Monday, November 23, 2020

Judging a Writing Contest

By Elizabeth Spann Craig

Judging a writing contest can be a real treat. You have the opportunity to read excellent emerging or established writers, sometimes in a genre that’s different from what you usually write or read. Plus, reading other writers’ work can help inform and improve your own writing.

Here are six questions I like to ask as I read contest entries:

1. Did the story comply with the theme and contest guidelines? This is sort of like following directions for school assignments—it’s key. With some stories there’s more adherence to the theme than others and it can make a difference when judging. It’s tricky working within the confines of a theme and guidelines—entries that do, and do it well, get extra points.

2. Does the story hook me right away? This is crucial for books, but especially for short stories. There’s no time in a short story to load up with backstory and entries that do will be at a disadvantage.

3. Is there obvious conflict early in the story? This goes hand-in-hand with the previous question and is vital for story pacing and keeping the reader (or the contest judge) engaged.

4. Does the character have a clear goal? Is he or she developed as much as possible within the limits of the story’s length? The protagonist’s goal is the whole point of the story . . . it’s why the story exists. The protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to obtain his goal but there does need to be one stated. I don’t expect a ton of character development within the parameters of a short story, but I do expect enough to feel a connection (good or bad) to the main character and to keep the other characters distinct from each other.

5. Is the story clear and focused?
If I get confused as I’m reading, I’ll go back and try to figure out what’s happening by re-reading. If I’m still confused, it’s a bad sign for the story.

Here are two ways I like to keep organized when judging:

1. Make notes in the margins. When you’re reading lots of entries, it helps to make notes in the margins with Track Changes or on paper if you’re working off printed sheets. The notes can help remind you of excellent sections of a story and parts that didn’t work as well. You can even tally up the totals to come up with a rating as you work through the entries.

2. Re-read my top picks. Sometimes there’s not immediately a clear favorite for me among the entries but several that I especially enjoyed. That’s when I re-read my top picks. Reading the best stories back-to-back can help clarify which is superior to the others.

Have you judged writing contests? What tips can you add?

Elizabeth is the bestselling cozy mystery author of the Southern Quilting mysteries, the Myrtle Clover Cozy Mysteries, the Village Library Mysteries, and Memphis Barbeque mysteries for Penguin Random House, Midnight Ink, and independently. Follow her on Twitter where she shares writing links @elizabethscraig or at her blog where she offers tips for writers. She lives in Matthews, North Carolina with her husband and is the mother of two.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Zero Drafting


Zero Drafting
Juneta Key

Have you ever heard of Zero Draft?  It is basically a way to draft your story that focuses on JUST telling yourself the story.  This way of creating that first draft is giving yourself permission to write without corrections or proper grammar or punctuation.  

You just write (tell it) until you get the story told.  The first draft will be a revised version or it may be your final draft just depends on your process and how well it works for you. 

There are many different styles, and different names for zero draft that mean similar if not the same thing.  

  • Discovery Draft

  • Pre-draft

  • Initial draft

  • Blueprint

  • Original draft

  • Early draft

  • First Outline

The main distinguishing factor with zero draft for me is that you are giving yourself permission to tell instead of show, write crap, use bad grammar or no punctuation.  

The goal is to get the whole story told so you have something to work with, and not having to  imagine in “scene style” trying to figure it ALL out.  

Once you have your zero draft and you start writing scene style, you have a good idea what the scene is you are writing and where it is leading because of the zero draft.

I don’t quite throw all the rules I use to the wayside (although you can--give yourself permission to throw them all out), however, I do tell myself the story first, rather than show.  Sometimes I incorporate a traditional style scene into my zero draft, if I have a strong image in my mind.  

So my zero draft may have pieces fully played out (shown) and others more like an outline (tell). The best part is I can do anything I want to do---I gave myself permission because the ONLY GOAL is to get the story told, so I can start the real writing and polishing, molding and shaping.  

After all, the revision is where the magic will really happen, but first I have to have something to work that magic on, right?

(BICW) Butt in chair writing!!!! Zero draft and just keep going until the end.  The point is to finish.  The persistent turtle crossed the finish line, while the unfocused rabbit ran a million circles and never made it to the finish line. 


The key is--get it told.  The zero draft is your clay, and revision is the place you create the final mold. Yes, I repeated that sentiment, more or less, because it is an important concept and writing process that helps you find your way through the meandering quagmire of the first story.  

