handle that area here, but you must remember that judges are required to consider how well you develop main characters.

Make sure I know which characters are the main ones. I read several entries with characters I enjoyed but didn't see mentioned in the synopsis. If you include "kill-off" characters in a prologue, ask yourself if they should be in the meager 10, 20, or so pages you have to hook me here.

3. Make the most of your allotted pages. Avoid paragraphs with a single word on the last line. That line should be filled with information you want me to have. Don't give me a page with three or four lines and lots of white space. Readers like white space in books, but you need all the lines on every page for your entry. Tell me as much of your story as possible, especially if there is an awesome line or an exciting scene on the next page after the maximum for an entry.

Edit those words that do nothing but take up space. Few "thats" or "justs" serve a purpose. Have you let your love of words get in the way of telling the story? Not every noun requires an adjective. Use those modifying words I need for clarity.

Example: The tall, dark, bearded man strolled slowly down the rutted gravel drive toward the dilapidated, haunted, gray stucco mansion occupying a small space in the center of an overgrown, ten acre estate near the rocky coast line rife with ship wreckage.

How many of those details do you remember after reading that sentence? Not many, unless you look back over it. Choose details I need now as a reader. Emphasize details that make a point rather than all the details you can find. Make your sentences flow, but don't flow past the point you want to make.

Play with the example above to change the emphasis by omitting some words that describe. Would you use both strolled and slowly when one usually strolls slowly. Are you more concerned that the house is dilapidated or haunted? Is the color important here? Would the area around a dilapidated house be overgrown, anyway? Do we need to know about the rocky coastline or the ship wreckage at this point?

Example: Angry waves crashed on the sandy shore.
What kind of waves crash? I would assume they are angry, and if I needed to clear a line for more information, I'd omit "angry". Is there significance in the fact that the shore is sandy? If not, I'd omit that word, too.
Qualifiers are seldom needed.

Example: They gathered some strawberries. "Some" is so vague and unnecessary, as is the "so" I used.

Example: John was very angry. If you need more than angry, go for a stronger adjective, like livid, or incensed, or one suitable for the character.
Or even better, Anger consumed John as he clenched fists, wishing he could hit something. Or John wanted to smash something. Do we know he's angry?

Example: The house looked like some kind of shoe. The house looked like a shoe. The house resembled a shoe.
Watch the use of vague pronouns: it, they, them, some, or this, somebody.

Example: It makes me sad to see her alone. Better, seeing her alone saddens me.

When characters speak, they usually ask or say. If you want me to laugh, have a contemporary character "query" instead of ask a question. Or have someone "grind out" or "hiss" words that don't have S sounds. Try laughing the dialogue the character laughs, or barks, or growls. Most of the time "said" or "asked" is sufficient and invisible. "Remonstrated" isn't, and anything one remonstrates shouldn't need the reinforcement of that word. Words like "scolded", "commanded", "demanded", "droned", "muttered", "groaned" don't grab a reader's attention, while "ground out" or "spat" will, unless the words are spitable or sound like they've been ground.

4. Why do grammar and punctuation matter in a novel? Because words and the way we group them are our tools. You need tools for building a boat, preparing a meal, doctoring a wound, killing a bear, repairing a car, making a dress, or whatever.

Tell a story using the wrong medication for an illness or the wrong instrument to perform an operation and you WILL hear about that. Use the wrong adhesive to seal parts of a boat and it won't float. Shoot a bear with a BB gun and see how long that will stop the bear. Kill a fly with a hammer and clean up the mess. Combine the wrong chemicals and …

We learn what we need or what we feel we will need. If you missed out on the grammar lessons, now is a good time to refresh your memory.

Sentence Fragments: When you begin a group of words with a capital letter, I assume the thought ends when I see an end mark, a ., or?, or ! That should indicate a complete thought, a subject and verb, - who or what did which action.

Birds fly. 2 words, but Birds is the who or what, and fly is what happens.
Lovely large birds. More words there, but nothing happens.
In the shade of the bent palm tree. What happens? Nothing.
After the books are repaired. Weren't you waiting for me to complete that?
Running the length of the pool. Who does what?

