Archive for October, 2009

So here I am, writing the millionth blog entry about What Judges Want In Contests. Mine probably won’t be much more helpful than the other 999,999, but after reading a few recent contest entries, I feel the need to get something off my chest. So herewith I provide some items for all contest entrants to keep in mind.

1. Spell check exists for a reason. Having used a word processor for over twenty years now, I can tell you that today’s spell checkers are a lot easier to use and a lot more automatic than their predecessors. Mine (MS Word for Mac) puts a helpful little red line under any word not in its fairly extensive dictionary. That means if I’m paying attention, I can usually catch misspelled words with a quick review of my MS before I send it out to other readers. All of which boils down to this: there’s no excuse for misspelled words in your contest entry. None. As for homophones, those pesky words that sound the same but mean something different (e.g., bare and bear), if you can’t catch them on your own, find a critique partner who can. Trust me on this, nothing makes you look worse faster than having lots of obviously misspelled words sprinkled throughout your MS.

2. The same thing goes for misused words. I frequently judge historicals because, well, I like to read historicals. That means I frequently run across writers who are struggling with a vocabulary from a different time and place. The most insidious of these struggles involve words that sound like the word you want, but that mean something quite different.  “Parameter” is not the same as “perimeter”; “sensibility” is not the same as “sensitivity.” “Simplistic” is definitely not interchangeable with “simplified.” And so on, and so on. Okay, I’m an ex-English teacher and copy editor so I recognize these things. Okay, some readers may not. But here’s the thing—editors at major presses definitely will. Once again, misused words make you look like you don’t really know what you’re doing.

3. Basic grammar and sentence structure have to be correct. They have to be! Most of us like to believe that it’s the story that matters, and it’s true that if you have no story, no amount of proper English will save your butt. But most of us in this business have stories to tell, some better than others. And it’s a rare story that’s so wonderful you’re willing to overlook a lot of really elementary grammar mistakes.

Okay, so none of this advice is magical. None of it will make you run right out and start that Breakthrough Novel. Most of it refers to that phase of writing known as scut work. And most of us, with the possible exception of a few anal retentives,  would just as soon skip over it as quickly as possible. But you’re in a contest here. You’re up against a lot of other writers, most of whom have worked pretty hard on what they’re sending in. You want to blow the judge away, to make her believe she’s stumbled across the Next Big Thing. If you send in an entry without going over it with a fine tooth comb (and preferably running it through a critique group or two), you probably won’t be the one who does that. Please believe me, the Next Big Thing knows how to spell.

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I used to be a writing teacher in my other life. I never taught creative writing but I did teach freshman composition, technical writing, and writing for the Web. One of the most useful things I picked up in my years on the front lines was an introduction to the writing process.

A little background here: back in the old days (i.e., before 1970), nobody ever talked about how people actually wrote. They just told you what to come up with—for example, a “description essay” (and how many people outside of freshman comp classes ever write essays that do nothing but describe?). Then some composition researchers started looking at the way people actually went about writing. They found that the process went in phases that they divided into, roughly, prewriting, drafting, and revising.

Prewriting involves all the things you go through before you actually start writing—if you’re a planner like me, it means brainstorming, charting, maybe using the kind of question and answer structure you get in a software program like Dramatica, and so on. If you’re a pantser, it probably means doing a lot of thinking, both conscious and un-, about what you’re going to do and how it’s going to work.

The drafting phase is pretty straightforward—it’s getting the words on the page. And revising means going back and making those words say what you really want them to say. It’s those last two phases I want to talk about. I think a lot of beginning writers run into grief because they get these two phases confused.

Let me give you an example. I know a writer, a very talented writer, who can never seem to finish any of her manuscripts. She writes a couple of chapters, takes them to her critique group, lets the others in the group look at what she’s written, and then goes home and tries to make it perfect. And that’s where she freezes up. It’s not perfect and she can’t go on writing that particular book.

