As my buddy, Jeanie, has told you - I am a CONTEST SLUT ! Not a hoochie, not a loose woman, a real slut. OR at least I have been the past couple of years. I've slowed down since I got an agent because frankly getting my book in front of an editor is now HER problem. I haven't hung up my thigh high boots and fishnets yet, but soon.
That said I have often wondered exactly how much we get out of contest critiques and how we all interpret them. How much do we use and how much do we just chalk up to "you can't please everyone"?
I've gotten some great ones over the years - helpful, insightful, real light bulb moments. That is why I started entering contests in the first place. Way back when I started I earnestly wanted to know if I had even a remote chance of making it in this business. I got a lot of great help and really good advice.
Then there were the others. Some of those critiques made me wonder if I had murdered this person in a past life, or maybe killed their cat or something. Some of them I wondered if they had even read the pages at all. And some of them are just a case of they really didn't get it and that's okay. No writer is going to be able to please everyone.
So, I've decided there are two methods when looking at those critiques. There is the Chinese Menu Method and the Dinner at Nana's Method.
I didn't eat Chinese food until I was in graduate school. I was convinced I wouldn't like it. But we were invited out with some friends and we ended up in a Chinese restaurant so I was stuck. I read the entire menu and then found the one thing I thought I MIGHT be able to stomach - Sweet and Sour Chicken. I tried it. I loved it. The next time I went I tried something else. Now some things I just KNEW I was NOT going to like. So I didn't try those. The iffy things I gave a try - some I liked, some I didn't.
You can do the same with critiques. Some things you just know are not going to work for you. You can tell as soon as you read them because your writer's gut says "yuck!" or maybe even just "I feel queasy." So don't try them. Don't waste the time. Now other things are going to appeal to you right away so definitely try them. But the same criteria applies. If you don't like it, if it makes you uneasy then don't try it again. Some things are you are going to try and realize "this was perfect for me." Hang on to that.
Now dinner at my Nana Bolton's house was another matter entirely. She fixed your plate and you ate everything on it because she told you it was good for you. You were not allowed up from the table until you cleaned your plate. And sometimes you went to bed with a bad taste in your mouth and a bellyache because no matter how good the food was for you, you just didn't like it. Period. To this day I cannot STAND boiled cabbage because that tough old Yankee broad MADE me eat it. She was older, she was my Nana, she was the expert. Yeah, right. Ever had boiled cabbage and cauliflower at the same meal. SHUDDER! The only person who ever stood his ground with my Nana was my youngest brother, Brian, who at the tender age of five made family history. He sat at the table from 6 PM until 2 AM because he refused to eat the cauliflower. At 2 AM my Nana gave up. He is a legend to this day to my Nana's grandchildren and great grandchildren - the Boy Who Wouldn't Eat His Cauliflower.
You can treat a critique like that. You can believe this person is older/wiser/knows more about it than you do. You can take every bit of advice they give and totally rewrite your work to fit it. You can "clean your plate" so to speak and eat it all up. And you might end up with a bad taste in your mouth, a belly ache AND a manuscript that is as much fun as boiled cabbage and cauliflower.
So, I guess the bottom line is that there are lots of writers out there - some better than me, some not so much, but all different. There are some people who write a novel by a strict formula. There are some who swear by certain writing class techniques. I'm not one of them. Most of the time if there is a rule about writing I am trying to see how creatively I can work my way around it.
Writing is a CREATIVE adventure. Kind of like cooking without a recipe. Sometimes it may not turn out so well. Sometimes it will be a masterpiece. The most important thing, I think, is that it be YOUR creation. When you write THE END there should be no bad taste in your mouth, no bellyache, and no ten point structure on which to hang your story.
Old Leonardo didn't use a paint by numbers kit to paint the Mona Lisa. I'm sure there were people in his studio who said "Leo, fix her smile." I'm glad he didn't listen. But I'm sure he had some good teachers in the beginning and he took what advice they gave, rolled it around in his mouth, swallowed what felt right and spit the rest out. (I do NOT recommend doing this to cauliflower when your Nana is watching. Dogs do NOT eat cauliflower spit under the table. See, even dogs don't like it!)
So, what do you think? Which method sounds better to you?