Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Preparing for the Genesis: Presentation

After leaving the Air Force, my husband did a short stint at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (the PX and BX stores found on bases.) On several occasions, he had to set up displays that covered entire walls. And he did it well. The result was product placed in a functional, appealing manner that accented the store's decor.

Presentation is also important in manuscripts. So important, a submission's lifespan can be determined with just once glance. I once served as a contest judge, and within minutes of receiving my assigned entries, I figured out how. Certain formatting and writing errors indicate the author is new, or that they're trying to get their point across using simple methods instead of crafting the story. And if they're relying on gimmicky writing, it's likely the story has other issues. So today, let's cover presentation, and then we'll dig a little deeper.

A few things to avoid:
  • Typos. Yes, people submit manuscripts that contain typographical errors. They're in a hurry to submit their entry, whether out of excitement or fear. Points are deducted for such errors, so take your time. Carefully read your entry and check for errors.
  • Punctuation. Know it. Few will get it all right, but know when to place commas before "and", and when not to. Know what a dangling modifier is and how to avoid them. Participial phrases can be your friend or your enemy.
  • One space after a period. Not two.
  • Spell numbers and time. There are some exceptions. If you don't own a copy of, or subscribe to, the Chicago Manual of Style, buy one or find their website. Then use it.
  • Bold type. Don't use it. Ever.
  • Italics. You can argue that italics are found in published work, but if you're entering a contest for unpublished writers, avoid it. Weave the thoughts you're itching to italicize into the narrative. If you can't do so without using first person, consider writing the entire story in first person.
  • Speaker tags. Use as few of them as possible, and when you do use them, use "said", not rejoined, countered, murmured and definitely not, she laughed or she smiled. Even a fictional person cannot laugh or smile words.
  • Adverbs in speaker tags. Need an example? "I love you," she said softly. Again, it's viewed as lazy writing. If you have to tell the reader she spoke softly, then you're not showing it. Delete them all.
  • Lack of white space. Blocks of text are hard to read and it's a good indication there's a boat load of backstory in the pages.
  • Too much white space. Indicates a lack of Internal Monologue, a good technique that puts the reader into characters' heads and slows pacing. There are exceptions, of course. Times when you want the dialogue to ping back and forth, or to speed up the pace. The trick is to use these techniques wisely.

Check over your submission and fix as many of these errors as you can. If you haven't yet done so, read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and James Scott Bell's Revision and Self-Editing (Write Great Books), among others. Are you following writing blogs that offer instruction? Do. And join ACFW's January course titled “Avoiding the Mistakes that Scream Novice.”

Why go through all that trouble? Besides the fact that writing is tedious and time consuming, and like any craft, it takes hours of practice to master techniques, other contestants have followed that advice, and it's your job to beat them. And as they say, presentation is half the battle.

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