Friday, July 16, 2010

Contest Scoring (And What Costs You Points)

With my 13th contest about to begin, I wanted to take a moment to refresh my guidance on what causes point deductions under my P.E.T.S. Voice scoring system.

But first, what is the system, you say? I award up to 45 possible points for the following elements:

Pacing...10 points
Entertainment Value...10 points
Technical Use of Language...10 points
Storytelling...10 points
Voice...5 points

The elements of pacing, technical use of language, and storytelling all relate to how the writer uses words to bring the story alive. Entertainment value and voice focus on overall impact and uniqueness. My scoring system is designed to reward tight writing more than a good idea. For that reason, a good story expertly written will place higher than a great story with writing issues. (I have a specific theory for why I do it that way, but that's for another day.)

So, what do I mean by "writing issues" specifically? They are anything that "pulls you out" of the story or diminishes the dream the scene is trying to weave in your brain. In short, if the writing itself drags down the story, it's a writing issue.

Here are the most common culprits:

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. Caveat: Judicious use of telling can be essential to giving the reader information. However, the entire piece should not be telling.

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. Stephanie thought that she didn't even have the energy to respond anymore.

Rewrite: Stephanie pushed away the coffee cup she didn't ask for. Mother stood by the table. Angry and waiting.

Stephanie sighed with years of fatigue. "I'm sorry, mother, but I really don't know what to say to you anymore."

What's the point? Build the scene for us. Portray action. Have people talk. Don't just tell us about it second hand.

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. Caveat: A sprinkling of weak verbs is necessary to give the reader a breath. All of the verbs can't be strong, but too many weak verbs makes the impact anemic.

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.


Oddyoddyo13 said...

I don't know why, but the last one seemed funny. Thanks for giving examples-I understand the theory behind most of it, but those helped tons!

Tabitha Bird said...

Awesome. Am taking all that on board. :)

Kriti said...

That was very helpful, Jason. Thank you! :)

Laurel said...


Yay! It's almost here! Yay!

Anthony Rapino said...

Thanks for the refresher. All great points.

Anonymous said...

Well said. Thanks again for having the contest. I'll make sure to spread the word.


Rosaria Williams said...

You summarized an entire writing class.

Anonymous said...

I just submitted a re-edited version of my MS to my publisher (iUniverse) this week. I couldn't believe all the cliches I had to take out. Cliches can derail character development, conflict, or a particular action scene.

Stephen Tremp

Unknown said...

Hi Jason!

Thanks for the refresher, all good points well taken. I'll spread the word.

Dottie :)

Leah McClellan said...

Woo-hoo! I'm excited! Can't believe 6 months has flown by!

Jason I mentioned the contest in a blogger's club I belong to, A-list Blogging Club. Not only because I think it's a great contest but also because I think it's great writing practice for those of us who tend to be verbose lol (that would be me :) So if you have stats and can see where traffic is coming from well, there you have it :)

Aniket Thakkar said...

@Laurel: Reading glasses on!

@Jason: I've given the link to this article (from the previous contest) to so many people who wanted help in writing better short fiction. I always read this and revise my story before I submit it anywhere. And I always find a line or two to write better.

Anonymous said...

Oddyoddy013, Tabitha, Creation, Laurel, Onipar, Strugglingwriter, Lakeviewer, Stephen, Dottie, Leah, and Aniket,

Thanks so much! I can already tell you will be leaders in this contest community. :)

Obscure Optimist said...

Jason, everytime i read the tips you provide, before the contest, it reminds me to improve where i think i am done.
I am looking forward to the contest, entries, feedbacks and all the fun we usually have at C.O.N :)
All the best, everyone!

Grey Johnson said...

Great fun and a great challenge. I wish the best of luck to all who participate. Excellent and concise tips and suggestions, Jason. Thank you.