Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Crisis of Confidence

A personalized mug does not a writer make.
A few weeks ago, I entered my first writing contest. I found out a few days ago I didn't final. I cried; even though I knew this manuscript wasn't good enough to win anything, I was strangely disappointed. Well, today I received the critiques from the two published authors who judged my work. All I can say is I am grateful they didn't come yesterday, on my birthday. I thought I couldn't feel any worse; I was definitely wrong.

The first critique wasn't actually terrible. The judge made a few minor corrections to my manuscript and added the following summary:

"I like your voice and style, but feel the story itself needs punching...Try re-arranging the scenes to up the pacing. Good job, and I’d like to read more."

This made perfect sense to me. I write women's fiction; my work is more about character development and less about plot. This isn't the first time I have been told my story is too quiet. At least there was something positive said about my "voice" and my "style." And she said she would like to read more! There is always room for improvement, right?

The second critique, though, has nearly undone any hope I ever had of becoming a novelist. My manuscript was peppered with red marks; it looked like an "F" paper submitted by a high school student. She criticized secondary characters ("I'm sorry, but this guy is more cartoon character than a serious date") as well as my heroine ("This woman is not sane, in my opinion.") The thing is, I actually went out on a date with the character I described, and responded to him exactly like my heroine did. I guess it's obvious what that says about me. Also, along with all the red marks there were several "LOL"'s. I don't know about you, but I find it hurtful when someone laughs out loud at my best work.

Some of the criticisms were valid. I tend get stuck in my characters' heads; I need to work on setting and sensory perception. But along with that, there were numerous questions asked that careful reading would have answered. For example, several pages into the manuscript, I was taken to task for including my heroine's young son in a scene when I hadn't introduced him previously. Except I HAD introduced him. Twice. I was also criticized for including a synopsis, which was a requirement for the contest.

There were literally no positive comments made. This bothered me because I am a sought-after judge for piano events and I think this is at least partly because I can ALWAYS find something positive to say about student performances. But my judge's conclusion? "I don't mean to sound discouraging...Rewrite and try again."

Sigh. These 25 pages have already been gone over by two published authors and rewritten. FOUR times. And rejected  by two literary agents.

Taken literally, this means I have wasted two years of my life writing and rewriting the 55,000 words I have completed on this novel so far. I am honestly beginning to think it is time to let go of my dream of writing a novel and stick to what I know. Writing nonfiction.

Because the truth is I am just keeping my head above water financially. Piano teaching is barely paying my monthly bills and I have credit card debt on top of that. Maybe it's time to take these hours I spend trying to figure out the craft of fiction writing and invest them in building a freelance career. Copy editing. Writing magazine or newspaper articles. Managing social media. Anything that would earn me a dollar or two.

Then maybe someday when I can afford the luxury of "free" time again, I can return to fiction writing again. Just for fun.

These are tumultuous times. Is there any reason I should hold on?


Lesann Berry said...

Don't you dare give up.

The only person's opinion who REALLY matters - is yours. I don't have to read your work to know that you're serious in your intent. You've spent two years developing your voice and hammering out the details of your story. You only get to let go of the writing dream when it's no longer meaningful to YOU.

Sometimes we give too much power to other people's opinions. That doesn't make them correct.

Don't let that one voice undermine your confidence. You've received encouraging and discouraging feedback...they have equal weight even though it's hard to remember that at times.

Sounds to me like you're on the right track!

COS Productions said...

I agree with Lesann totally.
I recall a very well known editor telling a story to us one day at a convention. She said how she got this manuscript and it was too long and she didn't like it and she told the author that "This will never sell." She passed on it feeling confident the author would never be heard of again.
The author? Diana Gabaldan. The book? Outlander. That book went on to be one of the biggest hits of the decade and is now a cult classic.
Diana did NOT take the editor's advice, she just found another editor.
And the editor who passed on that book admitted freely that it had been the biggest mistake of her entire career.
The best revenge is happiness and success. Don't get upset, get determined!

Carol Burnside aka Annie Rayburn said...

