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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Accentuating the Positive

Getting back a contest entry can be stressful. Perhaps in the last few months, your trip to the mailbox yielded a Tyvek Priority envelope crammed behind your bills and coupon circulars. Or maybe you enter online contests and your heart skips a beat, and not in a good way, when you see the e-mail with attachments from the contest coordinator.



If you're a procrastinator like me, you sort through the rest of the mail first, then you take a deep breath and read. Skimming through the comments in the margins of the chapters, you’re relieved to see a smiley face or two, but then you flip to the synopsis. You wince as you see myriad question marks. That’s good, you tell yourself. That means you have a blueprint for improvement. Wishing it was late enough in the day to justify a martini, you down a glass of water. At least you’re hydrated. But as you read the typed paragraph summarizing the good and the bad in your entry, you may feel overwhelmed, as I once did.



So where do you begin? How do you take these critiques and make them work for you and improve your 55 page entry in time to send your best work to the Golden Heart contest?

It’s as simple as the lyrics written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer in the 1940’s, “You gotta accen-tu-ate the positive, E-lim-inate the negative, An’ latch on to the affirmative. Don’t mess with mister in-between!” We’ll focus on the positive today.

So what’s working for you? Make a short list of what several judges have given you high praise for—what they think you do best. Can you use what you do well to even better advantage?

For example, if you write description well, rather than dismiss it and move on, ponder how you can use this strength to your best advantage. How can you add more sensory detail to your story without overloading it? How can you make your description even more unique? If what you do well is snappy banter, focus on the dialogue. Does each line of dialogue sing? Are there a few places where changing a word or two would make good dialogue even better? If everyone loves your hero, what are the traits that make him so lovable? Did you show all of those traits in every scene he's in? Can you amp up his charm even more?

Make your strengths stronger; hone what you do well first.

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27 Comments:

At 11:49 AM, Blogger Karen said...

Maureen gives excellent advice here: "make a short list of what several judges have given you high praise for."

Everyone does something well. I once read an awful manuscript that had a gambling scene in it where the one of the characters counted cards. Though a complicated scene, I was always able to keep track of whose turn it was to play, and what the cards on the table were, and how the principal character felt about each turn of those cards. If the author had used that same ability for clarity in the rest of the manuscript, it would have been a winner for sure.

Each writer know what s/he does well. When you read good work you get a wonderful "golden" feeling in the area of your heart!

 
At 11:51 AM, Blogger M Kipp said...

It's not uncommon to receive conflicting comments from contest judges.

I've been told:

"I love your dialogue. It sounds just like the way people talk.", and "I don't like your dialogue. It sounds just like the way people talk."

If I consistently receive positive feedback regarding a particular aspect of my manuscript, then I'm not thrown off track by a negative comment that doesn't fit in with the majority opinion.

It is helpful to know what aspect of the manuscript seems to be working. Then you can scream at your score sheet, "There's nothing wrong with my professional presentation. Just ask the nine other judges who gave it a perfect score!"

It won't change how you did in that contest, but it's cathartic.

 
At 12:03 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

M. Kipp,
Sometimes we do get conflicting comments and it can be confusing, but notice that both of the judges who liked or disliked your dialogue because it sounded like a real conversation, keyed in on the dialogue sounding like a real conversation. That is a strength you can hone.

 
At 12:31 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great feedback, Maureen. I agree with m kipp in that many of us receive conflicting comments on scoresheets or from critique partners. It can be frustrating. But one thing I've learned above all else is to listen to my instincts. If your gut is telling you that a scene isn't working, then it probably isn't. If your gut tells you that the prostitute heroine works in your story, then I say leave it as is, believe in your work and your story telling abilities and move on. If we don't believe in our stories, nobody will. On the other hand though...if judge after judge tells you that there is too much backstory upfront or that your heroine isn't likable, then you might want to make some adjustments. :)

 
At 12:54 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Maureen, this is a real lightbulb moment for me. I have always spend so much time working on the negative things judges say that I really hadn't thought about how to use the positives to my advantage. For each contest I usually print out a blank score sheet and put all the scores on it. The areas where all or most of the judges score me low are the ones I look at. Now I can do one for the positives as well. I'm glad to see that I have been right in thinking that a negative that just one judge emphasizes is not trouble unless I feel in my gut that the judge is right.