The interesting thing I have found is that by allowing myself to tell the story, the story structure, especially the five plot points of the story, are almost always present in the zero draft.  

Why?  Because we humans naturally know how story works because we have heard it, read it, watched it, and told our own all of our lives.  

Zero draft for me is easier than just coming up with thirty scenes per act as is often done in the creation of outlines.    I can also use the one sentence or paragraph method in the zero draft, which can be similar to outlines.  

As a pantser, it has really helped me move forward in my writing but even if you are not a pantser, you might find this method freeing, allowing you to create an expanded synopsis of your outline.  

I have tried giving my EDITOR (Me) and my MUSE (me) their own identities, personifying them.  At one time I named my left brain the Editor Hook, and my right brain, the muse, Dark Muse.  

I would send the crocodile (in my imagination) after Hook to chase him away, so Dark Muse could play.  It works sometimes but mostly I still have the same troubles.  I also find myself floundering at about 20,000 or 25,000 words approaching that HUGE middle.  

That is why I was excited when I learned about the zero draft.   It is something I have been experimenting with and finding forward progress for my writing. 

I hope if you try it, you find it gives you some freedom from the hamster wheel of never finishing, and moves you forward to the end.  

Zero Draft Videos from YouTube

Here is my favorite video showing zero drafts, by Katytastic. I believe her approach is more like a panster sort of...

Here is another zero draft video, this one by Kim Chance, that I like, but her approach is definitely as a person who outlines, and has a lot of stress about the first draft.  She helped her anxiety by learning the zero draft to finish her second contracted book.

Monday, November 9, 2020

4 Manuscript Errors to Fix Before You Hire an Editor

You did it! You’ve seen through the whole process of writing a book, and that’s certainly cause for celebration. But as one chapter closes, so to speak, experienced authors will know all too well that another is waiting to begin. Once you and your manuscript have had some time to cool off, you’ll need to start the tedious task of editing.

Though it can be a long and arduous job, a thorough edit is crucial to any book’s success. Enlisting the help of a professional will make for a smoother ride, but a complete overhaul of your book won't come cheap. So to avoid paying editors to fix problems you can take care of yourself, first rid your manuscript of these four errors!

1. A shaky story structure 

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” This is the advice that literary legend Stephen King gives to aspiring authors in his memoir On Writing. What he means is that the first step in any successful edit is to look at your book as a whole.

Though it’s essential to tidy your prose further down the road, the first round of editing should focus on ensuring that your story structure is complete and compelling. Big changes can be daunting (which is why lots of authors jump straight to the minutiae), but now’s the time to roll up your sleeves and get to work — your book will thank you for it.

One way to assess your big-picture plot is to make a note of every scene in your manuscript, either on notecards or using writing software. Describe what happens in a couple of short sentences and jot down any advancement in the plot. To make the process more visual, try color-coding the scenes according to character, plot thread, and theme, so you can clearly see what the scene is advancing, what might be hogging the limelight, and what could use more airtime. 

By looking at your manuscript as a whole, you’ll quickly recognize any major structural problems. Don’t make the mistake of assuming you’ll have none! Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, it’s nigh impossible to write a book without going off script: perhaps you got carried away with a character’s backstory, or inspiration struck and you took an unexpected turn. Discovering errors as large as a pacing problem or tangled plot thread is painful for any writer, but it’s always better to fix them before hiring a developmental editor — who would charge a pretty penny for a whole structural rewrite.

2. An unmotivated cast

You can never be told too often about the importance of character motivation: what your character wants is what drives the narrative arc. Without this, your story wouldn’t exist. 

Every single character, but especially the protagonist and antagonist, should have a multilayered chain of motivations. For example, you might say that Harry Potter wants to defeat Lord Voldemort. Sure, but to truly understand his motivation, you need the ‘in order to’: what influences are driving this desire? Harry Potter wants to defeat Voldemort, in order to save the Wizarding World. Why? Because he wants to protect the people that he cares about. Why? Because he grew up without parents and now treasures his relationships more than anything. 

A well-rounded character will have a whole set of varying motivations. For example, Harry is also motivated by the desire to fit in and make friends. You can think of your own character’s motivations like a hand of playing cards: if they’re going to act, they must first ‘play’ a motivation. Picture each scene through their eyes and ask yourself what reason they have for acting the way they do. 

