For the past couple of months, I’ve been reading submissions for a book contest, which turned out to be
more time-consuming, more fun, and more revealing than I anticipated.
Top 10 Things I’ve Learned from Contest Entries
10. Presentation counts.
They say we feast first with the eyes because the appearance of the meal whets the appetite. Same with a manuscript: conventional white space, margins, punctuation, and clean copy indicate that you care enough to submit your best effort.
9. The synopsis—concise yet complete.
Everyone knows that a synopsis is nigh impossible to write. You’ve succeeded if you’ve conveyed the hook, the main complication, and the ending.
8. What kind of story is it?
I like to know what I’m getting into by the end of the first page, or soon after, so I can anticipate what’s coming.
7. Who’s Who?
Characters must be distinct from one another. Please remind me, in a subtle way of course, if a character’s been out of the picture for very long. Flipping pages to find a name again is a pain.
6. Help—I’m lost!
Clarity makes all the difference. Make sure each scene includes the who, what, when, where, how, and why of what’s going on. You’d be surprised how many manuscripts, even those with compelling writing, lack the obvious.
5. But the door to the refridge is open!
Have you ever been distracted in a TV sitcom by a simple action that, left unattended, weighs on your mind? If your heroine turns up the burner under the tea kettle to red-hot and gets a frantic phone call, don’t forget to have her shut off the stove. Either that, or follow up with a kitchen fire.
4. Little did he know…that he spoiled the suspense.
Writers who reveal inside information of an upcoming event, by editorializing, rob the story of drama. I realize authors do this all the time, but it’s no fun for the reader. For example, let’s say that Jerry’s driving home at the end of a long day that happens to be his birthday, and he’s morose about being alone. If I write, “Little did he know what awaited him,” the reader knows something’s coming, and the surprise party just lost its punch. (By the way, this is not to be confused with foreshadowing, in which a character sees or hears something, most often an object, that later turns out to be significant.)
3. Say what?
For dialogue, don’t forget to use contractions, sentence fragments, abbreviations, slang, and whatever shorthand makes it seem natural. Make sure vocabulary matches the character’s background.
2. If I’m turning pages, that’s a good sign.
Despite all kinds of rule-breaking, a book comes out on top if it provides enough conflict to make me worry about the characters and wish I could see how things turn out for them.
1. We’ve got trouble right here in River City.
When all is said and done, I enjoy indulging in the creative worlds of others. Who knows but that I’ve previewed the next NY Times best-seller? But no matter how good the book, I admire those who put their work out there for review. Writing is not for wimps! I know, because being forced to rate other writers’ books makes me see my own writing in a new light, wince at my glaring errors and lack of know-how, and consider giving up. But then, the success of others gives me just enough encouragement to keep trying. So, I’m headed back to the drawing board, bent on finding ways to improve and asking, “Is a book ever really done?”