Saturday, November 8, 2008

Opening the Vein


I’ve entered very few writing contests: the Golden Heart last year (where one judge gave me a perfect 9 and another a 2), two where I won first and third place, and two where I didn’t final. I’m grateful for the feedback, even when I feel a little like a yo-yo, going from one extreme to another. The most recent (and probably the last) contest I entered is a case in point. The perfect score was 99. My scores? 94, 82.5, and 65. That’s a 29-point difference between the high and low numbers.

I’m in full disclosure mode. I’ve condensed the judges' most salient comments into one paragraph each.

Judge #1:The writing is quite good. You have an easy, readable writing style, and the first page was wonderful and engaging. Your writing style is engaging and fun to read, and I really appreciate that you are giving me just as much backstory as I need to understand and pique my interest, but not so much as to make me roll my eyes. Great job! The dialogue is generally good, but there is too much irrelevant conversation and narrative. I find my attention span drifting for the most part. The characters don’t have distinct voices, either, and so I am at a bit of a loss. I suggest that you take a hard look at what you are writing and ask yourself whether every sentence—every sentence, mind you—pushes your story forward. If it doesn’t, delete it. Because, as a reader, I only care about the story. Everything else bores me. Of course, tastes differ, and you will likely get different responses from other people, but to me, this does not sound like a book I would like to read.
(M.R.:Ouch. Edging into the cave. Whimpering.)

Judge #2:The author has a WONDERFUL voice. I enjoyed this story very much. At first, I was a little confused as to exactly what was going on, and not entirely clear as to why the H & H couldn’t be together, but better understood the conflict as the tale unfolded. There are a few places where the author gives quite a lot of back story, which slows the pace in those parts. Some judicious tightening would help. Overall, she does such an excellent job of description that I was quite intrigued. The young H&H are delightful and reminded me of Heathcliff and Catherine before she was made to be a lady. This author has amazing descriptive ability. What areas do you feel need improvement? Not a thing. This entry is ready for publication!
(M.R.: peeking out of cave to catch the ray of sunlight.)

Judge #3:I found the first scene gripping. Great tension. I think you are a strong writer. I think the writing is strong and the first scene was very tense and drew me right in. I liked the heroine in particular – especially during the first scenes. She was very strong and you made me really curious about what had gone on in the past between these two characters to make her decide to accept his proposition. I simply didn’t buy the conflict or think it was big enough to carry a novel. I feel like the story is a little too predictable, and that the conflict could be too easily resolved with a couple of frank conversations.
(M.R.: Frankly, I’m not going to enter any more contests!)

The same manuscript evoked three distinct reactions. I may not agree with all the points (except for Judge #2, LOL), but they remind me how subjective writing is. Just enough backstory. Too much backstory. Great description. So much description my eyes are glazing over and I hate your book. All I can do is keep writing. Easy, right?

Do you enter contests? Are you doing the Golden Heart this year? Are you curled up in your cave like me or ready to take the leap?

There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. ~Walter Wellesley "Red" Smith

15 comments:

Elyssa Papa said...

Maggie, I feel your pain. I don't do well in contests, and you know what, I'm not entering any more contests and wasting money. I didn't do so well in the latest contest returns: 125, 169, and 103.

Judge 1: The heroine vacillating between going and staying was irritating and strained believability. I didn't feel much for these people. I had a hard time believing Kate was a teacher. She can't even add water, oil and eggs to a cake mix; how could she get through five years of college? And teachers aren't let go because they "don't fit in." If there were such a requirement, she'd have been weeded out long before graduation. Also, she would've known it wasn't the career for her. A person doesn't go into teaching without some kind of interest in or passion for it. The job doesn't pay enough for that. (I'm a retired teacher.) Why did Sam's family disown him? All of Kate's vacillation makes me think not. I had a lot of questions scribbled in the margins throughout, mostly why. Kate isn't motivated enough to succeed as an actress. Someone who is wouldn't have wasted precious time becoming a teacher. She'd go to her choice of coasts and get a job waiting tables while she auditioned for every possible role. Fictional people very likely need more solid reasons than real ones. For Sam to think he can get her acting jobs because he has connections makes me wonder about him, too. Is he thinking he can send her out on auditions, let her 'think' she has a chance? That doesn't make him likeable. Heroes have to be likeable. I'd suggest that you get yourself in a critique group and maybe take a writing course or two. For sure read in and study your market. Find out what works and why and try to do it.
Recommended Resources: Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer and/or Jack Bickham, Scene and Structure. Deb Dixon, GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict available online at gryphonbooksforwriters.com. This is only my opinion for whatever it's worth. The only thing I know for sure about this business is that you'll never publish unless you keep reading, studying, and writing. So get your butt in that chair and make it happen. Good luck.

