Novel Ideas for Novel Contests

Judge and Author K.S. Brooks
Judge and Author K.S. Brooks
Judge not, lest ye be rendered into incoherent babbling. And a really bad headache.

Novel Ideas for Novel Contests – or…what NOT to do when entering your manuscript in a novel-writing contest.

I’ve been a first-tier level judge for a prestigious novel-writing contest for about five years now. First-tier? Yeah, that means I’m important. Okay, maybe not. What it’s supposed to mean is that at least one someone else has already read through the entries and has sent me the very best of those. Now I get the final word. Or something like that. Sounds important, anyway.

You can imagine, I’m sure, that this gives me a lot of material for a writing advice column. Yet, each year, how MUCH material I get out of the contest surprises and somewhat distresses me. When I judge, I’m filling out a form containing four categories: 1. Plot/Story; 2. Narrative/Dialogue; 3. Characters/Descriptions; and 4.Overall Impression. This year, I believe, an additional category should be added: 5. Formatting.

The first manuscript I reviewed used two spaces after every end-of-sentence period. The second one used five spaces to indent each paragraph. Those of us with any experience formatting eBooks knows what kinds of problems those are going to cause. I’m not going to detract points for those, but I am writing a note for the authors to make sure they realize their lives will be a LOT easier later if they start practicing good formatting habits now. I have a feeling the entrants believe a big publisher will discover them and do the formatting for them. What puzzles me, however, is that these two authors have not researched proper formatting techniques. As expressed in many posts before this one (by authors other than my curmudgeonly self), being an author isn’t just about writing. It’s also about being responsible for so much more than just the story: cover art, formatting, editing, writing sales blurbs, etc. Being educated about what lies ahead is imperative. It truly confounds me that people don’t take the time to learn important aspects about an industry they want to compete in. It’s just a matter of doing some homework, and anyone serious about being an author should grab that task by the horns. Anything less seems cavalier to me.

Okay, so there should also be a #6 – Synopses. So far, the ones I’ve read have been personal messages from the authors explaining why they wrote the books and how and why I should be fascinated. Huh? Dude…and/or Dudette – do yourself a favor and read something about how to write an actual synopsis. Seriously, this is the kind of thing that makes my brain hurt.

These first two entries were also riddled with ill-timed, unnecessary backstory and unrelated histories which interrupted the flow. What do I mean, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked. I’ll make up an example. Let’s say the bagel a character is about to eat…is poisoned. We all know it. The suspense is building. He’s about to take the first bite… Why disrupt the suspense with two paragraphs about the history of bagels? Huh? I don’t care if they’re boiled then baked…I only care if the dude is going to eat the poisoned bagel and what’s going to happen next. Β Oh, but wait…the dude is a shipbuilder? Well, good for him. No, I don’t need to know, right now, about how his father and his father before him were shipbuilders and it runs in the family. Maybe you can tell me that later, when it actually impacts the story. Right now, I want the damn character to eat the damn poisoned bagel and drop dead. Scratch that. I want to eat the damn poisoned bagel so I don’t have to read any more of the story.

This contest is not free. There is an entry fee. I don’t see any of those funds, but that’s not my point. The issue is that if people are paying to enter a contest…don’t they want to win? Maybe I’ve just been in this industry too long now, or maybe I’m just a grumpy old curmudgeon (quite likely). It just seems to me not putting your best foot forward and paying money at the same time is synonymous with throwing money out the window. If you’re going to do that, please let me know so I can stand under that window with a basket.

Author: K.S. Brooks

K.S. Brooks is an award-winning novelist, photographer, and photo-journalist, author of over 30 titles, and executive director and administrator of Indies Unlimited. Brooks is currently a photo-journalist and chief copy editor for two NE Washington newspapers.Β  She teaches self-publishing and writing topics for the Community Colleges of Spokane, and served on the Indie Author Day advisory board. For more about K.S. Brooks, visit her website and her Amazon author page.

49 thoughts on “Novel Ideas for Novel Contests”

  1. You’re gonna force me to break my two-space-after-a-period rule that’s been ingrained in my head (and typing fingers) for 35+ years, aren’t you? Aren’t you??

