How to Win a Writing Contest

Secrets to Winning a Creative Writing Contest

by Deborah Owen, CEO of Creative Writing Institute

Contests are like cars. There are a lot of them and no two are the same, but this is an overview of how Creative Writing Institute judges their annual writing contest. This year, it runs from July 15 – September 1, 2015.

First, the judges do a quick sorting. They place stories that might have a chance to win in one pile and stories that have no chance of winning in another. Needless to say, those in the latter pile hit file 13. Your first question should be, on that first sorting, what are the judges looking for? Among other things:

a. Very poor grammar
b. Very poor punctuation
c. Long, drawn out discourses that make no point
d. DEAD and DULL FIRST PARAGRAPHS
e. NOT FOLLOWING the STATED RULES
f. Not using the theme line, word for word!

The judges’ first scanning is not an in-depth reading. It simply sorts the big pile into a smaller one. There will be at least four full readings of each story by each judge.

You will win or lose a judge’s interest in the first paragraph, so be sure that first paragraph begins in the middle of an ACTION scene. Don’t lead up to the action. You don’t have time for that in a short story. Jump in with both feet. Next, develop that action until it reaches the climax about 2/3 of the way through and use the last 1/3 to form a conclusion and tie up loose ends.

Do all judges look for the same things? No. Each judge is as different as a snowflake. They may look alike on the writerly surface, but their thoughts and interests are as different as night and day, and that is what makes a good judging panel.

Here’s a clue. Our judges are not into romance. Does that mean you can’t enter a tactful romance story? No. Does it mean a romance story can’t or won’t win? NO. It was just a hint.  🙂

Another clue: the head judge would like to see some mystery stories this year. Does that mean the winning entry will BE a mystery story? No, but clever writers will certainly think twice before submitting to another genre (For newbies, genre means division – such as drama, fantasy, crime, etc.). But then again, some judges would prefer fantasy! In the end, the best, most captivating story will win, no matter what the genre.

Creative Writing Institute likes to run “themed contests” where the story centers around a certain phrase. This year’s theme sentence is, “I got more than I bargained for!” (You may choose your own punctuation, but those exact words must be in the story, in that order.) This is a fun theme!

The number one reason for disqualification is NOT FOLLOWING the RULES. Last year we had a winning entry that used one swear word. The judges were so into the story that none of them caught it, but I did and the instructions clearly said, “no swear words.” We even published a brief list of what we considered swear words (much to my chagrin) AND the address of the head judge in case anyone had a question.

Why do we have a “list” of swear words? Because we are an international organization that is based in the USA and even Americans hold heated debates on which words are or are not considered swearing. Why don’t we include swear words from other nations? Because it would be impossible to make a list of every country’s swearing slang.

The next question might be, “Why don’t you allow swear words?” One reason is… swear words are a form of telling instead of showing. (Note to beginners: a technique called Show, Don’t Tell means you should always show an emotion with action instead of description. For example, instead of saying, “Jarod was angry at the little boy and pushed him into a bush,” you could show his anger by saying, “Jarod drop-kicked the little runt into the shrub.”)

Another reason we don’t want swearing is because our anthologies are suitable family material. Believe it or not, not everyone swears!

We have already mentioned following the rules, which you would think would be a no-brainer, but to be sure you have conformed to the guidelines, read every single rule one more time before you submit. If we call for a limit of 2,000 words and you send 2,005, guess what? No matter what the quality of the story, it will hit file 13.

The quickest way to win is to write an original story totally based around I got more than I bargained for. The quickest way to lose (and embarrass yourself) is to pull a pre-written story out of mothballs, insert the theme line where it fits best and submit it.

I speak from experience. I tried this little number on a writing teacher years ago when she told me to write a story and insert a certain theme line. It seemed like a silly exercise to me and I was pushed for time, so I pulled an old story out, dropped the line in and submitted it. (*blushes… in my defense, this was the only time I ever did anything deliberately dishonest.)  I thought I was so slick and so smart, until I got her comment which read, “It almost looks like you used an old story and just dropped that line in. Rewrite it and make it blend.” Well… *duh, our judges are smart enough to figure that out, too!

