Writing Wednesday: Ask An Editor!

MCC: Hi, I’d like to welcome Philippa Francis, editor extraordinaire, to my little haven. She’s got some tips for us—and some stories to tell—about her adventures in the editing world. Just so you know, she’s using a pseudonym to protect the guilty. So if your editor happens to be named Philippa, I’m sure she is perfectly lovely. However, it’s not this Philippa, and you’re not the author in question. That being said, for the love of all you consider holy, don’t do some of the things mentioned here!

First things first, Philippa, do you plan on eating my firstborn? I’ve heard editors are all soulless, dream-crushing spawns of Satan.

PF: No, I get most of my protein from tofu and raw fish. Unless your first-born is a salmon or a soybean, she’s safe.

MCC: I totally believe you, though the firstborn did once claim that she wanted to be a part-time mermaid, part-time polar bear, so, uh, I’m just going to send her… over there. Before we dig into the editing business, let’s talk about you. What’s your favorite work of fiction, and why?

PF: I never know how to answer this question. I just went to Goodreads to figure out which novels I rated the highest.

Some novels I love because of the genius of setting or the conceit of the narrative style, like Iain Pears’s Stone’s Fall or An Instance of the Fingerpost. Some I love for voice and pace, like Nero Wolfe stories. Some novels are so easy to slip into that it’s almost as if you’re wearing your favorite cashmere sweater, like Teresa Edgerton’s The Green Lion Trilogy or A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer (my comfort reading).

A novel that continues to blow me away is Lolita. It has an unreliable narrator, amazing voice, incredible style, and staying power. That it was Nabokov’s first book written in English just makes it all the more impressive. Ordinarily I am annoyed when I notice the beauty of an author’s writing, but added to the gestalt of Lolita, it works.

But overall, I’m very picky about fiction. Most of my reading time goes to non-fiction, and most of that to history. If I start reading a novel, it’s because I’m very interested in it and I’ve read good reviews from sources I trust. If I hate it, I won’t finish it. I will put it down and write a negative review on Goodreads or Amazon. The older I get, the more precious my time gets.

MCC: Speaking of reviews, what do you think about authors feeling obligated to give other authors glowing reviews?

PF: It’s disingenuous and a huge disservice to readers. If that’s not clear enough? I absolutely hate it.

I understand you want to support your friends and fellow authors. Great. Go around and click “like” on your friends’ or critique partners’ Amazon pages. Tag the books on Amazon. If you really, really like the book? Fine. Give it a good review.

But when I see an author giving a mediocre book five stars and gushing about it, I lose respect for both and…I probably won’t buy either author’s books from that point forward.

Do I sound like a bitch? Sorry. I have limited free time. When you fake a good review for a badly written book, it tells me you don’t care enough about my time to give me an honest opinion. That means I don’t care enough about you to give you my money.

And if you’re an author who gets less than a five star review, get the hell over it. If there’s merit to the criticism, fix the flaws in your next book. If there isn’t, who cares? Move on.

Whatever you do, don’t assemble all your friends and sister writers and pressure them into writing gushing reviews of the book. If you put your friends in that position, you may find yourself with fewer friends.

And never, ever respond to a critical review online. Ever. (But if you’re reviewed in the London Review of Books, please do feel free to write in to the editor with complaints about your review. It never ends well for the author, but I live for reading that page.)

MCC: I’ll admit, I’ve felt the pressure, which is why I stopped doing reviews on my site. I have issues with guilt, thought I have great capacity for snark.  I’ve been trying to keep my snark in check. One day, it will spring from my head fully grown, like Athena, fully clothed in armor and ready to rumble (or the Queen from Alien. Either way, duck for cover when it finally happens. It won’t be pretty).

But I digress.

What’s your favorite genre to edit?

PF: Anything historical. Mostly because I love history, but I also love finding anachronisms in books. I am the reader who will be scathing in a review if I find an error. When I save my authors from that, I feel like some sort of OCD history superhero.

