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Should you Write Specifically for Contests? by Darynda Jones

Our very special guest today is USA Today and New York Times Best Selling Author DARYNDA JONES [1]. Most aspiring authors have at least considered entering their writing in contests. The Golden Heart, the Golden Pen, the Emily, the Daphne (to name but a few examples) and, ultimately, the Rita – these are our Oscars, our Emmys, our Tony awards.

There’s nothing quite like the high of getting the notification that you’ve made the finals or – better yet – that you’ve won. Who wouldn’t want that spotlight to shine on your story? It takes a particular skill-set to write for contests. You may even find yourself tailoring stories with the specific goal of earning high scores in a contest. Now Darynda asks the hard question: Should you write for contests?

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Hello, and welcome!

I’m here today to talk to you about writing/literary contests and, more specifically, should you write for them? In other words, should you write your opening pages to fit what contests are looking for? What are the pros and cons of doing such a thing? Let’s find out.

Should you write specifically for contests?


Okay, admittedly ‘should’ is a strong word. You certainly ‘can’ write specifically for contests, meaning you construct your entry for the sole purpose of finaling in and winning contests, and quite frankly, I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all as long as you keep a couple of key points in mind.

The hard truth…


First, the odds are against your selling a manuscript to New York on the first 20 pages alone. Unless you’re already published and have some decent sales under your belt, this simply doesn’t happen. So, while you may polish your first 20 pages until they shine with a blinding brilliance, you’d better be able to back that up in the other 330 pages. Agents and editors will know the instant your manuscript starts to fall apart, and they will know why. They’ve seen it thousands of times, so you won’t fool them, I promise.


Second, there is a strong desire to work and rework our beginnings, especially if your goal is to win contests, polishing them until they glow, and then going back and reworking them again. In other words, we fall into the rabbit hole—and habit—of starting a manuscript, then another, and another, and never completing any of them. You do not want to do that. You are never going to sell if you don’t, as Cherry Adair would say, FINISH THE DAMN BOOK!

The pros of writing for contests…


As you may already know, contests reflect the submission process. If those first few pages AREN’T polished to a blinding brilliance, you are not going to get an editor/agent to read past them. Sad but true.


QUICK TIP: A big sign that you have started in the wrong place:

If you have ever said to anyone, “Keep reading. It gets better.”

That is a huge, flashing warning sign that you need to go back and rethink your opening.


Like the above states, if you have ever said to anyone, “Keep reading, it gets better,” you may have started in the wrong place, put backstory where it doesn’t belong, began with too much description of the weather … any number of possibilities, really. Consider tossing out your entire opening and starting later in the story, cutting out the info dump and sprinkling in backstory throughout your story, or tightening your prose until it’s razor sharp.


A fantastic byproduct of writing for contests is that your prose will be tightened and streamlined. You are learning about pacing early on, about introducing key characters quickly and succinctly, about jump-starting your story, making it interesting from the very first word. A nice pace for the first 20-50 pages has a powerful effect on the rest of your story.


So, in that sense, there is nothing wrong with writing for contests. Later, when your manuscript sells, grows up, and gets to sit at the big table next to Nora, you will have accomplished a very important goal: Hook the reader and don’t let go. If there is anything you learn from entering contests, it’s to hook your reader early on. It is a valuable skill. You have about three seconds to grab a shopper’s attention with your prose when she’s browsing the books at Wal-Mart. Once she opens your book for a peek, you’d better have your best foot forward. Make the most of those three seconds.

Sharpening your focus…


What should you focus on in your entry?


The same thing you focus on in every opening scene. You want to set the stage, to orient the reader, and you begin with sharp, crisp writing. That’s a given. Learn the craft and keep learning. Remember, you have to know the rules to break them.

But where should your story begin?


We all know the old adage that the opening should start when there is a change in the main character’s life. Something has happened to set the main character on a different path than he or she was planning.


In a romantic suspense, perhaps our heroine comes home to find her ex-boyfriend dead on her living room floor. In a paranormal, maybe she meets a dark stranger who insists she is destined to save the world. In a YA, our heroine could find herself being goaded into running for prom queen against the evil popular girl, the one who dumped Kool-Aid on her in grade school. On purpose!


