At least once a year, I lose consciousness and wake to discover I’ve volunteered to judge a writing contest.
In all seriousness, it’s a good exercise for me. There’s no better way to hone your skills at fine-tuning your own writing than to work hard at identifying tricky spots in other people’s prose.
I’m not going to name the contest or give you specifics of any entries, but I will tell you that in multiple years of contest judging, these are some common issues I see over and over…
Oh, how I love THAT word
Every writer has at least one word he or she uses to excess. Sometimes it’s a lazy way of conveying a certain emotion – Lord knows I’ve been known to overdo it with eye rolling or eyebrow raising. Other times, it’s a matter of inserting unnecessary words that clutter sentences and slow the flow. That is one of the most common offenders. “Carol really believed that Lyle liked dressing up in her panties” or “Don’t you think that Lyle wanted to be smeared with peanut butter?” In either example – and in many new writers’ sentences – “that” is unnecessary junk. Try identifying your overused word or words (we all have ‘em!) and do a seek and destroy mission to fine-tune your writing.
The big mis
We’re all familiar with this concept in movies and books, though not everyone knows the precise term. Short for the big misunderstanding, the big mis is when the story’s conflict could easily be cleared up if two people just sat down and had a two-minute conversation. Would your entire plot be wiped out if Felix just called Wanda and said he doesn’t want to marry her because she’s averse to wearing leather chaps, and Wanda got the chance to say she’d be absolutely delighted to wear leather chaps, as long as they’re purple? If so, you have a big mis plot on your hands (and perhaps a slightly misguided notion of what makes a good story).
When crafting your plot, make sure the conflicts you’re throwing at your characters are not too easy to overcome. If they are, look for ways to throw in bigger obstacles and higher stakes. If Felix can’t use his phone because a pack of rabid badgers got loose in his home and chewed through the phone cord, it’s believable he wouldn’t be able to call Wanda to talk about leather chaps. And if Wanda is tied up trying to locate her missing badger collection, it’s understandable she wouldn’t be able to sit down with Felix to shoot the breeze over an espresso.
Sing together now…Show, don’t tell!
I know, I know. This is one of the oldest pieces of advice on the planet, but it’s true for a reason. The number one issue I see in newer writers’ manuscripts is the habit of having the narrator trail off on a lengthy mental monologue of backstory, setting descriptions, or character details. Mavis might sit there for pages and pages thinking about how tumultuous her relationship with Sally has been from the time they were little girls. Average readers can endure that for…oh, about three sentences. After that, most of us are yawning and propping our eyes open with rusty paperclips.
How much more interesting would it be to show the complexities of Mavis and Sally’s friendship? What if Mavis tripped Sally as she walked into the room, but then offered her a hand up and a frosty margarita? What would you think about Mavis if you learned she possessed both a Nobel Prize and a prison tattoo? What would it convey about her friendship with Sally if you switched the scene to quick-paced dialogue about an orgy they once attended and showed Mavis and Sally’s emotion through body language – nail biting, pacing, smiling, uneasy laughter, teeth gritting, sighing, crossed arms, failure to make eye contact, even a well-placed headlock? Small gestures pack infinitely more punch than six paragraphs of narration telling the reader what you want him or her to know.
Do you have a particular writing no-no you’re trying to overcome? How about something you see in other people’s writing that drives you absolutely batty? Please share!
And hey, let me know if you want to go ahead and write those stories about Carol and Lyle or Felix and Wanda or Mavis and Sally. I think there’s something good there.