MCC: Well, now that that’s out of the way, and we like to talk about things that bug us around here, what is the biggest pet peeve you have when editing a manuscript?

PF: I have three. I type these comments more than anything else: “POV.” “Filtering. Cut.” “Tortured dialogue tag.”

Point of view errors. I’ve tried to explain them a hundred different ways, and some authors get it and some don’t. At worst, you’ll jerk your reader out of the story. At best, it’s lazy writing.

Filtering. Don’t write “Jasmine saw Aladdin fall from the sky” when Jasmine is the exclusive POV. Of course Jasmine saw it. No one else could. Just write “Aladdin fell from the sky.”

Tortured dialogue tags. Don’t do this: “’No,’ Jasmine said, running forward as Aladdin fell from the sky.”  Instead, it’s: “’No.’ Jasmine ran forward as Aladdin fell from the sky. (Although in a perfect world, you’d have the falling preceding the running. But you get the idea.)

MCC: Interesting. I’ll make a note of that. Now, I’ve mentioned some things I’ve heard of authors doing to editors and agents when they’ve been rejected—things authors have admitted to! But even after they’ve been accepted, they still have loads of work to do, right?

PF: I think this is the hardest part for new authors to understand. The manuscript that you submitted and was accepted…it’s not perfect. It seemed like it, sure. But when editorial staff read it, they haven’t been with you and your little darlings all along. They see that you’re relying too heavily on adverbs, that you didn’t resolve a subplot adequately, that you’ve got two characters who could (and should) be merged or three scenes that are duplicative.

MCC: What are some suggestions you have for authors after they’ve received their contracts but before they’ve made it to first round edits? Any advice?

PF: Keep writing. Move onto the next project. Not only is this going to help your career to have another book ready to go while you’re editing this one, but it will also give you more distance when you get your first edits back.

MCC: What are some suggestions you have for authors as they receive their first round of edits?

PF: Oh, lord, where to start?

First, expect to see a lot of red. It will be there. You’re not the outlier. You didn’t turn in an instant masterpiece. Your perfect book isn’t perfect. I’m sorry. Even if your army of critique partners said it was…it’s not.

Second, I wish all authors knew that editors want the book to succeed just as much as they do. I’ll go so far as to say the editor’s interest in the book is purer than the author’s. Editors are interested in working with you to make a book that will sell a lot of copies.  Editors don’t care that you based the hero on your beloved great-uncle Maynard or that the lovely prose on page 59 is a description of your childhood house. If the hero is unlikeable and the overwritten prose bogs the scene down, your editor will tell you to fix it.

If you’re unwilling to see those are honest, objective critiques, you’re going to have a rotten time of it as a writer. Pick a more ego-fulfilling career.

MCC: What do you do if an author doesn’t agree with edits you’ve suggested? What’s negotiable and what’s not, when it comes down to edits?

PF: I’ve only had one author throw a complete tantrum and refuse to change anything substantial. It didn’t work out well for her.

My job is to point out the problems in such a way that the author gets it. I can’t rewrite for the author. The authors who have published the worst books are the authors who have blown off my recommendations. When it comes down to it, if they want to publish crap, I’m very sorry, but there’s only so much I can do.

Grammar and style-guide issues are non-negotiable. It continues to amaze me how many authors don’t look at the publisher’s style guide and then argue with me about things like semicolons or one space after a period.

MCC: Because I find other people’s bad behavior vastly entertaining, what’s the worst thing an author has ever said to you, and how did you respond?

PF: Authors usually say the worst things right after they’ve gotten first edits back. In every email accompanying a set of first edits now, I tell them to not bother writing me until two days have passed.

I send a long email with first edits. I tell them what I like and why. Then I explain where they will find the red in the MS and why. I point out the broad plot problems, where things go off the rails, some suggestions about how they might fix it, and I usually point out the words or phrases that they overuse.

I’m very direct. I don’t think it serves anyone well if an editor beats around the bush. If there’s a big enough problem, I’ll say, “And this is where I would put the book down and write a scathing review.”

