Thursday, April 06, 2006

BEFORE YOU ENTER THAT FICTION CONTEST: Mir's Non-Comprehensive Tour of Trouble Spot Tip-Offs

Madam Mirathon (aka me) has done a fair bit of editing and contest judging this annum. Know what I've noticed? Certain writing gremlins multiply faster than a blue pencil can tame them. They're all over the place.

It's terrifying.

No, okay, it's not terrifying. It's vexing. (Especially when they show up on my pages!)

Perhaps Sturgeon's Law is as reliable as the Law of Gravity. (I prefer not to dwell on what that says about 90% of my output. Yoiks!)

Let's be brutally truthful: Few submissions or entries or critique samples shine. Sparkle and vivacity and depth and freshness--all of those are rare qualities in beginner fiction. I get it--totally!--when editors say that the first page, even the first paragraph, clues them into the quality of the rest.

Can you fault them? If the prose doesn't cut it on page one, why should it inspire faith that it'll sing to us on page two or five or ninety-nine? Admit it. Those opening pages are the most polished section of your work. (I obsess over them, and I'm never satisfied. Maybe cause they stink. Always a possibility.) If page one showcases flat or ungrammatical or awkward or cliched prose, the story should be cast aside. Editors have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other submissions to peruse. Shine or die!

Now, the situation of a contest judge or critiquer is different. To properly score entries and/or offer feedback, they must read it all. Trust me, that's not always a joy. It sometimes requires a massive exertion of will and gallons of caffeine.

Let's dive into the main course.

All the examples I offer below sprang outta my noggin. I didn't swipe them from real stories. I promise, however, that they offer a true representation of the types of pernicious weeds that infest the works I've edited/critiqued/judged. And, in the spirit of, "Gardener, prune thyself," I confess freely that I struggle with these myself. A rough draft is a messy, pest-ridden yard.

Let's begin, shall we?

Poorly Constructed Sentences:
Does it drive you nuts when a critiquer or judge writes one of the following in the margin of your manuscript?

~Odd phrasing

If you see those terms, then this is the bottom line: The prose is not smooth. Rewrite those sentences. Eliminate useless modifiers. Improve the flow.

Well, rewrite them if you believe the judge or editor scribbled a true remark. If more than one person points out the SAME problem, that's an area that ought not be ignored.

Here is Mir's Non-Comprehensive Tour of Trouble Spot Tip-Offs (ie, words that might tip you off to a problem with poorly constructed sentences):

This little word holds a world of trouble for newbie writers. If you use it more than once in a sentence, really study it. If you use it more than once in a paragraph, you should see if you're trying to cram a lot of unnecessary description. In a recent contest I judged, I noticed that the ones exhibiting excessive "telling" also suffered from an overuse of "as."

As I got up, I plucked my iPod out of my purse as I told him to leave.
I squared my shoulders as I turned around and frowned.
He came at me as I grabbed a bat as well as screamed.

You can see these sentences are dreadful. I'm not exaggerating for effect. I've seen sentences comparable to these. And, hey, I've written sentences comparable to these, then promptly screamed and changed them before anyone noticed.

You don't have to scream, but do change them.

"Look" is not a verboten word. All those words in the parentheses are serviceable. Do watch for them as you revise. however. If your POV character is often described as looking or watching or seeing, you may have wandered into the Wilderness of Wordiness.

Here's what I mean:
Aurelia watched as Henry drove a knife into Benito. She saw him do it again.

If the writer has set the scene in Aurelia's POV, whether first or third person, we don't need to read, "Aurelia watched" or "She saw." Sure, she did. She's the perspective character. All you need focus on is how the person Aurelia is would relate what she sees. Different "voices" would describe the same action differently.

Aurelia 1: Henry stabbed Benito twice.
(Concise. Perhaps emotionally removed or reserved.)

Aurelia 2: Henry drove the knife into Benito's chest. Twice!
(A bit more emotion. Is that excited "Twice" showing shock or a gossip's delight? Depends on who this Aurelia is.)

Aurelia 3: Henry plunged the knife into Benito's heart, and then the fool did it again.
(Perhaps resignation in that initial formality, combined with the later judgment of someone who knows Henry is impulsive and violent?)

Aurelia 4: Henry carves a path into Benito's pumper. He goes in a second time, just to make sure, ya know?
(Slang, more colorful, not formal at all. Gangbanger?)

Aurelia 5: How can Henry slice Benito like that? One time. Two times! And he's doing it with his own ma's kitchen knife.
(Disbelief, a bit of shock. And the dark humor. Says something about the POV character's ideas of mothers/family.)

