Friday, May 23, 2008

Karen Witemeyer

Has this ever happened to you? You slave away polishing your writing contest entry. You wait weeks or even months for the results to come. Then, when you finally have those judge's score sheets in your hand, the results seem to contradict each other.

One judge remarks that your work is stellar and scores you in the range of near perfection. The next judge is more conservative with her praise and lists several areas where the manuscript could be improved. The final judge failed to connect with your characters at all, felt your voice was flat, and your plot contrived. How are you supposed to make sense of this wide discrepancy in scoring?

I've found myself in this situation in the past, and even this year as a finalist in the ACFW Genesis contest, I still had discrepancies among the judges' comments that I had to reconcile in my mind.

Like any devoted parent whose child is under scrutiny, we tend to be a bit defensive with anyone who has negative comments about our baby. Those who recognize its greatness are obviously more intelligent and insightful than those who decide to nitpick over insignificant details. And those who blatantly bash our work? Well, they are nothing more than mean-spirited critics who are probably sourpusses by nature.

It's normal to experience these emotions, to savor the praise and discard the critiques. Go ahead and indulge in this for an hour or even a day. Rationalize all you want, defend your baby to your heart's content, and rail against those brainless judges who didn't comprehend your genius. Get it out of your system then take a deep, cleansing breath.

Done? Good. Now flick the emotion switch to off (or at least turn the dimmer down as much as possible) and use your mind to objectively consider the merit of each and every comment, whether positive or negative. Like the parent who has to eventually accept the fact that her perfect child was in fact guilty of hitting the teacher in the forehead with a spitball, we too must accept that there are aspects of our manuscript that require improvement. The parent who continues to deny that her child has done anything wrong and fails to address the problem, does her child a disservice. It is the same with a writer and her manuscript. However, the one who adopts an open mind and a humble spirit will reap benefits for her manuscript.

So, back to your score sheets...Judge 1 raves about your hero's sensitive nature and his tender vulnerability while Judge 3 calls him a wimp. Instead of simply writing Judge 3 off as a Grumpy Gus, go back and view your character through that judge's eyes. Purposely search for aspects that could be interpreted as wimpy. Rework those sections. If you don't find any, maybe you could add some contrasting images to battle against that impression. For example, you could incorporate a situation that demonstrates his physical prowess. Or you can show the reader his strength of will and fierce determination through his internal thoughts. Judge 1 will probably like him even better, and Judge 3 will no longer see him as a wimp. Not only have you made your manuscript stronger, but it now appeals to a broader audience. And isn't that what we ultimately want for our stories?

It is certainly your prerogative to disagree with a judge's comment and choose to disregard it. Only be sure you make this decision based on sound logical reasoning and not on the defensive emotions of the moment. Let the praise and high scores you receive buoy your confidence, then take up your less-favorable score sheets and go to work. In the end, you just might thank the judge who had the wisdom to point out the spitballs in your manuscript. After all, editors and agents tend to have a rather strong aversion to those slimy little wads of goo.


Karen Witemeyer is a deacon's wife and mother of three who believes the world needs more happily ever afters. To that end, she combines her love of bygone eras with her passion for helping women mature in Christ to craft award-winning historical romance fiction. Her first novel, Fire By Night, was awarded top honors in the 2007 Romance Writers of America Hearts Through History contest. Find out more about Karen at


  1. Some comments I got for one book, I remember were completely wrong.

    The judge misunderstood something about the ranch it was set on and said, "This is wrong, fix it."

    Well, it WASN'T wrong. But the light that clicked on in my head was, if this judge thinks it's wrong, lots of readers will think it's wrong so, despite being wrong, the judge is telling me I've got a problem.
    I didn't change the story. But I did add a sentence, more clearly explaining this bit of ranch life, like a character saying, just like the judge had, "I thought you said cattle only...blah, blah, blah."
    And the hero with all his ranch knowlegde replying, "I did say that, but that's only for...blah, blah, blah."
    So my point is.........

    USE the judges comments. Don't twist yourself into a pretzel over them but see what's good in them.

    You may not have to change anything but a judge who's misunderstood something, or gotten a wimpy feeling about the hero, or whatever may be making a mistake that can be easily corrected by you in a few words or sentences.

  2. Also, if you're finalist in several contests you need to realize that you're playing a little different game now than a beginner who doesn't win.

    Early contest judges told me really basic stuff.
    You're head hopping.
    You didn't set the scene.
    I can't see your heroine.
    Your heroine in Christian fiction can't tell lies.

    Just basic stuff like that.

    But once you're a finalist with some regularity, it stands to reason that you're better. You've learned the skills. Now it's fine tuning and trying to connect with finalist judges. And that can evade a regular, first round judge.

