Judging the writing of aspiring authors is often a lesson in the most common writing mistakes and sometimes an encounter with the most effective writing techniques. If only we could all begin as proficient writers, but as with any profession, writing requires an apprenticeship. This apprenticeship, often painful and frustrating, but on occasion exciting and rewarding, can develop and refine an aspiring author's raw talent into a powerful writing force.
In the contests I've judged, I've come across ten common writing mistakes. Before saying anything more, let me tell you that I'm not too proud to admit I made many of these mistakes in my earliest writing endeavors. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, here is my list of aspiring authors' ten common writing mistakes:
1. Back-Story Dump. Aspiring authors often embed back-story (i.e. events that happened prior to the opening of the story) in narrative. However, an author can also embed back-story in dialogue. For example, in a recent contest entry, I saw a nine page opening conversation between the heroine and another character that was a huge back-story dump about the heroine's life before the story opened. I appreciate that all aspiring authors know and love their characters and want the reader to know and love them too, but let the reader into their pasts only a bit at a time throughout the ms.
2. Lengthy Narrative. I've seen this most often in the writing of talented aspiring authors because writing narrative is a gift. I can recall an entry in which the author devoted more than a page to beautiful narrative describing a walk from one cottage to another. However, no matter how beautiful the narrative, if it is lengthy, it delays the reader's return to dialogue and loses her interest. So, try to limit narrative to no more than three short paragraphs at a clip, if possible.
3. Use of Passive Voice. Most aspiring authors know that the use of passive voice is a no-no. But they may not realize how sneaky passive voice can be. Let's take a look at some examples: "The bell was rung by the cowboy" and "He was sitting on his mustang" and "She let him dance her around the barn." Which sentences contain passive voice? Would you be surprised if I told you all three? Let's reword them in active voice: "The cowboy rang the bell" and "He sat on his mustang" and "He danced her around the barn." The secret of conquering passive voice is thinking "lights, camera, action."
4. Dialogue Tags Versus Beats. Most aspiring authors have the limited dialogue tag/beat preferable rule down cold. However, in quite a startling number of entries, I've seen authors mix one character's action or POV with another character's dialogue. For example, I recently saw something similar to this in a single paragraph: "He has just come out of surgery." Susan rose as the nurse crossed the waiting room. "All went well." So, who is speaking—Susan or the nurse? Well, the author intended for the nurse to speak the lines of dialogue, but she put Susan's action between the nurse's lines of dialogue, jarring the reader out of the story. The mixing of one character's dialogue and another character's POV or action breaks the flow because the reader has to pause to figure out who is saying, doing, and thinking what.
5. Head Hopping. This remains a problem for many aspiring authors. In an entry I judged recently, the author broke the first chapter into twelve different "scenes" (using *** between each one), sometimes to end a scene and start a new one, but other times to merely switch POV during the same scene. The result was a choppy read. In addition, with all the switching back and forth between the hero's and heroine's POV, she mistakenly started a new scene at a point in time prior to the end of the prior scene. This is especially jarring to the reader because she must pause to figure out where the characters are in time, and so, she loses the flow of the story. I've found that it's best to use *** between scenes where there is a significant time lag and/or location change, not merely to switch POV during the same scene. As to POV, write a scene from one character's POV, or switch POV about half way through the scene (that is, until you are a published author and need not follow The Rules any longer!).
6. Slow Pacing. Back-story dumps and lengthy narrative can lead to slow pacing, but IMHO, the most common cause of slow pacing is the aspiring author's choice of scene. For example, if an author places the heroine at a table having a conversation with a friend, or walking through the forest or driving in the car by herself, she is condemning the scene to slow pacing. An action scene with the heroine and hero drives a fast pace; a reflective scene with only the heroine or hero crawls at a slow pace. Structure the story to put the hero and heroine together on the page as soon as possible and try to keep them together on every page thereafter with a lot of action around or between them.
7. Told, Not Shown. Aspiring authors often tell readers about their characters rather than show them. For example, he is honorable, she is kind, etc. Instead, create a scene to showcase the hero's honor or heroine's kindness. Do you see how the choice of scene can affect not only pacing, but also characterization?
8. Inadequate Characterization. Many aspiring authors rely upon back-story for characterization. When they are denied back-story, they can flounder with characterization. There are many ways to breathe life into your characters—setting the scene to portray the character(s), using dialogue to characterize, using deep POV to draw a reader in. Most importantly, don't hold critical material back from the reader. Let her into the heroine's and hero's thoughts to make her feel their emotions. As my mentor, Janice Lynn, has written: "The characters have to come alive. From the get-go, you have to get the reader/judge inside the character’s head, make them feel the emotions the character is feeling." Or as she has told me more than once: "Emotion, Emotion, Emotion!"
9. Unrealistic Actions/Reactions. There is perhaps nothing that will try the reader's patience and lose her interest faster than when a story has a character with unjustified, unrealistic actions/reactions. In an entry I judged recently, the writing was exquisite, but on the first day that the hero and heroine met, the hero told the heroine he intended to marry her (his desire to marry her seemed to be based only on her beauty). Have a care with characters' actions/reactions. A reader will accept almost anything by way of a character's action/reaction, but only if the author has laid the groundwork to justify that character's action/reaction.
10. Lack of Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts. I've seen stories with the hero and/or heroine having no goals (other than falling in love with one another) as well as stories with no conflict between the heroine and hero. The most beautiful writing in the world can't overcome this deficiency. As Janice has written: "Doesn’t matter if the contest is for 3 pages or for 55, if you don’t establish that there are goals, motivations, and conflicts, odds are you aren’t going to final, even if you have a fabulous writing voice and your style is as smooth as satin." So, give your hero and heroine goals, motivations, and conflicts (both external and internal). Without GMC, there isn't a story you can write that is worth telling.
Recently, I came across near perfection in a contemporary single title contest entry. I can't explain what made it perfect. That is, I can't break it apart, and say, here are the three or thirteen or thirty factors that made it so. All I can say is that it was minus ten common writing mistakes ... and plus one indefinable something, which, for lack of a better term, I'll call "hook, line, and sinker." In other words, it was near perfection, plain and simple.
When I judge the writing of other aspiring authors, I often spot mistakes I can't spot in my own writing ... and sometimes see perfection I can't match with my own words. It is such an eye opener, more valuable than any writing workshop. So, if you are an aspiring author who is serious about writing but has never judged a contest, I highly recommend you judge a contest or two or more.
Happy Writing and Judging!
© 2009 Madeline Smyth. All Rights Reserved.