Monday, November 19, 2007

Debra - Grading On the Curve

That's what we do. Grade what we see. Our experience. Our work. The work of others. (Which is way more fun. Usually.)

A thousand times a day we make quiet little judgments that steer our course. We toss a pebble and the ripple rocks a stranger. Often we aren't aware that we've made a rippling micro-decision. Other times we know what we decide will make a difference.

Judging contest entries by unpublished writers is one of those jobs that will rock strangers, perfectly lovely people who'd might not have ever entered a contest before and have just handed me their baby. Every time I agree to judge I swear I will be better. More lenient. Less blunt. And then the entries come and know that I can only be me. It's not an easy job. (Constructive judging, not being me.) Especially when a contest has a complicated score sheet, not a simple 1-10 scale. Instead of one judgment, I have what seems like millions.

Oh, I don't say evil things like, "A writer? Who you kiddin? Go back to day care." Nor to I subscribe to the hurtful useless Queen of the obvious remarks like, "I've never seen a more convoluted mess of a scene masquerading as a plot and so little understanding of grammar. Have you read a book or been to school at all?"

I don't subscribe to the theory that there is only one way to construct a book or a character. Every book is different. I have to remind myself that some books simply aren't books which will score well in contests but are fabulous books nonetheless. I probably value voice above all. And I've never given a critique that says, "Get that GMC book by Debra Dixon."

Sunday, I grabbed my large stack of entries, fluffed my favorite pillows, prepared to do my duty. I'd done several entries on planes recently but I still had over 10 to plow through. Critiquing is hard work. Start to finish, including my notes, it's about two hours per critique for me. Rare is the entry that you can simply lose yourself in their work, zoom through, and can award a perfect score. Also rare is the genuinely butt-ugly manuscript, especially in an RWA contest of some sort.

For my money, give me the fabulous entry or the awful entry. Give me a brilliant but fundamentally flawed manuscript. Anything but the middle-of-the-road-don't-hate-it-don't-love-it-perfectly-competent manuscript. This is such an industry of fairy dust. A writer needs something more than competency. For the awful manuscript an experienced judge can usually find something to suggest that will genuinely improve the manuscript. We can offer a light bulb moment. For the fabulous entry we can offer the kind of genuine delight in their work that might buoy them along in the hard times as they keep knocking on doors.

But what can you do for the competent manuscript? Writers will shoot you if you tell them, "Find your voice." "Bring something fresh to the table." "We don't fully connect with your characters."

Those are big rocks to throw and the fix always depends on the writer, the book, the genre. Not something I find easy to do in a contest entry scoresheet.

What are the critiques you hate to give? Which ones have you hated to get? For anything, not just writing. I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours.


Betina Krahn said...

Yes, Deb-- that "competent" manuscript is generally the worst. Though, I don't judge contests anymore, except for the RITA's. It takes a lot of time and I'm very aware that my opinion is just one of thousands of possible answers.

I believe in being honest, but my compassionate impulses usually get the better of me, and I wimp out and give good remarks and a higher score than an MS deserves. I can't get it out of my head that it's somebody's baby. And what do I know. Lately I've read some published books that in ms form, I'd have bet would never have gotten published.

My third thing is. . . creativity and freshness are the main thing with me. I want different and the same old Hessian-boot regency or wolf-dove medieval drives me crazy. I can ignore a lot of flaws in a story if the idea is fresh and different. And I know that's not the prevailing thought in the industry. Publishers and many readers want just "more of the same."

Cindy Gerard said...

Deb and Betina you've both pretty much hit the nail on the proverbial head. It's painful to see that perfect ms, perfect plot, perfect pacing but the characters just leave you flat. I often tell contest entrants to remember to be honest with their characters. Meaning - would they really say that? Would they really do that? Are they really that perfect? Give me something to make them real - a wart (so to speak) and for goodness sake, read your dialog out loud and really listen to it.

Helen Brenna said...

Judging contests practically kills me. All those hopes and dreams tied into those pages. If it's brilliant, wonderful, no problem. But if it's bad, who wants to tell anyone their baby's ugly?

And I think what makes it even worse is that you don't know how far that writer has come to date on her journey. She may have been struggling for years and years to come up with that competent entry. Then again, she may have just whipped it up one afternoon and thought she'd throw it at the wall to see if it sticks.

That's why I'd take the competent ms any day over the awful one.

I remember very clearly a critique I received by a published member of my local chapter that I bought at a Xmas fund raiser years and years ago.

She said very nicely, you're writing is competent, but you need spark. She had a hard time telling me that, I think, because she thought it was the kiss of death. But it was exactly what I needed to hear.

I'd started my journey not knowing dialogue required quotation marks, so, for me, it felt like she'd given me first place!

I think I finalled in the Golden Heart not long after that.

That said, I still hate judging contests. I have to keep reminding myself that if the writer can't handle my comments, regardless of how sugar-coated or pointed they are, then she has no business being in this business.

It doesn't get any easier, does it?

Michele Hauf said...

I gave up judging a few years ago, as well, but I still do the RITA. I got to a point where I was marking up the manuscripts and writing little notes in the margins, and then I'd look back through and think "Don't I have anything nice to say?" Not that I'd ever made a disparaging remark on a manuscript. I know how that hurts, and criticism can be constructive. But it became increasingly difficult for me to pick out one little nice thing. So, I figured what the heck do I really know? I'm no expert. And I'm not an editor. Contest entrants can get much better feedback from someone else, so I took myself off the list. Safer for them, and saner for me.


Michele Hauf said...

I should mention that the best part about judging was finding that gorgeously written story. The one where you scribble many exclamation points in the comments, and ask them to contact you when it gets published so you can finish the read. Now those are fun.

Debra Dixon said...