On rounds 2 and 3, our judges usually grade each story from 1-10 and then they total the points for each story. It takes a terrific story to make it to 8, 9, and 10. By the time the judges get to round 4, bloodshot eyes are crossing, every person answers to any name, none are sure which way is up and the coffee has long ago run out so sometimes the head judge changes the method of tallying to, “This time we will deduct points for ________.”

All entries will be judged on originality, creativity, style and technique.

Originality

Plain and simple – how original your ideas are. There are no new stories, but there are always new angles. Day dream a little bit to find something spicy. Keep asking yourself, “What if… ?” That will open dozens of unique ideas.

Creativity

Creativity is how you express yourself. You might use similes, metaphors, emotives, or all of the above plus a whole lot more.

Style

Your writing style will reveal who you are, how you think, how you express yourself and what voice you use. (Hint: stories written in past tense, third person [using he, she and it] sell the quickest… and win the most contests.)

Technique

Writing technique includes the point of view, visualization of scenes and people, style of dialogue, how you write flashbacks (or if you use them at all), red herrings, foreshadowing, etc. It can also refer to the more technical aspects of rhythm, harmony, assonance, alliteration, personification and the like. All of these things equal your technique and the voice that is peculiar to you.

Seldom do we have a clear winner. We have ties more often than rabbits nibble carrots and when that happens, we pass the smelling salts and deodorant around and see how it goes. Under the careful scrutiny of our head judge, Ms. Jo Popek, judges may politely “argue” why “their pick” should win. By the time they emerge with a list of winners, it’s a wonder they are still friends, and an even greater wonder that they will return to the judging panel again next year!

Once you get contesting in your blood, you will have to enter at least two a year. Writing for a contest is one of the greatest, quickest ways to learn from your own writing.

Above all, enjoy the writing experience… and support our nonprofit charity by purchasing our anthology in December.

May the best author win!

SEE CONTEST RULES AT http://www.CreativeWritingInstitute.com.

I Haven’t Been Writing Because ________

You’re probably wondering what happened to my blog since we posted regularly for years and then suddenly vanished for months. I’s been one very sick puppy.  😦    After four surgeries and two bouts with bronchitis, I’m rearing to go, so this blog is aimed at the procrastinator in all of us.

I Haven’t Been Writing Because ________

by Deborah Owen

CEO, Creative Writing Institute

Do you feel unfulfilled? Like you’re barely surviving life, and not really living it? Like things “are getting done,” but you aren’t enjoying the journey of life? When a writer doesn’t let the words out, life gets very sour.

Are you ready to face the truth? Seriously. Are you ready? No lie? I can’t tell which way your head is bobbing. You’re really sure? Okay. If you insist. You haven’t been writing because you don’t make writing a priority. You don’t look impressed.

If you want to state it in kick-butt style, you might say: “Writing was less important to me in the past _____ weeks than everything else.”  *ouch 

Life is too short to coast from one week’s heart attack to the next, to the next, to the… before long, your kids will be gone and you’ll be studying dandelion roots from the south end. For however long your body stays in the grave, you’ll stare at the tombstone that should have read, “Here lies the greatest wannabe writer ever born,” but your loved ones will be too kind to write that.

Writing is a learned skill. No one is born knowing how to write, but there are varying grades of writing aptitude. If you don’t commit to at least three writing courses to learn the basics, how will you know if you could have succeeded?

It’s time to quit playing games and get serious.

Where to Begin

  1. Organize your life. For instance, my list might look like this:

Worship, family, job, WRITING, clean underwear, food, sleep… see? Put the unnecessary things last.  🙂

  1. Establish the best time of day to write. Maybe you can only write 15 minutes on your lunch hour. Fine! Do what you can. At least you’re trying.

3. Commit to a writing education so you’ll know what you’re doing.

I Confess…

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, yours truly had the attitude that she didn’t need writing courses so she wasted ten years writing a heart-wrenching novel. There I was with a finished manuscript in my hand, thinking, “Where do I sell it? How do I pitch it? Where do I even find an address to send it? Well, maybe I should take just one course.” [You would think these things would have crossed my mind earlier, but no one can teach a know-it-all anything.]

So I plunged into advanced marketing on my first course! No lie. And by the end of that course, I learned I didn’t know diddly-squat about marketing, writing or even how to break into the writing industry. Today I have a copy of that unprinted novel in every room of my house to remind me how a beginning writer thinks.

