Thursday, May 28, 2009

Some you Win

But some you lose some. That’s how I view contests—after the disappointment of not finalling wears off. No one ever wins all the contests they enter, do they? I think not, though there might be a few exemptions to prove the rule.

So when I didn’t final in a recent contest, I accepted it philosophically. Like a big girl. After all, I’m a grandmother. I refuse to pout like a child. That doesn’t mean I’m too grown up to vent a little to my friends. But just a little.

Counting other contests and critiques, I estimate fifteen knowledgeable people have raked over this manuscript submission and offered solid suggestions. I always give credence to judges’ comments and often (usually) incorporate their ideas for improvement. They see problems I can’t spot because I’m too close to my story, so I pay close attention to other writers’ opinions. Most writers do. Feedback is one of the best reasons to enter a contest. Okay, getting your pages in front of an editor is even better.

But in this particular contest I received a low score from one of the judges. I carefully re-read her (or maybe his) comments to see where she/he went wrong. No, no—where I went wrong. This judge called my heroine unsympathetic and unlikable, or words to that effect. Now that raised my hackles! I thought I’d created a spunky heroine with lots of endearing qualities. But the judge said she thought my heroine’s behavior was unchristian. A good assessment since she wasn’t a Christian. But that was the point! My character becomes a believer half way through the story, but at the beginning she’s driven to do something unethical but justifies it because her motivation is selfless. Obviously this judge didn’t get it! Or maybe I didn’t get it.

Then I realized to justify a dastardly deed, you have to give exceptionally strong motivation. And in this story I should have explained the heroine wasn’t a believer. I thought I more than hinted at all, but maybe it was too subtle. Apparently I hadn’t found the right balance between too subtle and hitting the reader over the head with a sledge hammer. This isn’t hard to correct mistake and fixing it will clarify the actions of the heroine and hopefully place her in a more sympathetic light.

Readers don’t like to see Christians behaving as heathens and neither do editors. We need to add a flaw or two to make our characters more real, but unrepentant sin isn’t acceptable. And it’s not smart to allow even one reader to think we’re letting our Christian hero or heroine act in an unethical or immoral way. We don’t want any reader to throw our book across the room in disgust. We don’t want an editor to throw our manuscript across the room in disgust, either.

So I’ll be sure to correct this before I send the chapter out again to any contest and certainly to any editor. Which brings me to the importance of the first chapter, the first page and the first paragraph. I’m sure we all understand how crucial it is to get off to a great start—and how hard that can be.

On the first page or in the first paragraph remember to answer the who, what, where, when and why questions. Name your heroine and establish the scene in her point of view.

Decide what’s at stake by establishing a goal.

Begin your story with an important action. Don’t bore your reader with copious details on the first page. (Don’t bore her later, either!)

It’s a great idea to show your character in her natural environment performing a typical daily activity—a teacher teaching, a preacher preaching, a writer writing -- or surfing the net, playing computer games, answering e-mails. You get the point.

Give a few facts about the heroine’s situation so we can quickly understand her goal, motivation and conflict. To create a bond between her and the reader make the heroine sympathetic and likable.

Set the tone.

Jump right into your conflict.

Very important -- draw the reader into your story emotionally. Romance novels are all about emotion, i.e. passion.

Make them laugh, make them cry, but don’t make them yawn!


  1. Good morning, Cara. Hurray for contest feedback! Fresh eyes can teach us plenty, whether those eyes belong to a judge or an editor. I'm happiest when the fixes are easy, aren't you? :-)

    I'm so happy for your Golden Heart final, Cara! Can't wait to give a Seeker shout when your face and manuscript comes on the screen in D.C.!!!!!

    I've brought coffee and crunchy english muffins oozing with butter and strawberry jam.


  2. Janet, I'm drinking a latte with a dollop of wip cream! Not so great for the diet, but wonderful for the stomach.

    I'm really looking forward to RWA National!

  3. "Make them laugh. Make them cry. But don't make them yawn." Love it, Cara!

    While contest feedback can often be painful, I've learned SO MUCH from judges who've taken the time to help me see my story/characters as a reader/editor may see them, too.

    We're so close to the characters we love and have so much of the story floating around in our head that we often don't realize we haven't sufficiently committed critical elements to paper so that the reader can know what we know, too.

    And congrats again on that GH final!!

  4. Good morning, Cara! Hey Janet, pass the english muffins with strawberries -- no butter please : )

    You are so right about being too close to your own work. And maybe being just a tad too possessive. One of my Genesis judges made a bold comment about my hero being a womanizer in my newest project and I almost spewed!!

