Saturday, April 27, 2013

Contest feedback dilemma?

Have you had conflicting feedback from contest judges (or critique partners)? If so, read on as I share my thoughts on the matter.

First, I came to writing contests initially from the ranks of the unpublished, hoping that my contest entry would catch an editor's eye. Along the way, I received comments as different as night and day, some that were contradictory on the same entry from different judges.

Fast forward to the time when I began judging writing contests and even serving as a category coordinator. Each contest had its own scoresheet and level of detail required from judges. Each had a different trigger for using discrepancy judges.

Seeing contests from both side of the scoresheet gives me a strong insight into the judging process, one that I hope will benefit struggling writers. The easiest place to start is from the perspective of category coordinator faced with needing a discrepancy judge. More times than not, the distance in scoring came from the judge not being able to get at the meat of what's wrong.

For instance, you can have great characters and plot, but the dialogue to narrative blend can cause pacing errors which lead to poor scores in every category. Shallow characterization may reflect poorly on the plot making the story seem unbelievable. Conversely, a story that's all character and going nowhere will earn poor scores for more than lack of plot.

Knowing that judges have all levels of experience in story craft, and knowing that some judges have inherent biases, what can an author take from conflicting comments?

1. Some element of story craft needs improvement. Instead of having the knee-jerk reaction of "she didn't get my story," take a closer look at the passage that invited negative comment. Is there anything you meant to say or that you know intuitively that didn't make it to the page?

If you can't come up with anything, look first to characterization and then to plot, strengthening motivation, adding conflict, etc.

2. Few writers are born. Most of us are "made;" i.e., we continually learn how to improve our writing. Keeping up with other writers, published and unpublished, pushes us to keep striving to write tighter, more compelling stories. If you can't make heads or tails of your comments, you can set that project aside and come back to it, you can keep tweaking the scene, you can work on a new idea, one with stronger plot and deeper characterization.

A lesson I learned the hard way is that some early/first attempts at writing  have so many flaws that it is more trouble than it's worth to fix them. Take a good luck at your project with conflicting feedback. Search your heart to know if needs CPR.

3. Words matter. A too-strong word or a too-weak word can inflame a reader. They are investing themselves in the story as they read along. If you've written something out of character, the reader/contest judge is alienated. When this happens, some judges may over-react, causing you the writer to want to burn your story.
Comments about motivation or acting out of character require attention. The good news is that oftentimes a tweak here or there will set things right. Other times, you may need to do reconstructive surgery, depending on the manuscript deficiency.

4. Despite best intentions, some judges feel distanced from the story and don't know why. It might be a case of too much passive writing, of insufficient deep POV, or even a book centered around an activity the judge dislikes. Always look to craft first when you have disparate comments. Anytime you wish you had a few minutes to speak to the person to explain what you did, realize that you won't have that chance with readers. Everything you impart has to go through the written word.

5. Stories touch people emotionally, and they may react emotionally. This is true for contest entries, critique groups, and book reviews. There are times when we have to accept that we can't please all of the people all of the time. To this day, when I receive feedback on a work in progress, I let the comments "rest" for 24 hours to be certain I'm not reacting defensively. I weigh each comment against my intent of writing that scene, and then decide what my reaction will be. When all is said and done, writers have to please themselves.

The more you write, the more you will trust your inner ear. Your writer's voice will strengthen and become more distinct. If writing for publication is your intention, continue to improve craft as a writer, find feedback avenues which strengthen your work, and develop a thick skin. You'll need it!

Maggie Toussaint
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