Monday, May 5, 2014

It’s All Subjective – Thoughts from a Contest Coordinator

by Carla Luna Cullen
“Writing is a subjective business.”

How often have you heard that? How often have you told yourself that, after feeling frustrated by another rejection? 

My recent experience as a category coordinator for a local RWA chapter contest showed me a lot about subjectivity. As the Young Adult coordinator, I got to see everything: all the YA entries, all the scores, and all the judges’ feedback. With twenty entries and three judges per entry, I ended up reading through sixty returned entries. (Part of my job is to review each one, to make sure the judges left comments, especially in the case of low scores).

This is where subjectivity came into play. A few of the entries stood out, with high marks across the board, but the rest were all over the map. Judge #1 might love an entry and praise it highly, while Judge #2 thought it was in the middle of the pack, and Judge #3 thought it was “meh.” A few times, an entry would get two low scores, but the third judge would love it and give it a nearly perfect score. Sometimes I couldn’t believe that two people—experienced writers with a solid record of judging—could react so differently to the exact same piece of writing.

In the end, the difference between the rankings often came down to a point. One point out of sixty.  That point might be because the judge didn’t connect with the main character, or was tired of that particular genre, or loved another entry a little bit more. This is not to take anything away from the finalists, but to say that many of the other entries were equally good. 

Querying can be just as subjective. Maybe you’ve done everything right: personalized your query, double-checked your grammar and spelling, and crafted your hook until it shines. But maybe that particular agent has already read three queries that resemble yours (same genre, same retelling, same historical time period) in the slush pile that morning. Maybe she wants your genre, but not your take on it. Maybe your opening lines didn’t grab her. Someone else might feel differently. Another agent might think, “I want this. I have to read more.”

As readers, we’re equally subjective. Stephen King is a best-selling author, but not everyone likes horror, or even enjoys his wordy writing style. My teenage daughter and I frequently share YA books, and it’s amazing how differently we view the same book. Sometimes I’ll pick up a work of literary fiction—one that’s received strong reviews—only to put it down before I reach the halfway mark. It might be beautifully written, but it’s not for me. 

So don’t let a low contest ranking or a rejection deter you. When judges give you feedback, take it under consideration, especially if more than one judge brings up the same issue. If an agent is kind enough to give you a personal response, take note of their comments. But remember that much of writing is subjective, and that one person’s rejection might be another person’s full request.

What about you? Have you ever experienced widely differing feedback on your work? If so, please share. We'd love to hear all about it!

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Carla Luna Cullen is a YA and NA writer who lives in Wisconsin with her husband and two teenagers. In her pre-kids existence, she worked as an archaeologist on projects in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. When not writing or reading, she spends time hanging out with her children and trying to keep up with their technology. She also loves baking, listening to Broadway showtunes, watching movies, and going for long walks, where she plots diabolical ways to torment her characters.

Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/carlalunacullen/

7 comments:

  1. As a contest host this is a very good thing. It means the entries I love hopefully aren't gonna be stolen by my co-hosts, because everyone has different tastes.

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    1. I think it works well for contests, especially ones with teams, because otherwise everyone would fight over the same entries!

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  2. As a writer who enters contests and queries I am positive that one of these days I will find an agent who "gets" me and my work. I used to feel that my writing wasn't good enough and that's why I wasn't getting into contests or getting an agent but then I realized. IT'S ALL SUBJECTIVE. I have had the same experience, someone tells me about a book "you will love" and I don't like it. I have one I recommend and the person tells me they didn't care for it. Huh. Now I don't let rejections bother me. I figure that if the stars align a certain way and the planets, the fates are kind and the universe doesn't hold a grudge the day will come when I can finally say: I have an agent. Oh, and a book deal. And you know that tour bus that Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson went on? Yeah, I want to be on that bus too. *dreams* Meanwhile, I keep on writing and entering.

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    1. It's good not to let rejections get you down. It only takes one yes and that "yes" can make all the difference!

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  3. So true! Subjectivity is something I try and keep in mind, especially as I just started querying. And the thought that it only takes one to love it!

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    1. True! The most recent manuscript I queried got 5 rejections in a row (2 on the same day!) but the 6th reply was a full request, which turned into an offer of rep. So all you need is one person saying yes.

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  4. So, so true...thanks for the reminder!

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