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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

9 Mistakes Contest Entrants Make by Mary Fechter

I've entered and judged TONS of contests in the past few years, including the Golden Heart. Below is a combination of mistakes I've seen and mistakes I've made. Some are nitpicky, but still make a difference in your voice, which I believe is the secret to your success. Let me save you some of the same heartache before you send off your baby!

1) Too many characters too soon.

Whatever you do, don't confuse the reader with two many characters. The simpler the better. I was told to remove three characters from the first scene of my contracted book, and was repeatedly dinged in Hot Shot for introducing another woman before the heroine.

2) Lack of setting.

Put the reader in the time and place right away, in each change of scene. Don't go overboard, but incorporate it in the action. I read an entry recently where the character was merely walking down the street, but the tension was layered in with sense of time and place, and the suspense built from that. Include as many of the five senses as make sense.

3) What's the problem?

Bring in conflict as soon as you can without sounding contrived, certainly by the end of the first chapter. Let us know why the hero and heroine can't just walk into the sunset right now, and it needs to be beyond the fact that he's a cop and she's a suspect. Go deep. Maybe you don't need to show it up front, but give us a hint at the conflict, even if you don't go into why.

4) Let your voice shine.

I can't tell you how many entries I read that sound like they've been through critique group one too many times. Don't let well-meaning critique groups erase your voice. Be ware of passive voice, as well. Those sentences that start with "It was" and "There was" are pretty easy to rearrange, most of the time, which keeps your writing tighter.

5) No ending hook.

I know this has been discussed, but I think it's important to have hooks, or at least strong sentences, at the end of each scene, and especially at the end of the partial. Let that editor or judge feel she HAS to know what happens next! I've manipulated many contest entries (spent hours deleting words or sentences to meet the contest requirements) so I could end my entry on a strong hook.

6) Wordy sentences.

Usually this is a problem in the hero's POV, but many times it's a clarity issue. Nothing wrong with breaking an idea into two sentences or more.

7) Talking Heads

Watch for long stretches of dialogue with no tags. Give action tags or something, every few lines, to ground the reader in the scene and clarify who's speaking.

8) Commas.

Most of the mistakes I see are in dialogue.

If your character is addressing someone, that should be separated by a comma.

“Mal, I don’t think you should open that door.”

“I don’t know what to think, Bella!”

When using a tag with quotation marks, and the sentence is a statement (not a question or an exclamation), you punctuate with a comma.

“I’m tired of this. I’m going home,” Maddy said.

“So sorry I couldn’t be of more help,” Ben muttered.

When using the tag before the quotation marks, you separate with a comma.

Rolling his eyes at her, he added, “And then we can go home.”

These are the main boo-boos I see in judging contests. Most people know how to separate items in a list, but may insert a comma where it's not needed.

For example:

The dark, blue dress clung to her figure. No comma needed here because A) dark describes blue and B) you only need a comma with more than two adjectives. Can I think of an example at 1:30 AM? No, I cannot.

Also, there should be a comma between an introductory word (like also, or no ;) ) and the rest of the sentence.


I've known two people who finished their book for the GH and then waited to submit till they knew if they finalled. Who has that kind of time in this business? Submit, submit, submit (as soon as it's polished, of course.) And then write something new!


At 5:27 AM, Blogger CM said...

The dark, blue dress clung to her figure. No comma needed here because A) dark describes blue and B) you only need a comma with more than two adjectives. Can I think of an example at 1:30 AM? No, I cannot.

I think B is incorrect. IIRC, the rule is: You put a comma between two adjectives if they are interchangeable. So no comma for "dark blue dress" because you would never say "blue dark dress." But a comma for "scary, hungry vampires" because you could say "hungry, scary vampires."

Let's see if I can dredge up the rule from the Chicago Manual of Style.

Oh, yes. The CMS says:

6.39 Comma or no comma between adjectives

When a noun is preceded by two or more adjectives that could, without affecting the meaning, be joined by and, the adjectives are normally separated by commas. But if the noun and the adjective immediately preceding it are conceived as a unit, such as “little girl,” “political science,” or “glass ceiling,” no comma should be used. See also 5.91.

Shelly had proved a faithful, sincere friend.
It is going to be a long, hot, exhausting summer.
She has a young, good-looking friend.

