Scoring Criteria, Part VI: Style, continued

Hello, readers —

Yesterday, I went on a rampage about the difference between basic good, clear writing (as expected as a minimum by judges, agents, and editors) and personal style. I argued that these professional readers are only going to give you brownie points for your writing style after your manuscript has proven itself to have surpassed that fundamental bar of correctly-formatted, grammatically impeccable, clear writing. The rest is gravy, but without the meat, professionals seldom bother to notice the deliciousness of the sauce.

Today, I am going to discuss how contest judges evaluate the gravy. Since literary style is so much a matter of personal taste, do these evaluations really reflect much more than the judges’ individual preferences and reading habits?

In a word, yes. There are technical elements of style that can be broken out and rated comparatively, over and above the base-level criteria.

One of these is pacing. Have you ever heard an agent or editor joke at a conference, “I’ve never read a first-time author’s work that went too quickly?” There is a reason they find this funny: most submissions slow to a standstill after a page or two. In a way, this is a boon to them; it gives them an excuse to stop reading and move on with their busy schedules.

Partially, spicy openings followed by tepid pages are the fault of the agents and editors themselves: have they not been telling us all for years and years that far and away the most important part of a submission is the first page, or even the first paragraph? So we all write our little hearts out to make those initial lines sing. Unfortunately, not every writer treats the rest of the first chapter, say, or the first 50 pages as a writing sample; after the initial push of excellence, the pace slows. Writers like stunning endings, though, so the pace tends to pick up toward the end of the book. Call it the little tip we give ourselves for finishing.

The result is a phenomenon the pros call “sagging in the middle.” When confronted with a book (or first 50 pages, or first chapter) that sags in the middle, agents and editors report feeling cheated, as if all of that fancy writing on the first and last pages were some sort of camouflaging trick writers used to fool them into thinking the books in question are better than they are.

Rejection almost invariably follows.

In contests, judges get to see only the first chapter of a book, so they are treated to post-intro sag. It is disappointing, to see an obviously talented writer back off from the intensity of a fine beginning. It may not be fair, any more than the agents and editors’ response to sag is fair, but sloping-off pace tends to be rated pretty harshly by judges. Sorry.

Then, too, there are the entries that never really get off the ground, or that wait until page three to start. These, too, are pacing problems, and the Technique category is where authors are penalized for them.

If you are in doubt about your pacing, try reading your work aloud to a third party. Mark on the manuscript whenever your listener starts to fidget; there may well be a pacing problem there. You can replicate this experiment less reliably on your own, by reading your submission straight through in a single sitting, and marking every place where your eyes left the page, even for a moment, without the outside stimulus of something dramatic, like a fire alarm or neighborhood insurrection. This experiment is valuable, because it will show you precisely how an unclear or ambiguous sentence stops a reader in her tracks, puzzling out meaning.

What you cannot do to catch pacing problems is read your work on a computer screen. Research has shown (how’s THAT for a vague statement?) that the average reader skims 75% faster on screen than on paper — it’s just does not give you a valid sense of actual book-in-hand reading rates. Long-time readers of this blog, let’s all say it together: read your own work OUT LOUD and IN HARD COPY before you even think about submitting it to professional readers.

If you really want to be sophisticated in your pacing, try a trick of the trade that contest judges love: at exciting moments, have the sentence structure shorter than at more meditative times. That way, the rhythm of the punctuation echoes the increased heart rate of the characters. Nifty, eh?

Another ratable aspect of technique is running order. Would the story have been more compelling told in a different order? Did the narrative stop dead because of the insertion of a paragraph of background information? Is the author telling too much, or too little?

In a nonfiction piece, running order is even more important than for fiction. Are the planks of the argument presented in an order that makes sense, where each one builds on the one before, leading up to a convincing conclusion? Are the examples frequent and appropriate enough? Did the author slow down the argument by over-emphasizing points that could have been glossed over quickly, to move on to more important material?

And so forth. Often, contest judges respond even more harshly to problems in running order than agents and editors do, because unlike the latter, judges cannot just draw a box around the misplaced part and scrawl in the margin, “Move to X, two pages back.”

At the risk of sounding like your 9th-grade English teacher, if you are in ANY doubt about the running order of your NF argument, take a blank sheet of paper and sit down with your manuscript. Read it straight through. As you make each major point in the text, write a summary sentence on the piece of paper, in order. After you finish reading, go back over that list: taken together, in that order, does the argument make sense?

In a fiction piece, it is a little more difficult to ferret out problems for yourself; an extra pair of eyes can be very helpful here. However, if you are left to your own resources, try outlining the plot. On a blank piece of paper, not dissimilar to the one described above, write down all of the major plot points in order. After you have a complete list, go back and ask yourself about each, “Why did this happen?” If the answer is along the lines of, “Because the plot required it,” rather than for reasons of characterization, you might want to recheck the running order; something is probably amiss, if you can’t justify an occurrence otherwise.

The final major component of Technique is freshness. Freshness is one of those concepts that people talk about a lot, without ever defining with any precision. A fresh story is generally not an absolutely original one, but a new twist on an old: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, for instance, is certainly not the first tragedy ever written about socially frowned-upon love, or even the first one involving either a cowboy or two men. The combination of all of these elements made for a fresh story.

It is interesting that when people in the industry talk about freshness, they usually resort to other media for examples. WEST SIDE STORY was a fresh take on ROMEO AND JULIET; RENT was a fresh retelling of LA BOHÉME, which was in itself a retelling of an earlier book; almost any episode of any sitcom originally aired in December is a fresh take on A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Or maybe not so fresh.

The point is, folks in the publishing industry just love the incorporation of contemporary elements into classic stories. There is just no other way to explain industry enthusiasm for BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, which reproduced the plot of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE so completely that many of the characters’ names remained the same. I’ve even heard publishing professionals describe THE COLOR PURPLE as THE UGLY DUCKLING with racial issues added, which I consider something of a stretch. (Besides, THE UGLY DUCKLING in its original form is absolutely about race, isn’t it?)

So in evaluating an entry for the Technique category, the judge will ask herself: if the story is a familiar one, is it being told in a new voice? If the story is surprising and new, are there enough familiar stylistic elements that the reader feels grounded and trusts that the plot will unfold in a dramatically satisfying manner? (And yes, they will probably ask these questions even if your entry is SF and takes place on Planet Targ.)

As you may see, even in rating an area as potentially nebulous as style, the judge will often adhere to (or be given outright) a set of formal evaluation criteria. By asking yourself a few of these questions in advance, before you submit your entry, you can often find ways to raise your work in the rankings.

Tomorrow, I shall discuss the Presentation category, which encompasses more than merely following the formatting rules of the contest and the industry. It is where the ta da! element comes in, especially for nonfiction entries.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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