I was selected again this year to evaluate manuscripts submitted by aspiring writers to a local literary contest. My task was to read the submitted pages and provide a critique and a score for a half-dozen aspects, such as Dialog, Plot, Synopsis, etc. Here are some observations about what I read.
- Following contest guidelines is half the battle. Of the five manuscripts I was assigned, three were disqualified! The most common mistake: the author's name was included. The manuscript is supposed to be anonymous. Hello! The next mistake: too many pages were submitted. If the guidelines say 25 pages max, don't submit 30 or 40. Another: placing page numbers at the bottom, when rules called for upper right corner. Bottom line, if you simply sumbit a clean manuscript that follows all the rules to the letter, you'll jump past half the other entrants right out of the gate.
- Know how to properly format a manuscript. An author who wishes to be taken seriously (let alone win a contest) ought to know standard manuscript formatting rules. One entry did not indent paragraphs, but did insert blank lines between them. Another did not understand the punctuation and formatting of dialog tags. These are basic things any aspiring author learns quickly simply by reading books or having their work critiqued by a local writers group.
- Write a compelling synopsis. A couple of the authors clearly did not understand the concept of a synopsis. One gave an introduction for a couple of main characters, and then a glowing bio of himself and his great talent. And, yes, exceeded the page limit. Another introduced the main character and her conflict well, but gave vague generalities about how the plot unfolded. Most of the authors just couldn't bring themselves to give away the story's ending, which is what contest judges and literary agents expect to see. I wrote a blog article some years back about synopses ( What's In a Synopsis?) that discusses some of what I have learned about them.
- Some writers don't understand viewpoint. This is common for newbie writers: they don't understand the concept that a scene is normally told inside the head of one particular character. I know, because I, too, got it all wrong when first starting out. The reader should only know, see, hear, smell, feel, and think through that character's brain and senses. A few contest authors' character viewpoint wandered all over, one becoming so omniscient the narrator expounded on what will happen in the future. A corollary to wandering viewpoint is the verb tense used by the narrator: one entrant mixed present tense with past tense.
- Overuse of backstory. Often, the author has a good grasp of her main character, and decides to tell the reader all about her life and history and miserable angst in the first couple of chapters. Unfortunately, the actual plot and storyline are trampled like a mouse in a stampede. One entrant used so much backstory, it was difficult to figure out what was happening in the "Now."
- No scene setting. I'm a big fan of telling the reader "who" and "where" and "when" in the first paragraph or so of each scene. Where are we? Who is there? What time is it? Added to that, what does the character see, hear, etc? What does the room or street look and sound like? In most of the entries, setting the scene was done poorly. Often, the author supplied reams of narration about the character's pitiful life, or launched into unbroken dialog. For me, this gives the story a disembodied feel, as if the scene takes place in a wispy white netherworld.