What kills me is when authors immediately write back (email makes it so easy) and then try to refute my points bullet point by bullet point. I ignore those messages, mainly because two days later I’ll get a follow-up that says, “I’ve thought about it and you’re right. I’m working on the edits now.”

But for the love of all that’s holy, don’t tell me that your critique partners loved it and thought it would be tragic if you made my suggested changes. (Not making this one up.) I don’t care what your critique partners think. If you’re clueless enough to 1) ignore my 2-day waiting period and 2) refute me line by line, your critique partners probably can’t get you to act sensibly, either. They’ll agree with you just to shut you up. I don’t have that luxury.

Recently I read something for an acquaintance who put me on the spot (my usual response to this is “no” – I don’t like looking at anyone’s first drafts). Per the request, I edited the way I would my own authors. The acquaintance turned around and told me how I was wrong about 1) head hopping, 2) POV errors, 3) use of any verb but “said” or “asked” as a dialogue tag, and 4) a bunch of other things I’ve forgotten.

Remember, I was asked to read this as an editor! I was just glad it wasn’t one of my authors. If my acquaintance wants to take that thing into the marketplace and try to sell it as-is, well, that’s not my problem.

MCC: See people, I’m not making this stuff up. People really do take criticism badly. They didn’t grow up in a household where taking criticism well is a skill necessary for survival.

PF: Right. What prepared me for editing was being raised in a family where mispronouncing or misusing a word meant endless supper table humiliation.

I’m not exaggerating.

Then, when I was 10, my father handed me something he’d written. By this point, he had three graduate degrees and had published books and many scholarly articles. About an hour later I returned it – corrected.

You reap what you sow.

I’d like to continue this as an “Ask the Editor” segment. So if you have any questions, post them in the comments, and maybe Philippa will return for another round? What do you say, Philippa?



Writing Wednesday: How to Work WITH Your Editor

So, you got a contract for your manuscript. Now what?

Well, first you wait. And wait. You will probably get an email early on, telling you who your editor is. They may tell you to look for certain words in your manuscript, or to do another run through before first edits come around, or they may simply introduce themselves. And then, you wait.

Now, my advice to working with an editor isn’t so different from my advice on contests and rejections. There is a good way to do things, and a bad way.

See, the first thing you need to know is that the person who acquired your manuscript is, more than likely, not the person who will edit it. This may be a good thing. It may be a bad thing. For instance, the person who edits your manuscript may actually detest your work.

This will be bad for your ego. It may not be bad for your manuscript.

When you first open that manuscript, your heart will sink. There will be so much red that you will wonder if you’re looking at your manuscript or if you’re actually looking at a snapshot of the Battle of Gettysburg. My first piece of advice: Close the email.

Also, as an aside, I changed the color the comments come up in. I find blue to be much more soothing.

Yes, closing the email is my first piece of advice just about every time. But I think you should take in the fact that someone didn’t think your baby is perfect. Before you read all of your editor’s comments, write your editor a very polite email, thanking him for all of his hard work. You don’t want to do it after you’ve read his comments, because your first instinct will be to get upset. And no matter how polite you think your email is, if you’re doing it right after you’ve read those comments and tried to absorb all that red, your email will be snotty.

And you don’t want to go there.

Close that email, and write a polite thank you to your editor.

The next day, open that email and read the comments. As many of them as you can. I go through the whole document, and look for those errors or comments that keep coming up. That way, I know what my editor thinks I need to fix throughout the document before I even get started. Yes, this will take a day or two or several, depending in the length of the manuscript.

When I’m ready to begin the editing process, I then go to Accept All in Word, and accept all changes. If I’ve followed the Chicago Manual of Style and my publisher’s guidelines, and I know whether they use the Oxford comma or not, there won’t be too many grammatical mistakes that aren’t typos on my part. Many houses will send you their guidelines or post them on the web. My first bit of advice: follow them. Your life will be easier.

