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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Common Errors of Contest Entries

By Debra Holland

I’ve judged a lot of contests and invariably keep marking certain grammatical errors or weaknesses of writing. In this last Golden Pen contest, I had five good paranormal entries--great plot, voice, characters, and writing. Most of them were so good, on my comment sheet, I offered an introduction to my agent. Yet, I still returned them full of yellow highlights, crossed out words, and comments. I believe, if they take my edits to heart and do another round of polishing, these writers will sell. They will also probably final in the Golden Heart contest.

I always take the time to explain and give examples, which takes from two to five hours of editing per entry. (So the more writers who know about these problems, the less work I have to do.) I’ve gotten many grateful thank you letters. Some of the writers commented that their first reaction was anger, but, when they took the time to study my feedback, that anger changed to appreciation.

Often my feedback is nitpicky. But who’s to say you won’t be submitting to a nitpicky editor? You don’t want to give an editor any reason to reject you.

The following are 10 pet peeves, taken from actual contest entries collected over the last few years. Some of these points other members of the WNP have mentioned in their GH blog entries, but they are worth going over again.

1. Showing, not telling

All the techniques from her self-defense class came to the fore--she didn’t get an A in class for being cute, but she could have.

(Start fighting already.)

Already standing on his square, her opponent gestured to her position without a word. The warlock was enclosed in dark robes, a golden helm covering his head. Spell casters needed to visualize their adversary to execute powerful sorcery but her piercing glare couldn’t discern his form or face. Many of her most strategic enchantments would be worthless.

With a stab of fear, she realized she couldn't discern his face or form. The lack of definition rendered her most strategic enchantments worthless. For the first time, doubt crept into her mind.

2. AS in the MIDDLE of a sentence

“As” in the middle of a sentence often throws off the timing. When you place “as” in the middle of a sentence, be sure to check that the second sentence doesn’t belong first.

A silence grew as he hesitated.

(His hesitation is what makes the silence grow. As he hesitated, the silence grew.)

A chime sounded as he entered Mistress Sirena’s Shop of Quiet Contentment.

(He needs to enter before the chime can ring.)

3. Telegraphing

When you have more than two characters in a scene, you need to have some kind of gesture, action, or facial expression before they speak so you know who is speaking.

4. IT and FELT

Usually you can find a more expressive descriptive word than “it” or another way to convey emotions besides “felt.” Only use “it” or “felt” if you can’t think of any other word to use instead. Here’s some examples where the writer needed to work a little harder.

Her mouth watered at the sight of his manhood. Flaccid though it was, it was still impressive. She wondered how it would look in all of its aroused glory.

(Penis might not be the right descriptive word for a romance, but 5 its…)

Soon, it began to recede. But slowly, always slowly, like the creeping of the tide. God, he hated the static. Hated not knowing what caused it or when it would stop. Hated that he couldn’t predict it. Hated that even though he’d spent months pursuing an answer, right now he couldn’t even name it.

(Hard to figure what “it” is.)

Within seconds, it all passed.

(All what passed?)

It felt as if he was speeding on a roller coaster, yet with no wind, no sound, no sense of movement, only a vibration all along the front of his body.

(An it and a felt together.)

Lexy felt a dark clawing fear when she saw the ragged gash in his dark shirt.

(Also a timing problem.) 

When she saw the ragged gash, stark fear clawed at Lexy.

5. Was/Were

Her head was spinning and she couldn’t form a single, coherent thought.

(Her head spun, and she couldn’t form a single, coherent thought.)

Nearly all of California, Oregon and Washington State were destroyed by the earthquake.

(The earthquake destroyed most of California, Oregon, and Washington State.)

The look John was giving him was decidedly unfriendly.

(John shot him an angry look.)

6. Separate his/her actions/thoughts/words/dialogue

Keep each characters' thoughts, feelings, reactions, dialogue in a separate paragraph.

Here are two examples where the writer had one block of text. The new paragraph (NP) inserts are added by me.