As the puppetmaster behind your characters, you’ll have a much deeper understanding of their motivations than an editor, so it’s best to save the expertise of editors for other tasks. And if you do come across a scene where your character’s motivations are unclear, the error should hopefully be fixable with a quick clarifying tweak, or the addition of a scene or two. If not, perhaps that scene is unrealistic and you should cut it!

3. Small descriptive inconsistencies

Once you’re happy with your characters on a big-picture scale, it’s time to take out your magnifying glass and zero in on all the details.

Little descriptive details are essential to character development. They bring your cast to life and lend insight into what they’re inclined to notice about their surroundings. However, if these details are inconsistent — if your protagonist’s neighbour is six feet tall on one day, for example, and struggling to peer out the kitchen window on another — then your believable characters begin to crumble. 

Of course, it’s easy to see how small descriptive inconsistencies can slip through the cracks. When you’re writing a novel with a large cast and interlacing plot threads, minor details about secondary characters and infrequent settings are hard to keep track of. And if you, the author, find it difficult to remember these details, you can understand how long it might take an editor to comb through — which is why it’s best to check your manuscript for overlooked errors before hiring a professional.

As you read through your manuscript you might create a master document of easily ‘forgettable’ details — perhaps for each character and location — to refer back to. And if you want to double-check (because it’s always good to be thorough) you can go through your list and use Command + F to search your manuscript for each instance of that detail.

4. Lots of excess fat

I always like to bring my posts full circle, so let’s end with another writing quote from the esteemed Stephen King. “When your story is ready for a rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat.” If you want to know what this looks like as a number, the general rule is that you should be cutting around ten percent. I know that sounds like a lot of hard work down the drain, but trust me, you will end up with a stronger manuscript. 

If you’re unsure where to start and what to cut, then you can find ‘how to edit a book’ checklists online, or you can try an online editing tool like ProWritingAid or Hemingway. But don’t worry — whether it’s filter words or whole characters, there is always a way to trim your novel. 

As you nip and tuck your book in preparation for hiring a professional editor, the most important thing to remember is to be patient. The more careful and thorough you are during your self-edit, the less money you’ll have to spend on a professional editor — not to mention, the more time they’ll have to elevate your book in more nuanced, interesting ways.

Eve Lynch is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best publishing resources and professionals. In her spare time, Eve enjoys travelling with friends and reading literary fiction, so she’s often on the lookout for scenic new places to sit down with a book — or maybe do a little writing of her own!

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

#IWSG - To snack or not to snack! That is today's musing.

It’s time for another group posting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Time to release our fears to the world – or offer encouragement to those who are feeling neurotic. If you’d like to join us, click on the tab above and sign up. We post the first Wednesday of every month. I encourage everyone to visit at least a dozen new blogs and leave a comment. Your words might be the encouragement someone needs.

The awesome co-hosts for the November 4 posting of the IWSG are Jemi Fraser, Kim Lajevardi, L.G Keltner, Tyrean Martinson, and Rachna Chhabria!

November 4 optional question - Albert Camus once said, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” Flannery O’Conner said, “I write to discover what I know.” Authors across time and distance have had many reasons to write. Why do you write what you write? 


 It's my turn to post on the main blog and I'm late! I even have my calendar set to send me a reminder and I still managed to screw it up!

But...I'm here now and I'd like to talk about something that's really important to writers...


There are a few types of writers.

Those that eat snacks while they write.

Those that don't eat snacks while they write.


Those that eat snacks as a reward system.

Those that eat snacks when they can't write. 

Those that forget to eat all together.


 What type am I? All of the above. Except that last one. I don't think I've ever forgotten to eat. :)

If you're wondering why beverages were left out of this post, its only because beverages are imperative to writers.

So, do you have a writer snack type? What's a favorite snack? Do you need a snack intervention?



The next #IWSGPit will be in January 20, 2021
8:00 am - 8:00 pm Eastern Standard Time

Create a Twitter-length pitch for your completed and polished manuscript and leave room for genre, age, and the hashtag. On January 20, 2021, Tweet your pitch. If your pitch receives a favorite/heart from a publisher/agent check their submission guidelines and send your requested query.

Many writers have seen their books published from a Twitter pitch - it’s a quick and easy way to put your manuscript in front of publishers and agents. 

Go HERE for more info and the rules!