5 Things Every Contest Newbie Should Know

The Secret Formula of Storytelling

Everyone is looking for a shortcut…a secret formula that will turn a flat, boring manuscript into a RITA award winner that makes real men weep and lines your pockets with so much cash you can buy a private jet and a cabana boy.

Either there isn’t a formula or it’s locked away with the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in some super secret government warehouse outside of Roswell, New Mexico, because I haven’t found it.  And I’ve looked…and looked.

What I have found are a few tips that have helped me take my story from average to stellar.  While none of this information is earth shattering and it won’t allow you to channel Jane Austen’s muse, I hope that you find it entertaining and helpful.

Here we go.

I.          World Building

World Building and description are joined at the hip but are NOT the same.  Whether your heroine is a singing vampire, a time-traveling peri-menpausal dwarf, a regency Countess, or the Girl Scout next door, you MUST set the stage.  By this I mean, you have to submerge the reader in the character’s world, not just describe it.  We need to know how the character thinks, hears, smells, sees, and feels the world.  All people are a sum of their experiences, and consequently all reactions, assumptions, and decisions are made based on their particular view of the world.  Readers need to see the character’s view before they can become emotionally invested and understand the character’s motivations and decisions.

Ever heard of deep POV?  I like to call it Deep PPOV-Deep Personality Point of View.


Kimba put the locket around her neck.

Where am I?  Goosebumps—which had nothing to do with the snow-capped mountains in the distance—erupted over Kimba’s body.  Have I time traveled?  She touched the locket again.  All she remembered was picking it up.  Then the world lost dimension.

Would you have jumped to the “time traveling” conclusion based on this paragraph?  Personally, I’d have thought I’d lost my marbles or was dreaming or had eaten some bad hallucinogenic sushi.  But time travel?  Nope.  Not buying it.

Additional world building:

Kimba put the locket around her neck.  The gold turned warm.  A whirring like wind through a tunnel filled her ears. The red reading light clamped to her dorm room bed went out of focus and a sucking like a giant Dyson Vacuum pulled at her middle.  Total darkness swallowed her, and then, bam, light.  Bright light.

Where am I?  Kimba looked around.  The neon pink walls of her roommate’s half of the postage-stamp sized dorm room were gone.  In fact—Kimba spun around—the dorm was gone too—so were all the walls and the dorm and well… the whole state of Texas.  Gel-toothpaste-blue ocean lapped at her feet, and her toes sunk into powdery soft sand.  She shielded her eyes with her hand and squinted against the brilliant sunlight reflecting off the water.  Where had the old-timey wooden ships come from?  Kimba moved closer until the names came into view.  Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria?  Kimba rolled her eyes.  Yeah, right.  And Christopher Columbus was one of those little ant-sized people walking on the deck.  The fumes from chem lab must have had a delayed reaction and she was hallucinating because tiptoeing through the New World with Chris Columbus was not on her calendar.  She had a lit test tomorrow.

She slapped herself on the cheek.  Damn.  It hurt.  Did hallucinations usually involve pain? 

Kimba touched the locket again.  The last thing she remembered was placing it around her neck and then she was here.  Her grandmother told her the locket had unusual powers but this left “unusual” in the rearview mirror.

See the difference.  World building is in the details.

Build the world so the reader can live in it.

II.        Description- A little goes a long way.

I’ll give you the same advice I was given by Granny—who isn’t related to me but is an avid reader and ruthlessly critiques all of my work.  “If no one got stabbed or fucked on that antique oak floor, I don’t give a shit where it came from, how old it is, or how much trouble it was to install.”  Did I mention that Granny is somewhere between 80 and 800 years old, smokes unfiltered Camels, and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t kidding about murdering her cheating husband and burying his body under vegetable garden.

FYI—she grows the best tomatoes in the world.

Give the reader the facts and only the facts they need to form a picture in their minds.  For example, the reader needs to know the story takes place in eighteenth century France, but they don’t need to know the history of France staring with the Romans conquering it up until Marie Antoinette supposedly make her famous Betty Crocker cake comment.  As a writer, your job is to tell a story and not to show the reader how much research you’ve done.

Description also dictates pace and helps the reader to get to know the character.  When you take the time to describe a room in detail, remember that it slows the pace of your story.  This can be on purpose so that the character (and reader) has time to reflect after a very emotional or action packed scene.  Also, describing the environment through the character’s PPOV is a great way to get to know the character.