Because I have read the guidelines and done my darndest to adhere to them, I can usually accept all changes and not feel bad about it. Because I’ve read the entire document–complete with comments–all the way through, I already know which changes I don’t agree with, and have already commented on and rejected those.

The next thing is the hard part. Going through all the comments.

See, editors are not like critique partners. They won’t offer “Hey, I really like this line” in the comments. The comments will feel so… so negative.

This is a good thing, trust me.

You want your editor to point out your flaws, plot holes, over used words or literary devices. You want him to point out areas where it feels like you’ve used deus ex machina again. You want him to point out that what you’ve done with this character has made her intensely unlikeable. Because if you don’t change those things, you will lose your readers. Better that your editor hates your document than your reviewer, right?

I won’t lie: it will hurt.

“But I love this!” you will whine. “This is the heart of my story! And you’re killing it!”

No, my friend, he is not.

Your editor is rescuing the heart of your story from the cesspool of mediocrity. Your editor is not your friend, nor your critique partner. Your editor is there to edit.

The story is yours, of course. You don’t have to make suggested changes, but you will have to communicate that with your editor. Expect whatever your say to go up the food chain to the line editor. Expect to get some resistance from your editor, too. And if you’re snotty with your editor when you tell him why you’re not making those changes, that will also go up to the heads of the house. If you go for the melodrama, and tell your editor that you hope a flaming ball of shit falls from the sky and destroys his house, I’m sorry, but you’re probably not making any friends.

And if you think, “Oh, people don’t really do that,” just trust me on this one: they do. Keep the flaming ball of shit in your head, and leave it there. Use it in a short story maybe. Base your next villain on your editor. Do whatever you need to do, just don’t say it to your editor.

Communication is your friend, it really is. But keep it professional. Do not send an email while you are angry. Like with any important document (including, hopefully, this manuscript you’ve submitted), write at least two or three drafts, outlining why you would prefer to not make the suggested changes, and asking your editor for her opinion. No, seriously. Ask. Don’t make demands on your editor. They’re busy people, too.

After you’ve gone through your manuscript, and made all the changes you are planning on making (this can take a few days or several weeks, depending on the number and intensity of the necessary changes), read your document one more time before sending it on. Make sure you’ve stepped away from it for a few days, if you have the time, so that you will be more able to see any new errors you may have made. We all have our crutches. For me, it’s the em dash. If I’ve had to rewrite a scene, trust me, I’ve used too many em dashes in that first round. I always need to go back and take them out. You’ll have something else you’ll do.

Your ego has no place in the editing. In this business, we have to have thick skins. Once that manuscript is off to the editor, try not to think of it as yours. It’s not your heart, it’s not your soul. You would continue to exist even if your masterpiece never saw the light of day, if it burned into ash, if a dinosaur ate it and crapped it back out. So, when you see all that red, and think of all the changes you need to make, think of it as improving someone else’s work. Kind of like the screenwriter who has to take someone else’s screenplay and punch it up.

If you can think of it as not yours, maybe you’ll see some merit in what your editor has to say. Maybe you’ll see things you need to change, scenes you need to cut, characters who need to go, or be merged with other characters.

Listen to your editor, even if you think he’s a jerk. He’s not here to be your friend. He’s here to make a buck off of what you wrote.

And he just might, if you let him.


Huh, It Works on Other People, Too!

My mother was right. Guilt does work.

After begging for weeks for someone to help me, I actually do have an assistant coach. Kind of. I have a referee. Kind of.  Five of the six parents paid me for the banner. The parent who forgot snacks on snack day felt so bad, she brought the most awesome goody bags I have ever seen, complete with all kinds of little things the girls loved. Change purses, fluorescent bracelets, candy, crackers, juice boxes, all in a little cloth sack in pink or purple.

I’m not sure if it was my final, pathetic email, when I reminded them of the game on Saturday and asked them to help me take down the goals (two different families from my team actually did help me take down the goals. The other team, not so much. It’s all right. I didn’t have to do it all by myself), and then said I still needed an assistant coach, a ref and a team parent (every job but coach). I don’t know if it was the constant gentle reminders at practice that I could use some help.

