Monday, November 17, 2014

How to Win Writing Contests and Big Publishing Contracts

This morning, I received an email from Joni Labaqui of the Writers of the Future Contest. While I normally pay no attention to writing advice (I have a knee-jerk reaction to break all the rules), this letter turned out to be pretty good. As I scrolled down through the sections, I was distinctly aware that not only do judges look for these qualities in stories, but editors and agents do as well.

From: Joni Labaqui

We recently asked our WotF entrants what they would like to hear from us. Many requested some information that would help them understand why their last story submission didn’t win.

Our Contest Coordinating Judge and First Reader, Dave Wolverton (aka David Farland) just recently wrote the following article. It’s filled with information that I feel will help you with your next contest entry.

While I fear this is really too long for an email, I know that more of you are reading this than our blog (but we will be posting it there too). So here goes...

How to Win Writing Contests and Big Publishing Contracts

By David Farland

When I was in college, I wrote a story and—on the advice of my professor—entered it into a contest. It won third place, and as I considered my fifty dollar prize, I realized that I had made over twice the hourly minimum wage writing that story.

So I wondered, “If I worked harder, could I win more money?”

I was going to school full time and didn’t have a job, so I set a goal to win first place in a writing competition.  In order to boost my chances of winning, I decided to enter several contests.  I worked for six months and entered them all within a couple of weeks of one another.

To my surprise, I won all six of the writing contests, including Gold Award for the International Writers of The Future Contest.

When I went to receive my award atop the World Trade Center, several editors approached me and asked to see my first novel.  The outline interested the editors enough to start a small bidding war, and within a couple of days, I got a three novel contract.  I went on to get rave reviews for that first novel and won a Philip K. Dick Memorial Special Award for it.  It stayed on Locus’s Science Fiction Bestseller list for five months, and that helped set the tone for my career.

So, how did I win those contests?

Well, I started by making a list of lists of ways that that a judge might look at my work.  For example, some judges might look for an ending that brought them to tears, while another might be more interested in an intellectual feast, and a third might want to be transported to an intriguing location.

Recently, several people have asked me to share my list.  Over the years, it has grown.  I’m a contest judge now, not an entrant—though I did recently win six awards for my latest novel, including the International Book Award and the Hollywood Book Festival’s “Book of the Year.”

I no longer have that original document, but here is a list of things that I might consider in creating a story that I want to use as an entry to a contest—or for a novel that I want to submit to a publisher.

First, a word of warning: when I was very young, perhaps four, I remember seeing a little robot in a store, with flashing lights and wheels that made it move.  To me it seemed magical, nearly alive.  My parents bought it for me at Christmas, and a few weeks later it malfunctioned, so I took a hammer to it and pulled out the pieces to see what made it work—a battery, a tiny motor, some small colored lights, cheap paint and stickers.

Don’t want to ruin your illusions about stories, and as you read this list, it might feel a bit like those bits and pieces.  Maybe that’s because it’s only part of the equation.  Your story is more than the sum of parts.  So as I list these parts, be aware that a great story is more than any of these.  It should feel magical and alive.  It’s your job to add the magic:


My goal with my settings is to transport the reader into my world—not just through the senses, but also emotionally and intellectually.  I want to make them feel powerful emotions and keep them thinking.  This can often be done by using settings that fascinate the reader, that call to them.  So here are a few questions to ask yourself as you consider your settings.

•    Do I have unique settings that the reader will find intriguing?  In short, is there something that makes my setting different from anything that the reader has seen before?

•    If my setting is in our world, is it “sexy” or mundane.  People are usually more intrigued by sexy settings.  Even if we place a story in a McDonald’s, we need to bring it to life, make it enjoyable.

•    Do I have any scenes that would be more interesting if the setting were moved elsewhere?  For example, let’s say that I want to show that a king is warlike.  Do I open with him speaking to his counselors at a feast, or would it be better to open on the battlefield?

 •    Do I suffer by having repetitive settings?  For example, if I set two scenes in the same living room, would one of them be more interesting if I moved it elsewhere?

 •    Do my descriptions of settings have enough detail to transport the reader?

•    Did I bring my setting to life using all of the senses—sight, sound, taste, feel, smell, hot/cold?

 •    Do my character’s feelings about the setting get across?  What do they think about it?  What memories does it arouse?

 •    Do I want to show a setting in the past, present, and suggest a future? For example, if I set a scene on a college campus, I might talk about a college’s historical growth, or the character’s view of its future importance, etc.

 •    Can a setting be strengthened by describing what it is not?

 •    Does my setting resonate with others within its genre, so that it creates a positive emotional feel?

 •    Do my settings have duality—a sometimes ambiguous nature?  For example, my character might love the church where she was married, have fond memories of it, and yet feel a sense of betrayal because her marriage eventually turned ugly.  So the setting becomes bittersweet.

