Wow, what a competition! We’re very happy here at The Writers’ Block to announce the winners of our First Chapter Contest. We saw all kinds of interesting fiction and some really strong writing. The best part? Our Steemhouse editors have indeed requested a full manuscript (or two!)
Before we get to the winners, though, let’s talk about the entries that didn’t place. We had twenty-four entries in all that covered a broad range of mainstream genres. Some of these were so close to landing in the top four that it was actually painful to move them down the list.
In each of those cases, certain mechanical issues existed that caused these submissions to lose ground to others. One thing we can guarantee every writer who entered a chapter in this contest: no decision was random or arbitrary. While taste is subjective, skill and craftsmanship are quantifiable. We can cite specific reasons for why each entry placed the way it did, and we’d love the opportunity to discuss this with each author in The Writers’ Block. So please don’t hesitate to reach out through Discord to @rhondak#4408. She has volunteered to talk with each entrant and offer insight about why the submission didn’t make the top four.
We saw a lot of issues that are typical for green writers, issues that are easily overcome with tutelage and practice. Some of the issues were small, like misspelled words and typos. Other issues were substantial, like headhopping, pacing quicksand, info dumps and exposition. Then we had major developmental problems in some of the chapters because they simply failed to launch the story.
First chapters are a novel’s most precious real estate, and certain elements must exist in them or they won’t engage the reader. Ideally, the author will establish the MC (main character) in the first chapter, at least hint at their goals and challenges, and will set the story up with the inciting incident. The reader should get a feel for the genre in the first chapter, as well. There are occasional exceptions, but usually in those cases, the purpose is met in some other way.
Sound technical and formulaic? Well, it’s definitely technical. Writing commercial fiction is a craft, and it requires both experience and skill. This doesn’t mean that novice writers are automatically excluded. But if you want people to read your work, it’s critical to learn what makes work readable. We can usually tell who has bothered to study the art of storytelling and who hasn’t. As far as being formulaic, the same could be said about songwriting—we expect lyrics to have sustainable rhythm, and to rhyme. Readers of fiction have expectations as well, and when you frustrate them, they often aren’t your readers for long.
We would love to see everyone who entered this contest come into the Writers’ Block and take advantage of the resources we offer. We hold two workshops per week and will add more if there’s enough interest. Next month, we’ll announce a new front-end interface for the Blockchain that will focus on quality writing with an emphasis on fiction. Nothing would make us happier than seeing authors we met through contests like this one find their audience and change the world one post at a time.
Before we announce the winners, let us assure everyone that we got their express consent to offer our evaluation of their chapters here, so that everyone can read and gain insight about why these submissions placed so well, and what we suggest to make them better. None of them are perfect or publishable in their current form. But they have all the elements of marketable commercial fiction and it was very easy for us to see how an entire novel could spring from those opening scenes.
CONGRATULATIONS TO @TANGLEBRANCH, FULL MANUSCRIPT REQUEST!
Messandra’s Tears (Fantasy)
Tangle gets to pocket the 50 Steem we offered as a conditional prize if an entry just blew us away. And hers blew us away. It’s one of those stories that makes you forget you’re reading and pulls you right into the world the author has built. Here’s the thing—there are concrete reasons for this. She used a specific method, a “formula,” if that term works for you. She wrote in very consistent third person limited with well-placed deep POV. Grammar and syntax are correct, formatting is correct, and style is appropriate for the genre. Yet her voice is distinct and unforgettable, plotting fresh, and her characters come alive on the page. This is what workshopping does, folks—it produces craftsmanship from raw talent. Tangle, we are so proud of you. And we eagerly await the finished manuscript!
This draft is not quite perfect. There are things we’d recommend for improvement. One sentence is a little too strong on alliteration. We also think the chapter doesn’t end where it should. Tangle has missed an opportunity for a resounding EOC (end of chapter,) and we’ll discuss this in great detail in the TWB workshops very soon.
