How to Win (or Lose) Writing Contests: Tips from a Judge

img_0538Over the last ten years, I’ve judged a dozen or more writing contests. The writers have ranged from elementary school kids to published and not-yet-published adults, and the prizes have been as varied as a certificate with a gold star, a live reading by a professional actor, advice from a hot agent or mentoring by a published writer, but the winning submissions did the same things right.

I can’t guarantee that if you follow my advice you’ll snag the top prize, but you’ll probably make it through more rounds than if you don’t.

When judges get a pile of contest submissions, they do a first cut. They don’t want to spend a lot of time considering stories or poems that don’t have a chance of winning. Their goal is to eliminate the “losers” fast.

So how do you survive the first cut?

  1. Follow instructions. If there’s a writing prompt or a theme, submit a piece that fits it. Don’t send in your WIP thinking your brilliance will overcome the fact that it doesn’t conform to the rules. It won’t.
  2.  Proofread and spellcheck. Don’t give me an excuse to throw out your story because your grammar or spelling are atrocious, which I will— unless you’re a first grader whose inventive spelling makes me laugh so hard milk comes out of my nose.
  3. Match your synopsis to your submission. If your synopsis was amazing, but your story doesn’t fulfill the promise, I will be really disappointed.

Let’s assume you made it past the first cut. Between half and three quarters of the submissions have been placed in a “go no farther” pile. Sometimes, judges are given a rubric which tells us specific things to look for, like inventiveness, adherence to a theme, or compelling characters, and we use the rubric to winnow down the submissions to a handful that get serious consideration.

Sadly, only once have I been asked to write comments that would be returned to the writer explaining how they could improve their chances.

So here are some of the things I would say to writers whose pieces did not win.

4. Assume the bar is high and aim for it. Study published stories so you know what it takes to succeed.

5. Polish your story until it’s the best you can write it. Listen to your critique group’s concerns. It will only take a judge a page or so to determine if your story deserves another look.

6. Dump the cliches. The last girl in the universe who writes in a scavenged paper journal? Puh-lease.

7. It’s not you, it’s me. When you get down to the NCAA Final Four, any team can win. They are all that good. When judges gets to the final handful of contest submissions, any one of them could take the prize, so the final decision is entirely personal. The judges will choose what moves or intrigues them.

8. Don’t give up. (See 7.) If you’re honest with yourself, maybe your story needs more work. However, if you submitted a piece that your peers or advisors feel is compelling and perfectly written, then this wasn’t your turn, but you’ll hit it on the next try.

Author photo and book jacketCatherine Linka is the author of the series A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS. Find more advice from Catherine at her website:

Keeping Your Character in Character: 6 Tips

What the...?

What the…?

You’re reading along and a character makes a comment that jerks you out of the scene, because what they say or think doesn’t mesh with who they are.

Such as— poor, backwoods boy describes a girl wearing a “vintage sleeveless red gingham blouse with black, high waisted denim shorts and vintage cowboy boots.”

Since many, if not most,  guys are oblivious to the details of women’s clothing, and are more interested in what an outfit does or doesn’t reveal, this might make a reader wonder who is this guy.

He said she was taking him to buy school clothes because he has no idea what to wear, but now he sounds like a closet fashionista.

The point is small things can trip up writers trying to create realistic, flesh and blood characters. It’s especially true in first or limited third person where everything that’s said or observed comes from a character’s POV.

So how do we keep our characters in character? Here are six simple tips.

  1. Keep in mind what a character knows or doesn’t know. If the character has never left a poor village, they shouldn’t compare the forest to a cathedral.
  2. Define your character by personal strengths, interests and experiences. They might not be race car drivers or play in a band, but they might follow sports or music and have an encyclopedic knowledge that colors how they talk or the metaphors they use.
  3. If your character wouldn’t normally notice something (like fashion details), give that job to another character who would.
  4. Double-check that the character’s dialogue is consistent whether it’s sophisticated, naive or run of the mill. The Frenchman who speaks almost fluent English shouldn’t ask, “How do you say,” then throw out a common word or phrase.
  5. Let your character’s speech grow or devolve as they do. Characters can become more sophisticated and aware on their journey which means they earn the right to use words or phrases they wouldn’t have before. Or they might fall apart and lose their articulateness.
  6. If something a character says is inexplicably out of character, give the reader a reason. They are a fan of ______. Their mom forced them to do years of __________ lessons. Anticipate what could throw your reader and address it.

Now, back to keeping my characters in character.

Catherine Linka is the author of the series, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS. Find more on writing at

5 Tips for No Fail Author Visits

Young people at music festival

This week, I spoke to three very different audiences: college students in a creative writing class, public high school students in LA, and elementary and middle school kids and their parents at a Barnes & Noble book fair. I slammed it out of the park with two of those talks and bunted with the other.