 •    Do my settings create potential conflicts in and of themselves that aren’t explored in the text?  For example, if I have a prairie with tall grass and wildfires are a threat, should I have a wildfire in the tale?

 •    Do my characters and my societies grow out of my setting?  If I’ve got a historical setting, do my characters have occupations and attitudes consistent with the milieu?  Beyond that, with every society there is almost always a counter-movement.  Do I deal with those?

 •    Is my setting, my world, in danger?  Do I want it to be?

 •    Does my world have a life of its own?  For example, if I create a fantasy village, does it have a history, a character of its own?  Do I need to create a cast for the village—a mayor, a teacher, guards, etc.?

 •    Is my setting logically consistent?  For example, let’s say that I have a merchant town.  Where would a merchant town most likely be?  On a trade route or port—quite possibly at the junction of the two.  So I need to consider how fully I’ve developed the world.

 •    Is my setting fully realized?  Let’s say I have a forest.  What kinds of trees and plants would be in that forest?  What kind of animals?  What’s the history of that forest?  When did it last have rain or snow?  What’s unique about that forest?

 •    Do I describe the backgrounds (mountains, clouds, sun, moon), along with the middle ground (say a nearby building) and the elements nearest to my protagonist.

 •    Does my setting intrude into every scene, so that my reader is always grounded?  (If I were to set my story in a field, for example, and I have men preparing for battle, I might want to have a lord look up and notice that buzzards are flapping up out of the oaks in the distance, already gathering for the feast.  I might want to mention the sun warming my protagonist’s armor, the flies buzzing about his horse’s ears, and so on—all while he is holding an important conversation.

 •    Are there any settings that have symbolic import, whose meanings need to be brought to the forefront?


I want my characters to feel like real people, fully developed.  Many stories suffer because the characters are bland or cliché or are just underdeveloped.

We want to move beyond stereotypes, create characters that our readers will feel for.  At the same time, we don’t want to get stuck in the weeds.  We don’t want so much detail that the character feels overburdened and the writing gets sluggish.

So here are some of the checkpoints I might use for characters.

 •    Do I have all of the characters that I need to tell the story, or is someone missing?  For example, would the story be stronger if I had a guide, a sidekick, a love interest, a contagonist, hecklers, etc.? (Note: if you don’t recognize those character types, Google

•    Do I have any characters that can be deleted to good effect?

•    Do I have characters who can perhaps be combined with others?  For example, let’s say I have two cops on the beat.  Would it work just as well with only one cop?

•    Do my characters have real personalities, depth?

•    Do my characters come off as stock characters, or as real people?

•    Do I know my characters’ history, attitudes, and dress?

•    Does each character have his or her interesting way of seeing the world?

•    Does each character have his or her own voice, his own way of expressing himself?

•    Are my characters different enough from each other so that they’re easily distinguished?  Do their differences generate conflict?  Remember that even good friends can have different personalities.

•    Have I properly created my characters’ bodies—described such things as hands, feet, faces, hair, ears, and so on?

•    Do each of my characters have their own idiosyncrasies?

•    Do I need to “tag” any characters so that readers will remember them easily—for example, by giving a character a limp, or red hair, or having one who hums a great deal?

•    How do my characters relate to the societies from which they sprang?  In short, are they consistent with their own culture in some ways?  And in what ways do they oppose their culture?

•    What does each of my characters want?

•    What does each one fear?

•    What things might my character be trying to hide?

•    What is each character’s history?  (Where were they born?  Schooled, etc.?)

•    What is my characters’ stance on religion, politics, etc.?

•    How do my characters relate to one another?  How do they perceive one another?  Are their perceptions accurate, or jaded?

•    Does each character have a growth arc?  If they don’t, should they?

•    How honest are my characters—with themselves and with others?  Should my readers trust them?

•    What would my characters like to change about themselves?  Do they try to change?

•    Do my characters have their own family histories, their own social problems, their own medical histories, their own attitudes?  Do we need a flashback anywhere to establish such things?


One of the surest ways to engage our audience is through our conflicts.  When a conflict is unresolved, and when the audience is waiting breathlessly for its outcome, the reader’s interest will become keen.  They’ll look forward to the resolution unconsciously, and may even be thinking, “Oh, this is going to be good!”  That state of arousal is called “suspense,” and it’s perhaps the most potent element of a tale.

•    What is the major conflict in my story?

•    Do I have proper try/fail cycles for it?

•    Is the major conflict resolved in a way that satisfies the readers?

•    Is it universal enough so that the readers will find it interesting?  (Note that a conflict becomes far more interesting to a reader if it is something that he must deal with in his own life.)

