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Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards: Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition with Romance Judge Sharon Naylor

Today, as part of our Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition series, Romance judge Sharon Naylor discusses standout submissions, clichés, and how entering your story could spark a writing career.

Meet the Judge

I am the author of over 35 books, hundreds of articles and two novels (so far.) My next is in the works. I’ve appeared on Oprah, Good Morning America, ABC News, Fox 5 News in NYC, Primetime, Inside Edition, and many other shows. I was one of those kids who sat under a tree on summer vacation days, writing short stories and poems, dreamy, and hopeful. And I remember the day I sent in my short story, a Romance, to Writer’s Digest’s writing competition. I remember what I was wearing when I mailed it out. And I remember seeing my name on the finalist list in Writer’s Digest. I still have that, too. It was the most pivotal moment in my career. So, I can hug Oprah, and know that that hug was a direct result of my entering that contest. Plus a lot of work from there. I’m proud to be a judge for Writer’s Digest. And I love beyond measure the idea that my picks in the Romance category could lead to important moments in the writer’s lives. —Sharon Naylor,

What are you looking for in a submission?

I’m looking for a submission that departs from the stereotypical definition of romance. Love is a deep and layered emotion, and the art of “romancing” a person is completely individual. So I’m looking for a unique romance story, one that completely avoids cliché, with a fresh take on what it means to connect to another person on many different levels. I’m looking for a sense of place, so that all of the wonderful elements of a story EXIST somewhere. Let me see where these people are, what they’re seeing, right down to what the fabric of a chair feels like against the bare backs of their legs and to their fingertips. Create a world in which your characters dance, love, hope and think. I’m looking for sensory details, so that I may know these characters better by what they’re experiencing in the world around them, not just what they’re observing in their love interest. I’m looking for natural dialogue, interspersed with physical movements, expressions, the subtlest of interactions. And I’m looking to be delighted and surprised by where the romance comes from, wanting to see how the writer defines romance in his or her own soul. Not just mind. Soul. What does this writer make me feel? If I don’t feel anything for or from the characters, I don’t feel very much about their romance.

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

You get me in the opening. An engaging start that places me somewhere that I can feel and experience, leading me into something uniquely human about the characters I meet. A short story needs a quick hook into caring about the characters, as I’m only with them for a short while. Layered characterization, for me, comes though realistic dialogue, with pauses, natural voice, and speech that’s trying to keep up with emotion. The more realistic characters sound, the more resonance. And I love the sentimental over the classic desire for a romantic partner. It’s in the sweetest little things, the tiniest little details like how one partner puts great effort into preparing coffee the way their partner likes it, an exhale upon seeing the love interest (not a long, detailed account of how hot the man looks in a suit or how the woman is dressed to impress.) If you’re saying so much, you’re saying too much. So much is implied and felt in an exhale. If I feel the writer invites me into a tender effort for love, and I can feel the character’s hope beyond fear, that’s a standout story.

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

Cliché will, of course, pluck your reader out of your story. You don’t want them thinking about the bumper sticker they saw with the exact same phrase. They should be entranced by your story. I’m also turned off when all the characters sound exactly the same, as if it’s one narrator reading a script in his or her own voice. Listen to how real people talk. How one person might use short sentences, and some longer, stream-of-consciousness delivery. Accents go a long way to differentiating characters, provided they’re subtle and easy to read. If I’m struggling to read your character’s dialogue phonetically, I’m pulled out of your story.

And I can’t emphasize enough about avoiding typos and grammar errors. In a work of short fiction, you have just a little bit of time with the reader, and your manuscript has to be clean. You could have the most gorgeous phrasing in the world, but if your story is missing punctuation, or if words are missing (telling me you rushed through the writing of this, and likely skipped editing,) I’m pulled out of your story. Typos will crush your hopes, and crush my hopes for you that this story I’m reading remains so good.

Another mistake I see often is a stereotypical ending, often in cliché. If you write “And that’s the story of these two lovers,” or “And they drove off down the road,” it’s like a bitter aftertaste ruining a great meal. Your ending is every bit as important as your beginning … and everything in the middle is just as important. Care enough about every stage of your story, and you’ve got my attention and admiration.

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

The Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards is unique in that we attract so many talented writers from around the world, and I’ve commented to the Writer’s Digest team that the quality of writing has improved so much over the past few years. It’s the array of topics that we welcome, as a writing competition that values all genres, opening the doors to excellent stories. You’re competing with young and old, male and female, from near and far. So when you win a contest or are named a finalist, it MEANS something. You’re not just the most talented writer in your bookstore’s writing group. You’re one of the most talented writers from a gigantic pool of talent. You’ve taken a brave step in putting your writing out there to be judged. You’ve shown such faith in yourself. You’ve overcome fear to compete with a world full of talented writers. So when you get that message that your work—YOUR work—has been named among the best entries, or named the best entry, it feels … phenomenal. I know this, because many, many years ago, I entered the writing contest as a 16-year-old beginner in fiction. And I was named a finalist. I still have the certificate on display in my office, and that “win”—even though I didn’t win the grand prize that year—led directly to my becoming a professional writer and author for the past 29 years. It was the first time I really believed my love for writing could BE something for me. Now, it IS something for me, and for my family. You might not have dreams of making a career of writing, or perhaps you do. Entering the contest, telling your fear to take a hike, might very well add a layer of passion to your life.

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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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