Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Common Issues that Cost People Points in Clarity of Night Contests

Clarity of Night contests have two main goals. One is to strengthen the online writing community and the other is to improve our skill. In the spirit of the second, over my ten prior contests I've developed a scoring system that tries to dig at some objective qualities of writing. (For detailed discussion on the system, click over to A Note on Judging.) With the "In Vino Veritas (Truth in Wine)" contest approaching, I thought I would give some general feedback on the most common ways that folks get deductions under that system. Because of the competitiveness of these contests, 2 or 3 significant deductions will usually eliminate you from contention. I've generally found that strong writing scores at least 40 out of a possible 45 points. For that reason, I've also instituted the "Forties Club" to recognize writers who hit that mark, whether or not they placed.

I do want to point out that since this contest will by co-hosted by Jaye Wells in honor of her excellent debut novel, Red-Headed Stepchild, judging is by consensus between the two of us. She is not bound by my scoring system. I'll ask her to say a few words about what she is looking for when the contest is announced.

Without further ado, here is my list of common writing issues. I raise them in a constructive spirit.

1. Telling Instead of Showing. Most of the time, a story is strongest when it's portrayed in real time for the reader, not narrated by the author in a kind of summarized, Cliff's Notes fashion.

Example: Stephanie was so tired of her mother staring at her. Her mother asked so many questions all the time. She accused Stephanie of not caring. Nothing was ever good enough. In a sigh, she found herself thinking that she didn't even have the energy to respond anymore.

Rewrite: She pushed away the coffee cup she didn't ask for. Her mother stood by the table. Angry and waiting. The fatigue washed over her. "I'm sorry, mother," she said finally. "But I really don't know what to say to you anymore."

2. Over-description. If a single sentence has more than two adjectives, you're in danger of diminishing your impact. Example: The long, winding road was filled completely with a permeating, oppressive darkness.

3. Unbelievable Dialog.

Example: "What are you going to do with that hammer that you are waving in your hand?"

"I was thinking that maybe I should drive it through your skull and into your brain. In fact, I've been thinking about murdering you for ages upon ages."

Rewrite: "Put the hammer down!"

"I'm going to fucking kill you."

4. Mismatch. Mismatches can be in intensity, such as when powerful words are paired with a non-powerful moment.

Example: "The parking ticket thundered into my hands and demolished my every chance of having a glorious day."

Descriptions should generally fit the importance of the moment in length and intensity.

Mismatches can also be in time. Don't use lengthy descriptions to portray a very quick action (unless you are specifically going for a slow-motion effect).

Example: His fingers extended toward the door, and as he touched the brass, his hand curled around knob. With a twist, the door unlatched. He pulled it open and entered.

Reading these words takes about four times as long as the action itself.

5. Weak Verbs. Example: The sky was dark. The motorcycle was idling. He was eager to go. Rewrite: The clouds piled in the sky. The motorcycle engine sputtered. He flexed his hands, ready to go.

6. Unnecessary Words/Tightening. Example: When he sat down on the chair, he thought he saw her go out of the door and out of the room. Rewrite: As he sat down, he saw her rush from the room. (Stronger verb too.)

7. Cliches. Example: He needed her like he needed to breathe.



the walking man said...

He sat to write and decided the fight was best left others. the wine on the other hand was his alone.

Aniket said...

Have a lot to work on (5) and (6).

You had pretty much highlighted the others over the course of our interactions. I am so nervous about the contest. :(

Charles Gramlich said...

The "weak" verbs thing is sometimes an issue for me. Generally I like strong verbs, of course, but occassionally, using "was" or something like that is just right for the sound flow of a sentence. It's hard to explain but sometimes the "music" of such a phrasing can more than make up for the generally weaker and less specific verb.

Meghan said...

Good tips. Will keep in mind.

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice for any kind of writing.

Anonymous said...

Walking Man, it's pretty good wine.

Aniket, don't be nervous! They're fun and encouraging, right?? :)

Charles, I'm totally with you. The "music" is a great way to put it. You do need weak verbs to keep from over-seasoning the soup. All strong verbs would be a turn off. I'm referring when there is an anemia of strong verbs.

Meghan, thanks. :)

Kat, thank you!

the walking man said...

Jason...glad you liked it...that is my entry. capitalize the first word of the second sentence willya? But only if you take points away for errors of that sort.


Michele said...

Love the Parking ticket example. LOL
If a ticket ever 'thunders' into anything it's probably possessed, and I'd be freaking out. :-)

And "was" seems to be an automatic application in our conversations --it happens effortlessly, we forget that in writing, speech patterns don't often translate well. It's a challenge to keep on our toes.

Love this list. It is truly a bullet-point of issues.
Thanks for a great post!

Anonymous said...

Walking Man, sadly, the contest isn't open yet.

Michele, thanks! It's interesting how much you see when you read hundreds of stories of similar length and topic. You really see the effect of different approaches.

Karen said...

Jason - too much vino and too much veritas = toooo much trouble! This should be interesting...

the walking man said...

Better a day early and a dollar ahead than a day late and one short.

I just keep commenting on this post because I have nothing to add nor take away from what you say here. They are good tis for every writer.

Woman in a Window said...


And more yikes!

How 'bout starting sentences with and and making up your own rules? Huh? Huh?

Ya, I thought so.

Anonymous said...

Karen, too much THAT's an interesting concept!

Walking Man, feel free to add others.

Woman in a Window, I'd be happy to respond to that. John Gardner talks about writing as the "uninterrupted fictional dream." Anything that shatters that dream is to be avoided. Each of these issues I've discussed, with the possible exception of weak verbs, are dream shakers. Grammatical rules don't strike me that way. We don't think and experience the world in formal grammar. In fact, when I try to convey a character's thoughts directly and in raw form, you won't find a drop of grammar anywhere. We think in continuous images and feelings. Periods only come when we rest. Over-formality tends to remind me there's a writer speaking to me, and that's the main truth I'm trying to forget.

Adisha said...

Thank you !! These are points I'm surely going to have to work on more. Will have to be careful not to trip over myself :))

Will send in my entry , once I'm done !!

SzélsőFa said...

great points to any writing. The trouble (for me, that is) is once I'm in it's hard to take a distant look at what I'm in.

As to Karen's words: I've seen that yes, there is sometime 'too much truth' around.

laughingwolf said...

thx jason...

Gughan said...

These are valuable tips! I had been keeping my grey cells busy the past week and I have come up with a concept for my submission! Looking forward to the contest a lot!!