Awarding Points – Notes on the Experience of Judging Fiction
by Kenneth Weene
First and foremost, I was appalled by the lack of editing. An editor is important for a number of reasons.
No matter how well you did in English, you will have difficulty seeing your own little errors, those errors in homonyms, spelling, punctuation, contractions, and on and on. I make those mistakes, too. A good editor is an extra pair of eyes to catch such mistakes, and he is particularly geared to look for them.
The second reason your editor is important is that she is making sure that what you have written makes sense, that it communicates what you want to say. And, of course, she is making sure that you are communicating in a way that will keep the reader’s interest. She is doing that part of her job when she questions a word, a phrase, sometimes an entire sentence or more because it just doesn’t sound right. A good editor is a careful reader.
At the same time, your editor is trying to make sure that you haven’t somehow changed the voice of the narrative, for example I have a tendency to slip into the all-knowing voice in which my narrator tells the reader too much of what the character is experiencing or, even worse, where things should be going. While he is looking for consistency of style, your editor is also looking for inconsistencies of facts. Perhaps there is a reason your heroine is able to hike so far with a prosthesis that would hinder most, but that reason doesn’t work if the reader has chapters earlier learned how much that darn stump hurts and interferes with the heroine’s life.
Finally, when the galley’s come back, your editor is again a treasured extra pair of eyes for that last proofread.
Of course, no matter how good an editor you have, she can only do so much. Ultimately this is your story, your creation. It is up to you to write something that another person, other than you nearest and dearest, will want to read. That takes some skill. I don’t believe that we all have the makings of a great novel in us. Writing is a craft, and like any craft the skill needs to be honed and practiced. I won’t repeat all the basic advice, for example “show us don’t tell us,” or “active is better than passive.” Instead, I want to focus on a few simple stylistic points that I found particularly important reading the Arizona Book Award entries.
First, let me tell you something very deflating. How much you know is not important to the reader. Yes, I know, Tom Clancy teaches his readers lots about submarines, or cyber-crime, or whatever; but he’s an exception with a very specific reading public. More importantly, what he teaches us is always relevant to his story. Explaining why your character has chosen a Glock over a Smith-and-Wesson is usually only your narcissistic need to show how much you know about handguns. Look over your manuscript; if you’ve done a lot of teaching, consider writing nonfiction.
Be sure your reader knows what she needs to know, which means you have to know it, too. If there is a medical condition at the heart of your story, don’t wait till the end of the book to make the reader aware of it or at least of the clues of its existence. For example, make sure that somebody notices the bags under that character’s eyes and their hair loss before you reveal that he had severe hypothyroidism. You want your reader to go away having been surprised but not feeling blindsided. The blindsided reader doesn’t give you good word-of-mouth.
Make sure you know what you need to know even if you aren’t going to explain it to the reader. For example, if you are using music references in your story, make sure you’re picking pieces that are appropriate to whatever you want them to do, set the mood, give a clue, or indicate something of personality. In the book I’m currently writing, I am using chickens. I knew very little about chickens, but wanting them in the book, I did some research. I hope my readers will never know how much, that they will simply experience the chickens as part of the story.
Next, I want to say something about style. People read books, especially fiction, to enjoy them. The writing should flow in such a way that the reader can find pleasure not only in the plot but also in the use of language. Sentences should sound pleasantly to the ear and characters’ speeches should give the feeling that real people are talking, even if those real people use some unique colloquialisms and speech patterns. Long convoluted sentences and big words may make you feel good, but they won’t hold the reader in your thrall. Work on your writing style. One of the best ways is by writing poetry. It helps you to think about the way words will sound in combination. Another way is to share your writing with others who like to write. I regularly attend a writing group in which we share and discuss each other’s work.
If you want the reader’s experience to go with the flow of your writing, be sure to remind him a few times along the way in case he may have forgotten something or someone. The more characters you use and the more subplots you explore, the more important it becomes that you give those little memory boosts. Nothing frustrates a reader more than having to go back looking for earlier references to a character who has suddenly popped into the story. In one book I read for the competition one of the characters had two names. Because the character was a Native American, the use of these two names made some sense, one for use within the tribe and one for the white world. What didn’t make sense was the author’s use of one name and then of the other before later telling the reader that it was the same person. If this had been intended to create confusion for another character, it would have been fine. However, it didn’t make sense in this novel because the character who was referencing the two names knew she was referring to the same person; only the reader was left out. Part way into the book I had to think about these two supposedly separate people and integrate them. Frustration time!
Style is also about how you present yourself as an author. Part of that is in the narrative style you employ. For some reason, many writers feel that their narrator, especially if the book is written in the first person, must be a wise-ass. I guess those writers see it as an opportunity to tell the world how funny they are. Typically it doesn’t work, especially if the author feels compelled to crack comments about small things that are not integral to the story. Remember that your readers need to care about your protagonist; even if he ends up being a bad guy, you still need them to care enough to want to know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to care about a character who doesn’t know that he’s trying too hard, especially when we know that he’s going to be around for the entire book. Such a wise-ass character-narrator always makes me think How long is this book going to be?
Presenting yourself as an author is also implicit in your choices of typeface, cover art, author’s picture, forward, dedication, comments on the back cove, etc. Pay attention to these details, especially if you are self-publishing. Particularly, make sure that the typeface you choose will look like a book and not something done on a typewriter. Make sure that your title sounds interesting and different. Don’t over-explain. Your readers, other than family members and the like, don’t really want to know why you made those choices and picked those events. They want to be taken along in the flow of your tale not informed about your personal history.
If there is one overarching message to be taken away from these notes it is – Don’t be too wrapped up in yourself. As a writer your first obligation is to the reader. With that advice, I wish you the best of writing and the joy of reading.
Please do leave a comment and my heartfelt thanks to Rob Walker and the entire Acme family for inviting me.