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.


In the Hot Seat: Critique and Criticism Right in Front of My Face

Writing GroupsI was in the hot seat yesterday.  I met with a group of writers last night and the topic of discussion was…my story!  As part of the rules, I had to sit quietly while the others discussed my piece like it was legitimate work of literature.  Before I get into that experience, a little background—basically, back in April we all signed up for a short story workshop at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md., where we engaged in riveting discussions about both published stories and each other’s work weekly.  Since the members of the class worked so well together, a couple of the students suggested that we keep it going.  The idea was to force ourselves to keep writing and to maintain relationships with people actually willing to read and comment on our stuff! We have a chairperson, record minutes, and discuss each other’s work or engage in writing prompts every other week.  It’s pretty laid back and chill.

Last week, I somehow managed to crank out the story that has been in my head for a while.  While I would like to say that woke up early and wrote it over a pumpkin chai latte made from local pumpkin, I did not.  Rather, I ended up writing the thing in my office. So lame. For a couple of days, I stayed for an extra hour and knocked it out.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I was productive in a quiet and functional space, but I wouldn’t exactly call the office…inspirational.  Whatevs, I got it done.

Anyway! So the story is about a relatively normal and stable girl who accidentally gets addicted to painkillers.  The feedback I received was actually very interesting and surprising to me.  It’s kind of a crazy experience to have people legitimately analyze something you have written right in front of you!  One person described it as a “period piece” because it involved someone in her mid-twenties who was unmarried and still somewhat reliant on her parents.  He said that this story simply could not have happened a generation ago, when people got married at 20, had kids at 22, and essentially “matured” at an earlier age.  That was a valid point and, moreover, a reaction that I never would have anticipated.  I enjoyed listening to that part of the discussion.  I was also told that I took on an “existential question” because my character spent a portion of the story trying to figure out what was real and what was not.  To me, that seemed like a logical struggle because she was a drug addict.  I did not quite think of it as an “existential question” until the discussion went there, but I guess he was right!  I left the meeting feeling energized and inspired.

That all said, we all (myself included) agreed that the writing could be better.  I get so excited about having an idea that sometimes I forget that the real work comes in the editing and crafting the language.  I may be able to create some intrigue with the monotone version of the story that I submitted, but I know it won’t have the desired impact unless I sit down and commit to making it good.  The work involved with that process is probably why the two other short stories I have written have never been revised; however, I actually like this one.  It’s less autobiographical and therefore it has a lot more potential!  Who knows, maybe I’ll turn it into a book!

That’s what’s been going on here.  Hasta luego!