Hello, my name is Toni, and I’m a recovering contest diva!
Note: The following is from an article I intend to submit to several magazines. By committing to publishing it on my blog, I am giving myself an additional incentive to actually finish the &^%$ thing. If I go too many days in a row without a new installment, I encourage you to send me emails, complaining that I am a lazy cow. It will be good for me.
I HAVE completed (and presented) the actual workshop. I’ll be presenting it again at the NECRWA conference on March 28 and
Confessions of a Contest Judge: The Five Most Common Problems Found in Beginning Writers’ Submissions and How to Fix Them.
Part 1: Introduction
When I first decided to become a writer, I had a few problems. First, I had yet to complete the first sentence of my first book. Second, other than a handshake or two at book signings, I’d never even met a published author. Third, I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry or how it worked. All I had was a story idea, which I thought was probably a romance.
So I went to Borders Books and bought Writing the Romance Novel for Dummies by
Aha! I Googled “Writing Contest” and found dozens, if not hundreds, of contests. And I entered them all, stretching category and genre boundaries beyond all reason. If the rules didn’t forbid it, I entered my novel in two or three categories. I spent thousands on paper, binder clips, printer ink, postage and entry fees. And, later, thank you notes.
When the entries started coming back to me, scored and marked up by faceless judges, I was eager to see their comments. I was, frankly, expecting praise--my business writing was legendary and had gotten me attention and promotion at my corporate job.
What I got, instead, was criticism. “POV!” read one comment, oft repeated. “Character voice inconsistent,” another. And, my personal favorite, “Show, don’t tell.” Every once in a while, a judge would suggest how to fix the problem instead of just pointing it out. Surrounded as I was by stacks of returned entries, I was grateful for those who took the time to do this. I knew what I had to work on, and took steps to improve my problem areas.
By the time I made my first sale (to an editor who’d read the manuscript in a contest) I figured I’d accumulated a huge karmic debt. So, when an organization asks me to judge a contest, I usually say yes. And, remembering the invaluable help those early comments were to me, I make an effort to do a thorough job and give a lot of feedback.
Not long ago, it happened that I ended up judging three contests with deadlines on the same day. Two of the organizations had a shortage of judges, so I was given over thirty entries to complete in thirty days. The length of the entries ranged from twenty-five to thirty pages. I read—and scored—over 850 pages in a single month.
I soon discovered that all of the entries had the same five issues. Some had only one or two, and some all five—but there wasn’t really a sixth issue. (I’m talking about writing technique, not story construction. Without synopses, which none of the contests required, I couldn’t assess much about plotting, pacing or character development.)
The first issue is something I think of as “writing mechanics.” This was the least common problem and, in the more polished entries, was virtually nonexistent. I’m referring to things like overuse of adjectives and adverbs, repeated words and phrases (starting five sentences in the same paragraph with “she,” for example), misuse of words, and even basic errors with grammar, spelling and punctuation. I believe that most writers can identify and fix these errors themselves or with the help of a critique partner. In my workshop on the same topic as this article, I just pass out a list of things to watch out for and move on.
The second issue was clichés. All the heroes were tall, dark haired with piercing blue eyes. When the hero and heroine first touched, they all got a sensation related to electricity, ranging from a mild tingle to an electric shock. Everyone had a soap opera name—no one is named Bob, Mary or John in romance. Again, I think that a good critique partner will nail you on this stuff.
The remaining three issues are the main focus of my workshop and of this article. They are:
1. Point of View
2. Character Voice
3. Showing vs. Telling
Editors and agents reading this, I can hear you thinking, “You left out information dumps.” Yes, I know that beginners’ submissions are absolutely fraught with back story, long descriptions, and detailed explanations of how the character arrived at a particular predicament. I submit to you that information dumping is a point of view problem. As we address the core problem, the secondary issue will go away as well.
Next installment: It’s All About Perception—What is Point of View and How Does it Drive a Story?