by Arlene James
Judging contests and critiquing manuscripts are activities that can swamp a writer if she isn’t careful, but they can also be rewarding, I believe, for both the unpublished and the published. I sold into publication before professional organizations such as ACFW existed. What training I received, I got in college. It wasn’t of much use, frankly. (Back in those days, we actually learned grammar in high school!)
Don’t misunderstand me. I did have help. A professor pointed me toward the romance genre. An agent condescended to tell me that I wouldn’t have to take up knitting as a hobby. A successful author helped me interpret a letter from a publisher. God simply opened doors for me. No one, however, judged or critiqued my writing until it reached an editor. I’m not sure it would have mattered then because I didn’t realize that what I most needed to know is what I was unconsciously doing right.
We get hung up on what is wrong with our writing. (Let’s put aside grammar, punctuation and formatting for this discussion. First, however, let me say that if you don’t have those basics down, you aren’t going very far in this business.) In fiction, the elements of storytelling are essential: characterization, conflict, plot, resolution. The craft of writing, however, is very subjective. Every publisher has its own style manual delineating what is acceptable, and what one professional will teach, another will debunk. Even a cursory Internet search will produce dozens of templates and systems for plotting, designing, outlining, storyboarding, wordsmithing… Frankly, the most we can do is tell others how WE do it. In other words, YOU have to come up with a system that works for YOU.
I believe that starts with knowing what you instinctively do right. That element of writing that you intuitively know how to do is your strength. That’s where your writing voice is to be found. It’s the fount of your talent, the cornerstone upon which craft can be built.
Are your characters believable and well drawn with dialogue unique to each? Let the characters drive the plot. Is your description vivid and flowing? Think setting. Are your actions and reactions smooth, reasonable and easily envisioned? Work on characterization! Perhaps your plotting is fast-paced, tight and engaging, but I have no clue what your characters look like and they barely speak. Learn to build a scene, and give your plot wings. Whatever you do, however, don’t stop doing what you naturally do right because of something you may be doing wrong.
For you published authors gracious enough to give back via critique and judging, I beg you to focus more on what is RIGHT than what is WRONG.
Arlene James is the author of more than 75 novels. She has published steadily for more than three decades and thanks God for a career that has allowed her to provide income for her family while at staying at home with her children and now her grandchildren.