Friday, March 28, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: What is Writing?

   If you've taken one of my workshops, you've probably seen me start a session by writing this on the board.
   And if you haven't workshopped with me, I'd like you to take a moment, right now, and think about how you would fill in that blank.

   If the experience in my workshops is any indication, the first inclination of most people is to fill the blank in with "information" or "thought." Then they decide that isn't artistic enough, so they move on to something more writerly.
   I've seen "emotion."
   I've seen "passion."
   I've seen "yearnings."
   Answers such as this tell me a lot about the psychological state of my workshop participants. And they also tell me that those folks are overthinking the answer, because writing is not recorded information (at least, not the type of information most people are thinking of). Nor is it recorded thought, or emotion, or passion or even yearnings.
   At least in English (or any language written in an alphabet), writing first and foremost is recorded sound
   The letters on the page are a code that combines to form phonemes and syllables. The phonemes and syllables combine to represent a distinctive pattern of sound, and that sound correlates to a word. But even then we aren't there yet.
   Consider this statement: "Slowly, deliberately, Mortimer began to manducate the carpeting."
   Now, look at that word, "manducate." You can sound it out (it's pronounced just the way it looks), but unless your hobby is reading dictionaries, there's a good chance you don't know that "manducate" is a fifty-cent word for "chew" (in my example, "Mortimer" happens to be an extremely unruly dog).
   So let's review the process. First you have to understand the code—the alphabet—in which a thing is written (ever try reading Cyrillic?). Next, you have to translate that code into phonemes, then the phonemes into syllables, and then the syllables into a distinct unit of sound that represents a word. At that point, you have to understand what that word means for the sound to make sense. And only then does what you've read equate to anything even close to a thought.
   That's five steps. 
   You're not conscious of those steps because you perform them constantly and automatically.  Yet, unless you are skimming like a soul possessed because it's midterms week, subconsciously you are acutely aware that what you are reading is recorded sound.
   I know this because most people can distinguish, almost instantaneously, the caliber of what they are reading. They might read a page of one book and decide, "this is not very good," while a page from another book will sound beautiful to them. And at its most basic level, the difference between bad writing and good writing is the way it sounds.
   Bad writing is assembled like Legos. The writer looks for a subject, an object, and a verb that represent the sense of what's intended, and joins them together, not caring whether the resulting sentence sounds awkward or lumpy or silly.
   But in good writing, the writer is making certain that the sound of the words reflects the texture and emotional quality of what's being conveyed.
   Let's say, for instance, that you are thinking about going on an ocean voyage, and one cruise-ship line advertises "luxurious stateroom accommodations, superbly appointed," while a second line offers, "swanky rooms with fancy fixtures." In both instances, the sense is virtually identical, yet the sound of the first description is more in keeping with an elegant experience.
   Put this to work in your writing, then. Don't settle for getting the information down on paper. Think like a musician, pay attention to the sound you are conveying, and once you have written it, read it aloud to make certain that what you've produced captures the ambience of what you have imagined.
   Do that, and do it well, and you'll produce good writing.
   And the upside of this is that good writing gets read.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Master of None

