Posted On November 16, 2011 by Print This Post

Loucinda McGary – Five Things that Drive Contest Judges Bonkers

We’re happy to welcome back author Loucinda McGary to the RU campus! Having judged dozens of contests, she joins us today to talk about the five common mistakes in contest entries. 

And…as an extra bonus, she’s graciously offered two 1,000 word crits to two lucky commenters.  

More than any other genre – in fact, more than all the other genres combined – Romance has a “THING” about contests. 

When I first joined RWA I was astounded at the number of contests that existed for both published and unpublished authors. I’ve judged dozens of unpublished contests over the past few years, including the Golden Heart. I usually judge romantic suspense and paranormal since those are the genres I’m most familiar with. But I’ve also judged historical and single title contemporary romance. 

The vast majority of entries I receive are… pretty terrible. Honestly, I don’t believe they have been critiqued, edited, revised… NUTTIN HONEY! Just a lot of dreadful first draft thrown out there. When I do get an entry that the writer put more than 5 minutes into writing IT SHOWS!

But what about all those other entries: The Good, the Bad and the Horrid? 

Most of them shared common shortcomings. I hesitate to call them actual mistakes, because in most cases, they were easily fixable.

Instead, I’ll just say here are the five things that drive contest judges (and agents and editors too, I’m sure) BONKERS! 

1.    The story starts in the wrong place  

  • 9 out of 10 Prologues are unnecessary

Most of them show (or worse TELL) a bunch of back story that the reader doesn’t need to know yet (or maybe ever). Or they show an event unrelated to the present course of action in the story. 

If it is that important then it needs to be Chapter 1. 

  •  There’s no hook

In these days of instant gratification everyone has a short attention span. If you don’t pull the reader in on the very first page (or the first paragraph) they won’t stick around to read the second. 

  •  The opening is a cliché

Here are a few I and every contest judge have seen too many times:

Hero or heroine (H/H) has a dream,

looks at self in mirror,

contemplates house/apartment,

hates job,

is late,

gets fired.

I’m not saying you can’t make one of these work, I’m just saying you better put a HELLUVA twist on it to make it feel fresh.

 2.   The pacing is off

  •  Glaciers move faster 

Remember what I said about everyone’s short attention span? A slow moving story puts you at a disadvantage right off.

  •  Pace is uneven – starts with fast action but suddenly shifts to slow introspection, or vice versa 

I love suspense in a story. But I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been reading along during a face-paced action sequence and suddenly, the heroine (or hero) STOPS in mid-action to remember something in her (his) past. 

Or worse, the H/H are fleeing for their lives, the bad guys are closing in. But their attraction gets the better of them and the H/H take time for a little quickie… Um NO! Not even a make-out scene when they’re in mortal danger. 

  • Character development, setting, etc. are sacrificed for a fast-moving pace 

I know you’ve seen this one too. The story opens with a BIG BATTLE or a FRANTIC CHASE. People are fighting with each other or running from each other, and you have NO IDEA WHY. You don’t know who these people are or what they are fighting against or running from NOR DO YOU CARE!

Readers need to know enough about the characters and their plight to become invested in the story… 

 3.    Hero and/or Heroine is under-developed or unsympathetic 

  •  If your H/H don’t like each other at the beginning of your story, chances are one or both of them may strike the judge as   unsympathetic.


  •  If one of your main characters is not introduced right away (not until page 23 of a 25 page entry) then chances are the judge will consider them under-developed. Remember I can’t judge something that’s not there.


  • Be sure your ‘cute meet’ is actually cute and believable.

 4.   Info Dumps 

  • Use back  story like fertilizer – sprinkled lightly over a wide area. Large chunks of either tend to stink. I know you know everything in the world about your hero (or heroine), but does the reader really need to be shown all that in the first or second chapter? Probably not.