Honestly, Pam, my experience has been that the harsher judges are usually the least experienced writers and critiquers.

I dunno which contest you're referring to, but some chapter contests don't have very stringent requirements for judging. A volunteer is a volunteer, y'know?

The kid intro thing tells me the judge was skimming, not really doing his/her job. The comments make me think he/she wasn't well-versed on the critiquing process.

As a contest judge, I've had some humdingers of lousy manuscripts in front of me, but I always found something positive to say about the work. To not do so is disrespectful of the writer.

I'm sorry that you've had a bad experience. It hurts. Been there, done that, and have the tough hide to prove it. You'll develop a tougher skin about your writing too.

In the meantime, put aside the second critique for 3-6 months and concentrate on the CONSTRUCTIVE criticism you received from the 1st judge.


Julee J. Adams said...

Oh, Pam, when you said the other weekend that you were so disappointed that you didn't win, I knew it might come to this.

We love that fire and that competitive nature about you, but Lesann is absolutely right. Don't you dare give up.

Think of all the wonderful, supportive people you've met through your fiction writing! Think of all the people you've inspired with your helpful, positive attitude!

I count myself in that last group (and the first ). I don't have a critique group locally. I enter contests to have that outsider who doesn't know me look at my work objectively.

Knowing that I have been this series of books for five years now and will have to "get a day job" soon, how dare you talk about giving up fiction writing and your dream!?! You may have to cut back on your writing time, devoting half to sending out a non-fiction article or querying here and there, but NEVER give up on the dream. It might be good to set it aside for a month or two, but definitely schedule a date to get back to it.

BTW, the one judge said both my heroine and hero were pretty unlikeable and questioned two things that had already been mentioned too. A third thing questioned was explained in the next paragraph. This means I need to bring some explanation forward and make it more noticible. Oh and another contest's judge thought my hero looking at my heroine's sister's breasts meant he wanted a threesome. No, it meant he was male, but I realized some readers may have a problem with it, so I knew I needed to add more to that scene. Another judge in my first Golden Heart entry 20 years ago said, "People don't talk like that." It was dialog lifted from a real-life conversation with a male friend.

In other words, Pam, my friend, it's only your first contest. There are always going to be people who don't like your style/characters/dialog/etc. and some judges will have bad days. Please cut yourself some slack. Please schedule some time to start back in on your mss. in a couple of weeks. Please keep going on your dreams. Who else am I going to have to kick my butt into gear? Love ya. Call if you need to or let me know and I'll call.

Christine said...

I've had people slash my work and others adore it in the same contest. I no longer give it any credit. I've had agents chase a manuscript that a contest judge has cut to shreds. I've had the same manuscript WIN a contest then score in the bottom quarter of the Golden Heart. My friend had a manuscript final in the Golden Heart which was in the bottom quarter the following year. This business is VERY subjective.

Here's why you enter contests: to final and have the editor/agent see your work. If you don't final and if the critique is harsh, park the comments or delete them. Keep a spreadsheet and note which contests you final/don't final/get requests/don't get requests. This is for the TAX man.

I really recommend finding a critique partner you can trust to read your work.

I also recommend wine and chocolate!!


Sandy Elzie said...

Pam, if I had listened to all the criticism of my work, I'd not be published today. I can paper the wall with rejections & negative comments on contest entries. (You're in a very full boat...not alone)

Judging is subjective and Carol is worst comments came from unpublished writers. (Never understood it, just noticed the trend) BUT experienced judges never discourage a writer (or make rude comments) they encourage and make positive suggestions on how you might improve something.

Eat chocolate, drink wine, whatever it takes, then take a deep breath and review the first critique & use it---and call all your sisters when you need a shoulder...we're here for you.

Grace Burrowes said...

Pam, I feel for you. Some data first, then some reflection. Nobody told me I wasn't supposed to complete two dozen MS before I started pitching, so I had quite a personal slush pile, then someone mentioned contests. Contests?

I would enter at least five of my books in any one contest, and I probably entered ten contests in the space of a few months. The book that WON this contest would not final in that contest. The book that finaled in three contests would get scathing marks in a fourth. The book I thought was pretty rough would be the ONLY book to final in another contest.

