Thursday, September 2, 2010

Things I learned from contests

I have served as both judge and contest coordinator in numerous RWA contests for the past three years. I’ve also entered almost a dozen contests. Won two, including the one that brought with it my agent, Andrea Somberg. And was a finalist in two others, including the 2010 Golden Heart.

To me, contest judging, and being a finalist, are not unrelated. While I have never judged in a contest category that I entered, I have never judged in a contest without learning something that helped improve my writing.

The very first contest I judged taught me a lasting lesson on the problem with passive writing. You cannot write in a strong voice if your writing is passive. I found myself looking over an entry, trying to uncover why it felt slow, boring and difficult to read. As I examined the writing I realized two things. A—the entry had numerous passive sentences that were grammatically correct and probably would have received an A in English class, but made the fiction ponderous. And B—the author and I used the same kind of sentence construction.

Yes, I, too wrote in the passive.

When I read my own words they always sounded impossibly brilliant. When I read someone else’s words written using the same style I realized how dull passive sounds to everyone but the writer. I think my brain automatically corrects, just as it sometimes does for grammar errors, and the words from my old English classes come and congratulate me. It is good business writing. But terrible for telling an exciting story.

My passive sentences still sound brilliant to me. But, lesson learned, I now spend an entire edit cycle just going over my manuscripts on a seek-and-destroy mission to rewrite and strengthen every instance of passive construction I uncover.

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