He watched in dismay as Sirena’s smile drooped into a bitter frown, her hope for restitution withering, and along with it any desire to speed him on his way.
(NP) “I can’t meet your price,” he said, “but I can offer an alternative that’s almost as good.”
(NP) Her purple eyelids blinked in suspicion, and
(NP) he quickly added, “I can let you live in the Mayor’s Hall and Residence.”
(NP) Her eyes brightened.
(NP) “For a month,” he specified, though it would probably seem more like a year.

He responded with a wolfish appraisal, his awareness flicking hotly from her lips to the tips of her breasts and back.
(NP) She felt the heat of his gaze like a caress. Good God. She felt attractive.
(NP) “I have no doubt about that,” he murmured.
(NP)She flushed with an errant arousal.
(NP)“Was it wonderful?” he asked. “Was it amazing? Was it everything you’ve ever dreamed it could be?”

(In addition to keeping each person’s dialogue and responses in their own paragraph, readers want more white space on the page.)

7. Compound sentences

When two complete sentences are joined, a comma belongs in between. I think compound sentences are the easiest comma error to spot. Just look for two complete sentences, which are joined into one. The following sentences all had missing commas:

Her breathing hitched, and her head suddenly snapped forward.

There was a soft knock on the door, and David came in

She had no good reason to be here, and this guy could probably sense it.

8. Made up words with no meaning

This is usually a problem in paranormals. Many times you can get the context of a made up word from the surrounding words.

He pushed the hood of his cloak from his head. Deep ebonharde eyes captured hers before she realized her own egress from the rules. His rich, svarkened hair with highlights of deep nezarine indicated his Fastian heritage.

(Fastian is the only word I would have kept because you can get some meaning from the word “heritage.” I might have gone along with ebonharde if the writer had used the word “dark” instead of “deep.”)

9. Using “eyes” rather than “gaze”

Her eyes wandered to the floor beneath her.

(Her gazed wandered to the floor.)

The guard’s eyes locked on the jerky rise and fall of her chest, then flew to her face.

(Nothing like flying eyeballs. :)

10. Mentioning that a character’s watching another character do something

He watched as Jude’s expression changed from dreamy abandon to intense embarrassment.

(Jude’s expression changed from dreamy abandon to intense embarrassment.)

Anne watched as Trudy fussed with the teapot, then poured more tea.

(Trudy fussed with the teapot, then poured more tea.)

These are all relatively easy edits to fix in your manuscript. What ones do you have problems with?

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At 12:15 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great list, Debra. You are the editing queen! I have problems with most of these things...not the "its" and "felt" though. I'll have to go check that though.

I'll be back soon with a question or two. Thanks for the editing help!

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Okay, Debra, here's a question about the dreaded "as" word. I see in "Self-editing for Fiction Writers" that they refer to the use of them as amateurish. BUT, I flip open every published book on my desk and easily find the following:

He paused to shake his head, his eyes filling with pride AS he gazed at his grandson.

Her hand shook AS she reached down and helped her daughter to her feet.

These work, don't you think? Is it sometimes a voice thing, or just plain wrong. :)

At 1:56 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Hey, I love flying eyeballs, Debra. I use "eyes" instead of "gaze" a lot. I focus on the characters looking at each other a lot and I think I'd have too many gazes everywhere.

I like eyes darting... To me, "their eyes locked" is more powerful than "their gazes locked"

But I understand what you mean. I comprehend the concept, and I'm sure some people throw my books against the wall for it, but I still have flying eyes all over the place!

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I'm way with you on "He/she watched as" or "He thought" or "He realized" or even sometime "he felt"

I call these "filters" because the reader is TOLD what is going on instead of just being SHOWN.

At 2:14 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

This is great stuff, Debra! I think I have problems with was/were. It would be worthwhile to go through the first five to ten pages of any manuscript you're submitting and fine tune this stuff. After doing that a few times, most of it would probably become habit.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Dianna Love Snell said...

Great article Debra. The wonderful thing about this list is we all need to review them from time to time, regardless of being published or not.

It's easy to forget the simple rules the longer you write. Thanks for the super tips.


