Thursday, January 31, 2008

It never ends

Camy here, talking about reader subjectivity.

Pam mentioned this on Monday’s post, and I totally agree with her. You often see wildly disparate scores AND comments from judges, and the truth is that you can’t please everyone.

As I get reviews about my books, I’m seeing the same trend I saw when I entered contests. Wildly disparate ratings AND comments.

One reviewer loved the breadth of topics that revealed my character’s family atmosphere—and how it influenced her—in more depth. Another reviewer said there was too much stuff, which made the story too shallow.

One reviewer loved my heroine. Another one said she was mean.

One reviewer loved the insight into Asian American culture, especially the fact I pointed the differences between Japanese and Chinese. Another reviewer hated the Asian-ness of it and thought it was racist.

The truth is, the disparate reader opinions we’ve all seen from writing contest judges never ends, because we see it as published authors. (Except that reviewers tend to be more blunt and public about their opinions than contest judges.)

In a rather weird way, it’s actually a good thing to have that one judge who doesn’t get your writing. The “out there” judges’ comments I received on my contest entries are being echoed by reviewers now, but I’m prepared for them because I’ve heard it all before.

That’s probably not really helpful to you when you’re smarting from a score of 1 and a judge who rants about your character’s political stance rather than commenting on the storyline or writing. Or the judge who gives you all 1’s and all he complains about is that your margins are 1.25” and not 1”.

However, I’ve discovered that having a contest judge complain—no matter how mean or spacey or confusing the comment is—has helped me in the long run because seeing the same sort of comment on an Amazon review doesn’t faze me the way it normally would.

I won’t lie—developing a thick skin takes time and you never really toughen up as much as you’d like to. That’s what family and friends are for—to give you a hug, then smack you upside the head and tell you to “Get over it” or “Suck it up” because it’s only one person’s opinion.

I also received some excellent advice from Kristin Billerbeck and Brandilyn Collins—often when a judge or reviewer complains about something in your story that you really don’t understand, it’s because that part of your book touched a sore spot in his/her own life. Sometimes, the judge or reviewer is with denial or guilt over something in his/her own heart, and your story brought it to the forefront of their mind, causing them pain or anguish. They lash out with an “out there” comment that really has nothing to do with you or your story.

Also, there’s nothing we can do about judges’ personal preferences. Some people like fast-paced stories, others like meandering ones, and if your novel is one or the other, you’re going to get complaints that the story was “too slow” or “too fast.” Some people like strong characters while others like compassionate ones, and you can expect comments from people who think your heroine is “too soft” or “too hard.”

Now, don’t get me wrong—if three different judges point out the same problem, it’s probably something to listen to. But remember to read with a discerning heart.

My advice is to feel the sting—yup, go ahead and feel it! Kick the cabinets, burn the roast, and indulge in lots of chocolate.

Then exert yourself to move on. Tell yourself that the difficult comment will actually help you someday when you’ve got that novel on the Barnes and Noble shelves.


Melanie Dickerson said...

Ain't it the truth? One person loves something about your book, someone else picks out that very thing and tells you it's all wrong. Like Camy said, sometimes people just will not like your story and there may not be anything you can do about it. But then again, sometimes you can. One judge told me my heroine in The Beholder was a little too perfect. Her only flaw was her fear. Another told me that I played up her flaw too much and I needed to give her a strength. Could be confusing, but they probably both have a good point. I can probably figure out a line here and there to tweak just a bit that would improve the heroine on both accounts, especially since these judges gave me such detailed comments all through the entry.

And let me just say, the Gotcha! contest was the best contest I've ever entered. The most organized, the most experienced judges, and the most feedback by far that I've ever received. I've been disappointed before at the scarce comments from judges on other contests, but these eight judges (yes, you get four judges per entry) gave tons of comments throughout my entries. And they were very valuable. At least three of my judges were multi-pubbed novelists. The comments I received were worth way more than the entry fee I paid. Way more.

Melanie Dickerson said...

I hope my comment didn't make it sound like I was disparaging other well-known contests I've entered! I was just really excited about the feedback.

I already knew it. I'm terrible at deep POV and telling too much, and these judges really nailed me, but also showed me exactly what I was doing wrong and how to fix it. Normally you have to pay hundreds of dollars for expertise like that!

Gina Welborn said...

This is why I say the best way to help you understand your judges is to judge one (preferably more) contests yourself.

Personal ilks are reality. Just as they influence how we feel about what books we read, they influence how we perceive contest entries.

