The RWA Golden Heart is open and the ACFW Genesis opens on Friday! Today we've invited Carol J. Post for a special workshop-in-a-box post to get your ready. No excuses. Time to contest! Take it away, Carol!
I used to love entering contests. I would carefully read the rules and condense them down to an easy-to-follow list that I would check, double check and triple check before sending in my entry. Then I would mark the calendar and anxiously count off the days until the finalists would be announced. In those early entries, I have to admit that I made almost every mistake imaginable.
It's been a few years since I entered a contest, but I've done quite a bit of judging. During that time, I've found that certain things keep popping up again and again. Here are my top nine.
1. Openings that are not compelling
Openings are one of the hardest things to get right. Many editors and agents say if a story doesn't grab them on the first page (sometimes even the first paragraph), they won't read any further. Here are some ways not to start your story:
With lots of description – I've seen some beautiful description in openings, several paragraphs worth! Description is great, but is better given in smaller doses as it relates to what the characters are currently experiencing.
With the heroine in a car or on a plane, thinking about why she's going home – This involves lots of introspection, which never makes for a compelling opening.
With backstory – We'll cover the topic of backstory in more detail in number 8 below, but the opening is the worst place to give the reader backstory. The reader isn't going to care about what happened to your heroine in her past until she has become invested in her present.
With ho-hum everyday life – Normal day-to-day activities are not interesting enough to hook a reader, especially in the first scene. I've judged entries where the author hinted on page one that the heroine's life was about to change, but twenty pages later, that life-changing event still hadn't occurred.
When an opening isn't compelling, it's usually because the author has started the story in the wrong place. Sometimes I'll get to a point in an entry and say, “Here's where it gets interesting,” or, “Here's your hook.” That point may not be until page 8 or 11 or 25, but that's the opening. Find that point in your story, and start it there, working in the information you deleted later.
2. Characters who are flat, inconsistent or just plain unlikeable
Characters must be flawed, but not so flawed as to be unlikable. In one of the first contests I entered as an unpublished writer, a judge slammed my hero, saying something to the effect of, “Your hero is a jerk. The only thing good about him is that he's rich.” That could have probably been said in a much more diplomatic way, but the fact is, she was right. It's a bit of a juggling act, creating characters with flaws but keeping them sympathetic. Even strengths can be flaws if taken to extreme. For example, a strong heroine can come across as stubborn and unbending, and a humble hero can appear insecure if he is constantly thinking he's unworthy of the heroine.
Oftentimes in contest entries, I see heroines who are well-drawn, but feel as if I don't know much about the hero beyond what he looks like. What makes your hero a unique man? What makes your heroine different from any other woman out there? Show your characters doing and saying things that reveal who they are. This is where a few interesting details can go a long way.
Another common mistake is having the hero or heroine act in ways that are inconsistent with who the author has shown them to be. I've seen quite a few heroines who are easygoing, likable and fun-loving who, when around the hero, suddenly turn into cranky biddies and get in huge tiffs over nothing. It's important to give the characters past experiences that justify their reactions and behavior in the present.
3. Confusing or shallow point of view
Occasionally I see entries where the author hops from one point of view to another or doesn't make it clear which POV we're in, but the most common problem I see with POV is not getting deep enough. There are several “telling” phrases that pull a reader out of deep POV – she thought/saw/heard/remembered/recalled, etc. Instead of saying a character saw, heard or remembered something, eliminate those words and let the reader see/hear or remember it through that character's eyes/ears/thoughts. Another thing that deepens POV is not overusing the POV character's name. Sometimes it's necessary for clarity, especially when there is more than one female or male character, but it's good to not overdo it.
Below is an example of deep point of view taken from Out for Justice, where the heroine, a homicide detective discovers that the latest victim of a serial killer is her cousin. (Forgive me for using my own work, but it's easier.)
When she reached for the tape, her eyes met Alan’s again and she hesitated. Something wasn’t right with him. It wasn’t just the customary stiffness. Deep creases of concern marked the bridge of his nose and anguish had settled in his blue eyes. What wasn’t he telling her? “It’s someone we know, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid it is.”
