Have you wondered if there is a trick to winning contests? The answer is a big yes! There are tricks to winning all contests, especially themed ones, but before we go into that, let’s talk about the little-known rules of contesting.
Above all, don’t choose a pre-written story and alter it to accommodate the theme. If you rewrite it enough, you can make it fit, but stories that are written specificially for the contest stand out. A judge can spot it a mile away.
There are no new stories, so don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find one. Instead, think of a unique angle for an old one. For example, boy sees girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy dates girl, but here’s a unique angle – suppose a hit man takes a contract to kill a woman, falls in love with her, protects her, and he becomes the target. Or… boy finds lost dog and returns it to owner. Dog continually pulls the two together.
The very first line should open in the middle of an action scene. The first paragraph should give a sense of place, time, and characters involved.
Your readers should know enough about the protagonist’s physical appearance and emotional mindset to create a mental image. Describe the protagonist without listing the description. Instead of saying, Lilly was short, curvaceous, and had blue eyes, you could say:
He had never seen such blue eyes. Azure blue. No, ocean blue.
Or were they sky-blue? Whatever the color, they were paralyzing.
Alex stood a head taller than Lilly’s five feet, two inches, and ogled
as the curvaceous blonde twisted her way down the sidewalk.
Use two and three syllable words to progress the plot rapidly. When writing a story, save every possible word and use the saved words to (a) describe a person, (b) build scenery, (c) or progress the plot.
When Writing to a Theme
Informative theme stories rope judges in. For example, if you’re writing a story that concerns a boat and fishing, research that kind of boat, what kinds of fish are available in that area, and how to fish for them.
Most importantly: build the entire story around the theme sentence, phrase, or word. To do that, use keywords that mentally link with the theme. For instance, if the word “Key” is the theme word, you might write a story around a mystery key that the protagonist finds. As you go through the possibilities of things it might fit, each item will infer the word “key.”
Ways that characters can reiterate the theme word: they can mutter to themselves, talk to their own image, talk to a pet, talk to a friend, leave a message, or talk on the phone. Avoid showing their thoughts (called internal dialogue), as it lends to telling instead of showing.
Example: Brent ruffled his dog’s fur. “I’ve had a hard day, buddy. You’ve got it made, ya know? A tough day for you is losing a bone. A tough day for me is trying to solve a crime with a one-word clue – key. Whaddaya think she meant by ‘find the key’? What key? The key to a deposit box? Nah. Too obvious. Key to a code? Key to a puzzle? Key to a house? A key person?”
Know the Judges
Before you write the first word of your entry, familiarize yourself with the company that is running the contest. What are their standards? What do they sell? What are they interested in? If you send a story packed with swearing or sex to a contest run by a Christian organization, don’t count on winning! More about Translation Agency UK
Who are the judges?
If judges are not identified, what type of judges would that company choose? Conservative? Wildly liberal? Young? Elderly?
Who judged last year’s contest? Research them and read everything they wrote. This year’s judges will run along the same lines. If, for example, the company is Christian and the contest judges are elderly, they might like a story with a moral, or maybe a conservative story that uses a senior citizen as the protagonist. If the company is young, motivational, and liberal, your options are broad.
Read last year’s winning entries and dissect them. Note the age and personality of the protagonist, the plotline, and how many times the theme was mentioned or inferred.
Ten Unforgivable Contest Sins
It only takes one unforgivable sin to sink your boat.
- Don’t exceed the word count by even one word!
- The theme phrase must be letter perfect.
- Watch your punctuation.
- Check for open ended quotes.
- Don’t break a single rule.
- Check subject and verb agreement.
- Don’t use inconsistent tenses.
- The plot should have a major climax.
- Never tell an emotion.
- Have a surprise ending.
Every short story should consist of 60% or more dialogue. Too much narration indicates more telling than showing.
Judges prefer a consistent point of view.
Third person, past tense, is the most popular voice.
Tangle the plot so it contains more than one issue.
Twist the ending.
Winning any position (even honorable mention) means you are an award winning writer. That will look mighty good on your website, blog, and resume!
Closing Thoughts ~ Before you submit, read your story aloud.~ Have a friend critique it.~ After you submit, send a thank you letter to the judges.~ Immediately after judging is over, write to a judge and ask information on how your story ranked and what you can do to make it a winning entry. ~ Judges are good people to know, but do NOT be a pest. Very carefully nurture those relationships. How? Friend them on social media! Entering free contests means stiff competition. Your best bet will be finding contests with an entry fee of $5 to $10 and low cash prizes. Winning a contest is easier than selling a story, so do your homework properly and jump into the fray! This author knows a lady who won six national competitions by following these rules! Well? What are you waiting for? That prize money has your name on it!
BIO: Deborah Owen is the CEO of Creative Writing Institute, a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity that sponsors cancer patients in writing courses. CWI also offers writing courses to the public at a discount price. Each student receives a personal tutor.