news from the contest front


Written on Thursday, June 11, 2009 by haleigh

Thursday, June 11, 2009

So I'm finished judging my first ever contest. And you know what? I found myself writing the exact same comments over and over again.

And before you ask, no, it wasn't because I was lazy and just copied and pasted my comments. It was because I kept seeing the same problems over and over again.

I'll bet you can guess what my most-used comment was. Yep, that's right: "Can you show this, instead of telling us?" I can't even explain how many times I wrote that. That was problem number one. Of the five MS I judged, 3 had big-time problems in the "show don't tell" front. The second-most common problem: a shallow POV.

Now, this doesn't surprise me in the least. Mostly because "show don't tell" and "use a deep POV" are probably the hardest pieces of writing advice for new authors to wrap their minds around. It's taken me years to figure them out, and I wouldn't think for a second that I have it "perfected." These are concepts every writer must struggle with and strive for every day. These aren't ones you figure and are suddenly done with.

So no big surprise, that this is where contest entrants fell on my judging scale. I've certainly gotten contest points ripped off for this very thing on numerous occasions.

But the issue I kept running into that really surprised me? Some of these entries were....well...they were boring. I'm not saying this to be mean, I'm really not. But while reading, my mind would wander, I'd skim through page after page of introspection, I'd leave it and come other words, nothing compelled me to keep reading.

There were no questions in my mind I wanted answers to, no suspense to keep me intrigued (and before you say it, I was judging the romantic suspense category, and by 30 pages in, there should be some suspense). You know what I had instead? Pages and pages of each character explained to me. That's right, every single entry used several pages of introspection to introduce each main character. By the time I had finished chapter two, I knew everything about the hero and heroine.

Notice I didn't say I knew the hero or heroine. I knew about them. There's a big difference there, even if the wording is subtle. I could tell you their histories, their past traumas, their desires, their conflict. But you know how in a really good book, you know the characters? You know how they'd react, how they feel, what drives them, etc. I didn't get that feeling.

To be fair, I was only reading 30 pages. But it made me wonder if I do the same thing. If I'm so busy telling my readers about my characters to introduce them, that I forgot to show their characterization. Anybody else have that problem?

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  1. MeganRebekah |

    I won't pretend to have this perfected by any means, but it is definitely something that I'm aware of as I write.

    For my WIP my MC is meeting everyone for the first time, so there's no backstory. I've got their backgrounds spread out throughout the entire book, just like what would happen in real life. Would you tell someone you just met about the time your mother beat you? Probably not. But you would open up more later if you became close friends.

    I think that most authors need to take a step back and ask themselves "Is this how a scene would unfold in real life?"

  2. Jessica |

    Hi Haleigh,
    So funny. I just started judging my entries yesterday, and they're for RS too. I've only opened the one so far, but it's got basically the same problems. Shallow Pov and no suspense until the third chapter.
    I love judging contests and am going to post about it. I learn so much about my own writing just from reading others'.
    Glad you enjoyed your experience. I've judged a few contests and some have had super polished, good entries and othertimes there are newbie entries. It's tough, trying to teach a new writer without overwhelming them.

  3. Cindy |

    Thanks for sharing your insight with us. I'm still learning when it comes to the "show vs tell" bit. And I can understand about the introspection thing. I used to do that so much! I think your post can be really beneficial to new writers. Learning about these topics can immensely improve their writing (mine too!) and make it easier once they start submitting pages.

  4. haleigh |

    Hi Megan! You know, I never thought about it in terms of real life, but you're totally right. I'd be totally creeped out if a complete stranger explained to me their life history :) But the more time you spend with the someone, the more you reveal about yourself, the more you tell, etc. Excellent analogy!

  5. haleigh |

    Hey Jessie! I can't decide how I feel about judging. I get really uncomfortable having to assign a number or grade to something. Then I start to worry if it's too high, or too low, or if they'll agree or demand an explanation...grrr.

    I think I got the same thing - some very polished, others from new writers. I think contests can be so helpful for new writers, to get objective feedback. At the same time, I'm paranoid I'm going to discourage someone from writing. I re-read all my comments twice, and I don't *think* I was harsh, but you never know how someone's going to take something, especially someone new to writing.

    I guess all I can do is be as kind and objective as possible, and if they want to take it personally, there's not much I can do to stop them.

    But you're right - I've spent most of the week running back to double check my own writing for some of this step. It's really helpful to judge!

  6. haleigh |

    Hi Cindy! Thanks for the kind words - I hope it's helpful. Show vs. tell is such an awkward thing to try to learn, isn't it? There's a lot of times when it's hard to tell the difference.

    If it's something you're still fighting through, there are two books I found very helpful - Self-Editing for Fiction Writers , and Description and Setting - part of the Write Great Fiction series

  7. Melissa |

    Yes, I've definitely had the same problem of telling my readers about my characters AND the story in general for that matter. I love Megan's comment of taking a step back and thinking how it would play out in real life. In fact, I think that should be a final checklist for revision, because I'm not so sure I can think that way in the "getting the story down" part of the writing process. I'll try though - - along with a gazillion other things I promise to do right the first time to save me from fixing later! lol

    Those two things "show don't tell" and "use a deep POV" were the very things I was STILL unsatisfied with in my late (I've given up saying FINAL lol) revisions. I've kind of accepted that we (me anyway, and likely others) can't help telling somewhat in our early drafts and maybe it shouldn't be something to beat ourselves about too much? I mean, in the early draft we are concerned about getting down what happens when. Only by adding a layers does telling shift to showing and the POV deepen. Even by saying that, I know I'm telling, not showing. lol But I can see those layers helping in my late revisions where I realized I rushed through days by telling: "it was night again and Justin was worse" rather than showing a scene of him choking the heroine in his delerium. That, I hope, was showing. lol

    So, my theory, and I hope it isn't discouraging but rather encouraging, is that we can know inside out what it means to show not tell or have a deep POV, but that doesn't mean we do it - - the first time anyway. You are exactly right that we "know these concepts and are done with them." Some days that is frustrating in the extreme.

    So, while I'm thinking that some of those contest entries were missing that extra layer, I'm sure you explained that in a way that was very helpful.

  8. Melissa |

    Oops! I meant to say you were right that we know these concepts but AREN'T done with them...

    I'm now trying to decide if I'm developing bad habits to "skip" showing and deeper POV along with other "placeholder" info while writing early drafts. Maybe slowing down would be better in the long run. :)


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