Hello from snowy Connecticut! We’re mostly dug out from beneath the blizzard of 2013, and finally have our power back (yay, shower!). Our internet is down, though, and since I stubbornly cling to my ancient flip phone, my ‘net fixes are limited to daily excursions to the Panera in the center of town. Which is a long way of saying that I’m going to be late responding to comments … but respond I will!
Anyway, in addition to the entertainment value of cooking on a camp stove (and our friends laughed at our Cabela’s camo-laden wedding registry-ha!) and spending candle-lit evenings cuddling with Arizona, being snowed in gave me the down time to judge the entries from several writing contests I have on my to-do list.
Each year I critique chapters entered by unpublished writers, and each year I notice that there are trends in my comments. I don’t know whether that reflects what I’m focusing on in my own writing, trends in the marketplace, or recommendations made in an online class that everyone except me took (probably a combination of all three), but each year it’s something slightly different.
Last year, many of my comments centered on the opening of the story, where I felt the authors were rushing so quickly to get to the Point Where Things Start Happening that I didn’t know where I was, what was going on, whose head I was in, or why I should care. Now, I’m a fan of keeping the story moving, but I also need to bond with at least one character, or I don’t really care to keep reading.
This year, the openings were much better, but the caring … not so much. In chapter after chapter, I found the writing proficient, the setting clearly described, the plot nicely introduced … and had trouble connecting with the characters. Some were too self-centered, some were too emotional, some were just cold. The conflicts were there and the chemistry was fine, but I just couldn’t get excited about spending several hours with these people in my head. So I worked on pointing out places where the writing worked for me, and places where (in my opinion, your mileage may vary, etc.) the characters could use some work in the likability department.
Then I read a chapter that wasn’t like any of the others.
Now, I’m not perfect by any means (ahem, hello typos), but most of my grammar gaffes are deliberate choices. So when I’m judging a contest, errors in spelling, punctuation and other mechanics will usually distract me so much that I have trouble seeing the story through the trees (so to speak). But with this chapter? The mechanics were a mess, but I found that I didn’t really care.
When I looked past the flaws, I found a lovely heroine with interesting friends, believable conflicts, a good backstory, and a call to action in the form of a “come and help me” from a beloved family member. And she answered that call, even though it means going back to her old hometown and seeing an ex-fiance who still rings her chimes.
Was it terribly original? Nope. But darned if I couldn’t see that hometown, feel her reluctant pleasure at being back, and practically hear the “zing” when Ye Olde Ex showed up on the page. Not because it’s perfectly written, but because the author is a storyteller. She made me care, drew me in, and made me smile. And I’m grateful to her (I’m assuming it’s a ‘her’) for that, because sometimes in the midst of deadlines, outlines and all the other ‘-lines’ publishing can throw at me, I worry that I lose track of my storytelling.
So to all of the writers out there who send you work into peer-judged writing contests like the ones I judged this weekend, I commend your bravery and sincerely hope that the judges’ comments help you with your craft. And to the unnamed author of that unnamed chapter, thank you for reminding me of something that I have since written on a piece of tape and stuck to the edge of my screen: Write a story you love and fix everything else later.