Before my first novel, Alien, Interrupted, was published at Ellora’s Cave in January of this year, I entered early versions of the first 30 pages in a few contests.
Those of you who also enter contests probably already know how hit and miss the feedback can be. Sometimes you get only scores - generally either very high or very low – (I prefer the high) and no feedback at all, which is frustrating. Sometimes you get a kind, articulate judge who takes the time to offer her best feedback and advice in a way that makes you feel deeply encouraged.
And sometimes, for mysterious reasons, a judge will seemingly go out of her way to actively hate your manuscript.
I’ve decided to share with you an example of the latter. After you’ve enjoyed my destruction, I’ll tell you why it was the best worst thing that ever happened to me. After which, I want to talk a bit about the one clearly wrong thing this woman said. Not for spite (although spite can be good) but for those unpublished authors who could use what I think is an important FYI.
Here are the relevant scores -
HEROINE score: 1 (1 means Poor: Major improvement required for publication.)
Skillfully developed; multidimensional; believable and interesting; good physical description; sympathetic and likable There are some issues with her likability factor – why does she put up with Richard? Why does she plot to do things to Richard?
HERO score: 2
Skillfully developed; multidimensional; believable and interesting; good physical description; lovable I want to know more about him. I think you want to have Chapter 1 told from his POV.
RELATIONSHIP score: 2
Believable and exciting from the initial attraction; emotional as well as physical; logically development based on h/h goals, motivations, and conflicts--both internal and external I see the reason for the physical attraction, but not the romance/falling in love.
SETTING Score: 2
Sense of time and place; sets the mood; enhances the story; interwoven into plot Setting isn’t a list of adjectives describing objects in the scene; it’s a sense of the world that’s created by the narrative.
DIALOGUE Score: 3 (I got a 3!!!!! And no negative feedback! Hooray!!!!!)
Natural; believable; well-balanced with narrative; progresses the story; characters' voices consistent and individual to their personalities
NARRATIVE Score: 1
Well balanced with dialogue; interesting; necessary; progresses the story; does not overwhelm reader with information The use of flashback for Yom’s description of Hannah’s actions distances the reader from what should be an engaging scene (engaging in that it engages the reader in it). Use of telling vs. showing removes reader from the story
CONFLICT Score: 1
Strong enough to sustain a story; motivated and believable; good usage of internal and external conflict; not based on simple misunderstanding aside from the obvious (him being a cat), what is the conflict? The laws of his world? But they flout them, so it isn’t really a conflict. What’s her internal conflict? What’s his?
VIEWPOINT Score: 2
Proper usage of point of view; changes well done, logical, and important; viewpoint didn't bounce from character to character excessively or inappropriately see my notes concerning Hannah’s reaction to Yom in the shelter. That scene and the next couple of ones, would be more effective if told from Yom’s POV
MOTIVATIONS Score: 1
Both internal and external motivations believable and consistent with individual characters and circumstances I don’t know what they want or why they want it. Nor why they can’t have it, but the “why they want it” is their motivation. You might want to read Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict.
SYNOPSIS Score: 1
Complete, well thought-out, informative, avoided cliché; all loose ends and subplots tied up; all goals, motivations, and conflicts of hero and heroine stated and satisfactorily resolved or explained; free of unimportant details A synopsis is your selling tool. It needs to explain everything, hook the editor/agent right off the bat, show character growth, high points of the plot, the black moment and the resolution.
STYLE Score: 2
Appealing style; varied sentence structure and length; presentation of story smooth and interesting; each scene moved plot along improving craft will help this score become higher
MARKET Score: 2
Appropriate for targeted line; sensual tension correct; plot appropriate. (Categories have been pre-screened. Most books have overlapping categories.) I didn’t know this was erotic romance until the voyeurism scene. You want to make sure your ms shows exactly what market you’re targeting. And with this story, you’re targeting erotic romance; give the reader the eroticism they’re looking for.
MECHANICS Score: 2
Professionally presented; free of typos, spelling, grammar and punctuation errors Misspellings and punctuation errors are such minor things, but the image they present when they’re constant throughout a submission is just one more reason for an editor/agent to say “no” rather than “yes.” I’d recommend having a critique partner read through your submission to catch what you can’t; we writers are sometimes so close to our work that we can’t “see” the mistakes because we hear our own voice in our head while reading.
TOTAL POINTS 41/100 (The other judges scored it 80/100 and 95/100) Six months later I had two different editors offer contracts for the work.
