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CONTEST ADVICE: BEYOND POLISHING, FORMATTING, AND TARGETING

© Winnie Griggs, Feb. 2002

All right, I'll admit it. I'm a recovering contest junkie. In the long years before I made that first sale, I entered dozens and dozens of them. Now that I'm published, I've tried to repay all those wonderful, harried contest coordinators by volunteering to judge at least four to five contests a year. And as a judge, I find nothing more heartbreaking than discovering a manuscript I absolutely love, yet have to score in the medium to low range because of the framework of the judging criteria. What makes this especially frustrating for me as a judge is that, in many cases, the entrant could have anticipated this problem and taken steps to mitigate it with just a little extra effort.

How, you ask? By taking the following two steps:

  • Obtain a copy of the scoresheet the judges will be using.
    Depending on the contest, this task may vary from simple to nearly impossible. Some contests have the scoresheet included on their website and/or with their printed guidelines. If not, ask the contest coordinator for a copy. If all else fails, try to find someone who entered in a prior year to see if they will share a copy with you. (Though this is a bit iffier, since contests occasionally revise their scoresheets from one year to the next).
    Once you get hold of the scoresheet, then what? Pay close attention to the areas in which the manuscript will be judged, and the relative weight given to each. These will differ greatly from contest to contest. For example, if the relationship between the h/h is a large part of the score, and your h/h don't meet within the pages of your entry, this may not be the contest for you.

  • Take full advantage of the page count allotted to you.
    If a contest has as its guidelines that your entry is to consist of 'a first chapter, not to exceed 25 pages', then take a close look at your first chapter. Again, use this in combination with the scoresheet. Let's take our above example, where the h/h relationship is a strong scoring element. Now, maybe that relationship is not evident in your first chapter. But your first chapter is only 15 pages long. Suppose you changed that chapter break to a scene break and included the next 8-10 pages in your first chapter. Would it now contain the missing element to give the judge something to work with? Ah, but suppose you need to pull in the next 12 pages to not only round out your scene but to also give you a really breathtaking ending hook? What now? Well, review those 27 pages closely. Are there scenes or even paragraphs whose purpose is to foreshadow or set up something that will happen later in the story, but can be lifted out and not be missed in the context of this entry? Then by all means, lift them out. It may surprise you how easy it is to whittle out those two pages when you view your opening in this narrower context.
    CAUTION: Longer is not necessarily better. If the15 pages of your first chapter hit all the points it needs to, than stop there. The contest judge will thank you for not taking up any more of her/his time than necessary.
There you have it. Two simple tips, but they can make all the difference in the score your entry receives. Best of luck and above all, believe in yourself!

 

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