Betina-- I'm almost at that point where I seriously can't justify judging contests. I do a lot on one-on-one critique for aspiring writers, which I find very rewarding because I have so much information to work with as I begin a critique. Every couple of years I pick out a new writer to mentor. But I think this throwing rocks blindly into the pond has to stop.

Because I'm pretty sure I'm not as compassionate as you.

Debra Dixon said...

Cindy-- You've coined a new term. "The wart factor." LOL! I love it and I'm hereby appropriating it.

Debra Dixon said...

Helen-- The Xmas critique, the fund-raiser, etc., those are the critiques I've always found most helpful to me and the ones I've thought I've made a difference for the writer.

And thanks for the reminder that the biz doesn't get any easier when you first get into the biz. Editors definitely don't have time to put on the kid gloves.

Maybe I'll stop agonizing over my bluntness.

Debra Dixon said...

Michele--that's what I felt like yesterday--that I didn't have anything truly encouraging to say. I so don't do smiley faces, not with the time crunch I live with. My energy went to pointing out what could be fixed, suggesting that pages of backstory be trashed and why, etc.

But I did find one honestly fabulous, incredible manuscript. In a fluke, it was the last manuscript I judged. I'm so glad it was, because the only thing I wrote was "Love, love, LOVE this." And my name and email address. I'll put more in my written critques that I'll do after the entries sit for a day but it was a pleasure reading that entry.

Cindy Gerard said...

Happy to oblige, Debra :o) And it's all yours.

Michele Hauf said...

Deb, you reminded me of a former editor who DID believe in smiley faces on manuscripts. I'm no longer with her, and I miss her!

I tell you, I so appreciated the occasional smiley face. In a business that is focused on making the best manuscript possible, which usually means picking on the stuff that needs to be fixed, it's rare that authors get a pat on the back for a job well done. And rarely is it that an editor calls an author to discuss a manuscript, instead she communicates through her edits. So I'll take the smiley faces when I can get them!

Keri Ford said...

I'm judging the GH this year, and it'll be my first contest ever to judge. I'm a little nervous about it, but knowing I won't be able to do an actual critique and whatknot is kinda of relaxing. I won't have to worry about reigning in the critiqing beast, so to speak and instead get to pick a number.

I'm also entering for the first time. Two different manuscripts, so I'm really excited about that and anxious to see what comes of it.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Oh, man, what a good topic, Deb. My whole adult life I've been engaged in teaching in one formal way or another. (By formal I mean that I've made an agreement; the other person didn't stumble into my advice or example simply by being in my presence.) At this point I rarely do written critiques. It's always been difficult for me, to the point that when I agree to do it, I avoid it until the last minute, stewing and dreading and feeling guilty over it all the while.

I'd much rather do it right on the spot, and that's pretty much the way I handle it in the classes I teach at the Loft Literary Center. Fortunately I have a wonderful team teacher who does the written critique beautifully and generously offers to do one for all of our students. Mary's the best!

Maybe the reason I prefer to read and discuss on the spot rather than opine in writing is that I firmly believe in candor. But I always try couch mine in a nest of encouragement. "You stuck your neck out by trusting your writing to a reader/group of readers (we do this in class). That takes courage. What I have to off is one person's opinion. But it's an opinion that comes of education and experience. Now it's up to you to mull this over and do what you will with it."

The best thing I can do is help a writer learn to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in her own piece. I see lots of stuff that's technically sound but boring and mainly forgettable. I try to help the writer find something memorable in it and build on that. The discovery works best in a group. It's really impressive when almost everyone in the group hears a piece and responds to the same bits. Immediately after a reading: "What stuck with you?" 9 out of 10 name the same image, the same bit.

Debra Dixon said...

Keri-- Yes, a number alone, just one number is a bit easier. I'll hope for good things from the GH for you!

Kathleen-- I like that approach-- "Here's what stuck with me... Here's where you made an impression..." And I too would rather you just put me in the room with the writer. Weird but it's a give-and-take in the sense that you can see the writer's face and you know when they want more and when they've gotten enough for them to handle for the moment.

MsHellion said...

*LOL* Well, I don't get to judge in I can't say.

But I have just recently submitted to some contests and you've now made me very nervous. *LOL*

Debra Dixon said...

Mshellion! Don't be nervous. Judges really do try and if you know we agonize over it, you might think more kindly of us.

BTW folks I suck at rememebering real names and screen names.

My favorite critique from my editor? "'s just not Debra Dixon enough."

Dara Edmondson said...

I've been judging more and more in the last couple years. I'm with the rest of you who have the hardest time with the mediocre. Whatever the manuscript, I always find something worth praising, which I think is important, even if it's only that they spelled correctly!
And Deb - you give great crit;-)

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I read today's blog and comments. I just agreed to judge my first contest other than the Golden Heart. I'm already obsessing over destroying someone's dreams if the story isn't up to snuff. I keep telling myself I know how to be diplomatic and how to point out what I like as well as what doesn't work. This was a great -- and very timely for me -- topic.

Ellen said...

This is so funny. I sold my first book from a contest entry. I sent the SAME EXACT pages (photocopied the same day) to two contests. One ended up with a publishing contract, the other (The GH) got a 2. An actual, honest to God, 2. In the GH, anything less than an 8 must be pretty close to the kiss of death. I thought a 2 would be reserved for pages that were unreadable.

Boy, do I ever hope that judge stumbled on my book on the shelf and recognized it...

The take away message is the same as what you all were saying, though. One judge, one contest, one opinion. We all do our best and hope for perspective. We're all different.

One amazing thing about the community of romance authors is how willing people are to offer free (or practically free) professional advice. I attribute my first sale to advice I got in a critique I purchased for a charity.

Interesting topic!