  3. Hi, Karen. Welcome!!

    I LOVED what you said: Not only have you made your manuscript stronger, but it now appeals to a broader audience.

    Wow! I hadn't thought of it that way before, but it's so true! Thanks for that piece of wisdom.

    And also, thanks for the laugh about the spitballs. :)


  4. This is so funny! I have a character who half the readers hate and the other half love. Lol, I didn't know what to do to fix it but you've given some great pointers. Thanks.

  5. Mary, now I'm laughing over "your character in Christian fiction can't tell lies". Somehow it just strikes me as hilarious.

  6. Thanks, Mary. Last year in the Genesis contest, the novel I entered scored in the mid to upper 90s by three out of the 4 judges. (I had a descrepancy judge.) The other judge? Scored me in the 60s.


    That was hard to take. Especially since this particular judge didn't offer many comments to explain the scores.

    You know, you pray for humility and this is what happens. LOL

    Anyway, it did encourage me to go back and try to strengthen my hero's motivation which was the one comment she made. I didn't make signifcant changes, but I do believe the manuscript is stronger now for having done that.

    Even though her score kept me out of the finals last year, my manuscript is better for it.

  7. Thanks for the welcome, Missy. This is my first ever blog appearance, so I am thrilled to be here! :)

    I'm glad you got a giggle out of the spitballs. Can you tell my kids are all 10 and under?

    Luckily no teacher conferences about tiny wads of goo. Yet.

  8. Hi, Jessica. Thanks for your comments. Reading is so subjective. You're never going to satisfy everyone, but hopefully you can tweak your heroine just enough that even those who don't like her as much will be so compelled to figure out what happens to her that they will stick with her to the end of the book. Then go tell all their friends about her.


  9. Karen, I pegged you as a historical writer when you used the word "rail"! Good job.

    Those three judges you mentioned? They're just mirror images of the agents and editors who'll be reading our work in a few weeks or months.

    You win some, and you lose some.

    However, as Karen said, it's always a good idea to win over the undecided whenever possible.

  10. On the 'she can't tell lies' point.

    I've got a book, as yet unpublished and on the first page, the hero is driving the heroine CRAZY. He's a cop taking her college psychology course in a Christian Bible college. Her first lesson is on responding to anger with love, turning the other cheek.

    He can't stop snickering.

    Finally, after class, he comes up and apologizes and says, by way of apology, 'That's just so stupid.'

    She is NOT in a forgiving mood, but she does say to turn the other cheek.

    Finally he leaves and in saying goodbye, my line was,

    "It was nice to meet you," she lied.

    The contest judge says, "You can't have your heroine lie in Christian fiction."

    Now to me, that line's just funny. I guess it's lying but ... well, anyway... there's me trying to justify my sinful heroine.

  11. Mary, you could just say:

    "Nice to meet you," she said, trying really hard to mean it.

    Then those who know it's a lie can't complain because she's acting heroic! :)

  12. lol, Mary, I'm not sure that's sinful. Just changed "she lied," to "she tried to be polite". haha, is that evil of me???? Anyhow, I don't think that line is a big deal. Ha, very funny, though.
    If I read it in a book I would've laughed because to me it's ironic/sarcastic. :-)

  13. I know I can fix it. And I will, in fact I have. But I loved that line.

  14. I might not check in for a while because my building is closing and I'm being sent home.

  15. Uh, oh. Is this an anonymous Mary post??


  16. Karen, you seem like a blogging pro! Your first time? Thanks for being with the Seekers . . . hope you'll come back.

    Congrats on your success, no doubt due to your great attitude about rolling with the punches and making changes to improve your story! So important. I'm always amazed when folks hesitate to relook their submissions. Often there's more than a grain of truth in the judges' comments. And as you mentioned, sometimes we don't need to change the direction of the story, but rather add clarification so no one else will form the wrong conclusion!

  17. Thanks Karen for the pointers on what to do with those discrepancies. We've all received them and as others have pointed out, we'll face them with editors and agents. Great ideas.

    Don't twist yourself into a pretzel????? That is tooooo funny, Mary.

  18. Thanks Karen for the pointers on what to do with those discrepancies. We've all received them and as others have pointed out, we'll face them with editors and agents. Great ideas.

    Don't twist yourself into a pretzel????? That is tooooo funny, Mary.

  19. Yes, Pam, I am an historical writer through and through. Reader too. How funny that you caught me with my phrasing. LOL Ever since high school when my best friend teased me for months about using the word "fortnight" in an English paper, I've been a victim of period language syndrome.

