Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On Contests and Critiques by Allison Brennan

Reprinted with permission from Allison:

Ann, I LOVE LOVE LOVE both of your mantras***. I've said both many, many times. I say it about bad reviews too--they are not my reader. Especially those who pick up one book then give ALL my books 1-star reviews because they claim I don't have any romance in them (I write romantic suspense.) I write what I love to write. I could be better, and I work hard on making every book better, but if someone picks up my book and expects a hot and heavy sexually charged romance, they will be disappointed. The romance is important, but it's secondary to the suspense plot. Or the reviewers who identify one "major problem" when I've never been told that by my editor or fans. Some people just aren't going to like my books. That's okay. My other favorite mantra is "You can't please all the people all the time."

As far as judges critiques--I've received some critiques that were fabulous, and others that were mean and not useful. I know how to discern what helps and what doesn't (hence having Fredericka's mantra of "use what works for you and disregard the rest.")

I posted earlier that I had been a contest slut in 2003. True. In 2004 I entered 7 contests (I sold in March of 04 and stopped entering!) and didn't final in ANY of them, either though one of them was the manuscript I ended up selling and one was the manuscript that ended up being my second book. It's that book, THE HUNT, that made me understand that I had an audience, and not all readers would be in that audience. I still have one scoresheet somewhere . . . but can't find it. I remember much of what she wrote, however:

** She gave me a 1 for formatting because she claimed I "cheated" and used 11 point font in order to have an unfair advantage (I didn't. What I did do, which perhaps I shouldn't have, was changed the leading and had 26 lines per page rather than 25 lines.)

** She told me that no one read prologues and I needed to incorporate the prologue into dialogue later in the book because "it was all backstory." (My editor loved that prologue, which takes place ten years before the book starts, and is the major turning point that sets my
heroine on the path where she is in chapter one. It was pivotal, powerful, and I loved it. And my heroine would never in a million years talk about what happened exactly as it happened. showing it was the best way to show my heroine.)

** She took issue with introducing the sheriff (strong male character not the hero) before the hero. I chose specifically to do that because I wanted the reader to see the hero and heroine through the eyes of a character who cared about both of them. Otherwise, Quinn could have come
off as an asshole and Miranda would have come off as cold, hard and obsessed. Seeing them through Nick's eyes (particularly Miranda) put the sympathy on her. It would have been almost impossible (without changing her character) to make her sympathetic to the reader with both the
prologue and Nick's viewpoint. When I sold the book, my editor loved the first 50 pages--but basically said the rest had to be rewritten. The prologue and first two chapters were practically the only scenes that were barely touched in editorial.

** She didn't like the violence of the scene, she questioned my research, and she circled every time I used "was."

The woman should not have been judging. I don't say that lightly. Everyone is entitled to a different opinion. But it wasn't a helpful critique though she wrote extensively on the manuscript and scoresheet. I was being lectured to.

I'm not a tough critiquer. I judge very few contests now--the Golden Heart and the Daphne. In the Daphne, I know whether someone has "it" and will sell but not final, and twice I've signed my scoresheet. Once was for Jordan Dane, and the entry ended up being her second published
novel. I wrote that the opening was fantastic, I loved it, and not to change anything before she sent out to agents. I also wrote that she wasn't going to final because she had broken too many rules. She didn't final, she did sell, and she now has six or seven books out. I did give
her a couple points that I thought could be improved, but they were minor things and I didn't mark her down for them.

When I judge (and I'll admit, I judge much, much differently than most judges)--I don't give 1s. I know I can, but why? A 2 says pretty much the same thing, so I figure I'm giving them an extra point for having the courage to submit their work.

The easiest entries to judge are great stories that make me want to read more, where I grab the synopsis because I want to know how she was going to resolve the great set-up. I don't care if there are a couple typos or if there are minor problems--and neither will an editor. And what I
think might be a problem might not be for an editor or agent. If the voice grabs me and I wish I had the rest of the book, they get high scores. Maybe not perfect, but very high. I also tend to mark up those manuscripts a lot focusing on small details that I believe will make the
manuscript better. I also usually write that I think it's ready or near ready for submission, and that I marked it up because I think it's so good.

The next easiest entries to judge are those that will never sell. You know it in your gut, the author doesn't have the storytelling talent at this point. What I usually do in those situations is find at least one thing they do well and praise it, then find one or two things that I think are their biggest obstacles, and give a critique on those. It might be too much backstory, or I remember one entry that there was no conflict between the hero and heroine because the writer was so scared that her characters would be mad at each other that she resolved every conflict from the beginning of the chapter to the end. I wrote her a
long critique about the need to torture your characters, to make the conflict real, to let them be angry with each other (if they had a good reason) etc. I don't want to kill their love of writing, because I know how much happier I am as a person when I started seriously writing. So I want to give them something to focus on. I do remember one story where the writing was very good and the characters terrific, but the plot so .. . bizarre, for lack of a better word . . . that I read it twice (I never do that) to figure out what the problem was. It was structural. I was so lost I couldn't give her a high score, but I did think she had a lot of potential and told her so and identified what I felt the problems were.

The hardest entries to judge are those that are perfect . . . but have no life. Either the voice is dull, or the story is over-edited and has no magic, or there's no real conflict or the pacing is off or you don't like the characters (usually because they are Ken and Barbie perfect or so stereotypical that my head aches -- usually because their "flaw" is not a real flaw or a stereotypical flaw) . . . but you can't really pinpoint WHY I don't like it. It's usually flat and lifeless. What do I say? I can't give 5s because it's ho-hum, but I can't give 3s because I don't know what to tell them.

Judging is subjective. Reviews are subjective. Just because I don't like something doesn't mean it won't sell. Contests have value when approached with a clear-head and confidence; but by the same token, then can kill the dream of writers who don't have a thick skin. One of my friends (who is now multi-published) had a judge who told her it was "obvious that English is your second language" -- that was not only inaccurate, but flat-out insulting.

Allison Brennan
KISS ME, KILL ME out now!

***Ann Macela's Mantras:

Everyone who judges/critiques your work will be telling you, one way or another, how THEY would write YOUR story.

This person is not my audience. They will never like what I write, and there's nothing I can do about it.

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