Confessions of a Contest Judge

Monday, May 14, 2012
It begins with voice. It reaches out, pulls you in. You feel engaged, intrigued, and, yes, surprised. Regardless of whether or not you like the voice, you trust it. You will follow it anywhere. That’s the way it feels when, in a stack of writing contest entries, I begin reading a winner.

In the eighteen years I have been judging national writing contests, I can tell, from the first page, when an entry is a winner. Suddenly, I am no longer judging the story. I am experiencing it.

John Gardner describes pulling the reader into the writer’s dream. A winning contest entry does that. Some call it a hook, and you would be shocked at how few submissions have one.

Christopher Allan Poe—and yes, he is Edgar’s distant relative—won first place at the Yosemite Writers Conference for his paranormal thriller, The Portal. He describes the importance of the novel’s hook as “fishing for Jaws.”

“We have to fish for readers in the exact same ocean as everyone else,” he says. “If you expect these fish to jump willingly into your schooner, think again. We’re all going to need a bigger boat, or net, or at least better craft.”

That’s what a strong voice does. It hooks. It may be quiet, loud, even rowdy, but you can’t turn away from it.

Most successful entries have high stakes. They aren’t about broken fingernails or daffodils, unless there’s a reason the nails are broken, or there’s something planted under those flowers.

My husband Larry Hill’s literary short story, “Cocido,” about a young man returning to his family restaurant after serving in Iraq, was the winner of New York University’s Goldenberg Award for Fiction (final judge, Gail Godwin). Although I’d like to think that being married to an editor is his secret of success, Larry says you just have to grab your reader.

“You have to hit a nerve,” he says. “You look for relevancy, something that might be on readers’ minds anyway.”

An agent friend puts it this way. “Make us laugh or cry, and we’ll get you a deal. Make us do both, and we’ll get you an auction.” That’s good advice for writing contests too. Here’s something else I never realized until I started judging contests. It’s the little stuff that gets you thrown out.

The Page 142 Syndrome. Your character spends the first 141 pages thinking about his life. If your story really takes off on page 142, start it there.

Researchitis. You’re convinced you must share every smidgeon of information uncovered during research. Researchitis gives you a deadly slow pace—and it gives that contest judge a reason to move on.

Fruitcake. Do you look forward to eating that fruitcake your Aunt Madge brings over every Christmas? Didn’t think so. Is your prose so sweet and rich that it sends readers into overload? If you have large sections of exposition without dialogue, you may be in fruitcake mode.

Final confession. Most entries are submitted too soon. Short stories without a single scene or line of dialogue. Essays so self-obsessed that they must have come from the writers’ journals. You can do better. Take your time.

Author, teacher and public speaker Bonnie Hill worked as a newspaper editor for 22 years, a job that, along with her natural nosiness, increased her interest in contemporary culture. Her novel, Intern wascalled “a page-turner” by Publishers Weekly. Killer Body, a thriller about our weight-obsessed culture, was a Cosmopolitan magazine “pick.” She also wrote three newspaper thrillers featuring hearing-impaired reporter Geri LaRue for MIRA Books, the young adult Star Crossed series, and most recently, Ghost Island, a paranormal love story. Her publication credits include short stories, nonfiction books and articles.

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Anonymous said...

I love this blog, Bonnie. The information here is priceless.

Bonnie Hearn Hill said...

Thanks, Chris. I wish I'd known it back when I was entering contests.

Loretta Boyett said...

Great blog, Bonnie. Of course, you're such a great teacher I would expect nothing less from you. Blessings.

Bonnie Hearn Hill said...

Thanks, Loretta. You were a fine student.

Holly said...

Good blog. The advice sounds true for all writing. Loved the line about laughing or crying, you'll get a deal; do both, you'll get an auction.

Bonnie Hearn Hill said...

I agree, Holly. It's about making people care. That's the first rule. They have to care about the characters.

Jason Black said...

Heh. When I clicked to read this blog, I though I was going to get some _confessions_. You know, stuff like, "I once wrote on an entrant's feedback form 'It's a good thing we judges are volunteers, because you couldn't pay me to read this crap!'"

Goodness knows, when I've judged literary contests in the past, I have often been sorely tempted to write something like that. So far, knock wood, I have always resisted.

All in all, though, what you wrote was probably more helpful. :)

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