She ducked under the tape and when she straightened, Alan had stepped in front of her. He was trying to shield her.
It wasn’t necessary. She was a professional. And she wouldn’t let her personal feelings get in the way of doing her job. Right now, that job entailed performing the best investigation she could to catch this monster and bring him to justice.
Summoning strength she didn’t feel, she pushed Alan aside and moved past Shane Dalton. Not more than fifteen feet away lay a body, partially obstructed by a downed limb. Detective Vickers squatted, sitting on one heel to shoot another photo, further blocking her view. She moved closer, longing with all her heart to run the other direction and never look back, while at the same time needing to know.
She took another step. It was definitely a woman, judging by the clothing: baby-blue silk sleepwear.
“Lexi, wait.” Alan put a restraining hand on her arm.
She shook him off. Took another step. And another.
A torso appeared. A silk-clad leg. A bare foot extending from the hem of the pajama bottoms, toenails painted hot pink.
Then Detective Vickers straightened and moved aside, offering her an unobstructed view of their newest victim. Her eyes locked onto the scene and her brain shut down. Alan said something, but the words didn’t register.
Matted auburn hair flowed over a blanket of dying leaves. Green eyes, one swollen almost shut, stared unseeing at the leafy canopy overhead. Blood had trickled from a cut on one cheek, but had long since dried. The mouth was hidden behind a piece of neatly applied duct tape, and a blackish-red ring circled the creamy white neck.
Lexi shook her head. The ground seemed to tilt beneath her and she took a stumbling step backward to steady herself. A scream of protest clawed its way up her throat, followed by a wave of nausea that almost brought her to her knees.
Alan’s words finally penetrated her befuddled brain, several seconds too late.
“Lexi, it's Kayla.”
Notice, instead of, “She was sure there was something he wasn't telling her,” we have, “What wasn't he telling her?” Instead of “She saw a body not more than fifteen feet away,” we have, “Not more than fifteen feet away, lay a body...” Instead of, “She felt shocked and horrified,” we feel her shock and horror with her brain shutting down, the ground tilting, a scream of protest trying to come up her throat and a wave of nausea sweeping over her.
4. Poor balance between dialogue, introspection and action
This area is usually judged under pacing. Having several paragraphs where characters are thinking about things instead of acting or speaking slows the story down. Too much action, with nothing about what the characters are feeling, thinking or saying can feel shallow and unsatisfying. When a manuscript has a page or two of dialogue without any movement or character thoughts and feelings, it seems as if all we have are talking heads. The key is balance, intermingling all three.
I have often suggested looking at books by favorite authors and studying the balance between action, introspection and dialogue. Differentiating between the three with a different color highlighter for each makes the exercise very visual.
5. Too little variation in sentences
This is a problem that will garner lower scores if style is one of the areas judged. Many times, entries will have several sentences in a row that begin subject/action verb. This makes the paragraph read like, “She did this. He did this. He did that, and then she did that.” Not only does the construction need to be varied, but so does the length. Interspersing shorter sentences with longer ones makes for much more interesting reading and better flow. If there is a problem with sentences being too similar, it is often easier to spot while reading aloud.
Here is a paragraph taken from Deadly Getaway. Notice the difference in the lengths of the sentences, as well as the sentence construction. (The heroine is on a boat, fleeing from guys who have just killed an unknown man and her best friend.)
She ran toward the back and up the steps. Kenneth whatever-his-name-was was gone, probably thrown overboard. As she hurled herself through the opening, her purse strap caught on the door latch and held for a fraction of a second before snapping. The leather bag fell to the deck. The same moment, someone shouted behind her. She steeled herself against the pitching and rolling of the boat and stumbled across the deck. Another shot rang out, accompanied by a metallic ping. Pain like nothing she had experienced before stabbed through her, a red-hot poker into her shoulder.
6. Trite, unnecessary or boring dialogue
All dialogue should be interesting and serve some purpose, such as moving the story forward or revealing character. Written conversations must sound natural and ring true to the person speaking, but they need to be much more “streamlined” than real-life conversations, which are often chit-chatty and mundane. This holds true for greetings and farewells. Although we generally wouldn't walk away from someone without some kind of verbal farewell, ending a written conversation with “See you later. Okay, bye.” is unnecessary and uninteresting.