    A womanizer! Oh goodness! I never thought he'd come across like that. His mama taught him well, I assure you. He's just scared to death of intimacy!!

    The 5 W's and an H are soooo important in that first page. Conflict is so important in that first page. Whew, that first page borders on becoming a first chapter : )

    Thanks for the insight and knock over the head with the truth, Cara!!

    Mega congrats on the Golden Heart Final, too!!!!!!!!!

  5. Cara said: Make them laugh, make them cry, but don’t make them yawn!

    Grin ... amen to that, my friend! Very important post for both contest entrants and writers in general. Win some ... lose some. And sometimes lose some A LOT! But you keep at it because in my opinion, contests are one of the most important aspect of trying to get published ... between the invaluable feedback, confidence building and name recognition when you do win and the networking you gain, contests are ALWAYS on my list of MUST-DO things on the way to publication.

    And, ah, that first paragraph and page! You said "Begin your story with an important action." I have to admit, in A Passion Most Pure, the most "important action" for me was (thank you, judge # 4), getting the action up front! Originally I had started off with SEVEN pages of internal monologue ... Faith thinking about her sister. Talk about "yawn"!! A judge told me to move the action (which, for me, was the first kiss) up front. I moved it from page seven to five, then later from page five to two. Finally, after even more feedback, I slapped that kiss on the very first page and started the first paragraph with the heroine's action of spying on the hero kissing her sister.

    ACTION UP FRONT!! A key ingredient to draw readers in, in my opinion.

    Excellent post, Cara!


  6. Cara, great post. Feedback is invaluable...and infuriating at times!

    Congrats on your Golden Heart final too!

  7. My eyes are stinging, but I don't dare drink any caffeine since bedtime's due!

    But what you all are saying about painful feedback--it's so true. My editor told me she didn't like one of my heros at all (Caleb in Love that is Blind). And I loved him! What did I do wrong? Basically, all those 'thoughts floating around in my head', Glynna, hadn't made it to the paper. It took me a few days to really dig to the key reason for Caleb's testy attitude. I realized then how essential it is to communicate a character's beliefs in such a way that the readers can and will sympathize.

    The challenge, of course, is greatest when the character's attitude and actions hurt other people. But I think that's why fiction is such a great way for us to explore the battle for the mind. A character that is real, struggling with past hurts and desperate needs, is the kind of character I love to read and write about as well as the kind that displays to the fullest the awesome power of God to change lives.

  8. Making a hero/heroine likable while making them flawed, conflicted and in need of in need of change that you thought you could balance an entire book on those troubled shoulders, is alway hard.

    In fact it is the perennial problem of writing and it all comes down to balance. You can probably fix this problem with one or two well chosen sentences, Cara. But I know how talented you are and I know you can do it.

    One this that has stuck with me for years is an experienced author told me that to make your character likable, make someone like them.

    That simple. Give them a friend, a pet, the hero...who can be infuriated with the irritating heroine, and yet like her.

    One of the most well done examples of this in my memory is Jennifer Crusie's novel Bet Me.

    Secular so be warned if you read it.

    That heroine was a man hater, very abrasive, very cranky. But she has these two great, lifelong friends who will fight and die for her and who KNOW what has led her to this approach to life, and especially to men.

    And she's that loyal to them, too.

    It's a great example of what could have been a very difficult heroine being made likable.

  9. Dr. House is full of flaws, but he has a very loyal friend in Wilson and he's excellent at what he does.

    Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld is a great book that gives examples and tips on how to make an unlikeable chararacter likeable.

    On a side note, I don't have a problem with a Christian hero/ine doing something unethical or immoral IF IF IF the motivation for the action and the character him/herself is empathiable.

    The reality is Christians do unethical and immoral things in real life. Sin is sin. Sadly, Christians are just as guilty of giving tiers to sin.

    Gluttony isn't really that big of a deal a sin.

    Believing a rumor about someone or hearing a rumor and NOT finding out if it's true or not and then perpetuating it isn't that big deal of a sin.

    Seeing someone mistreated and not doing anything about it isn't really a sin.

    But don't you dare have your Christian hero/heroine enjoy glass of champagne at a wedding. (I am not in any way or form advocating drinking.) Don't you dare have your hero think lustful thoughts about the heroine or some other woman.

