Things I Learned at American Icon 4

I attended (but did not participate in) Pikes Peak Writers American Icon 4 competition on August 22nd, 2008. I thought about entering, but I wanted to see one in action before throwing my hat in the ring. I’m glad I waited a year to enter (I’ll be entering next year,) so I could relax, enjoy the readings, and learn from what the judges said about each writer’s two-minute oral reading of their work.

First off: Thanks to the twenty entrants for their bravery in reading their precious work in front of a sizable audience and three very capable judges.

Secondly: Congratulations are in order for the winners:

  • Audience Favorite: THE OAT PROJECT by Jene Jackson Hanna
  • Honorable Mention: BREAK A LEG — OR TWO by Kari Wainwright
  • Honorable Mention: HEAVEN’S LOWER EAST SIDE by Ron Heimbecher
  • Best YA: THE CODEX by Ron Cree
  • Best Tension: TWO-FACED by Fleur Bradley
  • Best Action: THE LIGHT OF DAWN by Matthew Dyer
  • Best Premise: THE BEE LADY’S AMULET by Thea Hutcheson
  • Best Speculative Fiction: THE SOUL OF A STILLBORN by Natalia Brothers
  • Best Voice: NO MORE BULL by John Sharpe
  • Best Overall: THE OAT PROJECT by Jene Jackson Hanna

Lastly: Thanks to the judges for their wonderful critiques and feedback. I learned so much from you during those brief few hours. I wish time allowed me to note which judge offered which nugget of wisdom that follows. However, I was feverishly writing to the point where I am sure I missed a few things. The judges were:

  • Doris Baker, Author
  • Alane Ferguson, Filter Press
  • Sandra Bond, Bond Literary Agency

Now for the list… The items are in the order these pieces of knowledge and experience fell from the stage, passed through my existence, and landed on my notepad. There may be some repeats in here, but they are repeated due to their importance. I may expand upon some of these ideas at a later date.

  • Get into the story immediately.
  • Keep the tension high at the start.
  • Use vivid descriptions, but watch overuse of adjectives.
  • Get the reader involved by adding an emotional attachment.
  • Can’t be said enough: Show, don’t tell.
  • Despite lots of images, make sure plot moves forward. Especially at the start.
  • Avoid a background dump at the start. (See point #1)
  • Alane Ferguson is funny! (Ok. This does not improve my writing, but it’s in my notes.)
  • Watch repetitive imagery.
  • Don’t throw too many people into the first chapter. Keep an “org chart” to keep things simple and organized.
  • Use characters the readers feel like they have met (or would want to meet.)
  • Dialogue is a good vehicle to move a story forward.
  • Avoid repetition in adjective classes: colors, temperatures, emotions, etc.
  • Use a clear point of view.
  • When you are tired of writing a scene, your writing devolves into description rather than action and movement. This makes the reader tired along with you.
  • Focus on the people in the story, but don’t exclude what is happening around them. Find a balance. It’s not “what you see”, but rahter “what the characters feel” about events.
  • Add depth to the characters. Put down the cookie cutter!
  • Hook hard with the first line.
  • Dialogue can provide a sense of character. Don’t make the words stiff.
  • Put the protagonist in the first sentence… or make the first scene from his perspective.
  • Hook into the person to create care. Don’t hook into scene or situation. This will make the reader care about the individual on the hook, not “humanity” in general.
  • Make the reader want to know what happens next.
  • Short stories run at an accelerated pace. Don’t waste words. It’s a step above poetry on word usage.
  • Give background via dialogue by weaving it in.
  • Avoid ponderous descriptions. It’s a key sign of telling. By showing, not telling, emotion comes into play with the reader.
  • Don’t use generic adjectives: beautiful, handsome, etc. Use details to allow the reader to decide. This also applies to invoking emotions and responses. Don’t say a creature is scary. Describe them so the reader will find them scary. It creates a stronger connection.
  • A great quote from Alane Ferguson, “Any time you use a word, it’s dead for a while.” I need to put that on my cork board to help me overcome my word territory issues.
  • Use the strongest images possible for description. Make a full list of words/phrases about each character (objects can be characters, too!) and mark each one as “used” as you put it in the story. Only repeat a word/phrase after the entire list is exhausted. Go through the list randomly as well to avoid a pattern.
  • Add some bait to the hook to keep the reader on the line.
  • Make the words used match the tension of the scene.
  • Make the bad things happening to the characters matter to the reader.
  • Take the reader on a ride and let them experience it.

That brings my list of things learned to a close. I hope you pick up something from the list. Even if just one item helps someone else, the time to work on this blog (instead of my novel) is worth it.

Best quote of the night from a reading: “That donkey may have just saved your ass.” — from NO MORE BULL by John Sharpe.

Best quote of the night from a judge: “I’ve read many memoirs where the character was not real.” — Doris Baker