  • Ditto with descriptions (be they of setting, characters, whatever), they are necessary but need to be spread with a measured and thoughtful hand. I know you meticulously researched the flora, fauna, and architecture of the Outer Hebrides, but you are not going to impress me (or 99 out of 100 readers) if you dump all your findings on page 3 of your manuscript. More than likely, you’re going to annoy me.


  • Writing needs to flow. ‘Action then Dump’ or ‘Dialogue then Dump’ is not flow (see “pacing” above). Remember what I said about dumping a bunch of info in the middle of a fight or chase. Also, don’t end (or worse stop in the midst of) an intense conversation with a 3 paragraph dump of your heroine’s (or hero’s) back story!  

5.   Dialogue Issues 

  • Talking Heads – Ernest Hemingway and Janet Evanovich can get away with it, but you can’t! Two characters are talking away – there might even be dialogue tags or some body language – but ABSOLUTELY NOTHING is going on around them! If the characters are in a restaurant then WHERE is their waiter? The other diners? What about their food? Anchor that scene and show the reader where they are and what they are doing besides talking.


  • Everybody talks the same. Sorry, but that well-educated and sophisticated Dallas lawyer is not going to talk like the cop from Jersey. And I do not mean dialect, I’m talking about vocabulary and syntax. Well-done movies can help you recognize regional and ethnic speech differences.


  • People don’t really talk that way, or they do and that’s the problem. I don’t care if he is English, if your hero is trying to extract life and death information from your villain, he is not going to say, “Sorry old chap, but if you don’t tell me, I’ll be forced to shoot you.”

And please, PLEASE don’t have your heroine give me that flora and fauna info dump in her conversation! She can say, “Pretty blue flowers” but even if she IS a botany professor, don’t have her give a lecture.

  •  Finally, dialogue is not meant to be a word-for-word transcription of actual conversation. You don’t need to write, “Hey you!”

“Who me?”

“Yes, you.”

“What do you want?”

“Are you John’s sister?”


“His cousin?”


I’m afraid I’ve seen dialogue just that bad. It needs to advance the plot and/or develop your characters, otherwise you risk driving your poor contest judge (and readers) BONKERS!

So there you have my five things: bad beginnings, pacing, under-developed hero or heroine, info dumps, and dialogue issues. Grab your contest entries and scour them for these offenders. I can’t guarantee if your manuscript is free of all five that it will be a winner, but I can guarantee that your poor contest judge won’t be carted off to the rubber room. At least not because of your manuscript!

Aunty Cindy would love to help you with your contest entry, so she’s giving away two critiques of the first 1,000 words of your manuscript to random commenters.



Please feel free to ask questions about my five things. Have you ever judged a contest, or read a book that had one of them? Are there other things you’ve read that drive you BONKERS? Please share with us.


Harlequin author Christina Hollis presents Five Things to Smooth Your Road to Publication on Friday, November 18th.


Bio: A Golden Heart finalist, Loucinda McGary is the author of three contemporary romantic suspense novels, The Wild Sight, The Treasures of Venice and The Wild Irish Sea. Her novelette, The Sidhe Princess, is available on Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes and Noble. Loucinda blogs regularly with Romance Bandits ( and on her personal blog Aunty Cindy Explains It All (  Please check out her website:

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71 Responses to “Loucinda McGary – Five Things that Drive Contest Judges Bonkers”

  1. Thank you, these are great tips not jusy for contests, but also publication. I especially made note of pacing issues. I hope I win a critique!

    Posted by suzanne | November 16, 2011, 12:35 am
    • Hi Suzanne!

      I see you are a night owl just like MOI! 😉 I’m sure you are correct, these 5 things must drive agents and editors bonkers also. But unlike us poor contest judges, they don’t usually read the entire submission.

      Pacing is a difficult skill to master, but keep at it and you will get there!

      Thanks so much for dropping by!


      Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 12:54 am
  2. Waving Auntie Cindy. I remember when you gave these thoughts to us at a recent Sacramento Valley Rose meeting. Of course, you know me, I am sure I am guilty of all five of them in grand measure. 🙂 I always listen to good advice, but am not always sure I’ve done right by them. I must be doing all right since I’ve begun winning contests, and that is a very good thing. It’s fun to know hard work is paying off. I want my characters to be the very best they can be.

    Thank you for always supporting me.

    Posted by Paisley Kirkpatrick | November 16, 2011, 12:56 am
    • Paisley M’Dear,
      You do NOT win or final in contests by getting it wrong! 😛

      We all know the real WORK in writing is the rewriting. Only then can we make the needed corrections and put on the special polish to make our characters and stories shine.

      You are doing a great job and building your skills with every story. And I’m very grateful for all your support!


      Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 1:15 am
  3. I recently judged a contest where the author did the flora and fauna thing. It was beautiful, it really was, but after about a page, it became too much. I felt bad for the author, because, while I understood her intentions, I was just so… bored.

    Nice post!

    Posted by Meggan Connors | November 16, 2011, 1:06 am
  4. Hi Loucinda,

    Thanks for the great tips. I had an unsympathetic heroine for a while. Finally, received some great advice from a chaptermate on how to fix the problem. It’s amazing on how a few words of wisdom can turn things around!


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | November 16, 2011, 5:30 am
  5. Loucinda – Thanks for being with us at RU! I am a contest slut. I enter lots and judge a ton as well. I love to judge because it sharpens my skills as a writer and a self-editor.


    Posted by Robin Covington | November 16, 2011, 5:36 am
  6. Unsympathetic character. I caught one in a WIP. Had to correct that. Pacing? I needed to hear that again, because my pacing leans to the slow side.

    Thanks for sharing. Great post.

    Posted by Mercy | November 16, 2011, 6:23 am
  7. Great timing, as I’m looking through contest entries right now. 🙂
    Thanks for the great reminders of simple problems to look out for in our own manuscripts! It’s easy to sit here and think, “Oh, surely I know better than to put a big info dump into my work,” but I know when I go back and look, I’ll find places I’m guilty of many of these. 🙂


    Posted by Jamie | November 16, 2011, 7:56 am
  8. This is great information even if you’re not entering contests, Loucinda. I entered my first manuscript in a couple of contests, and my big problem was/is info dump. I’m trying hard to correct that in my current WIP, but it’s always good to have that reminder at regular intervals because it’s such a hard thing to figure out the right balance, especially when you’re just starting out like I am. Thank you!

    Posted by Linda F. | November 16, 2011, 8:14 am
    • Hi Linda,
      Appreciate you stopping by and I agree, these are all things we should be aware of in any circumstance. As Paisley said, we want our characters and story to be the very best we can make them. 🙂

      Not just beginners have a difficult time striking that balance between giving just enough info and dumping. But the more we all practice, the better we will become.


      Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 12:24 pm
  9. Hi Loucinda,

    My current WIP starts with a dream. OOPS. I’ve judged contests too. Some scary romances out there.
    Thanks for the tips.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | November 16, 2011, 8:41 am
  10. Hi Loucinda. Fantastic list! I think it’s a nice reminder for all writers out there on how to keep our opening pages fresh.

    Thanks for hanging out with us today!

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | November 16, 2011, 8:41 am
  11. Morning Loucinda!

    Great post! I haven’t judged a contest, but definitely a list to keep in mind if I do, and even more importantly, for my next contest entry! =)

    Thanks so much for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | November 16, 2011, 8:45 am
  12. Aunty Cindy –

    Thanks for hanging out with RU today!

    These are fabulous reminders for not only contest entrants, but everyone. Can you give our readers a couple of pointers on how to manage pacing? I find that a big challenge personally.

    Thanks a ton!

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | November 16, 2011, 9:01 am
    • Hi Kelsey,
      I’m tickled pink to be here today!

      Pacing is a tough one! I struggle with it in my own work.

      Here a 2 quick tips to make the pace seem faster: Short sentences.

