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So, I’ve heard back from five of eight RWA writing contests that I've entered in the past few months. I’m a finalist in three of them! It's exciting. Almost as exciting is getting back the judges' score sheets and critiques. Some of the comments were so good, they made me want to run to my laptop and write 23/7 (must leave an hour for sleeping and eating!)
But not all of them. There were also the “what’s not working for me” comments, and I take each and every one of them seriously. I’ve pulled out my MS and checked it against these remarks, looking for the truth in them. Could making this suggested word subsitution or shortening this segment make my book better?
I entered a lot of contests because I’d never done it before, and I wanted to give myself the best chance at being a finalist or placing in one. I'm thrilled with the results so far. But honestly, the more critique sheets I get back on what is generally the same material, the more confusing it is.
Judges all have their own opinions. Even in the same contest, one judge gave me 100 out of 100 points plus three bonus points and said amazingly flattering things about my writing and my story, while another judge gave my submission a 79 out of 100 and filled my pages with detailed analysis and suggestions for improvement. In that case, a third discrepancy judge was brought in because there was a difference of more than 20 points in my scores. That judge gave me a 98. Does that mean I should lean in favor of the higher-scoring judges? I’d love to do that. But I still worry about the things that the 79 judge pointed out.
In the other two contests where I’m a finalist, there was no such wide range in scoring, but there was still a big difference in the critiques. One judge rarely made a mark on my pages and wrote that she couldn’t wait until I was published so she could read the rest. Another spent considerable time and effort marking and commenting throughout the pages.
Even in the two contests where I didn’t make the final cut, the score sheets and critiques were filled with compliments and pointers for making changes. And they don’t all agree. Even on the same passages.
So, what to do? I can’t just take the good and assume my MS is perfect, ignoring the criticisms, any more than I can decide that it all sucks and the positive remarks must be all wrong.
I have to find some middle ground. I printed all the critiques and compared, looking for any areas that tripped up every judge (or several). I realized that my submissions to all the contests contained some formatting errors thanks to my older software program and glitches that occurred when saving my files to the particular format requested by the contest administrators. That helped me make the decision to spring for Office, so I won’t be handicapped when submitting my MS to agents. After that, it’s a matter of deciding what works for me. If I read a judge’s critique and feel that she “got” my book, I'll follow her suggestions and make some changes.
In others, where maybe just one judge had a problem with something where others didn’t or where some especially liked that passage, I’m leaving it as-is. Ultimately, I have to trust myself and put it out there.
And when it comes to "putting it out there" for agents to consider, these contests have given me new insight; it truly is a subjective thing. I can see now what it might be like for agents receiving query letters and opening pages. Some of them will read my work and think-- “Not bad. Needs some changes.” Some will not find it appealing and pass. Some might get it, like it, but not love it. And hopefully, at least one will feel as my top-scoring judges did and say “I can’t wait to read the rest of the story.”
How do you handle conflicting critiques? I'd love to hear from you. Good luck and keep writing!