 
At 1:41 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

This is excellent advice, and it's so nice to know the thought of a post-contest review martini is shared! ;)

I, like fellow Passion Slave doglady (Hi, Louisa!) have made lists of what I could do better, but not what I do well. It will be fun to go back and concentrate on those remarks this time.

I do try to look for how to improve my "weak" spots in other authors' writing. And, of course, it's another lovely excuse for a trip to the bookstore.

 
At 1:42 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

Doglady,
Glad my suggestion lit that bulb! Tomorrow I'll talk about how to deal with those negative comments.

 
At 1:45 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

Gillian,
Glad my suggestion was helpful to you as well. Yay! I lift a cyber martini to you.

 
At 2:41 PM, Blogger Priscilla said...

Mo,

Sometimes it's easy to focus on what we did wrong, instead of looking at what we've done right. It's so hard putting our "babies" out there. We want the world to love them, and have a hard time when they're sent back home with much less fanfare and applause than we wanted.

Thanks so much for the great suggestions! Sometimes that "glass half full" attitude is a necessity to keep from doubting my work.

Pris

 
At 2:56 PM, Anonymous gaill said...

The two biggest fans of my writing are my dh and my bff. Both are so encouraging, but they also don't give me the American Idol lies. If they see a problem or don't like something they let me know. As for judge's comments, I have been lucky in that only one judge has ever actually been rude, all the others have pointed to flaws and given suggestions on fixing them. I know to take what I need and leave the rest.

 
At 3:16 PM, Anonymous Sonja said...

It's nice to be reminded to focus on the positive. I recently received a critique where the comments were blunt. It was too easy to let the negative aspects of my writing overshadow the positive comments. After laying it aside for a few days to let the disappointment fade, I reread the critique and noticed all the positive comments about my strengths. I like the idea of making the list and posting it on my computer so I can "accentuate the positive". Thanks for the reminder.

 
At 3:31 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

Sonja,
Putting the comments away for a couple of days after first reading them is a great suggestion as well. Liked the idea of tacking the list of positives near the computer, too!

 
At 3:36 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

Gaill,
That's so cool that your dh is such a reliable judge of your writing. Some husbands, like mine, don't want to mess with it, in fear of hurting feelings or messing with your writing style. But I have wonderful critique partners who are frank and encouraging. Glad you've only gotten one rude judge!

 
At 3:44 PM, Blogger CM said...

Gaill,

You're very lucky. My BFF and DH are completely undiscriminating. If I sent them a lengthy description of a garbage pit, they'd write back, "GREAT CHARACTERIZATION!!! LOVE THE PLOT! NEXT TIME, TELL ME ABOUT THE RADISHES!"

At least they're positive and supportive, but I would never get anywhere without my critique partners.

 
At 4:07 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

m kipp, I think you're on the right track. But just in case there might be something good you could learn from the person who made the negative comment, let me throw this in:

Sometimes judges sense something needs improvement but can't quite put their fingers on it.

Your judge might have been trying to say she thinks you have too much everyday boring stuff in your dialogue, or that it is clever but not moving the story along very well. Check back and ask yourself if there is chit-chat going on for a page or two. If it doesn't actually cause something in the story to change in some way, I'd suggest severely limiting it. I've found I can cut chit-chat to just a few lines and it gives that realism flavor without frustrating the reader.

Then again, maybe you've already done this, in which case I applaud you! It's really hard to kill your darlings, and clever dialogue is one of the hardest to murder.

 
At 4:08 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

m kipp, I think you're on the right track. But just in case there might be something good you could learn from the person who made the negative comment, let me throw this in:

Sometimes judges sense something needs improvement but can't quite put their fingers on it.

Your judge might have been trying to say she thinks you have too much everyday boring stuff in your dialogue, or that it is clever but not moving the story along very well. Check back and ask yourself if there is chit-chat going on for a page or two. If it doesn't actually cause something in the story to change in some way, I'd suggest severely limiting it. I've found I can cut chit-chat to just a few lines and it gives that realism flavor without frustrating the reader.

Then again, maybe you've already done this, in which case I applaud you! It's really hard to kill your darlings, and clever dialogue is one of the hardest to murder.