    I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of your post. But the two spaces thing… (sigh)

    1. Yeah, what is that two spaces thing? In my editor capacity, I’ve encountered it quite a bit and it’s a pain in the behind. Were American teachers pranking you guys or something? πŸ˜‰

      1. It IS a pain in the ass. I learned to use two spaces in school – and I was shocked when my publisher told me – in the nicest way – to only use one from now on. Man, that’s enough to make me feel ancient.

    2. Hey, I fought the single space thing tooth and nail. I can’t believe the style rules that have changed since I started out. I have to shake my head at some of them. I tell myself the single space thing is okay because maybe it saves a tree. πŸ˜‰

      1. Oh, maybe. πŸ˜‰

        David, it’s from when people learned to type on typewriters. It was easier to see where the sentence ended if you put two spaces after the period. (A colon also required two spaces after it.) Now, suddenly, everybody jumps you when you do it. Bah, and get off my lawn, and so forth. (I just had to go back and take all the double spaces out of this post. 35+ years, I’m telling you!)

        1. The only typing lessons I ever took were Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, which I’m now very glad for.

      2. I finally gave in after a few months of using Twitter. Sadly my right thumb still wants to do the ‘double dance’ on the space key half the time. It’s a relearning process.

        1. So funny that Twitter has such power over us. I will admit, I type two spaces at the end of sentences in Twitter and then have to go back and cut them out. LOL

    3. I’m another one who learned to type on a typewriter – a clunky old manual thing – and unlearning 2 spaces was painful. Sometimes even now I think having two spaces makes reading easier. Or perhaps I should just use my glasses more πŸ™

  2. A question – does each contest publish their own submission guidelines, and if so, are these rules in them? Because, as we have already seen from the comments, different countries have different rules – like the two spaces after a period thing. I used to use two spaces after a period until I was informed that is messes up my posts here. Now I know, so now I use only one space. But, I had to be told. So if it’s not in the ‘rules’ for submitting we may not be aware.

    I seriously wonder how many writers don;t know what is expected. As I said, its just a question, as I have never entered a contest.

    1. Yvonne, I’m not talking about contest rules here, I’m talking about “industry standards.” On page 308 of the Chicago Manual of Style (which is supposed to dictate industry standard), it states “In typeset matter, one space, not two should be used between two sentencesβ€”whether the first ends in a period, a question mark, an exclamation point, or a closing quotation mark or parenthesis.”

      I’m not sure what other countries, if any, use the CMoS, but any author in the U.S. should be aware of the standards. I, myself, was taught in school to use two spaces, but this technique went out of style with the typewriter. It took a long time for me to overcome that habit.

      So, this really has nothing to do with the contest which is why I did not deduct points for it – but if a new author is entering this industry, it is a rule with which they should be familiar.

      1. There are indeed different rules for punctuation in different countries. I used to edit for a big production company; we had different style guides if the work being edited were British or Canadian, e.g., in the latter countries, end punctuation goes outside the quotation marks in dialogue, not inside. And yes, it’s not easy getting used to!

  3. Ok, I knew about changing from 2 spaces after the end of a sentence to one (and it has caused me no end of grief working in the legal field where some attorneys follow that rule and others insist on the old ways). I did not know about the paragraph indentation thing. Is that in CMOS or is it something new that applies mainly to e-publishing? I noticed a couple of other writer friends were doing that, but never thought to ask.

    1. Hi Jenni, I don’t know if that’s in CMOS or not, but I do know that applies to any kind of publishing. Any publisher will ask you NOT to use spaces or tabs now when indenting your paragraphs, and trust me, it will cause you no end of nightmares if you use those when trying to format your own work for publication whether it’s e- or print.

      1. The Smashwords Style Guide says to set your paragraph style to 0.3″ first-line indent. Word’s default is a 0.5″ first-line indent. I’ve had to wrestle Word into submission, but it uses 0.3″ as the default now. Usually.

    1. You’re welcome, Laurie. I doubt, however, you’ll have to worry about any of this stuff. I’ve got another installment coming up in 2 weeks. Unfortunately, the contests always give me plenty of material.