    Granted, these complex Christians aren't fitting for every CBA publisher, and I'm completely fine with that. The industry needs to have "safe" fiction zones. "Safe" fiction can minister to folks just as well as "edgy" fiction can. Write the stories and characters God lays on our hearts, and if an editor loves the story enough to publish it, then leave it to the Holy Spirit to work on the reader's heart.

    On the flip side, inspy writers ought to guit whining about the more conservative guidelines of some CBA houses. Be respectful. If it's God's will your book is published, He will ensure the right editor gets it the right time.

    I think Julie's PASSION is the perfect example of all things in God's time.

  10. This reminds me very much of some of my own returned submissions. If we can just take a breath and look at things from another's perspective if helps so much in the editing phase.

    Thanks for sharing, Cara. Glad I'm not alone.

  11. Mary, I like the idea of giving the heroine a friend or someone who really likes her. I think I may bring out my heroines's flaws too early in the story without showing her good qualities first. This has been pointed out to me more than once and I thought I'd corrected it. But I guess the heroine is different in my mind than how she comes across on paper.

    Well, it's good for a writer to know her weaknesses and compensate. If an editor perceived my character like the contest judge did, I'd be rejected right off. And I probably wouldn't know why!

  12. Cara, what a great attitude you have, girlfriend! You're so right, we win some, we lose some, and if writing wasn't subjective, we'd never have a large enough audience to buy our books!

    Catching them quick. Drawing them in. Avoiding boredom at all costs...

    Huge stuff. It takes me back to the idea of pimping your entries to do just that, then altering them (if the contest allows for a rewrite) to suit the target editor before they see the final version.

    It's not easy to grab a judge's attention, much less two or three judges' attention and shine above all others. It takes a special lesson in "Trick My Truck" editing.

    Julie's example of Faith's boring introspect taking a back page to action... (I can say that because she loves me... And she's 1200 miles away...)

    Then moving it up further (Thank God!!!)....

    Then throwing the well-tabled kiss on the first page...

    Now there's an interest catcher. And yet I know Julie was told that between her head hopping and realistic passion, she'd never make it in CBA.

    So what do judges know, anyway???


    They know what grabs them, and even though their predictions were wrong about Passion Most Pure, they were spot on about Bring It On, Baby...

    Grab 'em...

    Keep 'em...

    And I'm grabbing one of those English muffins and some fresh coffee. It's looking like one of those loooooong days, so coffee's good!


  13. Well said, Cara. I am currently revising one complete and going through every page with the there emotion on every page?

  14. I'm still poring over my recent contest feedback, from Genesis and TBL. Although I don't agree with everything (and the judges don't agree with each other on every point), I can see how they came to their conclusion.

    It's understandable that a judge might get the wrong idea. In reality, the contest entry is an artificial thing. It is an excerpt (and perhaps a "pimped" one), not the whole book. That's why contests without synopses scare me a bit. Maybe an additional 3 or 4 pages would answer the question. If every question, beyond the basic who, what, where, when, is answered in the first 10 or 15 pgs, what keeps the reader reading?

    I think judges can judge the writing based on the entry, but to judge the characters and the story overall, they need more, either the synopsis or perhaps the whole story.

  15. Hi Cara and everyone, good morning!

    I have received so much good feedback in the many contests I've entered over the years. One judge gave me a fantastic opening line for my second story. I haven't agreed with everything, but I must say I've agreed with a lot. I'm indebted to all the judges that have spent time with my story and given thoughtful feedback.

    I totally agree with opening with action! Cut the baby's curls no matter how painful and get to the conflict...


  16. Thanks for the lesson you pass on, in writing and in reading feedback.

  17. Cut the baby's curls. I love it. Great example of clinging to cuteness and it being painful to let it go.

  18. Excellent points, Cara! I'll be taking another look at my wip opening.

    And while you're here today, we need to once again celebrate the GH final!!

    I just celebrated with Chick-fil-a for lunch. We don't have one nearby, so while my daughter and I were in Athens for an orthodontist appointment, I got a treat! I'll share with everyone. Chicken nuggets all around! :)


  19. Missy, you can't possibly be a real Georgian peach.

    Chick Fil A?????

    Where's the down home Southern girl I dream you to be, home slavin' over the cook stove, fryin' up a batch of country-fried chicken, a la Zac Brown Band????

    My entire image of Georgia has just been messed over. Skewed. Ruined. I bet the peach thing isn't real, either.


    Baby's curls. Caroline, great analogy.

    Emotion on every page???

    Amen. Such a hard lesson to learn, that words don't equate emotion, or always deliver it.