PEOPLE WHO KNOW ME know that I have two graduate degrees: a master of arts in English and a master of fine arts in creative writing. And they assume that it was by getting that second master's degree that I learned how to write.
   But that's not true, or at least it's not entirely true. The classes in my MFA program helped teach me to write better, and to become a better critic of others' work. 
   But even those are secondary, or even tertiary, benefits. You see, for me, the main reason for earning an MFA is to have the appropriate final degree—what, in academia, is called a “terminal degree”—to teach at the university level.
   That's why, when writers ask me whether I think they should pursue an MFA, my first question is always, "Why do you want the degree?"
   And if their primary purpose is to improve their craft, I always wonder if perhaps they might be better served by seeking out a writers' critique group. Oftentimes it's possible to find one that specializes in exactly the genre in which you hope to work, and one advantage of a critique group is that it is not a limited track, as is the usual two years of an MFA program. You can stick with a critique group as long as you like—indefinitely, if you so desire.
   Now, true, in a better MFA program, entry is competitive, so you know the people in your workshops will have been vetted in terms of the quality of their writing. And in a really good program, you'll get one-on-one time with some really extraordinary writers. 
   For instance, in my MFA program (at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio), my professors included Howard McCord and Michael Mott, and my thesis advisor was Philip F. O'Connor—all deeply respected writers. BGSU also had a strong visiting-writer program: I recall having my poetry critiqued by Gary Snyder, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
   And while James Baldwin was in residence with the university's Popular Culture program, and not Creative Writing, he nonetheless took interest in the writers and was always available to discuss, and offer insight on, the craft. Some of those conversations still resonate with me to this day.
   When I earned my MFA, though, there were only a handful of fine-arts writing programs in the country (along with BGSU, there were Iowa State, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, the University of Pittsburgh, and a few others). 
   Now, there are literally hundreds of them, and the chances of encountering a true giant of American literature in one of them (that is, a writer who is famous outside the relatively narrow world of literary academe) is significantly lower.
   That's why, if you are absolutely certain you want an MFA, it's worth your time to ask a lot of questions, and seek out a program whose graduates are publishing with household-name publishers (and, when teaching, teaching at well-known schools), a program with faculty and visiting writers whose work you know and admire ... a program where no one has to explain to you who the the faculty are.
   To this I should add that, after earning my MFA, I did teach at the university level for a while, but never became a full-time lecturer or professor. So I never did fulfill the purpose of the degree, even though that had been my intention when I enrolled.
   What happened was this writer's life.
   When I was doing nonfiction magazine work, my writing schedule never jived with that of a university, and once I began having novels accepted by publishers, I found that the sound of student work was often discordant with whatever I was writing at the time. I just didn't have the knack of keeping the two separate. Plus, it always seemed that, when it was time to teach, I wanted to write. So I abandoned my academic ambitions and, these days, restrict my teaching to workshops (between novels).
   So ... was my MFA for naught? 
   I don't think so. I still use principles I learned at BGSU every day and —more importantlymaintain friendships with several of my classmates and former professors. I wouldn't give these up for anything.
   But, knowing what I know now, and especially given the fact that the world of MFAs in creative writing has broadened so much in recent years, I believe an exceptional critique group might provide most of the desired benefits, especially for someone who does not desire to go on and teach. 
   And it would be a heck of a lot more cost-effective, as well.

Friday, March 21, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: A Grain of Truth