Here’s a challenge:  describe a hotel room through the eyes of:

  1. A sixteen-year-old girl who ran away from home last year and has been living on the streets.
  2. A forty-five year old pharmaceutical salesman who travels 100% percent of the time and has stayed in hundreds of hotel rooms.
  3. A thirty-year-old mother of three at Disneyland trying to wrangle her kids and their suitcases into the room after a long flight.

See how the same Hilton Garden Inn looks different?

Description is in the eye of the beholder—make sure your character beholds things in their own, unique way.

III.       Show Me What You Got- NOT Tell Me.

What’s the difference?  Showing takes the reader along for the ride while telling, well just tells the reader what happened after the fact.  Here are some signs of telling instead of showing:

1.  Using words other than said or asked as dialogue tags.  Muttering, whining, grumbling, murmuring, shouting, yelling, are just plain telling.  “Said” and “asked” are oldies but goodies, use them…or better yet use body language as dialogue tags.

2.  Overusing adverbs especially when they modify said or asked.

“Damn.”  He said angrily.

What does angry look like?  Brow scrunched up, beady little eyes squinted into slits, lips mashed together in a thin line?  Or did her lips turn up in a syrupy sweet smile, but her eyes radiated stone-cold menace like a lioness sizing up her prey looking for weakness?

Adverbs are cheating—describe the emotion instead of taking the easy way out.

3.  Be specific.  Was the car a sedan or a red Toyota Corolla?  Did the seafood restaurant smelling fishy or like day-old halibut left out in the sun?   Also, using seasons or regional references, as descriptors aren’t specific enough.  Things like, “it felt like a Canadian winter” or “Autumn was in the air” aren’t that descriptive.  Don’t forget that your readers live all over.  For example, I’m here in central Texas.  I’ve never experienced a Canadian winter and autumn here means that it’s slightly less hot than summer.  Make sure your reader knows exactly what you mean.

4.  Use all five senses.  If the character licks a grape popsicle I want to taste the fake grapeness, feel the cold, sticky liquid dripping down my chin, watch it melt in the bright sunlight, hear the stick break when the character bites down too hard, and smell the tangy-sweet artificial flavoring that I equate with long summer days by the lake.

IV.       Backstory- Know it, love it, leave it out.

You ,the writer, need to know the characters’ backstory—we, the reader, DO NOT.  Backstory is the character’s history.  History is in the past and we should leave it there.  Yes, it shapes the person you are, but do you want everyone to know your deepest, darkest secrets?  Think about it.  When you meet someone new, do you walk up to them and tell them everything about yourself starting from the time the sperm hit the egg and implanted in your mother’s uterus up to now?

Nope, not unless you’re Peter—this social half-wit with whom I used to work—the first time I met him, he told me that he and his wife no longer had sex because he’d gained so much weight that they both couldn’t fit in the bed at the same time.  Yep, true story.  From that day on, I dove under my desk whenever I heard Peter’s voice.  Moral of this story—DON’T PETER OUT.  Don’t tell your reader everything about the character, give us hints and weave in the backstory so there are no info dumps.  Think of backstory as crack spackle—use it to fill in tiny holes so it’s invisible not in big chunks so it shows.

V.        Voice Makes You Sing

Your voice is what makes you special.  Let’s face it, boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy does something heroic and girl starts to not hate boy, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl can’t be together for some good reason, boy and girl over come the reason and learn some lessons, then boy and girl live happily ever after ain’t a new concept.  It’s the voice that sets the story apart.  Nurture your voice and learn what it sounds and feels like.

Okay, truth time.  My first draft of my first book was very serious.  The brave soul who agreed to read it (winking at you Skyler White) told me that I should think about stand up comedy instead of writing because I was really funny in person.  I scraped that draft and started over.  I allowed myself to write whatever came to mind.  Turns out that my voice is sarcastic and funny.  Who knew?  Voice is like DNA, no two are the same and you can’t change it even if you want to, you are who (or is it whom) you are—live up to it.

These tips are as close to a magic wand as I have to offer.  But if you stumble over a tarnished Aladdin’s lamp or a groovy, purple bottle on the beach, send the genie over my way.  After I waste two perfectly good wishes that involve Christian Kane and a yacht, I’ll nail down the writer’s secret formula and report back in with the entire scoop.


Due to the time constraints of her day job, Katie will not be able to respond to comments today, but Vivi has agreed to hang out and answer any questions that pop up, so comment away!

40 responses to “5 Things Every Contest Newbie Should Know”

  1. Wow, wow, wow! This is another post I’m going to bookmark. Great advice, Kate. I especially like your advice on looking at the world from different characters’ POV. It so easy to write your own memory details and forgot you’re looking at Disney World from a kick ass navy seal.

