Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Run for the Roses

With the first leg of the Triple Crown only a few weekends away, this is a good time to be reminded that no matter how superb the bloodlines, a Thoroughbred isn't born and three days later put on the track to compete in the Kentucky Derby. Not only that, but it's three years before a potential winner joins his peers for a chance at that legendary winner's circle.

I've loved reading and writing for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been told "you're a good writer." But that's not enough to qualify me for a shot at the publication Derby. Just as a naturally fast Thoroughbred has to learn how to run to win, many writers (like me!) must learn how to be a good storyteller. Learn how to best utilize all the facets of the writing craft to produce an entertaining, satisfying read.

Race horses are taken through a progressively difficult, step-by-step training process in their introduction to the Sport of Kings. At the beginning, they are taught simply to lead, to respond to a bit in their mouth, to carry weight on their back. Eventually they're led onto the turf, and their jockey and trainer school them in the basics of how to run. Then they are introduced to competition. Short trial runs first, then come the distances.

It's in the contest world where the manuscript you've slaved over for months--or years--can get a "cold run" with the other "colts." You get a feel for how what you write is perceived by others. Find out where your work fits in with the competition. Discover what areas require additional preparation. You learn what kind of stuff your manuscript is made of.

Does it balk in the opening scene? Is it fast in the first quarter mile, but fades in the backstretch? Does it get the bit in its teeth and waste energy running off on tangents? Does it have good action? Pace itself wisely? Does it have the stamina to take it to the wire? And how do those "in the know" rate it against the competition? Does it have heart?

The answers to these questions can help you further "condition" and "train" that manuscript--and develop you as a writer.

In one of the first contests I entered, I was told my heroine was "annoyingly cloying," I had an "overwritten, stilted style," and the dialogue was "wooden." OUCH! But, after the initial shock, discouragement (and humiliation) I embraced the suggestions and continued to grow as a writer.

Over the course of several years, the scores and comments on my manuscripts improved. My annoyingly cloying heroines are now "gutsy, funny, and very real." The overwritten, stilted style is deemed "smooth and easy-to read" and my once-wooden dialogue is "snappy and enjoyable."

Entering contests, for me, has been a worthwhile effort. The deadlines are great discipline. I've found the overwhelming majority of judges are encouraging and helpful; they're not out to crush my dreams or bump the competition off the track. When I’m published, I'll have a lot of judges to thank. They've been "trainers" in my own personal Run for the Roses.

So as you watch this upcoming Kentucky Derby, remember this: Only ONE horse is going to win the competition. Will the winner go on to capture the Triple Crown? Maybe. Statistically speaking, not likely. Will the Derby winner be the absolute best horse in the field? The fastest horse? Again, maybe. Maybe not. The track will be overcrowded. Lots of bumping. Fast horses that can go the distance may get boxed in by the less fleet.

So if you don't win that contest, if the scores seem unfairly low, or if the comments break your heart, remember the REAL race to publication isn't over with one competition. Or a dozen. There can be more than one winner. If you wisely use the feedback from a contest judge, you're already a step ahead of other contenders who refuse to listen or learn. Unlike the one-shot Derby, you can “retrain” that manuscript and run it again. Or bring a fresh, new "colt" onto the track.

So get your "race horse" out there and run for the roses! As writer Walter Farley's fictional trainer said to Alec Ramsey before the Black Stallion's first match race: "I can't tell you to hold him back, because you won't be able to. Stay on him and ride like you never have before!"

I'll be away from Seekerville today--but please stop off in our comments area and share with us the piece of contest advice that HURT, but took your writing to the next level. I know my fellow Seekers will be along shortly to make you feel right at home!



  1. Glynna, delightful post! I love the comparison of our goal of publication to the Race for the Roses! Very well done!

    I have to leave and will be gone most of the day, but I'll post some hurtful contest comments when I'm back. Though as I recall, my judges were as kind as they could be and still get their points across. :-) I had lots to learn.


  2. My destiny lies in being a race horse. I must mull over this while I eat a carrot. ;-)

    Am I Barbaro? Or Affirmed?