This is a good place to mention dialogue tags. Scoring for dialogue often includes “effective use of tags.” I've seen paragraphs of dialogue, each one ending with “he said” or “she said.” People communicate with actions as well as words, and these action beats give a much clearer picture of what is going on. Other types of beats (emotion beats, setting beats, etc.) enrich the writing even further, giving insight into what the characters are feeling and seeing as they converse. Interestingly enough, sometimes writers will use great beats, but still follow them with a dialogue tag, for example, “He ran his fingers through his hair and said...” In those instances, the tag is unnecessary.
Here's an example of an excerpt from Shattered Haven rewritten using tags, then again with beats. The hero has almost gotten arrested while out searching for his escaped dog on his first night in town .
With dialogue tags:
“Now you decide to show up,” Blake said to the dog. “You almost got me arrested. No more jerky treats for you. At least till tomorrow.”
“Sorry about that,” the officer said. “We don’t get many break-ins here. In fact, we don’t get any break-ins. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“No problem. You were only doing your job. But I have to admit, this was my first time on this side of the handcuffs. Blake Townsend, Dallas P.D.,” he said, extending his hand.
“You’ve got to be kidding. I was arresting a cop?”
“Former cop, actually. Injured on the job. And you, milady,” he said to Allison, “deserve a big thank you for getting me out of hot water. I at least owe you dinner.”
“That won’t be necessary,” she responded. “Your words were thank you enough.”
“Now you decide to show up. You almost got me arrested.” Still laughing, he maneuvered to his feet. Not easy with two large paws in his lap and his hands cuffed behind his back. “No more jerky treats for you. At least till tomorrow.”
Hunter stepped behind him and inserted a key into the handcuffs. “Sorry about that. We don’t get many break-ins here. In fact, we don’t get any break-ins. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The stranger shot him a forgiving smile over one shoulder as the cuffs clicked open. “No problem. You were only doing your job. But I have to admit, this was my first time on this side of the handcuffs.” He clipped a leash onto the dog’s collar before extending his hand. “Blake Townsend, Dallas P.D.”
Hunter’s brows shot up again. “You’ve got to be kidding. I was arresting a cop?”
“Former cop, actually. Injured on the job.” He turned toward Allison. “And you, milady, deserve a big thank you for getting me out of hot water. I at least owe you dinner.”
The smile he gave her reached his eyes, creating fine lines at their corners. His manner was joking, but something told her he was dead serious about dinner. And she was suddenly hit with a case of teenage shyness. She reached to smooth her hair, then dropped her hand. Why bother? The first impression was already made—barefoot and bedhead. Not that it mattered.
She returned his smile with one that she hoped projected confidence. “That won’t be necessary. Your words were thank you enough.”
7. Not planting the reader solidly in a scene from the get-go
Most people form images in their minds when reading a story. When a scene begins, “For the past two weeks...” then goes on to explain what happened over the past two weeks, the reader doesn't know where the character is now, and it's hard to form that image. When time has passed between scenes, it's often necessary to fill readers in on events that have occurred during that time, but it's best to cement them in the scene first. If that introspection is more than a short paragraph or two, intersperse it with actions the character is making in the present.
Sometimes an author will set the scene but leave out an important detail so that the reader's mental image will have to be amended later. My editor occasionally catches me on this. I'll get a comment two pages into a scene something like, “I didn't realize such-and-such until right here. Can you include this earlier?” As an example, in a book for which I turned in edits last week, the reader knows the hero is in his truck, filled with angst because the heroine has just left town, but I didn't mention the fact that he is pulling his boat until he gets to the city marina and starts to back it down the ramp. Revising to mention the boat in the first paragraph was an easy fix and gives the reader a truer picture of what is going on.
8. Backstory not woven in seamlessly
This one is a biggie. Backstory is important. After all, it's what has made the characters the people they are today. But the reader is only interested in backstory as it relates to the present. I've seen entries where the majority of the first scene is backstory. I once heard someone give the advice to write out all the backstory, then cut it up into little pieces and insert it a sliver at a time throughout the story. The idea is to weave it in seamlessly, where it doesn't feel as if the present story comes to a screeching halt.