But I hope you’ll eventually learn, what I’m still learning, is that our job is not to grab the reader by the throat, nigh ripping out her jugular, trying to force her to turn the page and keep reading. It is to seduce the reader into continuing. To lure her to the next word, to tempt her with the next sentence, the next page.


Your first and best bet in doing this is not necessarily by wowing her with action, but by wowing her with sharp, crisp writing. Writing that is so fresh and appealing, it is impossible for her to stop reading.


Still, understanding your mission, should you choose to accept it, will help.

While the goal of a book is to create a positive emotional experience for the reader, the goal of the opening is to set the stage, to pull the reader in.




  1. Draw the reader in


Step one is to draw the reader in. This means, setting the stage. You must orient your readers lest you risk losing them in a sea of confusion. You can use detail and description. I’m not talking about starting with the weather unless it is important in setting the tone of the story.


  1. Create empathy for your main character


Step two in the process is to create empathy in your reader, make him or her really root for your protagonist. We don’t read to observe the character from a distance. We read to become the character and experience the conflicts and rewards they are experiencing.


PRO TIP: You must create empathy BEFORE introducing any negative flaws in your character, anything that will distance us from the reader.


There are five ways to create empathy: (Need to use AT LEAST two of these.)

o   Sympathy

o   Jeopardy

o   Likeability

o   Power

o   Humor


  1. Set the tone of the story


Tone encompasses the attitudes toward the subject. It may be formal, informal, intimate, solemn, somber, playful, serious, ironic, guilty, condescending, or many other possible attitudes. Tone and mood are not necessarily interchangeable.



Establishing the tone can be done by showing the ominous thunderclouds overhead, describing the sultry darkness of the night, or describing how disturbing the loud music is at the nightclub your heroine has ducked into in an attempt to ditch a man she believes is stalking her.


Your environment is an excellent way to set tone, but dialogue is great too.

o   Julia Quinn

o   Molly Harper

o   Janet Evanovich

o   Joss Whedon (the god)

o   JR Ward

o   And many more!


  1. Elicit emotion-your primary objective


If you’ve done all of the above, chances are you’ve already accomplished this last must-have. Eliciting emotion is a given if our heroine is in jeopardy or if our hero has been wounded or longs for something he believes he can never have. But just to throw fuel onto the fire, to really hook your reader, you might throw in a quick twist the reader didn’t see coming.


Perhaps your heroine who is a nice girl and who is liked by her colleagues and who seems to have her act together is actually living a lie. She is on the run and has a secret past that is so dark and so disturbing she is deathly afraid the truth will get out. The bad guy will find her. And while she is checking her email that morning, she receives one from someone who knows her true identity and has threatened to reveal her secret to the highest bidder. Voila! Emotion!


End with a hook!


Next, if you are writing for a contest, you want to end your entry with a good hook. You want that judge to be drooling for the next paragraph, so end with a twist she didn’t see coming.


And the great thing is, all of this can be done in the first 5,000 words!


Nailing your opening is a class in itself; I’m trying to be brief. But all of this together is your hook, your seduction of the reader. If you can master the opening, you will be leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.




Please feel free to ask questions!



The First Five Pages: Noah Lukeman

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict: Deb Dixon

Anything by Michael Hauge; check his website!

Plot and Structure: James Scott Bell

On Writing: Stephen King

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Have you ever written specifically for a contest? Do you have anything to add to what Darynda’s comments?

On Saturday, Amy Alessio discusses authors writing for teens and adults.





Few things in life can come between a grim reaper and her coffee, but the sexy, sultry son of Satan is one of them. Now that Reyes Farrow has asked for her hand, Charley Davidson feels it’s time to learn more about his past, but Reyes is reluctant to open up. When the official FBI file of his childhood abduction lands in her lap, Charley decides to go behind her mysterious beau’s back and conduct her own investigation. Because what could go wrong?

Unfortunately, another case has fallen into her lap—one with dangerous implications. Some very insistent men want Charley to hunt down a witness who is scheduled to testify against their boss, a major player in the local crime syndicate. If Charley doesn’t come up with an address in 48 hours, the people closest to her will start to disappear. 

