Writing contest dos and don’ts, part 2

Yesterday I offered suggestions for writers who enter crime writing competitions. Do: proofread, print out documents, spellcheck and use a dictionary.

Today I’m offering some don’ts.

1. Don’t waste your entry.

Most competitions have word limits. Ten pages, or the first 2,000, 3,000, or maybe 5,000 words of a novel. Don’t burn your chances by submitting an entry where nothing substantial happens in those words. Don’t waste your entry on weather, or a three-page description of the charming shops next to the cricket pitch on the village green, or the detective’s backstory, followed by his colleagues’ backstories, followed by the villain’s backstory. Give us the story. Give it to us now.

2. Don’t start your story in the wrong place.

This is related to point no. 1. Too many entries start the story too early — with a cop eating breakfast, and getting dressed, and driving to the office, and answering his email… or with a husband strolling the streets, for pages, before he runs into a friend who engages in several minutes of laboriously detailed chit chat before mentioning that she just saw his wife heading into a hotel with another man…

Stories should start as close to the end as possible. Open with the cop at the crime scene. With the husband kicking down the hotel room door and confronting his faithless spouse. Find the chase, and cut to it.

3. Don’t kill your story with clichés.

By clichés I mean both overused phrases (which kill “like the plague”) and overused ideas. Especially overused ideas. They’re as stale as yesterday’s toast. These include:

  • Stories that open with the protagonist waking up.
  • Stories that open with a dream sequence.
  • Stories that open with the protagonist staring out the window at the rain, remembering his horrible childhood.
  • The maverick cop.
  • The alcoholic cop.
  • The cop whose obsession with a case has destroyed the rest of his life.
  • The slavering sadistic cannibal villain.
  • The madonna-whore dichotomy. Sometimes omitting the madonna.

As a judge and as a reader, I have seen these scenes, characters, and tropes many, many times before. That’s why they’re clichés. And I’m far from the first person to tell aspiring writers this. Given that, why are so many entries still riddled with them?

Partly, I think it’s because entrants imagine these ideas to be classics, or essential to a crime story. Partly I think entrants are aiming for particular goals, and failing to hit the mark. That is —

The writer’s goal: Make it sound like a crime novel.
Problem: the entry sounds like a poor imitation of a thousand other crime novels. At the end of this particular road lies the following opening scene, which I’ve read more than once in recent contest entries:

An obsessed divorced alcoholic maverick cop is awakened from a gruesome and floridly detailed dream about (a) the case that destroyed him (b) that day his hideous childhood ended with him finding his parents’ dead bodies, or (c) the murder of his beautiful wife and children. He struggles, against the cruel light of morning, to find his ringing phone or answer the pounding on the front door. His boss, or a beautiful young female rookie cop, is summoning him to a gory crime scene.

Many pages are then devoted to the cop’s crushing hangover, the long shower he takes to try to rid himself of it (and of the lingering dream, which is rehashed some more), his fumble around his filthy apartment for yesterday’s dirty shirt and socks and underwear, the coffee he drinks and the gruff monosyllabic non-answers he gives the rookie on their way to the crime scene, during which he flashes back to (a) his wife’s unfaithfulness (b) the last victim’s slit throat, which mocked him, like a smile, or (c) his daughter’s budding sexuality. Finally he arrives at the crime scene, where the medical examiner says, “It’s the third victim this week.” And the cop realizes: They have a serial killer on their hands.

If you’ve written this scene, you’re not the first. Or the ten-thousandth. Cut it. Start over.

The writer’s goal: Make it sound gritty.
Problem: Entrants think “gritty” means severed heads and human entrails, with rookie cops vomiting at the scene or in Autopsy.

The writer’s goal:
Make it sound like life on the streets.
What entrants think it means: The women in the story are hookers.

On my most recent judging stint, I read so many entries where the first woman to appear in the story, or the only woman, or every woman to appear in the story, was a hooker, that I started writing whore at the top of the page.

This was not a compliment. This, as perhaps you can discern, pissed me off.

It got so bad that when I finally ran across a story where a woman was a cop, she was still a hooker — she played rugby, and hooker was her position on the field. That made me laugh. Still, I have to wonder why the author didn’t make her a prop, or a fly half.

Call me irked with the writers’ consistent failure of imagination. It’s 2012, and it’s time for new writers to knock this stuff off.

8 responses to “Writing contest dos and don’ts, part 2

  1. As a reader, don’t give me the same old serial killer victims (prostitutes, blondes, sorority sisters), a bizarre “signature” (victims left naked in fishnet stockings with Lolita written on their chests in teal glitter-glue), and a killer who turns out to be a senator, a judge, a millionaire, or the FBI agent in charge of the case.

    Now back to writing about my happily married vegan detective investigating the suspicious death of a beloved kindergarten teacher at a baby shower….

  2. And please, please, when you do reveal the killer, make it someone we’ve actually run into at some point in the first third of the story, not (as I encountered in the first — and last — book I read by an apparently highly respected mystery writer) the civil servant the detective interviewed briefly about 80% of the way into the book, to confirm a minor point about the victim’s son, and who never appeared again until his arrest.

    Or (okay, I’m on a roll) not a total, off-the-wall coincidence, such as when the bereaved, depressed, impotent, overweight police detective finally tracks down the serial killer, it’s — gasp — his own psychiatrist. (Yes, I’m referring to a real book.)

    Okay, I feel better now, and have imparted valuable advice, too.

  3. Stories that open with the protagonist waking up.

  4. Pingback: First pages: some do’s and don’ts | lying for a living

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