Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

by Jennie Bentley

My long-distance friend and critique partner emailed me earlier this week to tell me about a writing contest she’d entered (and exited). Her manuscript didn’t do as well as she’d hoped, and she was a little disappointed, but – thankfully – a lot more amused. One of the comments she had gotten, from some no doubt well-meaning soul, was that she should learn to write before entering any more contests.


It brought me back to the first contest I entered. It’s a few years ago now, back in the days when I thought I might want to write romance novels. My local RWA chapter was announcing their annual contest, and because I wanted validation, and also because I wanted to see whether I could write something that someone might be interested in reading, I decided to enter. I didn’t have anything written at the time, but that didn’t stop me. All that was required was a first chapter, so I came up with an idea – actually two – and wrote a first chapter for each of them. Then I sent both off, with the appropriate fee, and sat down to wait.

A couple of months went by, and then the finalists and winners were announced. All of us who had entered the contest received copies of our judging sheets, the ones from the preliminary judges – our chapter mates and peers – and for the finalists, the final judging by the professional. And boy, were they eye opening!

Admittedly, I was a rank beginner. This was the first time I had shown my writing to anyone outside the family. Some of the judges were wonderfully encouraging, pointing out everything they liked, everything that worked, everything positive... while carefully, gently, letting me know where I’d dropped the ball and how I could improve. But there was this one judge who kept harping on my punctuation. I’d put the commas and periods outside the quotes when writing dialogue. Like this:

“I’d like to kill her”, I said. “I really would”.

It was consistent throughout – consistently wrong – and obviously I needed to be made aware of it. She wasn’t the only judge to point it out, by any means. Most of them did, in some form or another (although the rest of them managed to refrain from circling every misused comma or period with a red pen). But for this woman, it became something that overshadowed everything else, good or bad, about the story. And then she made the same kind of remark that Allie heard. Come back when you’ve learned how to write.

I got my revenge, I’m happy to say. Both of my entries in that contest became finalists, and the one she objected to so strongly actually won its category. The big-name New York editor seemed perfectly capable of looking past my punctuation faux pas to see some merit in the rest of the entry. The fifty bucks went into my Christmas fund that year, and the certificate is sitting in a folder somewhere. I’m not sure what I did with the judging sheets, but I did learn to properly punctuate my dialogue. I also learned that I could write something that at least a few people enjoyed reading, even if everyone didn’t. And I learned to take critique with a shaker of salt, which I think is something we could all benefit from. After all, if someone could say about Fred Astaire – arguably the best dancer Hollywood has ever seen – that he “can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little,” talent truly is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

So what about you? Do you enter contests? Do you have any horror-stories to share? Any I-just-can’t-believe-she-said-that feedback you’ve ever gotten? (Or given; let’s not be prejudiced here!) What nasty comment did you have to rise above to get to where you are today, wherever that is? And how did you get even, which is, after all, what it's all about? Inquiring minds want to know!


Tory said...

I've entered only a few writing contests, and don't have any feedback horror stories from those.

But I remember when I used to write NIH research grants, and when you got a decent score, and wanted to resubmit, you had to answer ALL the critiques. Most of the critiques were reasonable. But I remember this one that said, "The research project staff does not have the necessary expertise in qualitative methodology." We looked around the room, and literally the top qualitative researchers in the country were there. The grant may have had its faults, but that wasn't one of them!

I think we said something like, "Perhaps our vitaes didn't clearly show . . ." but I'll never forget that sinking feeling of, "What do we say instead of, 'Read the grant, STUPID!'?"

Joyce said...

The only contest I ever entered was the St. Martin's one. My critique was full of spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. Not too long after that, I got an agent for the same book.

I used to do some freelance editing and critiquing and the manuscripts I got were, for the most part, absolutely horrible. It was often hard to find something good to say. I'd usually start out reading with the best of intentions, but as I neared the end of the manuscripts, the comments would get stronger. I tried to stop short of being mean, but that didn't always work.

JennieB said...

Gosh, you guys are up early! I'm just dragging myself out of bed now... You're an hour ahead of me, right? (That must be it. It can't be that I'm just lazy.)

Tory, that's funny. Don't you hate it when that happens, and you're left with absolutely nothing to say? Nothing that wouldn't be rude and counter-productive, anyway.

Joyce, that's just exactly what I mean. You enter the contest, some - pardon my language - moron rips your entry to shreds, and then you find an agent who seems perfectly able to overlook all the minor stuff that the moron got hung up on. People! Can't live with'em, can't live without'em, huh?