Are you ready to get serious about this craft? If not, I promise, you will regret every day you procrastinate.

Choosing the Right Course

Begin with nonfiction writing, even if you hate the very thought of it. Next, take Creative Writing 101, followed by Short Story. At Creative Writing Institute, real people will really care about you. Our courses are written by published professionals and you will have your own private tutor.

Sign up today and start tomorrow. Make your writing dreams come true at Creative Writing Institute, a nonprofit charity that sponsors cancer patients in writing courses.

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Time Management in Seven Easy Tips

by Zena Shapter

Time management is easy when you know these tips and tricks to find focus, and stay there!

1. Time management begins with thinking about what you’re going to write before you actually start.  Thinking is free and you can do it anywhere. I’m always thinking about what I’m going to say/write in my next story, work project, emails or blogs. When I sit down to write, it just pours out.

2. When standing at the bus stop, waiting for water to boil, during advertisement breaks on the TV… hop onto your iPhone (or similar) and quickly check your social media, emails, and any blog posts you bookmarked for ‘later.’ Making use of extra pockets of time will help keep you updated. When you sit down to write, you won’t be lured by Facebook or Twitter. In fact, when writing, try to write far away from the internet and its dark distractions.

3. Find hidden opportunities to write. For example, while you’re in transit. I don’t drive (yes, yes – I know – there’s no need to roll your eyes!), so I catch a lot of buses, trains and ferries. That’s where my iPhone really comes in handy. I also take my laptop with me if I’m going to be on the bus for more than an hour (highly likely in Sydney). I’ve even been known to edit while cooking the kids dinner!

4. Take notes. It will help keep your mind clear. What’s the point in having a brilliant idea if you forget it later? I make notes on my iPhone. That way, when I start writing, I don’t spend valuable time working up ideas.

5. Pick your favorite social media forums for promoting your writing and stay most up-to-date on those, ie., daily checking. On the rest, stay generally up-to-date, ie., check every 2-3 days. For the rest of your social media, just check in weekly. My absolute favorites are my blog and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ZenaShapter). Close behind is Twitter & Google+. I’m also on StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, Goodreads and more. Did I mention that I’m part-cyber?

6. Plan ahead. If you want to write a story by December, you need to send that story to beta readers by October. Set goals and meet them each day.

7. Approach all of your writing as if it’s work (even though most of being a writer is unpaid). It will help you stay professional and not slack off.

Follow these tips and you can master time management, too! Thanks for having me, Deb… it’s been fun!!

About Zena Shapter:  Hi! I’m a British-Australian fiction writer and published author. I’ve won six national writing competitions, have written novels, am published in various anthologies and magazines, and am represented in Australia by literary agent Alex Adsett. I also run the widely attended Northern Beaches Writers’ Group (based in Sydney), and give regular talks/tutorials on creative writing and social media. Visit me at www.zenashapter.com.

Don’t forget to ‘like’ us before you leave. For more great tips, sign up for The Writer’s Choice Newsletter (for free) at http://cwinst.com/newslettersignup.php.

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Develop your Priorities

by Brent Middleton

          Developing your priorities is one of the most important things you will ever do. At one time, Jeff Kinney was in your shoes. Who is Jeff Kinney? Ask any elementary-middle school kid what the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is, and they’ll look at you like you just asked them how to blink. Author Jeff Kinney didn’t always want to be a children’s author, but with over 60 million copies in print and over 80 million online hits, he isn’t doing too bad.

Like many students, Jeff didn’t know what he wanted to do until he discovered comic strips at the University of Maryland. As the campus newspaper grew, he knew that he wanted to become a cartoonist.

Unfortunately, Jeff couldn’t get his comic strips syndicated, so he turned to creating a book to house his creations. He worked on it excessively for six years before publishing it on Funbrain.com in 2004. The book, entitled Diary of a Wimpy Kid, became an instant hit with online viewers. Today, 70,000+ kids read it daily.

After the huge success with Funbrain, publisher Harry Abrams offered a multi-book deal and has since put nine Diary of a Wimpy Kid books into print, including the original. The books were an immediate sensation with kids worldwide, with the first two reaching  #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Jess hasn’t looked back since, releasing three movies based on the books in 2010 (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), 2011 (Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules), and 2012 (Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days).