So what was it about this chapter that impressed us so deeply? It’s a combination of things that Tangle simply got right. First, the name of the novel. While this was not official judging criteria, “Messandra’s Tears” packs a punch. It hints at a gripping emotional read with a dose of something mystical and ancient. For us, it was clear right away that the author has put a great deal of thought into this story. She says so in the preface of her post. She also alludes to the fact that she only recently blew the dust off this chapter and went to work on it. This suggests a formidable ability to work under pressure and meet a goal. She also names several people who helped her proofread and polish this piece, and they are all experienced writers and workshoppers. We knew Tangle had done her homework, and that she doesn’t write in a vacuum.
Fair? Not fair? Well, if the chapter hadn’t been so overwhelmingly good, none of this would have mattered. But remember—we’re looking at this from the perspective of a publisher. What we see here is a total package, a consummate professional who is willing to heed editorial input all the way to print.
When it comes to the chapter itself, there are so many things to like about it that it’s difficult to find a starting point. We already mentioned Tangle’s correct and flawlessly executed choice of POV. She also incorporates a slow buildup of tension that leads to a dramatic inciting incident, which is finding the copper-haired man-boy in the ferns. We have introduction of main character (Anyssa,) establishing of goal (to lead a bigger life than the only one she knows,) and challenges (dangers that lurk beyond the tree line.) The bear, I believe, will end up being symbolic for other, greater conflicts to come.
Then there’s the prose itself. Most readers, even critical readers, will subliminally “get” tiny cues in this story that set the mood and foreshadow events to come, but few people will recognize them when they see them. This is good! The author has written this chapter in such a way that it evokes a powerful gut response without “telling” the reader to be on guard. What do we mean by this? Okay, let’s take a few examples to illustrate.
Anyssa winced. A little black beetle scurried away from her into the carrots, safe from a slow smothering by handful after handful of dirt. How fortunate. For him.
A black beetle is highly symbolic. It represents powerful forces at work, timelessness, and spiritualism. Most readers aren’t going to stop and think about that when they see a reference to a beetle in prose. But on some level it registers, along with the fact that this beetle escapes a slow, painful demise by knowing exactly where and when to flee its current circumstance. The last two words of that paragraph suggest that others might not be so lucky.
Tangle also uses words that infuse a certain mood into the atmosphere of the scene. “Slow smothering,” and, a few lines down, “massacre,” and “trespassing.” These words are highly evocative and establish themes without spelling them out.
Further down, we see the contrast of “green” and “lush.” Green is the universal color of life and creativity. Already, with simple word choice alone, the author has established conflict that continues to grow and gain importance as we learn of Anyssa’s longing to explore the world.
Overall, we find the execution of this chapter to be quite masterful. The prospect of an entire novel set in this world and woven around these characters is tantalizing, indeed.
AND FIRST PLACE GOES TO…@KATRINA-ARIEL!
Abandoning Rumi (Women’s Fiction/Paranormal Romance)
This chapter is another example of storytelling that follows the formula for success. Katrina chose first person POV, which anchors her firmly in the character’s head and makes the scene feel personal and immediate. She dives immediately into the story, which launches with a herd of horses in the road and a situation that requires a decision and an action. It’s the inciting incident which, as we quickly learn, results in a pickup truck with an unknown driver barreling toward her. She sprinkles in just enough information beforehand for us to realize this could be a bad, bad thing.
She did all of this with the inclusion of appropriate details, not exposition. “Red and white signs repeated their warning on every third post of the eight-foot high fence that ran along the perimeter.”
No Trespassing. No Shooting.
No Hunting. No Wood Cutting.
We didn’t get buried with backstory about rumors and folklore and what-happened-to-the-neighbors-twenty-years-ago, or an info dump that ground pacing to a halt. By simply sharing what the main character sees and experiences, we understand the landowner is not a warm and welcoming soul.
This is juxtaposed with breathtaking imagery of horses and mountain backdrops, with forest and creek nearby. Sagebrush, elk—a clear impression forms about the world our MC lives in. Tension springs organically from the page at the idea of a logging truck smashing all those beautiful animals in the road. Then comes a reference to “walking in the herd.” Yes, horse people will get it. They’ll also pick up on very accurate details like the MC pointing her shoulders in the direction she wants the herd to move. This kind of authenticity matters in fiction. At that point we trust that the author is capable and in control of the story, and we will wait for it to unfold.