I love introspection, but don't tell me a story through introspection. And if you interject the POV character's thought after every dialogue beat, then I'm gonna start screaming because while I may like your heroine, I really don't care to know her every thought.

And far be it to have a hero think eight-days worth of thoughts like a heroine.

Okay, I was going to say something else, but it'd be kinda long so I'm going to blog about it, which will make my sister happy because she says I need to blog every day.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Hey, everybody knows that Camy's book, Sushi for One?, is the ACFW Book Club selection for February, right? If you haven't joined the book club, now's the time, so you can help us with the discussion.

I'm so lucky. I get to promote the books as the book club assistant coordinator. This is one way I described Camy's book: It's chick lit with a nice big splash of romance and a tangy Asian flavor! (Sorry, I couldn't resist!)

Mary Connealy said...

Part of being a good judge, though, is recognizing your own preferences and prejudices, don't you think? I'm judging ... okay, I can't remember, I think it's the FHL contest but it could be ACFW. And they asked me for category preferences. I said, "No preference, send me whatever you're short on judges for, but not sci-fi or YA or Women's Fiction. Nothing wrong with those categories at all, I just don't particularly like them, more importantly I don't really understand what makes a good one. Does that make sense? I don't know the genre, the rules, I haven't read 'good one' and 'bad ones' so I don't have a reliable yardstick to measure them.
I shouldn't be judging a category I don't understand, but also, I should ADMIT IT if I'm not a chick lit fan, and not find fault with Camy's work because it's not my cup of 'oriental' tea.

Gina Welborn said...

Oh, I'm totally on board with Mary's comment about recognizing preferences. Some little elf put it in the Genesis coordinator's ear that I don't have any contests slated to judge, so that evil woman enlisted me. ;-) Okay, I like judging so I only call her evil to bark up her tree.

On the list of categories to judge, I obviously couldn't pick historical in case I really decide to enter, so I went with the other two romance categories. Could I have picked all the categories? Sure. But women's fiction isn't my thing becuase I don't really enjoy women going on some angst-filled journey to discover she needs to forgive her ex-husband for being a jerk. After all, isn't jerk implied in ex-husband?

Anyhoo, since I don't really read YA fiction, I don't think it's fair to volunteer to judge the category, although if they were desperate for judges I'd do it and do a fantabulous job because I'm a brilliant contest judge, an amazing learned writer, and the next Susan Elizabeth Phillips for the inspirational soon as my darling agent can convince an editor to recognize life as it is.

Okay, this was sooooo not the point of this post.

Mary, thank you for being one of FHL's final round judges for the category I coordinated. I got to looking over the scoresheets because I was looking for something totally not related to the FHL contest and got to reading what you said to one of the finalist. Well stated!

Actually, I was/am VERY pleased with all the gals who were the FHL's TBL Long Contemporaty category's final round judges.

And on that note: If you've written a long contemporary inspirational romance or at least have the first chapter or two finished, then seriously consider entering the 2008 Touched by Love contest. If all goes well, and Kelly still thinks I'm brilliant, I should be coordinating that category again.

Trust me, this contest is worth the entrance fee.

And I don't really care if you use paper clips, butterfly clips, or binder clips. (I draw the line on staples.) My goal as a category coordinator is to make this contest a beneficial one for you.

And since you're thinking about entering, go ahead and enter the Genesis because I'm judging that one because Camy doesn't have anythign better to do than read blog posts. Somebody get her a life. ;-)

Cheryl Wyatt said...

This is SO incredibly true! I'm finding the same subjectivity in reviews and reader letters as I did with contest comments and scores.

A lot of it boils down to personal tastes of the reader.

GREAT and timely post!


Mary Connealy said...

So, Gina, were my comments on an entry of YOURS, or did you just save a copy of every judges sheet you got...they were online this time, right?

I usually sign them...........
.......unless I'm afraid.

Unlike Ruthy who ALWAYS signs them and them courageously looks an entrant in the eye (cyberly speaking of course) and says, "Yeah, that's my opinion and I stand by it and here's why..."

I love that kind of courage while obviously not possessing any of my own.

Gina Welborn said...

No, Mary, the comments weren't on anything I wrote, but were the judges' scoresheet that I had downloaded to send to the entrants.

I was searching through my file of contest entries that I've judged and noticed I still had the file of last year's TBL LC entries, scoresheets, etc. I really have to purge my files.

Because I was going to be in OK during the time the final round scoresheets were to be returned, the head coordinator Kelly suggested I ask the LC final round judges if they'd be okay with e-mailing the scoresheets from and to me. And everyone was. Loved that!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Camy, what a great and well-thought post. You've touched on so many pertinent things that I think every new and established author ought to know, and that's a huge step for newbies who need to toughen their hides before going further. Rough reviews can really beat a new author up, but they're just part of the biz.