Add to that a desperate man in search of the soul he lost in a card game, a dogged mother determined to find the ghost of her son, and a beautiful, young Deaf boy haunted by his new ability to see the departed as clearly as he sees the living, and Charley has her hands full. The fact that Reyes has caught on to her latest venture only adds fuel to the inferno that he is. Good thing for Charley she’s used to multi-tasking and always up for a challenge…especially when that challenge comes in the form of Reyes Farrow.


I’d felt Reyes near me, watching the interaction with my dad. I spotted him when I looked toward the board that listed the daily special. He was wearing an apron and had a towel in his hands, drying them as he pushed off the bar and strolled toward us.

Cookie saw him, too. “Holy mother of all things sexy,” she said, her eyes drinking him in.

“Right there with ya.”

“Will I ever get used to that sight?” she asked me, not daring to take her eyes off him.

“The adorable sight of Reyes Farrow in an apron?”

“The adorable sight of Reyes Farrow period.”

A giggle escaped me before I said, “Well, you know what they say: Practice makes perfect.”

“Exactly. I’ll need lots of practice.”

“Me, too.”

A table of women old enough to be his grandmothers waved him down before he got to us. He stopped and listened to them gush over his cooking but kept his sparkling gaze on me. It stole my breath. Everything about him stole my breath. From the way he dried his hands on that towel to the way he lowered his lashes shyly when they propositioned him.

They propositioned him!

What the bloody—!

“We’re very limber,” one of them said, pulling on the apron string Reyes had wrapped around his waist and tied in front.

Cookie was in the middle of taking a much-needed drink of cold water and burst into a fit of coughs at the woman’s brazenness.

When Reyes looked back at me, he caught me with my mouth open in astonishment. I slammed it shut, hoping I hadn’t in any way resembled a cow. But he turned back to the women as though suddenly interested in the wares they were peddling. As if.

Cookie wheezed beside me, trying to get air through her abused esophagus, but I couldn’t worry about that now. I had to win my man back from these silver foxes. One of them had a walker, for goodness’ sake. How limber could she be?

“Excuse me, busboy,” I said, snapping my fingers in the air to get his attention.

He ignored me, but I caught the grin he was wearing. I also felt the pleasure my attention gave him. It radiated from his essence and brushed over my skin like hot silk.

“Busboy,” I repeated, snapping more loudly. “Over here.”

He finally apologized to the flirty foxes, explaining that his heart belonged to another before he strolled to our table. “Busboy?” he asked, stopping in front of us and leveling a look of concern on a red-faced Cookie.

She took another sip and waved a hello.

I gestured to his apron. “You look like a busboy.”

“In that case, can I clean anything for you?”

“You can clean your dirty mind,” I said, teasing him. “Having fun?” I indicated the table with a nod.

“They were complimenting my cooking.” He leaned in very close. “According to consensus, I’m really good at scrambling things.”

They’d nailed that one. He was really good at scrambling my insides. My emotions. My girlie bits.



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NYTimes and USA Today Bestselling Author Darynda Jones has won numerous awards for her work, including a prestigious Golden Heart®, a Rebecca, two Hold Medallions, a RITA ®, and a Daphne du Maurier, and she has received stellar reviews from dozens of publications including starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and the Library Journal. As a born storyteller, Darynda grew up spinning tales of dashing damsels and heroes in distress for any unfortunate soul who happened by, annoying man and beast alike, and she is ever so grateful for the opportunity to carry on that tradition. She currently has two series with St. Martin’s Press: The Charley Davidson Series and the Darklight Trilogy. She lives in the Land of Enchantment, also known as New Mexico, with her husband of almost 30 years and two beautiful sons, the Mighty, Mighty Jones Boys. She can be found at www.daryndajones.com [5].

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12 Comments To "Should you Write Specifically for Contests? by Darynda Jones"

#1 Comment By Mary Jo Burke On May 2, 2014 @ 9:38 am

Hi Darynda,

I’ve entered many contests and have score ranges from the top to the bottom. Reading is objective, you either like the book or you don’t. This year, I entered three more contests and actually won one. Stunned to say the least.

