Strokes

Very often, writing is a thankless task. Hours slogging away at words that people may or may not like, that sometimes don’t even make any sense.  Once you’ve made all the edits you can stand to make, you submit your words to the gatekeepers of the publishing world–editors and agents who judge you, your writing style, your ‘voice,’ your marketability. Sometimes they like your words enough to request more of them. Sometimes–far more often than not–they say, “thanks but no thanks.” Every once in awhile, though, you get that ‘yes,’ or at least that ‘maybe,’ that gives you the boost you need to write more words.

In the romance world–and I do think this is more true in romance than in other genres–writers enter contests. Contests are easy, and fairly painless, ways to put your work in front of readers. You can test the waters for a new manuscript, try out new subgenres, take a chance on getting your book in front of the wonderful editors and agents who serve as final judges. Worst case scenario, you receive mediocre (or downright awful) scores, hopefully accompanied by constructive feedback and thoughts on what isn’t working in your manuscript and how to fix it.  Best case scenario, you final, and your words are read, and maybe even bought, by those final judges.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on words I absolutely adore. I’ve been submitting them to agents and editors, and have received mixed but overall encouraging feedback. I took some of the feedback to heart, made some significant revisions (namely lopping off the first three chapters–ouch), and submitted the book to a contest to see what people thought.  And just when I was beginning to think it was all a waste of time, this week I received the email telling me I was a finalist. I was literally dancing and fist-pumping around the kitchen while my husband looked at me as if I were a lunatic.

Although I have the greatest respect and admiration for the folks who put on and judge contests–it is an INSANE amount of work, and even less (more?) thankless than writing–the contest itself is not really the point. What finaling in a contest represents is validation: I don’t suck as a writer, and people like my stories, enjoy the tales I have to tell. And all of us–writers and non-writers alike–need to know that what we feel passionate about matters.

 

So all of that is my weird way of announcing that I am so pleased and proud to be named a finalist in the historical category of the 2017 Pages from the Heart Contest for my manuscript, Buying Max.

Those of you who are new writers, and even those of you who’ve been weaving words for awhile, consider entering a contest. You might just get the validation you crave–YOU are fabulous, and so is your story–just when you need it the most.

 

 

The Grammar Grump: Dialogue Tags

A few years ago, when the kid was smaller and far less lippy, he was obsessed with a series of children’s books. Wonderful books, with interesting story lines and well drawn characters, and there were at least fifty of them at the time. One Christmas, we got a few of them on tape and listened as we drove across the country to the grandparents’ house. Nearly every line of dialogue was followed  by a ‘said.’ When you read these books to yourself, you don’t notice them. But when they are read aloud, wow. It became a game as we all shouted ‘said!’ every 30 seconds as the book progressed.

wordle 2I was thinking of this today as I judged a contest entry. After nearly every line of dialogue, there was a dialogue tag–those words used to convey information about the speaker. But because this author had probably heard somewhere that using ‘said’ is boring, she used other words too, including: remarked, explained, asked, instructed, huffed, purred, challenged, inquired, sniffed, whispered, concurred, warned, murmured, intoned, and added. And all of those were in the first few pages. An occasional asked, explained, or whispered is fine, but one doesn’t speak and sniff at the same time–go ahead, try it. In addition, many of the tags were peppered with adverbs–softly whispered, quickly explained. I should add that this entry was otherwise quite well written, but the ridiculous dialogue tags and excessive adverbs may have ruined the author’s chance to final in the category.

So, how to fix this problem? I am not saying a writer should never use dialogue tags. They are essential to clarify who is speaking, especially if there are more than two people in a scene. But you don’t need them all the time. Try a line of dialogue followed, or preceded, by a character’s action or expression. For example:

“You must be joking.” Robert laughed at the thought.
Evelyn sneered. “You’ll see.”

When you do use a dialogue tag, keep it simple. As I noted above, I hadn’t realized the children’s book author used ‘said’ so often, because when I read her stories, ‘said’ faded into the background. It conveys the identity of the speaker without beating the reader over the head. If you want to show a speaker’s emotion, or expression, try it another way:

His smile faded. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care, my lord.” She shrugged and turned away.