WHEN WE HEAR the term, "speculative fiction," we often think of that "what-if" cousin of science fiction, the genre that has produced novels such as Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (in which an emissary from earth is sent to a world in which people are essentially genderless, and he finds he himself incapable of relating to them unless he thinks of them as either man or woman).
   But when you think about it, the vast majority of novels are "what-if" to a certain degree. 
   For instance, every historical romance falls into this category: the writer is speculating on what would happen if two individuals were to meet at a particular point in time. And many of today's most successful suspense novels operate against historical frameworks. The Da Vinci Code is the most well-known example.
   My 2004 novel, Deep Blue, revolved around a background character referred to in diaries only as "W." a character that the heroes of my story later discover is none other than—spoiler alert here—John Wilkes Booth, the 19th-century actor and assassin of Abraham Lincoln.
   Booth was not only an integral part of the novel; I chose him because, after reading a little about him, I decided he was the perfect element around which to build a story.
   To begin with, there was his name. While "John Wilkes Booth" was the name that appeared on playbills around the country, to his family, friends and close associates, Booth was called invariably by his middle name, "Wilkes." So, by referring to him as "W" in documents, I could be accurate without giving his identity away too early.
   Next, there was the fascinating time in which Booth lived—not only the American Civil War, but the period that preceded it, in which the Gold Rush of 1849 created a nation that was populated on both coasts, but still wilderness in much of its interior. It was a time when the fastest way to ship goods from San Francisco and New York was to sail to what is now Panama, offload the goods onto mule train, cross the isthmus, and then reload onto another ship for a run up the East Coast (after a coaling stop in Cuba).
   Next, there was the fact that Booth loved grand plots. His assassination of Lincoln was not the lone act of a madman, as it is often portrayed, but part of a grand scheme in which several assassins were supposed to eliminate the entire head of the Union government. As it turned out, only Booth killed his target: one of his co-conspirators lost his nerve at the last minute, and the rest were unsuccessful.
   Fourthly, there was the fact that Booth was such an enigma. There are huge periods in his life in which historians are still uncertain where this son of the world's most famous acting family was, or what he was doing.
   And finally, there are the persistent rumors that the individual killed in the tobacco barn on April 26th of 1865 was not Booth, and that he lived on for several more years.
   Based around these facts and rumors, I carefully constructed an alternate history for Booth. Given his love for grand plots, I thought it logical that Booth could be part of a pre-Civil-War scheme to bankrupt the Federal government by hijacking a shipment of gold—upon which the value of the dollar was based at the time—and then using the gold to manipulate the market. I used one of the gaps in his life to account for this, and had him and his stolen gold fall victim to a hurricane, causing a shipwreck in the Bahamas from which only he survived. Then I had him live on for years after the Lincoln assassination, assume a new identity, marry, and die in yet another shipwreck ... leaving his widow enormously wealthy.
   To do this, I kept a notebook in which I recorded where the real Booth was during various years of his life, and then filled in the enigmatic holes with stories of my own invention. To keep track of what was real and what was invented, I used black ink in that notebook for the fact and blue for the fiction.
   Was I successful?
   Well, after the book came out, I got several emails from amateur historians who were very excited about the "new information" I'd discovered on Booth. I almost felt bad when I wrote back and told them that Deep Blue was a novel and I'd made it all up.
   Everyone daydreams. And "what if" is the stuff of most daydreams: we all ponder what would have happened if we'd lived in another time, gone to another school, married differently, or bought a thousand shares of Apple when the stock was selling for $22.00.
   From there it's not hard to put "what-if" to work. Focus those speculations on a time and a place in which people are interested, and you just may have yourself the basis for an interesting novel.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: "Realistic" Dialogue

BACK WHEN MY SCHEDULE would allow it, I taught a regular creative writing class at a university in Michigan. Because it wasn't a seminar or a standalone workshop, everyone got to know one another, and the atmosphere was very informal.
   We kept the class sizes small, small enough that everyone could fit around a conference table, and, once a semester, I would try the same trick with each class. 
   I'd put my hat on the table with a small audio recorder inside of it, and I would get the class talking about something I figured they would all have an opinion on: an awards show that had been televised the evening before, or a story that was trending on the news. Then, after the conversation had been going for about five minutes, I would reveal the recorder, play back what they had just said, and ask the class to transcribe it.
   Invariably, it was gibberish. Sentence fragments, snorts, indefinite pronouns galore, and, when a sentence actually had a subject, a verb and an object, it would find the most roundabout method possible of getting there.
   This amazed the class members because, when they'd been in the midst of the conversation, it had all made sense. But on paper it did not.
   In film, it's possible to recreate the chaos of everyday conversation without losing the viewer, because film allows you to throw in the body language, inflection and other nonverbal cues that help keep real-world conversations going. In fact, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are famous for writing just that kind of dialogue.
   But in a novel, if you take the time to adequately describe the body language and inflection, you're usually slowing things down so much that you risk losing the reader. And if you employ totally realistic dialogue without adding in those clues, it makes no sense.
   Realistic dialogue in a novel, then, is generally something that does not exist in the natural world. People speak in more complete sentences than you or I would use in, for instance, describing how a friend got stranded at the airport. Yet if those sentences come off as too polished, the book begins to sound like writing, and that, too, is bad.
   Good dialogue for me, then, always looks a little half-baked. The characters are finishing one another's thoughts. When the end of a sentence is obvious, the character may not finish it, but simply leave it hanging, implied. And sometimes the word choice is not perfect.
   You can use tools such as these to suggest everyday conversation, just as a painter can use tools like perspective and shading to suggest a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional canvas. And like a painter, if you do it well enough, the viewer (in your case, the reader) will happily buy the illusion.
   Life is chaos. Your job as a novelist is to find a story in it. And part of that job is imposing order so subtly that the reader accepts it as real.