  4. Don’t worry about the two spaces after a period while your typing. When you’re done, just go through and do a global search and replace, replacing a space-space with just a space. I have gotten used to the one space rule, but I still do that after I finish writing something to catch any I may have missed. Old habits do indeed die hard.

    1. I’ve reprogrammed myself to remember as I type. I was doing the global search and replace for a while, but I’m doing well with it now. I only seem to relapse if I’m tired. Your point is good – and the point is, it shouldn’t go out the door with the two spaces.

  5. Thank you for the tips. I’ve been working hard to get out of the habit of double spaces after periods. Luckily, search and find can fix all the one I miss.

  6. I know I’m a myopic dinosaur but does anyone else think that modern formatting makes reading harder? I mean sometimes with those tiny indents and no line break between paragraphs I find everything blurring together.

    Why can’t we get rid of the formatting gatekeepers too while we’re at it? Why can’t we format to make reading easier instead of cheaper to ‘print’, especially now that ebooks don’t require either paper or ink?

    -sigh- I’ll take the anarchist hat off now.

    1. Well, I don’t necessarily agree with all the rules – as I mentioned, some of them were different when I started out ages ago and I’m not sure why they’ve changed. But I think there should be some standardization – otherwise you’d end up with pages and pages of unformatted text – no paragraph indents, all single spacing and run-on sentences. Someone handed me a manuscript like that to edit, once. No punctuation, no paragraphs. I JUST couldn’t do it.

  7. Well, since we’re talking about two spaces after a full stop, can I just say that I don’t give a t*ss what the “industry” says? I don’t like reading any text with one space after a full stop, because my eye can’t judge the sentence length in advance. I won’t write with only one space after a full stop (except my posts for IU). And I am not about to “unlearn” something that I happen to think is common sense AND looks nice on the page. I am a dinosaur!

    Another very nice post, Kat, thanks πŸ™‚

    1. I don’t know, Chris. I don’t see why the rules change sometimes. When I was growing up, the plural of roof was rooves. Now it’s roofs. I don’t know why that changed, or when, or if it was a West Coast thing, or what. There are some things I will just never understand.

    2. I guess it’s what we’re used to and is all a matter of opinion anyway, but two spaces looks awful to me. Not only is it wrong, but it also just looks wrong. Not a fan.

  8. I am used to two spaces after a period. Used it for years, however, because of school, MLA formatting uses only one space after the period and for typing tests, one space is also used.

  9. Kat,
    John Locke’s book “How …” has two spaces after each period.
    I also learned on a typewriter in HS. I could type 65 words per minute at one point. But, I agree with Chris that some times the old formatting is a bit easier on the eyes
    I think people are lazy about reading directions. Anything that has your name on it should be presented in the most professional manner possible.
    I would have fed my character a sesame bagel with lox, capers, and cream cheese. What a way to go!

    1. There are many things I just don’t get about how people present themselves without doing due diligence. Oh well. Wait until part 2 in this series! Thanks for stopping by, Lois. πŸ™‚

  10. I, too, was taught to type on a typewriter and two spaces were the norm then. Now I try to train myself to only use one, but sometimes I lapse back into the two. But on twitter, I definitely go back to one, especially if I see I am over the 140 characters by one or two and know it is probably the extra spaces.

    I wanted to ask Kat how you got into judging contests; have always been interested in doing that. I entered my book last year and it would have been nice to receive the feedback from the contests to know what I did wrong, how the writing could have been better, did I screw up on the formatting, type, grammar, etc.

    1. Hey Jacqueline – the judging thing came as a surprise to me a number of years ago when I was invited by someone on the board of one of Associations to which I belong. And FYI, most contests will not give you feedback, so if that’s what you’re looking for, make sure to choose your entries based on that. A couple of years ago, some authors actually complained they did NOT want feedback – they just wanted to know IF they won or not. Huh? Here is my opinion on that. πŸ™‚

        1. Thanks, Jacqueline. I’m glad to give the reasons behind my scores. I read a VERY promising manuscript yesterday BUT near the end of the second chapter the story took a detour and then the third chapter started off on a completely unexpected tangent so I lost interest in the story. I was very disappointed. I had to give it the lowest score I’ve given so far this year. It was a shame. I feel it’s only fair to go into detail as to why when something like that happens.

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