Recently, I’ve judged a few contests and I’ve finaled in a few. And I have until Sunday to revise an entry any way I want before I turn it in again for the final judging.
All this leads me to think and think hard–what exactly makes a great entry?
As I ran down the list of this week’s talented Golden Heart winners, I saw some finalists who had finaled previously. What precisely do these talented folks know??? Is there an elusive secret that makes a person final again and again? If anyone knows what it is, please don’t hesitate to come forth and tell me!!! Bottle it and I’ll pay!!!
So anyway, all bitterness aside (I’m over it, I really am :), I decided to compile a list to help me revise my entry and focus on making it the best I can.
MIRANDA’S LIST: ****WHAT MAKES A CONTEST ENTRY SPARKLE****
- Vivid, larger-than-life characters. Characters with personality. Sympathetic, believable, realistic and yet…more. ***Something,*** whatever that might be (that secret spice) that pulls them out of being ho-hum ordinary. Something that makes you care immediately what happens to them when point #2 happens. So call this high concept, call it the hook, call it that extra special unique twist on the ordinary, whatever you call it, it makes you say, Oh! I want to read that! This is not a hum-drum victim, this is not a sit-back-and-watch-things-happen-to-me heroine, this is an active, goal-directed character who is going to fight back (maybe not in the right way) when things go wrong.
- Their world as they know it turns upside down. In the first chapter. And we don’t need to know every reason why, yet, either. But we care. Save the info dumps for your own notes. Take them out, all out, and leave in all the action and dialogue you can.
- An unusual, vivid setting. A place you as a reader want to visit. Even if it’s grandma’s kitchen–you want to be there. There is something new and different about it–a new world to explore. Yes, I said a new world. That’s for anybody who thinks paranormal is the only genre with world building.
- Every voice is distinct and you can actually hear each character talk in your head. An author who is able to do this has done her/his homework about their characters. They’ve given them traits that come out every time they open their mouths to speak.
- The dialogue sparkles. That doesn’t mean it has to be full of one-liners. But it’s so real you can hear it in your head.
- The author has a strong voice. I understand this when I see it but I don’t know if I have it in my own writing. Can voce be inhibited and written out of your work the more you rework things? Can it be inhibited by perfectionism, by trying to get things exactly right? If you write your first draft fast, do you get more “voice” into it? Or does this get honed in your final drafts? I can’t answer this.
- The language is colorful and surprising. I’m going to show not tell by using a few examples from Lisa Kleypas’s new release, Rainshadow Road. She is an absolute master at this.
Here she is describing a little girl:
“She weighed no more than a dandelion fluff, her small arms loosely wrapped around his
forehead.” (p. 96)
The idea of relating the weight of a dandelion fluff to a little girl is so brilliant, and the small arms
wrapped around this big man’s head–for anyone who has ever seen a little girl riding high on
someone’s shoulders, it’s just perfect.
More unexpected metaphors:
“The scene scattered like an overturned display of greeting cards.” (page 141)
“Lucy had not been able to identify the nagging feeling that had drawn her insdes as tight as
violin strings.” (page 5)
And here is a description of an inanimate object, a house: “Even in its ruined condition, the house
possessed winsome charm. Unknown stories lingered in abandoned corners and rickety
staircases. Memories had seeped into its walls.” (page 35)
Memories don’t usually seep, but in this case it is just the perfect unusual metaphor.
Good authors know how to mold language in unique ways that surprise the reader.
- Lastly, what’s not in a sparkling entry? Backstory, lots of introspection, little action, dull and commonplace characters who do dull and commonplace things. We are in the entertainment industry. I think that’s important to keep in mind as you write the story of your heart. It’s not all about you and what you feel compelled to put on the page–it’s about your audience.
Okay, I’m goin’ back to the drawing board! Wish me luck.