Untried authors who've never been smacked around contest-style risk being broiled by dragon-breath reviews, LOL!

Contests are a great way to develop rhino-hide and new friends. A couple of very skilled writers who entered the Barclay last year are on my list to visit when I head to Minnesota to see Beth sometime later this year.

(And research my new mid-Wisconsin romance series, with Beth's company.) Which means I'll probably have to feed her, LOL! Ah, the price we writers pay...

An unexpected plus:

Judging contests has helped me develop business for voodoo doll makers who specialize in frizzy-haired old women with toothy grins... After each contest I judge the stock in voodoo doll maker companies (cleverly disguised on Wall Street as VDD)goes way up. I've made myself quite rich by buying and selling stock in VDD pre- and post-contest when there's a huge influx of customers wanting dolls that umm... look like me.


And I agree with Mary totally on her point about being able to step beyond preferences.

I think I do that 95% of the time if the work suits the category, regardless of genre.

I've noticed that I'm harder on short books, novellas and short contemps, and that it's totally a personal preference bias. I like a well-developed story so short books don't have enough meat in the middle of the sandwich to make me happy.

So rather than judge them unfairly to a different standard, I choose longer books where the measure is meted out more evenly.

But I don't care what genre it is (except erotica...). I love well-written fantasy, warm inspirationals, strong romance and great historicals. Good writing is good writing and a strong judge should be able to set aside prejudice for one style/kind to read what's actually in the story in hand.

And it keeps my mind fresher and more imaginative to bounce genres. I found that when I was hanging in just the inspy circles (and contests are always looking for inspy judges. Inspirationals make some judges nervous...) I wasn't stretching as far as I could/should have. Mary DeMuth touched on this at the ACFW conference in '06, and I couldn't agree more. It's easy to go stale if you refuse to step outside self-imposed boundaries.

Camy, thanks so much for putting this out there. Great info.


Tina M. Russo said...

Ah, but what is the old adage..about eliciting strong feelings from readers. That is supposed to be a positive. You have an audience and those who do not prefer your style will give you a thumbs down, but that loyal thumbs up group is who you serve.

Far better than vanilla.

Julie Lessman said...

Whoa, Camster, what a thought-provoking blog! You elicited great responses from every one of the fine ladies in this post, and I say "Amen" to them all!

And Cheryl is right -- talk about timely! Whether you are getting badgered by judges over POV or lacerated by the public for ... ahem ... "illicit" sex in your book, the adverse opinions are as necessary for our strength and growth as the praise is to our egos, published or pre-published.

And, Gina, loved the comment: And far be it to have a hero think eight-days worth of thoughts like a heroine. Uh, yeah!!

Mary Connealy said...

You know, Camster, I kick the cupboards, burn the roast and eat tooo much chocolate on a normal day. What would you advise for ME when I'm upset.

Melanie said...

This doesn't exactly help build my courage to enter Genesis. I know I need thicker skin, but I also have this Emily Dickinson complex going. Then again, I have plenty of newspaper design entries rejected each year, and I'm OK with that.

Camy, I'm still reeling from someone saying anything from "Sushi for One" was racist. I loved learning more about the Asian-American community. I confess, that was part of its appeal to me. I wanted to read about someone who wasn't just like me. Actually, though, I think the biggest difference was the volleyball. We used to do volleyball at church singles. I was eventually banned because my inability to aim nearly caused decapitations on the sidelines.

Ausjenny said...

another interesting read. I have to admit i wouldn't review a book i didnt like or write to the author
I agree people have different perferences. I know i read some books tell my friend how good they are and she doesn't like it as much and visa versa.
I do admire you all for writing i am not a writer but love reading

Missy Tippens said...

Jenny, I'm with you. I don't think I could review a book I didn't like. If you can't say something nice...

You know. :)

It is interesting to hear the categories we all mentioned for juding. I usually pick contemporary romance or women's fiction. I love judging the Fiction with Romantic Elements in the Golden Heart! So I love angsty stories about women, family sagas, and I love true romance. But I don't feel qualified to judge historical (even though I love reading them). I don't do sci-fi/fantasy either because I usually don't "get" them. Although I have to say I've been reading (the book stays in my car) Cheryl Wilson's second fantasy novel (not inspy). The first and second books in the series are great, amazing writing. That's one fantasy author I've been able to read and love.