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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Eliminating the Negative

Yesterday I wrote about identifying the aspects of writing that you do well and honing them in your entry. Today, we move on to the areas of your writing where you’ve been told by more than one judge on more than one occasion that this scene or dialogue or plot isn’t working for the reader. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a comment by one judge with a keen eye that your gut tells you is right. This really can happen. A judge noted that she couldn’t picture one of my characters (only one judge), but I didn’t dismiss the comment. Even though the other judges praised me for my characterization, I looked at my writing, and I realized that judge was absolutely right. I hadn’t put the same effort into this one character’s description and speech patterns as I did to the others. I went back and fixed it.

One of the best ways to eliminate the negative is to review what’s not working for you. Highlight passages that more than one judge marked as problematic if their critique rings true with you. Remember what Diane said yesterday about listening to your gut. That’s important. You don’t want to lose your vision or voice as you revise out the negative.

Once you identify the problems that ring true with you, come up with solutions. Divide them into long term and short term goals.

Long term: If you had all the time in the world, and you don’t if you’re entering the GH this year, and you’re writing single title and judges consistently comment that your plotting needs to be more complex to sell in today’s market, research the best books on plotting. Take an on-line class on plotting. Plenty are available from RWA chapters across the country. At the next conference you attend, focus on the plotting workshops. You can’t eliminate a true negative by ignoring it and hoping it goes away.

Short term: Bounce your solutions off readers you trust to give you more than praise, such as your critique partners, or dh and bff . If you’re completely frozen, ask your critique partners to help you come up with a solution and perhaps brainstorm more plot complexity into your synopsis if that’s an area you agree you need to work on.

All problems with grammar and punctuation should be fixed. If you’re changing or adding new passages to your entry, get some fresh eyes to read it and catch those little comma errors and unplanned fragments.

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At 11:52 AM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

In my critiques I felt like there were judges who found specific things wrong with the story, but overall must have thought the plot/characters were fine, and then there were judges who simply didn't care for everything.

With those "second" set, should we assume they simply don't care for the voice/style and move on, or should we send the piece out to more contests to see what others think?

In other words, is there a "right" amount of feedback?

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

That's a great question. My advice would be that if some judge dinged you on absolutely everything it might truly be about not liking the voice and style.

To get your entry this year to the best it can be, after honing what you do well, focus on the constructive criticism you've received, where the judge mentions one or two things, especially if there's a pattern.

If the entry hasn't been in more than one contest, you might want to enter it another contest or two, so that you can see patterns emerge for the purpose of revision. For this year's GH, you won't have time to enter and get feedback before the due date, but it might help you revise so that you can have your full ms ready to send to an editor or agent. Finaling is great, but selling is the ultimate goal.

At 1:21 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

I guess I'd want to know how many judges we're talking about? If you have feedback from five different contests and two of them said, "Eh, I don't like the whole thing," then I wouldn't take it terribly seriously. If seven people have judged or critiqued it and four of them didn't like it, then you have a problem.

If it's a cross-genre novel (And what isn't, these days?), then it can be a problem of expectation. You know how it goes: "No one has ever written"...a Regency hooker heroine, or a vampire slayer who has to kill her husband, or a gamma hero who's an elf...until someone succeeds with such a thing, and then it's hunky dory. If your voice or premise is sparkly enough, editors might take a chance on such a first-time thing, but contest judges can sometimes be even more conservative. They're trying to help you sell, after all, and the more you meet market expectations while still having something COMPLETELY NEW, the more chance of a sale.

At 1:24 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Oh, and to answer your Seven is the right amount of feedback. ;]

At 4:49 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

I laughed out loud when I read that "seven" bit, Esri--actually, that IS how many crits on have on this bit of work :)

Thanks for the feedback.

At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Margaret B. said...

I have to admit, I dreaded doing this (i.e., sitting down with the most recent batch of judges comments and finding the good, the bad, and the ugly), but it turned out to be very helpful. I found that I got most of my negative comments on the synopsis rather than the chapters--which isn't surprising since I suck at synopses. But at least one of the judges had some very specific ideas that I think I can work with. Thanks for the advice!
Margaret B.

At 5:29 PM, Blogger Christine Wells said...

Mo H, great article. I think the most important thing is not to lose your voice when you make all these corrections and not to follow blindly what judges say.

What I used to do was read through the comments and then put them aside for a while before I came back to my ms. I found the comments that struck home, the ones I still remembered after a week or so, were the ones I really needed to do something about. As a writer you develop an instinct for what is good advice and what is better left alone.

Good luck to all who enter!
Christine Wells, GH winner, short historical 2006

At 6:29 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Gillian: What are the odds?! It MUST be the right number.

Christine: Good method. "If they don't love something, let it go. If it comes back and makes you squirm, change the manuscript."

At 7:08 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Gillian's question was about the same as mine. I entered ten contests. i had a couple of judges who didn't like my heroine - said she was to snippy. The rest of them loved her. She is so real in my mind, I just don't want to change her personality. Putting the critiques aside and then going back to them is a good idea. Funny, I have critiques back from seven sets of judges as well. Seven must be the magical number!! I think I have to be in the right frame of mind to look at the negative critiques as well. If not they can be so depressing or at the least confusing!

At 7:21 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn aka Tricia Mills said...

Maureen, very smart posts this week.

At 8:51 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I'm as opinionated, more opinionated with my critique partners, as I am with judging contests. My critique partner says she looks at what I suggest, but she doesn't necessarily do what I suggest. She thinks of it as a place that might need work and she changes it her way.

I was actually heartened by that statement. No way I want to take away somebody's voice! And I think it is a good way to deal with contest feedback.

At 11:39 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

You definitely don't want to lose your voice. I had a critique partner once who said she couldn't critique anymore because she knew she was trying to make my story/writing/voice just like hers. She couldn't help it.

Great post, Maureen.

At 9:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just had my contest entry trashed completely by one judge. She liked nothing. She said mine was an 'old story'. Here's the thing, I love those tried and true plots with a different twist in a different voice. The next two judges gave it a perfect score, and a near perfect score. They loved everything about it. And that's basically the way it's been going. 2 of 3 usually love it, the other one doesn't know why I bother to pick up a pen to write. It's really hard to take those kind of critiques seriously.

At 9:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops. Forgot to add my name to the anon comment.


At 10:15 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Doglady: Your comment about your snippy heroine reminded me of Mary Janice Davidson's heroines. I'm sure she got plenty of critiques that said, "She's funny, but no one wants to read a heroine this sarcastic and foul-mouthed." As long as your heroine isn't mean, I think you're right to disregard the few who balk.

Bev: Are you writing category or single title? I think category readers/editors are more likely to acknowledge the value of tried-and-true. If you're trying for single title, you might consider switching and targeting something like Harlequin Presents. Some contest forms and judges take your target market into account, some don't. If you're consistently getting great scores from judges who understand what you're doing, it might be time to enter fewer contests (except the GH!) and really hit editors. Don't forget Mills & Boone.

At 7:38 PM, Blogger Lee McKenzie said...


I agree with Esri. As long as your character isn't mean, she can still be heroic.

I'm going always going on about TV characters because some of them are so incredibly well done and because they're familiar to many of us. I think Christina Yang on Grey's Anatomy is a perfect example here. This season she's assigned numbers to her interns because she can't be bothered to learn their names, but she's absolutely driven to be the best surgeon she can be so she can make people well.

So as long as your heroine has lots of likeable and admirable qualities, readers will forgive her sarcasm, and maybe even embrace it!


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