To Err is Human; to Correct Divine?

In which I  confess to the guilt I feel about correcting grammar and other errors in manuscripts I’ve been asked to look at. How much input is too much? Or am I doing the author a favor? Grammar is important, folks.

So I’m in the midst of judging a contest for unpublished authors. I love judging, editing and helping writers learn their craft, but I’ve hit a dilemma: what to do with terrible entries. I can spend hours on a single entry. For the most part, their ideas are fine and they have a grasp on their story. However, the execution is, for the most part, weak. Major grammar errors, word choice errors, punctuation errors, structure errors, inconsistencies, characters out of character, contradictions, etc. Because of who I am (former English teacher, self-proclaimed grammar aficionado—but not spelling; never spelling), I can’t help but line edit as I judge.

 

Having entered many contests in the past, I do have experience with being ripped apart. I never took it badly. Yes, sometimes I dismissed what the judges said because it was ridiculous (“Cartegena? What’s that?”—yes, this was a comment on one of my entries a long time ago and it made everything the judge said suspect; in that same contest, I received a very low score from this judge and a near perfect score from the other; it happens more often than you think.), but mostly when the judges wrote something, I mulled it over and absorbed it. More than once a judge has caught something that made me say, “Oh my God, she’s right. How could I have done that?” In one particular instance a judge pointed out that one of my characters needed a bath. She was so right, so in went a quick bath scene. In most every circumstance, I’ve learned from entering contests and always appreciated the effort given to my entry.

 

Which leads me to my dilemma. I don’t want to be discouraging, but in these entries from rank beginners, the writing itself is getting in the way of the story. The entries are difficult to get through because of the grammar and punctuation errors.

My friends and I call this massive dictionary “The Herniator.”

They are nowhere close to submission to an editor or agent, or even being ready for a contest. These are basic writing concepts that they don’t understand. It makes me think that they don’t have anyone with ability to read their manuscripts. Many people enter contests for the feedback because they have no one else. Maybe no one has told them you don’t punctuate actions tags the same as speech tags. Maybe no one has told them that speech tags should be limited mostly to “said” and “asked”, that you can’t gasp or laugh or urge or smile a sentence. Maybe no one has pointed out the humorous mistakes that dangling participles make, or that run-ons are annoying, or that too many fragments reduce their impact.

 

Worse. Maybe they do have readers they trust and think they know what they are doing, but they don’t.

 

Worst. Maybe when they see all the markings I’ve left, they’ll be devastated.

 

I always find something that they do well and leave notes to the effect that I admire that they’re writing, that they have great ideas, but they need to work on the fundamentals first. But that still leaves the actual manuscript with all the “red marks.”  Is that part of growing a thick skin?

 

I mean well, but I can’t help myself from correcting. What do you think?

(And, really, we’re talking about major errors here, not the occasional missing or misplaced comma.)

–Gabi

 

Books I’m reading now:

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Contests

In the romance world a writer has ample opportunity to enter contests. I confess I haven’t looked into contests for other genres much. Of course I’ve heard of the big ones–the Hugo, the Nebula, the Edgar, etc–but in the romance world there are contests for published and unpublished authors in every sub-genre you can imagine. I’ve entered several, finaled in most, won a few, so here is my take.

On the plus side:

  • A contest can give you validation. It feels good to win or final in a contest. It lets you know your work is appreciated by others who have nothing at stake in judging you. It ain’t your family telling you you’re good. Sometimes you need that validation. (Let me tell you though, the feeling doesn’t last. Why are we humans so quick to forget the good stuff and obsess on the bad? Or is that just me?)
  • A second perk is getting your work in front of an editor or agent who might be interested in buying your manuscript. While I never received any offers from my contest wins, I do know a couple a of people who sold directly because of winning a contest.
  • If your writing isn’t at the level of winning or publishing yet, a contest can give you valuable feedback on your work from readers who again have nothing at stake in critiquing you. One of the most helpful things a beginner can receive is unbiased feedback. It can hurt, but the learning curve is huge with an honest critique.
  • A contest can help build your thick skin. You need it in this business. Losing a few contests, or being ripped apart, can teach you that you can survive a harsh review in the future.  Lastly, for you already published authors, a contest win can give you bragging rights, something to stick on your covers. You will often see Hugo Award winging author on a cover.

On the minus side:

  • Most contests cost money, and some are very expensive. Sometimes entry fees are out of reach.
  • You might be judged by thoroughly incompetent judges, people who aren’t qualified to judge writing. I’ve always laughed when someone criticized my grammar. Yeah, I rarely make grammar mistakes. If I have often it’s a typo, not a grammar error. (Mind you, if you’re judging my grammar by this blog, just stop. I’m talking about my manuscripts, not the thoughts I randomly post here. This is casual. My writing is anything but, and if dialog or writing is casual in my manuscripts, you can bet I did it on purpose). My favorite judging error was when a judge had no idea what Cartagena was. Really? And there have been several others. I’ve even had judges mark up a manuscript for using passed instead of past, when passed was correct. Anyone who has entered contests can tell you stories about judges’ errors.
  • You might end up with a judge who just doesn’t like your work. No matter how objective a judge tries to be, judging is subjective, and if you write vampires and they abhor vampires, it will reflect in your score.  A contest is often a crap shoot. Your manuscript/book may be incredible, but it won’t get the recognition it rightly deserves. You get judges who hate your voice or plot or theme. Or not finaling may be as simple as getting a judge who doesn’t believe in giving out top scores because nothing is perfect. So, it’s a crapshoot.
  • You can get addicted to contests and winning. I knew of a writer who had three perfect starting chapters and won contest after contest, but never finished the manuscript. The danger of polishing the beginning (usually what is asked for in a contest) is never giving the rest of the manuscript the attention it deserves.
  • If you don’t get the results you hope for and you haven’t developed that thick skin, you might find yourself so discouraged that you quit.

I know I listed more cons than pros, but I personally like contests. I can claim I am an award winning novelist. Almost every one of my novels has been recognized in one way or another. And besides, I’ve always loved competition. (Never play a board game with me unless you play by the rules and play to win. I don’t mind losing as long as it was a worthy battle. But I play to win.)

So vet your contests. Examine why you are entering and what your goal is. Choose wisely. Contests can be fun or helpful or none of the above. Entering is something you have to decide for yourself.

–Gabi

Books I’m reading now:

See previous posts. (Yes, I’m reading slowly now; or I’m blogging too quickly.)