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Jan Fields, ICL web editor, has published in many and varied children’s and family magazines including Boys’ Quest, Highlights For Children, Shining Star, Crayola Kids, Ladybug, Single-Parent Family and Charisma-Life.  Though she began her career writing for adults exclusively, she was soon lured into the challenging world of children's writing. Jan has taught adult and children’s writing for over twenty years. In addition to this busy schedule, Jan co-moderates the busiest Internet mailing list for children’s writers and is the editor of Kid Magazine Writer e-magazine. She is a member of the SCBWI and a repeat speaker at local SCBWI conferences. Her articles about writing have been published both in print and online markets such as Keystrokes, Byline, Children’s Writer, and Children’s Book Insider. In her spare time, she sleeps.

"Ten Tips for Contest Entries"

by Jan Fields

If you're reading this article, you're already interested in contests and, more specifically, in winning contests. But most of us know contest competition can be stiff. So how can a writer maximize her chance of winning a writing contest? I asked a dozen experienced contest judges, "What kind of advice did you wish you could give the writers?" We've all heard, "Follow the guidelines" and certainly that is essential. Violating the guidelines will definitely keep you from winning. But beyond the guidelines, what sort of things can you do to stand out?

  1. Don't count on just your opinion. Have someone else read over your manuscript - for proofreading if nothing else. When the competition gets tight, you don't want to allow typos to be the determining factor in a close race. Ask writing friends to critique your work so that fresh eyes help you evaluate how judges may see the story.
  2. Take your time. Stories always sound wonderful to us directly after we've written them, but don't allow that glow to make you submit prematurely. Give yourself plenty of time to read, evaluate, and re-evaluate your work. Send your best. One judge said many of the entries she saw looked like strong rough drafts - don't quit before the final polish.
  3. Make your language fresh. Look for strong verbs that convey action in an evocative way. Use specific concrete images that pull something from the reader emotionally Avoid piling on adjectives and adverbs. Show the reader enough clear description to build images in her mind, but don't tell the reader how to interpret those images. Give the reader sights, sounds, smells, and textures - not conclusions.
  4. Read in the contest genre/subject area. Know what is being published today. Don't count on your memory of cute stories from your childhood. Don't count on your children's love for your work. Know how your work stacks up because you've read the stack, not just your work. Study how writers think themselves into the minds of children - don't settle for writing like a kind grandmother viewing her grandchildren through fond eyes. Instead, get into the children and understand them so you can leave Grandma totally out of the story if you need to.
  5. Write a story, not a lesson. Many children's stories contain themes about personal growth and change, just as many adult stories do. A theme is not a lesson, a lecture, or a nag. If someone asks, "What is your story about?" and your answer is a lesson "The importance of being kind to your siblings." - you've probably missed the mark. Make your story about young people doing something difficult but interesting and let the reader dig for the thing to be learned, don't hand it to him.
  6. Make the characters real. If you're in fond adult mode, you'll create characters who sound and act like little adults - only cuter. Many of the judges mentioned discouragement at how many cardboard characters, two-dimensional characters, predictable characters, and mini adults they saw. Take the time to make your characters sound and act fresh, real, and unique. And then give them something to do. Judges like characters who take action, not those who simply bob through the story waiting to be rescued. Remember, the young characters own the story, keep the adult characters out of the drivers seat - they'll take over and start giving out wise advice if you let them. Don't let them.
  7. Pare down to what's most important. Many writers trying to create short stories for contests only read novels in real life. So they absorb the pacing and structure of novels and thereby create contest short stories with plots, situations, and settings that are simply too big for the tight word counts of most contests. As a result, they slip into synopsis mode - info dumping on the reader all the information that won't really fit into the story. Info dumping can occur in narration or dialogue but it always slows the pacing and bores (or confuses) the reader. Thankfully, the cure is simple. If you plan to write for a short story contest, read a steady diet of magazine fiction for a week or two before writing your own. Most of the time, you'll find an almost magical disappearance of that info dumping.
  8. Grab the reader in the first paragraph. One of the most common things the judges mentioned when talking about stories that were really competitive was the first paragraph or the hook. A competitive story grabs the reader right away. A competitive story jerks the reader into the "world" of the story through expressive, tight showing - telling won't grab, showing will. Judges, like children, are reading massive amounts of material and will walk away from a story if it doesn't grab them right away.
  9. Leave the reader with something that lingers. A unique twist. An exceptional character. A well-explored theme that the reader had to pull out and ponder. Enough showing to drag the reader in and make her feel. These things create stories that aren't read and forgotten. If you're going to win, you have to linger in the judge's mind.
  10. Avoid the expected. If you've ever seen your plot premise before - and especially if you've seen it on TV, it's tired and cliché. Try for something totally new. Look for a wow. If you're tempted to consider a familiar plot, turn it around, and give it a twist - surprise the judge and you'll linger in her mind. The stories that linger become the stories that win.
I'd like to thank the following judges for their insights and experiences: Roxyanne Young, Kelly Milner Hall, Hope Vestergaard, Pam Beres, Linda Joy Singleton, Deanna Durrett, Kelley Hunsicker, Dotti Enderle, Jennifer Macaire, Kathryn Lay, Sue Ford, and Sharon Soffe. Thank you for helping us win next time!

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