    Everyone entering the Golden Heart better take the time to read this post.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      Isn’t that a fabulous way of breaking it down? POV is so key.

      • This is a big challenge as I fiddle with writing my first YA. I find myself wanting to describe something in a certain way, but the central character’s youthful POV demands a different eye. I have to pull myself even further out of the character, which makes me wonder/worry just how much of “me” I’ve been accidentally putting into my adult characters. But this new, younger character forces me to pay attention to the details that she notices and words she uses to make sure her voice and viewpoint remain true to her age.

  2. Addison Fox says:

    Great post, Katie!!

    And really fantastic examples.


  3. Hope Ramsay says:

    Very nice post. Bookmark-worthy for sure.

  4. Excellent advice, Katie! And Granny cracks me up 🙂

  5. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    Katie! That is my granny. I lost her in the produce department at the supermarket and want her returned ASAP.

    • Vivi Andrews says:

      *snort* You really should be more careful with your smart ass grannies, Kelly. Misplacing them left and right.

      • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

        Last time we saw granny (add sniffle) she was squeezing fruits and smelling vegetables in the bakery section, but she said she was headed for the produce department to thump a mellon. Never seen again.

  6. Leslie says:

    Love that Granny-ism! That one is getting printed out (and is inspiring some hardwood floor scenes) 😉

  7. Amanda Brice says:

    Wow, Katie. This is a FANTASTIC post! I’m definitely bookmarking it!

  8. Beth Langston says:

    great post. love the idea of backstory being “crack spackle”. so descriptive.

  9. Rita Henuber says:

    Great post Katie. Was Granny with you when you were deported from the Bahamas? Or the reason?

  10. Fun and instructive, Katie. I can’t imagine any Granny I know using that sort of language—not without laughing, at any rate. Great job.

  11. (You wrote Kimba, and I thought “Little white lion”—a male white lion at that. Does anyone else remember him? Or have I fallen that far into the cracks of time?)

  12. Sally Eggert says:

    Great post, Katie! So much great advice, and food for thought! And grannies can surprise you, can’t they? I had one who never *said* naughty words, but would spell *anything* to win at Scrabble.

  13. Woah — that world-building advice should be handed out to every new writer as soon as they pick up their pen. Or MacBook. To some people it comes naturally, but to others…well, we have to work a little harder. 😉 I write fairly sparse first drafts, and layer on details in editing. But no one can get away with ignoring it, not even if you think world-building is only for fantasy writers like Robert Jordan (who needed an tougher editor like Texas needs rain, but that’s another post).

  14. Great advice, Kate! Thanks so much for your words of wisdom!

  15. Amy Villalba says:

    Great advice, Kate! Wonderful words of wisdom.

  16. liz talley says:

    I don’t think I’ll ever look at an antique wood floor the same way again. LOL

    Fun post with absolute awesome advice…and I’m going to look hard at my ms. Next week is fine-toothed comb week. I’ll be unsnarling…or maybe teasing some areas and this post will certainly help.

  17. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Great post, Katie, and great examples.

  18. Katie Graykowski says:

    Dang! When Vivi hounded me ( very politely) into posting this blog, I didn’t think that anyone would read it, much less comment.

    I forgot to mention that Granny only has one eye because she lost the other one in “the war.” I’m unclear on exactly which war we’re talking, but I’m pretty sure that it was after the civil war. ..okay I’m 70 percent sure. Anyway, I offered to give her my old laptop so I could email her my manuscripts Instead of printing them out. She told me that she’d rather have an STD than a computer. I told her that I was not prepared to give her one of those.

  19. Janni Nell says:

    Great post.

    Thanks heavens you found your voice. It’s a winner. I’m still chuckling over the time-travelling peri-menopausal dwarf.

  20. Tina Joyce says:

    Great post, Katie! A definite keeper.

  21. Elisa Beatty says:

    Great and hilarious post, Katie!!! I can definitely hear your “voice”…great examples, too!

  22. Juanita Kees says:

    Hi Katie,

    Definitely one to bookmark! I love your voice and Granny’s too. You have reinspired me to put the humour back into my writing. I wondered what was missing …

  23. […] 5 Things Every Contest Newbie Should Know at the Ruby Slipper Sisterhood […]

  24. […] sure to check out Katie’s Five Things All Contest Newbies Should Know and Hope Ramsay’s Tips for Improving Your First 50 […]

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