At this point, I don’t care.

I have help!

Random Sunday Musings

So, it’s late on Sunday evening–it’s actually Monday for you folks back East–and I’m doing some reflecting.

As some of you may know, my muse has gone…missing.

Huh. Maybe I’m not supposed to mention that I’ve struggled with a manuscript, or couldn’t find inspiration. Maybe I’m supposed to make it look like it’s easy all the time, like the words just flow from my fingertips, inspired by the daughters of Zeus.

Mmhm. And monkeys will fly out of my butt.

I’m not sure anything is gained by authors lying to one another, or to the world. No, writing is not like brain surgery, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Trust me, I did medical transcription in college (and I read medical reports all the time), and while I would totally trust them to cut open my head, some of them can’t write for shit. When you read those reports, it’s very stream of consciousness–few commas (I always added them, because I happen to know there is a world of difference between eats shoots and leaves and eats, shoots and leaves), and often no periods. There are times when I think that a well-placed period or comma might actually make a world of difference.

So while I would never presume that a brain surgeon’s job is easy, not everyone can do mine, either.

I won’t lie to you–sometimes the words come easy. Other times, the words are hard. The story needs to be forced out, like birthing a baby (granted, how would I know? I had C-sections). It doesn’t matter how the story came into the world.

Just like with having kids, what matters is what you do with it once it’s out.

Writing Wednesday: How To Handle Rejection

Yes, this is late. I meant to do this earlier, but hey, the real job got in the way.

So after I posted the Dos and Don’ts of Contests, I decided I’d write a post on rejection.

Now, any writer will tell you, in order to get published, you will deal with rejection. Unless you’re the one person who queries and then gets accepted on your first try. If that’s you, well, bully for you. Now off with you. You are way too awesome for this blog.

For the rest of us, though, we will deal with rejection at some point or another.

Don’t think it won’t be you. Because I’m here to tell you, it will happen to you.

You’ll polish up your manuscript, and you’ll think it’s perfect. First, let me assure you, it’s not. No, really. That’s why we have editors. Sure, you may have been working on your magnum opus for 10 years, but once it hits the editor’s desk (if you’re good enough, lucky enough and persistent enough to get that far), it will be torn apart.

But that’s another post for another day.

So you’ll send your beautiful, perfect manuscript off. And then you’ll obsessively check your email for anywhere from, oh, five minutes, to several months. You’ll suffer the disappointment every time you open your e-mail (which you checked five minutes ago), and discover that your blessed query has not been answered.

And then, it will happen. You’ll see an editor’s or an agent’s name in your email.

Your heart will race, and your blood pressure will skyrocket. No, trust me, it will.

Here’s my advice. Don’t read the whole email. Read the accept/reject line, then close the email.

Because here’s what will happen: you’ll read the rejection and you’ll immediately get up on your high horse. You’ll be ready to rumble, to have a smack down, to have a heart to heart. DON’T.

You’re upset. If ever we have learned something from our phones, it’s that the immediate message, sent in the heat of anger a) can’t be taken back and b) is generally not constructive. There are things no rational human being should ever do, one of which is to respond to an email when pissed off.

So the editor didn’t understand the genius of your work. Get over yourself. I have Shakespeare plays that I can’t stand. Now, go ahead and send me hate mail for my opinion, but I hate Hamlet. Not because I don’t get it, but because I hate it. I know, I know, everyone loves Hamlet. But if I want to read about some wishy washy person who can’t make a goddamn decision and has an overbearing mother, I’ll read my journals from 8th grade. It’s not that I don’t get Hamlet. I do. I’ve read the damn thing often enough. I just don’t like it.

Does that mean Hamlet isn’t good? Nope. Lots of people love Hamlet. Me, I prefer MacBeth, because Lady MacBeth has balls. Chick might be a power-hungry bitch of questionable sanity, but I’d prefer that to an indecisive twat with Mommy/Daddy/Uncle issues who is taking a ride on the crazy train.