  3. Yes, nothing like being told your hero has serious issues and needs to seek therapy.

    While I can think of a ton of ouch moments..they were generally right.

    The only thing that hurts now as I am more seasoned (means old) is that my stuff generates love it or hate it emotions. I know this is good but when someone doesn't get it, as a writer I pause and wonder if I should try to please everyone.

    The answer I eventually come to is NO.

  4. Nice analogy, Glynna! I was catching up with my Romance Writers Report this morning and read an article on how to analyze and grow from your Golden Heart results, which should be arriving any day now. Your post fits well with that author's advice.

    Hmmm, my most hurtful judge's critique that also helped the most? Can't pinpoint a specific comment, but generally speaking it's been the ones who pointed out my main characters weren't likable--too wimpy, too grumpy, too self-pitying. I've had to learn to put more emphasis on their redeeming qualities along with their flaws. And right away in the beginning, not in chapter 3!

  5. Ah, Tina, you must have been writing your comment just as I wrote mine. Oh, man! I can relate! The love-it-or-hate-it contest results. Nope, we cannot please everyone. I'd like to think I've given up trying, but when I get one of those "really, really don't get it" critiques, the urge is still there.

    Or maybe it's just the overwhelming urge to go beat my head against the wall and throw the computer out the window.

  6. Great analogy, Glynna, and great post!

    Contest advice that hurt? I was told over and over again that my heroine Faith O'Connor in "A Passion Most Pure" was whiney. Ouch. I didn't see her as whiney ... heck, I modeled her after me! :)

    Needless to say, that opened my eyes quite a bit and led me to Donald Maas' "Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook," which helped me to deepen Faith's character to the point that the whininess faded in the face of the reader's compassion -- a vital lesson I might NEVER have learned without valuable contest feedback.

  7. While I was cleaning/reorganizing my office last weekend, I came across my very first contest scoresheets.

    One was so riddled with 1s that I wondered how I even continued on with writing. The judge even signed her name.

    "Characterization poor. Since motives of H&H unclear, the characters remain stilted & lifeless. Secondary characters seem 'thrown' in--not developed."

    That was actually one of the nice things she (Jessica) said.

    Continually the judge noted that she didn't understand the conflict or the characters. Hmm.

    Was she right?

    Yes and no. If I weigh her comments with those of the other judges, her scores are grossly low. While she didn't understand the plot, the other judges did. YET YET YET she made a valid point about characterization.

    Everything in that entry she read was cliched romance. The heroine was frivilious, the hero dark and brooding. I had written a long lost Barbara Cartland novel.

    It was also my very first manuscript that had never seen a crit group's red pen. I had soooooooooo much to learn about craft and story-telling, and no crit group to beat me up in the process.

    Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstefeld forced me to have to think about my characters and who they were, not what character-type I wanted them to be.

    Entering contests myself helps me be a better judge, and vice versa.

    For all I know my entry could have been one of the first Jessica ever judged. Or one of the last. Jessica may not even still be writing...or may be a best-selling author using a pseudonym.

    Six years and countless drafts later, that novel has been revised and is now looking for a publishing home.

  8. Glynna, what a timely analogy! Good thinking, oh smart one.

    Gina, sweetcakes, if you're Barbaro, we'll hold a great memorial service. I actually cried when that horse finally died, and you guys know what a hard nose I am... What a story.

    If I'm a racehorse, I'm Secretariat. Tough on the track with a huge heart (the X factor gene for a large heart) that came through, body and soul. The kind of horse that doesn't know enough to quit, despite the odds, and realizes he can go the distance. Although his win/loss ratio far outweighs mine, I'm still in the race. We'll see if we can even it out some.

    Hey, guys and gals, try these mini-croissants stuffed with chicken, artichoke hearts and three distinct cheeses. They're great with a cup of joe or a glass of sweet tea.

    But I need something sweet to appease my sweet tooth. Someone bring dessert, 'kay?

    Comments that helped?

    Oh, yeah, the Orange Rose when I was new enough to think I was good (wasn't) and hopeful enough to think I might final (didn't).

    This writer wrote me a two-page note that let me down easy, complimented my strengths, and taught me more in two pages than I'd learned in half-a-dozen workshops.