Conclusion: Contests are HIGHLY subjective.

I was also frequently a three judge entry, and one wise contest coordinator said that was often a function of having a strong voice. A judge would dislike my voice, but not realize it herself. Instead she'd pick on my characters, my plot devices, my pacing, etc.

You are already familiar with the subjective nature of the arts because you play the piano. It's just no fun to realize the same challenge exists with fiction, but to you it will be a familiar challenge. The reflection part is that contests mimic what happens when we get published, only it's reviewers who treat us properly or badly. The most grinding discouragement I face comes not from critical reviews, but from mean, lazy reviews--people who know a lot less history than they think they do, people who can't even summarize the plot accurately then criticize the plot, people who thrive on the bullying possible in cyberspace.

Should you stop writing? Of course not. Should you stop entering contests? Maybe. For a while. You're smart to stick with the published author contests for now. You might consider spending a little of that hard earned cash on a writing coach like Kathryn Johnson. She KIND but competent and gave me a boost along the way.

Then too, you might try Michelle Monkou's prescription: Try to not write for thirty days. Just try it.... bet you can't.

Sally Kilpatrick said...


Please don't quit over these. I may, or may not, have cried over my results to the very same contest. I, too, had a positive judge and a negative, very snarky judge who latched onto one thing one of my characters said and then took me to task for it. That hurt. A lot.

If you're getting positive comments about voice and style with your first contest entry, you are clearly doing something right. My manuscript that just got butchered? That was novel #7. I finaled last year, and I didn't this year. I wondered if I'd regressed or something.

Someone else said--I was scanning, sorry!--that contests are very subjective. They really are. Don't let the comments of one person get you down. Only worry when you see the same thing repeated by several people. Oh, and if the comments were that over the top, then the contest coordinator needs to know about that judge. You can write the coordinator respectfully and include samples of the comments.

Finally, my best piece of advice would be that it might be time to let that story go and to write another one. My second novel is a women's fiction piece that is too heavily autobiographical and has been described as "too quiet." I finally decided to let it go. And if you have to take a job, you can still write. Pick a time--mine used to be Sunday afternoons--and write. Unfortunately, it's very hard to make a living in this business.

I've seriously writing off and on--had to birth some babies in there somewhere--for 14 years. Beulah is manuscript #5 and currently my best shot at getting published. Speaking of, I might need to finish those revisions and fire out the query letters....

If writing makes you happy or relaxes you, you gotta keep on doing it. Sometimes you have to revise your expectations, though. As Missy Tippins said, you can't set a goal for when you're going to be published because you really don't have any control over that. You can only set goals for how much you write and revise and send out.

Good luck! Please don't let that one set of comments get you down.

Anonymous said...

I agreed don't you dare give up. Pam and Sandy are correct. Often inexperienced author are the hardest on the work. Also, there is a positive here-if both were rough on the work, I say scrap it, but it was only one of them.
The one thing about it pushing on is that it makes being published so much sweeter. Remind me sometime to tell you about the judge that said English must be my second language! Hard.

Susan Carlisle
Heart Surgeon, Hero...Husband 1/12

The Writers Canvas said...

Well, I second what other blog comments have said: Don't you dare let this make you give up.

Contests are often judged by published writers, volunteers, PROs who aren't published, in other words, a myriad of people. It's like asking 3 people what happened after seeing an auto accident - you get 3 different accounts.

Don't let this get ya down, hon. Make what basic edits you want, maybe take a break from *this* book for a bit of time and brainstorm some other book ideas for the future. Then come back and reread this with fresh eyes. Change what *you* want to and hope for the best.

On a personal note, since I write women's fic too, I've stopped entering contests. Too many try to "pigeonhole" an entry and I always got dinged for never having a hero around, even though I clearly mentioned my entry was women's fic and not romance. Judges are volunteers and busy and they see what they expect to see - often missing what is there.

Keep going, Pam! And my offer still stands if you want me to read it too - I promise I will offer positive comments as well as any suggestions!