•    Have I brought the conflicts to life through the incidents that I relate?  In other words, are their ways to deepen or broaden the main conflict?

•    Do I have secondary conflicts?  Most stories require more than one conflict.  For example, a protagonist will often have an internal conflict as well as an external conflict.  He may also have a love interest.  He might have conflicts with nature, with god, and with his companions.  So as an author, I must create a host of conflicts and decide how each one grows and is resolved.

•    How do my characters grow and change in order to overcome the conflicts?

•    Do my characters perhaps decide to adapt to a conflict, struggle to live with it rather than beat it?

•    How ingenious are my character attempts to solve their problems?  Ingenuity often adds interest.

•    How driven are my characters to resolve their conflicts?  Character who will go to extremes are needed.

•    Do I have any namby-pamby attempts that I should delete?  For example, if I have a protagonist whose main problem is that she doesn’t have the nerve to talk to her boss about a problem at work, should I strike that entire try/fail cycle?  (The answer is “almost always you should strike out the scenes and replace it with something better.)

•    Is my hero equal to or greater than his task at the start of a tale?  If so, then my hero needs to be weakened so that we have a better balance.

•    Does my protagonist ever get betrayed?

•    Does my protagonist have an identity conflict?  At the heart of every great story is a character who sees himself as being one thing—charming, heroic, wise—while others around him perceive him as being something else—socially wanting, cowardly, foolish.

•    Do I have enough conflicts to keep the story interesting?

•    Should some of the minor conflicts be deleted, or resolved?  (Remember that not all conflicts need to have try/fail cycles.)


Themes in the story might be called the underlying philosophical arguments in your tale.  A story doesn’t need to have a theme in order for it to be engaging.  Likeable protagonists undergoing engaging conflicts is all that you need in order to hold a reader.  But a tale that tackles a powerful theme will tend to linger with you much longer.  Indeed, such tales can even change the way that a reader thinks, persuade him in important arguments.  Shakespeare made every story an argument, and the “theme” was the central question to his tale.

Some people will suggest that dealing with themes is “didactic.”  Don’t be fooled.  Those same writers will put themes in their own works, and usually they’re taking stands that oppose yours.  For example, if you argue that morality is innate and central to what a human is, they’ll argue that it’s situational and we’re all just animals.  They don’t oppose the idea of stories having themes; they may just be opposed to your views.  So make sure that your arguments are rigorous and persuasive.

 •    Can I identify themes that I consciously handled?

 •    Are there themes that came out inadvertently?

 •    How universal are my themes?  How important are they to the average reader?

 •    Are there themes that need to be dealt with but aren’t?  For example, if I have a policeman who is going to take a life, does he need to consider how he will feel about that?

 •    Are there questions posed or problems manifested that bog the story down and need to be pulled?

 •    Do my characters ever consciously consider or talk about the main themes?  Should they?

 •    Do my characters need to grapple with important questions?  If not, perhaps they should.

 •    Do my characters change at all due to the influence of new ideas or beliefs?

•    If my theme is going to “grow,” become more important as the story progresses, do I need to add or modify scenes in order to accommodate that growth?  In other words, do I need to let the theme help shape the tale?

 •    As your character grapples with a theme, does he find himself led down false roads?  For example, let’s go back to our cop.  Let’s say that he shoots a boy at night, and feels guilty when he discovers that the boy wasn’t really armed.  What the cop thought was a gun turns out to have been a cell phone.  Would other characters try to influence him?  Perhaps a senior officer might take him out to get a drink—because alcohol has been his salvation for 20 years.  Another officer might suggest that the kid was trying to commit suicide by cop, and our protagonist that he ‘did the kid a favor,’ and so on.

 •    Does my character ever have to synthesize a thematic concept—come to grips with it intellectually and emotionally, so that it alters the character’s behavior?


Your “treatment” is the way that you handle your story.  The number of items that come into play in your treatment is so long, I can’t get into all of them.  We would need get down to the real nitty-gritty of putting a sentence together.

You’ll want to create your own list of items to look for in your treatment.  If you notice for example that you’re creating a lot of long, compound sentences in a row, you might make it a goal to vary your sentence length.  If you find that you’re using weak verbs, you may want to go through your tale and search for instances of “was” and “were.”  If you find yourself using the word “then,” you might want to go through in your edits and make sure that incidents in your tale are related in sequential order, so that you don’t need the word “then.”  If you find yourself stacking modifiers in front of nouns and verbs, you might want to watch for that in your editing.  If you tend to over-describe things, you might want to watch your descriptions.

In short, whatever your own personal weaknesses are in writing, you’ll want to create a list so that you can think about them when you write.

But here are a few elements to consider in your treatment.

