Tuesday, March 20, 2007

It's Write, not Right!

No, this isn't a post about spelling or diction... it's a post about the highly subjective nature of writing and storytelling.

I've been doing a fair bit of thinking about writing contests recently. Not because I'm entering any right now, but because I'm involved in my local RWA Chapter's contest, to a certain extent. And debating about how much detail the score sheet should have, how specific the questions should be, has got me all fired up.

Writing is an art, not a science. Sure, like any form of art, there are techniques. There are basics to be mastered, skills to be learned. But like art, writing and storytelling would not exist or be so popular, or stimulate so many people's minds and hearts, if everyone painted, drew, sculpted, constructed a chapter, told a story in the same way. Similarly there's no right answer to whether a piece of art or a particular story is "good". What one person loves, the next will hate. It's subjective.

In art schools, budding artists learn by first drawing and painting mundane things, all in the same manner using the same media. They start with cylinders, balls, cones and other shapes, first with pencil, then charcoal, then conte or ink, then paint (if they are painters) or clay (if they are sculptors). Then they move onto apples, oranges and pears (an art school favorite). Then onto more complex still life compositions and then the human form.

After this, in most art programs, the students learn to imitate. They copy the old masters, the impressionists, the great modern artists. They learn techniques by studying and imitating the artists who have gone before them.

But then? After those skills are mastered? Artists are expected to forget all that. No, not to forget, to put all those skills and techniques in a toolbox and start creating art in an entirely new way--their own original way. Being derivative isn't rewarded, even in more commercial areas of art. What everyone loves and rewards and gets excited about, is someone who does something different and interesting. Whether something is "good" or not is entirely up to the viewer of the art. In fact, whether or not it's original versus derivative is also up to the viewer. It's entirely subjective.

I believe that all these things hold true with writing. Even genre writing. Writers learn the basic building blocks of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, acts, novels. They learn about careful word choice, avoiding redundancy, clean writing, the advantages of using an active voice and when they might use a passive voice for effect. They study other writers and perhaps do some imitation at first. They learn other skills of storytelling like escalating conflict and point of view and managing the release of information to create the desired emotions and experiences for the reader. They study theories, developed by those who've analyzed storytelling, like "The Hero's Journey" and "Goal, Motivation, Conflict" and "Three Act Plotting".

But how to best use these skills once they are learned? Entirely subjective. If it weren't. If there were one way to do these things, then reading -- particularly reading more than one book within a given genre -- would be hopelessly boring for the reader. Readers don't notice the writer's technique, unless it's dreadfully poorly executed. (Occasionally, if the story's great, they don't even notice when it's poorly executed -- evidence that little religious thriller that did pretty well a few years ago.) Readers know when they are drawn into a story, when they are pulled along so they can't put the book down. When they are entertained.

Now I completely agree that genres have conventions and this is particularly true in the romance genre. Romance readers know what they like.

That said. Romance readers are the most voracious flavour of reader on the planet. Romance accounts for over 50% of all paperbacks sold and I've met countless readers, since I began my association with RWA, who read a book a day, minimum.

Now if all those books were executed in exactly the same way. If all the events unfolded exactly as expected and in the same order. If all the characters behaved predictably, the same way they behaved in every other book... Wouldn't readers get bored??? Of course they would. That's why the common claim that romances have a "formula" irks romance writers and readers alike. Sure there's technique involved. Great writers in the genre have developed ways to maximize the reader's enjoyment and there's much to be learned by studying those techniques. Sure there are conventions like happy endings. But there isn't a "formula" and there aren't "rules" and even for the most ingrained conventions like happy endings, there are highly successful exceptions.

I've been to a lot of writers conferences over the past 2-3 years. Too many, some may argue. But as a result, I've probably heard no less than 30 different editors and probably double as many agents discuss what they're looking for and the most common mistakes/problems they see in submissions.

What is it? It's that the writing is boring. That it lacks spark. That the story is too derivative of others already published. Too cliche. When writers ask editors, "What are you looking for?" The most common answer is, "A good story." When writers ask, "What's the next big trend coming along?" Most editors answer, "You tell us. You're the writers. You're the creative ones, the ones inventing the characters and unique story lines."

So, back to contests and score sheets... With all this inherent subjectivity, with editors wanting something "different", how is it even remotely possible to create a score sheet that can judge precisely, without bias, some one's storytelling and proclaim whether or not they did it "right"? One person's "right" is another person's "wrong".

One of the biggest challenges in running a contest is that, not only the entrants, but also the judges will be at different skill levels, different places along their journey to becoming great (or even good) writers. Some entrants will still be at the learning the mechanics stage. Some judges will still be learning to recognize whether or not the mechanics were properly applied. Some judges will be stuck at some point in the past, thinking the best practices when they were learning are still the best practices now.