Friday, March 14, 2014

FRESH ON FRIDAY: The Importance of Second-Fiddle

ABOUT A MONTH after I turned my 2008 novel, In High Places, in to the publisher, I received an email from my editor.
   "Everyone loves the book," he wrote.
   This was good news because, by "everyone," he meant people like the distributor, and the sales manager, and the marketing manager. And if these people do not like your book, all the editor raves in the world will not save you.
   Then he went on, "And of course, everyone's favorite character is the father."
   I read that sentence again. "Of course?" That made it sound as if that had been my intent as the writer. And actually, that was anything but the case.
   In In High Places, the principal character and narrator is a guy named Patrick. It is a story that takes place primarily during the summer that Patrick turns seventeen, as recalled by his now-grown self. And because I wanted my readers to identify with Patrick, I liked him the most and assumed the readers would like him best as well.
   Characters in modern literature are often referred to by the names given to them by the Greek playwrights who invented classical drama and tragedy. So the lead character is generally referred to as the protagonist, which in classical Greek means, "first to strive." The character preventing the protagonist from reaching his or her goal is the antagonist, "the one who strives against." And, for the most part, these are the Greek terms your average modern novelist is familiar with.
   But the Greek tragedian Aeschylus invented a third main character, which he called the deuteragonist ... "the second to strive." 
   The deuteragonist can take several forms. Sometimes he or she acts as a foil to the lead character (Sherlocke Holme's Dr. Watson is the classic example). Sometimes the role is that of a sidekick (the Lone Ranger's Tonto). And sometimes the deuteragonist is simply there to give the protagonist someone against which to play.
   The father in In High Places is that sort of character; he is the guy Patrick converses with through most of the book. He is also a benign antagonist, in that he it is he who presents the principal obstacle to Patrick's progress, but he is by no means a villain. And after the book came out, readers echoed my editors' sentiments. They loved the father, and interviewers often asked if I based him on my own father (for the record, I did not). 
   As I thought about this, it occurred to me that I'd seen something similar in earlier books. In my very first novel, Yucatan Deep, readers and reviewers often commented on the deuteragonist in that novel: a talented trauma surgeon, deaf since childhood, and the love interest of the principal character.
   Looking back on these books, I realize now that the readers' love for these characters is not a criticism of how I wrote my lead characters. On the contrary, it is actually a sign of success. As readers identify with protagonists, they also begin to see the world through the protagonists' eyes. And as deuteragonists are usually important to protagonists, they are, by default, important to the readers as well.
   The moral of this story is to invest a little time and care as you craft your own second-fiddle characters. After all, they are going to have a great deal of influence on whether readers like your book ... whether you planned it that way or not.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Mapping Your Novel

