Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Take It or Leave It

by Julie Coulter Bellon

One of my jobs for the recent LDS Storymakers Conference was to help coordinate judges and comment sheets for the First Chapter Contest. There were some amazing entries in the contest this year and some work that was so incredible, if the rest of the manuscript was as great as the first chapter, it should definitely be published. But the First Chapter contest coordination was a huge job because each entry received in the contest got five critiques from industry professionals.


Five critiques from authors, editors, and publishing professionals for around $10. That is huge and after hearing some comments about the critiques, I thought I would share some of my feelings here.

Critiques are useful in several ways. They can give an author an objective view of the work that they’ve been doing for so long that they can’t see the forest from the trees. They can point out mistakes that the author hasn’t seen, plot holes, character weaknesses, and where the author needs to concentrate their revisions. Critiques are sometimes hard to take for an author, though, because if they’re done right, they will point out the flaws in the writing, but at times, they aren’t balanced with praise and sensitive authors can be hurt. All in all, a good critique is generally constructive criticism.

As authors, however, we can look at critiques and say to ourselves, “well, they obviously didn’t read the work I did or they would understand it better.” Or, “maybe they are just mean people in real life and never have a kind word to say.” Another thing I think authors say is, “well, one critique said one thing and one said another, what should I do?”

An author is not obligated to do anything with a critique. You can throw it away if you want. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Critiques are often your keys to fixing your manuscript and making it publishable. But only you, as the author, can decide which criticism you are going to accept and change. You don’t have to change anything, but it’s generally in your manuscript’s best interest to at least consider what others have said, especially if more than one critique is saying the same thing and pointing out the same mistakes. But the most frustrating thing for me as an author is when two people say exactly opposite things about my manuscript. For example, I had one critique that said, “I hate the character of Pepper,” while another critique said they thought Pepper was a fresh and interesting character. As an author, I had to step back and see that that was opinion. The person who said they hated Pepper didn’t offer any specifics, “I hate how Pepper is indecisive and cliché,” or anything like that. It was just a flat opinion, so I didn’t change anything, and I concentrated on other areas. But did I throw away all the rest of the comments from that critique because of one opinion? No. I looked at everything brought up, decided what I could fix or find useful, then I changed that and left the rest alone. I also keep every critique I’ve ever gotten for a manuscript, and before I go to final edit, I go through them all again and make sure I’ve fixed or addressed everything I wanted to do.

I also think that authors put different weight on critiques depending on who they are from. If you knew that that harsh critique was from a publishing house, would you put more weight on fixing it if they were someone you wanted to publish with? If it’s an author that you don’t even like, do you look at their criticisms differently? Yet each criticism is legitimate and, in my opinion, should be looked at and given consideration no matter who they are from.

The judges in the First Chapter Contest worked hard. One judge spent over forty hours trying to give critiques that would help each author (and these are pretty much volunteer hours since the judges only get a small honorarium for their work). I can’t think of any other scenario where an author would get five critiques of a work by professionals for such a low price. Yet, some seemed disappointed that all the critiques weren’t gushing and praising them and sounded like they were going to disregard all the comments outright. That made me sad, because I think those authors have missed the point of a critique. If you don’t agree with the criticism, that is your right, but don’t discard it. Really look at what they’ve said, and take it for how it was meant---to help you as an author. I know it can be hard sometimes and it’s easy to just shrug and say, “well, I don’t agree with what they said.” That’s fine, but at least look at the comments. Really look. See if there is merit there. I hate to see all that work thrown out because I know how valuable it truly is and how hard the judges were trying to help the authors.

I also know that when you become a published author, you will get a lot of critiques both before and after your book is published and they aren’t all gushing and praising then, either. Learning how to handle critiques is essential for an author. Take a deep breath, then plunge in and read all the comments. You don’t have to take them all to heart, but at least consider them. Look at every issue brought up to see if there is anything that needs to change or not. More often than not, changes have made my manuscripts stronger, even if I was discouraged or hated it in the moment. Or if someone is standing in front of you telling you something about your manuscript, take a deep breath, and thank them for their comments. Because even if you don’t take their comments and use them to change your work, that person still took the time to tell you something they thought would help you. You may have to grit your teeth, smile, and thank them, but still thank them.

Of course, that’s just my advice. In the end, it’s all up to you, the author. Take it or leave it. But I hope you take it.


At 5/28/2009 1:15 PM, Blogger Carolyn V. said...

Julie- great post!
When I got my critiques back, I was actually surprised at how high the marks were! (That made me very happy), but I had one that was lower and put down how much she/he (not sure) didn't like one of my supporting characters.

She/he said that if I reworked the paragraph it would make the character more likeable. Since this was the second time I had that same comment (1st comment not from the 1st chapter contest), I looked at the character and did rework it. It reads much better now, and is still funny! =) Love it! Thank's low critique number giver.

I was wondering though, was every person who looked at our work a professional? Because I really was happily surprised at the marks.

At 5/28/2009 1:25 PM, Blogger Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Carolyn V., I am so happy that you saw the merit of your critique, used it, and made a change that not only made your story stronger, but that you are happy with as well. And yes, every judge was a professional in their field, so congrats on the high marks! That is so great!

At 5/28/2009 1:56 PM, Blogger Allyson Condie said...

I know I keep responding to posts about this, but I kind of can't get over the fact that I got 5 critiques for $10. This contest was so awesome. And yes, I had some "negative" feedback, and I am just so glad to have it now and be able to fix things at this point rather than later in the game.