    I'm forever grateful for her time, patience and expertise, whoever she is.


  9. For sweets, how about some graham cracker sandwiches filled with left-over cake icing? Surely you all do that, too!

    At first I thought my contest results illustrated a shotgun pattern -- lots of holes all over the place -- but they can be boiled down to goals and-or motivation and-or conflict is unclear.

    Years ago at a Bethel College workshop Dr. Dennis Hensley talked about what the character wanted, and what would he or she do to get it. Those questions have helped all along.

    I'd like to be one of those race horses that lasts and lasts -- might not be big stakes winners but they keep finishing races until they are 4, 5 or 6 or older.

    (If they are trotters, then they end up taking our neighbors to church ;-)

  10. The Walter Farley quote was great. I loved the Black Stallion books. It made me want to re-read them. I think Walter Farley was the first author I ever read that actually made me pull out of the story at some point and just look at the book and think, How is he DOING this.
    How could the man write for page after page after page, drag you all the way in to his races, that only last a couple of minutes but he wrote about them so it's take a half hour to read the race and yet to felt every pounding hoof, every heart beat.

    Yikes he's good.

    I know, that's not what you asked but the man is a genius. When I set out to write a fast paced scene I think of him and Mary Higgins Clark. No one does a rollercoaster better.

  11. Don't be Barbaro, Gina.

    I think Cheryl and Missy are Barbaro this week.


  12. I had someone remark...about my very angry hero...he's so mad I expect him to hit her or rape her any second.

    Oops. Well, okay, calm THAT boy down.

  13. How can you analyze and grow from a contest that's a number?

    I don't get that.

    I should go read the article. I've got that magazine.

  14. Jeepers, Julie, that was such a whiney comment. Get a grip.

  15. Oooooo........

    Did you all catch that?

    Mary called Julie WHINY in public... On the blog... In full view of God and EVERYONE!!!

    Watch out!

    Chick fight!!!!!

    Okay, we've agreed Gina can't be Barbaro. Maybe Street Sense? Or how 'bout this, Gina-kins...

    Funny Cide?

    Great horse. I think you've actually got the same nose.


    Okay, the comments being shared so far are really weeny. Seriously. I know Glynna told us to rat out the ones that hurt, then helped.

    But Gina's not here, is she?

    Nya, ah ah!!!!!


    How about a judge circling your words, painstakingly writing the definition of the word in the narrow lines between the Courier New double-spaced font, then instructing you on dictionary usage while lamenting that she's never had this much time wasted trying to understand a manuscript, and finally had to give it up on page 14 or so to save her sanity...

    No joke.

    My theory was that had she made it through fourth grade, she'd have had an easier time of it, because none of those words or references were used incorrectly.

    But she did write me a l-o-n-g dissertation about proper word usage, and how I shouldn't think I was so smart that my readers couldn't connect with my characters because the readers would have no idea what the characters were saying, thinking or feeling. So, for those of you who've ever read anything I've done and understood it, consider yourself elitists.

    Oy vay.

    I think she might have judged me in the GH this year, too. It's my 'easy' explanation for crashing and burning in public infamy.

    And graham crackers with REAL chocolate frosting, you know, the rich, dark, to-die-for, not out of a can kind?????


    Pass me one, please. Naw, make that two. We'll call one supper, the other one lunch. I want to be a Hobbit and have Second Breakfast and Elevensies, but I don't want hairy feet.


  16. exCUSE ME?????

    I call Julie Whiney, a perfectly charming play on her comment and that's a chick fight.

    Ruthy says Gina has a horse nose...

    I got your dictionary RIGHT HERE, RUTHY GIRL!!!!!!!!

    Okay, forget the above.

    I've told you about the time a judge told me my entry, though lovely and readable...didn't start until page 19.

    She was right.

    I fix it.

    It's now contracted. The Husband Tree. Fun book and it's starts out pretty fast. page eleven, tops.

  17. When I was in high school, the guy who had a locker next to mine looked like a horse. Him. Not the locker. My friend Katrina called him "Horse face." I wasn't so cruel to call him names. I just laughed at him.