Aurelia 6: It's cool when Henry double-dips Benito's ticker with that blade.
(A hip psychopath?)

Same deal as above. Nothing wrong with these words, just make sure they're not fillers, red flags of weak prose.

Teofilo realized that he was in love with her.

If we're in Teofilo's POV, then we can get right to it in his own voice:

Teofilo A: Madre mia! When did I get it so bad for that crazy mami?
Teofilo B: Love had finally smacked him between the eyes and blinded him.
Teofilo C: He sure picked a helluva day to fall in love.
Teofilo D: How could I, Tay-O, the supadupah Mac Daddy, be fo-shizzle in love?
Teofilo D: His head wobbled, his stomach flipped, and his neighbor's Barry
Manilow music sounded pretty good today. Oh, man. It's love.

Remember the problems with "as"? Well, if you use this word two or more times in one sentence--or repeatedly in a paragraph--you should check thoroughly for cluttered passages or awkward phrasings.


She told him to go to the store to get milk to give the baby for breakfast.
John left it to Janet to decide how to proceed.
To leave is the only thing left to do to save my pride.

If you tell me they all sound fine to you, I'm gonna thwap you on the nose. (Or I'll go to the medicine cabinet to get valium to put in my juice to drink. Urp.)

I'm not even gonna give examples of reworded sentences. You have the power to create better sentences than those.

I've been guilty of misusing these. So repent along with me.

When turned and the related words are overused or misused, they may be substitutes for getting deeply into character. If you're penning lame stage directions, check your depth of perspective. If you visualize scenes, you could be tempted to describe the physical movements as if you were a camera. Don't. Write it as the persona whose POV is used.

She turned and looked him in the eye. He turned away. She glanced away, embarrased, then twisted her head so that he couldn't see her. He spun on his heels and left. She whirled and almost called him back. She moved to the window, instead, and looked out at the street.

All right. Lots of movement. No POV depth. No real action. Ergo: It's clutter. (I've also shown some more misuses of the whole looking/glancing thing. Did you see that?)

Get into a character's mind.

I'm not Updike, but let's try to improve the above passage:

She closed the distance between them and offered her unshielded gaze, wordlessly confessing her betrayal. He gagged and covered his mouth with the back of his hand. The shame dragged down her head. He staggered. She bent lower. He whimpered, and then he ran from the room without cursing her or forgiving her. If she believed he might call her whore or, impossibly, darling, she'd follow him through every street in the city to atone. She'd kneel before him and beg. But he'd heaved like a man ridding his body of something rotten. She'd killed the part of him that loved her. He would never speak to her again. She dropped to her knees and prayed to die.

Maybe a bit hyper-emotional, but it's better than robots moving jerkily on a stage.

Pet Words:

We all have them. Here are a few common offenders:


So, I'm one of those just totally addicted to just and so.

What are your pet terms?

I'm done with word tip-offs for the moment. I want to address...

Monotonous style:
Do vary your sentence structure and length. It's truly heinous to force a fellow human being to read something as choppy as the following:

I liked him. He liked me. We liked each other. We went out. We saw everything. We met everyone. We liked pizza. He left me. He kept the pizza. I kept the dog.

(Actually, that might work in some freaky experimental theater.)

Or this wordier sort of monotony:

He said he would be right back, because he had something to do. I said he should hurry, because the show was going to start. The usher led me down to my seat, because the orchestra was starting up. I sat down and opened my program, because I wanted to see who would sing lead.

(I've seen that sort of repetitive use of clause-"because"-clause structure dominate numerous paragraphs in several WIPs. First cousin to this structure would be the clause-"and then"-clause, the clause-"but"-clause, and the clause-"when"-clause.)

That concludes this portion of The Mir's Non-Comprehensive Tour of Trouble Spot Tip-Offs.?

(To Be Continued . . . perhaps)


Bonnie Calhoun said...

This is definitely a print and keep by the computer article...thanks!

Kaye Dacus said...

Mir!!! You must have read some of the same contest entries that I've judged this year.

Two of my pet-peeves when reading a beginner's work:

- "it was/there was" (ooh, makes me shudder just to type it!)

- opening lines that include the words "had" or "was."

April said...

Thanks a bunch, Mir! What a great post... I'm a repeat offender I must say. But I'm also still a newbie to the writing world. At least I can admit I have a problem... Isn't that usually the first step to recovery? :-)

Dineen A. Miller said...

LOL, girl, you're a hoot! Ciao!

Mirtika said...