But with any luck some entrants will be very close to publication. Some entrants may have moved beyond the mechanics stage and onto manipulating the tools in their toolbox in their own unique ways. To me, the most important goal of a contest is to maximize the chances that those entries which will be of most interest to the editors, the ones closest to publication, are the ones which final. Second to that, is for the judges to provide excellent and useful feedback for the entrants, so that, no matter which stage they're at, entrants learn something to help them move on to the next stage. That's where it becomes extra-difficult, because some judges will be less experienced than some entrants... but that's one of the foibles/realities of peer judged contests. You pay your entry fee and roll the dice hoping at least one judge who looks at your work knows more than you and/or will have something useful to tell you or will simply give you a great score. And lets face it. Even if all the judges were agents and editors, anyone who's submitted knows that even agents and editors can't agree on what's "good". But they can usually agree on which entries don't have the basics down.

So we can judge the basics. Does the writer understand "show don't tell", do they know how to use POV effectively. How's their use of grammar, their spelling? Is the storytelling gripping? If it isn't gripping, why? Is there no conflict? No emotion? No setting? Too much of any of the above? Is the dialogue stilted or artificial? Are the characters flat or stereotyped? There are lots of things that could be "wrong" if a story doesn't grip us. (Including personal bias...)

But if the story is gripping. If a judge picks up the pages and reads them straight through and wishes there were more to read... who the fuck cares whether the external or internal conflict is resolved first, or whether the heroine uses her sense of smell, or whether there's chemistry the first time the hero and heroine meet or whether, in the first chapter, the reader can fully understand all the reasons behind each characters' actions?

Bottom line. There is no one way to write a story, even a genre specific story. Because of this, it's impossible, and in my opinion wrong-headed, to try to create a scoring system to pretend differently.

Right and write may be homonyms, but they they have entirely different meanings.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, excellent post, Maureen. Loved it. I think you brought up the reasons why a few writers I know are a little fed up entering contests, and what the challenge is organizing contests.

There's nothing more frustrating as a contest judge to see an amazing entry not final while a mediocre one does, but again, that's probably all subjective..

Anonymous said...

Love the art analogy.

Did you know that Picasso had a solid grounding in realism (the balls and cones you referred to)? He invented cubism not because he couldn't paint but rather because he could.

My rule for whether writing works is whether...well...it works. Sentence fragments, slang, style are all part of voice.

I volunteered to judge this year which is ironic as I use contests to test concepts, rather than test my writing ('cause people either love it or hate it). I'm sure I'll skew the results severely.

Maureen McGowan said...


Yes, I think most artists (even today) get a solid grounding in most previously popular styles of painting before developing their own style. I've never been in art school formally, but I've taken painting classes that focussed on using the techniques of Rembrandt and ones using the techniques of Impressionists. You have to understand how they did what they did in order to do something different.

Now, some may argue that it's okay, then, to try to force beginning writers into some kind of a mold so they can come out the other side grounded in the basics. And I think to some extent that's true... and if one's teaching a course in writing, maybe that would be an educational way to go about it...
But if a contest is designed to pick the cream of the crop, the ones editors will most be interested in... Then a contest score sheet can't reward the ones that best fit into the score sheet designers idea of what the mold should be. That's what I think, anyway...

Anonymous said...

I agree with you Maureen.

Contests aren't about practising the craft. They aren't assignments (write a 300 word piece using 3rd person pov). They're finished works. The equivalent of gallery pieces.

So the only rule that really applies is...does the novel work?

With product launches, we defined a truly innovative product as one that focus group attendees either loved or hated, the two extremes, no middle ground. Those are the marks I also look for in a contest. I want to polarize people (not easy to sell to publishers but one reason why I write).

Unknown said...

Wow. Just wow. I'm going to link this post on my blog, Maureen. It says so much and is a wonderful shot to the arm of anyone whoo is feeling frustrated with their writing.

Amy Ruttan said...

Blogger ate my response.

Basically I said what a great post, and that I'm going to post a link into my online critique group. There are some writers there that feel the need to want to change my voice.

I mean we're not all Davinci's because if we all created art the same way it would be a pretty dull place.

My first response was much better and more wittier. ;)

Rashenbo said...

Great post! Christine D'Abo linked ya and I just had to pop over and read.

Anonymous said...

Okay I have a question.
I'm trying my hand at judging a contest for the first time.
I was asked which category I'd like to judge.
Ummm...the one with the best entries???

Seriously, I mostly read historicals and write contemporaries. Is it easier for a contemporary writer to judge contemporaries? Or a historical reader to judge historicals? Or is it best for the judge to look at a fresh new category (with no preconceived notions).

Maureen McGowan said...


I don't think there's a "right" answer to that one either. Except that you shouldn't judge a category that you don't enjoy reading. that is, if vampire or shapeshifter stories give you the creeps, or you think time travel is just plane stupid -- don't judge paranormal. similarly if every time you read a historical, you think "why doesn't the heroine just go out and get a job before worrying about marriage?" then historical probably isn't for you.

Sarah Simas said...

Hi All! First time here and loved the topic! I'm bookmarkin' ya!

I just recently entered a contest and got my score sheets back. Two of the three judges were very constructive and the third...I wondered if maybe they'd had a pint ot two before reading. LOL

Their words were anything but constructive and they used my entry as a platform for their own issues with romance writing in general.*sigh* I almost wondered if the judge even read romance!

But I have thick skin and will keep going, but I don't think I'll enter that contest again.

Thanks for the post! I enjoyed the 'pick-me up.' I don't feel so bad about that Simon Cowell wanna-be judge.LOL


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