 •    Is your tone appropriate to the tale?  For example, let’s say that you want to invest a bit of humor into your story.  You start it with a joke.  Do you maintain the tone throughout the rest of the tale, perhaps layering the humor in, scene after scene?

 •    Do each of your characters speak with their own unique voices?  You’ll need to do a dialog check for each character before you’re done.

 •    Do you as a narrator establish a voice for the piece, one that you maintain throughout?

 •    Is every description succinct and evocative?

 •    Do your descriptions echo the emotional tone of the point-of-view (POV) character?

 •    Do you get deep enough penetration into your protagonist’s POV so that the reader can track their thoughts and emotions?  If not, is there a good reason why you neglected to do so?

 •    Is there music in your language?  Do you want there to be?  Ernest Hemingway once said that “All great novels are really just poetry?”  With that in mind, listen to the sounds of your words.  Consider changing them as needed to fit the meter and emphasis that you need.

 •    Do you use enough hooks to keep your reader interested?

 •    Could you strengthen the piece by using foreshadowing?

 •    Do you use powerful metaphors or similes to add beauty and resonance to your work?  (If not, you’re in trouble.  Your competition will.)

 •    Is your pacing fast when it needs to be, and slow when it needs to be?

 •    Do you waste space with unnecessary words?

 •    Is your diction appropriate for your audience?  By that I mean, if you’re writing to a middle-grade reader, is the diction understandable to a ten-year-old.

Story Parts 

Sometimes when you’re looking at a story, you need to think about it in “chunks.”  Here are a few things that I think about when creating a tale.

Is the basic idea of my story original and powerful?  (In a contest, entering a story with a mundane concept probably won’t get you far.  For example, if you enter a story about a young man fighting space pirates, it probably won’t do well—unless you come up with some new technology or angle that sets it above all other space-pirate tales.)

Do you establish your characters swiftly?  We should probably know whom the story is about within a scene or two, and we should probably be introduced in a way that tells us something important about the characters.

We also need to establish the setting in every single scene.

  • Do you get to the inciting incident quickly and cleanly?  (The inciting incident is the place where the protagonist discovers what his main conflict is going to be.)  
  • Are there any storytelling tools that I could use to make this tale better.  (For a discussion of storytelling tools, see my book “Million Dollar Outlines,” which is available at 
  • Does my story escalate through the following scenes, with conflicts that broaden and deepen?  
  • Does my story resolve well?  Do I have a climax that really is exciting?  Is the outcome different from what the audience expects? 
  • Do I tackle all of the resolutions in a way that leaves the reader satisfied? 

Writing a story can be an exhausting exercise—intellectually challenging and emotionally draining. When you’re in the throes of it, it may seem daunting.  But you’re never really done until the outcome feels magical, and if you take care of all the little things that you should, the outcome will indeed seem wondrous.

Happy writing!

And good luck to you!

Joni Labaqui

7051 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, California 90028, United States (323) 466-3310


  1. Interesting - and probably good advice. I have to admit I have never heard of John Labaqui, but I have heard of Erica Verrillo. Does that mean anything? Generally speaking, I avoid writing advice and write by the seat of my pants. I have never found anything that can replace natural talent. My failure to be known by the world at large is mostly a result of my hating promotional work and relying too much on other people's opinions. That has not stopped me from being a great writer, but it has made it impossible for the world to know it.

    1. "I have never found anything that can replace natural talent."
      There is no such thing. Not in writing. Writers need to read everything, study everything. Writers develop, they're not born. None of them. Not Twain, Tolkien, Tolstoy, Aasmov, Herbert, Plato, Shakespeare. None of them!

      "I avoid writing advice and write by the seat of my pants."
      I see failure in your future.

      When I hear silliness like this, it's because the writer doesn't have any real world experience. Your opinion/advice isn't worth a clod of dirt, and I doubt you made much beyond a clod of dirt for your troubles.

    2. It is one thing to express an opinion and quite another to resort to insults. Regardless of whether you believe the previous comment to be "silly," it is a matter of simple good manners to refrain from making personal jibes. I am leaving the above to serve as an example of how NOT to express yourself when voicing disagreement.

    3. Richard: "I see failure in your future"
      Erica: *has written seven books and published five*

  2. Agreed! Overthinking can spoil a piece of fiction - and there is certainly no substitute for talent. But, looking over this incredibly long list, I realized that these are the questions I ask when I am editing someone else's work. I often pose similar questions when I make an editorial suggestion,

  3. Yes, Erica, these are the same things we look for when we wear the editor's hat.

  4. LOVE IT! You're a lifesaver, it just sees through every possible scenario. You're a genius sir:)

  5. I think it bears mentioning, that contest wins and book deals are two very different animals.
    A contest is concerned exclusively with literary merit.
    A book deal is about commercial merit.
    Many books have one, but not the other.


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