From an editorial standpoint, several issues arose for us. First, “horse training stick” is an awkward description of what could be several pieces of legitimate horse-handling equipment. “Lunge whip” would be the easiest substitution there, even if it might not be the exact tool the author envisioned. It’s better than “horse training stick.” We also felt that the Victor Patron backstory intruded and was not necessary to move the plot forward at this time. Save it for another chapter. We don’t need to know everything in the first two thousand words. On another technical note, the chapter went on one sentence too long. The best EOC would leave us with the indelible mental image of a pickup truck bouncing across the shoulder of the road and speeding toward her, although I’m left to wonder how it will get past the fence. Maybe we find out in Chapter Two?
One of the biggest recommendations we could make, though, is that Katrina incorporate some kind of paranormal foreshadowing into the first chapter. It doesn’t have to be blatant and it shouldn’t require hundreds of additional words. Remember how Tanglebranch used the beetle and descriptive language to evoke a mood? It could be that simple for this story as well. At this point, we don’t know what “kind” of paranormal element this novel will have. Therefore it does seem important for Katrina to prepare her reader just a bit better for that aspect of the narrative.
SECOND PLACE — @BLUETEDDY
The Traitor’s Dragon (Fantasy)
Again, we have a very solid title, one that sounds like a book title but not like every other title on the shelf. Because of it, we expect treason and treachery and betrayal, and yes—dragons!
This entry was a bit of a sleeper for some of us. Several judges didn’t make it past the first paragraph. The chapter opens with very clumsy syntax and a bothersome comma splice. We read about somebody on a log with unpleasant soup and a couple of mean girls prattling on about nothing of interest.
Then we meet the dragon.
To make a long critique very short, Blue Teddy started in the wrong place. It’s really just that simple. Cut the first 900 words of this chapter, and now we have something to work with.
Our editors would like to have a go at this submission. We’d like to break the paragraphs more frequently, tighten the writing, and make all those pesky filters disappear. Why? Because underneath the dross of this chapter is a gem of a story that needs no deconstruction and only minor mechanical tinkering. The fae character is sublime. One would have to be particularly hard of heart to not feel the MC’s conflict when staring at what looks like a doe-eyed child with torture wounds hatched across every square inch of her exposed flesh.
Blue Teddy, we hope to see you in the Block. And bring your chapter! It isn’t perfect, but it’s one or two drafts away from getting there.
THIRD PLACE — @NEGATIVER
The End of Imaginary Friends (Speculative)
At The Writers’ Block, we’re all fans of Negativer’s work. He’s as solid as they come with fiction and capable of producing consistently powerful and evocative work.
This story has a fantastical, otherworldly feel to it but is otherwise grounded in a believable but gritty reality. The MC is flawed both physically and emotionally and has yet to appreciate her own agency as an individual. This promises a very captivating story arc, and in the hands of this particular author, it’s one we look forward to seeing more of.
It’s difficult to deconstruct Negativer’s work in any beneficial way. He pretty much nails the mechanics. His writing is as clean as it comes. Still, to us, this chapter lies very close to its roots as a short story. Perhaps too close. It’s readable, engaging, and leaves us both horrified and hopeful. But the resolution for Ariana is almost deus ex machina, with the convenient sacrifice of another character who seemed to exist only for that purpose. Should there be a more overarching conflict evident here in the first chapter? Her situation of being trapped by street thugs is compelling, but it doesn’t invite predictions about where the next chapter will lead.
The whimsical fantasy characters who instruct and encourage Ariana are fascinating. The villains are properly evil. Had the resolution for the conflict been a bit less convenient, however, this chapter might have placed higher than third. Our biggest concern was the EOC, and the fact that it seems to resolve the conflict and leave no reason to turn the page. A bit of work on that aspect of it, and we believe that Negativer will be well on his way to an entire novel we’ll all want to read.
FROM THE WRITERS’ BLOCK, THANKS TO ALL WHO PARTICIPATED
Again, we’d like to encourage all who entered chapters in this contest to join us in The Writers’ Block. Not placing in this contest is no indicator that your work-in-progress will never make the cut. There’s a method to this madness of writing fiction, and we’d love to share it with you. If you haven’t already, click the animated gif below and find your way to our Discord!