I, funnily enough, have no problem at all with "There was" and "It was" in the opening lines or in the story, in the context of otherwise very nice prose.

I think those are necessary constructions in English. And I even have a blog post on it in my archives. Some of the best writers in my library (living and dead) use that construction, even in the opening lines.

So, I don't fret over it. But I'm careful when I write because I know it's a peeve of some contest judges (heh heh)and critiquers. :D


Mirtika said...

April, we're all repeat offenders.

You know, I think that writing creatively requires us to be willing to just spit out what's in our heads, THEN EDIT.

I can tell you right now that I'm hypercritical of myself. I write and delete, write and delete. I think I would do better to let myself write utter crapola, and then worry about finding those TROUBLE SPOTS. :)

What's important is that you keep at it and learn more. We're all learning here. Even published writers with a good fan base keep learning.

I hope I could help you out, babes. (And myself, too. Sometimes, I write things to remind myself of them, ya know?)

Bonnie, I'm honored to bits that you're gonna print and save. That's the highest blogger compliment there is. :D


Stuart said...

Good stuff, Mir. I might have to make it my required reading before I ever submit anything. ;)

Synner said...

Mir, you should be writing a book on this stuff. I'll definitely have to keep this in mind when I go back to editing next month.

Keesa said...

That's awesome, Mir. Let me guess...contest entries getting you down? :-) (I had the same problem last time I judged a contest...and I still came back for more. Meh. I guess I'm just a masochist.)

sally apokedak said...

Really great advice, Mir.

I am guilty of the turned/twisted, deal. And I never knew what the problem was, or how to fix it, until I read this post. I thought there were just not enough different words for turned/twisted/spun. heh heh I'm sad to say, that I'm completely serious.

Wow! Thanks! You're a gem.

sally apokedak said...

Oops. And could give us a comma lesson.

I do put them in the weirdest places.

Mirtika said...

Commas make me nuts. In fact, I was reading the CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE on commas before judging a recent writing contest, because I wanted to make sure I did as the guidelines requested (ie, followed CMoS. Heh.)

And I came to the conclusion that English is a freaky-deaky language. TOO MANY DANG RULES!!!!!!!!!!!

I was reading at a 12th grade level in the 4th grade. I won my first NYC writing contest at age 11. (And slacked off for about 3 decades thereafter.) I received a Silver Knight nomination for English. Passed my English AP with a perfect score. Dazzled my high school English teachers. Skipped my first year of college by taking CLEP and dept tests. I got a degree in English. My professors loved me, kid you not. A couple used my essays on examples of "How To Do It Properly." hahahah

And I still don't know what the heck is up with lie/lay and who/whom. I don't care how many times I read the rules, they do not make fricken sense to me.

Some comma rules are like that. They just don't make sense. I want to be Empress of English and make up whole new, simpler rules that *I* can remember. :D


Mirtika said...

You know what action lacks a sufficient number of synonyms?


That's the one that makes me crazy. I have had a page with three "smiles" or "smiling."

A grin is not a smile.

That's where I have to really go into POV and get the smile out some other way. Which..well, it's hard. :(


sally apokedak said...

I remember one critique partner telling me once, "There's a lot of smiling going on around here, girl." I wrote back, "They're happy, you old grouch."

I have since taken to saying, "he said, happily" every once in awhile. Sometimes it's just important to tell the reader the character is happy but it is not worth slowing the story down to have the character remember the time he ate his first banana split and realize that this present feeling was so much better.

I think, anyway.

Mir, about your writing career--I believe every word you said. From the time I met you I knew you had a rare talent. You have an excellent ear, you have a great imagination, and you are really smart.

So why are you not a best-selling novelist yet? I don't see your meter moving on the side of the page. Do you want I should come down there and kick you in the butt once a week or so? Are you in a critique group? Are you interested in an accountability/critique group?

Mirtika said...

Sally, yes, I am interested. Are you in a good group? Does it have a sensibility for 1. SF/F and 2. Chick Lit stuff?


sally apokedak said...

Well, I don't actually have a group right now. I'll email you.

Camy Tang said...

Mir, as usual, you rock. Awesome. Keep up your tip-offs.

Vicki said...

Hi Mir! This blog is awesome! Just found you and wanted to link to you, if that's okay. Need all the help I can

Victoria Gaines

Light for the Writer's Soul

Rachelle Arlin Credo said...

This article is really helpful. Thanks a lot for posting this Mirtika. Iy can really help a lot of aspiring fiction writers!

Just me,

John Kuhn said...

Great, fantastic, wonderful post. Wish I was smart enough to link to it from my blog. I LOVE it!!