At 8:31 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Very helpful list, Debra. This blog has been such a class for those of us who are trying this Golden Heart thing for the first time. Now I have to go back over my partial and look for all of these things. By the time I read all my critiques and check all of these possible problems and try to get everything to Texas by December 3rd I am going to be a bald-headed dithering idiot!

At 8:54 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Debra can't post on blogger so she asked me to post this message for her.


Just because you see things in books, doesn't mean it's the best way to do it. Sometimes authors and editors don't catch timing errors.

Or perhaps they don't know about them. So now that you know about them, you don't have that excuse. :)

If two actions are happening at the same time, then I'll let "as"
stay in the middle.


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

Debra, I agree that just because something is in a published book that doesn't make it "right." But what I was trying to ask you but didn't make clear was if those examples worked? I guess you're saying that they did not and the timing was off.

Maybe you can post a couple of examples where the "as" in the middle works. I will be glad to post for you if you email me the answer. :)

At 12:48 AM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

Great post, Deb, lots of things to look out for there. Writing is craft and you have to work at it, that is so true, although I'd like to throw in one cautionary note if I may - edit by all means, but whatever you do, don't edit to the point of editing the life out of your story. At all costs, protect your own individual voice, and if you want to express something a certain way, then by all means do it, even if it means breaking a rule or two along the way.

I think most people now look at writing rules as writing tools - important but not handed down from on high as the be all and end all. Ultimately it's the story that counts. It's the story that will sell.

I heard and interesting comment from the Harlequin Mills & Boon editors from London recently - when asked to comment on the differences between submissions between the UK, US and Australia, they said - submissions they saw from the UK often featured too much introspection, many from Australia/NZ fell between the lines (eg, the alpha hero wasn't alpha enough and the tone not intense enough for Presents but not right for Romance either)and many from the US had been polished till they shone but to the detriment of the story.

Interesting observation isn't it? Goodness knows why this should be but I've seen that polished till it gleams look in contest entries Downunder and I've often wondered whether they're a product of critique groups where everyone puts in their own 2c worth and you end up with this kind of manuscript by committee, otherwise known as a camel, when what you were aiming for was a race horse. The writing is fluent and wonderful, the "rules" are all observed, but the piece falls flat because it's lost all its heart somewhere along the line.

But by crikeys, I'm not saying don't edit! You must, must, must submit your best work, and Deb's given you some brilliant tips, but your best work must also let your own fantastic voice shine through, so make sure you don't edit that the life of your work. Technical excellence won't sell books, though it will please your editor no end, but she wants the story, first and foremost.

Trish (can you tell I'm anotheree who quite unashamedly mixes in the eyes with the gazes and no doubt guilty of other assorted sins?:-))

At 10:20 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

A post from Debra:


I can't think of any good "as" in the middle examples. Sex scenes might be a place where you see them. A lot happens at the same time in a sexual encounter. :)


At 10:25 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Trish Mo,

Great comment! I do agree that TOO much editing can make everybody's voice sound the same.

I also feel strongly about knowing when you are breaking the rules. After you've been writing for a while, instinct sets in, and you know that even if you're breaking a rule or two, like flying eyeballs, a few extra adverbs, and AS or ING, etc....the flow, the pacing and timing all sound right for your voice and so you do it anyhow! :) I know Debra will be cringing when she reads this. :)

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I gotta disagree on editing making everyone sound the same. I edit the crap out of my stuff, and it still sounds like me to me. (How many people would say "edit the crap," for instance?) Word choice is such a big part of voice, and has nothing to do with grammar.

But that is really interesting, TrishMo, about U.S. subs being glossy but lifeless. I wonder if it has more to do with what demographic submits in each country. Maybe it's all former ad execs here, or something. Or it could be the huge, looming presence of RWA. I once heard an editor say that RWA had actually made it harder to go through submissions, because everyone had reached a basic level of good craft, so you had to read more before you could determine whether it was any good.

At 12:24 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I don't really have a prob with "as." Here's an example of where I used it, if Deb wants to take a shot at improving it. (I put 'as' in italics. It normally wouldn't be.)