 
At 4:36 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Sonja, putting the score sheet or critique away for a few days is a GREAT idea. I can almost guarantee you that you'll be amazed by how much good stuff is there when you come back to it. It's almost as though you have to metabolize the negative stuff first before your brain can even see the positive. I know someone who received a revision request from a publisher, but didn't see/comprehend the request to revise and resubmit until many days later when they picked it up again. ,-)

 
At 5:32 PM, Blogger Darcy Burke said...

Great post! I'm with doglady on the lightbulb moment. I too focus more on the negative than the positive and now I'm thinking, "duh!" I've also been meaning to line up my multi-contest scores/feedback for the ms I'm entering in the GH to see where it all falls out. I'm actually looking forward to that in a sick way.

 
At 6:47 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I'm worried that many of you are taking contest feedback too seriously. Remember, many of the people who judge may not even be on your writing level.

I'd take all contest feedback with a grain of salt. Or maybe a salt mine. Only listen to it if it gives you that "Doh! Why didn't I think of that?" feeling.

Of course, listen to the positive feedback! People are rarely wrong in what they praise!

I had editor after editor, agent after agent tell me that readers would not like my heroine in The Mysterious Miss M because she starts out the book as a prostitute. But I knew they were wrong. I knew readers would love her, because they could identify with her plight! I trusted my instinct and never rewrote the book and look what happened!!!

 
At 6:51 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Oh, Delle, I adore my little chatty dialogue--and you are SO right, most of it had to be cut down. I've been so impressed with the judges who have helped me with their critiques; it's obvious thoughtful judging takes a lot of time.

Thanks for the cyber martini, Maureen. Wednesdays are good days for such things ;)

 
At 6:54 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Oh, Diane, I must have been writing while you were posting! What inspiring advice!

I'm running "home" to tell the other Slaves to come read this right now! I'd say second guessing our own visions has slowed all of us down at one point or another.

 
At 7:21 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

gillian, your point is a good one, too. Sometimes judges actually help! I know I try to, when I judge.

I am, though, very opinionated and I worry that I say too much when I critique.

 
At 7:49 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Okay, Gillian is absolutely right. What brilliant advice, Diane. I never really thought about the judges being on a different level. And I have had those "Duh, why didn't I think of that.' moments when reading some of my judges' comments. I have been pretty lucky in that most of my judges have been really helpful and have given a lot of thought to what they write. Even when they don't like something I do, they have explained why, which helps enormously. I even reread teh ones that have been a little unkind just to make sure I don't miss anything. Ultimately though, I try VERY hard to go with my instincts because it IS my story, darn it! I still cannot believe that anyone didn't like Madeleine! I was so drawn to her from the very beginning. Thank goodness you stuck to your guns, because it truly is a terrific book.

 
At 8:20 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Well, doglady, that brings me to another axiom besides Trust Your Instincts. Don't Put All Your Eggs in One Basket.

Warner was the one publisher that asked me for a rewrite of The Mysterious Miss M and I was going to do it. Then I decided not to use that special story premise I used for Miss M, because I couldn't quite give up on the book. But the book I wrote became The Improper Wife by Diane Perkins and it sold to Warner about 4 mos after Miss M sold (I had a very good year in 2003!)

 
At 5:48 AM, Blogger MaryF said...

Radishes, CM!!! LOLOL!!!

I'm still stinging from my last contest results - haven't the guts to go back and look for positives yet. My eye is drawn to the negatives. I thought it was just me ;)

 
At 8:01 AM, Blogger Kirsten said...

One bit of contest wisdom I believe in is that you should never enter just one contest at a time. I don't think you can ever really trust that any of us (even if we were editors!) know exactly what will sell and what won't. So I think you have to make sure you get a bucket full of comments and sort through that before you take anything to heart.

Once you've got that bucket, you'll see what themes emerge. I would never take too seriously what one, or even two judges says. But if 10 of them agree that your characters aren't sympathetic enough, or your pacing is off, that's information you can really think more seriously about using.

I've never gone through and figured out the positives, though! That's a great idea.

 
At 11:33 AM, Blogger Mo H said...

Kristen,
The bucket method sounds like it would work well. Glad my suggestion resonated with you!

 

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