Ten Deadly Sins of Entering Competitions

This week, the competition run by Simon & Schuster for a Michael Jecks Detection Collection pen from Conway Stewart as been won, by Michael Chidley. Congratulations to Michael, and sorry to all those who didn’t win the pen. You’ll just have to save your pennies!

Thinking of competitions, I was reminded of the old CWA Debut Dagger. Not only I was reminded, though. The last couple of posts have raised quite a few comments and questions – so much so that my expert administrators have dredged up from their memories certain articles I’ve written in the past.

For a few years, I used to run the Debut Dagger competition for the CWA. It was enormous (if exhausting) fun when I did it. Reading the hundreds of entries every year gave me great excitement, apart from anything else, but the main thrill was, seeing who would win and go on to get a contract.

Because most of them did. I had the thrill of seeing Simon Levack and Ed Wright win over two years. Both had publishing contracts within weeks of the award. Then there were the others: Edwin Thomas (who writes as Tom Harper), Allan Guthrie, and any number of others were shortlisted authors in the Debut Dagger. I once calculated that in two years I assisted seven authors into print, and that is a matter of some pride to me.

It was the whole point of the Debut Dagger: to help unpublished authors to get their fists on a contract.

But while running the Debut Dagger, I did get a few . . . well, let us say, less competent entries. From perfectly good, sensible people, I have no doubt, but they failed in one or two key areas. Which sort of mucked up their chances.

These rules were culled from those (sometimes deeply entertaining) entries!

If you are considering entering a competition, do please read and inwardly digest . . .

Judging competitions: the TEN DEADLY SINS

All writers know the pain of writing the best story ever and sending it off into the void, only to hear three months later that their work’s “not quite what we are looking for”. That’s bad enough, but for misery, it’s not quite so bad as entering competitions, because you rarely hear anything back. As far as the Debut Dagger goes, if you supply your e-mail address (sign-up form at the foot of the page) you’ll at least find out if you haven’t won. Unless you get onto the shortlist, though, you won’t hear anything about the quality of your entry.

But many don’t get to the short list. And for the daftest reasons.

First, many don’t stick to the Rules. If the Rules ask for 3,000 words there is no earthly point sending in 10,000. It only irritates the judges. Other folks type in a rush and never edit or proof check. They can’t, because their efforts read so badly. Remember, if you treat your work in a cavalier manner, judges will too.

Is this important? You betcher. Take the Debut Dagger last year. We had almost 800 entries, and had to produce a short list of ten to twenty in a week and a half. We were actively seeking reasons to reject, and so are all other judges if they are honest. A judge has to whittle down all the non-starters, just like an editor. They too are searching for signs so that they can reject. You may not like it, but that’s the truth. After all, editors are receiving on average about eight manuscripts per day, at the same time as working on commissioned pieces, attending meetings and trying to hold together a social life.

What makes judges reject? An example: misspellings can make me laugh out loud, such as the body hidden in the ‘trunk of a Black Sudan’ or the man concealing a ‘grizzly’ secret, or the ‘viscous’ murder. Those are my favourites, but there are many, many more, and all demonstrate lack of care. Spell checkers are only so good. They still can’t check grammatical context. That’s the author’s job. Yours.

When you write, read it out aloud to yourself. Weird sentence construction can easily be spotted then, and it also gives your writing an authentic feel if it comes out the way you speak. That’s how I write my own works, reading them out loud until they read all right.

A hot button for me is the absence or sudden appearance of apostrophes. I know nothing better guaranteed to make me lose the thread than an ‘its’ that should be ‘it is’ or an ‘it’s’ that’s the possessive of ‘it’. Perhaps I am particularly finicky — but I am a writer, which means I care about words. Editors do too. You should, if you want to be published.

In our Rules, we ask for a synopsis, yet many didn’t give one. . . . and whodunit? If you want to know that, you’ll have to buy the book to find out!’ will reach for the sick bag and then throw bag and entry into the bin.

So often the synopsis begins by summarising the story entered. Thus the judge reads a story and then reads another two paragraphs telling him what he just read. Pointless. In fact worse than pointless, because the author has just lost a couple of hundred words and only has 300 left to tell the rest of the story.

Speaking of Rules, one sometimes thinks there’s no point in them. We ask for everything double-line-spaced, so why do people send us single-line-spaced work? We want A4 pages, printed on one side only – and people seem to take pleasure in ignoring us.

Don’t get me on to people who sent in carefully printed and bound work with fancy covers. All have to be systematically de-bound because I, like editors, prefer my reading loose-leaf. As we stated in the Rules.

There are other things which raise negatives in the judges’ minds. After speaking to editors from seven leading publishing houses, I can now reveal a list of pet hates. Please, if you want to be a writer, read these and learn them.

  1. Read the Rules and obey them.
  2. Be different. Last year an editor made the plaintive – or pointed – observation: ‘Why are all innocent female victims invariably blond and beautiful?’
  3. Do not start succeeding paragraphs or sentences with the same word. One (really very good) entry this year had the first six paras starting with ‘The’.
  4. Try not to use exclamation marks. If a sentence is witty or funny, the reader will notice, and if it’s not, you won’t make things better by drawing attention to it.
  5. Unless you’re writing for a tabloid, avoid really common terms: ’emotional rollercoaster’; ‘heart-stopping surprise’; or, my pet hate, ‘feisty’.
  6. Always use quote marks for speech. This year we received several laid out with a dash, like a script, and it was impossible to see where dialogue ended and commentary began.
  7. Be consistent with paragraph spacing: judges can live with no tab, no space between subsequent paras, they can live with a tab no space, they can live with a space and no tab, or any other layout, but they will hate a mixture. And dialogue doesn’t mean you have to have a space to make it stand out. The usual convention is that a space indicates a change of scene or pace. Stick to it.
  8. Judges detest small type. It may be cheaper for you to post a lightweight bundle by printing in 8 point size, but for a judge it just means eye strain and a headache. Judges spend all day every day reading, and having to squint puts them off.
  9. If you are writing for a competition like the Debut Dagger, try to have a significant scene. That doesn’t mean you have to have a body on page one, but if you have ten or twelve pages to play with, make sure you use them. Don’t just hope that setting a scene will be enough, because what you want to do is make the reader want to know what happens next. That means using some sort of cliffhanger, if you can.
  10. Oh, and finally, don’t send threatening letters. Last year someone demanded that we return his story (the Rules said we wouldn’t); and all but accused us of plagiarism. This year someone accused us of filching his entry fee because our letter confirming receipt was dated after the deadline. Sadly, administrating a competition for which there are fifty entries daily, while simultaneously trying to earn a living, means one can fall behind. There has to be an element of trust. If you don’t trust the Organisers, don’t enter. If, like ours, the Rules state that copyright will remain with the author, you should believe them.

Here endeth the lesson.

To summarise: yes, read the Rules and obey them; read your work out aloud; check spellings and avoid cliches. Aim to be unique, aim to be perfect. If you are slapdash, it shows, but if you can develop your own style and have a story to tell, you will get a contract.

Still, whether you type for fun or for profit, enjoy your work. That is always the most important thing.

PS – apologies for lack of pictures today. Some problem with broadband or WordPress. God knows which. Hopefully normal will be returning soon!

4 Responses to “Ten Deadly Sins of Entering Competitions”
  1. Neeks says:

    This list will be a huge help. Thank you for helping other writers.


  2. knotrune says:

    What about where two adjacent paragraphs are identical? ;) (Look just before the list)


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