Easier said than done, believe me.
Her first email went something like this: "Nice job. I can see you've got talent, but you've taken eleven pages to tell what happened to the heroine years ago. Instead use dialogue, direct action, and internal thought on every page. Skip the back story (b.s.) and show us what happens--today."
I still remember thinking, "But this is how I write, and she wants me to change it. She's destroying my voice!" Yet I'd asked for her help--was paying for it. If I chose not to listen, who was I cheating?
So even though she hadn't fallen to the ground in awe of my writing ability, I followed her suggestions as best I could. Some lessons stung worse than others, like when she noted my story lacked something called Plot, and then said the conflict between hero and heroine could be resolved with a simple conversation.
Ouch. (But I'm sorry to report she was also right.)
So I resolved to change how I view critique, whether from online sources, beta-readers, or contests. Here's what I've learned.
1) Classes that cost money make me a better listener.
I traded hard-earned dollars for my editor friend's time and experience. I didn't always like what she said, and often had to let her advice soak in before I could apply it to the manuscript. But her guidance was sound, her suggestions delivered with kindness and encouragement. The money I spent with her made me a far better writer, and I'm grateful for her help.
Margie Lawson's online course has been a great investment. She provides a systematic approach for evaluating the story using colored highlighters, creating an objectivity I couldn't achieve on my own. With her system I've seen where my current ms falls short on emotion and internal thought--both critical elements to establishing an emotional connection with the reader.
And my first conference--Colorado Gold in Denver--had classes brimming with good advice. With online courses and conferences my biggest problem is discerning which technique (of a dozen good ones) will improve my story the most. So I pick one, give it a try (after saving the original in a separate document) and see if I like the results.
2) Beta-Readers: Big-Picture Gold (when you're lucky enough to find them).
I've been blessed to have some wonderful friends and acquaintances willing to read my works-in-progress. Here's what I've learned about beta-readers:
They're busy with their own lives, and every moment they give to your manuscript deserves thanks.
Beta-readers are great for spotting the holes in a mystery, for discovering where you failed to hold interest, for finding where emotion/motive/character development is lacking. Some bring outside knowledge (guns!) to the table. Some are brilliant proofreaders.
The key is to set your expectations at the proper level. My book is more important to me than to anyone else, and if a reader doesn't have the time/interest/inclination to read it I thank them anyway.
Beta-readers are bonus miles; sprinkles on a chocolate sundae; a twenty-dollar bill in the jeans you just took out of the dryer. They are an unexpected gift, and should be liberally praised for helping any way they can (then formally thanked on the first page of your bestseller!)
They are always a good thing, unlike my next subject.
3) Contests are a Roll of the Dice......Or a box of chocolates from Hogwarts' (earwax, anyone?)
I've entered contests; done well in a few--and not so well in others. The feedback is...shall we say...interesting. Sometimes it's wildly helpful--as in the case of the Colorado Gold, where the judges were published in my genre and gave kind but definite suggestions on improving the story. (You guessed it--more emotion!)
Other contests have been more confusing.
My favorite example is a contest where my entry scored close to perfect (123/125) for three judges, and the fourth gave it a 70! The judge who disliked the story didn't pull his/her punches, and by the time I finished reading the critique I was hopping mad. But I wrote a Thank You note, sent it, and took my wounded ego out for a Mocha Latte.
Six months later, I can still remember everything he/she said...and now I'm inclined to agree (though I still wish it had been delivered less acidly). While the suggestions may have been dead right, I nearly disregarded this judge's advice because of the tone, and I'm now very careful in how I make suggestions to other writers.
Critique is like a fine steak; it loses its appeal when served on a plate of garbage.
But if tough judges deliver acid, too-kind judges fool us into thinking we're better writers than we actually are. While I loved hearing how wonderful my story was, I knew it wasn't perfect...not by a long shot, and when a judge would say too many nice things I'd begin to doubt his/her credibility. If a judge became overly enthused, I'd think, "This is only my second book. It's not Hemingway, for cryin' out loud!"
Instead, it's better to hear the hard truth about our stories--hopefully delivered with tact and grace. But, like a box of Hogwarts' chocolates, with contests you never know what you're going to get.
One thing I'm sure of--winning a contest simply means you found a judge or judges who really liked your story. Unless those judges are agents or editors, winning doesn't mean you're ready to publish. Yet, as ego-bruising as contests can be, I'm entering two this December.
If you've had experience with contests, beta-readers, and writing courses I'd love to hear what you've learned.
Cheers...and Happy Writing!