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The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison's Executed Men

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Passive Voice: It’s Not Just a Misdemeanor Anymore

It’s a felony, but I’ll get to that.

Twenty-seven judged entries are in the mail. I did my best to crush the dreams of several writers.  Mmuuhahah! (evil sinister laugh) Okay, of course I hope I didn’t do that. In fact, I like to think I offered constructive criticism while pointing out things they did well.

As writers, I believe we need to learn from everything we read and admit (even if it’s only to ourselves) what our shortcomings are when it comes to our own writing. Believe me, I’m no grammar maven. In fact, I’ve probably recently submitted less-than-stellar work containing errors and rogue commas. (I am after all, a recovering Comma Fairy who used to sprinkle my work with magic comma dust, letting them fall where they may).

Judging these entries for the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference proved to be a fantastic learning experience for me. It made me a better writer (at least that’s what I keep telling myself). So here’s what I (think) I learned:

Writing Mechanics are a lost art—apparently. Of the 10 elements to address in each entry, I’d say writers struggled the most in the area of mechanics (sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, formatting, verb tense consistency, and typos). My biggest pet peeve: Passive Voice. Sure, “was” has its place:

“It was a dark and stormy night . . .”   “T’was the night before Christmas . . .”   “It was the best of times, it was the worst . . .” (Oh, geez. There’s two of them)!

Don’t be a victim of passive language. Protect yourself with active verbs.

For many of the entries, I found it extremely difficult to see the story behind the constant ill-formatting, typos, and improper punctuation. In fact, it appeared many entrants devoted very little time and effort to the mechanics of  writing by using strange and inconsistent dashes, ellipses, and indentations. (If you’re going to misuse them, at least misuse them consistently). For some, I suggested a Comma Cleanse. Guaranteed good karma for the writers’ soul. One person misspelled their main character’s name three times! Another left a blank page in the middle of the submission and another page printed crooked, going off the edge of the paper.

Poor mechanics can kill an otherwise good submission and distract the reader from the story. So don’t rely on your fabulous story to save your butt.  After you think you’ve finished typing up your submission, take 1-2 days and focus ONLY on mechanics. Give it to someone else with instructions to only look for grammatical errors. Doing that can save your butt.

Other stuff I learned:

  • When submitting a one-page synopsis, use the whole page! Also, don’t assume the judge reads the synopsis first by thinking, “Hey, they’ll get it when they read the synopsis . . .” Uh, no. I read the synopses last because I wanted to have the same experience their target reader would have. Make the tone, mood, time, and setting clear, as well as who the central character is.
  • I suggest never ending your submission with half a sentence. Just because you have a page limit, doesn’t mean you print out just those pages and call it good. Tidy it up; don’t leave a sentence hanging.
  • Thinking about writing a 13-page prologue? Please don’t.

And last . . .

  • I’m not perfect! I know, hard to believe, huh? I learned it’s easier to point out flaws in others writer’s work than in my own. We can all be like that to a point, right? It forced me to see my own writing flaws and hopefully, correct them. Hmmm . . . I think I might be getting the hang of this writing thing.