Monday, January 11, 2010

Dealing with Feedback

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Recently I entered a writing contest for an unpublished manuscript. Most contests in the romance realm are run by local RWA chapters, and most separate unpublished authors who submit pages from non-contracted manuscripts from published authors, who submit books.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 So when I found a contest that didn't differentiate between published and unpublished authors, I was interested.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 If the judge is unpublished, it's likely she's still working on perfecting her own craft.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.


J.A. Souders said...

As always Terry, you've hit the nail on the head. I've only entered one contest and never received feedback from it. It wasn't until after the winners were announced did they say they only give feedback to the winners. But I DO send my MSS out to my CP and Beta and gamma readers before they are ever seen by agents or publishers and it's hard getting feedback, especially when it's particularly harsh. Your instinct is to say they don't know what they're talking about, but if you take the time to try and see where they're coming from, you might just see what they saw. Then again, they might not know what they're talking about. And then it's time for that salt shaker. :) I do love reading your blogs, I just don't usually comment unless something strikes a chord. Which this one did. Thanks!

Hart Johnson said...

This waws GREAT, Terry. (I think you need to point your husband to thrillers--they are the adrenaline rush without all that pesky character stuff... says the woman who tries to write character intensive thrillers...)

I love your take on what to take and what not to. I have a first reader who is fabulous, but she's been trying to convince me to get that back story and description in there--frankly it is OUT because my word count is already too high--but she isn't published and probably doesn't get this pacing thing, so it is nice to hear that specific example! Besides that though... keeping in mind to take it all for what it is... opinions, worthy of weighing, but not always of acting on... let it tell you what it will, but we will never please all.

Terry Odell said...

JA, WT - thanks. While it's easy to believe anyone who agrees with us is 'right', we really have to step back. And sometimes, it's those who disagree who get the proverbial light bulb to go on.

(But don't forget to eat chocolate while you deal with it!)

Terry Odell said...

Oh, and WT - I gave hubby "Fault Line" which is a thriller, along with "Naked in Death" just to see what he thought of one of my favorite series. He started FL, found it too confusing to get into, and read NID first. But that definitely had too much 'mushy stuff'. When he did go back and read FL, he still complained about the relationships.

P.L. Parker said...

"Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder" more or less. I entered a few contests and felt the same. One scored me high while another scored low. Who was right? I try to take everything (reviews, etc.) with a grain of salt. What one reader feels is not necessarily the same result from another. Good blog, very interesting.

Terry Odell said...

PL - Thanks. It's kind of like watching feedback from potential house buyers. Yesterday's couple was split. She loved it; he didn't. Said he didn't want a single tree in the yard. There's no pleasing everyone.

Carol Kilgore said...

I've only entered a couple of contests, but I found the same split on scores. On one, someone said she didn't know who the antagonist was. That was because he hadn't yet been introduced, yet something he had caused had already occurred. And I'm also reading Suzanne Brockmann now.

Terry Odell said...

Carol, if only there was a way to quantify the unquantifiable. I've been a judge for many contests, and it's excruciatingly painful to have to slap a number on a piece of writing. And the odds that two readers, even who like a piece, will give it exactly the same score are astronomical. Perfection is in the eye of the beholder.

Tanya Hanson said...

Hi Terry,
Great blog and great subject. I recently judged a contest wherein one entry was so terrible, it was as if the author had never read a romance before or...for that matter, even written much more than a complete sentence. I was horrified at the low scores I had to give and even consulted the contest director before I did. Whew.

I entered a contest and got two perfect scores from two RWA trained judges and much lower score from a newbie who's comments reflected the last RWA lecture she'd been to. So I dunno the efficacy of either situation I just mentioned.

Anyway, I loved this subject!


GunDiva said...

Terry, as I've just entered my first contest, I'm really interested to see what the judges will say, especially after today's post. There's probably a grain of truth in every comment/criticism that the judge makes, and I'll have to remember that.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I feel the same about reviews. I can't believe good press and not believe bad press. I try to discount all of it...and take something useful out of negative comments or reviews. It was definitely tough at first...but now my skin has toughened up like a rhino's.

Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

Linda Poitevin said...

