When I was little, there was a program on TV called “Queen for a Day.” It was a reality soap of the highest order — a competition between four women to see who could tell the biggest sob story.
The winner was seated on a “throne,” crowned, and robed in ermine.
She received prizes, including whatever she’d specified was her biggest need — sometimes extraordinary medical care for her family, other times something as commonplace as a washing machine — plus goodies like a night on the town with her husband, clothes, household goods, even jewelry.
TV was still fairly new back then and there was a tendency to leave it on and watch just for the sake of watching. Being a child, I appreciated only the drama and excitement of the program — the audience cheering, the contestants’ tears, the moderator’s tenderness.
Although my mother was horrified, I didn’t understand enough about the tableau of life to appreciate how degrading and self-abasing this was for those women.
What I saw was the CONTEST, something no child can resist.
Throughout the years, I entered various competitions, usually on a whim. I won some dog food in one. A week later, I won a hand-crafted, colonial style child’s playhouse, perfect for my 4-year old. Two winners, just like that. I thought my personal dice were HOT, so I bought a few lottery tickets. Alas, it was not to be; someone else walked off with the pot of gold. And thus ended my grown-up interest in contests.
Until three years ago, when I decided to enter my first manuscript, MESSAGE FROM PANAMA, in three literary competitions, and wound up reaching the finals in two of them — the Daphne du Maurier (RWA) and the Debut Dagger, which is awarded by the Crime Writers Association in England. To say I was thrilled is an understatement. I had had such a small expectation of any success that I’d forgotten about them both the minute I clicked the “Send” buttons.
This year, I have a new manuscript, ESCAPE TO PANAMA, and it, too, is finding its way to various contests.
Although a number of well-regarded literary sites — “Preditors and Editors” being one — strongly recommend against entering contests that charge a fee, that’s almost impossible if you’re competing in the mystery/suspense/thriller category. I’ve found that most of the important competitions in our genre assess charges in the range of $25 to $40. If you want to compete in them, you’ll have to cough up some change.
Unlike the “Preditors and Editors” folks, the fees have never rankled me, and now I see them in a whole new light. A year ago, I was asked to be a judge for the Daphne contest and this has given me the opportunity to get a glimpse into how one of these contests is actually run and where the fees go.
The Daphne contest — full name — “The Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense” — is open from January 15 to March 15. To enter, you have to fill out a form, declare your entry for either the Published or Unpublished division, and send off either your first 5000 words and a 675 word synopsis for the Unpublished Division, or several copies of your printed book for the Published Division.
The Daphne has six different categories of romantic mystery/suspense, including one that does not have to contain any romantic elements. In all, the contest will receive 640 manuscript and book entries!
Because I’ve volunteered to judge unpublished manuscripts, anywhere from three to five submissions will come to me and I’ll be one of four judges reading each entry. The score sheet is lengthy and detailed and we’re also asked to make comments directly on the manuscripts. I don’t know how many judges the Daphne has in total but my judge number is 270, so that provides some idea of how large this competition actually is.
Last year being my first, I wanted to make sure I gave as much attention to my entries as possible. Every judge has his or her own method of reviewing the manuscripts. Here was mine:
I read each entry 6 times. First, I read for a sense of story, then the second time I read for structure. The third reading was for characterization and environment, the fourth for what I termed “gross errors” — inconsistencies in tense, time and place, extremely poor grammar, and awkward wording. I went back through a fifth time to mark corrections in the margins and the sixth and final reading was to check the manuscript against the score sheet to see if I’d left anything out. We have about a month to do the judging and I found I used a lot of it. I left a few days between the fifth and sixth reading so I could read the final time with a little perspective.
In addition to the score sheet and margin notes, all Daphne judges are asked to provide a thoughtful, in-depth written review of each manuscript. This is fun to do for the super ones, a bit harder, but rewarding, for those manuscripts that are just okay. The truly difficult ones are those penned by real beginners who need lots of encouragement to keep going. I hope I’ve provided some of that.
Based on this experience, limited though it is, I believe I can offer a bit of advice — and support — to possible entrants this year. Please bear in mind that my comments refer only to this one contest. I have no idea how others work.
First, don’t be off-put by the fee. Somebody — a lovely lady named Brooke — has to coordinate all those hundreds of entries, hundreds of judges, and thousands of responses. It’s a huge job and the fees support it.
Second, with the Daphne contest you’re more than likely to get judges who want to read your genre. Each of us fills out a questionnaire indicating what we’re most interested in judging, what we’ll agree to read, and what we won’t touch. Based on this, you should wind up in the hands of judges who like your genre. So that’s good news.
Not such good news is that actual points are deducted for spelling and grammatical errors. (Yes, I know, it’s 6th Grade all over again.)
This means you need to go over your manuscript and synopsis carefully, even asking someone else to proof it. While we can forgive the dreaded “the the” once, we’re obligated to deduct for multiple errors. Losing points here is a real shame because it’s so preventable.
Also, let other people read your synopsis to see if it makes sense. More than one synopsis I read was difficult to follow. You know how your story develops and ends but translating that into less than 700 words is a big challenge. Making those words understandable to others is tougher still. Also, make sure to reveal your ending. Many new writers want to keep their endings secret. That’s a no-no in a contest synopsis.
Regarding the manuscript part of your submission, the Daphne contest suggests that you end with a hook. I’d add the recommendation that you plant several hooks in your 5,000 words, if possible. They can be the introduction of an interesting character, a plot element, even an exotic setting. You don’t want to overload your submission with superfluous hooks but do try to give the judges several interesting things that we’ll want to read more about and at least one gripping, mesmerizing, eye-popping, jaw-dropping item. More of those, actually, if you can.
Regarding hooks, here’s a great, short piece that I think puts it just right. http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Four-Firsts-and-Chapter-Hooks-in-Mystery-Writing&id=957894
Finally, I suggest you submit your manuscript pages to a critique group or other writers you know and whose opinions you value. I always do that with my own submissions and find the comments very helpful. This year, I got some tough suggestions back that involved cutting a couple of my “lovelies.” For a while, I agonized and dithered, but, eventually, I made most of the changes, and am glad I did.
If you’re planning to enter the Daphne, I hope these comments have been helpful. If I’m lucky and draw your manuscript to review, I’m sure it will be well done, have no gratuitous errors, and probably be a joy to read. And, who knows, you may just wind up being the Daphne “Queen for a Day!”