Wednesday, December 20, 2006

RWA Contests: Subjectivity

Every judge's instruction sheet or training class I've taken part in has urged judges to check our personal tastes at the door. You may prefer medievals to Westerns, but that shouldn't influence your scoring. If you hate vampire heroes, you really shouldn't sign up to judge the paranormal category. And if you have some narrow, specific turn-off and you get an entry that hits your hot buttons, you should send it back to the contest coordinator to be assigned to a different judge.

But it's impossible to achieve complete objectivity on something as subjective as what makes a well-written, enjoyable story. As a result, you can and do see scores that are all over the map for the same entry and the same scoresheet. I've seen this as both a judge and an entrant. As a judge, I'll read some entry that blows me away and think, "That one's a finalist for sure," only to discover after the first round is over that the other judges gave it mediocre scores--what I saw as A+ writing, they graded C-. And just as often, especially in contests that drop the lowest score, some entry that I thought was deeply flawed or just plain boring and average will make the finals.

As an entrant, I tended to get wildly diverging feedback. In the 20 or so contests I entered, I almost always got at least one very high or even perfect score--but I only got enough judges who liked me in the same contest to make the finals twice. This supposedly is a sign of having a strong, distinctive voice, and since that puts a flattering spin on my relative lack of success in contest-land, I choose to believe it.

But the last contest I entered with The Sergeant's Lady highlighted the subjectivity issue perfectly. I got Goldilocks feedback. One judge thought my story was too hot, another too cold, and the third just right. Literally. The issue in question was chemistry between my hero and heroine, and they were looking at my first 30 pages.

I deliberately play my characters' attraction more subtly in the early going than is typical in the romance genre for two important reasons: 1) In the first chapter, my heroine, Anna, is still married--her husband dies around p. 25. Though her marriage is miserable and we can see that her husband is a jerk, I don't want her to come across as someone who's looking to commit adultery, so I don't let her attraction to the hero, Jack, become overt until she's safely widowed. 2) Anna and Jack come from far enough apart on the social scale that they wouldn't naturally see one another as potential mates. To get past this, I opened the story by throwing them into a crisis that forced them to work together, which makes them get to know and appreciate each other as individual human beings as opposed to members of the categories Highborn Officer's Lady and Lowly Enlisted Man. But the class difference is still a pretty huge barrier (and the major conflict of the story), so I tried to write them as having a kind of chemistry and mutual attraction that the READER will notice, but that the characters themselves are oblivious to until a few chapters later.

I put a lot of effort into striking what I felt was just the right tone with their early interactions, and I'm pleased with the results. But in this case my judges read it three very different ways:

- Judge #1 thought it was too hot--she was troubled by ANY sign of attraction when one of the characters was still married to someone else.

- Judge #2 thought it was too cold--she didn't see any physical attraction or desire on the page.

- Judge #3 thought it was just right--she loved the entry in general, and specifically praised how I dealt with the characters' chemistry and attraction.

Naturally I think Judge #3 has wonderful taste, but can I really say that the other two are wrong? I don't think so. They just value different things, and I can't fault them for calling a perceived problem in my story as they saw it. We're in a subjective business, and contests are as good a way as any to get used to the fact that you'll never please everybody.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

The first n pages are a decent test, given that many people do pick up books based on their reaction just to the opening few pages in the bookshop.

Espresso Addict

Susan Wilbanks said...

The first n pages are a decent test, given that many people do pick up books based on their reaction just to the opening few pages in the bookshop.

I agree, with the following caveats:

1. There are writers in RWA who turn into contest junkies, polishing and re-polishing their opening 25-50 pages without giving the same attention to the rest of their book, and sometimes without even finishing it.

2. What constitutes a good opening is largely subjective. E.g. I think the "Goldilocks feedback" I got doesn't mean I have a bad story, nor that the readers who didn't like it are bad judges--it's just a difference in taste and values.

Anonymous said...

There are writers in RWA who turn into contest junkies, polishing and re-polishing their opening 25-50 pages without giving the same attention to the rest of their book, and sometimes without even finishing it.

Yes, that's clearly suboptimal.

What constitutes a good opening is largely subjective.

I'd say partly subjective; I think it's got to:

(1) try to grab the reader, in particular the reader who will enjoy the rest of the novel;
(2) showcase a prose style that's inviting and perhaps even arresting, and also an indication of what's to come;
(3) introduce at least one of the major characters (and for a romance probably both heroine & hero) and make the reader care about their fate (either positively or negatively).

Obviously readers will differ on to what extent these aims are achieved by a given opening, but I think the majority of fiction would need broadly to follow those guides. Also, I think they are reasonably objective, in that they judge the story on its merits rather than imposing an artificial requirement for a hot relationship, a cold relationship, or whatever.

Espresso Addict

Susan Wilbanks said...

Oh, I totally agree that there ARE objective criteria for writing quality, in openings and elsewhere--they're just hard to completely pick apart from one's subjective reaction. And most of these contests, for all they encourage judges to be objective, have some subjective questions on their scoresheets. To name two I've seen, "Is the hero an appealing character? Do you wish you were his heroine?" is inherently subjective. "Do you want to read more of this book?" Hella subjective. I try to bring as much objectivity as I can to those questions--I mean, I'm not going to say, "I don't want to read the rest of your book because I never read pirate heroes"--but it's hard to keep my tastes out of it completely.

Anonymous said...

Oh, it sounds like the problem is the scoresheet! I've not been involved with these types of comp, but did run a set of judged fanfiction awards for a couple of years, and it's so important to make sure that judges are at least doing their best to judge intrinsic quality, not whether they personally liked it.

Trouble is, some amateur judges are always going to struggle on that.