There are times when a sentence fragment works effectively. In an action scene and in dialogue, or internal dialogue, sentence fragments might move things along more quickly than complete sentences.

Example: His warnings echoed in my head. "Hide little girl. I'll still find you."
Where? Oh, God, where? Running, tripping over roots. I can't hide from him. He'll find me. Branches scrap my skin and I cry. No more, please, no more!
Would this have worked better if I had used all complete sentences? Why slow the reader with more words here? Get inside the victim's head.
Use fragments for effect and use them judiciously.

5. Misplaced modifiers.
Example: Looking more handsome than I expected, I wanted him. "Looking more handsome than I expected" is in the wrong place. Such a phrase should modify the subject, "I".
Better: Looking more handsome than I expected, he set my pulse racing. "Looking …" modifies "he".

Example: I saw cows flying across the field. Or Flying
across the field, I saw cows.
Better. Who or what was flying?
Sometimes there's a comma missing. Sometimes you need to rearrange the sentence, sometimes you need to reword the sentence.

Nouns of address.
Example: "Well, now, Mr. Johnson, what have we here? (Mr. Johnson is the noun of address.)
Please, Bob, don't shout. (Bob is the noun of address.)
Child, I've missed you. (Child is the noun of address.)
I won't go with you, jerk. (Jerk is the noun of address.)

Using the correct verb tenses is important, as is the subject-verb agreement, and using the correct form of pronouns. There we have three whole lessons best handled by studying grammar books or web sites on grammar. The same is true of words often confused for each other, like passed and past or too, to, and two or lie and lay, set and sat and more.

Verbs of being (is, am, are, was, were, be, been, being) are not nasty critters, any more than using passive voice makes you a bad writer. However, if you write a lot with being verbs, you miss a chance to put more punch into your writing.

Example: He was the slowest boy in the class.
Stronger: He finished last in every race.
By the time he reached the table, there were no cookies left. You might reword to take out "were".

Active and Passive Voice.
John threw the ball. (Active voice) John, the subject, threw the ball. He acted.
The ball was thrown across the room. (Passive voice) Ball, the subject, didn't do anything. It received the action of the verb thrown.
The ball hit John. (Active voice) Ball, the subject, acted.

6. Make me feel what the characters feel.

Sally paused on the threshold of her room. Cold, the room seemed colder than the hall behind her. That couldn't be, yet she rubbed her arms to chase away the chill. When a whiff of gardenia perfumed the air around Sally, her stomach flipped. Tears stung her eyes. Mama loved Gardenias.
You could underline the last sentence to show direct thought (the words the character would say in dialogue).
If you use a villain's point of view, make us feel what he feels, anger, frustration, pleasure, sexual release, satisfaction, love, or obsession.
Use emotion packed words.

7. POV refers to Point of view. With whom are we to identify in a scene? In whose head are we? Choose a character and show us what that character sees and feels. When you switch back and forth in a sentence, or even a paragraph, you might loose your reader. You will certainly bug most contest judges. If you tend to use more than one point of view in a scene, change that for a contest or risk losing points.
Some authors have web sites with sections devoted to grammar, story elements, and more. (The subject is you, understood as in most commands or instructions.) Check as many as you can and take what you can use. I'll eventually have my own writer's help pages.
Feel free to send me questions about comments you see often on your work.
Keep learning and growing and choose the contest which best fits your stories and style. Telling a good story is the most important part of writing novels, but doing it well helps.

Write your story. Fill it with interesting characters. Refine it with the tools you have, using words that pack a wallop. Arrange them in an order that shows what you want me to see or feel or smell, or hear. Make me read nonstop and take me on a journey I don't want to end.

If you read this to the end, you are to be congratulated and deserve a reward. Go eat something rich and flavorful and think about me while you please your senses.
We all have our pet peeves, like mine about using "was going to" for future tense.
He wasn't going to take it anymore.
He wouldn't take it any more sounds stronger to me.
Or the weird things we do with forms of the verb to get.
I have more, of course!