    Okay, maybe I didn't laugh. But I thought about laughingg so that has to make me a bad person.

    His real name was Billy Edmunds. I'd say he was a nice guy...for someone who looked like a horse and smoked pot in his locker during the lunch hour. I didn't figure out that's what he was doing until about my junior or senior year of high school.

    I was very naive.

    On a side note, Glynna's post did get me to researching race horses. I read about Barbaro (yes, I cried when he was euthanized too), Secretariat and the other horses that won the Triple Crown, and Funny Cide. Not to mention, Smarty Jones who was jockey-manipulated out of winning the Belmont and, subsequently, the TC. Not his jockey, but two other guys who maneuvered their horses to keep Smarty from winning.

    Oh, all this talk of awful judging comments got me thinking about a a post another Seeker made a couple weeks-ish ago. I think it was Pam.

    Go through your old scoresheets. Type up all the positives, then toss the scoresheets away.

    The only reason I kept these five scoresheest from 2002 instead of tossing them away with the entry pages was to make my Positive List. The manuscript has been completely changed so the comments about changes aren't relevant. And the last thing I want to read about judge giving me a bunch of 1s and then saying "I don't want this author to be discouraged."

    Heck, if you didn't want to discourage me, then ya should have given me a 2 or 3 to soften the blow.

    A 1 is for rare cases.

    Shoot, most people should earn at least a 2 just for entering. So answering over half the scoresheet questions with a 1 is being brutal. Logically thinking, who is going to listen to any advice from a judge who gives a slew of 1s?

    Fortunately, I loved writing more than I hated how the judge's comments made me feel. She gave me a 113 out of 270 possible points. Ouch, ouch, ouch.

    That same year I entered the Touched by Love. Two 2s, the rest of my scores were 3s and 4s with an occasional 5. I wonder if the judges in that other contest were inspirational writers or got stuck judging the inspy category.

    I didn't enter another contest until 2005. That year my entry (another manuscript) bombed in a contest so I took my judges' comments, tweaked, entered the Golden Gateway, and finaled in the historical category.

    No more contests until I changed the manuscript to an inspirational and entered it in the GH. It became a 2007 GH finaling entry.

    I firmly believe that was a direct result of the changes I made after I heeded the advice the judge gave in the first contest I entered it in and in the Golden Gateway.

    So not all judges are stupid even though many say stupid things.

    Of course, I'm a contest judge and I never say any stupid things.

    Hey, Mary, you have those TBL entries judged yet? What's taking you and Myra so long? It's not as if you have to write a dissertation for the entrants.

    I won't tell you all what my word verification is. I'm not that kinda girl.

  18. As Ruthy would say, Oy vey! Thanks for reminding me about my TBL entries. I've read one. Need to get cracking on the rest. I shall do my utmost to be kind and constructive.

  19. And THANK YOU GINA!!!!!!!!!!

    For calling the poor guy a horse face...while using his name... on the internet.......


    Glynna? this is YOUR FAULT. I tell you, we have to watch Glynna every MINUTE.

  20. But, Mary, I didn't laugh at him in person or on the internet.

    I merely shared what my friend called him. And he really really really did have a horse face, which I'm sure he's grown out of. Or maybe not. And if that's the case then his wife loves him--horse face and all. Or he's gay and I can't comment on that.

    And if you saw my word verification, you'd understand why.

    I'm above personal insults.

    YHowever, while were chatting about chick fights, Ruthy was the one who called me horse nose while you said Julie was whiney. If anything, Julie and I should put on our WWF tights and challenge you two twits to a smackdown.

    Ummm, in the most Christ-like way possible.

    I think I'm going to go make some buttermilk biscuits.

    Tomorrow I'm going to the plastic surgeon.

    Why is it I'm getting R-rated word verifications lately?

  21. I do like the idea of blaming Glynna.

    Yes, it's her fault my word verifications are so vulgar, and since she's not here to defend her guilt...

    Yes, I really ought to bake those biscuits since I took the time to google the recipe. And it has been a day and a half since the kids last ate.

    Which isn't my fault.

    It's Glynna's.

    Oh, Mary, have you found your destiny yet?