Why this was the best worst thing:
Reading these comments as a stranger, they might not sound that bad. They might not sound like much of anything in fact. Who knows what you can see through that strange keyhole?
As the author, I felt pretty pummeled. I thought the POV suggestion was a little bit invasive (and obsessive). I found comments on the order of “improving craft will raise your style score” and “setting is more than a list of adjectives” obnoxious. And I thought 41/100 was just plain mean.
The good news is, this woman made me mad and the anger was the thing I needed to go back into my manuscript and actually (finally) fix the problem in it.
There was, for sure, a problem in the manuscript. Many other readers had suggested that my heroine’s evil ex-boyfriend made her problematic as a character. I tried to fix it without fixing it (changing words, changing sentences, adding endless justifications). This judge nailed the problem once again.
Fueled by my shiny new outrage, (41/100!?!) I went back into the manuscript, took out my scissors and started cutting. I turned the bad ex-boyfriend into a neutral new boyfriend which was all it took to fix the story. I submitted the new version to two publishers, both of whom offered contracts on the work.
Here now is the wrong thing the woman said:
Misspellings and punctuation errors are such minor things, but the image they present when they’re constant throughout a submission is just one more reason for an editor/agent to say “no” rather than “yes.”
Publishers want to make money. That’s it. They want to make money from your story. If they think they can sell it, they’ll buy it, missing hyphens notwithstanding. Assuming you’re mechanics aren’t an obstacle to understanding, your adherence to an arbitrary set of rules will have nothing to do with whether or not you’re published.
Quick Heads Up: Congress had to pass a law to keep publishers from signing contracts with serial killers. You don’t have to be a good person to sell a book. You definitely don’t have to be a perfect one.
I don’t hear this said often enough, and I think it’s important. Publishing is about the bottom line. ($$$)
Your first publication might be (or have been) a validation of sorts—a smallish number of writers have their work accepted after all. But it’s also the day a faceless corporation will begin making 60% of the profits from a work you necessarily care about a whole lot more than they do. They may treat you well: good editors, good contracts, good covers, good communication, good marketing. They may not.
In that sense, a publishing relationship is a bit like a traditional marriage—not a good thing to enter into from a powerless position. When I read “fix your mechanics or no publisher will want you,” I hear an echo of “watch your figure of no man will want you,”: Abusive and wrong-headed advice from someone who collaborates with the oppressors.
Let me tell you this instead: Publishers are very much on the prowl. It’s in their interest to hook up. If you’re insecure and easily flattered when they come on to you, you might not get the deal you deserve. So raise your consciousness and don’t let anyone convince you to undervalue what you do.
I do recommend, however that you open yourself up to criticism, even in the crapshoots that are contests. Let all harsh judgment light that fire under you that keeps you moving forward into your best work.
Is it wise to have sex with a tall, gorgeous space alien who used to be your cat? The question barely has a chance to flitter through Hannah’s mind before she’s overwhelmed by temptation and writhing under the strong, hot man in her bed. And while the thought of goodbye sometimes makes her question the decision, life with a handsome lover does not disappoint.
Yom Lister has proven no better at reasoning himself out of his lust. Somehow he’s managed to pair-bond with an Earthling—the intensity and speed of his connection to Hannah setting him completely off-balance. In one unthinking moment, Yom ends his state-sponsored vacation on Earth and finds himself a traitor to the planet he once saved.
Before he’s arrested, however, he plans to make the best of the insanity. He has good reason to reap the rewards of Hannah’s willing body while he can—their impending separation isn’t only inevitable, it’s potentially deadly.
My first romance novel was read as a rebellion against the academic work I had to plow through for my Ph.D.
Romance and rebellion soon wove together into a long-term relationship. Later, writing made three. I now have a few works published at Ellora’s Cave.
I may be slightly different from some romance authors. The meet cute is okay, but I'm more fascinated by what happens after people fall in love. Conflict in my stories comes from the obstacles that keep you from living the love you deeply feel. I find these emotional situations delicious to unravel and resolve.
The sex thing – Well, I like to think that I’m a sexie the way other people are foodies. I find it all quite fascinating, especially when steeped in troubling emotions. My favorite love scenes, however steamy, always have me very close to tears
Beyond that, I’m an avid tweeter who is just about to Instagram the cat (again). Please stop by and say hello @irisastres.
*Edited by Teresa Crumpton*