"She was five feet away when Julio made a noise like a raccoon in a fight and threw himself against the side of his carrier. I heard his claws scrabble on the plastic as he righted himself."

At 2:25 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

AS in the middle of a sentence. Never heard that one before but it makes sense to me. Thanks for the examples.

Compound sentences. Bring out the wet noodles!

Watching. As in "I watched while Debra prepared the wet noodles for flogging."

At 4:26 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Patricia: I think I just took out a bunch of "I watched" in my revisions. There are probably more. That's what comes of switching back and forth between 1st and 3rd POV in your books.

Lurve your example!

At 5:22 PM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

Esri wrote - "I edit the crap out of my stuff, and it still sounds like me to me. (How many people would say "edit the crap," for instance?) Word choice is such a big part of voice, and has nothing to do with grammar."

Esri, I love your voice - don't change a thing:-))

I guess I'm probably more talking editing in conjunction with critique groups. Imagine a newbie writer who writes "crap" in the first page of their submission, or is aiming for Presents and writes a ruthless hero. All it takes is a couple of others in the group saying "you can't say crap - not if you don't want to offend the editor", or "tone down your hero, he's too mean. I don't like him." and that newbie writer, anxious to please, starts tweaking with their work and soon you end up with something that everyone likes. Nobody hates it but nobody actually loves it. And that's how you can edit the spark out of your story. And I know this happens so I'm just saying, be so careful, people, when you're critiquing. CP's can be totally fabulous, but don't let yourself lose sight of your vision for the work or your own individual voice. That spells death to your submission.

Because in the end, it's only the editor who can buy your ms, so they are the only person who you really have to listen to. Take critiques only as another's opinion, and if a few people say, "I don't get this - there seems to be a continuity issue", or "I had to reread a dozen times to understand this", or "this bit is great", then take that on board, there's probably something there you should address or work out what you did right so you can do it again, but don't ever let cp's try to rewrite your ms (they can give you examples, sure) or muck with your voice.

Again, I'm going to say it, it's not about rules, it's about craft, it's about the effect. I so agree with Theresa - you have to know the rules, but by crikeys, you don't have to stick with them. If your story captivates a reader, then they're not going to give a rats if you broke a few rules along the way:-)

Enough with the rant:-))

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Watching. As in "I watched while Debra prepared the wet noodles for flogging."

LOL, Patricia!

At 1:01 PM, Blogger Renee Munoz said...

Very helpful, Debra. You dinged two of my personal "oops" examples... was/were and two separate actions needing comma separation on the list. Roving eyeballs was a hilarious catch with a different perspective and all -- I'm dusting my eyeballs off now! :)

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Debra says:

I know it's a few days late, but I finally am near a computer and email, and can respond to some comments.

Esri had a great "as" in the middle example: I heard his claws scrabble on the plastic as he righted himself.

In this case the action is happening so close together that the "as" slides in easily. If you're REALLY picky, you'll say that the dog's righting himself will come first. But it's close enough.

I found another "close enough" example in my own work. This is from my GH finalist, Sower of Dreams. It's in the prologue and the heroine is six years old.

Taking two strides, Indaran caught her as she jumped into his arms, and spun, twirling her until she squealed.

Again, she should be jumping first, but I like the sentence as is. When I tried to play with changing the sentence, I couldn't get it to flow in quite the way I wanted.

(See Trish Mo I'm not quite the editing Nazi you think I am. :)

But feel free to take a stab at changing my sentence.


At 6:11 AM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

Deb wrote...

"Again, she should be jumping first, but I like the sentence as is. When I tried to play with changing the sentence, I couldn't get it to flow in quite the way I wanted"

And that's exaclty the point I was trying to make. Go for effect, or flow or suiting your voice.

Never thought you were a grammar nazi, Deb:-)), just offering a different take.

Trish Mo

At 10:50 AM, Blogger MaryF said...

I use eyes instead of gaze, too. Drives my CP bonkers. I just don't like the word gaze.

I did find a lot of "He watched" when I was editing my WRP book.


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