Why You Should Double, Triple, Quadruple Check Before you Enter that Contest

In the days leading up to Query Kombat, I’ll be featuring guest posts from the judges on a variety of writing topics, from ways to polish your writing to common openings. Check back and follow me on Twitter to stay updated. Today’s post is from K.D. Proctor.

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Why You Should Double, Triple, Quadruple Check Before you Enter that Contest 

Confession:  I don’t always think things through.

Case in point, the dog we adopted six years ago.  We talked about getting a shelter dog.  Then these puppies came in.  And I told my husband, “Under no uncertain terms are we getting a puppy.”  But wouldn’t you know it…by some divine intervention, I ended up at the shelter the next day, put down a $20 deposit, called my husband who was none to thrilled I went down there, and the next thing I know, we’re coming home with our dog, Maggie. 
The same is true for writing.  Case in point?  My first manuscript.
I loved that story. I poured my heart and soul into that thing (then again, don’t we all?).  Truth be told?  It was a hot mess.
It was an action thriller with romantic elements.  Back then I thought it was THE BEST MANUSCRIPT EVER WRITTEN.  I finished it, did some spot editing, and then I asked people to read it.
People = my mom and a few friends.
Naturally, they all said the same thing.  “Yeah…it’s good!” 
I was over the moon.  I probably even used the phrase “NAILED IT” one too many times.  But I was READY to send this baby out into the world.  So, imagine to my surprise when I started to have people outside of my trust circle read this thing and they said the following:
Too much telling, not enough showing.
Over written.
Boring chapters.
Scenes aren’t necessary.
Characters aren’t necessary.
Word count is WAY too long. 
And for every constructive criticism I had a rebuttal.  Including my favorite:   JK Rowling wrote a book for teenagers that has to be longer than mine—how is that okay and mine isn’t?
(Yep.  I used the classic JK Rowling Excuse.  Rookie move.)
For those who have been around the block a few times, this all sounds very familiar, right?  Classic mistakes that make us smack our foreheads and wonder how in the world we could overlook the basics before we submitted it for contests or query.  But if this is your first manuscript that you’re tossing into the query trenches—I am going to ask you to do me one favor before you hit “send” on your e-mail.
Do one final check to make sure your word count, plot/story beats are following the general rules.
Here’s what I see too often from agents, contest hosts, and mentors for various contests:
·         Word count not aligned with industry standards
·         Flaws/goals/stakes not clear
·         Overwritten
·         Too much telling
·         Rambles 
·         Doesn’t align with genre
And that’s just a tiny snippet of the stuff I see.
My point is this:  I don’t care how long you’ve worked on your manuscript.  I don’t care how many CP’s, beta readers, or editors you’ve hired.  And I really don’t care if you think your manuscript is unlike any story out there and it will no doubt win everyone ever in an instant.
You MUST make sure your query and manuscript are hitting the basics.  Like….
While I used my JK Rowling example above, it is important to note that word counts can fluctuate.  However, if you’re shooting on the high end of word counts—or exceeding them—you run the risk of rejection because it likely means there will be a lot of pre-editing that needs to happen before your book could go on submission.  Guess what? That may be a deal breaker for an agent because they simply don’t have the time to invest in that task.  My encouragement is to find the “sweet spot” in the middle of the suggested numbers.  And like many writing websites, the numbers vary.  Some go higher.  Some go lower.  So, again—shoot for an average.  I’m a fan of this article on the Writer’s Digest website that addresses word counts by genre.  http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post
I’m not going to talk about an opening that hooks you—that’s a given.  No, what I want you to double check is that in your first chapter we’re being introduced to the character and what they’re up against.  I think authors are getting better about minimalizing the info dump in the opening chapter (from back story, to world building, etc).  That first chapter should put us right smack dab in middle of the conflict.  Think about your favorite movies or books.  Notice how we are put right into the conflict early on (not 7 chapters in)?  One of my favorite movies, Mona Lisa Smile, does this well.  Catherine is a new teacher at a very conservative college, her dream school.  She’s ready to make a difference in the lives of these girls.  The first day of class, though, is a disaster and she’s already called into the dean’s office to discuss it.  Her conflict is apparent in first 7 minutes of the film.  Do that with your writing.  Get us in there.
Asking you to look at this just days before the window opens for Query Kombat is risky.  Your query and first 250 words could be rock solid.  But what about words 251 – 85,000?  Are they?  Is your plot as strong as can be, following the basics in plot and pacing?  
There are several workbooks out there that help with the basic craft of plotting.  Even if you’re a pantser, your story needs to check the boxes to ensure your story is hitting the plot points every story should have. 
Where this gets tricky is that authors confuse the basic craft of plotting with being told that they cannot write what they like.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  You can write whatever you want.  You can push the envelope.  You can twist those tropes into something amazing.  But every story, regardless of genre, follows a pattern.  
That pattern is a must.
Jami Gold shares a basic outline on her website.
The starting point for the main conflict.
Something happens near the mid-point.
Another something happens near the ¾ mark
The battle at the end, resolving the conflict.
There are minor beats woven into this, of course.  These minor beats push our characters towards their goal, and also pull them away.  This push/pull is important towards their growth.
And if you want to download some cool beat sheets in excel, you can find those here: http://jamigold.com/for-writers/worksheets-for-writers/
I’m in the thick of this right now with my own manuscript as we finish up the final editing pass.  Adverbs are my nemesis.  Same with starting sentences with “and”, “but”, “or”, “because”, etc.  And don’t even get me started on my use of the word “THAT” or “JUST”.  
Adverbs are commonly known as the words that end in -ly, 
One of my favorite authors, Brighton Walsh, had a great post on garbage words (as well as some other great tips for showing vs telling, dialogue tags, etc).  You can find that there:  http://www.brightonwalsh.com/catch-all/
I also like this list, too, for common adverbs–not all ending in that pesky -ly,  http://www.thefreedictionary.com/A-very-long-list-of-adverbs,-not-all-of-which-end-in–ly.htm
Of course, like the word count and other things I’ve pointed out today–sometimes adverbs are necessary.  Doesn’t mean you need to get crazy and chop them all.  But it does mean you need to find the right balance between using an adverb (which is often “telling”) and choosing words and phrases that “show”.  
Remember, lists like this are meant to help you be successful.
I wish you the best of luck as you put the finishing touches on your manuscript and I hope to read your query and first 250 words during Query Kombat!

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KD Proctor loved college so much that when it came time to graduate, she didn’t want to leave.  Trading in her textbooks for student handbooks and policy manuals, she began a career in College Student Personnel and she fulfilled her wish to stay on a college campus forever.  Her mother, however, if glad she’s finally using that English degree. 
KD lives in West Central, Minnesota with her husband and fur-kids.  She likes to write fun twists on the usual tropes that we all love. Her characters are smart, funny, and always swoony.  And yes. They always get their happily ever after. 
Before being accepted for publication, KD’s debut novel, MEET ME UNDER THE STARS (formerly titled IF YOU’RE EVER IN TOWN), was the 2016 YARWA winner for the New Adult category.  
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