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Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards: Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition with Thriller Judge Jodie Renner

Today, as part of our Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition series, Thriller judge Jodie Renner discusses how to avoid common mistakes and take your submission to the top.

Meet the Judge:

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. Jodie is currently organizing several multi-author anthologies, including Voices from the Valleys – Stories & Poems about Life in BC’s Interior. She also judges short stories for several other groups as well as Writer’s Digest. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

What are you looking for in a submission?

I’m looking for story that intrigues me right from the very first sentence and compels me to keep reading. I want a story that transports me away, makes me forget I’m judging a story or looking for errors. The story should have no distracting errors or formatting issues. I want a fresh voice, a unique, charismatic character with a significant problem he or she needs to solve. The story should have lots of tension, intrigue, and conflict, with suspenseful, nail-biting moments. I also hope for a surprise twist or even a shocking revelation at the end.

What makes a submission stand out?

The premise and plot line seems fresh, not familiar; the voice is unique and appealing; the protagonist is charismatic and likeable but complex, with secrets, regrets, fears, and hopes; the protagonist’s life is shaken up early on; he is confronted with a significant challenge, conflict, or critical problem he has to deal with; the characters come to life on the page through inner and outer reactions, including thoughts, feelings, and sensory reactions; there’s tension on every page; the dialogue is snappy and true to life for those types of characters; the story is free of grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors; and the ending is unexpected, but in retrospect, seems inevitable.

What are some common mistakes entrants can avoid?

  1. A slow or boring opening
  • revving your engines, starting with neutral “telling” or description from the author’s point of view (omniscient);
  • starting with backstory – setting the scene with explanations rather than jumping right in with the story;
  • opening with the character alone, musing – best to have your character interacting with someone else in a dynamic scene, with some tension and attitude.
  • Your first sentence and paragraph should arouse curiosity and raise questions that demand to be answered.
  • Not enough tension at the beginning. Disrupt your main character’s life in some way on the first page.
  1. A confusing opening: Who is this, where are they, and what’s going on? Establish the four W’s on the first page – who, what, where, when, to situate readers so they don’t get confused or annoyed trying to figure out what’s going on.
  1. Fuzzy or distant POV: No evident point of view right from the start – whose story is this? Whose head are we in?
  1. Head-hopping or a wavering point of view within the story. For short stories, best to stay in one character’s viewpoint.
  • Use first-person or close third person POV to establish intimacy and engage readers emotionally.
  1. Author intrusions: Don’t interrupt the action to explain things to the readers or describe things, the setting, or characters in a neutral point of view, as the author. Stay in the main character’s head and body! All explanations and descriptions should be through the characters, in a natural way, colored by their personality, attitudes, and agenda.
  1. Protagonist is one-dimensional, unlikeable, or boring; lacks personality, baggage, secrets, regrets, fears, and a driving goal or burning desire.
  1. Flat characters who don’t react to what’s going on. Show your character’s inner and outer reactions – thoughts, physical reactions, sensory perceptions – to bring them to life. (See Bring Your Characters to Life by Showing Their Reactions and Immerse Your Readers with Sensory Details.)
  1. Dialogue is stilted or boring. Too correct, no slang expressions or contractions (“I cannot” instead of “I can’t”, “We are not” instead “We aren’t” etc.), doesn’t sound natural. Read the dialogue out loud to see if it sounds like people actually speak. Make sure each character speaks differently, and not like the author. Leave out all “filler” dialogue, like “How are you?” “I’m fine,” etc. Cut to the chase! (See Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue.)
  1. Talking heads. Pages of dialogue, but we don’t know what the characters are doing. Use action beats and inner reactions to help readers visualize what’s going on with the characters at that moment.
  1. Filler. Rambling, with boring bits. Lack of editing. Story rambles on, is all over the place, lacks focus and a clear problem/plot. Get to the point! Make every element, every image, and every word count!
  1. Not enough tension, conflict, and intrigue. For my category, thrillers, not enough suspense and intrigue. (See “Checklist for Adding Suspense & Intrigue to Your Story.”)
  1. Too much telling, not enough showing. Too much narration, especially neutral, author-like narration. Instead, “show” critical scenes in real time, with action and dialogue. See “Show, Don’t Tell.”
  1. No real “voice” – a too-correct, nonfiction style of writing. Get into the character’s head and body, and stay there. Use free-form journaling to capture their true voice, with plenty of attitude.
  1. A too-formal, overly correct writing style. This is fiction, not a scholarly or professional paper. Forget a neutral style and long-winded, grammatically correct sentences, especially in dialogue.
  1. A pedestrian, uninspired writing style – use lots of concrete specific nouns and verbs. Avoid overused verbs like “walked” and “ran”. Don’t prop up generic nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs – use a more specific, evocative noun or verb instead. For example, instead of “he ran quickly,” say “he raced” or “he charged” or “he dashed” or “he sprinted” or “he darted” or “he scurried.”
  1. An overly wordy writing style. Don’t clutter up your writing with a lot of extra words – this will hide your meaning, slow down communication, and lessen the impact of your message.
  1. A conclusion that drags on – tie the story up quickly.
  1. Spelling, grammatical mistakes, typos. Incorrect paragraphing for dialogue, incorrect punctuation and capitalization for dialogue. (See “Dialogue Nuts and Bolts”).
  1. Formatting errors – paragraphing, spacing, etc. (See “Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101”).

*For more specific advice on writing a winning short story, see: “33 Tips for Creating a Short Story Worthy of Contests, Magazines, and Anthologies

What is unique about the WD contest and why should writers submit?

Writers should submit their short stories to the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards because there are lots of different genres/categories to choose from, so you know your story is being judged by someone who reads and loves that genre. Also, since WD receives thousands of entries, a win or even an honorable mention from the Writer’s Digest contest is a real honor, something to be proud of. An award from this contest will really raise your status as a writer and advance your career.

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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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