On The Value of Critiques & Writing Contests
by George Bernstein
I saw a recent blog post by a writer unhappy about the critique she received from someone she was using, who “didn’t get” what she was trying to do.
One of the problems we writers can have IS getting our readers to “get it.” And if they don’t, whose fault is that?
It seems pretty obvious it’s the author’s responsibility to see that his readers understand what he or she is trying to do or say. If your critic doesn’t get it, surely your audience won’t either. Many authors have a problem with criticism. “How dare you challenge my work, that I slaved over and love.” That’s a prescription to failure.
Dave King, an independent editor, and later, a top literary agent at William Morse separately recommended I remove my side plot in TRAPPED, that involved Phil with the Chicago Mafia. I had slaved over that, building tension and danger, and weaving the climax into the ending of the novel, but both experts felt it detracted from Jackee’s story and it wasn’t necessary. So I pulled it out…but it’s not a total loss. Writers NEVER discard any work, so I’m using that story in my in-progress 3rd Al Warner detective novel, changing the venue from Chicago to South Florida
Then Dee Burks at TAG Publishers called me, saying they all loved TRAPPED, and it could be a winner in their “Next Great American Novel” contest, but felt it needed some content editing. Wow, was I excited. I LOVE positive input, but ultimately, it’s up to the author to decide what works and what doesn’t. I embraced her suggestion of a single viewpoint (Jackee’s) throughout the novel, and felt some of her other suggestions were excellent. I balked, however, at changing the ending, and after some discussion, she agreed with my take. Overall, our collaboration made TRAPPED a great novel…and the most prevalent comment I get from readers is, “I LOVED the ending!” One wrote me she read it 3 TIMES, she loved it so much!
Ultimately, critiquing is still a matter of taste. A smart author listens, and isn’t too proud to make changes that work, but is willing to resist things they think will compromise their story. It can be a delicate balancing act, but when well performed, can have wonderful results. But, like in all things, opinions can widely vary.
Shortly after I made those challenging revisions to TRAPPED, I decided to enter it in the large Florida Writers RPLA contest, where it became a finalist. Successes in large contests are another way to validate your work and heighten prestige.
A while after TRAPPED was published, I got the results…and the rating sheets from the 3 judges from the RPLA contest. Although a finalist, I was not the winner in my genre.
Typical of many contests, 2 judges read the synopsis and the first 30 pages. In the RPLA, they rate 10 areas, from 1 – 5 points…so a max total of 50. An entry needs at least 80 combined points to become a finalist. TRAPPED received 92, and both judges loved character development, the plot, dialog, and the way I described the action, solely through my protagonists eyes. As I said earlier, Dee Burks, my editor at TAG, suggested a single, 1st person point of view throughout, and I agreed. It wasn’t easy, but in the end, we both felt it was terrific.
As a finalist, the 3rd judge read the entire manuscript. Unfortunately, he (or she) didn’t agree with Dee…or the earlier judges. He down rated TRAPPED because he wanted scenes from other characters’ viewpoints…all the ones I’d carefully removed at Dee’s suggestion, and that was enough to keep me from winning that contest.
And the First Person viewpoint is a major factor in what seems to make TRAPPED so engrossing to those who have read it.
As I always say, “That’s why they make chocolate, vanilla and 39 other flavors.”
This isn’t the 1st time I’ve had one judge rave about something, like characters or scenes or settings, while another denigrated them. My other novels have been past finalists in the RPLA, with similar results: raves by the preliminary judges that weren’t echoed by the final judge.
It’s the same reasons authors like Louis L’Amore (America’s top Western writer…for EVER) was reputedly rejected 350 time before finally getting published. And J.K. Rowling, probably the wealthy woman in the World right now, struggled for years before finding a small publisher to take a chance on Harry Potter. The stories of rejections that become Best Sellers are legion, because you can’t accommodate for taste.
Luckily, TRAPPED has already received loads of 5-Star reviews at Amazon, and I’ve fielded a plethora of calls and e-mail raves from readers. So I think I’ll cherish the good reviews and evaluate the others for merit.
I suggest this attitude should work for all of you, no matter what your endeavors.
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Genre – Mainstream / Suspense
Rating – PG13
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