Pick up a book by your favorite author. How do they use dialogue tags? You may be surprised when you look more closely. The following exchange is from Julia’s Quinn’s On the Way to the Wedding. The characters are discussing what it must feel like to know you’re in love:

She lifted her eyes to his, made breathless by the gravity of of her own revelations.”It’s too much,” she heard herself say. “It would be too much. I wouldn’t. . . I wouldn’t. . .”
Slowly, he shook his head. “You would have no choice. It would be beyond your control. It just . . . happens.”
Her mouth parted with surprise. “That’s what she said.”
“Who?”
And when she answered, her voice was strangely detached, as if the words were being drawn straight from her memory. “Hermione,” she said. “That’s what Hermione said about Mr. Edmonds.”
Gregory’s lips tightened at the corners. “Did she?”
Lucy slowly nodded. “Almost precisely. She said it just happens. In an instant.”

There are plenty of other posts out there that go into more detail, and even a few books. Some of the better blog posts are these:
http://www.writing-world.com/grammar/said.shtml
http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs
http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/keep-it-simple-keys-to-realistic-dialogue-part-ii
http://querytracker.blogspot.com/2012/06/using-dialogue-tags-and-punctuation.html
http://theeditorsblog.net/2013/12/04/another-take-on-dialogue-tags/

How do you feel about dialogue tags, as a reader or a writer?

 

 

 

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.

 

In which I reveal my previously unknown tendency toward obsessive behavior

So yesterday they announced the winners of the Lone Star contest at the annual Lone Star conference. Sadly I was unable to attend, Houston being rather a long way from Cleveland for a day trip, so I have been obsessively checking my email since 1 PM yesterday even though I knew they wouldn’t notify the finalists until today. This afternoon as I was watching my kid’s hockey game, I got the call, which I didn’t hear because ice rinks are really noisy, and because he was in goal, which makes me neurotic. So I called back while I was driving home, which was probably stupid because all I wanted to do was a happy dance. I squealed instead, which would have alarmed my son had he not been rolling his eyes at me from the back seat during the entire call.

Yes, it’s true, I won in the historical category. OMG! (If you know me you may also know that I never, ever, use that expression. I have used it at least three times today, which will tell you how excited I am.)

I also got two requests for the manuscript. (OMG!) And since I still have pots more editing to do, I have no time to blog for you today. Instead I will leave you with an excerpt from the manuscript, entitled Stirring Up the Viscount:

Her eyes darted around the room as the smoke grew thicker. She spotted the cookery book her mother had given her when she married, and on an impulse she grabbed it, clasping it to her chest as she began to cough.
Theodora rushed toward the door and grabbed a light wrap off a peg. She stowed the book in her satchel and adjusted the wrap around her shoulders. She opened the door, the fire behind her beginning to roar with the added oxygen. She closed it firmly behind her and inhaled great gulps of air.
Her eyes were burning and her head ached, but she walked quickly around the house to the street. Fortunately Christopher Street was nearly deserted at this late hour. She stole a glance at the house behind her and saw smoke starting to curl around the windows. She spared Lucien a thought. It wouldn’t be long before someone noticed the smoke, and he wasn’t a particularly heavy sleeper. The chances were excellent that he would wake in time to escape.
She shook her head to clear her thoughts. There was no time for regret, and certainly no room for compassion. Not for him.  

Contest News!

Awhile back I gave you my musings on contests. I still agree with everything I said in that post, but now my perspective is slightly different. I mentioned that I entered three contests this past spring. In the first, which was NEORWA’s Cleveland Rocks Romance contest, I didn’t come close to being a finalist. However, one of the judges gave me some fabulous feedback which I used to make some changes that greatly improved the manuscript.

The second was the Romancing the Lakes contest, which is a fairly new one; I think this was its first year. Wonder of wonders, I was one of five finalists in the Historical category.  I didn’t dare hope I would be in the top three, let alone win, but I did. It was the first real validation that my writing does not suck. For a newbie, that is a tremendously good feeling.