Why the fail? Because I didn’t follow my own advice for author visits. It’s a short list, five points, but addresses the biggest reasons a visit falls flat.

1.Size up the audience.

I usually contact my host before my visit, and ask questions about the audience. The more I know, the better I can tailor my talk to them. College students who choose to take a creative writing class are nothing like high school students herded into a library by their English teacher.

2.  Size up my host.

Often I’m invited to speak by teachers, librarians, school administrators or bookstore staff. Sometimes my hosts want me to inspire kids to read, or to understand the importance of revision. One asked me to talk about how I write scenes in longhand first to let my creativity flow, because she wanted parents to hear that cursive is still important. And bookstore staff always want me to remind listeners that they can buy my books here.

3. Get my host’s support.

Just as I want to support my host, I want the host to support me. If I’m working with a library or a bookstore, I want to know they have copies of my books on the shelf. If my host is a teacher, I encourage him or her to assign students to read the free sample chapters from my book before I arrive.

4. Determine what will interest THIS audience.

Unhappy boy in art class

I can talk about writing my books in many ways, but I need to find the one that connects with the audience in front of me. I’ve spoken in prep schools about girl’s rights around the globe, talked to foster kids about surviving publishing rejection, and talked to writers about writing and the realities of publishing. While I always talk about my books, I try to imagine what these listeners care about.

My fail this week? I didn’t sex it up. These teens needed more drama,  and I didn’t make my book intriguing enough. Looking back, I should have read a high action scene, and talked about firing an M-4 semi-automatic during my research. That would have caught their attention.

5. Partner with my partner.

This week, I partnered with other writers for two of the events. Fortunately, I knew both writers, and we laid out in advance what we wanted to cover. But advance planning can’t eliminate all the differences in speaking styles or personal agendas.

While I’m fine with letting another person take the lead, I was reminded that I am responsible to myself for making sure I get to talk about what is important to me and my book. And that might mean politely and assertively redirecting the discussion. It’s not my partner’s fault if I don’t get to cover all my points, it’s mine.

Now I’m getting ready for the next round of visits and you can bet, I’m looking for the heart-pounding scene that will get a teenage boy’s attention.

Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can read her novella, Sparrow’s Story: A Girl Defiant for free on

What The #$&@ Does My Character Want Anyway?

questioning girl

When I showed up for my first MFA residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was surprised at how many discussions centered around “what does the main character want?”

Why is that so important, I wondered. What if the character doesn’t know what she wants at the beginning? She’s a teenager. How is she supposed to know? And even if she does know, that doesn’t mean that what she wants now won’t change.

My first epiphany came during a lecture about how a writer can get to the essence of their story by summarizing it this way:

My character (insert name)

wants (person/place/thing)

but when (event) happens

he/she must choose between (option one) and (option two).

My protagonist will struggle to get what he/she wants, because of his/her (character flaw or weakness.)

Suddenly, I saw that want was the driver that sent the character on their journey. Every choice, every decision the character made had to tie back to getting what the character wanted.

Identifying what my character wanted was easy when it involved goals like winning the race or getting the guy, but I struggled when faced with a character who didn’t have a conscious desire or goal.

day dreaming girl

I floundered about until I discovered FROM WHERE YOU DREAM by Robert Olen Butler. In his chapter called “Yearning,” I experienced my second epiphany.

“We are the yearning creatures of this planet. There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something.”

Yearning or hungering for something–even if the character wasn’t capable of verbalizing  their feelings–now that made sense. All those unspoken, perhaps even unacknowledged dreams–the feelings we are only half-conscious of, the flutters we try to ignore–they can change the course of our lives even if we don’t fully understand them.

And Butler crystalized the power of yearning when he said “plot represents the dynamics of desire.” Plot is how the character satisfies their desires.

Now I could identify what was underneath my character’s skin and what my protagonist knew they wanted, as well as what they might not admit they wanted, but which drove them nonetheless.

But I still felt uneasy when my character’s desire changed.

My most recent epiphany came when I was struggling to write the sequel to A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, because my character was no longer the girl she was when the story began. Avie wasn’t innocent or naive anymore. On the run from a planned marriage, and hoping for freedom in Canada, Avie’s future was now complicated with an important, but unwanted mission that might kill her.

At a retreat with Martha Alderson, the “Plot Whisperer”, Martha emphasized the parallel between the character’s emotional development and the plot’s story action, and I realized that even though my protagonist still longed for love and freedom, she would struggle in the sequel with a growing sense that she needed to serve a greater purpose.

It was now clear to me that our characters evolve through their stories, and so what they want must also evolve. As writers we have to allow our characters to abandon what they first thought they wanted and let them hunger for something even greater.


Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can connect with her on twitter @cblinka or


No wimps! A Checklist for Writing Active Characters

lounging women
At one point or another, most of us writers will be told that our character feels passive in a certain scene, and this can happen even in an action adventure story where our character is being chased or shot at.

So what exactly does it mean when our character appears “passive,” and how do we remedy that? Here’s a checklist that can help you identify problem spots in your story and how to fix them.

  1. Is your character silent during an argument or throwing back retorts in their head? An active character will voice their opinions, concerns and desires rather than glare silently, roll their eyes or mutter “whatever.” And the scene will be more interesting if the person they’re arguing with hears what the main character thinks.
  2. Does your character walk away when he or she is embarrassed, angry, or confused? Weak characters leave instead of engaging in an attempt to resolve or clarify a situation, while active characters dare to engage.
  3. Is your character letting someone else make decisions for them? An active character is in charge of decisions that affect them, or at least involved in the discussion of which direction to choose. This doesn’t mean that your character must dominate every decision in a story, but to be active, they must have a voice.
  4. Is your character letting things happen to them? When your character is active, things happen because of your character. Their choices and actions propel the story action forward.
  5. Is your character gazing at the ocean, binge watching television, or waiting for something to happen? Scenes in which a character is physically inactive can make the character feel passive, but no amount of physical activity can fix a character who always does what others think he or she should do.
  6. Does your character act to satisfy their wants and needs? Active characters are driven to get what they need. They will create a plan, try and fail, often more than once, on their journey.
  7. Does a teacher or ally appear and insist on teaching your character the skills they need to overcome the antagonist? Active characters search out people to give them the knowledge they need to prevail. They work hard to acquire new skills, and even fight for the right to obtain the knowledge they desperately need.
  8. Does your character allow another person to save them? Active characters are in the fight and their actions contribute to the successful downfall of the antagonist. Think of the latest generation of Disney heroines who aren’t waiting around for a prince to slay a dragon or release them from a spell. These girls make their own happy endings.

Good luck and happy writing!

Catherine Linka is the author of A Girl Called Fearless. The sequel and conclusion, A Girl Undone will be released by St. Martin’s Press on June 23, 2015. 

Thriller Writing

Author photo and book jacket



“Thrillers… lend themselves well to exploring nuances of relationships, secrets, power, truth, beliefs, and survival…”                                                Catherine Linka



What really makes a thriller an I can’t put it down read? That’s the question author Tami Lewis Brown and I wanted to explore. And what better place to start than with our own amazing master thriller writer, Catherine Linka, author of A Girl Called Fearless and the upcoming A Girl Undone.

Below is the first part of our two part series on Linka’s successful approach to YA thriller writing (or any genre for that matter). In the coming months we’ll be dissecting a few more thriller reads to see what makes them tick.

Catherine Linka calls her tense, tightly plotted dystopian novel, A Girl Called Fearless, both a love story and a thriller. Set in present day Los Angeles, Fearless is the compelling story of American teen, Avie, whose sequestered and controlled life is suddenly upended when she’s contracted to marry an older man. In Avie’s world, girls are now a precious and expensive commodity, after a synthetic hormone introduced in beef has killed fifty million women. The only way out for Avie is escape to Canada. Avie’s activist friend Yates wants to help her to freedom, but things heat up when Avie and Yates fall in love, and Avie gains knowledge she shouldn’t about leaders in the US government, who are hunting her down to silence her.

Because A Girl Called Fearless is not only a love story and a thriller, but a political and social commentary on our times, we began by asking Linka about the opportunities and issues writers face when including major themes and statements in a thriller, and what reading she’d suggest for writers wanting to delve into the world of thrillers, and the possibilities they hold for writers.


Linka book jacket



Catherine Linka:

I think it’s exciting that writers are free to explore a huge range of themes in thrillers. Naturally, thrillers are perfectly suited to write about crime, murder, greed, and corruption, but they also lend themselves well to exploring nuances of relationships, secrets, power, truth, beliefs, and survival. Plus, they offer the chance to delve into both normal and pathological ways in which humans behave.

Look at Gone Girl. It poses interesting questions about how we perceive innocence and guilt. Or the new novel, The Girl on the Train that asks how can you know the truth of what you did when you can’t remember?

These darker, more intense themes fit well with YA. These thrillers are often survival stories in which the main character is seeking justice for a crime that has been committed or attempting to head off a crime that may be repeated.

And the backgrounds and personalities of the main characters can add layers to the themes. Tess Sharpe’s protagonist in Far From You is a recovering addict who’s broken her family’s trust. Can she regain it? Wick in Romily Bernard’s Find Me hacks in secret to make extra money in case she needs run from her comfortable foster home.  And the narrators of Stephanie Kuehn’s psychological thrillers Charm & Strange and Complicit make the reader question what is real and true in the narrator’s version of the story.

