Judging Historical Romance Contests by Jannine Corti Petska

Please help me welcome Jannine Corti Petska to my blog.  Jannine will be giving away an ebook copy of her book, Surrender to Honor, so be sure and leave her a comment.

Judging Historical Romance contests for the Unpublished


Maybe it’s because I was an English junky in my former life, but I’m a stickler for grammar and punctuation. Now I’m not saying I’m perfect. Far from it. Often rules fly out the window when writing fiction. A writer’s style comes into factor here. But the simple and most basic rules of the mechanical side of written English (United States English) are easy to find. If you don’t recall what you learned in school, there is definitely no shortage of books explaining comma placement, proper punctuation for dialogue, misplaced modifiers, run-on sentences, and a zillion (a bit of an exaggeration <g>) other rules. So no excuses allowed, especially since the majority of writers have access to the internet.

I began judging romance writing contests in the late 1990s. Over the last 10 months, I’ve judged a few contests for historical romance writers working toward that often elusive goal: publication. The one glaring mistake (and the reason I was prompted to write this article) in almost all of the entries was punctuation—more specifically, the comma. The second is a tie between incorrect dialogue punctuation and run-on sentences. While not giving an all-out lesson here, perhaps more like tips, I would like to make unpublished writers aware of how a judge views their poorly punctuated entries. Just remember, all of the following are my observations only.

In judging the pride and joy of a writer, I try to be supportive while gently reminding her where and why punctuation is or is not necessary. I find each story I read has merit and could well be published one day. The writer, however, shouldn’t submit an entry to a contest without making certain it’s polished and shining brightly. This goes beyond the plot and character depth. The entire picture must be complete. If it’s not, scores could be quite disappointing. But do not feel down and out. Think of the judge as your silent critique partner and take her suggestions and comments as a challenge to perfect your creation.

Here are a few reasons for using (and not using) commas:

*They are not periods and do not signal the end of a sentence.

*Overuse of the comma leads to long, long sentences and confusion. They should be used before a conjunction (and, but….) that links two independent sentences together.

*Use commas after long introductory clauses and phrases, as well as after items in a series. (Her coat was short, red, lightweight, and stunning.)

*Know when to use commas in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

The list goes on, but the above are the main errors I often see. Here are a few more:

—Review the rules for exclamation points! Use them sparingly in your work. One entry I judged used exclamation points as if she’d found a sale on them and bought out the store. By the time I finished reading the entry, I was exhausted.

—Go easy on dashes and know the difference between when to use them or ellipses.

—Learn how to punctuate dialogue. I cannot stress this enough. And begin a new paragraph for each speaker.

—Idioms can kill a story. One writer used them without fear. Unfortunately, it read like she’d used every idiom in the book to tell her story. I don’t mind a few, as long as they were in use in the period of your story. On this same note, historical writers must know when certain words came into use. Don’t refer to someone as “dude” in a medieval. The best book for this is English through the Ages. I’ve been told Webster’s Ninth Dictionary gives word origins although I haven’t used this source.

Obviously, there are many other rules to be aware of when writing. Using grammar and punctuation correctly could make the difference between a perennial slush pile inhabitant or a sale. Below are three books that might help you. Keep in mind, not all of these may speak to you. Go to a bookstore and peruse similar books to make sure you’re comfortable in how it approaches English grammar and punctuation.

The old stand-by book is Elements of Style, Strunk and White

My go-to book is A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker.

Another good one is The Everything Grammar and Style Book by Susan Thurman

Not all judges will tell you what you want to hear. After all, you’ve just given birth to your literary baby. You’re showing her off to the world. Why would there be anything wrong with her? When more than one judge points out a problem area, then it’s advisable to take a closer look at the reason behind it.

I’m a firm believer of entering writing contests, more so if you don’t have a critique partner. When I joined RWA in the mid-90s and dipped my toes into the contest waters, I was a nervous wreck. Upon return of my entry, I looked it over with a critical eye, thinking the judges had lost their minds. I’d get angry. So I’d put the entry aside for a few days until I cooled off, then I took a second look at the comments. Some seemed absurd (you’ll know them when you see them), but the ones that weren’t are what helped me learn the craft. In the end, you must do what is best for your story. And grow a thick skin, a piece of advice I received the first time I entered my work in a contest.