Here is the opening of Motive for Murder, with several backstory details woven in as they pertain to the present:
The house stood silhouetted against a cloudless sky, the landscape frozen and still under the onslaught of one of Central Florida's infrequent cold fronts.
Just like the last time she had stepped foot on the property.
Jessica Parker drew in a deep breath and threw open the car door, stopping short of dinging the shiny red Lotus sitting next to her Bug. As she stepped into the frigid night air, she pulled her coat more tightly around her, the cold outside mirroring the chill within. Eight long years, and nothing had changed. The same huge oak shadowed most of the front yard. The same potted plant waited by the front door, hiding the key to the house. And as she made her way up the cracked cement drive, she was hit with the same lack of warmth that she had always associated with home.
She squatted to tilt the pot, then heaved a sigh. The key was gone. Priscilla was still messing with her, even from beyond the grave. She straightened and walked back to her car. It had been years since she had picked a lock. But that wasn't a skill easily forgotten—like riding a bike.
On the first page, the reader learns that the heroine left home eight years ago and has not been back, that home was not a warm and happy place, that someone, likely a sister, had died, and that the heroine had, at one time, done some things that may have put her on the wrong side of the law. But none of this information (I hope) stopped the flow of the present story.
9. Lack of compelling conflicts
Conflict is an area that is scored in virtually every contest I've entered or judged, and for good reason. If you don't have conflict, you don't have a story. Here are the most common mistakes I see:
There is no obvious external conflict and no hint at what the internal conflicts will be. Conflicts need to be laid out pretty early, because they are the core of the story. I've read 30-page entries that contain some beautiful writing but no conflict. Sometimes the hero and heroine have a relationship such that each is annoyed by the presence of the other, and every meeting ends with insults being hurled. Bickering, however, is not conflict.
The conflict stems from a misunderstanding which could be easily resolved if the characters talked. Misunderstandings can create additional conflict and add twists to the plot. But if a misunderstanding is the primary reason the hero and heroine can't be together, by the time the reader hits page 30, she'll be asking, “Why don't these people just TALK?”
The conflict is there, but it's not serious enough to sustain a whole book. Good conflicts can't be solved easily without great risk to the main characters. If a simple decision on the part of either the hero or heroine would give them their happily-ever-after, the conflict isn't strong enough. Some great conflict occurs when the hero and heroine's goals are in direct opposition to one another. For example, he wants her, but they're attorneys on opposite sides of a big case. Or she's attracted to him, but he's the CEO who just bought her company in a hostile takeover.
I hope at least one or two of these points hit home with you and will help you make your writing stronger. The Golden Heart entry deadline is just around the corner. Are you planning to enter? What is the most helpful feedback you've gotten from a contest?
Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Shattered Haven, Book 1 in my Cedar Key series. From now until January 15, all new subscribers to my newsletter will receive a free e-book, Deadly Getaway, the prequel to the series. (The link to sign up for the newsletter is on my web site, www.caroljpost.com. I promise I won't sell your info or spam you!)
Allison Winchester's old Victorian house contains a valuable secret code, one that someone is dead set on uncovering. After her house is ransacked and her life is threatened, she has no choice but to accept the protection of injured ex-cop Blake Townsend. Allison never thought she'd trust a man with secrets again--and Blake is as much a mystery as the man who is stalking her. The lawman vows to shield her from the dangerous criminal. But can Blake and Allison decipher the mysterious code before their island safe haven becomes their ultimate resting place?
Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.
Bio: Carol J. Post writes fun and face-paced inspirational romantic suspense and lives in sunshiny central Florida. She sings and plays the piano for her church and also enjoys sailing, hiking, camping—almost anything outdoors. Her daughters and grandkids live too far away for her liking, so she now pours all that nurturing into taking care of two fat and sassy cats and one highly spoiled dog.
You can find Carol on the web at www.caroljpost.com, or connect with her on facebook (www.facebook.com/caroljpost.author) or twitter (@caroljpost).