#2 Comment By Darynda Jones On May 3, 2014 @ 12:29 pm

Good for you, Mary Jo!!!! The whole thing is so subjective, but it reflects the business itself beautifully. Congrats on your win!!!! ~D~

#3 Comment By Carrie Spencer On May 2, 2014 @ 9:44 am

Morning Darynda! *genuflecting*

Looooove your books and can’t wait for Number 6!! =) We’ve definitely pre-ordered from Amazon…..

I agree with Mary that scores range from top to bottom with the same manuscript in different contests. Drives a gal crazy. But the above list is a great starting point to writing for contests. I haven’t entered one in a year or two…but now I’m thinking…hey, maybe it wasn’t so stressful after all! =)

Love your books, love Reyes and Charley (and Cookie) – keep up the great writing! =)


#4 Comment By Darynda Jones On May 3, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

First, THANK YOU SO MUCH, CARRIE!!! And second, I hope you do jump back in there. Sometimes the feedback is invaluable and it can really help sharpen and tighten your prose.

Thank you for joining us! ~D~

#5 Comment By Becke Martin Davis On May 2, 2014 @ 11:01 am

I love Carrie’s genuflecting – Darynda ROCKS! When I first started writing fiction (or attempting to write it), I had no critique partners. I joined RWA and started entering contests specifically to get feedback. Eventually I found trusted critique partners, and I also learned some hard lessons about contests. While I was thrilled to final in several contests, I discovered the judge’s comments were often more discouraging than helpful – and sometimes they were very confusing! I realized I was spending a lot of time “writing for contests” – formatting the entries to fit their requirements, shuffling paragraphs around to make the story break off at a good point, etc. And then I would spend weeks or months having nervous breakdowns until the scoresheets arrived. I decided to take a break from contests for awhile, but unfortunately that break has coincided with a break from writing, too. Hopefully I’ll be able to get back on track without contests as an incentive.

Thanks for a VERY helpful post!

#6 Comment By Darynda Jones On May 3, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

Aw thank you so much, Becke!!!!! I’m so thrilled to be here. And yes, it can all be so confusing and heart wrenching. But you are right. Spending all your time writing for contests is BAD! Hahaha. The rest of the manuscript needs to be just as polished. And a lot of us get into the habit of writing beginnings just to enter contests and never finishing the manuscript. That is bad too. LOL. It’s a fine line.

But I hope you get back on that writing wagon, missy! I have wet noodles! I can beat you with them! 🙂

#7 Comment By Judy Hudson On May 2, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

Hi Darynda, Great post. I think I (and I suspect others too) write myself into a story. One of the things entering a contest does for me is I look at the first page and think – Somebody’s going to READ this! Then it often becomes obvious where the story should start. What I would want to read if I was the reader. Contests can help bring your opening into focus.
Judy Hudson

#8 Comment By Darynda Jones On May 3, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

What a perfect way of looking at it, Judy! I love this. And it’s so true. I think you just hit the nail on the head. Thank you for joining us today! ~D~

#9 Comment By Jennifer Tanner On May 2, 2014 @ 7:56 pm

Hi Darynda!

I had hit and miss success with contest. Judges, like readers, have their likes and dislikes. The most important thing I gained from contests was learning to take criticism, whether constructive or in some cases, downright mean, and not beat myself up over it.

#10 Comment By Darynda Jones On May 3, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

And, Jennifer, what a lovely lesson that is, especially in this business!!!! Talk about having to develop a thick skin. Good for you for trying!

XOX! ~D~

#11 Comment By Angelina (Barbin) Jameson On May 4, 2014 @ 12:51 am

Great point about learning how to take criticism. I never thought about that being a bonus to entering contests.

#12 Comment By Angelina (Barbin) Jameson On May 4, 2014 @ 12:50 am

Thanks for blogging about this, Darynda. Your experience is invaluable. I’m licking my wounds after lopsided scores from the Golden Heart contest. Judges either love my latest manuscript or they hate it. Always glad to see the 4 goals for an opening. I think I met the goals so it is time to send my baby out in to the world and start on the next book. I agree that finishing the book is the most important thing. 🙂