The third was the well-respected Lone Star contest, sponsored by the very first chapter of RWA. For the last two weeks, my husband and I have been doing a cleanse, which means a lot of cooking for me and no caffeine, alcohol, sugar, wheat, or anything else that’s fun to eat. Last Saturday, I was feeling crabby. So crabby, in fact, that I was in the middle of making gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free chocolate cookies (which rock, by the way–here’s the recipe) to cheer myself up, when I got The Call. The call that told me I was a finalist. (Actually, it was three calls, since I was too crabby to answer the phone or check my voice mail the first two times.)

I spent the last week editing and polishing the first four chapters of my book. I will admit I was thoroughly tired of them by the time I sent the entry back to the category coordinator last evening, so I am ready to move on and polish the rest. In the spirit of eternal optimism, which is generally a stranger to me, I will have it ready to submit by the time the winners are announced in October, just in case.

So now it’s back to work for me, and time for you to share your thoughts on contests. Do you enter them? Have you won?

Marin

Writing Contests

This post is sort of an update of a piece I wrote last year over on New Kids on the Writers Block, when I was in a contest frenzy. I’ve been in contest mode this spring as well, serving as a category coordinator and a backup judge for the Cleveland Rocks Romance Contest, and as a judge for another RWA chapter contest. Serving as Category Coordinator was a ton of work but both fun and instructive–I certainly have a new respect for the amount of effort that goes into organizing a quality contest, and NEORWA’s contest certainly does rock.

I have also entered three contests this spring. I sent off my last entry just last night, feverishly editing and polishing until nearly 11 pm, just an hour before the deadline (apparently I thrive on deadlines, which encourages my tendency toward procrastination more than you might think). I submitted the same work to each. The first entry was pretty weak, since no eyes but mine had ever looked at it. The judges were kind; they gave me decent scores and pointed out some “duh” moments in the manuscript.  The second entry was more polished than the first–still waiting on that one–and the third entry was better still. (I hope; my eyes were crossing near the end and I probably made some huge mistake.)  Keep your fingers crossed for me, please!

Contests are wonderful ways to get your manuscript in front of unbiased judges, although you do, admittedly, have to pay for the privilege. Most contests include some combination of published and not-yet-published authors in the first round; the best contests train their judges. The benefits of a contest are tangible–you receive objective, generally constructive criticism,  as well as pats on the back for the things you do well. If you have submitted a work you’ve just started and want to get some feedback, contests are wonderful tools. If you are a finalist, your work is reviewed by an agent or editor who is actively acquiring manuscripts. If you win, you seldom gain much in a material sense, but you receive bragging rights and sometimes even a request for a full or partial manuscript from an editor/agent. A contest win can even lead to a book contract, although I suspect that happens infrequently.

Just as an aside, if you are interested in entering a contest or two, check out Stephie Smith’s contest chart first–there is so much good information I can’t even imagine how much work it must be to maintain it.  It has a romance bent, but there are more general contests listed as well. Alexa Bourne also teaches a wonderful class on the ins and outs of contests. She has one coming up in August; check out her website. Her Killer Openings class is great too.

Before you enter, know that there are downsides to contests too, at least in my opinion. First, the costs can add up if you enter too many, and the return on investment probably isn’t that great. Second, I think that being a contest junkie can give you a fabulous first 25 pages, but the rest of your MS can suffer from a lack of attention. (This is certainly true for me. The first five chapters of my current WIP have been edited to death, but I haven’t even touched the end yet.) Finally, as with any criticism of your writing, you need to take the judges’ comments with a grain of salt. Some of them, as painful as it will be to admit it, are spot on and if you take the judge’s advice your writing will be better. Other comments will make you wonder whether the judge was commenting on the right entry. Still others will make a valid point, but you will disagree with varying degrees of outrage.

In my opinion, contests have great merit, but I tend to look at them as a bit of a gamble: it’s important to know when to quit. I am done with contests for the time being, but I am interested to hear from you. Do you enter contests? If not, why not? What have been your experiences?  And have you ever sold a book as a result?

Marin

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