KendallGrey said...

No offense to contest judges, but the majority of them are made of pure, unadulterated idiocy. I've entered over 30 contests, all with the same manuscript. I've finaled in 7 or 8 of them and won first place in the one I never even imagined I'd even final in. It's all subjective.

My advice: don't enter any more contests. It's not worth the money you have to shell out and the feedback is often so contradictory, it becomes useless. Instead, find good, knowledgeable, and solid crit partners you can trust and who know more than you do. Learn from them.

In the end, you know what's best for your story, so go with your gut. But don't give up on it. Most of us have been there and done that so many times, it's not funny. Only way to get better is to KEEP WRITING! Try something different for a while and then come back to this MS if it helps.

I'm sending you warm thoughts and good vibes. You gonna be at the GRW meeting? Let's talk on Saturday! HUGS!

Linsey Lanier said...

Oh, Pam. I'm so sorry you got a harsh critique. But all of us go through this in one form or another. The thing to remember is that no book is loved by all readers. Look on Amazon for you favorite authors and look at their reviews. The top authors get one-star reviews. Nora does. Even the famous Amanda Hocking does. J. A. Konrath blogged about that recently.

I would say getting that strong of an opinion shows your voice IS stronger. If you have a strong voice, some people won't like it.

The financial issues should be considered separately, but do not give up because one person hated your book. It is not a measure of success.

S.M. Carrière said...

Oh my! That was a very harsh critique indeed!

I know exactly how you feel. I've been down this path of heartbreak more times than I care to mention.

Lesann and Sheila are SO right. One person's opinion is not definitive. It might just be that particular judge was terribly jaded, or inexperienced.

Please, please, PLEASE don't give up!

You can make it. I know it.

Eileen Dreyer said...

I've been a around a long time. And yes, had really evil critiques. Here are the suggestions from my experience(39 published books--but it took me 6 years to get my first published)
1. Lesanne said it best. Don't you dare give up. Believe it or not, you're really in early days. Consider Jonathan Kellerman who tried for 12 years, and Tony HIllerman, who could wallpaper a room with rejections. I can't tell you the number of really good writers I know who aren't published for no better reason than they quit. Don't.
2. Get a little book called Rotten Rejections. It's actual rejections of famous authors. It always makes me feel better.
3. What you're going through is what I call the 48 hr Biological Sulk Period. Enjoy. Wallow. Call the judge everything you want to(and I agree that this wasn't a very good judge. So I think you can throw that one out). Then, in a few days, your brain will kick in on the stuff you know might be valid from the other judge.
4. This next is the best advice I've ever gotten. YOu've worked on this for 2 years. You're not supposed to have perspective. Stick it in a drawer and work on something else for at least 2-3 months. When you pull it out and read it again, you'll be surprised at what you find. And you'll come back to it with renewed energy(I've actually put manuscripts away for a year. It works)
5. If you don't have a critique partner or group, see if you can find one. It helps keep the energy and focus up. However(and this applies to contests, too)
6. You can't simply change your work because somebody tells you to. It's YOUR story, YOUR voice. Not everybody is going to agree with it. You have to decide what it is you want to say and filter all the criticism and praise through that. Remember the people judging, have voices and agendas of their own. If you change every time somebody says to, soon you won't have a voice at all, and we won't be able to tell your work from anybody else's. And if you want a surefire way to NOT get published, that's the one.
Good luck. Hang in. And remember. We've all been through it, every published author out there. And we've all survived. You will, too

Cate Morgan said...

Never, ever EVER give up. EVER.

Also, that second judge obviously wasn't paying attention and/or used your entry to work out their own insecurity issues. They also apparently don't read the genre you write in. Ignore them. Some people are just hateful, and unprofessional to boot.

The first judge was more helpful/useful, so my advice is to go with their commentary.

Pam Asberry said...

Thanks to all of you for your wonderful, insightful, caring, supportive replies. I deeply appreciate the time and thought you put into them; you helped me get through a very difficult day and gave me sound reasons to keep the faith. I will never, ever forget. And I promise to pay it forward.

Amanda said...