Think of your rejected manuscript as Hamlet. Maybe it’s genius, but some poor sap just doesn’t get it.

That being said, for the love of all you consider holy, DON’T TELL THEM SO.

They don’t need your hate mail. They don’t need to hear you whining about how your manuscript is brilliant, and they’ll regret their rejection. So, do yourself a favor. Close your email, and walk away.

Console yourself in any way you feel you must. If you need wine and chocolate, then awesome. Have some wine and chocolate. But let me make myself perfectly clear: drunk emailing and angry emailing are essentially the same. Don’t get smashed and then email the editor. You will say things you regret. And again, these are people who are trying to make a living, too. They aren’t out to destroy your dream. No, seriously. Agents and editors are not soulless assholes out to steal your firstborn. So, give them some respect (even in those cases where they don’t show you any). If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Seriously. Wordsmith though you may be, sometimes the most eloquent thing you can say is nothing at all.

So, after you’ve let yourself simmer down, re-open that email. Yes, it might give you a headache, but read the email. Start to finish. If the editor gives you some constructive criticism, bear that in mind. I’ve gotten rejections that ranged from “I have a migraine, so I lost interest,” (Yes, really), to a two paged, detailed description of what worked for said editor and what didn’t.

Let me tell you something, the detailed critique was by far the harder rejection to take.

What that editor did for me was a gift, and I knew it. It kind of felt like a gift where you’re punched in the teeth upon reception, but still. It was a gift. I saved that rejection, because it was the nicest–and most professional–rejection I’ve ever gotten. It was also the only rejection that ever made me cry.

Which brings me to my next point: If you get a gift like I did, where an editor offers you a detailed critique, where she points out areas where you can improve, then do yourself a favor:  listen. Make those changes.

I took those criticisms to heart. I changed my manuscript. Rewrote it all. And the next place i queried offered me a contract.

Would my current publisher have offered me a contract if I hadn’t made those changes? Possibly. But what I know for a fact is that I made those changes and was subsequently offered a contract. You can decide how you want to take that.

So, in short, here’s how to handle rejection:

1. Read only the line where you get rejected, and then close the email. Walk away from your computer.

2. Go ahead, cry to mom, or get drunk, or text your friend, complaining about what a dumbass said agent or editor is.

3. Do not email the agent or editor and call him/her a dumbass. If you do, then you are the dumbass.

4. When you’ve calmed down, re-read the rejection. If there’s anything pertinent you can take from it, do that.

5. If they’ve offered advice, email them with a short and polite thank you. And then leave it at that.

6. Last but not least, try again. Move on to the next agent or editor on your list. Maybe you got the editor who likes MacBeth when you wrote Hamlet. You’ll never know unless you try.


Surprise! Your Book’s Up for Review!

So, I’ll be honest, for all my talk of being brave (on this and other blogs), I’m really a chicken shit.

Sure, I’ll do things like, oh, coach soccer when I don’t remember the rules, mostly because I know I can figure that stuff out. I’m brave enough to write a story and send it to critique partners, even the ones I’m certain will hate it. I’m brave enough to send out that same manuscript to publishers and agents, and expecting to be rejected. I’m brave enough to repeat this process several times.

But what I haven’t been brave enough to do is send the book in to review sites.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve filled out the paperwork. So, so, many times. Yet, I can’t bring myself to hit send. Sending a book in for review isn’t like submitting to editors, where, even if they’re mean (and let’s face it, they so rarely are in their rejections), at least it’s private. Your massive failure isn’t splashed all over the internet for all to see.

Sure, my friends loved it. My Soul Mate sisters seemed to like it. So, it should be good enough for a review site, right?

