Thursday, October 6, 2011

I'm not judging . . .Well, I kinda am

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.


TheLabRat said...

I have a peeve phrase in romance fiction; "low in his/her/its throat". I'm on a facnfiction kick (reading it I mean) for a video game that had strong romantic elements and it's rampant. I see it less often professional romance fiction. Regardless of where I spot it, any author who uses that phrase once starts to abuse the holy bejeebus out of it within pages.

My other peeve is something Anne Rice did a lot in the first of her vampire novels (the single most overrated book I've ever read). "I can't possibly describe how [insert thing] looked/sounded/felt" followed by at least three large paragraphs of description of that very thing.

In my own writing, I have a problem with the end of the middle of stories. My transition from intro to meat (heh) is fine, my finales are usually at least competent, but getting my protagonists from meat to end (double heh) is a royal pain.

Patrick Alan said...

My writing lacks taste. I mean the five senses, or six or seven or fourteen senses.

No, I mean taste.

I hear the tell-tale scratching of litter moments before I smell the pungent treasure my idiot cat fails to bury. What was he digging for? I run my fingers across the cool smooth grain of my oak desk to calm myself as I see a bolt of fur dart from the laundry room outside my office.

Stupid cat. I lack taste. I sip a vanilla chai tea that burns the back of my throat with its honey sweetened fire. The cat is back sitting outside my door. "Meow", he said. His eyes penetrate my skull. I can hear his thoughts in my brain.

He wants to know what tasteless thing I am writing now.

K.B. Owen said...

LOL, Tawna! With my first manuscript (and it will probably happen again), my characters SIGHED a lot. There was some eyebrow action, too. I had to use Word's "Find" feature to filter out a lot of them. There were even more than I thought!

One piece of advice I got from a "how to" book was: don't insult the reader's intelligence (and add clutter) by putting in unnecessary explanatory words. "She heard footsteps from the ceiling OVERHEAD," for example. Duh, we know a ceiling is overhead.

Hannah said...

My first drafts are full of adverbs and a lot of eye stuff. I can't think of a word I use a lot, but I'm sure my CPs can. Lol!

Unknown said...

I HATE when the conflict is something that could be cleared up if the two people would just communicate. Drives me nuts. I see it so much in movies, tv shows and books that I was starting to think I was the only one who hated it.

Jason said...

In one of my other lives I'm an editor for a website. We have about 10-12 writers who submit pieces on a weekly basis, and I do a lot of the editing.

The issue with "that" is a huge pet peeve of mine. HUGE. It's also very, very difficult to teach, so if you have any suggestions I'm open. What I tell my writers is every time you write that word, re-read the sentence without it. Did you miss it? No? Then cut it. 95% of the time the word is irrelevant.

Another peeve is the use of the word "was". I had a teacher in high school who went overboard on his adamance state of being verbs (is, was, etc) should never be used. We had to write 1,000-word essays never using them. I don't feel that crazy about them, but the exercises proved a point about making writing active instead of passive. Now every time I see one of my writers say something like "he had run" I want to throw something. No - he ran.

Goes to one of the biggest things of all - KISS. We all know what that means, right? :) Don't use more words when you don't need to.

Drives me insane when I'm going over something I've written and find these same errors that as an editor make my blood boil. :)

Jason said...

Oh, and there was a crapload of nodding going on in my first draft. Like, a ridiculous amount.

Lauren said...

Dibs on the badgers!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I have very smiley characters. They smile a LOT. *sigh*
Also, that big mis? I HATE that! I've put down at least a dozen books because of it. It's just so frustrating.
Great post, though! :)

Matthew MacNish said...

I do believe I've removed over a thousand "thats" and "justs." From my work. Granted, I write way too long, but that's no excuse.

Patrick Alan said...

I want to pet Lauren's badger.

Wait... No.. Don't wait...

Skye said...

At first I came here because this is Tawna's blog and support your friends who are writers etc. Now I stay for the innuendo, both Tawna's and the commentors.

I hate the big mis, which is overused in rom coms on screen and on the page. Hate hate hate.

In my own writing, my characters sigh and roll their eyes a lot, or else they indulge in so much dialogue that nothing happens. I have difficulties interspersing action with dialogue.

Good luck, Tawna, on the judging. Hope it's fun!

Christina Auret said...

I am a very forgiving reader, but if nothing happens in big amounts I will give up sooner or later. Mostly later.

Usually only when the introspection/info dump hits page 2 for the second or third time. Or when the main characters continuously display their inability to think and breathe simultaneously.

The problem with being a very forgiving reader is that all the bad habits I tend to forgive others find their way into my own writing, which is rather sub-optimal.

Ann Marie Gamble said...

A pretty way to unearth repeated words is a concordance program like You paste in some text, and it generates a word cloud, size proportional to number of times used.

R.S. Emeline said...

My biggest pet peeve in reading and writing is the "he/she/I released a breath he/she/I didn't know he/she/I was holding."

I don't know why, it just bugs the bejezzus outta me.

Wow, rereading it with the he/she/I is even more annoying, but you get the point.


Curtis Moser said...

I just finished a 70,000 word literary novel about two characters named Felix and Wanda, except it's Wanda's hairless beaver collection that is missing. Hmm. And coincidentally, I just submitted it for a nameless writing contest.


TheLabRat, now I’m going to have to check and see if I’ve got any characters making noises low in their throats. If so, I’ll diagnose them with strep.

Patrick, run, kitty, RUN!!!

K.B. Owen, great point about not overstating the obvious! I’ve caught myself doing that from time to time.

Hannah, I’ve got a few overused words, so I always do find/replace before sending anything to editors.

Ruth, it’s probably my #1 pet peeve in writing, so you definitely aren’t alone!

Jason, thanks for the reminder on “was.” I know I need it sometimes.

Lauren, the badgers are all yours, with my blessing. Enjoy them.

Bethany, oh, I totally overuse smiling, too! Probably in real life as well as in writing.

Matthew, I’ve caught myself overusing “just” before!

Skye, aww, thanks! (((hugs)))

Christina, sounds like you need to get in touch with your inner bitch.

Anne Marie, oooh, thanks for the tip! I’ll check that out.

R.S. Emeline, I’m pretty sure I’ve used that one before!

Curtis, poor Wanda!

Thanks for reading, guys!


Trish said...

Intriguing post! How many of us actually sigh?