Thanks again to everyone who helped with the first chapter contest. I want to enter it every single year. It was so darn helpful.

At 5/28/2009 3:41 PM, Blogger Melanie J said...

Yeah, I have to agree that I was thrilled with the opportunity to get the feedback. At first I had to resolve the conflicting marks thing (straight fives from one judge, never broke a three {except for mechanics] from another), but the feedback from the first chapter contest and the Boot Camp were the highlights of the conference for me. I don't live near other LDS writers that I can work with, and the chance to get smart, honest, constructive and insightful feedback from this contest was incredible. Thank you for coordinating it. I appreciate how taking and incorporating some of the suggestions I got is allowing my writing to grow. And besides, the affirmations on those judging sheets felt pretty great, too!

At 5/28/2009 4:21 PM, Blogger Deb said...

Dang it, Melanie! That's just what I was going to say.

I do have to be honest here. I started reading through the critiques at the conference, but the two most, um, constructive ones were on top, and I knew my face was blushing as I read. I shoved them back inside the envelope and didn't take them out again until a few minutes ago. They weren't as bad as I first thought. The "constructive" ones led me back to my first chapter and helped me change it for the better. But it was amazing how one person’s opinion differed from the next. I didn't get two that were the same.

Also, I didn’t look at the entry fee as anything but a fee to send in my first chapter into the contest. I never thought about getting five professionals to give me their opinions on my writing until you brought the subject up. Saying thank you to you and your fellow authors seems a little thin. Ya’ll worked so hard to help us grow as writers, but since I can’t ship a truck-load of chocolate to your homes, I’ll have to be satisfied with ... THANK YOU, SOOOO MUCH.

At 5/28/2009 6:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They may want to consider dividing the feedback up into two major categories:

Opinions that may improve your story.

Technical feedback that can improve any story.

If you're getting feedback from a romantic author. They'll tell you to improve the depth of the character by including more emotive content, descriptions that evoke an emotion, interior dialogue that delve deep into the pshche of the character, less exposition, not so much action, lots of character interaction.

If you're getting feedback from a fantasy or sci fi author you may get more encouragement to increase the action, lots more exposition to explain the intracacies of the world around you, or the gadgets or how things work--essentially world building. You'll also get feedback to lighten up on the character interaction, and describe your surroundings in less emotive ways for more tecnical descriptions.

If you're getting feedback from a general fiction author you may be encouraged to balance character interaction with action. Balance exposition with narration. And encouragement to push your story toward a moral rather than a dramatic high point.

If you're getting feedback from a speculative fiction author the the character suggestions may be all over the place. But they may suggest ways you could uncover the hidden story or the hidden meaning behind your character's actions. They will likely suggest setting selections and descriptions which act as a metaphor for subversion, conspiracy or espionage. Action may be important in their critique, but not as important as conspiracy.

If you're getting feedback from a historical fiction author they may suggest that you define the social class of your character and give them a standing, a place in society which defines their role in the story, because when a character tells you about herself she's boasting, but when she tells you about her posterity, well, she's giving you reasons why she is superior. You'll get lots of suggestion to back and reserach authenticating details in your scene setting and artifacts. You will also likely get suggestions about selecting a more appropriate time period or era, essentially suggesting you change your scene setting by virtue of time in history rather than simply selecting a different location for your story.

Usually, these are the reasons that you find different critiques conflicting. They really aren't conflicts. They're telling you that, based on their writing experience, these are the things that may help.

In addition to these "opinion" suggestions, there are also universally helpful critiques that will help "professionalize" your work. Those suggestions usually reach beyond individual opinion and can be helpful coming from any author.

Its up to you to decide if an opinion will help your writing or not. Its also up to you to recognize when the critique is one that will "professionalize" your manuscript. A type one error in writing is accepting an opinion when it won't help. A type two error is rejecting a professionalizing suggestion when it would, in fact, help your writing. A type three error is simply never asking for feedback.

Good luck with rewriting.

At 5/28/2009 6:49 PM, Blogger Heather Justesen said...

I know I've always appreciated the feedback I've gotten from the first chapter contest, which is why I scrounged two to submit this year, even though they probably weren't as polished as I would have liked.

I haven't had problems with overly critical feedback, but I know several people got comments like, "Great!" with a score of three, which left them wondering how it could be great and still only deserve a three.

That said, I can't imagine dealing with the number of chapters most of these judges must have looked at, there were so many entries. I can't blame them for getting worn out by the time they were 40 hours into it. It took extreme dedication even to read that many entries. I got great feedback on mine.

At 5/28/2009 7:34 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Receiving varied or conflicting feedback from various judges just proves how every reader experiences a novel in a different way. This is why you might have one agent fall in love with your book, and another not give it a second glance. All very subjective.

So the most important thing to remember is to not take any negative comments personal.

At 5/29/2009 12:30 AM, Blogger Laura said...

One thing I've found that works... step 1- read the critique
step 2- put it away and don't look at it for a week
step 3- get it out again and read it. Suddenly you find yourself agreeing with a lot of the suggestions.

It works for me.

At 5/29/2009 4:44 PM, Blogger LexiconLuvr said...

I am more grateful than I can express for the feedback I received from this contest. FIVE personalized pages (or more) of thoughts and suggestions for my work? That's incredible! I only had one judge dislike my main character and even then, I saw the merit in what they were saying. That only helps me to spur myself onward and make it better.
The judges who participated in this deserve a lot of praise for their willingness to work with us. The time, thought, and energy that went into this is phenomenal. I am excessively grateful.


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