She has many young friends.
He has rejected traditional religious affiliations.


5.91 Coordinate adjectives

A coordinate adjective is one that appears in a sequence with one or more related adjectives to modify the same noun. Coordinate adjectives should be separated by commas or by and {skilled, experienced chess player} {nurturing and loving parent}. But if one adjective modifies the noun and another adjective modifies the idea expressed by the combination of the first adjective and the noun, the adjectives are not considered coordinate and should not be separated by a comma. For example, a lethargic soccer player describes a soccer player who is lethargic. Likewise, phrases such as red brick house and wrinkled canvas jacket are unpunctuated because the adjectives are not coordinate: they have no logical connection in sense (a red house could be made of many different materials; so could a wrinkled jacket). The most useful test is this: if and would fit between the two adjectives, a comma is necessary.

At 7:58 AM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

cm, excellent comma use refresher! Amazing how much of this I know and practice intuitively, but couldn't have cited the rule.

And Mary, excellent post! I think I've seen (and done) all of them. I think the setting one is so hard for writers to get right. You need enough to orient the reader quickly, but not the travelogue treatment. Just some carefully chosen details to evoke setting and mood. Readers have a vast store of mental "backdrops" to bring up, thanks to TV and movies. Thus you don't have to describe in detail the detectives' bullpen or the interview room. Sketch a few details and they call up the image. This should be a great discussion!

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Very clear ideas and good advice, Mary.

cm, I am amazed at your alertness at 5:30 am!

At 8:58 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

A great list, Mary, especially if you wrote it at 1:30 in the morning! Get some sleep!

Thanks for the comma lesson, CM!

I do have a hard time putting in enough smells and sounds, but that's something I have learned to do in the revision process.

At 10:22 AM, Anonymous Ami W. said...

Thank you, Mary! :)

I judged the GH last year and I had two entries that--well, that were awful. I couldn't get through the grammar and spelling mistakes. I can be forgiving of the occasional mistake but these babies were CHOCK FULL. It made me wonder--if the GH is supposed to showcase your best work, why wouldn't you polish til it gleamed?

Or maybe it's just me. :)

At 10:54 AM, Blogger Trish Milburn aka Tricia Mills said...

Mary, good reminders of ways to make a contest entry stand out even more -- in a good way. :) I do think a lot of the grammar and punctuation become second nature, and we don't remember why we do something--we just know it's right.

At 11:19 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

If dark describes blue, then "dark blue" is a compound adjective (aka a compound modifier) and takes a hyphen: "the dark-blue dress". The hyphen isn't used when an adverb is in place: "He brought lots of quickly used napkins." (Poor example, but you get the idea.) Same goes for "very." You wouldn't say "I ate a very-hot pie." You would say, that's a red-hot car," especially if the car were blue." :)

Compound adjectives seem unnecessary much of the time, but they make reading smoother and often prevent serious confusion. A "new looking glass" might mean a new mirror, but what if the whole sentence should be "I found a new-looking glass panel for the broken one in my door"?

My dad's pet peeve is using "their" as the pronoun for one person of unknown gender. He's pretty much cured me of that.

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Okay, so the creamy, flawless skin would have a comma because the adj can be used in reverse, but we would NOT use a hypen because creamy describes the skin, not the adj flawless.

And lush green hills would NOT have a comma because the adj cannot be reversed to say green lush hills. (or maybe green lush hills works?)

And dark, shiny hair would have a comma because the adj CAN be reversed and both adj describe the hair.

Okay, Esri and Trish and CM, go at it! Am I right or wrong?

At 1:24 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Excellent advice. Love the one about remembering your own voice, especially.

At 2:21 PM, Blogger beverley said...

Excellent advice. I think a huge thing is, like you said, when your voice gets sucked out of your work. A voice is about your writing style and it's not wrong. Whether others like it or not is very subjective, but I certainly would grade someone lower because I didn't particularly like their voice.

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Theresa: A lot of this comma stuff is new to me, in terms of actual rules. I'm going to have to review it a couple of times to get it to stick in my head.

