Let’s break down contest elements. Scoresheets are your personal guide to what a particular contest is looking for. Categories give you a general guideline. Scoresheets label specifics.
Are the bulk of points given for dialogue? Characterization? Conflict? When you decide to send your work out, make sure it has a chance of being a good fit first. While contests don’t cost a whole lot of money, cash is cash and using it wisely is, well, just plain smart. Sending your work to the wrong contest is like sending your kid out into the snow without a coat and expecting him to have fun.
Ain’t gonna happen. All you get is a whiny kid, frost-bit hands and a runny nose. First his, then yours.
So assess wisely.
Let’s look at dialogue. I love good, snappy, fun dialogue. I live for incomplete sentences. I enjoy a mix of show and tell, enough for one to balance the other. And I’m a contest judge, so those works will jump out at me, making me smile, keeping me happy. And as the ladies will attest, it is very important to keep me happy.
Chocolate helps. So does a caramel/mocha frappuccino, but I digress.
Back to dialogue:
Camy crossed the room, holding a sheaf of papers guaranteed to garner at least a stern lecture, if not an actual firing. “Here’s the Maxwell file you requested, sir.”
Stud-muffin Boss frowned. “This was supposed to be on my desk this morning.”
Camy nodded, certain her hard work would ease the confrontation. “I know, sir. It was incomplete and I spent all night working on it, but it’s done now.” She was glad she took the time to shower and change. Working all night was hard on a girl’s image.
He glared at the numbers, his jaw tight. “Have you gone over these figures with Tompkins?”
“No, sir. There wasn’t time. I thought you’d want to see them first because...”
His scowl deepened. “Your job was to have this project done, run by Tompkins for pre-approval and on my desk by nine o’clock. Correct?”
Camy’s heart stutter-stepped. Wasn’t he even going to read it after all her lost sleep and extended effort? “Yes.”
“What’s your excuse, Ms. Tang?”
Was now a good time to tell him that his partner was most likely skimming profits from quiet accounts like Maxwell Industries? Maybe not.
Okay, let’s do this scene again, because I’m yawning already and that’s a B-A-D sign. From the top:
Camy strode across the polished walnut floor, the percussion of her heels in time with the tap, tap, tap of the narrow portfolio against her thigh. Stud-Muffin Boss looked up, obviously less than happy. Camy slipped into the chair opposite, crossed her legs, adjusted her skirt and slid the thick folder over to him. “Maxwell.”
His scowl deepened. “Ah, yes, the file that was supposed to be on my desk when I walked in the door at nine.”
Camy counted to five, buffed a nail, and sat back. “I’m going to wager it’s worth the wait.”
Could his countenance grow darker? She wouldn’t have thought so, but was pretty sure it did. Eyeing him, she nodded. Oh, yeah. Definitely darker. The whole thunder-cloud scenario came to mind. Dark. Sinister. Ominous. Very Goth. He stood, rounded the desk and sat on the left-hand corner, frowning. “Punctuality is important in the legal world, Ms. Tang. The law of the land doesn’t care how shiny your nails are or how crisply you iron a ninety-dollar shirt. A judge wants facts and figures, laid out in logical order to aid in his or her assessment of the case before him. Am I making myself clear?”
The vein in his left temple made a haphazard blue line against tanned skin. Camy checked her nails once more, pursed her lips, and nodded. “Perfectly.” She held out her hands. “Do you like this color? Too dark, maybe? Too bronzy? What’s your opinion?”
The vein took an odd jump when his eyebrows hiked up. Right before he drew them together in a tight, foreboding “W”.
Camy held her hands at different angles to the light, studying them. “It’s called Hot Summer Sky, but it almost looks too fall-ish to me. What do you think? Too autumn or just right for mid-August?”
Stud Muffin leaned down, the vein taut, eyes narrow. “Are you aching to get fired? Am I being punked? Will some trumped up, tattooed camera crew jump out at any second, revealing we’re slated for some schlocky cable show? Exactly what do you think it will take to save your job right now, Ms. Tang, because cute skirts, great legs and perfect nails aren’t going to do it. Got anything else in the arsenal?” His breath was warm and coffee scented, kind of sweet. Maybe a latte’ guy. Or caramel macchiato. Yes. She’d bet on the macchiato.
Camy tilted her chin, eased the distance between them, and hoped her mouthwash was still effective. She offered her sweetest smile and tapped the folder with one well-manicured nail in a color she’d decided was really quite perfect for the day. Bold. Sassy. “How about a partner who’s cutting your profits by skimming a generous dollop of income into his back pocket before the account ever makes it into the office?” She pushed her chair back, stood and tapped the file one more time for effect. “Billable hours, executorships. All right there.”
He did a little double take before a light of realization sparked amber flecks in his dark eyes. “Facts? Figures?”
“In your hand.”
He stood, obviously torn between examining her facts and groveling. The facts won, but that was okay. Camy swung about, the flare of her skirt moving against her legs.
Great legs, he’d said. And perfect nails.
He held the portfolio aloft. “We’ll talk about this once I’ve had time to examine your findings.”
She bit back a smile of triumph. Not the time or the place. Inclining her head, she gave him a slight nod, but couldn’t totally squelch the hint of amusement in her voice. “I’m looking forward to it, Sir.”
Which would you score higher? If you say the first one, then I appreciate your honesty but I'm probably not going to buy your book.
And that's okay, because I'm obviously not your target audience. (Note that I'm holding myself back here, not mentioning the median age of your target audience. That's real good for me. Obviously the therapy sessions are worth every penny.)
Strong dialogue leads to strong characterization and the plot builds from those combined elements. If there's no fire and water, no flash, no sizzle, then your dialogue is kind of like reading the phone book.
Break down your dialogue and make sure it's the best it can be. Don't fudge. Editing and re-writes are part of the job and you want to present your best work to those judges, agents and editors, right?
Of course, right! (A little Yenta thrown in there... Fiddler on the Roof.... I love Tevye. He's kind of like a Jewish Ivan, Mary's poor, beleagured husband, flamboozled by all those daughters.)
For older writers, paying attention to what the younger generation actually says is helpful in writing today's dialogue. You don't have to be a chick-lit author to have cool-sounding heroines, but it doesn't hurt to chat it up with your kids and grandkids. Watch a little TV aimed at the pre-Geritol set.
Avoid the common pitfalls of everyday dialogue. Make every word count. Utilize your setting to enhance the nuances you want to create.
And above all, have fun!