Joyce said...

I just remembered another one. I must have blocked it out! I entered an article in the Pennwriters contest last May. One of the comments was "Not anywhere near ready for publication."
The funny thing is, the article HAD ALREADY BEEN PUBLISHED in a statewide police magazine!

And I was only up because I had to go to work, not to mention make hubby's breakfast and lunch, feed the cat, etc. Today would have been the perfect day to sleep in, too. We have that lovely freezing rain crap.

martha reed said...

You have to have a sense of humor in this business, and keep your balance about criticism. Take the good and forget the rest.

My favorite negative review said: this story concerns a missing brother and a dead body. As the kids say: Well, no duh. It's a murder mystery and there were two dead bodies. The live ones were still walking around. I gave them dialogue.

Thinking about that review now makes me laugh, because someday I'm going to meet that reviewer and I'll make her confess she never even read my book.

Allie said...

What Jennie failed to mention was that one of the judges called my use of commas "dizzying." I keep each revision, renaming the old one before I continue on, and I accidentally sent my first draft to the contest (not that my final draft would have had less commas). I also sent a darker suspense, which like Jennie, I'd just written the first chapter, and it placed higher than my "real" novel.
On a positive note, with my suspense entry, the judges thought my attention to detail was so realistic that one thought I was in law enforcement, and another compared my entry to Patricia Cornwell (is that good or bad?). lol
I've only entered 2 contests, and other than a major, like St. Martin's Press, or the Golden Heart, I think I'll save my money.
I've got it! I'll use that money to buy postage, paper, ink, and maybe even envelopes.

Joyce said...

Allie, it's a good comparison if it's to early Cornwell. I'd get working on that suspense novel--sounds like a good one!

mike said...

My first entry--to a Pennwriters conference contest--didn't go anywhere, probably because, as one reviewer noted, "It reads like a Russian novel--there are 16 characters in the first chapter!" Apparently, I took my college minor in Russian studies too seriously. Lesson learned: In my next rewrite I got the number down to four, I believe.

I firmly believe that contests and critiques are great learning tools for writers, but if you're not prepared for them--or can't see past the reviewer's sometimes too obvious biases--a critique can be devastating. At the 2005 PW conference, I sat with a participant for half an hour, at first trying to convince her not to leave the con early. When that didn't work, I tried to dry her tears--she was still crying a day after receiving what she saw as a public humiliation at a Friday night open critique session. It was the first time she'd ever shared her work with anyone, and in a public setting no less. I couldn't convince her to stay, but I hope I talked her into continuing with her writing. It was a very sobering moment in an otherwise great conference.

Nancy said...

Okay, I've judged a few contests in my day, and I hate to say it, but the majority of entries will do terrible things to one's sense of humor.

But it's a negative business.--Everything is geared to rejection: From the moment you send your first ms to an editor--she's looking for reasons NOT to publish you--to the moment your book hits the stores and the sales are never 100%. (And even if they are, it takes too long to print more copies and by the time those hit the bookstores, the rush is over!)

So if you can't do something constructive with the criticism--as everyone here has managed to do--it's time to consider an alternate career. LIke standup comedy, maybe--where the rejection is at least swift.

Gina said...

I can't think of any totally off-the-wall contest critiques, but when I submitted the first 50 pages of a manuscript to an agent I'd pitched at a Pennwriters conference, she rejected it almost immediately with the comment that she doesn't represent cozies (which she'd also made plain in her printed information and in person). The manuscript in question is full of graphic violence, including torture and sexual abuse, told from the perspective of one of the perpetrators, so I really don't see how she thought it was a cozy. That's one of those "sigh of relief that she didn't ask to represent that book" moments.

Gina said...

Mike, you reminded me of another one, at one of the Pennwriters critique sessions, when a panelist (he will remain nameless, although he has the body of a 20 year old paratrooper) blasted my first scene because a character was doing office work typing on a typewriter and he claimed nobody uses typewriters anymore. The first line on the first page, though, gave the date: 1970. I put the typewriter in on purpose to help set the time period.

Joyce said...

Lee Lofland has a little quiz on his blog today, stop over and try your hand at it.

JennieB said...

Wow! A girl goes away for a couple of hours, and look what happens!

Great comments, y'all! Thanks for helping me cheer up Allie (who's actually busy cheering up me at the moment, seeing as I got my revision suggestions from my editor this week. Can you say overwhelming...?)