What I'm reading: Stand-In Groom, by Suzanne Brockmann
Someone once said, a camel is a horse designed by a committee.
As readers, we all have different tastes. There's no such thing as a universal "great" book. I'm seeing that now that hubby is home all the time. He's asking for book recommendations. His preference would be mystery over romance, so I've suggested authors. He's sampling them, and likes and doesn't like them for entirely different reasons. He's not into relationships between characters. That's one of the things that keeps me coming back to a series. He doesn't consider the books "bad" or even "not good." They're just not what he enjoys reading. Or, as he puts it, "too much mushy stuff."
Recently I entered a writing contest for an unpublished manuscript. Most contests in the romance realm are run by local RWA chapters, and most separate unpublished authors who submit pages from non-contracted manuscripts from published authors, who submit books. I've done both, and my results have varied, but hadn't entered any contests recently. So when I found a contest that didn't differentiate between published and unpublished authors, I was interested. Everyone submitted about 40 pages from a non-contracted manuscript, and the judging was blind. I had a sequel to When Danger Calls sitting around, and thought some feedback might be interesting.
I got my scores back and found the judges hadn't seen things the same way at all. Who was right? Nobody, really. There's this belief that if you enter a contest and get high scores from one judge and low scores from another, that the high-scoring judge is right, and the other clearly doesn't know squat about good writing. But that's being naïve. You have to consider ALL the feedback. Compare all the comments in each category. Is there an underlying theme? Does everyone love your heroine? You've probably nailed her. Hate your hero? Why? Too alpha? Not alpha enough? Cardboard? A good judge will explain marks.
For a published book, contest feedback is much like a review. The book is done, published, and nobody's going to change it because a critic or judge says your heroine should be stronger, weaker, perkier, or meeker.
But for a work in progress, opinions are something to think about. When I evaluate feedback, I'm going to consider the judge's credentials to some degree. If the judge is unpublished, it's likely she's still working on perfecting her own craft. She probably has her list of mental 'rules' and is reading to see how the entry conforms. When someone like this gives me a low score for grammar and punctuation, I'm going to discount the validity of most of the rest of what she's said. These sorts of readers will look at sentence fragments and other aspects of "voice" and say they don't conform to the formal rules of grammar. Ding. That the reader wanted more backstory in the first pages also triggers the 'get out the salt shaker' reaction. Backstory up front slows the pace.
Or, the judge who says she couldn't tell who the heroine was from the opening pages. Granted, it wasn't until chapter 2 that the 'real' heroine showed up, but the fact that the heroine's scenes were written in her POV should have been a clue. It's rare that a scene would be written from the POV of a secondary character. But it's a valid point, and one that should probably be addressed. In fact, it was something that bugged me from the start, but I didn't want to go with the cliché "hero rescues woman, which means she's automatically the heroine" scenario. That's why I didn't show the woman being rescued in any detail, and it was strictly from the hero's POV. Still, convention seems to be that the first characters on the page should be hero and heroine, and apparently I confused at least one reader by violating this unwritten rule.
But wait! Another judge gave full marks for being able to recognize the heroine. Which was right? Neither. Once you get beyond mechanics, there's very little "right" or "wrong" when it comes to judging writing.
One judge wanted physical descriptions up front. Some readers want a clear picture of the characters from the get go. Yet in life, physical attributes aren't usually in the forefront of our minds unless there's a good reason. I don't think about what color my hair is (unless it's the day of my salon appointment) or if it's straight or curly, long or short. I know these things. I'm not the sort of person to dwell on the brand names of my clothes (as if I even know what they are). I don't mind waiting until there's another character on scene who can describe what they see. So, that's how I write.
Rather than deal with the scores (which is always an issue – how to quantify the subjective), I'm more interested in their comments. Are they seeing what I was trying to put on the page? If so, great. If not, why? Does it need fixing? If so, what can I do to fix it?
And, as someone who's been on all sides of the contest scene, I have to say that we tend to believe the highest scores are the "right" ones. Not necessarily so. As a contest coordinator, I've dealt with judges who can't bring themselves to give a low score to anyone brave enough to enter. Or who are using the contest to promote their own names or services, including contact information for their editing business.
As writers, we have to remember that we can't write for everyone. Conforming to everyone's feedback won't work. You can't write by committee. Learn to evaluate feedback, but don't let it intimidate you.
Tomorrow, my guest is Samhain Publishing best-selling author, Marie Nicole Ryan. She's going to be giving away one of her books, so make sure you come back.