How to Win a Writing Contest

This advice should be good for any writing contest, but is specifically in celebration of our Hot Key Books Young Writers Prize, supported by Kobo. We’re hoping to find talented writers from 18 to 25 writing fiction for children 9+ and all we need to start is the first 4,000 words of a novel. So, they have to be the best 4,000 words you’ve got!

If you want to win the contest, it’s simple, really:

1. Have a great opening line.
2. Have a great opening page.
3. Have a great opening chapter.

Okay, I admit, that is easier said than done. So I’ve put together some tips and examples that might help inspire you.

1. Have a great opening line.
First impressions do count, so give us something interesting to open. Don’t start with people being bored, just waking up or with unimportant or non-essential details. Be specific to create something vivid. Try to hint at the whole book in your first line. Show what’s different about your book from the very first moment.

Some of my favourites:
“The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say. About anything.”
Dogs learning to talk? I’m intrigued. There is also a touch of character here, learning that the narrator has a dog but isn’t all mushy about it. Plues the subtle but effective “yer” and “don’t got nothing” give a great sense of the voice.

Cover of Maggot Moon by Sally GardnerMAGGOT MOON by Sally Gardner
“I’m wondering what if.”
This is a great example of hinting at the whole book in one line. “What if?” is one of the central ideas of the story and something so essential to the main character. It draws me because, as a reader, I’m also wondering about this book and what it could be.

TALL STORY by Candy Gourlay.
“Rush hour. So many armpits, so little deodorant.”
Speaks for itself, really! It sets up the tone of this charming but funny book.

Peter Pan book coverPETER PAN by J M Barrie
“All children, except one, grow up.”
An iconic first line, that encapsulates the core of the book. Right away, I’m desperate to know all about the exception to the rule – and also kind of want to be the exception to the rule.

“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
I read somewhere (deliberately forgot where), how could a series with such a boring opening line do so well. Ridiculous! This opening line is bursting with character. I don’t need one single other detail about the Dursley’s to know who they are – their surname, their street name and “thank you very much” creates such a strong feeling about them.

HOLES by Louis Sachar
“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”
(This is my favourite book ever, so I had to include it, even though this list is getting long.)

2. Have a great opening page
My advice for the best opening page is to introduce us to a great character – preferably by what they do/are doing, rather than what they look like or what the setting looks like. We shouldn’t meet them by being told what is happening TO them, but by seeing what they are making happen, be it good or bad.

Some of my favourites:
MILLIONS by Frank Cottrell Boyce is a great place to start looking at character introduction. We get a glimpse of Damian’s brother, but also such a charming introduction to quirky Damian and his obsession with the saints.

We first meet the terrifying Jack, but an even better character introduction is to Bod. The pages of him as a baby is one of my favourite character introductions ever, as he ingeniously and adorably escapes. I love him so much from that opening that I will go anywhere he goes from then on.

VIVIAN VERSUS THE APOCALYPSEIn one of last year’s winners, VIVAN VERSUS THE APOCALYPSE, by Katie Coyle, there is a delicious sense of controversy in the prologue. It reads like an official statement, but the deliberate wording “a kingdom called Florida” and “listened to rap music” makes a mockery of it and the character behind it. As I read it, I already knew that I wanted someone to rebel against him.

(Note: For the non-Hot Key books, you can “search inside” on Amazon to peek at the opening pages, if you don’t own the book. And for Hot Key Books, you can download the opening chapter on our website!

3.Have a great opening chapter.
The first two points are quite narrowly focused, but this is big picture thinking. For a great opening chapter, make something really interesting happen in chapter one. DON’T save it for chapter two or three. The essential “arrive late, leave early” rule should apply. Come to the scene as late as you can to make sense and get out as quickly as you can when your point is made.

In THE WIND SINGER by William Nicholson, the fabulous opening chapter has the main character’s littler sister, PinPin, failing her “testing” spectacularly by weeing on the Chief Examiner. I can see the world without it everbeing described with lengthy set up. I know exactly what I need to know to understand at the moment I need to know it.

CLOCKWISE TO TITANCLOCKWISE TO TITAN has the such a sense of movement and action, with the three friends escaping the Institute, along with great characterisation. It sweeps you along the opening scene, hinting at the past and the future of the story. Read the opening page in this PDF sample.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
The opening chapter brilliantly sets up everything that Katniss is about to lose. It has such a great last line, too, when she loses it. We see how strong Katniss is (the lynx!) and how tough she has it.

BOONIE PaperbackBOONIE by Richard MassonA winner of a different contest (Undiscovered Voices), the opening scene is simply stunning. You immediately feel for JD and hate those who he must fight against. With a strong voice and wonderful visuals, reading this sample will definitely inspire you!

Do you have any tips to share? What has really helped you focus on a great first 4,000 words? Or what are some of your favourite opening lines?

And GOOD LUCK if you’re entering. Take your time and make it awesome.


8 responses to “How to Win a Writing Contest

  1. Thank you Sara – this advice is so helpful.

  2. Some of my favorite opening lines (not already mentioned here):

    “I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.

    It’s not as easy as it looks.”
    – Katherine Applegate

    “The monster showed up just after Midnight. As they do.”
    – Patrick Ness (A Monster Calls)

    “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate 8 days before he died.”
    – Tinkers (Paul Harding)

    “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.”
    – Alan Moore (Watchmen)

    “Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.”
    – Kurt Vonnegut (The Sirens of Titan)

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
    – Stephen King (The Gunslinger)

    “When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself.
    Not, you know, my self self. I shoot my future self. He steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu. What else am I supposed to do? I kill him. I kill my own future.”
    – Charles Yu (How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe)

  3. Wow*
    Thank you so very much Sara! Although I’m not in the 19-25 age group (I’m older) but I needed this bit of advice to get me thinking…..and seriously I evaded the struggle of writing the perfect line…and it helped me scrub the dirt off my first chapter, after reading these tips from you.

    You are brilliant!

    Please, some advice on making the tension in the plot knuckle biting would also be brilliant!

    • Thanks, Hina! *blush*

      Stay tuned this week for our authors’ writing advice via video, and I’ll get a full blog post scheduled to write about plot. A great suggestion!

  4. Thank you, Christopher Partin (@thepartinator)
    That is very contributive of you.
    “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.”
    – Alan Moore (Watchmen)-Never forgetting this one.

  5. alittleinkblog

    Reblogged this on a little ink and commented:
    Some great advice for writing for children and young adults on this post from Hot Key Books about their Young Writers Prize, as well as a collection of some of the greatest opening lines from some brilliant books. It has got me picking up novels from the shelves and looking for my own favourite opening sentences…

    • Thank you! And thanks for reblogging, too. Will you be entering the contest?

      • alittleinkblog

        I would love to try but sadly I said goodbye to being 25 years old about 3 years ago. Could you change it from 18 to 30? Also, favourite opening line at the moment is from Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Midnight Palace: ‘Shortly after midnight a boat emerged out of the midst that rose like a fetid curse from the surface of the Hooghly River’. Never cease to make me shiver.

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