Three People Read 20 Pages of My MS and the Result was Weird

I’m back. No more three-week breaks between blogging. I mean, I need this thing. It forces me to make progress on the noveling. Also, I love it when people talk to me about my posts—so I guess I better write them, huh? (Btw, I have still been blogging at The Write Practice–feel free to check them out at any time!).

So the other day I found out I am a finalist for another writing contest called the Abalone Awards. Basically, it’s a contest for love stories that have a cultural, interracial or multicultural hook. Check! The difference between this one and the Marlene contest is that finalists are given an opportunity to read the judge’s comments and revise the entry before the final round.

Great! Right?

Well, when I opened the first score sheet, all I saw were 3s (out of 10!).  There were a couple of 5s and a 6 here or there, but not many. My reaction was WTF, how did I become a finalist?! The comments weren’t that much better. She didn’t like my switching points of view* (it felt disjointed to her) and she said the opening scene needed work (I’ve since changed it completely for like the 5th time—but not just because of this). Um, ouch. It hurt, but OK. (She did like my characters though :))

On the next two score sheets I received a bunch of 9s—whew! Those judges said the story flowed and they loved the opening scene! In addition, one of them mentioned she did not like my male character but conceded that characters don’t need to be liked to be successful. (For the record, I think he’s likable).

So this is what’s weird: the judges had completely different reactions to the exact same things. What’s a girl supposed to do with that?!

I already know that I’m not going to please everyone—even J.K. Rowling has a few 2 star reviews. But it was a very strange experience to read such starkly different reactions to my work.

My first instinct was to ignore the hater.  But…the whole point of entering these things is to get feedback (right?). My second instinct was to try to address all of her concerns. Too much work. Plus, no.*

Ultimately I decided to take the following approach:

  • Read through the comments with an open mind, genuinely respecting the judges’ opinion.
  • Note any issues mentioned by all three judges.
  • Go to sleep.
  • Revise without returning to the comments, the assumption being that I have internalized the feedback.

While it’s important to take criticism seriously, the process is inherently subjective.  All I can really do is trust my instincts and stay true to the story, so that’s plan.  Plus—in this case, the contest entry was only 20 pages (out of a 300-page manuscript!) Gotta keep it all in perspective.

Til next week! (I promise!)

* Side note: My manuscript currently alternates between the first person (the female protagonist) and the third person (male protagonist). Every time a group has read pieces of my manuscript, someone has commented on this technique. Future fans let me explain:

  • I wanted the female protagonist to be an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator is someone who the reader cannot completely trust because her perspective is skewed. The first person is inherently less reliable than the third person because you only have access to that character’s knowledge, opinions, etc. I wanted the male protagonist to be reliable.
  • I wanted the voices to be distinct. In case you didn’t know—this is my first novel. I was very concerned when I began writing that the voices of the two characters would be too similar (because they were both coming from me!) Alternating between first and third person made it a lot easier for me to accomplish this goal.
  • This isn’t a crazy idea. Terry McMillan has done it. Emily Giffin has done it. So why can’t I? Even if you find the switch initially jarring, I promise you will get used to it after reading another chapter or two.


Can I Write A Novel About Minorities Without Using the Word “Milk-Chocolate”?

I’m writing a novel that includes many minorities, and I feel like I should give the reader characters who have more than just “cocoa,” “milk-chocolate,” “caramel” or “coffee”-colored skin.  I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with these descriptions,* but I can’t help but think that there has got to be another way to indicate to the world that a character is not white.  Frankly, I’m just over all of these terms.  I’ve heard them so many times!

One goal I had for my novel was not to use any of the above quoted words to describe characters.

Aaand, so far I’ve failed.  So the answer to the question in the headline is apparently no.

I just scanned through my manuscript and it looks like in moments of weakness I’ve used one or two of these terms, including milk chocolate. Womp.  But I was so proud of myself for using metaphors like “chestnuts,” “wheat” and “peanut butter that has been mixed with remnants of jelly after careless double dipping of a knife” (hey- the last one was a comparison made by a child’s mind- it makes sense!) I guess I was so caught up in those victories, I completely forgot about all the other non-interesting words I used to describe a person’s skin tone.  Thankfully, I’m still at the editing stage!

But seriously, there’s gotta be more options out there right?  And maybe a metaphor/simile that doesn’t include food?

The last time I had this discussion with someone, they suggested I use the word dirt.

Ok, I get it.  It’s brown.  But it’s not just about the color, you know?  It’s about the image the metaphor brings to your mind.  That’s why “mahagony wood” is awesome.  You don’t just imagine a brownish color, but also a smooth, glowing texture.  Something beautiful.  If I say “his skin was like dirt” you’d think of something that was brown, but also dry and full of pot marks.  Wait a minute—maybe I can use dirt. Note to self.

Or maybe I should try to think of more creative foods.  J.K. Rowling described someone’s skin as being the color of “corned beef” in the Cuckoo’s Calling.  She writes,

Detective Inspector Roy Carver’s temper was mounting.  A paunchy man with a face the color of corned beef, whose shirts were usually ringed with sweat around the armpits…

I’m staring at the google image right now trying to figure out if that’s really the image she was trying convey.

Corned beef

Photo by Larry Hoffman

Actually, as I look at it, the Detective might in fact be a white guy who is perpetually red-faced.  This whole time I thought for sure he was black (or otherwise a minority).  I thought with “corned beef” she was just trying to say his skin was brownish-red.  Maybe she was.

(Note: This is a really embarrassing display of my lack of knowledge of corned beef.  Would the picture above be different if it was, like, cooked more?)

Here’s another image I found:

corned beef2Photo by TheCulinaryGeek (Creative Commons)

I think that’s more what I was thinking.  But is that what she meant? I’m so confused.

Either way,  regardless of the race of the person JK was describing, corned beef is still an indisputably creative way to describe a person.  And I’m not saying it’s only hard to find creative ways to describe minorities–it’s hard to creatively describe anyone or anything; however, I do feel like 90% of descriptions of black people in fiction use one of the words I quoted above (and below).

In the spirit of the other blog I write for,  The Write Practice, here is a writing prompt for you:  describe a non-white character without using the words “cocoa,” “chocolate,” “caramel,” “coffee,” or “mahogony.”  Feel free to share in the comments!

*Actually there is something inherently wrong with using the word “coffee”.  I may imagine black coffee, you may imagine coffee with lots of milk.  Another person may imagine it with a little bit of milk.  Too many interpretations.

5 Reasons Why Lawyers Make Good Romance Novelists

A friend of mine sent me a podcast from the ABA journal that includes a discussion with four lawyers turned romance novelists. Apparently this is a very common thing—who knew?

I took a listen to the conversation between Grace Burrowes, Julie James, Courtney Milan, Lauren Willig and someone from the American Bar Association. The first thing I heard was someone tell a story about a douchey guy in her section who wasn’t “brightest dish in the drawer.” I was happy to learn that she put the gunner in his place.

Anyway, here are five reasons why lawyers make good romance novelists according to the podcast:

1. They typically have backgrounds in liberal arts
2. They desperately need happy endings
3. There are a lot of ex-lawyers who are no longer interested in practicing the law
4. Noveling takes discipline
5. Lawyers have a lot of experience with broken relationships and broken people

I found the general lawyer talk entertaining in a nerdy way. For example, one novelist included a joke about the rule of perpetuities in her book. She said a lawyer-reader told her it made the crazy rule worth learning.

Another noted that a common misconception about lawyers is that they can be neither sexy nor funny. To combat this atrocity, one of the novelists made her lawyer-characters sexy and funny. What? It’s fiction.