Tuesday, January 29, 2008


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~MELANIE DICKERSON~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Melanie Dickerson is a wife and mother of two beautiful girls, ages 6 and 9. She started writing again five years ago and doesn’t think she’s allowed to quit yet, even though writing for publication makes her feel like a very small caterpillar climbing a very tall tree.
Her medieval romance, The Woodcutter’s Daughter, won First Place in the 2007 Fiction From the Heartland Contest. She loves promoting ACFW authors as assistant coordinator of the ACFW Book Club, and she occasionally posts something new on her neglected blog, http://www.melaniewrites.blogspot.com.
Melanie just won the Fiction from the Heartland Contest, and placed first and fourth in the Inspirational category of the Gotcha Contest.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~What I’ve Learned from Contests~~~~~~~~~~

My experience with contests is that they are a great way to get personal, specific feedback. Contests have boosted my motivation to continue writing—and continue learning.

The first contest I ever entered was the Genesis, 2006. But you don’t want to hear about how I decided to change the category of my book after I’d already submitted it to coordinator Ruth Logan Herne. I won’t tell you about how Ruthy got a good laugh at my expense but helped me change it. (Only too bad for me, because it turned out I’d forgotten to take my name out of the header and was disqualified.)

I’ll just skip that story.

Genesis, 2007. I entered a new book I’d spent several months revising and polishing. I really hoped to final with this story. At the same time, I entered it in three other contests. And this was not very smart. Why? Because if I’d entered one or two contests and waited until I got feedback from those contests, then I could have improved my entry and improved my odds with the next couple of contests. But I didn’t. And I didn’t final in the Genesis. I was so surprised! (I know. Ha.) But I did learn a lot from those scoresheets and judges’ comments that helped me improve my story.

I got scoresheets back in which the judges said they didn’t know what my heroine wanted, what her goals or conflicts were. What!? Weren’t they paying attention? But after I thought about it and explored why the judges would say that, I realized some mistakes I’d made. I knew what my heroine’s goals and conflicts were, but I hadn’t made them clear to the reader (Duh. I’m sure no one else has done this). I had been trying so hard not to explain anything (you know, Resist the Urge to Explain, RUE) and was trying to trust the reader to “get it” that I ended up expecting them to “get it” by osmosis.

Okay, that problem was easy to fix. I included her goals and motivations in the first two scenes using internal dialogue and dialogue with her friend.

Another comment I got more than once was that my writing was clichéd. What!? That sounded like a slam if ever I heard one. There was nothing clichéd about my story! But when I looked closer, I saw some clichéd phrases and a clichéd secondary character, and after I thought about it for a while, realized those were pretty easy to fix as well.

Then I saw the comment, “preachy.” What!? I’m not preachy! But I realized the judge was talking about one character in one scene, not the whole entry. After mulling it over, I realized the scene wasn’t necessary anyway and it would make the story stronger if I cut the whole thing. So I cut it. Simple.

My point is, the judges’ comments can seem devastating at first, but after a few days, when you can be more objective, you may see how simple some of the flaws are to fix. Maybe our critique partners didn’t catch these weaknesses, but they stood out to someone else, and that’s very valuable information to have.

I worked to fix these weaknesses, and the next contest I entered, I not only finaled but won! Yea me!

I could another write another whole post on why you should never, never, and I mean never write a thank you note to a judge when you’re still angry that they gave you a 58 and your next lowest score was an 84. It’s not a good idea, okay? So the judge didn’t like your story. Not everyone will, so swallow your pride and . . . well, if you can’t get over it, just don’t write that “thank you” note. You’ll regret it later. Trust me. I know what I’m talking about.

"What, if anything, have you changed about your WIP based on judge's comments?"


Katie Hart - Freelance Writer said...

I wouldn't have my current WIP if it were not for a judge's comments. I wrote a fantasy short story for a conference contest, never thinking it would be anything more. I got third place in the genre, and the judge had written, "This sounds like the start of a longer story." That was enough to fire my imagination. Though most of the time since it's sat on the back burner with an occasional stir, the tale finally seems to be coming together as a novel.