Pam my daughter received one of those unhelpful letters today and I want to say this. Not everyone likes the books I love and some ppl even put them down, but Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, and Anne Rice are some of the most influential writers of our time. Also I read a price Steven King wrote on rejection. Can you believe The Dark Towers were his first series? He received Hundreds of rejections until he filed the manuscripts away and started something new. Don't give up Pam. So many authors wouldn't be around today if they hadn't Hung in there for years! If you like I can post links to their stories. One is Laurell K. Hamilton, who was told no one would EVER be interested is Vampire lovers.

Leanne109 said...

Take things 1 day at a time and we r always our own worse critic. Keep your head up and keep on pushing!

Tami Brothers said...

Oh man! Please, please, please don’t let someone else’s opinion sway you on your dream. I’m serious. I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve received comments from judges who said this is ready for publication. I expect to see a book in your future soon.

Very same contest had a judge tell me I needed to write more than one book before submitting to contests (this was my third) and that I should get a critique partner to catch my elementary errors (I did have one and she was a high school English teacher). I’ve also had judges say that my cop hero was so unbelievable that I should at least watch NCIS or some of the other cop shows on TV to get a real feel for what cops are really like and that I should really do more research on firefighters because I had no clue what I was talking about (I was a police and sheriff dispatcher for four years, a matron for the county jail for just as many, and married to a firefighter).

So this is a very subjective business and honestly, their opinion does not matter. In the end, its who’s opinion you want this to matter to. Yours? An agent or editor? Even they have been known to pass on things that ended up being best sellers (ie, the ones mentioned above, JK Rowling, Steven King).

We can go on and on with the examples but the simple fact is that the world is filled with people who are going to try to tear you down at every happy step you take. You’ve seen this in other areas of your life. I know I have.

The key here is to let yourself wallow in it. Let yourself rage at the injustice. Let yourself think about all the things you could be doing with your time and money. THEN get back on the horse. You may not see this happening right now, but it’s kind of like the grieving steps. You have to morn this loss. Your first slapdown in the industry. Look at it like losing a piece of your innocents. It sucks that first time and later on we always wonder why we would even put ourselves through all of this.

Just like with all those toads you have to kiss along the way to finding that great guy, these are the hurdles in your path to getting that book published. It takes a bit, but I can totally see you back out there with the enthusiasm we all associate with you. You may not see it just yet, but I know you will get there. Come to the meeting this weekend. There will be cheering for those that finaled, but there will also be those of us who need that extra support from our friends because we were also given some pretty cruddy remarks. Serious. Come this weekend. It ALWAYS helps to be able to share this feeling with others who are going through the same thing.



Denise said...

I don't like Picasso's cubism, yet they sell for millions. I don't like Steven King mysteries, yet he keeps churning them out. I don't like horror movies, yet the movie industry keeps making them.

Sounds like judge number two just didn't like your manuscript. And yet, you will keep writing and many, many people will love your work. Just don't expect judge number two to line up (like I'd let her the line).

Lindy said...

Pam, in all honesty there is nothing left for me to say in addition to everyone's comments. I agree with Carol that some judges are only unskilled laboranddon't have stringent criteria to meet. I also agree with Kendall: don't enter any more contests. :-) As your crit partner I know what kind of writer you are. Don't give up five minutes before the miracle happens. Hugs - Lindy

Shanon Grey said...

Pam, I think everyone has pretty much covered it. DO NOT GIVE UP! If I listened to only the bad, I wouldn't be published and I am. I got second place in a contest and one of the judges tore me apart. I was devastated--until the very end, where they said they didn't like my genre! Wish they'd said that up front.
I have a personal opinion about people that are cruel in their remarks--they are plain ole mean. I judge. I always try to be constructive and encouraging. Writers pour their very beings into their stories. Writers deserve respect. They've earned it.
Have some people you trust and who know you, read it. Even then, remember, it's their opinion.
Remember--we are here for you, always!

Pam Asberry said...

Again, thanks for all your wonderful comments. I'm going to try to summarize my response in a blog post this evening. What would I do without all of you?