Welcome to the First Chapters Writing Contest!
If you’re new here, this contest is an annual event where readers of The Novel Smithy submit the first chapter of their current manuscript for a chance to win feedback from a developmental editor.
Why just their first chapter? Well, for starters, it makes the prospect of submitting an entry much less daunting—after all, revising a first chapter is much easier than an entire novel. More importantly though, it gives participants a clear goal to focus on. Polish your first chapter, give it a strong hook and a compelling conflict, and prove that your story has the potential for success. Just like you make your first impression on your readers through your first chapter, you’ll be doing the same here!
This contest is on hiatus until further notice. Check back for future updates.
How to Participate
To enter the First Chapters Writing Contest, you’ll need to complete a few simple steps:
- Make sure your submission is free of major errors and is in a standard, 12pt font.
- Click the “Submit Your Entry Here” button at the top of this page.
- Fill out the survey and attach your submission (up to 5,000 words) as either a PDF or .docx file.
- No gore, horror, or erotica submissions. These will automatically be disqualified.
Submissions will remain open from December 6th to December 17th, and the winners will be announced on this page and via email on December 20th. The first place winner will receive free enrollment in my developmental editing service, while the second and third place winners will both get a full critique of their submission and a one hour follow-up call to discuss my feedback.
Please note that by submitting an entry to this contest, you’re agreeing to all of the rules and requirements stated in the official rules document. You can download that document here.
Tips for Winning
While it might seem weird to tell you how to win this contest outright, I plan to do exactly that!
Every year, I look for the same six traits in the winning submissions, and yet you’d be shocked how many people ignore this advice. So, if you’d like to maximize your chances of winning, here are six things to keep in mind:
Hook: Your submission should have an intriguing Hook that encourages readers to want more. You can learn more about writing the Hook here.
Core Conflict: Alongside a strong Hook, you should also hint at a clear core conflict. This is the main challenge, threat, or obstacle that will drive the majority of your plot. Since this is only your first chapter, this conflict doesn’t need to be in full swing just yet, but there should be a few hints that it’s on the horizon.
Chapter Structure: Chapter structure is a way of organizing your chapters in order to create a strong sense of suspense and tension. This goes a long way in keeping readers engaged. You can learn more about chapter structure here.
Premise: You’ll be asked to provide a premise when submitting your entry. This is your elevator pitch, so try to wow me! Introduce me to the core conflict of your novel, to your protagonist, and to the single most interesting aspect of your story. However, keep things short—this premise should be no more than 2-3 sentences.
Proofreading: Entries should be thoroughly proofread, with no major grammar or spelling errors. If your prose is particularly polished, that’s a bonus too! You can find my tips for proofreading your draft here.
Rules: Entries must follow ALL contest guidelines—failure to do so will result in immediate disqualification.
Winners From Past Years
Interested in what a winning entry might look like?
I’ve received a ton of excellent entries while running this contest, from fascinating urban fantasies to moody historical romances. However, only the best entries can earn the title of winner. Here’s a record of each year’s winning entries.
(Click the name of each entry to download a full copy of that submission. These submissions are the copyright of their original authors and are WIP drafts. They’re provided only as a record of past winners.)