Camy Tang said...

The best judge I ever had completely slammed my Asian chick lit entry in an early contest. It wasn't even funny how much blood there was across the pages.

But this was the best judge I ever had because I took those comments and applied them to my WIP.

The judge was more used to straight romance and hadn't "gotten" the whole chick lit genre. Instead of writing her off, I took her comments and made my current WIP more accessible to romance readers as well as chick lit readers.

(This was at least a year after getting the judged entry back, so I'd had plenty of time to stew and steam, and I could calmly apply her comments with minimal broken glassware.)

Guess what? My WIP was Sushi for One and it sold to Zondervan.

So whoever that judge was, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for not "getting" my entry.


Camy Tang said...

I forgot to mention that Zondervan bought Sushi for One because it would appeal to both romance and chick lit readers!

Melanie Dickerson said...

It's true. The judges who are the hardest on you are the ones who will end up helping you improve the most.

It stinks, but it's true. :-)

ninaR said...

I've never entereed a contest, but I think I'll try. It does sound like a good, albeit scary, way to improve your work.

Gina Welborn said...

My contest experience is rather limited.

3 for my victorian/average scores in two and disqualifed because I forgot to double-space my syno in the last and most recent

3 for my medieval/average scores in one, finaled in Golden Gateway historical category, finaled in Golden Heart inspy category

So if I had to pick the most helpful advice from any judge, I'll go with the first contest I entered my medieval in. One judge said my story began too soon--the hero and his friend were riding up to the castle to negotiate a peace treaty and marry the heiress. Not a bad opening, becuase once they reach the front gate, they're at a crossroad. Go inside, which is the least favorable option because neither of them want to marry the girl. Or leave and let someone else be the pawn.

Only problem was I used 12 pages to get to that crossroad because I had them talking aaaaaaallllll about stuff the reader didn't need to know yet. And the first viewing of my heroine made the judges question her motives.

So I tightened the hero's arrival so there's basically a half of page before he arrives at the crossroad, used to establish him in the scene and set his mood. But I opened the story with the heroine trying to manipulate the castle's priest into helping her overcome her father's newest means of manipulation.

Duh. I just realized something. Mary likes dead bodies. I like manipulation.

Anyway, the opening must be better because after that fix, my ms finalled in the next and only two other contests I entered it in.

Another helpful comment came from one of my judges who actually signed her name. She said the best way to tell if we're balancing dialogue, narrative, and introspection is to take a scene and highlight it up. You can do this on the computer too.


Introspection(including first person thoughts)::yellow

Setting/sensory/character details::green

Action beats and/or general narration::orange

Flashbacks and backstory information::underline

Dialogue tags::leave uncolored

Of course, what colors you actually use for each doesn't matter, as long as you have enough color to help you see if one color overwhelms the others. And depending what genere you write, the balance will differ.


Oh, lemme share a juding experience. I had one entry that was I'd say perfectly crafted for a RWA contest to the point that it seemed written for the scoresheet. The sensory details were overwhelming. In the club setting, they were fine because you want the reader to feel overwhelmed if the POV character is. But one the characters left the club, the setting details should have dampened. Nope! I was overwhelmed with description of the night sky.

Not only that, by third VERY OBVIOUS mention of the heroine's goal of findign the serial killer who butchered her sister, I wanted to scream, "I got it already. Don't treat me like I'm stupid."

So while Melanie makes an excellent point about Resisting the Urge to Explain, we also have to Resist the Urge to OverExplain. And to avoid both, find a crit group, a beta reader or two, a freelance editor, etc.

Entering a contest with a manuscript that has only been read by you and your devoted fan club...I mean friends and family...isn't wise.