At 2:26 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Mary wrote: Bring in conflict as soon as you can without sounding contrived, certainly by the end of the first chapter. Let us know why the hero and heroine can't just walk into the sunset right now, and it needs to be beyond the fact that he's a cop and she's a suspect. Go deep.

Besides interesting characters, conflict is what keeps me wanting to read a book and watch a movie all the way through. Have you ever watched a movie and half way through you're wondering when the heck something is going to happen!!!?

When judging contests, I do have a hard time if after reading 30 pages I have no idea what the conflict is and why the hero and heroine can't be together.

At 2:50 PM, Blogger Sara Lindsey said...

Just out of curiosity, what are the major synopsis mistakes judges usually see? Is the synopsis worth a specific number of the 9 possible points?
(who is grateful that CM is one of her CPs and can thus catch all her comma errors)

At 4:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, having heart failure here. My entry features a cop/suspect relationship as part of the external conflict, but...she doesn't know he's a cop until at least half way through the book...and there are other layered emotional issues for both of them...neither one begins the story thinking they want as a life partner the character traits the other person embodies...

Is that digging deep? I know it's hard to tell without syn/pages, but perhaps we could stave off my heart failure and dig a little deeper into that point? I've got time. I can rewrite the book entirely...


Margaret M

At 4:34 PM, Blogger MaryF said...

Margaret M, that's EXACTLY what I mean about going deeper - SOMETHING besides the external conflict is keeping them from going into the sunset. No freaking out! As long as your characters are motivated well in NOT wanting that characteristic in a mate, I think you're good.

Diane, I wrote the comma bit at 1:30, but the rest when my class was in computer lab this AM - I only typed it this morning.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger MaryF said...

CM, thank you for the correction. I was thinking of a list of adjectives needing commas when there are more than two. Again, I can't think of an example (4th graders on Halloween, you know).

Trish, I'm with you - grammar is second nature to me for the most part (em dashes give me fits, though). And using "their" as a pronoun for a single person of unknown gender. But don't tell Esri's dad ;)

Theresa, have you seen Music and Lyrics with Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant? Cute movie, but WHAT was the conflict?

Sara, the synopsis is part of the whole, as far as scoring the GH goes. I actually couldn't think of many synopsis blunders as I was writing this (which is why it's nine and not ten mistakes.) Maybe wrapping up the end too soon? Feeling like you're running out of pages, maybe, or you haven't written that part and so your ending is sketchy.

Anyone else think of mistakes seen in synopses?

At 5:36 PM, Anonymous Margaret B. said...

Thanks for the revision update! And most of all, thanks for the last item on the list. Usually, when I go down a list like this, I start to think "Geez, my entry has all of these problems and I'm doomed!" So the final one was a nice prod--if you don't believe in your own MS, who else will?

At 5:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, heart rate's back down...breathing normally...thanks, Mary!

Margaret M

At 9:10 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Really insightful and helpful list, Mary. I cannot believe you came up with all of this great stuff at 1:30 AM! I too am glad to read the one about remembering your voice. I have received some great feedback from contests with some great suggestions, but I am extremely paranoid about changing something and changing my voice as a result.

At 10:04 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I think the most common mistake in synopses is trying to put in lots of detail about the external plot and forgetting to focus on the romance. (that's why I like my synopsis formula)

At 12:08 AM, Blogger India Carolina said...

Whew! CM, thank goodness I have you and Tessa to fix my comma mistakes! I may just be starting to catch on. Thanks for the blog, Mary. I'll review my entry for those errors!

At 12:12 AM, Blogger Darcy Burke said...

Great post. And I agree wholeheartedly on the voice point. At the Emerald City conference this past weekend, I attended a chat session with Jayne Ann Krentz. She talked about editing by "consensus" and how if you take enough feedback from a group you will eventually find the common ground that everyone likes, but that it probably takes out what's singular and different about your voice. Excellent advice.

I've so enjoyed this series!! Thank you!

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

Good post! Lots of useful information in the post and in the comments. No matter how much I think we know about correct grammar and punctuation, I can always learn more. Thanks!

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Santa said...

This has been a fabulous series that has helped me on so many levels.

I have also found that too many chefs spoil the broth and have decided on working out of a smaller kitchen.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Beach Wedding said...

Florida Wedding is the perfect spot to read a book on the beach.


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