Judge 2: I'm wondering a bit about using Oprah as such an important part of the story. She tends to be picky about how her "brand" is used, and I'd hate to see this be a sticking point for an agent/editor. Perhaps you could do a parody name—Ollie, Paula, Karma, Ona, Opal . . . Just say, "The most popular daytime talk show," and people will get it. I love the "will she do the show" conflict, but I'm just not sure it's enough on its own to carry a single title book. We need more reason why they can't be together. Also, you might want to raise the stakes for Kate a bit—there doesn't seem to be much reason for her to not do the show, and she doesn't loose anything if she fails at doing it.

Judge 3: Kate's pretty well motivated—she wants to be accepted for who she is. Why then does she want to prove herself to her family? Why is this enough for an about face and why does this keep her going with the show? This could be clearer. Sam's even more murky. If he's Hollywood's "golden boy," why does he need the show to save his career? And if he's got a mansion and tons of money, how is the show related to his dream of being an artist? Why hasn't he already done this? How will the show allow him to do this? (My two cents—I think it would make more sense to have his reason for doing the show, and pursuing Kate specially related to his Hollywood career—i.e. he gets a big part if he does it, gets released from a contract (thus allowing his art), etc.) Edited after reading the sample chapters—Oh! He's famous for makeover shows, not for movies! You need to make this clear on the synopsis! And Oh! She wants to be an actress! State this clearly. I could also see this as a sexy novella or perhaps a category book if you want to experiment with trimming below the Single Title 100K. The synopsis had me prepared to love this plotline and this heroine. However, it did leave me with some questions and confusion—this could be a turn off to some agents/editors.

Elyssa Papa said...

Oh jeez, I just realized how long that was. Sorry!

Obviously, I hate contests. You don't even want to know what people think of LAYLOM. They either hate Noah or they hate Simone. They try to rewrite my chapters and tell me where the story should begin. And you know what, unless you're my editor or agent then it's really none of your business how I write my story. Of course, I listen to my trusted CPs. But after blowing away money in so many contests, I am hanging up my contest hat.

Maggie Robinson said...

LOL, Ely! Share the love! I think it's great we're hanging ourselves out there to dry---contest-enterer, beware! I got a really interesting e-mail from a pubbed author recently, which essentially says don't take criticism too seriously, because you're not going to win every heart and mind. The first chapter or 50 pages need to snag the reader, but for sure that's not the whole reading experience.

And yay to you--you've finalled in a ton of contests!

Tiffany Kenzie said...

Oh Maggie, I love that you posted this. I've had some scary feedback of I hate your book, I hate your hero, so on and so forth, from some of the contests I've entered.

I usually don't listen to the naysayers. I mean come on, I've got a full request from an editor from stuff others have outright said, this isn't good enough to sell. pfft. That's all I'm saying. I'll share some comments later. Watching Sweeny Todd right now. How fitting. *g*

Gillian Layne said...

I'm taking the fact that you've posted this as a sign from Above--I never (rarely) enter contests--I did enter the GH last year, and got scores from 9 to 3.7 (3.7??? HOW does someone decide 3.7????).

But a few months ago I thought I need some feedback--and something else to show the IRS for those deductions--so I entered 4 contests.

Oh Lordy. I won't quote the judges, but the opinions were all OVER the place. Either lots of love (God bless 'em) or so many problems the judges must have run out of room documenting them all. And a scary amount of judges slamming me on pretty basic Regency questions--"How can this be 'common'? Were there a lot of 'them'?" when 'common' was meant as...well, YOU know, you write period as well. (smacking head on desk...)

And I was shocked at, when I got the results back (still waiting on comment sheets from one set of judges), how much I questioned my own work and abilities. It's the kind of self-doubt I would chastise my girls for, but I let it just shut down my own writing for at least a week.

This is too long--sorry! Obviously it's a sore spot for me. My take is this; some work does well in contest settings, some doesn't. I AM really grateful to the judges who took all the time out of their own writing schedules to critique my work, even if I don't sound like it. :) But I think the only contest I'll pursue again is the GH. The payoff if you win is huge, and if you don't? It's just scores, which I can deal with and move on.

Blesses on you, Maggie, for "opening this vein." :)

Janga said...

I recently entered my first contest, and the results still aren't in. I think I'm prepared for some harsh comments. Time will tell if I am.

With academic writing and poetry, it is editors who play judge, but I have had my share of praise that left me elated and fault-finding that either left me running for cover or longing to have the editor and a stun gun in the room with me.

It's one thing for a judge to identify what he/she sees as weaknesses in a writer's work. I suppose we ask for that when we enter contests. But I think the kind of comments Ely got from judge #1 say more about the judge than they say about the entry. People who pride themselves on their clever cutdowns (and you can almost see her gloating) have problems more serious than writing flaws. She clearly knows less about teaching than she thinks she does, and her own prose could use some judicious revision. Writers should not be asked to pay for that kind of malicious commentary.

Tiffany Kenzie said...