Better to have Ruthy butcher it now than to limit your entry's chances of finalling. Plus judging an unpolished entry (at this moment I'm thinking grammar) is torture. I wish I could say I quit marking after the tenth missing comma, misused comma, etc, but I don't. At least, I normally use pencil so you don't have to worry about a visual blood bath on your paper.

And that reminds me: I don't think I've yet to sign up this year to judge any contests. Better go find one.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Finaling in the Golden Heart is really huge, Gina! Way to go!

Very good points, Gina. It's certainly wise to have your crit partners, a.k.a. people who actually know a little about writing, to slash your work to death (to improve it) before sending it to a contest.

And you're right. Don't beat a dead horse. Resist the Urge to Explain something over and over. Not good.

And Margie Lawson shares that technique of highlighting story elements in different colors, such as dialogue, description, introspection, etc. Very good exercise to help you visualize which things are being neglected or overdone. I took her online editing course and it's in-depth and awesome.

Haven't we all been guilty of starting our story too soon? That's such an easy mistake to make, and so hard to decide where exactly the story needs to start.

Mary Connealy said...

I entered Petticoat Ranch everywhere for a couple of years. I have this line in the opening few pages that my heroine, Sophie, hears hoofbeats, which pulls her out of her interior musings and sets off this opening action sequence that lasts...about three chapters.
The line:
Sophie heard God in every explosion of thunder as she listened to the awesome power of the approaching storm. But there was more. There was something coming. Something more than rain.

In judges comments over and over this short paragraph would get circled and they'd remark on it, Great Line. Or something to that affect.
So I kept moving the line up, cutting that interior dialogue back and back and back.
In the end, a line that started on about page four, is the opening line of the book. And all that intensely fascinating set up...gone!

Mary Connealy said...

The other judge's comment that I really remember (oops, remembering more now, I may have ten comments!)
In The Husband Tree...scheduled for release in October 2009... I have a heroine scene, a hero scene, and then they meet.
A judge wrote...Your book doesn't start until page 19.
Well, ouch. She was right.

Mary Connealy said...

The other one that pops to mind, and then I'll quit for a while. :)
Tracie Peterson judged China Doll, which may be getting a new title, I'd welcome suggestions, and I have this first look at the heroine at her husband's funeral and she's absolutely lost without her husband, hopeless, pregnant, penniless, standing at the grave trying to come to grips with the fact that she's going to die without her husband.
Tracie said, "It doesn't matter than she's in shock. The numbness, just boring, get her over the shock even if most new widows might well be in shock, too bad, snap her out of it and let's see some EMOTION.
I'm paraphrasing...well, she was right and now Cassie...the China Doll...is in a different kind of shock, much more prone to throw a fist than quietly weep.

Tracie alao said I had some historical facts wrong. I had the setting be Fort Laramie? Wyoming but the original Fort Laramie isn't on the same site as the town is now. They moved it.
That cleared up so many things for me. And it also helped boot me down the road to fictional settings, which I now believe in passionately.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

One phrase jumped out at me from among the many put forth by all these eloquent ladies:

"...better to have Ruthy butcher it now..."

Frankly, I love my reputation. It's way more fun, ten times more fun, really, truly, than the nice girls have. Seriously.

Do they ever get to be snarky? Snippy? Bossy? Totalitarian?

And all in the name of friendship and love??????

Oh, I think not, LOL!

I think Camy made an excellent point. Because that judge 'didn't get' her work, (once she worked through the pain of the subsequent substance abuse problem) she realized that maybe others wouldn't 'get' her work, either. So what ended up becoming a simple upward tweaking of the romance level in Sushi started as a judge's negative comments.

And if you've read Sushi you'd know that Camy presented a nice balance, done in third person (which also tweaked the romance side) so that the Chick Lit elements complemented the romance spin.

Gina's advice about 'coloring' a scene works for some but not all. Pantsers are probably whoopsing into their garbage cans, hearts pounding by the very idea of planning that officiously.

But for some writers, that very visual technique provides just the ticket needed to lay out a balanced and intriquing story.

