Our WindyCity RWA is hosting a writers contest and I have agreed to help judge. Reading entries is beneficial to me too; I focus on what is important in storytelling, the characters, the plot, setting and all the little things that move a story forward. It becomes a good reminder of what I should watch for in my own writing.
Here are a few basic things a writer should check before sending their entry to be judged: These are in no particular order of importance, simply a list to help writers become better writers.
1. Check the passive verbs vs. action verbs. If the story is meant to be fast paced, then the verbs should reveal such. Passive verbs (is, was, will be, etc.) slow the pace down. Be sure your verbs move the plot at the pace you need it to go. A simple way to check for passive words: circle the verbs on a few pages to see the level of movement. Revise as needed.
2. Cliche's. They do not belong in a new story. Find a fresh way to express the old adage. Or ... delete it completely. It may not be needed at all.
3. Point Of View: (POV) It is your character's duty to reveal the information your readers need to know. They should do this in an interesting and intriguing way that feels real, meaningful and timely. Do not load the reader with insight that sounds more like a sidebar instead of the thoughts of your characters. If your narrative doesn't sound like your character, you have stepped away from him/her and taken the voice away from them. You, the writer, have then taken over the role as narrator and this rarely works.
4. Dialogue: Keep it simple, direct and meaningful. Written dialogue is not "real life" dialogue. The purpose of the exchange of words between two or more characters is to move the story forward. This is a good time to bring in new evidence/twists/doubts/emotions, etc. If your dialogue has not produced anything new, chances are it is not needed. Dialogue should be from one character's POV. Head jumping just gives folks a headache. Not every thought needs to be revealed; your characters words and actions/reactions do a better job of this. Show don't tell.
5. Repetition: This may be my pet peeve. Readers rarely need reminding of what they already read. To repeat the same problem over and over again dulls the ache/the need/the want. Only when new information is added does the repetition become interesting again. It's much like spinning a tire in a rut. It gives you something to do ... but you don't get anywhere! These sentences need to be hunted down and slashed off the page. A quick death will improve the rest of the paragraph immensely.
6. Over use of the same word: my favorite is ... cried. I just finished a book by a well known author and the main character cried through the whole thing. It was irritating! And frankly, I don't know how the editors/proof readers missed such a blooper. So, please check for over-used, worn out words. Be aware there are dictionaries and thesauruses available to help broaden your vocabulary.
Use these guidelines to improve your writing and BEFORE you spend time and money on a contest entry. By taking these final steps, you will receive better feedback from the judges. That sounds like a win-win scenario to me!
Til next time ~