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Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards: Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition with Crime Judge Jeffrey Marks

Today, as part of our Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition series, Crime judge Jeffrey Marks provides tips and techniques for a standout submission.

Meet the Judge:

Jeffrey Marks is a long-time mystery fan and freelancer. After numerous mystery author profiles, he chose to chronicle the short but full life of mystery writer Craig Rice.

That biography (Who Was That Lady?) encouraged him to write mystery fiction. His works include Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s/1950s, and a biography of mystery author and critic Anthony Boucher entitled Anthony Boucher. It has been nominated for an Agatha and fittingly, won an Anthony. He is currently completing a biography of Erle Stanley Gardner.

His work has been nominated for a Maxwell award (DWAA), an Edgar (MWA), three Agathas (Malice Domestic), two Macavity awards, and three Anthony awards (Bouchercon).

What are you looking for in a submission?

I look for a great opening that has me hooked from the first paragraph along with a fresh plot and memorable characters. When I’m reading for the contest, I want twists and turns in the happenings. I like to be surprised.

What, in your opinion, makes a submission stand out?

Memorable characters and unique settings. You only have so many words to let the reader know what the character is about, and I love to see a character who is deftly drawn in a few sentences.

Settings are a bit different, but I am partial to settings that are new to me. Crime may take place at home, but the characters’ careers and hobbies can take them to locales that the reader has never encountered.

What are some common mistakes entrants can avoid, either in terms of formatting or storytelling?

Three things that I see a lot of are:

  • plots where one spouse kills the other and the end twist reveals how the killer will be found out.
  • perspective jumping, where we see into everyone’s head throughout the story. It’s hard to keep track of who is thinking.
  • taking the easy path in the plot. It’s so much easier to take the path that everyone travels in a story. Murder the nice character and let the mean guy live.

What do you think is unique about the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards? Why do you believe writers should submit?

It has some of the most thoughtful and professional stories I’ve seen in a contest. There’s such a wide span on what can fall into the crime category that each story is like opening a present. Crime fiction is a very big umbrella.

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The deadline for the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards is September 15! For more information and how to submit, visit

Chelsea Henshey is an associate editor for Writer’s Digest Books. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaLHenshey

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