Contest Judge Series: The Difficult Manuscript
Now, class, remember our guidelines from last month. Repeat after me:
1) Don’t be a bitch.
2) Don’t be useless.
As for the difficult manuscript, the additional guideline to remember is:
3) Say it, don’t flay it.
The difficult manuscript is a special challenge. You’ve volunteered your limited time to help your fellow writers, and you’ve been given a manuscript that seems as if the author made little or no effort to polish it. It possesses qualities (or lack of qualities) that pain you and seems devoid of the professional level of writing and narrative you’d rather be reading. It might even make you frustrated and angry, and commenting on it feels like a tedious chore instead of an interesting task.
The first thing to determine is how much your personal preferences might be influencing you. Not that personal preference has no role in contest judging, since we’re all people and stuff, but it shouldn’t dominate your reaction. In the first article in this series, I encouraged judges to take each aspect of a manuscript separately. Can you, as a judge faced with this manuscript, determine what makes it so challenging for you? Is it unprofessional, sloppy, or full of grammar errors? (Shudder!) Is the heroine needlessly TSTL, and is the hero a lout? Is the plot idiotic or based on big misunderstandings (which have the acronym “BM” for more than one reason)? Are there numerous elements you feel will hinder this manuscript’s success with an editor or agent or a few that are so execrable or overdone you can’t see beyond them?
In other words, are the flaws you’ve noted in the manuscript of the truly individual variety, like the fact that you’re thoroughly tired of vampires and here’s another, or the writer insists on using the word execrable, and more than once? While editors and agents have their quirks and reject manuscripts for a variety of reasons, it’s not your job to “reject”. It’s your job to share your experiences in this industry as both a writer and reader using the diplomacy I’m sure you possess. Feel free, if you know of an editor or agent who has blogged about something pertinent to the manuscript, to direct the writer to the site with an “FYI”, but for cat’s sake, don’t be snotty about it.
Let’s assume the manuscript you find difficult is, in truth, a difficult manuscript, with numerous issues that most readers (and editors and agents) would agree are issues. There are judges who seem to take the “let ‘em have it” approach in these instances and grind the manuscript, and sometimes the writer, into the ground. (Note: writer mincemeat does not make good fertilizer; we are too salty.) The judges’ disappointment with the piece permeates everything they say. This is frequently paired with a certain attitude of, shall we say, superiority. And sometimes an even less fragrant attitude of, shall we say, snark.
However, critiques are not reviews, where individuals are at liberty to express their opinion about a product they purchased for the benefit of other consumers in whatever manner they wish. A critique, especially a critique in a contest, is for the benefit of the author. Therefore it is not the place, as mentioned in my first article in this series, to flex your own catty stylings. While it’s perfectly acceptable to use your considerable talents as a wordsmith to shine with tact, leave the sarcasm, condescension or antagonism out of it. No matter the temptation, certain terminology is not effective when expressing one’s ideas about how the manuscript might be improved for today’s romance market.
Here are some terms and phrases to avoid:
1. Hated it, Loathed it, Ridiculous, Imbecilic, Worst thing I’ve ever read, Offensive, Horrible, Please take an elementary English class. (And so on.) Moreover, it’s hard for a contestant to believe words like “Unpleasant, Illogical, Irrational, Poorly written, Far-fetched, Vacuous, Painfully slow” came from a judge who cares or a judge who’s a talented enough writer to express herself in a courteous fashion. Which isn’t to say only talented writers are qualified to critique, but anyone can learn to be cordial.
2. The word “sucks” should be confined to vacuuming references, unless you write “It sucks that I can’t read any more of this!”
3. Even “I didn’t care for this” is risky, depending on the reasons given. (Note: saying “I’m sorry” before adding “I just didn’t care for this” does not make it any better.) Stating pure preference as your rationale for downgrading a manuscript negates your position as an open-minded judge. Give reasons beyond personal dislikes. What you don’t enjoy, some editor out there loves.
If you can’t find anything to comment on beyond the fact you hate it? Time to call the contest coordinator! And if you encounter several manuscripts you hate too much to judge in the same contest, time to quit judging.
Now for the hands-on portion of my article. I’m going to provide a link to a 1500 word manuscript prepared especially for my contest judge training series. You can find his gem at :
http://www.jodywallace.com/sample1.htm. I trust that enough of you who attempt this exercise will agree there are sufficient universal issues in the selection to make this a “difficult manuscript”. If you find it rather fetching and want to hone your tact muscles on something that’s another kind of difficult, feel free to contact me and I’ll send you something else.
(Note: I made up this manuscript. It is not meant as a jab at any book, or genre, or author I’ve encountered. Any similarities are unintentional and unintended.)
Anyway, here’s what I want you to evaluate, taken from the Melody of Love contest score sheet:
1) _____ (1-10) That All-Important First Page (catchy opening hook, begins in right place, arouses curiosity, etc.)
2) ______ (1-10) Writing Style & Technique (voice, showing vs. telling, POV smoothness, vivid writing, etc.)
3) ______ (1-10) Overall Impression (the manuscript as a reading experience)
Providing commentary on things like characterization, plot, and conflict this early in the book would be taxing, but if you have something to recommend, it would go in the third section.
So what would you say? How would you support this budding author without crushing her hopes of publication? What advice would you give her? What knowledge can you share with her, while not assuming she’s a total newbie who knows nothing about the romance industry? What stronger aspects of the manuscript would you point out? Would you be able to avoid recommending she not quit her day job, as one of my critique partners was once told? (A critique partner who was, at the time, a cop, so we all had a good laugh over that.)
If you want to share your critique efforts with someone, feel free to e-mail me through my website: www.jodywallace.com. It might be fun to post some responses on my site or in future newsletters (which would then be posted on the MCRW site, so if you aren’t an MCRW member, you would still get to see them).
More from the Grammar Wench
And Then? And Then?
Contest Judge Series: The Basics
Contest Judge Series: The Difficult Manuscript
Grammy, What’s a Run-On
Punctuating Compound Predicates
Why Present Participial Phrases are Evil