And Ninar, it does take gumption to get it out there, take the abuse, um, er, I mean...

help from judges..........


Because it's real tough to see our own work objectively, to develop the talent for self-editing and tweaking beyond a reasonable point.

And that's where contests can help. Fresh eyes, fresh ears, fresh attitudes.

And Katie, I'm glad you're moving on with your novel. That's huge, girlfriend.

The Butcher (I think I like 'Tyrant' better, actually. And can anyone who's that nice to puppies really be a butcher?????)

Ruth Logan Herne said...

And Mary, that second book, the heroine scene, then the hero scene...

In a Single Title you can get away with that.

Short contemp?


Long Contemp?

Probably not.

But in paranormal and ST there's more latitude in how a novel begins. Same with young adult. There was an excellent FF&P book going the contest circuit a couple of years back, a constant winner, and the hero was shackled and incommunicado until page 49 or 50...

But the writer had him speak with his eyes and did it well.

I think part of the initial difficulty is knowing what you write, how to target it, and then you have more guidance on 'where' the book begins.

When I changed up a book for a contest entry, Tina looked it over and her first words were:

"So. You're writing category???"

Because the specifics for categories nip those opening pages generally.

And she saw the difference instantly.

She's that good.


(If I'm nice to her she sends me things.)

The Butcher Again

Mary Connealy said...

Ruthy made a really good point, accidentally I'm sure, but still...

We need to take into consideration just exactly what criteria we're being judged on.
I mean, if we enter a short romance category, with a book that is not a perfect fit, then we're going to be judged on when do the h/h get together, it needs to be SOON.
So that can make you tweek (tweaque? Two-eek...I can't spell that word today...I blame the weather)
Anyway, If you edit your work to answer judges critiques in a short romance category but what you've really got stewing in your head is a long historical suspense, well then you might be writing TO the contest, which isn't bad, exactly.
Um...I forget the point I was trying to make.

I blame the weather.
Did I mention the weather is really bad in Nebraska today?

And the newest pictures of Ruthy snuggling with her puppy aren't near as cute because the puppy now weighs one hundred pounds and Ruthy is flat on her back, resembling something more reminiscent of road kill than puppy lover...but in neither case does she come off as a tyrant.

And Camy is a contest judge that can make people cry too, so it's not just RUTHY.

Janet Dean said...

Melanie, great post! I remember The Woodcutter's Daughter so I was one of your judges somewhere along the line. That's just so cool! The fact I remember it is a sure sign that the story held my interest.

Most of my judges have given me sage advice. Which just shows how much work my entries needed. :-) I should've sent my first contest judges chocolate. Or a check. LOL They surely had cramps in their fingers after they were done with me.

My favorite judge was Galen Foley, a published author, who not only gave her name but also her e-mail address in case I had questions. Her biggest criticism--I tended to be melodramatic. But the best thing she gave me was confidence that one day I would sell that story, Orphaned Hearts, w/t, now Courting Miss Adelaide. When I sold, six years later, I e-mailed Galen and got a lovely response. Like she remembered the story. Probably not after six years, but hey, I love fiction. :-)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Ruthy, your reputation is going to be in danger when I tell everyone that you gave me my highest score by far last year on the Barclay Sterling. You liked my fresh-voiced heroine, while the other judges thought she was immature and unlikeable.
But I think that's just because you were the only one who could recognize true talent. (I'm kidding! Those other judges had a good point. Although I still think Ruthy was the smartest.)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Ooops. I wrote that before I read Janet's comments! LOL! I'm sure it wasn't you, Janet, who didn't like my heroine!

Thanks. I'm really thankful to you guys for letting me be your guest blogger today. I love this blog, it's so much fun.

And I'm thankful to ALL the judges who have judged (ripped, shredded, sliced and diced) my entries this past year. I appreciate the feedback so much, and it has helped me tremendously.

Tina M. Russo said...