2021: Elijah Mears and Morgan Tucker
“There is a moment anyone who’s ridden in a spacecraft will be familiar with: the magical instant when the vehicle starts generating enough upward thrust and reaches a sufficient speed such that the surface of the planet falls away from beneath it like a curtain dropping. The wheels lift off, the vibrations cease, and everything is smooth as suddenly you’re in the sky, nothing between you and the abyss but a metal fuselage and plasma shielding. It was the kind of feeling that could make someone believe in God.” — Elijah Mears, Nor Gloom of Night
“I had done it now. Sister Beattie would sell me to the tradesmen and I would be on the next slave ship overseas. Stumbling across the grass, I leaned against the trunk of a cherry tree and did my best to stop the rising tide of panic. I must remain positive. Looking out over the water a hundred white-sailed ships peppered the ocean. And he could return on any one of them, I reminded myself firmly. It could be any day now. After all, I just had to hold on until he came back.” — Morgan Tucker, The Vision Casting Chronicles
2020: Jennifer Meade and Alyssa Hanke
“Eivan, the oldest of the brothers, lived in a room at the end of the hallway, a maze of packing boxes and wardrobes drenched in color by the church’s stained glass crucifix. Only the room’s center was clear, making space for Eivan’s idol, a red leather punching bag hung from the rafters by a heavy iron chain. The few times Cas slept willingly it was to the sound of Eivan’s fists pounding leather like hellish rain. But Eivan was working downstairs, working, working, working and Cas was far too tired to sleep.” — Jennifer Meade, Lunatic Saint
“I was seven years old the first time it happened. I was skipping through the damp forest trail on the outskirts of town with some other kids from my village. We were picking whatever mushrooms and berries we could find to bring home to our parents, and messing around along the way.” — Alyssa Hanke, Elowen’s Earth
2019: Holly Ostara and J Laurel Quinn
“A superstitious woman with a PhD in physics takes a leap into the unknowable when she gives up her life to save her beloved grandmother’s soul from an eternity in nothingness.” — Holly Ostara, Gloaming
“Harper Chase knows three things: Sam bought her magic from her father, Harper has feelings for Sam, and Sam’s father wants Harper’s magic by any means necessary. Unfortunately for her, he’s not the only one.” — J Laurel Quinn, Firstborn Daughter
2018: Brooke Goodwin and Kristi Stalder
“Choosing to spare a child was Roy’s first mistake as an assassin. Raising the boy was his second. But, when Roy is given an assignment from PHENIX, the boy, Asher, decides to tag along. Roy wants to retire from PHENIX. Asher wants answers. PHENIX is at war with another organization. When these circumstances collide, it becomes a race against time that could destroy everything.” – Brooke Goodwin, PHENIX
“I stood outside the shop door and waited. For what? I’m not sure. Gram didn’t have the courage to come along and see what her husband had been up to before he disappeared on his last expedition and went back to bed, sick with grief. I had no intentions of going inside the shop tonight, but while I tossed hay to the cattle and finished up my chores like any other day, it beckoned to me, as if an invisible thread had secured itself to my mind and slowly reeled my thoughts and finally my body over to its locked door.” – Kristi Stalder, Wrath
Frequently Asked Questions
Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of repeat questions about the First Chapters Writing Contest. To help address these, I’ve compiled a short FAQ below. If you have any questions that aren’t answered here, feel free to get in touch with me through my contact page.
What do I get out of entering this contest? Why bother?
What you get out of this depends on what you put in.
If you win the contest, you’ll be getting one-on-one feedback from a developmental editor for free, either in the form of a multi-week book coaching program or a critique of your submission. However, even if you don’t win, this contest is still a great way to start taking your writing more seriously! Use this as an opportunity to polish your manuscript and motivate yourself to write, and you’ll have already gained something valuable.
How can I be sure this contest is fair?
When judging submissions, I hide all identifying information until after I’ve chosen the winners, meaning I judge each entry on its merit alone. This is done to remain fair, since I often receive submissions from writers I’ve worked with in the past. Realistically, though, there will always be some bias in the judging process. I aim to make my criteria as clear as possible (see the “Tips for Winning” section) and to ignore my personal preferences as much as I can.
Can I enter this contest multiple years in a row?
Absolutely! If you don’t win one year, feel free to spruce up your entry and try again—or even submit an entirely new story. However, if you win one year, you will not be chosen to win again. This is done to ensure everyone gets as many chances to win as possible.
Can I submit a novel I’ve previously published but have since taken down?
Yes. So long as your novel is unpublished on all platforms for the duration of the contest, you are welcome to submit its first chapter.
Can I submit my entry under a pen name?
Sure! However, if you win, you may need to provide me with your legal name in order to claim your prize. This name will not be shared or attached to your entry, unless it’s the name you submitted your first chapter under.
Why do I have to be 18 or older to participate?
Unfortunately, accepting entries from minors (those under the age of 18) involves a lot of legal hurdles that make it prohibitive for this contest. If you are too young to participate, consider checking out some of these other writing contests specifically geared towards young writers.
What if I’m not ready to enroll in one of your coaching programs? Can I wait until a later session?
If you win first prize in this contest, you’ll have the option to enroll in one of my book coaching programs for free. However, you’re welcome to defer until a later date! I typically offer book coaching services around twice a year, so keep in touch and let me know when you’re ready to participate.
Why do past years only list two winners?
Prior to 2022, this contest looked a little bit different. The prizes for winning were smaller, and I only chose two winners. They were not separated into first and second place rankings. However, as time went on—and I started to get more entries each year—I decided it was time to expand the contest. Starting in 2022, I now choose three winners, who each receive a variety of prizes depending on whether their entry ranks first, second, or third.