How to Lose a Novel Writing Contest

See, everyone reacts differently. Reading a really bad manuscript doesn’t make me want to cry. It makes me angry. No, I’m not kidding. I wish I were. This article could also be called “How to Make Me Stop Reading Your Entry” because clearly you didn’t take the time or make the effort to have someone else read what you wrote first. Among other things.

Honestly, NOT having someone else read your first chapter before submitting it ANYWHERE is clearly insane. That first chapter is your hook…that first chapter is going to dictate whether the reader keeps reading…and in my case, if the judge keeps judging. Yes, I’m back on the novel writing contest again. Hopefully, someone will gain some sort of insight from the awful, awful things I’ve seen. My eyes! (Cue music from Gone with the Wind.) Okay, I may be exaggerating just a little bit. My eyes don’t actually hurt, my brain does.

Missing words and typographical errors should NEVER occur in a first chapter. Theoretically, they should never occur in a manuscript, but we’re all human and eventually it’s going to happen. But in a submission to a contest? Really? I don’t get that. Many agents and/or publishers will ask for the first chapter(s) in their submissions instructions. If you’re not self-publishing, and you’re trying to hook someone, you HAVE to have that first chapter stellar and pristine. Anything less is setting yourself up to lose.The other huge mistake in 100% of the manuscripts I’ve seen so far has been the use of cryptic symbolism in the first few paragraphs. When I read this stuff, I feel like the author is trying to impress me with fancy footwork, when they really fall flat on their faces. In each case, I recommended they delete all that stuff, and start the story with their fourth or fifth paragraph when they actually get down to the business of the plot. All the houses on the street have front porches. Whoa. That doesn’t really set a mood – far too generic. How about “I hated going home because of the demonic looks I always got from the gang members next door as I walked up my front steps.” Β Okay, that sets a mood. Nothing cryptic about it. Lin Robinson wrote a post about this very thing. You can read that here.

No physical character description early on can be a fatal mistake. Readers will fill in the blanks if a character isn’t described. Human nature dictates that readers will project their tastes and preferences onto a character if the writer doesn’t provide enough information (and even sometimes if they do!). If the description comes after the reader has made up his/her mind what the character looks like, that can cause a problem. If you don’t care about what the character looks like and you don’t mind if readers form their own conclusions, then don’t drop in description later.

One manuscript I just finished reading NEVER described the main character: neither physically or any other way which endeared the reader to him. Some people think physical description isn’t that big of a deal, and it’s not if the author gives the reader something which makes him/her want to bond with the character. I’ve seen it happen way too many times – the author thinks he/she is making the character quirky when in actuality the character is just not likable. Joe listened to the drip in the kitchen sink. The bathroom door still creaked – no big deal – he new he’d get around to fixing those someday. Okay, here’s a hint – that’s not quirky and endearing. That’s lazy.

Speaking of lazy: Parentheses – REALLY? That immediately tells me that the voice is just not working. If the narrator has to rely on parentheses to get the point across, well, it’s pretty much over for me right then and there. Other options are available – character thoughts, dialogue… Using parentheses just screams LAZY writer to me.

Writing is hard work. No one said it wasn’t. It’s saying something once and saying it well. It’s using carefully chosen words at the right times. One contestant used the same verb three sentences in a row. It became a pattern with this author. OCD? A page later, a different word three sentences in a row. Then a different word two sentences in a row. One word: Thesaurus.

Another author kept saying the same thing, but different ways. Here’s an example: Sally took glee in finally introducing John to the forest. She’d grown up in the wilderness, and this was where she was at peace. John’s city upbringing caused him to feel out of place here. Sally could sense this, since she was raised in this natural place. The harmony she felt in the woods could not be rivaled. She wished John could experience the same magic she enjoyed because she loved the forest. It was in her blood, and clearly it was not in his. She could understand his discomfort, because that was how she felt when she was in the city, where he grew up. Out of place and awkward.

I want to stab myself, repeatedly, after writing that. I’m not kidding. All it would actually take to say that once and decently is this: Sally closed her eyes, reveling in the wilderness around her. She’d grown up in the forest, and that was where she felt at home. She sensed John, a city boy, was not so comfortable here, and wondered if this would come between them.

That’s all for now. Tune in next time when hopefully I will have happier things to say and Chevy Chase will have gotten his groove back.

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.

27 thoughts on “How to Lose a Novel Writing Contest”

    1. LOL! Well, my suspicion is that if you’re aware enough to think that, you probably don’t need to. πŸ™‚ I just hope the people who DO need to can learn something from all the pain I’ve endured. πŸ˜‰

  1. Re your last example: When you’re done with the knife, I’d like to borrow it. *Why* do people feel the need to say the same thing 86 times? It even drives me crazy when it’s several chapters apart in the same novel.

  2. First I have to say I love that movie πŸ™‚ Second I am so glad you posted this valuable information. I just finished my first chapter to my second book. I guess I will be looking it over with someone else πŸ™‚

    1. That’s great! We just cannot catch these things ourselves – and especially when so much is at stake, we should definitely have a second set of eyes check it out. Thanks for stopping by. πŸ™‚

  3. Three ways of saying the same thing – in one paragraph! On the other hand, how about the character described in drooling detail, right down to the faint golden fuzz of his sideburns in front of his ears?

    1. Diana, I haven’t run into the over-description during my many years of judging. The best manuscript in the entire competition this year – while it is quite good – as the chapter went on, I noticed the author would begin a paragraph with a statement and then close the same paragraph with the same thought, just expressed differently.

    1. Hi Tracy, you mean even though it hurts my eyes and my brain? LOL – just kidding. Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to comment. πŸ™‚

  4. Oh crap, now I’ve got to rewrite my first chapter. The things I do for you! Good stuff, I actually don’t know if I have to rewrite anything but you scared me enough to go back and at least re-read. Which I think is part of the point.

  5. Thanks so much for this. It really helps to know where I’ll need to aim my scalpel.

  6. Great post.

    I especially agree with:
    Human nature dictates that readers will project their tastes and preferences onto a character if the writer doesn’t provide enough information (and even sometimes if they do!). If the description comes after the reader has made up his/her mind what the character looks like, that can cause a problem.


  7. Sometimes it doesn’t matter, even if the description comes first. I’ve been in book forums where readers have either misread or skipped over the writer’s description of a character, and then argued about it, lol.

    1. I have had readers tell me what they think a character is like that doesn’t fit well with my vision, yet it allowed them to enjoy that character. I think this is inevitable. We take a lot from our own experiences when we read, and put that into our interpretations. It’s one reason I keep descriptions to a minimum. Too much of it stifles the reader’s ability to resonate with a character. We need some, of course, but it’s easy to give too much as well.

  8. OMG woman! @K.S.Brooks. I’m new on your blog and had to step back from all the pummeling I received. EGADS! LOL. Although my manuscript has been shredded by a freelance editor and about to be submitted to an eval diva, I am convicted to do another round of self-editing. Talk about pimp-slapping someone all over creation. LOL.

    J/k. Seriously, I admit I fall into the over-description pitfall. I grew up reading epic fantasy novels, so I blame it all on Terry Brooks. I’m just thankful to get through the first draft. I focus on all those pitfalls in the rewrite an self-edit phases. GREAT reminders. I’ll definitely share this link.

  9. Great post with good advice. The bit about the physical description of the character had me thinking about how often the actor in a film of a book isn’t all how I imagined him/her because I had my own mental picture from the book.

    1. Thank you, Mary. And I agree with the movie thing. Actors very rarely meet the mental image. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. πŸ™‚

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