  20. Hi, Debby. Thanks for the welcome. I'm having a great time.

    The entry I finaled with this year is actually the sequel to the manuscript I entered last year. However, that other manuscript did win first place in the 2007 RWA Hearts Through History contest, so I felt I was ready move on to manuscript number two.

    There's a time to rewrite and resubmit, and there's a time to move on to the next projecet. Hey, isn't that from Ecclesiates somewhere? :)

  21. Karen, I noticed "rail" because I tend to use it in my writing too...and a judge made a comment about it once. I don't think she understood what I was talking about.

    A published author of westerns told the story of a NY editor who questioned her use of, "he was staked out" as in staked out on the prairie by the Indians. I guess the only "stake-out" the editor had ever heard of was the kind where the cops stake out a joint to raid. lol

  22. Have definitely had this happen, Karen.

    Made me wary of entering again.

    Great post!

  23. Karen, welcome to Seekerville! And thanks for the great post!

    When it comes to selling, there's much we writers can't control. But two things we can do to help bring a sale are right there in your insightful post.

    1. Persevere. Even though your manuscript didn't final, you wrote and entered another one.

    2. Accept criticism. You gave excellent example on the importance of getting past the emotion and taking an objective look at the work, intentionally having an open mind and humble spirit.

    With that kind of work ethic and attitude, there's no stopping you!


  24. Oh, wow, Karen, your post is deja vu!!! I think EVERYONE who has entered a contest has had this happen. Welcome to Seekerville -- it's a real pleasure to have you here!

    My favorite was two judges in the same contest -- one gave me a 50% score and said I paid too much attention to my subordinate characters (it is a family-saga romance); the 2nd judge gave me a perfect score and raved that she loved the subordinate characters so much, she wanted to be part of the family!! I finally decided that judge #2 was probably more my market, so I better listen to her! :)

    But your advice is absolutely EXCELLENT on stepping back and gleaning something from the negative comments that we don't like or agree with. Really, doing that is a wonderful lesson in character building -- both for your characters and YOU!!

    And, Mary, I totally think that your "she lied" line was funny. In A Passion Most Pure, I actually had Faith "lie" like that several times, and Revell let me get away with it, thank God ... uh, along with a few other things. :)


  25. I think if it hadn't been on page one it maight have gotten by.

  26. Pamela, I know it can be frustrating to get mixed messages from judges, but stick with it. Maybe the next time you enter, you'll end up a finalist! I'm living proof that it's possible.

  27. Janet and Julie - Thanks for the welcome and positive comments. It's great fun to chat with all of you. And it's nice to receive confirmation that I'm not the only one who has had to deal with wide descrepancies in judging.

  28. Karen, great advice!

    And I LOL about the spit wad analogy. Hilarious. You MUST incorporate that humor into your writing. Must. Must. Must!

    Thanks for guestblogging for us.


  29. Thanks, Cheryl. I do try to incorporate humor in my novels. My style tends to blend humor with drama. Humor is heavier at the beginning with drama heavier in the middle and end when the conflict is heightened, but there are certainly elements of both throughout.

    Of course, one woman's giggle is another woman's eye roller, so you never know how it will be perceived. But it sure is fun to try.

    Besides, if I'm going to spend hours every day with these characters of mine, I'd hate for them to be a bunch of stick-in-the-muds. :)

  30. Great article, Karen! You really do gain more from the tough judges, I agree. It's hard to take at first, but their comments sure help you improve. We just need to try and see the work through their eyes, to know where to make the revisions.

  31. Terrific post, Karen! You tackled this tough subject perfectly! That's exactly what I did with a judge who hated one of my early manuscripts--I looked hard at each of her comments and figured, if she doesn't get this aspect of the story, another person might not, either. And I made changes based on almost all her comments. As a result, I think my story ended up being more accessible to romance readers (as opposed to chick lit readers) which is a reason my publisher bought it!


  32. This comment has been removed by the author.

  33. Thanks for this post, Karen. It is difficult at times for writers to remove themselves emotionally from their writing. You are so right that at times it's important that we do, so we can consider that some criticism might improve our work.

    I never liked calling my manuscripts my 'babies'. I've had babies and cannot compare writing to carrying a child nine months, going through labor and birth, then caring for my infant until it is able to fly the nest. Not to say someone else can. But for me, my writing is a creative extension of myself --- heart and soul and more like hand and foot hold at a time.

    I'm learning to take criticism with a grain of salt, but consider suggestions for improvement. If it will make my manuscript better, it's as if someone has given me a gift. I think we all can sense when a judge just didn't get it, or misunderstood something like in Mary's case, or was unduly harsh.

    A mentor once told me 'eat the fish. Spit out the bones'.