I feel honored to be the coordinator for the Northern Colorado Writers Top of the Mountain writing contest associated with the annual conference which will be open to submissions in September. It’s a pleasure working with the wonderful, expert judges and the inspiring entrants who never cease to amaze with their interesting and well-penned manuscripts.
Getting high marks on the following elements is what will land you in the finalist’s circle of any contest and possibly win you the first place award, beginning with Viewpoint. Did you use a consistent, identifiable, and appropriate POV for the scene, and without any author intrusion? If point of view is confusing or unclear to you, be sure to study up on it because, like tense, it is the glue that holds your book together.
Next, scrutinize those characters. Have you developed your protagonist and antagonist effectively? Are they believable? Are we sympathetic to your hero or heroine? This means regardless of the mistakes they are making we understand their motives and are rooting for them to eventually figure it out. We want them to succeed, or otherwise accomplish what they have set out to do. If we don’t care, then you haven’t endeared us to them, which means we are going to close the book somewhere before page 25. Not coincidentally, this is the same number of pages you submit to the contest.
This leads to pacing. No matter how clear your point of view, or how consistent your tense, and regardless of our empathy for your main character, if your plot does not have a compelling reason for us to turn the page – we won’t. Exactly why you must be certain every single scene whether action, narrative, or dialogue moves the story forward. Did the author use a lot of backstory? Did the sequencing of events make sense? Did the author ‘show’ and not ‘tell’ what is happening? Is the overall flow of the novel pleasing?
If the rhythmic and smooth effect of a well-orchestrated storyline isn’t there, it is often because you used too much backstory, and/or did not sequence your events properly. Either issue can cause your effect to be choppy and segmented, bogging your reader down as they struggle to keep everything straight.
If there is too much narrative (which means inactive telling rather than active showing) we are going to fall asleep, or at the very least not remember a word we just read. Which leads to the importance of tension (or suspense). Tension and suspense begin with an opening hook… something that fully invests us in whatever lies ahead. And let’s not forget setting. No matter how surreal, it must be interesting and believable. Setting includes a timeline that carefully (and cleverly) unfolds before us in a way that grounds the reader.
Are the action scenes clear and precise so the reader always knows who is doing what to whom? Is the dialogue appropriate for the person speaking it? Can we be certain who is speaking whether a dialogue tag is used or not? Are you sticking with the standard dialogue tags ‘he said-she said’? Is every scene whether dialogue, narrative, or an action scene necessary to move the story forward?
Do the twists and turns of the plot move progressively to a climax? Do those twists and turns show growth in your main character? Does the climax give us a clear and concise view of what they ultimately stand for? Do they win the day and if not, why not? Is the resolution to the story satisfying?
This doesn’t mean you have to tie everything up with a bow, or have a happy ending. It means your reader, upon reflection, will be glad they invested the time it took to read your novel.
Finally, mechanics do matter. Nothing disturbs a story more than poor sentence structuring, bad grammar (outside of character-appropriate dialogue) or typos.
Improper use of punctuation disturbs the flow of your story as much as anything.
The last thought I want to leave you with is this: Who is your intended audience? The correct answer to that does not include ‘everyone’ unless your book is required high school reading (such as, To Kill A Mockingbird). The rest of us need to define our target audience.
Choose the genre that best describes your work. Your entire stage presence depends on it. This includes your author platform, what section your novel is in at the bookstore, what time of day is best to have book signings, and who will come to your speaking engagements.
Be cognizant of your ‘fans’ (readership) with everything you do and say to promote your work, and yourself. Being true to the image you create as a writer, is key to success.
Consider entering your polished manuscript in the TOM contest. There is no better way to monitor how successfully you’re achieved all of these important elements than to get expert feedback from accomplished wordsmiths!
Submission for the contest will open in September. You’ll find the announcement on the Northern Colorado Writers website and here on this blog.
Kathryn Mattingly is a college educator, professional editor, award-winning author and public speaker. She has taught numerous writing courses in the English and Communications departments of several private colleges. Her literary fiction novels Benjamin, Journey, and Squall (2016) can be found at all major booksellers. Five of her short stories have received recognition for excellence and are published in eight different themed anthologies through various small presses, and in her collection Fractured Hearts. Kathryn currently teaches courses she has created for the continuing Ed program at Front Range College. This fall she will be teaching novel writing, novel editing, and short story writing. Find the details regarding her July workshop through the college here.