Excellent post, Terry. I think all writers should be getting some kind of feedback on their work, whether it's from critique partners, beta readers, or contests. Sometimes we're just too close to our own work to see its flaws (or, on some days, its gems!). Feedback is absolutely necessary to being objective about our own work.

My own rule of thumb is that if only one reader points out something as a problem, chances are it's a personal, subjective thing. If two readers point out the same thing, I need to take a closer look at it. Three or more? It needs to be changed. Period.

When it comes to contests, I suggest entrants not only look at the experience level of the judge (published/unpublished) when evaluating her comments, but also what genre she writes in. In my experience, it's difficult for some writers (regardless of experience level) to pull themselves far enough out of their own genre's rule-set to be objective about another.

Again, wonderful topic! :)

Mason Canyon said...

Great post. When entering contests I think you have to look at the outcome as just additional research to consider. Because you could submit the same item to 10 different people and get 10 completely different takes on it. It just gives you another avenue to look down before deciding which one you like for your characters.

J Hali Steele said...

Wonderful blog, and you explained contest and judging so well. Thanks for posting a link on a loop I lurk in or I would have missed this! It gives a clear picture of how differently people interpret what they read.

Terry Odell said...

Tanya - it's hard to give constructive feedback when a submission is an early attempt at writing, isn't it. You don't want to be throwing that bucket of cold water when there's the possibility of improvement. We all started there.

GD- Good luck, and try to look at the feedback objectively. The first time is the hardest.

Elizabeth - glad your skin is thick. Mine is getting there, but I still tend to take negative reviews a bit too personally. That's MY BABY these people are talking about. Intellectually, I understand the 'different strokes' thing, but it's a tough adjustment to make.

Linda - definitely agree with you about following 'trends' in feedback. When everyone points out the same thing, it's probably "right"

Mason - I agree. Ti's "feedback" not "truth"

J - so glad you found me here. I hope you'll bookmark my site and come back often! Welcome.

susan said...

I like this post. I for one comment from the heart. I do not coment to just make some one hear what they want to. If there is something I don't I don't like I say so and then remind the reader "this is my thought alone". I have to say most of my comments are good ones. susan L.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Great post. Very helpful advice.

Maybe your husband would like the hard-boiled murder mysteries.

Terry Odell said...

Susan - I agree, for contests, there's nothing more frustrating than a score without an explanation. I tend to mark up the manuscripts when I give feedback, although I won't line edit for a total stranger, because I don't think it's right to impose my voice. I try to make suggestions, with explanations.

Terry - Right now he's glommed onto Sue Grafton. That should keep him occupied for a while!

Jemi Fraser said...

Judging any of the arts is so subjective! It's so interesting how different people react differently to the same writing.

I've never entered a contest - but it would be interesting!

Mary Ricksen said...

I so get it Terry!

Galen Kindley--Author said...

Indeed, we cannot write for everyone. Well said.

I think as I've grown as a writer, I'm more aware of the quality of what I've written and where the holes are. However, I do truly appreciate honest feedback because there are holes I can't see...that's certain. As I've grown, I'm also able to dispassionately judge a comment's validity.

Usually, I'll try to make a change if I'm ambivalent about the change and it's not anything too major. Otherwise, I consider it seriously, then change or not. Sometimes it's just one reader who doesn't get it...Obviously, I let those go. Other times, I see it's ME who doesn't get it and then, yep, I make a change.

Best Regards, Galen.
Imagineering Fiction Blog

Terry Odell said...

Jemi, that's why it's nice there's such a variety of books. How boring to have only one kind.

Mary, Good! Thanks

Galen, that's the way I react as well. Confidence grows as our writing grows.

Lorel Clayton said...

Terrific advice. When you see the range of tastes out there, you can't get down on yourself because someone disliked it. You want as many people as possible to like it of course, but you can't please everybody without ending up with a camel, as you say.

Sheila Deeth said...

Great advice. Thanks. I'm trying to get a children's picture book ready for submission and getting conflicting comments from readers. But putting the comments together gives me a clearer picture of what I'm trying to do with the book. I feel like I'm almost ready to write the back blurb at last!

Terry Odell said...

Lorel - finding the usable information in feedback is an acquired skill.

Sheila - good luck with your book!