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Monday, September 16, 2019

How To Win Contests (Or At Least an Honorable Mention)

I sometimes get the opportunity to critique manuscripts for contests; I might be asked to give feedback on essays or short fiction or novel excerpts or even picture book manuscripts. It’s not always easy to find the best manuscript, but there are two basic flaws that’ll quickly kick your work out of the competition:

Same Old, Same Old

I don’t care whether you’re writing an essay or a picture book, you’ve got to bring something unique. But that doesn’t mean you have to write about something that’s never been done. You just have to find a way of making the same old, same old different.

Take, for example, something as simple as fingers and toes. There have been a gazillion picture books written about ‘em because—big surprise—little kids and the adults who read to kids are downright smitten with fingers and toes.

So you want to write about these darling digits because it’s a proven seller and also just because you love the idea of fingers and toes. How can you make your book different from all the gazillion of books already out there? Start with making sure you know what’s already been written and then let your imagination go wild! Don’t worry about being “wrong” so much as just letting your creativity run rampant. That’s where the golden best-sellers are born.

Because here’s the bottom line (which is always about money, isn’t it?): there’s a strong correlation between uniqueness and marketability. So when an agent tells you that it only takes a first page, or maybe even a first paragraph, to know if they’re interested, it’s because of the uniqueness/marketability factor. The same old, same old will get a pass every time. Bring something unique to make your manuscript stand out and you’re halfway to the prize. (And as an added bonus, you’ll probably have found your hook.)

But Is It A Story?

Do you have a friend who loves to tell stories but at the end of one of these “stories” you find yourself asking, “Is that it?”

Oh, dear. Some people just don’t know how to tell a story. But good storytellers do; they know the way story works. They start at the beginning, with a character who’s got trouble. So much trouble! You can’t help wondering, “So then what happened?” The storyteller continues, building tension, until you’re on the edge of your seat. And finally, the story comes to a gratifyingly good end and you’re all like, “Wow!” Or maybe you laugh or cry or sigh. The point is, a good story always has the reader asking, “So then what happened?” Until the story finally comes to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

You can play around with all the elements, whatever your form. Maybe your protagonist is a force of nature, maybe you have four different points-of-view, maybe you time travel, going back and forth in settings from one century to the other. But through it all, you have to have a good story. Without a story, you’ve just got observations. And possibly an agent who says, “Is that it?”

So before you spend days, months, or years of your life fixing a wonky rhyme or making a character more engaging, make sure your manuscript is worth it. Give it something unique and make sure you have a story. And then sit back and start winning contests (or at least an Honorable Mention)!

~ Cathy C. Hall


  1. Excellent recommendations! The other issue I see is that writers know they need a strong hook so they start with some high drama scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the story. Hmmm. I think I need to go find a better opening for my mystery.

  2. SO true, Sue! We don't have time to know anything about the characters, so we really don't care if they escape from the raging volcano! Hahahahha!

    And when I was writing this post I was also revising a manuscript and realized that I needed something more, something unique to add to the story.

    Funny how that works, right? :-)

  3. Great observations, Cathy!

    I hear a lot these days about writing to market. But focusing on that rather than the points you mention dooms the project.

  4. Yes, yes, yes, and yes! Bring something unique is so important--even if it's a love story or a man VS nature story--you can somehow bring something unique to the table--put your characters in a different setting, make them elderly, give one a super interesting job, etc etc. Great advice, here!

  5. Yes! I want to shout this to my workshop attendees next month. This holds true regardless of genre. You know your stuff.

  6. Truth! It's that uniqueness that makes the difference. And it is SO frustrating to have a brilliant idea only to realize someone else got to it first.


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