Thursday, February 28, 2008

New Opinions

A few months ago I finaled in a contest with a manuscript that hadn’t made the contest rounds in a long time. I sent it to the first contest I ever entered, proving that submitting to contests (and editors and agents) requires faith in your writing ability and a thick skin. My first chapter didn’t fare well against the other entries, but I finished the manuscript and received a rejection before putting the poor thing to bed for a few years. And let it gather dust.

But I liked the hook and the story possibilities, so I decided to revise the plot and work on the characters. Time to take a deep breath and try another contest. I hoped the story showed improvement, but I didn’t really know. The more I read it over, tinkered with words and practically memorized the dialogue, the more I realized I was way past evaluating it myself.

When I finaled, I assumed I’d receive positive feedback and maybe a few strokes for my ego. I did -- along with a detailed explanation of weaknesses. Ouch. First I looked for the comments from the judge who gave me the lowest scores. No comments, just numbers. But fortunately, the other judges remarked on the story’s strengths and flaws offering helpful suggestions. After I revise again I may submit this wip to another contest for additional feedback.

So I want to say: Even if you often final in contests, don’t be discouraged if a new manuscript doesn’t garner top scores. If it’s new to the contest circuit it might be riddled with errors you can’t see on your own. But at least one of the judges will find the most glaring flaws and tell you about them, hopefully in a kind way. And you’ll consider their suggestions and make any changes you agree with. Your manuscript will be stronger and ready for another go-round. Before long it might be ready to send to an editor or agent.

We all need objective opinions from knowledgeable people – probably not from our close friends who want us to succeed or our mother. If you haven’t written another Gone With The Wind, don’t expect the judges to say you have. Be happy when their critiques are honest and useful. Eventually, after enough evaluating and revising, your manuscript may become the latest best seller. But remember the more suggestions you receive from others, the better your chances become.


  1. Excellent point, Cara. All that revising makes it difficult to evaluate our work objectively. Contest feedback can give us fresh insight into our work, especially when the same suggestions come from multiple judges.

  2. Hi Cara, Well it takes courage to submit to a contest and be exposed to the feedback. But then it takes courage to write doesn't it? I'm proud of your efforts. Your words are an encouragement to get those manuscripts out there. After all we've already invested a lot of time and effort to write them, so why not polish and revise and apply all we keep learning. Best wishes and keep up the good work.

  3. So true, Cara. I've found that the first time out, a manuscript doesn't usually do so well. And now that I think about it, I should probably feel sorry for those judges! Maybe my thank you notes for first-time-out manuscripts should have had apologies. :)


  4. I am encouraged by these comments. I usually need an overnight before I can look at my own work with a critical eye, but there does come a time when it looks perfectly wonderful. I know I need another eye to point out that what I see as witty repartee comes off as a cliche. Thank you for the encouragement to risk failure in order to grow.

  5. Thanks for all the good advice, Cara. It's worth it to me to receive honorable mention in a big contest after rewriting and submitting the same story countless times to publications. I've received valuable input from several contests which I wouldn't have received if I didn't enter. I get a thrill from the anticipation that comes from just submitting and seeing what God will do with my writing. But I confess I do get discouraged when the rejections come in, too.

  6. Cara, thanks for the advice. When you've done all you know to do to make the story work, you do need someone else to give you an objective opinion and help you see both your strengths and your weaknesses. Sometimes the parts we love the just don't play out that way to the readers. Thank you for the reminder.

  7. This is totally right on and the methodology I use.

    I am finishing a msc now and as I finish am sending it out into the big scary world for its first foray on the circuit. I suspect a few issues but I am waiting to see.

    In fact the decision really is how long to circ it before pulling it back to revamp.

    It is out to 3 and I am tempted to do 3 more but not sure if I should spend the money--yet. Aarrgh.

  8. Cara and I are critique partners. The Critique relationship is similar to contest judging comments except we get to liking each other and it starts to be hard to be objective.
    Still, it's that fresh set of eyes.
    Someone who will say, "This sentence is too long." The makes now sense, right here.

    Plus finding all the time I write 'with' when I meant 'will' and 'the' when I meant 'they'

    For some reason are minds seem to make those corrections, like a computer spell checker, and we can skim right over them time and time again.

  9. Cara, you are spot on.

    It always amazes me when a judge points out THE OBVIOUS, something I should have seen.


    But, yeah, our eyes fill in the blanks from what we see in mind's-eye and what's on the page.

    Double Duh....

    And Katherine, we hear you. That risk is tangible to all of us. We totally understand which is why we allow the occasional off-camera rant.

    Not pretty but oh-so-necessary!


  10. It is funny how other people see things differently than you do, which is one reason contests are so valuable. Cara hit the nail on the head.

    When I finished my last book, I suddenly had this panic attack. "Oh, no, this is drivel. Nobody is going to like this book. It's stupid." But a couple of my friends liked it. I thought, well, they're my friends, of course they like it. But when it finaled in a few contests, then I could say, Okay, it's really not drivel.

    Right now I'm working hard on finishing my WIP. But I have all these doubts about it. I go back and forth, thinking it's terrible, dumb, fill in the blank with negative adjectives. I thought all along that it wasn't as strong as my last book. But in both contests I've entered it in, it actually scored higher than my other book, even getting first place in the Gotcha. And I'm so thankful it did, because it helps motivate me to finish it. (What can I say? It's an emotional book, and sometimes I just don't want to go there. My next book is going to be a comedy where everybody gets what they want! Well, not really.)

    Gotta love those contest finals.

  11. LOL, Cara, I sooo relate about not knowing whether we are showing improvement in your writing or not! I can't tell you how many times I have felt that way! I'd admire you for reworking that story and re-entering it. You're a better woman than me.


  12. Mary makes a good point (now don't go getting a swelled head, girlfriend!). Even with a critique group or partner, objectivity can be lessened over time and familiarity. My critters were as surprised as I was when the ms. they'd been critiquing for months was returned from the 2007 Genesis judges with points they'd completely skimmed over.

  13. I think Katherine summed it up:

    "We have to risk failure in order to grow."

    Hmmm, I might not LIKE the thought, but it is so true, isn't it?

  14. So true. Thanks Cara :)

    At the moment I am craving constructive feedback on my ms so when people come back with little more than a few grammatical errors and the odd 'this sentence needs to be reworded' I'm like "C'mon I'm a big girl, I can take it. Please give me something, ANYTHING, that I could do to make it stronger!"

    So I'm starting to begin to really look forward to my Genesis feedback now because I know they have no reason to be unfairly nice about my writing!

  15. Okay I'll admit it - in the last few days I subbed 2 entries in a contest.
    Up til now, I never felt the urge to enter a contest. So what decided me?
    I finally wrote some stuff that I really felt good about. I was comfortable getting it out there. I think I'm ready to see how my writing measures up in the real world. And any criticism can only help me grow.

  16. Even my limited contest experience has helped me be objective about my work. Transitioning from admiring the work to considering what the story needs isn't a comfortable process, but a most essential one for a serious writer.

  17. It takes courage to stick your neck out there and enter contests. Our entire critique group just entered the Genesis. Here's hoping some of us (all of us!!!) final! But if we don't, we're in this together and there's strength in numbers. :)

    Annette M. Irby