MOST WORKING NOVELISTS agree that, if you want to produce a quality book in limited time, a good way to do that is to map the book out in advance.
   There are a variety of ways of doing that. Some people write scenes on index cards and rearrange and add to them until they have a good plan to follow for their book. Many novelists that I know (all great writers and prolific people) swear by Scrivener 2, from Literature and Latte, which, among other things, allows you to conduct the index-card routine virtually.
Created by connecting the dots
   Several years ago, I produced my 2008 novel, Wind River, using not this strategy, but a variation on it.
   Rather than using index cards, I first spent a little under two months creating a list of bullet points: one scene per bullet. As I worked and saw the need for additional intermediate scenes, I plugged them in. When I saw that I was writing the book in a manner that started it twice (an extremely common mistake for novelists of all skill levels), I was able to nuke the extraneous one without wasting time by writing it first. 
   I could plot out a storyline for each principal character and then interleave those individual stories so they'd complement one another and be easy to follow. I could think about each scene from the distance of this pre-writing stage and consider whether the action really consisted of one scene or several; if writing it was going to require a shift in point of view, or implied point of view, or moving to a new place, then I knew I had to break it up into several scenes.
   I could also consider each scene as I planned the book this way. Not many screenwriting techniques transfer seamlessly to the creation of a novel, but one that does is, "Enter each scene as late as you can, and leave it as soon as you can."
   Novelist Brad Whittington refers to this as "cutting off the heads and the tails," and it helps create a fast-moving novel: the kind of book you find yourself polishing off at two in the morning.
   I could tighten the book easily by working on my bulleted outline. I wasn't in danger of writing myself into a corner because I could easily foresee potential pitfalls and restructure to avoid them. 
   By the time I was completely satisfied with my several dozen pages of bulleted scenes, I was what I believe every novelist should be ... I was an expert on my story, familiar with what was happening at every stage of it, and completely aware of how it was going to end.
   Then, once I began writing, I could concentrate solely on language, on visual detail, and the voice of my implied narrator. 
   To me, a significant advantage of mapping the book in this fashion is that I could do it in any medium that would accept bullet points. I could do it on my AlphaSmart Neo. I could even do it on my phone. And eventually it all wound up in a Word document on my laptop. 
   I wrote the novel in the same document, using the technique of reading the uppermost bullet, writing that scene, then deleting that bullet and moving on to the next. 
   It was sort of like "E.T." in the old movie of the same name, following the trail of Reese's Pieces and eating them as he went. As I recall it, my total time invested, from the moment I started setting down bullet points until the day my revised draft was completed, was around eight-and-a-half months: about half the time it usually takes me to write a polished novel.
   So ... are you thinking of starting a book during NaNoWriMo this year? Now is not too early to start. You can begin bullet-mapping your book now and become an expert in your story, so you can sit down at the keyboard with complete confidence on November first.
   And the best part is that you probably own all the tools to do that, because they are the same tools you are going to use to write your book.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

An Insider's Guide to the Craft

I'LL TELL YOU A SECRET about fiction workshops. The people who teach them (that would be me) often gravitate to the subjects that are of the greatest interest to them at the time. So during the year that I was working extra-hard to create realistic but still intelligible dialogue, I felt inspired to teach workshops on how to create better dialogue. And when my publisher gave me a new copy editor, and I had to learn how to settle into that new working relationship, I wanted to share what I had learned about how to work with a copy editor.
Now available on
   Now, in my defense, that is how these workshops were advertised, and most of the people who took them thought they were very worthwhile experiences. But in every workshop, it seemed as if there was one person, maybe two, that had this look that almost bordered on pleading. It was as if they were saying, "Dialogue is nice, and I would love to get to the point some day where I have to know how to work with a copy editor. But what I really want to know right now is this: how do I do it? How do I write a novel?"
   Now, to people who have been writing books, and seeing them published by known, conventional, advance- and royalty-paying publishers, the answer to that question might seem obvious; after all, it's right there on the pages of our books. But just as there is a profound difference between driving a car and designing one, there is also a great gulf of insight and experience between reading a novel and knowing how to write one. And every successful novelist has had a learning curve; goodness knows I had one of my own that went on (I kid you not) for decades before I was writing print-worthy book-length fiction.
   So, at the encouragement of many people who'd taken my workshops and seminars, I decided to write the book I wished someone would have written back when I was trying to write and sell my first novel. My aim is that, armed with what is in this book, a talented writer should be able to save years off the learning curve. And I think this book does that; I've already shared advance reader copies with several deeply experienced, bestselling novelists, and they've all had the same response to it: "I wish there'd been something like this when I was just starting out."
   That book is available now on Amazon as both a high-quality trade paperback and a Kindle ebook. It's called The Novel & The Novelist: An Insider's Guide to the Craft, and you can find it online by following this link. 
   If you or your critique group decides to give it a try, I'd love to hear what you think.