Melanie I just want you to know that the goal of the Unpublished Seekers, besides getting published is to teach the contest judges of the world how to score low enough to keep a "needs work" manuscript from finaling without totally devastating the writer with-well in your case, a 58.

After that we will work on world domination.

I have a four step method to reading contest scores. Read them as fast as I can, like taking bad medicine. Then a week or so later I write the thank you notes. Then a month or two later I re read the comments and grudgingly agree. Finally I edit my msc.

Thought provoking post. Thanks for joining us today.

Wow you even got Camy to come out and play!!

Ruth Logan Herne said...


So there, name callers!!!!

I was nice to Melanie and I had no idea it was her.

And Mel, your other two judges might or might not be part of this erstwhile group, so...

(be careful what you say about last year's Barclay... Seekers did a lot of judging because our local RWA chapter melted down at the last minute.... That made finding trained judges a trick, but Seekers stepped up to the plate big time for Single Title and Inspirational, except where another Seeker's work was concerned. Those I farmed out to romance writing friends of other genres.)

And I remember your entry distinctly, and the advice I gave about building reasoning, asking 'why' would this happen and showing it to the reader so that the flow made better sense progressively.

And so the reader would understand why the parents acted as they did and why the heroine reacted like she did, what she stood to gain and lose.

And Mary's right about the dog. That picture's with Maddy, she's about 60 lbs. now, and there are three of them, all eight months old, and they keep chewing holes in my wallboard (right through the wallpaper) so they'll probably end up as doggie stew sometime soon.

I'm kidding, dog-lovers. I paid too much for them to stew 'em. Darn it.

But they'll be back in their kennel crates until they become more respectful of my walls.

I'm already tired of spackling.

And yes, Camy is WAY meaner than me when it comes to judging.

But not as mean as Mary. It's just that Mary's writing is illegible so you don't know she's being mean because you can't read it.

I think it's on purpose.

The Butcher Tyrant

Tina M. Russo said...

Omigosh. I think I read the Woodcutter's Daughter too.

Melanie Dickerson said...

I promise I've improved it since you guys read it! LOL! All your great judging is responsible for my wins!

Tina M. Russo said...

Can you give us a tiny blurb on it? If you'd rather not I understand. :)

Melanie Dickerson said...

Sleeping Beauty meets Pride and Prejudice when a betrothed prince falls for a woodcutter's daughter whose secret identity endangers them both.

Okay, that sounds cheesy! LOL

I used to open it with the scene of the heroine and her ditsy friend watching along the roadside as the ruling Duke's two sons ride home. The oldest son turns his nose up at her when he sees her pitiful-looking dress. (He's the hero.) Later he gets ripped open by a wild boar and she has to sew him up. Lots of fun.

My new book is based on the Beauty and the Beast story. It won the Gotcha! and Woodcutter's got fourth place.

Mary Connealy said...

I know I've read part of your work, Melanie, but I think I read it when you were my mentee.

My main memory of judging...which is what Ruthy is whining bout...was an entry she picked PERSONALLY to send me to TORTURE me.

It wasn't an inspy entry. The main comment I remember was, "I believe you are mistaking a string of semi-public, semi-violent, wholly degrading sexual encounters for a plot."

I'm still waiting for the thank you note...but I DESERVE ONE.

Ruthy's dead on, on the handwriting. But it's wrong to mock me, it's like a BIRTH DEFECT or something. I was born with a scrawl that has never improved.

Mary Connealy said...

Oh, and in case you missed it, yes, the beginning of Petticoat Ranch is a slightly modified....

It was a dark and storm night...

Melanie Dickerson said...

Oh my goodness! I'm sure your comment was perfect, but probably not very well-taken. LOL

Mary has been so good to me. I am so thankful for the ways she has helped me. But I didn't torture her with critiquing my work, except for that one time. I actually abandoned that book (Not because of what Mary said about it, though) but I could tell right away that Mary knew WAAAY more than I did. That was more than 2 1/2 years ago.

Jennifer AlLee said...