Now my finished stuff is far from perfect, I know. But believe me when I’m drafting it’s even more imperfect than the finished version! That’s because when I’m drafting, I’m drafting. I spend all my time getting words down on the page—not always the right words, or the words I’ll ultimately end up with, but words nonetheless. And I don’t really go over them from one day to the next. I’ll read what I wrote yesterday, and maybe I’ll fiddle with it a little, but for the most part I’ll move pretty quickly on to the next scene I’m going to work with. It usually takes me a couple of months to do a complete draft because I write longer books (around 90,000 words), but I don’t stop moving forward during those months unless something seems catastrophically off. Whenever I’m tempted to go back and clean things up, I end up muttering “Just get it down, just get it down.”

And that’s the point I’d make here. In writing more than in some other pursuits, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Nobody starts off with a perfect draft, trust me. Some writers, like Edgar Allan Poe, have claimed that their masterpieces came to them fully formed. They’re lying. The first time through, the words in the dialogue won’t be quite right for everybody. You may not have enough detail in the descriptions. The action may seem too abrupt or too drawn-out. But here’s the point: IT DOESN’T MATTER.

Think of your writing as a party (maybe that will make it less painful!). You get the house set up before the guests arrive, but once the guests are there you just let ‘er rip. Maybe you’ve got a few things planned, like a meal or a TV marathon you want to watch. Or maybe you’re somebody who just likes to let the party develop the way it’s going to develop. Anyway, as long as the party’s going, you’re going with it, just letting the whole thing flow along. You wouldn’t stop a good party to run the vacuum sweeper just because somebody spilled a little popcorn on the rug. You might gather up some dirty glasses, and you’d probably refill the chip and dip bowls, but you’ll save the major clean-up until after the party’s over.

The main thing here is, don’t let yourself get hung up on revising before you’re ready. Don’t keep rewriting that paragraph to get it absolutely right. Get it good enough and then keep going. The great thing about the writing process is that you’ve always got a chance to clean it up later. Let the guests go home, let yourself put your feet up and take a rest, let your brain relax.

And then get out that vacuum sweeper and go to work.

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You can always tell when a critique partner or a contest judge has just come from a good writing workshop. Whatever they learned there will show up in their comments on your work. Take the workshop on using all your senses when you write. If your critique partner has been to one of these, you’ll start getting comments about how you need to include the sense of taste and smell in each scene. Never mind that this is a tense dialogue scene between the hero and heroine where neither one is even vaguely considering food. You need to find a way to make them taste something.
The problem is, in the real world of writing, very few descriptions use all five senses equally (or at all). Check it out. Go to a writer you really admire (Eloisa James, say, or Susan Elizabeth Phillips). See how many senses they use in their descriptions. Now they’ll probably involve more senses than just sight. But one sense will probably be dominant—sight or hearing or (if it’s a seduction taking place at a midnight supper) taste, for example—with the other senses coming in as needed. And I’d be willing to bet they won’t pull in all five senses in that description.
Moreover, I’d be willing to bet that the workshop leader didn’t tell the participants to use all five senses in every scene. She probably said to use all five senses where it was appropriate, to not rely so much on sight, etc., etc., etc. Your critique partner or your contest judge, however, simplified that advice to “use all five sense all the time.” It’s easier to remember, after all. It’s also pretty much guaranteed to sink a lot of scenes and eventually reduce the writer to gibbering.
I like workshops. I go to them, and I get useful advice from them. But you have to go to them with the right frame of mind, which means, basically, don’t look for magic bullets or holy grails in the workshop advice.
Too many times people go to workshops looking for the One True Thing that will take care of all their writing problems. Believe me, if there was a magic bullet that would take care of everybody’s writing problems, everybody would be doing it by now. A good workshop leader knows that. She or he will tell you flat out that whatever technique they’re talking about is a tool, something you can use to help you generate ideas or revise your writing or plot your next novel. But in no way will it be a magic charm to make your writing perfect.
In the last analysis, workshops are good for getting you pointed in the right direction—and they’re great for camaraderie. I’ve gone to lots of plotting bootcamps, not because I always need help plotting my books but because I enjoy the process of brainstorming through plots with other people. If nothing else, workshops remind you that you’re not alone.
And sometimes, that alone is worth the price of admission.

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