Do you have a question or a pet peeve?


  1. magolla // April 30, 2010 at 10:35 AM  

    Oi, Mary! Whew--that was some long blog!
    I will exclusively judge historical or paranormal. I enjoy those genres and want to be taken away to another world.
    My pet peeve has to do with paranormal category.
    Do NOT call your story a paranormal if you can remove the paranormal element (elves, vampires, psychic 'feelings') and the story still stands. The paranormal aspect MUST BE integral to the story.
    Thank you.

  2. Donnell // April 30, 2010 at 10:44 AM  

    Mary: Wow, what an excellent blog about contests. I think this should be required reading for entrants. Excellent advice. Everything you mentioned was spot on. ~ Donnell

  3. Anonymous // April 30, 2010 at 11:39 AM  

    iwas just wandering if any writers would be interested in writing to me.On a kind of pen pal basis as i want to develope into a fluent writer.writing is something that bored me as a child.So in a way i am trying to make up for lost time.If you have the patients it would be appreciated.i live in EIRE am single but just love the therapeutic side to writing.It problambly orginates from a late uncle of mine.Who never wrote until he was in his eighties.Then retold all about his seventy years as happy go lucky horse dealer surviving on his wit.Which must have aided his miralous recovery.Whilst the rest of the ward were in the doldrums he had the nurses in stitches.It wasn't long before Paddy was back up and down the country again buying and selling.Some of the IRISH horse fairs have extisted since ST Patricks days.MY email address is sligoguard@gmail.com

  4. Mary Marvella // April 30, 2010 at 12:12 PM  

    Magnolia, you are so right.

    The paranormal element must BE the story. If I read 30 pages of an entry, and I don't see that it's a reincarnation/vampire/fairy story, even with a HINT, that entry will NOT score well. It might be a wonderful story, but I use the score sheets for judging.

    I don't need everything spelled out in the beginning, but I need to know something odd is there.

    Or put the story on another category.

  5. Mary Marvella // April 30, 2010 at 12:16 PM  

    Thanks for stopping by Donnell. I've had judges rip a story apart because they didn't pay attention to the category I entered.

    I spend a lot of time reading entries, especially the ones that aren't ready for prime-time. I don't want to rewrite another author's book, but I can make general suggestions that might help a writer sharpen his or her story.

  6. Mary Marvella // April 30, 2010 at 12:20 PM  

    Anonymous, thanks for stopping by. As you can see, this is a blog for and by writers. I don't know if any of us has a lot of time to take on a new pen pal, but we'd love to have you visit and comment on our blogs.

    There are some interesting posts in our archives. Check them out.

  7. Joanne // April 30, 2010 at 12:32 PM  

    Hi Mary,
    I read your post to the end and enjoyed a handful of Hershey's kisses. Thanks for an interesting blog.

  8. Mary Ricksen // April 30, 2010 at 1:50 PM  

    Great suggestions. I appreciate all that information Mary. You are so spot on girl!
    Thanks for taking the time.

  9. Mary Marvella // April 30, 2010 at 2:58 PM  

    Joanne, you deserve chocolate if you waded through my blog today.

  10. Mary Marvella // April 30, 2010 at 3:01 PM  

    Mary R, you didn't know I could be so verbose, did you? The teacher in me made me do it!
    Sometimes it's hard to tell someone why her or his work is flat or how to use more sensory detail, etc.

  11. Judy // May 1, 2010 at 8:46 AM  

    Good advice, Mary! As co-chair of the Launching a Star Contest, which is one of the most popular ones, I am pleased to see you offer this insight. Our judges are trained to give positive helpful advice. IMHO, contests are meant to be a means of gleaning reactions from trained judges so that a writer might know how an editor might react to his/her work. Thanks, Mary!!

  12. Mary Marvella // May 1, 2010 at 10:58 AM  

    You are most welcome, Judy! I enjoy judging and try to find a way to make it a learning experience for me and for the entrants.