One last note: Read your work aloud. It’s the best way I know of for catching a multitude of mistakes. And never rely on your spellchecker. It doesn’t tell apart words like he/she, he/her or know/no. The list goes on.

SURRENDER TO HONOR, book 2, Italian medieval series

Prima Ranieri seeks retribution for her family’s death and loss of home and land. Her plans go awry when the heir to the powerful Massaro family returns home. After only one glance, Prima’s attraction to him undermines her furor toward those she blames for her plight.

After a fifteen year absence, Antonio Massaro returns to Palermo to find a war raging between his family and the evil Falcone. His refusal to accept his rightful position as the head of the Honored Society carries serious consequences. The welfare of the people of Palermo is at stake. But one look at the beautiful woman Prima has become costs him his heart. She’s a deadly distraction…one that jeopardizes her life as well as his own.

Prima and Antonio are out for a pleasure ride and stop in an orchard. Prima sets Antonio straight on the matter of her marrying.

“Think you age is on your side?”

She bristled. “I am not yet beyond marriageable age, or hindered like an old
hag. But do tell, why must I have a husband?”

“You need a man, Prima, for you are like a wild horse before it is captured
and tamed.”

“Such an insult! I’ll not be compared to an animal. And neither must I be captured or tamed.” She jerked on Amica’s reins, startling the horse. Antonio held the leather lines, preventing the horse from bolting.

“You act as if you are the only person ever to lose family. This bitter revenge you carry will one day turn you into a mean and spiteful old woman. Give up your fight. Marry and have children.”

“And bring them into a world of greed and senseless killing? I’ll not birth a son who is expected to rule and dominate solely because he is a man. And I’ll not birth a daughter who will be forced to bend to a man’s will simply because she is a female. Marriage is not a path I favor. I want the freedom to choose how I ride a horse and to decide on the clothes I wear.”

“Those ideas will bode ill for you, Prima. You alone cannot change a society.”

“No, but I alone can choose my path in life; and no man will ever take that away from me.”

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30 thoughts on “Judging Historical Romance Contests by Jannine Corti Petska

  1. Thanks for the post Jannine. Punctuation is not my strength and every time I think I understand it an exception comes along. The book sounds great. What made you choose Italy as a setting?

    • English has so many rules. Then there are the “rules” of writing fiction. Often, they collide, lol.

      As for the setting, I’m 100% Italian. Although I began writing historical romances with westerns, I kept dreaming about Italian settings. So I jumped in with both feet, even though I was terrified of attempting the medieval period.

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

  2. Great post! A guy in my writers’ group and I are in an ongoing battle over the Oxford comma. Personally, I refused to use them, but when my editor put them in, I realized I should listen to the guy. Oh, what a painful admission that was. 🙂 One of my major pet peeves is the misuse of period language. Drives me crazy. The sarcastic “Whatever” didn’t come into play in the 17th century. Blame the Valley Girls of the 1980’s for that.

  3. That’s a fabulous post. Thanks, Jannine. I was too inclined towards the exclamation point in my first novel-published last year. My next release-due 3rd Aug 2012-has hardly any in it. I, personally, like it when someone gives really constructive comments that I can use to make my work better.

    • To be honest, Ella, each publishing house handles commas differently. It drives me nuts. What I learned so many years ago is no doubt outdated. But old habits are hard to kick, lol.

  4. thanks Jannine.
    Great reminder about the comma. Thanks too for reminding folks about using some slang words ( and phrases) that didn’t exist in that time–those words and phrases in particular drive me nuts.

  5. Great post, Jannine! I’ve become a comma police for my crit group. lol I don’t know all there is to grammar and punctuation- in fact there’s a LOT I still don’t know, but I’m trying. lol Wonderful advice and information here. 🙂

  6. Great post, and very timely. I am judging my first historical romance contest as we speak, and so many of the things you mentioned appear in one of the manuscripts. It’s a bit of a challenge to judge, but I got wonderful feedback on the first contest I entered last year, so I hope to be able to do the same.

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