Friday, March 7, 2014


I ENJOY COUNTRY MUSIC, but don't listen to it much. Truth told, when I write, my usual soundtrack is silence, and when I'm on my everyday transportation (a Harley: I live in Florida), it doesn't have a radio, so all I hear is the rattle of my rocker box and rumble of my exhaust. But a week ago or so, I was watching "Good Morning America" on ABC before I left the house for the day, and managed to catch Dierks Bently performing his song, "I Hold On."
    The theme of that song, which is about holding onto the things that work for you (and are part of your memories), got me thinking about my AlphaSmart Neo.
AlphaSmart Neo

    The Neo, if you aren’t familiar with it, is an educational product that was introduced by AlphaSmart in 2004. It contains a rudimentary word-processing application called “AlphaWord,” which has basic spell-check and cut-and-paste capabilities. As it came from AlphaSmart, it also contained a basic calculator and quiz-taking applications—items that I have long since removed. So essentially, the one I have is a writing device. I write my work in any of eight key-accessible windows (it supposedly holds about 100,000 words between the eight of them), and—generally at the end of each session—I can connect it to my computer with a USB cord, push the “Send” key, and it streams what I have written into whatever application I have open (usually Word or Pages). It looks onscreen like a highly caffeinated typist is keying in the text.
    I often write or sketch out scenes using a pencil and notebook, and my revision and editing virtually all takes place at the computer. But although I have owned three desktop computers over the last decade, and no fewer than six laptops or notebooks, my intermediary device—the one that takes my work from handwriting to the computer screen—is generally the Neo.
    The Neo is now decade-old technology—the equivalent of the Pleistocene Era in information technology—but I keep on using it for three reasons.
    The first is battery life. I’ve never been crazy about the ticking-clock nature of working on a battery-powered device, and the Neo runs for about 700 hours on a set of batteries. That means I can do 140 coast-to-coast flights before the batteries die. When they finally do, it holds my work using the power of a coin-style battery (which I change every five years). And replacement batteries are three regular old AA alkalines, which are available pretty much anywhere (I once bought a set  at a drug store in the Azores). This, plus the fact that the screen is readable in bright sunlight, makes it a pretty much go-anywhere device (the screen is not backlit, but a book light and some Velcro fix that).
    The second reason I like the Neo is because of what it does not do. It does not access the Internet. It cannot check email. The only thing I can do on it is write, and as I have an attention span about like the “Squirrel!”-distracted dogs in the movie, Up!, I like that ability to keep me on-task.
    The third advantage of the Neo is its durability. It has taken a nose-dive off the roof of my pickup, and the only thing that happened was a key fell off (I stuck it back on). When I am on small boats, I keep it in a two-gallon ZipLoc bag, and I put it in a neoprene case before stuffing it in checked luggage, but other than that I don’t baby it.
    Truth told, I have killed two Neos over the years, but the culprit in both cases was my own stupidity.
    In the first instance, I stuck a USB flash drive into the USB port to prove to my daughter that it could not save to it (Neo has no disk-selective operating system). Turns out thumbdrives often hold a small electrical charge, and as Neo has no means of dealing with that, this was sufficient to fry the motherboard. So I bought a second Neo (fifty bucks, shipped, from eBay), and promptly messed up the display on that one by applying a wet-transfer glare-resistant screen protector and failing to let it dry out completely before I fired the device up.
    My present Neo is a “Frankeneo,” cobbled together using parts of the two dead ones. Renaissance Learning, which bought the rights to AlphaSmart products a few years ago, stopped making the Neo last year, and I keep meaning to buy another on eBay and just pull out its batteries and stick it in the closet as insurance in case this one dies. But unless I do anything else stupid, I am relatively certain that my present Neo will outlive me.
    Neo is ugly. It is precisely the same color of olive green as a plastic toy tank that I had when I was a kid, and the screen looks about as state-of-the-art as the old Texas Instruments Speak & Spell. When I use it on planes, people always ask what it is, and then look at me like I’m nuts when I tell them it’s ten years old.
    But it’s neither hot nor heavy on my lap, I like the feel and near silence of its keyboard, and every time I fire it up, I know that it and I have written six books together over the years, so we are fully capable of turning out another.
    That’s why “I Hold On.”
    What about you? Any fiction-writing anachronism that you’re fond of, attached to or even superstitious about?
    If you have one, tell us all about it in the “Comments” area below.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Don't settle for "good"