Jeff still works as the editorial director for Poptropica.com, a kid-friendly gaming website that he created in 2007. Today, he lives in Plainville, Massachusetts, with his wife, Julie, and their two sons, Will and Grant.

  • Where do you want to go in life?
  • What do you want to do?
  • How much are you willing to sacrifice to recognize your dream?
  • He who aims at nothing hits same.
  • Develop your priorities now.
  • Make a bucket list of ten things you’d like to do and then number them by rank.
  • Concentrate on the top three and leave the rest for another day.

Who knows… maybe you’ll become the next Jeff Kinney.

Don’t forget to ‘like’ us before you leave. For more great tips, sign up for The Writer’s Choice Newsletter (for free) at http://cwinst.com/newslettersignup.php.

Creative Writing Institute’s First Annual Poetry Contest

Join Creative Writing Institute’s first annual March Poetry Contest. It’s International. It’s FREE. It’s open to everyone over 13 years of age. Your poem must be about love, nature, or a pet.

It may be in any form, rhyming or non-rhyming, with a maximum of 15 lines, excluding the title. Entry must be G-rated according to American standards. One entry per person.

 

First prize: $20 Amazon Gift Card and publication on CWI’s website and blog.

Second prize: $15 Amazon Gift Card and publication as mentioned above.

Third prize: $10 and publication as mentioned above.

 

Joe Massingham, tutor of Fundamentals of Poetry, will judge the contest and his decision will be final. Contest opens March 1 and ends March 31, 2014, midnight EST.

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WINNING WAYS

by Hugh Wilson

If you want to win a writing contest, the first thing you must do is study the rules. Many entries are disqualified because the story has not met every requirement, e.g. if the rules state a maximum of 1000 words, a 1200-word story, however brilliant, will go straight on the NO pile.

Assuming you’ve done that bit right, the judges will be looking at four elements:

• Originality

• Creativity

• Style

• Technique

Don’t let those official sounding words put you off. They are only words. Let’s look at each and see what they mean to us as writers.

Originality.

Think again. Winning stories come from second, third, tenth thoughts. Some contests give you a theme – “Wedding Day” for instance. What’s the first thought that comes to mind?

Forget it. You can bet your last dollar that everyone else will have thought it, too. A large percentage of submitted stories will be so similar that the judges will be tearing their hair out.

Make yours different, and they will love you.

Creativity

Don’t “wrack your brains” to get ideas. Relax, get your conscious, critical mind out of the way, and allow ideas to bubble up from your subconscious. In other words, daydream.

Ask yourself who, what, where, when, how, and “what if?” Let the trains of thought go where they will. Before long, you’ll have an idea for a story that is different.

What if that shy looking woman with people entering a church, where a wedding is about to take place, sits in the empty seats at the back?

At the reception, she avoids conversations, eats and drinks, then leaves.

Back in her lonely, one room apartment she scans the Forthcoming Marriages column in the local paper, to see where her next free food and wine is coming from.

Style

You won’t go far wrong if you remember three little words:

Keep it simple.

Don’t try to impress the judges with long, obscure words and “writerly” language. Like any other readers, they want a story that is easy to read.

Don’t stop to admire the view. Every sentence must move the story forward. The reader doesn’t want flowery descriptions of a rose garden in the moonlight. She wants to know what the girl is doing there at two in the morning, and what happens next.

Technique

A story has three distinct parts to think about: beginning, middle and end.

The beginning introduces the main character and what the story is about, so that the reader wants to know what happens.

The middle develops the theme, keeping the reader hooked.

The ending must be believable and leave the reader satisfied. Too many otherwise good contest entries simply stop when they reach the maximum word count, with no conclusion.

And finally…

Always write your story specifically for that contest. Don’t be tempted to re-cycle an old story in the hope it just might fit the contest’s requirements. It won’t.

Above all, enjoy writing it, and the chances are your readers will enjoy reading it.

Don’t forget to ‘like’ us before you leave. For more great tips, sign up for The Writer’s Choice Newsletter (for free) at http://cwinst.com/newslettersignup.php.