I said I would share. This particular contest, I think the judge gave Hidden Beauty 84/220 or something silly like that. The only people who matter are your CPs and agents and editors when commenting on your work. Contests are all a crapshot and they make real rejections from editors/agents less severe :)



I like the writer’s style and writing ability, I did not find the characters at all believable. With such a graceful style, I know the author could put together a more original story. The harem theme has great potential, more historical research would enable the author to enrich her characters.

The writer is very readable in terms of word usage and grammar. The writing flows. The manuscript is well written. The writing style is mature and it is obvious the author has the ability to write a good story.

I found the story line extremely weak and the characters dull and predictable. The opening sequence was an attempt at a seductive scene, but in my mind fell short. With such good writing skills the author should do more historical research to enrich the sense of place and exotic locale scenes. The same for the characters, more detail about their personality and motivation.

The synopsis was well written, and well developed, but the plot is unsurprising and stale.

The author is a good writer; this particular story is weak and boring.

Maggie Robinson said...

This is beginning to feel like a 12-step meeting, LOL. We're all in the church basement with coffee, wishing it was something stronger. "Hi, my name is Maggie and I'm a contest junkie. I'm PAYING to rack up all the criticism I can so I can be depressed and stop writing." Now, mind you, I got a very good suggestion from the Golden Claddagh people which did indeed shift something very important in Mistress by Midnight---so kisses to them! And the Golden Pen crits will be useful when I finally go back and tackle a serious revision.

Gillian, one thing about the GH is that it's JUST scores, which, depending on your point of view, is either a good thing or a bad thing. If I thought I could finish my current WIP in time (which I could---about 13,000 words to go, but I'm not going to put pressure on myself to do so), I might have entered this year. I do have something finished but don't think it's quite right.

Janga, good luck to you, and yay that you took the plunge! Your writing is wonderful and I hope your scores are sky-high!

Tiff, two words I never expect to hear about you again---weak and boring! You've just got to laugh. And it's true: the only people who ultimately count at this stage are agents and editors.

Tiffany Kenzie said...

Yes, at this point I just laugh. To each their own, and I do not intend to please everyone.

I have gotten helpful contest feedback, though. So it's not all discouraging. I managed to clean my synopsis up when multiple people said the story ended to easy-smeasy. And I can say I've pleased more people with HB than with the last book I entered in contests--though those cruel words made the final burial for that book rather... justified. :)

You just have to know when to listen, right?

Elyssa Papa said...

Janga, thanks. I won't lie---some comments stick to you more than others, and some are just so ridiculous and absurd you can just brush them off. Trust me, if you get horrible comments (which is a distinct possibility as you can see from quoted comments) . . . just try to brush it aside and know they're only getting a sample of your work and that at the end of the day, you need to trust your own judgment and writing. Plus, you know on what contests NOT to enter from now on. *g*

terrio said...

I'm sitting here in awe at all these comments. I knew it could get ugly out there but this stuff is crazy.

I can't get over the thing about Tiff needing to do more research. She researches more than most anyone I know. Crazy I tell ya. CRAZY!!

I've only entered one contest and won't enter anything else for at least another year. I'm aiming for GH 2010. Fingers crossed.

Linda Banche said...

I'll join the club. I've never finaled, but I've come close. I've had a judge who adored my hero (I want that guy!) to the one who said she had no sympathy for him. I've been told the heroine doesn't come onstage soon enough, or the hero and heroine don't meet soon enough.

And even worse than the judges who give comments, are the ones who just check off boxes on the score sheet without any comments at all.

About the only thing everyone agreed on was that I write well. Gee, thanks.

My contest days are over. Now the RWA considers me a "Published Author" so I can't enter the GH. BUT I can't enter the Rita, either, because my novella is e-pubbed, and the Rita only wants paper, and paper from large publishers, too.

Here's a blog post by Elizabeth Boyle.

http://romanticinks.com/2008/08/24/what-contests-can-and-cant-do-for-your-writing/

She doesn't think much of contests, either.

Maggie Robinson said...

Thanks for the link and visiting, Linda! I read that when Elizbo (one of my fave authors for so many reasons) posted over there (I used to be the Sunday blogger for RI until life happened). I think you can get great feedback---but sometimes not everything is "right out there" in your first pages.

Terrio, I think overall the feedback has been more helpful than not, but I've been really judicious where I've entered, looking at the final judges first and foremost. But I have to watch the wallet, and I believe I'm done. Right now I only care what my agent thinks, and she's been great where I need to strengthen, etc.

Anonymous said...

Consider one of my favorite stories about "feedback". Tony Hillerman was rejected when he sent in his first Joe Leaphorn story. The rejection included the advice that, if he would get rid of all that Indian stuff, he just might have a pretty good mystery.

Every person has an opinion, but that's all it is, just an opinion.
Keep writing!

Maggie Robinson said...

RIP, Mr. Hillerman, who had a long and successful career. Thanks, Anon, for the words of encouragement. We all need some every now and again!