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. www.LoucindaMcgary.com
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When I first joined RWA I was astounded at the number of contests that existed for both published and unpublished authors. I’ve judged dozens of unpublished contests over the past few years, including the Golden Heart.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!
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,
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!”
“What do you want?”
“Are you John’s sister?”
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 (www.romancebandits.blogspot.com) and on her personal blog Aunty Cindy Explains It All (www.auntycindy.blogspot.com). Please check out her website: www.LoucindaMcgary.com
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