Thursday, August 28, 2008

But it's true!

I got an e-mail from a contestant, for one of the contests I'm coordinating, who was very upset and wanted to draw my attention to what she felt was some bad judging. In a nutshell, her judges questioned the events in her story and the motivations/actions of her protagonist. In her mind, the judges were wrong to question these elements because they were true. In fact, she'd lived them herself.

This reminded me of a few reactions I've had to critiques in the past, particularly on my first novel. Someone would question my heroine's actions/reactions and I'd respond: But I know people like that. Or I know someone who's done that.

I soon came to realize that whether or not it's "true" doesn't really matter, or at least it isn't enough. Our job as fiction writers is to convince readers that the actions/reactions made by our characters might happen and that the external plot points could also happen. BUT even if we know someone who's done the exact same thing in the exact same circumstances in real life, or was the victim of the same set of circumstances, it isn't enough. We need to ensure readers understand and believe our characters' motivations and/or believe the circumstances would happen. And this is a tricky balance because we don't want to do too much "telling", nor do we want to spoon feed readers to the point they find our writing/storytelling sophomoric or repetitive.

Now, certainly every reader is going to have a different reaction to a story and no matter how wonderful a job we do as writers, we won't please every reader... But in this case, 3 out of 3 judges offered this woman the same opinion: that the basic premise of her story was implausible, and she e-mailed me to say, "They're wrong. I know they are wrong, because I lived it."

I just politely responded saying I was sorry she didn't find the comments more helpful, but what I really wanted to tell her was that if 3 out of 3 judges held the same opinion, she wasn't doing her job as a writer to convince readers that these events might happen (even if she knows they're possible.)

Whether plot points are plausible is a tough one in judging contests. But ultimately, all contest judges can do is express their honest opinions based on their particular experience as writers/readers/people on this planet.

And the contestants can choose to learn from it or not...


Amy Ruttan said...

If 3 out of 3 tell her the same then she'll have to tweak it to make it more plausible.

When I kept getting the same feedback--feedback that I was ignorning--on a piece I decided not to ignore it any longer.

And now it's sold. I'm not saying that I did what exactly various judges told me to do, but I certainly took a look at the plot and saw where it was sagging and fixed it.

When it keeps coming up consistent, whether you've lived it or not, then you have to step back and question it.

Or you can keep arguing and stay in exactly the same spot.

Leah Braemel said...

It reminds me of that quote by Tom Clancy: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”

Unfortunately, I've heard of this happening before. And being the cynic that I am, I'm figuring that no matter how much you argue with her, she probably is set in the "but it happened" stance that she's not going to listen anyway.

And I agree with Amy - about the arguing keeping you in exactly the same spot. If three judges came up with the same problem, as an author you need to start listening. I'd be interested to find out if she's had that said in other contests. I'll bet so.
Wonder if she ever decides to listen.

Maureen McGowan said...

Exactly, Amy... The judge's suggestion is probably just the first thing that came to mind and not necessarily the best choice... but if everyone has an issue then the writer probably does need to do something to adjust it.

Leah. Love that quote. I'd heard it before, but didn't know who it was.

The first draft of this post had a tangent on the James Frey scandal... His semi-autobiographical fiction was too hard to believe so he called it a memoir and it not only sold as non-fiction, it became a bestseller. Oh, the power of Oprah.

Sinead M said...

Yeah, one judge you can ignore, two maybe there could be some doubt, but three, there's a problem.
But learning from a critique is a choice, and it sounds like she isn't making the right choice.

Donnell said...

Oh, dear, Maureen, fine line between brutal honesty and keeping an entrant happy. Sounds like gave fair and accurate advice. I have to agree with everyone here. Three judges saying the same thing is like three strikes you're out. Interesting blog, and I received your e-mail and I await my mainstream entries :)

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