    I'm hungering for real fried chicken, Melissa. Get home to the kitchen, won't ya?


  20. I'm sorry you didn't win the contest, but your attitude about it is great. All we can do is learn and move on.

    Gina said, "Be respectful. If it's God's will your book is published, He will ensure the right editor gets it the right time." I have to agree 100% with that statement. I finished my novel back in 2001 and submitted it everywhere - got lots of nice "redirection" slips. So what with a move, homeschooling kids, working from home etc. I didn't have the time to pursue it. I just kept praying, "Lord, you gave me that book and if it was only for me, that's fine. But if you want it published you are going to have to open the doors.I don't have time to do this right now." In 2007 I got an email from a friend about a new publishing house - OakTara - and I submitted my book to them. They accepted it, and it is due out later this summer. They were the only place I submitted to in 6 years - so it had to be a God thing.

    I hope this will be an encouragement to someone to keep praying, keep trusting. Easier said than done, I know! :)

  21. This is a really good post, Cara. I like how you broke things down into the most basic things we need to cover in the first chapter.
    Congrats on the GH! :-)

  22. Ruthy, Chick-fil-a IS southern! It started in Atlanta! :)

    I will say that I fry a pretty mean chicken. I just choose to do it about once a year. Too messy, you know. (plus, my family doesn't really like it! They'd rather me grill.) And why bother when Chick-fil-a and Zaxbys do it so well? :)


  23. Sadly, this heart of Dixie chick just about lives on Chick Fil A and has the hips to prove it!

    Great post, Cara! It's always good to be reminded of the importance of the first few pages. And getting other people's feedback is crucial...just don't let their voices become so loud that you don't hear yours!

    Can't wait til Nationals!

  24. Chik-Fil-A!


    I got my Genesis results last week and only looked at the score sheets, not the blow-by-blow results.

    I guess I need to put on my big-girl panties and look at my marked up pages.

    Because I want to pimp them for another contest because an editor who might like my stuff is one of the judges.

    I'm afraid you'uns are rubbing off on me!

  25. You brought out some great points, Cara!

    When we enter contests with feedback, we need to pay attention to it--after a little pity-wallow, of course. Even if we don't agree with the judge, there's obviously something that needs fixing.

    The one thing that will make me put down a book is the lack of motivation. I allow some time to learn why the person is behaving the way he/she does, but if I go pages and pages into the book, and it's still not clear, I can't relate.

    Now I have a hankerin' for some Chick-fil-a! I think I'll go there now. Thanks a lot, y'all.

  26. What makes me so concerned with getting the first paragraph, page and chapter right is I'm so afraid a busy editor won't read past the beginning to see how great the rest of the manuscript is! I have to give her a reason to continue. I'm not able to look over her shoulder and sell her on my story. The writing has to do it all on its own, so the beginning better be strong and stand-out from all the others.

    I think it's important to send a synopsis to a contest when it's optional because if the plot is strong, I want the editor to know that.

    Thanks for all the congrats on the GH!

  27. Hello Cara.

    Glad to know I'm not the only Grandma who doesn't pout over contest feedback.

    In retrospect I probably should have sent the synop for one of mine. All the judges thought the character was too mean, he needed redemption.

    Which is the gist of the story, a man who seems beyond grace, finds it through God and that happens as the book goes on, but I left this last set judges with a distaste for the character. But the first time I sent it through those judges thought he was fine.

    How do you rectify that one. I want him to be a cad. There are mean people in the world. I see him as my Saul to Paul type character. And I want to walk other people through that as well.

    So the dilemma becomes I don't want to make him too likeable. But I'm still supposed to give him some redeeming qualities.

    I'm lost.

  28. Lynnette--Congratulations! It's awesome God opened that exact door for you to walk through, especially after all those years of waiting.

    Tina--I love your question. I think a great way to help the reader empathize with a hard-case is to put someone in the book who is praying for that person. Someone who loves him no matter what and knows that God is going to get ahold of him and transform him into someone wonderful. That makes me so eager to see the way God is going to answer that person's prayers.

  29. Any of you late-night owls ready to chat? I'm popping a big bowl of extra-buttered, salty popcorn!

  30. The thing about judges (or any reader, really) is that even the most experienced and qualified among them can only offer a subjective opinion. They're probably right most of the time, but absolutely not all the time. Even more difficult than taking the criticism is, I think, figuring out *which* criticism is worth taking. Sounds like you're doing a good job of figuring it all out.