I told myself I was too busy (yeah, I’m busy, but not too busy). I told myself I simply didn’t know my heat rating (except that I do… The Marker is a full 4 flames, Wandering Heart is probably 3.5 flames, and Jessie’s War, depending on whose definition you go with, is a solid 3. I’ve put a lot of thought into this). I told myself I didn’t know what content other people might find objectionable. Unsavory wagers, sure. But would they find the gambling and the drinking objectionable? The sex? Do I have to be specific in what about the sex acts some others might find objectionable? Would they find the cover objectionable?

These are the things that I told myself when moving to hit the send button. These are the excuses I used to not send in my stuff. And yes, that makes me a giant chicken shit.

A while back–I want to say it was over my last break–my publisher sent me an email saying she’d sent my book into a review site, and that she didn’t know when or if they’d pick it up for review. I read the email, thanked her, and then promptly forgot about it. After all, The Marker is a western set American historical–but not really a western. No cowboys, no ranchers, no horses, unless mentioned in passing. It’s not a big genre book, like paranormal or romantic suspense, or even Highlanders. It’s not really a rabid niche book either, like steampunk or a western (unlike Jessie’s War, which is both, and Wandering Heart, which is a western historical). Was anyone even going to want to pick it up for review?

I’ll admit, I had my doubts.

Like a giant candy ass, I buried my head in the sand and pretended review sites don’t exist. And then I really did get too busy to do much of anything about it.

So imagine my surprise this morning when both my publisher and one of my Soul Mate sisters Casey Wyatt posted this from Night Owl: 4.5 Stars! A Top Pick!

So thank you, Debby from Soul Mate Publishing, for sending in my book for review. It was a great surprise to wake up to this morning!

Top 5 Reasons Why I Hate Soccer

1. It starts in the summer, when the temperatures outside rival that of the sun.

2. “It’s too hot and I’m too busy to help out.” (This is the standard excuse of the parents who are playing on their iPhones). My (internal) response: a) WHAT THE HELL? and b) I have a full-time job, kids in piano and soccer and swimming, I’m managing a five-year old while I’m coaching your kid, and in my free time, I write books; and c) I asked you to do a goddamn snack schedule, not… I don’t know… cure cancer.

Also: I’m not bitter.

3. I am coach, assistant coach, the ref and the team parent. I arranged for the banner, my husband is making the stand, I did the snack schedule and I coach your kids. And I hate it. I’d love to sit on a bench in the shade at the end of the day, rather than running around a soccer field. I mean, after all, I FEEL LIKE MELTING BUTTER. No, I’m not exaggerating. Ever heard fat sizzle? I have. I hear it at every goddamn practice–only, instead of a side of bacon, IT’S MY FLESH! Yes, I’m yelling. See above. (Aside: mmm, bacon)

4. I haven’t played soccer since fifth grade. I am not fourteen. Or even double that. Ergo, it’s been a long time. You are not allowed to critique my coaching, because, hell, I barely even know the rules. No seriously. But if you have problems with the way I do it, then maybe you would like to be my assistant rather than the ten-year old I currently have? (Basically, he’s my runner… As I’ve discussed on this blog before, I only run if I’m being chased by clowns)

5. Coaches’ camp. After my third practice. On a Saturday, for the entire morning. And it’s supposed to be 108.

My  only solace? That my new kitchen table should be here by the time I get back from Coaches’ Camp. Just in time for me to die of heat exhaustion. Maybe the dog won’t eat this one. Here’s hoping.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Contests

After my first year of writing, I became what I affentionately call, a contest whore.

I entered all sorts of contests–granted, only in the Fall. I don’t know why. I guess with the start of the school year, it seemed a reasonable time to take a stab at entering new manuscripts into new contests.

I entered “First Kiss” contests, the contests where they look at the first meet, the ones where they look at the first fifty pages. And ever since my first contest entries, I’ve judged them. First as an unpublished author. Then, last year, I could judge as a PRO. This year, if I get asked to do it again, I will be a published judge.

So over the years, in judging contests, I’ve come to a few conclusions about entering contests. And since we’re at the beginning of my contest season, I thought I’d go over some things you should think about when entering a contest.