I've only entered one contest, but the feedback was incredibly helpful. One thing I discovered is that I throw in WAY too much backstory. Now, RUE is my friend!

Gina Welborn said...

Gina's advice about 'coloring' a scene works for some but not all. Pantsers are probably whoopsing into their garbage cans, hearts pounding by the very idea of planning that officiously.

Actually, Ruthy, I think the advice crosses the pantser/plotter line becuase I am in no way a plotter. In fact, my advice has nothing to do with pre-writing. It applies to contest results.

Say you get confusing scores on narration, dialogue, setting details, etc. And then your judges don't give you specific reasons for their scores.

Take your entry only, and for the sake of this example, let's say your entry is only 15 pages. If you go through and color mark the differnt aspects of your entry and notice you have a lot of dialogue and little sensory/setting/character details, then the odds are that's why your judges score you low on that aspect.

And IMHO, this coloring technique is actually more helpful for a pantser than a plotter because I stereotypically view plotters as being aware of those aspects and not ones to let a story run away from them like panters tend to do.

Did I mention I fall into the pantser category? If I went to all the work of pre-plotting a story, including what happens in every scene, then why waste my time writing the story. Of course, I greatly admire plotters and wish I could be one.

Anyway, my point is if you get a low score on a particular aspect of writing, then consider highlighing that aspect in your entry and see if you notice anything.

Mary Connealy said...

Jennifer, You're absolutely right to throw out the info dump.
You can go too far with it, but rarely. Like Melanie said, sometimes you've got to bring a little of it back.
but here's the deal, you wouldn't HAVE that info in your backstory if you didn't need it. Therefore, it stands to reason that you will use it. So if you throw out the ENTIRE backstory dump, chances are it's already in there anyway, because you needed it.
I do know in ejecting backstory from Petticoat Ranch one things I deleted was a bit more indepth study of Clay's father. Including I ejected Clay's father's name.
So in the end, when I name a baby Jarrod, well, only I know that baby is named for Clay's dad.

Tina M. Russo said...

Whew. I am off the hook. I didn't judge your story, Melanie.

But gee now I can't wait for you to sell it so I can read it.

Julie Lessman said...

Melanie, what a great blog, and you piqued the interest of so many Seekers, so you KNOW it was good!

Best advice I got on Passion was from a paid crit from Tracey Bateman at an ACFW conference and then several different contest judges. They all said the same thing -- move the action up front! So I cut my beloved internal monologue (it was like cutting my heart out because I like to talk to myself, what can I say??) and moved the action from page 10 to page 7. Judge # 1 said move it up more, so it went to page 3. When the next judge said move it up (again!), I thought, "Blast ... (early 1900 Christian cussing here), I'm moving that sucker up to the 2nd paragraph. Thank you Tracey and Judges # 1 & 2 wherever you are!!

Mary Connealy said...

By Christian cuss words she means
Doggone it.
Confound it.

Okay, I'm shocking myself. I must quit now.

Missy Tippens said...

okay, first longer message got eaten up in cyberspace. Here's the short version...

Great post, Melanie. One main things I've gotten from contests is the one you mentioned--the expecting readers to read my mind! I had judges ask things like: What's the heroine look like? What's the setting? Is it day or night?

You mean people can't read my mind? I have to put it on the page??


Pam Hillman said...

What have I changed? Just about everything over the years! Great post, Melanie.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Melanie...FABULOUS post.

The comments that have hurt the most over the years were also (once I came to my rational senses LOL) the ones that helped the most.

Cheryl Wyatt

Ausjenny said...

ok first question what is wip?

I have enjoyed the comments
another question are the contests for finished manuscripts? or just part or a story?

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hey, Jenny!
Wip is Work In Progress. That's the story we're currently working on. When we enter contests, we're usually only entering the first couple of chapters, anywhere from the first 15 pages to the first 50. It doesn't have to be a finished book to enter it in a contest.

I had so much fun posting on this blog! Thanks to everyone, and thanks to Mary for inviting me!