April 12, 2018
Judging a contest is an interesting activity because it happens in layers. The first layer is simply removing from consideration all the entries that are not appropriate at all (prose memoirs sent to a poetry contest for young children, or a twenty-page story for teens sent to a picture book contest). That actually removes more entries than you probably think, which is sad, because each entry represents someone's work and hope, but an entry which is flatly inappropriate has no chance whatsoever.
A poetry contest judge isn't going to read an excerpt of a prose memoir and say, "This is so good that I'm going to give it the prize even though it completely misses the point of the contest." No matter how good that prose memoir is, no matter how beautifully crafted, no matter how moving, it simply cannot win in a contest about poetry for children. No amount of good can overcome that fatal flaw of inappropriateness.
Surprisingly, almost all the reasons a story doesn't win is a bit related to that first reason. Namely, the weakest thing about your entry is the thing upon which your hopes of winning rests. You don't lose because of the thing you do the best. It’s the weakest link in your story that kicks you out of the winner’s circle. You win because the thing you do the weakest is still better than the thing all the other stories do the weakest. When your weakness doesn't destroy your entry, then you beat everyone. Contest entries win or lose based on the weakest link.
Why the Weakest Link?
Unfortunately, things done poorly tend to stand out even more than things done well, and one weak area can lessen the effectiveness of the things you do well. For example, imagine a story for children with wonderful dialogue. Each character sounds different and the dialogue is filled with heart and humor. That's the story's great strength. But now imagine that that same story has no action at all and never gives us a hint of where we are (outside of mentions in the dialogue), so, no setting. Many stories come into contests with exactly those two flaws. Many times the writer will try to disguise the lack of action by putting it in the dialogue. You'll see moments like this:
"Let's get going on this beach cleanup," said Joey. "I'll pick up this pile of trash. Oh, wow, this stuff is slimy."
"I'm collecting these broken boards. I hope I don’t get a splinter," said Mary. "Hey, Joey, come and look at this. I found something."
"I'm coming. Give me a second to get there," said Joey. "Let me look at that. It looks like a wooden box. Look at all the carving on the top. Let's open it."
Do you see the problem with this? If you don't, you need to spend some time looking at your own writing. It is not enough for a scene to have dialogue. Dialogue cannot do all the jobs in the story. The more you ask it to take on too much work, the more your dialogue will weaken, because you'll have people saying things they simply wouldn't say in real life. So the weak link in the above scene (the lack of setting and action) actually pulls down the one thing the scene tries to do: exciting dialogue. And no matter what exciting things happen to Mary and Joey, the story cannot win because its weakest link pulls it out of the running.
So how might that scene have looked with setting and dialogue? It might look something like this:
Mary trudged through the soft sand beside her brother. She groaned at the sight of the littered beach next to the water. "Where does all this trash come from?"
Joey hefted the heavy pack on his shoulder. "Most of it washes in." He pointed up the beach. "I'll start up there. You go that way, and we'll work back toward this spot." He pulled a pair of gloves and some garbage bags out of his pack and handed them over, then took off down the beach at a trot.
Grateful for the firmer sand, Mary ran down the shoreline. She spotted a pile of fishing nets and decided to start her cleanup with that, but she'd barely hauled half the net into her garbage bag when she spotted the small wooden box, half buried in the sand under the net. She tried to pick it up, but the little box was heavier than she expected. She turned and bellowed, "Joey, come and look at this. I found something."
Do you see how much more real the scene feels when the dialogue is supported by narrative action and setting details? By strengthening the weak links, the scene improves.
Even the Smallest Stuff Matters
After a judge culls out the inappropriate entries and the ones with big weak links that pull down the story hard, the number of entries becomes much, much smaller. In this smaller group, most of the entries are balanced and interesting. But in this group, much smaller weak links can help a judge decide between two equally well-written pieces. A writer who spelled the main character's name as Stephen in one scene and Steven in another and Steve in still another has a consistency weakness that is distracting to the reader, making that story weaker than the story where the writer was careful to be consistent in naming. A writer who shifts from present tense to past tense to present tense without cause has included another distraction that weakens the story's chances. And a writer who frequently tries to use big words that he clearly doesn't really know well (words he probably got from a thesaurus, thinking that all synonyms listed on the page are completely interchangeable) adds another kind of distraction.
Anything that distracts a reader from the story you've crafted is a weak link. And in a contest, they matter. If you're reading this and muttering, "Readers don't notice things like spelling mistakes or verb tense," stop. Readers do notice. And many readers will stop reading when you've left in things that distract them from the story you've crafted.
"But," you might sputter, "isn't that why publishers have editors? To help eliminate the little things?"
Sure. They do. And if you were submitting to a publisher, the little problem with inconsistent name spelling probably wouldn't keep the publisher from buying the story assuming the publisher loved it. You're right. An editor would catch that. (However, think whether you really want to distract that editor from your story with easily amended errors.) But you're submitting to a contest. And in a contest, the judge often reaches a point where he or she is choosing from among a small group of equally strong pieces. And in a situation like that, anything that posed a distraction, anything at all, can prevent your story from winning.
Before You Submit
Contests are fantastic chances to practice your submission skills and give you an opportunity to practice reading and following specific guidelines. Some contests, like ours, come with some kind of critique, which is a bonus. So win or lose, there's value in entering. But many contests also come with a fee, some small, and some high. So if you're going to pay to enter a contest, you want to make your entry worth it––make it an entry you've examined closely so you feel confident you've done the work to make it strong.
Read all contest guidelines carefully and don't send something that doesn't match. There is a wonderful Monty Python skit where a man goes into a pet shop wanting to buy a fish, so the pet shop man offers to turn a cat into a fish by shaving it and giving it a snorkel. That's about as effective as sending something inappropriate and hoping it will turn into a winning contest entry. If the contest is for a picture book, don't send a poem that has no story or a piece written for adults or teens. Think about the thing the contest is judging and only submit a piece that matches that.
Read your story critically or take it to a friend and say, "Can you read this and tell me what the weakest thing is?" Be specific. Let your friend know you truly want to know what the weakest link is. Flattery won't help you win the contest, but an honest critique that points at the weak links can help you fix the story. Then, resist the urge to defend the weakness. Instead, take it in hand and strengthen it.
Do that and your story will make it to that last tiny pile of entries where the contest judges are suffering to choose between really amazing entries. Make the judge work for it. And win.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.