I learned two really important things from entering a writing competition that offered feedback from the judges (a rare and informative practice that makes it well worth the entry fee).
The first I learned was of a technical nature.
Apparently using Open Source software, even when then saved in Microsoft format, completely stuffs the formatting and what looked like a perfectly formatted document to me, looked like rubbish to the judges who opened it in MS Word! It’s possible that I forgot to reformat for Microsoft when I submitted my electronic entry, but I think there was an online entry form, which I suspect ate my formatting somehow.
I am assuming that is why all three of the judges gave me the lowest marks possible for how my ms looked... apparently I didn’t even use the requisite size 12 font and my double spacing disappeared... somehow it also deleted the information about word count and changed the length of the document in their word count (1000 words is 1000 words, right? No – different software uses different word count algorithms. Hah, and you thought your word count was just that, a word count. Sorry, no. It’s all about Maths.) I’m assuming that I, therefore, went over the limit.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I scored 1 on all counts. Totally embarrassing.
This has not been an issue with my actual publishers (for whom I re-save all my work in .docx), or, at least, they are not saying if it is... and I assume that they would. Hence my assumption that it was all in the online form.
C’est la vie.
I have been wondering if I should submit to the tyranny of monopoly and just use Word like everyone else in the writing game.
The second piece of learning has been far more instructive as to my actual writing... and one that will take some concerted effort to remedy.
Firstly, I got pretty close to top marks for my spelling and grammar, but not top top marks, and where I lost out is probably based on my love of ellipses... which I overuse (and, strictly speaking, misuse)... and, possibly, the ingrained habit of putting two spaces after a full stop. Once again, making assumptions, but known weaknesses on my part.
Oh, and an editor friend tells me I use too many commas. I think that is just a style choice, but is perhaps something that I need to consider.
As for my spelling, I suspect that is because I use UK English by preference. Otherwise, I don't know what the spelling errors were supposed to be. I can't find any.
No, where I really lost out was that, in those first 1000 words, and all three judges agree to different extents, I just don’t get to the point. (How’s that for a convoluted sentence, by the way?)
One described it as creating a a ‘great sense of mystery and suspense’ (bless ‘em – it was what I was trying for) but another just downright stated that ‘by the end of the 1000 words I still didn’t know what was going on’. The same judge also said my writing was ‘great’ and ‘drew the reader in’, so I know that somewhere in the mix I’m on the right track, I’ve just got to speed up the train.
All three judges commented that they were keen to read on (very heartening, especially since they would have been struggling through that formatting mess), but that they had not yet worked out what the problem that my protagonist had to solve actually was! (Preposition at end of sentence alert – the jury is out on whether that is forgiveable or not, grammar wise.)
On the leader board my entry was pretty much rock bottom, despite great writing and appropriate sentence length, etc, for the age group.
At first, I blamed the formatting, which must have been woeful, but bit by bit, I started to think about my opening chapter and how I’ve spent so much time trying to set the scene and introduce my main character (It’s a time slip mystery and this character has found herself dragged forward in time, but doesn’t yet know it – this also confused the judges because I had her using archaic language – and is trying to make sense of what she is seeing and hearing, whilst still thinking that she has just woken up after an ordinary night’s sleep). Bleep. Too long. Too (suck it up) boring.
While this story is not a current project, I spent my sleepless night planning my rewrite.
I’m thinking that I’ll lose the archaic language (it wasn’t all that archaic, just saying ‘sought out’ instead of ‘looked for’ sort of thing) – she can just think in modern(ish) English like the rest of us – and dump her back where her problem actually began so that we the readers will have a better idea of what has happened, and we will still need to travel with her to find out how to solve the mystery, but we’ll be slightly ahead of her in knowing what the mystery she has to solve is.
A prologue that I had dumped because prologues are out will get reworked back in (but not as a prologue, because they are out), and I might switch the other characters up a bit to add some more tension between them – bringing them in a bit sooner, too, since one of the judges was suggesting that it might all be a bit more interesting if she had someone to bounce her thinking off or converse with.
Wish me luck.
The main thing that I got out of all this, however, is that this probably applies to other stories, too. Which takes me back to the beginning of my rewrite on the story that Terry Pratchett liked but publishers and agents don’t (an allegedly current project that has stalled).
Perhaps my opening chapters are all too boring and it is time to throw my characters in the deep end.
It certainly worked with the story that is soon to be released.
The moral of this story: do enter competitions where the judges offer feedback. And don’t be too proud to learn. And stop using too many ellipses... and sentence fragments that start with conjunctions. And swallow your pride and buy Word. Maybe.