Why judging competitions is a great lesson in writing

Michelle SomersSimply Writing tips Leave a Comment

For the past couple of weeks, I found myself slumped between writing projects, staring at a blank screen with not a creative thought in sight. Not because I had no idea what to start next – inspiration for a new series has plagued me relentlessly for the past six months – characters, scenes, an amazing backstory – just begging to be written.
I diligently made notes and promised the muse behind this new series I’d do her baby justice, once 
Murder Most Unusual was put to bed.

That was two weeks ago and my muse is still waiting.
So, what to do while waiting for that one blocking plot point to clear? I found many things – reading, quality time with the family, critiquing for my CPs and judging for RWA’s Ripping Start competition.

​This brings us full circle to the reason for this blog – why is judging such a great lesson in writing?

​Like a mother who believes her child is perfection, a writer believes their work is without blemish. Good enough reason to step away from the finished product before embarking on that wonderful process called editing. It’s also why we should get others – whether critique partners, beta readers or competition judges – to read either part or all of our masterpiece.

What I love about this process is that I get to return the favour.

It’s a privilege to be able to read and critique another author’s story with the knowledge that one day that same piece of work will make it into a publisher’s hands, and hopefully, into their heart.

In the case of the Ripping Start, I was given the opportunity to read five such manuscript beginnings. It’s great to be a part – no matter how small – of a new writer’s journey.  And as a judge, it’s vital to remember you hold someone’s baby, someone’s dreams, in the palm of your hand. Just as you’d like others to do to you, be kind. Be gentle. Remember you have the power to inspire or crush. To bolster or obliterate. Be fair, and most of all, be constructive. Provide comments on what the author has done right and what they could do better.

On that theme, I’d like to do the same here. Give an overview on things that leapt out in some or all of the entries I judged this year.
What makes an entry shine? What makes it stand out above the rest?

No, I don’t say this because I write suspense (although I won’t deny the wording leans that way because of it).
Spear the reader’s attention, then don’t let go until the very last word.
Here’s the first sentence of my newly finished work in progress, Murder Most Unusual. Decide from this one line whether you’re hooked enough to keep reading or whether you’re ready to put it down.

They make it look so easy in books. Murder the victim, move the body.

Are you intrigued? I hope so.
I could have started this scene with a description. Told the reader what my character was thinking. Or doing. Yet I doubt the impact would have been as great.
What do you think?

No matter the story, no matter the genre, your characters must have a purpose. Without a purpose, there is nothing driving them forward. And without this driving force, there is no story.
Once you’ve worked out what your character wants, move onto their motivation. This is very personal to your character and, more often than not, something that stems from their past. If they crave stability, is it because their childhood was fraught with uncertainty? If they shy away from close relationships, is it because they’ve loved and lost in the past and are afraid to love and lose again? Dig deep. The deeper you dig into your character’s motivations, the more complex they’ll become.
And once you’ve identified why they’re chasing that goal, work out why they can’t have it. In romance, a heroine’s obstacle is often linked to the hero. Perhaps his GMC is in direct contradiction to hers? Perhaps he has something she needs or vice versa.
Don’t skimp on GMC. Show the reader in those first few pages they have a reason to read on. That you have a plot and characters worth investing their time in.

3.    PACING
This is enormously important throughout your story – but doubly so in those first few pages. Fail to give the reader enough to sink their teeth into, there’s no guarantee they’ll take the time and bite again.
If you take too long to get to the good stuff, you’ll lose readers who won’t wade through hyperbole to get to the story. Just give it to us – sparingly and simply, but in a voice that is uniquely yours.
How? It takes practice. And this is where judging will help you to recognise what you may, at first, miss in your own writing.
Take out all those additional words that don’t add value to your story. Keep your writing simple, your meaning attainable, but your voice true. Dialogue should be realistic, but never mundane or verbose.
Here’s a first and last draft of a paragraph from Murder Most Unusual to demonstrate how I apply these techniques in my own writing.

First draft before any editing:
Stacey stood shivering in the pouring rain, telling herself over and over that this was just research. She rolled her eyes and stood next to the cold, wet bricks of the high-rise building, under the shelter of its eaves.
All she needed to do now was get the message from her head to her heart.

Final draft:
It’s just research, you nut!
Rain streamed from Stacey’s hood onto her face as she rolled her eyes and huddled further under the building’s narrow eaves.
Try telling that to my heart!

Which version works best for you? For me, I love the second draft. It’s sharper, takes the reader deep into Stacey’s point of view and is more than twenty words lighter. Pacier.
It’ll take time to get the hang of it, perhaps more than a few rounds of edits, but once you get there, you’ll never look back.

​Probably the most talked about tip but the least followed.
Don’t tell us your character is happy or sad or angry. Show us. Don’t tell us they’re warm or spirited or aggressive. Show us. Don’t tell us the story. Use your characters, their actions and reactions to show us.
I’ve found one of the best ways to chuck the habit of telling is to bury myself deeper into my character’s point of view. If I imagine myself in his or her shoes, I imagine the action as it’s unfolding.

Let’s look at the classic example of a character tripping in an excerpt of Murder Most Unusual:

He swerved left and she didn’t get why until sharp pain exploded in her big toe. Tears swam in her eyes as she sprawled forward and her knee cracked against the rock that put her there. Her palms burned.
She gasped for breath. 
No way!

Were you there with Stacey as she tripped and fell?
I could have just said ‘he swerved and she tripped on the rock he missed’ but what’d be the fun in that?

Don’t tell me that your character is avoiding someone’s gaze, show me what she’s focusing on instead. Don’t tell me she opens a door, describe the dig of the handle into her palm, the chill of glass beneath her fingertips.
Let your scenes play out and let the reader experience the moment along with your character.
And have fun. Once you immerse deeper into your characters, your work will take on a new perspective. You’ll captivate and enthral your readers, and they won’t want to put your book down.

And so my blog on what judging can do for your writing ends. And with it?
New inspiration and a clear avenue of what I want to write next! No more blank screens tonight

I’d love to hear from you.
Have you ever judged a writing competition? Or entered one? How does your experience rate? What did you learn? Any thoughts for or against for other writers?

Happy writing!

Michelle Somers is author of the “Lethal In Love” series.
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