I love judging fiction writing contests. It’s not because I enjoy pointing out other people’s mistakes, but because I enjoy reading the worlds others have created, and I want to help them identify their weaknesses so they can improve their stories. The first time I judged, I expected synopses and chapters that would pull me in, grabbing my attention and leaving me disappointed that I could only read one chapter. Instead, I repeatedly read simple, correctable mistakes that sabotaged the submission and distracted me from the story line. These are the most frequent mistakes that I see that can be easily corrected.
- A non-specific synopsis. If you’re writing a romance, I know the boy gets the girl – that’s how romance works. What I want to know is what makes your story special. Put that in your synopsis.
- An unclear synopsis. The synopsis is a summary of your story, not a place to bring up possible book-club questions or explain the backstory. It should answer questions, not raise them. If the synopsis is confusing, I assume the book will be too.
- Wrong genre. A romance needs to introduce the boy and girl early in the story; if the plot doesn’t depend on that meeting, it’s probably not a romance. Make sure you know your genre guidelines so you enter (or query) the right category (or agent).
- Conflicting morals. When you enter a Christian writing contest, your story needs to reflect a Christian mindset. You don’t necessarily have to mention God, but the characters and situation should not conflict with Christian principles. If you’re going to put voodoo and ghosts in your synopsis and first chapter, then you need to also include evidence of the Christian influence.
- Nothing happens (aka backstory). Without a doubt, the most frequent issue I read concerns backstory – after the author introduces the characters, they sit around and think about their lives, dropping pages of backstory on the readers while masquerading it as things-I think-while-working-out. Figure out where the story starts, then start there.
- Inappropriate opening action. Novels need to start with action, but the action needs to be part of the plot, not a ploy to get my attention. Cars speeding out of control and into the river only work if one of your characters is in the car or somehow related to the car. Don’t create action just to get attention, make it fit the story line.
- He, she, they, we – pronouns. Make sure to use them, but make sure you know how to use them first. There are two main pronoun abusers: the Never-Use Club and the Misuse Club. Too many proper nouns makes the story feel stilted. Too many pronouns used improperly make it hard to figure out who’s doing what. Brush up on your pronouns, and don’t be afraid to use them.
- Punctuation. Comma, semicolons, em dashes, en dashes, ellipses, and periods are not Just because … looks nice doesn’t means it’s appropriate. If you’re not 110% sure how to use a form of punctuation, look it up. The wrong punctuation can change the mood of a sentence and scene.
- Exclamation points! There are very few situations in which an exclamation point is appropriate (unless you’re writing an action-packed book where things are blowing up and people need to be heard). When used it dialogue, it represents yelling, not excitement. You need to show excitement with your descriptions, not your punctuation.
There are, of course, other aspects of the writing that need to be mastered – Deep POV, showing, sensory details – but honing those talents won’t help if the reader is confused by pronoun usage and an unclear synopsis. Eliminate the nine issues listed above so the judge (or editor) can focus on your story, not the mistakes.
Don’t set yourself up for failure! (I couldn’t resist.)