    Just so you know how back my word veris are, this time it's horn jerk. Phonetically, of course. (hnjrk)

    This is terrible.

    Yes, I should make biscuits.

  22. Gina wrote:

    I should make biscuits.

    From Karen White's Falling Home...

    "Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit!"

    Love that expression. And that's Gina's, Glynna's and Karen's fault, dagnabbit!

    I can so see some of my judging comments coming back to bite me. Seriously.

    At least Mary didn't go into her normal harangue about how I tried to cost her a contest win before I knew her because her content was blood and gore personified....

    We're talking Joseph Wambach blood and gore, literally.

    And he's a millionaire, so I know nothing. (See? Pricey therapy is working!!! I admit I know nothing now. Soooooooo much better)

    And since Cheryl's slightly incapacitated, we can make fun of her today and she'll never know it.

    Unless Camy snitches.

    Camy: Shhh..........

    Don't tell.


  23. As promised: judges' comments from contests I entered my first manuscript in.

    --very long and, I'm sorry, but boring chapter that could be edited down to about one short scene. What happens here?

    --Is the conflict believable?
    My judge wrote: There was no conflict.

    No wonder that manuscript is gathering dust.


  24. Glynna, I'm Kentucky born and bred, so I really appreciated your post!! What a great analogy.

    One comment that I've had before that I've really worked on was that my characters were flat. Hmm. What does that mean?

    Well, I hope I'm figuring it out! I keep working.


  25. ROFL, on the carrot, Gina!!

    Ruthy, I think your contest feedback takes the cake! You know, we should offer a prize for the worst comment on a post one day. :)


  26. Ah, my old Kentucky home! I lived in KY when I was young and love the state and the Derby! Thanks, Glynna, for a great post!

    I used to get comments on my returned manuscripts about the characters not being compelling. I kept trying to figure out what compelling REALLY meant. Such a vague term! Eventually, I upped the internal conflict, gave them more baggage and made bad things happen to them. I guess it worked!

  27. GINA SAID:
    If anything, Julie and I should put on our WWF tights and challenge you two twits to a smackdown. Ummm, in the most Christ-like way possible.

    I'm in ... the catfight, not the WWF tights, for heaven's sake!! And, yes, we will keep it as Christ-like as possible by doling out rights and lefts according to scripture (turn the other cheek).:)

    And, Mary, I am NOT whiny ... "winey," maybe, but never "whiny."

  28. I've gotten lots of painful comments that turned out to be helpful. Some that weren't helpful. Just recently I was told my story didn't really start until page 23. Yikes. Even though this story won first place in the Gotcha, I think she might be right. Don't you hate it when you get conflicting comments?

    Great post, Glynna! Wow, you guys are talented. I don't think I'm "deep" enough to think of such great analogies, let alone sustain them for an entire blog post, but you did it beautifully.

  29. great analogy.

    my grandfather and uncle were racehorse trainers.

    (someone is a bit to tired to think to day cos they should have gone to bed 3 hours earlier than they did but once again a book said dont you dear put me down or it my have been my mind)

  30. Melanie, maybe the same judge got you that got me.

    And yes, I did find my destiny, about a half hour ago. It was buried under a pile of junk on my desk.

    I can't say what it is yet. Maybe after I've knocked the inch of dust off it.

  31. Mary, honey, I'M your destiny.

    God sent me to haunt you the rest of your days, dogging your tail, following you, reminding you of all those annoying friends you dissed in eighth grade.

    Well, kiddo.

    Here I am.



  32. I LOVE this! I Love this!

    I really LOVE the way you parallelled writing to horse racing!

    Though I don't watch races near as much as I'd like, I am a HUGE fan of the Triple Crown races. Seldom miss them.

    Oh that we would have another winner.....

    Isn't that the dream of every TC fan?

    Oh that I can get that book out there with so-and-so....

    Isn't that the dream of every writer?

    Remember writing friends, building a career takes TIME, perserverance, prayer and patience!

    NEVER give up!

    Your writing talent is a gift from God, don't hide your gift or bury your talent. :-)

    GREAT post!

    Pamela S Thibodeaux
    "Inspirational with an Edge!"