      I tend to write in longer, complex sentences which naturally forces the reader to go a bit more slowly. By writing more short subject-verb, or subject-verb-object sentences in a scene, the reader reads faster and feels like the story is moving faster. 😉

      Second: use action verbs. Using the “was __ing” form of the verb tends to slow the pace, and may even make the sentence passive. Use the good ole __ed verb whenever possible to pick up the pace. Example– He was banging on the door. He banged on the door.

      There’s more immediacy in the second sentence.

      Hope these are helpful!

      Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 1:04 pm
  13. Thanks, Loucinda, for a really helpful blog! I know it’s aimed at writers entering contests, but it applies equally well to anyone submitting to editors and agents.

    Have I entered contests? Hooooo-baby. That would be a resounding “yes.”

    Have I made these mistakes? Thankfully, not all of them.
    To my great embarrassment, yes to a couple of them. And I don’t mean just four years ago, when I entered my first contests.

    Yep, I’m still making some of those newbie mistakes. Not all the time, but often enough to drive me batty. Sometimes I feel like writing is a dance: one step forward, two steps back.

    I owe a huge thank you to the people who took time to judge and comment on my entries. They’ve given me some extremely helpful advice over the years (including this month). One day I hope it will all sink in!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | November 16, 2011, 9:37 am
    • Hi Becke,
      GREAT analogy: writing is dancing. Now I’m picturing myself as graceful as Ginger Rogers gliding along with Fred! LOL! ONLY in my wildest dreams. 😉

      Thank you for saying you appreciate people who have taken time to judge. In all the years I have judged contests, I’ve only received TWO thank you emails. 😛 AHEM! I’m afraid my comments might not have been fully appreciated.

      who is brutally honest in her contest critiques, so beware

      Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 1:10 pm
      • I ALWAYS send thank you’s to the judges. I judge a lot of contests, too, and I’ve occasionally received thank yous.

        The thing is, while it is encouraging to get high scores and positive comments, sometimes the harsh comments are more helpful. At least they give me an indication of what needs work.

        It can be very confusing, though, when one judge loves the entry and another hates it. A friend of mine once got – in the same contest – a perfect 100 and a 60.

        I have a strong voice and my stories are always a little weird. This almost always results in a disparity of scores, and my entries often go to a discrepancy judge. I expect it now, but it was nerve-wracking at first.

        Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | November 16, 2011, 1:23 pm
        • I agree, Becke…the harsh comments are sometimes more helpful. I may not agree with them, but it gives me something to think about.

          Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 16, 2011, 1:40 pm
        • Becke,
          My contest entries tended to be the same as yours. All over the map!

          The year I finaled in the Golden Heart, my scores ranged from a perfect 9, mostly 8.5+ and one 3! Yes, if this judge was using the 9 point scoring rubrik correctly (and I happen to think s/he wasn’t) then according to that judge, I didn’t know how to punctuate a sentence. 😛

          The year before, I had finaled in the unpublished Daphne. All the judges gave me near perfect scores, but the judge who scored me the lowest was the one who gave me the most helpful feedback!

          It’s a crap shoot, sometimes.


          Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 2:12 pm
          • That’s it exactly! The lovely comments from the judges who like my entries warm the cockles of my heart.

            But my stories DO need work, so the harsh advice – even though it can be hard on the ego – does help the story in the long run.

            Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | November 16, 2011, 4:54 pm
  14. Never entered a contest. However, these are excellent tips for any writer. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Posted by anny cook | November 16, 2011, 9:47 am
  15. I’m more of a mainstream fiction writer, but is solid advice for anyone. My biggest sin is the info dump. Need to go back through my latest MS and clean those up.

    Posted by Tim Sunderland | November 16, 2011, 10:17 am
  16. Great post, Cindy. These tips are excellent for newbies entering contests and/or just beginning their careers, but also for seasoned writers. We all need to be reminded of pitfalls in our writing.

