Grumpish about Grammar

This post is very late. I was in a super bad mood last Sunday and couldn’t think of anything I wanted to write, and I was too busy reading contest entries anyway.

Back in the spring I volunteered to serve as a first round judge in several contests. I actually love judging contests, but when I volunteered I stupidly failed to realize that all of the entries were due back in the same week. Nevertheless, I was happy to do it–it is great fun to read the entries and to help a writer (often a brand-new writer) learn a bit more about craft, and I never fail to learn something myself. Sometimes the entries are absolutely wonderful and truly a joy to read. Other times, not so much. This year, I had far more not-so-much entries than wonderful ones. Most of the entries I read had a great plot–original, interesting, and fun. Unfortunately, many of them were also riddled with errors in grammar and punctuation. Some had clearly not even been proofread, and were full of typographical errors and spelling mistakes.

As a result of this experience, I have spent the last few days wondering why writers would enter a contest without dealing with at least some of these problems. It is important to realize that a contest is, in some ways, a trial query. Most contests have agents and/or editors serving as final round judges. If you final, you get your work in front of one of them. If she likes it, she may request a partial manuscript, or even a full. And sometimes–as I can gratefully attest–an editor buys your book or an agent agrees to represent you. Why, then, would you not make your manuscript the very best it can be before submitting it? Especially because contests cost money?

Now, I will admit that the first time I entered a contest I had no idea what I was doing, and it is certainly possible that some of the writers I judged were in a similar place in their writing careers. My entry had many, many craft errors, but it had been carefully proofread. I learned a lot from the judges in that contest, and in my critiques of the entries I reviewed in the last couple of weeks, I tried to do the same for those writers.

My point here is two-fold: First, if you are an author, especially a published author, consider donating your time and expertise to juIMG_3137dge a contest. You will make a huge difference in a writer’s life, and you will learn something too.

Second, if you are a writer wishing to enter a contest, polish that manuscript! Proofread it–do not rely on spell check alone. Check your grammar. If you need to brush up on grammar rules, do so. Pick up a copy of Strunk and White. Go online–there are a lot of sites which offer help on grammar issues. For example, I like the Grammar Girl for short and sweet tips. There’s Grammarly, which scans your text for grammar and punctuation. (I’ve never used it, but it gets good reviews.) From the Write Angle has blog posts about grammar, craft, querying, and a bunch of other good stuff. Or just Google “grammar” and see what you get. Once you have these basics down, it’s much easier to focus on the craft–all those things that make you a better writer.

I’ve decided to stop whining and do something to help (hopefully). Once a month, starting next week, I’ll do a post on issues I’ve spotted in manuscripts, or things I’ve been curious about. If any of you have a grammar or craft question you’d like me to discuss, or if you’re interested in doing a guest post about your grammar pet peeve, or if you are better than I am at coming up with catchy names for my grammar posts (because honestly, who isn’t better at that than I am?), leave a comment here or drop me a line at marinmcginnis@yahoo.com.

 

Fighting Fear

Once upon a time, I knew a guy who spent three years in law school, but when it came time to take that last class to graduate, he just didn’t bother. His employer gave him time off to study for and take the bar exam, but although he took the time, he never took the exam. Because, of course, he couldn’t. He was a smart guy, very knowledgeable in the field, but he never took those final steps to become a lawyer. I always wondered why. My ten year old just read this paragraph over my shoulder and answered the question for me: “I think he was afraid.”

I think so too. You can’t be called a bad lawyer if you never finish law school. And you can’t be called a bad writer if you never finish a book.

I typed “The End” in my manuscript seven months ago. I need to add a couple of scenes and it requires some serious editing, but the bones are all there.  And yet I cannot seem to finish it. I even started another book, and although that is going well, I am being haunted by the first one.

Generally speaking, I am not a risk-taker; I never have been. When I graduated from college, I cried for two days because for the first time in my life I had no idea what to do next. When I started my own law firm I was so freaked out I didn’t eat for three weeks and lost about 15 pounds.  Both involved leaving a safe cocoon of support and certainty. To me, a manuscript is a bit like that. When it’s in your own head or on your own laptop, it’s safe and secure. You can imagine that it will be perfect, that everyone will love it.

So I suppose it’s understandable, if pathetic, that the idea of pitching and querying the book scares the crap out of me. I squandered a recent opportunity to pitch at the NEORWA conference, and didn’t participate in a query workshop I took a few weeks ago. I told myself it was because the book wasn’t ready, but I was lying: the truth is that I was terrified.

This morning as I had both the old and the new manuscripts open on my laptop, I thought about that guy who never finished law school, who as far as I know still works in a cubicle doing the same thing every day. I thought about how I went abroad for my junior year and it was an unforgettable experience that inspires me to this day. I thought about how I left my cushy life for law school, and I graduated cum laude. I thought about how I started my own firm, and it’s doing fine. And I realized that I actually am a risk taker when it counts.

Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” So every day I will do something scary, or at least a little difficult. I will write a logline, a pitch, and a query letter. I will shelve the new MS until I finish the old one. And then I will send my baby out into the world.

 

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