Not surprisingly, we don’t see a lot of thrillers in middle grade, but one book that does come to mind is Blue Baillet’s Hold Fast in which a girl who is trying to figure out why her librarian father disappeared, realizes she’s being followed. It’s a much grittier story than others Baillet has written, but it explores themes of family and loyalty that put it squarely in middle grade fiction.


Linka book jacket for Undone



Of course I’d suggest writers read a lot of thrillers, both adult and YA. First, to get an instinctive feel for the genre and then to determine which type of thriller resonates with them: action, crime, literary, political, or psychological.

I consider Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys as thrillers, because even though they are historical fiction, the tension and threats ramp up and the character’s survival is clearly at stake.

But I also encourage writers to read about subjects, places, time periods or cultures that they’re passionately interested in. Really successful thriller writers often bring a unique twist to a story.

A great example of this is the best-selling The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro which is set in the Boston and New York art world.  Shapiro’s fascination with Isabella Gardner led her to write this story about a talented painter lured into painting a forgery who becomes tangled in a dangerous web of deceit.

In YA, Stephanie Kuehn won the Morris Award with her psychological thriller Charm & Strange. Her story is built on her deep knowledge of the human psyche which she undoubtedly gained while pursuing a Phd in clinical psychology.

For me, the choice was to write a political thriller, because I’m a total news junkie. People always ask me how much research I had to do to create my world, but it was actually very little, because I read about politics every day.


Catherine Linka is an author, and a childrens and young adult book buyer for an independent bookstore in Southern California. She studied international politics at Georgetown University before getting a masters in business at the University of North Carolina. After years in sales, marketing and advertising, she reimagined her life and pursued a masters in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is a member of SCBWI, and a recurring speaker at SCBWI-Central Cal Writers Day. She blogs about writing here at Catherine is married and lives with her husband in the San Gabriel foothills. A Girl Called Fearless is her debut novel. The sequel A Girl Undone, will be released this spring.

                                                                                    —Zu Vincent


Firing a Glock for Character Research

As soon as we bought Imagine Dragon tickets, I told my guy I wanted to shoot a gun. Vegas indulges tourist fantasies, and that was mine.

Guns aren’t a part of my life, but in A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, my character Avie must learn to fire one. I worried for a long time about whether I got the scenes right, because I’d never fired a gun myself. What if the scenes I wrote were embarrassingly wrong?

I’d spent hours talking to relatives who either owned guns or were fascinated with weapons. Still, I was nauseous when my editor shipped the manuscript off to Trent Reedy, author of DIVIDED WE FALL, and a National Guardsman.

Apparently, I captured firing a gun well enough that Trent gave it a thumbs up, but I still wanted to know what it was really like.

At the Gun Garage, I passed up the Zombie Apocalypse package in favor of the beginners package: a glock handgun and an MP5. I thought I’d be thrilled, but I was actually nervous.

As the instructor handed me the glock, I was surprised by how stripped down it is. There is nothing seductive or decorative about the design. It’s ugly: a matte black surface, inelegant and square.

I took the stance, placing one foot in front of the other, and wrapped my hands around the glock and lined up the sights. All you have to do is line up the tip of the pin with the top of the notch as you hold the gun steady out in front of you. The gun wasn’t heavy, but it was hard to keep the the tiny pin and notch lined up as I aimed at the red oval in the center of the target, then calmly and firmly pulled the trigger.


Even with ear protection, the sound hits you. I’d thought the recoil would throw my hands up higher than it did. My brother had told me the gun would pull my hands up and then they would fall back down into position after I fired.


I didn’t anticipate how hard it was to line up with the target even though it wasn’t that far away. Or how impossible it would be to aim while the guy in the stall next to me was firing a fully automatic weapon and shell casings were flying in front of my face. I have new respect for soldiers trying to focus in the midst of battle. And I was thrown when my safety glasses fogged up halfway through a round, because despite the sixty degree room, heat was pouring off my body.

When it was time to switch to the MP5, I couldn’t believe how light and small the gun is. I have short arms and it fit nicely against my shoulder. But holding an MP5 is totally different from holding a handgun. The weapon fits into your body and your cheek almost touches it. It is intimate–unlike firing the glock which you hold it away from your body.The MP5 recoil which I’d dreaded, wasn’t bad, but the gun is so powerful, that shooting off a round of ammo felt almost intoxicating.

When we finished, the instructor gave me my target, and I was again surprised that the pattern of shots was different for the glock and the MP5. The shots I took with the glock hit to the left of the red bullseye, while those with the MP5 hit above and slightly right of where I’d aimed.

I wished I’d gone to the gun range while I was writing A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS instead of after, but I came away satisfied with how Avie narrates her experience. It’s a mix of emotions–of respect for the killing power of the weapon, pride at having learned how to use it, and trepidation, knowing she might have to, even if it’s the last thing she wants.