First off, here is how the contest worked: There were 19 contestants who read either excerpts from book-length pieces or short stories. In as few words as possible they stated who they were, what they were writing and give a log line (what’s your story about?). They had two minutes to read from their work and if they did not finish within that time frame an obnoxious sound could be heard.
After that, the three judges would give their critiques. And these guys were great, really on target for being put on the spot all night. The judges were Carol Berg, award winning fantasy author, Charles Kaine, head of Last Knight Publishing, and Barbara Samuel, award winning romance author (she has a great blog called A Writer Afoot).
I’m the seventeenth person to read. After sitting in the front row and listening to 18 of my peers read aloud, this is what I have learned:
1. Practice what you are going to read. Out loud. With a watch. Cut your scene if you need to so that you can get the pertinent information across. A lot of people just read until the buzzer went off. The ones that did better in the competition as a whole stopped before that buzzer hit, and took charge of the note that their piece ended on–and it was never a screechy one.
One woman in particular comes to mind, and I don’t remember her name, but there was a scene with a car wreck. The main character reaches out a hand to grab her son and discovers that he is not there. Ending on that image, the image with the hand reaching for the lost son would have been sooooo powerful. But she continued reading for maybe one more paragraph and was interrupted mid-sentence by the buzzer. I think her odds were hurt by that, honestly.
2. Know where the scene is. In about half the cases there was a great deal of exposition. In a couple cases the exposition went back to the dawn of man. An audience, like an editor, wants to be pulled in immediately. And, while my log line sucked, I could tell exactly when the audience started listening to me. It was only a sentence or two in. I was pretty proud of that. For others, I don’t know if they ever caught the audience’s attention.
3. Speaking of log lines–I’m not a big fan of them. The agents and editors I’ve heard from don’t want the vague notions that even the best log lines give. They want the meat of the story. If that takes a paragraph or so, they’re willing to read it, if it’s well written. But, if you’re going to go through the trouble of participating in a contest, follow the guides and write a damn log line. It’ll save the judges something to critique you on. I wrote mine in about thirty seconds, right before I went up there. Don’t do that.
So, Jenny, how’d you do?
Well, I did not win the overall contest. I believe I was a top contender. But, in the spirit of the competition and out of deference to my karma, I voted for someone other than myself. The good news is, he won. Because had I voted for him and he hadn’t won…and neither had I…well, then I’d be a tad bit upset.
Congratulations to Kirk Farber, who took the critic’s prize and the Audience Favorite for his Postcards from a Dead Girl (see, even the title’s pretty cool).
I got an award for Best Tension. And I was granted a reading from agent Kristin Nelson, who also has a fabulous blog.
Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.