1. DON’T worry about it if you don’t final. It doesn’t matter. Maybe you got a judge who didn’t understand what you wrote. Maybe you got a judge who typically writes sweet mainstream and got stuck judging erotica. Or worse, the judge who’s looking for fangs and claws and is judging a western steampunk (and actually wondered why the hero wasn’t a vampire in a paranormal entry. Yeah, that happened to me). Sometimes we judges wind up judging categories we don’t normally read. And that’s fine, but it also (usually) means we might be a bit harsher on the criticism and judging than someone who is in love with your particular category.

2. From my own personal experience: DO look at your overall score, then close the email for a day or two to process. Yes, even if you final.

3. But DO read the criticisms, even if the scores are low. If you need someone else read them to you, do that. That’s fine. I always start with the one who scored me harshest (in my experience, this is usually the published author). First, it gets the harsh stuff out of the way; second, I’ve found that the harshest criticisms are often the ones that I take the most away from. I read the scoresheet one time, then close the email. I will pour over it later, after I’ve let my bruised ego heal for a little bit.

4. DO celebrate the little things. If one of the judges liked a line of dialog, celebrate that. It’s important.

5. DO remember, opinions are like assholes, and everyone has one. You don’t have to agree with the judge’s assessment.

6. DO consider changing something if two or more judges make similar comments. Sure, there have been times when I’ve said to myself, “But I love this part!” And then the critiques come back and my judges hated that very thing. Do I have to change it? Certainly not. Should I consider it? Absolutely. Because if two judges agreed that something needs to change, then there is probably something wrong with how I did it.

7. Do remember that if your scores are low overall, it’s okay. Maybe you weren’t ready. Maybe you thought you were. If you’re anything like me, I didn’t have a critique partner, had never been to a writing group, and not another soul had read my work. Did I think it was brilliant? Being honest, I didn’t, because my self-esteem isn’t that good. Shoot, I’m published and I still struggle with “I can’t write for shit” days. But I did think it was good enough to win a contest.

It wasn’t.

So maybe your stuff is brilliant. Maybe it’s not. It’s okay if you aren’t ready.

8. In that same vein, I can’t tell you the number of times that, as a judge, my FAVORITE entry didn’t final. To this day, there is one entry I remember. I loved it. I thought it was the most beautiful piece of writing. It didn’t even final, and I can safely say I was more offended for that author than I was when I didn’t final either. I hope one day I see that work published, because I would buy that book. No, seriously. Not finaling doesn’t mean your work isn’t good. It just means that judges are human, and everyone has their own particular quirks.

9. Do remember that some judges will be harsher than others. Some judges go by their gut feelings. Other judges, like me, take the rubric we’re given very literally. When I judge, I don’t go just by what I liked–I’ve had entries I’ve liked very much that I marked down because of the rubric. I am not a touchy-feely kind of judge. I will grade each individual component on its merits. So if you get a low mark in an area, it doesn’t mean your work is bad. It could be that the judge loved it, but thought your work could use improvement in certain areas.

10. In that same vein: DO read the comments. This is where your judge will put caveats, such as: I love the story and your voice. Even on entries that I’ve marked down, I will make sure that I tell the writer what I like about the entry. I always put it in the comments, because, as a judge who is very literal in her interpretation of the scoring rubric, sometimes my scores don’t reflect how I feel about the work as a whole. Yes, you may get a scoresheet back that looks low, and you’ll read the comments and you’ll think, “But why didn’t you score my work higher, if you liked it so much?”

This isn’t an insult. It means that your work has potential. It may not be ready for publication, but it has potential. What this means is that you’ve mastered the things that are difficult to teach: you have a great voice. You can tell a story. Maybe you struggle with grammar, or setting. Maybe you struggle with characterization. We all struggle with something. One of the things that sells a story for me is the voice, the unique way every author tells a story. If you’ve got a good voice, you can improve every other area.

I promise.

So, when you send off that email, remember: contests are fun, and judges are only human. And take everything we say with a grain of salt.

Happy contests!