IT’S A CONVERSATION I HAVE HAD any number of times. I will praise a writer’s work—in a workshop, or in a one-on-one, and he or she will ask, “Do you think it’s good enough to be published?”
And that is a question I am always hesitant to answer, because the plain fact is that “good enough to be published” may not be—and probably is not—good enough for you.
Better than 60 years ago, science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon took a look at what was available in literature, in film, and in art in general, and declared, “Ninety percent of everything is crud.
And Sturgeon knew what was not crud: his contributions to the TV show Star Trek included the “prime directive” and Mr. Spock’s famous parting line, “Live long and prosper.”
Six decades on, 90 percent of everything is still crud, and that includes contemporary fiction. I just finished judging a prestigious international fiction competition—one in which the publishers were challenged to cherry-pick the best of last year’s catalogues—and I was astonished and dismayed by the number of entries I read in which the both the writers and the editors seem to have been to some degree tone-deaf; there is no other way to describe the lumpy language I encountered.
At the same time, I read some entries so lyric that I was re-reading entire paragraphs just to savor the words, but when I got to the ends of the books, there was no “there” there. These were writers and editors who failed to realize that, perhaps more than anything else, plot and structure determine whether readers like the book, and if a writer’s work is to have legs, he or she must understand how to land it—how to make the book end with resonance.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I read some great books in that contest. But the crud overshadowed the cream to a remarkable extent.
People often say how high the bar is set for one to break in on contemporary fiction. I say it myself—I shudder to think how well some of my own work would be received, if it was received at a publisher in 2014, and not in those halcyon days when I first entered the craft. And for what it's worth, most debut novels are pretty good—or at least the crud quotient is pretty low when one looks only at first novels. But, be that as it may, fiction as a whole conforms pretty well to Sturgeon's Revelation, and the contest I judged was no anomaly; a lot of junk still makes it into print each year. 
I am not sure why that is. Some of it, no doubt, can be chalked up to “contract killers,”—rushing out the final book called for in a publisher’s contract, which the writer may want to get off the plate at all costs, so he or she can move on to a more lucrative project. Some of it might be time-related; the book was listed in the catalogue, so writer and editor threw caution (and craft) to the winds, and settled for getting it down, rather than getting it right.
And much of it comes because writers and editors tend to be overworked people, and when the book is one of several that must soon be in play, they yield to the seductive force of turning in something that they feel is good enough for publication, and not the very best work they can do.

Those are the charitable assumptions. Beyond those are the possibilities that neither writer nor editor has an ear for words, or that a talented nonfiction writer has decided to try his or her hand at a novel, without bothering first to set a benchmark ... say by reading a few pieces of book-length fiction written in the current century.
Of course, not everyone is this way. But writers who understand and consistently deeply practice the value of both lyric language and satisfying structure are rare—so rare that, when I mention their names, you will recognize them. Stephen King is one, and so is Dean Koontz. J.K. Rowling is one, and John Irving is another. These writers (and, one must assume, their editors), “get it” that language and structure are two equally important aspects of craft. And because their work represents this understanding, they rank consistently among the most successful people in their field.
So … is your novel good enough for publication? You tell me; where do you want to go with your work?
Because, if the answer is, “As far as I can,” you will keep working—working on language and working on structureuntil you will arrive at a product that is so obviously superior that you will no longer need to ask the question.