    Posted by Jo Robertson | November 16, 2011, 10:28 am
  17. Hee hee heee – my hero has a fauna lecture. But it only lasts about two sentences before the heroine cuts him off. 🙂

    Posted by abigail sharp | November 16, 2011, 12:35 pm
  18. Great post – thanks for the timely reminders as I’m working on not one, but two Golden Heart entries. *gulp* I have no idea what I was thinking with the double entry…okay, I do. It’s called stacking the deck. LOL So I need that crit, times two. 🙂

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | November 16, 2011, 12:36 pm
  19. I wonder if some of those mistakes show up because writers are trying too hard to impress the contest judges — like they want to show off how they can write a spicy sex scene, so they include a scene even though it really belongs much later in the story.

    Posted by Kris Bock | November 16, 2011, 12:54 pm
    • An interesting point, Kris.

      I’ve never encountered it in the entries I’ve judges, but I imagine that could be the case.

      One thing I always caution writers about when entering contests — look at the score sheets before hand! These are the criteria judges must conform to. If none of it is what your want to find out (you already know about your character development or setting or pacing) or if you know your entry will be lacking (like your hero and heroine don’t even meet in the first 24 pages of the 25 page entry) then chose a different contest!


      Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 1:23 pm
  20. Hola AC!

    Having won a three chapter crit from you last year, I KNOW you’re a tough judge. You told me to cut an entire chapter to improve the pacing. Ouch! 🙂

    There are a lot of contests out there for writers. Are there contests that are more competitive than others?

    Also, is it difficult to separate your personal likes/dislikes and remain objective when judging an entry?

    Thanks so much for joining us again and for generously offering the critiques!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 16, 2011, 1:37 pm
    • You raised a really good point. One of my friends got some really nasty – and I mean totally over the top – comments on her paranormal contest entry.

      The comments weren’t even related to the story itself, but to paranormals in general. This person was offended by them on religious grounds. It made the whole experience horrible for my friend.

      I know contest judges are sometimes in short supply, but I don’t think anyone should volunteer to judge a category they don’t enjoy.

      Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | November 16, 2011, 5:00 pm
      • Becke,
        I’ve heard a few horror stories like what happened to you friend and there is NO EXCUSE for it! That person should have never been allowed to judge in that category (or any other, but that’s just my opinion)!

        We all like to think (and hope) that judges can remain objective, but sadly not everyone can in every circumstance. This is why I personally have never judged inspy, erotica, or YA. I’d also never judge an historical manuscript that required me to comment of the historical accuracy. I’m just not well-versed enough to give an objective and thoughtful opinion and I know it.

        Similarly, I’d never judge an entry if I knew the writer personally. I know I couldn’t be objective. This is what makes judging published entries so difficult. The judges knows who the author, publisher, and most cases the editor is before ever reading the book. Bias, whether intentional of not, is bound to creep into the judging.


        Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 6:01 pm
    • Hey Jen,
      There are lots of contests and I advise writers to study the score sheets and look at the final judges before deciding whether or not to enter.

      The Golden Heart is the BIGGIE, of course, but in terms of feedback you get almost “nuttin honey.” Whereas, the Golden Pen (put on by The Golden Network, of which I’m a member) allows a 55 page entry and provides plenty of feedback.

      Since I happen to write suspense, I think the Daphne (for both unpublished and published writers) is quite prestigious. But if you don’t write suspense or mystery, this contest is not for you.

      The Maggie (put on by Georgia Romance Writers) is another great contest for both published and unpublished, but it doesn’t have a separate category for romantic suspense.

      Pick and choose, that’s my final answer. 😉


      Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 5:54 pm
    • Jen,
      I just realized I did respond to your comment on me being tough…

      I figure better to hear it from me (whom you can curse and call names in the privacy of your home LOL!), than from an agent or editor. More than likely, they will just slap a form rejection on your submission and you’ll never know why.


      Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 8:26 pm
  21. Oh Aunty Cindy – I’ve done all of those but I thought you said you wouldn’t tell anyone – now here it is on this post! I’m kidding of course, but I am guilty of doing each and every one of these things, fortunately not on the same manuscript.

    As always good information and fun to read. I need these reminders all the time.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    Posted by Patricia | November 16, 2011, 3:51 pm
    • LOL Patricia!

      I’m sure you weren’t the only one trying to hide your identity. 😉 We’ve all been guilty of one or more of these things… But not in our final draft! It’s okay to stumble around in early drafts, that’s why you revise and polish!

      Thanks as always, for all your support!


      Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 6:04 pm
  22. Hrmm, the biggest peeve of mine in contests is definitely when they give waaaay too much description or keep repeating the same piece of information over and over. Yes, I get that he’s not the brightest candle in the chandelier, don’t use a sledgehammer to drive home that fact. ARGH!

    Love the contest, and would love to win one of the critiques. 🙂

    Posted by Tory Michaels | November 16, 2011, 6:56 pm
  23. Great points. I would also add, for new writers, don’t enter several contests at once. Pace them out, so you can get feedback and use it for editing.

    I made this mistake, entering 3 contests at the same time, and while I waited for them to be judged, received a critique that made me realize I needed to get rid of my 4 of my first 5 pages! Duh!

    Thanks so much for this useful post!

    Posted by Larissa Hoffman | November 16, 2011, 7:14 pm
    • Larissa,
      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you thought the post was useful. 🙂

      Good point about spacing out contest entries. However, sometimes it can take several months to get contest results (the GH for example must be submitted in Nov/Dec and no results until the end of March). Be sure to keep that in mind, esp. if you are looking for feedback before submitting.


      Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 8:23 pm
  24. Thanks so much, Lucinda. In one MS I cut the first nine pages. I never missed them, so I am sure no one else would have. I had a great reader tell me “you talk too much.” So I self-corrected the non-stop dialogue, slowed it down and it was better. Another reader told me I was too episodic. “How many things can you expect the reader to keep up with?”

    I dumped the string of “things” and tightened her up once more.

    I love your five points, like five points of light. In each rewrite I have gotten stronger, so maybe one of these days, I’ll feel strong enough to enter a contest … or not 🙂

    Posted by florence fois | November 16, 2011, 8:40 pm
    • Florence,
      You were fortunate to have such spot on beta readers! Too many times, readers will only tell you what they think you want to hear. Honest appraisals are so valuable!

      Glad you liked my 5 things and appreciate you stopping by. Plenty of people publish or take the next step in their writing career without ever entering a contest, so if you decide not to, that’s fine too! 😉


      Posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy | November 16, 2011, 10:33 pm
  25. Fantastic pointers on writing and contest entries, Loucinda!

    I’ve posted your link to my local RWA chapter, so that they can benefit from you words of wisdom.

    Posted by Jacqui Nelson | November 17, 2011, 1:49 pm
  26. Thank you for this!! Perfect! Gives a deeper insight in how to work my story – some things that are so obvious truly aren’t until you look at things from this perspective.

    Lisa McManus Lange

    Posted by Lisa McManus Lange | November 17, 2011, 3:05 pm
  27. Fabulous advice!
    I’ve found contests to be great tools. The biggest surprise I had though, was after an agent gave me a first place, she included a pretty strong critique. It stung for a minute or two but was the best advise I’ve ever had.

    And I too have what judges call a very strong voice which has often earned me a trip to discrepancy!(100/98/62..98/97/55 etc)
    I learn something from each contest I enter and every entry I judge.
    Now if I could just get this Golden Heart entry whipped into shape!

    Posted by kc stone | November 17, 2011, 4:12 pm
  28. Excellent blog! Now I have to go back over my last WIP and see what needs fixing.

    Posted by Pat Amsden | November 17, 2011, 11:06 pm
  29. Great info! Thanks so much. Now I’m off to see what I need to fix.

    Posted by Tara A | November 18, 2011, 6:23 pm


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